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.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Alien abductee counseling services

You've probably noticed the targeted ads that show up on blogs and social networking sites, that are selected by keyword-recognition software.  In fact, a while back I posted on this phenomenon, particularly on the tendency of the software to pick up on words like "Astrology..." while conveniently missing critical words like "... is bullshit," and thereby plastering ads for horoscopes all over a blog that ridicules the practice as pseudoscientific nonsense.

This software is getting increasingly sophisticated, keeping track of the number of times that keywords are used, what the past history of the site was, and so on.  Which is why the ad that showed up on Skeptophilia yesterday is so screamingly funny.

Recent posts have been about (1) alien abductions, (2) religious fanatics, (3) demonic possession, (4) psychotherapeutic techniques based in wishful thinking, and (5) sites that sound like they are serious but whose content makes you think they must be a prank.  What would be the ideal ad to target for my blog, if you took keywords from not just one, but all five of those?

Yes, here we have it, folks:  an ad for PAAPSI, which is an evangelical Christian ministry founded to counsel people who have been abducted by aliens or are being pursued by demons, and whose website made me keep looking in vain for a little message that said, "Site sponsored by The Onion."

PAAPSI stands for "Paranormal and Alien Problem Solvers International."  They were originally called AACOA, "Alien Abduction Crisis Centers of America."  Their mission statement says:
We recognize that alien abduction is real, and while some question whether it is the action of actual physical manifestations of demonic or angelic beings, or some sort of mind manipulation by demonic forces the equation in this matter is that it is evil and Satanic.  We recognize that in these Last Days there is a great battle for the souls and spirits of all of mankind...  Even while the enemy is inundating our minds with images of aliens, flying saucers and a host of other paranormal things, the Holy Spirit is telling people that their abductions have been the workings of not supposed space brothers, but of insidious beings that are really the fallen angels and demons known of by so many past generations...  We have freely been given the gift of deliverance from aliens and demons and paranormal bondage, and now we offer that gift to you.
PAAPSI was founded by three evangelical Christians, Joe Jordan, Dave Ruffino, and Jim Wilhelmsen, after they met at the Ancient of Days Conference in Roswell, New Mexico.  They offer their counseling services to anyone who has been abducted by aliens, hoping to gain them "freedom from oppression" by the evil aliens.  Ruffino seems to believe that even fiction about aliens is evil; he relates growing up with a father who was a devotee of science fiction, and how the kids in the family were forbidden to speak when Star Trek was on.

"That gives you an idea of the spirits that my dad unknowingly invited into our house," Ruffino says, in all apparent seriousness.

He then goes on to describe how he became involved with using drugs, and had visions of the evil aliens trying to steal his soul, but then found religion and gave up Star Trek and cocaine all in one fell swoop, and now wants to help other folks to do the same.

My general reaction is that he might have wanted to give up the drugs before crafting his worldview.

While all of this seems pretty far out there, the scary thing is, I know that there are a lot of people out there who think like this.  I remember being cautioned by one of my high school teachers about reading horror fiction, because reading that stuff is a "stepping stone for powers that are trying to influence you."  I was tempted to remind her what the definition of the word "fiction" was, but I thought that might be imprudent at best, so for once I held my tongue. 

Now, I know that there are cases where obsession with violent books and movies has been correlated with a person becoming violent in real life; but that's a far cry from claiming that watching Star Trek will open your soul to demonic possession.  (I have to admit, however, that some of the scenes where Captain Kirk gets his shirt ripped off have resulted in my having persistent nightmares, so maybe there's something to this after all.)

I think what bothers me most about all of this is how convinced people like this are that their worldview is unequivocally correct.  Those of us who disbelieve in Satan and demons and the whole shebang are ourselves being deluded by Satan -- that's why we disbelieve.  If we demand proof -- what, besides your own anecdotal reports of demonic and angelic visions, do you have as evidence that all this is true? -- we're quoted passages from the bible, and told that we only doubt because mankind's nature is inherently sinful.  With that kind of evidence-free circular reasoning, there's no possibility of arguing.  Their criteria for what constitutes a reasonable proposition is so drastically different than mine that there doesn't even seem to be any point in discussion.

So, anyhow, there you have it; the result of targeted-ad software taking my last months' posts, and putting them in a blender.  Perusing the PAAPSI website in preparation for writing this post left me feeling more than a little dazed, probably because of the repeated facepalms I kept doing while reading it.  But that's okay; what are a few thousand valuable brain cells as compared to the importance of bringing this kind of thing to the attention of my readers?  If it weren't for me, you wouldn't be aware that watching Star Trek is providing a gateway for Satan into your soul, and I just couldn't have forgiven myself if I'd chosen not to post this, and then you'd become possessed after watching "The Trouble with Tribbles."

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Monster round-up

It's been a busy few days for those of us who like to keep track of the activities of monsters that probably don't exist.

First, we have a report from Auckland, New Zealand, where a swamp monster is threatening a multi-million dollar railway tunnel project.

Apparently, the site of the tunnel was the home of the Horotiu, a dreadful monster that could cause the trains to crash if the tunnel project is completed.  Glenn Wilcox, a member of the Maori Statutory Board, objected to the fact that the siting of the tunnel was done without consideration of the feelings of the Horotiu.  "After all," Wilcox said,  "the Horotiu was here first."

So Wilcox and others have proposed to the City Planning Board that they have ceremonies to placate the Taniwha, which are local deities who (if they are happy) might intercede with the Horotiu and prevent him from wrecking the trains.

So, what we have here is that city administrators are being asked to placate invisible, mythical entities, so that they will intercede for them with another invisible, mythical entity.  I'd go further into this, but I'm sensing some thin ice here, given that my grandmother used to pray all the time to St. Jude, asking him to pass along her messages to Jesus.  So I'll just move along to...

... El Chupacabra taking a vacation in Siberia.

Evidently deciding that the summer heat in Texas and New Mexico was just too much, our friend EC has decided to pack his bags and head to cooler climes.  And true to his name ("Chupacabra" means "goat sucker") he has begun to exsanguinate Siberian goats, which are three words I bet you've never seen used in the same sentence.

The English language version of Moscow News reports that livestock owners near Novosibirsk have found numerous goats dead, and drained of blood through puncture marks in the neck.  No one has seen the wily creature, but of course parallels to alleged attacks in the United States were immediately drawn.

“If this creature is not stopped it could make its way to Novosibirsk! Only our police force are doing jack-diddly about it,” complaining locals told reporters for Komsomolskaya Pravda.  “They say that there is no Chupacabra. Come if you will journalists, have a look at what is happening to us.”

The most remarkable thing about this, in my opinion, is the use of the word "jack-diddly" in a Russian news report.  I wonder what the Russian word for "jack-diddly" is?

The people of the village of Tolmochevskoye, where the attacks took place, decided that an appropriate course of action was to ring all the church bells, and organize night patrols.  So far, the approach seems to have worked, and there have been no more reports of dead goats.  The Moscow News concludes by saying that at least "the beast has turned out to be a boon to troubled parents, presenting a very useful threat for naughty children."

So, there you have it.  New Russian parenting strategy:  "Eat your borscht, or I'll throw you outside and El Chupacabra will get you."

From the chilly tundra of Siberia, we move along to the even chillier oceans surrounding Antarctica, where we have reports of an aquatic humanoid called a "Ningen."  Supposedly, the Ningen is all white, with huge eyes and a torso that ends in a mermaid-like tail.  Below we have what is alleged to be a photograph of a Ningen:

Interestingly, the whole Ningen thing apparently started much the way that Slender Man did, with some posts on an internet forum.  People read them and reposted them and elaborated on them (and did some fancy Photoshop work on their own accord), and now we have Ningen reports coming in from as far away as coastal Namibia.  (These being undoubtedly sightings of the rare African Crested Ningen.)

A YouTube video (here) goes into the photos and video clips that are alleged to be Ningens.  What strikes me as curious is how bored the narrator sounds, which is kind of weird given that he evidently believes they exist.  Myself, if I discovered evidence of scary mermaid-things in the ocean, I'd actually be excited enough to have at least some minor vocal inflections.

In any case, I have to admit, real or not, they're kind of creepy-looking, with the giant eyes, and pasty white skin.  I think they'd make excellent minions for Cthulhu, don't you?

And that's the Monster Round-Up for today: albino mermaids, swamp monsters, and El Chupacabra visits Siberia.  As always, we'll be waiting for hard evidence confirming these reports to turn up.

Unfortunately, thus far there's been "jack-diddly."

Friday, July 29, 2011


First we had Friendster.  Then we had MySpace.  Then we had Facebook.  Then we had Twitter.  Recently, we have added Google+.

And now, we have... CryptoZoocial.

