On Death.

Today is a sad day. I just discovered that one of my internet friends, a well-liked Twitter sceptic, has passed away. I don't have much by way of detail as yet, and I know that quite a few people are, as I am, shocked and saddened by this news.

A few years ago, something similar happened, and somebody I knew from the internet (although we met in real life as well) passed suddenly. I was asked by the members of our internet community to speak at his funeral, and it seems apposite to share what I said for those who are mourning the passing of our friend, @haplesspete.

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Grizby

What is the measure of a life lived? Do we measure it in the passing of years? In the accumulation of material things? In the gathering of knowledge? In the effects we have on the lives of others?

Clearly, we each place different degrees of value on these things. Today, I represent a community for whom the value of the latter two stands above most other considerations. We place knowledge supreme, and devote our time and energy to the garnering and dissemination (and often heated debate) thereof.

Martin was a member of our community, a world-wide internet community of free-thinkers, many of whom would have been here if they could. Known to us variously as Mr. P or Grizby, he was very special to us. I have been enjoined to say a few words on behalf of that community.

I stand before you, and with you, not to mourn the passing, but to celebrate the life, of our brother, our son, our friend. Yes, we mourn; we mourn that which is denied us, the future whose beauty we can never share. Yes, we cry; we cry because our tears are reminders of the laughter that is forever denied us in our experience of the man that was, and the man that could have been. Yes, we grieve; we grieve because grief is what is left to us to fill the void that that laughter represents.

But we also celebrate. We celebrate the life of our brother, our son, our friend. We celebrate the brief time that the universe allowed us to have with him. We celebrate the experience that that time gave to us, and the effect that he had upon us, the most valuable of commodities in our all-too-human experience.

I would like to read something written by Martin himself that is somewhat appropriate:

Everyone knows what happens to us physically when we die: The old "earth to earth, ashes to ashes" mantra from religion is a literal description, i.e. the cohesion of our cellular structure breaks down due to the fact we no longer supply ourselves with the required energy to maintain that cohesion. What we gain instead is the equilibrium with our environment as we rot, degrade (corrode?)

The energy that kept us together is dispersed and continues to have consequences on the world around us, much like the analogy of the ripple effect. If a particular individual hadn't existed who knows what difference that would have made to the universe, but one thing is certain; a difference IS made. We don't exist separate from our environment but rather as an integral part of it and in doing so we have an effect down through the ages... however seemingly trivial it may be.

Personally I think this analogy can be applied to the metaphysical as well as we influence those around us. While we will never get to attend our own funerals and live out the fantasy of being the ultimate centre of attention (potential Reggie Perrins aside), we will leave our mark on those we shared our life with. I'd like to stick around as long as is humanly possible, at least to give myself a chance to make sure the influence is a positive one.

But as a Godless Atheist what of the immortal soul, do we have one, do we need one? The conclusion I've come to is no... But don't despair, I may be breaking one spell but in the process I'll cast a new one for you (hope you're in the mood for a little metaphysical sleight of hand).

So, what happens when we die? I think it's best to establish what "we" are first of all, what is the nature of the Self? (the capital 'S' is intentional).
I think first and foremost we're communicators. We've developed a higher order language than any other species on this planet and as we've become more adept at communicating we've also developed this hunger for information about our environment. The main body of this higher order communication is through the written and spoken word, but also through music, diagrams and pictures (these latter processes also have the benefit of breaking through many language and cultural barriers).

This use of language has assisted us in an on-going explosive evolutionary process that's still going on today, it's paved the way for the development of our particular level of consciousness that allows us to reflect and introspect. This is an important development in the Human psyche that's occurred over the last 40 thousand years or so: Not only can we take our thoughts to a higher order (thinking about thinking), but we can also attribute conscious intent to those around us at a higher level (I know that you know that they know that I know). To lazily paraphrase Dan Dennett "If we couldn't talk to ourselves how would we know what we were thinking?". Try it, try going over your schedule for the day, the things you've got to do and the things you want to do without silently using the English language to order your thoughts... pretty much impossible!

The calming effect language has on our (partially) pandemonious thought processes helps us formulate ideas, concepts, intuitions, hunches etc and organize them into coherent thought patterns, i.e. memes. A meme is defined as a basic unit of cultural information, like a song or rhyme, a fashion trend, a language, a system of belief, even memetics itself can be considered a meme. We use these memes as tools to expand our consciousness right from an early age, but also we develop them as well into new and different ideas as we mature and grow. The conscious acts we commit in changing (or evolving) these memes goes a long way to defining our idea of Self.

