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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hurricanes, earthquakes, apostles, and diarrhea

I think the hardest things for me to comprehend, as an atheist, are the tendencies of religious people to (1) be certain that they know why god does stuff, (2) figure god shares their political views, and (3) think that they can sway god to do whatever they'd like to see done.

Note that I do not include "believe in god" in the above list.  That one I can understand, even if I'm not a believer myself.  The idea that there's some kind of Celestial Order, that there's someone watching over you, has a real appeal.  I just don't happen to think there's any evidence that it's true.

But let's assume you do believe in a deity, for whatever reason you may have.  Why on earth would you think that said deity agrees with your views on anything?

I'm referring, of course, to the recent baffling statements coming from Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and Rick Perry.  From Bachmann we have the following, which she'd prefaced with some comments regarding reining in governmental spending:
“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.  We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane.  He said: ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?  Listen to the American people, because the American people are roaring right now.’”
Really, Michele?  God wants us to reduce the deficit, so he hits us with an earthquake and a hurricane?  Amazing how someone who thinks that humans can't affect the climate is apparently convinced that liberal economic policies cause hurricanes.  Me, I think if there was a supreme being, and he was really that interested in our nation's finances, he'd be smart enough to find a more direct way to tell us.  Does she really think that people will look out at the flooding and wind damage, and think, "Wow, if I'd voted Republican, this never would have happened?"

Glenn Beck, of course, also had to weigh in, and he did it in his usual bizarre fashion:
"How many warnings do you think you're going to get, and how many warnings do you deserve? ... If you've waited [to prepare and stockpile food], this hurricane is a blessing. It is a blessing.  It is God reminding you — as was the earthquake last week — it's God reminding you you're not in control.  Things can happen."
Thanks for that, Glenn.  "Things can happen."  That's awfully profound.  You'd think a revelation from god would be more... substantive.  Given that god supposedly has knowledge of all things, past, present, and future, it's a little mystifying that his message would be so inane.  (Not to mention that he'd use a bloviating blowhard like Glenn Beck to deliver it.)

Then, we have Rick Perry:
"God has chosen an elite, his new apostles here in America, to rule over the land through great monied business associations whose sole purpose is to further their divinely ordained agenda: economic, social and political."
This one is so arrogant that it leaves me virtually speechless.  This guy's identification of his own agenda with god's is scarily close to someone identifying himself with god, isn't it?

Allow me to say, for the record, that none of this has to do with whether any specific policy is right or wrong, or would have beneficial or detrimental effects on our country; it has to do with the fact that we have public figures proclaiming that their own agenda is god-given.  Me, I find that concept terrifying.  I'd much rather have a leader -- conservative or liberal -- who knows that (s)he is a fallible human being, and is capable of admitting mistakes and then trying to fix them, rather than a starry-eyed true believer who thinks that every word out of his/her mouth comes straight from the mind of god.  The certainty that these people have about everything they say is not only baffling, it's deeply troubling.  I fail to see any real difference between their attitude and the attitude of the fundamentalist Muslim, who truly, honestly thinks he's doing god's will by blowing people up.

So, anyway, all of this is pretty depressing stuff.  Let's end on a lighter note, with an example of some people who think that if god hasn't come up with a good solution on his own, maybe they can suggest one to him.  From the UK Guardian (read the whole article here) we have the story of some monks at the Franciscan monastery of San Salvatore al Monte in Tuscany.  Angered by the theft of some bibles from their church, they posted a sign in the church that read:
"We pray to God to show the thief the error of his ways, that he might return our stolen Bibles to us.  If this doesn't work, we pray to God that the thief is struck by a strong bout of the shits."
Yes, you read that right.  The monks are trying to talk god into visiting diarrhea on the person who took the bibles.  Hey, if a hurricane and an earthquake don't work, maybe that's the next best thing, right?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Modeling the zombie apocalypse

I usually tell you a little about my topic before I give you my solemn promise that I didn't make any of it up.

This one is so weird that I'm going to put the disclaimer first:

I swear I'm not making any of this up.

A team of medical researchers from two universities in Ottawa have released a paper (published in the Journal of Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress) containing a mathematical model of what would happen to a population during a zombie attack.

The team was comprised of Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad, and Robert J. Smith?.  And no, I'm not being tentative, there, with that last name.  The question mark is part of Dr. Smith?'s name.  I wonder how it's pronounced, don't you?   Do you have to say it like a question?  At parties, do people go up to him and say, "Hello there, Dr... Smith?"

Myself, I wouldn't have thought it was legal to have a punctuation mark as part of your name.  But now that I find that apparently it is, I think I'll follow suit.  From now on, my name will be Gordon Bonnet!  That way, people will always seem excited to see me.

In any case, the aforementioned medical research team seems to take the whole zombie-study thing awfully seriously.  Here's the actual abstract of the paper:
Zombies are a popular figure in pop culture/entertainment and they are usually portrayed as being brought about through an outbreak or epidemic. Consequently, we model a zombie attack, using biological assumptions based on popular zombie movies. We introduce a basic model for zombie infection, determine equilibria and their stability, and illustrate the outcome with numerical solutions. We then refine the model to introduce a latent period of zombification, whereby humans are infected, but not infectious, before becoming undead. We then modify the model to include the effects of possible quarantine or a cure. Finally, we examine the impact of regular, impulsive reductions in the number of zombies and derive conditions under which eradication can occur. We show that only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenario: the collapse of society as zombies overtake us all.
I also have to quote the first line of the paper itself, just because it's so memorable: "A zombie is a reanimated human corpse that feeds on living human flesh [1]."  The coolest thing about this is that they sourced this information.  The source, if you're curious, is The Zombie Survival Guide - Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Max Brooks (2003, Three Rivers Press, pp. 2-23).

The article then goes on through some amazingly abstruse mathematics to show that a zombie outbreak would be "catastrophic" and could be "disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead."

Have I mentioned that I am not making any of this up?

In the conclusion of the article, Munz, Hudea, Imad, and Smith? state:
In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often.
What I find most amazing about all of this is that there was no attempt to tie this to any real, actual epidemic; the whole article was about zombies.  Doesn't that strike you as a little weird?  Now personally, I  love it when scientists take something whimsical and use it as a model for a real phenomenon; one of my all-time favorite studies was when a team of evolutionary biologists used "mutations" (i.e. typos and changes in wording) in chain letters as an analogy to random alterations in DNA, and used it to model how cladistic taxonomy works.  It was sheer brilliance.

This, though... well, I'm not sure I see the relevance.  I can't think of any disease that works anything like, um, zombification, so all of the mathematical twiddling about doesn't really have any apparent application.  Not, of course, that I object to scientists having a little fun once in a while -- but this made it into a peer-reviewed journal, and presumably was the result of a grant from a funding agency of some sort.  Dr. Neil Ferguson, who is one of the UK's top governmental medical advisers, seemed a little uncomfortable when asked about the study.  "My understanding of zombie biology is that if you manage to decapitate a zombie, then it's dead forever," he said, in an interview, and went on to state that other than that characteristic, "zombification" didn't really seem to parallel any known disease particularly well.  "[No infectious illness known] actually causes large-scale death or disease, but certainly there are some fungal infections which are difficult to eradicate."

Smith?, however, was undaunted, and told a BBC reporter, "When you try to model an unfamiliar disease, you try to find out what's happening, try to approximate it.  You then refine it, go back and try again."  Even, apparently, when said unfamiliar disease doesn't, technically, exist.

So, there you have it, then.  A mathematical model for the zombie apocalypse.

Oh, and by the way, if you still don't believe me, here's a link to a BBC article about the study.  In the lower right hand part of the page there's a link that says "Zombies Study (University of Ottawa)" that will allow you to download a free pdf of the entire paper.

Reading all of this stuff leaves me feeling kind of dazed, incapable of doing anything but stumbling around the house with a blank expression, making moaning noises.  Of course, that may be because I'm still waiting for the coffee to finish brewing.  No need to show up at my door with axes.  Honestly.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Aliens from the planet Kitsch

We arrived back home Saturday evening from visiting my cousins in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and my wife's uncle and aunt in Santa Fe.  Our day of travel, from Albuquerque to Atlanta to Detroit to home, was uneventful despite the presence of Hurricane Irene spinning off the Atlantic coast, but I awoke to wind and rain Sunday morning, and lost power at 10 AM, and it was out for most of the rest of the day.

Welcome home.

In any case, New Mexico was beautiful, and our visits were great fun, and as an added bonus we took a detour on our way from Las Cruces to Santa Fe to visit...


Admit it, you knew I would.  Our mood was set by passing through the White Sands Missile Range on the way up, and seeing the "No Trespassing!  Military Facility" signs, with their cheerful deadly-force-authorized small print, all along the highway.  My wife also noticed that every entrance was guarded not only by soldiers, but by a white SUV with tinted windows, occupied by guys in dark suits.

It's the guys in dark suits that always worry me. 

So, we arrived in Roswell in the appropriate frame of mind.  Our first stop was the "Alien Zone," an amazingly kitschy shop/museum (of sorts) with all manner of alien-themed merchandise.  I bought two t-shirts, and a poster for my classroom.  The poster shows a twisty-faced alien framed by the words "ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO" and is sure to further cement my students' opinion that I've lost my marbles.  Then we visited "Area 51," in the back of the shop, which had a multitude of interactive photo opportunities, one of which I have included below.

