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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pay troll ahead

We have Syfy's Ghost Hunters and Destination: Truth.  We have The History Channel's MonsterQuest.  The Travel Channel has Ghost AdventuresA&E has Paranormal State.

You'd think that'd be enough, given that they never find anything.  They wander about risking their lives, all alone in the dark except for the 38 people on the film crew, making alarmed noises whenever they think they see or hear anything suspicious, and then amazingly enough. it always turns out not to be a ghost, or Bigfoot, or an alien, or whatever.  As an example, let's take a look at this actual dialogue from an episode of Ghost Hunters I watched when I was stuck in a hotel in Tucson with nothing better to do:

Scene:  the attic of an abandoned courthouse building at night

First Dude:  What's this over here?

Second Dude (waving flashlight around):  Where?


*break for a commercial*

[after commercial break, they have to repeat the sequence, in case watching a Listerine commercial excited the listeners so much that they've forgotten what just happened]

First Dude:  What's this over here?

Second Dude (waving flashlight around):  Where?

First Dude:  AAAAAUUUUGGGGHHH!  That is one big-ass yellowjacket!

So, other than big-ass yellowjackets, they seldom seem to find anything, although from the way they high-five each other at the end of every episode, you'd think they'd just gotten first-hand evidence of the existence of god, or something.  But anyway, my point is, as much as I enjoy watching these shows, for the comic relief value if for nothing else, we've reached a point of diminishing returns.

I say this in light of a new movie from Norway that is being released in the US starting at the Space Gallery in Portland, Maine, and looks like it's going to be the next big thing.  It's called The Troll Hunter and is about some dudes in Norway who wander around trying to find trolls.  (See some stunning posters and stills from the movie here.)  So look for it showing up soon at a cinema near you.

When I found out about this, I thought, troll hunting?  Really?  Like in The Three Billy Goats Gruff?  They are really scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Then, I thought:  maybe I'm being too hasty, here.  There is a lot of fertile ground left.  So, after some consideration, I present for your perusal a few ideas for feature-length movies or television series that I'd be happy to host:

Seeking Centaurs.  In which I go and wander around Greece, eating lots of souvlaki with tzatziki and trying to prove that the legendary half-man, half-horse creatures still exist.

On the Trail of Mermaids.  In which I go scuba diving on the coral reefs in the South Pacific trying to find evidence that the legends about beautiful ocean-dwelling, half-naked females are true.

In the Home of the Bunyip.  In which I visit Australia to work on my tan and look for the Aussies' answer to the Loch Ness Monster.

Looking for Silkies.  In which I tour Scotland, sampling scotch and seeking the reality of the mythical seal-folk of the Isles.

Finding Quetzalcoatl.  In which I wander about in Central America, looking for evidence of the feathered serpent god.

I'm sure I could come up with others.  But I think we have a good start, here.  All of them would take a close look at the legends surrounding these creatures, by going around and talking to insane people who actually believe they're real.  We'd visit museums to see artifacts depicting the creature in question, and play really dramatic music.  Then the film crew would film me wandering about (or swimming about, as the case may be).  At dramatic moments, I'd strike a pose looking off into the distance, the wind ruffling my hair, the sunlight silhouetting my rugged profile.  In the end, I wouldn't find anything conclusive, but it would still afford us an in-depth look at the Reality Behind Myths.

And, more importantly, it would afford me a chance to travel all over the place for free.  I think it's an awesome idea.  Now, if I can only get a network to back me...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Alien mass burials and the speed of nonsense

I know scientists say that nothing moves faster than light, but I bet that bullshit comes close.

The difficulty with getting a straight story these days is that with the click of a mouse, a story can make its way halfway around the world.  And since real news is generally more prosaic and boring than outrageous, wild tales, the bullshit always spreads faster and further.

I fight this constantly in my Critical Thinking class.  That curriculum is designed to give students some tools for detecting baloney, and one of those tools is "look at what other sources say."  I hammer it in constantly: before you believe something, look for corroboration.

So, one day a story pops up about, say, Bigfoot.  My student dutifully looks for other sources, and finds them!  And they all say substantially the same thing!  We have corroboration!  Bigfoot exists!

Well, not really, of course.  Take the story that came up a couple of days ago about a mass alien burial near Kigali, Rwanda.  Here is an excerpt:

The remains belong to gigantic creatures that bear little resemblance to humans. Head of research group believes that they could be visitors from another planet who died as a result of a catastrophe.
According to the scientists, they were buried at least 500 years ago. At first, researchers thought that they came across the remains of ancient settlements, but no signs of human life have been found nearby.
The 40 communal graves had approximately 200 bodies in them, all perfectly preserved. The creatures were tall - approximately 7 feet. Their heads were disproportionately large and they had no mouth, nose or eyes.
The anthropologists believe that the creatures were members of an alien landing, possibly destroyed by some terrestrial virus to which they had no immunity. However, no traces of the landing of the spacecraft or its fragments were discovered.
Of course, I'm immediately suspicious any time I see unnamed anthropologists (or any other scientists) "believing" in an alien landing.  So, following my own advice, I started looking for what other sources had to say about the whole incident.  I figured I'd either find nothing (i.e., this was the product of a lone wingnut) or a bunch of sites debunking it.

Instead, I found hundreds of sites reporting the story as fact.  Besides sites such as (where I found the original story), I found the same story reported on the Archaeology Daily News, the EU Times, TruthFrequency News, and Pravda!  So, I clicked on a couple of the links -- and not only was it the same story, it was reported in almost exactly the same words.  Basically, it had just been lifted in toto and republished, again and again.

Then, I noticed something odd about the dates -- while the story I saw was dated June 26, 2011, and was written as if it had just happened, a couple of the sites, such as the amazingly wacky David Icke Forum, had the same story dated to November of 2009.  Again, the wording was nearly identical to the recent publications, so it had to be the same original writer.  So I started trying to find the earliest reporting of the story, to see if perhaps I could figure out where the story started.  And the whole alien-mass-burial story seems to have begun with...

... wait for it...

The Weekly World News.

Yes, The Weekly World News, that stalwart bastion of brave news reporting on topics such as how Britney Spears is having Elvis's baby.   (Real headline from The Weekly World News:  "SANTA'S ELVES REALLY SLAVES FROM THE PLANET MARS.")  They apparently published the whole Rwanda alien story back in 2009, and even came up with an anthropologist to lead the team ("Dr. Hugo Childs"), whose name got dropped in later iterations of the story.  No need to worry about his feelings, though; Dr. Hugo Childs seems to exist about as much as Santa's elves do, judging by the fact that he doesn't show up in any searches in peer-reviewed anthropological or archeological journals.  So, suffices to say that their level of reporting has definitely not changed any.

What's funny (and by "funny" I mean "scary") is how somehow, this story made its way into the news stream, rather in the same fashion as a pipe dumping sewage into a river.  And the whole thing got passed along, gradually working its way up the "credibility" scale, until it finally reached the EU Times and Pravda.  This is scary for a couple of reasons.  First, apparently copy editors have not been sufficiently taught in critical thinking skills, and don't realize that "look for multiple sources" only works if the sources don't all come from the same original story.  Second, it seems that bullshit, unlike other substances, doesn't dilute away, but seems to become more concentrated with time, as more and more sites publish the same nonsense over and over.

And third, it travels fast.  Within two days of the publication of the first of the recent versions of this story (June 24) it had been picked up by dozens of other sites, from the dubiously credible to the completely reputable.  Which just goes to show, as I said initially; nothing travels faster than light, but bullshit has to be a close second place finisher.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Frames, floating floors, and foul language

I spent an entire day (10 AM to 8:30 PM, with brief breaks for lunch and dinner) last weekend with a few friends, attempting to build a shed.  This was one of those prefab things that comes, disassembled, in boxes.  Each piece had a part number stamped on it, which we only found out after a rain shower was printed in water-soluble ink.  The instructions were in English.  Well, okay, at least the words were English.  The syntax of the instructions leads me to speculate that they were originally written in Hindi, and then translated into English by an elderly woman in Bangalore whose knowledge of English came entirely from watching One Life To Live on satellite TV.  It featured sentences like this:

"For to lining up the grommet flange (part number 9067) with the anterior gasket housing (part number 2134), make nice sure that corners balance!  Especially.  And the left plumb socket (part number 8660) shouldn't be in front of the ridge cap vent (part number 1852)!   For connecting with three very nice #12 bolts behind lock washers and acorn nuts, start from outside and working your way in."

