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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Meaning, nonsense, and the Voynich Manuscript

Walter Miller's post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz begins with the discovery by monks of a precious and holy relic; a piece of paper with a message from the Blessed St. Leibowitz.  The relic is brought back to the monastery, where it is ensconced in a reliquary and becomes the object of great devotion.  Furthermore, the writing on the paper is analyzed, discussed, and prayed over, because surely any message from the Blessed Saint must have some deep meaning.

The message, in its entirety, was:  "Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels -- bring home for Emma."

Humans have a tendency to confuse the words "mysterious" and "deep."  If we don't understand something, especially something to which we have attached an aura of religion, intrigue, or romance, we seem to conclude automatically that it has great significance.  While some texts that have yet to be deciphered are likely to contain interesting information, just by the law of averages we'd expect that some of them... don't.

My sense is that the Voynich Manuscript is one of the latter.  It is a bound volume, allegedly from the 15th century, with colored drawings of plants, astronomical objects, mythical animals, and a host of other fanciful items.  (You can see images of it, and read more about it, here.)  The writing is in a set of characters that has yet to be deciphered, and has been the source of much speculation, from the ridiculous (that it is an alchemical manual whose contents contain magical knowledge of such power that it had to be hidden) to the pragmatic (it's a hoax).

The manuscript itself was named for Wilfred Voynich, who owned it in the early 20th century.  After his widow's death in 1960, it was donated to Yale University, where it currently resides.

Recently, scientists were allowed to snip tiny pieces off of four different pages in the manuscript, and it was conclusively carbon-14 dated to between 1400 and 1438.  Note that this only tells us the age of the parchment, not the age of the writing.  The antiquity of the parchment has reawakened interest in the manuscript, both by legitimate scholars and by woo-woos who think that they'll be the one to translate it -- and acquire its secret knowledge.

Of the many hypotheses of its origins, the one that seems to be the likeliest is that it was produced by Edward Kelley.   Kelley was a self-styled alchemist during the reign of Elizabeth I, who became friends with the famous alchemist and mystic John Dee.  Dee was apparently duped by Kelley's fantastic claims, which included a purported ability to transmute copper into gold using a powder he'd obtained by grave-robbing a Welsh bishop's tomb.  Apparently finding this scientifically plausible, Dee invited Kelley to accompany him to Prague, and Kelley became Dee's "scryer" -- Kelley would stare into a "shewstone" (the Elizabethan ancestor of the crystal ball) and have conversations with angels.  The angels spoke a language that Kelley called "Enochian," but Kelley translated what they said, and Dee dutifully wrote it all down.  Many scholars suspect that Kelley, in order to make his story more convincing (and probably to make money by selling the manuscript), turned out the Voynich Manuscript in "Enochian" to make his story more plausible.

But how do we know it isn't a cipher, or an actual language?  There are a few features of the Voynich Manuscript that seem to indicate that it's nonsense.  The first is that the best cryptographers in the world have been unable to crack it, even using computer algorithms designed for the purpose.  Writing in ciphers was a common practice in medieval and Renaissance times, especially among the alchemists, and all of these passages have quickly fallen to cipher-breaking techniques.  Given the length of the Voynich Manuscript (240 pages), it's extremely unlikely that these techniques wouldn't have cracked the code -- if there was anything sensible there in the first place.

Second, there are some very "un-language-like" features of the text in the Voynich Manuscript.  There are a number of places where words are repeated two or even three times in a row -- something that is not at all common in written language.  The distribution of word lengths is also suspect -- most of the words are between five and eight characters long, and there are very few extremely short words.  This, again, is unlike virtually every written language currently in existence.  Given the success of linguists in decoding written languages for which they had no spoken referent (e.g. Linear B in Crete), I'd say they're pretty good at recognizing what a real language looks like -- and, by extension, what a non-language would look like.

Most damning is a statistical study done in 2003 by Gordon Rugg, followed up by a 2007 study by Andreas Schinner, which showed that the frequency and patterns of syllables in the Voynich Manuscript was consistent with gibberish -- i.e., they were random.  Schinner used a computerized analysis of the text from the Voynich Manuscript and showed that it could have been produced by a completely stochastic method -- one in which syllables were chosen in a non-meaningful manner, to give the appearance of language. 

Of course, none of this will stop the woo-woos from claiming that the Voynich Manuscript contains the Secrets of the Ancients.  As Casaubon found out in Umberto Eco's amazing novel Foucault's Pendulum, the more you deny that there is any meaning in something, the more the true believers become convinced that there must be -- otherwise, why would you be so desperate to deny it?  It's hard for us to accept the possibility that there is no meaning in something as fanciful, and stirring to the imagination, as the Voynich Manuscript.  Given that Miller's monks tried to find meaning in "Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels -- bring home to Emma," we shouldn't be surprised if the controversy over the Voynich Manuscript is not over any time soon.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Remembrance of music past

I just got back home last night from Folk College, a yearly get-together of music and mayhem in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.  It's such a treat to get together with like-minded folks, who don't think less of me for playing the bagpipes and liking music in demented time signatures like 25/16.

I was fortunate enough to have company on the four-hour drive there and back, with my friends Kathy and Deb who also taught classes at Folk College this year.  (In fact, Deb and I co-taught a class in Eastern European Music, which was a blast - she contributed the Klezmer tunes, and I contributed the Balkan ones.)  Kathy is a Cornell physics professor, and teaches (amongst other things) a class called The Physics of Musical Sound.  Deb teaches music theory and sight singing at Ithaca College.

As you might expect, the conversations in the car were fairly interesting.

It was on the way back that the discussion turned to muscle memory, a subject near and dear to the heart of any instrumentalist.  I was commenting that there are a couple of tunes, most notably the English dance tune "Knole Park," that contain passages for which I rely almost entirely on muscle memory -- the progression is so unexpected or counterintuitive that if my fingers don't keep ahead of my brain, I screw up.

"I felt that way about the passage in 'Knole Park' until I realized that it was just a series of descending sixths," Kathy said.

"How on earth does that help?" I asked.

A lively discussion ensued regarding how we store and access musical memory, and resulted in the intriguing discovery that the three of us all seem to approach it differently -- despite the fact that we all have fairly similar backgrounds musically (classically trained, moved on to folk music later in life).

I will try to describe what each of the three of us said -- if either Kathy or Deb reads this, and I've misrepresented your views, please accept my sincere apologies, and chalk it up to the fact that while I was participating in this conversation I was suffering from music-induced cumulative sleep deprivation.

Kathy seems to recall music visually.  Given a tune she knows, she can recall what the notes on the page look like; and even when she doesn't picture the written notation, she pictures tunes as having spatial contours (she visualizes the descending sixths figure in "Knole Park" as looking like a zigzag).  In tunes with repeated phrases, she sees the phrases as blocks -- she even described teaching, in her Easy Scottish Tunes class, a particular tune as having a phrase ("let's call it the red block") followed by a new phrase ("the green block"), and then the red block again, and then an end phrase ("the blue block").

Of the three of us, Deb seems to have the most highly cognitive approach to music.  Being an expert in music theory, she groks the whole structure -- and has the vocabulary to put labels on it, giving her a mental hook to hang the music on.  ("This tune is in D mixolydian mode."  "The B part begins with an ascending third.")  Now, she's not hung up on exactly what you call it; it's the concept that counts, because the concept is what allows her mind to see what the music is doing.  A deep understanding of the structure creates space for the music to be understood, recalled, and played.  If you have a grasp of what a tune's structure is, the rest becomes a matter of creating sounds that fit that structure.

If Deb was the most cognitive of the three of us, I'm definitely the least.  For me, music recall (and playing) is almost entirely auditory and intuitive in nature.  I hear music in my head, and neither picture it as a sonic space nor do I usually have any particular sense of what the music is doing structurally.  I understand a little music theory -- enough to where if I sat down and thought about it, I could figure out that the interval between the second and third notes of "Kopanica" is an augmented second.  But I don't ever in performance think about that, and even if I did, it wouldn't help me -- if I thought, while playing "Knole Park," "Okay, remember that the next part is a figure of descending sixths," it would make me no more or less likely to flub it.  Music is stored in a completely different part of my brain, I think, than any kind of verbal or spatial memory -- which is probably why I find it so difficult to remember the names of tunes, even ones I can play fluidly.

I commented that I would be really interested to see what a fMRI of our heads while we're learning a tune, thinking about a tune, or playing a tune.  I'd bet that you'd see some significant differences between the three of us -- despite the fact that we're all folk musicians, with relatively similar backgrounds, playing in similar traditions.  All of which makes me want to spend more time playing, thinking about, and discussing music -- especially with two such fascinating, talented, and deep-thinking people.

Friday, May 27, 2011

People are strange

Belief in an afterlife is an almost universal part of religion, be it the heaven-and-hell scenario of traditional Christianity, the idea of reincarnation from Buddhism and Hinduism, or the "energy merging with the cosmos" thing you hear so often from New Age types.  A lot of atheists simply disbelieve in any sort of afterlife.  Myself, I don't bother speculating.  First, we have no hard evidence of any kind, which I think you'd probably expect if there was an afterlife, and you'd certainly expect if there wasn't.  Second, I figure I'll find out for sure sooner or later in any case.

