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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghosts, and vampires, and were-weasels (oh my!)

Halloween, of course, always brings out our deeply buried, most primitive fears.  With its millenium-old history of development from the Celtic festival of Samhain, the time of year when the natural rules that governed the world were overturned and the spirits of evil roamed free, Halloween appeals to the part of all of us that loves a good scare.

It also appeals to the part of all of us that believes in outlandish crap.

Witness the South Jersey Ghost Research Group.  (Visit their website here.)  This group states, as its primary mission, "using the latest scientific methods" to "conduct discreet investigations, assist people in need, educate the public, conduct field research, and promote the learning and understanding of ghosts and other psychic phenomena."  It also, apparently, is an official 501(3)(c) tax-exempt non-profit.  In their link "Ghosthunting 101," they give a few important tips, including scouting the place in the daylight (so as to avoid obstacles you might not see in the dark), bringing along a photo ID (for when you're stopped by the police), and advising that the hours between 9 PM and 6 AM are the "psychic hours" and therefore are the best for ghost hunting, and especially, for taking photos.

This is one of the many things about ghost hunting I've never understood.  Why would being dead mean that you'd only walk around at night?  It seems to me that if you were a ghost, it wouldn't matter.  The two reasons you hear of why ghosts walk at a place is because they've got a message to deliver to their relatives and friends, or because they have some level of ill will toward people who are still living.  Either way, wouldn't it be more effective to appear in broad daylight, when there are lots of people around?  I know that's what I would do, if I were a ghost.

Of course, when talking about Halloween-related themes, we mustn't forget the Church of Bio-Energy Vampirism (here).  They are, according to their mission statement, "not an affiliated religious organization" (and here I would recommend that they grab a Webster's and look up the definition of the word "church"), and "do not honor the portrayal of vampirism in the romantic and power-driven films made by the movie industry."  (From this, I'm concluding that if you attend one of their meetings, you shouldn't say, "Hey!  Why aren't any of you people SPARKLING?")  They believe that you can draw psychic energy from others, with or without the actual removal and consumption of blood, in order to boost your own psychic energy levels, but that "forceful psychic attacks" on others are "completely unacceptable."

My favorite page on the website for the Church of Bio-Energy Vampirism is the one that is called, "How Can I Tell If I'm a Real Vampire?"  Myself, I wouldn't have thought it was that hard,  given the whole sharp teeth, drinking blood, and sleeping in a coffin thing, but apparently, you can "never be 100% positive" because "there is no test for vampirism."  It then goes on to recommend seeing a doctor "to rule out other possibilities, such as cancer or a slight vitamin deficiency" before concluding that you are, indeed, a vampire. 

You will at this point think that either (1) I am making this up, or (2) that this is a spoof site.  Tragically, neither is true.  I think these people are serious.

Also serious is this site, All About Werewolves (here).  I was particularly interested in the page on "How to Become a Werewolf," wherein it lists a variety of ways, including making a pact with the devil, being cursed, being bitten by a werewolf, or "eating lycanthropous flowers."  (I was hoping that the site would tell you the actual kind of flower, so I could try it out, but all it says is that it is a white flower that "grows in swamps in the Balkans" and "has the sickly smell of death."  I'm curious about this, but not curious enough to go wading around in some godforsaken marsh in Bulgaria.)  I was also interested to find out that not everyone becomes a wolf; there are also "werecats."  (Why stop there, I wonder?  Could we have wereweasels?  Werewombats?  Werepandas?)

In any case, I hasten to state that despite my skeptical attitude, I rather enjoy this time of year, and the whole costuming thing, and (especially) the scary aspects of it.  But here's to hoping that we all keep a firm grip on our prefrontal cortices tonight, and remember that it's all fun and games until someone actually starts believing it's real.  That said, I'll end by wishing you all a spooky and fun-filled Halloween.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cell phones, Charlie Chaplin, and time travelers

So now all the woo-woos of the world are celebrating the "smoking gun" which finally proves that time travelers are real -- that people from the future are coming back to observe today's society.  Those wily time bandits have tried hard to blend in, but by gum, we caught 'em at their game this time!

The evidence, if I can dignify it with that word, that is giving the back-to-the-future crowd multiple orgasms is a clip from a 1928 Charlie Chaplin film (watch the clip here) which shows, in the background, a woman walking along with her left hand against the side of her face.  As she passes, she smiles a little, and seems to say something.

