Serious or Almost Serious

December 7, 2017


The Morning Heresy is your daily digest of news and links relevant to the secular and skeptic communities. 

I am super proud of this latest episode of Point of Inquiry with Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and former New York Times public editor. I mean, I’m no big deal or anything, but she’s great, and I feel so much wiser from our conversation about the challenges now faced by the reality-based press. She was so cool. Please listen, subscribe, share, and enjoy.

One of the things Margaret and I talk about is the overwhelming torrent of news that wears people down, and Pew Research has numbers about that: 76% of Americans say they would benefit “a lot” from at least some kind of assistance in accessing, understanding, and evaluating digital information.

Here’s an example of some of the press’s problems, and it’s so messed up: Jon Christian at The Outline exposes a kind of grey market for brand promotion in what should otherwise be legitimate news pieces:

Interviews with more than two dozen marketers, journalists, and others familiar with similar pay-for-play offers revealed a dubious corner of online publishing in which publicists, ranging from individuals like Satyam to medium-sized “digital marketing firms” that blur traditional lines between advertising and public relations, quietly pay off journalists to promote their clients in articles that make no mention of the financial arrangement.

Some of the outlets where this allegedly happens include MashableIncBusiness InsiderEntrepreneur, and Fast Company.

A federal judge in Nevada rules in a prisoner’s case that humanism “is not a religion for the purposes of the religion clauses,” pointing out, “Few governmental activities could escape censure under a constitutional definition of ‘religion’ which includes any symbol or belief to which an individual ascribes ‘serious or almost serious’ spiritual significance.”
This is a great tweet from Cole Ledford:
Two years ago, Kim Davis denied David Ermold a marriage license because he was gay, despite it being legalized. Today, she had to watch as he signed up to run against her in the next election. 

The Aerospace Corporation along with some other academics have written a white paper that purports to tell the Trump administration what the country needs in terms of space. Sandra Erwin reports:

This White House should listen to what a group of space analysts and scholars have to say, asserts a white paper released Tuesday. The United States needs a “national space policy” that looks broadly at issues like space traffic management, small satellites, proximity operations, orbital debris, counter-space threats and norms of behavior. 

To strike a compromise over the placement of a Ten Commandments monument in Somersworth, NH, the city flies an atheist flag right over it. Don’t see that every day!

Here’s another thing you don’t see every day: A senator speaking against the criminalization of sex work while backed by a national atheist organization…and it’s in Kenya

Same-sex couples can start getting married in Australia on January 9.

Bobbie Edsor at Business Insider (who I assume was not bought off for this story, as you’ll see) shows how five celebrity fad diets are actually crap: Raw vegan, alkaline, ketogenic, Pioppi, and reliance on nutritional supplements.

Wired has a short interview with SETI’s Jill Tarter that covers a lot of territory, and I appreciated her take on the rise of algorithms, since all my algorithmic recommendations from Amazon and Netflix totally suck:

…these neural networks they are essentially a black box. They’re very, very hard to understand and it’s equally hard to understand what biases you’ve built in. So I get nervous when we rush to adopt what we’ve created and say, “This is wonderful”, and we use it here, we use it there. I’ve heard someone talking about using machine learning to make hiring decisions. The idea was that you build in all the rules that you’d like and then you remove bias from the process by letting the machine do it. But the problem is that the biases have been built in and you can’t shine a light on them. 

Planetary scientist Alan Stern has an idea as to why Tarter or anyone else hasn’t heard from aliens yet: They live on planets where their oceans are under the surface, unlike Earth’s fully exposed oceans:

If technological civilizations can actually develop in these interior ocean worlds, they would naturally be cut off from us because of the shell of rock and ice above their ocean. We wouldn’t see their city lights. We wouldn’t be able to hear their communication. They wouldn’t maybe even know that there was a universe out there to communicate with. 

With CVS consuming health insurer Aetna, they expect to place “health genius bars” in CVS stores, sort of doctor’s clinic-lite.

Cheryl Costa at the Syracuse New Times says she knows the top days to look for UFOs (weekends! can you
believe it!), and offers up a truly dumb counter-explanation for UFO sightings on the 4th of July:

Independence Day holds the top slot. Some say the reason is because many people misidentify July 4 fireworks for UFOs. The other case is that there are lots of people with leisure time, outside in the dark waiting for the fireworks displays. Lastly, and I hear this frequently, the UFOs seem to like the fireworks and tend to loiter near significant displays.  What I found very interesting is that July 4 represents 2.11 percent of the 121,000 UFO sightings from 2001 through 2015. 

“Some say.” 

Michelle Neff at One Green Planet looks at how superstitious beliefs about animals their magical properties throws a wrench into conservation efforts. For example:

In the north part of Madagascar, the appearance of an endangered aye-aye lemur is seen as a premonition of death or sickness. In many villages, it is believed that the only way to prevent bad luck is to kill the aye-aye. A similar view is seen in Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic with owls, which are seen as connected to witches. 

The Reno News Review profiles homeopathic cancer “doctor” James Forsythe, with pushback on his claims by David Gorski. 

Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert says a fast weight loss scheme in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop magazine is really dangerous. “I am in complete shock that this article has been published as this has the potential to harm a lot of relationships with food. 

Larry Penkava at the Courier-Tribune compares Bigfoot belief to the sentiments about Santa expressed in Miracle on 34th Street, and concludes, “To deny the existence of Bigfoot is almost like believing that Elvis is dead. Or that the earth is round. Or that man can fly. Remember: Bigfoot hides, therefore he is.”

Quote of the Day:

At The Prompt, Kelaine Conochan comes not to praise New Jersey, but to bury YOU. Celebrating my native state’s roughness, she dares other states to step to it:

I’ll concede that if you’ve flown into Newark Airport, that stank air hangs a little. … Jet fuel is toxic. Runways aren’t a tourist attraction. No one feels welcome at Newark Airport. We don’t want you to stay there. We’re doing you a favor. That’s just common sense. Sorry New Jersey doesn’t bother pretending. We have a very low tolerance for bullshit. And as for the industrial smells, at least we have fucking jobs here. 

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