Of course, there are the anecdotal reports of ghosts to account for.  I tend to discount most of them, largely based on the fact that the human perceptual apparatus is so easy to fool.  Plus, a lot of people gain notoriety (and money) from claiming that there are cases of spirit survival -- witness the popularity (and therefore the lucrativeness for sponsors) of shows like Ghost Hunters.  If you add in the money that is made by so-called mediums such as Sylvia Browne and James van Praagh, you can see that the afterlife is big business.

Still, you have to wonder why some people make weird claims when they seemingly have nothing to gain from it.  As an example, a woman named Rhonda Baron, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, just made the news yesterday by claiming that the ghost of Jim Morrison keeps getting in bed with her.

Baron lives in a house on 28th Street in which Morrison had lived as a child.  She had only lived there for a few months, she says, when Morrison's spirit began to visit her at night.  "I was lying in bed," she said, in a television news interview.  "The spirit lay down on the bed beside me on his back, and turned and looked at me.  It was like a haze, you could look through it."  She claims that Morrison's ghost has returned there because he led an unhappy life, and his childhood home is one place that had happy memories for him.

Which would indicate that apparently, Morrison never did break on through to the other side.

So here we have a person who apparently has little to gain from telling this story but her five minutes of fame on public television, and could lose a great deal if her friends and neighbors decide she's a raving wingnut.  From her interview, she doesn't have the air of someone who is lying, or deluded; she seems to  believe vehemently that what she is saying is the truth.

Now, please understand that I'm not implying that I'm in doubt myself; I have no reason to think that Baron is really being visited by Jim Morrison.  I am more curious as to why an apparently rational person would make such an outlandish claim unless she really had experienced something out of the ordinary.  I suppose one could make a case that she's doing it for the attention, but it does seem like a pretty peculiar way to get attention.

Morrison, of course, is not the only famous person whom people have claimed to see in spirit form; some of the more frequent ones are Harry Houdini, Elvis Presley, Anne Boleyn (often wi' her head tucked underneath 'er arm), Marilyn Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln.  In one of the most famous anecdotes of a ghost sighting, Winston Churchill was on a state visit and staying in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, and allegedly saw Lincoln climbing out of the bathtub, stark naked, with a cigar in his mouth.

"Mr. President, you have me at a disadvantage," Churchill said, at which point the ghost smiled at him and vanished.  Churchill, so the story goes, refused to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom after that.

I wouldn't have, either. 

Be that as it may, I'm still skeptical about the whole thing.  I still think that experiences such as Churchill's, and Baron's, are too easily explained as vivid dreams in light sleep (so-called "hypnogogic experiences"), a hallucinatory state that is not uncommon and apparently frighteningly realistic.  It just seems a much easier explanation -- dare I mention Ockham's Razor again, without being thought predictable? -- than claiming that Abraham Lincoln saw fit to visit Winston Churchill in the all-together, and that Jim Morrison regularly visits Rhonda Baron in bed, perhaps in an attempt to light her fire.  I can't decisively rule out the possibility of an afterlife, but I think that from the data we have, other explanations are clearly adequate.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Area 51, mutant teenagers, and flying bunnies

As a general bit of advice to woo-woos and conspiracy theorists out there; if people think that a particular explanation for a mysterious event is ridiculous, contrived nonsense, the appropriate response is not to come up with one that is even worse.

For example, suppose a clump of animal hair is found snagged on a bush in a forest in the Cascades.  Someone says, "Wow!  Sasquatch hair!"  If you then snort derisively, and say, "Sasquatch hair?  Are you kidding me?  This is clearly hair from the Giant Carnivorous Flying Bunny of the Pacific Northwest," people will think you've lost your mind.

Apparently no one ever gave advice of this sort to Annie Jacobsen, to judge by her recent book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base.  Jacobsen, an investigative reporter, used "74 sources, 32 of whom lived and worked at Area 51 for extended periods of time."  In the course of her research, she took advantage of the recent declassification of formerly top-secret government documents to study US covert activities in the 1940s and 1950s.  "In many previously classified documents relating to activities at the base, the words 'Area 51' are conveniently blacked out," Jacobsen said.   "There's always a euphemism for it -- like 'the test facility' or 'the base' -- but never Area 51."

So basically, she has two sources: government documents with all of the important stuff covered up, and anecdotal reports from people of uncertain veracity.  And from this, she cooks up quite a story.

You know how the Roswell Incident, which happened in the summer of 1947, allegedly involved the crash of an alien spacecraft near Roswell, New Mexico?  And that alien corpses were dissected in top-secret US military installations in Area 51 in Nevada?  And the spacecraft remnants were analyzed and formed the basis of US radar-evading aircraft technology, such as the Stealth bomber?

Bah, Jacobsen says.  Don't be a gullible ninny.  None of that is true.

What really happened is that after World War II, Josef Stalin and Dr. Joseph Mengele (the Nazi "Angel of Death") got together and used experimental genetic techniques to create mutant hairless human children with gigantic heads and tiny bodies, and put them aboard a flying saucer that was powered remotely from Moscow, so that they could fly it and land it in the United States to create another War of the Worlds-style panic over an alien invasion.  What Stalin and Mengele would do then, how they planned on capitalizing on the ensuing chaos, she never says.  Maybe she thinks that given their status as two of the world's most evil human beings, it would have been sufficient for Stalin and Mengele to watch the whole thing from their Top Secret Command Center and cackle maniacally, and the US would be so demoralized that we would capitulate immediately.

Or maybe she thinks that being divebombed by a flying saucer with huge-headed hairless teenagers would have softened our defenses, and opened the way for attack by the Giant Carnivorous Flying Bunnies.  I dunno.

I think what amazes me is that the media are taking what she has to say seriously.  Take a look at an interview she got on MSNBC.  The interviewer, first of all, clearly believes all of the alien nonsense, and seems completely bowled over by her chance to talk about it on public television.  So, you're immediately set up to think that there are going to be some mind-blowing revelations.  Listening to Jacobsen, however, I was immediately struck by how completely unremarkable her information was.  The US was working on radar-evasion technology back during the Eisenhower administration!  If you can imagine!  And I outright guffawed at the part about Area 51 being connected by underground tunnels to other military bases.  Does she have any idea how impossible this is?  Let's say that somehow, there is a tunnel connecting Area 51 to say, Hill Air Force Base, right next door in Utah.  This is a distance of about four hundred miles.  So, we're to believe that without anyone knowing, the US government built four hundred miles of tunnels through solid rock, just so they could avoid having to get on the Interstate?

Oh, but she has proof!  She says that she knows of a military base where the work stations are underground and they are connected by "a tunnel that is above ground."  Myself, I thought that the concept of "tunnel" implied "underground," and therefore that an "above-ground tunnel" would basically be a "hallway."  But what do I know?  Those US Government Guys are pretty damn tricky.

Anyhow, here's another book for your collection.  You can put it on your bookshelf right next to Nick Redfern's The Real Men in Black.  It does, however, make me think that I've missed my calling.  If Annie Jacobsen can become rich and famous, and get interviews on MSNBC, for writing this kind of tripe, then maybe there's more money to be made from that sort of thing than there is from writing about skepticism and critical thinking.  So, look for my new bestseller, Hare-mogeddon: The Upcoming Flying Bunny Invasion, and What You Can Do To Avoid Being Eaten.  Soon in bookstores everywhere.  I'll be waiting for MSNBC to contact me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

For sale: one skull. Slightly used.

New from the No Way Am I Creative Enough To Make This Story Up Department: the severed head of the patron saint of genital diseases is for sale in Ireland.

St. Vitalis of Assisi was a monk and hermit who died in 1370.  During his early years he was known for being a ladies' man, but realizing the error of his ways, he went on a pilgrimage.  When he returned to his native Italy, he became a hermit at St. Maria di Viole, near Assisi, and lived in complete poverty.  Perhaps because of his overuse of those organs when he was a young man, he became the patron saint of genitals.

All of which makes me wonder: how do you get appointed patron saint of anything?  I know there are plenty of patron saints of things other than bodily organs.  My grandmother used to pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, which always struck me as being a little on the pointless side; why would you expect a lot of help from a guy whose philosophy seems to be "it's hopeless?"  St. Catherine of Alexandria is the patron saint of knife sharpeners.  St. Julian the Hospitaller is the patron saint of clowns.  St. Matthew is the patron saint of accountants.  St. Florian is the patron saint of soap boilers.  St. Frank the Flatulent is the patron saint of Taco Bell.

Okay, I made the last one up.  But according to the official Catholic Patron Saints List, there are some that are even weirder.  There is a patron saint of button makers, pigs, football, earaches, urologists, reformed prostitutes, and hemorrhoids.  And I don't think they're joking, either.  The Catholic powers-that-be take their saints pretty seriously, even if it leaves the rest of us trying not to laugh.

But I digress.

You might wonder how the head of the patron saint of naughty bits, who was Italian, ended up in Ireland.  When a family representative was asked how they acquired the skull, they basically shrugged and said, "We're not sure."  Apparently the story is that when a member of this family went on a tour of Europe in the 19th century, he came back with the skull.  Instead of asking questions, the family had a wooden case built for it, and displayed it in the main hall.

Me, I think this is a pretty peculiar reaction.  I'm trying to picture what my reaction would be if one of my kids returned from a trip to Europe with a human body part.  I'm thinking that, "Cool!  Let's build a shrine for it and put it up on the mantelpiece in the living room!" would not be the first thing that would occur to me.

