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.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The outrage machine

I had a puzzling, and frustrating, exchange on social media a couple of days ago.

An acquaintance of mine posted the following, without comment:


I found this annoying enough that I responded something to the effect that I teach in a public school, where I have (1) seen students saying grace before eating lunch and no one has batted an eyelash, (2) we recite the Pledge of Allegiance every single day, as do all public school students in the entire United States, and (3) before December break, I hear both students and staff wishing each other "Merry Christmas."

Now me, if I made a statement and a person who should know demonstrated conclusively I was wrong, I would admit it and retreat in disarray.  Predictably, that's not what happened here.  She responded -- and this is a direct quote -- "I was not saying this was necessarily true, it just feels that like the majority of our schools have gotten so far away from God and Country that one can feel persecuted for the above things."

So let me get this straight.  It's not true, but you feel like it's true, and you're feeling persecuted for being a patriotic Christian despite the fact that  75% of Americans identify as Christian and it's still damn near a prerequisite for winning an election in the United States.

What this implies is that your feelings about something are more important than whether it's actually true.  Which I find more than a little troubling.  Even more troubling is the way the media have capitalized on this tendency, avoiding facts wherever possible in favor of whipping people into a frenzy with emotional appeals.  Lately, it seems like the main church people belong to in the United States is the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Outrage.

The part of this I find the most baffling is how people seem to want to feel outraged.  I mean, think about it.  Suppose I was fearful that there was a rabies outbreak in my neighborhood.  Maybe there was even the allegation that someone had deliberately introduced rabies into wild animals nearby.  Then, it turns out that it's not true -- there are no cases of rabies, and the rumors of a deliberately-created epidemic are false, and everything is safe.  The whole thing was a hoax.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't feel more fearful, I'd feel relieved.  I'd probably be angry at the person who started the hoax, but what it wouldn't do is make me double down on how dangerous everything was and how everyone needed to be scared of the horrifying rabies epidemic.

Here, though, my assurance that what this person feared -- that public schools were actively suppressing patriotism and Christianity -- was false had exactly the opposite effect.  "Okay, it's not true," she seemed to be saying, "but we still need to act like it is!"  And the people who are perpetuating the falsehoods aren't looked upon as liars or hoaxers, they're seen as heroic mavericks who are rallying the troops for a desperate last stand defending all that's sacred.

Which I don't understand at all.  I, personally, don't like liars, and I hate feeling outraged.  I much prefer it when my fellow humans turn out to be more kind and caring and tolerant and understanding than I thought they were.  It's hard for me to understand someone who apparently feels the opposite.

All of which highlights the fact that I don't really understand people at all.  Especially, I don't get the appeal of tribalism, but it's clearly a powerful force -- and relies as much on teaming up against a common enemy (even a perceived one) than it does on finding commonalities within the group.  So all in all, my online exchange was a fruitless exercise, as these things so often are -- but it does explain a lot about the current state of things in the United States.

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

I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!





Friday, March 29, 2019

Elaborate nonsense

As harsh as I sometimes am about woo-woo beliefs, I understand how fear and lack of knowledge can induce you to accept counterfactual nonsense.  I also get how wishful thinking could draw you in to a set of beliefs, if they line up with the way you would like the universe to work, even though, as my grandma used to say, "Wishin' don't make it so."

This combination of desire for the world to be other than it is, and fear of what the world actually is, probably drives most superstition.  All, as I said, understandable, given human nature.

But what continually baffles me is how byzantine some of those beliefs become.  I can accept that it might be an attractive model for some people that the position of the stars and planets somehow guides your life; but I start really wondering once you start coming up with stuff like the following (from Susan Miller's astrology site, on a page devoted to predictions for this month for my astrological sign, Scorpio):
Sometimes, in about 20 percent of the cases, an eclipse will deliver news a month to the day later plus or minus five days.  More rarely, an eclipse will introduce news one month to the day before it occurs, but only in about 5 percent of the cases.  In most cases, 75 percent of the time, an eclipse will deliver some sort of news that things are about to change almost instantly.

This eclipse will be in Scorpio, 11 degrees, and will come conjunct Saturn.  This alone says that the decision you make now will be a big one, and that you will commit all your energy to this decision.  You will be in a serious mode, and it appears a promise you make now will last a very long time, possibly forever.  Mars and Pluto are your two ruling planets (Scorpio is one of the few signs that have two rulers), and remarkably both will be supportive by tight mathematical angles to this eclipse.  This tells me that the final outcome of this eclipse will be very positive.  Every eclipse has two acts, so see how events unfold in coming weeks.
Yes, it's bullshit; but it's really elaborate bullshit.  You might criticize these people for pushing fiction as reality, but you have to admit that they spend a lot of time crafting their fiction.