Not only are we the sum of our experiences but we are an on-going process of change, an exercise in the application of the free will that consciousness grants us.

But it doesn't end there... not by a long shot!

Not only do we seek information from those around us but they seek the same from us. The boundary between my Self, your Self and the Self of everyone around us isn't as well defined as we think, we share ideas, opinions, agreements and disagreements (all memes) and in doing so we share the psychological tools that define us: we literally share ourselves with the people around us.

And we gift those closest to us with the most of us (good, bad and indifferent).

While we're alive not only do we distribute ourselves (our Self?) to those around us, but we receive part of that Self back in the way people react to us and also in the view other people have of us. That's the factor that blurs the boundaries between us, we are centered in this physical form we occupy but that is only the centre, the edges are less well defined and encompass (to varying degrees) all the people we come into contact with. The opposite also applies, we carry all our loved ones with us as we go through life. Not just the memories we have of them but the influence they have on us, the ideas they pass on that affect our daily routines. A particular turn of phrase we might use or the way we might make a certain gesture will have been inherited from someone around us and modified, by us to make it our own.

Now on to a practical example: I was recently speaking with one of my cousins and we were swapping stories about my late father. Each of us were learning new things about the man and talking as if he were still alive, some phrases and mannerisms came directly from the man himself. Part of his Self is still alive and kicking and continues to have its effect on the environment around us; not in any supernatural way, but in a real physical fashion. The same can be said for anyone we've lost, they gift us with that part of their Self that they want to convey and we're now in the fortunate position where we can recognize this and appreciate the legacy they leave us.

We can carry these people along with us for the journey and take them round our little section of this roller coaster we're all riding. We don't have to speculate what they would have thought if they were here because we bring them with us on the journey, especially the ones closest to us. We do this because we choose to, we do this because the ones we bring with us deserve to be remembered and even though they’re no longer with us (in a physical sense) we can still look to them for comfort. The death of a loved one is always tragic, it hurts and leaves us emotionally scarred but a life shared is a life shared forever and we continue to have influence down the generations, long after we've turned to ashes and dust.

Over the years I've watched good people - family and friends - succumb to various diseases and accidents, but death was only one event in their lives (albeit the last one... if you'll excuse my gallows humour). I prefer to celebrate all the events in their lives prior to that, the influence they had on me, the joy they gave me and the valuable lessons I learned from them... especially the dignity they showed when faced with a terminal diagnosis.
I've watched seemingly ordinary people, who never had that big of an opinion of themselves, display levels of courage that I admit I couldn't even aspire to. It can be a humbling experience listening to jokes being delivered by a relative who knows they only have days left, someone making the most of their last hours and truly appreciating the life they've lived.

The lesson these people taught me was don't take life for granted. Ok so I've not gone snowboarding down Mt Everest or swam with dolphins, but I have started to take a more detailed look at the people around me and learned to appreciate them for who they are, rather than being caught up in my own petty self-obsessions and pity. I've learned that however brief this life may be we don't go through it alone and on those occasions when the outlook has been bleak it's been those around me who've dragged me kicking and screaming back to the real world.

I remember reading an article written after the Virginia Tech shootings in America. One of the professors was criticized by a Christian group for being an Atheist, stating that in his cold universe all the deaths would be just another event for shoulders to be shrugged at. This was part of his response:

“We atheists don’t believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure. We don't believe in a meeting place after all is said and done, where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion during our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by oppressors. We may believe that the universe is indifferent to our plight but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not, then nothing could be wrong. We know the world is cold, and that only people can make it warmer”.

I know full well my experience of life after my death will be the same as that prior to my birth, but that doesn't fill me with despair. What it does do is give me the motivation to leave the place in a better state than when I found it and leave the people around me with at least a few fond memories... just to return the favour.

As Carl Sagan said "to live in the hearts of those we leave behind is to live forever"
I realise that the person who inspired that beautiful piece of writing may be present, but I make no apology for that. It is my hope that this person will introduce him/herself.

