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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The rising stars of politics

If you're a Democrat, I have good news for you: President Obama is going to win reelection in November.

I'm not saying this because of any sort of expertise in politics.  In fact, saying that I am ignorant about political science is a little like saying my dog is ignorant of differential calculus.  I find politics baffling and frustrating to the extent that when I read political editorials (seldom), I usually come away feeling like I've been trying to comprehend something that my brain simply isn't built for.

So, no, the above prognostication is not based upon any kind of sophisticated political punditry.  It is based upon something that is baffling for an entirely different reason: astrology.

Yes, the astrologers have weighed in on the presidential race, and what they have come up with is going to be cheering news to any Democrats who are dumb enough to believe in astrology.  Last weekend there was a conference of "top astrologers" in New Orleans, and a panel of them put their heads together and drew lots of abstruse-looking charts, and they were unanimous in concluding that Obama would win.

Nina Gryphon, a Chicago astrologer who also has a practice as a corporate lawyer, said her conclusion was based upon the timing of the Aries ingress, the moment that the Sun enters the constellation Aries.  "It's obvious," she said. "Obama stays where he is without a change in status."

Denver astrologer Chris Brennan agreed.  He said that both Obama and Romney "are entering into peak periods of eminence in the next few months."   However, his chart-drawing turned up a difference that he said will turn the tide in Obama's favor.  "Obama's peak period stays consistent throughout the election, whereas Romney's seems to falter a few weeks before the election."

Brennan did go on to say that even though the stars are of the opinion that Obama will win, they do contain a warning that things might not stay smooth for the incumbent.  "The ingress of Saturn into Scorpio may trouble him," Brennan said to reporters.  "It won't cost him the election, but it may indicate difficulties in the first half of his second term."

Brennan hedged a little, though, when asked how sure he was about his results.  There was one other factor that could play a role, he said; "We should all be aware of the Mercury retrograde that will occur on election day.  Most astrologers are pretty certain that this could cause problems similar to what happened in the 2000 election."  The retrograde, Brennan said, "seems to imply that there's something up in the air about the election until sometime later in the month."

Oh.  Okay.  Saturn ingressing into Scorpio and Mercury retrograde means trouble.  This last one I find particularly bizarre -- not that the whole idea of thinking that there's some significance to the apparent motion of planets relative to random groupings of stars that are actually nowhere near each other, and that this motion could possibly have any bearing on a political election, is exactly sensible.  But the retrograde motion of Mercury (and Venus) are just optical illusions -- caused by the fact that they move in closer circles around the Sun than the Earth does, so at times (because the Earth is "overtaking" them in orbit) they spend a short while appearing to move backwards.  They're not actually moving backwards -- it's a total trick of perspective, similar to the apparent backwards motion of a slower-moving car relative to a distant mountain as you pass it on the highway.  So now we've moved into the realm of attributing events on Earth to a motion of a planet that isn't even happening.

Not, of course, that any astrological claim is within hailing distance of scientific validity.  Astrology makes about as much sense as thinking that a person's future could be foretold by the random patterns of lines on their hands.  Oh, wait!  People believe that, too, don't they?

I mean, come on.  How could astrology possibly work?  And don't start babbling to me about forces and energies unless you have the equations from physics to back you up.  If you think astrology is science, explain to me how the science works.

I know I'm engaging in a futile exercise, here.  It's not like my feeble attempts are going to convince the die-hard astrologers -- they are too invested in it (both philosophically and financially) to be willing to give it up.  So I suppose I should go back to doing something marginally more likely to meet with success, like teaching my dog differential calculus.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mermaid evolution

There should be a law that if a news story has a title that is a question, the article that follows must read, in its entirety, "No."  For example:







I ran into an especially good example of that yesterday, an article entitled, "DO MERMAIDS EXIST?"  Unfortunately, however, the article that followed consisted of more than one word, because the aforementioned law has yet to be passed in the Senate, and also because it was written by noted wingnut and Skeptophilia frequent flyer Dirk Vander Ploeg.

Apparently, the question of whether mermaids really exist is the subject of a recent show on Animal Planet.  Myself, I have to question this choice of topics.  Given that there's no way they can have already featured each of the ten million species of real animals, there's no reason to move on to the fictional ones quite yet.  Be that as it may, they did an entire episode during "Monster Week" on the subject of mermaids, and this just thrills Dirk Vander Ploeg to pieces.

Vander Ploeg is always good for inadvertent humor, and he doesn't fail us here, starting with the first paragraph:
The new documentary, which aired on Sunday night as part of Animal Planet’s “Monster Week,” pieces together a few interesting facts to come to the improbable conclusion that mermaids, like bigfoot, the chupacabra, and vampires, may exist.
Yup.  Mermaids exist just like Bigfoot, Chupacabra, and vampires do.  Exactly that way, in fact.

So, where's the evidence?  Vander Ploeg doesn't shy away from this question, and he blames the dearth of evidence for mermaids on the entity that is responsible for so many of the world's problems -- the US government:
In fact, “Mermaids: The Body Found,” claims that several scientists have proven the existence of mermaids. But thanks to the shady government, the evidence has been hidden or destroyed.  One of the whistle-blowing scientists said, “The feeling was like something out of Orwell. This was Big Brother. They were rewriting history. Basically writing this creature out of existence.”
Oh, okay, that's plausible.  I can just see the Joint Chiefs of Staff coming together and saying, "Enough with this nonsense of addressing the economy, international trade policy, and terrorism.  We have a much more pressing problem -- how do we cover up the evidence for mermaids?"

Vander Ploeg then goes on to address the origins of mermaids, and here he quotes Charlie Foley, who directed the "Mermaids" episode on Animal Planet:
Charlie Foley, who wrote and directed the film, bases his theory largely on the amount of mermaid references in old sea-tales.  "The seafaring Greeks described (Mermaids). As did the Vikings, as did the Chinese during their greatest period of maritime exploration. They are recorded in medieval manuscripts, and even into the 19th century."
Because obviously, things recorded in old Greek, Viking, and Chinese manuscripts have to be real.  Like the Cyclops, Midgard's Serpent, and the Celestial Dragon.  But wait -- there's the scientific angle to the whole thing.  We don't just have to rely on mythology, Foley says:
The fact is there are animals that have moved from the land into the sea. Could it have happened to humans? And with aquatic ape theory, if there’s anything to it, what is the logical extension of it if we continued going in that direction. The idea is that people pulled back and we stopped evolving into a marine animal, into an aquatic animal. But what if we kept going? And that to me, knowing that it’s happened before knowing that it’s real science with other animals. Could it have happened with one branch of the human family tree?
I'll simply invoke my proposed law here:  "No."

Vander Ploeg, of course, can't resist adding his own two cents' worth regarding the origins of mermaids:
I have come to believe that Mermaids and Mermen do exist or at least did exist. I believe that they were created by the Annunaki to mine gold below the waves, perhaps in the deep oceans of the world. If gods did create us, as I believe, then it makes sense, in fact its seems probable that ancient astronaut scientists altered various species' DNA to create creatures: perhaps 50 per cent human and 50 per cent fish. If this hypothesis is correct that perhaps the minotaur and other alleged fabled creatures also existed.
Ah, it's all becoming clear.  A race of aliens that doesn't exist created a species of humanoid that also doesn't exist by splicing together human and fish DNA.  I get it now.  I only have one more thing to say, and the more sensitive members of the studio audience might want to plug their ears:


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Squatching by telepathy

I saw a friend of mine at a music gathering this weekend, and the subject of Skeptophilia came up.  And of course, whenever this blog is mentioned, the topic of Bigfoot can't be far behind.

"Have you heard about the latest in 'squatching?'" she asked me.

"No, what now?" I said.

"Getting into psychic contact with Bigfoot," she replied, grinning.  "You can ditch all of the heavy cameras and parabolic mikes and all -- you just connect to Bigfoot telepathically."

I just stared at her for a moment.  "Are you kidding me?" I said, only leaving out the non-PG-13-rated intensifier because I didn't want to offend anyone.

"Nope.  It's the latest thing."

So, I decided to look into it, and knowing that I was risking thousands of precious cells in my prefrontal cortex, I did a search for "telepathic Bigfoot research."  And, lo, what should come up but a site titled... Telepathic Bigfoot Research.

The author of the article, whose name appeared nowhere on the site that I could find, begins by giving a nod to ordinary Bigfoot researchers:
There are many non-telepathic Bigfoot researchers on the job, trying to get that physical proof. The Bigfoot research scene resembles a huge tumble-jumble of people racing to be the one great almighty Bigfoot researcher with a gold star, who will go down in history as the discoverer of the Sasquatch species.
Why, however, has this not provided any results?  The answer, the author says, is obvious:
For years Bigfoot researchers have been trying to reach Bigfoot by tromping through the forest, knocking on trees, and playing prerecorded Bigfoot screams. Unfortunately these methods haven’t been fruitful. When a Bigfoot hears Bigfoot researchers coming through the forest its instincts tell it to hide. If they do a mind probe, if they are in fact capable of that, they know that these people have Bigfoot on the mind. That would immediately set up the vibration of fear and suspicion. What telepathy can do is to head fear off at the pass. It can be the pre-contact communication that lets a Bigfoot know we mean no harm, if in fact you mean no harm. If you did mean harm, the telepathic Bigfoot would pick up that vibe.
So, we should telepathically inform Bigfoot that we're harmless?  This is not something I'd want to tell an eight-foot-tall, 350-pound proto-hominid composed predominantly of hair and muscle.  Seems to me that the first thing to establish, before "tromping through the forest," is that Bigfoot is harmless, and is not intending on turning us into meat loaf.  And in any case, if Bigfoot is capable of doing a "mind probe," why does it matter if we try to get into telepathic contact with him?  If he's as psychically adept as all that, he could do some kind of Sasquatch Mind-Meld with us, figure out that we're just peaceful "squatchers" who are trying to establish contact with him, study his species, and determine where he fits on the hominid family tree.

