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.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I felt the earth move under my feet

I'll bet that you think you know what causes earthquakes.

You probably learned a lot of stuff from your Earth Science teacher in ninth grade about plates and rifts and trenches and magma and so on, and you think that an earthquake occurs when the plates are pushing against each other, and one of them slips a little.

Ha.  A lot you know.

A new study by a fellow named Patrick Regan has found that earthquakes are, in fact, caused by UFOs.

Why should you believe Patrick Regan, you might ask?  Well, to start with, he's the founder of the Northwest (England) UFO Research Society, and has written two authoritative books, UFO: The Search for Truth and The New Pagan Handbook.  (I didn't even know that there was an old pagan handbook, did you?  I always figured that in the olden days, pagans just sort of capered about naked in the woods, sacrificing goats and worshiping oak trees and so forth.  I never knew they had a handbook, although I admit that must have made it easier to figure out if they were doing it right.  "Hey, Prolix!  This is the rain ritual!  After sacrificing the goat, you're supposed to caper about the oak tree in a counterclockwise direction, not clockwise!"  "Dammit, I knew I should have looked it up in the handbook.  What does the ritual mean if you caper in a clockwise direction?"  "Let me look it up."  *brief pause*  "Well, Prolix, if you have erectile dysfunction, you're in luck!")

Anyhow, Pat Regan noted a sudden spate of UFO sightings in Cumbria, in northern England, and predicted that the Brits should be on their toes for earthquakes.  And lo, on December 21, there was a magnitude 3.5 earthquake centered in Coniston, in the Lake District.

Note, too, that this earthquake happened on the Winter Solstice.  Don't expect me to believe that's a coincidence.  Pat either.  You can read about his ideas, if I can use that word rather loosely, here. (One warning for the faint of heart, however; this web page has a very scary photo of Pat holding his UFO book, in which he looks like the scraggly, unwashed, beater-clad, wild-eyed dude you avoid sitting next to on the subway.  Don't say I didn't warn you.)

So, what do we have here?  Well, nonsense, but besides that?  What this seems to be is a guy with a fairly weak grip on reality whose hobby is collecting unsubstantiated anecdotes from credulous folks who think they've "seen something weird in the sky," and he's even cherry-picked that data (again, to use the word fairly loosely) by selecting the "UFO sightings" that occur in proximity to a measurable earthquake.  And since both measurable earthquakes and UFO sightings occur every day somewhere, they're bound to occur near each other sometimes.  Aha!  There's a correlation!  Not to mention causation!  Let's write a book about it!

On a more serious note, what bothers me about all this is not that some wacko has a theory.  Wackos always have theories; it's what wackos do.  What bothers me is when, as happened yesterday, something like this gets picked up by the popular media, and it becomes "news."  I'm sorry, Purveyors of Popular Media:  this is not news.  This is at best laughable fiction, and at worst publishing the rantings of someone who is delusional, and encouraging people who are easily duped to believe it just because they've seen it on the Yahoo! news, or the like.  It's hard enough to get people to think critically without the press printing stories like this.  I know; I teach critical thinking, and it's an uphill struggle, sometimes.

So I'd really appreciate it if the media wants to find "odd news" or "local color" stories, they'd stick with cute video clips of cats who like to sit in boxes and stories about would-be suicides jumping off buildings and being saved because they landed in a pile of garbage that the city garbage collectors had neglected to take away.  Stories about woo-woos who've discovered a connection between UFOs and earthquakes just make my job harder, and it's hard enough as it is.  I thank you, and so do the ninth grade earth science teachers.

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