In a move certain to shake up the world of social networking, the founders of Cryptomundo (motto:  "It's a Cryptid World") have put together their own social networking site.  (You can check it out, or even sign up, here.)  Its stated goal is to allow the cryptozoological community to "have a way to interact with each other on a personal level."  Features include an interactive map where you can post your sightings, a companion iPhone app, a place to post events (the most recently posted was the 2011 Pennsylvania UFO and Bigfoot Conference), a "Groups" function that allows you to start special-interest groups (catering to cryptozoological specialists), and a competition for Top User (you get points for posting photos, signing in daily, making comments, and inviting friends).

For a few moments, I actually considered signing up.  Besides the fact that it could well be fertile ground for material for this blog, it could also just be fun.  A good many people interested in cryptozoology don't take themselves especially seriously, and have much the same attitude that I do -- skeptical but intrigued.  As I've commented before, I'd be beyond delighted if Bigfoot (or a variety of other cryptids) actually existed.  Being a biologist, I'm deeply curious about nature, and am quite convinced that there is plenty out there that we haven't discovered yet.  Bigfoot may well be one of those things.  And I have no issue with anyone who wants to hunt around in the woods for evidence, as long as they follow some reasonable code of scientific ethics and are honest about what they do, or do not, find.

My hesitation, of course, is that these sorts of things often attract wingnuts, and they're often far more vocal than the aforementioned cheerful skeptics.  Wingnuts have a zeal about them that can surpass the intensity of many of the religious.  They believe in their Big Idea with a wild, clinging desperation, and will let no challenge pass unmet.  A criticism of their dogma elicits a furious, stinging attack.  How dare you question me?  What are your sources?  What are your facts?  How can you justify your criticisms?  And every answer you give prompts a further rebuttal, because the truth is, they are holding their critics to a far higher standard of evidence than they hold themselves.

If you've never met people like this, it may sound like an extreme characterization, but I can say with some authority that they exist because I've encountered them on more than one occasion.  As a writer on the topic of skepticism and critical thinking, I have often been in the position of criticizing views of the world that are considered specious by most of the scientific community, but are espoused vehemently by a few True Believers.  And when I add my voice to the chorus of critics, I open myself up to attack.  Note that I don't especially mind defending myself (nor apologizing when I find that I have been unwarrantedly harsh in my criticisms), but I have found that arguing with zealots is (1) unpleasant and (2) generally pointless, because they almost always believe in their dogma because of some reason other than logic and factual evidence.

So I'm probably not going to sign up for CryptoZoocial.  Honestly, I'm not eager to seek out more venues to rub shoulders with people who are High Priests of the Church of Wingnuttery.  I've no doubt that most of the members of CryptoZoocial are probably very nice, sane people, but it's that 1% who are attracted to it for other reasons who worry me.  So I think I'll stick to the more prosaic awkwardness of running into old high school classmates on Facebook.  At least there, the worst I have to worry about is that they'll remember that back then I wore really thick glasses and had a dorky bowl haircut.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Werewolf Cathedral

It is probably an occupational hazard of blogging on the topic of skepticism and gullibility that I occasionally have a hard time deciding if something is a prank.

The site Werewolf Cathedral is an excellent case in point.  Here we have the following points arguing that no, these people are completely serious:

1)  They claim to be a religion.  People who use the r-word usually don't joke about it, with the exception of the dude in Austria who fought for three years for the right to wear a spaghetti-strainer on his head in his driver's license photo, because he was a Pastafarian.

2)  They begin with a very grim sounding manifesto talking about how the Werewolf represents the merging of a person's base, animalistic nature with his/her human intelligence, using impressive words like "exemplar," "ideology," and "archetype."

3)  They admit, up front, that the idea of transforming into a fanged, hairy, Lon Chaney-style werewolf is ridiculous.

4)  They don't mention Twilight, or, god forbid, Team Jacob.

Arguing against their being serious is:

1)  A Werewolf?  Really?

2)  They imply that since barbarians back in the Dark Ages didn't blow people up with nuclear weapons, they were actually way better than modern humans, conveniently ignoring such charming features as human sacrifice and the lack of general anesthesia and indoor plumbing.

3)  Despite at first ridiculing the whole turning-into-a-wolf thing, they don't actually state that this doesn't happen, they just say that people who do this are "Pseudo-werewolves."  Whatever that means.

4)  Their leader, High Priest Christopher Belmont Johnson, appears in a YouTube video clip in which he looks more like a geeky computer programmer than he does like a werewolf.

Other interesting features, which could fall into either column, depending on how you see it, include:

1)  To be a werewolf, you're supposed to hide it if you're smart.  A direct quote from their doctrine:  "The Werewolf knows that intelligence is not an asset but a liability in our modern society. The Werewolf learns to play dumb so he fits in with the common folk.  Utter stupidity being the most common trait among all peoples of modern society.  If the Werewolf possesses a truly superior intellect he will already know the dangers of allowing his brilliance to be seen by the stupids."  So there you are, then.  Some people around you who appear to be catastrophically dumb may actually be brilliant, but are hiding their brains from the rest of us because they're actually werewolves.

2)  Science is wrong.  Again, to quote their doctrine:  "Science is merely a sub religion of the Stupidians.  It tells everyone that unless they claim it is real then it isn't.  The Ministers of this sub religion then go forth and speak of theories, aka fantasies with no proof, as if they are real."  So, this means, um, that as a scientist, I'm telling people what is real, and then... no, wait.  It means that you have to claim something is real before... no, that's not it, either.  Okay, I honestly have no clue what the hell that means.  Maybe he thinks that if we nosy-parker scientists would stop going around demanding that gravity be real, we'd all be able to levitate.  I dunno.

3)  They call themselves a "secret society" despite the fact that they have a website with photographs and contact information.  Of course, the same is true of the Rosicrucians, Masons, and a variety of other groups.  I guess if you're a secret society, you can't be so secret that no one can find you, or your secret society ends up only having one member.  Plus, then no one can be suitably impressed at how amazingly scary and secret your society is, because no one knows about it.

Anyhow, I'm inclined to think that the Werewolf Cathedral is serious.  But I'm not really sure.  As I was reading through this stuff, I kept expecting the site to say, "Ha-ha!  We're just joking.  We're actually a bunch of bored software engineers in Oakland who were messing around on our coffee breaks and decided to pretend we were werewolves."  But they didn't.  These people seem pretty determined to express their animalistic nature, and to show no pity for those whom they Seduce With Their Magick.  (That was clause #13 of the Werewolf Oath.)

I found myself wondering, as I read, how many werewolf wannabees they've inducted (or whatever it's called when you officially join the Pack).  However, I couldn't find out how many members there are, because that was on the Members-Only page of the site, and I'm damned if I'm gonna join just to find out.  (For one thing, I'd have a hard time reciting the Werewolf Oath without guffawing, and I have a feeling that would disqualify me.  Plus, if I laughed at their oath, they'd probably be honor-bound to disembowel me, or something, which would be unpleasant.)  So I don't know if there are branch offices and local sub-packs all over the world, or if maybe it really is just the four people who were listed as officers (High Priest Johnson, High Priestess AngelWolf, Reverend Yusuf Eisner, and a guy who calls himself Reverend Vargulf whose bio states that he is a retired army guy who is a "wolf of ancient lineage").

My suspicion, however, is that there are lots of members.  This sort of thing appeals to a certain type of person ("delusional").  And there are lots of folks like that out there.  So, anyway, I'll leave you to decide whether you think it's serious or not.  If you decide that it is, and you end up joining the Pack, please don't tell me, I don't want to know.  I would, however, prefer it if you didn't try to Seduce Me With Your Magick.  My wife would object.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dowsing and statistical significance

My wife and I and two friends were in a gift shop yesterday, and on a rack of books for sale I saw one called Dowsing for Beginners by Richard Craxe.  I picked it up, and flipped through a bit of it.  I was a bit surprised -- I never thought of dowsing as something anyone would write a how-to manual about.

Dowsing, for those of you (probably few) who don't know about this practice, is the use of a forked stick (or in some cases) a pair of bent wires to locate everything from sources of water to lost objects.  The claim is that the dowsing rod exerts a pull on the dowser's hands, or actually turns and points toward the desired goal.  As strange as this idea is, I find that of all the odd practices I hear about from students of mine, this one is the one that they will argue the most vociferously for.  This, surprisingly, includes students whom I would normally think of as rationalistic skeptics -- students who scoff at other forms of woo-wooism.

You might wonder how this practice is supposed to work.  Explanations, of course, vary.  The use of willow branches for dowsing for underground water is sometimes explained, in all seriousness, as working because willow trees like growing near water, so the wood is magically attracted to sources of it.  Other people believe that dowsers themselves are "sensitive," so that the dowsing rod itself is only acting as a tool to focus their mysterious ability.  Dowsing for Beginners goes through some nonsense about there being a "universal mind" that everyone has access to, and it knows everything, and therefore when you practice dowsing, you're tapping into a source of knowledge that can provide you with information about where to drill for water or where you accidentally dropped your car keys.

