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, December 31, 2011

The year in review

Well, 2011 is almost over, and I thought it would be entertaining to review some of the top stories from this year, as a way of reminding ourselves how bloody amazing it is that humanity has survived this long, considering some of the silly things we say, do, and believe in.

In January, we had an announcement from the scientists at the Minnesota Planetarium Society that according to their research, the standard zodiac isn't correct.  So even if, for some reason, you think astrology actually works, that the position of the Sun relative to arbitrary patterns of stars has something to do with your personality, daily life, and destiny, you haven't been using the right constellation for your "sun sign" because the plane of the ecliptic has moved since the time of the Greeks.  There's now a thirteenth zodiac constellation (Ophiucus) and all of the dates have shifted.  (Link)

February brought the announcement that former Baywatch star Donna D'Errico was looking for Noah's Ark on the side of Mount Ararat.  Despite her plans to bring along a camera crew, she was quoted as saying, "I am not doing a reality show."  I have to agree with her there.  Reality is the last thing this is about.  (Link)

March was a contentious month, and saw two examples of mystics hurling abuse at other mystics for being mystics.  In Bulgaria, a monk named Brother Visarion wrote a book, and has been preaching sermons, denouncing two folk religious figures, the healers and prophets Peter Danov and Mother Vanga.  And in yet another example of the pot cursing the kettle, we had the Raelians, who believe (amongst other things) that Jesus' resurrection will be accomplished by cloning, criticizing the Christians for having wacky beliefs.  (Link)

In April, I wrote the post that has generated the greatest number of hits to date -- a piece about the claim that Rebecca Black's song "Friday" was really about the JFK assassination.  That this song could have anything going for it, other than being the most terrible song ever recorded, is hard to believe; but apparently enough people at least wondered to (1) generate the claim in the first place, and (2) send over 1,500 people to my blog to find out what I thought.  So I owe a rather reluctant debt of gratitude to Rebecca Black, even though I still would rather have both ears removed with a SkilSaw than have to listen to that song again.  (Link)

In May, we found out that (gasp!) Harold Camping was wrong again about the world ending, resulting in disappointment both from his followers, and from us godless heathens who thought we were finally going to be rid of them for good.  Camping, of course, was undaunted, and merely revised his date to October.  (Link)

June brought the startling announcement that the Smurfs were communists, and were indoctrinating children into Marxist ideology.  A Parisian lecturer named Antoine Buéno wrote a vicious treatise about the Red Menace of "Les Schtroumpfs" (as the French call the Smurfs), which was notable as making even less sense than the Muslim imam's claim that Mickey Mouse was an agent of Satan. (Link)

In July, we had the announcement that the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo's ship from the Star Wars trilogy, had been found crashed on the floor of the Baltic Sea.  Or, if not Solo's ship, at least a crashed UFO of some kind.  The Swedish treasure-hunting outfit Ocean Explorers were the ones who made the discovery, and the subsequent claim, and no one was more shocked than I was when it turned out to be... a bunch of rocks that were vaguely shaped like a spaceship.  (Link)

August often turns folks' minds onto vacations, and for the woo-woo minded we have a post about a variety of opportunities for mystical travel.  (Link)

In September my blog set another record, for the highest number of hits in a single day -- after I inadvertently pissed off a bunch of British ghost-hunters with this post, and they got wind of it, and a battle of cross-posting ensued.  (Link)

October was notable for the world not ending again, and also because the Russians began their big push to prove that the Yeti was real.  Some Russian scientists sponsored an expedition to Kemerovo, the site of many alleged Yeti sightings, and actually got a bunch of interested researchers from other countries to attend.  Unfortunately for any scientists who were interested in trying to find actual evidence, the whole thing was a publicity stunt, and included "Bigfoot nests" that had apparently been made using hand saws, a technology that most credible researchers believe Yetis don't have.  But the expedition did have one thing going for it -- the participation of heavyweight boxer Nikolai Valuyev, the "Beast from the East," who might have a personal interest in proving the existence of Bigfoot -- if you get my drift.  If you don't, you will when you look at his photograph.  (Link)

November brought a story about the organization PETA losing what little credibility it had left by attacking the video game character Mario for wearing a fur coat, and retaliating by creating a game of its own that had a crazed Mario carrying around a bleeding dog's head.  Evidently the word "fictional" isn't really part of these people's vocabulary.  (Link)

And most recently, in December we had the claim that a highly advanced alien species, possibly the Romulans, had a huge cloaked spacecraft parked near Mercury.  In fact, the spacecraft was exactly the size and shape of Mercury.  And, of course, it turned out that the spacecraft was Mercury, to the dismay of UFO aficionados and Trekkies alike.  (Link)

It's been a long year's journey through the world of the woo-woo, and for those of you who are regular readers, thanks for sharing it with me.  I wish you all a Happy New Year.  Myself, I'm looking forward to 2012, which will undoubtedly bring us all new examples of wingnuttery, and a brand new date for the End of the World.  So, let's boldly plunge forward into the New Year, with the fervent hope for peace, happiness, and love, and a quick wish that we'll find out that the Mayans were wrong, after all.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Female yeti captured?

Attention Yeti aficionados; some folks in Russia have captured a female Yeti, and are holding it in a cage.

At least that's what the video clip (here) seems to imply.  It shows a video taken, apparently with a hand-held recorder, of a television showing a news broadcast.  First, we see the broadcaster, and then it cuts to some scenes outdoors, and finally to a guy speaking Russian -- and in the background is a cage containing what appears to be a Yeti.

The problem for me is that I don't speak Russian, so I have no idea what any of them are saying.  For all I know, they could be saying, "Hey, y'all, take a look at this wingnut we caught walking around in the woods with a gorilla suit!  We threw him into a cage at the zoo to teach him a lesson."  I'm reminded of the story from 2009 that left a lot of news agencies (including some big ones like Fox) red-faced -- the "ghost city" story from Huanshan City, China, that claimed that there was the mirage of a phantom city that appeared in the fog, and was photographed and videotaped from a bridge over the Xa'nan River.  In the video, several Chinese folks were questioned by reporters, and their comments were translated as being amazed, perplexed, mystified -- where did this city come from?  What is it?

Then the woo-woos got involved, as they are wont to do, and it was linked to everything from HAARP to Project Blue Beam, the alleged conspiracy by which NASA is going to create a New World Order with the Antichrist at its head.  (I'm not making any of this up.)  How creating a phantom city in the middle of a Chinese river would further that aim, I have no idea, but rationality is not these people's forte.

In any case, the explanation is far simpler, as you might have guessed.  The buildings and spires and trees in the "ghost city" are actually part of the real city of Huanshan; there is an island in the middle of the Xa'nan River that has an amusement park, and there'd recently been a flood, and there was a lot of mist and fog, and the people on the bridge were saying how surreal it looked.  "Hey, look at the island and amusement park," they were basically saying.  "With all this fog, it looks like a ghost city, or something."  But it was mistranslated, and the whole woo-woo contingent took off at a run.

Here, with the Yeti video -- I don't know.  My general thought is, if they'd really captured a Yeti, it would have been all over the news, not just on an obscure video clip that popped up on Cryptomundo.  Especially considering how hard the Russians have been working lately to prove to everyone that the Yeti exists -- if they had a live one, you can bet that they wouldn't just hush it up.

But I could be wrong, of course.  If any of my readers speak Russian, I'd be curious to find out what they're really saying, rather than just speculating.  Given how far off the beam the Chinese ghost city story went, I'd rather base what I think on firmer knowledge than what we've got.  In any case, keep your eye in this direction, cryptozoology buffs -- it could be that the Russians are about to produce the evidence we've all been waiting for.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Gotcha" proselytizing

A frequent reader and commenter on Skeptophilia sent me a note a few days ago, with a link and the cryptic comment, "Gordon, I think you need to take a look at this."  At first, I thought the link was to my own website -- but underneath the link was an explanation that the individual had discovered the link by accidentally mistyping the website address as  (Bet it took you a while to notice the misspelling, didn't it?  It did me.)

So, anyway, I clicked on the link, and was brought here.

To say that I found this a little alarming was an understatement.  Had someone gone to the lengths of purchasing a website name one letter off from mine, to catch off guard the unwary (and possibly uneasy) skeptics and agnostics who thought they were going to visit a site devoted to rationalism?  I've been the target of negative comments before, from angry believers in everything from homeopathy to hauntings, and certainly have gotten my share of hate mail from the vehemently religious contingent who are bothered by the fact that I am an atheist who is completely, and confidently, "out," and am unapologetic about teaching evolution in my biology classroom.  But this seemed kind of out there even for those folks.

Fortunately, my wife, who is blessed with a better-than-her-fair-share amount of common sense and a good grounding in technology, suggested that I try to type in  So I did.  I first tried the address for my fiction blog, but put in the deliberate misspelling for "blogspot."  It brought me to the same place.  Then I tried ""  Same thing.

So apparently, the owner of this ultra-fundamentalist website, with its babble about the Rapture and Armageddon and the literal truth of the bible, had just bought the domain name "," so that any time anyone makes that particular misspelling in heading to their favorite blog, it takes them to that site.  I was relieved, actually; the thought that someone would go to all that trouble to target me in particular was a little alarming.  (And evidently the fact that on the homepage of the "blogpsot" site, there is a link for "The World's Biggest Skeptic" is just a coincidence.)

However, you have to wonder if the person who owns the site really is laboring under the mistaken impression that this is an effective proselytizing tool.  Can you really imagine someone who is trying to check out the latest post on his/her favorite blog on, say, sewing, and lands here -- and then suddenly goes all glassy-eyed, and says, "Good heavens.  I get it now.  The bible is true, the Rapture is coming, and I'd better repent right now."

