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.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The voice of an angel

New from the "It's Not A Sin When We Do It" department, we have: Christian Charismatics using a spin-off of the Ouija board to contact angels.

I was sent this story by a friend and long-time loyal reader of Skeptophilia, and my first thought was, "This can't be true."  Sadly, it is.  The same people who go on and on about how evil Ouija boards are and how you're risking your eternal soul even being in the same room with one are now saying that their Ouija boards are just fine and dandy.

The "Angel Board" is available from Amazon at the low-low-low price of $28 (plus shipping and handling).  In the product description, we're told that we can "ask any question we want, and the Angel Board will answer."  If you don't like that particular one, it turns out there are dozens of different makes and models, some costing hundreds of dollars.  Because we can't just have one company capitalizing on people's gullibility.

Interestingly, if not surprisingly, the reviews have been uniformly good.  One five-star review says:
I have been on a path of spiritual enlightenment for 1 year now.  I have two other friends who have shared this path with me. We share books, experiences, thoughts and feelings, but when one of us (not me) bought this book and “game” board to communicate with our higher-level guides or “guardian angels,” it became a turning point in my journey.  I didn’t think I was “advanced enough” or “spiritual enough” to make this thing work.  I learned, in about 2 minutes, that doubting myself was doubting God and his angels! In one evening, I met my higher guide, felt unconditional love, and knew I wasn’t alone and never had been. I was convinced, beyond all reason, of the presence of my angel.  To this date, I call him “J” as we haven’t yet tuned our energies to really work out the spelling of the name…  I asked him if “J” would be okay, and he said, “yes.”  He has answered to “J” ever since!  One evening, before I was able to acquire an “angel board” of my own,  I tried an Ouija Board.  It took several attempts before J was able to answer me, but when he did, I asked if he preferred the angel board and he responded “yes.”  We had a very difficult, short conversation that night.  The angel board is a MUST for all those who seek a closer relationship with their guardian angel, and who have not had much practice in meditation and raising their energies to a compatible level with the light bodies waiting to guide us!
It's to be hoped that when they "tune their energies" and she finds out "J's" actual name, it's not a rude shock.  It'd kind of suck if she thought she was talking to the Archangel Jophiel and it turned out she was having a conversation with, say, Jar-Jar Binks.

It bears mention, however, that not everyone is so sanguine about the Angel Board.  At the site Women of Grace, we're given the following warning:
Angel boards are just as dangerous as Ouija boards, perhaps more so because they haves [sic] the same purpose as a Ouija board – contacting “spirits” – only they pretend to be summoning guardian angels to make it seem less dangerous...  This is so dangerous on so many levels.  When a person evokes spirits of the dead, he or she is never in control because they are dealing with preternatural forces.  These are powerful beings who are possessed of super-human intelligence, strength and cunning.  Only the most naïve would think that they can control summoned spirits merely by “politely” asking them to come or go...  Needless to say, angel boards should be strictly avoided.
Over at Our Spiritual Quest, "ex medium and professional astrologer" Marcia Montenegro agrees:
Any attempt to contact or summon an angel will result in contact only with a fallen angel.  Spiritism is strongly forbidden and denounced by God and angels are spirit creatures. 
There is no example anywhere in the Bible of anyone contacting an angel.  The angels who brought messages or did other things for people in the Bible were sent at God’s command.  They were never summoned by man. 
Asking questions using this Board is the same as using a Ouija Board.  In both cases, only fallen angels, disguised as good angels, as guardian angels, or as the dead, will respond.
I never realized that borrowing from the spiritualists was such a big thing among the hyper-religious, but apparently it is.   There's even a "Christian Tarot deck," available at (surprise!) Amazon, which says that the practice if done right is "biblically consonant."  As you might imagine, this got quite a reaction, both from the people who think Tarot cards are the instrument of the devil and those who think divination is a divine gift.