The next question is, does it work?  The simple answer, of course, is no.  Controlled studies have shown no results whatsoever, an outcome discussed at length in James Randi's wonderful book Flim-Flam!  The fact is, my students who know "an uncle of a friend" who successfully dowsed for water are being suckered in by the fact that there's hardly anywhere in eastern North America that you won't hit water if you dig deeply enough.

A subtler problem with practices like dowsing is that a lot of people don't understand the concept of statistical significance.  A pro-dowsing site I looked at referenced a study done in 1988 by Hans-Dieter Betz, in which six dowsers were said to "[show] an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely if at all be explained as due to chance."  However, the Betz experimental protocol was highly suspect from the beginning -- Betz and his group evaluated 500 dowsers in a preliminary test, eliminated all but the most successful fifty, and then found that of those, six of them scored much better than you would expect from chance alone.

The flaw is not that Betz hand-picked the subjects -- if dowsing works, presumably some individuals would be better at it than others, being more in touch with the "universal mind," or whatever.  The problem is that even if success at dowsing is pure probability -- i.e., it doesn't work at all except by chance -- some people will do astonishingly well, and that fact means exactly nothing at all.  To explain this a little more simply, let's suppose that we had a thousand people take a random, hundred-question test consisting of four-choice multiple-choice items.  There is no skill involved; you just fill in a paper with a hundred random A's, B's, C's, and D's, and it's graded against an equally random key.  What's your likely score?

Well, 25%, of course, would be the likeliest outcome.  You have a 1/4 chance of getting each question "right," so you would be expected to score somewhere around a 25%.  The problem is, that's just the most likely score; that's not necessarily your score.  In fact, you might score far better than that, or far worse; 25% is just the average score.  In a large enough sample of test-takers, some people would seem to score amazingly well, and it's not that they're psychic, or brought their dowsing rods along to point at the correct answers, or anything; it's just a probabilistic effect.

Same with the dowsers.  Jim Enright, a prominent skeptic, criticized the Betz study, and showed statistically that in a group of 500 dowsers, you'd expect that six or so of them would be high scorers, just by random chance.  Enright described the Betz study not as proving that dowsing is a real phenomenon, but as "the most convincing disproof imaginable that dowsers can do what they claim."  Six above-average scorers out of a sample of 500 is simply not a statistically significant finding.

So, what we have here is a phenomenon that has (1) no empirical evidence in its favor, (2) no scientifically reasonable explanation about how it could work, and (3) a cogent argument that explains away cases where it has seemed to be successful.  However, as usual, people are more convinced by a flashy practitioner of mystical arts than they are by talk of probability and scientifically controlled studies, so I've no real hope that dowsing will become any less popular.  And I suppose if it resulted in your finding a good site for your well, or locating your car keys, then who am I to argue?  As Alexandre Dumas famously quipped, "Nothing succeeds like success."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy

Ironic that yesterday's post was about aliens, because today we have a story of the discovery of a crashed UFO in the Baltic Sea.

Before we proceed further, let's take a look at the photograph, which was taken by the Swedish treasure-hunting group Ocean Explorers:

What I think is interesting about this is that every single site on this story that I looked at did exactly what I just did to you; the writer primed readers to interpret what they were looking at by telling them ahead of time what the subject of the photograph was. In fact, a good many sites had headlines such as "Swedish Team Finds Millennium Falcon in Baltic Sea," thereby not only telling you that you were going to be looking at a photograph of a spaceship, but telling you which spaceship it was.

Humans are pattern-finders.  It's a very important skill.  Our ability to make sense of the millions of visual inputs our eyes register daily -- to notice some, disregard others, and to focus on recognizable patterns -- is of obvious evolutionary significance.  It is critical in most situations, however, to have some idea of what you're looking at ahead of time.  Take the following random pattern of black dots and white spaces:

Unless you'd seen this rather famous photograph before, you probably didn't see a damn thing in it.  Then, I used the word "photograph," and you very likely went, "Wait..." and looked again.  Then, if I tell you it is a photograph of a dalmatian dog... suddenly it pops out.

The point is, when you already have a guess as to what you're looking at, it makes it much easier to see.  This would have been pretty helpful to proto-hominids on the African savanna, where being able to pick out a lion's face from amongst the dried tufts of yellow grass would have been a major life-saver.  However, like most things, this ability can backfire -- and make you see things that aren't there, simply because you were already convinced that you knew what you were looking at.

There are a great many examples of perfectly natural objects that have a peculiarity about them that might lead you to believe that they're manmade.  Take the Giant's Causeway, in Ireland:

The sheer regularity of this structure -- thousands of hexagonal, smooth-sided pillars -- has led people to variously surmise that they were made by gods, giants, and the lost civilization of Atlantis.  In fact, all they are is hexagonal cooling cracks in igneous rock -- a perfectly natural occurrence.  Now that you know that (which you may have already), you notice that they're not perfectly regular, and they're packed too tightly to be anything likely to be made by humans.  However, if I'd told you that these were pillars of an ancient temple before showing you the photograph, I wonder if that would have even occurred to you?

Back to our crashed spaceship.  What makes it look like a spaceship?  It's (1) vaguely oval in shape; (2) has long, parallel lines in it; and (3) there's a section of it (the "back end of the spaceship") that has a gap, right where we are accustomed to seeing the exhaust system of spaceships in movies.  All right, could this be a spaceship?  I suppose, but aren't there other explanations that are a tad more likely?  It may not be a natural object -- its regularity supports that conjecture -- but maybe it's just a piece of a sunken ship (a gun turret, perhaps?).  Alternately, it could just be a rock formation.  Recall how convincingly face-like the "Face on Mars" looked -- until you saw it from another angle.

In any case, I'm not ready to accept that it's an alien spacecraft, based on one photograph, nor to warn divers to watch out if they approach it so they don't get infiltrated by the Black Oil (sorry for the X Files reference if you're not an aficionado).  Given how easy it is to fool the human mind, especially if they're already primed to interpret what they're seeing in a particular way, I'm perfectly willing to delay my excitement until we get more information.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Aliens, abductions, and ashtrays

The subject of alien abductions has come up a lot lately.

I'm currently writing from a beautiful house in the Adirondacks, which would be apropos of nothing whatsoever except that it has an outdoor hot tub, and we were in it last night with the friends we're vacationing with, and one of them looked up at the brilliant stars scattered through the sky and asked, "Do you think there's intelligent life on other planets?"

I was tempted to respond, "I'm sometimes in serious doubt that there's intelligent life on Earth," but for once I chose the Road Less Sarcastic and said, "I'm sure there is.  I bet that one of those stars we're seeing has a planet around it that has intelligent life, and they may well be looking back at us and wondering the same thing."

Note that this is not, in any sense, a scientific conjecture.  We have no evidence whatsoever that life of any kind exists anywhere but right here.  We do, however, have two intriguing pieces of information -- the recent, and continuing, discovery of exoplanets (the current number of known exoplanets is 563, although the majority of them seem to be inhospitable to life as we know it), and the relative ease with which organic compounds can form, in the absence of life.  The combination of these two facts leads me to the belief (because here we cross the line from what I know to what I am speculating about) that life is probably very common in the universe.  And since a third fact -- the drive of organic evolution -- very likely works the same way on other planets as it does here, I see no reason to doubt that there could be a great many planets that harbor intelligence.

The next question my friend asked was, "Do you think that aliens have visited here?"  My answer there is a fairly resounding "no."  Again, this is not based on a theory in the scientific sense, but on two simple facts -- the absence of any credible evidence, and the seemingly insurmountable distances between the stars. Astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson, who has spent a lot of time thinking about such matters, agrees.  About the absence of evidence, he wonders why there has never been a single tangible piece of evidence of alien visitation, despite the fact that the number of UFO reports make it seem like Earth is some kind of Grand Central Station for Little Green Men.  Tyson adjured an audience to take matters into their own hands, if they were ever abducted.  "You'll be lying there on the table, waiting to be probed," he said, "because you know how aliens love to do that.  Then, when the alien comes over to you, yell, 'Look at that!' and when the alien turns, grab the ashtray, and stick it in your pocket.  Then, when you come back, you'll have something tangible.  Because, you know, anything that's of alien manufacture is bound to be interesting."

The second part, the immensity of space, seems to me to be the real issue, though.  It would take tens of thousands of years for us to reach the nearest star, if we were travelling in the fastest man-made vehicle currently available.  Even if faster travel becomes possible, you run into the mind-bending relativistic effects on time; and unfortunately, there is no scientific support for the idea, popularized by science fiction shows such as Star Trek, of faster-than-light travel.  "Warp Six, captain!" looks like it will remain an interesting, but impossible, fiction.