Another fun feature of this shed was that you had to have the arm length, and climbing skills, of an orangutan to put the roof together.  The only way to get the roof panels attached was to set one in place, balance (belly down) on the top of a ladder, and reach forward as far as possible to screw the far end of the panel to the struts.  You were not supposed to put any weight at all on the roof panels, which were made of sheet metal with the tensile strength of Reynolds Wrap.  Because of the near-impossibility of assembling the roof while balancing horizontally on the top of a ladder without leaning on the panels, I left several dents in the roof from my hands, elbows, face, etc.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You would think at this point that I would have learned that my construction skills are, rated on a comparative scale, lower than that of many species of mollusk, and that I would simply refuse to take part in helping out with construction projects.  You would be wrong.   I seem to get myself involved in these enterprises all the time.  I nearly ended up in the local mental ward framing a room in my previous house, where (to save money) I had it built with an unfinished basement.  "No problem," I told the builder, in a breezy fashion.   "I'll finish it."  So I and a friend (should I mention that this is the same friend who owns the shed?) got together the following summer to frame in a room in the basement.  We decided to build the wall frames on the floor and then lift them into place, thinking that'd be simpler than assembling them while attempting to hold the lumber vertically.   It seemed a good idea until we discovered that (1) the diagonal length of a wall frame is greater than its height, (2) cement floors have very little flexibility, and (3) we should have paid better attention in high school geometry.  We finally got the wall frame in place with a sledgehammer.  At least we know it's in there solidly.  If there's ever an earthquake in upstate New York, and this house falls down, it will collapse around the wall, because that wall is definitely not going anywhere.

It was in this same room that I attempted to install a "floating floor."  For those of you unfamiliar with this home furnishing innovation, it's a substitute for tile and hardwood, which are both notoriously difficult to install.   "Floating floors" are strips of wood laminate, which lock together like Lego pieces. "It's a piece of cake," the guy at Home Depot told me.   "A kid could do it."

Well, if that statement is correct, I'm unlikely ever to participate on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? The assembly procedure required you to put together strips of the laminate, and then use clamps to keep them square as you added further rows.  After working on the project for several hours, I came to the conclusion that either the floor wasn't square or else one of my eyes was closer to the bridge of my nose than the other one, because every time I secured the clamp on one side of the room, the floor panels on the other side would pop out of square.  I said many, many bad words during the course of that day.  I finally did get the floor installed, though, and all I can say is: thank god for molding.  Whoever invented molding is a genius.   The guy at the lumber store looked at me a little oddly when I asked him if he had any eight-inch-thick molding, but whatever.   Maybe it'll be a New Trend in Interior Decorating.

So, anyway, all of this has left me in awe of people who are actually good at construction.   I mostly specialize in what my dad used to call "Do It To Yourself Projects."  I'm also good at carrying around heavy objects, giving advice, and helping out with the pizza and beer afterwards.  Just don't ask me to translate any directions written in Hindi.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A question about gender

Those of us who are 50-ish will probably remember the record, released in 1972, called Free to Be... You and Me.  In this well-meant effort to combat gender stereotypes, a star-studded cast (including Marlo Thomas, Rosey Grier, Cicely Tyson, Michael Jackson, Kris Kristoffersen, and Billy de Wolfe) did skits and performed music with the message that boys and girls were basically the same, except for the obvious anatomical differences.  Anyone can be anything, anyone can do anything, because other than the slightly different equipment (a point which was downplayed), we're all the same, really.  Little boys can play with dolls, girls can be athletes and never marry, and so on.

Now, let me say at the outset that I think it's dreadful that societally-prescribed gender roles have held people back from doing what their hearts desired.  I always make certain to tell my biology classes about the tragedy of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who discovered the double-helical structure of DNA, and who was treated as a cut-rate lab assistant by James Watson and Francis Crick.  The two men (along with Maurice Wilkins) went on to win a Nobel Prize, while Franklin got bubkis, and in fact no one even knew about her role in the research until her notebooks were discovered in the 1980s, long after her death.  Clearly her gender was the impetus for her being ignored.  Watson said about her, in his autobiography, entitled (with amazing chutzpah) The Double Helix,
Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.  The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA.
So, there's no doubt that gender roles have done tremendous damage, and that efforts like Free to Be... You and Me were perhaps necessary to counteract that damage.  However, is the central premise -- that boys and girls are identical except for the anatomy -- correct?

I ask the question because of an experiment in education going on currently in Sweden, which takes the Free to Be... You and Me concept and pushes it a step further.  In the preschool called Egalia, boys and girls not only aren't exposed to gender stereotypes, they're not exposed to gender references at all.  The gender-based pronouns in Swedish han (him) and hon (her) are replaced with an invented pronoun, the gender-neutral hen.  None of the books represent boys and girls (or men and women) in gender-traditional roles; all are in reversed roles, or in non-traditional roles (there are lots of books about homosexual couples, for example). 

Once again, while the intent is a good one, one has to wonder if the approach is denying something that is a simple fact.  Boys and girls are different, and this goes beyond the obvious.  A 2001 study at Harvard University found that women have substantially larger prefrontal cortices (the part of the brain responsible for decision-making) and limbic systems (which regulates emotions); men have larger parietal cortices (involved in spatial perception) and amygdalas (involved in "primitive" emotions such as anger).  Men have 6.5 times the amount of gray matter (the actual neurons of the brain); women have ten times the amount of white matter (the connections between the neurons).  Clearly these differences are reflected in behavior.

I helped raise two boys, and although a sample size of two is admittedly small, I can say from my own experience that their boy-brains were evident from the start.  Their mom, who had been raised on Free to Be... You and Me, was bound and determined to bring them up without any gender stereotypes, so toy guns and the like were not welcome in the house.  Toy stoves, cooking utensils, dolls, and so on, were encouraged.  What did my kids do?  Turn the cooking utensils into weapons.  (I will say, however, that both of my kids have turned into kind, caring young men who are confident enough that they don't care if a pastime they're interested in is "traditionally male" or "traditionally female" -- and both are outstanding cooks.)

While there is a need to break down gender stereotypes where they commit the unpardonable sin of denying a person's deepest desires, wasting his/her talent, or locking him/her into a role never chosen, it remains to be seen if the way to do that is by denying that gender differences exist.  The bottom line, to me, is freedom; freedom to choose, without being told by society that your choice is wrong simply on the basis of your gender.  If efforts like Free to Be... You and Me and Egalia achieve that end, great.  If, as I fear, it makes children hesitant to choose traditional roles because they've learned that "traditional roles = bad," then all we've done is what the traditional roles themselves did -- limit children's choices because of an artificial social construct.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Coming this fall: Comet Elenin. And doomsday.

NASA has announced that this fall, we're going to witness an unusual occurrence; the appearance of a long-period comet.

Long-period comets, so called because their extremely elongated elliptical orbits only bring them into the inner solar system once every several thousand years, are spotted while they are still far out in space (often by amateur astronomers), and tracked intensively as they plunge inward toward the sun.  This one, named Comet Elenin, will be 35 million kilometers from Earth at its closest point, which will be on October 16.  Unfortunately, it appears that Elenin won't be all that showy -- some long-period comets have lit up the night sky for weeks.

A news story, you would think, of only mild interest to anyone who is not an astronomy buff.  So you can imagine my surprise when I found that websites were popping up all over the place whose main message was:


For example, take a look at this site, which blames Comet Elenin for recent earthquakes.  When Comet Elenin "comes into alignment with Earth," we have "devastating earthquakes."  "The last three alignments produced the Japanese 9.0 quake, the one in New Zealand and before that the one in Chile," writes Mark Sircus, author of the article.

Now, my first question is, what does it mean for two objects to "come into alignment?"  How can two objects not be in alignment?  Two objects always lie along a straight line.  You may recall from high school geometry class that Euclid had a few things to say about this.  So Comet Elenin is in alignment with the Earth right now, which probably accounts for why I had such weird dreams last night.

Sircus then goes on to state ominously, "When the next alignment happens it will be devastatingly close."  *cue dramatic music*

Now, you doubters out there are probably thinking, "Wait a moment.  Comets are just giant dirty snowballs.  How could an object that small, which is still a couple of hundred million kilometers away, have any effect on us at all?"

Well, Sircus is way ahead of that argument.  "The main point to understand," Sircus writes, "is that if Elenin was just a normal comet it would not have the mass to generate a gravity pull that would affect the Earth when the Earth swings around into alignment."

Ooookay, so how does he know it's not a normal comet?  Because when it "came into alignment with the Earth" on March 11, the Japanese earthquake occurred.  So we know it's not a normal comet because it causes earthquakes, and we know it causes earthquakes because it's not a normal comet.  Got that straight, now?

Sircus goes on to say:
The whole solar system seems to be heating up, the sun is becoming active and earth-changing events are becoming more frequent and intense with beyond-worst-case-scenario climate changes hitting around the globe. We have increasing geo-activity, volcanoes, earthquakes, rogue tides, sinking islands, magnetic pole migration, mass animal deaths, huge unexplained whirlpools in the Atlantic and so much more it would make anyone’s head spin.
Which is obviously true in his case.  He concludes:
There is a history to Elenin that has been visible for years but now she is upon us and there is nothing we can do but prepare and pray—and love like we have never loved before.  We have to acknowledge and accept that there is a danger and there is a possibility that part of our civilization and the people in it will be lost.
So, anyway, here's another thing to worry about.  On October 16, we have Elenin causing chaos on the Earth, and then, just five days later, we have Harold Camping's revised date for doomsday, when Satan arrives and starts making giant shish kebabs out of the unrighteous. 

It should be an exciting fall.  You can think of it as being a dress rehearsal for December 21, 2012.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Coalescence of church and state

The Louisiana State House of Representatives just unanimously passed a resolution to have a monument depicting the Ten Commandments on the state capitol grounds.