The only possible conclusion, of course, is that she's talking into a cell phone.  But wait -- this was filmed in 1928!  There were no cell phones in 1928!  Therefore -- she must have been a time traveler!  Alert the papers!

Predictably, my reaction is to grind my teeth and say something that is unprintable, at least if I want to maintain the "all ages appropriate" rating on my blog.

One of many problems with this claim is that the woman doesn't, as far as I can tell, have anything in her hand.  To me, it more looks like she's trying to partially cover her face, in the manner of someone doing the perp walk in front of a bunch of reporters.  Maybe she didn't want to be filmed, who knows? Or maybe her ear itched.  There are a great many other reasons for having your left hand to your face other than talking into a cell phone.

Another problem, of course, is that even if we accept (for the moment, but don't get your hopes up that it'll last) that she was talking on a cell phone, who was she talking to?  In order to talk on a cell phone, there generally has to be someone on the other end of the conversation (although admittedly I've known people who could have talked on the phone for twenty minutes before noticing that the line, or perhaps the person they were talking to, was actually dead).  Okay, the woo-woos may reply, maybe there were other time-travelers around who had also brought their cell phones.  But don't you need other stuff, too -- like cell phone towers and satellites and the like -- to make it work?

Wait a moment, though.  Perhaps I'm assuming that communications technology from the future works like today's phones; maybe the future people have perfected some kind of small, Star-Trek-communicator-style telephone, and that was what she was using.  To talk to her other fellow time travelers, who were safely away from Charlie Chaplin at the time.  Okay, I have to admit that that's a plausible explanation, if by "plausible" you mean "something that even Shirley MacLaine would have a hard time swallowing."  To the people who think that this constitutes convincing evidence of time travel, I can only say:  you really believe that a five-second clip of a woman with her hand to her face is better explained by time travel than it is by her being... a woman with her hand to her face?  Really?

Of course, the answer that some are giving is, "yeah.  Really."  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; it's an appealing idea, time travel.  Consider how popular a theme it is in movies and television.  Where would Geordi LaForge have been without his periodically having to deal with a temporal distortion in the space-time continuum?  Where would Marty McFly have been without Doc's time-bending DeLorean?  Wouldn't we all like to go back into the past, whether to try and change something or simply to observe?

I know I would, but wishin' don't make it so, as has been so often observed.  And as I and others have also often observed, if you are expecting the skeptical-minded to believe in an extraordinary claim, you'd better have some pretty extraordinary evidence to support it.  And unfortunately, a blurry five-second clip of a woman in 1928 with her hand to her face is just not doing it for me.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Holes in your head

I've been considering the phenomenon of the lexical gap -- a concept for which no word exists.  For example:  what's the word for someone who is no longer a virgin?

See what I mean?  English doesn't have one.  You have to come up with some sort of conglomerate phrase to describe it (which, in the interests of keeping this blog PG-13 rated, I'm not going to do with the above example), but there's no single word that fits the concept.

Interestingly, there's a word for this phenomenon.  Such gaps are called lacunae.  They're holes in our mental naming system, and are not unique to English; all languages have lacunae of one sort or another.  For example, did you know that Romanian has no word for "shallow?"  They have to say "ape putsin adanci" ("not so deep waters").  But here's another one from English:  in most languages, there's a generic word for a type of common animal, a different word for a male of the species, and a different word for a female.  Thus:  deer, stag, doe; horse, stallion, mare.  What should go in the blank:  ______, bull, cow?

Don't know?  That's because there's no word in English that's a generic for that species.  Oddly, we have a plural for it -- cattle -- but no singular!

Often other languages have words where we have lexical gaps.  This is the subject of the delightful book The Meaning of Tingo, by Adam Jacot de Boinod, which goes into some whimsical examples of this phenomenon.  The Maori, for example, have papakata, which is a name for a person with one leg shorter than the other.  Then, there's the Japanese bakkushan, a word for a girl who looks pretty from behind, but when you see her from the front -- not so much.  The German Backpfeiffengesicht means "a face that is just asking to have a fist in it."  And tingo itself?  It comes from the Pascuenese language of Easter Island, and means "to borrow things from someone's house, one by one, until there's nothing left."

