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.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Stars, science, and Cherokee rattlesnake prophecies

It is an inevitable consequence of writing daily on this blog that I get a lot of emails, some of them from people I've pissed off.

Although none of them could quite live up to the three-page screed I got last year from a young-earth creationist who ended by calling me a "worthless wanker," one I got this week comes close -- if not in passion, at least in general disconnect from reality.

The writer, who signed off as "Eva," took me to task for filing astrology, Tarot, divination, Mayan prophecies, and so on under the collective heading of "woo-woo" (and summarily dismissing the lot).

"In your close mindedness," Eva writes, "you are missing the fact that modern astrologers and students of the mystical have learned from the approach of your beloved scientists, not only has our precision become better, we now combine many different fields of study, using each one to carefully check our predictions.  We then only make public the statements that can be verified by this comparative process.  Divination has only a short way to go to truly become a science."

Well, now.  Where do I start?

My first response was to express some incredulity that she was really comparing what scientists do -- to take one example, the use of data and measurements from chemistry, physics, and geology to develop the theory of plate tectonics -- to what astrologers do.  Does she really think that if an astrologer predicts that your Star Signs say that you're going to fall down the stairs and break your leg next Tuesday, and a Tarot card reader does a reading for you and says the same thing, that this is some sort of independent corroboration of the method?  But of course, that really is what she thinks.  The lack of a mechanism by which astrology could possibly work, not to mention the lack of evidence that it does work, never seems to bother her.

But as the infomercials always say, "Wait!  There's MORE!":

"Although we differ in our beliefs, I don't want you to consider this a criticism of you as a person.  I'm sure you're trying in your own way to reach enlightenment, we all are, it's all a process and we're all on our own spiritual paths, I am just trying to encourage you to open your mind that there could be other possibilities than the narrow view of the world that science has produced is."

I showed a friend of mine Eva's email, and her response was, "Wow, she really is the Queen of the Comma Splice, isn't she?"  Not to mention the last clause, which (despite my MA in linguistics) completely defeated me when I attempted to parse it.  But any structural editing concerns aside, I have to admit that Eva is showing a good bit more kindness and tolerance than a lot of my other critics have, and for that I'm grateful.  I did take issue with the "narrow view" comment, but I guess that's to be expected.

"I would encourage you to take a look at a website that I think is one of the best out there, it will demonstrate for you that there are many approaches to knowledge that bring fruitfulness and enlightenment, and embody that scientific approach I mentioned, I hope you can view it with an open mind and not dismiss it as 'woo-woo' without giving it some thought, not just with your mind but with your heart too.

"Walking together in light and love, Eva."

And she ended with a link to a webpage called DarkAstrology, of which I will quote only the first paragraph:
The 2012 Astrology Forecast is very interesting because this year has been much anticipated due to Mayan and other predictions. There are actually a great deal of extremely significant astrological aspects and eclipses to back up all the excitement. Uranus square Pluto is a very big deal, responsible for the growing financial turmoil and revolutions. There is a rare Transit of Venus, a total solar eclipse in the Pleiades Star Cluster of Taurus, and finally a Jupiter Yod in the Bulls Eye of Taurus.
Oh, my, yes, this does convince me.  A Jupiter Yod in the Bull's Eye of Taurus.  That has to mean, um, something important, I'm sure.  And later on, when it does some Highly Scientific Corroboration by looking at other fields of study -- Sumerian oracle stars and Cherokee rattlesnake prophecies seem to be two of the most important ones -- it just adds up to all kinds of Enlightenment Beyond The Narrow View Of Science.

I'm sorry if I'm coming across as snarky, because Eva really was quite nice, and seemed like she was trying to reach out to me in my closed-mindedness.  Sadly, DarkAstrology just isn't doing it for me.  Science isn't about making stuff up, and then checking to see if you're right by talking to other people who have made stuff up to see if they agree with you.  It's based on this pesky little thing called evidence, and unfortunately for the "science of divination," there isn't any.

All of this makes me feel kind of mean-spirited, really, after Eva wished me love and enlightenment and so on.  Maybe I am a worthless wanker after all.  Oh, well, perhaps that's just where I currently am on my "spiritual path."

Friday, June 29, 2012

The critics of critical thinking

I fear for the future of education.

I am about tennish-or-so years from retirement, depending on whether New York State decides in the interim to offer any retirement incentives to get us old guys out, and also whether there's any money to pay for my pension by the time I get there.  Be that as it may, I do find myself wondering sometimes how much longer I'll be able to do this job in this increasingly hostile climate.  Teachers are, more and more, being treated with distrust by the people charged with their governance, and are micromanaged to a fare-thee-well.  As of next school year, New York teachers are going to be given a numerical grade at the end of the year -- the school year starts in two months and the state has yet to determine the formula by which this grade will be calculated.

The worst part, though, is the increasingly intense effort by legislators to control what we teach, despite the fact that they're not the ones who have training in pedagogy (or, necessarily, any expertise in educational policy).  And I'm not just talking here about the repeated attempts by fundamentalist elected officials to mandate the teaching of creationism in biology classrooms; I'm talking about something far scarier, and further reaching. 

Yesterday, a friend of mine who lives in Texas sent me a link to the Texas GOP website, which contains a summary of their official platform.  (The platform itself is a pdf, so here's a link to a webpage where you can access it if interested.)  And on page 13, under "Educating Our Children," we find the following:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
This was one of those "I can't be reading that correctly" moments for me; I read it three times, and finally said, with some incredulity, "Nope, that's what it actually says."  They're against critical thinking?  They're against values clarification?  Education should never challenge a student's fixed beliefs?

I'm sorry, Texas GOP.  That's not just wrong, it's dangerously wrong.  Might I remind you that the the most successful historical example of what you're proposing was the Hitler Youth program in Nazi Germany?