When challenged regarding this apparent defiance of church/state separation, lawmakers replied that there was no conflict.  "The proposed monument is more of an historic marker than a religious one," said Representative Patrick Williams (D-Shreveport).  "It's the role the Ten Commandments plays in shaping society and laws that's being recognized.  It's about our historical heritage."

Williams is also the one who responded to a question about why the legislative session was opened with a prayer with puzzlement.  "How do you define what 'separation' is?  After all, all denominations are allowed to pray."

Williams' opinion was mirrored by Representative Page Cortez (R-Lafayette).  "I don't see a problem having the Ten Commandments out in front of the Capitol," Cortez said.  "The Ten Commandments is the basis of Judeo-Christian principles.  A monument is simply a reflection of what we stand for."

It's simply a celebration of our "historical heritage," then?  Odd that no one is proposing erecting a monument to the Code of Hammurabi (one of the first codified legal systems) or the Magna Carta (which was one of the inspirations for the Bill of Rights).  Both of these form a major part of our "historical heritage."

As far as "how do you define separation?" -- well, Representative Williams, it's simple.  If it implies a governmental establishment of religion, it's not.  How's that?  And let's look at the Ten Commandments.  Oh, how about Number One:  "Honor the Lord thy God, who brought you out of slavery in the land of Egypt; you shall have no other God before me."  Hmmm, that seems pretty unequivocal.

The "historical heritage" argument is just a wedge, the same as the "teach the controversy" foolishness that gets brought up regarding evolution.  "In the interest of critical thinking, students should be encouraged to examine all sides of the argument, and look at alternate explanations."  Just as no one is proposing a monument to the Magna Carta, no one wants science teachers to "teach the controversy" about, for example, the periodic table.  The only realm of science in which anyone wants us to "teach the controversy" is evolutionary biology -- the one area that conflicts with traditional Christianity.  (And incidentally, there is no more "controversy" over evolution in the realm of peer-reviewed science than there is over the laws of chemistry.)

The interesting thing about the erecting of a monument to the Ten Commandments is that everyone is focusing on defending themselves against arguments over why they shouldn't be displayed, and no one seems to have a cogent argument about why they should be.  What earthly purpose does such a monument serve?  Let legislators pray in their churches.  Let them study biblical writings in their spare time.  Why do we need a religious monument on governmental grounds?  "Honor the Lord thy God" has no place in government, nor the schools (nor, for the record, in the Pledge of Allegiance).  The whole thing smacks of the Christian majority doing this just because they are a majority -- i.e., just because they can.

You might ask why I'm bothered by this.  Certainly, I can just ignore it; it would do me no harm, it might seem, to walk past the monument without stopping, and allow the Christians to have their little victory.  But what worries me is that old cliché of the slippery slope.  The Pledge of Allegiance, complete with "under god," is by law recited every morning over the loudspeakers at every public school in the United States.  Swearing-in rituals conclude with "so help me god."  Even our currency states "In God We Trust."  If America moves toward becoming a theocracy, it won't be a sudden collapse of the secular government and its replacement by a religious ruler, as it was when the Shah of Iran fled and was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini.  It will be little step by little step, drip by drip, until one day we wake up and find ourselves in a country where Christianity drives policy, where religious law and secular law have coalesced to the point that they are indistinguishable.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fly the toxic skies

I remember when I was a kid, looking up at jet contrails, white against the deep blue sky.  Where were the planes going?  What would it be like to be up there in a jet, flying at hundreds of miles per hour?  The contrails would widen and fade, drift, and finally dissipate, only to be replaced by another, tracking a different direction.

Little did I realize that I should have been wearing a gas mask and protective eyewear.

One of the more bizarre conspiracy theories out there is the "chemtrail" idea, which nevertheless finds broad appeal amongst people whose sole hobby is picking at the straps of their straitjackets with their teeth.  The idea is that the government adds stuff to jet fuel, so that when the jet fuel passes through the engine the stuff is vaporized, to waft downwards and be inhaled by unsuspecting people.  The stuff can include:
  • mind-altering drugs
  • chemicals that can affect the weather
  • chemicals that cause allergies, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses
  • cancer-causing agents
People who buy this particular conspiracy theory cite the rise in allergies and asthma as "proof."  Evidence to the contrary is just part of the government's cunning plan for hoodwinking the people.  Take a look at this site, from, amusingly titled "How Jet Trails Block Out the Sunshine."  My favorite part is the paragraph informing readers, "This is a chemtrail thread for believers but other are welcomed. Please only post positive comment towards posters and do not discredit them. No need to be negative."

In other words:  You can disagree with our conspiracy theory, as long as you (1) keep your mouth shut, and (2) don't mind being a deluded, credulous sheep.

The thing I've never understood about the chemtrail idea is, do these people really think that putting LSD in jet fuel would work?  Besides the fact that a lot of the chemicals that they think are being spread around this way are complex organics that would break down during the combustion process, even if you assume that some of the chemicals made their way through the engine and out the exhaust, how could anyone actually inhale enough of the stuff to accomplish anything?  Between wind currents and just general dilution in the atmosphere, it's not like it's the most efficient chemical distribution method I can think of.

And then, of course, there's the rather painful lack of actual results.  No one I know seems to act any odder than usual when a jet flies over; the weather is still as messy and unpredictable as ever; I don't get the sniffles when I'm near an airport; and cancer rates aren't any higher than they ever have been.  But the conspiracy theorists, of course, have a quick response to those criticisms:
  • the mind-altering chemicals act to make you submissive and unsuspicious;
  • the weather-influencing chemicals are why the weather is messy and unpredictable;
  • the government is suppressing information about rises in the incidence of allergies, asthma, and cancer;
  • and Skeptophilia is clearly a tool of The Shadow Government's Disinformation Strategy.
Which, I must admit, is a pretty powerful argument.

Interestingly, the whole thing seems to have gotten off the ground (rimshot) because of a guy named Bill Nichols, from my home state of Louisiana, back in 2007.  Nichols, a Shreveport resident, suddenly noticed one day that there seemed to be an unusual number of contrails in the sky.  "It seemed like some mornings it was just criss-crossing the whole sky.  It was just like a giant checkerboard," he told reporters, adding that he had observed "unusual clouds" that began as ordinary jet contrails, but unlike normal contrails, "did not fade away."  He said that the vapor from the contrail "would drop to the ground in a haze" and collect on the ground and in water he had sitting in bowls.  Myself, I've never seen a contrail "drop to the ground" in sufficient quantities to "collect in a bowl" -- but even so, KSLA News of Shreveport took him seriously enough to sample the water at a lab and initially reported a high level of barium, 6.8 parts per million, more than three times the toxic level set by the EPA.

This caused an uproar, as you might imagine.  A couple of weeks later, it was revealed that the KSLA reporter had misread the reading, which was actually 68 parts per billion, well within expected ranges, and the station retracted the story.  But conspiracy theorists are never going to be dissuaded by numbers being off by a factor of a thousand, or, in fact, actual data in any form, and so the whole chemtrail idea was off and running.

Anyhow, I'd better wind this up.  For one thing, you can see where this is going: the usual "no data + no logic = my theory" pattern that is typical of conspiracy theorists.  Also, because we have a thunderstorm coming in, probably due to weather-altering chemicals, and I need to shut the computer down.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Your tax dollars at work

So now, Dear Readers, it's time for a fine old tradition: my yearly rant about how lousy the New York State Regents Exams are.

The total cost for developing, printing, and distributing Regents exams is $15 million annually, a cost of about $250,000 per exam.  You'd think that for that kind of money, we'd be getting something pretty spiffy, right?

This year's exam in Biology (oh, excuse me, "Living Environment."  Ten years ago, as part of their drive to improve curricula and "raise the bar," they changed the name of the course) was once again the combination of goofy, poorly worded questions, strange diagrams, and ambiguity that we've all come to expect.  Here are just a few highlights from this year's exam:

30.  Depletion of non-renewable resources is often a result of
  • (1) environmental laws
  • (2) human population growth
  • (3) reforestation
  • (4) recycling
Wow!  That is what I call one high-powered question, there.  If you can puzzle through "environmental laws = good, human population growth = bad, reforestation = good, recycling = good" you got that one right.  It's like the game on Sesame Street -- "Which of these things is not like the other?"

Equally awe-inspiring were #37-39, which were to be based on an outline diagram of a human body, with only three organs -- (A) the brain, (B) the kidney, and (C) the uterus.

37.  Failure of structure A to function would most directly disrupt
  • (1) autotrophic nutrition
  • (2) chromosome replication
  • (3) cellular communication
  • (4) biological evolution
38.  Structure B represents
  • (1) cells only
  • (2) cells and tissues, only
  • (3) an organ with cells and tissues
  • (4) a complete system with organs, tissues, and cells
39.  Structure C is part of which body system?
  • (1) digestive
  • (2) reproductive
  • (3) circulatory
  • (4) nervous
Note that you don't have to understand a single thing about how the brain, kidney, or uterus functions to get these questions right.