And you thought that the Law of Gravity was strictly enforced.

After our visit to the Alien Zone, we went over to the International UFO Museum, which took itself much more seriously.  It had a really nice display of the Roswell Incident, with newspaper clippings, photographs, and transcripts of interviews with the major players.  It then went on to other UFO-related incidents (there was a whole panel about the Betty and Barney Hill "abduction").  The crop circle display lost it a few credibility points, in my eyes, but on the whole, it was fairly well done.

I did think it was funny, however, that even in the International UFO Museum, they seemed uneasy about the complete lack of hard evidence.  On more than one panel were phrases like, "... a visitor from another planet?  Or a hoax?  You decide."  This sort of thing always makes me mutter under my breath, "Okay, I will."  You'd think that here, of all places, they'd come right out and say, "Yup, it was an alien spacecraft."  The fact that even they hemmed and hawed about the whole thing was a little disappointing.  I felt like saying, "C'mon, guys, take a stand, for cryin' in the sink."

But on the whole, it was a fun experience, although we didn't see a UFO or get abducted or anything.  Which, frankly, was a little disappointing.  There we were, in the desert, giving the aliens and the Men In Black every chance to prove me wrong, and they just let us zoom on by. 

It's funny, isn't it, how skeptics and scientists never get abducted?  If I were an alien, I'd want to have a chat with the smartest brains on the planet.  The first people I'd abduct would be Michio Kaku and Neil de Grasse Tyson, who are not only brilliant but are as funny as hell, and we'd sit around and each have a nice glass of single malt Arcturian Firewhiskey and talk about the universe.  Evidently, however, the aliens don't think that way.  I saw a t-shirt to that effect in the "Alien Zone:"  "If aliens are so smart, why do they always abduct the dumbest people on the planet?"

Anyhow, we had a good time in Roswell, and I recommend a visit if you're ever in the US Southwest.  If you go, make sure to stop by the Alien Zone and the International UFO Museum.  They're worth checking out - if for no other reason, for the humor value.  And do watch out for those Men In Black.  They looked way scarier than the aliens, who were mostly unarmed and in any case seemed to be made of rubber.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Taking a week off...

My Dear Skeptophiliacs,

This post is to let you know that Skeptophilia will be going on a brief hiatus for me to have a breather from writing every day, and also to do some research for upcoming posts.  Skeptophilia will return, refreshed and ready to charge back into doing battle with the ranks of the woo-woo, on Sunday, August 28, 2011.

Where will I be during my week off, you might ask?  My destination is a heavily-guarded secret, but let me just give you this brief hint: my first post upon my return will probably have something to do with alien corpses and UFO crash sites.

I would encourage you until then to continue to survey the news with a critical eye, and not to forget to apply a thick layer of skepticism over everything you read or hear.  "Does this make sense?" is often an excellent question to start with.  In the case of bloggers, editorial writers, and talk-radio hosts, the next question is, "What viewpoint are they trying to sell me, and why?"  Failing that, you can always fall back on the tried-and-true, "Is this person crazy?  Or just stupid?"

And yes, I am aware of the irony of a blogger telling you to be suspicious of blogs.  You shouldn't take what anyone says without question, and that includes me.

In any case, if during this week you find yourself developing a rosy outlook, and thinking that your fellow human beings really are pretty smart, rational, and clear-headed, I encourage you to peruse the Skeptophilia archives (posted chronologically on the lower right-hand side of this page; you may have to scroll down a bit).  You have over 200 posts to choose from.  And trust me, once you're done, you'll find you'll be back to feeling like a significant percentage of the human race is composed of raving whackmobiles.

So, until the 28th, I will bid you a fond adieu.  And just remember the skeptic's motto:  Don't believe everything you think.



Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bizarre news in brief

This is shaping up to be an interesting week here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.

First, we have reports of a "dragonfly drone" near Fort Benning, Georgia.

An unidentified man saw, and drew a picture of, a small, self-propelled aerial craft buzzing around his house.  Despite the fact that the man couldn't produce the actual object itself and stated that it never landed, he was able to replicate details in his drawing that border on the astonishing (including the fact that it had an embossed Greek letter epsilon on its top).  (You can read the report, and see the drawing, here.)

This is only the latest of a series of "dragonfly drone" reports, coming from California, Oregon, Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and Ohio.  The Alabama report, back in 2007, came from a guy who went by the fake name "Ted Connors" so as to preserve his anonymity.  Connors claimed to be a subcontractor for the Department of Homeland Security, and was working near Maxwell AFB when he was buzzed by a drone.

Then, he "telepathically downloaded" the memory of the drone, and found out that its origin was the planet Oltissis, in a parallel dimension.  He found a library book in Montgomery which mentioned Oltissis, and brought it to work to read, but agents from the DHS showed up one night and confiscated the book.  *cue suspenseful music*  You have to wonder if they gave him money to pay the inevitable library fine.

All I can say is, if we have people working for the government who believe that they've telepathically downloaded information from a drone originating on a planet in a parallel dimension, it's no wonder we're in trouble as a nation.  Next thing you know, we'll have a young-earth-creationist climate change denier who wants to bring home vigilante justice on the Federal Reserve Chairman running for president.

Speaking of Texas, next we have a story from Galveston, where a 19-year-old man who claimed to be a "five hundred year old deathless vampire" broke into a woman's apartment and bit her on the neck because he "needed to feed."

Police took a while to subdue Lyle Monroe Bensley, who at the time of his apprehension was clad only in a pair of boxers and kept making "hissing sounds."  He claimed that he "didn't want to feed on humans," but he had no choice.

He's being kept restrained in the Galveston County Jail, until police officials can find a wooden stake and a large mallet.

Then, we have a story from Hebron, Kentucky, where a team sponsored by the fundamentalist group "Answers in Genesis" is attempting to build Noah's ark to the exact specifications listed in the bible.

Mike Zovath, the project manager, states, "There's a lot of doubt: 'Could Noah have built a boat this big, could he have put all the animals on the boat?'  Those are questions people all over the country ask."

Yup, I know I've asked that same question myself.  And then answered it, "No."  But that isn't stopping Zovath and his crew, who are determined to show that such a craft could have housed "thousands of animals with no problem."

For reference, the current estimate of the number of animal species on Earth is somewhere around 12 million.  And that isn't even counting the plants, which also presumably would have benefited from protection from coverage by thousands of feet of salt water.

And now that we're discussing fiction, we will end with a helpful do-it-yourself article (here) called "How To Cleanse Your Own Aura."  I have to admit if you could handle such things on your own it would be more convenient than bringing your aura to the drycleaners.  The article includes such essential tips as figuring out when your aura is dirty:
How much time do you spend in bad places?  Work space, shopping centers, bus?  How many times a day do you touch people around you?  How often do you have sex with random people?  If you’re alive, then I bet you collect negative energies.  Don’t worry, we all do :-)
I kind of question his assumption that "we all" have sex with random people.  But anyway, let's take it for granted that we all have stressful factors in our lives and therefore "collect negative energies."  The writer said that he sometimes collects so many negative energies that his aura turns dark and he can "barely see his third eye."  If you can imagine.

In any case, if you too find yourself having a hard time locating your third eye because your aura's got schmutz on it, here's what you do:

Light a candle in a quiet room, and imagine yourself illuminated by a "spiritual light."  Then when your aura lightens up, grab the "negative energies" and fling them into the flame, making sure to exhale while you do it so you don't "inhale the negative energies back into your body."  There!  All better!  Next time, try to take better care of your aura, and you won't have to go through all that trouble again.

For one thing, try having less sex with random people.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It takes balls

So now three Japanese diners have been hospitalized, and one of them is still in critical condition with respiratory failure, from eating fugu.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular culinary item, "fugu" is grilled Japanese blowfish.  The three diners in question deliberately consumed one of the most dangerous parts, the blowfish's testicles.

I wish I were making this up.  Apparently fugu is considered a delicacy, a word that should immediately raise your suspicion level.  In my opinion, the word "delicacy" is used only to describe food that, under normal circumstances, would never be consumed by anyone who was not participating in a fraternity initiation.  Other foods I've heard described as delicacies are hakarl (Icelandic fermented shark meat, which is described as having "a very strong ammonia-like taste"), durian (a southeast Asian fruit whose smell is so evil that it is now illegal in many countries to cut one open in hotels or on public transportation), and lutefisk (a Norwegian fish product produced by soaking the fish in lye; it is served with a mustard sauce that informed sources tell me "smells exactly like vomit").

Of course, the preceding three examples only put you in danger of tossing your cookies, or perhaps having your friends and family seriously question your sanity.  Fugu adds the frisson of possibly killing you.  It is the Russian roulette of delicacies.

Me, I don't really see the appeal.  Maybe fugu tastes really great, I don't know.  The point is, so does dark chocolate, and you're not risking paralysis, coma, and death from eating it.  Still, I'm sure that people will continue to eat fugu, and people will continue to die -- last year, 44 people were hospitalized with blowfish poisoning, and three of them died.