And then he'd turn us into meat loaf.

Of course, if Bigfoot is telepathic, you have to wonder why we're not, given how closely related humans and Bigfoots allegedly are.  But the author answers that, too:
I believe Sasquatches are closer to that condition [mystical consciousness] than human beings are because they are not distracted by electronica – the computers, iPhones, televisions, cars, the chaotic hustle-bustle of human existence. City streets. Telephones. And the list goes on. Rather than face a confusing civilization they live in the forest, probably in caves, and they have PEACE.
I bet if you'd known that it was robbing you of the ability to be telepathic, you'd never have started playing FarmVille in the first place.

So, the answer is to hire a psychic to help you find Bigfoot.  The psychic should accompany you into the woods, establish telepathic contact, and ask Bigfoot if the two of you can get together for coffee:
A psychic can contact a nearby Bigfoot and ask for a face-to-face meeting. I will be honest, the most likely answer to that is “no”. But it doesn’t hurt to ask. As with habituation, it is better to create an ongoing communication telepathically before physical contact is attempted. The purpose is to promote trust and a mutually agreed upon meeting experience.
And, of course, you can understand Bigfoot's reluctance to meet with us.  It's not like we have all that great a track record with respect to treatment of other animal species.  It'd be tragic if, during the first, tentative meeting with a Bigfoot, the researcher thought about the fact that in the state of Alaska, it's legal to hunt wolves from helicopters, and the Bigfoot picked it up during a mind probe.  You can see how that would put a damper on things.

The author concludes by encouraging you to get involved with telepathic Bigfoot research, but he includes a cautionary note:
If you want to start investigating Bigfoot via telepathic means you will have to do it on your own. There are no workshops or classes for this. Development of psychic ability is something that is done quietly, by listening. Get some good books on psychic development. Experiment with your accuracy ratio. Meditate. Before long you’ll be able to discern the unspoken, unheard words that exist beyond the chatter of your own mind.
So, if you're meditating one day, and in your mind you hear the lonesome howling of the Sasquatch, you'll know what's happened.  You've established first contact, and it's now your duty to pursue that link and follow where it goes.  I recommend that your first stop should be a mental health professional.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cockeyed optimism and the Gospel of Barnabas

I suppose that it's only human to be optimistic.  A 2009 study at the University of Kansas found that 89% of people predicted that the world was going to be as good or better than it is now in five years -- and this pattern held irrespective of ethnic, religious, and national identification.  (Source)

Of course, what "better" means can differ fairly dramatically from person to person.  Witness the recent pronouncement from the powers-that-be in Iran.  (Source)

The whole thing started in 2000, when Turkish authorities broke up a gang that was involved in the illegal acquisition and sale of antiquities.  Amongst the haul was a leather book written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic.  Turkish scholars analyzed the book, and announced that it was a copy of the lost Gospel of Barnabas, one of the early Christian converts and a companion of St. Paul.  The document, the Turkish linguists said, could date from the 5th or 6th century.  Its value to the field of archeology was obvious, and the book was transferred under armed guard to Turkey's National Ethnography Museum in Ankara, where it has been under lock and key ever since.

All of this was well and good, and of interest only to religious historians, until the recent announcement that a line in Chapter 41 had been translated as follows:  "God has hidden himself as Archangel Michael ran them (Adam and Eve) out of heaven, (and) when Adam turned, he noticed that at top of the gateway to heaven, it was written 'La elah ela Allah, Mohammad rasool Allah' (Allah is the only God and Mohammad his prophet)."

When I read this, I did an immediate facepalm, because I knew what was coming next.

The Turkish linguists lost no time at all in proclaiming that this manuscript predicted the rise of Islam and the role of Mohammad as its chief exponent, and that it proves that Islam is the One Correct Religion.  Catholic authorities quickly responded, "Now, wait just a moment, here," or words to that effect, and demanded to see the book, a request that is being "considered."  Prominent Catholics rushed to shrug the whole thing off as a non-issue -- Phil Lawler of Catholic Culture calling it a "laughable... challenge to Christianity."  So, basically, all of the people who weighed in on the story reacted with optimism -- proclaiming that circumstances would vindicate whatever view of the world they already had.  But no one had as inadvertently amusing a reaction as did Iran's Basij Press:

"The discovery of the original Barnabas Bible will now undermine the Christian Church and its authority and will revolutionize the religion in the world," a press release from Basij last week states.  "The most significant fact, though, is that this Bible has predicted the coming of Prophet Mohammad and in itself has verified the religion of Islam."

Basij goes on to predict that the "Gospel of Barnabas" will result in the downfall of Christianity.

Okay.  So, what do we actually have here?  A book that only a few people have seen, and whose provenance has yet to be demonstrated conclusively.  That book may have a line that seems to predict the coming of Mohammad, but this has only been verified by people who have a serious vested interest in its being true -- and in any case, the fact of its being a prediction is highly doubtful given that we don't know how old the book actually is.  And now, a government that has shown itself to be relentlessly hostile to Christians throws the whole thing into a press release -- and seriously believes that their pronouncement is going to cause a worldwide exodus from Christianity.

I mean, really.  Pollyanna is one thing, but those folks at Basij really have turned the whole Cockeyed Optimism thing into performance art.   I have this highly amusing mental image of Fred and Vera Fuddle of Topeka, Kansas calling up their minister and saying, "Sorry, Brother Steve, we won't be in church this Sunday -- we read about those folks in Turkey who found a book that says that over the gateway to heaven, it said something about Allah and Mohammad.  No offense, but I'm thinkin' that kind of undermines the church's authority, know what I mean?  Give my regards to Sue Ellen and the kids.  Oh, and one other thing... you know of a nice mosque in the area?"

So, anyway, I think that the Gospel of Barnabas will have little to no effect on anyone, even if the Vatican isn't allowed to send in their experts.  And that's just what we should expect.  89% of people think that the world is going to be as good or better in five years than it is now -- so the Iranians will continue to predict the downfall of all the people they despise, and the rest of us will just go on believing what we've always believed.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Peopling the world with pyromaniac goblins

In many cases, the woo-woo view of the world seems to me to come from a sort of fantasy-land style wishful thinking.  Wouldn't it be lovely if our lives were ruled by the stars?  Isn't it a nice thought that our deceased loved ones could communicate comforting messages to us through the voice of a medium?  Wouldn't it be grand if deep down, there was a pattern, that all of the craziness and chaos we see around us actually meant something?

It seems, however, that there are (at least) two other motivations for espousing a counterfactual view of the world.  One comes from a kind of free-floating paranoia, and that's what gives rise to your conspiracy theorists, the sort of people who think that HAARP (the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program) caused the Japanese tsunami last year.  A third cause of woo-woo-ism, however, consists of jumping to a wild explanation because the rational, logical alternatives nearer at hand are simply too awful to contemplate.

Consider the recent goblin attacks in Zimbabwe.  (Source)

The news outlet that reported the story, ZimDiaspora, tells of the homestead inhabited by the Sithole and Muyambo families, which had been plagued by "mysterious occurrences."  Stones were thrown at family members by an unseen hand.  Dirt was put into cooking pots, ruining the meals.  And now, four buildings in the homestead have been burned to the ground, leaving the families "sleep(ing) in the open, while the few belongings they managed to salvage from the raging fire are heaped outside."

And what, pray tell, could wreak all of this havoc upon this poor family?  The answer, of course, is:  goblins.

Or a magic spell.  Something like that.  One of the household's members, 52-year-old Sarah Muyambo, said that magic was definitely a possibility, because a "traditional healer" had told her that her son, Enoch (29) had "laid his hands on some money-making magical charms and things are now backfiring."  Of course, another member of the homestead said he had seen "snake-like creatures wearing sunglasses, a suit and a pair of shoes" near the houses, so maybe it could be that.

Or, maybe not.

Let's quote another bit of the news story:  "Whenever one young male member of the family, Taso Sithole (16) entered each of the huts and as soon as he came out, that hut would unexpectedly go up in smoke and this happened on all the four structures that were burnt at the homestead."

So, what do you think is the most likely explanation here, for the tragic burning of the buildings in the homestead?
1)  Goblins did it.
2)  It was because a money-making magic charm backfired.
3)  A snake-like creature wearing shoes and sunglasses set the fires.
4)  It was a teenage boy, who amazingly enough was on the scene every time it happened.
Okay, I've been a teacher for 25 years, and I've known a lot of teenage boys -- I even helped to raise two of them.  And one thing that seems universal is that teenage boys like to set things on fire.  That a teenage boy would burn down four houses in his own homestead does seem pretty extreme, even by ordinary teenage-boy-standards -- honestly, it seems to point to a dangerous pyromania, something considerably beyond the ordinary enjoyment of watching stuff burn up.  And I suppose that on some level you can understand why Taso Sithole's family isn't all that eager to consider this possibility.  But seriously -- goblins?  Snakes wearing shoes?  Magic spells?