No, neither can I.

And when you think about it, the door-to-door religion salesmen that periodically show up in our neighborhoods are the same kind of thing, aren't they?  A little less covert and sneaky, that's all.  But they're trying to accomplish the same thing -- catching you off guard, getting a foot in the door, spreading the message. 

And my previous comment about its being an ineffective tool is probably irrelevant, really.  It's like spam emails.  If you send out a million emails, and your success rate is 0.1%, you've still made money, because of the extremely low overhead.  Same here; you get volunteers (in the case of the door-to-door folks) or unsuspecting drop-ins (in the case of the website).  Most of the target individuals say no, or hit the "Back" button -- but the fraction of a percent that don't are your payoff.

The whole thing pisses me off, frankly, because it's so sneaky.  Even if it wasn't targeted at me specifically, it just seems like a skeevy way to get converts.  But to a lot of these folks, how you convert people is unimportant -- the essential thing is to convert them in the first place.  If you can grab people when their rational faculties are not expecting it, all the better -- because, after all, rationality is the last thing they want to engage.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of the year woo-woo shorts

The year is rapidly drawing to a close, and here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, we're entering the lead-up to New Year's Eve by following a few breaking stories.

First, an Ottawa woman who identifies herself only as "Kayla" has reported seeing the ghost of her pet hamster.

In the story, reported in Paranormal Phenomena, Kayla states, "I've had my dwarf hamster for almost two years.  I went up to my room to put food into his little dish.  All of a sudden I saw a brown blurry 'thing' float upwards out of the cage opening.  I thought I should probably make sure he was okay. I checked under the shavings, where he usually sleeps, and found him motionless in the wheel.  I'm devastated, but this was the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me."

Of course, we here at WWW want to be the first to offer our condolences to Kayla on the loss of her beloved pet.  But it does bring up an interesting question.  If hamsters have immortal souls, do goldfish?  How about house flies?  How about tapeworms?  I don't know about you,  but I have a hard time imagine there being a "gray blurry 'thing'" floating up off my arm every time I slap a mosquito.  But maybe I'm just being narrow-minded.

But speaking of dead stuff, check out this story, wherein we find that researchers at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have just completed DNA testing of a "Yeti finger" from Pangboche Monastery, Nepal.  You may recall the story of the finger; it had resided in the monastery since who-knows-when, but was procured for science when the aptly-named Tom Slick convinced the monks to allow him to take it.  It ended up in the Hunterian Museum in London, but a few months ago a sliver of it was sent to the RZS for analysis.  The conclusion?

The finger is human.  No doubt about it.  So as far as hard evidence of the Yeti goes, we're still waiting.

On the topic of the absence of hard evidence, we have the devastating prediction by noted wingnut Dan Green (no relation, so far as I know, to Dan Brown -- although Dan Green's ideas make The DaVinci Code seem simplistic by comparison).  The whole thing, outlined here, involves Lincoln Cathedral and the prophecy in Matthew 24 15-26: "So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel standing in the holy place let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains."  We have the following pieces of evidence:
  • The cathedral close houses the famous Lincoln Imp statue, a marble statue of a demon.
  • When the Brits won the World Cup in March 2010, the trophy was brought to nearby Sincil Bank Football Ground for a celebration.  The cup is like the Holy Grail, the blades of the helicopter are like a sword, and "Sincil" sounds a little like "sign, seal."  Like the signs and seals in the Book of Revelation.  Get it?
  • There's a mystical link between Lincoln Cathedral and Chartres Cathedral.
  • If you scramble the letters of "Chartres," you get "ratchets," which are gears that only turn one direction.
Conclusion: we're irreversibly heading toward fulfilling the prophecy in Matthew, not to mention Revelation, and pretty soon there will be a cataclysm that will result in the treasure of the Templars being found beneath Lincoln Cathedral.

C'mon, you knew the Templars had to show up, somehow.  They always do.  Every time you think they're safely tucked away, never to be seen again, they're back.  They're kind of the Britney Spears of secret societies.

And last, apropos of not much, we have a wonderful post called "Proving Atheists Wrong With Science."  Given that I'm sure that you want to preserve a few brain cells to kill with your favorite libation on New Year's Eve, let me just summarize this stunning argument:

If the average person drinks two liters of water a day, that's about 14 billion liters of water, give or take, consumed per day.  If, as the evolutionists claim, the Earth has hosted life for about three billion years, "we would have drunk about 9.5 times the amount of water on the planet."  Since the oceans aren't empty, this proves that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old.

The post ends with the statement, "Now what, atheists?"  (You'll have to imagine the threatening arm movements that go along with this.)  And we have to admit, the logic of this leaves us speechless, largely because it's hard to talk when you're face down on your keyboard.

So, that's a wrap, here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  Hamster ghosts, Yeti finger disproved, Templar treasure in Lincoln Cathedral, and the presence of the oceans proves Young Earth Creationism.  We're always on the job, bringing the stories to your doorstep, even if occasionally we have to take a pause for a collective *facepalm.*

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Good morning, Starseed, the Earth says hello

Have you always felt kind of out of place, like you didn't quite belong?  Do you have a particular affinity for astronomy?  Most importantly, do you have a fairly tenuous grip on reality?

The answer is here.  You may be an alien.

Of course, they don't like that term; it sounds fairly negative.  They prefer to call themselves "Starseeds."  They are Intelligences that have come to Earth and taken on the guise of humans, and walk among us.  The problem is, because of the pervasive brainwashing that our culture promotes, and the difficulty of being immersed amongst the "energy fields" of so many other beings, many Starseeds have forgotten about their origins, and think they're human.

Are you one?

If you're like to find out, here's a bit of advice posted by Yshatar InaEanna, a Starseed who evidently comes from the Planet of Unpronounceable Letter Combinations, and who writes for a website called International Starseed Network:
The first answer is usually the correct answer. The more you think about it the less you will know. I would say the most important thing is to go within. Familiarize yourself with who you truly are. Then and only then can you begin to seek information of this nature. It is more powerful to validate your own beliefs. All information should always come from within anything else is just a reference. Once you have understood the above figure out what it is you want to know. Always trust your gut instinct. If the information doesn't feel right then it is not your truth. you are your own best guide. Naturally we want to know where we come from.
Um... okay.  My gut instinct tells me that My Truth is that I'm from Louisiana.  But maybe I thought about it too much.

Once you've determined that you are a Starseed, of course the next thing to do is to figure out what star system you're from.  There are a number of highly (and inadvertently) amusing methods that the website suggests in order to determine this.  One simple one is to stare at a star map until one appeals to you, and that's where you're from.  I wish this worked for earthly venues, because given that it's the dead of winter in upstate New York, I've stared at a map and I find Maui really appealing.  So far I haven't vanished in a flash of ectoplasm, to show up on the beach clad in nothing but swim trunks, holding a drink with a little umbrella in it.  But maybe it only works if you're a Starseed, not an, um, "Mauiseed."

Another way is to use "Star Cards," which are these little icons you click on after meditating for a while, and it tells you where you are from.  When I did it, I got Andromeda, along with a lovely photograph of the constellation of Andromeda, and the Andromeda Galaxy.  This caused me to shout at my computer, "Andromeda is a constellation!  Which is a group of stars that only appear to have anything to do with one another from our vantage point here on Earth!  How can you be from an entire constellation?  And the galaxy that's pictured there is 2.5 million light years away, and is composed of millions of stars!"  This tirade caused my border collie, Doolin, to slink around looking extremely guilty.  But, come to think of it, I wonder if she was acting oddly because she knew I'd inadvertently stumbled upon the Starseed Network thing, and thinks I'm on to her.  I've always wondered if she's an alien, given the fact that she's the least doggy dog I have ever known.  She could well be a Canine Starseed, possibly from Sirius if not from the entire constellation of Canis Major, doing a rather poor impression of a terrestrial dog.  It would explain a good bit of her behavior.

But I digress.

The Starseed webpage has a lot of other helpful advice, including How To Tell Your Family You're A Starseed (key point: remember that in the moment of telling them, you're a human, not an extraterrestrial), how to figure out what your mission is (most of them seemed to concentrate on love, selflessness, and empowerment, none of which I can argue with), and not to be worried if your Auric Field interferes with car alarms, cellphones, and street lights.  I encourage you to peruse it.

So, anyway, that's this morning's quick dip into the deep end of the swimming pool.  As for me, I'm going to have another cup of coffee, because I'm expecting a call from Andromeda and I need to have my wits about me.  Also, StarDog here wants me to throw the frisbee for her, probably because it looks like a UFO and reminds her of home.

Monday, December 26, 2011

An atheist considers religious music

During a spare moment when I was not cooking, cleaning, or visiting with family on Christmas Day, I got onto the computer to see what was happening in the world, and found that a friend on Facebook had posted a stunning music video of Annie Lennox performing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."  (If you'd like to watch it, which you should, go here.)  This performance is amazing on a number of levels, not the least of which is the use of ancient instruments (hurdy gurdy, tin whistle, tabor); and the fact that I've been secretly in love with Annie Lennox for about twenty years is really only a small part of my appreciation of it.

In any case, a friend of mine pointed out the irony of an outspoken atheist posting a song with an uncompromisingly Christian message on Christmas, and the point wasn't lost on me.  The truth is, however, that I've been known to do the like many times before -- including this incredibly lovely video of 700 singers performing Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet Spem in Alium ("Hope in Another").