Anyway, should you yourself not be subject to such scruples, the head of St. Vitalis of Assisi is being auctioned by the County Louth family that owns it.  It is given a recommended price of between $1,100 and $1,700, and comes with its own really nice Queen Anne case.  The day of the auction is May 29, so you still have time to go there if the idea appeals to you.

I think I'm gonna pass.  For one thing, I doubt Carol would be all that happy about my blowing over a thousand bucks on a used skull.  For another, I think I'm going to wait until the skull of Saint Sebaldus goes on sale.  He's the patron saint of protection against cold weather.  Now there is a guy whose help I could use.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

We'll discuss this at the meeting

Dave Barry once said, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings'."

To which I say:  amen.  I loathe meetings almost as much as I loathe grocery shopping.  Note that I am not talking about quick, to-the-point meetings, where vital information is conveyed in an efficient fashion.  I wouldn't classify those as "fun," but I recognize that they're important.  No, I'm referring to meetings such as "educational training seminars," often run by professional seminar-runners (they probably have a fancier sounding job title, but don't deserve it).  Words cannot describe how much I detest these things.  I hate having my time wasted, I hate being expected to pretend I'm vitally interested in something that is pointless, and I hate being spoken to in a patronizing fashion.  And training seminars usually combine all three.

I thought that this type of meeting was unique to the world of education, but I found out I was wrong.  I was discussing this with Carol over dinner last night, and it seems that nursing training seminars are run pretty much the same way as educational ones are.  Here's the way a typical training seminar runs.  If you've never attended something like this, and you think I'm exaggerating, ask a teacher or nurse and they'll happily corroborate what I'm saying.

"Hi!  I'm Penelope Farklewhite-Smythe, and today's program is called 'Making Schools Better.'  We'll be brainstorming some ideas in just a minute, but first, we'll do an icebreaker activity.  On your table are some stickers with blue, red, green, or gold stars.  Pick up a sticker, and stick it to your forehead.  And then find three people with different color stars than you have, and tell them what you ate for breakfast today!"

*five minute pause to mill around discussing eggs, bacon, and breakfast cereal*

"There, wasn't that fun?  I'm glad no one asked me what I had for breakfast,  because I was so excited to come to today's training seminar, I couldn't eat breakfast!"  

*brief pause to wait for laughter, which doesn't come, except for the one person in the front of the room who feels sorry for the presenter and feels like she needs the support*  

"Today we'll start by brainstorming some ideas.  I've assigned five people to each table.  Each of you has a job.  One of you will be the Scribe.  Once we've brainstormed some ideas for 'Making Schools Better' the scribe will write down each table's ideas on a piece of butcher paper.  Write in red for ideas that Help Students Succeed, green for ideas that Make Teachers Happy, and blue for ideas that Keep Parents From Voting Down The Budget.  Two of you are the Evaluators.  The Evaluators will critique the ideas.  They will rate each idea with five stars for the Most Important down to one star for the Least Important.  The last two people will be the Presenters, and will present the ideas to the rest of the faculty.  But to make it fun, you'll present each idea using only interpretive dance, and we'll all try to guess what the idea is."

You'd think that at this point, there would be guffaws of laughter, followed by the entire faculty (except the supportive person in the front of the room) standing up and leaving.  Astonishingly, this never happens.  Being obedient little sheep, we all follow right along, bleating softly, writing on the butcher paper and giving ideas four stars and doing the interpretive dances.  Never once have I seen anyone stand up and say, "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard, and I refuse to participate."

Which brings us to Skeptophilia's Two Questions of the Day:

1)  Does anyone actually enjoy these sorts of meetings?
2)  Do the seminar-runners actually think that this is the best way to train professionals?  Or are they really sadists who enjoy annoying the absolute shit out of everyone?

No one I have ever talked to thinks these meetings are interesting, or enjoyable, or productive.  I, and most of my colleagues, leave such training seminars so pissed off that we spend the rest of the day looking for a small furry woodland animal to kick.  I also happen to know that the training seminars our school district has participated in have cost significant amounts of money -- some of these professional seminar-runners make upwards of a thousand dollars for a full day's presentation.  Which, incidentally, answers question #2 -- I doubt they really care if it's the best way to train professionals.  I might not care, either, if I could make a thousand bucks by ordering a bunch of presumably intelligent adults to wander around in a room with stickers on their foreheads talking about breakfast.

I find it frankly baffling, however, that the professional seminar-runners remain in business, given that the general consensus is that these seminars accomplish nothing and are therefore a gigantic waste of money and time.  So someone, somewhere, thinks that these things are productive.  Maybe it's the same people who came up with the idea of "paperwork" as being the best and most efficient way of keeping track of information.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Morgellons syndrome and certainty in medical science

What should a doctor do when a patient insists (s)he has a disease, and there is no objective evidence of it?

There are a number of diseases which, especially in their early stages, are hard to diagnose except by the symptoms the patient reports.  Many autoimmune diseases fall into this category, as does fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.  (In fact, there are still doctors who think the last two don't exist, but are simply hypochondria.  The numbers of doubters are decreasing, however, especially with fibromyalgia, for which better tests are now available.)

I had my own run-in with a doctor over this very issue, as I seem to be in the first stages of rheumatoid arthritis.  My mother had it, a great aunt had it, and I know what it looks like; and I show the same symptoms my mom did when she first began to suffer from the disease (and am the same age as she was).  Nevertheless, when an antibody test turned up negative, the doctor was dismissive of my symptoms, and would not refer me to a rheumatologist -- despite the fact that 25% of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers test negative for the antibody within the first five years.  The last time I went in for a checkup, she asked me how my joints were, and I said, "intermittently pretty painful" -- and she said, in a patronizing voice, "Yeah, getting older is tough, isn't it?"

I'm considering finding a new doctor.

No disease, however, has proven more difficult to establish than Morgellons syndrome.  In this bizarre condition, patients report that they feel like their skin is infested with parasites.  They have chronic itching and dermatitis, coupled with ulceration of the skin.  Most oddly, they frequently report finding foreign material embedded in their skin -- usually fibers, often brightly colored, which on analysis have proven difficult to identify.

There is a Morgellons Research Foundation, dedicated to study of the disorder, and their take is clearly that it is an actual disease with actual physical manifestations (i.e. not psychosomatic).  The Mayo Clinic has a webpage called "Managing Morgellons," although they hedge a little by saying that it "isn't widely recognized as a medical diagnosis."

And now, a study at the Mayo Clinic has resulted in a finding that may result in their strengthening their caveat -- or maybe revising the webpage totally.  An intensive study of biopsy results from 108 patients who showed the symptoms of Morgellons syndrome over the past ten years has resulted in... nothing.  Dr. Sara Hylwa and her team did a retrospective study of Morgellons claims, and her conclusion, published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was that there was no evidence of parasite infestation.  Fibers and other materials provided by patients were "of synthetic origin" -- i.e. clothing or carpet fibers.  Hylwa refers to the disorder not by its more common name of Morgellons, but as "delusional parasitosis" -- making her stance on the whole thing abundantly clear.  "The majority of skin biopsy results did show dermatitis," Hylwa states, "raising the possibility that skin inflammation and its attendant tactile discomfort might be the trigger provoking delusional symptoms in susceptible individuals."

It is certain that the mind can affect the state of a person's health, sometimes in complex and bizarre ways.  That said, there are many illnesses that were once said to be "all in the patient's head" that now are considered valid diagnoses, with a known etiology.  Couple this with the fact that doctors are paid to be certain -- no one is satisfied with a medical professional whose diagnosis is "beats the hell outta me."  The result is that medicine is not quite the hard science that medical researchers claim it is.

As a scientist myself, far be it from me to cast doubt on Hylwa's study, which sounds as if it was thorough and painstaking.  There's still a niggling doubt in the back of my mind, however -- that simple delusion is not sufficient to explain all of the claims of Morgellons patients.  How, for example, does this account for the other, less talked-about symptoms of Morgellons -- joint pain, short-term memory loss, and severe fatigue?  How does it account for the fact that the majority of cases in the United States have come from clusters in the states of California, Texas, and Florida?  To me, there is still too much unexplained about this peculiar disease to write it off as a psychosomatic illness.

The fact is, there are still diseases out there whose status remains uncertain.  This may be an uncomfortable position for doctors and medical researchers, but in science, you can't be afraid of the fact that you don't know everything.  It is certain that there are diseases that are truly psychological, and not physical in origin; others thought to be psychosomatic have later turned out to have a clear biological basis.  Coupling the certainty of Morgellons sufferers with the negative findings of Hylwa's study leaves one wondering in which category Morgellons should be placed.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

MIBs, Mothman, and short guys with bowl haircuts

Well, given that it's May 22 and we're all still here, it's time to turn to more important topics, namely:  the terror campaign being waged by the Men in Black.

I bring this up because of the recent publication of a book by Nick Redfern called The Real Men in Black: Evidence, Famous Cases and True Stories of These Mysterious Men and Their Connection to the UFO Phenomena.  Which, if nothing else, is remarkable for being the longest book title I've ever seen.  As for the contents of the book itself, it describes the effort by the aforementioned Bad Dudes to spread confusion, disinformation, and threats to blind ordinary folk to... well, to something, presumably.  Redfern himself seems unclear on what they're actually trying to do.  Here's a quote from the description of the book, on Redfern's site, UFOMystic:
For decades – or perhaps even for centuries, some firmly believe – the infamous Men in Black have been elusive, predatory, fear-inducing figures that have hovered with disturbing regularity upon the enigmatic fringes of the subject of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), coldly nurturing, and carefully weaving, their very own unique brand of horror and intimidation of a definitively other-world variety.

