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Posts Tagged ‘daily fail’

I told you yesterday I was having trouble keeping up the earnestness.

It all seems barely less terrible in that part of the world than it was yesterday, but there are other petty things worth getting annoyed about, in between just feeling sad.

Ben Goldacre has pointed to an article in the Daily Mail which is dripping with even more bullshit than you’d expect.

It suggests that a “supermoon” – basically the moon being closer to us than it usually is – could have caused the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And by describing this as “the latest natural disaster” of its kind, it seems to take it as read that the moon has already been wreaking havoc in numerous other ways.

“Astrologers” are credited with predicting that, in just over a week, the moon will be closer to Earth than it has been in years, and so its gravitational impact will be increased, causing “chaos”.

The first problem with this is fuck astrologers. Astronomers – the ones who actually do science instead of just making shit up – have kinda been on top of the moon’s perigees and apogees – that is, the times when it’s closest or farthest from Earth – for quite a while now. And yes, at the upcoming perigee it will be a smidge closer than it has been for a few years, but not by much. It’s less than half a percent closer than it was in the February perigee, and it’ll be a while before it’s that close again.

The second problem is that this upcoming perigee is due on March 19th. Saying the extra gravity could have caused disasters on Earth in the past few days is like saying “Hey, better watch out for werewolves, it’s only a week and a half till the full moon!” It was at its apogee – the furthest point – less than a week ago. That means the moon was further away from us than usual when the earthquake hit.

All credit to Phil Plait for explaining all this to me so that I can re-explain it all to you. As well as for putting up some repetitive and monumental stupid in his comments thread.

But what’s even more hilarious and/or murderously infuriating is that the Daily Mail posted another article, TWO DAYS previously, which describes “bizarre rumours” about a supermoon triggering “tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and even earthquakes” being put about by “conspiracy theorists” and “lunar-tics” (which, by the way, isn’t even a pun, because that’s where the word ‘lunatic’ fucking comes from).

They actually apply some moderately competent skepticism further down that article, quoting actual scientists who do much to debunk the exact same bullshit that the same newspaper is quite happy to regurgitate barely 48 hours later once something scary happened.

Never mind that the moon isn’t at the perigee for more than a week, meaning it’s currently further away than usual, and so the earthquake in the pacific isn’t what the astrologers predicted at all. Come yesterday’s scare-mongering, all the science gets relegated to way down the page, below the picture, where they know most people probably won’t look. And the last word goes to the “small and vocal minority” who are daring to defy the stodgy old scientists by believing whatever fantasies they want.

Donations are still needed and appreciated at the Red Cross and Save The Children.

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Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News is currently in the process of rendering me more cynical and disillusioned about the global business of news reporting and journalism than I’d thought possible. It’s incredibly depressing and utterly brilliant.

Of course, I’ve been following sites like the Angry Mob and Enemies Of Reason and Five Chinese Crackers and Tabloid Watch long enough to find the whole subject fairly depressing anyway. But don’t worry. It gets worse.

One thing that drove home the dismal state of journalism today in particular was this guest post on No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands, by someone to whom and about whom the Daily Mail (it had to be the Mail (actually, it really didn’t have to be the Mail, but it’s not surprising that it was)) told repeated, deliberate, unkind lies. They knew the story they wanted to tell, and completely made up a series of alleged direct quotes from someone who never said any such thing.

It’s a dishearteningly gripping read, even if you tend to support a “bollocks to the lot of it” opinion to begin with. Nobody involved is obliged to give much of a fuck if they completely misrepresent reality, and when that reality is “a person they’ve lied about” there’s little recourse for anything to be done to redress it.

It’s been too quiet here lately. I’ll have something happier to talk about soon, with luck. Tweet me a link to anything else going on that you think I should be talking about.

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Some things in brief, easing myself back into this slowly after a few more days of uselessness:

– Bill Donohue believes that the Catholic Church has “less of a problem with the issue of sexual abuse” than any other institution in existence. Can we please stop acting as if the Catholic League isn’t just this one loon in his basement?

This is a link to a news website article about a scientific finding. This is a pithy remark summarising my feelings about it. This is a weary sigh about how it will be inevitably misunderstood and widely misrepresented.