It's an interesting question to consider; why an atheist wouldn't be so turned off by the religious message that he wouldn't be able to appreciate the music.  But the truth is, when a piece of music is beautiful, the twining of the lyrics and melody sublime, the performance skillful and passionate, for me the religiosity of the message doesn't get in the way at all.  (It may be easier with performances in other languages -- if you don't understand the Latin, for example, Spem in Alium probably sounds like pure tonality to you, devoid of meaning.)

The fact that I don't think that the tenets of the Christian religion are true does not make me unable to appreciate the beauty it spurred its devotees to create, nor does it somehow make the beautiful ugly.  I was awestruck with the grandeur of York Minster Cathedral, the day I walked the 400-some-odd steps up the central bell tower to the top; the art of such luminaries as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Tintoretto, and Bellini are no less brilliant if you think that their subject is myth, not reality.  But music has always spoken to me the most intensely, and if yesterday I listened to Bach's Christmas Oratorio from beginning to end (just as I make a point of listening to The St. Matthew Passion near Easter), I'm not somehow exposing a chink in my atheistic armor.

But just as there's bad popular music, there's bad religious music.  Lots of it.  I find most of the hymns sung in churches these days simply to be devoid of any musically redeeming features whatsoever; call me a medieval throwback, but I don't think religious music has ever achieved the grandeur of the great choral works of Bach and his contemporaries.  (Although Arvo Pärt comes close; listen to this performance of his Magnificat and prepare to be transported.)  So it really is the beauty of the music, and not the message, that matters.

Well, mostly.  Even to me, the majesty of works like Bach's Magnificat in D (still my favorite of all of his choral works; here is a lovely performance of the opening chorus) depends partly upon the fact that the message is religious.  It evokes the unquestioning faith and devotion of a bygone day, with its soaring cathedrals, rainbows of stained glass, and the sonorous vibrations of pipe organs.  The fact that the music is evocative of a different place, culture, and time is part of its loveliness, and even if I am not part of that culture and do not share its beliefs does not make me insensitive to the beauty it created.

So, I realize that it seems contradictory that my CD shelves have so many religious choral works -- and if you find the irony of that to be too hard to manage, I guess that's just the way it goes.  To quote Walt Whitman:  "Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Kim Jong Il and the origins of credulity

The death of Kim Jong Il a few days ago has brought the country of North Korea into the news, and a lot of time has been devoted to exploring how the people of this country saw their odd, probably delusional leader -- and how they are viewing his son and heir, Kim Jong Un.

All of it has made me wonder about the origins of credulity.  Is it really possible to brainwash a whole nation?  What fraction of the people of North Korea honestly believe all of the nonsense they're saying -- and how many are just saying it because it's expedient, given the nature of the brutal, repressive regime they are subject to?

Let's look at a few of the things that have been claimed, regarding Kim Jong Il:
  • He was born on the sacred mountain, Mount Paektu, and as a baby was recognized as the future "savior of the North Korean people."  At his birth, soldiers inscribed his name on trees and rocks to celebrate his coming ascendancy.
  • The first time he ever picked up a bowling ball, he bowled a 300 -- a perfect game.
  • He's also miraculously good at golf -- in his first-ever golf game, he hit five holes-in-one, scoring 38 under par.
  • The day he died, a Manchurian crane, a traditional symbol of longevity, circled a statue of his father in the city of Hamhung for hours, and then landed, hung its head, and then flew off toward Pyongyang.
  • At the moment of his death, the glacier at the top of Mount Paektu "cracked with a deafening roar," and the skies glowed red.
So, I'm reading all of this, and I'm thinking, "They actually believe this stuff?"  Any one of these would have made me say, "Oh, come on," and probably burst out laughing, which is why I would probably not last long if I lived in North Korea, especially given the fact that I'd have followed it up with, "That pudgy little guy with the blotchy face and the weird hair and the gigantic glasses did not score a 38 under par golf game."

I know that mythologizing famous figures is a frequent practice; what I wonder is why common sense doesn't kick in at some point.  You get the impression that all it would take is one person guffawing, and shouting, "That's bullshit!" to blow the whole thing away.  But no one ever does, do they?  Now, I'm not trying to claim that the North Korean people are stupid; and I just don't believe you can brainwash someone so as to remove all traces of common sense without leaving them incapable of functioning.  Somehow, the intensive training these people receive as children, to consider their "Dear Leader" as a god, must create a peculiar blind spot in their logical facilities.  It's as if the principles of rationality work just fine in all venues except for one.

It's fine to use your brain in everyday life; at your job, at the grocery store, while you're driving, while you're home with family.  Everything there operates by the normal rules, science works, common sense works, logic works.  But Dear Leader?  No, Dear Leader can cause birds to fly around, and trigger bizarre geological and atmospheric phenomena, not to mention performing miraculous athletic feats.  And apparently, they all just nod their heads and say, "Yup.  Good old Dear Leader," despite the fact that all of it is clean contrary to the way they know the world works.

Of course, it'd be nice if such holes in rationality were limited to North Korea, but it's not just them, is it?  Mythologizing is hardly limited to the odd figure of Kim Jong Il; it just stands out in starker relief because we haven't been indoctrinated into that particular cult.  We have our own ways of straining credulity to the limit -- specific areas in which so many of us hear impossible, counter-rational nonsense, and sit there nodding and saying, "Yup.  Makes perfect sense."

And here, having thus skated to the edge of the thinnest of thin ice, I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Attack of the gargoyles

A couple of days ago, Skeptophilia investigated claims of a glow-in-the-dark pterodactyl in Pennsylvania.  Keeping in the same vein, today's post is about: gargoyles in Chile.

Yes, gargoyles, those scary, weird creatures that adorn many a Gothic church roof.  Bat wings, snarling, fanged muzzle, large eyes with a diabolical leer... what are they, really?

If you said "fictional," tell that to Teresa Abett de la Torre.  De la Torre tells a story (read the entire thing here) of heading from Fuerte Baquedano, the military base where her husband was stationed, to the town of Arica at the north end of the country to visit family.  De la Torre and her husband and kids piled into their car for the long, monotonous drive across the arid Pampa Acha, an especially desolate stretch of the treeless, flat Atacama Desert.  The weather, as usual, was sunny and clear, and they expected to have nothing more than bored children to cope with on the trip.

The first one to notice something odd was one of the daughters, Carmen.  In Carmen's words:
I looked out of the window, and there were two creatures floating in the sky.  I was traveling in the back seat with my brothers, talking, and suddenly everything went dark. Then I told my brother what I was seeing and he told me to keep quiet, because Mom gets nervous. Later I looked through the window and saw some things that looked like birds, with dogs’ heads and back swept wings. My father said they were like gargoyles.
If I saw two flying gargoyles, I think "nervous" would be an understatement.  But that's just me.

But Teresa eventually noticed the creatures, despite the dad and kids' efforts to keep her from getting "nervous."  She described them as "dog-faced kangaroos."  And the day was about to get a whole lot worse, because watching some gargoyles from the air is one thing; having them attack your car is another thing entirely.

According to Teresa, they were all watching the things in the sky when suddenly her husband, Carlos, swerved, and they looked over to see that he'd narrowly missed two more of them, that had "jumped in front of the car."  They avoided colliding with the creatures by a narrow margin, and the creatures gave chase, bounding after them on "strong hind legs."  Carlos, alarmed, sped up.  "Eventually," Teresa said, "we left all four of the beasts behind."

Teresa related that she and the family were terrified to make the return trip, but eventually they had to, and it was uneventful.  At that point, they decided not to tell anyone what they'd seen.  However, when a fellow officer at stationed at Fuerte Baquedano reported seeing a dinosaur on the same stretch of road, the de la Torre family decided to go public, apparently figuring that at least their story wasn't that ridiculous.

By the way, just for the record, I'm not making any of this up.

The story was broken by Scott Corrales of the Institute of Hispanic Ufology.  When it hit the public media, reporters were quick to try to explain away the sightings as bats or ostriches, because we all know how often bats leap around on the ground in front of cars, and how often ostriches fly.

To me, the most interesting part is when the "Mysterious Universe" people got a hold of the story, because then we have an interesting chain of reasoning used; because the two explanations that have been suggested thus far are obviously wrong, our only remaining option is to assume that something paranormal is going on.

We see this in reports of ghosts all the time.  "I heard the noise of footsteps upstairs," our eyewitness says.  "My parents were out for the evening, and I went and looked in my brother's room, and he was asleep in bed.  Therefore, it must have been a ghost!"

Really?  There's no other option you can think of?  We're going to think of two rational, natural explanations, rule them out, and then leap into the supernatural?  I'm reminded of King Arthur pulling the pin on the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and then counting, "One!  Two!  Five!"

But that's what they do, here.  What did the de la Torre family see?  Was it bats?  No.  Was it ostriches?  No.  Therefore, we are only left with the following possibilities:

1) A flying Chupacabra.
2) A southern relative of the Jersey Devil.

That's it?  It's not possible that they made it up?  That they were the victims of a hoax?  Because they didn't see giant airborne ostriches, we are forced to the conclusion that they were seeing the Jersey Devil?

Touchingly, the report in Mysterious Universe concludes with an ecological message: Given that there was no sighting of the gargoyles in Chile prior to 2004, it may be that human damage to the ecosystem was at fault.  "...might we surmise," the author writes, "that jungle deforestation or some other manner of likely human encroachment has forced these critters out of hiding and into the public eye?"

Because clearly the Atacama Desert was heavily forested with jungle until 2004, at which point it became as desolate as the Land of the Lorax after all of the Truffula Trees were cut down.  (Greenpeace's new motto: "Save the Gargoyles.")

