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.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Traveler's guilt

Last night, Carol and I were discussing our vacation over dinner, and the subject of poverty came up.

Trinidad & Tobago is not a wealthy country.  The median yearly salary for men is $12,000; for women in comparable jobs, it is only $5,500, an amount and an inequity that still astounds me.  We saw many signs of poverty there -- from the tin-sided shacks lined up one against the other on the waterfront at Port of Spain to the clapboard boxes people were living in along the south coast of Tobago. 

And here we were, obviously wealthy tourists, coming into the islands to enjoy briefly their beauty, like hummingbirds flying in to a feeder to sip the nectar, then zipping off.

I'm of two minds about this.  Probably more than two minds.  On the one hand, I can make the claim that the influx of money from people like us benefits the islands.  We bought things from street vendors, spent money in shops, even paid travel taxes into the governmental coffers.  We asked our driver, Dale, if he thought that the locals resented tourists, and especially, expats who moved there primarily from the US, Canada, and Germany.

"Of course not," Dale said.  "They bring business to the islands.  Why would we resent them?"

Yes, but.

They drive prices up, so native Trinidadians can't afford to buy property.  They flaunt their affluence, without even meaning to, sometimes.  The cruise ships docking in Scarborough and Port of Spain represent an expenditure of money on a single vacation that most Trinidadians won't see in a lifetime.  They use up far more than their share of resources while they're there.

Who can blame the locals for any resentment they feel?

While we were in the islands, we were approached twice by beggars.  We'd been warned against giving money -- that many of the beggars were alcoholics or drug addicts, and that giving money to them only encourages them to become more aggressive toward other visitors.  The first time, a man came up to us while we were driving through the little town of Plymouth, and claimed to have no money for food.

"Only twenty dollars," he said.  "That's all I need."

Twenty Trinidad dollars -- a little over three dollars US.

I told him we didn't have any money to give him.  A lie.  I knew it was a lie, and so did he.  He persisted, and we drove off, with him still clinging to the car until he couldn't keep up.

Why didn't I give him anything?  I could have given him ten times that amount and it would have done me no lasting financial harm whatsoever.  All of the rationalizing that "he might use it to buy drugs," or "it will only encourage him to beg more," or whatever, sounds pretty hollow.

Should I feel guilty simply for being affluent?  By American standards, I'd say we're solidly upper middle class; a teacher and a nurse, we own our own home and have two cars (both paid for).  Our gains are hardly ill-gotten; both Carol and I inherited some money from our parents, and this has certainly helped us, but we work hard for our salaries.

But the fact remains that we are more wealthy than 90% of the people on earth. 

We talked last night, over our t-bone steaks and fine red wine, about poverty.  Carol pondered the establishment of a "guilt fund" -- you could pay into a charity when you travel to a poor country, to buy off some of your guilt feelings for being lucky.  It's kind of a funny idea -- it reminded me of the medieval Catholic practice of buying indulgences, of paying the church penance money ahead of time so you could sin without fearing retribution from god.  Still, it's a nice idea.  Perhaps picking a charity that directly benefits the country we visit might help us to be more aware of our being so fortunate, and not taking for granted how easy our lives are when compared to most of the world's inhabitants.

If this idea appeals to you, or if maybe you were just looking for good charities to support, here are two to check out: Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement, which supports environmentally-sound practices and small, locally-owned businesses in poor countries, and Doctors Without Borders, a group of volunteer medical professionals who bring health care to areas ravaged by war, poverty, and natural disasters.

In any case, I doubt I'll stop traveling.  I also doubt I'll stop feeling guilty about it.  But at the same time, if the practice keeps my eyes open, keeps me grateful for what I have and more willing to give from the bounty that I enjoy, then it's not altogether a bad thing.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ten lessons learned on two small islands

I must apologize to regular readers of my blog for my absence during the past week.  Eight days ago I escaped the cold and snow of a upstate New York February for a few days, on a vacation to Trinidad.  It occurred to me to forewarn my readers of my absence, but then I thought about the imprudence of posting to the world, "Dear Everyone:  I'm going to be gone for a week.  Please come rob my house."  So I decided simply to disappear, and apologize for it later.

Trinidad & Tobago is a country comprised of two small islands off the coast of Venezuela.  It's a place I've wanted to visit for many years, and last fall my wife presented me with tickets as a gift for my fiftieth birthday.  We went with our dear friends Wendy and Renée, and spent six lovely days in the tropics exploring the islands.  I thought it might be interesting to present here a few of my impressions of the place.

1)  Trinidad & Tobago was a British colony for many years.  As a result, it was easier to communicate with the locals there than it was on some of our other excursions south of the border, given that my Spanish is limited to "sí," "no," "gracias," and "una cerveza, por favor."  This does not mean, however, that what they speak on the islands is necessarily understandable to your average American.  For example, hanging out with your friends is called "limin'."  They have places called Auchenskeoch, Blanchisseuse, and "Buck Buck Alley."  Mauby, seagrass, and bum-bum are drinks.  If you eat with the locals, you'll probably try doubles, roti, coocoo, callaloo, provision, and buss up shot.  So it's English, Jim, but not as we know it.

2)  Speaking of food, the food is generally amazing.  I bought a curried goat roti from a street vendor that would put a lot of American restaurant food to shame.  If you go, don't try to find places that sell American food -- eat what the locals eat.  You won't be sorry.

3)  That said, you should know that Trinidad and Tobago have the largest number of KFCs per capita in the world, and I'm not making that statistic up.  They're as common as Starbucks in Seattle.

4)  You should also be aware that if you eat enough Trinidadian curry, eventually your sweat will start to smell like curry.  Seriously.  It's not that bad, considering your other options for b. o., but still, smelling like an Indian restaurant gets old after a while.

5)  Having been a British colony, they drive on the left in Trinidad, and cars have their steering wheels on the right.  We rented a car, and I drew the short straw and ended up being the de facto driver.  I got used to the whole backwards-driving thing rather quicker than I thought, once I stopped turning on the windshield wipers every time I wanted to use the turn signal.

6)  However, you should remember that if you are used to turning your head and looking over your right shoulder to check your blind spot, the window is a lot closer than you think it is.  You will smack your forehead on the window, and your wife and friends will laugh at you.

7)  They will laugh a lot harder the second and third time you do the same thing.

8)  The driving-on-the-left thing isn't the only challenge for managing the island's roads, however.  Driving in Trinidad is like a huge, multi-player, mirror-image game of MarioKart, with no rules, and the added bonus that you can die.  Trinidadians are, in my experience, lovely people, but if you put them behind the wheel of a car, they turn into raving lunatics.  The white line down the center of a road is useful for lining up your hood ornament.  The posted speed limits are the punchline of a joke.  Horns are used to get you to go faster, to alert you to danger, to say hello, and to state, "I am driving a car and it has a horn."  People don't pull over to park; they simply stop, sometimes pointing the wrong way down the road.  The roads are narrow, with hairpin turns and sheer dropoffs into seas and mountain valleys, with a rail that looks like it's made of popsicle sticks and Reynolds wrap.  The first day we had the car, we drove out to the little village of Speyside to go diving.  It took us an hour and a half to go about twenty miles.  It did have the benefit of making the risks of scuba diving seem trivial by comparison, but the whole time we were there I kept thinking, "oh, dear god, we have to drive back."  I briefly considered asking someone if we could have a rescue helicopter come and get us.  In the end, we made it back without incident, but I'm not entirely sure how.

9)  The diving, birdwatching, and beaches are spectacular.  I saw 42 species of birds I'd never seen before without really trying all that hard.  The temperature never fell below 75 F and never got above 87.  I thought more than once of filing for early retirement and tearing up my return ticket.

10)  On the other hand, one must remember that both islands are largely covered by rain forest.  We were there during the dry season, which means that the humidity and the chance of rain both drop to 90%.  It rained at least once every day we were there.  This didn't bother me -- I am one of those rare souls who actually enjoys heat, humidity, and rain -- and for those of you who don't, I should point out that there's always a nice breeze, and remarkably few bugs.  But it is most definitely the tropics.

So all in all, it was a lovely vacation.  We came back to a foot of snow and frigid temperatures, which makes me feel lucky to have escaped even for a few days.  If you're looking for a great place to visit, consider Trinidad & Tobago -- I'd go back in a heartbeat.  I might even consider getting behind the wheel of a car again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bownessie and the Pennsylvania Bigfoot

Serves me right for implying, a couple of posts ago, that the cryptozoological reports were becoming a bit thin of late.  Just yesterday there were two news stories about alleged sightings of strange, mysterious creatures.

The first comes from England's Lake Windermere, a deep glacial lake in Cumbria.  A worker at an IT company in Bowness, unfortunately named Tom Pickles, was on a company-sponsored team-building activity with his colleague Sarah Harrington when they saw something moving through the water.

"I thought it was a dog," Pickles said.  "Then I realized it was much bigger, and moving really quickly.  Each hump was moving in a rippling motion, and it was swimming fast.  I could tell it was much bigger underneath from the huge shadow around it.  Its skin was like a seal's, but its shape was abnormal -- it's not like any animal I've ever seen before.  We saw it for about twenty seconds.  It was petrifying.  We paddled back to shore straight away."