In Japan, you have to have a special license to prepare fugu.  Apparently, if you prepare it correctly, it greatly decreases the likelihood that you'll die.  The poison, tetrodotoxin, is one hundred times more poisonous than potassium cyanide.  It is a sodium channel blocker, and as a result paralyzes the muscles, including the heart and diaphragm -- all the while leaving you conscious and aware of the fact that you're dying.  It is only found in particular tissues in the fish, and all of those tissues have to be scrupulously removed in order for the fugu to be safe to eat.  You can imagine, with something that toxic, it doesn't take much of a mistake to kill you -- it's difficult to be sure you've got every last tiny scrap of the poisonous tissue.  Evidently the cook who served the dish to the trio last week didn't have a "fugu license," and had missed some of the toxic parts.  As a result, the three began to lose feeling in their extremities, had trouble breathing, and finally lost consciousness.

My question is, why would you take a chance like that?  I like risk as well as the next guy, but I'm perfectly happy exercising that part of my personality by scuba diving and riding rollercoasters.  I'm not so much interested in eating the Toxic Testicles of Death.  Given the choice, I'll stick with dark chocolate.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The meaning of "Two dignified spinsters sitting in silence"

In yesterday's post, I made a case for how silly the practice of astrology was.  One of my readers posted a comment, the gist of which was, "You haven't even begun to plumb the depths of the silliness," and attached this link, "The Degrees and Meanings of the Sabian Symbols."

For those of you who would prefer not to risk valuable brain cells even opening this link, allow me to explain that the Sabian Symbols are mystical images, one for each of the 360 degrees of the zodiac.  Another site, simply called "Sabian Symbols," (here) describes them as follows:
Renowned worldwide as both an uncanny divination system and an insightful tool for astrologers, the Sabian Symbols were channeled in San Diego in 1925 by Marc Edmund Jones, a well reknowned [sic] and respected astrologer, and Elsie Wheeler, a spiritualist medium.  They consist of 360 word images corresponding to the 360 degrees of the zodiac (each zodiac sign comprising of 30 degrees)...  The Sabian Symbols are extraordinary for insight, revelation and guidance.  Miracles, big and small, happen in your life when you tap into their field...  (it is) an "ancient mind matrix."
Well.  Alrighty, then.  Let's just take a look, shall we?  Here are a few selected Sabian Symbols from various degrees of the zodiac.  Let me know of any insight, revelation, or guidance you got from them, okay?

Aries, 7-8 degrees:  A large woman's hat with streamers blown by the east wind.
Taurus, 15-16 degrees:  An old teacher fails to interest his pupils in traditional knowledge.
Leo, 1-2 degrees:  An epidemic of mumps.
Virgo, 15-16 degrees:  In the zoo, children are brought face-to-face with an orangutan.
Sagittarius, 20-21 degrees:  A child and a dog wearing borrowed eyeglasses.
Capricorn, 16-17 degrees:  A repressed woman finds psychological release in nudism.
Aquarius, 22-23 degrees:  A big bear sitting down and waving all of its paws.

Okay, so that gives you an idea.  And no, I didn't make any of these up.  All I can say is: whatever drugs this guy was on when he came up with these, can I have some?

Of course, the people who believe in this stuff don't think that it was drugs.  They think that Marc Edmund Jones was really channeling a mystical presence.  Once again, quoting from "Sabian Symbols:"
The Sabian Symbol story is embedded in the ancient cultures of the Middle East.  Marc Edmund Jones felt that there was an "unseen agency" - an external, esoteric mind-set at work in the birthing of the Sabian Symbols.  Connection was made through a 'Brother', a member of the ancient Mesopotamian brotherhood, the Sabian Brotherhood.  He believed that they were the 'voices' that were spiritually behind Elsie Wheeler, delivering the messages that became the Symbols...  As we move out of the Piscean age and into the Aquarian age, we are transmuting in many ways, with the vibration of our spiritual and intellectual minds moving into higher gears as we evolve.  In such hectic times, we hunger for meaning and guidance, but often don't have the time or the patience to pause and reflect deeply on our situation.  The Sabian Oracle opens the doorway between our inner feelings and intentions and our conscious mind.  They do this by helping to put what is within us into words.  Being provided with possibilities enables us to act positively and confidently, and think rationally.
My general response to all of that is that if you were thinking rationally you wouldn't be relying on astrology in the first place.  And, of course, the usual problem with symbolic fortunetelling occurs here, just as it does with the Tarot, the I Ching, runes, and so on; the symbols are so weird and open to interpretation that you can make just about anything out of them that you want.  Suppose that for some reason, the "oracle" told me that my symbol for today was Libra, 29-30 degrees ("Three mounds of knowledge on a philosopher's head.")  My first response would be that I didn't know that knowledge came in mounds.  But after that, what does it mean?  Is it saying that I'm smart?  Or that I'm not smart enough and should go study?  Or that today would be good for contemplation?  Or that I should be looking for guidance from three different sources?  Or that I could find answers in books by philosophers?

This is why the "Sabian Symbols" site offers "professional Sabian astrology consultations" -- because slobs like me just aren't qualified to interpret what "A butterfly with a third wing on its left side" (Libra, 23-24 degrees) means.

The take-home lesson here, I suppose, is that there is no realm of woo-woo so goofy that someone can't elaborate on it in such a fashion as to make it way goofier.  Wondering whether there might be anything else I could learn from all the time I spent reading this stuff, I clicked on the link that said "Clear your mind and click on this picture of a galaxy" to get wisdom from the oracle.  I got Scorpio, 16-17 degrees, which is "A woman, fecundated with her own spirit, is the father of her own child."  Which, I think, was a symbolic way for the oracle to tell me to go fuck myself.

Oracles can be so hostile, sometimes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's written in the stars

TODAY'S HOROSCOPE: Scorpio (October 23-November 21)

Your foundations are more important than you realize.  When you feel secure, nothing will bother you. If you are upset, everything could.  You are inspired by those close to you.  Understanding comes easily.  Tonight: Happiest at home.

Well, that certainly clears up my future.  Let's see if we can summarize the wisdom we have accrued from this entry:

1) If I'm secure, then I'm pretty secure.
2) If I'm not secure, then I'm not feeling very secure.
3) I have reasons for liking the people I'm close to.
4) I'm a pretty smart guy.
5) I better stay home tonight; if I don't, then wow, anything could happen.

Of course, this only applies to me because I'm a Scorpio.  If I was a different astrological sign, my horoscope would have been different, and (I'm sure) just as revealing.

Now, all astrology is based upon the positions of the moon and planets relative to twelve of the eighty-eight constellations.  The constellations, which were devised by extremely nearsighted ancient Greeks, are arrangements of stars that are supposed to look like something familiar.  So we have, for example, the Scorpion, the Bull, the Ram, and the Virgin (the last-mentioned has always made me wonder, how can they tell?).  I don't know how many of you are amateur star-gazers, but it occurs to me that the patterns of stars in the constellations don't really resemble what they're supposed to be all that much.  Libra, for example, is the Balance (whether it's an old-fashioned double-pan balance, a triple-beam balance, or a digital scale that reads to thousandths of a gram is unclear).  Now, in point of fact, Libra is made of four stars arranged in a lopsided quadrilateral.  If four stars in a lopsided quadrilateral could be the Balance, they could be damn near anything.  It could equally well be the constellation of the Computer Monitor, the Street Sign, or the Wombat.  But no, it's the Balance, and this is why supposedly Libras like to have things all nice and neat and organized, and hate it when a picture is hung crooked.

Now, why anyone thinks that the positions of the planets relative to an arbitrary arrangement of stars could have anything to do with your personality, future plans, or relationships, is an open question.  However, a recent Washington Post survey indicates that 32% of Americans do believe in astrology, and consider it "very scientific."  In my opinion, astrology is only slightly more scientific than the theory that thunder is caused by god and the angels having a bowling tournament.

Maybe I'm odd (okay, it's very likely that I'm odd), but whenever I run up against something like astrology, my first demand is "show me the mechanism."  If you believe that Jupiter's apparent position relative to a group of stars of varying distances from the earth (ranging from tens to hundreds of light-years), whose configuration is vaguely reminiscent of a guy carrying a water jug (Aquarius), has some effect on your day-to-day life, then show me how it works.  And vague, hand-waving "explanations" about "forces" and "energies" won't cut it. If you believe astrology is "very scientific," then explain the science.

Some astrologers evidently have made lame attempts to do just that, usually making appeal to the gravitational pull of the planets, stars, and so on.  But as Carl Sagan points out, the obstetrician was exerting a greater gravitational pull on you when you were born than Jupiter was, and we don't go around blathering about being born under the sign of Dr. Felkenberger.  ("Yes, everyone knows we Felkenbergers are highly intelligent, sensitive people, who like Thai food and listen to opera.")  Others claim some sort of Tao-of-Physics kind of approach, that the constellations influence your Quantum State at Birth and Exert Mystical Action at a Distance.

Yeah.  Okay.  That explains everything.  I bet my Quantum State at Birth was: I was a baby.  I probably cried a lot.  And I doubt that the fact that the Moon was in Capricorn at the time had a damn thing to do with it.

Yet despite this appalling lack of a plausible mechanism, many folks believe fervently in astrology.  And some people make lots of money off of it.  (It might be nonsense, but it can be highly lucrative nonsense.)  The same also applies to a lot of other kinds of baloney,  however.  People also believe in numerology.  And homeopathy.  And clairvoyance.  And auras.  And crystal energies.  (My dad was an amateur rockhound, and so I have a ton of his cool rocks and minerals around the house.  One time, a woman was visiting us, and picked up an amethyst crystal my dad had found in Arizona, and said, "Oooh, this one has amazingly strong energies!  I can feel its vibrations."  It was an effort not to guffaw right in her face.)