– If you trust in watchdogs of honesty to keep tabloid newspapers in check – to enforce some kind of repercussions when, say, the Daily Mail spreads misinformation about dangerous substances, potentially putting people in harm’s way by giving them reassurances of safety, which are explicitly contradicted by the science and have been directly rebutted by experts – then apparently your optimism is foolish and must be crushed. The facts were always there in plain view, but it was months before the Mail were obliged to print a retraction acknowledging that asbestos is in fact quite nasty stuff.

– It’s not all bad, though. Sometimes the quacks go down.

– Two out of three political party leaders in the UK don’t believe in a god. Which I guess is nice. The Deputy Prime Minster has been an open non-believer for a while, and now the new Labour leader has followed suit. The way he qualifies it seems entirely reasonable to me, too; it’s a shame that some people probably do still need to be dissuaded from making the link between “atheist” and “baby-eating monster”, but it sounds like he’s doing a bare minimum of pandering on the subject. And hey, I’m with him on the thing about respecting people with different views. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about a backlash if I want to be more vocal about the active disrespect I have for some things those people believe.

More tomorrow.

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Well, the Popal visit is off to a great start. He’s called me a Nazi and he’s given Stephen Fry a badge.

Okay, not quite.

His Popiness is currently, in the UK, though, and already he’s given a speech comparing atheists to Nazis, in which it’s strongly implied that the Holocaust was among the many atrocities of “atheist extremism of the twentieth century”.

You might be surprised to learn, as Pope Daddy informs us, that the Nazis “wished to eradicate God from society”. The Nazis might have been surprised to learn this too, and they certainly weren’t doing a very good job of eradicating him if they couldn’t even get him off their belt buckles.

Hitler described himself as undertaking a “fight against the atheistic movement”. He wrote in Mein Kampf that he believed he was doing “the Lord’s work”. Pictures of Hitler engaging with Catholic authorities are not hard to google. And the Pope, as a child, was a member (albeit conscripted and not necessarily willing or enthusiastic) of the “Hitler Youth”, a paramilitary organisation of the Nazi party.

His condemnation of atheists as some kind of dangerous fascistic extremists seems flimsy, disingenuous, and deeply ignorant, is my point. Dawkins’s takedown is pretty awesome.

And Stephen Fry really did get a badge. Not directly from the pope, but from fellow credit to the nation Phill Jupitus, as a mark of pride at one of his latest accomplishments. Specifically, Stephen Fry is hated by the Daily Mail.

I won’t summarise. The man says it all. Heart.

And finally, I was bored at work today and tweeted a few little known #popefacts, which I’ll replicate here. Feel free to join in the fun.

If you meet the Pope’s gaze directly, you might need to spend a minute staring at the Sun to counteract the darkness. #popefacts

The Pope can be left alone in a room with a tea-cosy for up to sixteen hours without trying it on. #popefacts

If bears are Catholic, logic dictates that the Pope must shit in the woods. #popefacts

If you rearrange the letters of “The Pope”, get rid of some, and add some others, you get the phrase “has never masturbated”. #popefacts

Alternately: If you rearrange the letters of “The Pope”, the Vatican’s postmaster-general will shout at you. #popefacts

The Popemobile is installed with bulletproof glass, which has so far successfully thwarted all God’s attempts to shoot him. #popefacts

The Pope no longer kisses tarmac, ever since a holiday fling with a driveway ended acrimoniously last summer. #popefacts

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The Daily Mail remains an irony-free zone.

In this article, we’re given a lesson on feminism by a woman who stands up for Mary Whitehouse and her idea of moral values.

Mary Whitehouse, for anyone unfamiliar, was famous in the UK for running the “Clean Up TV” campaign, which sought to get anything remotely offensive removed from the airwaves. Her wrath extended to the sexism of Benny Hill, the violence of Tom and Jerry, and just about anything else that’s any fun at all.

Sandra Parsons in the Mail seems unsurprisingly blinkered to the notion of any kind of middle ground. Rihanna often looks sexy on TV shown during the daytime – therefore our nation’s youth are being tragically corrupted and the woman who thought gays could be “completely cured” by psychiatric therapy was right about everything.