So what, in light of all of that, would Martin want me to say on his behalf here? Would he want me to tell you what you should believe (or not)? I don 't think so. Would he want me to tell you that you should question your deepest-held beliefs? Not really, although I know it's what he thought.
I suspect that, were our places reversed, a short lesson in thermodynamics would be the order of the day. He'd want me to tell you that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. He'd want me to tell you that every carbon atom of his body was born in a triple-alpha process during the death throes of a star. He'd want me to tell you that every constituent of Grizby has a great destiny; to be the life-giving material that allows future organisms to live, to have experiences, perchance to love. He'd want me to tell you that he is still here, and in a very real sense he is. Echoing the words of Sagan in his own writing above, nobody can truly die until their last echoes have faded from the world. There are people the world over who genuinely owe their ability to see the universe as it is to Martin. He was witty and erudite and extremely knowledgeable. There are people around the world whose children will grow up in a better place due to the power of critical thought having been imbued in their family line because of Martin and people like him. Those echoes will not fade for generations, so Martin will outlive us all.

What I know he'd want me to do, should anybody not understand any of what I have said here today on behalf of both Martin ad the wider community of which he was such an integral member, is to be available to explain. I am more than happy to do so.

Martin was extremely special to very many people, and he was instrumental in freeing many more from the shackles of doctrinal imperative. His concerns were the concerns that should occupy us all, namely the well-being and contentment of our species. He was our brother, our son, our friend.

Of course, he also kept us massively entertained, with his Poi balls and his wealth of humorous personal anecdotes. To many of us, he was much more than simply a freethinker and an atheist. In the words of one, we got to know the whole person.

We might think it's 'just the internet', but it isn't. The world really is a lesser place without him in it.

Thanks, Griz. We'll take it from here.
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Valé Pete. You'll be missed.

Permission to Speak Freely?

Freedom of speech is the fundamental freedom from which all other freedoms flow; to fight against freedom of speech is to forge your own shackles.

In the last few weeks, there have been a couple of events that raised warning flags for me, and those flags are nicely encapsulated by Orwell's words here.

This is going to be a quick and dirty rant about speech, our freedom to express our views, however unpopular, and what constitutes a reasonable response to being confronted by views that we don't agree with. 

Let me start by saying that, in my view, nobody has the right not to be offended. No matter what you have to say beyond the most vapid, milquetoast of possible views, you're going to offend somebody with it. Terry Pratchett famously said that, whatever you do or say, if somebody somewhere isn't offended by it, you're probably doing it wrong.

The first event was a video that made its way around the internet. I'm not going to post it here, but it was of a well-known neo-nazi, while engaged in an interview on the street, being sucker-punched out of the blue. There was much discussion over the following few days centred around whether this sort of response is justified. In a couple of cases, well-respected sceptics were treated as if they'd engaged in some sort of crimes against humanity, and being accused of being nazi sympathisers simply because they didn't think that punching this idiot was appropriate. I'll begin by reproducing what I said on a popular social media platform.
"It's been a bit disheartening to see otherwise wonderfully peaceful people in the last couple of days responding to a video of a known neo-nazi being punched.
I get it, and I admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude at the sight, but the discussion has taken on a quite nasty tone, with those advocating non-violence being accused of sympathising. This is nothing more nor less than an emotive and fallacious attempt to poison the well and silence dissent.
Let me be clear. The only justification for physical violence is in the face of physical violence or threat of harm, and saying this isn't sympathising with anybody.
Yes, these morons have toxic views, and not all violence is physical. Nonetheless, words and thoughts cannot justify violence. As soon as you resort to this sort of behaviour, you've conceded the argument. Moreover, when you attempt to paint somebody who agrees with you about the toxicity of the views as a sympathiser on the basis that they don't advocate a violent response, you've sided with the thugs.
What these cretins need more than anything else is education and, while the fists are flying, nobody's learning anything of value. 
Of course, my tiny voice was lost in the wind, which is to be expected. I'm fairly new to the broader public sphere, most of my time spent as a medium-sized fish in a fairly small pond. Others, whose voices are more widely heard, tried to make some of the same points, but were vilified as defending the nazi, while what they were really defending is proper standards of discourse, and the idea that violence not only isn't the solution to such problems, but actually serves to reinforce them.