I ran across an unusually good example of this a while back on the Skeptic subreddit, which is a wonderful place to go for articles debunking pseudoscience.  The site I found posted there is called "TCM - the 24-hour Organ Qi Cycle," which immediately should raise red flags -- "TCM" is traditional Chinese medicine, much of which has been double-blind tested and found to be worthless; and "qi" is a pattern for "energy flow" through the body that basically is non-existent, making "qi" only useful as an easy way of getting rid of the "Q" tile in a game of Scrabble.

What this site purports to do is to get you to "balance your body" using information about when during the day you feel most ill-at-ease.  This then tells you what organ in your body is "out of balance" and which of the "elements" you should pay attention to.  And no, I'm not talking about anything off the periodic table; we're back to a medieval "Earth," "Fire," "Water," "Metal," "Wood," and "Ministerial Fire" model, although the last-mentioned sounds like what they used back in the Dark Ages to burn people at the stake for heresy.




So, naturally, I had to check out what my own out-of-balance part was.  I'm frequently awake, and restless, at 3 AM - 5 AM, so I rolled the cursor over the "color wheel" and found that this means my lungs are out of balance.  "The emotions connected to the lungs are Grief and Sadness," I was told, which makes sense for the time of day because if I'm awake then it means I won't be able to get back to sleep before my alarm goes off.  It goes on to ask me some questions, to wit: "Have you buried your grief?  Are you sad?  Are you always sighing?  It is most healthy to express your emotions as you feel them.  You may need to express your emotions by crying, writing and/or talking to a friend."

Well, thanks for caring, and everything, but I'm actually doing okay, and don't sigh all that much, except at faculty meetings.

Oh, but I am told that if I can get my lungs in balance, I'll have "lustrous skin."  And who could resist that?

On it goes.  If your small intestine is out of balance, you should eat only "vital foods chock full of enzymes."  If you have diarrhea, you need to "strengthen your spleen qi."  If your "kidneys are deficient," you won't have much in the way of sex drive, but you can bring them back into balance by eating black sesame seeds, celery, duck, grapes, kidney beans, lamb, millet, oysters, plums, sweet potatoes, raspberries, salt, seaweed, strawberries, string beans, tangerines, walnuts, and yams.

The entire time I was looking at this site, I kept shaking my head and saying, "How do you know any of this?"  The stuff on this website seems to fall into two categories -- blatantly obvious (e.g. "crying if you're sad helps you to feel better") and bizarrely abstruse (e.g. "engaging in loving sex keeps your pericardium healthy").

I suppose the elaborateness is understandable from one angle; if you want people to believe what you're saying, you'll probably have better success if you make your sales pitch sound fancy.   Convoluted details convince people, especially people who don't know much in the way of science and logic.  So the intricacy of some pseudoscientific models is explainable from the standpoint that the purveyors of this kind of foolishness will sound like scientists, and therefore be persuasive, only if they couch their message in terms that make it appear they've tapped into a realm of knowledge unavailable to the rest of us slobs.

Or, as my dad used to put it: "If you can't wow 'em with your brilliance, baffle 'em with your bullshit."

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

I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!





Thursday, March 28, 2019

Clone war

The idea of human clones has been a staple of science fiction for decades.  Whenever the topic comes up, the question is always whether it's even theoretically possible to clone a person.

The answer seems to be "yes, but."  Embryonic cloning -- splitting a blastula (an early stage of embryonic development) into pieces, and allowing the pieces to regrow into a full embryo -- is relatively straightforward.  There's no scientific reason that someone couldn't take a human blastula, cut it into twenty pieces, and when they've regrown sufficiently implant them in the uteruses of twenty different surrogate women -- and nine months later, if all goes well, you'd have identical twenty-tuplets, all born to different women.

Much trickier is adult-tissue cloning, which is the more common one to see in science fiction; taking a sample of tissue from an adult, and somehow transforming it into a zygote, and ultimately, an embryo. The reasons why this is hard are not fully understood, but seem to have something to do with the switching on and off of developmental genes, something that has to happen with great precision in order to generate a fully functional, anatomically normal child.  So to make this work, you have to be able to reset all those switches back to their (so to speak) factory specifications -- return them to where they were when the embryo was still an undifferentiated ball of cells.

For reasons still not known, this appears to be more easily doable in some organisms than others.  The first adult-tissue clone was the famous Dolly the Sheep, who was born back in 1996.  Dolly died at age six -- about half the age of a normal sheep -- which scientists initially thought was because of accelerated aging (that her cells retained a "memory" of the age of the sheep from which they were taken).  Later experiments called this into question, and the jury's still out on whether clones would age faster, and presumably, die younger.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons (Photograph courtesy of Emma Whitelaw, University of Sydney, Australia.), Cloned mice with different DNA methylation, CC BY 2.5]

So far, the list of animals that have been adult-tissue cloned is a curious one.  You can take a look at the complete list as of the time of this writing, but it includes a bunch of not-very-closely-related species -- frogs, rabbits, rats, monkeys (two species, in fact), mules, coyotes, both cats and dogs, and camels.

