Only America has this problem.

Guard bear threatens pedestrians. [Image by Gillfoto, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Guard bear threatens pedestrians. [Image by Gillfoto, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

A few days ago, we saw yet another tragic massacre in which a frustrated young man blocked the doors of a classroom and released a pride of lions to attack the defenseless people trapped inside. A day later, a tragic story of a child eaten by a negligent neighbor’s animal. And on Friday, two more school maulings in a single day. The rapid succession of violent events has left Americans struggling to understand the cause of all these injuries and deaths from large predators. Many wonder if America’s unique habit of collecting exotic large predators might be the underlying cause for all these people being eaten by exotic large predators.

But conservative pundits are skeptical, and argue that deeper causes, not lions and bears, are more likely to blame for the epidemic of people being eaten by lions and bears. “These things happen,” said presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested that similar tragedies could be avoided if professors had predators of their own. Some experts respond by noting instances where professors have used their animals to attack colleagues, and other cases where large cats or bears were inadvertently left unattended in student restrooms.

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Escaping the traps of Facebook, Google and other centralized data hordes

A furor erupted this week over a research project conducted by Facebook in which they manipulated the feeds of over 600,000 users in order to measure their emotional responses. To many, this sounds like a trivial intrusion, perhaps on par with the insertion of advertising content. But several scientists have argued that it constitutes a serious breech in established research ethics — namely the requirement for informed consent. In the world of scientific research, the bar for informed consent is quite high. Facebook chose to rely on their Terms of Use as a proxy for informed consent, but that is unacceptable and would establish a dangerous precedent for eroding the rights of future study participants. An author at the Skepchik network contributed this critique of Facebook’s behavior:

What’s unethical about this research is that it doesn’t appear that Facebook actually obtained informed consent. The claim in the paper is that the very vague blanket data use policy constitutes informed consent, but if we look at the typical requirements for obtaining informed consent, it becomes very clear that their policy falls way short. The typical requirements for informed consent include:

  • Respect for the autonomy of individual research participants
  • Fully explain the purposes of the research that people are agreeing to participate in in clear, jargonless language that is easy to understand
  • Explain the expected duration of the study
  • Describe the procedures that will happen during the study
  • Identify any experimental protocols that may be used
  • Describe any potential risks and benefits for participation
  • Describe how confidentiality will be maintained
  • A statement acknowledging that participation is completely voluntary, that a participant may withdraw participation at any time for any or no reason, and that any decision not to continue participating will incur no loss of benefits or other penalty.

Of course this level of detail cannot be covered by blanket “Terms of Use” that apply to all users of a general-purpose communication platform. Slate’s Katy Waldman agrees that Facebook’s study was unethical:

Here is the only mention of “informed consent” in the paper: The research “was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research.”

That is not how most social scientists define informed consent.

Here is the relevant section of Facebook’s data use policy: “For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

So there is a vague mention of “research” in the fine print that one agrees to by signing up for Facebook. As bioethicist Arthur Caplan told me, however, it is worth asking whether this lawyerly disclosure is really sufficient to warn people that “their Facebook accounts may be fair game for every social scientist on the planet.”

Of course Facebook is no stranger to deceptive and unethical behavior. We may recall their 2012 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which charged “that Facebook deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

The problem is simple: Facebook is a centralized service that aggregates intimate data on millions of users. They need to find ways to profit from that data — our data — and we have little control over how their activity might disadvantage or manipulate the users. Their monetization strategies go beyond their already troubling project to facilitate targeted ads from third party apps, apps that you might assume have no relationship to your Facebook activities. Facebook also manages the identity and contact networks of those users, making it difficult to leave the platform without becoming disconnected from your social network. It is a trap. Last week a Metro editorial claimed that it’s getting worse, and recommends that we all quit “cold turkey.” Some users have migrated over to Google services as an escape, but Google has faced similar FTC charges that reveal isn’t any better. So Google is just another mask on the same fundamental problems.

So what is the fix? I’m putting my money on The Red Matrix, a solution that supports distributed identity, decentralized social networking, content rights management and cloud data services.


