John Tierney of the New York Times discusses the TSA's spending on "behavior detection" training for its officers. Numerous academic studies, and now a GAO report, indicate that no support exists for the proposition that we can tell from body language (as opposed to verbal cues) that someone is lying or telling the truth. That TSA staff want to be able to tell, in a minute or less perhaps, whether someone is a threat, is understandable. But that staff can do so by watching that person's behavior as opposed to talking to that person? Psychologists say there's no credible evidence that it's probable that we can do so effectively enough to warrant the kind of resources we've been putting into the kind of training we've been authorizing. Behavior detection training? Not necessarily a magic cure there.
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank points out that what could be seen as portents seem to be gathering in a run-up to the Republican National Convention. There's the Sea of Galilee dip (last year, but we're just finding out now), what Todd Akin claims was a "lip slip," and what we hope is an Isaac Tampa, Florida "nip" rather than a full-fledged hurricane (hurricanes are nasty). Will some Republicans, Mr. Milbank asks, who seem willing to see signs and symbols when they consider that Dems have messed up, be equally eager to acknowledge omens in these recent, current, and future events? More here.
Lawyer/magician Ken Trombly shares this story from Government Executive concerning the "value added" that stage magicians and other entertainers can bring to conferences. Reporter Charles Clark notes that a recent NOAA conference had slated a presentation by a motivational speaker (from the description, probably a magician or similar performer), apparently after concerns arose over the propriety of such a presentation. Remember that mind reader at the GSA conference in Vegas? Yet stage magician and presenter Joe M. Turner says just because speakers are entertaining does not make them worthless. "'[T]here are plenty of people who have entertainment experience who also can provide serious, credible information to others. The return on investment is not really captured when you call a speaker a magician.'”
Hmm. Sort of like when you call a lawyer a magician?
Update: David DiSalvo weighs in on the NOAA "magical un-hiring" here for Forbes.
So, GSA head Martha Johnson has resigned over reports that her agency funded a 2010 "team building" party (sorry) conference in Las Vegas which cost the taxpayers more than $800,000, a conference that included a clown (oh, I won't say it), a $31,000 reception, and, wait for it, a mind-reader, who billed out at $3000. However, the Inspector-General's report (which led to all the ruckus about this ill-conceived conference) doesn't mention the mind-reader. Indeed, the only places I've seen any mention of the mind-reader have been in the media.
The report does, though, make for really interesting reading. And the mind reader might have been worth it. Did he or she mention that he or she saw a change in career in the future for those who put this conference together?
Here, for the Wall Street Journal. I like the analysis, but I'd point out that politicians generally cause more havoc than magicians, and while politicians and magicians can be equally entertaining, many of the former tend to be a heck of a lot more expensive. And with magicians, the expense is voluntary.
From WSOCTV.com, a story about a secularist billboard which shows part of an American flag with the words, "One nation, indivisible." The North Carolina Secular Association and a local group put up the billboard on the Billy Graham Parkway (Charlotte, NC) (the Billy Graham Parkway? Oh, that's ironic). Sometime during the last weekend of June, someone defaced the billboard by adding "Under God". The NCSA has asked the police to investigate, and is replacing the billboard. It is also putting up additional billboards in other North Carolina cities such as Wilmington, Asheville, and Raleigh. The billboards are part of the association's "One Nation Indivisible" campaign.
CNN picked up the story here on its Beliefblog. I found some of the comments interesting, and some distressing or ignorant. What I think is even more ironic is the way in which the words on the billboard brought out someone's willingness to commit a crime because others want to express their freedom of speech. Christopher Grant writes about the meaning of graffiti here in an FBI document. Although he concerns himself primarily with graffiti, gangs, and urban violence, he does say this:
Public attitudes toward graffiti tend to fluctuate between indifference and intolerance. On a national level, the criminal justice system has yet to adopt a uniform response to graffiti and the individuals who create this so-called street art. While some jurisdictions combat the problem aggressively, others do very little or nothing at all to punish offenders or to deter the spread of graffiti. To a large degree, society's inability to decide on a focused response to graffiti stems from the nature of the offense. It could be argued that graffiti falls into the grey area between crime and public nuisance.
Other coverage here, where William Warren, head of Charlotte Atheists and Agnostic, the local group that co-sponsored the local billboard, notes someone would have needed at least a couple of ladders, extreme tallness (or is that tall-icity? no, no, I mean height) to reach the billboard. Maybe they used magic. But seriously now, Mr. Warren also reveals that nearly 60 new members have joined his organization, due to the news of the anonymous graffiti-ists. Ah, more irony.
The Skeptic's Toolbox Meeting in Eugene, Oregon, August 12-15 is offering a number of really interesting programs this year. Included are "How Early Con Games Led to the Development of the Modern Novel,""Scams That Can Kill: Goat Glands, Zappers, and Other Medical Frauds," "Ponzi Schemes: Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford," and other fascinating panels. I've never been to one of these, but the folks involved include Ray Hyman, Loren Pankratz, Harriet Hall, and James Alcock. More here.