Even the word education, at its origin, doesn't mean "shut up and memorize this;" the word comes from the Latin verb educare, which means "to draw out."  The idea is to give students ownership and pride in their own learning, to encourage them to draw out from their own minds creative solutions to problems and novel syntheses of the facts they've learned.  In order to accomplish this, critical thinking is... well, critical.  Great innovation does not come from blindly accepting the fixed beliefs and authority of your parents' generation -- it comes from questioning your own assumptions, and putting what you know together in a new, unexpected way.

And for me personally, I'm not going to stop challenging.  In fact, I teach a semester-long elective class called Critical Thinking that is one of the most popular electives in the school, and on the first day of class, I walk in and say, "Hi, class.  My name is Mr. Bonnet.  Why should you believe anything I say?"

After a moment's stunned silence, someone usually says, "Because you're a teacher."  (Every once in a while some wag will shout, "We don't!"  To which I respond, "Good!  You're on the right track.")  To those who say, "Because you're a teacher," I say, "Why does that matter?  Could a teacher be wrong?  Could a teacher lie?"

Of course, they acquiesce (some of them with a bit of discomfort).  So then I repeat my question; why would you believe what I'm saying?

This starts us off on an exploration of how you tell truth from lies; how you detect spin, marketing, bias, and half-truth; how to recognize logical fallacies; how to think critically in the realm of ethics and morals; and we end by taking apart the educational system, to give a thoughtful look at its successes and failures.  And (importantly!) I never once interject my own beliefs; I needle everyone equally.  When a student presses me to tell the class what I believe on a particular subject, my stock response is, "What I believe is irrelevant.  My job is to challenge you to examine your own beliefs, not to superimpose mine."

And this sort of thing is, apparently, what the Texas GOP would like to see eliminated from schools.  We mustn't have kids doubting the wisdom of the Powers-That-Be.  We must keep education in the realm of the vocabulary list and worksheet packet.  We mustn't challenge the status quo.  (And the darker, more suspicious side of my brain adds, "And we mustn't have the younger generation recognizing it when they're being lied to or misled.")

Well, I'm sorry.  You're wrong.  What you're suggesting is the very antithesis of education.  And the day I'm told that I can't do this any more -- that my teaching can't provoke, can't knock kids' preconceived notions off balance, can't ask the all-important question "Why do you think that?" -- that will be my last day in the classroom, because there won't be any place left in education for teachers like me.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Responding to the Wow Signal

On August 15, 1977, Jerry Ehrman, a scientist working on the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Project, was doing some research using the "Big Ear" Radio Telescope at Ohio Wesleyan University's Perkins Observatory -- and something astonishing happened.

For 72 seconds, a high intensity, narrow-band signal, at a frequency of 1420 MHz, was detected by the telescope.  The origin of the signal was near the Chi Sagittarii star group.  The signal was so strong, and so unexpected, that Ehrman wrote the single word, "Wow!" next to it -- and it has been thereafter called the "Wow Signal."

Despite many efforts to account for the Wow Signal, there have been no convincing explanations regarding its origins.  Ehrman himself, while initially doubtful that it was of extraterrestrial origin -- his first thought was that it was a terrestrial signal that had reflected from the surface of space debris -- has backed off from that position, given that (1) the frequency of the signal, 1420 MHz, is a "protected" frequency, because it is precisely the frequency at which hydrogen (the most common element in the universe) emits, and is reserved for astronomical research; and (2) the "space debris" postulated in Ehrman's initial explanation would have to have "significant and unrealistic constraints on its size and movement" in order to account for the signal.

The Wow Signal, a plot of intensity as a function of time

Repeated attempts to relocate the signal have failed.  Whatever it was, it seems to have been a one-time occurrence -- or we haven't had our radio telescopes aimed that way when it's happened again.

Now, however, we're about to try to produce our own version of Wow -- via Twitter.  (Source)

The ChasingUFO project is aiming to create a large, focused signal, aimed at Chi Sagittarii -- composed of thousands of Tweets.  The National Geographic Channel, as a publicity stunt to celebrate the launch of its new series Chasing UFOs, is sponsoring a mass Twitter event this Friday, June 29, starting at 8 PM Eastern Time and ending at midnight Pacific Time.  Any tweets sent during that time with the hashtag #ChasingUFOs will be rolled together and beamed into space, aiming at the spot where Wow was detected.

Me, I'm psyched.  I've always been fascinated with Wow -- okay, yeah, maybe there's a conventional explanation for it, but I'm damned if I can see what it might be.  Even the frequency is suspicious -- given that 1420 MHz corresponds to one of the main spectral lines of the hydrogen atom, it makes sense that if you were an intelligent alien, you'd have your radio telescope tuned to that frequency -- and also, that if you were sending a signal, you'd choose that frequency because it would be likely to be detected.  So my feeling is -- and it is just a feeling -- the Wow signal is the best candidate we currently have for a communiqué from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

So I'm trying to decide what I'm gonna say.  I'm thinking that "Hi aliens! We love you! Please don't come here and vaporize us with laser pistols!" might be a little disingenuous.  Maybe a simple, "We're curious about you.  If you're curious, too, please respond," is more in the spirit of the thing.  In any case, I welcome you to join in.  Let's give those aliens a great big shout -- and maybe make them sit back on their heels (or tentacles, or whatever), and say, "Wow!"

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hogwarts lite

Yesterday, we had the story of a Louisiana charter school whose textbooks use the Loch Ness Monster to "disprove evolution."  Today, we have a school in Montana that claims to be the world's "first real school of wizardry."  (Sources here and here.)

The Grey School of Wizardry, run by warlock-and-witch team Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, is based in Helena, Montana.  Oberon states that the school's classes are mostly conducted online at the moment, with periodic weekend and summer workshops, but he currently has a bid in on a "castle in Helena" where he hopes to have a "real, complete educational facility, just like Hogwarts."