But not before taking a photograph with his cellphone:

Okay, I notice two things here, one of them practical, the other technical.  The first is that Pickles and Harrington work for an IT company, and presumably are pretty handy with a computer -- including digital editing software.  The second is that the creature -- which in Pickles' description was huge and was "swimming really fast" -- is only leaving a wake behind it.  Large objects (boats, whales, pleisiosaurs) moving quickly through the water not only leave a trail of disturbed water behind them, they also push water in front -- a so-called "bow wave."  What this looks more like is a stationary object with water flowing slowly around it -- which is impossible considering the situation.

Also, I have the same objection to the Lake Windermere Monster (who has been christened "Bownessie") as I do to the original Nessie of Loch Ness; both of the lakes are glacial in origin, and were under a great deal of ice 1.5 million years ago.  Since the allegation is that such creatures are survivals from the dinosaur age, which ended 65 million years ago, it's a little hard to fathom how they have survived for all that time in a lake which (1) didn't exist for about 63 million years of that time, and (2) was under a sheet of ice for the million years that followed.

Considerably closer to home, we have a report of a Bigfoot sighting near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A commuter identified only as "Sam" was merging onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Route 60 early in the morning last Tuesday, when he saw a huge, hairy, dark brown figure that stood out against the snow-covered hill behind it.  It was trudging through the deep snow, moving "effortlessly." 

Sam pulled over, and backed up, but by this time the creature was near a stand of trees, and in three or four strides had disappeared from view.

Sam immediately contacted Eric Altman, president of the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society.  (Of course there's a Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society.)  Altman and his associate, Chris Brinker, went in to investigate.  Their report included the following:  "Looking around, we discovered what appeared to be very large impressions in the snow that resembled the shape of human prints, and they were bipedal.  The tracks were old, had snow blown over them, and there was a thin layer of ice/snow on top, so we cannot say for sure if they were human or something else.  However, they did definitely resemble the shape and size of large human-like prints and were bipedal."

So, to summarize; they're definitely absolutely maybe kind of sure.

Altman and Brinker followed the tracks for some time, which (they report) went through underbrush instead of around it, and had a stride averaging 27 inches (which doesn't seem all that big to me, honestly; they report their own strides as 17 inches, which in my mind qualifies as "mincing through the snow").   They also found some droppings, which they admitted could have been from a cow or horse, but they are "currently looking for a lab that would be willing to test it."

Altman seems convinced, although he admits that it could have been a highway worker who, seen from a distance, might have been mistaken for a Bigfoot.  Admittedly, I've seen highway workers who could pass for proto-hominids, so we must keep that possibility in mind.

In any case, you'll be glad to know that the members of PBS (no, not that PBS, I'm still talking about the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society here) are on the job.  I suspect this means we'll never hear any more about it.  The droppings will turn out not to be BigPoo, but cow or horse droppings, and "Sam," having had his fifteen minutes of fame, will disappear like the Bigfoot he supposedly saw.

So, that's the cryptozoological report for today.  From Lake Windermere to Pittsburgh PA, you can count on Skeptophilia for all of the latest news of creatures that probably don't exist.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

FAQs about rocks

Between the targeted-ad software and my general hostility to woo-woos, I seem to be becoming a magnet for wackos.  I say this because my recent post on "quantum jumping" triggered ads to be attached to my blog for even more bizarre claims.  And you thought "quantum jumping" was the furthermost outer limits...

This most recent assault on the memory of William of Ockham was pointed out by my wife, who sent me the link with the message, "Ooh, this is even better."  The site, should you understandably be hesitant to actually click the link and go there, is called "Scalar Energy Wonders."  Like the "energy bracelet" sites I posted about a few weeks ago, this site sells "energy jewelry" and other such stuff.  I particularly like the FAQs, a couple of which I quote here verbatim:

Q:  What does the Quantum Scalar Energy Pendant Do?

A:  Generally, the pendant has been reported to instantly boost energy levels & increase mental fitness.  The other reported benefits of the pendant include: increasing stamina, protection from harmful electromagnetic radiation, improving sense of balance, and increasing resilience to stress.  People tell us that in most cases any aches and pains disappear gradually.  If necessary, you can even try rubbing the Scalar Pendant over the affected area...  Some may respond within a week, while others require up to a month to register its effects.

My interpretation:  If you wear it long enough, your pain will go away.  Or not.  Definitely one or the other.

Q:  How does it work?

A:  The pendant is made of natural minerals from frozen volcanic lava using Japanese Technology...  The combination of natural materials in the pendant produces scalar energy that gets transferred to your DNA, which carries charges.  All known living things are governed by charges, which can be affected positively or negatively by external frequencies.  Negative frequencies include electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile phones and computer screens.  As such, the positive frequencies from the Quantum Scalar Energy Pendant help to neutralize the effect of negative frequencies.

My interpretation:  You are made of charged particles.  So are rocks.  So, in fact, is the entire universe.  Charged particles contain energy.  So, if you buy this rock and wear it, you'll be part of the universe, and share its energy.  Which you would have even if you didn't buy the rock, but you should buy the rock anyway.

Q:  Which frequencies are embedded?

A:  Without giving away proprietary information, there are two key frequencies we focus on.  First, is the Schuman Resonance.  This is in the 7.8-8 range.  It is the frequency the earth emits when there is nothing around...  The other frequency is closer to 12.  This is the frequency you will record in a rain forest...  These are the core scalar frequencies that accomplish everything we've talked about in this report.

My interpretation:  Didn't your high school physics teacher emphasize that you should always use units?  7.8-8 what?  12 what?  Hertz?  Megahertz?  Kilograms?  Light years?  Bushels?  Miles per hour?  Furlongs per fortnight?  And how do you know anything about what the earth does when there is nothing around, since there's always something around?  Sorry, I'll try to calm down a little...

Q:  What other products do you sell?

A:  One of our best-selling items is the Ion Coaster/Bio Disc...  Place a glass of water or other drink on the disc, and you will notice a difference!  With physics oscillation theory, the big water molecular clusters will rearrange, become small molecular clusters, eliminate negative frequency, reduce chlorine in water, and make water activated.

My interpretation:  *faceplant*

I would think this is all some sort of huge joke, a parody site on the whole Power Bracelet/Energy Jewelry industry, but tragically, it's not.  These people are serious.  And given that the cheapest thing I saw on the site -- the "Ion Card" (it looks a little like a credit card, and supposedly "gives you energy and protects your DNA") costs $12.99, people could be bilked out of a lot of money for this junk.

And don't start with me about how there's "alternative medicine" and "science doesn't know everything" and "maybe it could work."  I'll quote Tim Minchin:  "There's a name for alternative medicine that works.  It's called... medicine."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Beastly goings-on

Whenever I think I've found the last mysterious beast in the world, and my career as a cryptozoologist is all over but the laughing, I stumble upon another one I've never heard of.

Yesterday I was preparing a slideshow on the evolutionary time-scale for my biology class, and was trying to find some good images of prehistoric animals to download.  Cognizant of the fact that I'm teaching teenagers, naturally I gravitated toward what my wife calls "charismatic megafauna," so my slideshow heavily favored animals like T. rex, velociraptors, and Baluchitherium (the last-mentioned is the largest land mammal ever -- if you were standing next to it you could barely reach its kneecap if you had a stepladder, and it could have turned an African elephant into an African elephant pancake).  So, anyway, I was trying to find some images of mesonychids, which were Paleocene and Eocene predators that looked a little like giant bears or wolves but were actually related to hoofed mammals, and I ran into the following image:

This scary-looking beast, Andrewsarchus, is represented here striding across the Eocene landscape, looking for some tiny, German-shepherd-sized horses to munch on.  (The fossil evidence does not include drool, so the artist may have been taking a few liberties.)

In any case, after adding the picture to my slideshow, I noticed that it was not from a website on paleontology (although the image originally appeared in a BBC feature about extinct animals, it has made the rounds since then).  This image was on a site devoted to the history of the Beast of Gévaudan.

The Beast of Gévaudan, it seems, was a horrible monster who terrorized the region of Gévaudan in France (now the département of Lozère in south-central France) in the mid-1700s.  It dispatched its victims by ripping their throats out.  Apparently, there were more than sixty victims of the beast, the first a fourteen-year-old girl killed in 1764.  There were hundreds of eyewitnesses to the thing; it was described as a huge, hairy quadruped, with a foul odor and a heavy, thick tail.  Thus far, there's nothing particularly weird here, and in fact this description matches my friend's dog Rudy, who is half mastiff and half golden lab but looks like he has some horse somewhere in his ancestry.  Rudy has no idea how enormous he is, and galumphs around inside the house knocking over large pieces of furniture, all the while wagging happily.  Rudy's huge head, which is made entirely of reinforced concrete, is at a height that is seriously unfortunate for any adult male visitors, and guys have been known to go into a protective crouch whenever Rudy so much as looks at them.

But I digress.

