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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Witches, vampires, and irrationality

My mom, although she was generous to a fault with her friends and family, was very suspicious of strangers.  I blame this in part on the fact that during the last ten years of her life, she watched the show Cops every night.  If you expose yourself, even willingly, to a continual parade of thieves, arsonists, murderers, and other no-goods, you're bound to come away with the view that the world is a pretty shady place, and most of humanity unscrupulous at best and dangerous at worst.

It is perhaps an occupational hazard of writing a blog such as this one that I often find myself wondering if humans are honestly capable of any shred of rationality.  I realize that, like my mom, I'm deliberately opening myself to a skewed viewpoint -- every day I seek out examples of weird beliefs and bizarre behavior, so I shouldn't be surprised that I come away with the jaundiced attitude that my fellow humans are, by and large, a bunch of wingnuts.  Still, some of the stories I ran into this morning leave me shaking my head and wondering how natural selection hasn't replaced us with a more sensible, intelligent dominant species.  I think that dolphins, for example, might well make better Lords of the Earth, given some of our behavior.

For example, we have a murder case in Florida, in which 18-year-old Stephanie Pistey is accused of killing 16-year-old Jacob Hendershot.  All of which would be tragic but not relevant to today's topic, except that Pistey maintains that she killed Hendershot because she's "a vampire-werewolf hybrid."  According to the reports, Pistey "talked calmly and rationally" about her beliefs, which included the fact that "bloodlust is just part of who we are."

Of course, I'm sure that when Pistey comes to trial, her defense will try to prove that she's mentally unbalanced.  Which is clearly a true statement, but then, how mentally unbalanced do you have to be before you're honestly not responsible for your actions?  It's hard to believe that anyone who had not completely lost touch with reality (and there's apparently no evidence that Pistey is schizophrenic) would be so convinced that she was part vampire, part werewolf that she would kill someone.  But that's evidently exactly what happened here.  Clearly Pistey believes that vampires and werewolves are real, and it's to be assumed that she didn't come by that belief on her own.

Just yesterday, we had news that a couple in Oregon were found guilty two days ago of second-degree manslaughter for allowing their premature newborn to die.  The couple believed that praying for the child, and anointing him with "blessed oil," would cause god to save his life -- teachings promoted by their church, the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City.  Amazingly, the judge agreed to a "religious exemption" -- meaning that the couple will likely spend less than 18 months in jail for the offense.  One has to wonder what other homicidal lunacy might become excusable as long as it's based on religious grounds.

Speaking of which, we have the cheery story that our allies in Saudi Arabia have beheaded a Sudanese man for witchcraft.  The man, Abdul Hamid bin Hussein Mostafa al-Fakki, was arrested in 2005 for "casting a spell to reconcile his divorced parents," and found guilty of sorcery, which is a capital offense in Islamic religious law.  He was executed by beheading last week.  And lest we think that such medieval beliefs are limited to the Middle East, we have a story from Uganda that four people were banished from their village for witchcraft, and a businessman in Indonesia is currently awaiting trial for using "dark magic" to harm his competitors in the marketplace.  Apparently, the fact that there's no such thing as Black Magic doesn't mean that you can't be convicted of it in a court of law.

I think I'll end with a story about an archaeological dig in Piombino, Italy.  Archaeologists searching for the tomb of St. Cerbonius, alleged to be in the vicinity, came upon the bones of a woman, who was between 25 and 30 years old at her death, which occurred in about 1200 C.E.  What caught the attention of the researchers was the fashion in which she was buried -- she had several nails driven into her jawbone, and there were more nails struck into the ground near her body.  (The cause of death is as yet undetermined, and it's to be hoped the nails were hammered into her after she'd died -- but that's not certain, unfortunately.)  The archaeologists stated that according to writings from the time, this was the way the bodies of witches, warlocks, and vampires were treated -- the nails were intended to keep them from coming back from the dead and harming the living.

How far we've come in 800 years.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Voodoo, dragonflies, Planet X, and sex with evil spirits

New from the Be Careful What You Wish For Department, in yesterday's post I asked my loyal readers to send me links to stories of woo-wooism worldwide, and within a couple of hours I received four stories which, although I appreciated the gesture, left me wondering how much weirder people can get.

First, we have a story from Telford, Shropshire, England, about a teacher who used some very unorthodox methods to get her students to behave.

Roslyn Holloway, now an ex-employee of the Lord Silkin Trust Secondary School, was a teacher of special education for kids aged 13, and her tenure at the school was marked by abusive behavior (she smacked one misbehaving kid with the heel of her hand, and pulled another by the hair so hard that a hunk of it came out), racial epithets, and general verbal harassment.  However, what makes this story merit a mention in Skeptophilia is what finally got her fired.  (As if all of the above weren't enough.)

During a social studies lesson, she took a doll out of a bag, and wrapped a student's hair around the doll's leg, and threatened to drop the doll to "make his leg hurt."  Then, she said that she was planning on dropping the doll into a bucket of water if the student didn't stop talking in class, and if she did, he would "be found, mysteriously drowned."

What I find most disturbing about this whole incident is that this nutjob was allowed to teach for eight years before the voodoo incident finally got her canned.

Holloway upped stakes after her dismissal, and moved to the Shetland Islands, where, it is to be hoped, she will never be allowed around children again.  Or anyone else, for that matter.

On a lighter note, we have a report from London regarding a dragonfly that is actually a remote-controlled drone operated by an alien parasite.

The report, made by a man who identifies himself only as SpaceCowboy1954, appeared in a YouTube video (which you can watch here).  The video, which is approximately as interesting as watching your fenders rust, features eight minutes of footage of what appears to be an ordinary dragonfly zooming around, accompanied by an annoying, monotonous syntho-pop soundtrack evidently performed by a musician who has not yet mastered the concept of "changing chords."  For those of you who would like to cut to the chase, the punch line of the whole thing comes at 6:02, at which point the dragonfly's head appears to split, allowing an "alien head to peek out, just like a Transformer."

After watching the video, wasting eight valuable minutes of my life that I'll never see again, I've come to the conclusion that the guy has been engaged in some creative video editing, as the shots with the "alien" are far blurrier than most of the shots of the plain old dragonfly.  Be that as it may, you should definitely be on the lookout for alien insects next time you're outside, because who knows what they may be up to?  This one was certainly involved in some very sinister circling of the park bench, and we all know what that means.  Next step, world domination.

Speaking of world domination, no roundup of recent weird news would be complete without an update on what Nibiru is doing.

Nibiru, of course, is the mysterious tenth planet, that either is in a highly elliptical orbit extending beyond Pluto, and only visits the inner solar system every few thousand years, or else is in a stable circular orbit exactly on the opposite side of the sun from the Earth, either of which would explain why we never see any sign of it.  This recent Nibiru news takes the second view, and claims that further, (1) it was somehow known to the Hopi, who called it the "Blue Katchina," (2) has no atmosphere or water, but still (3) is the home of the alien race called Annunaki, who (3) were the gods mentioned in the Old Testament, and who were (4) mining gold there until things got screwed up by the fact that (5) Planet X is approaching, which may or may not be the Comet Elenin, and Planet X has (6) pushed Venus further from the sun, which will (7) cause the Earth's magnetic pole to flip, resulting in (8) seriously bad stuff that will of course peak on December 21, 2012.

I wish I was making all this up.  So that I can at least maintain some credibility with my readers, here's a link to the webpage that gives all the details on the upcoming catastrophe.

There's more, of course, but my brain cells were screaming for mercy as it was, so I'll leave you to look at the article on your own if you're interested.  And if major sectors of your brain die in agony from reading this stuff, don't say I didn't warn you.

Last, we have a story from Malaysia, where a man called police claiming that he wife was having sex every night with an "evil spirit."

The unnamed man, in his 20s, described to police that his wife would go to bed in the normal fashion, and then wake him up in the middle of the night moaning.  A "professional medium" hired by the man told him that an evil spirit was coming to her at night and proceeding to have its way with her, and if he didn't take action, she could end up conceiving a "spirit child."

The police "listened patiently" to the man's story, but finally told him that they were not able to arrest the "invisible man," because he was, well, invisible, which would make him kind of difficult to handcuff.

If I'd been the policeman on duty, I'd have told the guy, "Look, buddy, like I don't have enough to worry about, with robotic alien-controlled dragonflies, teachers threatening students with voodoo curses, and the fact that the world's going to end soon."  But I doubt that'd have worked, anyhow, given that most guys are pretty picky about their significant others not cheating on them, even if the significant others are cheating with someone who doesn't, technically, exist.

So, folks, keep those cards and letters coming.  We here at Worldwide Wacko Watch just love the attention, and even if it means facing the fact that a significant percentage of humans are total loons, we're willing to deal with our pessimism about humanity in general to bring these stories to your doorstep.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Woo-woo news briefs

Things are hopping down here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, and this week we have three stories sent to me by faithful readers of Skeptophilia.