Two people in particular, one a popular author of sceptical and counter-apologetics literature, the other a broadly-heard podcaster and Youtuber, took several days of flak from people who would normally consider themselves allies. I attempted to interject again.
I get it, guys. It really does feel excellent to punch a fuckwit in the face. However, when you engage in such behaviour, regardless of the justification other than in defence under attack or threat of said behaviour, you're normalising the behaviour, and yielding your best currency for change.
 What it takes to defeat the sort of mindset that results in a Richard Spencer is education of the general populace. When the majority voice their contempt for shitty ideas like racism and other idiotic prejudices, we might see the tide turn in the fight against conflicts rooted in ignorance. When we engage in this sort of behaviour or, worse, normalise it or erect rationalisations for it, we're doing exactly what they did to get to that point.
There are better ways than punching, and people behind bars for assault are useless in the battle for true equality.
 Seriously, peeps, it isn't rocket science*. 
While I was writing this, one of the protagonists in the above exchanges, popular sceptical podcaster @GSpellchecker, had a timely discussion with Matt Dillahunty, and Matt raised an interesting point, namely that somebody like Spencer would have been well-served had he actually planted the phantom boxer to execute this manoeuvre while he was on camera. 

There's a well-worn tactic for vilifying the opposition and for undermining peaceful protest, one that has entered the language in the form of the popular French term agent provocateur, a planted actor whose role is to disrupt protest from within. The term itself can be reliably tracked back to at least the French revolution, in which freemasons fomented discontent and violent protest or otherwise breaking the law in order that the authorities had cause to arrest them. This is such a successful strategy in most cases that such tactics have been employed by police forces the world over to lure people into breaches of the law. 

Now, I'm not suggesting that this is the case with this punch, and nor did Matt, as he was careful to point out, but it is certainly something to bear in mind. More importantly, in this instance, whether the punch was engineered or not, the vociferous defence of the punch among ordinarily peaceful people and defenders of the principles of equality has the same effect, not least because the sceptics and defenders aren't the only ones who see these exchanges. They're also available to view by Spencer's base, and serve to confirm the worst of their ideological presuppositions.

This brings me nicely to the second issue I wanted to discuss, because the agent provocateur has relevance here also. In my esteem, this episode is more disturbing in terms of sociopolitical impact. A little potted history first, to give some context.

In the 1950s and 60s, there was a rise in political awareness, quite probably driven by the previous half-century, which had seen turmoil on a scale never-before encountered, with two world wars resulting in somewhere between 70 million and 120 million deaths, the rise and fall of the League of Nations and the formation of NATO and the United Nations, the formation of the state of Israel and all that that entailed, McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Commission, culminating in the civil rights movement.

As is often the case with such activism in the political sphere, among the real hotbeds were the universities. One notable series of events took place at U.C. Berkeley in the '64-'65 academic year.

Existing regulations regarding fundraising and other political activities restricted them to the official on-campus clubs for the two main political parties, Republican and Democrat. They prohibited recruitment, outside speakers and advocacy of other political causes. In the autumn of '64, some student activists began giving out information and asking for donations to fund various civil rights causes, in breach of these regulations. In September of that year, the dean of the university announced that these regulations would be rigorously enforced.

This came to a head in October when a former graduate mathematics student, Jack Weinberg, was sitting at a table run by the Congress of Racial Equality and refused on request by campus police to show his ID. He was arrested and put in a police car, at which point the car was surrounded by up to 3,000 students, who kept the car there for about 32 hours, using it as a podium from which to speak, and holding a public discussion until the charges were dropped. 

Eventually, after several sit-ins and a mass arrest of 800 students culminating in a protest that effectively closed the campus down, university officials began to relent, and ultimately put new measures in place provisionally allowing for political activity on campus.

For this reason, Berkeley is seen as being the real birthplace of the free speech movement. In reality, this is something that was fought for long before these events, and found form in the first amendment to the US Constitution, but it certainly played a part in the public consciousness of these issues, and this episode was key to that.

A couple of weeks ago, an event was scheduled at Berkeley in which a well-known internet cretin was slated to speak. Much like the recipient of the aforementioned Salford handshake, this moron is a promulgator of some pretty toxic views, some of which resulted in his banishment from Twitter last year.