Of course, those are some pretty esoteric concepts, and it may not be surprising that many languages lack words for them.  However, there are some really peculiar lacunae -- holes in the lexicon for common concepts.  I've always found it odd, for example, that standard English has no second person plural pronoun; you can mean either one person or more than one.  It's one of the only languages I know that has this feature.  Of course, southern English solves this neatly with the word y'allYou is one person; y'all is more than one.  And in fact, in Louisiana English has a third form, for lots of people -- ALL y'all.

Of course, sometimes it's not that there's a lacuna, it's just that the word is really obscure.  I have a positive affinity for weird little words that not many people know.  For example, did you know that the little plastic things around the ends of your shoelaces are called aglets?  Or that the groove between your nose and your upper lip is your philtrum?  Or that an unlicensed liquor store is a shebeen?  (At this point, you're probably guessing correctly that I'm a real pain in the ass to play the game "Dictionary" with.)

But back to lacunae.  In some cases, we know what happened with the etymology that caused the hole.  In the case of you, for example (not you personally) the form you used to be plural and polite only (comparable to the French vous); the singular and familiar form was thou.  But in the 17th century, you became standard, and the use of thou was thought of as common and lacking in class.  Finally thou was dropped altogether in favor of you, and we ended up with a hole.

In other cases, I don't think there's any real reason for the missing words.  Why English has a word for someone who hasn't had sex yet, but no word for someone who has, is simply peculiar.  Likewise, there being no singular form of cattle is simply an oddity of language evolution.  Of course, given our propensity for borrowing words, we could probably fix some of these gaps by stealing words from other languages. (Myself, I know a few people who are seriously Backpfeiffengesicht, and would really like to use that word in describing them.)  We could also take a page from the Norwegians' book and simply glue together old words to make new ones.  They did that when the concept of "automobile accident" had to be covered -- by coining the word bilulykke, which literally means "car out of luck."

In any case, I predictably find the whole thing fascinating, and could probably blather on about it for quite a bit longer.  But dinner's almost ready, and I'm really hungry -- and after all, I'm a nakkele (from the Tulu language of India) -- a guy who enjoys food so much that he licks the plate it was served on. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Carlos Mysterioso

Recently I have begun rereading the first four books by the enigmatic author Carlos Castañeda.  It is a bit of a mystery even to myself why I have read these books more than once (I believe this is my fourth time reading them), as they describe the kind of pseudoscientific worldview that I might be expected to dismiss out of hand, and not waste my time on.

I was first introduced to Castañeda's books in 1977, when I was a senior in high school.  The first of Castañeda's books was required reading in the rather unorthodox psychology class I took from a fellow named Dr. Farmer.  (I'm not certain if the honorific in front of his name was because he had a legitimate Ph.D., or if he'd been given the title by students because of the air of erudition he always projected.)  Dr. Farmer's teaching methods weren't exactly the by-the-book approach, especially given that this was the Deep South in the 1970s; he allowed us to sit wherever we liked, including on the floor (my preferred perch was on top of a low bookcase by the window) and he talked about things that would be considered on the fringe even today.  (I recall that on his final exam, we were allowed to select which questions we wanted to answer, from a list he provided -- and one of them was, "Draw and interpret three mandalas.")  Dr. Farmer, I heard, only taught in the high school that one year.  I never found out if it was because parents complained about him, or because the administration found him to be too peculiar, or whether he himself decided that public education was not the right place for a man of his quirky views.

Be that as it may, Dr. Farmer instructed us to go out and purchase a copy of the first of the books by Castañeda, called The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.  I did so, having no idea what it was about, and began reading it that evening, with that combination of curiosity and apprehension that most students bring to assigned reading.

I found the contents unlike anything I'd ever been exposed to.  It, and his other books, remain unique in my experience, describing a view of reality so contrary to everything I knew that I hardly know what to make of them.

The first four books describe Castañeda's apprenticeship with an elderly Yaqui native from Mexico, named Don Juan Matus.  The basic gist of Don Juan's teachings is that the world we see around us is not the only, nor the most fundamental, reality.  There is another way of seeing the world -- Castañeda calls it nonordinary reality -- that can only be reached by unlearning all the ways you see and interpret what is around you.

