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Alaskan Newspapers vs. “The Fourth Kind”

November 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Just a follow-up to the writeup I did on “The Fourth Kind” the other day. Apparently Universal pulled the plug on its websites and settled with several Alaskan newspapers who didn’t take fondly to having wooful articles attributed to them. Here’s the scoop:

The agreement is the first official admission by the company that its “viral internet marketing” included the fabrication of news stories and attributing them to the Nome Nugget, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Anchorage Chronicle and other publications. In addition, the company included real news articles without permission.

To settle the dispute, Universal also agreed to disable Web sites it set up to promote the claims that the movie about alien abductions in Nome, was true.

Under terms of the deal, the Alaska Press Club is to receive $20,000, while the Calista Scholarship Fund is to receive $2,500. The press club is an independent organization of journalists from across the state.

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CNN to run off it’s resident Birther

November 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Apparently Lou Dobbs is history at CNN.

For those of you who haven’t heard, there were a lot of people who wondered aloud what an anti-immigrant racist and Birther (someone who buys the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama isn’t a real US citizen) is doing on the air, let alone on a news station that is often slammed as being liberal biased. They made their voices heard and, lo and behold, Lou Dobbs is leaving CNN.

Rumor has it that he’s jumping ship to Fox News; I don’t know if there’s any truth to it, or if it’s just speculation. It would obviously be his best fit.

In Defense of the Gay Gene (and Gay Choice)

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment

The struggle for the rights of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and the Transgendered have made headlines in recent days. While voters in Maine overturned a law recognizing same-sex marriage, Washington State voters upheld a law which protects legal benefits for same-sex couples.

While forward thinkers generally support the rights of gay citizens, there are those — typically on the evangelical Christian right — who believe that homosexuals should not enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. They argue that gays choose to be the way they are, and that their lifestyles are not in teaching with Christian values. As such, they don’t deserve to be included.

Science, on the other hand, generally agrees that homosexuality is not a choice, but is genetically caused. It’s not a lifestyle, scientists would argue. Just people living their lives the way they are genetically programmed to. A careful look at the research reveals the truth to this argument.

The Studies

Geneticists and other scientists often study sets of twins to determine the role that “nature and nurture” (genetics vs. environment) play in certain conditions. Especially useful are identical twins who are raised in different households, because their genetic makeup is identical but the conditions under which they were brought up are different. By comparing data from these individuals to a baseline of other sets of siblings we can determine if there is a strong genetic correlation.

One such study was performed to determine the possible genetic influence upon homosexuality in 1991 by J. Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard. They found that in pairs of identical male twins where one twin identified as homosexual, his brother did more than 50% of the time. This is compared to 22% of fraternal twins, and 11% of adoptive siblings. To many, this lends credence to the notion that homosexuality is caused genetically.

Critics, however, were quick to point out what they perceived as flaws in the study. If identical twins are genetically identical, and homosexuality is caused by genetics, then both twins should be gay 100% of the time, their argument goes. They also point out that because homosexual couples cannot reproduce, a “gay gene” should have been weeded out by natural selection.

These arguments have persisted to this day in anti-gay circles. However, they don’t appear to stand up to serious scientific scrutiny.

The Closet

While scientists are nearly certain that homosexuality isn’t something a person can choose, we all know that a person can choose whether, when, and to whom he or she will reveal that they’re homosexual. “Coming out of the closet” is a cliche we’ve all heard. I would expect that most LGBT individuals choose to be discreet about their preferences for at least part of their life.

LGBT people in America and many other societies face prejudice and harassment, often even from close friends and family members. I imagine that it is more likely for a person to be gay but apprehensive about revealing their preference — even in a relatively anonymous study — than to be truly heterosexual but choose to endure the hardships that face homosexuals today simply so they can live a certain lifestyle. “Closeted gays” certainly outnumber “closeted straights”. Is it not unreasonable that one twin, living in a different city with a different career and different acquaintances might choose to be “out” while the other remains “in”?

Genetic Penetrance

Geneticists also understand something that anti-homosexual people apparently don’t: the concept of penetrance. Different genes carry with them different probabilities of having the affect they’re known for. In other words, if a pair of identical twins share a certain gene that is not completely penetrant, it is more or less likely that one will be affected by it but the other will not.

This is the case for certain disorders such as Type 1 Diabetes. It is well known that if one identical twin has Type 1 diabetes, the other has an approximately 50% chance of having it also. Is it not possible that the “gay gene”, like the Type 1 Diabetes gene, does not have 100% penetrance?