A protest was put in place, ostensibly peaceful, to show this ignorant mouthpiece what was thought of his views. All went well until some protesters turned up kitted out in black and wearing masks. Whether stalking-horses or genuine, these protesters had no intention of being peaceful and things turned more aggressive, with some violent incidents and some property damage. In the end, the event was cancelled and the talk didn't go ahead.

Now this is troubling to me, for all the same reasons as above, but with some additional issues. 

The first of these is something that's come to be known as the Streisand Effect, named after the popular singer, after she attempted to suppress some images of her house in Malibua. The ultimate effect of her attempt to suppress these images is that they became far more widely-viewed as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the attempted suppression.

The same thing has occurred here, in that the views promulgated by this idiot now have a much broader audience due to the furore over the events at U.C. Berkeley. Moreover, regardless of the intent of the majority of protesters, many of whom I'm sure just wanted to voice their opposition to the views of said mouth-breather, the outward view gleaned by the public is one of a single group of aggressive or violent protesters behaving like children. This is not the way to win hearts and minds, and it's certainly not a route to helping people to see reason.

Let's be clear here. Milo is a wankstain of the highest order, and while it's certainly the case that nobody's obliged to give him a platform or an audience, and while everybody's welcome to voice their displeasure at his being given a platform, he's entitled to his opinions, and to voice them. I'll come back to why for the coup de grâce shortly.

Moving on, there's one last group of events that I wanted to discuss and, even in the last few hours while I've been writing this, yet another example has come to light. I'll come to that shortly, but I'll begin where this began for me.

In October last year, I wrote a piece on some idiots on Twitter who'd taken it upon themselves to attack a UK pop singer, Lily Allen, for a film she'd made about the Jungle, a refugee camp in Calais housing, among others, a large group of disenfranchised children. You can see my response in The Unbearable Shiteness of Beings... Redux. This wasn't the end of it, however, and some further incidents have occurred of late, which I want to discuss here, because not only are they rooted in a ubiquitous logical fallacy, they're troubling for other reasons.

I'll not bore with instances beyond a cursory listing but, for example, a former footballer and sport pundit was told that he should stick to what he was good at rather than posting his opinions on politics, a popular author was labelled a whore, and a former marine gunnery sergeant, philanthropist and all-round good egg was told she'd lost a fan.

Now, all of these people are big and ugly enough to look after themselves, but there's a deep logical problem with this aside from the overweening hubris it represents.

If you honestly think that somebody being well-known for something other than political commentary or analysis somehow disqualifies them from having anything worthwhile to add to discourse concerning the future of the society in which they and those they love must live, then not only are you engaging in a particularly insidious commission of the genetic fallacy coupled with poisoning the well, you're attempting to silence dissent, and that is something up with which we will not put, as Hitch would have said.

Politics, especially democracy, works when when everyone's voice is heard, even when those voices are given to opinions we might find distasteful. All attempts to silence dissent, either by acts of violence, by poisoning the well, or by any other means, are a big problem. Think about who benefits from living in an echo chamber. Only despots and totalitarians can benefit from such a situation. Allowing the curtailing of the right to voice one's opinion opens the door to the worst abuses being visited on us all.

A real citizen is duty-bound to protect the rights of all to hold whatever views they see fit, regardless of whether they agree with them or find them odious. Only a moron can brook no dissenting opinion, or responds to disagreement with violence or attempts to shut down discourse or silence opposition. 

I'll finish how I began, with a simple truth:

Freedom of speech is the fundamental freedom from which all other freedoms flow; to fight against freedom of speech is to forge your own shackles.

Don't be a moron, be a citizen.

‡ Properly, bodily autonomy is the fundamental freedom from which all others flow, but freedom of speech is the most basic expression of that freedom.
* There is one correction in here of a typo I spotted while copying to the blog post.
† Numbers are difficult to pin down robustly, not least because they depend largely on what variables are included. For example, some sources will include deaths from famine and disease in the aftermath, while others only deal with direct casualties.

Consider the Source!

Richard Dawkins believes that life on Earth was seeded by aliens.

This was, some years ago, a fairly common trope. It stems from an interview by creationist apologist and one-time Z-list actor Ben Stein, shot for the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

What actually happened, though you have to see the uncut interview to know it, is that Stein asked Dawkins if there were any possible scenario in which he could consider life having been designed. Dawkins, as a bit of a sop to the interviewer, said that it was plausible that life could have been seeded here by aliens, but that this would only push the problem of life's origin back a step. By the time the interview is framed to fit the film-maker's narrative, of course, it looks like Dawkins is giving credence to the idea of directed panspermia.