Castañeda's journey along this road, as detailed in this and the following three books (A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan, and Tales of Power), involved the ritual consumption of hallucinogenic plants including datura, psilocybe mushrooms, and peyote (this may well have been the reason for Dr. Farmer's not being invited back the following school year).  He describes meeting spirits, having shifts in his perception that altered his way of seeing the world permanently, and ultimately (at the end of Tales of Power) he leaps off a cliff into the "spirit world," an event which represented the end of his apprenticeship.

Castañeda's writing doesn't end there, however; he wrote eight more books, and then suddenly and completely vanished from view, becoming a recluse who never granted interviews, even shunning photographs.  Castañeda died of liver cancer in 1998, mysterious to the end.

The controversy is still alive, twelve years later.

The main question is, is what Castañeda wrote the truth?  Perhaps that's putting it a bit strongly; better to ask, did the events he described actually happen?  I'm not asking anyone to entertain the idea that his worldview was true; most people, especially skeptics, highly doubt that the spirits and other features of nonordinary reality he writes about actually exist.  But even if you exclude those who think that what he wrote was neither more nor less than a factual description of the universe, there still remains a puzzling set of questions to be answered.

The two chief theories about Castañeda seem to be:  (1) He was a charlatan, and the whole thing was a hoax from beginning to end.  Castañeda's books are a work of fiction, written purely as a money-making gambit (and as such, they worked brilliantly).  (2) He started out being a genuine student of anthropology, and his earlier works are fairly close to the truth; but probably because of consumption of large amounts of hallucinogens, he went off the deep end at some point, and his later works are the outpourings of a damaged mind. 

Me, I tend to find the second theory more in line with the facts.  The first three books, especially, have the ring of truth (again, I mean "truth" in the sense of "he was recording events he actually witnessed, as opposed to just making stuff up").  His later works seem like the sort of weird New Age philosophy that anyone could write, or at least anyone who had repeatedly hammered on his poor neurotransmitters with controlled substances.  In fact, I don't think I've read any further than The Eagle's Gift, his sixth book -- after that, I sort of gave it up as a bad job.

Whichever of the two theories is correct, he certainly was an odd, odd man.  Near the end of his life, he partially came out of seclusion to found Cleargreen, an institute for the study of his ideas.  Cleargreen was run by five women who called themselves brujas (sorceresses), and said that Castañeda had taught them using Don Juan's methods.  A weird postscript on that is that immediately following Castañeda's death in 1998, Cleargreen was closed, and all five women vanished completely, and have not been seen nor heard of -- at least under the identities they had prior to his death -- since.

In any case, I find the whole thing strangely fascinating.  Despite the internal inconsistencies that debunkers point out in his first four books, I think they make a curious read -- not least as an interesting case study of the ritual use of hallucinogens by Native cultures (although in the interest of honesty, I must point out that Yaqui leaders have disavowed any connection with Castañeda's ideas, and there has been more than one serious researcher in Native beliefs who has stated unequivocally that Castañeda made the whole thing up).  I have no interest in trying to shift my own perceptions using psychotropic drugs, but an account of someone else doing so, against the backdrop of the Mexican desert, makes for compelling reading -- even if it almost certain is fiction.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tales from Nibiru

Every so often, I think that I have plumbed the deepest recesses of human credulousness.  At those moments, all the sasquatches, hauntings, and ley lines, all of the accounts of telekinesis, clairvoyance, and demonic possession, seem to sound like twice-told tales.  I even find myself wondering if I am approaching the point of running out of subjects for my blog.  "I must," I muse to myself, "have finally reached the end of the litany of pseudoscientific nonsense that people will fall for."

I am always wrong.

On Fridays, my Critical Thinking classes are supposed to write about something they've found in popular media that illustrates one of the concepts we've studied.  I always look forward to these submissions -- my students, I've found, when armed with the tools of logic, are often better than I am at ferreting out outstanding examples of bullshit.  And today... one of my students found a piece of pseudoscience that not only had I not researched, but that I hadn't even heard of.

The subject of this young lady's dashing piece of investigative journalism was the planet Nibiru.  Ever heard of it?  I had always thought there were nine planets, at least until Pluto was downgraded (and I am not getting into that whole hot-button topic).  But no -- apparently there is a tenth planet, a mystical planet, which is either going to bring about great wonderment and change, or else is going to kill us all, depending on which version you believe.