Note that humans aren't on the list.

Which makes it doubly odd that a rapper who goes by the moniker "Lil Buu" claims not only to be a clone, but a "second-generation clone," whatever that means.  On a television interview, Lil Buu said:
I was cloned by clonaid in Canada, my model number is 0112568…  A lot of the memories from Clonaid were erased so that way the new gen can move forward with whatever new programming was made….  They can remove a fragment of bone that’s located here [points to forehead, in between his eyes], and in this fragment of bone it stores all of your memories and consciousness, and with that, they can make a sufficient replica of yourself, a reproductive version of you including your memories, and you can be selective as to which ones you keep and don’t keep.  This process has been around for quite some time.
Immediately I read about Clonaid, that made my eyebrows rise even further.   I don't know if that name is familiar to you, but it certainly was to me; this is the group that back in 2002 claimed they'd overseen the production of the first human clone (a girl nicknamed "Eve"), but then refused to provide scientists with any proof, or in fact any evidence at all.  Then it turned out that the spokesperson for Clonaid who was said to be the chief scientist in charge of the project, Brigitte Boisselier, is a high-ranking Raëlian -- a French-based religion, founded by ex-race-car-driver turned prophet Claude Maurice Marcel Vorilhon, that believes humans were created by a race of extraterrestrials called Elohim, and to gain enlightenment we need to run around having lots of sex with any willing individuals, and wear no clothes whenever possible.

I'm not making any of this up.

Oh, and they have a temple in Japan called "Korindo," are working on establishing an "Embassy for Extraterrestrials," and their symbol is a swastika superimposed on a Star of David.

For the record, I didn't make that up, either.

So I'm perhaps to be forgiven for being dubious about Lil Buu (or model #0112568, as the case may be) and his claim to be a cloned from a memory-containing bone fragment, who was produced by a company whose leaders believe we're actually the creation of super-intelligent aliens, which was dreamed up by a guy whose primary other claim to fame is knowing a lot about race cars.

In fact, I'm dubious in general about the potential for human cloning.  It raises some serious ethical issues, and (after all) we haven't even resolved the ethical issues surrounding stem cell research and cloning non-human animals, so it's premature to leap headlong into this.

It also brings up the question about why anyone would want to clone themselves.  It's not like the clone would have your memories (whatever Lil Buu says to the contrary); our personalities are shaped not only by our genes but by our environment, so while you'd expect some similarities, they would be no more alike than ordinary identical twins -- who are, after all, natural clones themselves.

Plus, I just think it'd be creepy for there to be another me walking around, one who would be (if he was created as an embryo today) 59 years younger than I am by the time he's born.  I'm perfectly happy being a one-off.  My general feeling is that one of me is plenty.

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

I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!





Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The cosmic zoo

In yesterday's post, we looked at a gentleman who decided that founding his own church was the best approach to finding out if we're all in a giant computer simulation, and (if so) getting ourselves out of it.  Today, we hear about some people who think that the solution to the Fermi Paradox is that we're in an intergalactic petting zoo.

Regular readers of Skeptophilia may recall that last year, I wrote a post on the Fermi Paradox, which can be summarized as the following question: if life is common in the universe, where is everyone?  The upshot of it is that the likeliest answers are summarized as the "Three Fs":
  1. We're first.  (We're the first star system in our near vicinity to develop a technological society.)
  2. We're fortunate.  (There are various hurdles to the evolution of intelligent life, and we're one of the few that have gotten past all of them.)
  3. We're fucked.  (All technological societies ultimately destroy themselves one way or the other, and we just haven't gotten there yet.)
In 1973, astronomer John Ball of MIT proposed a fourth solution, which unfortunately admits of no easy moniker starting with "F" -- that we haven't been contacted by an ultra-advanced civilization because they're protecting us for some reason.

This was nicknamed the "Cosmic Zoo Hypothesis," and not much was done with it because it was pretty clearly an untestable claim, thus falling into what physicist Wolfgang Pauli labeled as "not even wrong."  But now, a group of astronomers have met at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris, attending a conference called METI -- Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- and are considering the implications of Ball's idea, and how we might figure out if it's the truth.

"Perhaps extraterrestrials are watching humans on Earth, much like we watch animals in a zoo," said Douglas Vakoch, president of METI.  "How can we get the galactic zookeepers to reveal themselves?...  If we went to a zoo and suddenly a zebra turned toward us, looked us in the eye, and started pounding out a series of prime numbers with its hoof, that would establish a radically different relationship between us and the zebra, and we would feel compelled to respond."

At least after we checked to make sure that no one slipped some acid into our morning coffee.

Vakoch, however, is completely serious.  "We can do the same with extraterrestrials by transmitting powerful, intentional, information-rich radio signals to nearby stars."