Then, we have a reading passage, as follows:
Plants of the snow lotus species, Saussurea laniceps, are used in Tibet and China to produce traditional medicines.  These plants bloom just once, at the end of a seven-year life span.  Collectors remove the taller-blooming plants, which they consider to have the best medicinal value.  Some scientists are concerned that the continual selection and removal of the tall plants from natural ecosystems may result in a change in the average height of the snow lotus in future populations.
Ready for the question?

50.  The removal of the plants is an example of
  • (1) genetic engineering
  • (2) direct harvesting
  • (3) selective breeding
  • (4) asexual reproduction
Yup, after all that, that was the best question they could come up with.  Even more interesting, my specialty is evolutionary biology, and I wasn't even sure what the correct answer was supposed to be.  Neither was my colleague, Sue, the other biology teacher.  Were they implying that this was selective breeding?  Didn't seem right; selective breeding implies a deliberate selection of the traits by humans, in order to alter the population's characteristics.  This was deliberate, but the farmers weren't trying to create a population of shorter plants, so that seemed kind of weird.  Answers #1 and #4 were definitely wrong.  Answer #2?

Yup.  That's the answer.  "Direct harvesting."  In order to get this one correct, students had to know the following important biological fact: collecting pieces of a plant is called "harvesting."

And so on.

I had not just one, but two, students tell me after the exam, "You didn't have to know anything about biology to pass that exam."  One student, in particular, was indignant.

"I really studied for that exam," she said.  "I knew a lot of stuff -- all the parts of the brain, how the kidney works, how to solve genetics problems.  I could have saved a lot of time and effort -- I wasn't any better prepared to take that exam after four weeks of review and studying than I was before, because you hardly had to have any specific factual knowledge about anything to pass it."

When you have students complaining that an exam is too easy, you know there is something wrong.

Of course, when people decry the lousy quality of the exam, New York state educational leaders are quick to disagree.

"People may complain about the Regents, but it does provide a teacher with a basic road map of what should be covered in a course," said Jack J. Boak Jr., superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

I'm sorry, Mr. Boak, but you're wrong.  What the Regents exam does, at least in Biology, is set the bar so low that students can walk over it.  I could write a better, and fairer, exam in two hours flat, and I wouldn't even charge $250,000 to do it.

In recent years, I have typically spent the last weeks of school telling kids, "Just focus on the broad-brush terms.  Details don't matter on this exam.  Hardly anyone fails it."  This is true.  What I don't mention, however, is that also, hardly anyone scores above a 95.  Students whose knowledge of biology is exemplary get caught by weirdly-worded, ambiguous questions like #50.  They start to question themselves, just as Sue and I did -- "Can the answer they're looking for really just be 'harvesting?'"  The sprinkling of bizarre questions means that we very rarely have anyone ace this exam, even the kids who could probably teach the course themselves.  The test is designed so that most of the scores get crammed together in the middle, between 75 and 85 -- because a bell curve makes the b-b stackers in the Education Department happy.

So, that's how our year ends -- not with challenging, fair exams, but with a series of pointless hurdles for students to amble over, and thousands of exam papers for teachers to wade through.

Seems like there are better uses that $15 million a year could be put to, doesn't it?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Memory chips and brain signal transmitters

In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a technique has been developed which allows your memories to be selectively erased.  If you want to forget an unpleasant breakup, erase the pain of a traumatic event, or just have the opportunity to experience again reading your favorite book for the first time, you can go in and have Lacuna, Inc. selectively delete those memories.

We have just taken a step closer to being able to do that.

A team of scientists from Wake Forest University and the University of Southern California have developed a "neural prosthesis" which, when installed into the brain of a rat, allowed the scientists to delete and retrieve a specific memory.  Rats were trained to press one of two levers for food, but had been given a drug which inhibited a part of the hippocampus that allows the processing of short-term memory into long-term memory.  With the prosthesis in place, electrodes inserted into the hippocampus, the scientists were able to trigger them to remember what they'd forgotten.

“Flip the switch on, and the rats remember.  Flip it off, and the rats forget,” team leader Dr. Theodore Berger said.

The application of this technology to individuals with memory loss from Alzheimer's, dementia, or stroke is obvious.  There needs to be a memory trace there to amplify -- so the idea of using it in cases of severe brain damage is probably going to be limited, at least for the reasonable future.  But the ability of doctors to enhance memory selectively is heady stuff.  Couple that with more information about how memory is encoded in the first place -- a hot area of research at the moment -- and we'll be that much closer to creating prosthetic memory interfaces for the human brain.

Also in the news is a story about a different sort of brain implant -- one which might eventually help the paralyzed to walk again.

Developed at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, the BioBolt implant allows the brain to use the skin as a conductor, and send wireless signals.  This could allow a quadriplegic to, for example, operate a computer.  Ultimately, the interface could allow the brain to send signals to muscles, effectively routing motor impulses around the sites of damage that are preventing a person from walking.

"The ultimate goal is to be able to reactivate paralyzed limbs, by picking the neural signals from the brain cortex and transmitting those signals directly to muscles," said Dr. Kensall Wise, who is also founding director of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems.  Wise did state that scientists are years away from these applications in humans, but just having a low-energy brain interface that can be installed in a minimally invasive fashion is a tremendous advance.   Previous incarnations of the the device had to be implanted through a hole in the skull; the BioBolt is implanted under the skin of the skull, and acts like a "microphone" to pick up, amplify, and transmit signals from the neurons.

Advances such as these never fail to awe me.  I know we're still a long way from restoring memory in individuals with brain damage (or enhancing memory in people who are normal), or seeing the paralyzed walk.  But just the fact that the scientists have accomplished this much is positively stunning, and my sense is that this is only the beginning.  It makes me think of the quote from Napoleon Hill:  "What the mind can conceive, it can achieve."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Witch hunting

The Salem Witch Trials, held in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, were triggered by the hysterical reaction of a group of girls who claimed to be possessed.  They "cried out against" various members of the village, accused prominent townspeople of cursing them and "sending their spirits out" to torment them, and appearing in the form of a cat and a giant yellow bird.  Court proceedings were held, and such accusations were held as evidence.

In the end, nineteen people were executed by hanging for the crime of witchcraft.

Oh, but that was a long time ago, right?   We live in more enlightened days, right?


Yesterday an article appeared in The Swazi Observer, the primary English language newspaper in Swaziland.  It describes various goings-on in Mdzimba High School which sound amazingly like what happened in Salem Village in 1692.  The article, in all apparent seriousness, describes a plague of "demons" which have overrun the high school. 

"The children run away from invisible apparitions, which at times direct them to a nearby pool, where they claim to see a register with the name of pupils targeted by the demons," writes Fayana Mabuza, journalist for the Observer.  "At times, they claim to be instructed to drink water from the school tap, saying the instructions were coming from the school’s principal, Sgwili Dlamini.  They writhe around as if in agony while screaming loudly and if not restrained, they dash full speed to the pond where they return to inform others whose names they claim they saw at the pond."

Dlamini, perhaps out of fear because his name had been mentioned as being complicit with the demons, called in a pastor, Reverend Mdudzi Manana, who is a well-known exorcist.  He prayed for them, targeting individual children, "doing battle with the demons" -- and the situation calmed.

“Initially only nine were affected," Principal Dlamini said.  "I even sent them home advising their parents to take them to people who could treat such affliction.  They returned again with the situation having normalized. But towards last term’s closure it struck again.  When we opened this term the problem was still there and this time around it engulfed the whole school.  But we believe the prayers from this pastor will contain the situation as he has a track record of dealing with such things. Otherwise, since Monday he and his team have been fervently praying at the school, and we can only wish them all the success.”

Okay, you might be saying; that happened in Africa, in a place known for its superstitions.  These people share with the Puritans of 17th century Massachusetts a belief in demons, and under circumstances of stress or fear those beliefs can manifest as mass hysteria.  Then, the preacher gets called in to quiet things down, and once again -- because they believe -- it works.  And in this case no one got hurt, so the belief isn't really doing any permanent harm, right?

There are still executions in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East for witchcraft.  Just last year, five people were burned alive in Kenya for "harming their neighbors by magic."  And given their belief system, it makes perfect sense.  As C. S. Lewis wrote, in Mere Christianity:
But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things.  If we did - if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.
In 2002, a Barna Group poll showed that 34% of Americans think that Satan is a real, living being who can be invoked to cause direct harm.  39% believe in demons or other malevolent spirits, who can target particular people, places, or events.  Two years ago, Sarah Palin notoriously participated in a ceremony at her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, run by an pastor who claims to have "driven out a spirit of witchcraft" from a Kenyan town.  American pastor Bob Larson, whose radio ministry is listened to by tens of thousands of people each week, claims that in the last twenty years, he has performed over 6,000 exorcisms in 90 countries.  

Belief is a powerful thing, and its influence doesn't seem to be affected by whether the thing believed in has any objective reality.  Furthermore, superstition and credulity are not the sole property of any country or ethnic group.   In recent polls, atheism and rationalism were on the rise in the US -- but so were the ranks of the extremely religious, devotees of fundamentalist, evangelical sects whose members are the most likely to believe in devils, possession, and supernatural evil.  (In the above-mentioned poll, 75% of Americans who described themselves as "born again" believed in Satan, demons, and the rest.)