Anyway, as it is probably apparent by now, I'm not sold on the story.  As I've discussed before, even if we won't go as far as to accuse the de la Torres of lying outright, eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable.  Given that there's never been a gargoyle hit by a car, no one's ever found a skull or wing bone, and no one in the de la Torre family even thought of taking a photograph of this amazing event, we'll have to file this one under "Probably Not."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shrouded in mystery

In a surprising coup, scientists in Italy have done a study, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, and have concluded that the Shroud of Turin is authentic.

The scientists also announced that they'd done experiments concluding that the Pope was infallible and that confession to a priest really works.

Okay, I made that part up, but really.  You're trying to convince me that an experiment could prove that this was the burial cloth of Christ?  And that somehow, the fact that the experiments were conducted with the blessing of the Vatican didn't bias the outcome?

Apparently the answer to both of these questions is "yes," because Paolo di Lazzaro, head of the team that did the investigation, came just short of stating it outright.  "The double image (front and back) of a scourged and crucified man, barely visible on the linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin, has many physical and chemical characteristics that are so particular that the staining ... is impossible to obtain in a laboratory," di Lazzaro told reporters.  "When one talks about a flash of light being able to color a piece of linen in the same way as the Shroud, discussion inevitably touches on things like miracles and resurrection.  But as scientists, we were concerned only with verifiable scientific processes.  We hope our results can open up a philosophical and theological debate but we will leave the conclusions to the experts, and ultimately to the conscience of individuals."

*wink wink nudge nudge*

So what we have here is our old friend Argument from Ignorance, wrapped up nicely in a piece of ancient linen cloth.  What evidence do the scientists actually have?  Well, after analysis, they concluded that they had no idea how the marks were made.  Conclusion: it must have been the burial cloth of Christ.

If you look at the scientific studies of the Shroud, it turns out that it's not quite that simple.  Starting with the fact that a carbon-dating study done in 1988 dated the linen cloth to between 1260 and 1390.  Various other studies have attempted to account for the stains on the cloth as iron oxide, tempera paint, treatment with acid, or due to a technique called "dust transfer."  Some skeptics have attributed the piece to Leonardo da Vinci.

Each of those has been answered by Shroud devotees as false, and the argument has bounced back and forth with the regularity of a tennis ball during Wimbledon.  "It is Jesus' burial cloth.  Attempting to replicate the image using iron oxide haven't worked!"  "No, it's not.  The features of the man are wrong.  It looks like a Gothic painting, with elongated limbs and narrow facial features!  It's a fake!"  "No, it's not!  It looks like a photographic negative, as if the image was made by light coming from Jesus' body!"  "That could be the result of natural processes!"

Oh, c'mon, people.  Let's just step back a moment, okay?  What do we know?

The Shroud was made from linen, an organic fiber.  As such, carbon dating should work fairly well on it.  However, the Shroud was nearly destroyed in a fire that occurred in the church that housed it in 1532.  Fires produce smoke, smoke contains carbon, and there's some opinion that the soot residues could render the carbon-dating procedure inaccurate.  The historical origins of the Shroud are, well, shrouded in mystery -- the earliest reasonably certain mention of it was in 1352.  From the 15th century, its whereabouts are well documented.

My point here:  what do we really know about the Shroud, in the scientific sense of factual knowledge?  Not too bloody much.  Therefore, as befits proper skeptics, our position should be simple:  we don't know.  Espousing either camp's views is unwarranted, given the fact that we've got almost no really hard evidence to go on.  Could the fiber be older than the carbon dating tests indicated?  Possibly.  Is the image's origin enigmatic?  Certainly.  Past that... we can't say.

It's a source of annoyance to me that so many people seem not to be able to withhold voicing an opinion.  It's almost as if everyone has to have an opinion about everything, whether or not they have any evidence, or even a good logical argument, to back it up.  My stance has always been that I am perfectly willing to suspend judgment indefinitely if I need to -- until the evidence drives me to one side or the other.  Until that time, I'm perfectly comfortable saying, "The jury's still out on that one."

This seems to be intensely uncomfortable for a lot of folks, but the fact is, it's an essential characteristic for a good scientist.  There's only one thing that should matter, and that's where the facts lead.  Other than that, it's okay to remain in ignorance.  In fact, it's the only honest thing to do.

Or, as my dad used to say: The world would be a much better place if there were more facts and fewer opinions.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The emulation of creativity

In yet another step toward rendering humans superfluous, programmer Selmer Bringsjord of Renssselaer Polytechnic Institute has now programmed a computer to write fiction.

The program, called "Brutus," is designed to take the basics of plot, character, setting, and dialogue, and devise a story.  The result, Bringsjord says, is "pretty convincing."

As an aspiring writer of fiction, the whole thing gives me pause.  I've often wondered what it was that was going on in my head when I come up with a story -- am I, like Brutus, simply following some kind of internal algorithm, albeit hopefully a more complex one?  How would you tell?

"There's a certain bag of tricks that Brutus had for saying things at the right time to convince the reader that 'boy, there is something really deep linguistically going on here,'" Bringsjord said.  On the other hand, he isn't convinced that what Brutus is doing is the same as human creativity. "The machine is just doing what you've programmed it to do.  If a machine is creative, the designer of the system — knowing the algorithms involved, data structure — is completely mystified by how the output came out. In my opinion, if that's not the case, then we're just cloning our own intelligence."

I'm not so sure.  Consider Stephen Thaler's "Creative Machine," an artificial neural net that has composed music, designed snack foods, and solved problems in military science.  The Creative Machine is capable of learning -- as Thaler has shown by introducing "noise" into the system to disrupt a rote solution, and watching what the program does.  The Creative Machine is able to adapt, and find alternate ways to use the information it has.  "And therein is where discovery takes place," Thaler said. "It's not in the rote memories that we have committed to memory, it's in the generalization of all those memories into concepts and plans of action."

I'm beginning to think we're getting close to creating a true artificial intelligence -- a software that can flexibly respond, learn, and create.  This idea repels a lot of people, and fascinates others.  Some folks believe there has to be more to the human mind -- there's got to be something inside our skulls that is more than just the sum of our neural firings, and therefore would make it impossible to emulate with a machine.  The two basic attitudes toward this problem were parsed out by philosopher John Searle and mathematician Alan Turing.

Searle, for his part, thought that artificial intelligence was impossible, and used his "Chinese Room" analogy to illustrate why.  Imagine a man in a sealed room, with an English/Chinese dictionary and a book of the grammatical rules of Chinese.  His task: he will be handed a string of Chinese characters through a slot in the wall; he will use the dictionary and rule book to convert it to a string of English characters and stick the result out through the slot.  This is what Searle said that computers do; they are simply converting one string of characters to another in a rote fashion, however complex it might look from the outside.  Because there's nothing "more" in the computer's circuits -- just as there's no true understanding going on in the man translating the characters -- there is no real intelligence there.

It doesn't matter, says Turing; all that matters is the output.  The Turing test hinges on whether a sufficiently smart human could be fooled.  We have no access to our own wiring, either; what's going on in our brain might just be a sophisticated set of electrical signals.  Or maybe there's something "more."  Whatever it is, we don't have access to it at its fundamental level.  So we have to judge by the output -- same as we do with our fellow humans.  Therefore, if a computer program could respond to a questioner in a way that fools him/her into thinking that the program is an intelligent human responder -- it is by definition intelligent.

I've always been in Turing's camp, personally; I don't think it's ever really been demonstrated that the "something more" that Searle says computers don't have actually exists in my brain, much less what that "something more" might be.  I know that I'm often mystified as to where my own creative impulses come from -- when I write, I feel like the characters and story come from some enigmatic source, and they often feel like they spring from my head fully-formed.  There is seldom a feeling of "working it out," the way you might a math problem.  The ideas are just... "there."  (Or not.  Some days, the ideas won't come, for equally puzzling reasons.)

But whatever the truth of human intelligence and creativity, machines have just taken one further step toward emulating it.  And I, for one, find that fascinating.  I wonder -- by creating these machines, and studying them, what might we learn about how our own brain works? 

Monday, December 19, 2011

The strange case of the glow-in-the-dark pterodactyl

In the past week, I've written about a few cases for which an application of the sharp edge of Ockham's Razor would be advisable -- such as blaming your troubles on your poodle's being possessed by demons, deciding that a shadow on a NASA photograph is a cloaked alien spacecraft, and giving credit to stories of a "zone of silence" inhabited by blond alien guys wearing yellow rain slickers.

There should be a name for the opposite of Ockham's Razor, shouldn't there?  Taking the available evidence, giving it careful consideration, and then running right off the cliff with it -- coming up with the weirdest, most convoluted, most difficult-to-swallow explanation you can.

Take the case of the the strange observations of a flying creature reported last week by a woman in Pennsylvania.  She states that she saw a "strange glowing thing at night" that flew over her car while she was driving.  It was "quite large," she said, and "was not too terribly high off the ground;" and "(it) seemed to be lit, or glowing."

Okay, that's the evidence; one woman's claim of a strange sighting.  From this, what hypotheses can we devise?
  • She saw an ordinary flying creature -- possibly a barn owl, whose silent flight and all-white underside could easily trick the eye into thinking that it was a glowing creature in the air.
  • She was making up the story for her own reasons, possibly for the attention or because she likes to tell weird stories -- i.e., she was lying.
  • She's a wingnut.
  • She saw a glow-in-the-dark pterodactyl.
Now, the story that I read told little more than the bits and pieces I've quoted, and I very much got the impression that that was all there was to the story -- she had no evidence, no photographs, not even a sketch of what she saw.  Just a report of a flying creature that was glowing.  I'm the first to admit that I have no particular reason to conclude that she was lying -- I don't know her, and have no desire to impugn the motives of a total stranger.  But take our four hypotheses, and you rank them for plausibility.  I ask even the wooiest woo-woo out there in the studio audience; don't you think it's more likely that she saw a barn owl, or made the whole thing up, than...  Oh, come on.  Really?  A bioluminescent pterodactyl?