What this implies is that the super-intelligent aliens are benevolently watching over us and letting us evolve in our own way, reminiscent of the aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey and, more prosaically, the Prime Directive in Star Trek, which was strictly enforced except for when Captain Kirk got horny and had a quick shag with any green-skinned alien women who happened to be nearby.  "It seems likely that extraterrestrials are imposing a ‘galactic quarantine’ because they realize it would be culturally disruptive for us to learn about them," said Jean-Pierre Rospars, the honorary research director at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique.  "Cognitive evolution on Earth shows random features while also following predictable paths... we can expect the repeated, independent emergence of intelligent species in the universe, and we should expect to see more or less similar forms of intelligence everywhere, under favorable conditions."

Which, if true, is pretty cool.  I love the idea that there are kindly aliens out there who have our best interests in mind, even if I would appear to them to be pretty primitive.  "There’s no reason to think that humans have reached the highest cognitive level possible," Rospars added, which I also find encouraging.  If Donald Trump represents the pinnacle of humanity, IQ-wise, I think I'm ready to give up now.

Of course, there's no guarantee that if there are benevolent alien overlords, they have anything biologically in common with Homo sapiens, or, indeed, any terrestrial life form.  "The environment on an exoplanet will impose its own rules," said Roland Lehoucq, an astrophysicist who works at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA).  "There is no trend in biological evolution: the huge range of various morphologies observed on Earth renders any exobiological speculation improbable, at least for macroscopic ‘complex’ life."

Which also makes it unlikely that Captain Kirk will be successful in his hookup attempts.  The chance that any alien he runs into will have orifices even close to aligned with what he's looking for is nearly zero.  And even less likely is the possibility of hybridization, so Spock, Deanna Troi, and B'Elanna Torres are kind of out of the question.

In any case, it's certainly a more cheerful solution to the Fermi Paradox than the Three Fs, especially the third one.  And given how much bad news we've been bombarded with lately, I'll take it.  So if our cosmic zookeepers are readers of Skeptophilia, allow me to say: Thanks.  I appreciate your concern.  But if you could beam up Trump, and while you're at it Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, I know a lot of Americans who would be willing to overlook the fact that it breaks the Intergalactic Non-Interference Treaty.

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

I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!





Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Escaping the simulation

It's undeniable that things have been a little weird lately.

To cite one example, just look at the revelations -- if I can use that word -- from the report on the Mueller investigation this past weekend.  At the time of this writing, outside of Mueller and his team, no one has seen the actual report except for Attorney General William Barr.  But this hasn't stopped everyone from having an opinion about what it says.  Democrats are livid because they're assuming Barr's statement -- that the report exonerates Trump from collusion and obstruction of justice -- accurately reflects the report itself.  Republicans are crowing for the same reason.  And Trump, who has been squawking "No collusion!  No collusion!" like some kind of demented, brain-damaged parrot for months, immediately responded via (of course) Twitter that he was now completely off the hook.

I'm feeling dazed enough by the whole thing that I'm planning on avoiding the news for a couple of weeks.  At this point, my desire to stay well-informed is at odds with my desire to stay sane.

But it's the surreal aspect that I'm thinking about.  As a friend of mine put it, "It's like we've been living in a computer simulation being run by aliens.  And the aliens have gotten bored with their experiments, and now they're just fucking with us to see how we'll react."

Apparently he's not the only one thinking this way.  Because according to a guy who spoke at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, we're not only in a simulation, but he's founding a church dedicated to getting us out of the matrix.


His name is George Hotz, and he's a 29-year-old hacker and founder of the self-driving car startup company Comma.ai.  The talk was entitled "Jailbreaking the Simulation," and here's a bit of it to give you the flavor of his claim:
We are in a simulation.  Has it occurred to you that means God is real?  By drawing parallels to worlds we have created, we ask, from inside our simulator, what actions do we have available?  Can we get out?  Meet God?  Kill him?
Well, that escalated quickly.
There’s no evidence this is not true.  It’s easy to imagine things that are so much smarter than you and they could build a cage you wouldn’t even recognize.
There's no evidence that the universe is not being controlled by a Giant Green Bunny from the Andromeda Galaxy, either.  Because that's not how evidence works.  And I'm a fiction writer, so trust me that I can easily imagine things that would blow your mind, or at least make you wonder if I was dropped on my head as an infant.  But my ability to imagine them is no indicator that any of them are real, which is why all of my books have the word "fiction" on the spine.
I’m thinking about starting a church. There are a lot of structural problems with companies — there’s no real way to win...  With companies, you only really lose.  I think churches might be much more aligned toward these goals, and the goal of the church would be realigning society’s efforts toward getting out [of the simulation].
I don't know about you, but I'm not getting the chain of reasoning, here.  "Companies aren't as lucrative as churches, so we need a church to figure out how to escape from the computer simulation we're trapped in" seems like a leap, logic-wise.