There is increasing emphasis in political spheres on a candidate's beliefs.  Mitt Romney's Mormonism is "an issue," particularly amongst the two groups mentioned above -- atheists and evangelical Christians.  The Christian Right has become more and more vocal about demanding candidates who pass a religious acid-test, whose beliefs are in line with theirs.  This scares me, and not just because I'm an atheist, but because I know what belief can engender.  Recall that James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, famously stated that the environment wasn't worth protecting because when the Second Coming of Christ occurred, "the Earth was going to be destroyed anyway."

It is an open question as to whether it is even possible for a political figure not to allow his or her religious beliefs to drive decision making.  Because of this, it is critical that we consider carefully before voting for religious ideologues.  If as generally rational and moderate a Christian as C. S. Lewis admits that the only reason we don't execute witches is because don't believe they exist, what will happen when we elect leaders who do believe in witchcraft?

I'll move to Costa Rica, that's what.

It boils down to one thing.  Anyone who believes they'd like to live in a theocracy hasn't actually lived in one.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Beyond reproach

The question of the day is:  is it possible to criticize strongly the beliefs of an oppressed ethnic, religious or social group, without that criticism being motivated by bigotry or prejudice?

I think the answer is a resounding "yes."

I ask this in light of the story yesterday of an ultra-Orthodox group of rabbis in Jerusalem, who condemned a dog to death by stoning because the dog's behavior reminded one of the rabbis of an incident from twenty years earlier.  Apparently, a secular lawyer had criticized the rabbis of this sect, and they had "cursed him and ordered his spirit to enter a dog when he died."  The lawyer apparently died shortly thereafter, and this particular dog somehow reminded the rabbis of the lawyer, so they held a religious court session and determined that the dog should be stoned.  (Fortunately, the dog made itself scarce before the sentence could be carried out.)

Yes, I know that the Jews have been the victims of persecution and genocide.  There are still people (Mahmoud Ahmedinijad comes to mind) who want to see the Jews exterminated.  All of that is hateful and evil, and should not for one second be tolerated.

But I'm sorry, those rabbis who wanted to stone the dog are straight out of the Dark Ages.  Their beliefs -- at least the ones apropos of curses and ordering spirits into "impure animals" -- are ridiculous and backwards superstitions.  Interestingly, there were comments to this effect posted on the news article I read -- and resulting accusations of anti-Semitism.

The evils of oppression do not give the victimized group some kind of insurance against being accused of idiotic beliefs, nor does it make the people who criticize those beliefs bigots.  To pick a few examples that come to mind: the "afrocentrist" twist on history calls dark-skinned people "Sun People" and light-skinned people "Ice People," and credits every advance in knowledge to people of African descent.  I know more than one lesbian who hate all men and consider having a Y chromosome and the requisite anatomy sufficient reason to assume that the person in question is a macho, sex-obsessed victimizer.  Traditional Basques and Rom (Gypsies) often ostracize, sometimes to the point of physical violence, members of the group who marry someone from another ethnicity.

My statement that I think all of the above beliefs are patent nonsense should not have to be followed up by my saying, "... but I'm not a bigot."  In no case did I say that the groups in question were evil, simply that they were wrong.  There's a difference.  Any of us can be wrong.  Most of us, in fact, are frequently wrong.  Being wrong is no respecter of ethnicity, sexual preference, or religion. 

But in today's super-sensitive climate, people are on edge.  The "race card" (or "religion card") is played so often that the phrase has become a cliché.  (I even had a student accuse me of being "prejudiced against African-Americans" because she'd received a bad grade -- on a math test.)  For some of these people, the feeling of finally being in a position of power -- of being able to say anything, without fear of contradiction -- is a heady one.

There is no difference, however, between an anti-feminist's statement that "all women are inferior" and an ultra-feminist's statement that "all men are jerks."  Both are prejudiced nonsense.  If belonging to a dominant, majority ethnic group should not make you immune to criticism, belonging to an oppressed, minority ethnic group should not, either.  There is, of course, no justification for oppression.  That said, regardless of what group you belong to, if you make an idiotic statement, you should be called on it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Move to France, escape the apocalypse

The United States has more than its fair share of wackos.  Maybe it's a side effect of our freedom; if you're free, you're given license to believe whatever ridiculous version of reality you choose to.  It's no particular surprise to me that Scientology, Heaven's Gate, the Oneida Community, the Branch Davidians, the Aryan Nations, and the Westboro Baptist Church are all American creations.  (Of course, given the beliefs of the Islamic fundamentalists, it's not like we have exactly cornered the market, either.)

What's unfortunate is that the US is becoming a major exporter of loony apocalyptic wingnuts.  If you don't believe this, allow me to direct your attention to the picturesque little town of Bugarach, France, population 200.

Bugarach, near Carcassonne in southwestern France, has become the unwilling epicenter of a doomsday cult that buys the whole December 21, 2012 nonsense, but is also connected to the Ramtha cult of J. Z. Knight.  Never heard of Knight, or Ramtha?  Let me tell you a little about  her, and it.

Knight, appropriately enough, was born in Roswell, New Mexico.  She currently lives in Yelm, near Mt. Rainier, Washington, where she runs "Ramtha's School of Enlightenment."  Who is Ramtha, you might ask?  Ramtha is, according to Knight, a "35,000 year old Lemurian enlightened mystic" who Knight is able to "channel."  Lemuria is, of course, the continent that used to be in the Indian Ocean, connecting Madagascar to India, which was destroyed in the same cataclysm that swamped Atlantis.  When Ramtha was alive, the Atlanteans and the Lemurians were at war, and Ramtha escaped to the Indus Valley, thus avoiding death when both lands were destroyed.  There he became a great teacher, mastering out-of-body experiences, and after death his disembodied soul wandered the Earth until it found a person wise enough to channel him, and selected Knight.

Interestingly, when Knight is "channeling Ramtha," she is never able to answer concrete questions such as "what languages were spoken, back in Paleolithic times?  What was the social structure like?  How do you know you lived 35,000 years ago?"  When asked those sorts of questions, she deflects them as "focusing on inessentials," and reverts to her central message, which has five parts:
  • You are god.
  • Consciousness and energy create reality.
  • Make the unknown known.
  • Conquering yourself is the only justifiable battle.
  • Send J. Z. Knight large quantities of money.

You'd think that anyone making these sorts of claims would be referred for psychiatric evaluation, but this being Americans we're talking about, Knight immediately became famous and attracted hordes of followers.  She was instrumental in the creation of the 2004 movie What the Bleep Do We Know? which set a record for being the longest continuous stream of woo-woo bullshit ever filmed.

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with Bugarach, France?   Well, the deal is that the Ramtha people have jumped on the bandwagon of the Mayan end-of-the-world people, and have decided that Bugarach is going to be the only place on Earth that survives the apocalypse.  The explanations for this vary, but include that Bugarach has a "magnetic field," that it is a holy site for the aliens, or that it contains a portal to another world.  So wingnuts of a variety of stripes have been descending upon Bugarach like locusts to a wheat field.  Just the Ramtha people alone have set up six settlements nearby.

Jean-Pierre Delord, the mayor of Bugarach, is dismayed.  "At first, we treated it as a joke," he said in an interview with Figaro.  "But now, we're taking it very seriously.  What if on the big day, ten thousand people try to assault the village?  Already we have found a strange statue, surrounded by crystals, cemented to a rock near here.  They are trying to turn our village into some sort of Solar Temple.  Enough is enough."  He has ordered a local battalion of French legionnaires to practice maneuvers in the area, presumably to ready themselves to deal with the wackos should they get restive.

Of course, given the way nutjobs think, this has only further convinced them that Bugarach is The Holy Place.  Why, else, would Delord have called in the legionnaires?  It's clearly because he's part of the conspiracy to keep them away from The Holy Place.

I find the whole thing disturbing.  I'm a firm believer of freedom of speech, and also freedom to believe any damnfool thing that you want to, as long as you don't try to force it on me (and don't mind my laughing at you).  And so far, the Ramtha loonies and the other mixed nuts that have arrived in Bugarach don't appear to be trying to convert the populace.  But what if they are ruining the quality of life of the residents by their mere presence?  I recall when another group of wackos, the Rajneeshies (devotees of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, he of the fleet of 74 Rolls-Royces), literally bought the town of Antelope, Oregon, descended upon it in such numbers that they had a majority, and changed its name to Rajneeshpuram.  Fortunately for the residents of Antelope, Rajneesh was shortly thereafter charged with fraud and tax evasion and was run out of the country.

A pity we can't do that with J. Z. Knight, but she's a US citizen and so we're stuck with her.  She's still blathering on about Ramtha, and people are still, astonishingly enough, believing her.  And now, her followers are making life miserable for people in a little village in France.  There ought to be some kind of law that countries have to deal with their own crazies, and they could all be sent back here, hopefully under heavy sedation.  But given that there's no such helpful piece of legislation, the people of Bugarach are simply watching, and waiting, until December 2012 approaches.  At that point, I hope the legionnaires are ready, because I think it's going to get ugly.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Memorial Day Bigfoot report

New from the "34,208th Time's The Charm" department; a group of hikers claim that they've found conclusive evidence of Bigfoot in the Sierra National Forest.