On second thought, there is a name for the opposite of Ockham's Razor; it's called confirmation bias -- the acceptance of miniscule pieces of evidence to support a theory you already had decided was true.  It's why believers in astrology will crow about the one newspaper horoscope a year that happens to be reasonably accurate, and ignore all the ones that aren't; it's why the religious will proclaim it a miracle when the ill person they prayed for got better, and ignore all the people who were prayed for and died in horrible agony.  Maybe at this point I should tell you the website the glowing pterodactyl story appeared on.

It's called LivePterosaur.

Yup, there's an entire website devoted to the idea that pteranodons and other pterodactyloids have survived through the millions of years since the last fossil evidence, conveniently leaving not a trace behind in all of the geologic strata from the intervening eras, and now are gliding their way over the wilds of Pennsylvania.  A lot of the evidence, if you can call it that, comes from native legends, just as the totality of the "evidence" for Mokele-Mbembe and the Bunyip being dinosaur survivals comes from tales from the natives of central Africa and Australia, respectively.  The pterodactyl legend is apparently especially to be found in Papua New Guinea, where a flying creature called the "Ropen" supposedly haunts the rain forest; but there's the "Wawanar" of western Australia and the "Kongamato" of Africa, and also the unnamed sighting in Cuba where it presumably was called the "holy mother of god what the hell is that thing?", only in Spanish.

Did these people actually see something strange?  Could be.  There are plenty of big birds around; in the tropics, we also have fruit bats, one group of which (the "flying foxes" of the genus Pteropus) can have a wingspan of five feet.  Could they have been lying?  Drunk?  Crazy?  Sure.  Could it just be a story, and no more true than tales of unicorns and dragons?  Sure.  And I think any of those is more likely than it being a pterodactyl.

Now, don't mistake me; no one would think it was cooler than I would if it turned out that some kind of pterodactyloid actually had survived all these years.  I'm also fully aware of the times that it's turned out that something has made it to the present day, after years of only being known from the fossil record.  (The most famous being the coelacanth, the prehistoric lobe-finned fish that turned out not to be so prehistoric after all.)  I just don't think that it's all that likely that somehow a giant bioluminescent pterodactyl is gliding around in the woods of Pennsylvania, and has escaped all notice of the biologists until now.  It's slightly more likely that one could live in the forests of Papua New Guinea, or central Africa, given the remoteness and the dense woods; but only slightly.  The likelihood of it being a tall tale is orders of magnitude greater.

So, sorry to be a party-pooper, but I really do think that the lady in Pennsylvania saw a barn owl.  Or else should be more careful to take her medication regularly.  Whatever it was she saw, I'd be willing to bet a significant amount of money that it wasn't a glow-in-the-dark pterodactyl.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Possessed poodles

The one thing you should never say is "Now I've heard it all."

Especially if, like me, you are an aficionado of woo-woo.  If you are a regular reader of Skeptophilia, you have followed me through investigations of Florida Skunk Apes, the discovery of the Millennium Falcon on the floor of the Baltic Sea, plastic cards that will impart "Scalar Energy Fields" to the water you drink, and countless examples of Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and (in one case) Bob Marley showing up on a variety of food items.  And each time, it's been tempting to say, 'Now I've heard it all."

If you did, in fact, say that, you're gonna regret it.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Because now we have a new book, written by New York City artist Olga Horvat, called Paranormal PoochParanormal Pooch is about her dog, Princess, who was...

... possessed by demons.

I kid you not.  Horvat apparently had a run of devastatingly bad luck a while back, including the following incidents:
  • Her apartment was infested by bedbugs, and it cost $7,000 to get rid of them.
  • Her husband was in an automobile accident, and afterwards came down with a rare autoimmune disease.
  • Her daughter was suspended from second grade for putting on a rubber glove and grabbing a classmate, and then blamed the odd behavior on "hearing voices in her head."
And instead of doing what most of us would do, in such unfortunate situations -- including saying to our kid, "Why the hell did you bring a rubber glove to school?" -- Horvat evaluated the evidence, and came to the inescapable conclusion that the whole thing was due to her poodle being possessed.

Amongst the claims she makes in Paranormal Pooch -- and believe me, there's enough fodder for skepticism in there that I could go on all day -- my favorite is that dogs with pointy ears are more susceptible to possession than dogs with floppy ears, because "The spirit can get in there easier."

Myself, I would think that if a spirit is capable of causing your spouse to get in an automobile accident, it would be capable of lifting a dog's floppy ear to get inside.  But what do I know?

In any case, Horvat solved the whole thing by inventing, and selling (c'mon, you knew she was selling something) "electromagnetic shield pendants" to protect humans and pets from demonic possession.  They only cost $197, which is a comparative steal considering the cost for exterminating bedbugs.  She is also selling her book, which you can order here.  It's received rave reviews, mostly from other wingnuts, including Joshua Warren, renowned psychic investigator:  "A CHILL ran down my spine while reading Olga Horvat’s Paranormal Pooch.  Why?  Because her story is so real and her emotions so palpable."

Well, all I can say is that my definition of "real" and Mr. Warren's seem to differ somewhat.

The sad postscript to the whole thing is that four months after she was successfully cleansed of evil spirits, Princess herself fell down the stairs and died.  Maybe she was grief-stricken after losing her satanic companion, I dunno.

I do know one thing, though; I hope like hell that Horvat is never allowed to own another dog.  Because it sounds, all joking aside, like she is not someone who should be trusted to give appropriate care to a pet.  But I have strong feelings about how animals are treated, and maybe I'm being unfair, here.

Oh, and one other thing:  now I've heard it all.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Majestic 12, anachronistic typeset, and Cigarette-Smoking Man

Yesterday, a former student of mine said, "You haven't yet written about my favorite conspiracy theory -- Majestic 12."  There was a brief moment in which I wondered whether "Majestic 12" might be some kind of sequel to Ocean's Eleven, but then I realized that they've already done that (they're up to what, now, Ocean's Seventeen, or something?), so it had to be something else.

It turns out that Majestic 12 is a code name, which makes it cool right from the get-go.  The story is that during the presidency of Harry Truman, a secret committee of scientists, military leaders, and government officials was formed in order to investigate the Roswell incident and to keep tabs on the aliens.  Since that time, thousands of pages' worth of documents have been "leaked" from this alleged committee, most of them dealing with covert operations by the CIA, and giving highly oblique references to UFO sightings.  A few of the documents have hinted at darker doings -- alliances with evil aliens, and a secret intent to use technology of extraterrestrial provenance to further our military goals and monitor our enemies.

The original members of Majestic 12 were allegedly the following prominent individuals:
  • Roscoe Hillenkoetter (first director of the CIA)
  • Vannevar Bush (president of the Carnegie Institute, amongst many other titles)
  • James Forrestal (Secretary of the Navy)
  • Nathan Twining (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
  • Hoyt Vandenberg (Air Force Chief of Staff)
  • Robert Montague (Commander of Fort Bliss)
  • Jerome Hunsaker (aeronautics engineer at MIT)
  • Sidney Souers (first executive secretary of the National Security Council)
  • Gordon Gray (Secretary of the Army)
  • Donald Menzel (astronomer at Harvard)
  • Detlev Bronk (chair of the National Academy of Sciences)
  • Lloyd Berkner (prominent physicist)
And because no good conspiracy would be complete without throwing around a few well-known names, the Majestic 12 were supposedly advised by Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Wehrner von Braun, Albert Einstein, and Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Oh, wait, the last one was fictional.  Silly me.  The problem is, so are the documents.  The FBI has done a thorough investigation of the various Majestic 12 files, and declared them "completely bogus."  Of course, they would say that, claim the conspiracy theorists; the government's response is always "deny, deny, deny."  However, there have been independent studies done, by reasonably objective and disinterested parties (for example, Philip J. Klass, noted UFO skeptic and debunker), and virtually all of them think that the whole thing is a hoax -- probably perpetrated by Stanton Friedman, William Moore, and Jaime Shandera, three UFOlogists who are more-or-less obsessed with the Roswell Incident.  In fact, Moore and Shandera were actually the recipients of some of the Majestic 12 documents -- sent to them by an "anonymous source high up in the government."

How did the skeptics come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a hoax?  One of the main pieces of evidence was the simple, pragmatic matter of how the documents were typed.  In many cases, it's possible to date a document simply by looking at the font, spacing, and ink -- these changed with fair regularity, and even a discrepancy of a couple of years can be enough to prove a document to be fake.  In the case of a number of the Majestic 12 documents, there were font changes and space-justification that were impossible in the late 1940s and 1950s -- the first typewriter capable of this was invented in 1961.

An amusing sidebar:  when Philip Klass was investigating the Majestic 12 claim, he offered $1000 to anyone who could produce government documents that had typefaces matching the ones found in the Majestic 12 papers.  Who popped up to claim the prize?  None other than Stanton Friedman, prime suspect as the chief engineer of the hoax.  As skeptic Brian Dunning wrote, "Don't take the bait if you don't want to be hooked."