It can't be easy to realize that someone in your family is deranged.  But it seems like, just for safety's sake, it is better to confront the painful truth than it is to make stuff up, peopling the world with pyromaniac goblins so that you don't have to face reality.  To quote Carl Sagan:  "Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The strange, fictional life and death of Dana Dirr

A friend of mine sent me a link yesterday to a story that almost defies belief -- that a person (at this point, it's unknown if the perpetrator was male or female) invented a family, complete with a loving mother and father, grandparents, and ten kids (one on the way).  Not only that, but one of the kids, Eli, was suffering from a rare form of cancer,  but was approaching it so valiantly that they had nicknamed him "Warrior Eli."

Apparently the whole thing started several months ago, when "Dana and J. S. Dirr" appeared on Facebook and in the blogosphere, telling their stories of how they were dealing with the specter of childhood cancer.  "Dana" began to post daily, and included photographs of herself, Eli, and the rest of the family, and hundreds of people (eventually thousands) friended her on Facebook and subscribed to her blog.  People began to ask where they could donate money to help this poor family, and the American Cancer Society and such grassroots family aid organizations as Alex's Lemonade Stand became involved.  "Warrior Eli's Facebook Page" went viral, with people checking it every day to see how the brave little boy was doing.

Then, on the evening before Mother's Day, came a horrific announcement on Warrior Eli's page:
URGENT PRAYERS ARE NEEDED for Eli's mom Dana!  She was hit head on by a driver who was driving way too fast and crossed the center line.  She was flown to the hospital where she was supposed to be on duty tonight as a trauma surgeon.  Dana is almost 35 weeks pregnant right now so please pray for her and the baby!  Dane (Dana's dad/Eli's grandpa)
Then, later that evening:
Dana just gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.  J. and Dana had planned on naming her Evelyn and calling her Evie but they hadn't decided on a middle name yet.  J. has decided to call her Evelyn Danika -- Danika after her beautiful mother who we have always called Dana.  Dana is not doing well.  She has severe bleeding in multiple parts of her brain, she has several skull fractures, her C1-C4 vertebrae are crushed, and she has complete severance of her spinal cord at the C1-C2 level.  Please pray for comfort for Dana, J., Connor, and all 11 of Dana and J.'s beautiful babies. Dane (Dana's dad/Eli's grandpa)
And on Mother's Day morning came the dreadful announcement, of which I excerpt only three lines:
Last night at 12:02 AM I lost the love of my life.  I lost my wife, the mother of my children, and my best friend... She waited until two minutes past midnight on Mother's Day to leave us.
The outpouring of grief from all of the people who had followed this family's ongoing struggle was overwhelming.  But at this point, a few people smelled a rat.  The fact that a grieving father with eleven children (and a new baby) would get onto Facebook to announce his wife's death, only a few hours after it had occurred, seemed a little hard to believe.  So some people started digging, beginning with trying to find out if a pregnant mother of eleven had died from injuries received in a car accident on Mother's Day.  When no such case could be found, they begin to question other details of the situation, and after some intensive research, they found...

... the entire thing was made up.

There was no Dirr family, no Warrior Eli, no brave mother and father fighting for their kid.  The photographs on the Facebook page and blog had been lifted from all over the internet, many of them from family pictures posted by a South African blogger, Tertia Loebenberg, who writes at So Close.  (Here's her take on the affair.) 

Within hours of the hoax becoming public, the perpetrator(s) had taken down the Warrior Eli Facebook page and Dana's blog page.  And it seems like whoever engineered the whole thing is laying very, very low.

After getting over my simple, gut-level emotional reaction to all of this -- my main feeling being disgust -- I asked two questions.  First, what on earth could motivate someone to do something like this?  It is unclear to me if this was a simple attempt at internet fraud -- most of the money that was donated for Warrior Eli was given to charitable organizations, not directly to the family.  It seems more likely that this is a case of Münchausen's By Proxy, where a disturbed individual creates the impression that his/her child is ill because of the attention and sympathy that it garners for the entire family.  The elaborate nature of the Dirr hoax -- including dozens of apparently fictional family members and friends -- was only possible because of the anonymity conferred by the internet, and is now being called an excellent example of a new psychological disorder, Münchausen's By Internet.

My second question, which is why this whole story appears on my blog, is: how do we apply the principles of skepticism to what we read online?  Most of us, myself included, are fairly trusting, assuming that the majority of humanity is honest the majority of the time.  We all know that hoaxes and frauds occur, not to mention the fact that people can be delusional (witness the subjects of the majority of my blog posts).  But when someone posts something online that seems plausible, and (especially) yanks on the heartstrings, we get sucked in.  I suspect that if I had heard of "Warrior Eli" before the whole thing had been revealed as a fraud, I'd have been fooled just like thousands of others were.

The bottom line is: when you engage your emotions, don't disengage your brain.  The Warrior Eli case was cracked by people who recognized when the inventor of the Dirr family pushed the whole thing a little too far, straining credulity to the point that it began to splinter.  I'm not advising you to be suspicious -- heaven knows, we don't need any more cynics in the world.  But do be careful, and in this and in all things -- keep thinking, and keep asking questions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wanted: One object, haunted

There's something fundamentally irreconcilable about the materialist view of the world and the spiritualist view of the world, and this is summed up in how the exponents of these two schools of thought tend to view each other.  Spiritualists see materialists as hopelessly dull, missing out on the true wonder of the supernatural nature of everything; materialists, on the other hand, view spiritualists as making stuff up.

Guess which one I am.

I've never understood the criticism of my philosophical stance as dull.  For me, the science of how matter actually works is awe-inspiring enough.  But for spiritualists, apparently, that isn't sufficient.  I suspect a good many of them don't ever bother to learn the science, so it's no wonder they feel the need for something more.  This also explains their consistent misuse of words like "quantum" and "energy," a phenomenon I've commented upon approximately 485 times in this blog.

It also seems to be why they want to imbue inanimate objects with a spiritual nature.  Thus the recent upsurge in interest in "haunted objects."

The FSPP (Foundation for the Study of Paranormal Phenomena) has an informative article on the subject, even though in my opinion it falls clearly into the "making stuff up" category.  The author explains that objects may become haunted by a spirit of a dead person because the object was important to the individual when (s)he was alive, was present when (s)he died, or "for other unknown reasons."  But should that make you nervous about buying an antique?
Absolutely not. I personally love old things, be they furniture or trinkets. There is something about holding something that has been around much longer than I have. You can almost feel a powerful energy when you touch something old. What you are feeling is the vibrations of the object or of the person that owned it. Psychometry is the ability to interpret those vibrations. Unfortunately, I do not possess that particular gift to any usable degree. Even so, I still love old things and I would never abstain from buying something I liked simply out of the fear that a deceased someone may come with the object. Let common sense rule here.
My feeling is that if common sense ruled, you wouldn't believe in haunted objects in the first place.

Despite that, there are still many accounts of haunted objects.  One of the most famous is "Robert the Doll," a three-foot-tall straw doll given to a boy named Gene Otto some time around 1900 who is so renowned that he actually has his own website.  The doll supposedly had been cursed by one of the Otto family employees because of their mistreatment of her, and it proceeded to terrorize the family.  One has to wonder why no one thought of the simple expedient of destroying it, but apparently no one did, and Gene Otto kept the doll into adulthood, but did lock it in the attic once he got married.  There it remained until Otto died and a new family bought the house, discovered the doll, and it started to terrify their daughter.  ''Robert the Doll" is now housed at the Key West Martello Museum, where according to accounts it still "frightens visitors by changing expressions and shifting positions within seconds, and giggling maniacally."

Amazing what the power of suggestion will do, isn't it?  If the evidence was as clear cut as all that, we'd have an instant winner of the James Randi Million-Dollar Challenge.

We also have the story, related on the site "Wee Ghosties," of a "friend of the author" who bought a painting at an estate sale.  The painting's subject is nothing special -- a "red and blue abstract."  But as soon as the painting was hung in the friend's house, odd things started happening, including a spot on the bed depressing as if someone was sitting there, the television turning on and off spontaneously, and objects disappearing and reappearing.  The author concludes, "He bought a ghost along with his artwork."  The whole thing sounds vaguely fishy to me, the sort of thing that you almost always hear third or fourth hand -- "this happened to my mother's first cousin's husband's sister's gardener."  And once again, we have to wonder why, if things were this creepy, with invisible butts sitting on the bed and all, the guy didn't just give the painting to the Salvation Army or something.

Because, after all, there are options.  And if the "burn it" or "give it to a thrift store" choices don't appeal, there's always "Carnivalia's Asylum for Haunted Objects and Wayward Ghosts."  These folks, so the website says, "are dedicated to providing a safe space for all spiritually inhabited objects. If you have an object that you believe is haunted, or cursed, or simply unfetching, we seek to provide it with a good home."  They go on to say that they don't just care about the object, however:  "We will do our best to find a good home for your haunted object, and will work towards leading any spirits attached to it towards their final destination into the light."