The various reports of the Beast of Gévaudan, when coalesced into a single description, paint a picture of a heavy-bodied animal a little smaller than a horse, with a reddish, spotted pelt, a long, thick snout, broad paws whose digits ended in claws or nails, and eyes that seemed disproportionately small.  Let's review our artist's depiction of an Andrewsarchus:

The Beast of Gévaudan was finally killed in June 1767 by a hunter named Jean Chastel.  Chastel had been hired by the French government to take care of the Beast, and the story is that he was standing, leaning against a tree reading his bible, when he heard a noise and saw the Beast loping toward him, murder in its eyes.  Instead of pissing his pants and then having a stroke, which is probably what I would have done, he calmly lifted his rifle and shot the Beast between the eyes with a specially-prepared silver bullet.  Chastel's bravery earned him a monument in his honor in the village of La Besseyre-Sainte-Marie, near where the Beast was killed.

Chastel placed the Beast's body on a wagon of a man bound for Versailles, with instructions to deliver it to the authorities there so that Chastel could collect his reward.  But this being in the days before refrigeration, the carcass started to decompose, and finally began to smell so bad the wagon-driver buried it beside the road along the way.  Chastel apparently never got his reward.

So, was the Beast of Gévaudan an Andrewsarchus, or some surviving mesonychid whose ancestors had made it all the way from the Eocene Epoch (which ended 34 million years ago), undetected until that time in the forests of southern France?

Unfortunately, probably not.  There were other, similar attacks in western Europe in the 18th century and earlier, and all of the ones for which we have decent descriptions turned out to be wolves (usually rabid).  In fact, in September of 1765 a hunter in Gévaudan, Francois Antoine, killed what he thought was the Beast itself, but found out different when the attacks resumed three months later.  Antoine's animal was clearly a wolf, although Antoine describes it as being one of the most humongous badass wolves he'd ever seen (I paraphrase slightly).

Sad to say, the Beast of Gévaudan itself was also probably a humongous badass wolf, which were not uncommon in those days.  Too bad; it'd be cool if Andrewsarchus had survived, although heaven knows I'd rather not meet one face-to-face.  In any case, it's nice to know that you can devote your career to the study of cryptozoology, and after several decades still run into sightings you'd never heard of.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cats and rats and brain parasites, oh my!

To further explore yesterday's topic of Reasons You May Be Mentally Ill, today's topic is: toxoplasmosis.

The subject came up in casual conversation with our dear friends Alex and Nancy a couple of days ago.  Alex and Nancy are wonderful dinner guests, in that (1) they always bring amazing desserts, (2) Nancy brings along her guitar and after dinner we spend a couple of hours playing music, and (3) they are polymaths of the sort for whom "toxoplasmosis" could come up as a topic for casual conversation, and no one would raise an eyebrow.  To say that conversations with Alex and Nancy are "wide-ranging" is an understatement that would be rivaled only by saying that Magellan "got around a bit."

You may know of the pathogen Toxoplama gondii in its connection to the recommendation by doctors that pregnant women not clean cat litter boxes.  The pathogen, which is neither a bacteria nor a virus but a protist, is carried by cats and excreted with the urine; and a pregnant woman who contracts toxoplasmosis risks birth defects in her unborn child.

What you may not know, however, is that there is a significant likelihood that you have toxoplasmosis right now.  In fact, if you have ever owned a cat, the probability probably stands close to 100%.

A recent study by Kevin Lafferty, of the University of California, suggests that as many as three billion people may have a dormant Toxoplasma infection.  Yes, dear readers, you read that right; that's three billion, as in a little less than half of the human population.  Turns out that Lafferty's research indicated that when you get toxoplasmosis, you get flu-like symptoms for a couple of days, and then the symptoms abate -- but for most of us, the protist goes dormant, and we carry around the parasite for life.

This is creepy enough, but wait'll you hear what it does to you.

Lafferty's research showed that the Toxoplasma organism invades, and becomes dormant in, your brain cells.  It's been known for years that toxoplasmosis in rats makes them bolder and less cautious around predators, which aids in the passage of the germ between rats and cats.  What wasn't known before Lafferty's study is that infection by the germ in humans also causes personality changes.

Now, it doesn't make us have a high affinity for cats, which would make sense, and would explain Crazy Cat Lady syndrome, in which some people think it's normal to own thirty cats, and somehow seem to become immune to the truly cataclysmic odor that their houses attain.  No, what actually happens is more subtle.  Apparently, if you have Toxoplasma, you're more likely to be neurotic.  People who tested positive for antibodies for Toxoplasma scored far higher on personality assessments in the areas of guilt-proneness, anxiety, and risk of depression.  These effects were so pronounced that Lafferty speculates that it could account for certain differences between cultures.

"In some cultures, infection is very rare," Lafferty said, "while in others, virtually everyone is infected.  The distribution of Toxoplasma gondii could explain differences in cultural aspects that relate to ego, money, material possessions, work, and rules."

I find this speculation fascinating.  The idea that my neuroses might not be due to my genes or upbringing, but because I'm carrying around a parasite in my brain, doesn't create the level of Icky-Poo Factor that you might expect.  Of course, I'm a biologist, and so I'm at least on some level accustomed to thinking about creepy-crawlies.  But the idea that some sort of a microorganism could affect my behavior strikes me as weirdly interesting, particularly since I've had at least one cat in my household for the past 25 years.

So, maybe our personalities aren't as static as we'd like to think -- they can be influenced by a great many circumstances outside of our control.  Add parasite infestations to that list.  And if that whole idea upsets you too much, take comfort in the fact that Lafferty's research has spurred medical researchers to try to find a drug that can destroy the germ.  Nothing's been certified for human use so far, so don't cancel your appointment with your therapist just yet, but there are a couple that are looking promising. 

Until then, you should probably shouldn't worry.  What's a few brain parasites among friends, after all?  In fact, just forget I brought it up.  Relax, go and sit in your recliner, and pet your cat, Mr. Fluffkins, for a while.

You'll feel better.  Trust me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A tincture of madness

There's long been a supposed connection between being highly creative and being mentally ill.  The list of individuals who were both is a long one.  Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O'Keeffe, Hermann Hesse, Maurice Ravel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Vincent van Gogh, and Robert Schumann all suffered from varying degrees of mental problems, most of them from clinical depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.  More than one of these spent the last years of life in a mental institution, and more than one committed suicide.

"The only difference between myself and a madman," Salvador Dalí famously quipped, "is that I am not mad."  Two thousand years earlier, the Roman writer Seneca said, "There is no genius without a tincture of madness."

Now a Swedish researcher has demonstrated for the first time that there is a fundamental connection between creativity and mental illness.  Fredrik Ullén, of the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm, has demonstrated a connection between creativity and the dopamine (pleasure/reward) system in the brain - the same system that is implicated in several forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and tendency to addiction.

Ullén administered a test that was designed to measure a subject's capacity for creative thinking -- for developing more than one solution to the same problem, or using non-linear solution methods to arrive at an answer.  He then analyzed the brain activity of the individuals who scored the highest, and found that across the board, they had lower amounts of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain called the thalamus -- one of the main "switchboards" in the higher brain, and responsible for sorting and processing sensory stimuli.

The implication is that creative people don't have as rigid a sorting mechanism as other, less creative people -- that having a built-in deficiency in your relay system may help you to arrive at solutions to problems that others might not have seen.

The connection between the thalamus, creativity, and sorting issues is supported by a different bit of brain research that found that a miswiring of the thalamus is implicated in another bizarre mental disorder, called synesthesia.  In synesthesia, signals from the sensory organs are misrouted to the incorrect interpretive centers in the cerebrum, and an auditory signal (for example) might be received in the visual cortex.  As a result, you would "see sounds."  Other senses can be crosswired, however -- the seminal study of the disorder is described in Richard Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthsia is apparently also much more common among the creative.  Alexander Scriabin, the early 20th century Russian composer, wrote his music as much from how it looked to him as how it sounded.  He describes a sensation of color being overlaid on what he was actually seeing when he heard specific combinations of notes.  The colors were consistent; C# minor, for example, was always green, Eb major always magenta.  And although Alexander Scriabin's synesthesia was perhaps the most intense, he is not the only composer who was synesthetic; the evidence is strong that Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien also had this same miswiring.

The recently published study by Ullén has now taken the first steps toward connecting these physiological manifestations with the phenomenon of creativity itself.  "Thinking outside the box," Ullén said, "may be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Quantum leap

As another rather misguided example of targeted advertising, yesterday my Facebook page had an ad on it for something called Quantum Jumping.  Amused and a little intrigued, I clicked the link.  If you're curious enough to take a look for yourself, it brought me here.

I snooped about in the site for a while, and then, as with my post yesterday on James van Praagh, I did a little background research.  First, here are the claims:

"Since the 1920s, quantum physicists have been trying to make sense of an uncomfortable and startling fact -- that an infinite number of alternate universes exist.  Leading scientists like Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, and Neil Turok, all of whom are responsible for life-changing breakthroughs in the field of quantum physics, have all suggested the existence of multiple universes...  This jaw-dropping discovery was first made when, trying to pinpoint the exact location of an atomic particle, physicists found it was virtually impossible.  It had no single location. In other words, atomic particles have the ability to simultaneously exist in more than one place at a time.  The only explanation for this is that particles don’t only exist in our universe -- They can spark into existence in an infinite number of parallel universes as well.  And although these particles come to being and change in synchronicity, they are all slightly different...  Drawing on the above-mentioned scientific theory and merging it with 59 years of study into mysticism and the human mind, Burt Goldman has come to one shocking conclusion: In these alternate universes, alternate versions of you are living out their lives."