That would also explain how the “gay gene” could be passed on without being weeded out through natural selection. It’s highly likely that there are millions of heterosexuals walking around who have the genetic code required to be homosexual, but who have not come to be affected by it. These individuals go on to reproduce and pass that gene on to their children, who also may or may not be affected.

Does it even really matter?

The case for the “gay gene” is very strong. Anyone who doesn’t have their heads buried in the sand can see this. But for those who don’t, there is one final question: why does it matter whether it is genetically caused, or a conscious choice?

There are plenty of choices that the Bible says are wrong (and many of them are very ridiculous). Why do so many people believe that it is wrong to legally discriminate against those “sinners”, but discriminating against homosexuals is OK? People choose to be Muslims, Jews, Pagans. Some people choose to be atheists. All of these are “wrong” to evangelical Christians. Should we make a law outlawing their organizations? Should we say that Muslims, Jews, Pagans and atheists can’t marry each other?  Of course not. Nobody would agree to that. But why, then, do so many people believe that a man shouldn’t legally be allowed to marry another man, or a woman marry another woman?

Furthermore, and oddly enough, many of the same people who support anti-gay legislation are the type who object to all sorts of other laws on the grounds that they are “big government”. In other words, it’s wrong for “big government” to try and influence the economy or protect the public’s safety. But it’s OK for “big government” to pry into your family and your bedroom? That’s seems very illogical to me.

I’m fully convinced that homosexuality is caused by a genetic variation. Hopefully by now you would agree. Maybe you don’t. But even if it is a choice, shouldn’t people be allowed to make that choice without being discriminated against?

Pray for Pay

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment

A recent post at one of my favorite blogs, Bad Astronomy, linked me to another very good blog post at NeuroLogica, which went into detail about something a little bit disturbing: a provision being slipped into the Senate’s health reform bill by wingnut Senator Orrin Hatch, and co-sponsored by Senator John Kerry. What is this addition, you may ask?

It would prohibit insurers from discriminating against “religious and spiritual health care”, including prayer healing. (linky linky)

Yes, as if the Senate hadn’t done enough to totally mess up the drive for health care reform, we now have this steaming pile that would require insurance companies (some of which, as I understand it, would be subsidized by our tax dollars) to pay people to pray for you. The links I’ve posted above go into a better detail about what “prayer therapy” really is, and who the people behind it are, and I urge you to click them and learn more. However, I just thought I would share one point that really struck me.

Why would you pay someone to pray for you?

Last time I checked, it didn’t cost anything to say a prayer. As a materialist I believe that it’s all a bunch of baloney anyway, but even if I was a believer, it simply doesn’t make much sense to me that you and your family can pray your little hearts out, but God only responds to professional Prayerists. To be fair, I understand that the Christian Science prayer therapists who do this sort of thing charge a ridiculously low amount; about what it would cost to cover their gas & meals. However, the whole idea that God only listens to a small group of individuals who will gladly pray on your behalf for a nominal fee, or that you need to hire some sort of special trainer or coach to help you pray the correct way, is troubling to me. Even more troubling is the prospect that this could create a prayer industry, flush with professional prayer therapists who go around “speaking to God” on your behalf, charging off huge sums of money to your insurance company (which can’t legally deny their claim), and making a fortune while driving up insurance premiums for the rest of us.

Now, this is disregarding several other facts, such as: prayer therapy doesn’t work (and can even be dangerous), my tax dollars shouldn’t be spent financing your church, and it’s offensive and stupid for the government to elevate superstition to the level of science. But I imagine that even those who have religious faith would be a little suspicious of anyone asking them to pay for prayers.

Hopefully this gets weeded out.

Hollywood’s Faux Science

November 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Everybody knows that movies — whether based on fact or fiction — are rarely pure reality. All Hollywood films, to differing degrees, expect you to suspend your disbelief in order to make them enjoyable. The theater is a land of fantasy; if every movie was just everyday stuff, where would be the fun in that? We expect a little embellishment in film. After all, it’s fun to escape our boring lives for two hours now and then.

But every once in a while a film comes along that is so unbelievable that the typical viewer may find it hard to immerse themselves in the plot. That’s where the “based on a true story” line comes in. If the plot of a particular film seems too crazy to be realistic, why not say “Hey! We know this is going to sound like total bullshit….but it’s not! Honest!” A surprising amount of viewers believe that films like The Exorcist (sequels notwithstanding) or The Mothman Prophcies are true stories. Most others would believe that they are loosely based on actual events, or at least inspired by someone’s perception of events that may or may not have happened. (I found an interesting list of  other “based on a true story” films here.)