The planet Nibiru is named after a character in a Sumerian creation myth.  Apparently the earth goddess Tiamat was separated from her male counterpart, the god Nibiru (also known as Marduk).  In most conventional interpretations, Nibiru/Marduk became the god of the heavens.  In a somewhat less-than-conventional interpretation, the separation of the two deities was a symbolic representation of an actual event, in which the earth was ripped in half, one half staying more or less where it was (Tiamat/Earth) and the other half somehow being propelled into a highly elliptical orbit (the planet Nibiru).

If you are saying to yourself, "what the hell?" (or some less PG-13 rated version, which I have to admit is what I said when I read about all this), wait, I've only just begun.  In my research on the topic, which has resulted in the untimely death of whole sectors of my brain, I have found that there's much more to the idea than that.  Apparently the whole Nibiru idea was cooked up by a woman named Nancy Lieder, who claims that she got the knowledge by channeling super-intelligent aliens from a planet around the star Zeta Reticuli.  I'm relieved, actually.  I was beginning to question the whole thing on the basis of its not having any credible source citations.

As a brief aside, I must quote a website (one of hundreds) I saw on the subject.  "Today, scientists accept the theory of plate tectonics," the author of the website says.  "There are articles and studies which show that at one time, all of Earth's continents were on one side of the planet.  What the studies don't explore is, if all the continents were on one side, what was on the other?"

The author concludes, with no apparent awareness of the breakage of a link in the logical chain, that since he can't conceive of what was on the other side of the earth, it must have been the emerging planet Nibiru.  My responses:  (1) you can't conceive of a great big ocean?  and (2) do you have the IQ of a prune?

However that may be, I'm sure what you're all thinking is, "what does the planet Nibiru mean to my life?"  The answer seems to be that either it will bring about global peace, love, and happiness, or unleash a storm of comets that will destroy all life on earth.  It's sort of like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, isn't it?  "If you want Nibiru to BRING ABOUT THE AGE OF AQUARIUS, go to page 73.  If you want Nibiru to MAKE EVERYONE DIE IN HORRIBLE AGONY, go to page 129."  Lieder's version is the happier one; she says that the aliens from Zeta Reticuli have told her that when Nibiru makes its reappearance, it will signal the "end of strife amongst humanity."  The less cheery Nibiru apologists believe that the planet's passage on its way to the inner solar system will, as it passes through the Oort Cloud (which, unlike most things I've mentioned in this post, actually exists) disturb the orbits of thousands of comets, which will plummet inward toward earth in the fashion of the interstellar mines homing in on Sarris' ship at the end of the movie "Galaxy Quest."  When they strike the earth, we will all be instantly deep fried to a crispy golden brown.

Of course, the unfortunate thing for the proponents of this theory is something that bedevils most of these sorts of things, which is that the hard evidence in its favor is pretty much nonexistent.  The source of my student's submission today was a blurry astronomical photograph of a faint point of light, which the accompanying video clip claimed "proved the existence of Nibiru."  My general feeling is that the photograph in question could have been damn near anything, up to and including a timed-exposure shot of a distant Motel 6 sign.

So, the good news is, you shouldn't fret about the possibility of our being vaporized by a Nibiru-triggered comet collision.  The bad news is, we're probably not going to see the end of strife on earth any time soon, either.  So I guess the outlook is mixed, but I suppose it always has been.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Apocalypse later

Imagine my dismay when I read yesterday that a new study has shown that the world is probably not going to end on December 21, 2012.

Myself, I was rather looking forward to it.  I do so love a good apocalypse.  I was planning on going to school that day wearing a shirt with a bullseye drawn on it.  I was thinking about crossing the path of some black cats that day (not a difficult task as I have two), breaking a mirror, and walking under a ladder, so as to create a Perfect Storm of Cosmic Bad Luck.  Then, when I got to December 22 without having a brain aneurysm, I was planning on having a good long laugh at the superstitious nimrods who believed that just because a human-invented, arbitrary time measurement device was reaching the end of its cycle, that the world was going to end.