So, what about all of the alien abduction stories?  I started this piece by mentioning abduction stories, and indeed the impetus for this post was the fact that the state of New Hampshire just put up a historical marker commemorating the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, who were two of the first (and still two of the most famous) alleged abductees.  The marker says:
On the night of September 19-20, 1961, Portsmouth, NH couple Betty and Barney Hill experienced a close encounter with an unidentified flying object and two hours of “lost” time while driving south on Rte 3 near Lincoln. They filed an official Air Force Project Blue Book report of a brightly-lit cigar-shaped craft the next day, but were not public with their story until it was leaked in the Boston Traveler in 1965. This was the first widely-reported UFO abduction report in the United States.
The story has all of the hallmarks of the classic abduction story -- the brightly-lit craft that followed the car down a lonely road, the interference with their radio, the gaps in their sense of time (and also in their memories).  However, as much as I'd like to believe it, the complete lack of hard evidence leaves me skeptical.  My answer, with this as with everything, is: if you want me to believe something, show me the goods.  Otherwise all you have is a curious story, and I'm under no obligation to think you're telling the truth.

And the last reason I've been thinking a lot about alien abductions is that the novel I'm currently writing, Signal to Noise, is about a series of mysterious kidnappings in a small town in Oregon.  I'm not going to tell you any more about the plot -- you'll just have to read it when it's done.  But I'll end with a rather telling quote from my wife:  "For someone who doesn't believe in all of this stuff, you spend an awful lot of time thinking about it."

Guilty as charged.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pyramid scheme

Another of the stories that will never die is the ridiculous notion that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids.

I bring this up because of a story describing events that occurred late last year, which was nevertheless posted only a few days ago by some woo-woos connected with the site UFO Blogger.  Titled "Egyptian Archaeologist Admits Pyramids Contain Alien Technology," it describes an alleged statement by Dr. Alaaeldin Shaheen, the Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University.

The story goes that in December of 2010, Dr. Shaheen was speaking to an audience about Egyptian archaeology, and stated, "there might be truth to the theory that aliens helped the ancient Egyptians build the oldest of pyramids, the Pyramids of Giza."  A reporter from Poland, one Marek Novak, then questioned Shaheen further, asking if there might be evidence of alien technology within, or perhaps buried under, the pyramids.  Dr. Shaheen responded with the mysterious pronouncement, "I cannot confirm or deny this, but there is something inside the pyramid that is 'not of this world'."

There are a variety of problems with this statement, besides the fact that anyone who believes it has been spending too much time watching Stargate-SG1

The most important problem, and the one I'd like to analyze in this post, is that the event never happened.

Which apparently didn't matter, because nobody much bothered to check.  The idea that a respected archaeologist would even waffle on the question of aliens being involved with the building of the pyramids caused multiple orgasms throughout the the woo-woo world, and began to spread through alien-conspiracy blogs without anyone even verifying the story.  One of the first to make the claim was noted wingnut Andrew Collins.  Collins has been into pyramid-lore for some time, and has also delved into the crop-circle nonsense, the Atlantis nonsense, and the Holy Grail nonsense.  Not content to stop there, he has developed a whole new branch of nonsense all his own, the "Cygnus theory," which is that the constellation of Cygnus has been a "guiding force in human evolution" and will be the place where the "new sun" will be born following the events of 2012.  He also thinks that the fact that Cygnus is vaguely cross-shaped is why the cross is an "important symbol in Christianity."  (I can think of at least one other plausible reason, can't you?)

In any case, Collins did an extensive post on the Shaheen/pyramids/aliens story, basically claiming that this was the "smoking gun" of the alien conspiracy world.  Then, however, the whole thing came to the ears of Dr. Shaheen himself.  Shaheen wrote to Collins, and his response said, in toto, "Kindly be informed that I did not give such stupid statements about aliens and Pyramids.  As I am an Egyptologist, I would not say such stupid words and ideas."

Well, that sounds pretty unequivocal, don't you think?  Even Collins had no choice but to print a retraction, although he did end it by wistfully stating, "I would still love it if a super crystal of Atlantean or alien origin were to be found inside the Great Pyramid, or anywhere else on the plateau for that matter." Okay, Mr. Collins, if we find any "super crystals," you'll be the first to know.

Now, remember that this whole thing happened last December.  You'd think that with one of the most prominent pyramid woo-woos backing down from the whole story, it would just fizzle.

You'd be wrong.

The claim is still popping up on sites today, and the amazing thing is that even now, hardly anyone bothers to check whether it's true or not.  The UFO Blogger article referenced at the beginning of this post treated the story as if it were breaking news, and stated that it supported earlier allegations that the KGB had discovered an alien mummy inside the Great Pyramid. 

It's a little ironic that, given that the motto of this crew is "The Truth Is Out There," they're so willing to play fast and loose with the facts.  One site I looked at even went so far as to insinuate that Dr. Shaheen's exasperated email to Andrew Collins was a belated attempt to cover up for what had slipped out at the conference!  Of course, the same site contained the following statement:
The Great Pyramid is a geophysical computer showing the half-life of our local universe within the geophysical foundations of the Earth’s biophysical, geophysical, and astrophysical meridians.  It is connected with Orion which is the region for positive programming in our local universe.  It is an amplifier for the natural energies of the earth that run along, inside, and celestially.  The vibration of the King’s Chamber, in the key of F# (the fundamental mode of vibration in quantum mechanics physics and string theory) is meant to create an open channel with higher consciousness and the human soul.  It is a model for the light continuum of the many universes connected with the earth.  Think of a doorway for consciousness which allows it to connect with Orion and regions of higher intelligence.
Which narrowly edges out J. Z. Knight's "What the Bleep Do We Know?" as being the most highly distilled example of bullshit I've ever heard.

All of this serves to point out, once again, a few key concepts.  First, most people believe what they want to believe, facts be damned.  Second, the same people referenced in #1 generally prefer elaborate, mysterious nonsense over simple, prosaic, factual claims.  Third, despite how simple it now is to check on the facts of a story, very few people bother to do so.

And fourth, once ridiculous claims become entrenched on the internet, they will never die.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Airborne chihuahuas and missing tortoises

Today we have a story in from Kankakee, Illinois about someone who has allegedly gotten into psychic contact with a missing tortoise.

This is not the first time that psychics have come forward to try to help find a wayward pet.  A while back, for example, we had the case of the chihuahua owned by Michigan couple Lavern and Dorothy Utley.  The tiny dog was with its owners at a flea market, and was blown away by a windstorm.  Note that I'm not using "blown away" to mean "landing, with bruised dignity, several feet away;" I mean, "blown away, in the fashion of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz."

I should mention at this juncture that the dog's name is "Tinker Bell."

In any case, it all ends happily, because a pet psychic got in contact with Tinker Bell, and assured the Utleys the she was fine.  After some searching, the Utleys and the psychic found the bedraggled pooch in the woods over a mile away, shaken up but otherwise okay.

Of course, my question is why on earth anyone would even think of consulting a "pet psychic."  I'm sure they don't work for free, and as far as I'm concerned, you'd be just as well off taking a stack of money and setting fire to it and hoping that your pet would be attracted to the smoke.  But apparently such things are commonplace, judging by today's news from Illinois.

"Rex," a six-year-old, forty pound African spurred tortoise, has been missing for ten days, according to owner Charlotte Ramirez.  Ramirez had contacted the local newspaper and asked them if they'd post a notice asking local residents to keep an eye out.  Then, a couple of days ago, Ramirez got an interesting phone call.

A woman, identifying herself as "Sheri," stated that she had read the story and then had had a "vision" in which she got into psychic contact with Rex.  She informed Ramirez that Rex was in a neighbor's yard, under a shed, and that nearby was a "pit bull-like dog with two different colors of tan on its coat."  Sheri has now offered her services in helping Ramirez to locate her pet.

Instead of saying "you think you've been in psychic contact with a reptile?" and then guffawing and hanging up, Ramirez and her husband dutifully went searching the neighborhood for a shed and a pit bull.  They haven't found one yet, but state that they are "still looking."

I wonder, if psychics can contact something as far down the intelligence scale as a tortoise, how much further down can they go?  Could they get into psychic contact with a goldfish?  A bug?  A single ant in an ant farm?  A jellyfish?  How about plants?  Samuel Butler famously said, "Even a potato... has a certain low cunning."  I wonder if a psychic could sense that?  I don't know about you, but I'd certainly like to watch a psychic attempt to establish some sort of Vulcan mind-meld with, say, a zucchini.

What strikes me about all of this is how unquestioningly people accept this kind of thing as the truth.  Whenever some bizarre idea is proposed, my first question is, "how could that possibly work?"  So, in cases like these, the relevant question is, "How could a tortoise's brain somehow send out a signal that then gets picked up by a random stranger?"  Isn't it far more likely that Sheri simply read the story about the missing pet, and then either fabricated, or possibly dreamed, a scenario that seemed plausible?

In any case, I want to go on record as wishing Charlotte Ramirez well in locating her wandering tortoise.  I can't say I have any confidence that Rex will show up anywhere near a tan pit bull, but that's just me.  And it could be worse; at least tortoises don't get blown away in windstorms.