First, we have a story regarding a theoretical physicist, Henry Sapp, who claims that there is nothing incompatible between quantum mechanics and ghosts.  Here's a quote from his writing on the subject:
I do not see any compelling theoretical reason why this idea could not be reconciled with the precepts of quantum mechanics. Such an elaboration of quantum mechanics would both allow our conscious efforts to influence our own bodily actions, and also allow certain purported phenomena such as “possession”, “mediumship”, and “reincarnation” to be reconciled with the basic precepts of contemporary physics.
Hmmm.  Okay.  As far as I can tell, this is a little like saying that there is nothing incompatible between organic chemistry and federal tax law.  It's a true statement, but it doesn't really tell you anything.  Quantum mechanics has nothing whatsoever to say about "survival of the spirit," being that it is about the behavior of matter and energy at the submicroscopic scale.  Being a theoretical physicist, you'd think he'd know this.  As for the rest of the woo-woo world, I really wish they'd give the whole quantum mechanics thing a rest, as I've seen it used to support crystal healing, telepathy, and homeopathy, usually accompanied by some statement that "quantum theory shows that reality isn't like we think it is" and therefore we should all accept whatever bizarre version of reality is currently on display.  They really need to find a new subject to attribute all of their mystical stuff to.  I suggest organic chemistry.

Then we've got a story that there is a direct relationship between the number of UFO sightings and global warming, and that the increase in global temperatures is causing aliens to visit us in progressively greater numbers.  The author of this article speculates that the aliens are coming here with good intentions, to warn us that our behavior is destroying our biosphere, and that we should take heed and stop burning fossil fuels and so on.

You'd think, being superpowerful aliens who can come here in spacecrafts, that if that was their message they would be a little more direct about it, rather than just flying "silver orbs" around and hoping that we'd look up and say, "Wow, did you just see that big silver orb zoom across the sky!  It's an alien spacecraft!  I'm going to run out and buy a Prius right now!"  You'd think that they'd just tie a big banner to the back of one of their orbs that said, "Hey, Earth people!  Stop burning fossil fuels!  We mean it!"

You'd be wrong, evidently.  It's the same thing as with all the crop circles; they're supposed to be alien communiqu├ęs, but if so they're pretty obscure ones.

Last, speaking of aliens, we have a report from a guy named Paul Schroeder that he's had reptilian aliens visit him while he was taking a shower.

By his own description, Schroeder once was a confirmed atheist but he changed his tune when he saw aliens float him out of his bed, because apparently he was convinced that the aliens were trying to steal his soul and for that to be true he had to have a soul in the first place.  Since his abduction, he's had a variety of contacts with aliens of several races, including "Grays," "Darks," and "Reptilians."  It's a member of the last-mentioned species that came and joined him in the shower.

He said he knew something was wrong when the shower, instead of energizing him, was "draining him."  Showers are supposed to be an "ethereal cleansing," and not just get the grease and dirt off, but wash all the schmutz off your aura or something.  And evidently this one wasn't doing the trick.  Then, suddenly, he felt a burning sensation on his skin, and had "sudden, unprovoked sexual urges and negative ideations," and he knew there was an alien with him in the shower.

For the record, I'm not making any of this up.

Then, suddenly, the alien was able to draw enough energy from him and from the shower, not to mention from all of the unprovoked sexual urges that were happening, and it materialized!  "It stood under five feet upright, had catlike slit eyes, and closely resembled a scaled monitor lizard, in both aspect and facial structure," Schroeder writes.  "That reptilian viewed me with its head tilted, cocked sideways, birdlike; it had piercingly studied me with an alert intelligence that had radiated curiosity.  After just a few seconds, the creature vanished."

Schroeder is worried that now the alien has seen him naked, it will be stalking him, which seems a little conceited, frankly.  "Post abduction, alien abductee predation is done both through implant energy drains and by inserting alien astral attachments, within the layered human psyche towards a goal of eventual possession," he writes.  "These bizarre beings, highly technological and equally interdimensional and intergalactic, use us as we ride horses."

Right.  That's believable.  Implant drains and aliens as spirit equestrians.  This is only slightly less ludicrous than the guy who wanted to transmute base metals into gold using the Philosopher's Stone he'd made from his own urine.

In any case, there you have it.  Quantum mechanics and soul survival, global warming and UFOs, and alien soul-suckers in the shower.  I hope you've found this week's News In Brief enlightening, and trust that you'll continue to send me links to webpages by wingnuts.  As usual, our motto here is: All the News That's Fit to Guffaw At.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Our Lady of the Holy Television Screen

My friend Mark was working on a home improvement project, and generating a great quantity of dust.  After working for some hours, he went into his living room, and found the following eerie image in the dust patterns on the screen of his television:

The bit of the image in the lower right-hand corner looked, to Mark's eye, like a woman holding a baby, and he immediately thought, "Hey, look!  It's Mary and Jesus!"  And, of course, he had to send the image to me.

Fortunately, however, Mark is also an electrical engineer, and knew what had happened.  While he was working on his project, his kids had been watching television, and had paused the DVD they were watching for a long time.  The cathode-ray tube in the television, bombarding the screen with positively-charged particles to create the same image for ten minutes or so, had left a residual pattern in the dust that had adhered to the screen.  All he was seeing was the ghostly afterimage of the last bit of the film his kids had been watching before they turned the DVD player off.

Ah, natural explanations.  They're wonderful things.

Of course, not everyone looks for such explanations.  Some people don't even seem to want to look for them.  Take Bishop David Ricken, of the Roman Catholic diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Bishop Ricken was one of a group of Catholic theologians who investigated the site of an alleged miracle -- a chapel in Champion, Wisconsin, where in 1859 a Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise supposedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary.  The chapel, and Brise's nearby grave, have become a mecca for believers, who think that their being at the site of the miracle will somehow heal disease.

But it's not the beliefs of the devout pilgrims I want to look at here; it's the actions of Bishop Ricken and his group, who after an inquiry into the claim decided that it was true, and certified the chapel as the site of a miracle.

And my question is: how on earth would you certify that a miracle had occurred over 150 years ago?  Brise herself is long dead; anyone who knew Brise is also long dead.  All we have are written records of her story.  How can that constitute evidence, even in the least scientific definition of the word?

Interestingly, an article at describing the claim (read the whole thing here) states that Brise's claim is the only "validated" appearance of the Virgin Mary in the United States; two others supposed visitations, at Necedah, Wisconsin and Bayside, New York, were investigated by the church and "found to be false."  How, pray tell, do you tell a false claim of something for which you have only anecdotal evidence from a true one?

In any case, the apparition Brise claims she saw -- of a shining woman in white who told Brise to "gather the children in this wild country, and teach them what they need for salvation" -- led her to become a Franciscan nun, and later to found a Catholic school.  So it's pretty clear that Brise herself thought she'd seen Mary, if her later actions are any indication.

But lots of people do lots of things for specious reasons, or no particular reason at all -- there's no way now, even if you believe in the basic tenets of the Catholic religion, to verify her claim based on any reasonable criteria for certainty.  This didn't stop Ricken, of course, and nor does it seem to dissuade the hundreds of pilgrims who go to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help to search for healing.

It's all too easy to fool the human brain -- given the deep-seated need by the devout to see the object of their worship, coupled with the lengths this sometimes drives them to -- self-imposed sleep deprivation, fasting, and other forms of denial of bodily needs -- it does not take much of a stretch to attribute such visions to hallucination.  And just as in the case of Mark's apparition of Mary and Jesus on his television screen, the natural explanation certainly is a more plausible version of what happened, however Ricken and his trio of theologian friends think they can certify the veracity of a claim from 150 years ago for which there is no tangible evidence whatsoever.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Breaking the speed limit

When researchers at CERN announced last week that it appeared that they had found an instance of a neutrino traveling faster than the speed of light, it was only a matter of time before the woo-woos got involved.

I just didn't realize that "a matter of time" was measured in milliseconds.

Here is a sampling of some of the responses to this announcement that I found on various webpages the day the findings were released.  These are direct quotes, and no, I didn't make any of them up.

"This finally proves a mechanism for faster than light travel of information, and shows how telepathy could work."

"Aliens have had this technology for millennia.  Hopefully this will shut up all the skeptics when they talk about 'vast interstellar spaces' as if this would be a problem for a technologically advanced species."

"Faster than light particles (tachyons) travel backwards in time.  There will be tachyon pulse (reverse chronometry) in the future which will help us visit the distant past.  This is only the beginning."

"So what?  Quantum entanglement is faster than light, too.  It's all the same thing."

"There never has been an 'ultimate speed limit' on the ethereal realm.  Einstein's artificial distinction has begun to crumble."

Well, first, folks, I want you to know how much it took out of me to read all of this, not to mention copying all of the above quotes, which were selected from reams of such nonsense.  It leaves me feeling in need of some kind of mental restorative.  But being that it's too early for a shot of scotch and the coffee's not done brewing, I will just have to suck it up and soldier on with this post.

Second: are these people really safe to let outside unsupervised?  I mean, really.