Now, lest you think that this is just a fanciful twist on a magnet school -- sorting kids into "houses," and throwing in a few magical trappings, but otherwise providing a conventional curriculum -- I hasten to correct your misapprehension.  These people are serious.  Let's look at a blurb on the Grey School of Wizardry's website, describing The Grimoire, one of the textbooks they use:
This essential handbook contains everything an aspiring Wizard needs to know. It is illustrated with original art by Oberon and friends, as well as hundreds of woodcuts from medieval manuscripts and alchemical texts, charts, tables, and diagrams. It also contains biographies of famous Wizards in history and legend; detailed descriptions of magickal tools and regalia (with full instructions for making them); spells and workings for a better life; rites and rituals for special occasions; a bestiary of mythical creatures; systems of divination; the Laws of Magick; myths and stories of gods and heroes; lore and legends of the stars and constellations; and instructions for performing amazing illusions, special effects, and many other wonders of the magickal multiverse.
I'd often made the comment that the zealots who want biology teachers to "present all sides of the controversy" over evolution never want chemistry teachers to do the same regarding alchemy.

I stand corrected.

On the site, which you should definitely peruse when you have time and a few brain cells that you don't mind losing, you will find:
  • A full description of the program, including majors and minors and so on.  How'd you like to put that on your college application -- "in my school, I majored in Charms with a minor in Potions."  I bet that colleges would just knock themselves out to give you a scholarship!
  • A complete faculty list, which includes people named "Alferian MacLir," "Willow Silverhawk," and "Rainbow Stonetalker."
  • A description of the Grey Council, which governs the school.  The Grey Council is a "legendary Council of Wizards, Mages & Sages which has been a recurring theme through many tales and histories of Magick and Wizardry."  So don't even let it cross your mind that these are a bunch of delusional posers who think they can do magic.  Excuse me, magick.
  • The Colors of Magick -- describing the properties of each color.  My favorite one was "clear" -- "clear is the color of numbers and mathemagicks, reflecting the transparency with which all creation is suffused with magickal formulae."  Whatever the hell that means.
So, if you have a child between the ages of 11 and 18, you can sign him/her up for classes, and soon, you might even be able to pack him/her on a train (boarding at platform 9-3/4, of course) for Helena!  What an opportunity for a quality education!

Okay, so maybe not.  Maybe these people are just as wrong-headed as our fundamentalist chums from yesterday, who think that teaching kids mythology is the best way to educate them about how the world really works.  It's easy to laugh at the presumptive witches and wizards of the Grey School of Wizardry, especially given that they (unlike the fundamentalists) aren't trying to foist their delusions on the rest of the country.  But if these people somehow get a charter, and turn the Grey School into an actual, accredited educational facility -- I think I'm just going to sit down and have a nice long cry.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Breaking news: The Loch Ness Monster disproves evolution!

Will Rogers once said, "If you find you've dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging."

This is a lesson that has apparently yet to sink in for some young-earth creationists who decided to get together and write a science textbook -- an endeavor that, in so many ways, resembles a bunch of ten-year-olds trying to stage a Broadway musical in their back yard.  (Source)

This particular crew turned out a book called Biology for Accelerated Christian Education, Incorporated, and (of course) the book harps continuously on the ideas that evolution is a great big lie, and that the Earth is only six thousand years old.  The consensus of thousands of trained research scientists is irrelevant in the face of the revealed truth of Genesis; in fact, there are hints of a huge anti-Christian conspiracy, funded by the secular left and (once again, of course) backed by Satan himself.  So far, all of this is fairly yawn-inducing, but for two things.

One of them is the new twist of using the Loch Ness Monster to disprove evolution.

I couldn't possibly make anything this bizarre up.  Here's the relevant passage, which I present here verbatim:
Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the 'Loch Ness Monster' in Scotland? 'Nessie' for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.
In another lesson, the writers mention that a Japanese whaling vessel "caught what appears to be a small aquatic dinosaur."

So, what we have here is one mythological view of the world being used to prove another mythological view of the world, which would be funny except for the second thing: ACE-sponsored textbooks, including this one, are being used in some charter schools in Louisiana, which means that government-funded vouchers are being used to pay for this curriculum, and to teach it to children -- if you can call this teaching.  There you have it, folks: your tax dollars at work.

One thing that I was unclear on, however, was how Nessie (if she does exist) bears any kind of relevance to the truth of young-earth creationism.  Suppose dinosaurs did survive until the modern era; why does that mean that evolution is false?  Here's how it's explained by Jonny Scaramanga, an anti-fundamentalist activist who was subjected to an ACE curriculum as a child but fortunately came out with enough of his brain intact to be able to escape: "The 'Nessie claim' is presented as evidence that evolution couldn't have happened. The reason for that is they're saying if Noah's flood only happened 4000 years ago, which they believe literally happened, then possibly a sea monster survived.  If it was millions of years ago then that would be ridiculous. That's their logic. It's a common thing among creationists to believe in sea monsters."

Unsurprising, given what else they believe.  But as tortuous logic goes, this one beats anything else I've heard.  Having dug themselves into one hole -- abandoning the principles of scientific induction in favor of a Bronze-Age mythology for which there is absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever -- they continued to dig until they reached the further substratum of cryptozoology.  The horrifying thing is the number of people who are happily willing to join them in the pit, the government officials who are eager to fund the digging process -- and the thousands of children who are being dragged down there involuntarily in the name of "choice in education."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Imaginary beasts and made-to-order worlds

One general tendency I see amongst woo-woos of all types is a sense that the world has to be a certain way because it "feels like it must be so."  It goes beyond wishful thinking; it's not just a Pollyanna-ish "everything will turn out for the best."  It's more that they espouse an idea because it appeals to them on an emotional or intuitive level -- not because it lines up with what is scientifically demonstrable (and sometimes, despite the idea in question being demonstrably wrong).

I ran into an amusing example of this just yesterday, from the desk of the always-entertaining Nick Redfern.  Redfern, you might recall, is a frequent writer for Cryptomundo and Mysterious Universe, and is a particular aficionado of Bigfoot and other cryptids.  You'd think that eventually, cryptid-hunters would tire of the hunt after repeatedly bagging zero cryptids, and would give up and say, "Well, I guess we were wrong, after all."  But no: they keep at it, coming up with progressively more abstruse explanations about why the cryptids aren't showing up.  We have Linda Jo Martin's idea, that Bigfoot can avoid us because he's telepathic; Erich Kuersten, instead, makes the claim that Bigfoots are aliens, and when they hear us coming they escape in their spaceships.  But if you think those are wacky ideas, you haven't heard nothin' yet. Wait until you hear what Redfern has in store for us!

