Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Junk science

I get really fed up with people's gullibility sometimes.

I mean, I get it.  No one's an expert at everything, there are gaps in our knowledge, so when we hear a claim about something with which we are less-than-well-informed, we might shrug and go, "Okay, that might be true."

But the thing is, we shouldn't stop there.

There are lots of reasons a plausible-sounding claim might still be false.  It could be that the person making the claim was misinformed him/herself.  It could be (s)he was lying for some reason.  It could be that the person making the claim misinterpreted, or is misrepresenting, the source of the information.  It could be that the source itself is simply wrong.

So you don't just shrug, say, "That makes sense, I suppose," and forthwith stop thinking.  You do a little research -- in these days of the internet, it's hardly time consuming to do so.  You learn something to fill in the gap in your understanding.  You consider the reliability of the source -- either the person you heard it from, or the original source material.

Or all of the above.

It may seem like a lot of work, but it will result in your not being suckered by the latest bizarre claim, fad, or challenge floating around cyberspace.  And there have been some doozies.  Here's a sampler:
  • Some people learned that there was a chemical used as an anti-foaming agent in fast-food deep-fryers, then found out that this same chemical was used as a carrier in a study looking at ways to prevent hair loss.  The result was, I kid you not, people smooshing McDonald's fries on their scalp to reverse pattern baldness.
  • A fad "challenge" a while back put a number of people in the hospital.  The challenge was to swallow a Tide detergent pod.  It turns out this isn't what they meant by "cleanliness is next to godliness."
  • The Good Lord alone knows how this one started, but there's an "alt-med" claim that all illness is caused by your body being too acidic.  The goal, apparently, is to increase your pH, because bigger numbers are better, or something.  Who the fuck knows?  But it resulted in people making drastic adjustments to their diets to try to accomplish what their kidneys were doing anyhow.
  • Scientists found out that amongst the compounds used as a chemical signal between (and within) cells is hydrogen sulfide, which is also present in small amounts in intestinal gas.  This prompted a headline at Fox News Online (speaking of unreliable sources), and I quote, "Study Says Smelling Farts is Good For You," which then got passed all over the place (*rimshot*), often with a triumphant comment by people who fart a lot that they're actually doing a public service by gassing out their homes and offices.  This incident also gives support to the studies that show if you append "Study Shows" in front of any damnfool claim you want, you can get people to believe you.
I'd like to say that things like the aforementioned have cured people of believing idiotic claims out of hand, but that optimistic idea got squelched yesterday when I read that -- and I must state up front, I am not making this up -- guys are dipping their genitals in soy sauce because "studies show" that men have taste receptors in their testicles.

The whole thing started with the only source I know of that is less reliable than Fox News, which is The Daily Mail Fail.  Apparently back in 2017 some researchers found that there are nerve endings in the testicles of mice, of unknown function, that are similar to the bitter chemoreceptors of the tongue.  This was reported by The Daily Mail that mice taste with their balls.  And that prompted bunches of guys to dip their junk in soy sauce to see if they could confirm those results.

(I wondered immediately, why soy sauce in particular?  Why not some other condiment?  But then I realized that there are many worse choices, such as habañero pepper sauce, the thought of which is going to have me in a protective crouch for the rest of the day.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Creative Tools, Kikkoman soysauce, CC BY 2.0]

Despite dozens of videos making their way around the internet with guys trying the new Testicle Teriyaki recipe and then shouting, "I can taste the soy sauce!", the whole thing is idiotic.  I mean, it pains me even to have to say that in so many words.  Even if the chemoreceptors in the testicles of humans are the same as those of mice, and they could somehow be activated by something in soy sauce, there's a fundamental problem -- stay with me here -- in that guys' balls are inside our scrotums.  So this would only have a prayer of a chance of working if we absorbed chemicals through our scrotums.  The fact that we don't should be obvious to any guy who has washed his junk with soap and water while taking a shower, and -- surprise! -- doesn't end up tasting soap.

For fuck's sake.

So if any guys reading this are tempted to dip their balls in soy sauce, just... don't.  Stop, think, research, consider the source.  And please, don't listen to The Daily Mail.  Like, on anything.  Especially if they're saying you should drop your pants and pour condiments on your naughty bits.