Okay, let's clarify a few things, and leave behind telepathy and reverse chronometry (whatever the hell that is), and look at what really happened.  Here are the facts in the speed-limit-breaking neutrino case:

1)  The neutrino in question was clocked traveling 0.002% faster than the speed of light.  To put things in perspective, this would be like a cop pulling you over for driving 55.001 miles per hour in a 55 mile-per-hour zone.  So it's not like we're talking "Warp 8, Mr. Sulu," or anything.

2)  The potential for experimental error is enormous.  One of the questions that came up at the seminar where the results were reported was whether the moon's pull on the terrestrial crust was sufficient to warp the geologic plates and cause an error in the distance measurement.  With a small deviation from predictions like this, the likelihood that it is an unaccounted-for confounding factor is astronomically high.

3)  Also, it bears mention that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is one of the most comprehensively-tested ideas in all of physics.  While it's possible that Einstein could have missed something, it's not really all that probable -- experimental error is far more likely.  All of the hype that "this would rewrite the physics texts if it's verified" is correct, but still, I'm with Michio Kaku, who said about the findings, "I'm still putting my money on Einstein."

Regarding all of the woo-woos, it really amazes me that they have the guts to blather on about a topic about which they clearly are ignorant.  It's not that I'm claiming to know everything; there are many subjects on which I know absolutely nothing.  Take football, for example.  If I started babbling about the Boston Celtics' chances of winning the World Series this year, I'd probably end up making a fool of myself, so I leave such matters to people who actually know what they're talking about.

The aforementioned woo-woos, however, seem to have no such inhibitions, and in fact proudly trumpet their lack of knowledge in public forums.  And if they're challenged by someone who clearly has more knowledge than they do, they react with indignation.  One such poster, when confronted by a person who sounded as if he knew what he was talking about, used the Shakespeare card.  "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," he retorted.  By which, I think, he meant that any damnfool thing the woo-woos say has to be true, because Shakespeare said so.

Anyhow, the whole thing is kind of maddening.  And I predict that within six months it will be found that this measurement resulted from some kind of experimental inaccuracy, and will be withdrawn.  Nevertheless, I will end on a hopeful note, with my all-time favorite limerick:
There was a young woman named Bright
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heated discussion

BBC News reported yesterday that Ireland has documented its first case of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Michael Faherty, 76, of Ballybane, Galway, was found burned to death on December 22, 2010.  Investigators noted that Faherty's body was completely incinerated, and while there was damage to the living room in which the body was found, the body itself was clearly the source of the flame.  No trace of accelerants was found, and there was nothing suggesting foul play.  After a nine-month inquiry into the case, the inquest was finally held last week, and Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin ruled that Faherty's death was caused by Spontaneous Human Combustion.

SHC has been the subject of a lot of speculation, and there are a few cases that seem to admit no other explanation -- most notably the famous case of Mary Reeser, who died in 1951 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Reeser was found by her landlady to have been consumed to ashes, along with the armchair in which she was seated.  The only part of her body remaining was a few of her bones, and her left foot, still encased in a slipper.  Just as in Faherty's case, the room she was in showed little damage -- candles had melted into puddles of wax, and a mirror had warped and cracked from the heat -- but once again, the flames seemed to have arisen from her body.

Other instances of alleged SHC exist, some more believable than others.  One of the others is the case Maybelle Andrews, who supposedly suddenly spouted flame on the floor of a crowded dance hall in 1938 and was burned to ashes in five minutes in front of her horrified dance partner, leading to a new and macabre definition of the phrase "hot date."  However, investigators have tried to substantiate this claim and found that it seems to be spun from whole cloth, probably by writers for the questionable journal Fate in the 1950s.  Andrews herself seems to be entirely fictional, and the story apparently cobbled together from various other tales of uncertain pedigree.

And some of the attempted explanations I've seen don't help much, either.  More than one website I looked at attributed SHC to causes that were clearly pseudoscientific bunk, such as the one that said that one possibility was that "Electrical fields that exist within the human body might be capable of 'short circuiting' somehow, causing some sort of atomic chain reaction that could generate tremendous internal heat."  This is only marginally more plausible than the one that said that SHC was clearly the result of "visitation by malevolent spirits, and a resulting violent discharge of the victim's psychic life energy."

Sorry, I'm not buying either of those explanations, and not just because both of them are unscientific horse waste.  As with many of these sorts of claims, any kind of rational inquiry into SHC is clouded by the vast amount of nonsense, misinformation, and outright fabrications that have been tangled up with the whole subject.  Five minutes' worth of research showed me that one person whose name I saw on more than one list of "victims of SHC" - Phyllis Newcombe - is actually documented in records as having been the victim of burns sustained when her dress caught fire accidentally, and she died not because she was "consumed to ashes" in the usual fashion, but of sepsis from an infection some days later.  (Read about the case here.)  Other names on typical lists of victims are from hundreds of years ago, or are simply lacking in documentation.

So, just like with other Amazing Unexplained Mysteries, a lot of cases of SHC seem to be either (1) fiction, or (2) entirely explainable without recourse to any sort of woo-woo Violent Discharges of Psychic Energy.  But this does leave a handful of cases that are well enough documented that they aren't easily dismissed -- and this includes Reeser's case, and the more recent case of Faherty.  How can these be accounted for?

It turns out that, as odd as it might seem, there is in fact a plausible natural explanation for SHC.  Studies have shown that if a deep burn occurs from a natural trigger (a match, a dropped cigarette, or an upset candle), and the triggering flame is able to burn through the upper layers of skin, it can ignite the fat layer underneath -- and fat burns quite well, generating enough heat to burn the entire body.  (I don't even want to know how they studied this, and in fact I'm trying hard right now not to think too much about it.)  So, as weird and tragic as SHC is, there's a completely reasonable scientific explanation for it -- as, I believe, there is for damn near everything.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Conspiracy theories and the fall of the Twin Towers

Christen Simensen, a materials scientist with Norwegian research firm SINTEF, has provided a scientific explanation of how collision with jets brought down the Twin Towers.  [Source]

In a recent paper in the journal Aluminum International Today, Simensen describes how the jet fuel alone could have heated up the aluminum in the fuselage to its melting point.  The molten aluminum would have reacted with water from the sprinkler system, generating hydrogen gas, an explosion, and a rapid heating to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit -- sufficient to melt the steel girders, resulting in the building's collapse.

This, Simensen claims, should put to rest all of the claims by conspiracy theorists that 9/11 was an "inside job," as it convincingly explains all of the observed data, including the explosions that preceded the collapse of the building.  These explosions are some of the main points in arguments made by people who think that someone -- variously claimed to be the Bush administration, the Bilderburg Group, the Illuminati, the Jews, and probably a whole host of others -- planted bombs in the Twin Towers, prior to the airplane collisions, to assure that the buildings would fall.

To which I say: Mr. Simensen, you are an optimist.

Conspiracy theorists have no respect for data, logic, and science.  I would not hesitate to guess that the conspiracy theorists you think will be silenced by your paper will now only squawk the louder, and claim that you were paid to write what you did.  That's the trouble with folks who believe in conspiracies; if you argue with them, they merely shake their heads and add you to the list of Conspirators.

Coincidentally, last Thursday Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is in New York City for a meeting of the UN General Assembly, met with reporters from the Associated Press, and stated that "as an engineer," he thinks it is impossible for two planes to have brought down the Twin Towers.  He stopped short of claiming the the US government was complicit in the catastrophe, but that was clearly what he was implying.  I seriously doubt that Ahmadinejad would be at all convinced by Simensen's paper -- given that he considers the Holocaust a "mythical claim" that the Jews fabricated in order to facilitate the creation of Israel.  Believe me, if you can discount tens of thousands of photographs, records, and first-hand accounts of a catastrophe that killed six million, you can certainly ignore an argument in Aluminum International Today.

Conspiracy theories are kind of like taking the idea of confirmation bias and running off the cliff with it.  Confirmation bias, you may remember from yesterday's post, is when you already have decided what you believe, so you exaggerate the importance of tiny bits of evidence in favor of your claim, and ignore mountains of evidence against it.  Proponents of conspiracy theories take it a step further; they look on a complete lack of evidence as a point in their favor.  "Of course there's no hard evidence," they say.  "They're a wily bunch, those conspirators.  They wouldn't just leave evidence hanging around."

The whole thing reminds me of the story of the man whose friend, every time he came for a visit, would stop in the doorway, put his hands together as if in prayer, and intone, "May this house be safe from tigers."  After this had happened several times, the man said to his friend, "Why do you keep doing that?  It's pointless.  I've never seen any tigers.  There's probably not a tiger within a thousand miles of here."

The friend smiled.  "It works well, doesn't it?"

Friday, September 23, 2011

Deconstructing Wah!

Yesterday, I received a mailing from The Omega Institute, of Rhinebeck, New York, suggesting that I might be interested in taking some of their classes. 