And then there’s this bit of cluelessness:

Feminism means behaving as though you are equal to, not less than, a man, in every way: legally, professionally, financially, intellectually and sexually.

To do that you need independence and self-respect, neither of which is to be gained from sleeping around.

I’m not advocating prudery. But the belief that casual, meaningless sex empowers women is a dangerous delusion. It is a route not to self-fulfilment but to self-abasement.

Feminism means equality for women; now let me tell women about all the things they mustn’t do.

She’s already contradicted her own point about being “equal” a few paragraphs earlier, when she bemoans the terrible message given to young women by Sex And The City. Specifically, the message “that single girls could be just as promiscuous and predatory as men” (emphasis mine). Suddenly being equal is a terrible and dangerous thing.

It’s really not for you to say what women should or should not find empowering, Sandra. And Christ knows it’s not for me either, which is why, y’know, I generally don’t. If women and girls are getting the message that they’re not properly empowered unless they’re having a certain amount of sex, or conforming to some other sexual stereotype, I agree that that’s unhelpful and damaging. But calling it “self-abasement” for women to enjoy themselves in ways you’re not used to is far more degrading than any supposed “myths” about casual sex being liberating.

And in the next segment of the same page, Kylie Minogue is directly advised to date someone old and ugly, since her relationships with young and attractive people don’t seem to be working out. Is that empowering? I just don’t know any more.

Oh, dear God, I just looked at some of the comments below this article. I can’t tell if my brain is bleeding or if it’s just my eyes.

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Janet Street-Porter is an astonishing human being who has achieved something truly unprecedented and marvellous.

Because of her, all the most recent comments currently visible below her latest Daily Mail article are sensible, compassionate, and heartening.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen before on a Mail article, about anything.

In all other regards, however, she seems to be a contemptible failure of an effort at a human being.

She recently took up far too much room on the internet to tell us all that depression is a “new trendy illness” – in all fairness probably the headline-writer’s phrase, rather than hers, but it sums up her approach well. All these people suffering from stress and depression are apparently just trying to be fashionable, and just need some good old “self-empowerment”.

There’s a cursory mention of the fact that it’s recognised as a legitimate condition by medical professionals, i.e. people whose opinions actually fucking matter. But most of this tirade is just about how life is tough, we’re all going through things that are jolly hard, but most people “don’t get depressed about it, don’t take special medication and don’t whinge about ‘black holes'”.

Well la-di-da for you and your high horse, but sometimes we mere mortals get ill. And sometimes trained medical professionals will tell us that taking some of the “special medication” that you regard with such contempt will do us good and assist with our well-being, since that’s what the stuff’s fucking made for. Not everything can be sorted out by just bucking up and getting on with things, and that doesn’t make us weak.

This kind of haughty bullshit makes me want to push her down the stairs, then smugly point out that some of us don’t feel the need to whinge about “broken legs”. (In the context of the recent #twitterjoketrial, I should point out that this is an obvious joke, and should not be taken as a sincere threat. I do, however, plan to stab Richard Littlejohn in the face with a pair of scissors.)

“There’s virtually no stigma at all attached to saying you’re suffering from stress these days,” Janet continues, in the middle of an article telling sufferers of stress and depression to just get over it and pull themselves together.

Mental illness of all kinds comes with a serious stigma. Just today, in an unrelated context, mental health charity Rethink linked me to this article, which uses phrases like “stabby schizophrenics running about the place” with absolutely no concern for anyone’s feelings, and no visible interest in the evidence behind community-based mental health treatment.

And then Janet gets even more obnoxious, and I get even more sweary:

The idea of feeling sorry for a bloke with low self-esteem is, frankly, risible. Let’s just call it karmic revenge for all those years men have been in charge of everything.

Oh, fuck you.

There was plenty of room for a valid point in the context she brought up. Author Tim Lott apparently claims that, because men are no longer the sole or primary breadwinners in many households, their egos and feelings of self-worth are being damaged by how much their partners are earning.

This has some potentially very interesting implications about men’s perceptions of gender roles, and someone cleverer than me could probably write something fascinating about that. (Maybe Dr Petra already has.)

But no. Simply the “idea of feeling sorry for a bloke with low self-esteem” – the very notion that someone with a penis might have psychological problems, or feel insecure and upset about something and want to turn to others to help – makes Janet Street-Porter laugh.