Weirder still, sometimes those are the same people.  Kris Vallotton, pastor of the Bethel Church and self-styled "spiritual leader," heard people said that he and his church members were using Christian Tarot cards developed by a group called "Christalignment," and responded in no uncertain terms:
This is insane... whoever is doing this needs to repent and repent the craziness in the name of "reaching people for Christ..."  There are people who listen to our teaching and create strange and/or anti-biblical applications in our name...  [W]e need wisdom as we move into the cesspool we call the world.  Stop the craziness!
Shortly afterwards, Vallotton responded to his response in no uncertain terms:
There has been some recent concern about the ministry of Christalignment and their supposed use of “Christian tarot cards” in ministering to people at New Age festivals.  While the leaders of this ministry (Ken and Jenny Hodge) are connected with several members of our community (including being the parents to our much-loved brother, evangelist Ben Fitzgerald), Christalignment is not formally affiliated with Bethel.  We do, however, have a value for what they are seeking to accomplish.
When his followers raised hell about his apparent chumminess with occultists, Vallotton responded to the response to his response in no uncertain terms:
Let’s be clear: I was speaking against Tarot cards and their use, which I am still against.  I was addressing people who were accusing Bethel taking part in this practice.  We don’t and never have been been apart [sic] of this.  So that’s still true!  The people who were named in the article, were never named in the people’s accusations of us (that I knew of at the time) nor did I name anyone in my posts.  The article turned out to be fake news against great people who love God, don’t use Tarot cards and lead 1000s of people who do, to Christ.
So there you have it.  He's unequivocally for it except in the sense that he's unequivocally against it.

But he did get some support from one of his followers who said she thought there was nothing wrong even if these were Tarot cards, because, after all, "'Tarot' is "Torah' spelled backwards."

Predictably, I read all this with an expression like this:


My general impression is that the whole lot of it -- Tarot cards, Ouija boards, angelology, and the entire Charismatic movement -- is a lot of nonsense.  So arguing about whether a silly board game or some funny pictures printed on cheap card stock are going to put you in touch with an angel or with the Prince of Darkness is a little like arguing over whether "C-A-T" spells "dog" or "horse."

Anyhow, thanks to the loyal reader who sent me the link.  I suppose it's a good thing that this is what the hyper-Christians are currently spending their time discussing.  It's less time they'll have to spend trying to shoehorn young-Earth creationism into public school science curricula.  If that's my other option, I'll take sacred Ouija boards any day.

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You can't get on social media without running into those "What Star Trek character are you?" and "Click on the color you like best and find out about your personality!" tests, which purport to give you insight into yourself and your unconscious or subconscious traits.  While few of us look at these as any more than the games they are, there's one personality test -- the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which boils you down to where you fall on four scales -- extrovert/introvert, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving -- that a great many people, including a lot of counselors and psychologists, take seriously.

In The Personality Brokers, author Merve Emre looks not only at the test but how it originated.  It's a fascinating and twisty story of marketing, competing interests, praise, and scathing criticism that led to the mother/daughter team of Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers developing what is now the most familiar personality inventory in the world.

Emre doesn't shy away from the criticisms, but she is fair and even-handed in her approach.  The Personality Brokers is a fantastic read, especially for anyone interested in psychology, the brain, and the complexity of the human personality.






Saturday, February 16, 2019

The ghost of Robert Schumann

Yesterday, I was driving home from work, and was listening to Symphony Hall, the classical music station on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, and the announcer said that we'd be hearing the Violin Concerto in D Minor of the brilliant and tragic composer Robert Schumann.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

"And there's quite a story to go with it," he said, and proceeded to tell us how the composer had written the piece in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend and fellow musician Joseph Joachim.  Joachim, however, thought the piece too dark to have any chance at popularity, and after Schumann attempted suicide in 1854 the sheet music was deposited at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, and everyone forgot about it.

In 1933, eighty years later, two women conducting a séance in London were alarmed to hear a "spirit voice" that claimed to be Schumann, and that said they were to go to the Prussian State Library to recover an "unpublished work" and see to it that it got performed.  So the women went over to Berlin, and found the music -- right where the "spirit" said it would be.