To make a long, drawn-out explanation a little shorter, Goldman claims that through his training course (downloadable for $97, or DVDs starting at $197) you can mentally slide into these alternate universes, meet alternate versions of yourself, and learn from them.  It is how, he explains, he learned how to paint, to write, and (presumably) to market a serious bill of goods to the gullible.

I spend enough time on this blog hacking at odd claims of the paranormal that I hesitate to hack very hard at this one.  I'll only note some of the more obvious features:  (1) While the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum physics is intriguing, and has been the subject of thousands of plot twists on Star Trek alone, it has never been demonstrated experimentally.  Most physicists believe that even if this interpretation is correct, those theoretical alternate universes are "closed off" to us permanently after the event that caused the split, and therefore such experimental verification is impossible by definition.  Thus, this model remains an interesting, but untestable, idea.  (2)  Namedropping, and using quotes from such luminaries as Hawking, Kaku, Max Planck, and Nikola Tesla, is both unfair to those quoted (who, I suspect, would laugh Goldman's ideas out of the room) and is also Appeal to Authority in its worst form.  (3)  I find it interesting that he claims that you can learn from your alternate selves, because in some universe you are a published author, a rock star, a Nobel-prize-winning scientist.  Just given the law of averages, wouldn't you also expect that it's a 50-50 chance that in any given alternate universe, you'd be instead a bum, a felon, or dead?  Although, to be fair, I'd guess that you'd learn something from meeting those alternate selves, too.  It's like James Randi's criticism of mediums; that all of the dead relatives these people contact seem to have ended up in heaven.  Never once does a medium say to the subject, "Um, bad news... Great-Uncle George ended up in hell.  He's sort of, um, unavailable at the moment."

However, I'd like to look more closely at something I saw on another website, one critical of Goldman and his claims.  The post by the critic launched something of a comment-war between people who agreed with the skeptic, and those who thought Goldman's ideas were reasonable.  The most interesting comment, I think, was the following:

"Why are you bashing Quantum Jumping?  Maybe he's wrong about how it works, but who cares, as long as it does work?  If it can make someone's life better, then there's nothing wrong with what he's doing."

It probably goes without saying that I disagree with this (but I'm going to say it, anyhow).  The main point is that Goldman's claim states that other selves in other universes actually, honestly, truly exist, and he is actually, honestly, truly going to put you into direct contact with them.  Despite the testimonials, there is no evidence that this claim has any merit whatsoever.  So if his technique is really a visualization/actualization method -- the same as many others available out there -- then he should market it as such, and drop all of the nonsense about quantum physics and alternate universes.  Of course, he won't do that; mentioning Hawking and Kaku and the rest gives him credibility, and (most importantly) it sells DVDs.

Now, if you buy it, and it improves your life, allows you to accomplish things you otherwise would not have been able to do, then I'm glad for you.  But the fact remains that Goldman is lying.  And honestly, if you accomplished wonderful things using his program, I strongly suspect you would have been able to do them equally well without it.

What it boils down to, in my opinion, is that telling the truth matters.  The world is what it is, and scientists and other skeptics are trying their best to elucidate how it works.  When a huckster like Goldman comes along, and tries to convince you otherwise -- and makes lots of money at your expense in the process -- it is simple dishonesty, and is no more to be respected than were the peddlers of miraculous tonics in the 19th century.  Like those tonics, Quantum Jumping is so much snake oil -- and as usual, caveat emptor.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Medium well-done

This morning I got an email from the Omega Institute, of Rhinebeck, New York, inviting me to a workshop in New York City with James van Praagh, a prominent spiritualist medium.

It is probably a coincidence that the workshop begins on April Fool's Day, but it still made me happy.  The email states, "Do you want to understand more about spirit communication or better interpret messages from loved ones?  In this experiential workshop guided by renowned spiritual medium James Van Praagh, you learn to blend your mind with the spirit world and read the signs from loved ones who are guiding your journey daily...  Van Praagh, one of the world’s most respected spiritual mediums working today, offers extensive messages and readings throughout the workshop to help you unlock the greater depth of your spiritual self.  Novice as well as experienced mediums are welcome."

My initial reaction upon receiving this email was, "Boy, are they barking up the wrong tree."  But then I decided to make use of the opportunity, to look into van Praagh's claims a little, and find out who he is and what the workshop is actually claiming to accomplish.

The title of the workshop is, "What the Dead Can Teach Us About Life."  So far, I have no problem; there are many things the dead can teach us about life.  Among them are "Don't drink and drive," "Smoking is stupid," and "Exercise more and eat less."  But I don't think that's really what van Praagh is saying.  According to his website, he "is a survival evidence medium, meaning that he is able to bridge the gap between two planes of existence, that of the living and that of the dead, by providing evidential proof of life after death via detailed messages."  He claims, basically, that he is able to get a hold of your dead relatives, and bring messages from them to you.

It's not as if this wouldn't be cool if it were true.  I, for example, would love to ask my Aunt Florence for her chocolate-almond fudge recipe, which I have never been able to replicate.  Unfortunately, however, van Praagh is clearly a fraud, and in fact got caught cheating in what was supposed to be a cold reading he did on Larry King Live.  (He claimed to have clairvoyantly picked up on the fact a subject's grandmother had died -- and it turned out that he had talked to the subject earlier, and she had mentioned it to him, along with other information he was then able to use.)

This, of course, has not stopped him from writing a number of books, including Ghosts Among Us: Uncovering the Truth About the Other Side; Heaven and Earth: Making the Psychic Connection; and Talking to Heaven: A Medium's Message About Life After Death.  Amazingly, they sell brilliantly well, and in fact, Ghosts Among Us made the New York Times' bestseller list.

And despite his public failure on Larry King, his success has not diminished.  Millions are hoodwinked by his act every year.  He has, apparently, a three-year waiting list for a twenty-minute reading via telephone, for which he charges $700. 

Encouragingly, though, he has many critics.  Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist at Eastern Michigan University, has studied van Praagh and others like him for many years, and has compared his hit rate when he is identifying generalities (e.g. someone in your family has died, it was an elderly woman, and so on) and when he is identifying specifics (Grandma Bertha died at age 93 of congestive heart failure).  With generalities, he does okay; with specifics, his hit rate drops to zero.  Of course, he almost always avoids specifics, and when he hits one it is usually because there has been an extensive leadup during which he fishes for clues, often very subtly, and uses feedback (including head gestures and body language) to guide him in the right direction.  When he is deprived of feedback from the subject -- when they don't respond, or maintain a poker face -- his miss rate climbs to nearly 100%.  Michael Shermer, a prominent skeptic, calls van Praagh "the master of cold reading in the psychic world."

Van Praagh, for his part, hates Shermer and his ilk.  On Larry King Live in 2001, van Praagh said, "... we (psychics) are here to heal people and to help people grow... skeptics... they're just here to destroy people.  They're not here to encourage people, to enlighten people.  They're here to destroy people."

As you might expect, I take serious issue with that statement.   Skeptics do encourage people; we encourage them to use their rational faculties to see frauds like van Praagh for what they are.  Grief is a painful, and unavoidable, part of life; and lining van Praagh's pockets to the tune of $2,100 per hour to hear that Grandma Bertha is happily in heaven and wishes you well isn't healing you, it is taking advantage of your anguish to turn a profit. 

So, sorry, James, but you won't see me at your mediumship workshop.  I will work on unlocking the greater depth of my spiritual self right here at home.  And for anyone planning on attending -- enjoy April Fool's Day.

Friday, February 11, 2011

An education about education

Here in New York state, the news has been full of articles about the governor's proposed budget.  Being a teacher (although not insensitive to the effects of cuts in other areas), I have been watching the funding of education pretty closely.  And the budget, should it pass, will result in a $1.3 million dollar loss to our little school district alone.

At the same time, a hugely popular cap on property tax increases is likely to pass, meaning that schools' only other source of revenue will be closed off to them.  The state has not proposed removing any of the many unfunded mandates schools now labor under.  You don't have to be an economist to see the only possible result; cutting teachers, cutting programs, raising class sizes.

I understand the economic stresses of the times, and that something drastic has to be done.  I certainly wouldn't want to be in Governor Cuomo's shoes.  What has appalled me, however, is the deafening howl of anti-teacher rhetoric that is becoming commonplace wherever these issues arise.

To give just one example, here's a reader response to one of the recent articles about education cuts.  It is largely representative of the responses I read, and by no means the most extreme.  I have copied it, verbatim, from the source.

"High time teachers are forced to get up off their lazy asses and work for a living.  Any time the teachers unions whine about anything, the libs cave in and raise taxes.  From what my kids say all the teachers are these days is glorified babysitters.  They do nothing but give out worksheets and show films.  You can do that as easily with forty kids in a classroom as you can with twenty, so why not fire half of them?  Pick out the best ones, and tell the unions to keep their damn noses out of who gets retained and who gets fired.  After that, cut a third of the administrators, and for ALL of them get rid of the free-ride health insurance, paid three month vacations, and cushy, state-funded pensions that allow them to retire early.  You could balance the budget tomorrow if you did that."

