Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Concussion: The denial of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the NFL

Update: January 3 - We just got back from seeing the movie, and I highly recommend it. It's unquestionably the best Will Smith movie I've seen and a powerful (true) story about science and science denial. Well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Update: February 7 - For Super Bowl Sunday, the Harvard Humanist Hub hosted a panel discussion on The Complicated Sport of Football (video embedded at the bottom of this post).

My wife and I were married on Super Bowl Sunday (XXII). For our anniversary this year, I'd like for her to take me to the movies. This blog post is her hint.

Concussion was released by Columbia Pictures on the first day of Newtonmas - only one week after the new Star Wars movie released. I haven't seen either film yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing Concussion. As Joe Nickell explains, the NFL's League of Denial is "reminiscent of earlier instances of science denial—for example, the refusals by tobacco and oil companies to admit that respectively, cigarette smoking causes cancer and carbon emissions produce global warming."

Dr. Julian Bailes, the former Steelers team physician played by Alec Baldwin in the movie, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the science behind Concussion is "very accurate," but he takes issue with the movie's portrait of longtime Steelers neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon as an obstructionist and villain. While the science of concussion and brain injury itself and its relationship to a game played at almost every secondary school in the country is still evolving, apologists for this moral abomination want to reform it to make it safer - and there's a lot of money in that.

Another former Steeler employee and concussion "expert" (MacArthur genius in 2011) at UNC Chapel Hill says the concern is overblown and worries that it might create unnecessary paranoia:
"It was very entertaining movie, certainly made for Hollywood. (It's) based on a true story, but they certainly twisted the truth in certain parts of the movie to keep it entertaining...We have no idea how many people in the United States, or in the world, might have CTE and what the risk factors may be. There may be genetic predisposition to this that just hasn’t been uncovered yet...There are far more benefits to being active participants in sport than there are the risks and consequences around concussions for the millions of kids we’re trying to keep active to prevent childhood obesity and diabetes."
 - Kevin Guskiewicz (WRAL)
WRAL describes Guskiewicz as a "neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied concussions for more than two decades," but his CV indicates that his PhD (as well as undergraduate and graduate education) is in sports medicine - not neuroscience. Still, one doesn't have to be a neuroscientist to recognize that we do have some ideas about the risk factors here - repeated brain trauma - and the consequences - chronic neurodegenerative disease over time in a substantial minority of players (as well as many remaining questions about CTE). And it's easy to agree with Dr. Steven Novella that banning all contact sports would be an extreme solution for CTE (not proportional to the evidence and the potential risk) - and to acknowledge that Guskiewicz is an expert in sports medicine who is trying to make contact sports like football safer. Good for him.

But I think there are better ways to prevent childhood obesity and diabetes, and unnecessary paranoia about CTE doesn't seem to be a real issue - nor do the consequences seem all that bad if it were (players quitting?). Besides, there's lots of other issues with football. We shouldn't ban it, but you really should quit watching it. Or would you prefer adding some wild animals and convicted criminals...and maybe a sword instead?

"The provocator"
Image Credit:

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Ten Days of Newtonmas

Note: This post has been updated for 2016 here.
"Isaac Newton was born 25 December 1642 according to the Julian calendar that is old-style. If converted to the Georgian calendar, we have to add ten days, and so his date of birth was 4 January 1643 new-style." - The Renaissance Mathematicus
Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, HumanLight, Kwanzaa, Jediism, Festivus, Goatsmas, or something else - or nothing at all - we all owe a debt to this devout but unorthodox Christian who was a bit of a jerk and into the occult but was also “one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution” (Wikipedia). In his honor, I humbly offer this sometimes irrhythmic version of “The Ten Days of Newton.” And I wish you all a very merry Newtonmas!
On the tenth day of Newtonmas,  
One of our greatest natural philosophers gave to us,
Ten confessed sins,
Nine moons of Jupiter and Saturn moving according to the same law that makes an apple fall,
Eight volumes of mathematics,  
Seven colors of light,  
Six planets orbiting according to Kepler’s Laws,
Five lessons of life,  
Four rules of reasoning,  
Three laws of motion,  
Two branches of calculus,  
And a universal law of gravitation.

Of course, as we all know, Isaac Newton isn’t the real reason for the season. But Festivus has already come and gone so it’s too late to air this grievance. If you feel like poking yourself in the eye now, please do it gently with your finger instead of with a bodkin like Newton.

Earth tilt animation.gif
Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons: "something big hit Earth and knocked it off-kilter."
"Earth tilt animation" by Tfr000 (talk) 16:54, 2 April 2012 (UTC) - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

  1. Wait a minute. Why are there only ten days of Newtonmas when December 25th through January 4th is actually eleven days? Which of Newton’s birthdays (Julian or Gregorian) is not part of Newtonmas and why? There are many theories about this: Ten is even, we have ten fingers and ten toes, or it just allows us to celebrate Christmas (instead of Newtonmas) with our Christian family and friends on the 25th and then start celebrating Newtonmas on the 26th. My own theory is that the 4th is not part of Newtonmas due to social pressure and discrimination against the holiday which is reflected by the fact that most people have to go back to work on the 4th and can’t celebrate that day!
  2. The celebration of Newtonmas was recorded as far back as 1892 September 8, “"A New Sect of Hero Worshippers."”, Nature, volume 46, ISSN 0028-0836, page 459:
  3. At Christmas, 1890, or Newtonmas, 248, for the first time, the members of the Newtonkai, or Newton Association, met in the Physical Laboratory of the Imperial University, to hear each other talk, to distribute appropriate gifts, and to lengthen out the small hours with laughter and good cheer.
  4. This post started as a Facebook note. Based on feedback from several people I have updated it to better represent some of Newton’s flaws - which compelling heroes need.
  5. Someone also noted that the “shoulders of giants” quote in the original cover image for my Facebook note might have been a swipe at Robert Hooke who was short and hunchbacked. So I replaced it with a picture of Newton's own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition ("NewtonsPrincipia". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons), but I did not include that image in this post.
  6. Finally, note that lesson #3 in the “five lessons of life” link is apparently a misattribution - so here’s another lesson for you: you can’t trust Business Insider!

