Bigfoot’s Hot Foot.

By Ed Cara
20120705-212030.jpg As temperatures across the U.S. climb to new highs this summer, wildfires devastate large swaths of forest, from California to Colorado. This last week alone added to the toll of Colorado’s most destructive wildfires in history as yet another fire found its way to the doorsteps of its second largest city, Colorado Springs.

By Sunday, the newly enshrined Waldo Canyon Fire, the eleventh such blaze to hit the state this year, would shove 35,000 people out of their homes, destroy 17,000 acres of land and leave several dead or missing. Amidst the fiery carnage and charred rubble though, there was something else to be found. A groundbreaking discovery deserving of its very own press conference to be held June 29th at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. A discovery that could shatter biology textbooks everywhere: the very burnt but very intact remains of a Bigfoot corpse.

Allegedly.

As it turns out, even ‘allegedly’ would be too kind of a word to describe the minuscule hubbub that struck the Bigfoot Evidence blog this weekend, a cornucopia of news, links and videos dedicated to the big man-beast himself. A anonymous commentator on the self-proclaimed ‘Only 24/7 Bigfoot News Blog’ decided to leave this particularly specific comment on a thread last Thursday:

I have a fellow BF researcher friend that lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He sent me an email informing me that they had found a Bigfoot near an area where one of the fires had recently passed through. They rescued it and took it to one of their houses and have it in the garage…He also said that they’ll be holding a press conference tomorrow at noon, regardless of whether or not the creature survives.

Bigfoot Evidence, having an admittedly slow news day, decided to run with the comment and count down to the press conference with a wink and a smile, even running polls as to whether any of their visitors actually believed the story. An update from the supposed original poster assured us that:

The Bigfoot died during the night. They wrapped it in wet towels and did everything they could to ease it’s suffering, but it wasn’t enough. They said it seemed that there was a lot of damage from smoke inhalation. The creature’s breathing was very labored from the beginning and became progressively worse, up until it expired. The University of Colorado was contacted yesterday afternoon and told about the situation and a team arrived this morning and removed the body. Two members of the research group flew to Boulder, where the body was taken. The presser is now scheduled for 3:00 PM mountain time.

Sometime after the date came and went with no sign of researchers from the University of Colorado, press conferences, or Bigfoot remains, a few of the contributing writers of Bigfoot decided to call the University itself and verify if anyone from the U of C had even been contacted by anyone looking to certify authentic Bigfoot bits, to which they received a resounding no. For my own part, I called up the Media Relations department of the university, and in perhaps the most awkwardly serious conversation since my 8th grade girlfriend and I parted ways, was duly informed that Bigfoot had not been one of the talking points that weekend.

All in all, the silly saga of the scorched Sasquatch was put to an end by weekend’s close, with tongue firmly in cheek by everyone involved. One of the latest items on the site? A collection of photoshopped guesses as to where the Colorado Bigfoot has disappeared off to. All this fun does bring up an interesting question though. Does anyone take Bigfoot seriously anymore?

What’s perhaps most interesting about the Bigfoot legend is how recent it actually started, the moniker of Bigfoot only being coined in 1958, by a reporter of the Humboldt Times in Eureka, California describing the plaster casts brought into the office by local construction worker Jerry Crew. Though stories of ape-men and sasquatches had echoed throughout the years all over the world, it was Crew’s Bigfoot that sparked a new craze of monster-hunting, a craze personified by the infamous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, a grainy and shaky minute-long video of the titular Bigfoot out in the buff while stalking around its natural hunting grounds of Bluff Creek, California, the same area where Crew’s cast originated. From there, the legend of Bigfoot solidified, and with it, hundreds of ‘bonafide’ footprints, out of focus videos and detailed real-life encounters from the die-hard, if amateur, community of Bigfoot enthusiasts.

Of course, apes have never been found in the Americas, there’s been no credible remains that could be attributed to such a ape, and with the suspected size and weight of Bigfoot, there probably isn’t even enough forest left to maintain any population of humanoid beasts, let alone enough cover to successfully hide them from the scrutiny of Bigfoot trackers for so many years. Just some of the reasons why no respectable scientist or zoologist has hitched their wagons to the ‘Bigfoot’s real’ camp. Not that any of that would matter in the face of irrefutable evidence, such as an actual body. If that was found, then no one, no matter how many letters came after their name, could deny the truth of Bigfoot, and in 2008, two men by the name of Rick Dyer and Matthew Whitton claimed that’s exactly what they had.

Their alleged Bigfoot body would make national news as they made a show of sending off hair and tissue samples and presided over a press conference that quickly left reporters looking for solid proof disappointed. To make a long story short, the supposed body was a rubber suit, the authentic tissue they sent over was bits and pieces from other animals, and one of the creators, Rick Dyer, came forward soon after to admit it was a complete and utter hoax.

To be fair, Dyer and Whitton were only following in the proud tradition of other such Bigfoot hoaxers, like Ray Wallace, a logger who also worked in Bluff Creek and some 40-odd years later would be outted as the man who created Crew’s original discovery with a wooden plank cast of oversized feet. Why? Well according to his sons, Ray was a well known prankster, and after the unexpected surge of popularity his feet had brought, would spend years trying to cash in on his brainchild before finally dying at the age of 83 in 2002 in a Washington State nursing home. As for the best proof ever recorded, the Patterson-Gimlin film? Aside from the fairly unscrupulous nature of Roger Patterson, a costume designer by the name of Phillip Morris would step up decades later to admit that he had supplied Patterson with a gorilla suit right around the time of the film. Even more telling was the confession of Bob Heironimus, the 6’2” tall and muscular man that he is, who alleged he was paid by Patterson to wear the modified Morris suit. So much for the smoking gun.

Then again, that seems to be the recurring theme behind the search for Bigfoot; overhyped, grand shows of proof spoiled quick by the admission of hoax or prank. It’s practically gone meta by now, as the Colorado Burnt Bigfoot story shows. An anonymous prankster leaving behind a vague, easily debunked, but admittedly entertaining story to stir up the flames and provide fodder for the weekend. A story purposefully reminiscent of the Dyer debacle to boot, with dreams of a national press conference and a live, if charred, body. Trollish that it was, it was still fun to count down to three ‘o’clock that afternoon, and see what would happen, skeptic and believer alike.

Likelihood aside, there’s no discounting the big guy’s enduring popularity: recent exploits include finding himself the Spokesquatch of sausage commercials, the main character of a series of humorous autobiographies, and as last Saturday, the CGI-ballooned monster of the week in the Sy-Fy Channel’s made-for-tv epic, Bigfoot.

There’s something endearing about the larger than life creature that keeps us coming back for more. You can easily push it aside as simply yearning for the possibility of a new cousin in the family, a large, freakishly strong, yet familiarly bi-pedal version of humanity, but that isn’t entirely it, least in the States. What keeps us coming back for more is that Bigfoot belongs to us. It’s our own home-grown monster, free from the cultural claims of European werewolves, Transylvanian vampires or Scottish Nessies. Far from the routine city lights and cookie-cutter suburban lawns, the slowly disappearing redwoods still hold the promising air of mystery, filled with the lure of a rough and tumble beast distinctly surrounded by Americana. Sure, the Himyalas have their Yetis and the Australians their Yowie, but Bigfoot’s ours; the hickory-smoked ape man of the Pacific Northwest as physically menacing as he is lovingly shy.

That’s probably why, according to a recent Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, there’s at least one-third of Americans who still dutifully believe in the ‘Foot’s probable existence. Wishful thinking? Maybe. Say what you will about hoaxes and improbabilities though, the simple truth is that it’s a hundred percent of us that are rooting for him to show up the skeptics and make his long awaited debut on the cover of the New York Times science section.

Any day now.

Stay tuned for Part 2! An interview with the Bigfoot Evidence bloggers on all things Bigfoot

Update: Unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances and busy schedules, a planned interview with the Bigfoot Evidence bloggers likely won’t be forthcoming.

Catch US-based skeptic with a k, Ed Cara, on Twitter at TheImprovateer.

Born Suckers.

By Ed Cara

Lies are hard to kill off. Especially the ones made up in the name of morality.

Those lies become righteous and just, so long as they sway non-believers onto your side. It’s not about being fair or impartial, it’s about convincing everyone else that your camp alone have the answer, and what’s a little white lie between you and your creator to accomplish all that? Take, for instance, the lie that abortions cause breast cancer.

In an article for UK publication the Catholic Herald Monday, Francis Phillips decided to resurrect an old anti-abortion canard, and prop up a recent paper by Angela Lanfranchi, MD and President of the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, as proof positive of the dangers of abortion to the breasts of women everywhere!

Leaving aside Lanfranchi’s strong ties and long history with the anti-abortion movement, the paper itself, a review of other studies looking at a link between cancer and abortion, reads like a How-To guide on cherry-picking enough half-truths in order to prove anything you’d like. Dramatically stating the significant dangers of abortion in its opening, the best evidence Lanfranchi puts forth are convoluted arguments weakly connected to abortion at best, and disingenuous drivel a first year biology student could pick apart the other 99% of the time.