But no.  Now, some know-it-all smarty-pants professor at the University of California, Geraldo Aldana, has shown that a value called the GMT constant (nothing to do with Greenwich Mean Time, apparently it's the initials of the last names of three early Mayan language researchers), used to convert between the Mayan calendar and the one we use, is in question.  Floyd Lounsbury, a linguist and anthropologist whose research gave us the heretofore accepted value of the GMT constant, and our date of December 21, 2012, apparently was relying on historical records that were inaccurate.  So Aldana, after a careful study of the available records, has concluded that we don't know what the actual value of the GMT constant is, and the date of the end of the Mayan calendar cycle could be off.

By fifty to a hundred years.

So, what that means is that the apocalypse might well already have happened.  And no one told me!  I feel so... left out.

What I find most amusing about all this is how surprised people seem to be when a calendar proves inaccurate.  All of my students know about Leap Year, when we add a day to February to keep the calendar aligned -- but not that many know that it's necessary because the earth's rotationary and revolutionary periods don't quite line up, so measured in days (rotational periods) the earth's year (revolutionary period) is 365.25 days.  So every four years, we'd be off by a day if we didn't insert one to catch up.  What fewer students know is that it's not even exactly 365.25 days, but slightly less than that -- so to make it all work out, years divisible by 100 are not Leap Years, unless they are also divisible by 400 -- which is why 2000 was a Leap Year, but 2100 will not be.

And what almost no students of mine know about is that the previous calendar we used, the Julian calendar (proposed by none less than Julius Caesar), which divided our year up into the months we know so well, did not take account of the shifting of the months relative to the seasons because of that tiny difference.  So by the 16th century, the powers that be were beginning to notice that the solstices and equinoxes, and more importantly from their point of view the holy days, were coming unglued from the dates they were supposed to occur on.  So this prompted the reformation of the calendar called the Gregorian calendar, which fixed the beginning of the year at January 1 (before, the date that marked the beginning of a new year varied from December 25 to March 25, depending on who you asked).  The adoption of the Gregorian calendar caused the loss of 13 days (February 1 was immediately followed by February 14).  And even it wasn't adopted smoothly and universally -- the Republic of Venice adopted the new calendar in 1582; Great Britain waited until 1750; and Russia and Serbia didn't cave in until 1918.

You can just imagine the hell this played with people's international engagement calendars.  (Actually, the author Umberto Eco used this very idea as one of the many plot twists in his book Foucault's Pendulum, which might well be the most brilliantly intricate novel ever written.)

In any case, my point here is that we should expect uncertainties in any calendar system, especially one like the Mayan calendar, based as it was on astronomical observations done without the benefit of any technology at all.  No discredit to the Mayans; given their tools, they did pretty damn well.  But the truth is that any calendar is bound to be inaccurate, because nature is (face it) messy. 

Still, I have to admit that I'm disappointed.  I was so looking forward to making a huge deal out of December 21, 2012.  I guess we'll have to accept what one of my students said, yesterday, when I told my Critical Thinking classes about this story.

"So, we're still all going to die, but we don't know when?" he asked.

"Pretty much," I responded.

"Business as usual, then," he said.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


New from the News You'll Think I'm Making Up But I'm Not department, officials at the Vatican have declared that after some years of serious study, they have found that The Simpsons are Catholics.

First, we had the Muslims claiming that Mickey Mouse was an agent of Satan.  Then we had the Seal-the-Borders Cadre howling that Dora the Explorer was an illegal immigrant.  Now, we have the leaders of one of the most powerful and influential religious sects in the world claiming a family of cartoon characters as members of the flock.

The official Vatican newspaper, Osservatore, has stated that a Jesuit study of the program has found that Homer and company "pray before meals, and in their own way believe in the beyond," and that this has led them to the inescapable conclusion that they are Roman Catholics.

I had always thought that becoming a Catholic was more difficult than that.  I figured that if you weren't born to it, you at least had to take a class or something.  Now, we find that technically, you don't even have to exist. 

Interestingly, the producer of the show, Al Jean, has weighed in on the topic.  "We've pretty clearly shown that Homer is not Catholic," Jean was quoted as saying, when he found out about the Vatican press release, citing the fact that Homer really would not be into the whole no-meat-on-Fridays thing.  (Which, as an aside, I thought the Catholics didn't even do any more?  I never seem to be able to keep up with what's on the Sin List and what's on the Not So Much A Sin Any More List.)  Jean also went on record as stating that actually, the Simpson family are members of the Springfield Presbylutheran Church.