Four years later, in 1937, a copy was sent anonymously to the great conductor Yehudi Menuhin.  Impressed, and delighted to have the opportunity to stage a first performance of a piece from a composer who had been dead for 84 years, he premiered it in San Francisco in October of that year.  But the performance was interrupted by one of the two women who had "talked to Schumann," who claimed that she had a right to first performance, since she'd been in touch with the spirit world about the piece and had received that right from the dead composer himself!

We then got to hear the piece, which is indeed dark and haunting and beautiful, and you should all give it a listen.



Having been an aficionado of stories of the paranormal since I was a teen -- which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a long time ago -- it's not often that I get to hear one that I didn't know about before.  Especially, given my love for music, one involving a famous composer.  So I thought this was an intriguing tale, and when I got home I decided to look into it, and see if there was more known about the mysterious piece and its scary connection to séances and ghosts.

And -- sorry to disappoint you if you bought the whole spirit-voice thing -- there is, indeed, a lot more to the story.

Turns out that the announcer was correct that violinist Joachim, when he received the concerto, didn't like it much.  He commented in a letter that the piece showed "a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy, though certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist."  And he not only tucked it away at the Prussian State Library, he included a provision in his will (1907) that the piece should not be performed until 1956, a hundred years after Schumann's death.  So while it was forgotten, it wasn't perhaps as unknown as the radio announcer wanted us to think.

Which brings us up to the séance, and the spirit voice, and the finding of the manuscript -- conveniently leaving out the fact that the two woman who were at the séance, Jelly d'Arányi and Adila Fachiri, were sisters -- who were the grand-nieces of none other than Joseph Joachim himself!

Funny how leaving out one little detail like that makes a story seem like it admits of no other explanation than the supernatural, isn't it?  Then you find out that detail, and... well, not so much, any more.

It's hard to imagine that d'Arányi and Fachiri, who were fourteen and nineteen years old, respectively, when their great-uncle died, wouldn't have known about his will and its mysterious clause forbidding the performance of Schumann's last major work.  d'Arányi and Fachiri themselves were both violinists of some repute, so this adds to their motivation for revealing the piece, with the séance adding an extra frisson to the story, especially in the superstitious and spirit-happy 1930s.  And the forwarding of the piece to Menuhin, followed by d'Arányi's melodramatic crashing of the premiere, has all of the hallmarks of a well-crafted publicity stunt.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to discover how easy this one was to debunk.  Of course, I don't know that my explanation is correct; maybe the two sisters were visited by the ghost of Robert Schumann, who had been wandering around in the afterlife, pissed off that his last masterwork wasn't being performed.  But if you cut the story up using Ockham's Razor, you have to admit that the spirit-voices-and-séance theory doesn't make nearly as much sense as the two-sisters-pulling-a-clever-hoax theory.

A pity, really, because a good spooky story always adds something to a dark, melancholy piece of music. I may have to go listen to Danse Macabre, The Drowned Cathedral, and Night on Bald Mountain, just to get myself back into the mood.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Friday, February 15, 2019

The end of the world as we know it

Seems like it's been a while since the world ended, you know?

For a while, it seemed like the world was ending every couple of weeks or so.  But since Harold Camping died, apocalyptic prophecies have been a little thin.  So I'm glad to announce that once again, the world is ending, this time on December 28, 2019.

At least it's after Christmas.  I kind of like Christmas.

What's funniest about all of this is that there have been 89 serious prophecies of the End of Everything in the last hundred years, twelve of which came from the Jehovah's Witnesses.  That's not even counting all of the ones before that, when every religious sect in the world periodically threw a "Countdown to the Apocalypse" party.  And I don't know if you've noticed, but the world is still here, kind of loping along, without the appearance of Scarlet Whores of Babylon or Apocalyptic Horsepersons or Dragons with Seven Heads and Ten Crowns.

Which brings up the question of why a dragon would have ten crowns if it only has seven heads.  Do three of its heads get two crowns each?  If so, does he just kind of stack them up?  It seems like the sensible thing would be to have an equal number of heads and crowns, but maybe I'm just not thinking enough like a dragon.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Viktor Vasnetsov (1887) [Image is in the Public Domain]

In any case, this latest dire prediction comes from David Montaigne, whom, you may remember, has predicted the end before.  In fact, he said that the world would end in 2013 (since the December 2012 Mayan Apocalypse didn't happen), and when we got to January 1, 2014 with nothing untoward happening, he revised that to 2016.