The main whopper focuses around the very true fact that the longer a women goes without a pregnancy, the greater her chances of developing a certain type of breast cancer, hormone receptor-positive breast cancers, increase. Likewise the more pregnancies she has, the less incidence of that type of breast cancer. It all ties back to estrogen, which women are bombarded with once they start menstruating, and the temporary protection from estrogen that comes with a full-term pregnancy and breastfeeding, another possible factor. There’s also certain cells in the mammary duct that become, for lack of a better word, hardier against mutation as they get suited up for milk production.

From there, Lanfranchi makes the argument that since being pregnant offers a certain protection from some forms of cancers, abortions must greatly increase the risk. A statement that doesn’t make sense even without taking any bit of science into it. Let’s say pregnancy is indeed a positive when it comes to warding off cancer, and not getting pregnant, or getting pregnant later in life, leaves you more susceptible to it; it’s not the act of abortion itself that would lead you down the cancer path, it’s getting pregnant or not. Abortions, surprising as it might be, are not vasectomies, there’s nothing about them that prevents a women from getting pregnant eventually later on, whenever they’d like to, if they’d like to (almost as if they were fully autonomous people capable of their own decisions!). Course, let’s not mention that 61% of women, least in the US, have already had a child before their first abortion, so even if there was an abortion effect to the pregnancy effect, they’d usually cancel out.

Now, granted, Lanfranchi’s paper centers more around the idea that abortions lead to cancer because up to a certain point of pregnancy, 32 weeks, the protective effect isn’t seen, and by inducing abortion anytime before then, you instead leave the women with a higher risk of cancer later on. Even forgetting that most women typically abort only a few weeks into a pregnancy, so a carcinogenic effect would be slim to begin with, it’s not a totally implausible possibility and worth checking out. So what does the actual research say?

Well while Lanfranchi goes to great lengths in highlighting early studies from decades ago showing a loose connection between the two, it’s those same studies that are suspiciously small, vague and not all that conclusive. Even later studies fail to show much other than some subtle statistical massaging and overstated conclusions. The real death knell though comes from the studies she tries to brush aside or call out, ie: the more recent, larger and better designed (less memory bias for example) ones which thoroughly stamp out the likelihood of an abortion effect. Strange as it seems, the better studies happen to be the ones that know-nothing organizations like the National Cancer Institute have relied on in determining whether or not there’s any link, declaring in no uncertain terms that:

  • Women who have had an induced abortion have the same risk of breast cancer as other women.
  • Women who have had a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) have the same risk of breast cancer as other women.
  • Cancers other than breast cancer also appear to be unrelated to a history of induced or spontaneous abortion.

Not that’s stopped anyone from repeating the same old debunked “facts” time and time again.

The problem with Lanfranchi, and for that matter Phillips, is the complete willingness to ignore and deny the mountain of evidence against their claims when crowing about the dangers to abortion to women. MD or not, Lanfranchi isn’t interested in protecting women, she’s interested in scaring them into belief. Abortions are fundamentally evil as everyone should know, so it doesn’t matter if she has to exaggerate or make things up to convince everyone else of that, it’s the right thing to do. Better yet, it’s the Christian thing to do.

There’s something telling about the antics of Phillips and Lanfranchi, leeching onto the authority of science in hopes of tricking enough young women into being too scared to make up their own mind. The minute you take off the lab coat and show them for the moral bullies they are, the minute they’re exposed as controlling, deceptive and misogynistic idiots who couldn’t give two shits about the concerns of anyone who isn’t them. And they know that. That’s why they try so hard to play the science card, because it’s the opposite side of the coin.

It’s scary to watch Phillips so consolingly assure her readers just how much she’s looking out for her fellow women in need. It’s dripping in worry, right up until she drops in the real point of her screed:

(T)he sadly high rates of breast cancer would drop significantly – if there were fewer induced abortions.

Those damn abortions, ruining societies one breast at a time. Am I right, ladies?

It’s not just those grubby doctors eager to suck the sweet sweet abortion teat that women have to worry about either, as Phillips eagerly points out. There’s also childlessness, which as mentioned before does increase the risk from one sort of breast cancer, but considering the entire tone of the piece, comes off as an admonishment of women not performing their good wifely duty and birthing them babies. There’s this sickening feeling that Phillips and company would be totally okay if abortions really did cause breast cancer, because at that point, the slutty slut sluts deserved it. It’s only if they heed their sound advice, turn away from sin and give birth as God intended, that they’ll be spared from his just punishment. It comes off less like concern and more like someone trying to score brownie points when you think about it like that, doesn’t it?

Sadly the scare campaign of those like Phillips remains alive and well in the States, as so-called crisis pregnancy centers run by religious groups do their best to mislead young pregnant women who ostensibly believe they’re there to be counseled on their best available options, but instead receive the very latest in anti-abortion and religious propaganda, including Lanfranchi’s discredited cancer lie. Ooh, and the best part? They’re of course often laden with state funds. Real nice separation of church and state there, guys.

That all aside, even if there was a proven link between abortion and cancer, it still wouldn’t justify the draconian attempts by the pro-life movement to roll back women’s rights about 100 years. It would be something to take into account when making that decision, but that’s all. Life’s choices, as well we know, carry with them risks and benefits. Some will harm more than help, others vice-versa, and then there’s the tougher ones, the ones we might be afraid to speak about frankly, but ultimately prove to be a necessary choice to have on the table. Some choices need to exist, because otherwise we all suffer. That’s something people like Francis Phillips and Angela Lanfranchi will never understand; they’re not interested in the best choice, they’re interested in making sure the only choice anyone has is the one they want, no matter how many lies they have to come up with to ensure that.

And that’s about as poisonous a cancer as any out there.

Global Insecticide

By Ed Cara

In a seldom seen and isolated world, a group of like-minded workers find themselves killed off one by one by a parasite with the ability to drastically and insidiously alter their bodies from the inside out.

Body horror-inducing as all that sounds, that exact same scenario’s happening a lot closer to our homes than anyone of us might expect, right this instant, in beehives everywhere. A mysterious and genocidal depletion of bee colonies worldwide underneath our noses.

While bees (and their keepers) are no strangers to famine or disease, what makes the coined Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) different is the speed and distinctive spread with which it’s struck honeybee populations since 2006, when it first sprouted up in North America. Each year since has brought reports of declining bee numbers in countries all across the globe, as some keepers struggle with losing anywhere from 30% to 90% of their stock to CCD. The symptoms of CCD aren’t any less creepy either-Hives completely devoid of worker bees, corpses or not, yet the queen and her brood untouched alongside full reservoirs of honey, and as you might expect, little to no visual clues as to why the adults have dropped off the face of the earth.

The theories as to the origins of CCD range from the reasonable (pesticides, viruses) to the plausible (genetically modified crops secreting toxins) to the tinfoil (cell-phone radiation screwing up the bees’ navigation skill), but it’s the results of a new study looking at the emerging infestation of Hawaiian bee hives in 2007 by a commonly known parasite that could prove to be the skeleton key behind the mass disappearance.

According to researchers at the University of Sheffield in Britain, the arrival of the Varroa destructor mite* to the shores of Hawaii brought with it some unexpected changes to not only the bee populations, but viral ones as well. Steadily been making its way from country to country since the 1960′s and already known as a nuisance for beekeepers to contend with, it turns out the Varroa mite’s also practically a walking (Do mites even walk? Shuffle?) bioweapons factory, cultivating one particular bee nasty, the RNA-based deformed wing virus (DWV) to exponential levels within every colony they visit. While the virus normally lies dormant as 10% of the viral population in a colony, once the mite makes an appearance and starts feeding on the blood of bee larva and worker alike, all hell goes to loose as the mite both spreads and exacerbates the virus inside its guts, creating a log-jam of DWV and shoving aside all other potential competitors.

In Hawaii, this only took a year, as DWV jumped from 10% to 100% of the viral playground in Varroa-infested hives and, in the case of Oahu Island, devastated 65% of their over 400 colonies.  What’s worse, the mites specifically encourage the deadliest strains of DWV to outgrow their less harmful cousins, their virulence seemingly a direct indicator of how well they’re transmitted via the mite’s bite.  These strains paralyze the body, destroy cognitive functioning and mutilate the wings and legs of their victims. The horror doesn’t end there, since even once Varroa infestations were contained, DWV still remained atop the viral food chain, the mites being the equivalent of a nuclear bee bomb and DWV its fallout.

Strong as lead researcher Stephen Martin and his team’s evidence is, there’s obviously a long way to go before declaring the mystery of the dying colonies over. Earlier studies have looked at the pesticide-CCD connection, with some hypothesizing that a class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, are interfering with the homing ability of bees to make their way back to the hive or flat-out poisoning them over time via the pollen they collect or the high fructose corn syrup beekeepers feed to colonies. At the very least, there’s evidence that the pesticides aren’t exactly a healthy bee tonic, with one particular insectide, imidacloprid, shown to reduce the growth rates of bumblebees and their queens. Leaving aside the obvious objections by pesticide manufacturers, the pesticide effect alone hasn’t been shown to be conclusive enough to explain CCD, though that isn’t to say they couldn’t be a contributing force to CCD. Stress, environmental damage and other bee pathogens are other factors that while not the main cause behind CCD, might just make the bees that less able to fight off the Varroa and its sidekicks.