He then goes on to describe how witnesses to UFO sightings have been intimidated by "painfully-thin, white-faced and sunken-cheeked" men who have scared the witnesses to the point that they have "firmly distanced themselves from the UFO controversy, vowing never, ever to return to the fold."  The logic, presumably, is that receiving a visit from a scary alien guy would make you less likely to tell anyone about seeing an alien spacecraft.

He then drifts onto the whole Mothman thing, as if John Keel's rambling, incoherent, and generally dreadful book The Mothman Prophecies hadn't already beaten this incident unto death.  Redfern describes an encounter between Men in Black and Mary Hyre, the Point Pleasant (West Virginia) journalist who is largely responsible for the Mothman nonsense in the first place:
In early January 1967, for example, Hyre – who, at the time, was working as the Point Pleasant correspondent for the Athens, West Virginia-based Messenger newspaper – received her very own, and typically absurd and unsettling, visit from a Man in Black. The new stranger in town wore his black hair in a bowl-style, was less than five-feet in height, possessed a pair of weirdly hypnotic eyes, and had curiously thick soles on his shoes. Notably, the late Jim Keith, who wrote his very own book on the Men in Black, pointed out that: “Thick shoe souls [sic] are a recurring detail in many MIB encounters.”

Crazier still: the odd, little man seemed strangely entranced by Hyre’s ballpoint-pen. When Hyre told him he was welcome to keep it, his only response was a bone-chilling, cackle-like laugh, and he charged out of the door at high speed, duly vanishing into the cold, dark night as mysteriously as he had first arrived.

 The take home message:  The short guys with Beatles haircuts are out there.  And they want your ball-point pens.

Me, I'm unimpressed.   It's interesting that Hyre was the only person to see the pen-obsessed alien; given the fact that her credibility is already nil from her Mothman claims, I'm not going to treat any of her other paranormal stories particularly seriously.  Redfern, of course, is willing to turn logic on its head, and seems to think that because no one else saw it, it therefore must be true.  He tells of a further encounter between Hyre and a pair of Men in Black that looked like identical twins:
One of the Men in Black noted, blankly, that there had recently been a lot of UFO activity in the area; a statement with which Hyre concurred. Then a barrage of questions began: had anyone asked Hyre not to publish the details of such activity?

Hyre assured the pair that, no, there had been no hush-up attempts by anyone. And, the MIB wanted to know, what would Hyre’s response be if someone did warn her not to print such tales?

Her forthright reply was concise and clear: “I’d tell them to go to Hell.” Perhaps this dark duo interpreted Hyre’s words quite literally. After glancing back at the mounting workload on her desk for a moment, Hyre looked up again and both MIB were utterly gone.

Redfern, unsurprisingly, seems to swallow the story whole, once again highlighting the vast gulf between my definition of the word "evidence" and that of the conspiracy theorists.

The Real Men in Black is available from Amazon, if against better judgment and general common sense you'd like to buy it.  But as one author to another, I thought I'd at least do him the courtesy of mentioning the fact.

In any case, I'd like to end by saying that if there are any Men in Black out there, I'd love to meet them.  I haven't seen any UFOs, or Mothmen, or much of anything else worth talking about, so I guess they wouldn't have much of an incentive for showing up on my doorstep and threatening me.  ("Don't mention to anyone what you've seen, or else."  "Actually, I haven't seen anything."  "Um... good, then.  Right.  Well... just remember.  See that you don't.  Or else.  We're not joking.")  But even so, I'm issuing a general invitation for any MIBs out there to pay me a visit.  Especially any who are wearing "thick shoe souls."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Today's Rapture called because of rain

When I was in college, I knew a guy named Mike who claimed to be a solipsist.  Holders of this rather peculiar philosophy believe that they are the only thing that exists in the universe, and that the entire cosmos is a figment of their imagination.  Therefore, large swaths of the universe vanish when they are not observing them (or thinking about them, which in their minds amounts to the same thing).

You can imagine how well this went down with Mike's classmates.  We used to sneak up right behind him and say, "We're still heeeere!"  And then duck, because he'd whirl around and try to whap us with the huge briefcase he always carried around.  You have to wonder why, if he was manufacturing the world with his magnificent brain, he didn't people it with folks who were less determined to annoy the hell out of him.

All of this comes up, of course, because the Rapture is happening today, and in fact supposedly has already started.  Harold Camping et al. used bible passages, dates of a number of historical events, and some fairly abstruse math to calculate the day on which the Righteous will be swept bodily into heaven, leaving behind the rest of us slobs to fall prey to beasts, fire, earthquakes, storms, and various other special offers from the God of Mercy, before Satan comes down on October 21 and turns the Earth into a giant charcoal briquet.

Well, of course, this has resulted in 99% of humanity pretty much reacting like my college buds and I did to Mike's pronouncements.  Facebook now has events like "Post-Rapture Looting," which will take place Everywhere on May 22.  The Twitterverse has been buzzing with humorous commentary on the situation.  At least one person I know is planning on going to the Salvation Army today and buying armloads of old clothes, and draping them on park benches.

None of this has made the slightest difference to Camping and his followers.  A news story today describes how some of the true believers are planning on tearful farewell lunches with their families, walks in favorite spots in the woods, and so on.  Some have already arranged homes for their pets.  A few have blown every cent they owned publicizing the Rapture -- according to a news story I read, one man spent his entire life savings of $140,000 buying billboard space, advertisements on the sides of buses, and so on, with the message, "Repent Now!  The Lord is Coming on May 21!"

This kind of thing stirs the compassionate side of my personality.  You have to wonder how these people are going to feel tomorrow morning.  There are already plans by some churches to offer counseling to Camping's followers when the Rapture doesn't occur.  On the one hand, I feel like anyone gullible enough to believe such a ridiculous prediction deserves everything (s)he gets, but then I put myself in the shoes of the believers.  What if, for some reason, I did become convinced of some Great Big Cosmic Secret, and put everything I had into it, and then it turned out to be false?

And, of course, that's exactly what a lot of Christians think is going to happen to me when I die.  The irony of this isn't lost on me.  Not, mind you, that I'm planning to convert.  But the point is, I guess we all have our convictions.

The difference, I think, is where they come from.  I was asked by a student just a couple of days ago what it would take for me to believe in god.  My answer was "hard evidence."  Presented with evidence, I would change my beliefs -- but at that point, it wouldn't be belief any more, would it?  It would be knowledge.

And that's what I find so baffling about people like Mike, and Harold Camping and his followers.  For them, belief is enough.  No evidence is needed.  Camping says, "Such-and-so is true," and his followers just bleat and accept it all.  Of course, they don't see it that way; they call it "faith."  I've never quite understood the concept of faith, which is stressed so hard in the bible -- it's always seemed to me like, "Believe despite what you see, despite what you know, despite everything."  I once asked a Christian to define the words "faith" and "delusion" in such a way that a non-believer would understand the difference.  He just got pissed off and refused to answer (at least he didn't try to hit me with a briefcase).

Anyway, I think the great likelihood is that tomorrow morning we'll be able to sneak up behind Camping and say, "You're still heeeeere!"  You have to wonder how he'll explain it all.  Were his calculations off?  Was the Earth issued a reprieve?  Did god tell him that the Rapture had been called because of rain?  Or were he and his followers just deluded wingnuts for believing the whole story in the first place?

I'm thinking that somehow, the last is the one he's least likely to say.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Synthetic languages, dolphins, robots, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

I have three students this year who are doing an Independent Study course in linguistics with me.  We have spent the year taking apart languages, and looking at the phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax, studying how languages have evolved over time, and seeing how children acquire language.

Their final project is to create a synthetic language.

It has to have, like all languages, consistent, rule-based sound and grammar structure (with some exceptions to the rules, because all languages have 'em).  They decided, rather early on, to design an agglutinative language -- one in which new words are built by gluing together old ones, rather as German does.  Thus, their word for "biology (class)" is "züpobyshada," made up of morphemes (units of meaning) for "life," "study," and "students."

They're finding out how difficult this process is.  True synthetic languages, like Klingon and Tolkien's Elvish, are a real challenge to design, because to make them consistent, you have to think through things that most of us take completely for granted.  For example, have you ever thought about the rule in English that you can't have an "ng" sound at the beginning of a word?  You might be thinking, "Well, of course not.  That would be weird."  But that's just because English doesn't do that -- not because it's somehow impossible.  Plenty of languages do.  Consider, for example, the Masai name "Ngorongoro" for the famous crater in Tanzania, and the fact that one of the most common Vietnamese surnames is Nguyen.

So, to design a language, you have to start from the ground up, deciding what the sound inventory of the language is, how those sounds can combine, where in words they can (and can't) occur, and how words and ideas fit together to form sentences -- and realize that the patterns in English aren't sacred, but represent only one of a myriad of possibilities.

Given that this is so complex, it's a wonder we can speak at all, really.  And more of a wonder is the fact that if children of normal intelligence are allowed to be together, but are not taught a language, they will just... invent one.