Both times, you might want to know, were supposed to be caused by Barack Obama.

Since a flat 0% success rate is not nearly enough to discourage these people, Montaigne is at it again, this time aiming for the end of December of this year.  Apparently the cause this time is an astronomical alignment which will cause massive earthquakes and volcanoes.  Here's what he has to say about it:
On December 21, 2019, survivors will experience the first day of a pole shift – when the entire surface of the planet will shift out of position and move over the more fluid layers beneath the crust.  Over the next few days this will cause earthquakes and tidal waves and volcanic activity which will almost completely destroy what is left of our civilisation.  There is a mountain of evidence in historical, geological, and biological records showing such pole shifts have happened before.  Even the Bible describes them repeatedly.  I think that we will experience another pole shift for the week following December 21, 2019, getting worse each day until the natural disasters culminate on December 28 – Judgment Day.
Well, first of all, the "pole shift" he's apparently referring to is the flipping of the magnetic poles, and has nothing whatsoever to do with movements of the crust or (worse) the axis of the Earth.  Now, there's no doubt that this will wreak havoc on navigational systems; in fact, recently the North Magnetic Pole has been wandering around quite a lot, moving at a rate of 55 kilometers a year.  (If you want to see a map of the positions of the North and South Geomagnetic Poles, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a great one.)

None of this has a thing to do with earthquakes and volcanoes, however.  And it's unlikely that the Bible has anything to say about pole reversals one way or another, since the last one occurred 780,000 years ago, and according to people of Montaigne's stripe the Earth is only 6,000-odd years old.

So I'm perhaps to be excused if I'm not all that alarmed by this.  Yeah, if the poles flip it'll take a while for GPS and other systems to compensate, and I'll probably have to accustom myself to being lost even more than usual.  But other than that, I suspect that (1) Montaigne has no idea when the reversal is actually going to take place, because basically, neither do the scientists, and (2) he doesn't have the first clue what pole reversal actually means, and (3) we'll all make it to December 29 un-judged and still moseying on.  So if you were counting on being Raptured Up To Heaven and not having to work in 2020, you might want to reconsider your options.

Oh, and after Montaigne made his announcement, he wrote a wonderful post on his blog called "Are My Books Being Discredited Because I'm Actually Onto Something Important?"  Which requires us to invoke Betteridge's Law, that "any article with a headline in the form of a question can be summed up with the answer 'No.'"

There's a part of me that's kind of disappointed by this.  Some Trumpets and Seals and Bowls and Dens of Iniquity would kind of spice things up around here.  I live in rural upstate New York, which is -- and I say this with great affection -- kind of boring at times.  Especially in the middle of winter, when we're usually calf-deep in snow.  So if the Antichrist showed up, at least it would break the monotony.

Which probably means it won't happen.  Disappointing, that'll be.  But there's the consolation, global-disaster-wise, that we'll still be in the Donald Trump presidency (provided he's not impeached or otherwise run out of town before then), and they seem to be doing a good enough job of setting us up for Armageddon as-is.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Thursday, February 14, 2019

Quantum pigeons

After yesterday's screed about the anti-education stance of this administration, today in the interest of reducing my likelihood of spontaneously combusting out of rage I'm going to retreat to my happy place, which is: weird and cool scientific discoveries.

I have a fascination for quantum physics.  Not that I can say I understand it that well; but no less than Nobel laureate and generally brilliant guy Richard Feynman said (in his lecture "The Character of Physical Law"), "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."  I have a decent, if superficial, grasp of such loopy ideas as quantum indeterminacy, superposition, entanglement, and so on.  Which is why I find the following joke absolutely hilarious:
Heisenberg and Schrödinger were out for a drive one day, and they got pulled over by a cop.  The cop says to Heisenberg, who was driving, "Hey, buddy, do you know how fast you were going?" 
Heisenberg says, "No, but I know exactly where I am." 
The cop says, "You were doing 85 miles per hour!" 
Heisenberg responds, "Great!  Now I'm lost." 
The cop scowls at him.  "All right, pal, if you're going to be a smartass, I'm going to search your car."  So he opens the trunk, and there's a dead cat inside it.  He says, "Did you know there's a dead cat in your trunk?" 
Schrödinger says, "Well, there is now."
Thanks, you're a great audience.  I'll be here all week.