He finished up with a bit of a head-scratcher:
Do I actually believe it?  Some days yes.  Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about something until I say it out loud.
Which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.

So I'm of two minds about all this.  The idea of being in a computer simulation has some appeal, because then it would mean that the last two years has been the result of some super-intelligent beings creating bizarre scenarios for experimental purposes, or at least for their own amusement.  I don't know about you, but I'd be much more comfortable in a universe where Donald Trump was fictional, although I must say that even my own imagination is insufficient to dream up a scenario where a grandstanding narcissistic reality-show host not only became president, but was treated by Christian evangelicals as the Second Coming of Christ despite being a walking encyclopedia of sins.

On the other hand, if we are in a simulation, it's a little alarming to consider the repercussions.  In The Matrix it didn't seem like it was all that great a choice for Neo to take the red pill, because the real reality kind of sucked.  You know, giant tentacled monsters trying to destroy your ship, multiple copies of Agent Smith gunning for you every where you go, and creepy albino twins zooming around destroying cars.  My opinion is that he might have been better off, all things considered, to wake up in his own bed and believe whatever he wanted to believe.

So offered the choice, I don't know what I'd do.  I guess it'd boil down to which was worse, carnivorous metallic squid trying to eat you for lunch, or having to put up with Donald Trump.  I guess I'll make that choice when and if it arises.

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

I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!





Monday, March 25, 2019

Brexit bending, and the flerfs visit Antarctica

Whatever else you can say about the woo-woos, you have to admit that they have the courage of their convictions.

Once they have settled on a favorite idea, they hang onto it with a death grip.  Nothing -- not the most convincing evidence, the most logical argument, the most precise data -- will budge them one millimeter.

I ran into two especially good examples of this in the last couple of days.  They both leave me feeling torn between frustration at their pig-headedness and a grudging admiration for their tenacity.

In the first, which I was alerted to by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, we learn that the Flat-Earthers (hereafter referred to as "Flerfs") are planning a trip to Antarctica... so they can see first hand the "ice wall that holds back the oceans."  The FEIC (Flat Earth International Conference) calls it their "biggest, boldest adventure yet."

There's just one problem with this, if you exclude the obvious one that anyone who believes the Earth is flat would have to have the IQ of a peach pit.  In order to get to Antarctica, they're going to be aboard a ship, and if the ship has even a passing chance of getting to its destination, it has to use GPS, and the GPS system...

... assumes the Earth is spherical.  Remember, after all, what the "G" in "GPS" stands for.

Unless somehow they are able to convince the ship's captain to navigate based upon the assumption that the Earth is a flat disk, in which case the U. S. S. Flerf will probably never be seen again.

I would hope, of course, that the captain would nix any efforts by the Flerfs to plot their course based on the dimensions and orientation of a disk.  Captains are usually fairly particular about having their ships not get lost or run aground or sail around in circles, not to mention having a bunch of landlubbers telling them what to do.  So I suspect that the captain will tell them to buzz right off and use his GPS, and let them have their silly fun when they get there and declare victory regardless what else happens (which you know they will).

In our second story, we have the reappearance of a woo-woo who you'd think would not be willing to show his face in public after being publicly humiliated by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  I'm referring, of course, to Israeli "mentalist" Uri Geller, who was invited to do his psychic spoon-bending shtick on live television.  But Carson, who had been a stage magician himself and knew all the tricks, did not give Geller access to any of the props beforehand.

What happened afterward was almost painful to watch.  I absolutely hate seeing someone making a complete and utter fool of himself, and even the most generous of folks couldn't see Geller's performance in any other light.  To put it bluntly, he got his ass handed to him.  After failing to bend any spoons, he told Carson he "wasn't feeling strong" that night.  And his inability to psychically detect objects hidden under cups mysteriously vanished, which Geller attributed to the "atmosphere of suspicion and distrust" that Carson was creating.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Guy Bavli, Bavli.in.denmark.2010, CC BY-SA 3.0]

It's surprising, honestly, that he was willing to go on the show at all; he had to have known what was going to happen.  Maybe by that time, he was so cocky that he figured he'd be able to wing it and still come out okay.  But the demonstration, in front of a live audience and beamed out live to television watchers worldwide, went on, and on... and on and on.  Geller just wouldn't give up.  I found myself squirming in discomfort after five minutes; I can't imagine what it was like to be him, sitting there, unable to do a thing to get out of the hole he'd dug for himself.

If this had happened to me, I don't know if I'd have ever been willing to stick my nose outside my front door again.  But Geller not only got past the embarrassment, somehow, he's actually continued to claim psychic abilities -- and perform his nonsense in front of sold-out crowds.