How did Newton die?
Image Credit: Unreal Facts

Monday, December 21, 2015

Know Your Neighbor

Know Your Neighbor

Last week the Center for Inquiry helped launch the Know Your Neighbor campaign at the White House with the ACLU, the Interfaith Alliance, and a diverse group of religious advocates including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Hindu American Seva Societies, Muslim Advocates, the National Council of Churches, and the Sikh Coalition. Their campaign encourages Americans to get to know people of other faiths, and of no faith.

There are some great interfaith resources available on their website, including:
In related news, a diverse group of religious and community leaders ran an ad in today's Washington Post to speak out against the "currently alarming level of anti-Muslim rhetoric and bigotry" and in defense of religious liberty.

We're proud to join so many faith leaders from across the religious spectrum today in an open letter demanding that our...
Posted by Interfaith Alliance on Monday, December 21, 2015

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Force Awakens. Run, Forest, Run!

Have you experienced the new spiritual awakening yet? Have you ever noticed the Biblical themes in Star Wars? Or how the "Force" is like Allah? Did you know that Yoda is a Jewish sage, a Buddhist masterand a Hindu yogi? Perhaps you've noticed the Taoist or Sikh themes in previous movies?

This, of course, is all by design. But have you noticed any themes related to skepticism, agnosticism, freethinking, or humanism? And more to my point, have you noticed how Stars Wars fandom is like a religion? Or how, in the mist of all the current hype and consumer spending, it's starting to feel a lot like Christmas..."where you can't go anywhere without listening to the same music...where all broadcasts, all songs, all jokes, all references, are - just for that magic few weeks - just exactly like living in fucking North Korea" (Christopher Hitchens).

Have you ever felt like singing "Fuck Star Wars"? Do you really hate it?

Bah Humbug

Or maybe you're just afraid to agree with Piers Morgan?
But, come on...even Amy Poehler is tired of pretending!

Update: December 21 - Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye weigh in...


Friday, December 11, 2015

Interfaith Celebration of Human Rights in Hickory, NC

Temple Beth Shalom><br />
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Last night members of the <a href=
Temple Beth Shalom in Hickory, NC

Last night members of the Hickory Humanist Alliance attended the first public interfaith service hosted by the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council to celebrate Human Rights Day. We were invited to do a secular reading at the service, but due to some communication issues we were not on the program. However, the organizers of the event were very welcoming to us and apologetic about the mix up. We look forward to participating constructively in some of their future meetings or events.

The service was held at Temple Beth Shalom in Hickory and began with the blowing of a shofar followed by a prayer to the "Creator and Giver of Life." After a short Christian hymn members of the different faiths represented read all thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR reading was followed with "sacred readings" by a Muslim, a Mormon, a Jew, a Protestant Christian, and a Unitarian minister who read from the Bhagavad Gita. These "sacred readings" were followed by thanksgiving and intercessional group readings led by ministers and a closing prayer by the rabbi. Finally, everyone sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth" (except some of us skipped the "God" verse).

For Hickory, this is certainly progress. I hope to see more diverse interfaith dialogue and events like this in Catawba County in the future...

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

An unspoken vision for the future

Update: December 10 - (updated title) Due to some communication issues, we were not on the program and therefore did not have an opportunity to deliver our reading tonight. Maybe next time. My recap of the service is here...

Original post:

I will be delivering a reading tomorrow night (Thursday, December 10) on behalf of the Hickory Humanist Alliance at the first public interfaith service held by the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council to celebrate Human Rights Day. The service, which starts at 7 pm, is at Temple Beth Shalom in Hickory.

As I reflected on what to read, or say, I was reminded of how far we have come and how far we still need to go on human rights. My thoughts, as usual, went to a certain French Algerian...
"Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which we have elaborated in every detail--a net which threatens to strangle us. It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression... that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation." 
- Albert Camus
But after some searching and reflecting I finally found and selected something lighter which I believe still reflects both the sense of existential angst about our present situation and a positive aspiration for the future that I think is characteristic of humanism. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you can join us tomorrow night in Hickory.

A Vision for the Future

Sometimes I struggle just to cope;
I feel like all I have is hope
And all my dreams and all my fears
To get me through the passing years.
I wish that life would just make sense,
That situations weren’t so tense,
That optimism might prevail
Once less constructive methods fail.
That people might cooperate
And not leave everything to fate,
But work to meet a set of goals
That challenge hearts and minds and souls.
I wish my nation would resolve
What’s necessary to evolve
That leaders wouldn’t feed our fear,
But lead us to a new frontier.
That health and wealth were commonplace
With no divisions based on race
Or age or sex or place of birth,
But better ways for judging worth.
I wish our nation would unite
In standing up for what is right,
Protect the future and respect
The other cultures we affect.
To realize we aren’t alone
And can’t decide things on our own,
And while we’re at it, we should face
Our duties to the human race.
—Sheryl Zettner