Friday, July 22, 2011

We're having a heat wave

Breaking news has come in from noted climatologist Rush Limbaugh, with regard to all of you people in the Midwest and on the East Coast who think it's been a bit hot out for the last week:  you're wrong.  If you think it's hot, you're falling prey to a government conspiracy.  Here are his exact words, which I transcribed myself at the cost of uncounted millions of brain cells that I can ill afford to lose:
They're playing games with this heat wave again.  It's gonna be 116 degrees in Washington DC... no, it's not, it's gonna be 100, maybe 99.  The "heat index" is manufactured by the government.  They tell you what it "feels like" when you add the humidity!  When's the last time the heat index was reported as an actual temperature?  It hasn't been, but it looks like they're trying to get away with doing that now...  It's 100, maybe 97, it's gonna top out at 102, 103.  It does this every year.  We have this heat dome over half the country.  It's in the Midwest, moving east, and it happens every summer.
Well, sorry, Rush, but the heat index is not a "game," or an invention of the government.  It's a number calculated based on the rate of heat loss by the human body, which is lower when the humidity is high (thus resulting in your feeling hotter).  Even if you're equally hydrated, a temperature of 100 is more dangerous in Philadelphia than it is in Phoenix, because when it comes to health, what matters isn't the ambient air temperature, what matters is your core body temperature -- which rises faster if the humidity is high, because your body can't throw off excess heat as quickly.

Which is why, so far, there have been 22 heat-related deaths from this heat wave that "happens every year."

What bothers me most about all of this is that science should not have a political agenda, either liberal or conservative, and the facts of climatology (such as the fact that this summer the Arctic pack ice is melting at the fastest rate ever recorded) get spun as having a political bias.  Whatever your political beliefs, facts have no bias at all.  The heat index comes from a calculation that anyone with sufficient brainpower can perform.  The rate of the pack ice melt is something that anyone with access to the data could calculate.  Limbaugh, and others like him, are playing the dangerous game of pretending that the facts themselves are suspect -- they have gone beyond accusing the scientists themselves of skewing their theories to forward a political agenda, they now have sunk to claiming that even the raw data is being cooked by the politicians.

For the record, I am well aware that scientific theories can have political ramifications, and that science itself is never free from biases of various kinds.  I also understand the difference between climate and weather, a distinction that seems to escape people like Sean Hannity, who claimed last winter that the enormous snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast in February "buried the idea of global warming."  And, for the record, I don't think that the warm-up we've seen to date (which is a fact) has been absolutely demonstrated to have a solely anthropogenic origin (which is a theory).

However, what bloviating blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity do is to pump up the distrust by the public of the facts generated by science, and call into question the scientific process itself.  As I've commented before, I find it curious that people are perfectly willing to believe that the scientific process discerns the truth when it comes to things they'd like to trust (such as medicine, engineering, and materials science) and yet gives wildly wrong answers when it comes to things they wish weren't true (such as evolutionary biology and climate science).  I'd like someone to explain to me how the same process, applied in the same way, can find the truth in certain instances and be crazily wrong in others -- especially when the times it's crazily wrong seem to fall coincidentally in line with the political agenda of the speaker.

And while you're explaining that, will someone get me a glass of iced tea?  'cause it's freakin' hot in here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Down the drain

A friend of mine, also a blogger, is doing a post about the weirdest Google search keywords that get people to our blogs.  I know I've thought about that before -- how do people find me?  (My submission: I had one person find Skeptophilia after searching "I saw a light with a vapor."  I still have no idea how that worked.)

In any case, I saw that another contender was that several people had found me after searching "huge whirlpools in Atlantic," which linked them to my post from a few weeks ago about the wingnuts who think that Comet Elenin is going to cause the end of the world.  Mark Sircus, who made the original claim, had made a passing reference (which I had quoted) to the formation of huge Atlantic whirlpools, and that's why the keywords pointed them at my site.

So, this morning, I started thinking, "what huge Atlantic whirlpools?  I haven't heard about any huge Atlantic whirlpools."  So I did a search of my own.  Besides finding a link to my own site, I found a number of references to whirlpools off the coast of Guyana and Suriname.  The original source of the story seems to have been Pravda:
According to Brazilian scientist Guilherme Castellane, the two funnels are approximately 400 kilometers in diameter. Until now, these were not known on Earth. The funnels reportedly exert a strong influence on climate changes that have been registered during the recent years.

"Funnels rotate clockwise. They are moving in the ocean like giant frisbees, two discs thrown into the air. Rotation occurs at a rate of one meter per second, the speed is sufficiently large compared to the speed of oceanic currents, on the border hoppers [sic] is a wave-step height of 40 cm," Castellane said.
I have no idea what the phrase "on the border hoppers" means, and can only assume that it is a mistranslation of some sort -- that phrase appears in every article I looked at that quotes Castellane.

When people read this sort of thing, they typically arrive at several wrong conclusions.  First, they picture these sorts of "whirlpools" as looking like water going down a bathtub drain, and worry that ships might get sucked down to the bottom.  In fact, these rotating discs of water aren't uncommon at all; they're called gyres, and there are two huge ones that have been extensively studied, one in the North Atlantic and one in the Central Pacific.  Gyres are thought to be caused by the flowing of currents in opposite directions on either side of the oceanic basin -- the drag ultimately causes a layer of water in the center of the ocean to rotate.  Unfortunately, these gyres tend to become filled with floating trash, and are a major concern to environmental scientists.

Pravda, however, disagrees that the newly-discovered Atlantic gyres are caused by drag and differential water movement.  The article states that instead, these phenomena might have something to do with the magnetic field of the Earth:
Why do those whirlpools exist for such a long time?  This is partially the effect of Earth's magnetic field. In addition, marine water contains many charged ions, Na and Cl for example.  To crown it all, water molecules are dipoles that are charged both positively and negatively.

Any dipole starts spinning when moving in the magnetic field.  An oceanic ring gathers millions of billions of molecules together.  That is why the giant circle movement triggered by the vertical movement of water may last for months and years mechanically. Ions also give more power to the craters.  Natrium and Chlorum [sic] are charged as well, and their movement in the magnetic field of the Earth also leads to the appearance of the circle movement.
Well, at the risk of angering my Russian comrades, this is patent horse waste.  Water is diamagnetic, which means that it creates a magnetic field in opposition to any applied external magnetic field, but only on a molecule-by-molecule basis.  It's a weak effect; in an extremely powerful magnetic field (such as would be generated by a large electromagnet), the surface of a container of water will dimple slightly.  There is no way that water, even salt water, would generate enough of a magnetic field in response to Earth's that it would move significantly.

But of course, you have to know some science to realize that, and you also have to have some degree of skepticism regarding woo-wooism in general.  Otherwise, you know what happens when someone mentions "giant whirlpools" and "magnetic fields" in the same paragraph?  All of the end-of-the-world loonies remember their ninth-grade Earth Science teachers mentioning something about how the Earth's magnetic field reverses periodically, and they add that to any other nutty ideas they may have heard (2012, the Rapture, conspiracies), and pretty soon you have people running around in circles themselves, but not because they're Experiencing Magnetic Forces on the Natrium and Chlorum ions in their blood.

To illustrate this, here are a few of the more interesting comments I saw on some of these websites, most of which referenced the Pravda article as their source:

"This just blows my mind.  I would love to see a giant whirlpool like this.  I wonder where all the water is going?"

"This just shows that all of the so-called laws of science will be broken as the End Times approach, to show that there is just one law:  the Law of God."

"I heard that this is because of a geomagnetic storm going on right now, a high-speed solar storm.  Basically, spaceweather."  (This reminds me of how the people on Lost In Space were always having to run and hide because of "cosmic storms.")

"Is this near where the Hopi mystics predicted that the Earth would birth a new Moon?"

"This could be the water draining into the Earth.  But remember that water vapor has to condense somewhere.  What if it's just going into the core and staying there because of gravity?"

After that last one, I have to stop, because major sectors of my brain are whimpering in agony.  In any case, if you're planning a Caribbean cruise, I wouldn't worry about huge whirlpools pulling your cruise ship down to the bottom.  I am also not losing any sleep about spaceweather, new Moons, or the End Times.  My general sense is that everyone should just calm down, not to mention learn a little science before you write articles about it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The false hope of Facilitated Communication

Despite the scorn I frequently heap upon woo-wooism of various types, I honestly feel that most of it is pretty harmless.  Hunting ghosts, chasing Bigfoot, messing with Tarot cards or numerology or astrology -- about all that's really at risk is your bank balance, and if you're willing to pay for your own particular brand of pseudoscience, well, that's your choice and no real damage done.

Not so with Facilitated Communication.

I bring this up because MIT is hosting a conference on Facilitated Communication, starting today and running through Friday, a move that gives me further reason to question the judgment and critical thinking abilities of our educational leaders.  If you have never heard of FC, let me give you a brief rundown.