I’m running out of words for quite how unkind, unsympathetic, and hateful this is. The implication that every eight-year-old boy getting bullied in the playground deserves what he gets because men have tended to oppress women in the past is beneath contempt.

This kind of careless, heartless attitude is only serving to exacerbate a general culture in which people don’t feel that they can ask for help. People with serious problems, who are suffering needlessly, and who could find necessary and important help if they knew how to ask for it, from doctors and from the community in general, are being told that the way they feel isn’t interesting, their misery isn’t important, and that they don’t deserve to have anyone care that what they’re going through.

Well, Janet Street-Porter might not care about other humans in pain, but a lot of people do, and that’s a far more important message which deserves wider distribution.

Time To Change, a mental health advocacy programme in the UK, have posted an open letter to the Daily Mail about this, and the reply on the me plus bipolar blog is well worth reading too.

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Okay, I’m trying to get back into some sort of rhythm here, so have a few links.

– Anton Vowl has another fine example of tabloid hysteria being founded on the age-old tradition of making up whatever bullshit suits you. (Spoiler: The Daily Mail don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, and don’t much seem to care.)

– Speaking of the Daily Mail, Liz Jones can get fucked. I don’t really have anything to add to the Angry Mob’s comment on that, but I’d had some feedback that telling more people to get fucked would be appreciated, and I’m nothing if not slavishly devoted to my fans. [Edit 18/05/10: Here are some numbers. A £3,000 fridge, a £26,000 holiday in Mozambique including speedboat hire, and £8.95 for a tube of toothpaste? And pensioners and disabled people are sending you their money out of pity? I stand entirely by my original abuse.]

– The latest humanist symposium is up, which features me swearing a lot.

– Oh, and today is the International Day Against Homophobia. So remember not to be a dick about people’s sexuality today. Or, y’know, ever.

And because the abbreviation being used for that last event is IDAHO, I’m going to close on a tenuous link to a concert I was at a few weeks ago, and watch a video instead of writing anything. Because I was totally bullshitting up there about being slavishly devoted. I’m actually very lazy. Night night.

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Yeah, I’m back, apologies for the sloth. I’ll try and stick to the other six next time.

Or:

Yeah, I’m back, apologies for the sloth. I don’t know how he got in here, but he chewed up my internet connection pretty good and then fell asleep on top of the router. There was no shifting him, and the tech support guy wouldn’t touch it until I’d got him out the way.

Anyway. Here are some things.

– I didn’t realise that Everybody Draw Mohammed Day was a thing until too late, but luckily I did happen to include a likeness of the sacred prophet in my last post anyway, just for the hell of it.

– But that was last week. Today is the day that Boobquake is upon us. This one merits a little background, if you’re not familiar. An Iranian cleric made some waves recently by claiming that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes. Or, the impure thoughts that women give men by dressing revealingly is what causes an increase in tectonic activity. Something stupid like that, anyway.

This is obviously some pretty sexist bullshit, so one intrepid blogging bosom-owner decided to take action. Her suggestion was that for one day – today – women deliberately wear more revealing and immodest clothes than normal, and see how the plates of the Earth’s crust respond. Could the might of female indecorousness truly provoke a boobquake?

It’s a fairly light-hearted bit of fun, but some people don’t like it, even if they’re not demented Muslim clerics. I’m not going to get into the debate about the scientific rigour or feminist implications of this right now, but Maymay has some good ideas. I think trying to get together a whole new movement on the same day was possibly a tactical mistake, but a Femquake sounds like something I could get behind.

Of course, I also had to spend way too much of my work day on Twitter earlier trying to come up with names for what the male equivalent of such an event as a Boobquake would be. The best I could do at short notice was Ballcano.

Also, the Skepchicks talk about breasts.

– There are no inconsistencies in the Bible. And, there are lots of inconsistencies in the Bible. I’m both right!

– Hey, you remember how loads of Catholic priests raped hundreds of children, and the Pope was among those who covered it up? And did you hear about this jokey memo circulated among the British Foreign Office recently, regarding the Pope’s upcoming UK visit, which made some silly suggestions of ways he might like to spend his time here, such as opening an abortion clinic, or performing a duet with the Queen? Those two things, they’re not quite on the same scale, are they? I mean, one of those is proportionately far worse than the other, right? Between the child rape conspiracy and the list of jokes?