*********************************

I don't often recommend historical books here at Skeptophilia, not because of a lack of interest but a lack of expertise in identifying what's good research and what's wild speculation.  My background in history simply isn't enough to be a fair judge.  But last week I read a book so brilliantly and comprehensively researched that I feel confident in recommending it -- and it's not only thorough, detailed, and accurate, it's absolutely gripping.

On May 7, 1915, the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk as it neared its destination of Liverpool by a German U-boat, an action that was instrumental in leading to the United States joining the war effort a year later.  The events leading up to that incident -- some due to planning, other to unfortunate chance -- are chronicled in Erik Larson's book Dead Wake, in which we find out about the cast of characters involved, and how they ended up in the midst of a disaster that took 1,198 lives.

Larson's prose is crystal-clear, giving information in such a straightforward way that it doesn't devolve into the "history textbook" feeling that so many true-history books have.  It's fascinating and horrifying -- and absolutely un-put-downable.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Thursday, January 23, 2020

Homicide by faceplant

Sometimes I think my friends are trying to kill me.

I say this because of the frequency with which they send me links to articles that cause me to headdesk so hard that I risk brain injury.  I mean, I'm sure they mean well.  I ask for submissions for topics for Skeptophilia, after all, so I bring a good bit of it upon myself.  But there are those who just seem to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Such as my friend James, who a couple of days ago sent me a link to an article over at Truth Theory called "Vibratory Quantum Theory Explained in 2,000-year-old Ancient Text."  This one was so far out in left field that it wasn't even in the same zip code as the ballpark.  In fact, it was enough beyond your average wacko-has-a-website that I thought it deserved some mention here.

Kind of a Hall of Infamy, or something.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, of course taking the precaution first of putting a pillow on your desk to pad your faceplant.  But if you'd prefer just getting a flavor of it rather than experiencing it in its entirety, I include below some excerpts, along with my responses.
Quantum physics now states that matter is merely an illusion and that everything is energy at a different frequency in vibratory motion.
This is the first sentence of the article, which is called "starting off with a bang." Quantum physics says no such thing.  Quantum physics is a mathematical description of the behavior of matter and energy on very small scales (scientists have to go to phenomenal efforts to observe quantum effects on the macroscopic scale).  Even if you strip away the math and try to come up with a layman's-terms-description of the model, you will find nothing about "everything is energy at a different frequency in vibratory motion."  I know this, you see, because I took an entire course called "Quantum Physics" when I was an undergraduate, and that phrase never came up.
In the first place, science teaches that all matter manifests, in some degree, the vibrations arising from temperature or heat.  Be an object cold or hot–both being but degrees of the same things–it manifests certain heat vibrations, and in that sense is in motion and vibration.
This is not so much wrong as it is trivial.  Yes, anything above absolute zero (i.e. everything in the universe) is in constant motion; that, in fact, is the definition of temperature (the average kinetic energy, or energy of motion, of the molecules in an object or substance).  But this motion is chaotic, not orderly and periodic, so it's not really a vibration, any more than a hundred kindergartners running around in a playground is a marching band.
And so it is with the various forms of Energy.  Science teaches that Light, Heat, Magnetism and Electricity are but forms of vibratory motion connected in some way with, and probably emanating from the Ether.
The ether (or aether) was shown to be nonexistent by the Michelson-Morley experiment, which happened in 1887.  Way to keep up with the cutting edge, dude.
Science does not as yet attempt to explain the nature of the phenomena known as Cohesion, which is the principle of Molecular Attraction; nor Chemical Affinity, which is the principle of Atomic Attraction; nor Gravitation (the greatest mystery of the three), which is the principle of attraction by which every particle or mass of Matter is bound to every other particle or mass.  These three forms of Energy are not as yet understood by science, yet the writers incline to the opinion that these too are manifestations of some form of vibratory energy, a fact which the Hermetists have held and taught for ages past.
Okay, gravitation is still kind of a mystery, but the other three (cohesion, molecular attraction, and chemical affinity) are all pretty well understood by anyone who has taken a high school chemistry class.  And I'll bet my next year's income that when gravitation is fully explained and incorporated into a Grand Unified Field Theory, it will turn out to have nothing whatsoever to do with "hermeticism."
When the object reaches a certain rate of vibration its molecules disintegrate, and resolve themselves into the original elements or atoms.  Then the atoms, following the Principle of Vibration, are separated into the countless corpuscles of which they are composed. And finally, even the corpuscles disappear and the object may be said to Be composed of The Ethereal Substance.
Okay, I have to admit that this passage defeated me.  I've read it three times and I still don't know what the fuck it means.