He thinks that we can't catch any cryptids, because they are created by our overactive imaginations.

Well, okay, you may be saying; isn't that what you've been telling us all along?  A bunch of cryptid hunters go out a-squatchin', and they see a shadow and hear a noise in the woods, and their overactive imaginations turn it into a Bigfoot?  No, that isn't what Redfern is saying at all; when I said he thinks that cryptids are "created by our overactive imaginations," I meant it in its most literal sense -- that we generate these beasts from our minds, and then they become real, real enough for other people to see.

"Could it be that just like Mothra and the saga of the The Mothman Prophecies," Redfern writes,  "The Valley of Gwangi unconsciously inspired people to muse upon the possibility of real flying reptiles in and around the Texas-Mexico border? And, as a result, did phantom-forms of such beasts step right out of the human imagination and achieve a form of ethereal existence in the real world? Granted, it’s a highly controversial theory, but it’s one that parallels very well with the theories pertaining to so-called Tulpas and thought-forms."

Well, I'm sorry, if you start out your argument by citing Mothra, you've lost some credibility points right from the get-go.  And someone really ought to sit down the entire seven billion human inhabitants of the Earth and clarify for them all, simultaneously, what the definition of the word "theory" is, because I'm getting sick and tired of doing it piecemeal.  A "theory" doesn't mean "some damnfool idea I just dreamed up."  It also doesn't mean "an idea that could just as easily be wrong as right," such as the way it's used in the young-earth creationist's favorite mantra, "Evolution is just a theory."  A theory is a scientific model that is well-supported by evidence, and has (thus far) stood the test of experiment.  So, therefore, Redfern's "theory" about actual flying reptiles coming from the minds people reading a novel about pterosaurs surviving until modern time is not a theory, it's a loony idea with no scientific backing whatsoever.

But that's not my main point, here; what I find the most curious about all of this is that Redfern et al. seem to have the idea that just because some bizarre version of reality is appealing to them on an emotional level, that means that the world must work that way.  The universe, then, is somehow made-to-order, constructed to fit what we want, need, or expect the universe to be.  I find this an odd stance, because (plentiful as my other faults are) this is never something I've fallen prey to.  It seemed abundantly clear to me, from as soon as I was old enough to consider the point, that there was no special reason why my desires that the world be a certain way would have any bearing at all on the way the world actually is.  "Wishin'," as my grandma use to say, "don't make it so."

Or, to quote (of all people!) Carlos Castañeda, from Journey to Ixtlan, "Why should the world be only as you think it is? Who gave you the authority to say so?" And if my ending my discussion of this topic with a quote from Castañeda doesn't introduce enough cognitive dissonance into your day to rock your Monday, I don't know what more I could do.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Order out of chaos

One of the consistent criticisms I hear of the evolutionary model, as embodied in the principle of natural selection, is that it claims that order has appeared out of an essentially random process.

"You admit that mutations are random," the critic says.  "And then in the same breath, you say that these random mutations have driven evolution to create all of the complexity of life around us.  How is that possible?  Chaos can only create more chaos, never order.  For order, there must be a Designer."

Now, Professor Armand Leroi, of the Imperial College of London, has teamed up with musician Brian Eno to demonstrate that this view is profoundly incorrect, because it misses 2/3 of what is necessary for evolution to occur.  Not only do you need mutations -- random changes in the code -- you also need two other things: a replication mechanism, and something external acting as a selecting agent.

In order to show how quickly order can come from chaos, Leroi and Eno created a piece of electronic "music" that was just a jumble of random notes and chords.  They then allowed 7,000 internet volunteers to rate various bits of the string of notes for how pleasant they sounded.  The sum total of these votes was used by a computer program to create a second generation of the tune (replication), making a few changes each time (mutation), and then choosing to retain segments that were the most popular (selection).  Then the whole process was repeated.

After 3,000 generations, a pleasant, and relatively complex, melodic riff was created -- with interlocking phrases and an interesting and steady rhythm.  It's not exactly what the rather hyperbolic headline in The Telegraph says it is -- "the perfect pop song" -- but for something that bootstrapped itself upwards out of chaos, it's not bad.  (Listen to an audio clip that outlines the progression of the piece from random notes to listenable music here.)

The analogy to evolution isn't perfect, in that human judges with an end product in mind (modern western music) were picking the sound combinations that matched that goal the best.  In that respect, it more closely resembles artificial selection -- in which naturally-occurring mutations result in changes to a population, and humans act to select the ones they think are the most useful.  It is in this way that virtually every breed of domestic animal has been created, most of them in the past thousand years.

But still, as a first-order approximation, it's not bad, and certainly gives a nice answer to people who think that chaos can never give rise to order without the hand of a Designer.  It turns out that no Designer is necessary, as long as you have something acting as a selecting mechanism -- even if that something is as simple as 7,000 people on the internet giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to tiny fragments of a musical passage.  In the natural world, with the powerful dual selectors of survival and reproduction, and two billion years to work, it suddenly ceases to be surprising that the Earth has millions of different and diverse life forms -- although that fact is, and always will be, a source of wonderment and awe for me even so.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The psychic and the murder accusation

What will it take for people to stop believing in psychics?

Most big-name psychics -- James van Praagh, "Psychic Sally" Morgan, Sylvia Browne, Uri Geller, John Edward -- have come under fire from skeptics, and many of them have been caught cheating (in the case of Morgan, more than once).  Each time it happens, I think, "Maybe this will be it.  Maybe people will stop listening, stop going to their shows, stop sending them thousands of dollars for bogus 'readings.'"