From other parts of their webpage, you have to wonder if these people are entirely serious, though:  "We are not that picky, really, and will likely accept the following haunted objects: thingamajigs, doodads, gizmos, whatsits, thingumabobs, widgets, jiggers.  However, our standards prevent us from accepting possessed doohickeys, and we would appreciate you not asking us to do so."

So, okay.  Once again, we have that central problem, which is that we have a group of people who want to ascribe spiritual properties to plain old inanimate objects, resulting in further accusations from us materialists that they're just making stuff up.  And the result, of course, is that I would love to own a haunted object, and obtain first-hand data (or, more likely, not) about what its spirit companion can do.  So I'll match Carnivalia's offer from the website linked above; if anyone has a haunted object and would like to get rid of it, I'd be glad to take it off your hands.  I'll report back here of any disappearing objects, electrical appliance malfunctions, or mysterious ass-divots appearing on beds.  You'll be the first to know.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dream weavers

All my life, I've been plagued with vivid dreams.  I use the word "plagued" deliberately, because more often than not my dreams are disturbing, chaotic, and odd, leaving me unsettled upon waking.  I remember more than once thrashing about so violently during a dream that I've found myself in the morning on the floor in a heap of blankets; I've also had the residuum of unease from a bad dream stay with me through much of the following day.  And given that I've also spent most of my adult life fighting chronic insomnia, it's a wonder I get any sleep at all.

Of course, I've also had good dreams.  A series of flying dreams I had as a child were so realistic, and so cool, that for a while I was convinced that they were true; that I could go into my parents' front yard, angle my body to the wind, and be caught up and thrown into the air like a kite.  I've had dreams of running effortlessly, dreams of winning the lottery, and the inevitable (but admittedly pleasant) dreams of the non-PG-13-rated variety.

Through it all, though, I've never had a lucid dream.  Lucid dreams are dreams in which you are aware you're dreaming -- and apparently, with some people, dreams in which you are able to control what happens.  If such a thing were commonplace, who would need virtual reality or computer games, when every night you could create your own reality and then interact with it as if it were real?

The first step toward making such a thing possible for ordinary schmoes like myself, who dream frequently but never lucidly, may just have hit the market.  Called "Remee," the product looks like a sleep mask, but on the inside of the mask are six red LED lights.  Even with your eyelids closed, your eyes receive enough light to remain aware of your surroundings, and when the lights activate -- late in the sleep cycle, when you are most likely to be in REM (Rapid Eye Movement, the stage of sleep in which you dream) -- your brain becomes aware of them.  At that point (so the theory goes), your perception of the red lights becomes a signal, alerting you to the fact that you're dreaming.  From there, the lucid dream is initiated.

So, the lights act a little like the totem objects in Inception -- giving you an anchor, something that clues you in with regards to what is going on.  But unlike the totem objects, whose purpose was to check to see if you were dreaming so you could get out, if need be, here the purpose is to let you know that the fun is about to begin.

The inventors of Remee, Duncan Frazier and Steven McGuigan, told The Daily Mail (read the story here) that their tests have indicated that the lights are unlikely to cause seizures or any other ill effects.  If they fire during non-REM sleep, for example, the brain simply ignores them -- as it does if a faint light (say the distant headlights of a car) shine briefly into your bedroom window at night.

Remee masks are priced at $95 each, and are available here.  Frazier and McGuigan report that since Remee masks first came on the market, they've received over 7,000 orders.

Me, I find this intriguing, but I do wonder about what long-term (possibly psychological) effects such a thing might have, as we still don't have much of an idea what dreaming actually does.  That dreams are important seems obvious, given their ubiquity amongst mammal species -- both of my dogs clearly dream, apparently about chasing squirrels judging by how their feet move and the little muffled woofing noises they make.  Features that are widespread amongst many different, distantly-related species are called evolutionarily conserved features, and the usual interpretation is that they have been maintained through evolutionary history because they serve some sort of essential purpose.  As such, you have to question the wisdom of monkeying around with something like dreaming until we know more about it.

Be that as it may, if I had a Remee mask, I'd definitely try it.  Whatever harm it might do, I would guess, is unlikely to happen from occasional use.  And if you decide to get one, do let me know by posting here what your results are.  Given the unsettling nature of many of my nightly forays into the dream world, it might be nice to have a strategy for taking charge and having a little fun.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Aural hygiene

Are you feeling grumpy lately?  Not sleeping well?  Irritable and nervous?  Forget stress as the cause of your problems; it also isn't insomnia, problems at home, or a crazy work schedule.

No, the problem is that your aura is dirty.  (Source)

Now, you may be asking yourself: given that auras don't exist, how did mine get dirty?  And however will I get it clean again?

Like with many things, the key to both is diligence.  According to the author of the above-linked article, there are many ways your aura can get dirty, to wit:
  • Entering a room in which an argument had just taken place.
  • Being shouted at by your boss.
  • Accidentally poking someone on the street.
  • Having someone wish that you were dead.
  • Being cursed by an old lady because you have a tattoo.
There are several things that I find funny about this list.  First, these are the only five reasons listed, and they seem like an odd collection.  I mean, we have two things that probably happen on a daily basis (being near the site of a past argument, and being bumped on the street by someone) with something that hopefully never happens (someone wishing you dead).  And second -- an old lady cursing you because you have a tattoo?   What the hell?  I have two tattoos, and thus far I have escaped being cursed by old ladies, although I did have one once say to me, "I don't know why anyone would do that to his own body."  I came within a hairsbreadth of giving her a diabolical look and saying, "Because no one else's body was handy at the time."  I resisted, which is probably a good thing, because comments like that can be rather difficult to explain to the police.

But I digress.

So, we've established that it's all too easy, even if you have no tattoos, to get schmutz on your aura.  This can result in a variety of bad things happening, including:
  • Your will could become weaker.
  • You could become less sensitive to "energies."  Whatever that means.
  • You could become a target for "astral attacks."  Whatever that means.
  • You could be a source of contagious aura-schmutz for others.
As a result, it is "mandatory" (according to the article) that we all practice regular aura-cleansing.  And we're not talking about some Windex and a few paper towels, here; we're talking full-on woo-woo stuff, like burning incense, using a candle to burn away the "negative energies," or rubbing salt all over your skin.  (And if you do go with the salt, make sure to flush it down the toilet afterwards -- we can't have salt with psychic dirt on it hanging around in the trash, where anyone could touch it and get infected themselves.)  To me, though, this last one sounds a bit uncomfortable, but the article does say that if you have a mild case of aura-schmutz, simply visualizing your aura getting clean while you're taking a shower can be enough. 

And that's the problem with all of this, isn't it? All it requires is that you have a good enough imagination, and the whole thing works like a charm.  You don't have to make any real changes in your life, or (heaven forfend) get medical attention or help from a counselor; all you have to do is click your heels together three times and say, "There's no place like home," and you're all set.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Elf awareness

I should know better, by now.  I shouldn't describe someone's woo-woo belief, and then exaggerate it for humorous effect, and say something to the effect of, "well, at least no one believes this."  It always seems to backfire, somehow.

You may recall that in yesterday's post, we had the story of Arní Johnson, an Icelandic member of parliament who became convinced that he had been saved from dying in an automobile accident by a family of elves living in a rock.  To express his gratitude, he had the rock moved to his front yard, and an "elf expert," Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, said that was fine as long as the rock was placed in grass (the elves wanted some sheep, apparently) and that it was moved in such a way that the elves were "comfortable" during the journey.

And hoping for a laugh, I quipped, "How do you become an elf expert?  Do Icelandic universities offer a major in elfology?"

Well.  Like I said before, such comments often come back to bite me on the ass.  To wit: today in Iceland Review Online we have a response to Arní Johnson's actions in moving the elves' house, from a guy named Magnús Skarphéðinsson, saying that Johnson was acting foolishly in moving the elves, and in fact may have jeopardized his health in so doing.  And who is Magnús Skarphéðinsson, you may ask?

He is principal of the "Icelandic Elf School."  (Read about it here.)

Skarphéðinsson says that there are thirteen kinds of elves in Iceland, and that they aren't the same thing as the hidden folk; the hidden folk "are just the same size and look exactly like human beings, the only difference is that they are invisible to most of us. Elves, on the other hand, aren’t entirely human, they’re humanoid, starting at around eight centimeters."  His school offers certificate-earning programs on the subject of elves, but also "delves into the study of dwarves, gnomes, and trolls."  Because heaven knows we don't want to be ignorant about trolls, or we might get eaten by one while carelessly trip-trapping across a bridge.

Skarphéðinsson also says that there are gay and lesbian elves.  I'm probably indulging in unfounded speculation, here, but I bet that most of them are refugees from North Carolina.

I should mention at this point that Skarphéðinsson also offers courses in "auras and past-life regression."

Okay.  My first question was, is Skarphéðinsson kidding?  Or what?  There's part of all of this that sounds like he's pulling our leg a little.  But according to the article I read on Skarphéðinsson and his school, supposedly 54% of Icelanders believe in elves and the rest, and in fact public works projects are frequently altered, put on hold, or scrapped entirely if the proposed work looks like it's going to piss off the "invisible folk."  Construction of a big stretch of the Ring Road -- Iceland's main highway -- had to be halted temporarily while workers moved a big rock that supposedly housed a family of dwarves.