This is a particularly pernicious practice known in sceptical circles as 'quote-mining', a fairly ubiquitous practice not just in creationist apologetics, but elsewhere as well. That's not the topic of today's rant, not least because I covered it in Irreducible Complexity and Evolution, but it does form a part of it.

As with all sceptics active in the public sphere, a fair bit of my time is taken up in dealing with misinformation. Indeed, the vast majority of this blog is geared toward either debunking misinformation and erroneous conclusions or furnishing others with the tools that will allow them to do this for themselves. The latter of these is the entire motivation for the book that this blog will eventually become the endnotes for.

I want here to look at a few different ways that misinformation manifests, along with some of the dangers in accepting things at face value. This has particular relevance now as we enter the era of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts'.

Let's start with fake news, because this has really been in the spotlight of late. It's well-understood that there are 'newspapers' and websites the world over delivering material that's not supposed to be taken literally. It's generally satirical in nature, or parodies some position widely held. Here in the UK, there's a paper called The Sunday Sport, which famously had absurd headlines on the front page. It's mostly meant to be a bit of fun, designed to titillate people with short attention spans, liberally sprinkled with images of enhanced anatomy and adverts for devices to enhance anatomy, along with other things of the sort that you find - I'm reliably informed - in some of the less tasteful parts of the internet (i.e., the majority of it).

Clearly, when you see a headline reading 'World War 2 Bomber Found On Moon' or 'Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster', you can be reasonably certain that it's meant to be satire, or parody and, if that were the end of it, this would be a short article indeed.

There's a principle familiar to sceptics who inhabit certain portions of the web, known as Poe's Law. I've seen lots of stories about where this law originated, including the idea that Poe is actually an acronym for 'parody of extremism', but it's actually more prosaic. It originates with a post on christianforums.com from 2005 by a user called Nathan Poe.

There are quite a few instances around the internet of parodies by sceptics highlighting this principle quite nicely, notably Youtuber Edward Current and the famous Landover Baptist Church. I have to admit to being taken in briefly by the latter myself, part-writing a scathing debunk of one of their articles, only wising up because of a minor linguistic clue after having spent most of an hour eviscerating it.

Originally dealing only with parodies of creationism, this principle has come into general use to describe any extremist position. In reality, in the 'alternative facts' world, it's fairly clear that it should be extended to any position, because it seems that it's pretty much utterly impossible to say anything without somebody taking it seriously and even adopting it into their worldview.

Let's look at a more immediate example, from only in the last couple of months.

In the recent US election debacle, the rumours were flying thick and fast; so fast, in fact, it was difficult to keep track of them. One particular example has come to be known as 'pizzagate'.

It began with a tweet by an alleged white supremacist at the end of October claiming that, during the course of NYPD's investigation of Anthony Weiner's sexting scandal, they'd uncovered evidence of a paedophilia ring. Later, after the release of John Podesta's emails by Wikileaks, and some particularly creative interpretation thereof, this morphed into a ring trafficking in children, with reference even being given to missing Brit Madeleine McCann.

I won't deliver the whole story here, as it's fairly widely known and comprehensively covered elsewhere, not least on Wikipedia. However, I did want to talk about the outcome, which should give us all pause.

As a result of this scandal, and its being tied to a pizzeria in Washington, the ring supposedly being run from its basement, a man from North Carolina entered the premises with an assault rifle and fired three shots. Nobody was hurt in this incident, more by good luck than good management, one suspects, but this should again serve as a warning against taking things at face value. All this, it should be noted, despite the restaurant in question not actually having a basement!

So, this turns out to be a storm in a teacup, although it's unclear whether this had any impact on the election, not least because it was drowned out by the impact of FBI director James Comey's shenanigans. Worth noting though that, in true conspiracy theory style, the wibble-munchers are painting this shooting episode as a false flag operation designed to pull the teeth of the pizzagate rumours. There's a famous quotation by Thomas Huxley, champion of evolutionary theory, 'The great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact'. Unfortunately, for the conspiracy theorist, there's no fact sufficiently ugly to slay their theories, so they rationalise them and keep trundling on.