As for the cellphones, a study last year did show an effect on colonies by active phones being placed inside the hives, but alas no signs of death or disappearance, only the annoyance of several hundred bees at an unanswered call.

The Varroa mite’s never been far from the prime suspect list of CCD culprits, but Martin and his team’s observations do provide a closer look at the mechanism behind the bug’s biological crusade on bees everywhere. The problem as it stands isn’t getting better, with the mites only growing in distribution, not only to all of Hawaii, but to the rest of the world. Australia, one of the last known free zones of Varroa, has begun to prepare for the incoming storm, with their neighbors like New Zealand already well under the grasp (Do mites grasp?) of  V. destructor since 2000. It’s not just honey stores and Jerry Seinfeld-voiced animated characters that suffer from CCD either, since honeybees also play a pivotal role in pollinating crops such as almonds, melons and kiwis alongside dozens of other crops and altogether the financial impact of bees comes to hundreds of billions of dollars annually. While there’s been an continuing decline in the bee population since the 50′s, it’s in CCD that we might find the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and which sends us barreling straight into a full-on agricultural crisis.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the UN.

*Come to think of it, hijacking the unsuspecting bodies of their victims while laying the groundworks for an extremely disturbing mutilation from the inside out…? They practically ARE the Alien franchise.

Credit to the Guardian for the most recent article on Martin’s study.

Catch Ed on his twitter at TheImprovateer.

Lost Hope

By Ed Cara

There’s something about the death of a child that hits us in a particular way. Maybe it’s the feeling of perversion at seeing death come so early, unnaturally, or our hidden parental instincts kicking in high gear. In the case of 5-year-old Billie Bainbridge‘s untimely death at the hands of an aggressive tumor lodged in her brain last weekend though, there’s another feeling that should pop up from under there, a feeling of anger towards one Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski.

Because Billie’s story isn’t just about the terminal cancer that took less than a year since its diagnosis to take her life, it’s about the antics of Burzynski, a now Texas-based doctor who for over 30 years has peddled his particular brand of cancer treatment, antineoplaston therapy, as an experimental but pioneering cure-all for all sorts of otherwise incurable tumors. Though his supporters allege a smear campaign by the government to suppress his wondercure from the public, Burzynski’s spent the last several decades enrolling countless cancer patients at the end of their rope in so-called clinical trials (since he can’t legally treat anyone with his unproven antineoplastons) that the patients themselves pay for with little to show for it. While he champions his antineoplastons (his coined term for a group of peptides originally derived from the body itself) as a non-toxic solution to all form of cancers, former patients’ testimonials and the ongoing investigation by the Texas medical board have noted the use of off-label chemotherapy drugs during his treatment sessions, a mish-mash of drugs being thrown together without any precaution and at extremely high markups that leave his “patients” with a hole in their pocket anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000.

It was the drive by Billie’s family in the UK to raise funds for a visit to the Burzynski clinic that brought to light many of the unscrupulous actions of Burzynski, but as it turns out, there’s been a myriad of similar fundraising campaigns throughout the years to send children, husbands, brothers and wives to the Texas clinic in pursuit of one final chance to stave off disease and death, many of which have similarly ended just as Billie’s journey did. Not that any of the blame for their wild goose chase should be placed on the shoulders of cancer sufferers and their families; there’s no telling to what extent any of us would go to for the opportunity to save those we love from the grips of an incurable condition, no matter how low the chances, but that doesn’t excuse the actions of a rogue doctor who sells those families fake promise and optimism to turn a buck and generate publicity for his product. Billie’s death and the heartbreaking details of it on her fundraising site are another somber reminder that we still have so far to go in dealing with the complicated and multifaceted disease of cancer. It’s also a reminder that hope can come at a price that no one should be tricked into paying.

With the advent of a lawsuit by a former patient and the aforementioned attempt by Texas to once and for all revoke Burzynski’s medical license, perhaps the uncritical praising of this “pioneer” will finally turn on its head, and Stanislaw’ll be seen for what he really is: A snake oil salesman with a PhD and painted on coat of legitimacy.

UPDATES/EDIT: The former patient of Burzynski’s, Lola Quinlan of Jupiter, Fl, passed away May 17th.

The court case against Burzynski by the Texas medical board was indefinitely delayed again in April. No word as to its next scheduled hearing yet.

Catch Ed and his writings at his twitter, TheImprovateer.

Changing Winds.

By Ed Cara

The Unabomber still believes in global warming, do you?

That was the gist of the idiotic message sent to drivers speeding along the Eisenhower Expressway in Illinois early this month.

Immediately after the billboard’s appearance, a wave of negative publicity was aimed at the originators of the ad, libertarian think tank Heartland Institute (Supporters of such gems as "Secondhand Smoking Maybe Doesn’t Even Exist, Guys" and "We Think The Ozone’s Shiny New Hole Looks Great On It!"). From economists to journalists to bloggers, it seemed no one was shy enough to roundly denounce the Unabomber schtick as malicious, tacky and anti-scientific propaganda. The ad was taken down 24 hours later.

While the research of climate change has solidified into an overarching, if not perfect, conclusion; namely the need to reduce carbon emissions before warming becomes too large a monster to contain, the politics behind it have stymied almost any meaningful action by the United States to do so for decades. Politics funded through lobbyists and organizations like Heartland by corporations and Conservative coffers. All in the name of deliberately stirring up as much controversy and doubt in the public eye as they can.

What’s more frightening is that these tactics are merely holdovers from previously successful campaigns to muddle the public opinion of environmental issues like secondhand smoke, acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer by CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons). Even as the scientific consensus insisted that these problems needed a swift and responsible approach, a strategy of delay emerged from a miniscule group of self-proclaimed experts who rarely had any relevant training in the areas of research they debated, all the while hiding their political and financial motivations from policymakers. The point was never to challenge the science, only hold back any efforts of regulation via the release of industry-funded studies, publications and misinformation campaigns. In terms of smoking, it was well over fifty years ago that the tobacco industry knew about the full extent to which their products harmed smokers and nonsmokers alike, yet as the Surgeon General in 2006 put it:

The [tobacco] industry has funded or carried out research that has been judged to be biased, supported scientists to generate letters to editors that criticized research publications, attempted to undermine the findings of key studies, assisted in establishing a scientific society with a journal, and attempted to sustain controversy even as the scientific community reached consensus.

Eventually their attempts would be seen for the disingenuous attacks that they were when the courts found major tobacco companies guilty of civil racketeering laws and willful deception of the American public in 2006. Today a swath of laws designed to minimize secondhand smoke whenever possible have passed around the country (and world) and with the banning of CFC’s in 1996, the ozone layer is estimated to be back to its pre-CFC levels by 2050. Of course, one can only speculate about the number of dollars, wildlife and healthy lungs lost forever to greedy doubtmongering.*

Unfortunately for us, the model of manufactured debate has only continued on in the climate change arena, with millions of dollars being funneled by companies such as Exxon-Mobile (to the tune of 16 million from 1998 to 2005) to anti-global warming groups, eager to dispel public consensus with cherry-picked studies, misinformed articles and appeals to journalistic balance. As far back as 1970, there were calls for the Nixon administration to look into the carbon problem, yet here we stand forty years later, not having taken any major step in stemming it. As in the tobacco debacle though, is there finally starting to be a pushback against the passiveness and outright denialism of those eager to wish away global warming?

According to a extensive survey by the Yale Center of Climate Change Communication, 72% of Americans today support policy changes to handle the looming specter of global warming. From cleaner energy (92%) to regulations on the amount of carbon being pumped out into the atmosphere (75%), there’s a palpable desire to start taking action against a threat that up till recently was still being debated as to its actual existence. This isn’t just a bleeding liberal phenomenon either, as both a majority of Democrats and Republicans agree that steps need to be taken, though still at 68% to 52%. More heartening are the beliefs that corporations need to regulate themselves at 70% and that the initiatives we undertake can still generate more jobs and economic growth at 58%. All across the board, there is wide support for dealing with climate change and its consequences sooner rather than later. It should be noted here that these results reflect a trend as far back as 2008, meaning that as good news as it is, it’s also not anything too surprising.

As to why these numbers are as high as they are, the study’s authors figure that, among other reasons, the effects of a changing Earth, mild as they are now, are emerging clearer to most Americans not heavily invested one way or the other. 2011’s summer amounted to the hottest since 1936, while on the other side of the equation, the fourth warmest winter to date mildly passed us by. Even if these seasons weren’t the direct result of warming, climate being hard to pattern on a short term basis, it’s becoming harder to ignore the enormous elephant of Mother Nature in the room. Coupled with the more aggressive communication by the likes of popular Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and other experts, there’s been a noticeable offensive on the part of those working with the facts.