Grace and Virginia Kelly were twins whose parents were told at birth their daughters might be mentally retarded because of problems at birth.  The girls were, in fact, mentally normal, but the parents upon finding out the possibility decided that they were retarded and completely neglected them.  The girls periodically heard English and German from the parents, and heard Romanian from a nurse who cared for them; and some of the morphemes in their language come from those three sources.  Some of them are, however, idiosyncratic and unique to their language.  They even made up names for themselves (Poto and Cabengo).  (If you're curious, when Child Protection Services found out about them, they were put into a foster home, allowed to attend school, and quickly learned to speak English.)

And now, scientists have taken the first steps to emulating what these children did, and what my students are doing, in robots.

Ruth Schultz and her colleagues at the University of Queensland (Australia) have created what they call "Lingodroids."  These robots are equipped with mobile cameras, sonar range finding sensors, and wheels.  And -- most importantly -- microphones and speakers, so they can talk to one another.

These robots are capable of doing a simplified version what Poto and Cabengo did -- they have a set of parent syllables and syllable-joining rules, and when they "see" an unfamiliar object, they name it and point it out.  If one robot sees a block for the first time, it might say "liko."  The other robots, hearing it, will rush up, trying to see if they can figure out what "liko" is, pointing things out and saying the word.  If they agree, the connection between the word and the object is reinforced.  They then say more words, not for objects, but to describe where they came from and how they got there -- giving them words that map out the space they live in, and words for distances.  (For example, after a few interactions, the robots "decided" that "ropi hiza" meant "a short distance to the east.")

What I find fascinating about all of this is how natural the development of language is.  Given only a few ground rules, these robots are basically creating a language from the ground up, and thereby providing linguists (and roboticists) with valuable information about how language structure works.

It does make me wonder, however, why humans are the only animals with true language.  Language is defined as "symbolic communication using arbitrary sounds or written characters;" as such, a dog barking or a bird singing isn't language (because a bark or a twitter doesn't carry an arbitrarily linked meaning, in the way that the sounds of the word "dog" do).  It's possible, of course, that dolphin and whale vocalizations might be language -- we simply don't know.  It's hard enough to decode language when we are already certain that it is language (if you have any doubts about this, read the fascinating little book The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick, which describes how linguists figured out how to read a written language for which we had no information about the letter-to-sound correspondence).  To figure out if dolphins' clicks, pops, and whistles carry meaning, when we don't even know if it is language to begin with, is an enormously difficult question.

All of which brings up the question of whether we'll be able to understand communications from other planets, should those ever be detected.  SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a project of long standing, recently defunded by the government, which uses radio telescopes to search for intelligible signals from space.  The task, although breathtaking in its goal, is in practice phenomenally difficult.  For it to succeed, a single information-carrying signal would have to be detected from amongst the background clutter of naturally-produced radio noise -- and after that, decoded somehow.  Still, it's sad that they've fallen on hard times.  But amateurs have risen to the occasion, with SETI@home, which will allow volunteers to analyze the radio signal data on their home computers.

So, that's today's ramble, from synthetic languages to Poto and Cabengo to linguistic robots to dolphins to outer space.  Think about all of this when you get to work today, and a friend says, "Hi, how are you doing?" and you answer, "Just fine, and you?", and consider how complicated what you just said actually was.

Try not to let it get you tongue-tied, okay?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

SmartPhone apps for the woo-woos

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the woo-woos went high tech.

Still, I have to admit that I was surprised, which is probably just a reflection of my own biases.  I'd always thought that the woo-woo state of mind came with quasi-medieval accoutrements -- things like crystal balls, dowsing rods, decks of Tarot cards, and so on.

So I was fairly stunned to find that the Android/SmartPhone platform has a bunch of apps for conducting paranormal "research."  Here are a few of the apps you can purchase, if you want to go on your own ghost hunt:

The Ghost EVP Analyzer.  EVP stands for "Electronic Voice Phenomena" and refers to the common practice by devotees of haunted houses, of leaving a tape recorder running in an empty house, and analyzing the tape for voices.  Now, you can use the app to analyze your digital recordings, and hear what the dead have to say.  You can save files, in case the dead say something memorable; play the recordings half speed, in case the dead have been drinking too much coffee; and play them backwards, in case the dead are listening to songs by Styx.

Then, there's the Entity Sensor Pro-EMF Detector.  The description for this one says that "this works just like special purpose EMF Detectors that cost up to several hundred dollars, and are used on the paranormal TV shows to find ghosts."  EMF, by the way, stands for "electromagnetic field" -- a perfectly measurable phenomenon, well known to scientists and anyone who has ever used a compass.  Ghosts supposedly "disturb the electromagnetic field" in some unexplained way, so this app allegedly allows you to detect these disturbances.  It's uncertain why an old-fashioned compass wouldn't work just as well, but I guess I'm to be expected to say that, given that I'm a bit of a Luddite.  It's also a little perplexing why, if ghosts disturb the electromagnetic field, no controlled experiment has ever detected one, because EMF detectors have been around for a long time, and are standard equipment in many scientific research facilities.

How about Ghost Radar?  The tagline for this one says, "Ghost Radar® analyzes nearby energies. This application does NOT detect EMF nor gravity. Interpretations of the sensor readings are displayed using numeric, textual, and graphical readouts."  My question, predictably, is "energies?"  What kind of "energies?"  This hearkens back to the tired old "psychic energy fields" so often bandied about by people who claim to be telepathic or clairvoyant.  At least the makers of this app follow it up by saying "results may vary."  I'll just bet they may.

Then, we have the DarkHaunts Haunted Site Locator, which will tell you the nearest "true haunted sites" to your location.  It then gives you the latitude and longitude of the site, and "what to look for."  I can only imagine this app as a sort of high-tech scavenger hunt for woo-woos.  "4.2 miles NE of your present location you will find the ghost of an OLD LADY WEARING BUNNY SLIPPERS.  Once you have collected the OLD LADY WEARING BUNNY SLIPPERS proceed 2.8 miles west to the HEADLESS MAN CHOPPING FIREWOOD."

Last, we have Paranormal Apptivity, which gives overviews of some famous hauntings, including the Enfield poltergeist, the Hampton Crown Court skeleton, and hundreds of others.  If I actually understood technology well enough to merit owning a SmartPhone, which I don't, I might actually purchase this app.  It sounds like it could provide some excellent material for future blog posts.

I know that by describing all of these apps, I'm giving publicity to the woo-woos (and the software developers who are trying to take advantage of them to turn a profit).  I guess that's the risk you take by calling attention to purveyors of the paranormal.  And I have to admit that the attitude that goofy ideas should simply be ignored into oblivion has its merits.  The flip side, however, is that many of these ideas are reluctant to go into oblivion -- they just seem to keep on coming.  On the one hand, it's kind of sad that we still have such a long way to go in terms of the public's general understanding of logic and the scientific method.

On the other hand, it's what keeps Skeptophilia in business.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

... and in today's World News...

It's been a busy morning, here at Skeptophilia.

First, we have a report of a giant hole in the ground in Bernards, New Jersey.  (See a photograph here.)  The crater, reported from an unidentified resident's front yard on May 6, sprayed debris over a hundred-foot radius.  My first hypothesis, which I probably thought of from 24 years of working with teenage boys, was that some kid got a hold of a stick of dynamite.  Teenage boys love to blow things up.  Many grown men, present company included, still do.  But I had to rule out this explanation when I found out that no one in the neighborhood heard a thing -- and an explosive device capable of creating a crater that size would have rattled a few windows.

So scientists from the Raritan Valley Community College Planetarium came out and surveyed the area, thinking it could be a meteorite, and found no trace of one.  Exit theory number two.

Then, I thought about the creepy vanishing meteorite in H. P. Lovecraft's story The Colour Out of Space.  But there was no report of local residents and their pets turning gray and having important body parts fall off, so out the window that idea went.

So, reluctantly, I turned to the prosaic idea of ice buildup falling from an airplane.  This periodically happens -- usually because of leaks in the waste tanks from the airplane's lavatories.  There have been 27 documented incidents of this rather disgusting form of hail falling from a plane, including one in 2007 in Leicester, England in which a huge chunk of ice took out a large section of a building's roof.  Since the ice would melt shortly after impact, it could well leave little trace afterwards.  So that one, it seems, has a possible explanation other than the Enormous Man-Eating Mole hypothesis, which is where I was going next.

Then, from Australia, we have a report of a couple who claim to be Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  Alan John Miller and Mary Suzanne Luck, of Wilkesdale, in Queensland, have drawn in about forty devotees after publicly stating that they are deities.  "Just a little over 2000 years ago, we arrived on the Earth for the first time," Miller says on his website.  "Because of my personal desire and passion for God, as I grew, I recognized not only that I was the Messiah that was foretold by ancient prophets, but also that I was in a process designed by God that all humans could follow, if they so desired."

The Anglican and Catholic churches of Wilkesdale are understandably perturbed, rather in the fashion of Mafia bosses when a rival crime family intrudes into their territory.  With no apparent trace of irony, their official statement on the matter expressed concern that Miller and Luck were being given support financially by the naive, gullible, and emotionally needy.

Miller himself seems regretful about the stir he's creating.  "I don't want to be Jesus," he told reporters.  "Who wants to be Jesus?  But I love divine truth."

Authorities are said to be "keeping an eye" on the couple, which seems justifiable.  I know I'd want to watch them from a safe distance.