The core idea behind the Red Matrix is to provide an open specification and protocol for delivering contemporary internet services in a portable way, so that users are not tied to a single content provider. The underlying protocol, called “zot,” is designed to support a mix of public and privately shared content, providing encryption and separating a user’s identity from their service provider.

While still in its early stages, the Red Matrix provides core features comparable to WordPress, Drupal, Dropbox, Evernote and of course social networking capabilities. It is hard to summarize the possibilities of this emerging platform. I’m still discovering new ways to leverage the platform for things ranging from personal note management to blogging. Although the Red Matrix is small, it is an open source project with a fanatical base of users and developers, which makes it likely to endure and grow.

This seems like a good time to announce the Red Matrix companion channel for this site: This channel acts as a “stream of consciousness” for material related to this blog, containing supplemental information, technical posts, short comments, reposts of news items, and other miscellanea. The primary WordPress site will be reserved for more detailed posts. Any readers are welcome to comment or otherwise interact by joining the Red Matrix at my server or one of the other public servers in the Red Matrix network.

The big tent of libertarianism

ImageIn the United States, the term “libertarian” has been co-opted by a narrowly defined ultra-capitalist conservative philosophy embraced by the US Libertarian Party, and by some factions within the Republican Party. But the word has always had a much broader meaning, encompassing many distinct legal and philosophical views. Some libertarians  claim to have devised complete philosophical foundations for ethics and government, but others adopt a situational approach to problems of applied ethics and law.

Yesterday, over at the Friendly Atheist site, blogger Terry Firma “came out” as a libertarian. What’s great about Terry’s post is that he highlights progressive aspects of his views. He believes in a progressive income tax and single payer health care — ideas that are not typically associated with Libertarian Party USA. I love Terry’s post because I consider myself to be the same kind of libertarian, and I’ve met plenty of like-minded progressive libertarians over the years, but we’re often lumped in with the Ayn-Rand-Tea-Partier-gun-lover-climate-change-denier cult that has been so loud in recent years.

I previously wrote some very critical remarks about the Ayn Rand variant of Libertarianism, which has become a dominant influence in the US Libertarian and Conservative political movements. There is no shortage of problems with Randian thinking. But “Libertarianism” refers to a diverse collection of philosophical approaches to ethics, politics and law, and the entire batch should not be dismissed because of a few bad eggs.

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Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 11.07.44 AMUtah counties are evading the court’s ruling on gay marriage. Several counties are flatly refusing to issue licenses, acting in contempt of federal court. My home county of Cache has simply closed their office to all citizens in order to stall before the holiday closing — the closure is purportedly a misdemeanor offense. Update, Dec. 24: The Cache County office is open and the first marriages are being officiated on-site.

The Salt Lake Tribune is not mincing words:

Utah counties looking to the state government for clarification on whether to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples Monday were left to their own devices — and some turned couples away despite plain talk from U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby.

In essence, Shelby, who on Friday struck down Utah law forbidding same-sex marriage, said Monday that county clerks who do not issue licenses to gay and lesbian couples are violating the law.

…As of late Monday, Beaver, Carbon, Weber, Davis, Daggett, Emery, Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele, Duchesne, Uintah, Morgan, Millard, Grand, Iron, Kane, Rich, Sanpete, Sevier, Wayne, Washington and Wasatch counties were issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

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Respecting the sacred

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 1.27.47 AMThe Hopi Tribe has been arguing for the return of artifacts considered sacred to their traditional religion. A coalition of tribes has also been fighting to constrain land use in an Arizona mountain range considered to be sacred land. What accommodations are appropriate for respecting these religious traditions?

Although I am an Atheist, I do not support gratuitous insults to rituals and traditions that are deemed sacred. As I see it, most Atheists are interested in two things: 1) Intellectual defense of science and a skeptical epistemology (usually empiricist); and 2) Eliminating institutions of religious privilege through secular activism. The concept of privilege is especially relevant for the situation of indigenous populations like the Hopi, who fell victim to colonization by outsiders who were mostly Christian. Since I am also descended from the colonizing group, I’m conscious of the need to tread lightly on matters of tribal religion.