Earlier this year for instance, when the Wall Street Journal published a grossly inaccurate editorial written and signed by sixteen known skeptics alleging that the jury is still out on the science and we shouldn’t be too hasty in rushing to conclusions, a group of thirty-eight climate specialists quickly mobilized and shot off their own rebuttal in a letter to the WSJ (though only after they had rejected a similar essay on the actual climate data signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences a year earlier). And in April, a bill in the Oklahoma legislature that would have allowed teachers to directly contradict the scientific teachings of climate change and evolution ultimately died in the Senate. The misinformation campaign of Heartland and Co isn’t just being fought back against in editorials or local governments either; look deep enough on the internet and you’ll find plenty of men and women dedicated to debunking climate myths, no matter how often they rear their ugly heads. Sadly enough though, this renewed fight to take back the science from denialists hasn’t come without its own ethical lapses.

In February, internal Heartland documents were leaked to multiple news outlets by an anonymous source, documents which among other things detailed a budget financed by corporate giants like Phillip Morris and plans to fund a campaign teaching high school kids all the myths galore about global warming. Eventually the leaker revealed himself to be Peter Gleick, a noted climate analyst and advocate. Via his own blog, Gleick confessed that he used a fake guise to obtain said information, looking to confirm a document about Heartland’s goings on he received earlier from his own anonymous source. Even as Heartland only tepidly questioned the authenticity of one of the leaked documents, Gleick was jumped on by all sides for his ethical betrayal of standards and for providing fodder for those who paranoidly insist that the global warming narrative is being written by unscrupulous experts looking to cash in on their own fear-mongering for a chance at grant money. Soon after his reveal, Gleick would take a leave of absence from the institute he founded while an external investigation of his actions began.

Gleick’s deception aside, the leak in many ways was the catalyst to unraveling Heartland and others’ strategy of created unease. Financial donors who normally defended themselves by pointing out their contributions to the organization were unrelated to the climate front of Heartland, such as General Motors, now faced bad PR for supporting in any way a thoroughly unbalanced and nonobjective propaganda machine and quickly pulled out. Which brings us back to our good friend, the Unabomber.

With their motivations clear as day now yet perhaps desperate to throw off the scent of bias, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Heartland decided to step out of their cloak-and-dagger routine to throw a haymaker at climate change advocates with their murderer-sponsored billboard. Far from being a provocative and thought-provoking message to the drivers of the Eisenhower Expressway however, their attack only alienated just about anyone with a sense of taste, regardless of where they laid on the political spectrum.

Bluntness being no substitute for substance, many of their allies, tentative in the wake of Gleick’s leak already, left in droves within hours of the unveiling, and with them their monetary support. From State Farm to Pepsico to AT&T, over $800,000 of corporate money has evaporated in the last few months. The staff of their Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate project? Split off to form their own think-tank, one not interested in "promoting climate change skepticism" as their former Washington head Eli Lehrer succinctly put it. Along with the money and staff loss came a large brain drain, as experts that they called upon time after time also began their mass exodus from any further association with the institute. With nowhere else to turn, Heartland abandoned all pretense and began accepting funds from such objective groups as the Heritage Foundation and the Illinois Coal Association to help buoy up their annual climate conference set this week. The most damaging fallout from their Unabomber fiasco isn’t anything you’d see on a spreadsheet though, it’s the transformation from an influential voice of doubt to an embarrassing caricature whose voice will only go so far as their echo chamber allows it.  In short, they’ve become the butt of a joke that no one ever really found funny in the first place.

Does all this mean that the denialists and “delayists” are in full retreat? No. Not so long as the interests of those who hesitate to stop feeding from the carbon cash cow are still aflush with plenty of money to influence policy unchecked from criticism. Whether it’s oil companies recording some of their highest profits ever, or bankrolled politicians (namely Republicans, who received 88% of political contributions made by gas and oil industries in 2011) blocking progress of cleaner technologies and regulations, money inevitably talks. That’s not even considering that in some ways, doubt has already won the day over reasonable science in the public square, because while a majority of us do seem to want environmental change for the better, it’s only a paltry 46% of the country that believes global warming is a mess that we ourselves created, and barely 66% who believe it’s even a real thing, a sharp contrast to 97% of researchers.

But the battle over the language of climate change isn’t a loss one should lament for too long, not when the stakes over its consequences are that much higher. As sound as the science might be, it will only be the newfound outspokenness of climate researchers, journalists and Presidential incumbents that proves to be our saving grace from a warming Earth. The truth matters, but it’s having the strength to stand behind that truth that affects any real change. Climate or otherwise.

Peter Gleick was recently cleared of any suspicion of having forged any of the Heartland documents. The conclusions from the external investigation are set to publicly released soon.

*Highly recommend science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt for anyone interested in an in-depth and extensive look at the men and organizations that manufactured doubt on the issues of secondhand smoke, acid rain and other pivotal environmental issues of the day. 

Follow Ed Cara and his writings at his twitter, TheImprovateer.

Holy Mother Church.

By Ed Cara

Let it never be said that the Catholic Church has a thing against women.

Like out of a horrible 90’s comedy starring Whoopie Goldberg, the Church earlier last month came out with a severe tongue lashing of their fellow sisters in god, The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a U.S. based group representing Roman Catholic nuns across the States. Calling for a drastic overhaul, the Vatican took issue with the group:

protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to homosexual persons.”

They were also rebuked for “promoting issues of social justice ” and not spending enough time on those problems that really hit home for Catholics in their day to day lives like, of course, gay marriage and abortion. What really grinded their gears though was the sheer brazenness of the feisty old nuns in holding “radically feminist" ideals as they occasionally but openly disagreed or challenged U.S. Bishops on several positions, such as their support of President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. Big no-no since obviously the Bishops are "the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.

Let’s be clear about something here; this isn’t even the Church yelling down the fevered protests of radical nuns who wanted free abortions for every 16 year-old teen girl in America or a gay couple in every TV screen, but an admonishment of the group for not focusing as much on degrading gays or women as their male counterparts have over the years.

The group has stayed mostly silent on those critical fronts*cough* in fact, not directly contradicting any of the Church’s teachings, and being content to work within their faith to help others without judgment while asking for their views and ideas to be given consideration by the supposedly enlightened chosen ones of God. A respectable position for anyone to hold, faith or not, which is probably why it was harshly torn apart by celibate men in robes, positively aghast at the thought of women even contemplating about being treated as equals in their community.

To be a good religious woman, it seems, you just need to learn to be quiet and listen to what the holy men tell you is right.

Catch Ed Cara at his twitter, TheImprovateer or via the comments.

Hidden Strands: The Not-So-Apparent Link Between Abortion and Crime.

By Ed Cara

It’s been called everything from one of the greatest achievements in the name of freedom to one of the largest instances of legalized slaughter since the Soviet purges. Whatever your personal feelings, there’s no denying the tremendous impact Roe vs Wade, and the subsequent legalization of abortion in the United States in 1973, has had on the generations of Americans born before and since the landmark trial.

As far as the US is concerned though, the battle over women’s reproductive rights is long from settled. Setting aside the ruckus over the administration’s attempt to provide female employees with a guaranteed birth control option in their health insurance plans, no matter what personal beliefs their employers may hold, it hardly seems like a day can pass by without some new state bill being proposed to limit access to the abortion rights of women across the country. From attempts to marginalize and shut down the few clinics in a state that can even provide abortions (Mississippi) to introducing draconian restrictions and deceptive language that seek to only confuse, shame or mislead those who manage to find a brave enough doctor to perform the procedure (Minnesota). There is a wave of anti-abortion and frankly anti-women sentiment running through the conservative segments of the country; sentiment disguised as heated talks over religious freedom, or hypocritically as compassionate pleas over unborn human lives. Strangely enough, the freedoms and rights of the presently alive and certainly very human mothers to be are rarely given as much credence.

However, relatively few among us have attempted to quantify the impact those from the other side of the equation, the generations of those who never saw the light of day, have had on our world. That is until economist Steven Levitt and Professor John Donohue of Yale Law School came out with a study intended to do just that in 2001. What they found would fascinate and anger people from all walks of life, whether they were fellow economists, politicians or your average every-day citizen.