In any case, a paper came out last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called, "Experimental Demonstration of the Quantum Pigeonhole Paradox," by a team of physicists at China's University of Science and Technology, which was enough to make my brain explode.  Here's the gist of it, although be forewarned that if you ask me for further explanation, you're very likely to be out of luck.

There's something called the pigeonhole principle in number theory, that seems kind of self-evident to me but apparently is highly profound to number theorists and other people who delve into things like sets, one-to-one correspondences, and mapping.  It goes like this: if you try to put three pigeons into two pigeonholes, one of the pigeonholes must be shared by two pigeons.

See, I told you it was self-evident.  Maybe you have to be a number theorist before you find these kind of things remarkable.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Razvan Socol, Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) in Iași, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In any case, what January's paper showed is that on the quantum level, the pigeonhole principle doesn't hold true.  In the experiment, photons take the place of pigeons, and polarization states (either horizontal or vertical) take the place of the pigeonholes.  And when you do this, you find...

... that when you compare the polarization states of the three photons, no two of them are alike.

Hey, don't yell at me.  I didn't discover this stuff, I'm just telling you about it.

"The quantum pigeonhole effect challenges our basic understanding….  So a clear experimental verification is highly needed," study coauthors Chao-Yang Lu and Jian-Wei Pan wrote in an e-mail.  "The quantum pigeonhole may have potential applications to find more complex and fundamental quantum effects."

It's not that I distrust them or am questioning their results (I'm hardly qualified to do so), but I feel like what they're saying makes about as much sense as saying that 2+2=5 for large values of 2.  Every time I'm within hailing distance of getting it, my brain goes, "Nope.  If the first two photons are, respectively, horizontally polarized and vertically polarized, the third has to be either horizontal or vertical."

But apparently that's not true.  Emily Conover, writing for Science News,writes:
The mind-bending behavior is the result of a combination of already strange quantum effects.  The photons begin the experiment in an odd kind of limbo called a superposition, meaning they are polarized both horizontally and vertically at the same time.  When two photons’ polarizations are compared, the measurement induces ethereal links between the particles, known as quantum entanglement.  These counterintuitive properties allow the particles to do unthinkable things.
Which helps.  I guess.  Me, I'm still kind of baffled, which is okay.  I love it that science is capable of showing us wonders, things that stretch our minds, cause us to question our understanding of the universe.  How boring it would be if every new scientific discovery led us to say, "Meh.  Confirms what I already thought."

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Missive from a loser

Nota bene: If you don't want to read a rant, you may want to exit right now.

Yesterday I woke up to news of Donald Trump's El Paso pro-wall rally on just about every media website there is.  Among the highlights were Trump's claim that there were 69,000 people in the crowd (there weren't), that most of the wall is already built (it isn't), and that despite that, we've got a national emergency because we need to build the wall (we don't).  There was a call to Make America Great Again.  *cheers*  America needs secure borders.  *cheers*  Democrats want open borders, free admission to criminals, and eat babies for breakfast.  *cheers*

But all of that is what we've heard over and over (if you're on Twitter, over and over and over and over and over) so it didn't really raise any eyebrows, either with the #Resist or the #MAGA contingents.  It wasn't until I read the comments from Donald Jr. (also greeted with shouts of acclamation) that my blood pressure really started to rise.

Don Jr. threw himself into whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and he did so by pointing out how cool it was to see young people in the crowd.   "You know what I love?" he said, to more cheers.  "I love seeing some young conservatives, ’cuz I know it’s not easy.  Keep up that fight, bring it to your schools.  You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth.  You don’t have to do it."

Excuse me?