Today, however, we have the good ol’ internets, and nearly limitless information is just a click away. People don’t just call “bullshit” anymore…they pull out their smartphone and Google it. The film industry, smart as it is, has adapted to this trend. In order to help viewers become more engaged, “based on a true story” movie makers have begun to set up faux-science websites which direct curious Googlers into fantasy land.

One recent example of this is the upcoming movie entitled 2012, based on the (completely false) Nibiru/Mayan Doomsday myth. In order to hype this month’s theatrical release, the makers have created a scientific-looking “Institute for Human Continuity” website that is supposed to be all about saving our species from the apocalypse. However, this website states at various places that it is “part of the 2012 movie experience” and a look around suggests that it is actually a front for some sort of contest. Although it is dressed up to get the viewer’s imagination going, I suspect that most adults would be able to tell that it is not an actual organization but rather a website promoting the film.

The film that really takes the cake, though, is The Fourth Kind, a film about alleged alien abductions in Nome, Alaska. It bills itself as being “based on actual case studies”. The cases were 24 people who disappeared from the Nome area during a span of roughly 40 years. The film features “archival footage” of a Dr. Abigail Tyler, who allegedly used hypnosis to uncover evidence of alien abductions. Searches for Abigail Tyler turned up a Nome Nugget article (the Nome Nugget is the city’s local newspaper), credited to editor Nancy McGuire,  about Tyler’s arrival to the town, as well as an article allegedly penned by Tyler in the Alaska Psychiatry Journal. It would seem, at first glance anyway, that there might be some truth to this story.

It’s all bull.

The State Licensing Board has never heard of Abigail Tyler. No one in Nome has ever heard of Abigail Tyler. Ms. McGuire — real editor of the real Nome Nugget newspaper — says that she has never heard of Abigail Tyler, and certainly never wrote the article that someone credited to her. Nobody in Alaska’s psychiatric circles has ever heard of a publication called the Alaska Psychiatric Journal. The two websites in question, with the news article and journal article, have now seemingly been abducted by aliens themselves, but when they were functioning were surprisingly vacant: nothing else on the domain except the page linked to Google. No home page, no nothing. It’s all a big fraud.

It would appear that the only real thing about this film is that 24 Nome-area residents did go missing during that time period. The FBI investigated and determined that alcohol abuse and harsh winter weather were to blame. A few people suspected a serial killer. Nobody suspected encounters with extraterrestrials. Whatever the cause, many of the family, friends and neighbors of these real people have taken offense that Hollywood would hijack their deaths and distort their stories to push a flick.

I take offense to the fact that the studios have engaged in a deliberate attempt to deceive people. Obviously I don’t believe that most “based on a true story” films approach anything resembling an accurate portrayal of the facts. But I do believe that most of them are loosely based on actual events, or at least on events that someone had perceived to have happened before the film was created. For example, the Exorcist is supposedly based on a real exorcism. I don’t believe that a little girl was possessed by Satan, which caused her head to swivel 360 degrees while she flew around the room spewing pea soup. However I do believe that, at the very least, the film is based on rumors that preceded it. In other words, while the events depicted in the film are almost certainly embellishments of the wildest degree, at least they are actually based on something.

The Fourth Kind is a measure worse, in my opinion, because instead of just perpetuating an already-existing myth, the creators have gone out of their way to make up their own tale after the fact. And, unlike 2012, there are no little reminders here and there that this is all part of the “movie experience”. The creators of The Fourth Kind actually want you to believe that there are legitimate scientists and doctors out there using hypnotherapy to uncover evidence of alien abduction, and that their film contains actual archival footage of this happening. To this end, they attempted to cook up evidence to confuse people who have enough sense to research their claims rather than accept them at face value.

That’s a low blow in my book. It’s one thing to throw a “based on a true story” line at the beginning of the film to trick some gullible people. If some moviegoers believe everything they see on a movie, it’s their own fault for not practicing any critical thinking skills. But The Fourth Kind goes beyond all that. It’s not really based on anything, not even the wildest urban legend. Despite this — or rather because of it — the studios have completely fabricated evidence to trick viewers who want more info.

As a fan of movies, I don’t appreciate being lied to. And I don’t think the families of the 24 missing Nome residents appreciate their loved ones’ demise being hijacked to make a buck.