That’s because Levitt’s study concluded that the legalization of abortion in the 1970’s was one of the most profound factors in the significant and unexpected crime rate drop seen across the country in the 1990’s.[1]

As America exited the post-war prosperity of the 50’s, the national crime rate began to steadily grow with each decade; urbanization bringing us larger cities and crowding more people together. Once cheap crack-cocaine entered the U.S. in the 80’s though, the resulting turf wars between crack-dealers and gangs sparked an epidemic of crime as murder, rape, assault and robbery rates reached a fevered pitch. [2] After years of exponentially higher crime rates and with a poor economy to boot, the country was at the brink of chaos. Many in the media predicted the U.S. would buckle under the never-ending waves of violence and collapse onto itself as we approached the millennium. [3] But we didn’t. As the last decade of the 20th century reached its end, violent crime took a sharp inexplicable dive across the board right as the crack epidemic burned out and the economy began booming once again. The chaos simply stopped. [4]

Once the drop became apparent, those same doomsayers rushed to analyze(or at least appear to) what had happened. Reasons varied from everything to the bustling economy to innovative policing strategies recently implemented in New York and other large cities at the time[5]; but as Levitt pointed out in his book Freakonomics, his best-selling novel in 2005, co-written by journalist Stephen Dubner, and which laid out the abortion-crime theory(among other ideas) to the general public, most of these explanations proved to have little evidence behind them. No, according to Levitt, the data showed it came down to factors like longer jail sentences for violent offenders, the increased hiring of police officers, and the stabilization of the crack supply.[6] But he also found that those factors didn’t come close to explaining away the massive crime drop. There was still a large piece of the puzzle missing, and that’s where his seemingly out of left field theory came into the picture.

Levitt’s reasoning was simple enough. When abortion became legal nationwide in the 70’s, this led to fewer unwanted and/or poverty-stricken children being born into the world, the same sort of children statistically more likely to become violent and unlawful[7] as they reached the criminal peak of their late teen years. As the 90’s approached and the first generation of Americans born after Roe reached those late teen years, there were that much less potential criminals in the population, thus crime as a whole dropped and leveled off. The less criminals existed in the first place, the less crime in the country. A simple, if bold, claim and one Levitt and Donohue backed up with multiple strands of evidence.

In their study, The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime, they showed that in states where abortion became legal earlier than 1973, such as New York, Hawaii and California, the crime rate dropped earlier than in those later states. In addition, those states with higher abortion rates showed a higher crime rate drop relative to those states with lower abortion rates, a correlation that doesn’t begin to show up until after the first generation of post Roe births reached young adulthood and one that doesn’t appear among the older population of criminals. They also relied upon studies of Australian and Canadian populations showing a similar relationship between abortion and crime. [8][9] Their conclusion out of all this data? Even when controlling for as many variables as possible, the legalization of abortion might have been responsible for up to as much as 50% of the 90’s crime drop (The original study looked at data from 1985 to 1997, though crime has continued its downward spiral to this day [10]).

It should hardly come as a surprise that with as a dramatic a theory as theirs, there came some strong reactions from all sorts of circles. From praises of his best-selling Freakonomics to accusations that Levitt’s study was advocating the use of abortion as a part of an eugenics campaign against minorities. And of course, the requisite death threats. [11][12]

Some pointed out that African American women have been shown to be up to three times more likely to abort than white women, and from there they made the argument(if poorly) that Levitt, through his study, was championing the use of abortion as a blunt but effective tool for culling the criminal minority population of the US[13]; and then there were those from the religious pulpit offended at the thought that Levitt was providing a convenient justification for the millions of unnecessary murders since 1973 to pro-choice proponents. [14] From the very start though, Levitt has brushed aside any talk of eugenics or advocacy in the conclusions he and Donahue came to, pointing out in the study itself that their results “not be misinterpreted as either an endorsement of abortion or a call for intervention.” Later in Freakonomics, Levitt made the case that he was only attempting to show the link between abortion and crime his research had illuminated, not make any sort of value judgement as to its findings. Though it’s not only pro-life or racially sensitive groups that Levitt has had to defend his study from, but even other economists and journalists who, since before its official release in 2001, have challenged the study’s conclusions outright.

Steve Sailer, a journalist who has sparked controversy of his own [15] with several of his articles on race relations in the US, debated Levitt in 1999 over the study’s statistics and assumptions. [16] He made the case that Levitt hadn’t taken into account the fact numbers showed that murder rates among 13-14 year olds in 1993 and 1994 were the highest they had ever been, the exact opposite effect Levitt had predicted abortion would have on younger populations. Sailer went on to argue that the influence of crack cocaine was understated by Levitt, and in there laid the true answer to the end of the crime epidemic. Levitt, to his credit, acknowledged that Sailer’s numbers were right, but that he and Donohue had taken the crack cocaine effect into account, and that states where abortion rates were high but untouched by the drug still showed lower crime rates. More significantly, the end of the crack epidemic didn’t reduce crime numbers back to their pre-epidemic levels as might be expected if Sailer’s theory was right. The years where teen murder had escalated could certainly be seen as being heavily brought on by the rising crack use, but overall the data showed that crack alone was not responsible for its subsequent drop later on, Levitt argued. Once controlled for statistically, there was still a missing gap in the story, one that explained by abortion.

A similar but more scientific challenge came in the form of Ted Joyce, a Professor of Economics and Finance at Baruch College, who published a paper in 2004 looking at some of the numbers of Levitt and Donohue’s original study. [17] He concluded, among other arguments, that a “Roe effect” couldn’t be seen when you looked at populations directly born before and after 1973 during the years between 1985-1990. Levitt and Donohue responded in kind with their own paper, [18] refuting Joyce, arguing that by only looking at those specific years, the same years in which the crack epidemic was at its peak, Joyce buried the effect of abortion in statistic noise. Noise that was removed once you took a look past the ‘85-‘90 years. They also pointed out that the same states which had legalized abortion earlier were also the same states hit more severely by the influx of crack between those years, and that Joyce hadn’t adequately looked at the entire picture of crime before, during and after the drug’s rise. They went on to use more recent, stronger data to reinforce the original’s conclusions. Joyce has since published his refutation to their refutation.[19]

Most significantly, in 2005, economists Chris Foote and Chris Goetz came out with their own analysis and provided one of the harshest blows to the theory. [20] They first correctly found that there was missing data from the original study, data which they then went on to say, when introduced to the equation, lowered the effect of abortion on crime to a statistically insignificant level. In essence they found Levitt and Donohue had made a grave technical error which invalidated a good portion of the original’s results. True to form though, Levitt and Donohue came back with a paper that acknowledged the original’s mistake in accidentally omitting data while presenting a re-analysis using the same standards of Foote and Goetz and under an apparently more stringent set of data points. [21] Their conclusion was that while the effect of abortion on crime might have been less significant than they believed, the recent science was still behind their original findings.

If there’s a feeling of dizziness after having read all that, it would be well understood; the statistical back and forth between Levitt and fellow economists over his research being as challenging a read as you would expect about the merits of separating one singular factor from the annals of history to explain so large a change twenty years later. Levitt attempted to do so, and while there have been reasonable challenges made as to his and Donohue’s conclusions, there’s also been as much support for his theory from others. [22]

Far from hiding though, Levitt has continued to invite criticism from all corners, constructive or otherwise. There’s been no bullying for others to accept his results, no heavy handed sermon as to what to even do with those results, simply a plea to look at what he has uncovered and decide for ourselves of its veracity. While many have lauded Levitt for doing so, even as they disagree with him, others have attacked him for daring to remind us about the unsightliness of abortion, let alone the implication that it might have actually done us a public good. That fewer unwanted children leads to less crime and violence down the road is not a controversial thought in of itself, but the idea that what many still see as an unnecessary and brutal act of death can save many a life is one not easily reconciled. In the wake of the continued fervor over the moralities and legalities of abortion, Levitt illuminates the simple fact that the world is not black and white, but rather shades of gray.

But one needn’t be a staunch pro-life advocate to feel discomfort about the reality Levitt has laid out for us. As science is often apt to do, the implications of Levitt and Donohue’s research force us to stare darkly at our past, present, and future and examine the hidden consequences a private decision can have on an increasingly public world. Is it any surprise that there are those who would rather take the path more traveled instead?