Frankly, I suspect that I'd last six hours there before security guards escorted me off the premises for guffawing at the staff.  I first started receiving mailings from them because I was interested in their art and writing intensives, but (as I found out on my first perusal of their catalog) at least half of their offerings are seriously woo-woo.   One I particularly enjoyed reading about is the use of music in healing, taught by a woman named Wah!   (The exclamation point is not me being emphatic; it's part of her name.)  What would possess someone to change her name to Wah! is a mystery in and of itself, but I did go to her website and listen to some of her music, and what I heard seemed to fall into the Overwrought, Therapy-Session-Gone-Horribly-Wrong School of Music.   I didn't find it particularly healing, myself, but maybe the point was that it was healing to her -- I don't honestly know.

A more interesting example, however, are the workshops offered by a fellow named John Perkins that claim to teach you how to shape-shift.   From the description of one of these workshops:
We have entered a time prophesied by many cultures for shapeshifting into higher consciousness.  Polynesian shamans shapeshift through oceans, Amazon warriors transform into anacondas, and Andean birdpeople and Tibetan monks bilocate across mountains.  These shamans have taught John Perkins that shapeshifting - the ability to alter form at will - can be used to create positive change.
Well, okay.  I'm willing to accept that some Amazonian shamans believed that they could become anacondas.   I'm also all too willing to accept that certain other, fairly gullible, Amazonian natives believed that the shamans were becoming anacondas.  But this demands the question, doesn't it, of whether they actually are becoming anacondas.   Some of the disciples of the woo-woo will respond with something like, "reality is what you think it is."  Which works just fine until reality in the form of a baseball bat wallops you in the forehead, at which point you can think it doesn't exist, you can in fact think that you're an Andean birdperson, but what you really will be is a confused, non-Andean, ordinary person with a concussion and a big old dent in your head.

It is amazing the lengths to which the woo-woos of the world will go to support their beliefs.  My wife Carol, in her nursing program, had to take a course in "alternatives to traditional medicine."  Her own take on this was that if it had been about the role of belief in the efficacy of medicine, that would have been fine; but they didn't stop there.  They started out with therapies for which there is at least some experimental support (such as acupuncture) and from there took a flying leap out into the void, landing amongst such ridiculous and discredited ideas as homeopathy, chakras, and healing through crystal energies.  This last one led to a spectacle that was (according to Carol) acutely embarrassing to watch, wherein the teacher held a crystal hanging from a string over a student's head, to show that the crystal could pick up the student's "life energy" and begin to swing of its own volition.  There was no response from the crystal (surprise!!!) for some minutes, while the students sat fidgeting and looking at each other, but after about ten minutes the crystal moved.  Hallelujah!  The theory is vindicated!

All of which brings up the subject of confirmation bias.  This is when you've already decided on your conclusion, and you therefore only pay attention to any evidence (however minuscule) that confirms your idea, and everything else is ignored.  Any movement of the crystal had to be due to the subject's energy field -- other hypotheses (such as that the teacher's arm was getting a bit tired after holding the crystal up there for ten minutes, and he moved his hand a little, causing the crystal to swing) are not even acknowledged.

You see what you want to see.  And, if you're lucky, you get to make a bunch of poor college students sit there while you're doing it.

So far, I am sounding awfully self-confident, as I have a tendency to do.   But if I'm being totally honest, I have to look at my own ideas in the same light.   One of the great myths of the last hundred years is, I think, that somehow everyone is biased except for the scientists -- that the scientists have this blinding clarity of vision, that they are objective and unbiased and therefore have cornered the market on truth.  While there are probably scientists who believe this, the truth of the matter is that most scientists are well aware of their biases.   We, too, see what we want to see.  First, we have to believe that the scientific way of knowing leads us closer to the truth -- which statement, of course, you can't prove.   Furthermore, if you're a researcher, you're not approaching a question with a completely open mind; you already have (at least to some extent) figured out what you think is going on, and so when you design your measurement equipment and your experimental protocol, you do so in a way to find what you think it is that you're going to find.   If there's something else going on, you might not even see it -- unless you're extraordinarily lucky.   Perhaps that's why serious paradigm shifts have so often happened because of some random piece of evidence, from an unexpected source, that someone (often by accident) notices.   It's how Kepler found out that planetary orbits are elliptical; it's how plate tectonics was discovered; it's how penicillin was discovered.   (Witness yesterday's announcement that physicists at CERN may have found a particle that can move faster than the speed of light -- a finding that, if confirmed, will knock out one of the major underpinnings of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.)

Science doesn't proceed by clear, logical little steps, by people adding brick after brick to an edifice whose plan is already well known and laid out on the table.   Like most of the other things in this world, it proceeds by jerky fits and starts, false turns, and backtracking.  The "scientific method" no more explains how we've accrued the knowledge we have than "life energies" explain the movement of a crystal hanging from a string.

So then, why am I a scientist?  Why don't I just go and join Wah! and John Perkins?   (Just think, I could come up with a pretentious single syllable name, with a punctuation mark, too!   I think I'd be "Huh?")   For me, the single strength of science as a world view is its ability to self-correct.  You claim that plate tectonics exists?  Okay -- anyone with the equipment, time, and inclination can go out there and verify the evidence themselves.  If an experiment is not found to be repeatable (such as the "cold fusion" debacle), it's not explained away with some foolishness like "the energy fields were being interfered with by the chakras of your aura" -- the whole idea is simply abandoned.   The procedures, equipment, and outcomes are out there for peer review, and if they are found wanting, the theory is modified, altered, or scrapped entirely.

Try that with the healing energy of music.   I bet if several of you were sick, and I played some of Wah!'s music for you, some of you would get better.  Some of you might get sicker.   (I suspect I'd be in the latter category.)  And for those of you who got well, how could we be certain that it was the music that was responsible?  Because Wah! says so?  Because the idea that music could have a healing energy appeals to you?  If I've learned anything in my fifty years on this planet, it's that there seems to be no connection between ideas I find appealing and ideas that are true -- if anything, the opposite seems to be the case.

Anyhow, as usual, I've probably pissed off large quantities of people who are into homeopathy, crystal energies, numerology, astrology, faith healing, and so on.  But I'm reminded of a quote from (of all people) C. S. Lewis, whose wonderful character Mr. MacPhee said in That Hideous Strength, "If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I'll be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer."

To which I say, "hear, hear."  On the other hand, if I get visited tonight by an anaconda, I suppose it will serve me right.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The ley of the land

I ran into the idea of ley lines fifteen years ago on a trip to the UK.  I spent a month in the summer of 1995 hiking in the north of England, visiting old cathedrals and monastery ruins, and while I was at Rievaulx Abbey, I had a chance meeting with an English woman who said that if you connected the positions of holy sites on a map with straight lines, it made a pattern.

"They sited monasteries, cloisters, and cathedrals where they did because they were places of power," she said.  "The ley lines are channels of psychic energy, and where they intersect, it creates a kind of vortex.  The ancients felt this, and that's why they built monuments there, and later churches and abbeys."

Couldn't it, I asked her, also have to do with building in places where there was good access to water, and perhaps pre-existing roads?

"I suppose that also might have had something to do with it," she said, sounding doubtful.

For all her claims of the antiquity of this idea, the concept of ley lines is less than a hundred years old, and at first, it had nothing to do with anything psychic.  Alfred Watkins, an amateur archaeologist, noted in his books Early British Trackways and The Old Straight Track how often multiple sites of archaeological or historical relevance lay upon the same straight lines, and he coined the term "ley lines" to describe this phenomenon.  He suggested that the reason was for ease of road-building -- especially in the southern half of England, where the terrain is mostly gentle, a straight line connecting several population centers is the smartest way site roads and settlements.  It wasn't until 48 years later that noted woo-woo John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, took Watkins' ley lines and connected them to the Chinese idea of feng shui and came up with the theory that ley lines were rivers of psychic energy, and the intersections ("nodes") were places of power.

The interesting thing is that Watkins himself wasn't even right, appealing though the idea is.  Mathematician David George Kendall and others have used a technique called shape analysis to demonstrate that the occurrence of straight-line connections between archaeological sites in England is no greater than you would expect from chance.  Put simply, a densely-settled place like England has so many sites of historical relevance that if you are allowed to pick and choose, you can find any number of lines that intersect, or at least clip, interesting places.

Take a look, for example, at the following diagram (courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons):

This image shows 137 randomly-placed points.  A computer program was employed to find all of the straight-line connections of four or more points -- and it found eighty of them!

So, even if you eliminate all of the woo-woo trappings from the idea, it seems like the whole concept of "sacred sites" falling along straight lines is attributable to coincidence.  A pity, really.  I have always wondered if our house was at the intersection of two ley lines.  I was all prepared to use Intersections of Psychic Energy Channels and Nodes of Power Vortexes to explain why my digital alarm clock runs fast and why the dryer keeps eating my socks.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Facts, lies, slant, and politics

Why are we willing to accept that in politics, facts don't matter?

Let's say that in my biology classes, I told the students that eating yogurt was directly linked to male pattern baldness, and that studies had shown that raspberry yogurt was the worst -- eating one serving of raspberry yogurt per week boosted your risk of hair loss by 50%.  Then, a student does some research, and finds that this statement is, in fact, false, that no such studies have ever been done, and that yogurt-eaters are just as likely to keep their hair as anyone else.  And I respond:  "Well, it was true to the best of my knowledge at the time.  And in any case, we all agree that male pattern baldness is still a serious problem that we need to address."