And I keep being wrong.  Each time, no matter how plausible the accusation, no matter how well supported the criticism, they bounce back.  "... (W)e (psychics) are here to heal people and to help people grow," van Praagh said in an interview on Larry King Live.  "(S)keptics... they're just here to destroy people.  They're not here to encourage people, to enlighten people.  They're here to destroy people."

And their fans, bleating softly, come right back, and the money starts flowing in again.

A recent story illustrates this brilliantly -- and has me once again thinking, probably wrongly, that this will be the time people will sit back and say, "Okay, that's it.  We're done with you charlatans."  (Sources here and here.)

This is a tale about a psychic who calls herself "Angel" and a couple in Liberty County, Texas, north of Houston.  "Angel," whose real name has yet to be released, called the Liberty County Sheriff's Office in June of last year, to report that there were 25 to 30 dismembered bodies buried on a piece of property.  She directed them to the home of Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, where she said the bodies were, and told them she'd received the information in communication directly from an actual angel.

The Sheriff's Office, astonishingly, didn't guffaw directly at "Angel" and hang up on her; they went and investigated, and in fact dug holes all over Bankson and Charlton's property looking for the alleged bodies.  Meanwhile, the story of the mass burial site was picked up by local news services, and it spread -- first to Houston-based KPRC-TV, then to ABC News, and finally to Reuters, CNN, and The New York Times.  All of this, based on (1) a tip from a "psychic" who heard it from an "angel," and (2) zero actual dismembered bodies.

Well, finally the police gave up, but not before Bankson and Charlton's property looked like a minefield, and the couple themselves had to defend themselves against accusations of being serial killers.  As far as "Angel," the Houston Chronicle said, "The 48-year-old woman, who asked to only be identified by her nickname of Angel, said she never wanted any attention and fears the worldwide interest in the case will destroy her life if her identity is known publicly." And about her failed psychic tip, she defends herself thusly, in an interview with KHOU News of Houston:
I didn’t file a false report.  If they make it to be false, that’s up to them, you know. ... I did what I was told to do.  I followed what Jesus and the angels told me to do.  It’s up to them from there. ...  They [the police] up front asked me how I got the information, and I am a reverend.  I am a prophet and I get my information from Jesus and the angels, and I told them that I had 32 angels with me and they were giving me the information.
So now she's bringing in the big guns: Jesus and no less than 32 angels.  Because that obviously makes it all right.

Well, predictably, Bankson and Charlton aren't buying it.  They're suing "Angel," the news outlets, and the Liberty County Sheriff's Office for defamation.  Now, I'm not a huge believer in lawsuits, but this is one I'm behind 100% -- and in a fair world, it should be a slam dunk for the attorney representing Bankson and Charlton, Andrew Sommerman of Dallas.  In fact, I think that Bankson and Charlton should not only win monetary damages, I think that "Angel," the Sheriff of Liberty County, and the CEOs of all of the news agencies that reported the story as legitimate news should be forced to completely re-landscape Bankson and Charlton's property using only hand tools.

But, of course, it's not a fair world.  Nor is it a rational one.  I don't think their lawsuit is a sure thing at all -- superstition, ignorance, and irrationality still rule the day all too often.  People are sadly prone to wishful thinking, clinging to a counterfactual view of the world that still for some reason gives them comfort, and their memories are short.  And if "Angel" is acquitted -- which I think is all too likely -- it wouldn't surprise me to hear that she puts her shingle back out, and will be back to passing along messages from Jesus and the angels in no time at all.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Alien footprints, leprechauns, and truth in advertising

Here at Skeptophilia headquarters, we're closely following three stories, all of which leave us saying "What the hell?" or some stronger variant.

In the first, we have a story from Kentucky, about a man who claims that his family is being terrorized by a bunch of cave-dwelling three-toed aliens.  (Source)

The man, who for obvious reasons didn't want his name released and is going by the pseudonym "David," stated that for the past nine months, his property has been repeatedly visited by alien beings "the size and stature of a small child, devoid of any facial features save for large, oily eyes and lipless mouths."

In an email that he sent to Ghost Hunters, Incorporated last year, he describes his first encounter with the aliens:
Standing in the flower bed just to the bottom left of my window was a small, humanoid figure, with sickly pale skin, completely hairless, standing roughly 4′. It was looking in the direction of the shadows, and had clearly come from around the left side of the house opposite the porch and had not noticed me as far as I could tell. It’s face was devoid of features, save for large round eyes, very reminiscent in shape and color of a bird’s eye. It had no nose to speak of, and only a small slit for a mouth. It didn’t appear to move it’s mouth as it chirped, sounding more as if the noises originated from it’s throat. It was most certainly not a “wild animal” and even more certainly not a child. I was too terrified to move, and watched as the creature hopped to the others, and together they scrambled into the woods on the right side of my property. It was clear that there were at least five in the group.
Ghost Hunters, Incorporated sent some folks out to investigate, and they went and poked around in an abandoned mine on "David's" property where he said the aliens lived, but they didn't find anything.

But "David" says the visitations have continued, and even his kids have seen the aliens, peering in their bedroom windows at night.  And now, "David" says that he now has proof of the visitations: a footprint.  Because obviously that couldn't be faked.  And he says that if nobody will take action, he will:
Though I’m armed, I’m afraid that I’m far too frightened to enter the mine by my lonesome, and cannot convince any sympathetic friends to accompany me, though I cannot blame them. I am convinced that the only answer is to collapse the mine.
So he's planning on blowing up the mine.  And I can't imagine how that could end badly, can you?

Actually, perhaps "David" should count his blessings; at least he didn't get beaten up by a pack of leprechauns.  (Source)

This past weekend, Seattle police got a report of a fight on Bell Street, near the Alaskan Way Viaduct.  Arriving at the scene at 1:55 AM, they found a "bruised and bloodied" man who was "holding his head and screaming in pain."

The police questioned the man, and were astonished when the man told them that his assailants were leprechauns, who were mad at him because he was "dancing with a girl."