So anyway, if anyone can explain to me why astrology isn't a bunch of malarkey, I'd love to hear your explanation.  Until then, I'm of the opinion that it's certifiable 100% USDA Grade-A Bullshit.   And I probably will go out tonight, just to spite the stars.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Creating the past

Okay, this post may be a bit off-the-wall.   I'm perfectly willing to believe that what I'm going to say here might be entirely bogus.  That said, bear with me for a moment, and if you still think that by the end, feel free to let me have it right between the eyes.

A friend of mine told me an interesting anecdote a while back.  Her teenage son had lost his car keys, and she knew that his keys were on a worn blue carabiner.   She suddenly had this mental picture of them, sitting on a blanket or a bedsheet, and was convinced she'd seen them earlier that day.

"I think they're either in your bedroom or on the sofa or something," she told him.  "I know I saw them, on some kind of blanket or cloth or something, just recently."

So the two of them tore the house apart, looking on every such cloth surface they could find.  Oddly, the more they looked (without finding them) the more certain she became; she had a clear visual image of the keys on a tangled-up blanket.  Finally they gave up, but it was driving her crazy, because she knew she'd seen them earlier that day.

Well, when the son went out to his car (using a spare key), he found the key ring -- still hanging from the ignition, where he'd left it the night before.

My friend was baffled.   The visual image was so clear, so real, that she couldn't imagine that it wasn't true.   I asked her if she might have seen them a day or two ago on a bed or something, and simply misremembered when she'd seen them.

"No," she said. "I talked to my son about that afterward.   He said he almost never leaves his car keys anywhere but on the kitchen counter.   He was confused, himself, when I told him I'd seen them on a blanket, because he couldn't imagine how they'd have gotten there, but he said I sounded so sure.  And not only did I have a crystal-clear visual image of them, I was certain that it was that day that I'd seen them."

So, off and running my mind goes, and I say to her: "That makes me wonder how much of what we remember of our past actually happened."

And her eyes got really big, and she said, "I know.  I've been wondering the same thing.  Are our memories of our past real, or are they just stories we've told to ourselves long enough that they have become what we actually remember?"

The human memory is a remarkably plastic thing; well-controlled experiments have been performed which have conclusively demonstrated that memories can be implanted.  This was the subject of a final lab project from one of my AP Biology student groups some years ago.  The experiment was ostensibly to test people's memory of a variety of objects on a table, but the actual question had to do with implanted memories.  Subjects were given three minutes to study a set of twenty objects; then, during the test, one of the experimenters (who had before been hiding, out of sight) came out and took one object off the table, and then walked back out of the room with it.   A read-aloud questionnaire given afterwards asked (along with a number of irrelevant distractor questions), "What object did the girl in the blue shirt take off the table?"  Well, the girl had been wearing a red shirt, but not only did not one single subject mention that when the question was read, when they got to the last question -- "What color shirt was the girl wearing who came in and took an object?" -- almost every test subject answered "blue."  Further, when the subjects were told that the girl had been wearing a red shirt, several of them simply didn't believe it -- to the extent that one test subject demanded that the partner come back into the room, and when she appeared wearing a red shirt, he accused the pair of a ruse wherein the hidden partner had changed her blue shirt to red while she was out of the room the second time!

Of course, this has major implications for "leading the witness" in criminal trials -- given the right prompting, people can be induced to "remember" something that didn't actually happen.  While this is an interesting topic, what concerns me is more personal.  I wonder how many of my own life's memories are of events that didn't happen?  How much is implanted memory, formed of what my parents or friends told me happened, and which I then incorporated into my brain as if I actually remembered it myself?  What parts are memories of events which occurred but were remembered inaccurately, and then repeated so often that the inaccurate memory seems real?  What memories are an out-and-out fabrication on the part of my rather capricious brain?   I consider myself to be a fairly truthful person; but how can you not lie when an untruth has become part of your remembered past?

Worse yet, with no corroborative evidence, how could we ever tell factual memories from fictional ones?  As my friend's experience shows (however insignificant the actual event was), we can talk ourselves into believing, fervently, something which is entirely false.  When you remember your past, is your memory really a composite of truth, half-truth, and cleverly (if inadvertently) crafted fiction?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Grand Duke of Microscopica

I have recently become aware of the phenomenon, apparently of long standing, of various cranks, misfits, wags, and malcontents seceding from their home country and founding their own sovereign nations.

These so-called "micronations" are universally ignored by the parent country, but this hasn't stopped the aforementioned cranks et al. from founding a good many of them.  (See the Wikipedia list, with descriptions, here.)  The commonality across the lot is that the leaders seem to trumpet fairly loudly but then make sure to fly under the radar when it comes to potential unpleasantness.  For example, the Principality of Hutt River (formerly a part of Australia) regularly has its taxes paid to Australia by its founder, Crown Prince Leonard I (formerly Leonard Casley), with the proviso that the tax check is to be considered "a gift from one world leader to another."

Of course, this probably isn't so far off from some of the diplomatic behavior of more generally acknowledged countries.  How else would you characterize our finger-wagging, "Naughty naughty, mustn't build nuclear weapons" approach to Kim Jong Il?

I find this whole thing simultaneously charming and perplexing.  Perplexing because (with the exception of the handful who have clearly set the whole thing up as a joke), these people seem to take themselves awfully seriously.  Consider the Principality of Sealand, which consists solely of one abandoned military staging platform in the North Sea.  Take a look at Sealand's webpage (of course it has a webpage).  Reading through that, and the other assorted websites for micronations, leaves me thinking, "Are you people loonies?  Or what?"

On the other hand, it is somewhat charming, in a twisted, Duchy of Grand Fenwick sort of way.  The majority of the self-proclaimed nobility from micronations seem to be doing no real harm.  Let them issue their own currency, stamps, and legal documents.  Hey, if it gives them a hobby, then why not?  I don't think it's really any crazier than many other hobbies, such as collecting beer bottle caps or belonging to the Society for Creative Anachronism.

And then, the depressive existentialist side of my personality has to pipe up and ask, "Why is this so different from what all countries are doing?"  Countries only exist because a group of people have decided to band together, declare that they have the right to draw a line on the ground across which None Shall Pass, and tell everyone what they can and can't do.  The lines are mostly arbitrary, and a good many of the laws seem to be as well.  (Imagine trying to explain to an alien why on the north side of an invisible line on the ground, gays and lesbians can marry, and on the south side, they can't.  I think all you'd get from the alien was mild puzzlement, up until the point where he decides that there really isn't any intelligent life on Earth, and vaporizes you with his laser pistol.)

So then, what's the difference between micronations and regular nations?  There's this thing called "recognition" -- that other countries recognize the existence of a legitimate nation.  So, because the United States is pretending not to notice the Kingdom of Molossia (a totalitarian dictatorship, formerly part of Nevada), it doesn't exist?  It's a little like a four-year-old covering his eyes and concluding that everyone he can't see is gone.

Of course, recognition isn't everything.  There's also diplomatic ties -- who are you willing to negotiate with?  Of course, that gets a little dicey, too, because there are countries that clearly exist by most people's definition (e.g. Cuba) with which we have no diplomatic relations.  So, you only exist if (1) we are willing to admit you exist, and (2) we both agree to send people to meet at a five-star hotel to drink hundred-dollar-a-glass wine and discuss how much our people want to cooperate, despite our differences and our occasional desire to annihilate each other?

Sorry for appearing cynical.  But so much of politics seems to me to be high-stakes game playing, not so very far advanced from the Inner Circles and Exclusive Clubs that middle schoolers dream up, with the only difference being that middle schoolers aren't capable of blowing each other up with tactical nuclear weapons.  Yet.

Anyway, my point is that other than scale, there seems to be little to separate the micronations from the ordinary type.  And given the current economic and ecological mess that the United States is sitting in, I'm thinking that maybe I should secede, too.  I will only continue to pay taxes as a Generous Donation Of Aid To My American Friends, and Doolin will be appointed Chief Border Collie In Charge Of Herding Everything In Sight, Including Cats.  Grendel will clearly be Court Jester.  I, of course, will now go by the moniker King Gordon I, "the Magnificent," of the Sovereign Kingdom of Perry City.  Carol already thinks she's the queen, so her status won't change much.  It does, of course, open up a serious possibility of a war of succession when I die, because I don't think that Duke Nathan of Suburban New Jersey will easily give up the throne to the heir apparent, Crown Prince Lucas of GreenStar Organic Food Market.

Whatever happens, it should be worth a page in the history books.  Or at least a website.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Strange angels, watching me

You hear a lot of people talking about angels, and they certainly are popular in art.  They're represented in a variety of fashions, from the imposing, usually serious/serene angels who look like adults (often robed/winged), to the little kid angels popular in Hallmark statuary, to the little-fat-naked-baby "cherubs" so common in 18th century art.

I know angels are referenced a good many times in the bible, and I don't intend to start down the road of questioning that source; what I'm wondering about today is sites such as "Vanessa's Angels."

This site -- one of many like it -- doesn't just take the biblical angle of claiming that angels (numbers, names, and attributes unspecified) are "god's servants" -- it gives huge amounts of detailed information. We are told, for example, that the angel Seraphiel has "the body of an eagle" and has "eyes so many in number that they can't be counted."  Spigliguel is the angel of spring.  (If I was an angel, I think I'd pick a nicer sounding name than "Spigliguel," wouldn't you?)  Azrael, the "angel of death," has "four thousand wings and seventy thousand feet."  (You'd think that'd make it difficult to fly and/or walk -- a clear case, I think, of more not being better.)  Sandalphon "is the twin brother of Metatron" and is so tall that "it would take a journey of five hundred years just to reach from his toes to the top of his head."