I suspect I'd be shown the door by the principal, tolerant man though he is -- if the students and their parents hadn't run me out of town first.

Politics, however, seems to give you an immediate gloss of immunity from telling the truth.  Witness the much-publicized claim by Michele Bachmann that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation.  In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today, she related a story about a "crying mother" who had come up to her, and spoken about her daughter:

"She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.  It can have very dangerous side effects," Bachmann said.  "This is the very real concern, and people have to draw their own conclusions."

Well, this incident may have actually occurred, but of course there turns out to be no connection whatsoever between the HPV vaccine (or any other vaccine) and mental retardation.  Like any medicine, it can have side effects, but these are infrequent, seldom severe, and are in any case are far outweighed by the protection the vaccine provides.  In the case of the HPV vaccine, the CDC reports that of the 35 million doses that have been administered, there have been 18,000 reports of side effects, of which 92% were classified as "non-serious" -- and none of the serious side effects included mental retardation.  To save you from having to do the math, that's a rate of serious side effects of a little more than 0.004%.

Then, we had Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina claiming that substance abuse was widespread at government facilities.  She was giving a speech in favor of her plan to introduce drug testing as a requirement before the jobless could collect unemployment.  In defense of her plan, she made the statement that substance abuse was an "epidemic," and that at South Carolina's Savannah River Nuclear Power Facility, "... of everyone they interviewed, half of them failed a drug test."

Government officials who oversee the site immediately said, quote, "What the hell?" and demanded that Haley retract the statement.  A spokesperson for the Department of Energy brought forth records proving that (1) they don't drug test people during interviews, only after they are offered a job; (2) the rate of failure of people offered jobs at the Savannah River site is under 1%; and (3) passing a drug test is a condition of employment, so that less-than-1% never began work there in the first place.  Haley at first tried to defend her claim, but when the demands to retract grew louder, she said, and I quote:  "I've never felt like I had to back up what people tell me.  You assume you're given good information."

Please note here that I am deliberately not addressing the points that either Bachmann or Haley were trying to make -- whether it is a good idea to force parents of pre-teen girls to be vaccinated for HPV, or whether it is a good idea to require mandatory drug testing as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits.  My point here is, if you think something is a good idea, shouldn't you have actual factual reasons for your belief, and not just half-truths, exaggerations, and outright fabrications?  Why would you stand up in public, with its virtually instantaneous access to fact-checking via the internet, and make patently erroneous statements?  And confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you had said something incorrect, why wouldn't you stand up and say, "I was wrong.  The statement I made was completely non-factual, and for that I apologize."?

Politics seems to be one of the only venues around where people can make up facts and statistics as they go along, continue to defend them when confronted, and still somehow maintain credibility with their supporters.  In fact, their supporters are sometimes so vehement in their defense that they question the facts themselves, as if facts had a political spin, as if the CDC (for example) based its statistics on some kind of political agenda.  In one of the infrequent political arguments I've been in -- I tend to avoid them like the plague, as I find them generally pointless in every sense of the word -- I was accused of believing the "slanted liberal spin machine" because I quoted statistics that (1) were a matter of public record, and (2) had been verified by

The whole thing demands that I say it bluntly: facts matter.  What conclusions you draw from those facts are up to you.  But the data is available to all, and is the same for everyone, and data has no political bias.  I have more than once quoted Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but it bears saying again: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's raining death satellites, hallelujah!

Is anyone but me worried about the satellite that's going to come crashing down at the end of this week?

The powers-that-be have known about the upcoming collision for months; it's a US UARS (Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite) that was launched in 1991.  It was decommissioned and shut down six years ago, and its orbit has been decaying ever since.  Without any intervention, the satellite will reenter the earth's atmosphere, and strike the ground on Friday, September 23, give or take six hours or so on either side.  The satellite itself weighs 6 tons, which is enough to make a helluva crater.

 But not to worry; NASA has narrowed down the impact site to being "probably somewhere on Earth."

Our response?  Being that our president is Barack "No More Mr. Nice Guy" Obama, we seem to be doing nothing more than sitting here watching it plummet toward us.

"We're doing our best to compromise with the satellite," the president said, in a press conference.  "We attempted to persuade it to fall on Warren Buffett, but this would likely put his secretary at risk, too, and there's no justification for that.  We hope to have an agreement reached with the satellite by some time next year."

In a stinging criticism of the president, Texas governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry stated that this was an entirely inadequate response, and said that a falling death satellite could have devastating effects on the economy.  He ended on a hopeful note, however, suggesting that the danger from the satellite might well be overblown.  "We should remember," Perry stated to a cheering crowd of Republicans, "that gravity is, after all, only a theory."

Okay, maybe I'm being a little unfair, here; it's not like there's really anything they can do at this point.  If they'd gotten on the stick a little earlier, they might have been able to shoot the satellite down, which is what they did the last time this happened.  Of course, this was during the presidency of George "Git 'Er Done" Bush, whose entire foreign policy was, quote, "YEEEEEE-HAWWWW!", and who seemed to think that "Blast the crap out of it" was an appropriate response to damn near everything.  In that case, however, it actually worked, and the satellite was blown into pieces small enough to burn up in the atmosphere.  But it's too late to attempt anything like that this time, so all we can do now is sit back and wait.  As one NASA official put it, and unlike the previous quotes, I'm not making this one up, "If you're near the impact site, you'll be in for a nice fireworks show as it breaks up on descent."

Well, isn't that a lovely thought!  We might even be able to appreciate the pretty lights for several seconds before we get flattened.  And it's not like the "breaking up on descent" part makes it any better; instead of one big chunk o' metal, we'll now have a hundred slightly smaller chunks o' metal. It's not like all 26 tons of satellite are going to vaporize, Star Trek style, into a cloud of dust.

And no one, as far as I've heard, has questioned the wisdom of putting the damn things up there in the first place.  You'd think that the folks at NASA would have heard of the concept of air resistance, wherein drag with the atmosphere (thin as it is up there) eventually causes the orbits of all satellites to decay.  Apparently not, given the fact that every time we send a rocket up, we basically put another piece of space junk into high orbit.  All that stuff will, sooner or later, come crashing down.  But fear not; it probably won't be for a long while for most of them, and the Earth's a big place.  As far as this Friday's event, the chance that anyone's house will get hit by a falling satellite part is only "one in 3,200."

Nevertheless, I'm keeping my eye on the sky on Friday.  I won't have time to run if I'm in the bullseye, but at least I won't get caught unawares.

Which, now that I come to think of it, isn't all that much consolation.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Face off

In the third of our series on Giving Woo-Woo Explanations For Every Damn Thing You See, we have:  chance resemblances proving that famous people are actually Evil Undead Creatures of the Night.

I was looking through the news yesterday, and I came across the story of a Civil War era photograph from Tennessee being offered at auction.  What's unusual about it is that the owner is hoping someone will pay a million dollars for it.  By now, you're probably pretty curious about it, so without further ado, here's the photograph:

So, I'm thinking, "Why would anyone pay a million dollars for this?"  So I looked closer, and saw that the guy in the photograph does look kind of like Nicolas Cage.  This made me go, "Huh.  Why would anyone spend a million dollars for a photo just because it looks a little like Nicolas Cage?"

But that's not what the owner claims.  The owner claims that it is Nicolas Cage.  Here's the advertisement for the item in the auction:
Original c.1870 carte de visite showing a man who looks exactly like Nick Cage. Personally, I believe it's him and that he is some sort of walking undead / vampire, et cetera, who quickens / reinvents himself once every 75 years or so.  150 years from now, he might be a politician, the leader of a cult, or a talk show host.  This is not a trick photo of any kind and has not been manipulated in Photoshop or any other graphics program.
Oh, okay.  That makes sense.  Nicolas Cage is lying about having been born in California in 1964.  All of this stuff about his being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola is also a lie.  Childhood photographs that you find on his fan site?  They're of some other kid.  It makes far more sense that he is an immortal vampire who lived in Tennessee during the Civil War.

*brief pause to pound my head on the desk*

Of course, this isn't the first time this sort of thing has been claimed.  You may not know it, but Keanu Reeves is also one of the undead, and I'm not referring to the fact that he only seems to be capable of a single facial expression:

Yes, folks, this painting by the 19th century French painter Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel is actually of the star of The Matrix.  You'd think it would be hard to persuade an evil immortal vampire to sit still long enough to have his portrait painted.  Oh, well, I guess if you're The One, you can do whatever the hell you want.

Then, there's the claim that Shia LaBeouf is an immortal, shapeshifting clone (see the YouTube video here).  I think this one may be a joke, but honestly, who can tell?  As far as I can see the Nicolas Cage and Keanu Reeves claims are dead serious, so by comparison, the LaBeouf thing is maybe one notch more ridiculous, and still not as generally stupid as (for example) the claim made earlier this year that Han Solo had crashed the Millennium Falcon into the Baltic Sea, where it was later found by some intrepid Swedish treasure hunters.