Then, we have a report of exploding watermelons in Jiangsu Province, China. It is unclear how violent these explosions are, but I have to admit that I rather like the mental image of farmers and other local residents running for cover as tasty pieces of pink shrapnel fly through the air.  But for this one, I didn't even have the chance to run through some hypotheses (teenage Chinese boys with dynamite?) because Chinese scientists have already stated that the phenomenon was the result of a combination of a chemical fruit growth stimulator and a period of very rainy weather.  Which is a satisfying, if boring, explanation.

But then I read that the farmers are taking the ruined fruit, which is obviously unfit for human consumption, and feeding it to pigs.   Is it just me, or does this seem like a really bad idea?  The last thing these people need is a bunch of pigs running around, squealing madly, and finally exploding, showering the area with pork chops.  So far, there's no sign of the pigs blowing up, which is a good thing, because I suspect it'd be a good bit messier than a bunch of bursting watermelons.

The next story comes from the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in New York State.  A resident, Adrian McDonald, reported to police that his car had been damaged, and in fact the entire side panel above the passenger side front wheel had been shredded.  There was blood on the jagged edges of the panel, which of course opened up the possibility of DNA testing.  The testing was done, and the blood turned out to be from...

... a rabbit.  I am not making this up.  So what we apparently have here is the Bunny from Hell eating people's cars.  Get out the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!

Police, sadly, have come up with an alternate, and not nearly so fun, explanation -- that a rabbit was being chased by a large dog, and took shelter in the wheel well of McDonald's car.  The dog then basically destroyed the side of the car trying to get at the rabbit.  This may seem as far-fetched as the Killer Rabbit of Caer Bannog theory, but I have a dog named Grendel whose jaws seem to be made of spring-loaded titanium, and who given sufficient motivation could destroy a Sherman tank, all the while wagging happily.  So I suspect that the police are right, and like the exploding watermelons, this one has a perfectly ordinary explanation.

And of course, no wrap-up of world news would be complete without a Bigfoot sighting.  On May 14, near O'Brien, Oregon, a hiker saw a seven-foot white Sasquatch.  The "white" part surprised me some, because almost all reports of the hairy hominid describe him as brownish in color, and if it had been closer to the Christmas season I would have wondered if the eyewitness had been watching Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer while swigging tequila straight from the bottle.  But apparently, there are periodic reports of what are presumably albino Sasquatches, and a few that are piebald like a Jersey cow.

Then I noticed that the eyewitness was Thomas Graham, of the State of Jefferson Sasquatch Research Organization (see their Facebook page here).  So the story doesn't carry the same kind of weight as it would if, say, Michael Shermer or Richard Dawkins were to see a seven-foot-tall white Bigfoot.  Graham is not what you might call an unbiased observer.  With nothing but his account to go by, we'll have to file this story in the "Don't Think So" drawer.

So we seem to be striking out this week, in the paranormal explanation department.  Dreadfully disappointing, I know.  But of course, we have the Rapture to look forward to this weekend, so all is not lost.  I'm hoping to get in some serious pillage and looting on the 22nd -- won't you join me?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Come as you were

Last weekend was the Reincarnation Conference in New York City, and I missed it.

Of course, tickets were $139 a pop, and I suspect Carol would have had words with me if I'd blown that kind of money on such a thing.  But still.  It featured talks, workshops, and opportunities for hypnosis sessions in which you were guided through "Past Life Regression."  One woman found out she drowned in the sinking of the Titanic.  Another remembered a life in which she saw Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount.  I'd bet we also had some Babylonian princesses in there.  There always seem to be Babylonian princesses.

A recent poll indicated that one in five Americans believes in reincarnation.  One in ten claims actually to recall a past life.  This is grist to the mill of Dr. Brian Weiss, organizer of the conference.  "I define [reincarnation] as when we die physically, a part of us goes on," he said, "and that we have lessons to learn here. And that if you haven't learned all of these lessons, then that soul, that consciousness, that spirit comes back into a baby's body."

Well, that all sounds just nifty.  But the difficulty, of course, is the usual one; there's no evidence whatsoever that this actually happens.  The human mind, as I've mentioned before, is a remarkably plastic, and scarily unreliable, processing device.  Experiments have conclusively shown that given enough emotional charge, an imagined scene can actually become a memory, and thereafter be "remembered" as if it had actually happened.  In a context where a subject was being hypnotized by a professional-looking individual with "Dr." in front of his/her name, and perhaps was even being given subtle suggestions of what to "recall," that impression, and its retention as a memory afterwards, would become even more powerful.

And then, there's just the statistical argument, that because there are more people alive today than at any time in the past, not all of us can be reincarnated.  Some believers solve this problem by allowing reincarnation from "lower animals."  In that case, it's funny how no one seems to remember being, say, a bug.  "Boy, life sure was boring, as a bug," is something I'd bet you rarely hear anyone say in a Past-Life Regression.

Not only does no one remember being a bug, few of them, it seems, were even just ordinary humans.  "The skeptical part of me about the past life thing is that, just statistically, the odds are that in my past life, I was a Chinese peasant, right?" says Dr. Stephen Prothero, a professor of theology at Boston University.   "But hardly anybody ever is a Chinese peasant.  Everybody is Cleopatra or Mark Antony or Jesus, you know?"

Dr. Weiss, however, continues to believe, probably largely because at $139 a ticket, he's making a lot of money by believing.  "We're not going to be able to extract a blood sample and get DNA and say, 'Oh, I see you were alive in the 11th century,' no," he stated.  "It's people remembering it, so it's clinical proof."

So, once again, we have someone whose definition of "proof" differs considerably from mine.  And I'd be willing to say, "Well, what harm if these people believe that they were once Eleanor of Aquitaine?" except that people like Weiss are bilking the gullible out of large quantities of money.  On one level, perhaps people who are that credulous deserve bilking, but the compassionate side of my personality feels like it's just wrong to take advantage.

In any case, I rather regret missing last weekend's "Come As You Were" party.  It could have been fun.  I would have loved to see what they'd have made out of trying to do a Past-Life Regression with me.  I think I'd have said... "I'm... I'm flying through the air.  Free.  Wild.  I'm... crap, I just got splatted on a windshield."

So it's kind of a pity I didn't get to go.  Oh, well, as the reincarnated are wont to say, I suppose there's always next time.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The hundred-year flood

Are there some places in the world that people just shouldn't live?

I am watching with some horror as the floodwaters of the Mississippi River continue their slow progression down into my home state of Louisiana.  The opening of the Morganza Spillway, done ostensibly to protect the much larger population of New Orleans, will release those floodwaters into the Atchafalaya Basin, home of thousands of people in little towns like Morgan City, Henderson, and Butte Larose.

All of this, of course, demands a question that few of us are willing to ask.  Should people be living in these areas in the first place?  New Orleans included?

The levy and spillway system, designed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 20th century, was intended to keep the Mississippi River in its course.  The Mississippi has been "trying" to change course for hundreds of years -- this is a completely natural process, in which progressive silting and extension of the delta effectively raise the mouth of the river, slow down water flow, and gravity impels the river to find a shorter course.  That shorter course is through the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp and out into the Gulf of Mexico through Atchafalaya Bay.

Of course, such a switch would leave New Orleans high and (relatively) dry, commercially irrelevant as a seaport.  Politicians and business leaders declared that there was no way could that be allowed to occur.  So levies were built to hold the river to its present path, with spillways to accommodate periodic flooding.

This created more problems than it solved.  The levies didn't stop the silting; in fact, it made it worse, because silt that would have been deposited on the lands surrounding the river during floods was now deposited on the river bottom and delta, further raising the bottom of the river (and thus its water level).  So the levies had to be raised to match.  Simultaneously, the installation of huge pumping systems to deal with the saturated soil in New Orleans caused the entire city to subside, just as a sponge shrinks when it dries out.

The city is sinking; the river is rising.  The response?  Raise the levies again.  When you're done, raise them some more.  There are parts of New Orleans that are now over ten feet below the level of the river.

And then Katrina came along, and showed that the people who had said fifty years ago that this was a bad idea were actually right.

But this hasn't stopped the building and reinforcement of levies; it hasn't stopped politicians in Louisiana from pretending that this is a problem that is fixable.  What no one wants to say is that maybe it's time to make the politically inexpedient call that there are places in this world where people just shouldn't live.  The canyon walls of California, the sides of volcanoes in Indonesia, the barrier islands of the Carolinas -- all are places where the risks are known, and excessive, and yet we still live there, crossing our fingers and hoping that nothing bad will happen.

Don't get me wrong; I am far from immune to the emotional side of the tragedy that is unfolding in Louisiana.  I haven't lived there for thirty years, but I remain a Louisianian to the core still.  The idea of abandoning places where my ancestors have lived for two hundred years is a devastating idea.  But shouldn't knowledge sometimes trump sentiment?  There is no way to fix this problem; that is certain.  Also certain is the fact that what we are currently doing is progressively making the problem worse.  A "hundred-year flood," like the one currently occurring, or (worse) another major hurricane, could exact a human toll that is unacceptable given our prior knowledge of the risks. 

We have a poor track record for listening to the people who know the most about the problems we face.  Scientists who warn of inconvenient and expensive potential disasters on the local, national, or global scale become Cassandras, warning of dangers and going unheard.  Perhaps in this case, it's time to listen.  The politicians may be cheered for saying "New Orleans will rise again" -- but unfortunately, the reality is that it is sinking.  Are we prepared to see "hundred-year floods" become a yearly event?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Comprehensive Field Guide to Aliens

That people believe all sorts of weird things without any hard evidence is so obvious as to barely merit saying.  What never fails to astound me, however, is how complex some of these beliefs are.

