What are (some) Americans afraid of?


Click through to get all the answers

Thanks, Barry Ritholtz

Teen busted trying hire a clown to assassinate her teacher

❝ Police in Virginia have arrested a 13-year-old girl in connection with a social media threat involving a clown.

The investigation revealed that the girl made contact with someone via social media, and asked the person to murder one of her teachers at Davis Middle School…

The person she contacted was using a clown photo as a profile picture as well as an alias.

❝ The 13-year-old girl from Hampton was arrested and charged with one count of threatening to kill by electronic message. She remains in custody.

❝ Hampton police detectives made contact with the victim to ensure her safety and make her aware of the situation. At this time, there is no evidence to indicate a threat against any others.

There was increased police presence Monday at Davis Middle School and Hampton police officers are working with school security to ensure student safety.

❝ This incident comes just two days after schools in Hampton and Newport News tightened security because of threats from social media accounts of people posing as clowns…

The Hampton Police Division is collaborating with Hampton City Schools, the Newport News Police Division, and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to investigate each of these threats and social media pages.

None of the security hustlers are going to miss out on an opportunity to increase fun and profits from fear. I’m surprised the NRA hasn’t shown up selling handguns outside the school. Yet.

3% of Americans own half the guns in the country


AP Photo/Danny Johnston

In the past two decades, Americans have added approximately 70 million firearms to their private arsenals. There are more gun owners, but they make up a slightly smaller share of the population. Handguns have surged in popularity, and the era of the super-owner is here: roughly half of all guns are concentrated in the hands of just three percent of American adults.

These are among the key findings of a sweeping new survey of gun ownership, provided in advance of publication to The Trace and The Guardian by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities. Our two news organizations are partnering to present a series of stories this week based on the survey.

There have been other evaluations of American gun ownership in recent years, but academics who study gun-owning patterns and behavior say the new survey is the most authoritative and statistically sound since one conducted in 1994 by Philip Cook, a researcher at Duke University.

Roughly 100,000 Americans are injured by a gun every year, with a third of those incidents resulting in death. But research into the causes of the violence, methods of prevention, and its toll on families and communities is almost entirely conducted by academics and other private groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government entity that studies other public health issues, virtually ignores gun violence, owing to legislation widely interpreted as preventing such research.

Otherwise known as chickenshit Congress.

The responses reveal a fundamental shift in gun-owning attitudes. Whereas most owners once considered their firearm primarily a hunting or sports shooting tool, a majority now say they keep guns to protect themselves, their families, and communities.

Accurate reporting on what these people believe. Whether evidence-based facts provoke those beliefs is another question.

Why do people get their knickers in a bunch over engineered foods

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine just issued a book-length report, strongly reaffirming what American and European scientists have long said: Food from genetically modified crops is no more dangerous to eat than food produced by conventional agriculture

The report also finds no clear evidence that genetically modified crops cause environmental harm. It acknowledges the importance of continuing monitoring..Other studies are less equivocal, finding no special risks to the environment from genetically modified agriculture.

And yet the public is deeply concerned. One survey finds that only 37 percent of Americans believed that genetically modified food is safe to eat. According to my own recent survey, 86 percent of Americans favor labeling of genetically modified food, apparently because of perceived health risks — 89 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents.

What explains that? New research, by Sydney Scott and Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania and Yoel Inbar of the University of Toronto, offers some important clues.

Scott and his colleagues asked a representative sample of Americans whether they supported or opposed genetically engineering plants and animals. They also asked them to register agreement or disagreement with this statement: “This should be prohibited no matter how great the benefits and minor the risks from allowing it.”

…Astonishingly, 71 percent of the opponents, and 46 percent of the whole sample, were absolutists: They want to ban genetic engineering regardless of the benefits and risks.

On its face, that’s ridiculous. Suppose that the risks of genetic modification are zero and that the benefits are high, because genetically modified food is both cheaper and healthier. If so, how could rational people want to ban it?

Controlling for demographic and other differences, Scott and his coauthors found that disgust was the best predictor of whether people would proclaim absolute opposition to genetic modification.

The conclusion is simple: People who most strongly oppose genetic modification are not weighing risks and benefits. Their opposition is a product of the fact that they find the whole idea disgusting.

What’s disgusting about genetic modification of food? I speculate that many people have an immediate, intuitive sense that what’s healthy is what’s “natural,” and that efforts to tamper with nature will inevitably unleash serious risks — so-called Frankenfoods. The problem with that speculation is that it’s flat-out wrong.

None of which surprises me. Pop culture is useless for many reasons, especially questions of judgement that may involve rationality. A nation that elected and then re-elected Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush doesn’t fit that requirement.

A number of factors contribute – starting with the collapse of American education over the past 60 years. We embrace some of the silliest myths in psychologizing ideology and apply them to endeavors with reams of solid science – which we promptly ignore. We are the only Western industrial nation that feels the need to identify every area of political and economic life with approval from spirits in the sky. Laughable to much of the world.