Well, Melanie Phillips agrees with you. Um… sort of.

– And lastly, if you don’t want to read an article titled The Truth About Cocaine Vaginas, then I don’t even know you, man.

– Last-minute addendum: I know at least one person reading this was expecting to read something outrageous about interior design. I hope you learned something today about setting your sights too high.

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– Lucia de Berk is officially not a serial killer. No, I’d never heard of her all throughout the six years she’s already spent in prison for what was almost certainly a non-existent crime, but the background to this story is truly horrible.

– There was some interesting scientific research done lately into the connection between cell division and the circadian clock (sort of an internal clock that regulates your body’s unconscious activities over the course of 24 hours) in mice. They put an experimental group of mice and a control group into environments where it was light for 12 hours of the day, then dark for 12 hours. The experimental group also got an hour of bright light, in the middle of the usually dark period. The scientists then measured what effect these hour-long blocks of light during “night-time” had had on the mice’s RNA – whether certain genes had been activated or deactivated.

Unfortunately, I forget where I first read this story, but it caught my attention because of a conversation I’d overheard between two colleagues at work earlier, about a Daily Mail article describing how going to the toilet in the middle of the night can give you cancer.

If you don’t see the connection between those two things, then congratulations, you’re smarter than people who write for the Daily Mail.

None of the scientific data cited made any reference to going to the toilet, and didn’t even involve research on humans, as has been amply clarified. There is a connection to cancer, in that chronic light exposure during night-time may thrown some animals’ circadian clocks off-balance, disrupting the regulation of their cell division, and “cancer is, essentially, unregulated cell division”. But that’s it.

It’s not the most powerful or obvious reminder I’ve seen of just how free the tabloids are to utterly mislead their readers, probably not by a long way. But it’s one of the most recent, and it’s always worth noting quite how wrong they can get things. They read “changes in activity in RNA genes in mice subjected to an hour of bright light during night hours”, and printed “Switching the light on to go to the toilet in the middle of the night could give you cancer”.

That goes beyond providing a helpful real-world analogy enabling people to better understand complex scientific jargon, and way beyond drawing practical conclusions from specific and esoteric experimental results. You have to be wilfully or self-deludedly putting factual objectivity and balance aside in favour of sensationalism to create something so distorted.

The Daily Mail are leading the charge into a world where I simply will not trust any news I didn’t read on Twitter.

– And finally, let’s end on something completely insane. I think I’m slightly too appalled to laugh, but that will no doubt vary with my mood.

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I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Rebecca Watson has been carrying out something she’s calling The Great Apple Experiment over the past week or so. Inspired by some pretty terrible tabloid-friendly pseudoscience in the Daily Fail, Rebecca has been dutifully re-creating the initial “experiment” that Nikki Owen apparently thinks demonstrates that an apple will respond to being spoken to in a loving or hateful way, or to having loving or hateful words written on its container.

She’s kept a log of her methodology on her YouTube account, and recently unveiled the final state of all three of her apple chunks – one treated with love, one with hate, and one control treated indifferently. Her loyal followers then voted on which sample they thought had degraded the most, and which the least, and some mathemagic was done to the poll numbers to decide whether any apples’ feelings had genuinely been hurt in this experiment.

The reason for the title of this blogpost is that I’ve been doing a similar thing myself. I haven’t been recording my progress as extensively all week, and I’ve been a little more lax with my protocols, but, like Rebecca, I’m planning to tighten this up and repeat the experiment in the near future. I’m ready to unveil the results of my own Meh Apple Experiment here today.

Here’s what my three pieces of apple looked like before being sealed in little transparent jars from the 99p Store for a week:

Now, before you scroll past this next picture, take a look at how they turned out after a week, and make up your mind which had degraded the most, and which the least. Then I’ll tell you which I was treating positively, which negatively, and which was the control. I’ve laid them out in the same order as before, so that you can see the progression, not just the final state – if one looks worse in the end, it may have been a little grubbier to begin with, so this seems like useful knowledge to add. The protocol’s still far from ideal, and my camera appears to have forgotten how to focus on stuff, but never mind, here’s what they looked like after:

So, which do you think was put in the “hate” jar, and spoken hatefully to? Now’s the time to choose.