But now, he's topped any of his previous exploits, because last week Geller announced that he was personally going to stop Brexit -- by telepathically controlling British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Most Brits, Geller says, are against Brexit, a conclusion he has come to "psychically and very strongly."  So he can't let May and her supporters lead the UK out of the European Union.  In an open letter to May, Geller wrote, "I love you very much but I will not allow you to lead Britain into Brexit.  As much as I admire you, I will stop you telepathically from doing this -- and believe me I am capable of executing it.  Before I take this drastic course of action, I appeal to you to stop the process immediately while you still have a chance."

So that's pretty unequivocal.  But what's the most frustrating about all of this is that no matter what happens, Geller won't lose a single audience member.  If Brexit falls apart (whether or not May herself is the cause), he'll claim that his psychic powers are what did it.  If the UK follows through and leaves the EU, he won't mention it again -- and the woo-woos will conveniently forget it ever happened, just like every other time a psychic has had a conspicuous failure.

As I've pointed out before, you can't win.

But like I said, you have to almost admire their stubbornness.  It reminds me of the quote from Bertrand Russell -- "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts."

So look for updates from the Flerf mission to Antarctica and Uri Geller's attempt to stop Brexit with his mind.  Me, I'm not expecting much.  But I guess it all falls into the "No Harm If It Amuses You" department.

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

I've been a bit of a geology buff since I was a kid.  My dad was a skilled lapidary artist, and made beautiful jewelry from agates, jaspers, and turquoise, so every summer he and I would go on a two-week trip to southern Arizona to find cool rocks.  It was truly the high point of my year, and ever since I have always given rock outcroppings and road cuts more than just the typical passing glance.

So I absolutely loved John McPhee's four-part look at the geology of the United States -- Basin and Range, Rising From the Plains, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  Told in his signature lucid style, McPhee doesn't just geek out over the science, but gets to know the people involved -- the scientists, the researchers, the miners, the oil-well drillers -- who are vitally interested in how North America was put together.  In the process, you're taken on a cross-country trip to learn about what's underneath the surface of our country.  And if, like me, you're curious about rocks, it will keep you reading until the last page.

Note: the link below is to the first in the series, Basin and Range.  If you want to purchase it, click on the link, and part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia.  And if you like it, you'll no doubt easily find the others!





Saturday, March 23, 2019

The execution drill

We're taking a day off from our regularly scheduled programming because of a story that upset me so much I have to write about it.

I wrestled with whether I should address this here for over 24 hours, wondering what contributing my two-cents'-worth would accomplish, and then I decided I had to speak up.  My mind keeps coming back to the story, and that's a sign that I still need to process my thoughts and (especially) my emotions on the topic.

So here I am.

The story hit the news a couple of days ago.  Apparently, in Monticello, Indiana, part of the Twin Lakes School District, the powers-that-be staged an "active shooter drill."  We do this in my own school (although we call it a "lockdown drill") -- the principal calls a lockdown, we shut and lock our doors, turn the lights off, and everyone gets into a part of the classroom that can't be seen from the window in the door.  The idea is to get used to responding to any potential threats by making it look like the room is unoccupied.

The administrators in Monticello decided to push it one step further.  They had people posing as actual shooters, armed with Airsoft pellet guns, and they forced their way into one of the rooms, lined the teachers up four at a time, made them kneel, and shot them in the back, execution-style.  People out in the hall heard screams, and the Airsoft pellets raised welts and at least in one case, drew blood.

Neither the school district nor the law enforcement officials who conducted the drill were willing to comment on what happened.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The Indiana State Teachers' Association was understandably outraged.  "The teachers were terrified, but were told not to tell anyone what happened.  Teachers waiting outside that heard the screaming were brought into the room four at a time and the shooting process was repeated," the Association said on Twitter.  "No one in education takes these drills lightly.  The risk of harming someone far outweighs whatever added realism one is trying to convey here."

Representative Wendy McNamara, who co-authored a bill requiring schools to hold shooter drills, expressed amazement that it was handled this way.  "I would never have thought in a million years that anybody would have thought that it made sense to use in an active shooter drill where teachers are unaware that they're going to be shot with a pellet gun," she said.  "That would have never crossed my mind as something we'd need to legislate."

Me neither, Representative McNamara.

It also brings up the question of who in the hell thought this was a good idea.  The principal?  The superintendent?  Was the district pushed by the sheriff's office to include this as part of the drill?  Of course, since all they'll say is "no comment," no one at this point knows for sure except the people who made the decision.

Being a teacher, of course what this brought up in my mind is how I'd respond if this happened in my school.  My first reaction is that when the guy with the pellet gun told me to kneel on the floor, I'd have told him, "Not just no, but fuck no."  But the people acting as the shooters were police officers who were armed with more than Airsoft guns.  What would have happened if I'd refused?  Is this (in a legal sense) refusing to cooperate with law enforcement?  What if I walked out?  What if I disobeyed what I was told, and yelled to the other teachers waiting to be executed that they needed to get the hell out of there?