So, anyway, of course I'm sitting here wondering, how do you know all of this?  Trained scientists know that the first rule when that question is asked is, "check references."  So I did, not expecting to find much, because it kind of sounded like she was making this stuff up as she went along.  But to my surprise, some of the stuff was referenced -- mostly to Hebrew mystical writings of various sorts, and also to Gustav Davidson's A Dictionary of Angels.  So I decided to take a look at that book. 

Apparently, this book is the be-all-and-end-all of the angelic set.  It's available on Amazon, and is basically a compilation of every mention of angels to be found in mystical writings, folklore, religion, and out-and-out fiction.  It has been the subject of rave reviews, three of which I excerpt below:
Every theologian, occultist, and pious scholar should get this. Virtually every angel, spirit, devil, and lowly demon is named and defined.
And just when you think the sheer amount of entries in this dictionary is amazing, flip to the back. That's right, the Appendix. That's what makes this book amazing, after all. Not only do you have no less than 3 angelic alphabets, you have detailed listings of all known angels, their positions in Heaven, who was their leader, what hour they guarded over, who fell with Lucifer, and so on and so forth.
In this New Age of false teachers it is good to know all the Angels. One third of the angels in Heaven fell and some will represent themselves to true aspirants and disciples as God. Don't be fooled, know your angels.
And I'm still thinking, "But... but... how do you know all of this is true?"

So back I went to "Vanessa's Angels," and I found, in her "About Me" information, the statement, "I have always had a love of angels and feel that they are often around me."  This was followed up by scores of anecdotes of people who "felt" that they had gotten out of sticky situations because of angelic help, had been healed by angels, and so forth.

That's it?  You have a "feeling," and that means we're supposed to believe that Tzaphiel is the angel of Thursdays and Saturdays?  (I know this sounds like I just made that up, but it's really on the website.) 

I thought, "There has to be more to it than this."  So I looked around, and that's the kind of explanation I saw in almost every angel website I looked at -- and I've looked at enough of them that I'm currently praying to Myopiel, the angel of bad eyesight.  (Okay, I did make that one up.)

I've seen a lot of examples of convoluted wishful thinking, but this one has to take the prize.  How on earth has anyone come away with the idea that if you have a "feeling" that something is true, that this has any bearing on its actual truth or falsity?  Since when are feelings reliable guides?  I've been accused, as a skeptical scientist, of having too much faith in the human mind, but actually, it's the opposite; it's because our brains are so easily fooled that we need science, as a rigorous tool for identifying, and studying, what's out there.

Too often, our feelings, and defects in our perceptual apparatus and brain wiring, lead us to false conclusions.  (Witness the famous case, about which I wrote a few months ago, of people exposed to low-frequency standing sound waves becoming convinced that they were in the presence of ghosts.)  It might be comforting to think that you have a guardian angel, or that Barbiel lives in one of the 28 mansions of the moon.  (That one I didn't make up.  Hard to tell the difference, isn't it?)  But I've no real confidence in the proposition that because an idea is comforting, it's true.  In fact, in my experience, the universe is a pretty freakin' uncomfortable place, a lot of the time.

Of course, once you're convinced, that's pretty much that, and I have no doubt that I'll be receiving lots of hate mail from people who think I wrote this because I'm being controlled by Sammael, the fallen angel who tempts unbelievers.  The whole thing makes me feel like I need to appease the angel Javael and go get another cup of coffee.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Eyes, images, and miracles

In what may be the most absurd example of pareidolia I've ever seen, a Cornell-educated Ph.D. in engineering has discovered images of human faces, and encoded holographic messages, in the cloth image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The image, the story goes, was imprinted on a young man's poncho in 1531 when he had a vision of the Virgin Mary near Mexico City.  The cloth has since been venerated as a holy icon, and has been photographed and studied extensively by the religious.  Starting in 1979, an engineer who specialized in digital imaging, José Aste Tonsmann, began to examine the icon, and it has become a virtual obsession with him.

Aste Tonsmann located 31 human figures in the image, many of them in the Virgin Mary's eyes.  These images were seen "(A)fter filtering and processing the digitized images of the eyes to eliminate 'noise' and enhance them."  Even after all of this messing about, we still end up with images like this:

(Photography by J. Aste Tonsmann, from his website.)

Not exactly life-like images of the human face, are they?  Yes, they suggest faces, but once again, we're up against our old friend pareidolia -- the tendency of people to see faces in clouds, water stains, and patterns on tortillas because our brains are wired for facial recognition.

But Aste Tonsmann, who himself is a devout Catholic and a member of the Marian Congress, thinks this is all part of the miracle.  He believes that the Virgin Mary herself has sent us an "image of a family in the center of the Virgin's eye, in times when families are under serious attack in our modern world."  More interestingly, he believes that the images are effectively holograms -- three-dimensional images captured at the time the image was created, and imprinted on the cloth in a "miraculous fashion:"
The eyes reflect the witnesses of the Guadalupan miracle, the moment Juan Diego unfurled his cloak before the bishop to show him the painting; a kind of instant picture of what occurred at the moment the image was unveiled. It is possible to see a seated Indian who is looking up to the heavens; the profile of a balding, elderly man with a white beard who looks like the Bishop; a younger man who is possibly interpreter Juan González; another Indian who is Juan Diego; a woman of dark complexion who is possibly a slave who was in the bishop's service and a man with Spanish features who looks on pensively, stroking his beard with his hand.
The idea, I suppose, is that we're seeing the image that was on the Virgin Mary's retina the moment the miracle occurred.

Well, that is a lovely story, and it goes along with all sorts of other trappings -- the usual miracle stories associated with icons and holy relics, and various "amazing facts."  My favorite of the latter is that the stars on her cloak resemble the constellations that were in the sky in December of 1531, only reversed -- "as if the constellations were being observed from a vantage point a great distance from the Earth."  Presumably, the implication is that this is what the constellations look like to the Virgin Mary from her home in heaven.  The unattributed writer of that statement evidently is under the misapprehension that the stars in a constellation exist in a flat plane, and so if you were far away ("on the other side of the constellation"), you'd see them backwards, as if you were looking at an image painted on a flat sheet of glass first from one side, and then the other.  Unfortunately, the stars in the sky are not equidistant from the sun, but sit in a three-dimensional space -- so there is no place in space where you'd see the same constellations as you do on the Earth, only inverted.  You'd think the Virgin Mary would know that, somehow.

The whole thing recently has been picked up by the Secret Coded Messages cadre, and now they're using Aste Tonsmann's techniques (which can be summed up as "taking magnified photographs of something and tinkering with the images until you find something you already had decided was there") to try to find encoded textual material in the image.  One site I looked at claims to have found strings of characters, and now "linguistic experts" are trying to translate them -- and that once they do, we'll have our first look at the "lexicon of God."

And if that proposal didn't make you do a facepalm, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

In any case, I mean no disrespect to whoever created the original image; it's quite a pretty thing, really, even if I don't subscribe to the whole miracle story.  (You can see a photograph of the entire Virgin of Guadalupe on the site that I linked above.)  But the goofy pseudo-analysis done by Aste Tonsmann and others just makes me wonder how people can achieve such towering heights of credulity.  I suppose it's the same old story; if you want to believe something badly enough, you'll find a way -- even if it comes to seeing images of people that aren't actually there.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sophistry, lies, and "worldviews"

I am becoming sick unto death of the word "worldview."

This comes up because of two news stories I read yesterday.  In the first, Michele Bachmann's claim that slave owners before the Civil War were doing the slaves a favor by (1) making them Christian, and (2) providing them food and a place to live, is said not to be a gaffe, but representative of Bachmann's "intellectual worldview."  Her claim that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly to end slavery" is a statement, says Doug Mataconis in Outside the Beltway, that is "evidence of a worldview that is very different from what most Americans encounter in their daily lives."

Then, the word came up in an article about the quarreling occurring in some Evangelical Christian academic circles about whether Adam and Eve actually existed.  Four in ten Americans, the article said, "subscribe to the worldview" that Adam and Eve were real, historical figures, who 6,000-odd years ago were created by God, at that time were the only humans on Earth, and who were the ancestors of all 6.8 billion of us alive today.  Apparently some Christian scholars have begun to look at the actual data (which may qualify as a miracle in and of itself) and noting that the paleontological and archaeological evidence does not support a sudden appearance of humans a few thousand years ago, and that furthermore, a descent from one couple in six thousand years is impossible given the range of genetic mutations you see in modern humans.  "You would have to postulate that there's been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time," said Dennis Venema, of Trinity Western University.  "Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence."

Others, however, equally staunchly insist that the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story is "central to the Christian worldview."  Fazale Rana, vice president of the evangelical think tank Reason to Believe, states, " If the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you've got a problem."

I find it strange how the word "worldview" has become a way of saying, "a view of the world that runs counter to science, fact, logic, and common sense."  Statements, then, no longer can be said to be simply wrong; they are "part of a person's worldview."  If someone wants to claim that slaves were better off being slaves than being free in Africa, that is "part of her worldview."  If someone wants to claim that the findings of the last 150 years of work by trained scientists is wrong, and a Bronze Age fairy tale for which there is not the first shred of evidence is right, that is "part of his worldview."