One of the frustrations with debunking conspiracy theories, though, is that once someone believes that a conspiracy exists, there always is a way to argue away the evidence.  One of the most popular ones is argument from ignorance -- we don't know what the government was doing back then, so they could have been doing anything.  As for the typewriters -- oh, sure, the first typewriter capable of justification (the IBM 72) was released to the public in 1961, but maybe the Big Secret Government Circles had access to it fourteen years earlier.  Who knows?  (And by "who knows?", of course what they mean is "we do.")

And as far as my aforementioned "objective and disinterested" investigators -- in the conspiracy theorists' minds, there is no such thing as an objectivity.  Anyone who argues against the theory at hand is either a dupe, or else a de facto member of the conspiracy.  Between this and the argument from ignorance, there is no way to win.

But wait, you may be saying; what if the government was engaged in covert nasty stuff?  How would you know, given that the government would certainly deny their involvement, claim it was a hoax?  Well, first, I'm sure that the government is, in fact, engaged in covert nasty stuff.  I just don't think this is it.  We fall back on Ockham's Razor yet again -- what is the simplest explanation that adequately accounts for all of the known facts?

So, anyway, I think we can safely say that the Majestic 12 papers are fakes.  Which is, no doubt, exactly what Cigarette-Smoking Man wants us to think, and will make him smile in that creepy way of his, and walk off into the night until the next episode.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Silence is golden

A while back my cousin Carla from New Mexico brought to my attention a paranormal phenomenon I had never heard of before.  Carla's husband Dan is a geography professor at New Mexico State University, and the three of us basically have the same approach to the paranormal; namely to discuss it, with grave expressions, drawing up maps, passing back and forth grainy, blurred photographs of ghosts, UFOs, and sasquatches ("sasquatchi?" "sasquatchim?" There's got to be a more entertaining plural than "sasquatches."), and examining evidence of Ancient Astronauts Visiting the Earth.  Then we all burst into guffaws because we just can't take it any more.

In any case, Dan (code name: Dr. Monsoon Havoc, B.S., M.S., Ph.D., President, and Director of the Department of Multi-Dimensional Topography) and Carla (code name: Cria Havoc, Vice President, and Director of the Department of Hermetics, Hermeneutics, and Historiography) kindly inducted me two years ago into their organization, ISNOT (Institute for the Study of Non-Objective Theories).  (My code name: Gordon "Whirlwind" McTeague, Director of the Department of Exobiology and Cryptozoology, a.k.a. "The Blond Yeti").  Since then, it's been one adventure after another, as we investigated reports of El Chupacabra, the Connecticut Hill Monster (the upstate New York cousin of Bigfoot), and various sightings of the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.  But now... now, we have a serious matter to look into.

Carla/Cria sent me a link with information about a place called the Zone of Silence.  This spot, located about 400 miles from El Paso, Texas, and near the point where the borders of the Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Durango meet, has a lot of the same characteristics as the Bermuda Triangle.  (Read about it here and here.)  Within this area, "radio and TV signals... are gobbled up," "strange lights or fireballs (maneuver) at night, changing colors, hanging motionless and then taking off at great speed," and there are falls of "small metallic balls... known locally as guíjolas," which are "collected by locals and visitors alike, and treated with great reverence."

My thought on this last part is that if you are the sort of person who might be tempted to treat a small metallic ball with great reverence, you probably should not be allowed to wander about in the desert unaccompanied.

But I digress.

One difference between this place and the Bermuda Triangle is that being dry land (extremely dry, in this case), the Zone of Silence can also host honest-to-Fox-Mulder Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  There have been several reports of meetings with "tall, blond individuals," who spoke flawless Spanish "with a musical ring."  In one case, they were wearing yellow raincoats, and helped some lost travelers whose car was stuck in the mud during one of the area's infrequent, but torrential, downpours.  This is encouraging; most of the other aliens I've heard of seem more interested in evil pastimes, such as infiltrating world governments, dissecting livestock, and placing computer chips in the heads of abducted earthlings, after the obligatory horrifying medical exam on board the spacecraft, about which we will say no more out of respect for the more sensitive members of the studio audience.  Myself, I find reports of helpful aliens distinctly encouraging, and hope you won't think me self-serving if I just mention briefly that if there are any like-minded aliens visiting upstate New York soon, I could sure use a hand cleaning my gutters.

Of course, my more scientific readers will be asking themselves why, exactly, is this spot a "zone of silence?"  Answers vary, as you might expect.  One explanation I've seen proffered is the presence of uranium ore in nearby mountains (because diffuse deposits of radioactive ores clearly attract aliens, cause small metal balls to fall from the sky, and interfere with radio signals).  Another is that this spot represents a "concentration of earth energies."  Whatever the hell that means.  It is also claimed that there is an "astronomical observatory thousands of years old... a Mexican Stonehenge" in the area.  Well, that's enough for me!  Uranium ore + "concentration of earth energies" + anything that can be compared to Stonehenge = serious paranormal activity!  ISNOT is on it!  Mobilize the troops!

Well, not really.  Sadly, we're not able to mobilize in this direction at the present time.  The disappointing fact is that given the current state of affairs in northern Mexico, it's not all that appealing to go down and visit the place.  I mean, tall blond aliens with yellow rain slickers are one thing; dodging bullets from drug dealers is quite another.  I think the field work will have to wait until things calm down a little.

Until then, however, keep your eyes open for any other Non-Objective phenomena that may pop up -- we have three highly trained professionals here at ISNOT who are ready to investigate.  I'll post further research notes here.  You'll be the first to know.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Invasion of the star jelly

Skeptics and rationalists hear the accusation rather frequently that their assumption that everything has a rational explanation is as much a faith as any religion is.  Our conviction that all allegations of paranormal phenomena -- aliens, precognition, ghosts, witchcraft, and so on -- are probably bunk is based on an assumption about how the world works, and because it is an assumption, it is by definition an irrationally held unprovable assertion.

Take the case of Star Jelly.  The Lake District, in northern England, just had a bout of Star Jelly a few weeks ago, following a wind and rain storm.  What is it, you might ask?  Not something, I hasten to state, that you'd want to use to accompany your peanut butter sandwich.  Star Jelly is a whitish, gelatinous substance, sometimes found in great globs, out in the woods and hillsides -- usually discovered in the early morning, as if it had appeared suddenly at night.  It was first recorded in the 14th century, and has since shown up hundreds of times -- most famously as a two-meter wide disk that showed up near Philadelphia in 1950, inspiring the movie The Blob.  (You can read an article about Star Jelly, and see some photographs, here.)

What is it, though?  This is where it gets interesting.  Because apparently scientists have not been able to come up with a definitive answer.  The two most common answers -- that it is a mucusy material made by slime molds, or by a species of cyanobacteria called Nostoc -- are unproven.  Analysis of bits of Star Jelly have failed to show any traces of DNA, which you would expect to find if either of the above explanations are true.  Then the woo-woos get involved.  Star Jelly is, they say, one of the following:
  • a substance from outer space that falls to Earth during meteor showers.
  • an extraterrestrial life form.
  • the residue left behind when an alien probe self-destructs.
  • ectoplasm.
  • a toxic waste from top-secret government research programs.
  • alien semen.
None of those explanations appeal to me, frankly, especially the last one.  You'd think that if aliens spent all of this time and effort to get to Earth, they'd have better things to do once they got here than to masturbate outside during a rainstorm in the Lake District.

I'm the first to admit, however, that the scientific explanations that have been proffered thus far haven't really knocked my socks off.  But nonetheless, I'm still convinced that there has to be a reasonable explanation for the appearance of the mysterious substance.  Why is that?

A study published in 2008 in the neurology journal Cortex made the interesting claim that rationalism and a belief in the paranormal both arose from an underlying brain structure issue -- specifically, that belief in paranormal explanations was correlated with a high degree of cerebral asymmetry.  People who held paranormal beliefs, said lead researcher Günter Schulter, had undergone "perturbations in fetal development" that led to differences in the way the cerebrum was wired.  A study the following year at the University of Toronto showed that the religious and non-religious also showed a difference in brain activity, particularly in the region called the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain adapted for coping with anxiety.

So is rationalism merely a product of brain physiology, and do the critics of skepticism have a point in saying that it is itself a religion?  While our assumption that everything has a rational explanation is just that -- an assumption -- we do have one very powerful argument for our views:  Rationalism works.  There are countless examples of phenomena that were once unexplained (or given paranormal explanations) that later were, by the application of basic scientific principles, successfully accounted for with no need for recourse to the paranormal.  To cite one example, which got a lot of airtime with the woo-woos -- remember the orange glop that washed ashore in huge quantities near Kivalina, Alaska this past summer, prompting speculation very similar to the aforementioned Star Jelly theories?  (No one, however, seemed inclined to attribute its appearance to masturbating aliens, but otherwise the explanations were much the same.)  Well, the scientists kept saying, "We don't know what it is yet, but it has to be a naturally-occurring substance."  And after study, guess what they found?  It was eggs -- the eggs of a perfectly natural marine invertebrate species.  Rationalism wins again!

As far as the Star Jelly -- I'm not troubled by the fact that they haven't figured it out yet.  I'm confident that with study, this will fall to the methods of science just as so many other mysteries have in the past.  So if my skepticism is just a product of my brain's symmetry, or its overactive anterior cingulate cortex, that's okay by me -- because whatever the cause, it has a pretty good track record of leading me to the right answers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live

Yesterday the Saudis beheaded a woman for sorcery.

I kid you not; read the story here. And while you're reading it, don’t forget that (1) we are the Saudis’ friends and allies; (2) Islam is the religion of peace, and deserves to be taken seriously as a worldview; and (3) it is the responsibility of governments to protect the souls of its citizens from the evil actions of people in league with Satan.