I'd like to think if I refused to cooperate, and the policeman had said, "Do it or you're under arrest," I'd have said, "Go ahead, you asshole.  Arrest me.  I'll see you and the school district representatives in court."  But you never know how you'll react when you're in a highly emotional situation, and especially one you were not expecting.  Because -- if this wasn't clear enough -- none of the teachers were warned ahead of time that this would happen.

I do know that afterward, the first thing I'd do is to turn in my letter of resignation.  Along with a lengthy explanation of why.  If I can't trust the people in charge of my school to do whatever has the best interest of the students' and staff's emotional health in mind, I'll find other employment.

The second thing I would do is mail a copy of the letter to every news outlet I can think of.

But this doesn't alter the fundamental problems with this situation, which include:
  • We are in a place as a nation where people have concluded that school shootings are likely enough that we need to conduct a realistic simulation of one.
  • Somehow, conducting "realistic active shooter drills" is considered to be a better way of addressing school shootings than passing reasonable, common-sense gun laws.
  • Whoever designed this drill thought that traumatizing teachers was an effective way to train them in how to respond in an emergency.
  • No one is taking responsibility for this idiotic decision.
I don't seem to be getting over the outrage I felt the first time I saw this story, two days ago.  The more I think about it, the madder I get.  I'm not a big fan of lawsuits, but I hope that the Indiana State Teachers' Association sues the absolute shit out of either Twin Lakes School District, the White County Sheriff's Department, or both, on behalf of the teachers who are probably still recovering from the emotional trauma of what they went through.

Beyond that, I can't think of anything more to say.  But maybe if enough people find out about this, it'll make it less likely that some trigger-happy administrator or policeman decides it'd be good to stage a mock shooting in the name of "realism."

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]






Friday, March 22, 2019

Creator and creation

In today's post, I'm going to ask a question, not because I'm trying to lead people toward a particular answer, but because I don't know the answer myself.

The topic comes up because yesterday was Johann Sebastian Bach's 334th birthday, and the classical radio station I frequently listen to had an all-Bach-all-day program.  I approve of this, because I love Bach's music, and have done since I first discovered classical music when I was twelve years old.

The radio was playing one of Bach's (many) religious cantatas, which was gorgeous, but it started me thinking about one of his masterworks -- the St. John Passion.  And that's when I started to feel uneasy, because there are passages in the St. John Passion that are decidedly anti-Semitic.

The gist is that the villains of the piece are the crowds of Jews who demand Jesus's crucifixion, and who are depicted as deliberately rejecting the claim that Jesus was the Messiah.  (Which, I suppose, they did, if you accept the biblical account as historical.)  But it's obvious that the Jews are being cast in a seriously negative light.  This is consistent with Martin Luther's theology, which was even more clearly and virulently anti-Semitic.  And Bach, after all, was a devout Lutheran.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

On the other hand (and you'll find there are several hands, here), even the powers-that-be of the time didn't condone maltreatment of Jews based on the biblical accounts and the St. John Passion specifically.  The senate of the city of Hamburg, for example, issued an official proclamation in 1715 that, relative to performance of Bach's piece at Easter, "The right and proper goal of reflection on the Passion must be aimed at the awakening of true penitence…  Other things, such as violent invectives and exclamations against… the Jews… can by no means be tolerated."

The fact that they had to state that outright, however, certainly is indicative that there's something to the claim that the Passion is by its nature anti-Semitic.  And that got me to thinking about the relationship between a creator and his/her work -- and to what extent the opinions and behavior of the creator can be kept separate from the worth of the work itself.

Other examples come to mind.  H. P. Lovecraft, whose horror stories were a near-obsession when I was a teenager and who to this day influences my own fiction writing greatly, was an unabashed racist -- something that comes out loud and clear in stories like "The Horror at Red Hook" and (especially) "Facts Surrounding the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family."  The best of his stories -- gems like "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" -- are largely free of the ugly racism he apparently embraced, but in his case, saying "He was a man of his times" only goes so far, and after discovering his bigotry I've read Lovecraft with some serious misgivings.

Orson Scott Card's homophobia is another good example, although I must say I wasn't that fond of Card's fiction even before I found out about his anti-LGBTQ stance.  Even Tom Cruise, whose loony defense of Scientology makes me wonder if he is sane, is undeniably a good actor -- Minority Report and Vanilla Sky would be in my top-ten favorite movies.  But I can't watch him without remembering him losing his mind and leaping about on Oprah Winfrey's couch.

The truth is that keeping the creator and the creation separate is at best an exercise in mental gymnastics.  On the most venial level, authors like myself need to be careful about our public personae, because that (after all) is the brand we're trying to sell.  (It's why I try to keep the vehemence-level down in any postings I make about politics on social media -- a difficult thing, sometimes.)  But it goes deeper than that.  Even if our own ugly opinions or weird personality quirks don't explicitly leak out onto the page, they're part of us, and therefore part of what we create.  Separating the two is nearly impossible -- at least for me.