Myself, I always thought that leprechauns were pro-dancing, as long as you didn't dance anywhere near their pots of gold.  Maybe the victim and his girlfriend were attempting to do a Riverdance-style Irish step dance, and doing it badly, and the leprechauns felt the need to defend Ireland's honor.  Or maybe his assailants just happened to be short guys dressed in green.

Whichever it was, the police did a brief search of the area, and were unable to find any leprechauns, so the victim was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he was treated for his injuries and then released.

It's perhaps fortunate for him that the assault didn't take place in England, where the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that a Christian group's website can include a page that encourages sick people to seek out healing through prayer alone, because "God heals everything." (Source)

Healing on the Streets (HOTS), a British evangelical group which supports faith healing, was told by the ASA last year that it had to take down a page on its website because it was making false medical claims, to wit:
Need Healing?  God can heal today!  Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction ... Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness?  We'd love to pray for your healing right now!  We're Christian from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus.  We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.
You have to wonder, if all of this is true, why Christians get illnesses just as often as the rest of us do.  Shouldn't there at least be some kind of statistically significant difference between the rates of serious disease in the faithful, as compared to the rest of us slobs?  So myself, I think that the ASA was exactly right in stating that HOTS was making "false medical claims," and endangering the lives of the credulous by discouraging them from seeking out conventional care when they are ill.

But the ASA was bombarded by letters from irate Christians, claiming that they were treading on the Toes of the Divine, and the ASA reversed their ruling.  "We acknowledged that HOTS volunteers believed that prayer could treat illness and medical conditions, and that therefore the ads did not promote false hope," they stated, in the revised decision.

No?  What, then, do you call it when some poor deluded person with MS is told that all that's necessary for a cure is prayer in the name of Jesus?  I think the whole thing is despicable, and that the ASA should be ashamed of themselves for not sticking to their guns.

So that's our news from the world of woo-woo for today; cave-dwelling aliens in Kentucky, leprechauns in Seattle, and faith healing in England.  As always, our motto here is: Fighting Gullibility With Sarcasm.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Erich Kuersten, Penn Yan, and the quality of evidence

A recent post by noted wingnut Erich Kuersten, "The Zealots of Doubt: Why Skeptics Are The New Cranks" made me feel like I had to clear up a few things.

Kuersten's screed levies a charge at people of my general outlook, one that I've heard many times:
...skepticism no longer means curious or open to new input and has instead become the refuge of the bitter and attention-seeking...  A true skeptic is not swayed either by science or religion or firsthand experience, they are not suckers but neither are they fundamentalist zealots, BUT when you deny any evidence, even if it's just firsthand accounts, because it doesn't fit your paradigm, then you are not a skeptic, you are exactly what you're seeking to expose, a religious nut, only for science instead of God. You're an anti-zealotry zealot.
He gives a few examples of what we skeptics would disbelieve in, if we were just honest and consistent with our approach:
They claim they'll believe in aliens when they can meet one in person, yet the believe in George Washington based purely on anecdotal evidence, at best, firsthand witness reports filtered down through the ages, some sketchy portraits. And if they haven't been to Morocco, how do they even find the courage to trust it's there?
So like I said, I'd heard this sort of thing before, although never from this source.  Kuersten usually spends more of his time demonstrating evidence of his curiosity and openness to new input by claiming that Bigfoots are actually telepathic proto-hominids who were slaves to the ruling aliens prior to the Great Flood of Noah.  (See my post on his ideas here.)  So I'm perhaps to be forgiven for entertaining some doubts about his reliability right from the get-go.

Let's look past that, however, and (as befits a true skeptic) look at his criticisms honestly, with no consideration of what else he's claimed.  Is he right?  Does my general disbelief in ghosts and ESP and the Loch Ness Monster mean that, if I was to apply the same principles to everything, I would also disbelieve in Morocco and George Washington?  Am I, in his words, an anti-zealotry zealot?

Well, predictably, I don't think so, and the reason has to do with quality of evidence.

Let me give you an example.

There's a town in New York called Penn Yan.  Penn Yan isn't very far from where I live, but as it so happens, I've never been to Penn Yan.  I hear it's a nice place, from friends who've visited.  I've seen photographs, and it's in my road atlas, and also on Google Maps, MapQuest, and so on.  Now, let's consider two rival hypotheses:
1)  Penn Yan exists, as advertised.
2)  Penn Yan is a giant hoax designed to hoodwink credulous travelers.
I do not have direct, first-hand evidence for either of these.  Which of these hypotheses, however, would (if true) force the greatest revision of our current understanding of how the world works?  Clearly, if hypothesis #2 is correct, and Penn Yan does not exist, it leaves unanswered several questions, to wit:
What is actually in the place where I had previously assumed Penn Yan was?  A giant hole?
What earthly motive do all of the people who created the Great Penn Yan Hoax have for doing this?
How do you explain all of the photographs, maps, and other "artifacts" that attest to Penn Yan's existence?
It doesn't take much of a stretch to see that that we need a vastly higher quality of evidence to accept hypothesis #2 than we do to accept hypothesis #1.

Kuersten's problem is that he seems to think that skepticism (if only we would be fair about the whole thing) should start out as a blank slate, when in fact the skeptical, rational approach has already given us a rock-solid framework within which to understand the world.  This framework is called science.  We already know a great deal about physics, biology, and chemistry -- so when a psychic claims to be able to bend spoons with his mind, scientists aren't going to begin from the standpoint that this is as likely to be true as not.  We have a fine understanding of forces and energy; we also have a good (although less complete) grasp of how the human brain works.  Neither of these is sufficient to explain how someone could perform telekinesis.  Therefore, if you claim that you can perform mental spoon-bending, you'd better have a far higher quality of evidence than my null-hypothesis ("you're not doing any such thing") would require.  (This concept is at the heart of both Ockham's Razor and the ECREE principle, two models of critical thinking that serve as excellent rules of thumb.)