Picked one?

For me, it’s got to be the one on the right. The other two had gone a bit soft, but didn’t really look that bad, but the right-hand one has that big icky splotch of mould right there. It definitely seemed to fare worse than the other two. So, which was actually the “hate” apple?

None of them. It’s a trick question. In a cunning bit of scientific mischief, I got lazy and totally couldn’t be bothered drawing up and attaching labels to the jars, or talking to bits of an apple like some sort of idiot. They’ve all just been sitting on a shelf for a week, in as close to identical conditions as you could hope for. As it turns out, one of them just seemed to decay a bit more than the others in that time. Does there need to be a reason? Shit just happens.

So. Having smoothly passed off my sloth and disregard for scientific integrity as a clever piece of deliberate subterfuge, I do in fact plan to follow this up with a proper experiment in the near future. But this might as well serve as a useful reminder that chaos is always going to play a part in this kind of thing, and you need to control for randomness. In particular, you need a sample size larger than one.

This is probably what annoys me most about the ridiculous piece in the Mail. Even if you accept that the apple chunk she was nice to really did decay more slowly, she’s holding up this one example of something happening which had a 50% chance of happening randomly anyway as evidence for supernatural forces at work in the universe. Look, if I flip a coin twice, I would expect, on average, to get tails once and heads once – 50% each way. But even if I happen to achieve a massive 100% score one way or the other, my psychic mastery of the physical world may still have a way to go.

There are now many more data points, and I don’t think it’s fair to conclude that the overall result is favourable to Nikki Owen’s claims of magic. And I wonder, of the people who dismissed Rebecca’s experiment due to insufficient scientific rigor, just how closely they examined Nikki’s own methodology to make sure her results were also valid. Or maybe it’s not important to do that, because her data supports what they want to believe.

In her own summary of results, though, I do slightly take issue with Rebecca’s mathematical reasoning. I’m hesitant to be too critical, since she was being advised by a proper maths guy who should know his stuff, but hear me out.

72% of respondents thought that the “love” apple looked the best, and only 10% thought it looked the worst. Between the other two, slightly more people thought the control “indifferent” apple looked worse than the “hate” apple. So Skepchick readers’ collaborative effort to determine which apple was which resulted in a 1/3 rate of success (since they got the “love” one right but mixed the other two up).

Now, Rebecca’s conclusion is that this result “failed to prove [Nikki Owen’s] hypothesis”, because only one of the three apples was correctly placed. I think she’s right, but for the wrong reason. Her conclusion fails to “prove” anything, about any hypothesis, because it also has a sample size of one.

One lone, isolated trial of something like this can’t single-handedly “prove” anything, in the same way that nothing is “proven” about alternative medicine by that one time you took some homeopathy and your ‘flu totally went away after like a week.

Rebecca’s result is compatible with pretty much any hypothesis that doesn’t contain any overwhelming generalisations. It’s entirely in line with the idea that the decay of apples can be slowed by speaking to them lovingly and caringly; it’s also perfectly consistent with the (correct) theory that this is all total bunk. It’s just one apple.

I am personally compatible with the hypothesis that people with a green left eye tend to have a green right eye, because both my eyes are green. There is, in fact, a strong correlation between those two variables, but you’d have to look at more faces than mine before you could conclude that. Also, the existence of other people whose eyes aren’t both the same colour doesn’t completely invalidate the model which says that these two things tend to be associated. I’m also consistent with the hypothesis that people with brown hair tend to wear glasses, but if I were the only human you’d ever studied, you wouldn’t know what to make of that idea either.

No individual data point is going to lead to any useful conclusions on its own here. If we’re going to treat this like an idea that deserves to be checked out, we need to get much more data in before we have any idea what to do with the null hypothesis.

Personally, I wonder how much it’s even worth treating this kind of thing seriously, and the extent to which skeptics are obliged to do proper science on this kind of insubstantive nonsense before we’re just allowed to tell the silly people to go away. But that’s a musing for another time. I’ve rambled way too much on this already.

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