And my response to the response: how about I educate you a little about education?

Get up off my lazy ass and work for a living?  This year I am teaching five different subjects -- Introductory and Advanced Biology; Advanced Environmental Science; Brain & Senses (an introductory neurology class); and Critical Thinking.  In addition, I am doing after-school, voluntary (i.e. for no pay) independent study classes in Latin, linguistics, and human genetics.  Just planning for all of my classes takes a minimum of three hours a day, grading student work another hour or two.  Oh, yeah, and there's the teaching itself.  If you think that all I do is show films and give out worksheets, come and spend a day in my classes.  You will, every day, participate in class discussions of current issues.  You will do lab experiments and be expected to use proper technique, and write up your results afterwards.  You will be expected to master technical material, and demonstrate that you've understood it and can apply it.  You will be expected to use correct spelling and grammar in all writing assignments, and no, "This is not English class!" will not be accepted as an excuse.  You will be expected to treat me, and the other students, with respect.

Get rid of the unions?  The unions are the only protection we have preventing capricious and arbitrary breaches of contract by administrators and school boards.  Note that I am not implying that all administrators and school board members would do those things, but some would, and without unions we would have little legal recourse.  I know that unions, too, sometimes fail in what should be the goal of all educators -- to provide the best possible quality of education to students.  Rubber rooms, and protection of poor-quality teachers, do happen.  But even there, the fault is not always with the unions.  The single worst teacher I have ever worked with was retained not because of any kind of union pressure, but because administrators didn't do their job and document her many failings, pressure her to improve, and when that didn't work (which it probably would not have), show her the door.

And just to correct a few factual errors:  we do not get free health insurance.  I don't get a dime during the summer, and in fact when I was a single dad, I had to work two jobs just to save enough to make my June, July, and August mortgage payments.  And no teacher I know of can retire "early" -- I will have to work until I'm 62 not to have major penalties assessed on my pension.  And with the current pension formulas, and the fact that retirees have to pay a much greater share of their health insurance costs, many of us can't afford to retire.  I know one teacher who has been teaching for 38 years, and if she retired she wouldn't make enough money even to cover her expenses.

If  you gut education, cut teachers, break the backs of school districts caught between state mandates and shrinking revenue, you will see the quality of education diminish commensurately.  Yes, educators will continue trying to do the best with what we have; that's what we do.  But if you are worried about the up-and-coming economic threat from the tens of thousands of highly-educated young people from China and India, the last thing you should do is cut education.  "Don't just throw money at the problem," is a nice aphorism, suitable for a bumper sticker, but there's another one that also applies; "You get what you pay for." 

Oh, yeah, and "Build new schools, or build new jails: Your choice."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Apples of the knowledge of good and evil

The latest buzz in the electronic world is a new Apple iPad/iPhone app that allows Roman Catholics to confess their sins.

Called, appropriately enough, "Confession: A Roman Catholic App," it costs $1.99 and is available online.  The app allows you to enter how long it's been since your last confession, then you pick a commandment and tick off the sins you've committed against it.  The app then takes into account a variety of factors such as the person's age, the severity of the sin, and whether the person has committed the sin before, and suggests an appropriate penance.

Amazingly enough, the Vatican seems to be generally in favor of digital repentance. A Vatican spokesperson, however, was careful to note that the new app should "not be used in place of face-to-face confession," and that "true absolution can only be given by an ordained priest."

Still, you know it will.  For your busy Catholic-on-the-go, it sure would be appealing to confess via iPad (two minutes) rather than taking the time to go to church, sit in the confessional, and tell an actual priest what you did wrong (thirty minutes minimum).  And after all, is it really any sillier than things like Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels -- where prayers are inscribed on a cylinder that spins on a shaft, and turning the wheel is considered as good as actually reciting the prayer?

So, I've got a few suggestions for new uses of technology in the realm of religion.  I'm no software developer -- my technological expertise stalled out somewhere back in the Dark Ages -- so feel free to capitalize on any of these.  Remember that I'd like a cut of the cash if they catch on.

For Pentecostals, how about a Speaking in Tongues Translator?  I've heard a lot about the whole phenomenon of Speaking in Tongues, wherein a religious person is so filled with fervor that the Holy Spirit descends upon him or her, and the religious person begins to babble.  I use that word deliberately,  because the usual interpretation is that the speech thus produced is that which was used by all humans before the building of the Tower of Babel, that pivotal moment in the bible during which god taught mankind a lesson by inventing things like "i before e except after c," Greek asigmatic aorist past tense, and the Latin dative case, which causeth language students to toil by the sweat of their brows, lo even unto the present day.  So how about some sort of language-analysis software that could allow all of the rest of the congregation to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying through the person?  Instead of just frothing at the mouth and saying random syllables, the person could pick up his or her iPad and, well, Type in Tongues.  The app would then translate the message for everyone.

For any sects that are biblical literalists, you could have an app that was a Scientific Statement Truth Evaluator.  The way this would work is, your young religious person might be sitting in a science class, and hear his or her teacher make a scientific statement such as "the earth goes around the sun."  The young person could then enter the statement into the iPad, and the app would analyze it for truth against the entire bible.  The app would then respond, "UNTRUE!  Joshua 10:12 - "The Lord said unto Joshua, 'Sun, stand thou still over Gibeon.'"  It would then follow up with suggestions of what the young person could say to the teacher:  "Hey, teacher!  How could the Lord have made the sun stand still, if the sun isn't moving?  Huh?"  The only problem I can see is if the young person put in a statement like, "The father of Joseph, husband of Mary, was named Heli," because Luke 3:23 says that's true, but Matthew 1:16 says his name was Jacob.  At that point, the app could cause the iPad to crash.  So young people would have to be instructed to ignore any apparent self-contradictions in the bible, that those have no impact on its literal, word-for-word truth.  But that's basically what they're being told anyway, so probably no harm done.

Lastly, how about a fundamentalist Muslim Infidel Detector?  You can see how today's suicide bombers are kind of taking a broad-brush approach; wouldn't it be better to determine first if the people you're thinking of killing are actually Infidels Worthy of Death, instead of taking out the righteous and the unrighteous alike?  With a few taps on the touch pad, you could enter some information about the people in question -- gender, clothing style, amount of skin showing, presence or absence of perfume or jewelry, whether or not the person was wearing a Star of David -- and the app would calculate the likelihood that the person is an infidel, and suggest a possible course of action, from "cry out unto Allah against them" or "beat them with a stick," to "slay them like the unclean dogs they are!"  It would take the guesswork out of murderous religious mania.

So you can see that technology has a lot of applications to the religious world.  There is a danger, however, as with all of these things; the interconnectedness that this technology is bringing will inevitably lead to exposure to other ideas (unless someone develops a "Diverse Philosophy Filter" app).  And this could be dreadful.  Wouldn't it be tragic if a 21st century technology took these poor folks and dragged them into, well, the 21st century?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The ghost in the machine

In the news today is a story about a theme park in Thorpe, Surrey County, England, which is being altered because the site is haunted.

The Storm Surge, a twenty-meter-tall water slide, was scheduled to be built at the site, until workers began reporting feelings of sudden chills, feelings of being watched, and glimpses of what appeared to be a headless monk.

A paranormal investigation company was called in, and they used the latest in scientific investigative equipment -- Ouija boards, crystals, and Polaroid cameras -- and they came to the conclusion, "Yup.  It's haunted, all right."  Furthermore, they found out that the site of the water slide was near a place called "The Monk's Walk" (*cue scary music*), which is a path that went from now-ruined Chertsey Abbey to Thorpe Church.  Apparently the site was also a burial ground back in pre-Conquest times.

Well, with that kind of psychic convergence, what could the theme park owners do?  At great expense, they relocated the ride.

Myself, I would have called in the kids from Scooby-Doo.  They would have run around investigating in the Mystery Machine, gotten scared a bunch of times, said "Ruh roh" and "Yoinks" a lot, creating uproarious laughter in the laugh-track, and in the end the headless monk would have been the foreman of the work crew with a sheet over his head, who was using hidden wires and pulleys to float through the air.  He would have had some lame reason for staging the whole thing, and would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those darned kids.

Or, maybe, just maybe, there's a rational explanation for the whole thing.

Vic Tandy, an engineer working at a medical manufacturing firm in the British Midlands, is not the sort of person you'd expect would believe in the paranormal.  He is a rational, scientific type, educated at Coventry University, and no one was more shocked than he was when, while working late one night, he saw a ghost.

He'd been sitting at his desk that evening, feeling progressively more uneasy.  He was certain he was being watched.  He kept turning around, sure that someone would be there.  And then... someone was.  He turned around, and watched as a gray form materialized near the wall, floated across the room, and disappeared.  "The hair was standing up on the back of my neck," Tandy reported.  "I was terrified."