The whole thing kind of makes me crazy, mostly because I feel sure that today I'll have at least one student ask me today, "Did you hear that they found a photograph of Nicolas Cage from the Civil War?" causing various other students to say, "Dude, that's amazing," or words to that effect, and I'm going to have to exert a heroic effort not to say something extremely snarky.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

In the dark

To further investigate yesterday's topic of people wanting to give woo-woo explanations to everything, today we investigate:  The Dark.

First, a brief physics lesson.

Things are generally called "dark" for one of two reasons.  First, there are objects whose chemical makeup results in their absorbing most of the light that falls on them.  Second, there are things that don't interact with light much at all, so they neither absorb nor reflect light -- light passes right through them.  An example of the first would be a charcoal briquet.  An example of the second would be interstellar space, which is sort of dark-by-default.

This whole thing comes up because of the recent discovery of an extrasolar planet, with the mellifluous name TrES-2b.  TrES-2b orbits the even more charmingly named GSC 03549-02811, a star about 718 light years away.  TrES-2b has the distinction of being the darkest extrasolar planet yet discovered.  David Kipping, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, stated, "TrES-2b is considerably less reflective than black acrylic paint, so it is truly an alien world."

That was all it took. Whereas my reaction was, "Huh! A Jupiter-sized charcoal briquet! That's kinda cool," the woo-woos just couldn't resist wooing all over this story. We now have the following speculations, all from websites owned by people who probably shouldn't be allowed outside unsupervised:
  • TrES-2b is made of antimatter, and we shouldn't go there because it would blow up.  We know it's antimatter because antimatter has the opposite properties to matter, so it's dark.
  • TrES-2b is made of "dark matter," and yes, they're not just talking about stuff that's black, they're talking about the physicists' "dark matter," about which I'll have more to say in a moment.
  • TrES-2b is dark because it's being hidden by aliens who are currently on their way to Earth to take over.   Lucky for us we spotted it in time!
  • TrES-2b is hell.  No, I'm not making this up. 
Well.  You just opened the floodgates, now didn't you, Dr. Kipping?

The first two explanations left me with a giant bruise on my forehead from doing a faceplant while reading.  At the risk of insulting my readers' intelligence, let me just say quickly that (1) antimatter's "opposite properties" have nothing to do with regular matter being light and antimatter being dark, because if it did, the next time a kindergartner pulled a black crayon out of the box, he would explode in a burst of gamma rays; and (2) "dark matter" is called "dark" because of the second reason, that it doesn't interact with much of anything, including light, so the idea of a planet made of it is kind of ridiculous, and in any case physicists haven't even proved that it exists, so if some astrophysicist found a whole freakin' planet made of it it would KIND OF MAKE HEADLINES, YOU KNOW?

Sorry for getting carried away, there.  But I will reiterate something I have said more than once, in this blog; if you're going to start blathering on about science, for cryin' in the sink at least get the science right.  Even the least scientific woo-woo out there can read the Wikipedia page for "Dark Matter," for example, wherein we find that the first line is, "In astronomy and cosmology, dark matter is matter that neither emits nor scatters light or other electromagnetic radiation, and so cannot be directly detected via optical or radio astronomy."   (Italics mine, and put in so that any of the aforementioned woo-woos who are reading this post will focus on the important part.)

And I won't even address the "secret alien base" and "hell" theories regarding TrES-2b, except to say that it should come as a relief that the evil aliens or Satan (depending on which version you went for) are safely 718 light years away.  To put this in perspective, this means that if they were heading here in the fastest spacecraft humans have ever created, Voyager 1, which travels at about 16 kilometers per second -- it would still take them eleven million years to get here.

In any case, I guess it's all a matter of how you view what's around you.   I find the universe, and therefore science, endlessly fascinating, because what scientists have uncovered is weird, wonderful, and counter-intuitive.   I don't need to start attaching all sorts of anti-scientific bunk to their discoveries -- nature is cool enough as it is.

Okay, thus endeth today's rant.   I will simply end with an admonishment to be careful next time you barbeque.  I hear those charcoal briquets can be made of antimatter, which could make your next cook-out a dicey affair.  You might want to wear gloves while you handle them.  Better safe than sorry!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Geoglyphs, alien landing sites, and Yankee Stadium

Can we, just occasionally, refrain from attaching a woo-woo explanation to everything?

I make this plea because of a recent study, headed by David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia's Department of Classics and Ancient History.  Kennedy and his team studied a curious set of structures called "geoglyphs" - patterns on the ground that are so large that their overall shape can only be seen from the air.  The most famous geoglyphs are the Nazca Lines of southern Peru, which from above can be resolved into enormous drawings of lizards, monkeys, and abstract designs, and whose purpose is still unknown today.

The geoglyphs in Kennedy's study are in the Middle East, and can be found from Syria down to Saudi Arabia.  From the air, they resolve into wheels with multiple spokes, diamond-shaped patterns nicknamed "kites," and long, narrow patterns ("pendants").  (You can see a gallery of their photographs here.)  Kennedy and his team have mapped out the geoglyphs and are working on a paper describing their extent, and speculating on their age and possible uses.  He suggests that some of them may have had completely practical purposes, such as penning cattle.

Then the woo-woos got involved.

You got your ancient gods, especially once someone noticed that one of the geoglyphs looks a little like the Eye of Ra from Egyptian art.  You got your alien landing sites.  You got your super-powerful civilization that was connected to Atlantis.  You got your ley lines.  You got your structures that concentrate magical forces.

You even got your coded messages related to December 21, 2012, although how in the hell the Mayans got to Saudi Arabia is a mystery to me.

C'mon, folks.  Can't we just once allow something to have a prosaic explanation, and just let it sit there?  What, aren't cattle pens good enough for you people?  You have to wonder how the woo-woos ten thousand years from now will interpret, for instance, Yankee Stadium.

"Yes, you can clearly see from the fact that it was open to the air, that it had something to do with the worship of the sky, perhaps an ancient astrological observatory... it is teardrop shaped, with the point toward the west, representing the tears wept by the Sun God...  It has many seats for the observance of rituals...  It is symbolized by a letter N, which stands for 'nature', intersected by a stylized person with his arms upraised, yearning for the gods to return...It is a place of great power and magic, visited regularly by our noble and mystical ancestors."

It's not, as I've had more than one reason to explain in the last week, because I immediately discount weird explanations; as a biologist, I'm fully aware that nature is sometimes bizarre and counter-intuitive.  It's more that rushing to outlandish theories is lazy.  It doesn't require any particular hard work or deep thought; hell, it doesn't even require any evidence.  You just notice something, and immediately attribute it to magic, aliens, spirits, whatever, and your job is done.

So could the Middle Eastern geoglyphs be alien landing sites?  I suppose it's possible.  With astronomers' recent discovery of hundreds of extrasolar planets, many of them with Earth-like characteristics, I think the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe is nearly 100%, and the likelihood of intelligent life probably nearly that high.  But if you claim they've come here, and that some structure or another is an alien staging platform, you better have something more going for your theory than "it must be, because you can only see their overall shapes from the air."

With no further evidence provided, I'm going with cattle pens, myself.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The guiding stones

It is virtually self-evident that belief in an odd idea can propel you to do odd things.

Of the many odd things I've run into, however, the Georgia Guidestones definitely come near the top of the list.  Built of polished granite and standing sixteen feet tall, the Guidestones are arranged on the top of a treeless hill in Elbert County, Georgia.  They are so imposing (and so mysterious) that they've been compared to Stonehenge, or to the weird black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

Not the least mystery about them is who commissioned them, and why.  They were erected, under mysterious circumstances, in June of 1979.  The land on which they stand is owned by Elbert County, and was deeded to them by a "Robert C. Christian," who had purchased the land from a Wayne Mullenix.  I put "Robert C. Christian" in quotes because this almost certainly is a pseudonym -- curious researchers have tried, unsuccessfully, to identify who he is (or was).  (There is apparently persuasive, if circumstantial, evidence that R. C. Christian is Ted Turner.)

The message on the Guidestones is a series of (if you will) Ten Commandments, evidently intended to help the survivors create a better society once the apocalypse knocks off the rest of us.  These pronouncements are presented in twelve different languages -- English, Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Babylonian Cuneiform, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics.  These last four, I suppose, are there in case the apocalypse spares some (for example) Ancient Sumerians.

The Guidestones themselves have various notches and holes cut into them, apparently in an effort to make them line up with the position of the sun, moon, and stars at various times of year.  The overall effect is to deepen the mystery, and perhaps heighten perception of the structure as resembling Stonehenge.

Given the time and effort someone put into all of this, and how seriously he seems to take himself (I'm assuming that R. C. Christian is a man, given the male pseudonym), I find it a little disappointing how generally inane the Guidestones' "Ten Commandments" are.  Some of them aren't bad ideas, but are hardly earthshattering ("Protect People And Nations With Fair Laws And Just Courts"), while others seem a little pie-in-the-sky ("Unite Humanity With A Living New Language.")  I have to admit to some disappointment upon reading what they said.  Given all of the mystery, and all the expense someone obviously went to, I was expecting something a little more profound.  (You can read the entire message on the Guidestones here.)