In the late 1980s, a woman named Rosemary Crossley had an idea.  This idea was that non-communicative children -- especially those with severe retardation, cerebral palsy, and severe autism -- might not lack intelligence, despite their inability to express themselves.  So she developed a technique by which a "facilitator" could use hand gestures and tiny changes in the affected individual's facial expressions and body language to "interpret" what the person was really thinking.

Despite a large number of controlled studies showing that FC doesn't work -- that the outcome is based upon the thoughts, wishes, and desires of the facilitator, not the patient -- FC has caught on, and for a very good reason.  It gives the family members and caregivers of non-communicative individuals a false sense of hope.  And because of this, it has proven to be very lucrative.  In 1992 a Facilitated Communication Institute was founded, under the aegis of Syracuse University.  (Largely because of the bad press FC has gotten, the institute was recently renamed "The Institute for Communication and Inclusion" and FC renamed "supported typing.")  Crossley herself has become famous for a book called Annie's Coming Out, with co-author Annie McDonald -- a severely retarded girl with cerebral palsy, who allegedly communicated her thoughts to Crossley via FC and helped to write the story.  The book later became the basis of an award-winning movie.

It's not that it's impossible that there are non-communicative individuals who still have highly active brains; consider Stephen Hawking, whose decades-long fight with ALS has still not stopped him from writing scores of books and academic papers.  But with FC, the "facilitators" are taking the easy way out, injecting their own knowledge, thoughts, and feelings into the "messages" that are supposed to come from the patients' minds.  More than thirty controlled studies of FC have shown that the practice has no value, and yet Crossley and her partner Chris Bothwick continue to rake in money, charging $250 for a six-part video series on how FC works and what it can do for non-communicative patients.  Practitioners of the technique charge hundreds of dollars an hour to create messages that are alleged to come from the patients, and of course Crossley and Bothwick are kept busy (and well-paid, not to mentioned wined and dined) on the world-wide academic lecture circuit.

It's bad enough that Syracuse University has bought into the whole thing -- their FC Institute (pardon me, the "Institute for Communication and Inclusion") continues to thrive -- but now MIT, traditionally a bastion of peer-reviewed science, has given its tacit approval to the whole thing by hosting the FC conference this week.

I am appalled, and it's not just at their embracing pseudoscience -- as if they were hosting a conference on telepathy, or something.  I am appalled mostly because this technique, which has failed every test that would be necessary to establish it as rigorous science, bilks people out of their money using the lever of the desperation of thwarted hope, love, and compassion -- by giving family members the promise of communicating with a loved one who is locked inside a hopelessly non-functioning body.  It makes them think, falsely, that children whose brains are damaged beyond repair are actually experiencing high-level thoughts.  It rips people off by providing them with false hope -- and as such, should be scorned by professional psychologists and educational institutions (and even more important, prosecuted by the legal system), just as we would scorn and seek to prosecute quacks who give patients with terminal illnesses useless medications.

And the administrations of Syracuse University and MIT should be ashamed of themselves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

News round-up

Things have been busy here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.

From Chatham, Illinois we have a report of a Bigfoot print in a man's back yard.  Michael Patrick, a resident of Chatham, was having his pool liner replaced one day when the workmen noticed a huge footprint underneath a nearby apple tree.  The print turned out to be eighteen inches long, which is literally a Big Foot -- Shaquille O'Neil's size 23 shoes accommodate feet about fifteen inches long.

Apparently, the previous evening, Patrick had become aware of something bumping around outside.

“My neighbor has a German Shepherd, and it heard something that night that spooked him.  The dog went outside to investigate, but came back cowering, now it won’t leave its owner’s side,” Patrick said.

Bigfoot expert Stan Courtney was called in, and said that Patrick wasn't the only person to have odd experiences in or near Chatham -- that there had been about a half-dozen reports of noises, including bumps, footsteps, and howling.

As far as why Bigfoot picked Patrick's back yard, Courtney speculates that it is because Bigfoot likes apples.  "The apple tree might have somehow been interpreted as a gift of food," Courtney said.  "A creature such a Bigfoot will usually return the favor if offered food, and present a gift of its own as a show of appreciation in the form of a dead animal or a strange arrangement of flowers."

So, Bigfoot's approach is kind of like that of the creepy guy in the apartment down the hall, when he asks you for a date.  I'm not sure if that's reassuring, or just disturbing.

Next, we have a report in from Asia, that populations of geckos in the Philippines are crashing because poachers are catching them, drying their bodies, and selling them to purveyors of traditional medicines in Malaysia and Thailand as an aphrodisiac and a cure for impotence.  Apparently, an 11-ounce gecko can bring in more than a thousand dollars.

Authorities are trying to do what they can to stop the trade, as geckos are valuable for keeping down populations of harmful insects.  Environment Secretary Ramon Paje earlier warned that collecting and trading geckos without permit can be punishable by up to four years in jail and a fine of up to 300,000 pesos ($6,900).

So, if you have trouble in the romance department, you might want to think twice about snacking on local lizards.  The same advice applies if you would like to save 15% on your automobile insurance.

And of course, we just couldn't call the day complete without an appearance of Jesus' face somewhere.  The latest appearance of the Lord and Savior was on a Walmart receipt in Anderson County, South Carolina.  Jacob Simmons and his fiancĂ©e, Gentry-Lee Sutherland, had just returned from a shopping trip to Walmart, and the receipt for their purchases fell to the floor.  A couple of days later, after a church service, they happened to notice the receipt, and found that there were dark markings in the shape of a face on the slip of paper.

"The more you look at it, the more it looked like Jesus, and it was just shocking, breathtaking," Simmons said.

Sutherland agreed, and referenced the sermon they had heard at church that Sunday.  "We had a message on knowing God, abiding in him," Sutherland said.   "(The preacher asked) 'If you know God, would you recognize him if you saw him?'"

Evidently the answer is yes.  See if you agree.  Below is a photograph of the receipt:

Me, I'm not seeing Jesus here, but I do see a fairly strong resemblance to the character Torgo from the abysmally awful 60s horror movie Manos: The Hands of Fate.  In fact, I keep expecting him to say, in a creaky voice, "Master... doesn't like... children."

So, anyway, that's the wrap-up for today from Worldwide Wacko Watch.  Bigfoot in Illinois, geckos in Malaysian love pills, and Jesus on a Walmart receipt.  As usual, our motto here is:  All the news that's fit to guffaw at.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sheep of unusual size

News has arrived here that there have been sightings of a new kind of cryptid in southern Virginia.

A woman identified only as "Teena" contacted Lon Strickler, owner of the website Phantoms & Monsters, with the following story:

I hope you can give me an idea of what I saw a few weeks ago while hiking with a friend in Fairy Stone State Park in Virginia.  We had been on one of the trails for about an hour when we stopped for a brief rest and drink.  This was my first visit to this park and I was pleased that the area we were in was secluded.

After a few minutes of rest we continued to walk along the trail when my friend suddenly stopped and pointed towards the right at large group of rocks.  Something was moving around but it was about 50 yards away so we didn't get a very good look.  We could see that it was light in color and was quite bulky.  We stood frozen wanting to know what this creature was though I was getting more frightened by the second.  As we started to walk the creature moved onto a rock where we got a good look at it.  It looked like a medium sized bear but the fur was very light in color, almost a yellowish gray.  The head was very strange also.  There was a snout like that of a bear but the dark round eyes were set lower on the head.  It was looking in our direction and we had no intention on sticking around to see what it was going to do.
Mr. Strickler's answer was that this animal has been seen in southern Virginia before, and is said to be "white and woolly," with "long, saber-like teeth and single-point horns," "a long and hairless tail," and "a smell like sulfur."  The name of the beast?


I kid you not.  I can barely type this word without guffawing.  The best part was that the article had an artist's rendition of Sheepsquatch, which I will include here (apologies for not crediting the artist, but the source of the drawing was not given):

All I can say is, that's one freakin' scary-looking sheep.  I'll bet he's a real baaaaadass.   (ba-dump-bump-ksssh)

One person who posted a response to the original article suggested that Sheepsquatch could be a relic population of giant ground sloths.  Well, I've seen giant ground sloth skeletons in museums, and artists' recreations of what they original animal looked like, and my impression is that one of the only things that Sheepsquatch looks less like than it does like a sheep is a giant ground sloth.  To me, what Sheepsquatch looks like is one of the Rodents of Unusual Size from The Princess Bride

I'm also wondering if adding "-squatch" after animal names is going to become a trend, the way adding "-gate" after the focal points of scandals has.  You pick some real animal that your cryptid looks vaguely like (really vaguely, in the case of Sheepsquatch), and add "-squatch" at the end, and there's the name of your cryptid.  For example, a long, slinky kind of cryptid with brown fur could be a Weaselsquatch.   My dog Grendel, who looks like the result of a canine genetics experiment gone horribly wrong, will hereafter be referred to as a "Dogsquatch."  I hope they don't extend the trend too far, however - if they ever found a giant flightless bird cryptid, they shouldn't call it Ostrichsquatch because it's impossible to say that without spitting all over yourself.