Some days later, he came to work during off hours because of one of his hobbies -- fencing.  He wanted to use some of the equipment to make some adjustments to a fencing foil.  He clamped the foil in a vise at his desk.

And that was when he noticed something weird -- the tip of the foil was vibrating.  When he touched the foil, he could feel the vibrations pulsing through the metal.  And he began to feel the sensation of chill, the feeling of being watched again.

But this time, he had a hypothesis.  He had heard that subsonic vibrations can induce hallucinations in people -- in one famous case, there was an office building with a "haunted photocopier room" in which many people had reported paranormal goings-on.  In that case, the culprit was vibrations from a furnace fan.  So Tandy began to look around, and found a large, newly installed exhaust fan that was running.  He switched the fan off.

Instantaneously, the foil stopped vibrating -- and the terrifying feelings vanished.

Why subsonic vibrations have the effects they do on the human brain is poorly understood, but it's been demonstrated over and over.  You can take the most rationalistic, skeptical individual in the world, and place him or her in a room with a standing subsonic wave, and (s)he will see ghosts.  Imagine the results if you did that to someone who already believed in ghosts!

So, before relocating the water slide, it might have benefited the owners of the theme park to hire someone who owned audio equipment capable of detecting subsonic frequencies.  I'd bet cold cash that one of the other carnival rides had a motor that was emitting high-amplitude subsonic sound waves.  Damp down those waves, and chances are, you could rename "The Monk's Walk" "Water Slide Way."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

She turned me into a newt (I got better)

The last time the Catholic church took on the witches, church leaders didn't mess around.  They just burned a bunch of them at the stake, and then looked around for more.  And I have to admit Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," is pretty unequivocal.

Since burning women is now generally frowned upon in polite society, the church has had to explore other avenues.  The latest was just released a couple of weeks ago by Catholic Truth Press, the Vatican's official publisher in the United Kingdom.  Entitled "Wicca and Witchcraft:  Understanding the Dangers," by Elizabeth Dodd, it uses gentle persuasion and "shared concerns about issues such as the environment" to try to convert Wiccans to Christianity.

Dodd, interviewed by the Daily Mail last week, was asked if she thought that Harry Potter had increased the appeal of Wicca.  She replied that any young person who dabbles in magic is risking long-term harm.

"The use of magic, the practice of witchcraft, offends God because it is rooted in our sinful and fallen nature," she stated. "It attempts to usurp God."

I checked to see how much Catholic Truth Press was charging for this updated version of the Malleus Maleficarum.  Turns out it's only $3.12...

... but it's sold out.

I'm not sure how to interpret this.  Did it sell out because people thought it was funny and wanted to have a copy to laugh at?  Was it because they seriously think witches are a threat to young people, and wanted to do their part to convert them to Catholicism?  Myself, if I had a choice of leaving my kids with a witch or with a Catholic priest, I'd choose the witch in about 0.0001 milliseconds.

Honestly, the Wiccans are an interesting bunch. You may not know that there is actually a Church and School of Wicca, which (in their own words) "...finds its roots in ancient ways. It has psychic connections and sympathy with those who were burnt in the medieval period, and indeed with all individuals who have been oppressed and killed in the name of religion."

Unfortunately, this isn't really all that accurate.  Wicca was cobbled together from hyper-romanticized 19th century mystery cults in about 1954 by a retired English civil servant named Gerald Gardner.  Gardner claimed that Wicca (which he sometimes referred to as "The Craft") represented a survival of the "knowledge of the Druids" that had been secretly remembered and practiced by initiates since before the time of the Romans, and based upon this Secret Knowledge he developed a whole body of beliefs and rituals for his followers to practice.

The problem is (well, one of many problems is) that next to nothing is known of what the Druids (i.e. the ancient Celtic priesthood) actually believed.  The Celts wrote down very little -- they had a lettering system (the Ogham runes) which are poorly understood, and of which very few examples have survived.  The Romans wrote down some observation of Celtic ritual, but to say that the Romans are a biased source is a colossal understatement.  They thought that the Celts were barbarians (some etymologies claim that the word "barbarian" itself comes from the fact that to cultured Roman and Greek ears, the language of the Celts sounded like "bar-bar-bar-bar-bar") and therefore paid little attention to them except as the Unfortunate Prior Inhabitants of Lands the Romans Want.  It probably didn't help matters that the Celts painted their bodies blue and went into battle stark naked.  That sort of thing often makes an impression, but it's seldom a favorable one.

And in all of the Celtic lands, thousands of years of oppression from an occupation government, and the anti-pagan efforts of the dominant religion, effectively erased all but bits and pieces of the original beliefs of the Celts.  Certain symbols have survived, (e.g. the Green Man and the Horned God), but other than a vague notion of what those represented, we really have nothing in the way of concrete knowledge of what the Celtic peoples believed prior to the Romans.

That said, I have to admit that the Wiccans are really pretty decent folks.  Their basic tenet, "The Wiccan Rede," is "An it harm none, do what ye will."  Other than the rather pretentious wording, it's a good basic rule for life.  Reverence for, and protection of, nature is also something that will get no argument from me.

But I can't help the feeling that the whole thing is, well, vaguely silly.  The bizarre, quasi-Middle-English verbiage doesn't help; why "The Wiccan Rede" isn't just "as long as you don't hurt anybody, do what you want," I couldn't say.  Maybe "an it harm none" sounds more like what a Druid would say, I don't know.  Actually, a good bit of their terminology falls into the unintentionally humorous department.  I particularly like "working skyclad" for "running around in the woods naked."  Now, I've got nothing whatsoever against running around in the woods naked, other than the problem of giving deerflies and mosquitoes unfettered access to your tender bits; but "skyclad" just sounds preposterous to me.  Weddings are called "handfasting."  Spells are "magick" (I know if you heard it pronounced, you could hear the "k" at the end and distinguish it from "magic," which is what David Copperfield does).

The costumes also don't help much, although (to be fair) they don't look all that much sillier than the vestments worn by Catholic priests.

Even with all this, Elizabeth Dodd and the other Catholic worrywarts are correct that Wicca is growing.  There are now splinter sects (you knew it had to happens sooner or later) -- including the "Reformed Druids of North America" (named presumably to distinguish them from any Unreformed Druids who are running around skyclad in your local woods).  A US government website estimates that in 2001, 134,000 individuals in in the US identified themselves as Wiccans, as compared with 8,000 in 1990.  That, my friends, is a lot of Wiccans.

There has been a lot of argument over whether Wicca is actually a religion (usually this argument has erupted in the context of the US government's tax-shelter policy toward religions, and in one well-publicized case, the use of Wiccan symbols on a gravestone in Arlington Cemetery).  To me, from the standpoint of having a lot of silly beliefs based upon no evidence whatsoever, and involving apparently enormous amounts of wishful thinking, Wicca is clearly a religion.

The amusing thing, to me, is that now you have people like Elizabeth Dodd claiming that the Wiccans need to become Catholics, because her set of unsupported, zero-evidence beliefs are better than their set of unsupported, zero-evidence beliefs.  I find the whole thing screamingly funny.  Hey, the more time they spend yelling at each other, the less time they'll have to send hate mail to me.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Die Gedanken sind frei

The news this week contains several reports of neo-fascists.  On Saturday, police in Luton, England had their hands full with a protest march by the English Defense League, who chanted anti-Muslim (and just general anti-non-British) slogans... but included shouts of "sieg heil!" and the infamous Nazi salute.

Another story comes in from Jamel, Germany, a little town in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, Sven Krueger, has taken up residence.  Krueger has brought in followers, and now Jamel has become a haven for members of the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party -- and people passing through the town have begun to see the German imperial flag flown (use of the swastika is illegal in Germany), and posters of a man smashing a Star of David with a sledgehammer.

Nearer to home, a dear friend of mine sent me a photograph she'd taken near her home, where someone had spray-painted the word "nigger" on a street sign.  She posted the photograph on Facebook, and wrote beneath it, "To all who believe in social justice, equity, and decency, this is your reminder not to become complacent.  Create spaces intolerant of intolerance."

It behooves government leaders to recognize, and address, the sources of xenophobia.  It comes in part from people's fear of losing their jobs, or the desperation of those who already have (it will come as no surprise that Luton is a working class town with high unemployment, and the entire province of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania has the highest unemployment rate in Germany).  It comes from the media exaggerating the risk of terror attacks (your actual risk of dying in a terror attack in the United States or Western Europe is about one in 9.3 million -- about the same as your risk of dying in an avalanche).  It comes from the legacy of war, slavery, and oppression.  It comes from a natural, if unfortunate, fear all humans have of the unfamiliar.

But it is not inevitable.  And even when it is the easiest to fall into xenophobia -- when governmental leaders capitalize on it, magnify it, make it seem like a virtue -- there are those who resist, who raise their voices against those who would have us believe that one country, one ideology, one race has a god-given deed to the moral high ground.

Sophie Scholl was a student at the University of Munich during the early part of World War II.  Like all children of her time and place, she was indoctrinated in Nazi ideology, and forced to join fascist youth organizations like the League of German Girls and the Hitler Youth.  But unlike many young women and men her age, she questioned the basis of the Nazi philosophy, and was one of the founding members of the White Rose, an anti-Nazi political resistance movement.