What I find even more baffling about this whole thing is how people have responded to them.  New Age types mostly think they're great.  Yoko Ono, for example, says they are "a stirring call to rational thinking."  Some prominent Christian thinkers, predictably, disagree, one Evangelical minister calling them "The Ten Commandments of the Antichrist."  An Atlanta psychic, Naunie Batchelder, predicted as far back as 1981 that they were of alien origin, and their purpose would be revealed "within thirty years."  (The aliens had better get on that, as they've only got three and a half months left.) 

Conspiracy theorists, of course, think they're just the bee's knees.  Mark Dice, whose favorite topics are the Illuminati and the New World Order, believes that they are of "deep Satanic origin," and has demanded that they be "smashed into a million pieces."  Dice thinks that somehow the Bilderburg Group were involved with the funding and construction of the Guidestones.  A researcher named Van Smith has done some numerological analysis of the Guidestones and claims that they are somehow connected to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building -- and believes that the dimensions of the Guidestones, when properly manipulated, predicted the date of death of Dubai's emir, Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum.  Noted wingnut Alex Jones thinks the Rosicrucians are responsible.

All we need is to somehow get the Knights Templar involved, and we'll have a full house of bizarre explanations.

And, of course, all of these folks have followers, and those followers are happy to take action, when they're not picking at the straps of their straitjackets with their teeth.  Chickens have more than once been sacrificed in front of the Guidestones.  They are a frequent meeting site for a coven of Wiccans from Atlanta.  The Guidestones themselves have been repeatedly defaced, most recently by spray-painted graffiti stating "Death to the New World Order" and "Jesus will beat u satanist."  There has been more than one attempt to topple the Guidestones, but given that each of the stone blocks weighs twenty tons, those efforts have been thus far unsuccessful.

So, that's today's little dose of weirdness.  Next time I'm in Georgia, I'm going to make an effort to go see these things.  Not that I particularly think their message is all that profound -- but just to have had a chance to see, first-hand, what all the fuss is about.  And since one of the Guidestones' rules says, "Rule Passion - Faith - Tradition - And All Things With Tempered Reason," I figure I owe them at least that much.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Analyzing anomalous artifacts

When presented with an anomaly, it's pretty critical not to simply accept it as such, but to look more deeply -- and to try to find a scientific explanation if there is one.  It is regrettably common to see people jumping at paranormal explanations -- or even non-explanations, just statements of "Wow, that's so weird" -- when a bit of thought and research would have turned up a completely plausible, simple natural explanation.

This comes up because of an article I read about "Anomalous Artifacts."  The photograph below shows an imprint, alleged to be of a human shoe, in billion-year-old granite:

The print was discovered by a fellow named James Snyder in 2002, in Cleveland National Forest in California.  The article claims that it is "solid proof of time travel" -- the implication being that someone went back in time, wearing a nice pair of men's size 11 wing tips, and left his print in the rock.  Is it really a footprint?  We'll revisit this claim at the end of this post.

The presence of anomalous objects, prints, and human or animal remains is the subject of the wonderful site Bad Archaeology, which examines a whole host of such claims in a nicely skeptical fashion.  As befits critical thinkers, they are up front about the ones that are unexplained - such as the peculiar Nampa figurine, a representation of a human figure made in clay, which was discovered in Nampa, Idaho, in sedimentary strata from the late Pliocene era (2 million years ago), a time during which conventional archaeology suggests there were no hominids in North America.  The writers at Bad Archaeology give a variety of possible explanations for how it got there, but they admit that those are speculation.

A famous "anomaly" for which there is a completely convincing natural explanation is the "London hammer," which is an iron hammerhead attached to a broken piece of wooden handle, allegedly found encased in rock that dates to the Cretaceous era (100 to 65 million years ago).  Claims began to be made that this was evidence of (1) time travel, or (2) creationism, depending on what version of unscientific silliness you happened to favor.  In any case, Hammer Apologists believe that the artifact indicates that there were humans running about back then hammering things and trying to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs.  The hammer is now one of the prime exhibits at the Creation Evidence Museum, and in fact you can purchase a lovely replica at the museum's gift shop.

The London hammer was brilliantly debunked by Glen Kuban (read his paper here), and amongst the important points Kuban makes is that (1) carbon-14 tests on the wood from the handle conclusively show that the wood from the handle is under 700 years old, (2) the hammerhead design is identical with 19th century hammers used in the southern United States, and (3) the mineralization around it is consistent with sedimentation and cementation of material around the hammer at a relatively recent date.  The Creation Evidence Museum folks aren't backing down (of course), but if this is their evidence for the humans having been around back then, it's pretty thin.

Bad Archaeology examines many other claims for "anomalies," such as:
  • The Ica stones of Peru, which show artistic depictions of people riding pterodactyls.  (Modern fake.)
  • The Pliocene fossil shell from England, that has a carving of a human face.  (Almost certainly damage from natural processes that resulted in an accidental face-like pattern.)
  • The "Coso artifact," supposedly a spark plug embedded in a 500,000 year old geode. (It turns out not to be a geode at all, but a clay concretion, and is probably from the 1920s.)
  • The Dendera (Egypt) "technical drawings," which allegedly show an ancient Egyptian handling modern electronic devices such as Crookes tubes.  (Easily explainable if you read the hieroglyphic inscription below it, which states outright that the objects in question are a "sun barge," the boat in which the god Ra crosses the sky.)
And so on.  It all makes for highly entertaining reading, and I suggest you take a good look at Bad Archaeology's site -- it is a splendid example of critical thinking in a realm in which spurious thinking tends to run rampant.

Now, what about our human shoe print from California?  Well, the first thing that came to my mind was that granite was a pretty peculiar place to find a print of any kind.  Granite is an igneous rock, and at the point when the material from which it formed was plastic enough to accept a shoe print, it would have been hot enough to melt the shoe and burn its wearer to a crisp.  Further, granite does not form on the surface of the Earth -- its large crystals show evidence of slow cooling, and granite outcrops are typically exposed cores of magmatic rock that froze slowly and gradually, deep underground.

So, what is the shoe print, then?  I'd have to examine it to be certain, but my brain is just screaming out "Hoax!"  Given the impossibility of anyone ever leaving a shoe print in granite, it has to be something else -- either some sort of natural indentation in the rock that happens to resemble the outline of a shoe, or a groove carved into the rock by hoaxers.  Either way, I'm not buying that there were time-traveling humans a billion years ago, walking around on molten magma deep underground. 

Call me closed-minded, but there you are.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sanitizing history

An online acquaintance of mine made an interesting statement a couple of days ago.

"The Europeans didn't just bring exploitation and disease to North America, they brought war.  The Native Americans didn't even fight wars until after the Europeans arrived."

I asked him how he knew this, and he said he'd read it in a book, and then posted a link from a Yahoo! Answers page.  I gave a verbal shrug, and sort of said, "Okay, then," and didn't push the topic any further.  But I've been thinking about it ever since.

Why do we need to have certain ethnic groups be characterized by a nearly mythical goodness?

How often have we heard that before the Europeans arrived, the Natives were "in touch with the land," that they respected the Great Spirit, asked animals' permission before hunting, never took more than their fair share of what nature had to offer?  And now, this gentleman claims that they also never made war on each other, until the Europeans arrived and taught them to do so.  I've heard similar claims made for other groups -- most commonly the Celts, who have also been mythologized to a fare-thee-well, to the point that since the mid-1800s there have been quasi-religious groups of "druids" who have tried to emulate what they think the Celts were doing back then.  More recently, the Afrocentrist movement has claimed that all good things came from Africa, and the extreme wing of that school of thought calls dark-skinned people "Sun People" and light-skinned people "Ice People" -- with all of the value judgments that those terms imply.

There are a couple of problems with all of this -- one of them academic, one of them common-sense.

The academic problem is that because all three of those groups left next to no tangible records, we really don't have all that clear a picture of what they were doing before they were contacted by societies who did write things down.  And when that contact occurred, the records left weren't exactly unbiased -- it's hard to know how much to believe of (for example) what the Romans wrote about the Celts.  Trying to piece together what was going on in the years prior to such contact is decidedly non-trivial, and has to be inferred from archaeological evidence and such indirect evidence as patterns of linguistic distribution.

In preparation for writing this, I tried to find out what was actually known to anthropologists about the nature of society in pre-Columbian North America, and the answer is: surprisingly little.  I'm no anthropologist myself, so am unqualified to make a firm judgment, but what did strike me about the papers I read is that they don't even necessarily agree with each other.  The tangible artifacts left behind by some groups (e.g. the Pueblo cultures of the US Southwest) seem to suggest a peaceful agricultural existence, but that, too, is a guess.  It seems fairly certain that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribes of the Northeastern US did a good bit of fighting with the Algonquian tribes of Eastern Canada -- those groups were "traditional enemies" and apparently were happily beating each other up long before the French and English arrived and made things worse.  Certainly the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas of Central and South America were not exactly what you might call peaceful by nature -- stone carvings show Aztec priests ripping the hearts from living sacrificial victims, and at least some of those victims appear from the carvings to have been prisoners of war.