So we're back to where we started, with the question of how a person's flaws color the perception of their work.  And I honestly don't know the answer.  I'm sure I'll still continue to listen to Bach -- and continue to be inspired by Lovecraft's ability to tell a bone-chillingly scary story -- but there will always be a twinge of conscience there, and probably there should be.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]






Thursday, March 21, 2019

Space suits and straw men

Before you jump to a wild explanation for something, it's a good idea to rule out prosaic explanations first.

Take, for example, the strange deity Bep Kororoti, worshiped by the Kaiapo tribe of Brazil.  Erich von Däniken and his ilk just love this god, and when you see a photograph of someone wearing a Bep Kororoti suit, you'll understand why:


In his book Gold of the Gods, von Däniken says that this is clear evidence of contact with an alien wearing a space suit:
João Americo Peret, one of our outstanding Indian scholars, recently published some photographs of Kaiapo Indians in ritual clothing that he took as long ago as 1952, long before Gagarin's first space flight...  I feel that it is important to reemphasize that Peret took these photographs in 1952 at a time when the clothing and equipment of astronauts were still not familiar to all us Europeans, let alone these wild Indians!...  Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in his spaceship Vostok I for the first time on April 1961...  The Kaiapos in their straw imitation spacesuits need no commentary apart from the remark that these 'ritual garments' have been worn by the Indian men of this tribe on festive occasions since time immemorial, according to Peret...
Nope.  No commentary needed.  No questions, either.  Consider how this shows up on the dubiously credible site Message to Eagle:
The inhabitants of the Amazon jungle, the Indians Kaiapo [sic] settled in the State of Pará in northern Brazil, have detailed legends of sky visitors, who gave their people wisdom and knowledge. 
The Kaiapo Indians worshipped in particular one of these heavenly teachers. His name was Bep Kororoti, which in Kayapo [sic] language, means "Warrior of the Universe"... It is said that his weapons were so powerful that they could turn trees and stones into dust. 
Not surprisingly, his aggressive warrior manners terrified the primitive natives, who at the beginning even tried to fight against the alien intruder. 
However, their resistance was useless. 
Every time their weapons touched Bep Kororoti's clothes, the people fell down to the ground.
Eventually Bep calmed down, we find out, and began to teach the Kaiapo all sorts of stuff.  He also had lots of sex with Native women, apparently while still wearing his space suit, and today's Kaiapo claim descent from him.

The whole thing has become part of the "Ancient Aliens" canon, and even was featured on the show of the same name (narrated, of course, by the amazingly-coiffed Giorgio Tsoukalos).

So anyway.  The whole thing boils down to the usual stuff.  You have a god coming down from the sky, dispensing knowledge (and various other special offers) to the Natives, then returning from whence he came.   Evidence, they say, that the Kaiapo were visited by an alien race in ages past.

All of this, however, conveniently omits one little fact.  Probably deliberately, because once you point this out, the whole thing becomes abundantly clear.  Writer and skeptic Jason Colavito found out that not only did Bep Kororoti live in the sky and come visit the Kaiapo...

... he was the protector spirit of beekeepers.

For reference, here's a drawing of some traditional beekeepers, done by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1568:


Notice a similarity? Yeah, me too.

I know we all have our biases and our favorite explanations for things.  But when you deliberately sidestep a rational, Earth-based explanation for one that claims that damn near every anthropological find is evidence of ancient astronauts, you've abandoned any right to be taken seriously.

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

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a look at one of the most peculiar historical mysteries known: the unsolved puzzle of Kaspar Hauser.

In 1828, a sixteen-year-old boy walked into a military station in the city of Ansbach, Germany.  He was largely unable to communicate, but had a piece of paper that said he was being sent to join the cavalry -- and that if that wasn't possible, whoever was in charge should simply have him hanged.

The boy called himself Kaspar Hauser, and he was housed above the jail.  After months of coaxing and training, he became able to speak enough to tell a peculiar story.  He'd been kept captive, he said, in a small room where he was never allowed to see another human being.  He was fed by a man who sometimes talked to him through a slot in the door.  Sometimes, he said, the water he was given tasted bitter, and he would sleep soundly -- and wake up to find his hair and nails cut.

But locals began to question the story when it was found that Hauser was a pathological liar, and not to be trusted with anything.  No one was ever able to corroborate his story, and his death from a stab wound in 1833 in Ansbach was equally enigmatic -- he was found clutching a note that said he'd been killed so he couldn't identify his captor, who signed his name "M. L. O."  But from the angle of the wound, and the handwriting on the note, it seemed likely that both were the work of Hauser himself.

The mystery endures, and in the book Lost Prince: The Unsolved Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson looks at the various guesses that people have made to explain the boy's origins and bizarre death.  It makes for a fascinating read -- even if truthfully, we may never be certain of the actual explanation.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]