You think I have time to indoctrinate my students?  I'm too busy giving them a basic grounding in biology to waste class time telling them to become socialists.  In my 32-year career, I have known four -- count 'em, four -- teachers who were clearly partisan and made it clear their students were expected to toe the party line.

And it bears mention that two of them are conservatives and two of them are liberals.

Some of my students last week, learning how to Gram stain bacteria [used with permission]

Even in my Critical Thinking class, which if I were not cautious could turn into a daily biased screed, I struggle constantly to maintain balance and fairly represent all angles.  In our unit on logical fallacies, I make sure that my examples of erroneous thinking are chosen from both sides of the political aisle (yes, I count them).  I make it clear that tossing aside the opposition's viewpoint simply because they are the opposition is as lazy as gullibility.  I tell my conservative students to make a point of checking out MSNBC every so often -- but I also tell my liberal students they need to check out Fox.

So: loser?  Excuse me?  I have thrown everything I have into teaching, on a daily basis, for over three decades.  I buy about a third of the lab supplies I use because our budgets have been cut to the bone and I'm unwilling to eliminate labs because we can no longer afford them.  I, and most of my colleagues, are at school well before the contract requires and stay there long after the contract says we could go home.  Teaching is a fun, frustrating, rewarding, exhausting career, and I hope I have touched some lives the way mine has been touched.  I still am thankful beyond words for the likes of Ms. Jane Miller (my high school biology teacher), Ms. Bev Authement (high school creative writing), and Dr. Harvey Pousson (college calculus).  They altered the course of my life, and I model much of my teaching on the kind, compassionate, interesting, funny style they brought to the classroom.

It's nothing short of appalling to be called a "loser" by a guy who has from kindergarten on gone to expensive, exclusive private schools, who never had to work a day in his life, who has been handed everything on a silver platter, and who still thinks he has the right to criticize people who work long hours in meaningful careers each and every day.  Even more appalling is that the #MAGA crowd thought what he was saying was just the cat's pajamas.  Damn liberal teachers, indoctrinating our young folks.  I'll definitely vote against the school budget next time it comes around.

And of course, I'm under no illusions as to why he's doing this.  I wouldn't call either Donald, Senior or Junior, smart, but they are not lacking in a low, animal cunning.  Not only does this message play well to their supporters -- tyrants keeping their followers feeling endangered and besieged is a strategy with a long and inglorious history -- but it also insulates them against even hearing another side to the issues.  Which is exactly what the Trumps want.  Create an airtight, vacuum-sealed echo chamber, and don't even let a hint of the opposition's argument cross.  Represent everything the liberals say in straw-man arguments, convince the true believers that all they need to do is listen to Dear Leader and his son and everything will be fine.

It makes me despair a little for the future of America.  I have a naturally optimistic bent -- as I've said before, it'd be silly to be a teacher if I was a pessimist -- but stuff like this makes me think we haven't hit rock bottom yet.  The fight back upwards is going to be a long and arduous one.  And I, for one, am thankful that there are teachers who are still out there giving our children the tools they need to see foolish propaganda for what it is.

But on a more personal note, to Junior himself; how dare you disparage me and my colleagues when I doubt you have set foot in a public school in your entire life.  Your ignorance and snide arrogance are stomach-turning to anyone who knows what actually happens in schools.  So I'll end with saying this, from the bottom of my heart, and I hope you're listening:

You can go to hell.

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

A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Star light, star bright

In today's episode of Confirmation-Bias-"R"-Us, we have: an odd observation about stellar velocities proving that the entire universe is conscious.