Now, you should know from the outset that this group (1) were up there looking for evidence of Bigfoot, and (2) was being led by the founder of the Sanger Paranormal Society.  But still, before we start to scoff, let's hear the story.

Jeffrey Gonzalez and several friends were camping in the Sierras over Memorial Day weekend, and had been poking about looking for evidence of the hairy hominid.  To their dismay, it began to snow, and remembering what happened to the Donner Party, they decided to bag the trip.  So they returned to their vehicles, packed up, and drove off -- mysteriously leaving two of the vehicles behind.  (Both of the sources I read state that the group was "forced" to leave behind the vehicles, but neither explains why.)

Be that as it may, they came back two days later to retrieve the vehicles, and found that beside one of them was a "twelve-inch footprint," and there was a "face print" on the driver's side window.  (You should look at a photograph of the face print here.)  A similar, but smaller, face imprint was on the passenger side, indicating "two unexplained visitors to the campsite."

"Apparently," Gonzalez said, "the creature was looking in the window and left behind dirt and oil on it, leaving such an awesome picture, you can see the nose, the eye, the hair all over the face and the shoulders -- it's creepy, and it's not a bear.  An impression was left of a nose, eyes and lips, but they were extremely large.  The lips measured about six inches long. You can see that the whole face was full of hair, so when it leaned up against the window, you can see the depth of the eye socket in the glass. "I've shown people -- non-believers -- this photograph and this totally freaked them out."

Hair left at the site is being subjected to DNA analysis, but we are advised not to get too excited about it all, says Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum of Portland, Maine, the man who but for financial concerns could have been my boss.

"One of the cautions I have about finding a nose print or anything on the side of a car is that it could be a homeless person, resulting in people letting their imaginations go wild" Coleman said.  "Of course, if you take a DNA sample and it comes back near-human or primate, then it would match both Bigfoot and a homeless person.  A twelve-inch footprint is not too exciting, because it could be a human or bears imprinting on top of each other.  In this case, it might not have been a homeless person, but in wilderness areas, there are other hikers and somebody would've naturally put their nose up to the window to look inside the car."

So, if you're up in the Sierras, you should be on the lookout for hairy hikers and homeless people with six-inch lips.

My own guess is that Gonzalez faked the lot.  It'd have to be a mighty greasy-faced Bigfoot to leave a complete facial imprint against a car window.  (Try smooshing your own face against a window and see how good an impression you leave.)  Besides, the whole "we had to leave behind two of the cars" thing sounds mighty convenient to me.  I wonder if we'll ever hear anything from the "forensics expert" who is testing the hair -- despite Coleman's caveat that a DNA test wouldn't be conclusive, I would think that the DNA of a hominid whose lineage has been separate from humans for perhaps five million years would be sufficiently different to be discernible with a sensitive enough analysis.  And given that the Bigfoots in question apparently shed fur all over the site, it's not like they're lacking for material.

So, I'm skeptical.  Predictably.  But we can always hope.  I still would love to see proof of Sasquatches in my lifetime (not to mention proof of life on other planets).  So perhaps one of these reports, one day, will turn out to have some weight of evidence behind it.  As for this one -- we'll wait to hear what the forensics experts say.  And if it turns out to be true, I'd be happy to chip in for a bottle of greasy-hair-formula shampoo for those Sierra Bigfoots.  Sounds like they could use it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sunspots, climate, and frozen turkeys

In my Environmental Science class, I present them with what appears to be a simple little problem.  I draw a graph on the board, passing through (0,0), (1,30), and (2,60) as follows:

I then ask them to do a little mental math, and predict what the y-value will be when the x-value is 6.  I deliberately have not labeled the axes, and rarely does anyone ever ask me what the numbers mean, or even what their units are.

AP-level high school seniors are great at extrapolation, and without too much trouble they figure out that when x = 6, y = 180.  At that point I label the axes.

The x axis is "Time, in days."  The y axis is "Temperature of a frozen turkey left on the kitchen counter to thaw, in degrees Fahrenheit."  After the laughter dies down, I say, "So, this Thanksgiving, don't bother putting your turkey in the oven.  Just put it on the counter and wait six days, and it will cook itself."

This type of error is called a misextrapolation, or an "assumption of linearity."  We tend to assume that once we've seen a trend, the same trend will continue forever.  It's what has resulted in the "some is good, so a lot must be better" attitude some people have toward taking vitamin supplements, for example.

It's only one of several logical errors I saw in an article yesterday in The Register, called, "Earth May Be Headed Into a Mini Ice Age."  This article notes a recent decrease in sunspot activity (data presented from 2000 to 2010).  Whoever constructed the graph gamely drew a regression line through the data, all the way up to the year 2026.  The regression line crosses a dotted line between a region of the graph labeled "spots" and one labeled "no spots" around 2022.

Well, yeah, if the trend continues, that's true; but nowhere in the article do they mention that the regression line itself is a prediction.  A quick glance at the data would convince you that, yes, it certainly looks linear.  You will read the article in vain looking for a discussion as to why anyone is expecting that it will remain linear.

Then the whole thing gets even worse.  They tie a decrease in sunspot activity to a cold period between 1645 and 1715, a time in which "many European rivers which are ice-free today – including the Thames – routinely froze over, allowing ice skating and even for armies to march across them in some cases."  The author calls this the "Maunder minimum," or the "Little Ice Age," which is half right; actually, the Little Ice Age was the drop in temperatures that began in the 14th century, which froze out the Viking settlements in Greenland and was probably contributory to the spread of the Black Death.

Besides the misextrapolation, we have two more logical problems going on here.  The first is that tried-and-true error in thinking, "correlation does not imply causation."  That the Maunder minimum coincided with a decrease in sunspot activity is true; that the decrease in sunspot activity caused the Maunder minimum is hardly proven.  Also, there's a problem with sample size here; even if you accept that there is some sort of connection between sunspot activity and global temperatures, the link between the Maunder minimum and the 17th century sunspot minimum is a sample size of one.  Sunspots normally fluctuate in numbers on an 11-year cycle, and there is to my knowledge no corresponding cyclic fluctuation in global temperatures.  (There is apparently a weak correlation between average sunspot activity on the hundred-year-scale and solar irradiance, which could have an effect on climate; to read about this from a more authoritative source, go here.)

Then, after reading the article, I made it worse by doing what I should never do, namely, reading the comments.  This article brought the climate-change-deniers out of the woodwork, howling brilliant lines such as, "The sun has an effect on Earth's temperature?  Really?  Wow, these scientists are so smart!"  The whole thing comes from the usual problem; reputable scientists publish a paper (describing decreasing sunspot activity, suggesting that the sun is going into a magnetically quiescent state, and noting that a similar quiescent period coincided with the Maunder minimum).  This gets picked up by the popular media, who then commit various acts of illogic upon it, give it a catchy, sensationalized title, and put it online.

It's no wonder that the general public mistrust scientists, given the generally poor understanding that they have of basic critical thinking combined with the crappy reporting that is typical of the popular media.  The danger is that this has turned scientists into Cassandras; they, better than anyone else, understand the problems we face, but when they talk, no one believes them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bubba the psychic meets the crystal skull

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the alleged mystical properties of crystal skulls.  The story is that there are thirteen crystal skulls in the world, and when they're all brought together, the world will vanish in a flash of woo-wooness.  Or the Age of Aquarius will begin.  Or there will be a Cosmic Convergence, whatever that means.

Or maybe nothing will happen.  Which is my guess.

When I wrote that, little did I know that one of the crystal skulls had just visited a town near where I live.  This particular skull, which is named "Max," belongs to a Houston woman named JoAnn Parks.  Parks was taking Max around to see the US, and did a stop in Erie, Pennsylvania to teach a workshop in "hands-on interfacing with the crystal skull."

"There are many people who think he’s from another planet and is encoded – an encoded messenger," Parks told reporters for AOL News. "Some believe he was part of Atlantis as well. I think he's been in cultures that have come and gone that we didn't even know existed."

Those are our choices?  An "encoded messenger" from another planet, or it comes from Atlantis?  Another explanation, such as that it was made by people, does not occur to you?

You might wonder how Parks got Max.  She was given the skull by a Tibetan healer named Norbu Chin in 1977, just before he died, with the instructions, "Take this and some day you will know what it is for."  Chin told Parks that he had been given it by a Mexican shaman in 1970, and that the shaman said it had come from a Mayan tomb where it had been found in 1924 by Indiana Jones.

When Parks came into possession of the skull, she put it in a box in her closet.  But she started dreaming about it, that it was talking to her.  So she put pillows on top of it, and told it, "I don't want anything to do with you."  Because that's obviously what you do when you dream about something.  But finally she saw a  TV special about crystal skulls, and she brought it to the Houston Museum, and they sort of went, "Huh."  So she brought it back home, where she continued to dream about it.