And honestly, who am I to criticize?  It's kind of a charming tradition, really.  Given the number of Icelanders who claim to have had encounters with the "shadow people," maybe there's something more to it than I realize.  I have a friend, also a writer, who swears she had some inexplicable experiences in a house that was reputed to be occupied by fairies -- and fictionalized the whole thing into a wonderful novel, called Away With the Fairies (which you can buy here).  The author, Vivienne Tuffnell, is in other respects a thoroughgoing skeptic, so maybe there's more to this legend than I'm seeing.

In fact, I can say with some certainty that if I ever return to Iceland, I will definitely take a class at the Icelandic Elf School.  It would be a proud day for me to hang up a certificate above my desk saying that I had successfully completed a course of study in elfology.  And I have, finally, learned my lesson, namely never to suggest that a particular belief is so silly that no one could ever consider it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dead sheep, live elves, and a stuck willy

Here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, we've got our eyes on three stories from far afield.

Let's begin with a tragedy in Wales, and hope things get cheerier as we progress.

In our first story, we have reports that the Beast of Bont is at it again, so you might want to cancel that walking tour in the Cambrian Mountains.  (Source)

Sheep farmers in Pontrhydfendigaid, a small town near Aberystwyth, discovered last week that twenty sheep had been "massacred" in a spot near Devil's Bridge.  This immediately conjured up memories of past attacks, which reportedly have been going on since the 1970s, and have been attributed to a loathsome predator nicknamed "the Beast of Bont."

In this most recent attack, local resident Mark Davey and his partner Annette made the discovery.  "The whole area just stank of dead animals and was quite sickening," Davey told reporters.  "I could see that the inside of the animals had been ripped out and body parts were lying all around.  I thought it could have been foxes or badgers but it was just the increasing number of dead sheep that started the alarm bells ringing in my head.  As we walked further we saw several more sheep scattered closely together, again as though some large animal had attacked them.  We were getting quite scared and wondered what the hell was doing this."

Myself, I would have wondered to the extent that I'd have gotten right the hell out of there.

"Each time we saw them we thought that something had quite clearly attacked them because they looked like they had been ripped apart," Davey said.  "It was a very strange feeling when we saw the sheep because some of them were lambs with just half of their bodies, or just the rear or the back legs left on the field.  I could also see a small lamb which looked to me as if it had been carefully placed in the corner of some building ruins.  This one was untouched but it appeared that it had been put there for a reason - maybe to come back to it later."

Police say that the pattern of sheep-killings resembles others that have occurred in the area.

Despite periodic reports of "large, puma-like creatures" in the Cambrian Mountains, no one has been able to obtain any kind of reasonably reliable evidence to indicate what might be responsible for the killings.  Thus far, only sheep and goats have been attacked, but police have instructed locals to "be vigilant when outdoors."  That's putting it mildly.  If this had happened in my neighborhood, I might become vigilant to the point of never leaving my house again.  I'm just brave that way.

Of course, if you don't want to meet weird things away from home, you can always have the weird things brought to your doorstep.  This is the philosophy of Arní Johnson, an Icelandic Member of Parliament who decided to bring a boulder housing "three generations of elves" to his front yard.  (Source)

Johnson first ran into the boulder in a nearly literal sense, when he was involved in a serious car accident in January of 2010.  His car flipped, landing forty meters away from the highway, damaging it beyond repair -- but leaving Johnson completely unharmed.  Johnson decided that it couldn't just have been luck, so he started looking around for what could have saved him, and then he saw this great big rock.

Now, I've been to Iceland, and I can say with some authority that great big rocks are a dime a dozen.  Iceland itself seems, in fact, to be one great big rock, with a little bit of ice and grass to break up the monotony.  But this was no ordinary rock, Johnson said; no, it was the home of some elves, and the elves had saved his life.

"I had Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, a specialist in the affairs of elves from Álfagarðurinn in Hellisgerði, Hafnarfjörður, to come look at the boulder with me," Johnson said.  "She said it was incredible, that she had never met three generations of elves in the same boulder before.  She said an elderly couple lives on the upper floor but a young couple with three children on the lower floor."

My first question is: how do you become an elf specialist?  Do Icelandic universities allow you to major in elfology?  If so, how do you study them, being that even people who think they exist say that they don't exactly wait around for you to examine them closely?  Be that as it may, Johnson was tickled with what Jónsdóttir told him, and decided to have the boulder moved to his home in Höfðaból in the Westman Islands.  Jónsdóttir said that the elves were fine being moved, but that he had to do it right.  "(The elves) asked whether the boulder could stand on grass.  I said that was no problem but asked why they wanted grass.  ‘It’s because they want to have sheep,’ Ragnhildur replied."  So Johnson is having the boulder ferried across to his home, wrapped in sheepskin "so the elves are comfortable."

After the horrors caused by the Beast of Bont, you have to wonder exactly why the elves want to have sheep nearby.  But we're hoping that the elves have no ill intent, and the whole story will end happily.

And a happy ending is more than we can say happened for an adulterous couple in Kenya, who discovered during an amorous encounter that a curse by the woman's husband had left them stuck together.  (Source)

According to the story, the husband had gotten wind of his wife's cheating ways, and had hired a practitioner of black magic to cast a spell on the wife.  The next time the wife and her paramour went at it, the unfortunate man found that he had basically been making love to one of those Chinese finger-traps.

Once the couple realized that their hook-up had left them unable to unhook, they panicked, and their shouts of alarm attracted the attention of the police and an increasingly large crowd.  Finally the husband arrived, and after the adulterous man agreed to pay the husband twenty thousand shillings in reparations, a pastor was called in, who prayed over the couple, and the two were able to separate.  It is probably just my sordid imagination that pictures this as being accompanied by a sound like a cork being pulled from a wine bottle.

I do have to ask, however; do Kenyan pastors have special prayers for this kind of thing?  "O Lord, we beseech thee to call forth thy mighty powers, and help this sinner free his wang, that he might go forth and never more boink another guy's wife, for yea, I believeth that he hath learned his lesson."

So, those are our stories for today -- the sheep-eating Beast of Bont, transporting elf boulders, and adulterous men getting their willies stuck.  Here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, we are constantly alert, bringing you only the finest quality journalism from the world of the weird.  "Ever vigilant," that's our motto.  That, and "Man, people believe some weird stuff, you have to wonder if we skeptics are justified in having any hope at all."  But that's kind of depressing, so we'll stick with "Ever vigilant."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What the frack?

Diane Tessman is at it again.  Yes, the woman who believes that clouds are camouflage for UFOs, who believes that organisms evolve, Pokémon-like, to obtain advanced powers, has now weighed in on another topic:


If you're thinking, "Oh, this is gonna be good," you don't even know the half of it.  (Source)

Because it isn't, she said, Diane Tessman speaking; it's a superpowerful alien entity named Tibus who is speaking through her.  And boy, is Tibus annoyed with the way we've been treating Mother Earth.  He starts out, though, with a news bulletin meant to put us at ease:
 Star people, this is Tibus. I come to you in love and light.

I am smiling as I greet you, my star friends/co-workers! I am also smiling at a UFO report from North Carolina; a man was out looking for a good place to hunt (I hope we was sufficiently distracted by his UFO sighting and did not hunt), when he spotted a low flying rectangular craft with 4 amber lights. “Rectangular” is not aerodynamic but because of advanced propulsion (anti-gravity) methods, we can use rectangles, squares, tubes, and so forth. Usually, however, we like the grace and beauty of a saucer-shaped craft and have found we actually fly them more efficiently than the cumbersome-looking craft. I hasten to add that the craft this man saw belongs to a small group within Space/Time Intelligence, but not directly to any of those folk, nor their ethnic groups, who send messages to you through Diane.
Oh, good.  If they are operating within Space/Time Intelligence, I guess they're welcome to visit North Carolina.  If the craft was populated by gay aliens attempting to find a nice place to get married, however, they might want to try a different venue.

After assuring us that the UFOs we see are here on a peaceful scientific mission, and that their crews have no intention of strapping us to examining tables and implanting microchips in our skulls, Tibus/Diane goes on to the topic at hand: the natural gas industry.
Hydraulic fracking, a process which extracts natural gas, has added to the danger from the New Madrid Fault, to a huge degree. Old fashioned fracking was hurtful to Earth but not potentially catastrophic. However, modern hydraulic fracking creates a real earthquake danger and also gobbles up the water table over a vast area, right when earth needs every drop of her fresh water supply. What fresh water is not gobbled up, is left toxic and hopelessly contaminated.
So, Tibus, if we can't do natural gas extraction because hydrofracking is too dangerous, what do we do to find a source of energy?
Here is the answer: We offer Earth free energy, which was discovered by a human being, Nikola Tesla, so certainly humankind should benefit from it. Free energy was taken away from the human race very wrongly, by greedy (yes), humans who saw they could make lots of money through non-free forms of energy. We of Space/Time Intelligence now offer free energy again, freely.
Isn't that nice?  Free energy that's freely free!  Wouldn't that be freeing?  But how can we be sure that Tibus really knows what Tesla was up to, when he discovered free energy?
Tesla is with me and says that technically, alien races had discovered what he called free energy, eons before he did, but I respond to Tesla that he is being “too” conscientious, because we consider a new invention or creation to be brand new each time it is discovered by a different species on a different world. I remind him that there are wondrous ancient beings in the universe who have already discovered what we of Space/Time Intelligence have discovered, only eons before we did. Peel away the onion layers, and they are astoundingly endless. So, Tesla did discover free energy, which we use; it involves relatively simple anti-gravity techniques.
Oh.  Okay.  Simple anti-gravity techniques.  Since Tesla is right there with you, would you mind asking him how we're going to manage that?  The law of gravity, so far as I've noticed, seems to be strictly enforced in most jurisdictions.  But maybe that's just my perception because I'm stuck in the wrong layer of the Cosmic Onion.