After this, he goes off into the aether (ba-dum-bum-kssh) with stuff about telepathy and the occult and whatnot, and at that point my face began to resemble this:


 So I'll leave you to read the rest if you're so inclined, and you have a pillow handy.

In any case, thank you to James and to my other friends for their attempts to commit faceplant homicide.  I do appreciate the gesture, and let me know if there's ever anything I can do for you in return.  One good headdesk deserves another.

*********************************

I don't often recommend historical books here at Skeptophilia, not because of a lack of interest but a lack of expertise in identifying what's good research and what's wild speculation.  My background in history simply isn't enough to be a fair judge.  But last week I read a book so brilliantly and comprehensively researched that I feel confident in recommending it -- and it's not only thorough, detailed, and accurate, it's absolutely gripping.

On May 7, 1915, the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk as it neared its destination of Liverpool by a German U-boat, an action that was instrumental in leading to the United States joining the war effort a year later.  The events leading up to that incident -- some due to planning, other to unfortunate chance -- are chronicled in Erik Larson's book Dead Wake, in which we find out about the cast of characters involved, and how they ended up in the midst of a disaster that took 1,198 lives.

Larson's prose is crystal-clear, giving information in such a straightforward way that it doesn't devolve into the "history textbook" feeling that so many true-history books have.  It's fascinating and horrifying -- and absolutely un-put-downable.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Wednesday, January 22, 2020

This week in lunacy

Is it just me, or have the evangelicals as a group completely lost their damn marbles?

I was a college student in the height of Jerry Falwell Sr.'s "Moral Majority," when the elder Falwell made the case that the United States had gone off the rails morally.  Unsurprisingly, given the Religious Right's continual obsession with what people do with their naughty bits, a lot of it had to do with the acceptance of LGBTQ individuals and the increase in swearing and sex in movies and television.

But at least it was consistent, and (on some level) reality-based.  LGBTQ individuals were gaining a greater voice, and there was more edgy stuff coming out of Hollywood.  A lot of us, myself included, had no real problem with that -- I've always wondered why in film ratings, nudity and sex were equated with violence and gore, as if a naked human body was as horrifying as a dismembered one -- so I disagreed with their assumptions.  But the definition of morality Falwell and others were pushing at least didn't seem to be coming from some sort of bizarre fever-dream.

Which is more than I can say from today's evangelicals.  Here's a sampler of rants from prominent spokespeople on the Religious Right, just in the last week:
  • "Christian Prophetess" Kat Kerr told everyone that they shouldn't be sad about the deaths of family and friends because in heaven there was a "portal," sorta like a balcony, where all of the deceased love ones could peer down at us.  "Literally, these are all over heaven," Kerr said.  My general feeling about this is that it's more creepy than comforting -- I know there are times I would really prefer it if Great-Aunt Marie weren't watching.  But Kerr doesn't seem to think of this, and says that the dead are especially likely to be there on special occasions.  "On your birthday, they go to this place," she says.  "They look down… and sing 'Happy Birthday' to you even though you cannot hear them."
  • Dave Daubenmire, of Pass the Salt Ministries, created a new confection of nastiness by mixing evangelical Christianity with racism and adding a dash of pure lunacy, accusing Meghan Markle of "poisoning the royal bloodline of the crown" because she's "half black," something that's especially awful because "the royal family is the seat of Christianity."
  • White House religious advisor Paula White made the news twice this week, first for saying that she had a vision of how Trump was going to participate in the End Times.  "God came to me last night and showed me a vision of Trump riding alongside Jesus on a horse made of gold and jewels," White said.  "This means he will play a critical role in Armageddon as the United States stands alongside Israel in the battle against Islam."  She hit the news again with a response to the bounty offered on Trump's head because of his authorization of the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, saying Trump was going to be fine because she'd invoked the "superior blood of Jesus Christ" to protect him.  White, you may recall, is the one who last year at about this time said good Christians should "donate their entire January salaries" to God (i.e., write a check to her as God's spokesperson) so that they'd receive blessings in the coming year.  
  • The ever-entertaining Jim Bakker issued a dire warning that a number of cities were going to be destroyed by the wrath of God because of their wickedness, and expects people to take him seriously even though he has an exactly zero percent success rate in predicting previous divine smitings.  Named specifically as targets are New York City and Long Island in New York, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Santa Ana in California, New Orleans, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Bangkok, Thailand, Tel Aviv, Israel, and some unnamed "North New Jersey Towns."  As far as why we should believe him, he says, "I know I'm not wrong."
That's in the last week.