I'm sorry.  That's intellectual sophistry.  Or, since the topic of this post is speaking clearly and bluntly: it's foolish, and dangerously wrong.

We have become far too willing to be tolerant of anti-scientific, anti-intellectual statements.  In our bland, multicultural desire to be accepting of all viewpoints, we have lost the edge that scholars had a century ago, when all college students were required to take courses in logic and were far better at identifying specious thinking -- and far less hesitant to point it out.  Statements like Rana's and Bachmann's aren't "worldviews;" they're simply wrong.  The Founding Fathers did not "work tirelessly to end slavery."  Many of them were themselves slave owners.  And the descent of all humans from one couple 6,000 years ago would come as something of a surprise to the Native Americans, whose ancestors migrated to North America 6,000 years prior to that.

I find it appalling that so few are willing to say, flat out, that the statements made by public figures are illogical, unsupported, or simply factually incorrect.  Why are we trying to come up with a word that has the effect of dulling people's sensibilities to the fact that they're being misled and lied to?  Bachmann and her ilk, the biblical literalists, and others who have their own, special counterfactual understanding of the universe, might be able to afford to have "worldviews."

The rest of us come to our knowledge simply from observing the "world."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dulce Base and WeaselMan

I keep thinking that at some point, I'm going to run out of material.  I keep thinking that eventually, I'll have heard about, and written about, every loony conspiracy theory, bizarre cryptid report, alleged UFO sighting, and anecdotal story of a haunted house out there, and then I'll just have to give it up and find something else to talk about.

I keep being wrong.

Today I bumped into a story about a Secret Government Scientific Facility in northern New Mexico, called Dulce Base.  Have you heard of it?  It sounds like a positively charming place.  It has seven underground levels, of increasingly horrific content, rather like Dante's Nine Circles of Hell:

Level 1:  Security & Communications
Level 2:  Housing of Human Staff
Level 3:  Executive Offices and Laboratories
Level 4:  Mind Control Experiments
Level 5:  Housing for Aliens
Level 6:  Laboratories for Genetic Experiments on Humans and Aliens
Level 7:  Cryogenic Storage for Human/Animal/Alien Hybrids

The article, which you can read in its entirety here, gives further descriptions of the lower three levels, to wit:
-5th Level - witnesses have described huge vats with amber liquid with parts of human bodies being stirred inside. Rows and rows of cages holding men, women and children to be used as food. Perhaps thousands.

-6th Level - privately called "Nightmare Hall." It contains the genetic labs. Here are where the crossbreeding experiments of human/animal are done on fish, seals, birds, and mice that are vastly altered from their original forms. There are multi-armed and multi-legged humans and several cages and vats of humanoid bat-like creatures up to 7 feet tall.

-7th Level - Row after row of 1,000s of humans in cold storage including children.
They then insinuate, in all apparent seriousness, that "Mothman" was an escapee from level six.  How he got all the way to West Virginia is still in question.  Perhaps it's through the series of underground tunnels that allegedly connect Dulce Base to other secret bases around the US, including (of course) Area 51.

The whole story apparently originated back in the late 1980s with a guy named Paul Bennewitz, a physicist who "wrote a computer program that could translate alien radio transmissions" and connected with a woman named Myrna Hansen who, under hypnosis, described being held at Dulce Base and implanted with alien mind control devices.  No hard evidence was produced, of course -- just all these anecdotal reports and insinuations.  I find this odd.  You would think that if someone claimed to have an alien implant, it would be simple -- remove, or at least x-ray, the device supposedly in the person's skull, and there you'd have it: hard evidence of alien technology.  The fact that no one did that is suspect in and of itself.  Apparently Bennewitz eventually went completely off the deep end, began to talk about how aliens were coming through his walls to inject him with chemicals, and he was hauled off to the mental hospital.  Or... maybe he knew too much and was silenced.  Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Be that as it may, the Dulce story has grown by accretion, and now there is an elaborate description of its underground facilities, maps of how it is connected to other facilities, and detailed information about the grotesque genetic experiments that go on there.  Pretty super top-secret-highly-classified, isn't it?  And there are, of course, all sorts of stories about people who talked about it getting in trouble -- just like Bennewitz.  The funniest one is that shortly after the series UFO Hunters did a show on Dulce Base, it got cancelled, which makes all the woo-woos wiggle their eyebrows in a significant fashion.  It apparently never occurs to them that a simpler explanation is that UFO Hunters got cancelled because it was a stupid show.

Interestingly, unlike Area 51, where there actually is a military facility of some sort, Dulce Base is believed by most skeptics simply not to exist at all.  The most rational claims are that it was a complete fabrication on the part of Bennewitz and others; but like most conspiracy theories, denial simply made it stronger, and made its adherents more convinced that they'd stumbled on the truth.

In what may or may not be a coincidence (mwa-ha-ha again) I'm heading off to New Mexico in a couple of weeks.  The plan is to visit my favorite cousins and my wife's uncle and aunt.  Of course, that's the story I would tell, right?  No way would I divulge the real reason for my going there, so soon after posting this.  There has to be more to it.  Maybe I'm in league with... them.  After all, I'm a biologist!  Aha!  I'm in on the human/animal hybridization experiments!

Ahem.  "No official comment." 

Off the record, though, all I can say is: if you're ever in northern New Mexico, and you see what appears to be a six-foot-tall weasel with blond hair and a wicked smirk... I had nothing to do with it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Magical mystery tours

Well, I was going to do a post about how quantum mechanics and the double-slit interferometry experiment proves the survival of the human soul after death, but I could not have continued reading the source material without having at least two shots of tequila.  Given that it's only 6:30 AM, I thought this was a bad strategy for starting off the day, so I've elected instead to write about Tours for Woo-woos.

Apparently travel to Mystical Places is becoming all the rage with people who (1) like going to cool places, (2) have a lot of money, and (3) are extremely gullible.  One company that arranges such tours, Mystical Travel, has a great many to choose from.  Let me give you a sampler of what you might expect:

1)  Markawasi: Through the StarGate -- this trip, at $2,350 per person, sends you to Markawasi, an Inca site up at 13,000 feet elevation in the Andes.  The website states, "During our time there we walk the plateau, examining the many stone shapes left for whoever survived the massive Earth changes that cleansed the world tens of thousands of years ago during a pole shift and flood. This is a monument, a museum, of what had been. Incredible as it is, this place is older then the pyramids of Egypt. Additionally, we believe there exists another stargate somewhere on the Plateau. We intend to enlist your help to find it."  My general thought is:  good luck with that.

2)  Shapeshifting a New World in the Land of the Maya -- for this one, there was no price listed.  I was requested to put in my email address if I wanted more information, and frankly, I'd rather not have these people contacting me.  Here, we go right to the source -- Central America -- in December of 2012, to prepare ourselves for the end of the Long Count on December 21.  The blurb about this tour kept using the word "shapeshifting" and I kept looking for a sign that they meant it metaphorically, but apparently, these people really believe that you can learn how to transform yourself into, for example, a weasel.  Amongst the featured activities are that you will get to "Work with shamans and deities at the shore of one of the world's Seven Sacred Lakes, Lake Atitlan, and spend five magical days investigating the jungle and archeological ruins of Tikal, focusing Shapeshifting practices at sites dating back to 800 B.C. - to open inner forces of healing and wakefulness" and that you will "feel the winds of the great vortex that emit from the cauldron of an extinct volcano that is now a bottomless lake and located those areas noted as the secret inter-dimensional passageways by shamanic elders."  I can hardly wait.  And afterwards, we can move on to:

3)  2013: Day 1, the Great Rethinking in Glastonbury -- when you've survived December 21, 2012, you can head over to England in 2013 to be part of a think tank that will help to rebuild the world.  This one is a conference (once again, I couldn't find a price) in Glastonbury, the place that supposedly has the "most powerful intersection of ley lines in the world."  The idea here, so far as I could ascertain, is that following the cataclysm of December 2012, during which there might be "some sudden quantum shift in human consciousness or an alien landing on the White House lawn" (that quote is directly from the site), there will have to be some pretty fancy footwork to pick up whatever pieces are left.  This conference will bring together people with "shamanic consciousness" to start the world on its new journey after all the Mayan End-of-the-World stuff happens.

And so on.  There are tours to Egypt (UFO related, of course); Sedona, Arizona (Native American shamanism), Greece (Atlantis, ancient gods, and the Oracle of Delphi), and Mount Shasta (to celebrate a solar eclipse that is going to "align with the Pleiades," an event that evidently is supposed to mean something).  All of which leaves me feeling like maybe I could use that tequila, after all.

Now, understand that I have nothing whatsoever against traveling, and if meeting shamans and seeking out stargates floats your boat, well, have at it.  My objection is the same one I have to most of these sorts of things; these tour agencies lead the gullible to believe that all of this stuff is true, that if you participate you actually will discover a secret inter-dimensional passageway, or whatever.  And human suggestibility being what it is, there is every reason to expect that if you think you're going to have a mystical experience while you're there, you probably will come away feeling like you did.

There's the old adage that "a fool and his money are soon parted," but I just can't help but think that there's something unfair about playing on people's credulity to make money.  But in the long haul, if they come back from their Mystical Tour (1) with some good memories of having traveled to cool places, and (2) with a feeling like they've tapped into some mystical center of the universe, didn't they get their money's worth?