The good news, though, is that we don't just have to rely on help from dead physicists in figuring all of this out: we also have the "God Cloud."  What, you might ask, is the God Cloud?
Some of you have asked about the God Cloud: It is a being, ancient and advanced, who offers to help. It is more ancient and advanced than any of us in Space/Time Intelligence. It is, for all intents and purposes, pure intelligence.

It traveled from a distant star cluster to help, and has “parked” near Earth. It is simply a stellar cloud of highly advanced particles of consciousness which/who function as ONE.
But how can the God Cloud, for all of its "advanced particles of consciousness," help us?
When the time is right (the micro-second when Earth reaches critical mass of enlightenment), it will throw its pure intelligence, pure enlightenment, into the electromagnetic field of Earth which will have just shifted (thus human minds will have just shifted upwards), and it will stabilize and enhance the new EM field on which human minds will function thereafter.

For those of you concerned if the God Cloud is committing “suicide” to do this, no it is not. It will remain a sovereign entity within the new EM field, and it will gather itself up as ONE, and leave when things settle down.
Whew.  I know I'm relieved.  I already had my hand on the Space/Time Intelligence Suicide Hotline.

So, anyway, that's today's hopeful message from the Land of Woo-Woo: we should stop hydrofracking because it pisses off Mother Earth, Nikola Tesla, and an alien named Tibus, but don't worry because free energy is just around the corner, not to mention an extraterrestrial super-intelligent cloud who is there to help us achieve a stable electromagnetic field of enlightened human consciousness.  I'm so glad we have Tibus around to advise us, aren't you? Maybe next time he could weigh in on such Universal Mysteries as why so many people these days seem to believe absurd, counterfactual nonsense.  I wonder what Tibus might have to say about that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The power of vicarious experience

I find it curious how certain most of us are of our beliefs.  We all like to think of ourselves as basing our views of the world in reality; that we (and others who agree with us) are clear-headed, logical, perceiving the universe as it is -- and that because of that, our views won't change.

In reality, our attitudes are constantly shifting.  That even the most stubbornly doctrinaire amongst us can be pulled around unconsciously was just dramatically demonstrated by a lovely little experiment performed at Ohio State University.  (Source)

In this study, test subjects were given a passage to read, about a fictional character who was enduring adversity.  In one passage, the main character had to fight for his opportunity to cast his vote in an election; in another, a person is presented in a favorable light, and then at the end of the story is revealed to be a different ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation from the reader.  In each case, reading the story had a strong, and measurable, effect on the reader.  In the first instance, the test subjects who read the story about a man who overcame obstacles to participate in an election had a "significantly higher" likelihood of voting in the next election themselves; in the second, assessments given after reading the story resulted in more favorable attitudes toward the group in question, and a lower likelihood of stereotyping, as compared to a control group.

The researchers called this phenomenon "experience-taking."  We read a story, and in some way, we become the character about whom we are reading; we adopt his/her persona.  As a result, it becomes more appealing to do what the character does, and more difficult to stigmatize the members of the group to which the character belongs.

"Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes," said Geoff Kaufman, who led the study while he was a graduate student at Ohio State.  He is now a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College's Tiltfactor Laboratory. 

In each case, the effect was strongest when the story was told in first person, and when the main character was of a demographic most like that of the reader; for example, when the man who endured adversity to cast his vote was, like the test subject, a young male university student.  Third person stories, and ones where the demographic significantly differed from that of the reader, showed a lower -- but still measurable -- level of experience-taking.

"Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways," said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.  "(It is) powerful because people don't even realize it is happening to them.  It's an unconscious process."

The findings of the study appear online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.

What I find most interesting about all of this is how fluid our perception of the world is.  That memory is plastic, and highly unreliable, has been known for years; the rather alarming discovery that our senses are quite capable of overlooking the obvious followed suit soon after, with such classic experiments as the "Gorilla in the Room" video clip.  But all through this, many of us have clung like grim death to the idea that at least our convictions stay the same; we believe what we believe until we choose, deliberately, to change it.  Kaufman and Libby's experiment show that, in fact, our views of those around us are as mushy as the rest of our brain.

And all of this, of course, has significant bearing on the current kerfuffle over whether or not Mitt Romney bullied a kid in high school.  I'm not going to address the truth or falsity of the claim; predictably, the Democrats say he did it, the Republicans claim it's a slanderous falsehood.  Myself, I don't care.  The idea that a 65 year old man somehow has gone for fifty years with his attitudes about gays, bullying, and fair treatment unchanged is absurd.  We are all, all of the time, adjusting our beliefs based upon those around us, what we see, what we hear, and what we read.  Far from being a sign of flip-flopping -- that dirtiest of the f-words in the political arena -- shifting our stance based upon circumstances is inevitable, and universal.

To be up front: I'm no fan of Romney's politics, for the most part, and anyone who knows me will vouch for the fact that I'm very far from being an Ann Coulter-style apologist for conservatives.  But I much more care about what a political candidate says, does, and believes now than I do about an incident from five decades ago.  Those who focus on such things are implying a patent falsehood -- that humans don't, or can't, change.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Remotely possible

Everyone has biases.  I beat that point unto death in my Critical Thinking classes; there is no such thing as a completely objective viewpoint.  We all have our implicit assumptions, preconceived notions, and unquestioned attitudes about how the world works -- or how it should work.  The best thing, and perhaps the only thing if you want to think as clearly as possible, is to be aware of those biases and to try not to let them lead you by the nose.

Still, it's hard, sometimes.  Witness my reaction to the article I just read, entitled "Remote Viewers Help Police Solve Murder."

I had hardly clicked on the link before I was already thinking, "Pfft.  Bunch o' malarkey."  That reaction only intensified as I read -- beginning with their definition of "remote viewing:"  "Remote viewing calls for people to look at random numbers and letters and then let their mind wander, during which they will be able to conjure mental images of people, events and places."  My thought was, "Oh, hey, I can do that!  I just call it 'daydreaming.'"

But, of course, that's not what the article meant.  The author goes on to tell the story of Robert Knight, a Las Vegas photographer, who alerted police to the disappearance of his friend, Stephen B. Williams, in 2006.  Knight was unhappy with the progress made by the police in the case, so he enlisted a teacher of remote viewing, Angela Thompson Smith, for help:
He knew Smith as a teacher of remote viewing, and she apparently knew her stuff. From the late 1980s through 1992, she worked with Princeton University’s Engineering Anomalies Research team. She then moved to Boulder City and became research coordinator for the Bigelow Foundation, which engaged in paranormal research for its founder, Robert T. Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America chain and founder of Bigelow Aerospace...  When Knight came to her in 2006, Smith and six remote viewers she had trained went to work. They included a retired airline captain from Henderson; a retired U.S. Air Force nurse from Dayton, Ohio; a civilian Air Force contractor from Texas; a civil engineer from Virginia; a photographer from Baltimore, Md.; and a university librarian from Provo, Utah. Each was given a coordinate — a random series of letters and numbers — on which to focus.

The viewers each did from one to three remote viewing sessions of about an hour each. They were seeking information unknown at the time, working blind with only the random numbers and letters provided by Smith to focus on. Smith began the work with an initial viewing of the missing man, a follow-up viewing of the suspect’s location, then a profile of the suspect. The other viewers helped seek possible accomplices and the location of the suspect after he fled.

The images they gleaned painted a picture of a body in water, perhaps in criss-crossed netting, near Catalina Island off the Southern California coast.
The punchline: that night in his hotel room, Knight saw a news broadcast in which the newscaster mentioned that an unidentified body had been pulled from the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island.  Knight "knew who it was," and called the morgue the next morning, saying he could identify the body.  Sure enough, it was Williams.  Then Knight said he had more:
Knight’s information went beyond the body identification. He told police about a man named Harvey Morrow, a supposed investment adviser, who had befriended Williams and was investing Williams’ money — a few million dollars — on his behalf.

Investigators looked into it and found that Morrow was stealing Williams’ money. By now, after Williams’ death, Morrow wasn’t to be found.

Knight told detectives that remote viewers believed Morrow had fled to the British Virgin Islands. One of the viewers even sketched a boat with Morrow on board.

Both observations turned out to be accurate.

Clark said Morrow appeared to have no clue he was a suspect. He left the Caribbean for a job as a used car salesman in Montana — for a boss who was a former cop. He Googled Morrow and discovered he was sought for questioning in the Williams homicide.

Morrow was arrested and convicted in November and is now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
The article ends with a quote from a scientist:
Physicist Hal Puthoff, one of the founders of the government’s Stargate remote viewing program, isn’t taken aback by skeptics.