But, it all fits together nicely with the anti-GMO side of “natural” living. Trouble is, folks, you’re giving respectability to something about as sound as giving your friendly neighborhood fundamentalist the right to deny civil rights on the basis of gender identity because their one true book says it’s a sin.

This November might be the last time Texans vote for a US president – if Republicans/Confederates get their way

On Wednesday, the Platform Committee of the Texas Republican Party voted to put a Texas independence resolution up for a vote at this week’s GOP convention, according to a press release from the pro-secession Texas Nationalist Movement. The resolution calls for allowing voters to decide whether the Lone Star State should become an independent nation.

Texas was, in fact, its own country for nine years before joining the United States in 1845, and while the idea of returning to independence has never been taken seriously by most people, it remains popular as a romantic notion and marketing hook. Lone Star beer is the “national beer of Texas.”…In a 2009 rally, then-Gov. Rick Perry hinted that the state could secede…

Face it. Anyone know any Texas Republicans whose understanding of economics, politics, civil rights, equal opportunities – has progressed beyond 1845?

The Texas Nationalist Movement, once considered a quixotic fringe group, has added hundreds of members in the years since the election of Barack Obama. According to the Houston Chronicle’s Dylan Baddour, at least 10 county GOP chapters are coming to the convention supporting independence resolutions. But this will be the first time in the state’s 171-year history that they will actually vote on one. It’s very unlikely to win. Then again, that’s what people said about Donald Trump.

Racism is a powerful motivation for the natural-born bigot. Add in ignorance, fear, cowardice, you might just have a new nation.

Of course, this crew failed miserably last time they tried this, didn’t they.

I’d rather drive cross-country in my ancient pickup truck than try flying with Homeland Insecurity setting standards


Guido Menzio

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.

The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate…looked him over…something about him didn’t seem right to her…

Is Syracuse home? She asked.

No, he replied curtly.

He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused — perhaps too laser-focused — on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

Rebuffed, the woman began reading her book. Or pretending to read, anyway. Shortly after boarding had finished, she flagged down a flight attendant and handed that crew-member a note…

Then the passengers waited, and waited, and waited for the flight to take off. After they’d sat on the tarmac for about half an hour, the flight attendant approached the female passenger again and asked if she now felt okay to fly, or if she was “too sick.”…American Airlines flight 3950 remained grounded.

Then, for unknown reasons, the plane turned around and headed back to the gate. The woman was soon escorted off the plane…The wait continued.

Finally the pilot came by, and approached the real culprit behind the delay: that darkly-complected foreign man. He was now escorted off the plane, too, and taken to meet some sort of agent…

And then the big reveal: The woman wasn’t really sick at all! Instead this quick-thinking traveler had Seen Something, and so she had Said Something.

That Something she’d seen had been her seatmate’s cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize. Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering…The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.

The curly-haired man laughed.

He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or another foreign language, or even some special secret terrorist code. They were math…A differential equation, to be exact…

Guido Menzio showed the authorities his calculations and was allowed to return to his seat, he told me by email. He said the pilot seemed embarrassed. Soon after, the flight finally took off, more than two hours after its scheduled departure time for what would be just a 41-minute trip in the air, according to flight-tracking data.

The woman never reboarded to the flight.

Menzio for his part says he was “treated respectfully throughout,” though he remains baffled and frustrated by a “broken system that does not collect information efficiently.” He is troubled by the ignorance of his fellow passenger, as well as “A security protocol that is too rigid – in the sense that once the whistle is blown everything stops without checks – and relies on the input of people who may be completely clueless.”

I wonder what would have happened if the young economist constructing exactly the same equations was of Middle Eastern ethnicity and perhaps (gasp) a Muslim? Would American Airlines have shown as much reason over a 2-hour delay? Would he have been allowed to return to his flight?

The two questions we get to examine most often about American politics are (1) are people simply ignorant or (2) are they stupid?

Or both?

Pentagon opposes Republican claims that protecting birds reduces military readiness


Guess this is enough to scare today’s Republican

House Democrats…released letters from Pentagon officials that they said should put an end to “silly speculation” generated by Republicans that protecting a bird known as the greater sage-grouse could hamstring the U.S. military.

They’re hoping the new information persuades lawmakers to oppose a GOP provision in the annual defense policy bill that would block the Obama administration from protecting the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act for 10 years. The measure also would prevent implementation of land-use plans by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to conserve the sage-grouse and its habitat.

The letters show those plans are working, don’t interfere with military readiness, and help ensure the sage-grouse does not have to be listed under the act…

GOP lawmakers have argued that…”listing the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act comes at a high cost to military readiness…Our forces are already struggling to meet their training requirements before they deploy. Listing the sage-grouse would clearly impact our training ranges and make an already bad situation worse.”

Apparently Republicans feel the Sage Grouse is as great a danger to our ability to kill and maim civilians around the world as letting gay or lesbian soldiers serve in our military. Considering their uniform experience as chickenhawks in wartime – real or phony in origin – one might think they’d care more about birds.