The observation itself is pretty obscure; I'm something of an amateur stargazer and I'd never heard of it before.  It's called Paranego's discontinuity, and is such a marginal footnote that it doesn't have so much as a Wikipedia entry.  The only places I can find mention of it are on sites devoted to panpsychism -- the idea that consciousness is imbued in all matter -- so the only decent explanation I could find is on a site called Conscious Stars, which I'm taking with a grain of salt right from the get-go.  But here's what they have to say:
Parenago’s Discontinuity, an observational effect, confirmed in main sequence stars out to ~260 light-years, describes faster galactic revolution velocities for stars cooler than (B-V)~0.5...  Here, it is demonstrated, using observational data published in the 1930’s for a small star sample that the onset of molecular spectral lines in stellar reversing layers occurs almost precisely at the velocity discontinuity.  The shape of the previously published galactic revolution velocity vs. (B-V) color index for several thousand stars is very similar to the curve of G spectral line width vs. (B-V) for the small stellar sample considered, which suggests a connection between molecules and Parenago’s Discontinuity.
So we have a strange correlation between stellar temperature and observed velocities of revolution, something that is certainly worthy of investigation.   But New York City College of Technology professor of physics Gregory Matloff says it's indicative of something that if true, is pretty earthshattering -- that the stars themselves are consciously altering their velocities for some unknown reason.  In a paper in The Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research, Matloff writes:
...I elected to investigate whether there is any evidence to support his core metaphysics—that the universe is in some sense conscious and that a portion of stellar motion is volitional (as an alternative to Dark Matter).  Stars do not possess neurons or tubules, but the spectral signatures of cooler stars such as the Sun reveal the presence of simple molecules.  A universal proto-consciousness field congruent with vacuum fluctuations could interact with molecular matter via the contribution of the Casimir Effect to molecular bonds...  As discussed in the paper, local explanations for Parenago’s Discontinuity seem inadequate...  If the Discontinuity is a galaxy-wide phenomenon, the volitional star hypothesis will be advanced.  One way that a minded star could alter its galactic trajectory is by the emission of a uni-directional jet.  Such jets have been observed in young stars.  Future work will hopefully show how uni-directional jets correlate with star temperature and distance from the galactic center.  It is therefore not impossible that panpsychism can emerge from philosophy to become a subdivision of observational astrophysics.
Okay, now, let's just hang on a moment.

I certainly think it's an interesting correlation that odd stellar velocities are seen in stars cool enough to allow for the presence of molecules (ordinary, hotter stars are so energetic they tear molecules apart as soon as they form).  But as a chain of logic, odd velocities + molecules = the universe is conscious and stars are engaging in jet propulsion to move around seems like a bit of a reach.

The pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula [Image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

What seems to be going on here is that virtually everyone who mentions Paranego's Discontinuity already believes in panpsychism, so when confronted with stars moving in a way that seems to conflict with ordinary physics they immediately jump to the conclusion that the stars themselves are "volitional."  There are dozens of examples of strange, seemingly inexplicable observations in astronomy alone -- all of which turned out to have completely ordinary scientific explanations, with no recourse to aliens, magic, or stellar consciousness.  My favorite example is Jocelyn Bell's discovery of pulsars -- collapsed stars that spin so fast they seem to flicker on and off dozens of times per second.  It seemed so bizarre that when the signal was first noted, it was nicknamed "LGM" (Little Green Men) because it was hard to imagine a natural object that could switch on and off so fast.  Of course, it turned out to be a natural phenomenon -- which I suspect Paranego's Discontinuity will as well.

My problem here is not that panpsychism is impossible.  Consciousness is still an unexplained phenomenon even in ourselves, so it would be inadvisable for me to say it couldn't occur elsewhere.  But one observation of strange physics is pretty thin evidence for such a radical concept.  Here I fall back on the ECREE Principle -- Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.

In any case, it's hard to imagine anyone being convinced by this who wasn't already sold on the idea of universal consciousness.  As for me, I'm waiting for more evidence before I start thinking that when I'm looking up at the stars at night, they're looking back.

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A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.





Monday, February 11, 2019

Oarfish, earthquakes, and shadow people

I'm perpetually astonished at how little it takes to get the woo-woos going.

I suppose, though, that's the definition of confirmation bias -- taking thin evidence (or skimpy anecdote) as incontrovertible support for what you already believed.  Me, I try to approach stuff with more caution -- I'm not perfect, but I do my best when confronted with a strange or intriguing story to stop and think, "Wait a moment, how do I know this is true... and means what people are saying it means?"