I suppose that in some sense, they did.  Still, I find myself thinking of that wonderful quote from Carl Sagan, from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark: "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Light waves, the ether, and stoned wallabies

In yesterday's post, I scoffed at the tendency of some people to jump to a supernatural answers when there is a perfectly reasonable natural answer at hand.  In particular, I made reference to the foolishness surrounding crop circles, which are variously attributed to alien intelligences, evil spirits, and "plasma vortexes."

Note that my disdain for supernatural solutions doesn't mean that all natural solutions are created equal, nor that a given natural solution is necessarily correct.  Witness, for example, the article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in June 2009, brought to my attention yesterday by a former student of mine, which attributes crop circles to Tasmanian wallabies on dope.  (To prove that I am not making this up, read the entire article here.)

If you'd prefer the condensed version, the article tells the story of the Tasmanian poppy farms that supply half of the legally-produced opium in the world (used in making morphine, codeine, and other medically useful opiate drugs).  Given its capacity for being stolen, and either used illegally or sold, security around poppy farms is pretty high, which is why it came as some surprise when crop circles started showing up in poppy fields.

The reason for bringing all this up is that one person has proposed a solution to the Tasmanian crop circle problem, and it has nothing to do with aliens.  Lara Giddings, attorney general for the state of Tasmania, blames the phenomenon on stoned wallabies.

"The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles," Giddings said, in a parliamentary hearing.  "Then they crash.  We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high."

My first reaction was, "You're kidding, right?"  But Giddings was apparently completely serious.  She thinks that crop circles in poppy fields are really being caused by wallabies eating poppy plants and then jumping around in circles.

Now, I will state up front that I couldn't find any photographs of the Tasmanian crop circles, and that I don't know what caused them.  But if they're really what we've come to call crop circles -- arrays of sharp-edged geometric shapes -- then I will bet my next month's salary that they weren't caused by a drugged wallaby hopping about.

So to clarify my assertion from yesterday; just because I think that supernatural answers are wrong doesn't mean that I think that every natural answer has to be right.

And it doesn't even have to be that far-fetched, either.  Even the scientists are sometimes off base, because let's face it -- nature can be pretty weird, sometimes.  Consider the interesting case of the ether.

When it was discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries that light had a lot of wave-like properties, a natural question to ask was, "what is waving?"  Waves have to travel in a medium -- a wave is a regular disturbance in some substance or another.  (This is why in science fiction movies, when a spaceship blows up, and you hear "BOOM," someone didn't pay attention in physics class -- because space, being generally devoid of matter, would have no medium through which sound waves could propagate.  Explosions in space would be completely silent.)

So scientists naturally wondered what medium light was traveling in -- i.e. in a light wave, what is "waving?"  Since light, unlike sound, travels just fine in a vacuum, there must be something there through which the wave is passing.  Pretty logical, right?  Scientists decided that there was a medium that simply couldn't be detected with the equipment they had, and named this medium "ether."

So, for decades, "ether" was a scientific fact -- until the nifty little Michelson-Morley experiment happened, disproving the existence of the ether, and set the stage for Einstein to explain what was actually happening -- and for Schrödinger to finally pronounce that what was waving was a probability field.  (And if that sounds a little too close to Douglas Adams' "Infinite Improbability Drive" to be possible, allow me to say that it strikes me that way, too, and yet it's been experimentally supported every which way from Sunday.)

Nature can be bizarre, weird, counterintuitive.  However, it does act in a regular fashion, which is why the scientific method works.  The bottom line, as always, is:  show me the goods.  If you think you have an explanation for something, provide hard evidence.  That is the strength of science; everyone, and every theory, is held up to the gold standards of evidence and replicability.  If you want me to believe in something -- the ether, light being a probability wave, or stoned wallabies causing crop circles -- you better have something better up your sleeve than "because I'm the attorney general, and I said so."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Crop circles, sciencey words, and easy answers

One of the things that bugs me the most about the supernatural view of the world is that it's taking the easy way out.

Natural, scientific explanations are hard.  That's why people study all their lives to learn how to do good science.  Even to read one of the popular journals about science -- Discover, say, or Scientific American -- means you have to commit yourself to exercising your brain a little, training yourself to think critically, learning a few new vocabulary words.

The woo-woos of the world take the easy way.  They specialize in a lexicon that I call "Sort Of Sciencey Or Something."  The words sounds scientific enough -- energy, field, vibration, frequency, dimension -- but when you press them, it turns out that even they aren't able to give a good definition of what they mean by these terms.  They throw in glancing references to actual science (quantum mechanics is a particular favorite) and it gives them the good, glowing feeling of being Sort Of Sciencey Or Something, which is often enough to sell whatever product they're hawking to the gullible.

Natural explanations aren't always technical and hard to understand, mind you; but they do require you to look beyond the easy answers of attributing things to Psychic Vibrational Energy Fields, and force your brain to think skeptically.  Witness, for example, the crop circle that appeared in Wiltshire (England) last week.

Visitors to the site generally attributed the latest addition to the Crop Circle Artists' Portfolio to the usual things -- mostly aliens.  Janet Ossebaard, a Dutch crop circle woo-woo extraordinaire, stated, "This wasn’t made by people, otherwise you’d see damage from board marks.  It’s been hit by a plasma vortex.  You can see the burn marks on the crops and cavities.  We also found a half-fried caterpillar. This is a vortex that has been intelligently guided — and not by hoaxers."

Well, Ms. Ossebaard, I'm afraid that you might want to reconsider your "plasma vortex" theory.

Professor Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, was able to replicate exactly this sort of damage -- and mimic crop circle patterns -- using a magnetron, a device made from the innards of a microwave oven, and powered by...  a 12-volt battery!

In an article in Physics World, Taylor describes how he used a magnetron to "cook" the bottom of plant stems, causing them to fall over and cool in place -- creating the "bent, not broken" hallmark of crop circles that woo-woos have made such a fuss about.  With a magnetron and a hand-held GPS, Taylor says, you could make a crop circle of a size and level of complexity that would only be limited by the number of hours in a night.

So, there you have it, folks: a nice, plausible, natural explanation, with no recourse necessary to "plasma vortexes" or the like.

Note that I'm not saying that every crop circle was made this way.  But that's the great thing about scientific explanations; you find a straightforward, plausible explanation, that accounts for all of the known facts in a given case, with the full knowledge that the next case might require a different explanation.  The woo-woos' determination to make things like this into some huge mystical deal (The Aliens Are Trying To Communicate With Us) leaves them instead having to answer a number of troubling questions, the most important of which is: Why would an alien intelligence using a "plasma vortex" to carve an image into a wheat field choose to depict an alien smoking a pipe?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Flower power

In yesterday's post, I commented on the peculiar practice of yoga for dogs, and made the comment, "What next?  Flower essences for dogs?"

If I was expecting everyone to say, "Ha-ha, what a silly thought, no one could be that gullible," I was sadly mistaken.  Several of my readers sent me links showing that there is already a thriving business in selling people flower essences to treat their dogs.

If you're wondering what a "flower essence" is, then allow me to explain.  A flower essence is made by floating flowers in water, and exposing them to the light of the sun, moon, or stars, so that the water is "potentized" -- the "energy vibrations" of the flowers are "transferred to the structure of the water."  This then creates a "mother tincture" that can be used to treat physical or emotional problems.

If you can stand to take a swan dive into a great big pond of pseudoscience, take a look at this explanation of how flower essences work (here).  If you understandably would prefer not to risk valuable brain cells by reading the whole thing, I present here a few highlights:
"Flower essences (remedies) are specially prepared extracts of the flowering parts of certain plants. They work through energy fields to heal stress and disease from the inside."

"Many other essences have been created around the world, not only from flowers, but also from gems, minerals, animals, butterflies, lakes, sacred earth sites, stars, celestial phenomena, and Ascended Masters. Many of them are very useful in helping our animal companions recover from trauma, injury, and stress. These non-flower essences are often referred to as 'energy' or 'vibrational' essences."

"Essences heal underlying negative emotional states by 'flooding' the patient with the opposite, positive quality. For example, the essence of Holly is love. Use Holly in any situation where there is a lack of love, such as anger, jealousy, or rage. Similarly, the essence of Rock Rose is courage; it is helpful in cases of deep fears, panic, and terror."

"Since essences act energetically, not physically, they are completely safe and non-toxic. They cannot be overused or misused, and they are compatible with all other treatments, including drugs, surgery, and holistic treatments like herbs and homeopathy. Even if you give the wrong remedy, it will not have any negative effects, but simply no effect."
This, of course,  brings up a few questions in my mind:

1)  How do you make an "essence" of a celestial phenomenon?  "Here, have a few drops of Lunar Eclipse?"  Making an "essence" of an animal is even more problematic, and if anyone tried to dose me with Essence of Weasel, I wouldn't be happy about it.  And I don't even want to know how they make an essence of an "Ascended Master."

2)  If you are giving your pet something that is completely safe and non-toxic, can't be overused or misused, is compatible with all other treatments, and can be given to the wrong animal at the wrong time with no effect, isn't it safe to assume that the treatment itself is worthless?