Witness the website that a student of mine was kind enough to send me, which gives information about all of the different alien races that are currently visiting Earth.  Me, I thought there were only a couple -- the bug-eyed gray guys featured on various historical documentaries (for example, The X Files and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and the shapeshifting reptilian dudes called the Annunaki that are the favorites of conspiracy theorists.  These last have supposedly infiltrated world governments, and many prominent human leaders have been replaced by heartless, cold-blooded scaly extraterrestrials, bent on world domination.  Apparently the trained eye can still recognize which are the real humans, and which are the Annunaki replacements.  Personally, I'm suspicious about Dick Cheney.  Doesn't he look a little like someone who has only recently learned the rule, "when you smile, raise your lips and expose your teeth," and still can't quite manage to make it look authentic?

In any case, imagine my surprise when I learned that the bug-eyed gray aliens and the Annunaki are only two of a whole petting zoo's worth of different alien species.  And I'm not talking about your typical Star Trek type alien, who looks like a guy speaking in a fake Russian accent while wearing a rubber alien nose.  I'm talking some serious non-humans here.

For example, consider the Arcturians.  These guys are only three feet tall, but are super-powerful, telekinetic aliens with turquoise skin, enormous almond-shaped eyes that are entirely glossy black, and only three fingers per hand.  Visiting Earth is rough for the Arcturians because "Earth's vibrational energy is harmful to their fifth-dimensional frequency."  Whatever that means.  But that's apparently why you see so few of them around.

Then, there are the Dracos, who hail from, amazingly enough, the constellation Draco.  Even more coincidentally, they look kind of like dragons.  While I was reading this, I started talking to my computer.  "You... you can't be... from a CONSTELLATION!" I yelled, alarming my neurotic border collie, Doolin, who began to pace around and look for something to feel guilty about.  "A constellation is a random assemblage of stars!  And Draco only looks vaguely like a dragon if you see it from this vantage point!  From somewhere else in space, it would look ENTIRELY DIFFERENT!"  Then I had to go get a cup of coffee and calm down for a while.  So perhaps we should just move on.

Then there are the Els, or Anakim, which is a race of giant red-haired humanoids, who "ran the Garden of Eden" and built the pyramids.  And when I say "giant," I do mean seriously height-enhanced.  Some of them, this website claims, were 250 feet tall.  The description of the history of the Els on this website runs to several pages, and I won't even attempt to summarize it, except to mention that it involves Scotland, the Jews, the Templars, the Merovingians, L. Ron Hubbard, the Masons, J. R. R. Tolkien, the Three Wise Men, and clams.  It's worth reading.  I recommend doing it while drinking single-malt scotch.

Then we have the Ikels, which are like little hairy humans with cloven feet.  The Ciakars, or Mothmen, one of whom was featured in the historical documentary Godzilla vs. Mothra.  The Pleaidians.  The Hyadeans.  The Cetians.  The Orions.  The Lyrans.  The Weasel-People of Wahoonie-3.

Okay, I made the last one up.  But really... it's no weirder than their actual claims.  The people who wrote this website obviously believe it all; it has none of the hallmarks of a spoof.  It's full of links to pages describing how various malevolent aliens are plotting to take over Earth, with intricate details of which alien races are in league with which, who might tentatively be on our side, which ones have already established bases on Earth, and so on.  You  have to wonder if the people responsible for this are simply paranoid and delusional -- which, as a mental illness, I can have some sympathy for -- or if they are making the whole thing up to see how many people they can bamboozle.  (Speaking of L. Ron Hubbard...)

Sad to say, I've known people who actually believed in alien conspiracies, so the idea of someone falling for this nonsense is not as outlandish as it may seem.  And as I've commented before, once you've accepted that there's a Big Scary Evil Conspiracy, everything afterwards is seen through that lens.  My attempts to convince the alien believers that what they were claiming was complete horse waste were met with very little success.  In fact, afterwards, I sort of sensed that they acted a little suspicious of me -- as if my arguing with them just proved that I was in alliance with the aliens.

Or maybe... that I AM an alien!!!

I wonder which kind I am?  I don't want to be a little turquoise guy, and the reptilians are becoming a little passé, frankly.  Maybe I could be a Horlock, which are sort of like the Men in Black.  I look good in black.  Besides, they can disappear at will, and alter people's memories, which seem like pretty damn cool superpowers to have.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Warning: zombie apocalypse ahead

I'd like to wish you all a happy Zombie Awareness Month.  Yes, I know its already the 14th, and therefore it's already almost half over, but my rather pathetic excuse is that I was myself unaware until yesterday.

Zombie Awareness Month is the brainchild of Matt Mogk, who founded the Zombie Research Society in 2007.  (See his website, if you're curious or especially if you think I'm making any of this up, here.)  Their motto is "What You Don't Know Can Eat You."  At first, I thought that the Zombie Research Society and the rest of it was a spoof site, but I have this grim suspicion that Mogk is serious.  Even his photograph on the website seems to say, "I am one serious badass, and if you even try to insinuate that zombies aren't real, I might just get my undead minions to eat your brains."

Actually, Mogk claims that zombies don't eat brains, that that was an invention of Hollywood.  I'm a little disappointed about this, because one of my favorite songs is Jonathan Coulton's "Your Brains."  If you've never heard this song, you absolutely must watch this link, but I would advise not trying to drink anything while listening, because you are likely to laugh so hard you'll choke and could end up being really dead instead of undead.

Even though Mogk doesn't think zombies eat brains, as is commonly claimed, he does believe that there will be a zombie pandemic, and looks upon Zombie Awareness Month as a way to spread information about how to avoid being zombified yourself.  Zombie outbreaks have happened before, Mogk claims; and as evidence he has on his site a world map labeled with numbers to indicate historical zombie outbreaks.  Curious, I took a close look at the map, and it turns out that his historical zombie outbreaks refer to events like the Mary Celeste incident, the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization, and an outbreak in the Amazon lowlands of Ecuador "of unknown date" which explains why there are tribes there that practice headhunting.  (As everyone knows,  you can kill a zombie by decapitation.  The fact that you can kill a regular human that way, too, apparently never occurs to Mogk; and he's evidently also never heard of the concept of a "hunting trophy.")

Mogk, for his part, claims he's really trying to help people.  He's particularly concerned about places like New Jersey, which in a zombie apocalypse would face traffic jams even worse than usual, and this would result in a lot of people being caught while trapped in their cars.  He recommends that if you're trying to avoid getting zombified, you should move to a place with low population density, like Wyoming.  In order to spread the word at all levels, Mogk has also written a children's book, called That's Not Your Mommy Any More, which features verses like:
When she's clawing at the kitchen door,
That's not your mommy any more.
When her face looks like an apple core,
That's not your mommy any more.
So, as you can see, he's quite serious about the whole thing, as, he states, we should be.  Mogk claims to have spent time training with the French Foreign Legion, so that explains his focus on survival, as well as possibly suggesting that he spent way too much time cooking his own brains in the desert sun.  But far be it from me to advise a lack of caution, a breezy insouciance, a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna-ish outlook.  Remember, in the movies it's always the people who have those kind of attitudes who are the first to get eaten.  So wear your twist of gray ribbon on your lapel for the rest of May, and spread the word.  The brains you save may be your own.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Church of St. Vladimir of Nizhny Novgorod

New from the Some Guys Have All The Luck Department: there is an all-female sect in Russia that worships Vladimir Putin as a saint.

A woman who goes by the name Mother Fotina (apparently her real name is Svetlana Frolova) has founded a religion in the town of Nizhny Novgorod that claims that Putin is a reincarnation of the Apostle Paul.  What you would expect to happen -- that the people of Nizhny Novgorod would say to her, "Svetlana, you seriously need to lay off the vodka" -- apparently didn't occur.  Instead, she found herself surrounded by eager female devotees, who were ready to go live in a communal house with her as leader, pray to the blessed St. Vladimir, and worship his image daily.  They are also willing to subsist on a diet of turnips, carrots, peas, and buckwheat, which by itself calls into question their general mental health.

"In his days in the KGB, Putin also did some rather unrighteous things," Mother Fotina said, as reported in the London Telegraph (you can read the whole story, and verify that I am not making this up, here).   "But once he became president, he was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and just like the apostle, he started wisely leading his flock. It is hard for him now but he is fulfilling his heroic deed as an apostle."

Reporters spoke with Father Alexei, who is the Russian Orthodox priest for Nizhny Novgorod.  "Her so-called teachings are a nonsensical mixture of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, the occult, Buddhism and political information," he said.  "But Fotina does not come across as a mad person."

No, of course not!  Worshiping Vladimir Putin as a reincarnated saint is perfectly normal!  In fact, maybe there are other reincarnated bible figures out there!  Maybe Barack Obama is John the Baptist!  That would cast Ann Coulter in the role of Salome, wouldn't it?  By that line of thought, it seems likely that Osama bin Laden was a reincarnation of Judas.  In one life, the guy hangs himself and his "bowels burst asunder," and then in the next he gets mowed down by some Navy SEALs.  You'd think he'd eventually learn to play nice, wouldn't you?

