Friday, April 28, 2017

Info Wars Indeed

4th Psychological Operations Group,
193rd Special Operations Wing,
Pennsylvania Air National Guard
"The reality is that not everyone shares our vision, and some will seek to undermine it — but we are in a position to help constructively shape the emerging information ecosystem by ensuring our platform remains a safe and secure environment for authentic civic engagement," Facebook recently announced. The monster social media site further stated what amounted to acknowledgments of the existence of well organized networks of sock puppets spreading and "amplifying" misleading information for political and financial purposes. Such instances, it was stated, included during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The public is always a bit slow on the uptake on such stories, but the circumstances are by no means breaking news, or at least they shouldn't be. It has been well reported for years that intelligence agencies throughout the world target social media sites to conduct "non-lethal warfare." Israeli Defense Forces alone acknowledge carrying out such activities in six languages on some 30 platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

FB's Mark Zuckerberg
Moreover, Facebook was reported to be among the most preferred targets for NSA data collection. Per WaPo, circa 2013, "A document supplied to The Washington Post by Edward Snowden indicates that in one representative day, the NSA collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail, and 22,881 from other providers."   

While Facebook might find it advantageous to once again address the situation for one reason or another, I'd challenge its statement of "ensuring our platform remains a safe and secure environment for authentic civic engagement." I'm not convinced it could be shown to have ever been, much less "remain" so.

Speaking of Misleading Information

Notorious InfoWars front man Alex Jones caught the losing side of a child custody case. Imagine that. Items surfacing during the messy battle included his tendencies to hurl profane insults and fan flames of such unfounded allegations as the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre never happened. Attorneys for Jones argued that his on air persona is simply performance art, for what that's worth, as counterarguments included documentation of Jones calling a Congressman a "c---sucker," bellowing in a drunken stupor on inauguration night in DC that "1776 will commence again," and other gems.

Right-wing conspiracy theorist, performance artist,
narcissist, presidential aide and dad, Alex Jones
Also surfacing was the testimony of a doctor who stated Jones was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dr. Alissa Sherry conducted group therapy sessions for the Jones family and testified the diagnosis was present in Jones' case file. The disorder involves an inflated sense of self-importance, along with a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. Dr. Sherry added that Jones would regularly take his shirt off during therapy sessions, the only time she recalled a patient undressing in the middle of such sessions. 

Additional whoppers attributed to Alex Jones include accusations the government is lining juice boxes with estrogen to turn boys gay. This man, you will recall, is someone Donald Trump collaborated with and identified as having an "amazing" reputation, which brings us to:

Not THOSE Aliens

Alien on the lam?
The Trump admin launched an office supposedly designed to serve the victims of crimes committed by illegal aliens. Dubbed VOICE, the department includes a phone number for victims. The hotline was reportedly trolled in short order by callers offering up stories of renegade space aliens.

Martian jokes aside, studies conclude immigrants are actually significantly less likely to commit crimes in the U.S. than their American-born counterparts. Such studies span several years of data and were conducted by multiple sources, including the Cato Institute and American Immigration Council, among many more.

I particularly appreciated the Doubtful News take on the story:

The purpose of the hotline is to highlight the incidents of illegal immigrants who victimize Americans. According to statistics, this extra effort is baseless. And, it makes little sense. Those who are in the country without permission would be very stupid to call police attention to themselves. They wish to remain hidden and so are less likely to commit a crime. Besides, no justification has been demonstrated that these particular crime victims need a special office, VOICE, for their reporting. There are already means to report such crimes. This is clearly a manufactured problem in order to influence public opinion about illegal immigrants. It’s a waste of money and promotes misinformation. So, I’m glad it is failing. Put money to better use, on real problems.
The current presidential administration has in its short lifespan already shown a remarkable and destructive tendency to cling to a poorly argued point in the face of all reason. Policies on such issues as a border wall and so-called "travel" ban cannot even be shown to be grounded in factual data, much less that the billions of dollars in costs and lost revenue would solve the "problems" not established to exist in the first place. 

As reported in 2015 via The Intercept article, The Greatest Obstacle to Anti-Muslim Fearmongering and Bigotry: Reality:

We clearly would be wise to exercise reasonable skepticism when solicited to buy into a social media story or related point of view. Every day is April Fools out there. I opt for getting my news from multiple outlets, keeping an eye on verification and sources cited. It's an info war indeed, and your opinion is the prize. Form it wisely.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Questioning Alien Abduction Research Methodology

Dr. Ellen Tarr recently posted some thoughts on UFO-related survey results as conducted and presented by FREE (Foundation for Research into Extraterrestrial Encounters). Tarr holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Immunology, is an Associate Professor at Midwestern University, and graciously offers analysis from time to time on such topics as Project Core and alleged Sasquatch DNA.