“People seem to fall into two categories: those who have been intimately involved with the phenomenon and know it works, and those who haven’t and know it can’t,” he said.
Well.  He sure told us, didn't he?

Okay, here's my problem, and I will readily admit that my reaction to all this is based upon my biases that the world works a particular way.  First, I am strongly disinclined to believe in remote viewing, and also telepathy, telekinesis, psychometry, and a variety of other kinds of ESP and action-at-a-distance, because I see no possible mechanism by which they could work.  Despite the undoubtedly excellent credentials of Physicist Hal Puthoff, the mechanisms of energy storage and transfer, the behavior of fields, and so on, are exceedingly well understood by physicists, and if remote viewing et al. are real, they must involve some method of energy transfer that is not only outside of the realm of what we currently understand, but is undetectable by any of the instruments physicists use.  And it's not for want of trying; people have been for years trying to develop some kind of "psi-meter," if for no other reason to win James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, but without success.

Second, I just can think of too many other plausible explanations for what happened in the Williams case, without any appeal to woo-woo.  I won't go into details, because several of them cast Knight in a pretty unpleasant light, and I've no wish to do that as I have no proof of those, either; my point is not that any particular explanation is correct, but simply that there are a great many other possibilities in this situation that could adequately explain what we know without espousing the view that the remote viewers saved the day.

All of which, I realize, is because of my biases.  I know little about the case except what was presented in the article.  Because of my pre-existing condition -- that I tend to assume that the world operates by the known laws of science unless I'm shown convincing hard evidence otherwise -- I read the entirety of this article with, shall we say, a fairly jaundiced eye, and ended by saying, "Yeah, right.  Still not doing it for me."  It does raise the question of what it would take to convince me... and on that count, perhaps Hal Puthoff is right.  It would take my being "intimately involved in the phenomenon."  In other words, direct evidence.  And for that, I'm still waiting.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Gospel according to Mr. Eyes

In today's news, we have yet another story that illustrates a variety of truisms, to wit:
  • You can't argue with a woo-woo.
  • If you try, your arguing makes their belief stronger.
  • It's damn hard to tell if someone is an actual woo-woo or is parodying woo-woos.
This whole thing started because of a website called "The Men in Black Suits Are Real," which on April 24 got the woo-woo equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, which was a mention in HuffPost's Weird News.  (Read the article here.)  This resulted in the owner of the MIB site, who (because of security reasons) is known only as Bugeyes126 and lives in a Small Town In The Middle of Nowhere, don't try to find him because you won't succeed, to write an article crowing about how huge this is.  This began a back-and-forth between Bugeyes126 and the writer of the original article, Briony Westinghouse.

Eventually Bugeyes was asked to write an article for the HuffPost, which he did (here), and included some audio clips from people who were amongst the tens of thousands who left voicemails for him.

Okay, this is when my problem started, because as I was reading all of this I was working from the assumption that Bugeyes is serious, but I listened to the clips -- and one of them claims that Florida ice cream truck drivers are aliens.  My first thought was, "Okay.  Now I get it.  This is parodying conspiracy theorists.  Bugeyes is making fun of the whole MIB phenomenon."  But I felt kind of uneasy about that conclusion; nowhere was that moment when his commentary went so far over the top that I was certain that it was parody.  There was something awfully... earnest about him.  So I kept reading.

And eventually, Bugeyes somehow decided that not all Men in Black were Men in Black, because he accused Arianna Huffington herself of being an alien:
You're an extraterrestrial. I know it. You know it.
I'm not trying to expose you, but you have information I can't get from anyone else. I know you work with the Men in Black Suits. And I want to work with them, too. Please help me.
How did I find out? Last night, I received a call into my Men In Black Suits Are Real hotline from someone who asked that I conceal his identity "for the sake of the shareholders." The caller had specific information about The Huffington Post that nobody else could possibly know. And his message was clear.
It all makes sense now. With all you're involved with across the world, I've certainly had my suspicions.
This resulted in Arianna Huffington responding, in what may be one of the funniest video clips I've ever seen (starting with her referring to Bugeyes as "Mr. Eyes"), and you all need to watch it (here). Make sure you watch the whole thing, because the best part is at the end.

So, okay, Skeptophiliacs: what do you think?  Is Bugeyes126 serious?  Or is he a smart guy who is engaged in an elaborate parody?  In the conspiracy theorist column, we have the following evidence:
  • Nowhere does he ever break from the True Believer Persona.
  • The people who called in to his "hotline" sound pretty serious.
  • He has over 43,000 followers on his Facebook page, many of whom (to judge by their comments) are True Believers to the point where they should be medicated. 
In the it's-a-parody column, we have:
  • Neither does Stephen Colbert.
  • Ice-cream trucks?  Really?
  • He appears to be fourteen years old.
So, anyway, I'm not sure, which is a scary development, because it means I'm losing the ability to tell what's real from what's not, which is the very thing I always rail at the woo-woos about.

Whichever it is, I'm thinking that if what he's doing has attracted the attention of HuffPost, I may be approaching this blog writing thing the wrong way.  It has been a continual source of pain to me that ridiculous ideas have a much greater cachet than critical thinking does, which explains why astrology and fortunetelling and homeopathy are so much more popular than, say, classes in formal logic.  Maybe I need to get a little flashier.  Maybe I need to install a Woo-Woo Hotline.  Maybe I need to start featuring audio clips from people who have seen Bigfoot.  Maybe I need to make a mock-up, as Bugeyes126 did in a recent post, of my face featured on The Weekly World News.

Or maybe I just need to calm down and go have another cup of coffee.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Unreality shows

It's amazing how mushy our perception of the word "reality" is.

Just a couple of days ago, I was working out at the gym with a friend, and I noticed that while she was on the treadmill, she was watching a television show that seemed mostly to be composed of heavily made-up women yelling at each other.  After we were done, I asked her what movie she'd been watching, and she looked sheepish and said, "It wasn't a movie.  It was Real Housewives of New Jersey."

After discussing it for a little while, she agreed that the word "Real" in the title might be a misnomer.

We now have dozens of "reality" shows, from Survivor to Jersey Shore to Sister Wives to Celebrity Apprentice.  The women-yelling genre has, apparently, spread from New Jersey, and there are now Real Housewives shows in Miami, Orange County, Atlanta, New York, and Beverly Hills.

The issue, of course, is that none of these shows are "real."  All of them have staged, stylized action, and many of them work under artificial rules ("vote one person off the island every week").  So right from the get-go, it's apparent that their definition of "reality" isn't exactly what you'd find in The Concise Oxford.

And now, to add a further layer of unreality to the whole thing, we have a "reality show" featuring a contest between psychics.  (Source)

A dozen alleged psychics, amongst them "top Scottish medium" June Field, will travel to the Ukraine this summer to to participate in a woo-off.  Every week, the psychics will do their stuff -- do readings, hold seances, channel spirits -- and a panel of judges will eliminate one a week until the World's Best Psychic is the only woo-woo left standing.  (The winner also receives a cash prize of a little over $30,000.)

At this juncture, I should probably mention that one of the judges will be Uri Geller -- the "psychic" whose alleged telekinetic ability so conspicuously failed him on The Tonight Show, when Johnny Carson wouldn't allow him to bring in his own set of pre-prepared spoons to bend.  Geller's excuse, of course, was that Carson's skepticism was "interfering with the atmosphere."

Um, no, Mr. Geller -- you are the one who is claiming to be able to interfere mentally with stuff at a distance, without touching it.  Carson knew it was a fake.

So the whole thing kind of lacks credibility points right from the outset.  Field, however, is tickled by her being chosen to participate, although she told reporters for The Daily Record that she couldn't predict how she was going to do, which is a little ironic, considering.

"I’m keen to do the show for the exposure it will bring but also to prove to the doubters that there’s more to this world than meets the eye," she said.

And how, exactly, will this prove anything?  To anyone who is a real skeptic, a staged, contrived television show, with a panel of judges who (considering the only one of their number mentioned by name) aren't exactly unbiased, won't prove anything except what a huge moneymaker psychic nonsense is.  Given all the hundreds of thousands of dollars that is bilked from the public annually by these people, it's not like we needed a "reality show" to prove that.

So, honestly, I'm certain that this will turn out to be even less real than Real Housewives of New Jersey.  I wonder if there will be scenes of the psychics wearing lots of make up, yelling at each other, or possibly telekinetically pushing each other around and bending up each other's silverware.  Because that might be worth watching just from a comedic standpoint.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cosmic spiritual quantum evolution, and the wisdom of staying silent if you're ignorant

I may have a good many faults, but one thing I try to avoid like the plague is spouting off about a topic of which I am ignorant.  In fact, I recall with the greatest humiliation the times that I've posted on Skeptophilia only to have someone who was more knowledgeable on the topic comment, "Um, no, you've got it completely wrong, and here's why."  Even in the classroom, I would rather admit to a student, "I don't know the answer to your question, but I'll see if I can find out" than to make something up and later be found to be in error.

There are, however, a good many people who don't share my reluctance to bloviate despite their own sad lack of knowledge, and I'm not just talking about our political figures, many of whom seem to feel the need to weigh in upon everything without any particular regard for the facts.  No, this tendency extends to many far outside the realm of politics.

Let's look at one particularly egregious example of this that I found just yesterday, entitled "What Events Occur When A Species Is On The Cusp Of Evolving?."