Kuersten wants to throw every idea -- however counter it is to our current understanding -- into the same pot:
Science admits it's barely begun to explore the 'other' 90% of the brain, all while ridiculing any conjecture about what the unknown 90% may consist of. Telepathy is ridiculous (why? They can't be bothered to ask their superiors for fear of being branded a kook); science admits they've catalogued less than 20% of all the creatures that exist in the ocean, but sea serpents are ridiculous.
Well, first, I'm not sure what "other 90% of the brain" he's talking about, but even allowing that he's speaking metaphorically, all he's doing here is relying on a logical fallacy called "the argument from ignorance."  "We don't know what is out there in deep space, so it could be aliens: therefore aliens exist."  "We don't know if there is an afterlife: therefore ghosts exist."  The problem with all of these claims is that skeptics need something more than the argument from ignorance, especially given that most of the claims of woo-woos like Kuersten fly in the face of one or more established, tested scientific principles.

But nevertheless: could I (and other skeptics like me) be wrong?  Of course.  As I've said over and over in this blog, I will happily revise my views on any or all of the ideas that I've poked fun at over the years.  All I need is solid evidence.  You think sea-serpents exist?  Show me a bone that we can DNA test.  You think telepathy exists?  Prove it in a controlled study.  I'm not going to say that your views are impossible, but thus far, the quality of evidence is insufficient to support them.  And in view of that, the accepted paradigm is a great deal more likely to be true.  And I'd be willing to wager my next month's salary that if I were to get on Highway 14 and head west, Penn Yan would be right there, where the map said it was.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ten days till book release!

I'm going to take a brief diversion from our regularly-scheduled analysis of irrational nonsense to do a public service announcement (or shameless self-promotion, depending on how you see it).  I will be publishing (for Kindle [Amazon] and Nook [Barnes & Noble]) a collection of essays, the best of Skeptophilia, ten days from now -- it will be available on Friday, June 30, Lord willin' an' the creek don't rise.

Reasons you will want to buy this book:
  • It will be an opportunity to have all of your favorite essays from this blog in one place.
  • It contains lovely photographs of UFOs, spirits, and animals that probably don't exist, the latter including Bownessie, Japanese Sky Jellyfish, the Beast of Gévaudun, and Florida Skunk Apes.
  • You will find out why I still occasionally get hate mail from a bunch of irate British ghost hunters.
  • You will hear why a pissed off Young-Earth Creationist sent me a three-page long screed in which he referred to me as a "worthless wanker."
  • The cover photograph, which was designed and shot by the phenomenal Alex Solla, features me wearing a kickass sequined turban, to wit:

The collection contains 120 essays, each of them a wry, humorous, and occasionally incredulous look at why people believe crazy, counterfactual nonsense.

I hope you'll support my ongoing mission to foster critical thinking, rationalism, and skepticism -- both by continuing to read this blog, and also by buying this book (and reviewing it and recommending it to all of your friends).

Okay, that's it for the advertisement, at least for now.  Tomorrow, we'll be back to our regularly-scheduled hijinks. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Baltic Sea UFO redux

One of the most mysterious things to me about the aficionados of woo-woo is their ability to suspend disbelief indefinitely.  Psychic Sally is proven to be a fake every which way from Sunday?  No, she's still "Britain's Favorite Medium."  Homeopathy fails every last controlled medical test for efficacy?  No, it's still "a scientifically supported modality for treating and curing human disease."  Young-Earth creationism is demonstrably false?  A recent poll suggests that 51% of Americans believe that "evolution is incorrect/unsupported by fact."

Contrast this to science, where information contrary to the hypothesis being tested is usually sufficient to demonstrate the falsity of your idea -- and forces you to question your original assumptions.

The latest indication of this inclination was our old friend the Baltic Sea UFO, which has reappeared in the news recently because the expedition to find it was relaunched from Sweden earlier this month.  You might remember when it was first spotted, back in July of 2011 (read my post about it here).  My own prediction was that any resemblance to the Millennium Falcon was pure coincidence, and that it would turn out in the end to be a weird-looking rock formation.

Well, at the beginning of this month, the group that found the "UFO" in the first place (Ocean Explorer) began to generate press releases that they were returning to the site now that summer was approaching and the weather up north was improving.  Reports came in that they had relocated the thing, confirmed that it was still there and that the original images were correct.  Mysterious, one line notes began to appear on the Ocean Explorer website:  "THE TREASURE HUNTERS, OCEAN X TEAM, DISCOVERED SOMETHING UNIQUE WHEN THEY DOVE DOWN TO THE MYSTERIOUS CIRCLE-SHAPED OBJECT IN THE BALTIC SEA."  "Treasure hunters confirm they have found something abnormal in the seabed."  Woo-woos worldwide held their breath, waiting for the final release of the bizarre object's identity, which (the Ocean Explorer team said) would come in a week or two.  Tension mounted.

And just yesterday, the Ocean Explorer team released the final, earthshattering results of their expedition:  the Baltic Sea UFO is...

... wait for it...

... a weird-looking rock formation.

But, of course, they couldn't just say that.  No, we must at all costs cling to the woo-woo explanation, that what they found is mysterious and inexplicable and mind-blowing.  Here's a direct quote from their press release:
The Ocean X Team dove down to the circle-shaped object in the Baltic Sea and met something they never experienced before. First they thought it was just stone or a rock cliff, but after further observations the object appeared more as a huge mushroom, rising 3-4 meters/10-13 feet from the seabed, with rounded sides and rugged edges. The object had an egg shaped hole leading into it from the top, as an opening. On top of the object they also found strange stone circle formations, almost looking like small fireplaces. The stones were covered in something resembling soot.
“During my 20-year diving career, including 6000 dives, I have never seen anything like this. Normally stones don’t burn. I can’t explain what we saw, and I went down there to answer questions, but I came up with even more questions," says Stefan Hogeborn, one of the divers at Ocean X Team.
The path to the object itself can be described as a runway or a downhill path that is flattened at the seabed with the object at the end of it.
“First we thought this was only stone, but this is something else. And since no volcanic activity has ever been reported in the Baltic Sea the find becomes even stranger. As laymen we can only speculate how this is made by nature, but this is the strangest thing I have ever experienced as a professional diver“, continues Peter Lindberg, one of the founder Ocean X Team.
Other news stories about this non-event call it "the oldest structure on Earth" (whatever that means), and "a find that will revolutionize geology and archeology."  Me, I kind of doubt it, given that thus far, the scientific community has looked at it, and their general response has been:  *silence*