Then, one day, she patted the skull on its, well, skull, and said, "Skull, I don't want nothing to do with you," and she heard in her mind, "My name is not 'Skull,' my name is 'Max.'"  Max went on to tell her that he was a "tool and a teacher" and could "serve mankind in a special way."  Including, apparently, making Parks a lot of money, because she decided to take him on the Woo-Woo World Tour, and she's still doing it today.  She has met a number of celebrities along the way, including Willie Nelson and (surprise!) Shirley MacLaine.

Which is how she ended up in my neck of the woods, in Erie, Pennsylvania.  One of the people who got to "interface" with Max was an Erie spiritualist and psychic named (I am so not making this up) "Bubba Suprynowicz."  Bubba had an encounter with Max that is breathtaking in its detail.

"The first time I sat down with him ... I went into a trance state. I don't know what happened after that," he told reporters.

Well!  That convinces me!

Now, don't get me wrong.  All sarcasm aside, I think that Max the Skull is quite a beautiful artifact.  Whether it's 5,000 years old (which is what Parks says) or is a recent creation made with power tools (my personal belief), it's quite an impressive bit of rock.  But if you want me to believe that it is more than just a piece of polished quartz, you're going to have to do better than anecdotal reports of dreams and trance states in which nothing apparently happened.  As usual, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which so far has not been forthcoming.  Until such time as Max causes the needle to move on a Psychic-o-Meter, or he talks to me personally, I'm still voting for the "polished piece of quartz" explanation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Noah's Ark found. Again.

In breaking news about Things That Probably Didn't Happen, Noah's Ark has been found on Mount Ararat by (surprise!) a team of evangelical Christians.

The team, sponsored by "Noah's Ark Ministries," found "seven large wooden compartments buried at 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level, near the peak of Mount Ararat."  According to Man-fai Yuen, leader of the expedition, "The structure is partitioned into different spaces.  We believe that the wooden structure we entered is the same structure recorded in historical accounts."

Noah's Ark, of course, is the boat that rescued Chinese pandas, Australian kangaroos, and American pumas during a deluge that covered the entire world.  When the water all magically went away forty days later, the Ark evidently did a second world tour and deposited all of these animals back where they came from, but somehow still beached on the peak of Mount Ararat.

The expedition team admits that it is not 100% certain that what they've found is the Ark.  They are, they said, "99.9% sure."  Which, given that they are evangelical Christians, is an amazing admission of doubt.

Not surprisingly, scientists are skeptical.  Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist with SUNY-Stony Brook who specializes in the Middle East, said, "I don't know of any expedition that ever went looking for the Ark and didn't find it."

Even more interestingly, some young-earth creationists aren't convinced.

Todd Wood, director of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College in Tennessee, objects to the find on, amazingly, the basis of radiocarbon dating.

Ready for some byzantine logic?  I hope you've had your coffee.

Wood claims that because the Earth is 6000 years old (no proof necessary), then radiocarbon and other forms of radioisotope dating are flawed and have to be "recalibrated."  They have a sliding scale of calibrations to adjust dates that come out of radioisotope dating, to align them with the by-fiat revelation of the young age of the Earth.  It's sort of like if you went to the doctor for a checkup, and the doctor told you your cholesterol was high, and you should lay off the scrambled eggs and bacon, and you replied, "By my calibration, my cholesterol is just fine.  I use a scale in which 'really high' means 'just fine' and 'just fine' means 'quite low.'"

So anyway, Wood took the radiocarbon dates of the wood samples found on Mount Ararat by the expedition, and "calibrated" them.  Since the Flood allegedly happened 4,800 years ago, if this is the Ark the wood should have an "uncalibrated" date of about 30,000 years.  Which it doesn't.  The wood dates to about 2,500 years ago, which means that by the "calibrated" date, it's only about 1,000 years old.

Plus, Wood says, he doubts that there would be anything left of the Ark by now, anyhow.  "It would have been prime timber after the flood," he said.  "If you just got off the Ark, and there's no trees, what are you going to build your house out of?  You've got a huge boat made of wood, so let's use that.  So I think it got torn apart and scavenged for building material, basically."

So, what we have here is someone who buys the whole nonsense of the Flood story, despite (1) exactly zero geological evidence that it ever happened, (2) the ridiculous notion of building a boat that could house representatives of all of the estimated 1.4 million animal species on earth, (3) the amazing fact that in order to drown a 13,000 foot high mountain in forty days, the rain would have to fall at a rate of 325 feet per day over the entire land surface area of the Earth, (4) there being no explanation for what happened to all of the water afterwards, and (5) how did all the trees and other vegetation come back after being covered with 13,000 feet of salt water?  And this same person wants to "recalibrate" radioisotope dating to align with the dates of this imaginary event, because that would make it "science."

And to top it all off, Noah's Ark Ministries is petitioning the Turkish government to put the site of the alleged Ark on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.  Because, apparently, they don't already look foolish enough in the eyes of the world.

I've done so many facepalms while writing this that my forehead hurts, and I think that I need to wrap it up or I'm going to go to school with bruises all over my face.  And, of course, I have to prepare myself for the fact that I'm probably going to get beat up over this in a different way, when the hate mail starts to pour in from people who believe the whole thing and who are cheered by the thought that people like me are going to be condemned by the God of Love to burn in hell for all eternity.  So I think I better fortify myself with a second cup of coffee, and grit my teeth and wait for the onslaught to begin.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dream job

By this time in the school year, I'm always reminded of what a coworker of mine said, after a particularly harrowing day in the classroom.  "This job is like the guy who bangs his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops."

So, I'm perhaps to be forgiven if lately I've been thinking, "What else could I do besides teach?"  And lo and behold, what happens yesterday but that I find an advertisement for my dream job:

Docent in the International Cryptozoology Museum.

Consider the qualifications listed:
  • Are you well organized?
  • Do you work well with others?
  • Would you enjoy working shoulder-to-shoulder with experts in the field?
  • Do you have the skills to sort and catalog artifacts?
  • Can you lead a tour with enthusiasm?
  • Do you have a passion for cryptozoology?
So, I'm reading this, and thinking, "hell yeah, I could do that."  Of course, there is probably one critical qualification that they didn't list, to wit:
  • Can you take all of this stuff seriously enough to talk about it without guffawing?
And I suspect I might have trouble with that one.  My tour through the museum would probably end up sounding like, "And here we have *snicker* an artist's depiction of *chortle* Mothman.  Note the wings and the *snork* demonic red eyes.  BUA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA.  Um, sorry about that, folks."

So that might be a problem.  But hey, bosses can't expect that a candidate will have everything they're looking for.  So I got all excited, until I got to the bottom of the webpage and found that there were two downsides:
  • I would have to move to Portland, Maine.
  • The yearly salary for the job is zero.
Which are some pretty serious downsides.  But otherwise, the whole thing sounds pretty attractive.

Actually, my friend Dan and I are already planning our post-retirement second career: leading cryptozoology expeditions.  Dan is, if anything, even more passionate about cryptozoology than I am, and plus, he's a geography professor.  So the guy knows everything there is to know about topographic maps, tracking, landforms, and so on.  My thought is, we'd make a hell of a team -- a geographer and a biologist.  We'd take groups of people off into the exotic places of the earth -- the Congo basin, the Cascades, the Himalayas, the lochs of Scotland, the Everglades -- looking for cryptids.  And, of course, raking in huge amounts of money doing it.

The only difficulty with this plan is the one that beset the camel-spotter in Monty Python.  After three years' camel spotting, he'd spotted "nearly one camel."  Eventually, you have to wonder whether our clientele would look at our track record, and stop signing up.  "Take a Dan and Gordon Cryptid Tour!  Ten years' experience, and nearly one cryptid sighted!"  As an advertising tag line, you have to admit that it kind of lacks that certain je ne sais quoi.

So, I guess my threats to quit teaching are, for the moment, empty ones.  A pity, because the docent job sounded like it was right up my alley.  And even more of a pity is that it means I actually have to go to work today, and try to keep students productively occupied on the last full day of class.  Which has the effect of making tracking yetis in the Himalayas sound like a snap by comparison.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Coffee, hallucinations, and Bing Crosby

A recent study, done by Dr. Simon Crowe of La Trobe University in Australia, has found that coffee is hallucinogenic.

That it is psychotropic falls into the "Tell Me Something I Didn't Already Know" department.  I am barely civil before I've had at least two cups of coffee.  (Some days I'm barely civil afterwards, either, but that's another matter.)  For me, it's not the alertness I'm after; being a nervous, high-strung type to begin with, who gets up at five in the morning every day whether I have to or not, it's not like I really need anything to make me more wired than I already am.  Coffee seems to have the same effect on me that turning the focus wheel on a pair of binoculars does.  Everything suddenly seems to brighten up, have sharp outlines, make sense.  I feel like I'm seeing things clearly.

Now, I'm told, I might be seeing things that aren't there.