My second objection is purely common sense; while some cultural values seem to me to be better than others, I just don't believe that whole groups of people were somehow "nicer" than others.  Consider what a future anthropologist might make of our current "warlike" American culture -- in the last century we have certainly fought a great many times in places around the globe, for a variety of purposes, and during that time have diverted a large percentage of our resources into weaponry and the military.  What does that mean about us as a people?  My general feeling is "not much."  If you look around you, you'll find mean people, nice people, aggressive people, gentle people, and pretty much the gamut of whatever pair of opposite traits you choose.  Sure, our militarism is connected to our citizenry -- the military decisions are made by our leaders, who are elected by us -- but a future mythologizer who came up with a concept of American People As Evil Bloodthirsty Imperialists would be missing the truth by a mile.  (As would a concept of Americans As Courageous, World-Saving Warriors.)

Please note that I am in no way trying to excuse what our, or any other culture's, militarism actually accomplished.  What the Europeans did to the Native Americans, what the British did to the Australian Natives, what the Romans (and later the English) did to the Celts, are tragedies.  But the cultures who were the victims of these atrocities were not themselves perfect.  It is easy, out of our pity for the losers, to make them into creatures of myth, as having lived in an Eden until the nasty aggressors came in and screwed it up.

As always, reality is complex and messy, and doesn't fit neatly into pigeonholes.  It might be appealing to believe that the Celts were the Mystical, Nature-Worshiping People of the Sacred Forest prior to their being beaten to a pulp by a whole succession of cultures.  But this is a myth, just like the Native American as Noble Protector of the Environment and the African cultures as warm-hearted, creative Sun People.  No culture is perfect, no ethnic group without flaws, and it is only our desire to have an ideal to espouse that makes us ascribe such characteristics to the inhabitants of the past.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ghosthunters, redux

Today’s planned post is being pre-empted because of what happened yesterday.

Yesterday, you may recall, I wrote about some folks who are offering ghosthunting classes in England.  Toward the end of the post, in what I hoped was the spirit of goodwill, I mentioned what it would take to convince me (concrete evidence, with witnesses present), and actually recommended that people sign up for the workshops.

Well. You’d have thought I had written a post advocating kicking puppies, or something.

I have gotten, at last count, twelve emails, most of which suggest in no uncertain terms that I’m a moron.  I have had only three people post publicly – two were, I have to say, measured and thoughtful responses, but the third was written by someone whose opinion was that I wasn’t really a skeptic, had no credentials, and generally should just shut the hell up.

I paraphrase, but that’s the spirit of the thing.

Several of the emails asked (or demanded) what my own credentials were – why on earth I thought I had the right to write what I did – and after momentarily bristling, I thought, Okay, fair enough. That’s a legitimate question.

My credentials: I hold a bachelor’s degree in physics, a second major in biology (focus on population genetics and evolutionary biology), and a master’s degree in linguistics.   I’ve been a high school teacher for 25 years, and I teach various levels of biological science, from introductory to advanced, and also teach an introduction to logic course called Critical Thinking.  I’m not a researcher, and have never published in a peer-reviewed journal, but I’m well and widely read and consider myself a fairly smart guy.  I’m happy to say that the majority of the people who know me concur.

That said, I’m well aware that I don’t know everything.   In fact, to quote Socrates, “The more I know, the more I realize how little I know.”  Faced with greater knowledge than my own, I happily defer to those who know better (and print a retraction, if I’ve said something that was incorrect).

However… and it’s a big however…

I’m not going to accept something simply because you believe it.  I teach an intro to neurology course, and I know enough to realize how flawed the human perceptive systems are.  We are, unfortunately, easily fooled, and even with the best intentions we see things that aren’t there, don’t see things that are there, and (sometimes) see what we wanted or expected to see.  My skepticism is borne in part from a knowledge of how sketchy our own sensory apparatus is.   So, I’m sorry if it seems closed-minded, but I’m not just going to turn your story of lights in the sky into alien spacecraft, or your tale of seeing moving shadows in an empty house at night into ghosts.   I want more than that.

Hard evidence is the gold standard, of course; but even in the absence of hard evidence, a good, solid logical argument is at least sterling silver.  And, for crying out loud, learn the science before you start trying to sound scientific.   Don’t talk about energies and fields and forces, and expect me not to think you’re applying those words in the way a physicist would.  If something is an energy or field or force, it should be measurable.  If you want me to believe it, show me.

So, the bottom line; I’m convincible.  I’m not going to stand here and say that your favorite example of paranormality – be it Bigfoot, ghosts, aliens, telepathy, or whatever – doesn’t exist.  But I do believe that if you think those things are true, the burden of the proof is on you.  It comes back to the ECREE principle – Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.  It may not be a hard and fast scientific law, but as a general rule of thumb, it works pretty damn well.

So, I may be all of the things I’m being accused of – of being an “armchair skeptic” (whatever that is – other than The Amazing Randi, I don’t think there’s any other kind), of being a broad-brush non-specialist, of lacking publications and research credentials and whatnot, of being a bit of an arrogant ass at times.  Okay, guilty as charged.  But your pointing out any or all of those things doesn’t mean that your claims are true.  For that, it might be time for you to get up out of your own armchair and show me evidence that meets some kind of minimum scientific standard.  Until you can do that, I stand unmoved.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ghost hunting season

So now, a couple of guys in England are offering workshops in how to hunt ghosts.

I'm not making this up.  Here's the advertisement:

Unique study days for all those who have an interest in Ghost Hunting; whether seasoned veteran, beginner or sceptic. Run by two of the country's leading ghosthunter and parapsychology experts. Study days take place throughout the year at some of the most exciting haunted UK (and European) locations.

The two "parapsychology experts" in charge of this training opportunity are Steve Parsons and Ciaran O'Keeffe of the School of Parapsychology, and their contact information (should you wish to rush right over and take part in this) can be found on their Facebook page, here.   Amongst the unique workshops offered are:

1) Ghosts & Gadgets: equipment for the ghosthunter, including how to use devices for measuring temperature, electromagnetic fields, and "psychophysiology."

2)  Paracoustics:  using acoustical equipment to gather data on ghosts.

3)  Paravision:  using cameras (including UV and infrared) to take pictures and video footage of ghosts.

And, my favorite:

4)  Ghostology:  what is a ghost, and why should we investigate them?

I wonder how on earth you run a training session in how to do something, when you never get any results.  Of course, I'm discounting the possibility of Parsons and O'Keeffe being outright charlatans -- i.e., I am assuming that they don't fake evidence themselves to hoodwink their students.  Let's start from the charitable assumption that they're sincere and honest, and whatever evidence they garner from their gadgets and cameras and all is fairly obtained.

How, then, to explain to the students that they just spent twelve hours in a house at night running a digital recorder, and picked up... nothing?

I mean, consider if someone was a deer hunter, and was running a workshop on how to hunt deer.  Wouldn't their students begin to get a little suspicious if the people who ran the workshop went out week after week, and never once saw, much less shot, any deer?

Of course, by that time Parsons and O'Keeffe would have your £30 each, so it's likely they'd just say, "That's the breaks, dude.  Sometimes you see a ghost, sometimes you don't."  But you have to wonder how they could continue to pitch the workshops, which they sound awfully excited about.

Obviously, I'm starting from the perspective here that there isn't anything there to study, as I've never seen any evidence of ghosts that's convinced me personally.  All of the photographs, videos, and anecdotes I've come across have struck me as either (1) fakes, or (2) the recollections of someone who was misinterpreting what happened.  As I've mentioned before, the human brain and perceptual apparatus is simply too easily fooled for me to believe what someone thinks they saw or heard.  And all of the claims of ghostly presences registering on mechanical devices -- you can actually buy ghosthunting apps for your iPhone -- are too easily explained by said devices picking up interference from entirely natural, earthly sources.

What would convince me?  Hard to say.  Being a skeptic, I strive to keep an open mind.  A direct personal experience would probably go a long way in that direction, although I know that my own brain is just as easily tricked as the next guy's.  A personal experience, while accompanied by other unbiased observers, and a simultaneous measurement of something -- an EM signal, auditory signal, disturbance in The Force, whatever -- would do it, I think.  But that seems pretty unlikely, given that people have been hunting ghosts for ages, and no one's come up with much.

In any case, if you will be in England this fall, I encourage you to sign up.  Anyone who reads Skeptophilia would be an excellent choice for participating in this class.  You can consider yourself appointed to the position of Official Skeptophilia Field Reporter.  After all, Parsons and O'Keeffe need a few skeptics in their flock, just to keep them honest.  So if you're there and have the £30 to shell out, give it a shot -- and make sure and report back here to tell us what happened.