I ran into two particularly good examples of that yesterday.  In the first, we have people saying that the appearance of three dead oarfish in coastal Japan is indicative that they're in for a major undersea earthquake and tsunami.  Now, there's no doubt that seeing an oarfish would make you sit up and take notice; they live in deep waters and are usually only seen when they're dead or dying, and can get up to eleven meters long.  (Yes, I double-checked that statistic, and it's correct.)

American servicemen displaying a dead oarfish they found off the coast of California in 1996 [Image is in the Public Domain]

So I suppose it's no wonder that people stop and say, "Okay, that's weird," when they see one.  But oarfish are not uncommon, despite seldom being seen; and there are lots of cases of dead oarfish washing up on shore that were not followed by geological catastrophes.   "I have around twenty specimens of this fish in my collection so it’s not a very rare species, but I believe these fish tend to rise to the surface when their physical condition is poor, rising on water currents, which is why they are so often dead when they are found," said Hiroyuki Motomura, professor of ichthyology at Kagoshima University.  "The link to reports of seismic activity goes back many, many years, but there is no scientific evidence of a connection so I don’t think people need to worry."

Which, of course, will have precisely zero effect on the woo-woos.  What the hell does some silly scientist know about, um, science?  There will be an earthquake, you'll see!  (Of course, it helps that the oarfish were found on the coast of Japan, because Japan is -- stick with me, here -- a freakin' earthquake zone.)

The other story comes from a perusal of some twelve million documents that were declassified two years ago by the CIA.  This started all the conspiracy theorists sifting through them, because of course if the CIA wanted to keep an evil conspiracy secret, the first thing they'd do is declassify all the files surrounding it.  But even the wooiest woo-woo takes a while to go through twelve million files, so it was only a couple of weeks ago that we found out that in the files were photographs of...

... "shadow people."

We're told about how spooky and eerie these photographs are, and how they could be aliens or ghosts, or connected to MKUltra or the Illuminati or god alone knows what else.  "The silhouettes are composed of visual noise, almost like television static," we're told, "and have empty voids where their faces should be."  There were two of them, we find out, and each silhouette has a number on it -- 1569 on one, 1572 on the other.

I thought, "Okay, that does sound pretty creepy."  And naturally, I wanted to see the images myself.  So I clicked the link, and here's what I saw:


And I said -- this is a direct quote -- "You have got to be fucking kidding me right now."

This isn't a photograph, it's a drawing.  And not even a very good one.  (In the interest of rigorous research, I looked at the other one, which is identical except for saying "1572" and facing the other direction.)  It is mildly curious that these would be in CIA files, although I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that the CIA people stuck 'em in there when they declassified the files in order to watch the woo-woos leap about and make excited little squeaking noises.

Which is exactly what happened.

The universe is a wonderful, complex, intriguing, mysterious place.  There is plenty to investigate, plenty to be amazed at, without making shit up or stretching pieces of observable evidence to the snapping point.  So let's all calm down a little, okay?  I'm sure Japan will eventually have another major earthquake (cf. my previous comment about earthquake zones), and I'm also sure there'll be weird random things in the CIA files, whether or not my surmise about people sticking them in deliberately to stir the pot turns out to be true.  But grabbing those little pieces of data and running off the cliff with them is not advisable.

Confirmation bias, unfortunately, makes a terrible parachute.

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A particularly disturbing field in biology is parasitology, because parasites are (let's face it) icky.  But it's not just the critters that get into you and try to eat you for dinner that are awful; because some parasites have evolved even more sinister tricks.

There's the jewel wasp, that turns parasitized cockroaches into zombies while their larvae eat the roach from the inside out.  There's the fungus that makes caterpillars go to the highest branch of a tree and then explode, showering their friends and relatives with spores.   Mice whose brains are parasitized by Toxoplasma gondii become completely unafraid, and actually attracted to the scent of cat pee -- making them more likely to be eaten and pass the microbe on to a feline host.

Not dinnertime reading, but fascinating nonetheless, is Matt Simon's investigation of such phenomena in his book Plight of the Living Dead.  It may make you reluctant to leave your house, but trust me, you will not be able to put it down.