At great risk to themselves, the people in the White Rose published leaflets describing Nazi atrocities toward the Jews.  Her father, who worked in a metallurgical plant in Ulm, was imprisoned for criticizing Hitler to a coworker; Sophie Scholl went and stood below his cell window and played "Die Gedanken Sind Frei" ("My Thoughts Are Free") on her flute.  This beautiful little song, written in the seventeenth century, states, "no man can know my thoughts, no hunter can shoot them... if you would throw me into the darkest dungeon, it would all be futile, for my thoughts are still free" -- and its message so frightened the Nazis that merely whistling it was sufficient to get you shot on the spot.  Scholl and her comrades embodied the message of the song, and succeeded in distributing anti-Nazi literature to tens of thousands of people.

The Gestapo, of course, became desperate to find her and the other members of the White Rose.  Extreme political movements always rely on disinformation, and Scholl and her friends were bringing the horrible fact of what the German leadership was doing to the German people themselves.  One leaflet said:  "Since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way … The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals … Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!"

In the end, of course, it was almost inevitable that Scholl would be captured; she, and her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst, were arrested on February 18, 1943, put on trial for treason, and were all executed by guillotine a few days later.  Scholl's last words were, "How can we expect righteousness to prevail, when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?  Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"

Today, when many of our most prominent media spokespersons are encouraging us to believe in fear, to distrust what we don't understand, to rail against those who have different beliefs than we do, we should remember that those who speak the most shrilly are the ones who want to sway us by our emotions, not our rationality.  The purveyors of hate don't want you to think; they want you to believe.

Scholl and her friends, who died on a chilly February day 68 years ago, remind us that we don't need to listen.  We can speak with the voice of reason and compassion, even while some of our countrymen snarl hatred.  We can make the risky choice of speaking on the behalf of what is right.

Die Gedanken sind frei.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Missing the target

While reading my latest blog post, my wife suddenly burst out laughing.  Turns out, she wasn't laughing at my scintillating wittiness, however -- she was laughing at the ads clipped onto my post by AdSense.

AdSense, and other targeted-advertisement software, tries to pick up on keywords in websites, and using those cues, to choose advertisements that are appropriate for the audience.  The ads on my Facebook page, for example, often have to do with scuba diving, travel, and music, three things I have identified as hobbies in my profile.  This time, however, AdSense sort of backfired.

Yesterday's post, you may remember, was on how the pseudoscience of astrology is a fine example of something called dart-thrower's bias.  And the ads?  Yes, you've guessed it.  My blog yesterday was full of ads for horoscopes ("Find your destiny in the stars!") and for equipment for darts players.

That's the problem with targeted-ad software; it only picks up on keywords, but is unable to tell the context, and (more importantly) if those keywords are being cast in a positive or a negative light.  The first time I noticed this phenomenon was after I wrote a fairly virulently anti-religious post, and for the next few days was inundated with ads recommending I be born again in Christ ("visit this website to find out how!").  At first, I thought that AdSense had a pro-Christian bent and was monitoring my posts, and sending me evangelical advertisements when I went too far off the deep end.  But no, it's just a function of how the software works.

You never know what the software will notice.  I made a passing mention of Geordi LaForge in a recent post, and the next day, there were ads for Star Trek memorabilia.  I titled a post about optical illusions "Your Lying Eyes" and got ads for classic rock recordings, including, of course, The Eagles.  One of the funnier misses was years ago, when my blog was hosted on a different site, and I wrote about the USA's penchant for aggressive posturing on the stage of worldwide politics.  The title of the post was "Tomcat Diplomacy."

For weeks afterwards, there were ads for subscriptions to cat care magazines and websites with humorous cat photographs.

Some of the ads, however, are just plain weird.  I'm not quite sure how to take the one I saw a while back which said, "You're Not Ugly, You're Just Fat," and had a link to a diet site.  I think it should be evident from my profile photo that although I may have many physical flaws, obesity isn't one of them.  For a while I was getting periodic advertisements whose headline said it was "for the discerning gay gentleman."  I'm not sure about the "discerning" part; and although I'm definitely male, the "gentleman" part may also be up for debate.  However, I can say with some assurance that I'm not gay (though, to quote Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that!").  I haven't seen that one in a while, so whatever odd keyword the software picked up that led it to conclude that I am gay appears to be gone.

Being that this is a blog that is, at its heart, devoted to science (although I must admit that my attention wanders to other subjects rather frequently), I thought it might be interesting to use the scientific method and run an experiment to see if we can mess around with the targeted-ad software.  If it works, it'll be sort of like a computerized game of free-association.  I'll throw a few keywords at it, and see what ads it generates.  Here goes:  "wine, beer, scotch, bourbon, rum, tequila."  "Weasel, wombat, aardvark, lemur, lemming, wildebeest."  "Crystals, auras, energy fields, telepathy, clairvoyance, ESP."

That should do it.  I predict that I should start seeing advertisements for websites detailing how you use the psychic healing power of the mind to cure alcoholic wildlife.  I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stars, darts, and basketballs

For those of you who are still reeling from finding out that you are not the astrological sign you thought you were, take some comfort in a study by David McCandless.

McCandless, who evidently has the patience of a saint, analyzed 22,168 horoscopes.  His contention was that if there were anything to astrology, there should be a statistically significant difference between the content of horoscopes for the twelve (or thirteen, depending on who you believe) astrological signs.  Using computer software, he first filtered out common and relatively meaning-free words like "and" and "the," and then arranged the remaining words on a wheel-diagram.  The size of the word on the diagram represents its relative frequency.  Check it out here.

As you can see, there is no difference whatsoever between the different signs.  "Feel," "sure," "love," "keep," and "better," are the most common words on all of the signs.  In fact, McCandless has out-horoscoped the astrologers, and has come up with a generic, all-purpose horoscope that anyone, of any sign, could read every day, and accomplish much the same thing as the "real" ones:

"Whatever the situation or secret moment, enjoy everything a lot.  Feel able to absolutely care.  Expect nothing else.  Keep making love.  Family and friends matter.  The world is life, fun, and energy.  Maybe hard.  Or easy.  Taking exactly enough is best.  Help and talk to others.  Change your mind and a better mood comes along."

Wow... I feel so... enlightened.   This especially speaks to me, being that I was a Scorpio and now am a Virgo.

It puts me in mind of a now-famous demonstration James Randi did in a high school classroom.  (You can see a video of it here.)  He gave out horoscopes to the students, and told them that they were predictions based upon detailed information about the time and place of their birth.  Each student was given time to read the horoscopes, and then asked to grade them on a scale of one to five, the score being assigned based upon how accurate it was, how well it applied to each of them personally.

The results were amazing.  There was not a single student who gave their horoscope a grade of one or two; there was a single three; everyone else graded it at a four or five, with five being by far the most common score.  So on the face of it, it seems like astrology fared pretty well, in this experiment.

Until you find out that all of the horoscopes were identical.

Astrology relies on an observational phenomenon called dart-thrower's bias -- something to which we are all prone.  The name comes from a thought experiment; picture yourself in a pub, having a nice pint of Guinness with your friends, chatting about whatever.  In the corner is a dartboard, and several bar patrons, all strangers to you, are having a friendly game of darts.

The question is:  when do you notice the darts game?

The answer, of course, is:  when one of the players scores a bullseye.  Or, perhaps, misses the dartboard entirely and skewers the bartender in the forehead.  The point is, we have evolved to notice outliers -- data points that are extreme.  We tend to over count the hits (or wild misses), and simply ignore all of the average, background clutter.

This was brilliantly illustrated by an experiment performed some years ago, in which a large number of test subjects were asked to watch a video clip of a lone man shooting a basketball.  That was all it was; just a guy shooting baskets.  Sometimes he missed, sometimes he didn't.  The subjects didn't know what they'd be asked about afterwards -- they were just told to watch the clip carefully.

There was a single question after the video was shown:  what was the guy's hit rate?

The people who had made the clip had arranged it so that the guy had an exactly 50% hit rate -- not bad, for an amateur.  What blew away the researchers was that not a single person who watched the clip -- not one -- estimated his hit rate at under 50%.  Several went as high as 80%. 

The explanation is that we give more weight in our memory to the times that the ball went in than the times it missed.  The evolutionary reason for this is simple, and persuasive; if you are a proto-hominid on the African savanna, which is more dangerous -- to pay attention to a stimulus that may not be important (weighting the hits) or to ignore a stimulus that actually is important (weighting the misses)?  Clearly it's the latter, especially if the stimulus is the sound made by a hungry lion hiding in the grass.

We're programmed to notice the hits, even when they're not really very impressive.  Astrology, then, is one massive game of dart-thrower's bias.  But the fact that it has no basis whatsoever in science, or even logic, doesn't stop astrologers from fleecing the gullible public for millions of dollars annually.

Not that this will probably convince anyone, because belief in astrology also relies heavily on confirmation bias -- the acceptance of any evidence, however puny, in support of an idea you already believe to be true.  So I'm probably tilting at windmills, here.  So whatever it is that you end up believing about astrology, do take to heart David McCandless's advice:  Keep making love, and remember that family and friends matter.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Alien spotting

NASA's orbiting space telescope, Kepler, has just provided data that identified 54 planets in the "Goldilocks Zone" -- the distance from their parent sun that is "just right" for life, allowing for water to be in its liquid state.