Dr. Crowe's team tested 92 people with varying levels of caffeine.  The test was billed to the subjects as a hearing test, who were told that they'd be listening to a three minute clip of white noise, in which there might or might not be snippets of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."  They were instructed to press a buzzer when they heard a piece of the song.  In fact, the clip had no music in it at all.  The non-coffee drinkers did occasionally imagine that they heard Crosby's voice; but the coffee drinkers were three times as likely to press the buzzer.  The effect was even more pronounced with people who described themselves as "stressed" and who drank coffee.

"If you are stressed and have a high level of caffeine, you are more likely to notice things that aren't there, see things that aren't there," Dr. Crowe said.

Me, I wonder.  I suspect that part of it is that after the caffeine equivalent of five cups of coffee (the standard for "heavy coffee drinking" used in the experiment), the test subjects' hands were simply shaking so badly that they kept setting the buzzer off.  Or, perhaps, sitting still and listening to white noise for three minutes was simply beyond their capacities.

I tend to be a little frustrated by the way that popular media presents medical (and other scientific) research findings.  Let's be clear about what Dr. Crowe found: he found that people who drank the equivalent of five or more cups of coffee were likely to think they were hearing music when they really weren't.  The headline, of course, didn't say that -- it said "Coffee Causes Hallucinations," which might lead the less careful reader to conclude that your average businessman stopping at Starbuck's for a cuppa joe in the morning was suddenly going to flip out on the bus and start seeing flying monkeys. 

Frankly, I'm skeptical that caffeine is bad for you at all, at least when taken in reasonable amounts.  In the brain it acts as an antagonist to adenosine, a neural suppressant and signal for metabolic stress.  In studies, caffeine has been shown to decrease reaction time, increase endurance, reduce the risk of heart disease and kidney stones, increase short-term memory and ability to focus, and decrease the likelihood I'll strangle someone in my first period class.  These are some pretty significant benefits to health and happiness, and if because of it I occasionally hallucinate that I'm hearing clips from Bing Crosby songs, I guess I consider than an acceptable tradeoff.  (Now, if I started seeing Bing Crosby, that would be another matter entirely.)

In any case, I'm going to wind up this post with some general advice not to jump to conclusions based upon sensationalized reports of medical research in the press.  First, if you took every piece of medical advice that shows up in the media, you'd be living on bread and water (or just the water, if you're gluten-intolerant).

Second, the coffee's done brewing, and if I don't have a cup soon, I'm going to hurt someone.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

And today in the news...

Your vigilant investigative reporters here at Worldwide Wacko Watch have had a busy week.

First, we have reports in of a drunk werewolf in Ohio. 

Thomas Stroup, 20, was arrested last week after fighting with people at a campground.  When police arrived, they found Stroup passed out on the ground, and when they tried to rouse him, he growled at them.  Stroup later explained that he'd been scratched by a wolf, and afterwards he "goes on the attack when the moon is out."  Apparently unimpressed, the police charged Stroup with underage drinking. 

Interestingly, this incident occurred only about twenty miles from the place where, last year, a 21-year-old whom police nicknamed "Count Drunkula" was arrested after telling police he was a "centuries-old vampire" who wanted to drink their blood and eat their kidneys.  So, all of you Twilight fans -- the hell with Forks, Washington, it looks like Ohio is the place to be.

Then, we have reports from New Farm, Brisbane, Australia, that the face of Jesus has appeared on a  pizza. 

Posh Pizza owner Maree Phelan calls the appearance of Our Lord and Savior in the patterns on a three-cheese pizza baked last week "a miracle" and is currently offering the pizza on eBay to the highest bidder.

"It certainly isn't a fake," Phelan told reporters.  I'm not sure what she means by this.  How could you tell the difference between a fake vague, blurry face and a real vague, blurry face?  In any case, I'm not convinced this looks all that much like Jesus.  (You can see the pizza here.)  Myself, I think it looks a little... grim to be the Son of God.  The expression is a little too, well, zombie-like.  Maybe it's not an apparition of Jesus, at all, but a warning of the upcoming zombie apocalypse?

Which brings us to the next story, which is about a "Concerned Citizen" in Leicester, England who is apparently worried that the Leicester city officials are not taking proper steps to prepare for a zombie invasion.

Mr. Citizen, apparently in all seriousness, has sent the Leicester City Council a letter that says in part, "Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion? Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for." 

Lynn Wyeth, head of information governance, told reporters that she was unaware of any specific reference to a zombie attack in the council's emergency plan; however, some elements of it could be applied if the situation arose.  Which seems to me to be a calm, measured response, just the kind of cool thinking we'll need when the zombies arrive.

Which is not the sort of reaction air traffic controllers had to reports of a pair of UFOs flying in formation near Wichita, Kansas.  The UFOs, spotted by Wichita resident Ken Pfeiffer and his wife while out taking their dog for a walk, "had both solid and blinking lights" and were colored "a deep, saturated yellow."  They watched them until the lights "disappeared behind some trees" and were lost to view.

Alarmed, the couple returned home, where Pfeiffer began to call around to see if anyone could explain the lights.  Finally, he called the control tower at Wichita Airport, where they treated him very brusquely.

If you can imagine.  Like those air traffic controllers had anything better to do than discuss UFOs with some random guy.  So, of course, their reluctance to admit that they knew anything indicates that of course they knew something, because that's the way conspiracies work: anyone who is in on it would deny knowing what's going on, so if someone denies what's going on, they must be in on it.  So the logical conclusion is that we are in the midst of an alien attack, with the beachhead of the invasion in Wichita.

Of course, you have to wonder why super-powerful aliens, who presumably could land anywhere, would pick Wichita.  I've been to Wichita, and frankly, it's kind of a boring place.  If I was an alien, I'd pick somewhere that had palm trees, margaritas, and scantily-clad women, and frankly, I doubt if any of the three are all that common in Kansas.  But oddly, you never hear of alien invasions in, for example, Maui.  It's odd.  That's definitely where I'd invade, if I was an alien.

So, that's about it for today's news, here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  Drunk Werewolves, Lord Jesus of the Cheeses, British Zombie Invasions, and Lights over Wichita.  We're always striving to live up to our motto:  all the news that's fit to guffaw at.

Friday, June 10, 2011

J. R. R. Tolkien's History of the World

There are times I can almost believe in synchronicity.

Yesterday, I was chatting with a student of mine.  This particular student is an outspoken atheist, and had been in an argument with a friend over the veracity of the bible.  The friend had commented that the bible was a complex, interlocking belief system, with a consistent history, and was far too intricate to be fiction.

My student responded, "The Lord of the Rings is a complex, interlocking set of stories with a consistent history, and no one believes that The Lord of the Rings is true."  Which I thought was a pretty good response.

But then, quite by accident, just this morning I found out that no, there are people who believe that The Lord of the Rings is true.

The leader of this intrepid band of wingnuts is a fellow named Dirk vander Ploeg, and his website (here) is called "The Quest for Middle-Earth."  He has, in fact, written a book (available for $14.95, should you not have better uses for fifteen bucks, which in my opinion would include using it to start a fire), and he asks the following provocative question: what if J. R. R. Tolkien had secret knowledge of the Earth's early history, and used that knowledge in writing his books?

My initial response to this was, "What if C-A-T spelled 'dog'?"  But maybe I'm being a little hasty, here, to quote prominent historical figure Treebeard the Ent.  Let's look at vander Ploeg's line of reasoning:

1)  Tolkien, a professor of Old English and Anglo-Saxon linguistics, learned Finnish and studied the myths in the Kalevala extensively.

2)  Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and yet he peopled his universe in Lord of the Rings with various god-like figures.

3)  On the Island of Flores in the Indonesian archipelago, scientists have found the bones of a small hominid that apparently coexisted with modern humans until about 12,000 years ago, or possibly later.  Named Homo floresiensis, these hominids have been nicknamed... Hobbits.

4)  There are some big eagle species in Southeast Asia.

5)  The Atlantis myth shares some of the same features as Tolkien's stories of the doomed island of Númenor.  Therefore, the Atlantis myth proves that the stories of Númenor are true.  And vice-versa.

This is about as far as I got with it, because my pre-frontal cortex was begging for mercy.  (Actually, the point where I quit was when he started talking about how the Eye of Sauron still existed in the form of the US government's network of spy satellites.)  But as a logical sequence, I think we have to admit that "Finnish + demigods + tiny hominids + big eagles + Atlantis = The Lord of the Rings is all true" is a pretty persuasive piece of reasoning.  It's right up there with "HAARP causes earthquakes" and "the Nazca lines are a UFO landing strip" in terms of logical validity.

Now, don't get me wrong; I'd think it was pretty cool if Aragorn and Gandalf and the rest had all existed.  (Well, maybe not Denethor.  He was kind of an asshole.  But most of the rest of 'em.)  It certainly has a grandeur that our own, real history lacks.  I mean, compare the Thirty Years' War with the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, for cryin' in the sink.  I bet no one in the Thirty Years' War ever did anything nearly as cool as standing up and saying, "I am not a man!" and stabbing a Nazgul right between the eyeballs. 

But unfortunately, truth matters.  This means, I'm afraid, that you history students will have to continue learning about the Thirty Years' War -- and The Lord of the Rings will have to remain where it is, in the "Fiction" section of the library.