References

  1. Donohue, John and Steven Levitt, “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,”Quarterly Journal of Economics, CXVI, no. 2 (2001): 379-420, http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/DonohueLevittTheImpactOfLegalized2001.pdf
  2. Drug Enforcement Adminstration, “DEA History Book 1985-1990.” http://www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/history/1985-1990.html.
  3. Dilulio Jr., John. “The Coming of the Super Predators.” The Weekly Standard, November 27, 1995. http://cooley.libarts.wsu.edu/schwartj/criminology/dilulio.pdf
  4. Eurekalert, “New research reveals historic 1990s US crime decline.” http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-02/uoc—nrr021207.php.
  5. Levitt, Steven. “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990’: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not.” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 18. no. 1 (2004): 163-190. http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/LevittUnderstandingWhyCrime2004.pdf
  6. Levitt, Steven, and Stephen Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005.
  7. Loeber, Rolf, and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber. JSTOR, “Family factors as correlates and predictors of juvenile conduct problems and delinquency.” Last modified 1986. http://www.jstor.org/pss/1147516.
  8. Sen, Anindya. “Does Increased Abortion Lead to Lower Crime? Evaluating the Relationship between Crime, Abortion, and Fertility.” The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy. 7. no. 1 (2007). http://www.bepress.com/bejeap/vol7/iss1/art48/
  9. Leigh, Andrew, and Justin Wolfers. “Abortion and Crime.” AQ: Journal of Contemporary Analysis. 72. no. 4 (2000): 28-30. http://people.anu.edu.au/andrew.leigh/pdf/Abortion&Crime(AQ).pdf
  10. Benfield, Kaid. Switchboard:Natural Resources Defense Council Blog, “City crime continues to drop, especially where diversity is strong.” Last modified July 8, 2011. http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/city_crime_continues_to_drop_e.html.
  11. Deem, Rich. Evidence for God from Science , “Modern Eugenics: How Abortion is Getting Rid of “Undesirables”.” Last modified July 12, 2009. http://www.godandscience.org/doctrine/moderneugenics.html.
  12. Levitt, Steven. “Levitt on Abortion/Crime Feedback.” Posted Sept 19, 2007. The New York Times. Web, http://video.nytimes.com/video/2007/09/19/opinion/1194817093143/levitt-on-abortion-crime-feedback.html
  13. Barber, La Shawn. “Steven Levitt Says Child Killing Reduces Crime.” La Shawn Barber’s Corner (blog), April 20, 2005. http://lashawnbarber.com/archives/2005/04/20/steven/.
  14. "Crime-Abortion Study Continues to Draw Pro-life Backlash ." Ohio Roundtable Online Library, , sec. Life and Health, August 11, 1999. http://www.aproundtable.org/library/articles/life/crimeabortion.html
  15. Media Matters, “American Conservative reportedly to publish far-right columnist’s baseless, racially charged claims about “wigger” Obama.” Last modified March 14, 2007. http://mediamatters.org/research/200703140004.
  16. Levitt, Steven, and Steve Sailer. “Does Abortion Prevent Crime?.” Slate Magazine , August 23, 1999. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/dialogues/features/1999/does_abortion_prevent_crime/_2.html
  17. Joyce, Ted. “Did Legalized Abortion Lower Crime?.” The Journal of Human Resources. 39. no. 1 (2004): 1-28. http://users.ipfw.edu/dilts/E 306 Readings/Did Legalized Abortion Lower Crime.pdf.
  18. Donohue, John, and Steven Levitt. “Further Evidence that Legalized Abortion Lowered Crime:A Reply to Joyce.” The Journal of Human Resources. 39. no. 1 (2004): 29-40. http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/DonohueLevittReply2004.pdf
  19. Joyce, Ted. “A Simple Test of Abortion and Crime.” The Review of Economics and Statistics. 91. no. 1 (2009): 112-123. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/rest.91.1.112.
  20. 20. Foote, Christopher, and Christopher Goetz. “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime: Comment.” Quarterly Journal of Economics. 123. no. 1 (2008): 407-423. http://qje.oxfordjournals.org/content/123/1/407.abstract.
  21. Donohue, John, and Steven Levitt. “Measurement Error, Legalized Abortion, the Decline in Crime: A Response to Foote and Goetz (2005).” http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/measurement error.pdf.
  22. Martin, Spencer. University of Missouri-Columbia, “A Further Analysis of the Causal Link between Abortion and Crime.” Last modified May, 2007. https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/4904/research.pdf?sequence=3
Close Encounters of the Fourth and Three Quarters Kind.

By Ed Cara

It was a dark Sunday morning as my eyelids lazily lifted up. An early dawn; the moonlight still putting up a decent fight against the inevitable sun’s rise from over the horizon. I scanned the room and could see my roommate’s leg dangling over his bed while he slept off the almost certain fun time he had the night before. As I saw the clock by the window read 5am, I cursed the increasingly popular preference my body had to wake up early on days when I didn’t have to take 23 credits worth of college courses. Feeling the autumn breeze on my exposed feet from beneath the covers, I began to get a deepening sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong.

There was a tightness in my chest. No, that wasn’t quite it. It was more pressure on top of my chest; as if my roommate had decided to scoot on over and plop down on my solar plexus. My breathing shallow, I could see the shadows by the window start to twist and turn, almost coming alive in front of me. As scared as I felt, it was only when the breeze climbed over and across my body that I became absolutely mortified. It was a brisk wind that morning but somehow my body seemed incapable of responding back with a shudder or shiver. Quite simply put, I couldn’t move.


We’ve always had our bogeymen.

As far as recorded history goes back, there have been stories of otherworldly beings; some benevolent and nurturing, bringers of harvest and life; and others malignant and destructive, bringers of disease and misfortune.  That same history is littered with tales of our face to face encounters with those not-so-pleasant forces.

One of the more classic tales involves people waking up to find themselves frozen solid, unable to move, as demonic noises echo all around them, their chests and throats compressed, and in some cases even finding a completely alien presence on top of them; only to suddenly find themselves alone in the room, able to move as if nothing had happened. It’s hard to imagine someone not being entirely petrified to have to wake up to something like that, something so physical that they couldn’t wave it off as an especially vivid dream. The only real conclusion they could make would be that something unearthly has just visited them. What else could it be?

Known as sleep paralysis, this frightening, but strangely not too uncommon, condition is essentially the result of our conscious brain waking up before the rest of the body has caught up. Normally our bodies synchronize the different hormonal changes that go on in our brains during the several phases of sleep; such as keeping our bodies paralyzed whenever we’re in the REM(which I’m sure most know as our dream state) stage of sleep. When we wake up, the hormonal changes that keep us paralyzed stop and we exit REM sleep completely aware and mobile, if not groggy. If the hormones that regulate our paralysis are lagging behind for whatever reason(not enough sleep, stress, certain medications), we wake up but still paralyzed. The paralysis often comes with visual and auditory hallucinations, which may be related to the fact that those waking up had just been in the dream stage of sleep and in essence bring their dreams to life.

Before any of this was known though, we could only think to label such episodes as demonic hauntings; our bodies being violated by monstrous beasts. Every culture has given these sightings a different name; Those in North America called them hags or witches; they’re known as Mares in Germany; in Laos, the Dab Tsog and during Medieval times, they were the Succubus and Incubus.

Even as we learned more about the body and the various and frightening ways it can break down on us, the folktales continued to endure in our public consciousness, taking on new names and shapes. To us here in America, as we reached the mid to late 20th century, hags and witches pressing down on us as we slept became alien invaders abducting us in the middle of the night. It’s telling that as stories of UFOs and aliens reached the mainstream through the Roswells and E.T.’s of our time, that the bogeymen in our collective imagination changed form. The sleep paralysis never changed, the nightmares we woke up from did.

It isn’t fair or correct to say that all abduction stories, all tales of people being haunted by demons and ghosts, can be brushed off by a simple if unintuitive scientific explanation though; there are reports of waking abductions, or certain stories that just might require a closer look at the evidence on both sides. Nothing should be entirely generalized, whether it is aliens or climate science, but it’s important to use the knowledge we do have to give us the best place to start from. You can look at any given abduction story and decide for yourselves the likely truth, but you’ve got to do it with as much objective information and evidence as you can muster.

To those in the middle ages, the concept of sleep paralysis didn’t exist, so what else could it be but what we actually saw with our own eyes and ears? To those now, who know that our eyes and ears are more than capable of deceiving us, we can look at it and figure out that we likely just had a minor hiccup in our brain and that we should try to get more sleep the next night.

Our scientific knowledge is constantly shifting, being tweaked and added to. But that base gets sturdier and sturdier both as we add to it and as we tease out the unsupported facts. What we once knew as a English maid’s nightmarish encounter with a witch, we can now know as a twenty year old’s scary but easily explained Sunday morning.

No words came out of my mouth as I struggled to move even the tiniest part of my body.

The shadows above and around my rigid body danced back and forth as I reminded myself what was likely going on. The foreboding sense of danger was still ticking even as I tried to calm myself down. I began to hear a creaking noise from behind the door opposite us, but I also began to feel the slightest movement from my toes. With an guttural but silent yell, I sat straight up, my head now drenched in sweat but otherwise intact. The room now and always utterly silent.

My heart racing, I headed over to the bathroom sink to wash up, a million thoughts swirling around my head. Drenching my head in water, I looked up at my reflection. So much for aliens and monsters.

Catch Ed and his funny and skeptical pseudo-intellectual sayings on Twitter at TheImprovateer.

A Gut Feeling.

By Ed Cara

For those not U.S. centered, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent fallout has been one of the most polarizing stories of the year. For an extensive background of all the controversy surrounding the shooting, check out this link.

In Florida, a man with a documented history of violence and obsessive behavior can shoot an unarmed 17 year old teenager, be given the benefit of the doubt and sent home a day later without charges or follow-up because his last name was Zimmerman and the boy’s first name was Trayvon.

In Kansas, House Representatives can try to pass a bill legalizing the discrimination of gay men and women under the auspices of religious freedom; and halfway across the world, a young girl can be forced to marry a older man by her family, try to return home because he turned out to be incredibly abusive and subsequently be left to drown in a river by her father for having dishonored tradition.

