Thursday, August 24, 2006

Plan B and sex cults

I've gotten a little behind on the latest outrages surrounding Plan B, the for-some-reason-disputed anti-conception (NOT anti-implantation) pill. So until my officemate told me, I was not aware that a deputy FDA administrator, Dr. Janet Woodcock, had expressed concern that the pill would take on "'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults." SEX-BASED CULTS. Because a) that's what adolescents do and b) that's what happens when you deal with urban legends. Watch out, Mythbusters.

Now, a lot of people have pointed out that for a right-winger to oppose a pill that can actually prevent abortion, he or she would have to either be a total hypocrite or an anti-sex pervert. This quote lends credence to the latter, though it hardly rules out the former. But let's leave that aside for now. Here's the problem I have with Woodcock's statement, beyond its immediate absurdity: Since when do cults spring up around things because of their availability?

I mean, I suppose it's one thing when you're talking about a "cult film," for instance. A film does have to be available in order to achieve cult status. But think about a cult like Heaven's Gate or Jonestown -- they thrived on promising their followers the unattainable, and if you look at the risk factors for cult recruitment, it's clear that they victimized people who felt they had nothing except that promise. For an even better example, think of the classic South Pacific cargo cult. A cargo cult is not started by people with plenty of food, smokes, and various exciting loot. A cargo cult comes from the availability and subsequent, sudden unavailability of cargo. Even if adolescents were as prone to the random creation of naughty sex cults as they are in Woodcock's dark fantasy world, it seems obvious that removing or restricting access to contraception is the best way to make those cults a reality.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cognitive bias, and how it affects your plane ride

This isn't precisely a fallacy, but I wanted to point out the cognitive bias inherent in the current ridiculous scramble at the airports. What we have here is an example of an availability heuristic, in which people tend to rate events more likely when they're memorable or emotionally charged. The possibility of explosive liquid on a plane is not any higher than it was yesterday, nor is the possibility of other easily concealed explosive material any lower. Because people reacted emotionally to the bust in England, though, the availability heuristic kicks in and makes everyone paranoid about liquids and gels -- just like they were paranoid about white powder after the anthrax letters, or white box trucks during the DC sniper nonsense.

You're always more aware of risks when you feel strongly about the possible outcomes -- maybe you've experienced them, or someone else has. For instance, I'm very careful about not leaving water on the stove unattended, because I once let it boil right through the bottom of the pot. For a long time I was scared of ticks, so I was unnecessarily careful about covering up when I went into the woods. On the more extreme side, everyone knows at least one person who's obsessed with spreading their own cognitive biases -- like maybe one time they found a bug in a Subway sandwich and now they proselytize against eating at Subway, or their sister had a rare mineral deficiency so they're insistent about the importance of taking vitamins, or they once got a hernia so now they nag everyone to do constant crotch stretches. Now imagine that person had armed representatives, big guys packing we-don't-fuck-around automatic weaponry, who were authorized to force you to take vitamins or stretch your crotch. That's pretty much the situation we have here.

If you're as irritated as I am that you have to be dramatically inconvenienced (and possibly threatened with weapons) because of unchecked cognitive bias at the higher levels, or if you're actually nervous that your seatmate's chapstick might explode next time you're on a plane, I recommend the comforting dose of reality that is John Mueller's excellent article "A False Sense of Insecurity?" (via Boing Boing):
The shock and tragedy of September 11 does demand a focused and dedicated program to confront international terrorism and to attempt to prevent a repeat. But it seems sensible to suggest that part of this reaction should include an effort by politicians, officials, and the media to inform the public reasonably and realistically about the terrorist context instead of playing into the hands of terrorists by frightening the public. What is needed, as one statistician suggests, is some sort of convincing, coherent, informed, and nuanced answer to a central question: "How worried should I be?" Instead, the message the nation has received so far is, as a Homeland Security official put (or caricatured) it, "Be scared; be very, very scared -- but go on with your lives." Such messages have led many people to develop what Leif Wenar of the University of Sheffield has aptly labeled "a false sense of insecurity."
Here you will learn useful facts (for instance, did you know that you're four times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist Israel?), plus you'll get a much-needed dose of rational thought. Read it, take a deep breath, and tell yourself that reason will win in the end. Meanwhile, if you're leaving on a jet plane, don't expect to be hydrated or moisturized during the flight, and pack an extra suitcase if you want clean hair or teeth during your trip.

Warning: Your mileage may vary, but personally, I won't be reading this article anytime close to an air-travel trip. The frustrated scene I would undoubtedly cause at the airport would get me on the no-fly list for life.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

are you still being awesome?

Though I am so busy trying to figure out how to get myself, my guy, my cats, and my books halfway across the country that I don't have much logic left in me, T-Rex has got my back.

Motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking graph

Via the inimitable Francis Heaney: Snakes on a Logic Puzzle!
Pacific Air Flight 121 is in trouble! Some motherfucker has released snakes on the motherfucking plane! Needless to say, the passengers are terrified, but there's good news! Samuel L. Jackson, that badass motherfucker, is on the flight! Six of the passengers--Barbara, Cindy, George, Mike, Ralph, and Tina--had particularly harrowing encounters with venomous snakes (a black mamba, a boomslang, an taipan, a gaboon viper, a king cobra, and a rattlesnake), but Samuel saved them all from certain death (he strangled one snake with his bare hands). Can you figure out what type of snake each person encountered and how Samuel took it out?
When you're finished with that one, you can consider the logic behind animal action films from another perspective:
Five separate movies were made soon after Snakes on a Plane appeared in theaters, each with a different actor, animal (one featured lemurs), and mode of transportation (in one instance, animals terrorized a small town on a Segway). All 5 movies signed a different major Hollywood actor...
I haven't done either of these yet (gimme a break, I'm at work), but they're at least high in entertainment value.
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