The craziness gets passed along to the followers.  Just a couple of days ago, a woman in Pennsylvania named Nadedja Reilly drove her car into oncoming traffic to "test her faith."  She herself wasn't hurt (hallelujah) but two people in other cars were, something that didn't bother her in the least.  "Reilly related God took care of her by not having her injured," wrote Trooper Bruce Balliet in the arrest affidavit. "Reilly expressed no concerns or remorse for the victims.  Reilly also stated she did not care if the other people were injured because God would have taken care of them."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons HoppingRabbit34 at English Wikipedia, Baptists-against-jews, CC BY 3.0]

If it's not clear from what I've written already, yes, I know it's not all Christians.  I have a great many Christian friends of various denominations, and I'm sure they'd be as appalled as I am at all this.  But my point is that in the last couple of years events have revealed a deep streak of batshit lunacy in the Religious Right, beyond the intolerance, self-righteousness, and homophobia that has been evident for as long as I can remember.  And all too few people recognize this as the same kind of insane extremism and disconnect from reality that exists in radical Islam -- despite the fact that many of the same people who love Pence and Wiles and Bakker et al. consider the outrageous, bigoted, and violent statements made by fundamentalist Muslim spokespeople to be deeply and thoroughly evil.

Maybe they should reread the injunction from Matthew 7 to remove the beam from your own eye before you attempt to pluck the splinter from your neighbor's.  Or the message to the Pharisees -- the Religious Right of Jesus's time -- in Matthew 23, where Jesus referred to them as a "brood of vipers" for their pious, hypocritical self-righteousness.

None of that seems to occur to them.  A selective reading of the bible is also one of their specialties.

It's all very well to laugh at these people; Bakker in particular is so out in left field that he's almost begging to be ridiculed.  But there's the danger that if we poke fun at them, we lose sight of two facts: (1) they're completely serious; and (2) they have a great many followers who believe every word they say.

How to fight against this, I have no idea.  Knowing about it is a start, which is why I'm writing this today.  But that gets us no closer to eliminating this frightening streak of fanaticism that seems to be getting louder and louder.  It puts me in mind of the quote, often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis (its actual provenance is unknown): "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

*********************************

I don't often recommend historical books here at Skeptophilia, not because of a lack of interest but a lack of expertise in identifying what's good research and what's wild speculation.  My background in history simply isn't enough to be a fair judge.  But last week I read a book so brilliantly and comprehensively researched that I feel confident in recommending it -- and it's not only thorough, detailed, and accurate, it's absolutely gripping.

On May 7, 1915, the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk as it neared its destination of Liverpool by a German U-boat, an action that was instrumental in leading to the United States joining the war effort a year later.  The events leading up to that incident -- some due to planning, other to unfortunate chance -- are chronicled in Erik Larson's book Dead Wake, in which we find out about the cast of characters involved, and how they ended up in the midst of a disaster that took 1,198 lives.

Larson's prose is crystal-clear, giving information in such a straightforward way that it doesn't devolve into the "history textbook" feeling that so many true-history books have.  It's fascinating and horrifying -- and absolutely un-put-downable.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The ghost in the machine

One of my reasons for doubting a lot of reports of the paranormal is because, to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, we are poor data-taking devices.  We have, he says, "all sorts of ways of getting it wrong."

The problem is, our brain doesn't agree with that most of the time.  Of course what we're seeing and hearing is real.  Not only is it real, we're seeing and hearing everything there is to see and hear.  We can't possibly be missing something, or sensing something that isn't there.  So if we have an experience outside of the normal realm, it must reflect reality, right?

Of course right.

But a study at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland has shown conclusively that it's just not so.  It doesn't take much to fool us, and fool us so convincingly that our brains can't come up with any other explanation but that there's something supernatural happening... even if those brains already knew that they were part of an experiment, and understood how it was being done.

Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at ÉPFL, has led a team to create a ghost illusion so real that several participants asked to quit the study because they were so freaked out.  It was done quite simply -- no electrodes or any sort of elaborate apparatus needed.