This is certainly encouraging for exobiologists such as myself.  We've been waiting for years for this.  Up till now, exobiologists have been a little like the Camel Spotter in the Monty Python sketch, who's been watching for a year and has spotted "almost one" camel.  Now that we have conclusive evidence that small, rocky planets in stable orbits, a comfortable distance from their stars, are apparently rather common in the universe, it is only a matter of time before alien life is detected and we exobiologists can go off of our extended sabbaticals and actually have something to study.

That is, if alien life doesn't get here first.  *cue suspenseful music*

First, we have a report from Glasgow, Scotland on January 17, that an amateur astronomer named Paul Brown saw a UFO over the Parkhead Forge Shopping Center.

"It was heading east and at first I looked up and thought it was helicopter spotlight," he reported.  "It moved at similar speed as an emergency helicopter would if low in sky, but this was very high - as high as a jet.  I watched for the lights of plane or helicopter, but nothing. It continued to travel east, shimmering like a star in winter sky, a tangerine kind of glow, round-shaped."

Unfortunately, Mr. Brown had no camera handy, and is the only one who saw it, despite the fact that it was allegedly spotted at 8 PM over a shopping center in a large city.  So we apparently have to set that one aside on the basis of lack of evidence, and we hope that Mr. Brown won't take it amiss if we include a gentle suggestion that he lay off the single-malt whisky.

It's such a shame that 99% of UFO claims are made by lone individuals, and the evidence, if you can call it that, is usually no more than a single photograph or video clip of a bright light.  Wouldn't it be nice if just once, a UFO could be filmed from two different vantage points at once, which presumably would be much harder to hoax?

Funny you should ask.

Just last Saturday, a pulsating ball of light was filmed, from two different points in the city, hovering over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.  (See the clip here.)  From the audio, apparently the people who made the videos were even of different nationalities.

Unfortunately, there are some discrepancies with this video that make me a little doubtful.  The major one is that the light from the object, which is clearly very intense, seems not to reflect from anything in the city -- including the gold-plated roof of the Al Aqsa Mosque over which the thing was supposedly hovering.  Another analysis, by Benjamin Radford of Discovery News, finds that using careful measurements of the image on the clip, the object itself would have to be fairly small - "definitely no bigger than a limousine, and probably a lot smaller," Radford said.  Which would make for a rather uncomfortable trip from the depths of interstellar space, unless our aliens are, like the G'Gugvuntts and Vl'hurgs in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, of a size that could be accidentally swallowed by a small dog.

Other analysts have found an anomalous amount of shudder in the second video, which is indicative of someone digitally altering the clip.  Also, given that Jerusalem is a huge city, with thousands of tourists in addition to its regular residents, it's rather curious that no one reported the light over the Dome of the Rock except the people who made the video clips.

So, interesting as the Jerusalem video clip is, that one looks like it's probably a fake, too.  Too bad.  All of this waiting around for the actual scientists to discover life on other planets is such a drag -- it would be ever so much more convenient if the aliens would just save us the trouble and drop by for a visit.  The Scottish and Israeli stories, unfortunately, don't seem to be the real deal.

I guess we exobiologists can stand down red alert, and go back to our sabbaticals.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jesus wept

A small religious library in Reading, Ohio is reporting that their statue of the Virgin Mary is crying.

One visitor said, "I believe it's true. They were there. I saw them. It's true. I would imagine it's a miracle."

The library has been flooded with visitors, some of whom have been so moved by the phenomenon that they've cried, too.

Cameras are not allowed in the library, so there are no images of the statue.  And as you might expect, explanations of the phenomenon vary.  Of the ones who believe this to be a genuine miracle, most believe that the statue began to weep when a rosary that had belonged to Reverend James Willig, a Reading priest who died ten years ago, was put into her hands.  Most, however, don't seem to worry about what started it; one Reading resident who viewed the crying statue said, "You hear about it in other countries and then it's here in Reading of all places. It is a miracle."

Well, maybe.

Weeping statues, usually of Jesus or Mary, have been reported in hundreds of locations.  Sometimes these statues are weeping what appear to be tears; others weep scented oil, or (in a number of cases) blood.  When the church has allowed skeptics to investigate the phenomenon, all of them have turned out to be frauds.

One of the easiest ways to fake a crying statue was explained, and later demonstrated, by Italian skeptic Luigi Garlaschelli.  If the statue is glazed hollow ceramic or plaster (which many of them are), all you have to do is to fill the internal cavity of the statue with water or oil, usually through a small hole drilled through the back of the head.  Then, you take a sharp knife and you nick the glaze at the corner of each eye.  The porous ceramic or plaster will absorb the liquid, which will then leak out at the only point it can -- the unglazed bit near the eyes.  When Garlaschelli demonstrated this, it created absolutely convincing tears.

What about the blood?  Well, in the cases where the statues have wept blood, some of them have been kept from the prying eyes of skeptics, like our crying Madonna in Ohio.  The church, however, is becoming a little more careful, ever since the case in 2008 in which a statue of Mary in Italy seemed to weep blood, and a bit of the blood was taken and DNA tested, and was found to match the blood of the church's custodian.

Besides the likelihood of fakery, there remains the simple question of why a deity (or saint) who is presumably capable of doing anything (s)he wants to do, would choose this method to communicate with us.  It's the same objection I had to the people who claim that crop circles are Mother Earth attempting to talk to us; it's a mighty obscure message.  Even if you buy that it's a message from heaven, what does the message mean?  If a statue of Jesus cries, is he crying because we're sinful?  Because attendance at church is down?  Because we're destroying the environment?  Because the Saints didn't make it to the Superbowl this year?  Oh, for the days when god spoke to you, out loud, directly, and unequivocally, from a burning bush...

In any case, I'm skeptical, which I'm sure doesn't surprise anyone.  I suppose as religious experiences go, it's pretty harmless, and if it makes you happy to believe that Mary is crying tears of joy because she's got Father James' rosary, then that's okay with me.  If you go there, however, take a close look and see if there's a tiny hole drilled in the back of her head -- which still seems to me to be the likeliest explanation.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hogging the spotlight

So, today's the day that Americans prove once again that when given the choice between a scientific model, reached by the consensus of hundreds of climatologists and amply supported by evidence (e.g. climate change/global warming) and the prognostications of a rodent, they'll go with the rodent every time.

Today is Groundhog Day, which is the day that winter-weary northerners wait eagerly for Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog who lives in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to emerge from his burrow.  The idea is that if Phil sees his shadow, it scares him back into the burrow and we'll have six more weeks of winter.

Living in upstate New York, I've always found this grimly amusing, because up here, six more weeks of winter would be good news.  This would mean that spring would arrive in the third week of March, right around the equinox.  (Up here we don't call the equinox "the First Day of Spring" because all that does is call attention to how miserably cold it actually is.)  In upstate New York, we still have hard freezes at night at the end of April, and I remember twice having snow on Mother's Day.

In any case, let's assume that we give up on the "six more weeks of winter" thing, and just call it "sees the shadow, long winter; doesn't, short winter."  How well does it work?

Tim Roche, a meteorologist with Weather Underground, has analyzed the 99 years' worth of records of Phil's predictions, and compared them to the actual weather that occurred that year.  He found that when he predicted a short winter, he was right 47% of the time; when he predicted a long winter, he was right 36% of the time.

Me, I find this significant, especially in his predictions of a long winter.  Note that his predictions of a short winter are right around where you'd be if it were a completely random flip of the coin -- just what I'd expect.  (Yes, I know that "long winter" and "short winter" are relative terms, and there are "medium-length winters" and so on, but just play along, okay?)  But look at his predictions of long winters -- he does considerably worse than you'd do if you just flipped a coin.  I haven't done the statistical analysis, and honestly probably won't bother to, but I'm guessing that that deviation from a random 50/50 split is actually statistically significant.  Does it count as a paranormal phenomenon if a psychic predicts an outcome wrong far more often than you'd expect?

Be that as it may, the whole Phil phenomenon is fantastically popular, and in fact has spawned a number of spinoffs.  I know of two in my own home state of Louisiana.  There's Pierre C. Shadeaux of New Iberia, who is a nutria, not a groundhog (if you don't know what a nutria is, picture a huge brown rat with orange teeth, and you've got the idea; they're sort of like the Rodents of Unusual Size from The Princess Bride, only less cute).  Another nutria, T-Boy, is in the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, presumably in the "Dear God What The Hell Is That Thing?" exhibit, and he is also coaxed out of his home early on February 2 to see if he sees his enormous, hairy, fanged shadow, which in this case will give us six more weeks of nightmares.

Of course, I know the Phil foolishness is all in fun, and I'm perfectly willing to take it in that spirit.  And if you're curious, this year Phil came out in the middle of one of the worst storms to hit the East Coast in the last five years, and because of the cloud cover, he didn't see his shadow.  Thus we have the results:  Huge Snowstorm = Short Winter.

Makes perfect sense to me.