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Utah counties try to dodge gay marriage ruling


This sign was taped to the door of the Cache County clerk’s office as couples arrived seeking marriage licenses. They seem confused by the judge’s ruling. Other counties tried similar gymnastics to evade the ruling. But the judge’s words seem pretty clear to me:

The state’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so, demean the dignity of these same sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.

Where’s the confusion?


Thad Roberts: my one-time friend, and one of science’s greatest betrayers

I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a year. I don’t know why. Its been more than a decade since I knew Thad Roberts, the infamous NASA intern who stole a safe full of invaluable moon rocks and tried to sell them on the black market. Thad was my study partner in undergraduate physics courses, and he was the president of our astronomy club. My first star parties were with Thad, along with my first experiences with astronomical imaging. He was charismatic and influential at the University of Utah.

It came as a total surprise one morning when I saw Thad’s face on the newspaper front page. Thad had been away at NASA for a year or two, hoping to become an astronaut. I was utterly bewildered by his crime. Thad’s crime goes a step beyond science fraud. If fake science discredits the difference between truth and fiction, that’s bad enough. But Thad’s actions declared that science is meaningless, as if to say, “Truth? Fiction? Who cares? I’ll take the money.”
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Why PZ Myers is off my reading list

ImageSummary: PZ Myers has created a “rude” environment on his blog, where the emphasis on ridicule and insult can obscure the nuances that separate good scholarship from pseudo-scholarship.

[EDIT– It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that some of my generalizations in this post are unfair. I agree with the assessment. My comments below are motivated by a particularly bad experience in which I was heckled by a few participants, one of whom trotted out some literature from a holocaust denial publisher, which left me somewhat enraged. In this specific experience, constructive discussion was simply unable to gain a foothold amidst the cacophony. This does not change my critique of Pharyngula’s general style as a community, which echoes (and amplifies) the style of denunciation and ridicule that appears in PZ’s own writing. I don’t think this style is a good representation of science and it interferes with the mission of public understanding.]
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The perrenial in-fighting of secular factions

In this post, I present a bit of history that helps illuminate the importance of a broad humanist outlook among free-thinkers and Atheists. I hope it may also help us view the current in-fighting among secularist groups within the context of a much bigger picture.


The loose-knit community of humanists, free-thinkers, Atheists and skeptics has blown its thermometer over the feminist agenda introduced by “Atheism Plus” and its supporters. Many have weighed in their opinions that humanist excursions — especially feminism — are outside the scope of the Atheist and secular movement. Meanwhile dissenting users on all sides complain of being misrepresented, shamed, harassed, demonized, banned and deleted. Lousy Canuck asks, glumly, “Is the Skeptic Empire dying?” Don’t worry, Canuck, the Cult of Reason has been around for a long, long time. It never dies, it just divides. I’d now like to highlight the story of one secular movement that devoured itself and the society around it.

Here’s the short version: Following the French Revolution in 1789, the revolutionary government began taking steps to strip the Catholic Church of its power. A program of systematic de-Christianization ensued, and by 1792 certain revolutionary factions were authorized to convert churches and cathedrals into “temples of reason,” administered by an atheistic Cult of Reason.  By 1793, a revolutionary leader named Robsepierre came to power. Although Robespierre supported the de-Christianization of France, he preferred a Deistic version of the Cult of Reason. To achieve this, he sent the Atheist leaders to the guillotine. In 1794, Robespierre and the Deists also visited the guillotine, and by 1801 France established a new normal in which it returned to being a more-or-less Catholic nation.

All of this happened amidst a bloody revolutionary backdrop, and all of the head-chopping was motivated by more than just philosophical differences. Nevertheless, this history offers a bit of symbolism (if exaggerated) relating to recent events in the secular community: the secularists had their moment, and all they did was destroy each other. This story has been passed around by religious apologists for well over a century, as a reason why secularism is dangerous. And they are right about one thing: reason alone is not enough, because reasonable people reach different conclusions. It seems to me that an Atheist must either be some kind of Humanist or some kind of sociopath. I think the AtheismPlus folks are right about something very important: Atheism as a belief system is just an empty box. Atheism as a movement requires something more, something better.