That’s essentially what it comes down to in the end: Tradition. The way things are. Our rituals, habits and traditions, passed down generation to generation, strengthen our ties to family, friends and offer a sense of purpose to what can feel like a lonely existence at times, but they can also blind us. Cognitively, they’re an extension of what our brain needs to do to keep from overheating due to all the info we take in on a daily basis; take shortcuts.

It’s a curious tango between tradition and intuition that our brains dance along to underneath our open eyes, because while we might take for granted that instincts, or gut feelings, are born not made, that’s not often the case. You don’t have to look any further than language to see that.

Anyone who’s spent enough time on the twitterbook has probably seen this image:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.*

A incomprehensible sentence by any measure yet a good number of us can understand it perfectly. The basics of English have been so pounded into our heads since we were young, that even when faced with incomplete/fuzzy information, we unconsciously fill in the blanks to generate the most likely picture. In a snapshot, that’s what all those shortcuts come to: making an educated guess based on the constant info we’re fed. The brain does it so well that we’re ever even barely conscious of it and we can’t help but come out feeling right about those shortcuts we take. It needs to feel right because we wouldn’t be relying on them otherwise. Trouble is, they aren’t always.

These heuristics, as they’re come to be known in the sciences, are to this day studied by psychologists, but before we get too carried away with all that technical stuff, let’s focus on that particularly popular story of the last few weeks; the shooting of Trayvon Martin in a small gated community in by George Zimmerman, and what it’s shown us about intuition, tradition and shortcuts.

Now let’s leave aside the critical minutes in-between those 911 calls made by neighbors reporting sounds of a struggle, screaming and one fatal gunshot, and focus on the before and after; not only because it’s mostly irreverent here but because the questions about those minutes should ultimately be asked by the criminal justice system.

By his own words, Zimmerman was someone who saw the young Trayvon as ‘suspicious’, an ‘asshole’ looking to “get away with it” when he first sent in that pivotal call to the police that rainy February 26th. Despite being instructed to back off and meet officers at the local community center, Zimmerman continued to trail Martin, who he suspected of holding something in his hand (likely the bag of skittles he had just bought from the convenience store). Of course what exactly happened next we might never know, but it begs the question, why did the self-appointed neighborhood-watch leader call 911 in the first place? Why was Travyon suspicious to the half-hispanic (apparently to some, that fact alone preempts any accusation of racism) George Zimmerman? Was it because he was black? Was it because he was wearing a hoodie, as noted commentator and part-time 60′s porn star Geraldo Rivera suspects? Was it the furiously frothing at the mouth racism of Zimmerman that led him to brutally and sadistically murder a young black boy? Maybe, maybe and probably not.

A lifetime of experiences, stimuli, tellings and retellings unconsciously shaped who Zimmerman saw wrapped up in that hoodie. Dangerous, up to no good, threatening, criminal, parasitic…different. Those are likely some of the thoughts and feelings that ran hidden through Zimmerman as he continued to chase after an unarmed teen in the night. Trayvon’s clothing, mannerisms, and yes, color created a specific but fuzzy picture of danger, and however far from the truth it might have been, it was an impression Zimmerman carried with him as he loaded his licensed handgun in case the suspected burglar was carrying his own weapon, as a possible gesture to fuck off and get lost by Martin turned into a display of aggression, or finally as a grab for Zimmerman’s leg while they struggled turned into an attempt to grab his holstered gun and shoot him with it (obviously all conjectures here).

Zimmerman’s biases, his intuitions, led him to a conclusion about the 17-year-old Trayvon, and however things escalated, each subsequent action jumped on top of that conclusion, sparking a runaway chain of events that led to the untimely death of a teen. Zimmerman didn’t need to explicitly despise the color of Martin’s skin to jump to conclusions about who he saw that night either. Nor does any of this excuse the zealous actions of a neighborhood watchman. It only gives it the proper context.

The same thing goes for the Sanford police department that’s been lambasted over the last few weeks for their handling of the shooting. Lest we forget; before all this publicity came raining down on the town of fourty thousand, police were ready to declare the incident a clear cut case of self-defense, just as Zimmerman described to them, though at least one detective didn’t take him at his word. As time’s gone along, the police and Florida prosecutors have found themselves on the defensive as to why they let Zimmerman wholly off the hook when serious questions reminded as to his version of events, Why they didn’t bother checking up on the contradictory eye-witness accounts of the night provided by neighbors or that of Martin’s girlfriend, who alleges an entirely different recollection of the night as she and Martin spoke on the phone immediately before their confrontation. Why not bother? Did they need to be blatant racists who saw a dead black boy and assumed he deserved it to ignore the elephant in the room? No.

Collectively, they simply needed to look at George Zimmerman, half-hispanic that he may be, and give his story more credit than it was due, not give it as critical a look that it deserved. If Zimmerman told them that he believed he was defending his neighborhood against a criminal and Trayvon fit the bill enough, then why should he be arrested for what he did? Sure, Trayvon Martin was unarmed and innocent of any crime, but it’s understandable why someone could mistake him for a troublemaker accidentally. Just look at him.

Zimmerman’s account needs no scrutiny if you already look at the world as one where black youths are merely more suspicious by default. Not out of hatred (necessarily), but because that’s just how the world is. That’s how things are. That doesn’t mean there can’t be obtusely clear patterns of racial prejudice in the Sanford Police Department, George Zimmerman, or any of his defenders. Only that our biases need not be oozing out of every pore to be omnipresent in the thoughts we hold and the actions we take.

The most important takeaway here is that racism, sexism, or whatever other ism you wanna throw in there doesn’t exclusively come in KKK flavor and we need to stop treating it as such. Prejudice is not short for hatred, though it can manifest as such.  They’re our intuitions gone awry.

Our biases carry us further than we’d expect, our hatreds run deeper, and our demons to darker and subtler depths than we’d care to admit. When those darker impulses run amok in others, it’s only natural to distance ourselves from it. There are plenty of those who look to paint George Zimmerman as a remorseless monster, a despicable gun-toting racist, but that only serves to ease our own tensions. Because that means we’re not as bad as he is. Others run away from any accusation of racism because in the U.S. black on black crime is higher than white on black crime, or because George Zimmerman was a self-described Democrat, or because it doesn’t manifest in front of us every time out with a giant sign labeled “HEY IT’S ME, RACISM. ‘SUP?

We run away from the uncomfortable, even when it’s the only chance to better ourselves, for the sake of staying safe, for the sake of tradition, but our isms permeate every aspect of our society, whether we like it or not. What the Zimmerman case ultimately needs to teach us is that we all suffer for ignoring that fact.

That’s perhaps the biggest positive out of all this; that a clamor was raised over the hesitance to formally charge Zimmerman, that awkward questions have been asked, and that the deep-seated and backwards ideals and thoughts of a good number of Americans have been brought out into the light. Just because many of our intuitions are made subconsciously, doesn’t mean that they can’t be made better consciously.

As of last week, George Zimmerman has formally been arraigned and charged by Florida prosecutors of the 2nd degree murder of Trayvon Martin.

*The actual story behind that popular parlor trick is of course more nuanced. Turns out the longer and more complicated the words, the harder it becomes to read it right. In other words, you can’t just read any jumbled word if its first and last letters are left alone. And there is no English university. Another unperfect shortcut.

A Heavy Burden Pt. 2: How Not To Lose Weight

By Ed Cara

While there are plenty of losers in the growing obesity epidemic facing Americans today, the estimated 40 billion a year weight loss industry sure isn’t one of them.

As the waistlines have gotten bigger, so too have the aggressive, almost magical, guarantees made by diet and exercise gurus.

Everyone’s got a way to trim those pounds, and for only five easy minutes a day! It isn’t just infomercials and the diet section of your Barnes&Noble either, walk into any local health food store and you’ll be bombarded by a sea of superfoods, liver cleanses and natural, antioxidant, vitamin-enriched, gold-encrusted wonder pills long ignored by the medical establishment.

To any first timer looking to finally get rid of their unsightly and unnoticed by everyone but themselves pudge, it’s a mountain of labels and too-good-to-be-true guarantees that bear down on them. Which is exactly why I decided to take on a 2 week cleanse of my own!

Let’s be clear here, this was in no way any sort of scientifically rigorous or hard-hitting investigation of what’s really going on at the Diet and Nutrition aisle at the local Whole Foods, especially since *Spoiler Alert* I only lasted a week on the restrictive diet I set up, but there’s important lessons to be gleamed from my, and many others’, failed journey to weight loss nirvana.

Lesson #1- It’s hard.

Let’s get this out of the way first. We often hear (I certainly have) that it’s just a matter of self-control and discipline to overcome those pounds, and those fat are simply lacking in it. So, yes, there is recent research showing that those with higher self-control exercise more and ate less when embarking on a diet, and other studies that show kids with poor self-control are more likely to gain weight as adults. Some figure that the idea of self-control itself is like a gas tank, that slowly depletes over the course of the day; the more self-control you need to exert, the less you have available, with those with a smaller gas tank or overspent by the end of the day less able to resist unhealthy behaviors like overeating. All of that is likely true, and has been for millenia, but it doesn’t begin to address how rigged the game has become for gaining weight in America. After all, people with bad self-control is a phenomenon that’s always existed, 2/3rds of the population being overweight is not.