When I first opened this link, I was tentatively encouraged by the photograph of proto-hominid skulls, and there was no immediate howling about how evolution is false.  Then I looked at the name and photograph of the author (Diane Tessman), and I thought, "I recognize her.  In fact, I think I've written about her before."  And after a brief search, I found my post from last November in which I described her contention that clouds are not formed by water vapor condensing and so on -- they're actually camouflage for UFOs (read the post here).

But I thought: okay, maybe even if she is off the beam with regard to meteorology, she might still have something interesting to say about evolutionary biology.  So I started reading.  And right away, she leaps into the deep end of the pool with an anchor around her feet:
The process of evolution is not in conflict with religious teachings such as intelligent design, when you think about it. Evolution is at its heart, a mysterious process which insures that the life force will continue in one kind of life-form, and will be snuffed out in another species of life-form. If the life-form is chosen to continue, it is also “promised” that it will change (evolve), thus having a chance at future survival, too.
Actually, evolution and intelligent design are in complete opposition to each other -- beginning with the fact that intelligent design isn't science, because it makes no testable assertions.  And evolution doesn't promise anyone anything; current survival is no guarantee of future survival.

But she goes on to elaborate further, unfortunately:
The question: What events occur in the perception of a species which is about to evolve? I assume that hundreds of years before the evolutionary change became established, a few members of the species would perceive events and perhaps beings, which the old species in general could not perceive.

As the years moved along, thousands of the old species would begin perceiving in this new way. Finally, in, say, 1947, there would be a flying saucer flap. Yes, I am proposing that perhaps we perceive UFOs and their occupants because we are creating them, or at least beginning to perceive them, because we are evolving into a new hominid species. Again!
Frankly, I doubt that a population of plants sits there and thinks, "Wow!  I suddenly am perceiving events!  And beings!  Look at that stupid clump of crabgrass over there... it's not perceiving anything.  I bet I'm about to evolve!  Whooppeee!"

With regards to our perception of UFOs, it does demand the question of how perceiving something that isn't there could possibly be considered evolutionarily advantageous.  But she explains:
So, for thousands of years, a few of us have suddenly perceived more than the starry skies. By “us” I don’t mean that those who spot UFOs are superior to the rest of us, because human consciousness is probably a mass morphic EM field, so most times it is a random glitch in the EM field which allows a more complete (higher) perception of the skies than most humans see as they still march to the old human consciousness.
 Oh!  Okay!  Now I get it!  I mean, my only question would be, "What?"

But she goes on to state that evolution isn't, after all, about selective advantage and survival of the fittest and gene frequency shifts; no, it's about moving to a higher spiritual plane:
It seems all the natural world has this prime directive to Evolve or Die! However, humans are strange because of our advanced intellect and spiritual needs. The animal world has wonderful intelligence too and spirituality, but it is in balance, whereas humans are restless, aggressive beings who seem out of balance with their own planet.

I realize many hominid species disappeared and do not seem to be the actual fore-bearers of Homo sapiens, but others were our ancestors, and my point is, do we know what/who each hominid species began to perceive once the pressure of evolution set in?

Apparently, as each humanoid species evolves over millions of years, it begins to have “access” to a more complicated perception available within the EM morphic field. Thus Homo sapiens has the where-with-all to develop computers, and rockets to the moon, whereas earlier humanoid forms just couldn’t perceive these things. He/she could not dream of them, thus bring them into being.

Whether evolution allows a species to perceive more of the cosmos, or the species actually creates “more” within the cosmos, who knows?
Sorry, Ms. Tessman, actually evolution in the real world has nothing to do with species rising to a higher plane and acquiring advanced powers.  I believe you're thinking of Pokémon.

But what, you might ask, is making all of this happen?  I know I wondered, because she has long since stopped talking about anything remotely recognizable as science.  But she tells us that astonishingly, evolution is caused by the same thing that results in UFOs and ghosts:
I wrote an article asking if the planet Earth herself creates UFO occupants, fairies, and ghosts, perhaps in her subconscious or dream state. That theory can be blended in with this one: Gaia creates her various life forms. The dynamic, irresistible process of evolution begins to happen to them, because their creator is a living, breathing entity herself.

As millions of years roll on, these life forms come into new fields of perception which are actually the multiple layers of reality of the planet herself. Or, as a variation: These are the layers of the cosmic onion of quantum perception.
C'mon, admit it -- you knew she'd work the word "quantum" in there somehow.

At this point, you might be thinking, "Well, she is just talking about humans, right?  A lot of very advanced thinkers have had the opinion that there is something unique about humans, that sets us apart from the rest of nature -- a soul."  But no, she really is talking about everything, all nature, as evolving because the Earth somehow wants it to:
What makes a wolf – a wolf? What makes a blue jay – a blue jay? Yes, there are physical characteristics but each species has a different “hum” which cannot be completely defined or fully encapsulated by looking at the physical structure of the life-form.
Okay, if you want me to believe this, then build a hum-o-meter and show me how a wolf measures 6.8 on the hum-o-meter but a blue jay only measures 4.2.  (I would assume that a hummingbird would peg the needle.)

Right after this, she said, "This is only a theory, of course," and at that point I stopped reading, but not before screaming at my computer, "No!  This isn't a theory!  A theory is a testable framework based on evidence and data!  This is a random collection of brain spew and wishful thinking!"  But all I succeeded in doing is waking up my dog, who glared at me, sighed heavily, and then went back to sleep.  I doubt Ms. Tessman heard, frankly.

Anyhow.  I return to my initial statement; if you are ignorant on a topic, then you are well advised just to keep your mouth shut.  And Ms. Tessman, do go back to blathering on about UFOs and cosmic harmonic dimensional vibrational frequencies, because whenever you do venture into the ocean of scientific knowledge, you seem to sink so fast we can't even see any bubbles.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Jill-the-Ripper and dinosaur farts

For all of my love of science, I do get frustrated with academia sometimes.  There seems to be a regrettable tendency with some researchers to do nothing more than come up with an idea, and reevaluate the data we already had in light of that idea, and then pretend that they've broken new ground -- when in reality, nothing is new but the concept.

Now, I'm not saying that approach can't be fruitful on occasion.  After all, that's basically how Einstein came up with relativity; by taking what other scientists had already found (that light always seemed to travel at the same speed) and saying, "Maybe we should just start from assuming that light always travels at the same speed, and see where that leads."  And lo, he ended up revolutionizing physics.

Sometimes, though, these conceptual studies just seem to me to be arguing in a near-vacuum.  There are two examples of that in the news right now.

First, we have this story, entitled "British Author Claims Serial Killer Jack the Ripper Was A Woman."  A British lawyer, author, and historian, John Morris, has written a new book claiming that the notorious London murderer was not only female, but he identifies her as Lizzie Williams, wife of royal physician John Williams, and that she was motivated by fury over her inability to have children.

That Jack the Ripper may have been Jill the Ripper isn't a new idea, of course; a few years ago an Australian forensic scientist, Ian Findlay, tried to support exactly the same conjecture by extracting DNA from a stamp on one of the letters Jack the Ripper sent to the police, but results were "inconclusive."  Otherwise, all we have is the same evidence that people have been poring over for years -- the police reports of the murders, the letters, and what is known about people who were associated with the victims.

In other words, all Morris is doing is playing "what if?"  From what I've read, the evidence in the case could point in one of several different directions, and I've seen cogent arguments made for the guilty party being one of a variety of people (one of which is Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, Queen Victoria's grandson).  Speculation about which one actually committed the crimes is as pointless as arguing over who wrote Shakespeare's plays -- it keeps the academics busy but doesn't really advance our knowledge a whole lot.

Another example of this phenomenon comes from the field of paleontology and paleoclimatology, and hit the news in the form of an article entitled "Excuse Me: Gassy Dinosaurs May Have Warmed The Earth."  This one takes what we know about methane production in cows and scales it up to herbivores the size of dinosaurs -- and then tries to estimate the effect that methane had on the Earth's climate.

The paper, which appeared in Current Biology and was authored by David Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University in England, suggests that herbivorous dinosaurs might have produced 570 million tons of methane annually -- equivalent to the output from all domestic livestock currently.  If so, he argues, it could have significantly warmed the planet, as methane is known to be a greenhouse gas with a more powerful warming capacity than carbon dioxide.

One thing that seems certain is that the world was warmer back then -- by some estimates, 18 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average.  But it very much remains to be seen if dinosaur farts had all that much to do with it.  For one thing, we don't have a particularly good idea of how large dinosaur populations were back then; and even if we did, drawing a comparison between digestive processes in cows and those in dinosaurs is a conjecture in the first place.  Even the information we have on what the climate was doing a hundred million years ago is based upon inference from a variety of proxy records that don't always agree with each other.  So to estimate the effect that unknown numbers of dinosaurs emitting unknown numbers of farts had on a climate eons ago whose behavior is understood only in broad-brush terms is kind of an exercise in futility.

I suppose this sort of thing is harmless enough, really, and I'm not of the opinion that all science needs to be deadly serious; but you have to wonder if "studies" like this exist mainly to result in new publication credits for the authors.  As such, they're a little like masturbation -- they keep your hands busy for a while, and you feel a nice warm satisfied glow afterwards, but in the long haul, they don't really accomplish much.