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

Friday, 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.


  1. you're just no fun. none whatsoever.


  2. hey thanks, guy; I dreamed last night, because of this post, that I found my oldest son as a ten-year-old out on a sidewalk. He asked me to help him find his time-machine. Knowing his track record for doing the impossible, I believed him for a long time.