She interpreted survey results as reported by FREE to be unclear on details like numbers of respondents and exactly how FREE arrived at some of its figures. Tarr's pointed observations included "the myriad problems with the survey itself and the analysis," as well as "the lack of controlling which respondents answer follow-up questions." As she explained:
There are numerous cases within the survey where more people responded to follow-up questions about a specific type of experience than had claimed to have had the experience. For example, 211 respondents reported having sex with an ET and 236 gave answers regarding what type of ET they had sex with. The likelihood that many items include responses from people who did not have the experience calls many results into question. 
Tarr also noted survey results were represented by FREE as specifically including people who reported UFO-related contact experiences with a non-human intelligence, yet it is unclear if all who responded actually interpreted that to be the case. For instance, fewer people reported a craft or ship associated with their experiences than participated in the survey.

Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs at a 2004 Intruders Foundation seminar
Credit: Carol Rainey

Hopkins, Jacobs and Westrum

Such challenges with surveys and their interpretations have long plagued the UFO community. The design of a 1991 Roper Poll funded by Robert Bigelow and conducted by Budd Hopkins, David Jacobs and Ron Westrum was competently called into question by qualified professionals. The trio arrived at the stunning conclusion 3.7 million Americans had been abducted by aliens through a survey of less than 6,000 people who were never even asked. Instead, those surveyed were subjected to a series of questions of which Hopkins and Jacobs felt themselves qualified to interpret if the responses indicated abductions had occurred. To directly ask respondents if they'd ever been abducted, it was rather incredibly rationalized, would give false results because many people were unaware of their abductions until after hypnosis.

Of a total of 5,947 people interviewed, 119, or two percent, were identified as likely alien abductees. It was from there the conclusion was drawn that about two percent of the American population, which at the time equated to 3.7 million people, had been abducted by aliens.

Critical review was provided by parapsychologist Susan Blackmore and sociologist Ted Goertzel, among others. The work of the late psychologist Robyn M. Dawes and political scientist Matthew Mulford, the latter of which became an expert in research methodology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, showed how questions on the survey were poorly constructed in ways known to produce flawed results. Goertzel wrote:
This conclusion is also strongly supported by Dawes and Mulford's (1993) innovative study at the University of Oregon which demonstrated that the dual nature of Hopkins, Jacobs and Westrum's first item, which asked about waking up paralyzed and about sensing a strange person in the room in the same item, actually led to an increased recollection of unusual phenomena as compared to a properly constructed single-issue survey item. Textbooks on questionnaire writing universally warn against "double-barreled" questions of this sort because they are known to give bad results. Dawes and Mulford confirm this and further offer the explanation that the combination of the two issues in one item causes a conjunction effect in memory which increases the likelihood of false recollection.
While the Hopkins, Jacobs and Westrum scale is not a valid measure of UFO abduction, they have inadvertently constructed a useful measure of another phenomenon: the tendency to have false memories. 

The poll and its questionably interpreted conclusions continue to be cited in UFO circles in spite of its flawed construction. The problematic aspects of its methodologies are typically not addressed when claims are made of some 4 million Americans being abducted by aliens. The objectivity of Budd Hopkins was further questioned due to such circumstances as his claims surrounding alleged alien symbols purported to have been seen by abductees while aboard alien craft. His questionable interpretations and desire to "stack the deck," as he put it, were documented in the 13-minute video clip below shot by Carol Rainey.


Standards of Evidence

An important point, in my opinion, is that Dr. Tarr and other qualified experts demonstrate a willingness to address the UFO phenomenon and offer review of research produced by ufology. The scientific community is often criticized for dismissing the topic out of hand, and the complaint may be justified at times, but there are clearly exceptions.

Furthermore, it should be noted that such critical review is part and parcel of the path to establishing fact-based evidence. The critiques of qualified professionals should be embraced and addressed, not discarded with aversion. It is when standards of evidence are recognized, and professional research protocols are collectively respected and implemented, that the UFO community will mature and begin to gain the credibility it has long claimed to seek.


Please join me this summer in Roswell at a conference themed 70 Years Later: Modern Challenges to the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis. I'll be discussing exploitation in ufology, the intersection of the UFO and intelligence communities, and related topics.