I’m (almost) speechless.  Every time I think that humans have plumbed the lowest depths of medieval zealotry, I find out that I’m wrong.  What’s worse, I’m quite certain that American Christians will be outraged at the bloodthirstiness of the Muslim judges who sent this woman to the sword, while simultaneously not batting an eye when people like Rick Perry tell them that gays in loving, committed relationships are going to be tortured in horrific agony for all eternity by direct orders from The God of Love.

A while back one of my coworkers sent me an article on the history of witches.  This article was about how when the weather turned fairly miserable during the Little Ice Age (1350-ish through 1650-ish), it was a trigger to a rash of witch-burnings.  Apparently first the Catholics, but then (and especially) the Lutherans in Germany, took the climatic alterations as a sign that the locals were selling their souls to Satan, who was making it rain on the parades of the holy.  Of course, the only way to fix the weather was to torture and kill anyone who was odd or ill-tempered or mildly mentally retarded, so they put thousands of said individuals on "trial" (not that these were legal proceedings in any sense of the word, as the verdict was "guilty" as soon as the accusation was made), and the majority were burned at the stake.

Now, am I missing some part of the logical sequence here?  There's a bad storm; roofs leak, trees fall down, maybe even a few people get killed.  And your response is to toast old Mrs. Hassenpfeffer?  This is supposed to take care of the problem?

Of course, all of this would just be a historical tragedy, a crazy and regrettable thing that our distant ancestors did, except for the fact that I'm not all that sure that your average modern day human is thinking much more clearly.  There are the aforementioned Saudis, whose so-called religion is deserving of about as much respect as the Ku Klux Klan.  But wait, they're from the Middle East, and everyone knows what a hotbed of craziness that is, right?  We're Americans; we are more rational than that.

Right.  Sure.  So explain Pat Robertson.  The fact that his skull seems to be filled with cobwebs and dead insects has unfortunately not disabled his mouth; remember when he said that Hurricane Katrina was caused by "god sending his wrath upon the godless people of New Orleans" (never mind that Louisiana is one of the most heavily Christian states in the US), asked god to "smite Dover" (the town in Pennsylvania that voted creationism out of the science curriculum -- fortunately for the people of Dover, apparently god was otherwise occupied that day), and claimed that he can leg press an automobile?  Okay, the last part was harmless; but tens of thousands of people listen to him, and I don't think it's just for the entertainment value.  So you've got a guy who's a certifiable fruit loop, and there are people in the United States who believe whatever comes out of his mouth.

Remember when John McCain came under fire during the 2008 election for calling the late Jerry Falwell an "agent of intolerance?"  Now, I'm not a big McCain fan, but he nailed it that time.  Of course, the Republican base cried bloody murder, and McCain had to backpedal like mad and finally make nicey-nicey with Falwell.   Intolerant?  No, not Falwell, leader of the former "Moral Majority," who stated, "If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being."  By far my favorite Falwell quote, however, is, "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools.  The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.  What a happy day that will be!"  Well, Jerry, I'm glad you thought you'd enjoy it.  Me, I'll be living in Ecuador.  And lest you think that Falwell's views died with him, allow me to point out that at least two of the current presidential candidates -- Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann -- are Jerry Falwell's spiritual children, openly espousing Dominionism and a collapse of the church/state barrier.

And we’re supposed to give these people respect, to treat them as if their views were somehow reflective of reality, to handle their religious ideologies with kid gloves?  Bullshit.  If the Saudis' bloodthirsty, medieval zealotry is worthy of scorn, then so is the nonsense spouted by the likes of Robertson, Falwell, and those who follow them.  Why is one of them a travesty, but the other a glorious religion?  If my Invisible Friend tells me what to do, it’s perfectly reasonable; if your Invisible friend tells you what to do, it’s ridiculous, a pagan superstition, possibly blasphemous.  Maybe it’s even inspired by Satan -- just in case you felt the need to supplement your Invisible Friend with an Invisible Enemy.

Okay, so I sound hostile and cynical.  Maybe I am, although I really do try to avoid cynicism if I can.  I just am constantly astonished at how, despite our veneer of technology and civilization, most of us are still not much further along than Ogg and Thak, sacrificing mammoths on the altar of the Thunder God, and bashing the other cavemen on the heads with clubs when they say the words of the Mammoth Sacrifice Rite in the wrong order.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Death by urban legend

A recent article on LiveScience, the science blurb news site, asks the question, “Can You Really Die in Your Nightmares?”

The answer is “probably, but how on earth would anyone know?”  It’s a little like the urban legend that if you dream you’re falling, and you hit the ground in your dream, you’ll die.  Okay, that could be true, but the only way to verify it would be to chat with people who’ve had it happen, which would be a little hard to do because they'd all be dead.

The article goes on to describe SUNDS, or Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome.  This rare disorder, affecting for some reason mostly Southeast Asian males, basically is exactly what it sounds like – in the middle of sleep, these people simply die because their heart stops.  The article implies that the disorder could arise from an abnormality in the neural circuitry between the brain and the heart.  However, a headline saying, “A Few People Die Because The Nerves To The Heart Stop Working” doesn’t have nearly the cachet as implying that the affected individuals died in the midst of a scary dream, à la Nightmare on Elm Street.

I have some issues with sensational headlines and pointless speculation.  It may seem like harmless entertainment, but think about it from the standpoint of a science teacher.  I spend enough time in class trying to disabuse people of “facts” they learned from various sources of dubious credibility without having sites like LiveScience make it worse.  Besides the dying-if-you-dream-you-hit-the-ground thing, here are a few other urban legends that retain currency despite repeated debunking:

1) Daddy-longlegs have a really horrible venom, enough to kill you INSTANTLY, except that fortunately their fangs are too weak to penetrate human skin.  But if they could, they’d be the deadliest spider in the world.

2) Don’t throw rice at weddings, because if birds ate it, it would expand in their stomachs and they would explode like little feathery grenades.

3) The appearance of a “dark circle” around the moon means that we are going to have a period of acid rain.  Being caught in acid rain will give you skin cancer.

4) Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners cause lupus erythematosis and multiple sclerosis, and there is a systematic government cover-up to keep the public from knowing about it.

5) Pepperoni, and other salted/preserved meats, contain ground-up earthworms, and it SAYS SO RIGHT ON THE LABEL.

Okay, I’m hopeful that none of my readers actually believed any of these, even prior to this post, but in the interest of taking no chances, here are my standard responses to students who make these claims:

1) Apparently the whole daddy-longlegs thing apparently came about because there is a mildly toxic spider native to western Europe that is called the daddy-longlegs, and its superficial resemblance to the North American daddy-longlegs (actually not even a true spider, more accurately a harvestman) led to the confusion.  North American daddy-longlegs are harmless to anything larger than a mosquito.

2) Seed-eating birds in their natural environment eat all sorts of grains, including rice; in fact, in Asia, birds are a major pest in rice fields.  I have yet to hear of a single one exploding messily in mid-air.

3) I have also yet to hear of the moon at night not having a dark circle around it.  The night sky is, more often than not, dark.  There’s no connection between it being dark at night, and an incoming bout of acid rain.  Nor does acid rain cause skin cancer.  Lemonade, for example, is far more acidic than most acid rain, and I have never heard of anyone getting skin cancer from being splashed with lemonade.

4) Some people consume aspartame and get lupus or MS.  Some people consume aspartame and don’t get either.   Some people don’t consume aspartame and get lupus or MS.  Some people don’t consume aspartame and don’t get either.  There you are.  Also, I seriously doubt that the government is involved in some massive artificial-sweetener conspiracy.  They have much better things to do with their time and the public’s money, such as holding a Senate hearing to determine whether the pace of the economic recovery is "dismaying," "distressing," or just "disappointing."

5) The only explanation I’ve heard for the earthworms-in-pepperoni thing is that some semi-literate or another thought that sodium erythrorbate, a preservative, was the chemical name for earthworms.  My general opinion is that if you think that sodium erythrorbate is the chemical name for earthworms because “erythrorbate” and “earthworms” contain some of the same letters, you are dumb enough that my feeble attempt herein to combat your ignorance is doomed to failure.

Anyway.  I realize that I’m coming off as a grumpy curmudgeon here.  This is partly because I am a grumpy curmudgeon.  It is also because I feel like I spend enough time in class attempting to remedy ignorance without the media making it worse.  So if you have ever been guilty of forwarding a link to a website which implies that spiders will explode if they eat artificially-sweetened ground-up earthworms when there’s a dark circle around the moon, I’d appreciate it if you’d just cease and desist.  Thank you.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Woo-woo weekend shorts

Here at Worldwide Wacko Watch it's shaping up to be a busy weekend.

First, we have a report from Quebec of a UFO abducting someone's dog.  The report, which was filed with MUFON (The Mutual UFO Network) yesterday, reads as follows:
I was outside shoveling snow when I heard a weird sound. That's when i looked in the air and saw something hovering above my house.  It was clearly a UFO because it was too close to be anything else. It was a coppery, golden color with flashing red lights.  I felt privileged that I was witnessing this rare event.  Then my dog went around front and the UFO took it up through a beam and dropped it backed down about a half hour later. Weirdly my dog was completely unharmed and shortly after the UFO left leaving a tail as it flew away.
I find a few things interesting about this report.  First, isn't it interesting how "UFO" has ceased being an acronym and has become a word?  The eyewitness states that the "something" seen hovering above the house was "clearly a UFO," as if (s)he has forgotten what the "U" in "UFO" stands for.  It's as if I saw something sitting in my front yard, and I called the police, and when asked to describe it I said, "It was clearly something sitting in my front yard."