Predictably, my reaction is:  WILL YOU PEOPLE PLEASE GET A GRIP?  Cartoon characters, which last time I checked aren't real, can't be "actually" anything.  The question of what breed of dog Scooby-Doo actually is is meaningless.  The question of whether Tinky-Winky the Teletubbie is actually gay is meaningless.  Are we reasonably clear on this point now?  Excellent.  Now all of you who were worrying about such things can go back to passing the time by chewing on the straps of your straitjackets, okay?

I'm simultaneously amused and amazed at how much time and energy people will spend arguing over issues for which no answer exists.  On the lighthearted side was the pair of students who came to me to help them settle an argument over who would win in a fight, Captain Jean-Luc Picard or Captain James T. Kirk.  (My answer was that Kirk would clearly win.  He would whip out his superior overacting skills and leave Picard in a fetal position, twitching on the floor.  At least that's what always happens to me when I see William Shatner.)  However, this same tendency to debate the unanswerable plagues us all the way up the scale, to the endless battles (both figurative and literal) that the religious fight with each other over what "god really wants us to do."

It's pretty critical, I think, to establish the ground rules for what is a decidable proposition.  For me, one of the most fundamental ground rules is the reliance on hard evidence.  You want me to believe something, agree with a viewpoint, accept what you're saying?  Show me the goods, and you're halfway there.  Whatever you're claiming had better be planted in the firm earth of reality, or I'm much more likely to roll my eyes or simply guffaw in your face.

So if you want me to take you seriously, don't come to me and start blathering about the religious views of cartoon characters.  Except, of course, for Bullwinkle, who is clearly a Zen Buddhist.  But other than that, if you spend your time making pronouncements about the "actual" views of fictional characters, all you'll have accomplished is destroying your own credibility.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hexagons, Hoagland, and hypocrisy

Today one of my students told me about an astronomical discovery I had not heard about; the perfect hexagon at the north pole of Saturn.  (For some nifty photos both of the feature itself, and of its scientific explanation, go here.)  Regular polygons are rather uncommon in nature, and this one has been a mystery for some time; it was finally explained this year.  The long and the short of it is, the hexagon is a pattern generated by turbulent fluid flow in a rotating system, as has been demonstrated by elegant experiments using fluorescent green dye in a spinning cylinder of water.  Yet another example of how beautiful, and how ultimately understandable, the patterns of nature are.

Of course, you can predict how little this explanation would appeal to the more woo-woo-minded among us.  In particular, someone whose name will be familiar to regular readers of this blog has weighed in on the Saturn hexagon, and found it to be attributable to...

... wait for it...

... the same phenomenon that generates crop circles.

At this point, the name "Richard C. Hoagland" should be jumping to mind.  Yes, the same guy who thinks that an ancient civilization on Mars constructed the "giant Martian face" (a minor problem with this theory is that the face doesn't actually exist).  Yes, the same guy who thinks that there's something special about 19.5 degrees north and south latitude because "that is the point of intersection between a tetrahedron and a sphere."  Yes, the same guy who started the whole NASA-faked-the-moon-landing thing.  Yes, the same guy who apparently has three quarters of a pound of LaffyTaffy where most of us have a brain.

I find it doubly appalling that people actually believe his theories.  First, because they generate sites like this (and I give the link only only on the condition that you'll solemnly swear not to believe anything on the website).  As an aside, however, I must say that I do enjoy the website's name: "Hyperdimensional Physics in English Crop Pictures: Extra-terrestrial Support for Quantum Gravity and the Theories of Richard C. Hoagland?"  I suspect that this name was chosen by narrowly edging out the next most sensible title that the authors came up with, which was "Woogie Woogie Woogie Pfththtptptptptppt."

So, problem one is that Hoagland's theories are misleading people, somehow giving them a false idea of how the world works.  True, it's hard to see how anyone whose IQ exceeds his shoe size would be convinced by Hoagland and his ilk, but the fact remains that although he is claiming knowledge on a subject about which he clearly knows nothing, and advocating a theory for which the evidential support is nonexistent, there are evidently folks who buy his ideas.  But this is not the only reason that people like him get under my skin.