Some misinformation is comparatively innocent, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't do any harm. The misinformation that tends to make me jump to action is, you won't be surprised to hear, dear reader, misrepresentations or mangling of valid science. Such misrepresentations can be motivated by all sorts of things, not least sensationalising science, as we saw in the example of the 'missing link' nonsense in Mind The Gap! Science rarely needs sensationalising, in my not-so-humble opinion, yet some science journalists (or journalists writing about science, more often) seem wont to hype their stories with misleading clickbait headlines, or pad them out with shoddy extrapolations. Here's one example of the latter from the Tech News section of the Business Insider website.
The discovery of gravitational waves would further confirm the theory of inflation - the idea that in the first few moments the universe existed, it underwent a rapid and mind-bogglingly huge expansion. That kind of rapid expansion would almost certainly leave behind ripples through spacetime.
This is fairly benign, but it's quite simply drivel. This has precisely no bearing on inflationary theory and, in fact, is exactly in line with all cosmologies that are in line with general relativity. The reason for this is that gravitational waves are a prediction of general relativity, stemming from the fact that any distributed process travelling at a finite speed must propagate in waves, and that relativity limits speed through space to c.

It isn't always the fault of the journalists, either. There are cases of scientists shooting their bolt prematurely, as it were, and this raises another example that actually does relate to predictions of inflationary theory. What would be required to support inflationary theory would be primordial gravitational waves with B-mode polarisation, and that said polarisation was not the result of additional interference from other sources. This was the problem with the much-vaunted BICEP-2 results from a couple of years ago, namely that the source of the polarisation couldn't be definitively identified. Once the observations were corrected to account for known sources of this polarising effect, the polarisation fell below the error bars. We looked at this in some detail in Before the Big Bang Part I.

Another example, slightly less benign, is all the kerfuffle concerning the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider. I remember in the days before the switch on which, as you might imagine, I was extremely excited about, there were rumours pinging around all over the net about how this colossal machine could potentially destroy the world. I'm still not entirely sure how this idea found its way into the public domain, but it resulted eventually in a lawsuit against the countries that had collaborated on the project.

The fear stemmed from some of the phrasing used in the press about the LHC, such as that they were trying to create black holes, or that they were trying to recreated conditions last seen in the first seconds after the Planck time. People saw 'black hole' and 'big bang', put two and two together and came up with a squillion.

There area few interesting things to note here. The first is that the energies achievable at the LHC pale in comparison to the interactions of cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere. The LHC at full chat runs at 14 TeV (tera electron-volts), while cosmic ray interactions have been measured at >100 TeV, so the energy involved shouldn't be a concern. The second is that, if the standard model is the final model, then all fundamental particles are black holes, because they have no spatial extent, meaning that all their mass is contained within their Schwarzschild radii, which is the definition of a black hole.

It's bad enough that popular culture has given us, via comic-books, films, etc., the notion of the mad scientist bent on world domination. That this is exacerbated by ramblings and doomsayings based on not understanding the underlying physics makes it extremely difficult to engender confidence in big science, and that's even without the current economic constraints.

Finally, before my summation, there's one more critical example, a group of people for whom I would, were I vindictive and not a sceptic, reserve a very special place in hell; anti-vaxxers. These are testament to the mindset of the conspiracy theorist in the worst possible way, not least because they feel ideologically driven, via wanting to do good, to do the worst harm possible on the most vulnerable members of our society, namely children. Despite decades of robust research showing that all their scare-mongering is unfounded and rooted in the most ignorant and dogmatic adherence to an insubstantial imperative, these idiots are genuinely putting lives in danger. I won't give this any more space here, except to direct you an earlier rant on the topic.

In summary, between Brexit, climate-change denial, anti-vax, anti-science, creationism, flat-Earthers, Komrade Trichindova, and other phenomena all supported by waves of fake news and misinformation, there's only one piece of advice I can give, and it outweighs everything else I have ever said or will say on this blog. Don't take anybody's word for it. Don't take my word for it. Check, double-check, triple-check, follow the information back to where it came from and be certain that the data actually support the conclusions drawn.

In short, consider the source. 

I should add a short note on more sources that show how scepticism should really be done, and I can't give any recommendation higher than that which I'd give to science journalist Peter Hadfield, better know to the world as Youtuber Potholer54. If you aren't a subscriber, rectify that immediately.