In any case, I encourage you all to go down to southern Virginia and see if you can find Sheepsquatch for yourself.  Keep an eye out for other kinds of squatches while you're at it.  Also be careful if you happen to see any Rodents of Unusual Size.  I hear they have a nasty bite.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sealed with a kiss

In further inquiries into religions that I don't begin to understand, I'd like to relate the story of how I recently bumped up against the Mormon practice of "sealing" during some of my genealogical inquiries.

I'm somewhat obsessed with family history.  I guess you could call it "collecting dead relatives."  Those who know me well know that I rarely do things by half-measures -- my database is rapidly approaching 90,000 names of ancestors and cousins and cousins-by-marriage, collected over the past 30 years of research.

In any case, I was looking into one of my lines on my dad's side of the family last week.  My dad, despite his French surname, had a good bit of Dutch and Scotch-Irish ancestry, and I was poking about in online records of one of his Dutch lines, the Bogards.  The Bogards came from Holland in the early 1600s, settled in New Amsterdam, moved to Albany, and thence to West Virginia, and finally my dad's branch of the family tree made their way to Opelousas, Louisiana in the late 1700s.   In any case, one of the Bogard cousins, one Cornelius Bogard of Hampshire County, West Virginia, showed up in an online database I was perusing.  And there I saw something that made me frown, a bit.

On the webpage for old Cornelius, it showed him as married to Sarah Skidmore.  Further, there was a note that said, "Sealed, Salt Lake City Temple," followed by a date.

What this means is that the Mormons, following their religious practices, have held a ceremony "sealing" Cornelius and Sarah in the afterlife.  Without so much as asking the permission of the dear departed, or inquiring as to whether their marriage was a happy or an unhappy one, the Mormons have locked them together permanently.

There's only one tiny problem with this particular example of post-mortem wedded bliss; Sarah Skidmore didn't, in fact, marry Cornelius Bogard.  This bit of so-called information was the result of a piece of spectacularly bad research carried out in the early 20th century, and which contained errors that have been accepted as fact, lo unto this very day, by genealogists who don't question their sources.  After studying the primary records, however, more diligent researchers have come to the incontrovertible conclusion; the real Sarah Skidmore died as a child.  As for Cornelius, he married a Sarah Something-Else (possibly Westfall).

So the dilemma is, if you believe in all of this Traditional Family Values In The Afterlife stuff, apparently Cornelius is now sealed to some poor ghostly child who probably never even met him, leaving his actual wife standing on the sidelines, probably jealous as hell.  And I wish I could say this was the only error I've found in LDS-endorsed records, but the truth is, since these records were compiled by (fallible) researchers, largely from secondary sources written by other (fallible) researchers, there are thousands of errors in their files.   I'm now visualizing the Mormon version of heaven as being filled with millions of very happy and very wealthy ghostly divorce lawyers, making tens of millions of dollars unhitching couples who were mistakenly sealed by well-meaning, but ill-informed, LDS researchers here on earth.

And I won't even get into how the Mormon practice of baptism of the dead has pissed off the Jews and the Catholics.

Now, I hasten to add that I don't actually believe any of this.  Once I'm gone, if the Mormons want to baptize me, they can knock themselves out.  If anything remotely close to the Christian god actually exists, I doubt it'll help much in any case, given how many years I've spent disbelieving.  My actual question is, if you do believe in sealing of marriages for those already gone on to meet their maker (or not, as the case may be), how do you account for errors in research and people being sealed to the wrong person?

Now, I can imagine certain cases where such errors might be welcome.  For example, if any LDS member wants to seal me in the afterlife to Penelope Cruz, I won't object too strenuously.   However, for the record, I have never been, nor will ever be, romantically involved with Britney Spears, and if somehow I get hitched to her in the spirit world, I am going to be pissed.

Just so you know.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Time is running out

Today I was going to tell you about the conference of exorcists meeting in Poland to tackle the worldwide problem of vampires, but a much more pressing issue has arisen that I need to discuss while I have the time.

The issue is that time is speeding up.  I'm sure we've all noticed this.  It's becoming harder and harder to get everything done that needs doing, and there just seem not to be enough hours in the day.  Well, according to a story that popped up in my news feed today... there aren't.

The article, entitled "Is Time Speeding Up?", begins with the following paragraph:
Time is actually speeding up (or collapsing).  For thousands of years the Schumann Resonance or pulse (heartbeat) of the Earth has been 7.83 cycles per second.  The military have used this as a very reliable reference.  However, since 1980 this resonance has been slowly rising.  It is now over 12 cycles per second!  This means there is the equivalent of less than 16 hours per day instead of the old 24 hours!
Okay.  I mean, my only question would be, "What?"  The Schumann resonance is an atmospheric phenomenon, an electromagnetic resonance caused by lightning discharges in the ionosphere.  And even if the frequency of the resonance is increasing (which I could find no credible evidence of in any case), there's no way we could know if it's been stable "for thousands of years," because it was only discovered in 1952.  And anyway, why would this have anything to do with how fast time is passing?

Then I decided to do a little research, and it turns out that this is only scratching the surface of the "accelerating time" theory.  There was one article from a guy whose proof that time is speeding up was that all the clocks in his house are running fast.  Another guy, Terrence McKenna, whose name keeps coming up in threads on this topic -- so he must be an expert -- says that the rate of increase in time is such that it will become on infinite on...

... wait for it...

December 21, 2012.

Admit it, you knew there'd be a Mayan calendar reference in here somewhere.

By far my favorite post I saw on the topic came from a guy who evidently thinks that time is like a giant cosmic game of tetherball.  (You can read his entire post here.  I recommend drinking a couple of shots of tequila first.)  He gives this convoluted explanation of a ball hanging on a string tied to a rotating pole, and as the string winds around the pole, the ball spins faster (i.e. time speeds up), and the string gets shorter and shorter and the ball spins faster and faster and then finally SPLAT the ball hits the pole.

At that point, he says, "Weird shit happens."

Very scientifically put, and of course the poster thinks that the Great Temporal Tetherball Collision is going to occur in December 2012.  Afterwards, he claims that the ball will start to spin the other way, and the universe will be reborn, and will be "nicer."

Well, that sounds like a happy thought.

Interestingly, the whole subject has even permeated discussions on physics forums.  In one thread I looked at, once again titled "Is Time Speeding Up?", there were a bunch of woo-woos who blathered on for a while about the expansion of the universe and how time would have to speed up to "compensate" for the expansion of space, and so on, and finally one reputable physicist responded, in some exasperation, "Most of the responses above are gibberish.  No one has even asked the question, 'Speeding up relative to what?'  General Relativity established that time passes at different rates in different reference frames, but these posters seem to think that time as a whole is speeding up -- which is a meaningless proposition, since there is nothing outside of time against which you could detect such a change."

Well.  I guess he told them.  Of course, it won't make any difference, because people who think this way are never going to believe some dumb Ph.D. in physics when they've got the whole internet to rely on.  Besides, this physicist is probably a reptilian alien Man-in-Black from the Planet Nibiru who is part of the Bilderberg Group and works for HAARP, and is trying to spread disinformation.  You know how that goes.

So anyway, I guess that's today's heaping helping of pseudoscientific absurdity.  I think I'll wrap this up, because (1) if I read any more websites like the ones I had to peruse to write this, my brain will turn into cream-of-wheat, and (2) I'm running short on time.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Exopolitical science

Are you a recent college graduate with a major in political science?  Are you looking for a job, but afraid of the wheeling and dealing, smoke-filled-room culture that still pervades the political scene?  Would you like to learn how to apply your skills to dealing with tense situations that don't, technically, exist?

Then a career in exopolitics may be for you.

This whole subject comes up because of a headline that popped up in my news feed, "Do Aliens Get a Fair Deal in the Media?"  It turns out that the article was about a conference coming up in August in Leeds, England, on the subject of exopolitics -- how governments, militaries, and so on should be handling interactions with extraterrestrials.  My first thought was that the opening keynote address would read, in its entirety, "Um.  Well.  There haven't been any.  Thank you very much."  But no, the conference is going to go on for three days (August 5 through August 7), so they must be planning to say more than that.

So I started looking into it, and it turns out that the Leeds conference is only the tip of the iceberg, exopolitically speaking.  There's an Exopolitics Institute, whose website states, "Exopolitics is defined as an interdisciplinary scientific field, with its roots in the political sciences, that focuses on research, education and public policy with regard to the actors, institutions and processes, associated with extraterrestrial life, as well as the wide range of implications this entails through public advocacy and newly emerging paradigms."  Okay, then, that explains that.  Any definition that has that many subordinate clauses, and includes the words "newly emerging paradigms," has got to be taken seriously.

Then, there's, which seems to act not only as a focus group for studying exopolitical issues, but also as a clearinghouse for wingnuts, to judge by the following graph that is featured prominently on their website:

What does it mean?  Damned if I know.  But supposedly it proves that March 9, 2011 through October 28, 2011 are going to be part of the "Ninth Wave" and are going to be "Days of Significance."  We're in the middle of that period right now, and I'm not seeing all that much Significance happening around me personally, but maybe that's just because of where I live.