[This "ghost photo" was created by one of my Critical Thinking students, Nathan Brewer, as part of a project to illustrate how easy it is to generate a convincingly creepy paranormal photograph using PhotoShop.  Not bad, eh? (used with permission)]

What they did was to have blindfolded participants move their hands, while a robotic arm behind them touched them on the back, moving the same way at the same time.  No problem there; the brain quickly figured out what was going on.

But then, they introduced a half-second delay into the proceedings -- so that the robotic arm was a little offset from the movement of the person's real arm.  And this created a sense of an "unseen presence" behind them so realistic (and unsettling) that several participants asked the researchers to stop after three minutes because the sensation was "unbearable."  One participant said he was convinced that there was not just one "ghost" behind him, but four!

"Our experiment induced the sensation of a foreign presence in the laboratory for the first time," Blanke said.   "It shows that it can arise under normal conditions, simply through conflicting sensory-motor signals.  The robotic system mimics the sensations of some patients with mental disorders or of healthy individuals under extreme circumstances.  This confirms that it is caused by an altered perception of their own bodies in the brain."

Which is fascinating, even if it punches further holes in our sense of seeing and interpreting everything correctly.

Now, understand, there are two things I am not saying, here: (1) that all paranormal experiences can be explained by failures in our perceptive or cognitive equipment; and (2) that it's impossible that ghosts (and other such entities) exist.  In my opinion, the jury is very much still out on what's behind experiences of the paranormal in general, and I am reluctant to make the jump that because some of them are misinterpretations or hoaxes, they all are.

What this experiment points out, though, is that anecdote isn't enough.  We're suggestible, easily confused, and bring our own biases into whatever we experience.  If a little touch from a robotic arm on the backs of people who knew they were part of an experiment on perception is sufficient to generate an unshakeable sensation of being in the presence of a ghost, how can we trust stories of the "I was in the room, and then I sensed there was someone else in there with me" variety?

Admittedly, it could well be that there are ghosts, and an afterlife, and so on.  I've seen no convincing evidence of it, and lots of non-convincing evidence, and all too many out-and-out hoaxes and falsehoods.  But could it be?  Sure.

On the "plus" side are (literally) thousands of first-hand accounts, including cases where the claimant has no obvious reason to lie and no other explanation is forthcoming.  On the "minus" side, any bits of hard evidence are equivocal at best (whatever people like Dean Radin might say about it), and there are a couple of convincing non-supernatural possibilities that could account for at least some of those claims.  So at the moment, my position is "I don't know."  I'm going to wait for either scientifically reliable evidence, or else my own death, at which point I'll find out for sure one way or the other.

*********************************

I don't often recommend historical books here at Skeptophilia, not because of a lack of interest but a lack of expertise in identifying what's good research and what's wild speculation.  My background in history simply isn't enough to be a fair judge.  But last week I read a book so brilliantly and comprehensively researched that I feel confident in recommending it -- and it's not only thorough, detailed, and accurate, it's absolutely gripping.

On May 7, 1915, the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk as it neared its destination of Liverpool by a German U-boat, an action that was instrumental in leading to the United States joining the war effort a year later.  The events leading up to that incident -- some due to planning, other to unfortunate chance -- are chronicled in Erik Larson's book Dead Wake, in which we find out about the cast of characters involved, and how they ended up in the midst of a disaster that took 1,198 lives.

Larson's prose is crystal-clear, giving information in such a straightforward way that it doesn't devolve into the "history textbook" feeling that so many true-history books have.  It's fascinating and horrifying -- and absolutely un-put-downable.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Monday, January 20, 2020

A game of "Not It"

I don't have a lot of patience for the cynical, pessimistic attitude I hear from people who otherwise I generally agree with, that often takes the form of "humans are garbage" or "I hate people."

Usually, these comments come from righteous outrage at the capacity of some people for committing horrifying acts.  Abuse of children and animals, violence motivated by racism, religion, and homophobia, victim-blaming or outright dismissal in cases of rape and spousal violence -- we're right to be disgusted by these.

But concluding that all humans are worthless is tantamount to giving up.  And that's unacceptable.  There's too much at stake, especially now.

I understand that it seems like an uphill battle, and that the moral people of the world -- who, I maintain, are the majority, regardless of how it may seem at times -- get exhausted by what seems like an endless fight that never makes any serious headway.