Problem two is that they are peddling a worldview that belittles science, which remains our finest tool for understanding the universe.  They make claims to a wonderful, secret understanding, that science cannot reach, or (worse still) deliberately hides from us.  They create a mystical schema, in which we are either mindless sheep or courageous rebels, either swallowing the narrow, restrictive view of science, or expanding our minds into the ethereal realms of crystals, auras, crop circles, and the like.

The worst part of all this is that they are, fundamentally,  hypocrites.  Hoagland et al. have no qualms about trusting medical science with their care when they fall ill and trusting engineering with their lives when they fly.  But they cynically accuse the scientific establishment of hiding the truth, or of outright falsification, when what science says conflicts with their crazy concept of how the universe works.

I shouldn't let it bother me, and should console myself with the surmise that there probably aren't that many people who believe Hoagland.  But then I start thinking about all of the other nutty things that people believe, and I start to despair again.

A skeptophile's job, it would seem, is never done.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

If you can't teach...

Last week, I was the unfortunate victim of a science department meeting at my school.  I loathe meetings to begin with, so I already had a bad attitude going in.  (Although in the interest of fairness I will admit that I have attended interesting, productive meetings.  I believe there was once in 1988, and that one time in 1997.)  The focus of this particular meeting was Reworking the Standards for Science Education in New York State.

The very title given to this meeting set my teeth on edge.  It's not that I'm against high standards; it's just that every time I have been part of a campaign on the part of the State Education Department to rework the standards, the standards have gotten weaker.  The last big overhaul of the science standards in New York State resulted in the New and Improved Regents Exam, which features questions like:

42.  In what organ in the human body does the embryo develop?  (a) liver (b) pancreas (c) stomach (d) uterus

What always makes me laugh, in a bitter and cynical fashion, is the way that NYSED and other government agencies give these initiatives catchy,  buzzwordy names, presumably so as to trick all the teachers into supporting it because we don't know how to read the fine print, or presumably, to think.  The last one was "Raising the Bar."  Given that the "Raising the Bar" initiative generated questions like the aforementioned, it seems like they Raised the Bar High Enough for Everyone to Walk Under It.  The current push is part of the federal government's Race to the Top, which mandates (among other things) using increased standardized testing as a way of improving student learning, because we all know how well that works.  To make someone a better driver (for example), all you have to do is administer the written driver's exam over and over.  Right?  Of course right.

The Race to the Top initiative is a competitive game (thus the "race" analogy) to garner funding by acquiescing to whatever damnfool thing has become the Flavor of the Month at the US Department of Education.  And desperate for funding, we've all rushed headlong into the race, accepting whatever deals with the devil we've had to make along the way, thinking, "It'll be all right in the long run.  We need money."  And after all that, I found out that the federal grant money our district got from winning the Race to the Top was... $41,000.  Only a little more than the starting salary of a single first-year teacher.  For this, we compromised our own standards, accepted the standardized testing, the tying of teacher evaluation to student test scores, and the rest?

Of course we did.  We were cornered.  Our superintendent, for whom I have a great amount of respect, said to me, "If we don't join RTTT, we're going to end up having to acquiesce to the new rules anyway, and get no money at all."  I think she's right.

In the end, of course, all of these initiatives end the same way; life goes on.  We go on teaching what we've taught, in the way we've always done.  Why?  Because, for the most part, it works.  All of the Vertical and Horizontal Alignment, and so forth, that NYSED is currently requiring us to do, will make not a point's worth of difference to student learning.  What makes the most difference to student learning is, and always has been, having a passionate, committed teacher, who knows the subject thoroughly and cares about it deeply, and can instill a sense of enthusiasm into his/her students.  These aren't my words; these are the words of the students in my Critical Thinking class last year, when we discussed the educational system, where it works, and where it falls down.  And they were unanimous in agreement that the first and foremost determiner of student success in a course is having an outstanding instructor.  And if you can show me how Raising the Bar and Race to the Top accomplishes that end, I would be much obliged.

It puts me in mind of the old quip.  You know it?  "If you can, do; if you can't, teach."  Understandably, I've never agreed with that.  But if you add a third clause, I'm more likely to agree:  "If you can't teach, join the Department of Education and tell the teachers how to do their jobs."