As mentioned in last week’s post, losing weight flies against every biological and nutritional impulse in our bones. On the light-hearted side, we poke fun at that one celebrity who manages to yo-yo back and forth between thin and pleasantly plump, but there are serious and possibly irreversible changes to our body when we take on a diet. The formula we hear from doctors is that calories burned>calories taken in=weight loss, and while it’s simple*, it’s vastly harder to put into practice.

Lesson #1b- Math is hard.
Aiming for a daily 1000 calorie regimen, I tried to stay away from meals I couldn’t easily figure the caloric value of, mainly sticking to nutrition bars, salads and yes, a protein shake (I attempted to keep to a lowered running schedule so didn’t want to end up deprived of that sweet sweet protein). Whenever I ate something whose nutritional value wasn’t easily written on the back, I could only type in an estimation of the size of the meal into one of the many on-line foodtracking sites that have popped up in recent years. While handy, it suffers from the problem of needing the website on hand (easier with a smart phone, but still not convenient), and human error. And dear god, are we horrible with estimating how much comes in a meal.

It’s a double-edged sword for the dieter as overweight people are shown to be worse at estimating their meals than their thinner counterparts, undercutting their daily intake by up to 40% as opposed to 20% for the average joe. Some of it bogs to being uneducated about the million combinations of food that come across our dinner table, some to the fallibility of memory (did I eat one cookie at lunch or two?), and a lot to being a bad judge of size. A series of studies in 2010 looked at people who ordered fast food and asked them to estimate their caloric content. The smaller meals were nearly spot-on, but the larger the meal got, the worse they became at figuring it out. This held true no matter what size the person personally was, but of course since overweight people usually eat the bigger meals, that mental gap strikes them hardest.

That’s not to say we just aren’t suckers for making things easier on ourselves either;  forgetting a quick snack between lunch and dinner when thinking of that day’s meals a week later makes it easy to believe we were being healthy, even if the memory loss is unintentional. It’s a mental strain to recall the events of a day in perfect detail, especially when overworked, overspent or sleep deprived (lack of sleep is yet another possible correlation to weight gain) or to simply stay from that muffin at work. That’s why people who go on a diet are advised to keep a food diary, which will help mitigate the human error in counting calories. Those who maintain food diaries have been shown to report better success. That isn’t necessarily why I gave up after a week though.

Lesson#2- All those guarantees are actually too good to be true!

Letting aside the fact the only thing that matters for weight loss is indeed calories burned>calories gained, many of the items I saw walking down the aisle offered vague promises of supporting my immune system, increasing my metabolism or flushing away the numerous toxins that have accumulated in my body for unseen decades (there was also an offer to help with my dating life, though I’m not sure whether that was from the pill bottle or a lonely stock associate whispering to me from behind the counter). All these claims of course came with the caveat “This statement has not been endorsed by the Federal Drug Association” tucked away on the bottle as inconspicuously as possible.

As for what I went with, I embarked on the Whole Foods’ 365 2 week liver cleanse, guaranteed to filter my digestive system, revitalize my immunity and find me that frisbee I lost in 6th grade. The 15(!) pill-a-day routine of the cleanse comes in a three-bottle regimen: one to clean out my whole body, another to herbally regulate my lincoln logs, and the last to specifically clean out my liver (he’s been slacking ever since he got streaming Netflix), but while the revolutionary product promises a bevy of vitalizing effects, I couldn’t feel much of anything besides an urge to visit my bathroom more than usual. That might be expected considering the fiber and laxatives as I was taking.
The only other ingredient of note was the 3 pill a day milk thistle herbal supplements for my liver health. Milk thistle has long been indicated by natural health practitioners as useful for liver problems, and there are studies showing a positive effect for those suffering from hepatitis, cirrhosis and chronic liver disfunction. As is the case with nearly every herbal drug (even when it’s found in the upmost peaks of Mt. Everest, if it ain’t food and trying to make you better, then it’s a drug, folks) though, the tighter and better controlled the study, the less positive the evidence gets. A meta-analysis looking at placebo-controlled, blinded and randomized trials of milk thistle found only a slight positive and inconclusive effect for existing liver conditions. Not that any of that even applies, of course, when it comes to a perfectly functioning liver whose job of filtering out toxins and cleaning the body is safely secured.

The trouble with the natural and herbal remedies boils down to the same problem: Either they don’t work or they might work, but since they’re so poorly studied or regulated, it’s tough to figure out what’s what. When it comes to weight loss, it’s often the former. People want the promise of a quick fix, and advertisers are quick to prey on ignorance and offer them just that.

If there’s one thing diet advertisers have gotten down to a T, it’s exploiting the foibles of the human body and mind. Truth is, many of those diets/exercise plans would work fantastic at permanently shedding those pounds(and at the same rate too, there’s little evidence any one diet is much better than the next) if we permanently stuck to them. That betrays human psychology to expect every person to do so. Especially in lieu of…

Lesson #3- Life gets in the way.

Forgetting the 40 hour a week job (where I’m surrounded by food 8 hours a day), the twice weekly rehearsals with my theatre company and improvisational theatre group respectively, the 20 miles of running, the weekly family dinner and the time spent with friends and significant others that I engage in every week, I also faced the surprising news just as my diet cleanse started that I needed to locate a new place by next month.

Free time never being the strong suit that I’d like it to, as the days dragged on agonizingly, it became a mental chore to meticulously count every bite that entered my mouth, every swig of orange juice, and least of all to ingest the 15 pill a day regimen every morning and night while traveling every other day to another neighborhood, hunting for a new place. As each day passed, and the stress mounted up, I found that the diet itself became a source of stress. I’d get home after a day of work, apartment hunting, rehearsal and realize that the only reward at the end of the day was a grain-filled, newspaper-tasting 3-inch tall nutrition bar. Eventually that self-control gauge petered out and I broke.

I wanted a delicious ham and cheese roll for breakfast, some grilled chicken for lunch or lord forbid some tasty Chinese food on a cold Friday night in Queens and it didn’t much matter that I told myself I could only eat 1000 calories a day. Food stopped being merely a source of nutrition for many of us once we figured out to grow and store it on our own, and even more so once it became industrialized and mass-produced. It unites us, it pleasures us and it relieves us.

I stopped my pseudo-diet because biologically and psychologically it stopped being worth the trade-offs I was making (those pills also didn’t work by the way). And that’s precisely why weight gain in America has skyrocketed, because the trade-offs are for many no longer worth it.

Food was a chore to obtain for most of our existence. Now it isn’t, now it’s made for us, sold to us and relentlessly advertised to us. Our bodies and our minds haven’t caught up to that fact. The same goes for physical activity; we no longer live in a world where moving around daily and briskly needs to be routine. So many of us don’t. Yelling at people to eat healthy and walk more ignores the complexity of our society as well as our bodies. It’s just not that simple anymore.

There isn’t a happy ending to this story, least right now. People grow up not being able to afford (time or money), not being taught, or not being bothered to take on a healthy lifestyle, and being the shortcut-driven folk that we are, it’s unreasonable to expect that to change on an individual level. By the time we reach the point we’re in complete control over our diet and exercise habits, we’ve already been burdened by a lifetime of easy access to cheap but unhealthy alternatives and a lack of education on how to navigate healthily through life (doubly so if poor). That’s why we don’t lose weight, because people are hard to change, biologically or mentally.

Either we on a broader scale make it easier to choose the healthy option early on (like spending even half of that 40 billion to expand gym and nutritional outreach programs for parents and their kids), before it’s practically set in stone or we continue down this same path. We’re all worse off if that happens.

*Even that bit of conventional wisdom has come under attack recently, with a study showing that people gain and lose differently from one another, even when the calorie intake is the exact same.


Well it’s been a while hasn’t it? My hectic lifestyle left me both unable to finish a diet or this piece. Ended up halfway done by the time I headed on out to the new place. I’m safely moved in, but sans the internet for least another week though didn’t want to wait that long to wrap this up. As such, it’s not comprehensive as I’d have liked to made it. There was also a planned third part to this piece (a good chunk is in here), but that’s also gonna be on the kibosh for right now.

I also wanted to formally introduce myself to the 21st floor, considering I’ve been contributing for the better part of two months and a half dozen articles. I’m Eddy, a 23 year old New Yorker and improviser, comedian and actor when not writing or holding down the full-time job. I’m also a devoted science geek, psych graduate and eternally snarky, and when not posting on here, have my own small site, The Demon Haunted World (Yes, after Sagan). I hope to be back to posting on a regular basis about irrationality both stateside and worldwide and really hope you guys have enjoyed my writings so far. I can be reached for comments or ideas at eddycara4@gmail.com and feel free to follow me and my pseudo-intellectual sayings and occasional funny comments on Twitter at @TheImprovateer. Thanks.