In fact, I have to admit to having a moment like this yesterday morning, when I read that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled to dismiss the lawsuit Juliana vs. United States, nicknamed the "Children's Climate Lawsuit."  Filed by a group called Our Children's Trust, this lawsuit aimed to hold the government of the United States responsible for their inaction on climate change, thereby endangering children's chances of living to adulthood in a world that is environmentally stable.

Most of us -- although admittedly not legal scholars -- looked at this and said, "Well, yeah."  The Declaration of Independence calls life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness "inalienable rights," which would seem to me that this makes it incumbent upon our government not to render the place uninhabitable.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Takver, Climate Rally flows down Swanston street, CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Ninth Circuit Court disagreed.  In the majority opinion, Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote, "The central issue before us is whether, even assuming such a broad constitutional right exists, an Article III court can provide the plaintiffs the redress they seek—an order requiring the government to develop a plan to 'phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2.  Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government."

The "reluctance" Hurwitz feels evidently wasn't enough to stop him from saying "Not It" when it came to drawing a line in the sand with regards to our wanton environmental destruction, something that has gotten significantly worse under Trump's administration.  No environmental legislation has been safe -- from water and air quality, to protections for endangered species, to the shielding of public land from damage from mining, logging, and oil drilling.  The motto of our government is "Use it all up and fuck the consequences," with the attitude being "Oh, well, we'll all be dead by the time bad stuff happens, may as well cut loose and party hard now."

So I'm inclined to look at Hurwitz's reluctance as a little like Maine Senator Susan Collins's approach to standing up to Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.  "Yes, I'll give it serious consideration," she says, then proceeds to rubberstamp everything Trump and McConnell want.

But she always makes a sad frowny face while she's doing it to show how reluctant she is, and that makes it all okay.

In the dissenting opinion, Judge Josephine Staton couldn't have said it clearer.  "Plaintiffs bring suit to enforce the most basic structural principle embedded in our system of ordered liberty: that the Constitution does not condone the Nation’s willful destruction."

So that's another avenue closed by someone's desire not to be the one to make a stand.  Like I said, it's not that I don't get how hard that is.  Facing down a fierce and relentless opposition, and continuing to fight despite setback after setback, is mentally and physically exhausting.  It's why I have nothing but admiration for people like my dear friend Sandra Steingraber, who has been fighting for the environment and the global climate literally for decades, and somehow manages the wherewithal to keep going despite what sometimes seem monstrous odds.

"Fortunately, there are people who will not be deterred from the work of civilization," journalist Bill Moyers said, "who will even from time to time go up against authority in peaceful disobedience, taking a nonviolent stand for a greater good.  Such a person is Sandra Steingraber."

Or as Sandra herself wrote in 2014 from the Chemung County (New York) Jail, where she was serving a sentence for her civil disobedience, "Five days without clouds, sky, stars, leaves, birdsong, wind, sunlight, and fresh food has left me homesick to the point of grief.  I now inhabit an ugly, diminished place devoid of life and beauty – and this is exactly the kind of harsh, ravaged world I do not want my children to inhabit."

So after the defeat dealt to us all by the Ninth Circuit Court's decision, we stand up, dust ourselves off, and keep going.  I'm not going to fall back into the "humans are horrible and deserve everything we get" attitude, which seems to me to be nothing more than an excuse for inaction.  I know too many moral, kind, compassionate, and loving humans for me to accept that and give up.  We're going through a difficult time right now -- a world teetering on the edge of climate chaos, an environment slipping back into the pre-regulation ravages of pollution and overuse, and a government made of lying grifters who believe in power and personal profit über alles.

But I am buoyed up by realizing that we can only continue to do what we've done, fighting the daily battles with what spirit we can, and not despairing because of the size of the task ahead -- or its gravity.  I'm reminded of the wonderful quote from J. R. R. Tolkien's Return of the King: "It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.  What weather they shall have is not ours to rule."

And, perhaps even more hopefully, the poignant line from Stephen King's The Stand, spoken by Nadine Cross to Randall Flagg himself (talk about speaking truth to power!):  "The effective half-life of evil is always relatively short."

*********************************

I don't often recommend historical books here at Skeptophilia, not because of a lack of interest but a lack of expertise in identifying what's good research and what's wild speculation.  My background in history simply isn't enough to be a fair judge.  But last week I read a book so brilliantly and comprehensively researched that I feel confident in recommending it -- and it's not only thorough, detailed, and accurate, it's absolutely gripping.