We also have Exopolitics Radio, a weekly radio talk show with a nifty home page; the Exopolitics World Network; and an Exopolitics Wikipedia page, which of course proves that it's all real.

Upon looking at all of this stuff, my first question is: how do these people pay their mortgages?  I mean, if I decided to chuck teaching biology and move on to, say, founding the Unicorn Research Institute, it's not like I could actually bring in any big research grants.  Who is paying these people?  Is it supported by the National Endowment for Woo-woos, or something?

Secondly, I wondered how the whole thing could last longer than a few months, given that there's effectively nothing there to study.  But some of these folks have been in business for over a decade.  Michael Salla, who coined the term "exopolitics" and has been one of its most ardent supporters, has tried to influence political leaders (to little apparent effect, except in the case of Michele Bachmann, some of whose statements are clearly beamed in from Neptune).  But then I saw that the exopolitics nonsense is all wound up with various conspiracy theories (HAARP, the Reptilians, the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati) and other kinds of wingnuttery (UFOs, psychics, cosmic convergences, and, heaven help us, the Mayan calendar).  So, I guess they have a lot of material out there.  In fact, when the Washington Post interviewed Michael Salla, they maneuvered him into admitting with some reluctance that he was getting his information solely "from the internet."

So, anyhow, if you're going to be in England in the first week of August, you should definitely plan on attending.  It could be entertaining.  I'm guessing that black trench coats and sunglasses will be de rigueur.  You might also want to consider bringing along a tinfoil hat.

After all, you can't be too careful.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Arguing with alpha dog

I don't think that there is anything that can stop me in my tracks like complete and utter irrationality.

I say that because of an encounter I had with a neighbor while Carol and I were walking the dogs yesterday evening.  To give a little background on this neighbor, this was the guy who let his own dog run loose all the time, and the dog kept getting into our (fenced) back yard and beating up our dog.  After this had happened three times, we finally called the police to get him to restrain his dog.  He was ticketed (twice), and the last time, came over and yelled at us, "Nice f***ing neighbors!"  That was the last we saw of him until last night.

We saw him drive up as we walked past his house.  We had gotten a little further away, and then heard him yell, "Hey!"  We turned.  He was walking up the road toward us, so we walked back to meet him.

"So, I saw you walking past with your dogs," he said.


"My dog that used to run around.  He was kind of alpha dog of the neighborhood.  He died last year of an allergic reaction."

Thinking he might be ready to say, "It's over, let's just get along," I said, "Wow, that's terrible, I'm so sorry."

"You're the one who wanted to kill my dog."

I gaped at him.  "I didn't want to kill your dog, I wanted to keep him out of our yard."

He waved me off.  "That's not what the judge said.  The judge threatened to euthanize my dog.  Well, we now have two dogs, and I don't want you walking your dogs along the edge of my property, because they pee on the grass.  Out of respect, walk them on the other side of the road."  He then turned and stalked off.

Carol and I were speechless.  Well, not exactly speechless, because we both said a few words that, in the interest of keeping this family-friendly, I won't repeat.  My personal opinion was that he didn't like the fact that we'd challenged his status as alpha dog.  Be that as it may, the upshot of his argument, so far as I can discern, was:

1)  It was our fault that his dog came into our fenced back yard and beat up our dog, because his dog was "alpha dog."

2)  If he argued with the judge about whose fault it was, and the judge threatened him with euthanizing his dog, this was also our fault.

3)  Dog pee causes fatal allergic reactions.  In dogs.

4)  Because of #1-3, it would be "respectful" not to walk on his side of the road.

I know I'm not stupid.  I consider myself pretty quick-thinking under most circumstances -- I can argue well, I'm fairly articulate, and I have a decent working knowledge of a variety of topics.  But to watch me, confronted with this guy, you'd have thought I was a complete dunderhead.  I felt like all I did was react to what he said, and each time his next statement was such a complete non sequitur that it left me thinking, "But... but... what does that have to do with...?"  When he turned and left, I thought, "Well, I lost that argument."

Then I thought, "Argument?  This was an argument?"  To quote Monty Python, "An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition."  I think the key word here is "connected."  In order to make a connected series of statements, you have to understand what the words "logically connected" mean.  Which our neighbor obviously doesn't.  Our neighbor's responses were the adult version of a second grader's retort when faced with a taunt he can't answer:  "Oh, yeah?  Well,  you're a poopyhead!"

And unfortunately, facing such complete irrationality freezes me in place, because I labor under the obviously incorrect assumption that everyone is capable of rational thought.

I wish this were a unique circumstance, but unfortunately, the world seems to be rather thickly populated by irrational people.  Everywhere you look, there are people who arrive at their thoughts, beliefs, and actions by some pathway other than rational consideration.  Now, I'm not some sort of Spock type, admitting logic as the only valid impulse, and discounting emotion entirely; in fact, I'm a pretty emotional guy.  As I said to Carol on the way home, I'd have actually understood his actions better if he'd come up to me, and said, "I hate you people because you remind me of my dog, and my dog died, and I really miss him," and then he punched me in the face.  Acting on an emotional impulse has its own internal logic, even if it sometimes leads us to do things that we later regret.  It's not exactly rational, in the strict definition of the word, but it does on some level make sense.

What I don't get, however, is someone standing there and arguing, and the argument makes no sense whatsoever, and somehow he can't see that what he's saying is just a disconnected bunch of weird statements.  It's that kind of irrationality that leaves me standing there, mouth hanging open, unable to figure out what I could possibly say.

And since I've been rendered speechless by thinking about the whole incident, I'll end with an apt quote:

"Arguing with people who have renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."  -- Thomas Paine

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bias, lies, and the media

One point I make, over and over, to my Critical Thinking classes is that the media is inherently deceitful.

First, let me explain what I don't mean by that statement.  I don't mean that all reporters are lying to you, nor that you should disbelieve everything you see on television, hear on the radio, or read in newspapers or magazines.  I also don't mean that they're all setting out deliberately to mislead (although some certainly are).

What I mean by that statement is that media are inherently biased, and that bias even extends to what they choose not to consider as news.  That choice ("this story isn't worth covering") itself represents a bias.  Then, when they conduct (say) an interview, they obviously can't show the whole thing; pieces get cut, sometimes rearranged.  Where do the cuts happen?  Did cutting a particular comment change the connotation of the one that followed it?  Sometimes even such seeming trivia as background music can alter your perception of what you're seeing -- in a previous post I described my AP Biology students' final lab project which conclusively demonstrated that changing the background music in an ambiguous video clip changes both your cognitive understanding of what you watched and your emotional reaction to it.

If you add in a motive to deceive, you've got real problems.  It's easy enough to be misled by media by the simple fact of its inherent biases; but when the creators have a political agenda to push forward, or stand to gain financially, by hoodwinking you, it's all too easy to fall prey.

To illustrate how simple it is to deceive without lying, consider the following trailers for The Shining and Mary Poppins.  Neither one is "lying to you," in the sense of showing you a clip that wasn't in the original movie.  All that's been altered is the background music -- the rest is just cherry-picking which scenes to string together, the same as has been done in every interview you've ever watched.  (And for those of you who don't usually click links in blogs, these are must-sees.)

Which brings us to the subject of Reality TV.

Because it is actually Unreality TV, of course.  It's all a tangle of clever editing and outright deception.  Easy as pie -- hell, if they can make The Shining look like a chick flick, they can get you to believe anything.  This is why yesterday's revelation that Animal Planet's new reality show, Finding Bigfoot, is a big fat hoax, falls into the "Color Me Shocked" department.

About the only thing surprising about the announcement is that it came from... members of the cast.  Normally, cast members are the last ones likely to blow the whistle, because it pretty much means the end of the series.  Here, though, we have some people who seem to be honestly interested in tracking down cryptids, and they have become increasingly pissed off by the editing antics of the producers.  The team leader, Matt Moneymaker, has been one of the most vocal critics.  He told reporters, referring to one of the typical grainy, blurry video clips showing a bipedal something running away from the camera, "... the thing I ran after up the hill was a human — someone who was sneaking around us in the woods trying to watch the production in progress.  I said so repeatedly and vehemently at the time, for the cameras, but they edited out all of that in order to make it seem unclear what I was chasing after."

My response:  of course they did.  Given that Finding Bigfoot didn't, um, find Bigfoot, they had to do something, because otherwise all you'd have to show would be these people stomping around in the woods not finding anything.  This is not the sort of program that tends to generate high ratings.  So what did you think they would do?

The sad fact is that all media are biased, but where there's a profit motive, the bias can slide pretty quickly into outright deceit.  It's a shame that Moneymaker has gotten tangled up with the whole fiasco, because he seems genuinely interested in playing fair.  The take-home lesson is that with the media, playing fair is nearly impossible.