3)  Lastly, who comes up with this stuff?  I mean, come on.  How on earth would putting the reproductive organs of a plant into water and exposing it to moonlight "imprint vibrational energy" into the water?  (Whatever "imprinting vibrational energy" is supposed to mean.)  If you want me to believe this blather, then design me an Vibrational Energy-o-Meter, and show that the needle pegs when you put the sensor in flower essence water, and doesn't respond with plain old tap water.  Until then, this just strikes me as a way to rip off the gullible.

And believe me, it's not that I wouldn't welcome such a thing, if it worked.  I own two dogs, who between them are a walking encyclopedia of canine neuroses.  One of my dogs, Grendel, is a tough-looking, barrel-chested mutt whose appearance has "junkyard dog" written all over it, but whose personality has resulted in our giving him a variety of nicknames, including "CreamPuff," "Mr. Fluffums," and "WussieDog."  He's a cuddler, not a fighter.  Plus, he's terrified of nail clippers, squirt bottles, and other hand-held devices, and runs and hides if we are holding one.  Our other dog, Doolin, is a border collie/coonhound mix, and is a nervous wreck most of the time because the two sides of her personality are constantly at war.  Her coonhound side chases the cats, steals food from the counter, and dumps the trash, and then the collie side feels intensely guilty about it.  If there was a way to sooth her aura, I'd jump right at it.  Her aura probably resembles the little lightning bolts generated by the Tesla coils that were in the background of all of those bad 1960s science fiction movies.

However, even given our dogs' rampant mental issues, I'm not going to waste my time and money messing around with flower essences.  For one thing, they're not cheap -- in the sites I looked at, small bottles of essences start at $15.99.  For another thing, I'm not eager to support people who are hoodwinking the public with pseudoscientific nonsense for which there is not a shred of hard scientific evidence.

For another thing, Grendel would probably be afraid of the dropper bottle.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Downward-facing dog

New from the Bizarre Ways To Spend Your Time And Money department, we have:  yoga classes for dogs.

Predictably named "doga," this trendy practice is apparently catching on like crazy.  Suzi Teitelman, a doga instructor from Florida, offers classes, DVDs, and a training manual, and has trained over a hundred people to be doga instructors themselves.

"We chant together to feel the vibrations, then we start moving into twists and turns," she said.  "The person takes dog deeper into a stretch, and the dog takes the person deeper.  If you have a dog on your arm in a standing posture it helps balance and strength."

Note the dog breeds in the above photograph.  All of the photos I've seen show people holding small port-a-dogs like miniature dachshunds, Pekinese, Pomeranians, and toy poodles.  No one ever seems to be holding, say, a rottweiler, which I think would be a much greater challenge to your balance and strength.

Teitelman believes that there are benefits to the practice for both human and dog.  "You're moving their body. They're getting touched, they're getting love," she explained, "and everybody needs to be hanging upside down."

And yes, that is a direct quote, the last part of which leaves me at a loss as to how to respond.

Dr. Robin Brennen, a New York City veterinarian, is an enthusiastic supporter of doga, and notes that in a class she attended, by the end of the class all the dogs were in savasana (the final resting pose).  I.e., they were asleep.  My dogs would probably fall asleep, too, if they were stuck for an hour in a room with a bunch of people chanting and stretching and assuming weird poses, and not engaging in any sensible kind of activity, such as throwing a frisbee or tennis ball or playing tug-of-war with a rope toy.

Teitelman states that the practice isn't just helpful for dogs, but can be applied to other kinds of pets, too. 

"It definitely works with cats," she said, "and when I do 'downward dog' my bird comes over."

I'm skeptical about the cats, frankly.  I've witnessed my own cats doing a special solo feline yoga pose, the Lick-Your-Own-Butt asana, but it's hard to imagine them cooperating with a human + cat yoga routine.  I can't see myself trying to hold on to one of them while, for example, standing on one leg.  And hanging one of my cats upside down would be a recipe for a trip to the emergency room for stitches. 

Please note that I have nothing whatsoever against yoga, per se.  It's a wonderful regimen for toning, stretching, and building stamina, even if I don't exactly subscribe to a lot of the spiritual trappings that tend to surround it.  But dogs?  Really?  It makes you wonder what the next pet-related woo-woo fad will be.  Homeopathy for dogs with illnesses?  Using crystals and flower essences to assuage your dog's anxieties?  Astrology for dogs?  I bet there are people out there who would happily buy into any or all of these.

The possibilities are limitless, as long as the money is.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The myth of certainty

Tropical Storm Emily is currently spinning in the Atlantic Ocean near the Grenadines, and in a few days may be a threat to the coastal United States.  The various computer models used to predict the formation and movement of storms show an uncertain forecast, both in trajectory and strengthening; landfall is predicted to be anywhere between North Carolina and south Florida, and in fact some models show it veering off into the open ocean and not hitting the mainland at all.  And depending on its path, it could weaken (especially if if makes a direct hit on the Dominican Republic) or strengthen (if it lingers over the warm waters of the Caribbean).

For some people, this kind of uncertainty is distressing.  A commenter on an online news story about Emily posted, "I should become a weather forecaster.  It's the only job where you can admit that you are as likely to be right as a flip of a coin (50% chance of rain) or talk on and on about the fact that you really don't know where a hurricane is going to go, and you still get paid."

Meteorology is especially open to these kinds of criticisms -- despite vast improvements in weather and climate modeling, the Earth's weather is a tremendously complex system, sensitive to large numbers of initial conditions, and models are still fraught with inaccuracies.  However, you hear the same kind of accusations levied against science in general.  I've had students ask me why we are bothering to learn science "when it could all be proven wrong ten years from now."  The findings of nutrition scientists are ridiculed as summing up to "everything you eat can kill you."  Evolutionary biologists are dismissed as not knowing what they're doing when a new discovery changes our understanding of the relationships between prehistoric species.  Physicists, especially those who study quantum phenomena, are the worst; their models, so counterintuitive to what we see in the macroscopic world, have generated comments such as the one I saw appended to an article on the Large Hadron Collider, that "these guys spend billions of taxpayer dollars to play around and then write science fiction."

All of this comes, I think, from three problems with the public perception of science.

The first is its portrayal in the media, an issue with which I dealt in a recent post, and which I will not go into any further here.

The second is how science is taught in public school.  It is regrettably uncommon to see science taught as a process; that it is a cumulative, and changing, way of understanding based upon the total mass of data we have at present.  Too often, science is taught as lists of vocabulary words and mathematical equations -- neither of which portray science accurately, as a fluid, responsive way of modeling the world.  Most people, therefore, grow up with the idea that scientific understanding shouldn't change, any more than the definition of "dog" should change, or the solution to an algebraic equation should change.

The third reason, however, is the one I want to look at more carefully.  It's the myth that science should provide certainty.  The resentment of people against weather forecasting comes, I think, from the idea that knowledge should be certain.  You either know something, or you don't, right?  Either Tropical Storm Emily will hit Charleston, South Carolina, or else it won't; and if you're smart enough, you should be able to figure that out.  And if you meteorologists can't figure that out, then what the hell are we paying you for?

It's this attitude that generates my student's frustration, that science could change enough that our current textbooks could be entirely wrong ten years from now.  And this brings me to the crux of the matter, which is that people don't understand the idea of "levels of confidence."

How confident are scientists in various models or theories?  Well, it varies, and it's not an either/or matter (either it's all right, or it's all wrong).  Some models have very high levels of confidence.  The atomic theory (the basis of chemistry) and evolutionary theory (the basis of biology) are supported by such vast mountains of data that their likelihood of being substantially wrong is nearly zero.  Any changes to be made to either of those models will be at the level of details.  Other models, such as climate modeling and weather forecasting, are still subject to considerable uncertainty even as to the rules by which the system interacts and responds; predictions made here are made with less confidence, and the rules of the science could well change as we gather more data.  Finally, some models, for example string theory, are still only interesting proposals, and there is not nearly enough data yet for a determination to be made.  In ten years, it could be that physics textbooks will include whole chapters on string theory and the studies that validate it, or it might have gone the way of the ether and be relegated to the scrap pile of ideas that went unsupported by the evidence.  It's simply too early to tell.

The problem is, that's not enough for a lot of people.  They want certainty, as if it's honestly even possible.  To them, even the uncertainties inherent in the best-supported models are unacceptable; if there are any questions left, then it means that "scientists don't really know."  And for the models lower on the confidence-level scale, the whole thing appears like nothing more than guesswork.  Never mind that our improved ability to forecast hurricane trajectories has saved thousands of lives -- compare our current knowledge of storm tracks to what happened in Galveston in 1900, when a hurricane barreled into the coast, seemingly out of nowhere, costing more than 8,000 lives.

Uncertainty at some level is built into science as a way of knowing; there's no escaping the fact that new data can trash old theories.  But "uncertainty" doesn't imply that scientists don't know what they're doing, or that tomorrow we'll be throwing away all the chemistry texts because they suddenly decided that the alchemists were right, after all.  As more data is collected, and models and theories are refined, the uncertainty diminishes.  And even though it can never reach zero, it can reach low enough levels that a model becomes "robust" -- able to make accurate predictions in almost all cases.

And even if meteorology hasn't quite gotten there yet, it's still a damn sight better than it was a hundred years ago, when hurricanes could hit coastlines before warnings could be issued.  The people who believe in the myth of certainty in science might do well to consider the difference between our understanding now and our understanding a century ago -- before they make proclamations about scientists not deserving to get paid for what they do.