On May 7, 1915, the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk as it neared its destination of Liverpool by a German U-boat, an action that was instrumental in leading to the United States joining the war effort a year later.  The events leading up to that incident -- some due to planning, other to unfortunate chance -- are chronicled in Erik Larson's book Dead Wake, in which we find out about the cast of characters involved, and how they ended up in the midst of a disaster that took 1,198 lives.

Larson's prose is crystal-clear, giving information in such a straightforward way that it doesn't devolve into the "history textbook" feeling that so many true-history books have.  It's fascinating and horrifying -- and absolutely un-put-downable.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]





Saturday, January 18, 2020

Djinn and tonic

This week we've been looking at some pretty deep topics, such as the effects of dark matter on star position in the Milky Way, what causes some plants to be essentially immortal, and the discovery of mineral grains that predate the Earth's formation.  So it seems fitting to address next something that is, I'm sure, on all of your minds, namely: what do I do if my house is occupied by an evil djinn?

The djinn, sometimes spelled "jinn" or anglicized as "genie," are spirits who you find in Middle Eastern mythology.  While people who are in the know about such things make it clear that djinns are not inherently good or evil, they have the tendency to be swayed toward the evil side of things.  Muhammad supposedly was sent not only to bring the word of Allah to humans but to the djinn as well, but even so they have a reputation for having some seriously ill will toward the rest of us.  Folk tales from that region are rife with djinn living in "unclean places" and possessing humans (the outcome is seldom good).

So pretty clearly, this is a group of beings we should all be on the lookout for.  This is where a guy named Saad Ja'afar comes in.  Because he is the world's foremost -- perhaps the world's only -- professional djinn trapper.

My first thought on reading this was to say, "um... his name is... Ja'afar?  You have got to be making this up."  Because any of you with children will undoubtedly know that this is the name (although usually spelled "Jafar") of the evil Grand Vizier in Aladdin.  But apparently yes, the djinn trapper is indeed Saad Ja'afar, and his business (Pakar Tangkap Jin), based in Johor Bahru, at the southern tip of Malaysia, is who you want to contact if you're being bothered by scary blue guys who live inside lamps.

Zawba'a, one of the kings of the djinn, with some of his attendant djinn servants.  Which brings up the question of why so many of them are blue.  Are they cold?  Maybe they should try putting some clothes on. (From a late 14th century Arabic manuscript) [Image is in the Public Domain]

As far as Ja'afar goes, his rates are pretty reasonable.  For one djinn removal, he charges 200 ringgit ($48.75 at current exchange rates), and he can even work remotely.  "I don’t have to physically be there at the location to catch the ghost," Ja'afar says.  "Before this, the farthest I’ve captured a djinn was at Sabah.  We keep the spirit and djinn close to the mosque to encourage it to repent."

It bears mention that Sabah isn't exactly right next door to Johor Bahru.  The only way to get from one to the other is via a two-hour flight.  So it's just as well he can trap troublesome djinn without leaving the comfort of his home.  I wouldn't want him to have to fly all the way to upstate New York if we were having djinn trouble, because I did that flight before and it was kind of miserable.  Kuala Lumpur to New York City was a sixteen-hour flight, meaning you could watch a long movie, sleep for six hours, and you'd still have seven hours left to go.

I have never been so glad to get off an airplane in my life.

Anyhow, Ja'afar has a Facebook page (because of course he does), and on it he has accounts of his successful captures, including a spirit-realm battle he got in with a bomoh, a Malaysian shaman, who brought a djinn back into a house he'd just cleared.  I can understand how frustrating this must have been.  I face that all the time with my dogs tracking in mud on floors I just cleaned, and they're not even doing it using magic.

Apparently, once Ja'afar captures the djinn, he imprisons it in a bottle, which I guess makes sense given the whole genie-in-a-lamp thing.  So it seems like he's got quite a lucrative racket going.  He never has to leave his house, and all he needs is a supply of glass bottles and corks and a good schtick to tell his customers about how dire the battle was, but he was victorious and the djinn is vanquished, and he gets paid.

Almost makes me wish I had thought of it first.

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This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!] 




Friday, January 17, 2020

Trapped in the ice

Today in the "I've Seen This Movie, And It Didn't End Well" department, we have: scientists digging into glacial ice and finding heretofore-undiscovered species of viruses and bacteria.