To be fair, (s)he goes on to give more details, including a "coppery, golden color" and "flashing red lights."  But the fun part is when the dog gets abducted.  I think that if aliens ever came to our house, they might well decide that our Border Collie, Doolin, was in fact the Resident Intelligent Life Form, because she spends most of her time herding the rest of us around and looking extremely worried that she may have Forgotten Something Important.  Doolin doesn't have OCD; she has CDO, because if she had OCD she'd worry because the letters weren't in alphabetical order.  It would be truly terrifying if aliens actually abducted her, though, because within minutes she'd have all the aliens corralled into a corner of the spaceship, and would be handling the controls herself.  The next thing you know, we'd have reports of flocks of sheep being herded from the air by a dog flying a spacecraft, and the Air Force would have to be called out to stop her.

Which, now that I think of it, sounds like a great plot for a movie, if any of my readers are scriptwriters. 

Next, we have a report from Phu Yen province in Vietnam, where students in a school dorm are complaining about a haunted toilet.

Phan Van Tho, headmaster of the Son Hoa Ethnic Boarding High School in Son Hoa District. has reported that one of the dorm toilets is causing students to act oddly if they use it.  The first victim, a student named Pa Ho Luon, was coming back to his room after using the toilet, and suddenly fell down, started scratching at the wall, and "spoke in a nonsense language no one could understand."  Then he fainted.  After being taken to the hospital, Luon recovered, and told authorities that his strange behavior was because he had "seen a ghost in the toilet."

Since Luon's experience, twelve other students have had similar symptoms after using the "haunted toilet."

Well.  First, I have to say that if I was a ghost, I can't imagine why I would hang around in a toilet.  Presumably being a ghost, you have a choice of where to haunt, and I certainly can think of better places to park yourself.  But given that I'm not really an expert regarding the criteria by which ghosts choose sites to haunt, I'll let that go.  A more interesting question is to consider what would have happened in the US had a student babbled incoherently and then passed out, and then woke up with a story of meeting a ghost; we'd have guffawed in his face and then said, "No, really, what kind of drugs were you on?"  But being that this is Vietnam, where drug use is frowned upon (and by "frowned upon" I mean "something you can get hanged for doing") it's no real wonder that the students and the schoolmaster were all eager to jump at the "ghost in the toilet" theory.

If you think I'm wrong about how people would react to this kind of thing in the US, just ask Mount Gilead (Ohio) police officer Joseph Hughes, who was arrested for stealing public property, including an air conditioner that said "Auditor's Office" on it.  When put on trial for the thefts, he mounted a novel defense; the basement where the stolen goods were found had a "paranormal presence," and that "paranormal presence" had "forced him to take the items unconsciously, and bring them back to the basement."  (Read the whole story here.)

I think the whole contention is screamingly funny.  So, a specter told this guy, "Bring me... an AIR CONDITIONER," and the guy went and did it, coming back to the basement carrying it like some kind of sacrificial offering.  "Here is the air conditioner you requested, O Great Paranormal Presence.  What else do you require?"  "Bring me... a COFFEE MAKER.  And not one of those pathetic little two-cup jobs, either.  Let it be...  A TEN-CUP PROGRAMMABLE MR. COFFEE.  And hurry up, because I need a cup and I'm getting kind of cranky."

Not surprisingly, the jury wasn't buying it, and Hughes was found guilty, and is currently serving time in the Mount Gilead Jail.

It's no surprise that they caught the guy, honestly.  If you looked at the story, you saw that he's bald, and bald people simply don't have the intuition that the rest of us hairier folk have.  At least that's the contention of the United Truth Seekers, who believe that long hair helps us to "channel psychic energy" and acts as "exteriorized nerves," that relay "vast amounts of important information to the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex."  This, they say, is why the Native Americans used to let their hair grow long, and is what gave rise to the story of Samson and Delilah.  (Read the whole story here.)

Well, from my own personal experience, I can say that I have had more than one bout of long hair.  I am blessed with unusually thick hair, so when I say I had long hair, you shouldn't think "neat ponytail;" you should more think "lion's mane."  And I can unequivocally say that when I had long hair I felt younger, stronger, and healthier than I do now, so I think we can check off this theory as proven.

What I found especially wonderful about this article was the series of comments from readers that followed.  I'll excerpt several of the better ones below:
Much food for thought here.  Such as a study on the fashion of haircuts through the ages and how it impacted on the enlightenment or otherwise of that particular society?  For instance, in these days of short haircuts for men and covered hair for women, how many wars are we involved in at the moment?

Maybe this explains why women are more intuitive than men... Also, when cutting the hair of female beings became widespread, a proportionate increase was observed everywhere in what they call 'women's diseases,' that is, various sorts of inflammation of the sexual organs, such as 'vaginitis,' 'uteritis,' 'ovaritis,' as well as 'fibrous tumors' and 'cancer.'

Cutting of hair is a contributing factor to unawareness of environmental distress in local ecosystems.  It is also a contributing factor to insensitivity in relationships of all kinds.  It contributes to sexual frustration.

Bald guys would seem to be at a disadvantage here, but bald guys have more body hair, so it all evens out in the gene pool.

I'm a mind body and spirit teacher and would like to add that the human hair is also where we store surplus energy or chi for our body.  When you reach great states of peace/enlightenment the body starts to secrete what Taoist masters call the golden elixir.  This is literally the fountain of youth in spirituality.
So, you can acquire from all of this a number of take-home lessons, the most important of which is, "You people are wingnuts.  Please don't reproduce."

So anyway, there we have it... the weekend wrap-up from Worldwide Wacko Watch.  Canine abductions, haunted toilets, spirit-prompted thefts, and the hair as a psychic antenna.  Thanks to the faithful readers who sent me the links to those stories... keep those cards and letters coming.  As for me, I think I'm going to go make sure my dog is still asleep in her bed.  My hair just picked up a disturbance in The Force.   Of course, that may just be the ghost in the upstairs bathroom demanding that I bring him an air conditioner.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Uncivil discourse

A few months ago, I was friended on Facebook by a gentleman whom I didn't know, but who shared with me an interest in history and genealogy.  I accepted his request, figuring that in this day of electronic social media this could be a way to meet new friends.  (And in fact, there are Facebook friends of mine that I've never met in person, and who over time have become friends in the older, conventional definition of the word.)

A couple of days ago, this gentleman posted a photograph of a sign that said, "Merry Christmas!  One Nation Under God.  Disagree?  Don't Let The Border Hit You On The Ass On Your Way Out."  I posted a comment underneath saying, "Seriously?  We atheists should just leave?"

He responded only by making the photograph his profile picture.

I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to respond to this.  "Unfriending" him seems justified, but doesn't that just make it even less likely that he'll ever see what the problem is?  His seeming unwillingness to engage -- the fact that he didn't even respond to my comment -- is probably indicative of the fact that had he responded, it probably would have only been to tell me to go to hell in any case.

I find it disturbing how hard it can be for people of all stripes to remain civil these days.  Maybe it's always been this way, I don't know; but it seems, although admittedly I have no factual basis for this, to be getting worse and worse.  My general feeling is that most Christians are tolerant and moderate, and have no particular wish to dictate other people's beliefs; and most agnostics and atheists would respond to a hearty "Merry Christmas!" from a store clerk with a smile and a thank you, giving back the kindness based on its intention and taking no offense at some imagined assumption of religiosity.  A small but growing minority, on the other hand, seem determined to make this into some sort of war, and everyone is getting increasingly skittish.

Much has been made about whether the United States was founded as a "Christian nation," and with amazing facility people dredge up quotes from the Founding Fathers supporting their contention that clearly George Washington and the rest intended the USA to be a theocracy.  Or didn't.  Or didn't have any intention of addressing it at all.  In my opinion, however, all of this historiography misses the point; it's largely irrelevant what the Founding Fathers believed regarding this issue.  Consider some of the other things that the Founding Fathers believed -- that women should not be allowed to vote, that slavery was acceptable (and that slaves, for census purposes, counted as "3/5 of a person"), and that it was justified to appropriate land from the Native Americans.  We have abandoned all of those beliefs as unethical, immoral, and inappropriate for our day and age, with no yammering on about the fact that "the USA was founded as a nation where women couldn't vote!"  (Ladies, don't let the border hit you in the ass on your way out!)

The relevant question, here, is only whether the USA should be run as a theocracy now.  Should there, given the diversity of beliefs (and non-belief) we currently have, be prayer in schools?  A religious test for holding public office?  Should we be expecting that public officials mention their relationship with Jesus at every opportunity?  Or should we accept the fact that we are now, and have been for quite some time, a patchwork quilt of Christians (of denominations liberal to conservative), Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and probably a hundred others, where to mandate belief, even tacitly, would be not only unjust but an impossibility?

How about this instead: let's focus on tolerance.  Despite my reputation as a militant atheist, I honestly don't have a problem with what you believe or don't believe -- until you start using those beliefs to change public policy, to create laws that force those beliefs on others, or to justify acting like a boor.  Diversity of thought should enrich, not impoverish, a nation, and the War on Christmas foolishness only further divides us, cementing the "if you're not one of us, screw you" mentality that has done us nothing but harm in the past.

As far as my Facebook "friend:" I think I'll just let him be.  Maybe after reading this, he'll unfriend me -- who knows?  But until that point, I'll wish a Merry Christmas to all of my readers who celebrate it, a Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends, Happy Holidays to anyone who prefers that mode of address, and to the rest of you, a simple wish for Peace on Earth, and Good Will Toward... Everyone.