Oh, and what about Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chief political rival?  You have to wonder how the sect handles this guy.  Is he some sort of AntiPutin, or something?  I wouldn't be surprised, given the status they've accorded Putin, if they spend at least a little time during their worship services ill-wishing Medvedev.

As for Putin himself, his reaction to finding out about his status as saint was said to be "bemused."  "This is the first I've heard of such a religious group," said Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman.  "It is impressive that they think so highly of the prime minister's work but I would like to recall another of the main commandments: thou shalt not worship false idols."

Yeah, I guess that one covers it, given that there's no commandment that says, "thou shalt not espouse views that make thee appear to be a raving wingnut."  I'm frankly rather impressed that Putin hasn't made, um, "political capital" out of the whole thing, given that he's said to be something of a ladies' man, and is frequently seen running about shirtless and flaunting what are said to be fairly impressive biceps and pecs.  But thus far, he's behaving himself, as are Mother Fotina and her acolytes.

So, for the time being, all's quiet out in Nizhny Novgorod.  I suppose this is a good thing.  Given all the trouble the Russians have had lately with UFO sightings and chicken carcasses dressed up to look like alien corpses, it's probably best that they don't have nubile young religious wackos tackling their prominent political figures. 

Of course, it's this sort of thing that keeps Skeptophilia in business, so I do have to confess to some measure of ambivalence.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A question about intercessory prayer

There are many things I don't get about religion, but one of the ones I understand the least is the idea of intercessory prayer.

The bible is full of examples of intercessory prayer, of god's wrath being turned away by a devout word in the divine ear.  In the episode of the Golden Calf (Exodus chapter 32), god apparently intended to destroy the Israelites for idolatry, but his judgment was altered by Moses' plea.  Even Sodom and Gomorrah, those pinnacles of depravity from the book of Genesis, would have been saved had Abraham found ten or more "righteous men" there.

All of this, to my admittedly unqualified ear, sounds as if god could change his mind.  The problem, so far as I can frame it, is this; in the typical Christian model of how things work, god is changeless, eternal, all-good, and all-knowing.  As such, the whole idea of a person's prayer altering the course of what god wants is a little silly.  God presumably already knows not only what is the best outcome, but knows what will happen; why on earth would the prayers of one person, or even of everyone on earth simultaneously, change that?

So, in my effort to understand this idea, I turned to C. S. Lewis.  Even if I often disagree with Lewis' conclusions, I find him to be generally rational, and certainly a clear, sober-minded writer on the subject.  Here's what I found:
Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers, or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of His will...

I have seen it suggested that a team of people—the more the better—should agree to pray as hard as they knew how, over a period of six weeks, for all the patients in Hospital A and none of those in Hospital B. Then you would tot up the results and see if A had more cures and fewer deaths. And I suppose you would repeat the experiment at various times and places so as to eliminate the influence of irrelevant factors.

The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” says the King in Hamlet. Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment. You cannot pray for the recovery of the sick unless the end you have in view is their recovery. But you can have no motive for desiring the recovery of all the patients in one hospital and none of those in another. You are not doing it in order that suffering should be relieved; you are doing it to find out what happens. The real purpose and the nominal purpose of your prayers are at variance. In other words, whatever your tongue and teeth and knees may do, you are not praying. The experiment demands an impossibility. (from an essay called "Does Prayer Work?")

Interestingly enough, such an experiment has been done, and not with "poorly trained parrots" but with entire church congregations who were honestly desirous of a positive result, despite Lewis' objections (and despite verses such as Deuteronomy 6:16, "Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test."). A well-publicized experiment in 2006 called STEP (Study of the Therapeutic Efficacy of Prayer) tested the medical outcomes of over 1800 coronary bypass patients, who were sorted into three groups. Group 1 and Group 2 were both told they might or might not be prayed for; only Group 1 was. Group 3 was told that they would be prayed for (and were). The thirty-day serious complication or mortality rate was nearly identical between Group 1 and Group 2 (51% and 52%, respectively); Group 3 had a significantly higher rate of complications or death (59%).

I won't go into the possible confounding factors for the higher death rate among Group 3; what interests me is more how a Christian would explain why, if intercessory prayer works at all, Group 1 didn't show a lower risk of complications.  "Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test" sounds good, but my thought is, if ever there was an opportunity for god to show that what the Christians claim is correct, this is it.  You would think that if presumably god wants people to believe, and to pray (and in fact Christians are positively commanded to pray, in a variety of places in the bible), some sort of results would have been forthcoming.

You get the impression that even Lewis was a little uncomfortable on this point.  He said, "Prayer doesn't change God -- it changes me."  Again, I have to wonder how this would work.  How on earth would praying for something, to a deity whose mind I can't change, who knows what is "supposed to happen," and who will do what he chooses regardless, have any beneficial effects on me?  Imagine a parent whose mind could never be swayed by his children's requests -- and telling the children, "You should ask anyway, because it's good for you."

While I am not religious (obviously), I can at least understand the concept of other sorts of prayer -- prayers for enlightenment, prayers for understanding, prayers for courage.  But I really have no clue what the possible logic could be to praying for intercession, other than "the bible says we have to -- never mind why."  Perhaps some reader will have a good explanation of it -- which I would welcome -- but on the face of it, it seems like the most pointless of pursuits.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Today's forecast: planetary alignment, with a slight chance of catastrophe

This month, four planets will seem to meet in the night sky -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will twice form "trios," a relatively rare event in which three planets are all within five degrees of each other.  The first one occurs today; Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter will all be a little over two degrees apart.  The second will be on May 21, when Mercury, Venus, and Mars will be just a hair further apart.  Then, at the end of the month, the four planets will be stretched out in a straight line near the horizon.

All of this has an assortment of people leaping about making little squeaking noises.  Astrologers, of course, think this is some pretty heavy stuff, of huge significance to people on Earth, and of even greater importance to anyone born on those days.  I could probably find more details regarding what they think it all means, but every time I read astrological predictions a few more of my brain cells die, and heaven knows I can't afford to lose many more, so I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Then we have the Rapture crowd, who point out that it's significant that one of these Cosmic Convergences occurs on May 21, the day when Harold Camping believes that the Good Guys will be assumed bodily into heaven, and the Bad Guys will be left behind to face months of tribulations before Satan comes and eats us all for lunch.  Never mind that trios have occurred many times in the past, and Satan hasn't shown.  This time, they assure us, it's really gonna happen.  Me, I'm waiting for May 22, which I'm guessing will show that unfortunately Camping et al. are still alive and well and living on Earth, albeit presumably somewhat embarrassed.

Then we have the woo-woos who think that it has something to do with the Mayan calendar, a topic I'm frankly getting fed up with.  One website says that it will be "one of the most exciting, powerful and transformative celestial events of our millennium, according to astronomy and astrology experts."  Others think it is the first sign of the impending chaos that will peak on December 21, 2012.  A website I looked at states that "the combined gravitational effects of this alignment will wreak havoc with Earth's systems."

When I read that last one, I thought, "finally, a statement we can try to apply some science to!"  What would be the combined gravitational pull of those four planets, if they were in alignment?  Let's just look at the gravitational pull that would come from Jupiter, since it's the most massive planet (by far) and therefore should be the biggest contributor of this force.  I used Newton's law of gravitation, and the value given for the closest approach between Jupiter and the Earth (the time at which this force would be the greatest).  I calculated the force Jupiter would exert on a 1 kg mass on the surface of the Earth.  And I came up with a value of... ten-millionth of a Newton.  For purposes of comparison, this is a hundred million times smaller than the force that the Earth itself is exerting.  As noted earlier, the contributions of Mars, Venus, and Mercury would all be significantly less than that.  So, I think we're safe from the alignment suddenly creating a gravitational imbalance that might cause people to trip over curbs or fall headlong out of their Barcaloungers right in the middle of Jersey Shore.

Of course, this hasn't stopped the talk.  Nor, apparently, has it stopped the aliens, who you would think would understand physics better given that they have interstellar spaceships, from trying to warn us of the presumed impending catastrophe.  A crop circle that appeared on Milk Hill in southern England, way back in June 2009, tried to warn us about the planetary alignment, but would we listen?  Nooooooo.  Here's a photograph of the crop circle:

My favorite part of the caption is where they say that the hieroglyphs were "clearly" alien-made, since humans are obviously incapable of producing bunches of illegible marks.  (I think the next time one of my students submits a paper with horrid handwriting, I'm going to write on it, "I think you got help from superpowerful extraterrestrials on this assignment, as these are clearly alien hieroglyphs.")

Anyway, what this crop circle supposedly shows is a sextant and a schematic of the aligned planets, and was a portent of doom that the aliens were kind enough to provide for us.  I wonder what we are supposed to do with this information, however?  It's not like we can stop a planetary alignment, and getting out of the way is just a wee bit impractical.  So as an advance warning, it's a remarkably pointless one, a little like telling someone who has fallen off a cliff, "Watch out for the ground."

If you'd like for some reason to read the entire explanation of how that crop circle is an alien warning, go here.  Me, I'm done thinking about it.  I might get out my binoculars to take a look at the planetary lineup, but I'm not going to get all worked up about it.  I'm suspecting that the month of May will come and go without anything much happening, and the planets will come into alignment and wander away as they've done for millions of years, and no catastrophe will occur.  Unless you count the fact that Harold Camping and crew will still be around afterwards.