Just this week, a paper called "Glacier Ice Archives Fifteen-Thousand-Year-Old Viruses" was released as a preprint on bioRxiv, detailing work by a team led by Zhi-Ping Zhong of Ohio State University.  Here's what the scientists themselves write about the research:
While glacier ice cores provide climate information over tens to hundreds of thousands of years, study of microbes is challenged by ultra-low-biomass conditions, and virtually nothing is known about co-occurring viruses.  Here we establish ultra-clean microbial and viral sampling procedures and apply them to two ice cores from the Guliya ice cap (northwestern Tibetan Plateau, China) to study these archived communities...  The microbes differed significantly across the two ice cores, presumably representing the very different climate conditions at the time of deposition that is similar to findings in other cores.  Separately, viral particle enrichment and ultra-low-input quantitative viral metagenomic sequencing from ∼520 and ∼15,000 years old ice revealed 33 viral populations (i.e., species-level designations) that represented four known genera and likely 28 novel viral genera (assessed by gene-sharing networks).  In silico host predictions linked 18 of the 33 viral populations to co-occurring abundant bacteria, including Methylobacterium, Sphingomonas, and Janthinobacterium, indicating that viruses infected several abundant microbial groups.  Depth-specific viral communities were observed, presumably reflecting differences in the environmental conditions among the ice samples at the time of deposition. 
On the face of it, it's unsurprising they're finding new viruses, because we find new viruses wherever we look in modern ecosystems.  Viruses are so small that unless you're specifically looking for them, you don't see them.

But four new genera of viruses is a little eyebrow-raising, because that means we're talking about viruses that aren't closely related to anything we've ever seen before.

This, of course, brings up the inevitable question, which was the first thing I thought of; what if one of these new viruses turns out to be pathogenic to humans?  The majority of viruses don't cause disease in humans, but it only takes one.  Science fiction is rife with people messing around with melting ice and releasing horrors -- this was the basic idea of The Thing, not to mention The X Files episode "Ice" and best of all (in my opinion) the horrifying, thrilling, and heartbreaking Doctor Who episode "The Waters of Mars," which is in my top five favorites in the entire history of the series.


So I'm hoping like hell the research team is being cautious.  Not that it ever made any difference in science fiction.  Somebody always fucks up, and large amounts of people end up getting sick, eaten, or converted to some horrifying new form that goes around killing everyone.

Lest you think I'm just being an alarmist because I've watched too many horror movies, allow me to point out that this sort of thing has already happened.  In 2016, permafrost melt in Siberia released frozen anthrax spores that sickened almost a hundred people, one fatally, and killed over two thousand reindeer -- after that region not seeing a single case of anthrax for at least seventy years.

On the other hand, it's understandable that the scientists are acting quickly, because the way things are going in the climate, glaciers will be a thing of the past in fairly short order.  Glaciers and polar ice sheets are time capsules, layer by layer preserving information about the climatic conditions when the ice was deposited, even trapping air bubbles that act as proxy records giving us information about the atmospheric composition at the time.  (This is one of the ways we've obtained carbon dioxide concentrations going back tens of thousands of years.)

However, it also preserves living things, including some that seem to retain their ability to be resuscitated nearly indefinitely.  I try not to panic over every little risk, but I have to admit this one has me spooked.  We don't have a stellar track record for caution, but our track record for saying, "Oh, yeah, this'll work!" and then unleashing a catastrophe is a good bit more consistent.

So let's be careful, okay, scientists?  I'm all for learning whatever we can learn, but I'd rather not be turned into a creepy evil being with a scaly face dripping toxic contagious water all over the place.  Call me picky, but there it is.

*****************************

This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is scarily appropriate reading material in today's political climate: Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall's wonderful A Colorful History of Popular Delusions.  In this brilliant and engaging book, the authors take a look at the phenomenon of crowd behavior, and how it has led to some of the most irrational behaviors humans are prone to -- fads, mobs, cults, crazes, manias, urban legends, and riots.

Sometimes amusing, sometimes shocking, this book looks at how our evolutionary background as a tribal animal has made us prone all too often to getting caught up in groupthink, where we leave behind logic and reason for the scary territory of making decisions based purely on emotion.  It's unsettling reading, but if you want to understand why humans all too often behave in ways that make the rational ones amongst us want to do repeated headdesks, this book should be on your list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]