So okay, Mr. Smarty-Pants, you may be saying; what do you think it is, then?  Well, some have suggested that it is the remains of a human settlement of some sort -- thus the "soot marks" and "fireplaces."  This is certainly a possibility, given that the sea level was a lot lower 18,000 years ago, during the last ice age (the object itself is currently under 275 feet of water, and current estimates are that the sea level has risen since then by about 400 feet -- so the site of the object would have been on dry land at the time).  There is still a possibility that it is a natural rock formation -- there are a lot of reasons that rocks could be black other than "soot."  As my previous post described, there are a great many natural structures that appear man-made at first glance, because of their regularity; but upon examination, they turn out to be from entirely natural, non-human origins.

Of course, this hasn't stopped the woo-woos from leaping up and down and making little squeaking noises about how bizarre the "Baltic Sea Anomaly" is, in an apparent desperate desire to hang on to their original claim that it was the result of extraterrestrial visitation.  Unfortunately, though, even the Ocean Explorer people are now saying that the object is made of rock.  And whatever else you might conjecture about aliens, I doubt seriously whether they have stone spaceships.  So myself, I would consider that idea shot down.

My guess, though, is that most of the people who have been following this story won't see it that way.  The Ocean Explorer expedition will continue to garner attention, and will one day be the subject of a documentary on the We're More Interested In Woo-Woo Nonsense Than History Channel.  And almost no one will say, "Rats.  It was just a bunch of rocks.  Let's just move on, folks... nothing to see here."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Hollowed ground

Do you want to support a unique research project whose goal is to prove a theory hitherto only considered a myth?  A theory for which there is no evidence whatsoever?  A theory which, to believe in it, you'd have to have the IQ of library paste?

Then check out the webpage for the North Pole Inner Earth Expedition, intended to prove the contention that the Earth is hollow.  Under the link for "Science," the authors of the page write the following:
Geologists have been aided by Internet linking of seismographic accelerometers to conduct a CAT Scan of the Earth each time there is an earthquake. Of course, like most modern scientists, they mold the data to fit their current paradigm. The more than 600,000 seismograms have been recently analyzed by Dr. Michael Wysessions and revealed an entire ocean underneath the Atlantic Ocean. Jan Lambrecht authored a reanalysis of the seismographic data and revealed an Earth that looks quite different than the one being taught to geological students today. One with a hollow core.
They then present the following diagram to support this, because everyone knows that if you draw a fancy-looking picture of something, it must be true:

The interesting thing -- although not unsurprising, given that this is the sort of things that woo-woos do all the time -- is that they then go on to quote extensively two actual, legitimate geologists, Xiaodong Song and Xinlei Sun of the University of Illinois, who have researched the composition, structure, and magnetic field of the Earth's core -- but then they claim that this research supports the Earth being hollow!  It's a little like someone quoting from a scholarly paper by Stephen Hawking about quantum mechanics, and then simply saying, "And therefore telepathy exists.  Q.E.D."

"The science is real," the website claims.  "The story is more than 5,000 years old. The legend says that at a certain place above the Arctic Circle, there exists an oceanic depression or an entrance into the Earth. It's a place where the maritime legend claims sea level isn't level anymore."

Because if there was a hole through the Hollow Earth at the North Pole, there would be a giant aquatic dimple.  Because the ocean would be... um, depressed, because the center of gravity is actually not at the center of the Earth, it's a concentric sphere just a little bit under the surface of the Earth.

Okay, now I'm depressed.

The hole, they say, is where the auroras come out of, because after all, it's not like we know what causes auroras, or anything.  Maybe they're not caused by cosmic rays striking the upper atmosphere.  Maybe they're, like, the light from the Central Sun shining out through the Polar Holes.

And, needless to say, there's a link on the site that allows you to donate to this groundbreaking expedition.  Allegedly a "Park Avenue documentary producer" has already pledged $1.5 million in support.  So I'm sure that when the expedition happens, and they go up to the Arctic and discover nothing but lots of ice, and no Polar Dimples whatsoever, they still will act like the "theory" was vindicated, because that kind of money does not allow for failure.  And the film chronicling the expedition will end up on The This Is Not Really History Channel, where it can join other valuable scientific studies such as Nostradamus, MonsterQuest, and The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon.

All of this makes me think that I should come up with my own ridiculous theory, and propose an expedition to prove it.  If I was to do that, though, I'd want to have an expedition to somewhere rather warmer than the North Pole, because I'm really not into potentially freezing off valuable body parts.  So, okay, here goes:  Ancient legends claim that the Earth isn't a rocky sphere with a liquid mantle and an iron/nickel core, it's actually a crispy crust over a huge sphere of butterscotch pudding.  This is supported by geological studies of the Earth's composition, because nowhere in the literature will you find anyone specifically ruling out the Butterscotch Pudding Model.  Actually, the fact that they haven't addressed this theory means that the dull, hidebound scientific establishment is trying to suppress the truth!  So in order to prove this model is correct, I will be leading an expedition to Hawaii, because that is the spot where the crispy crust is the thinnest, and also because I can spend a lot of time clad in nothing but swim trunks and drinking margaritas.  In the end, the research (which will consist of a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and several scuba diving trips) will unfortunately turn up no evidence of butterscotch pudding, a finding that I will label as "inconclusive."

Interested?  Please forward your check for $1.5 million to me at your earliest convenience.

Friday, June 15, 2012

End of the week wrap-up

Well, it's Friday, and TGIF, which I am allowed to say even though technically, I don't believe in G.  Be that as it may, we're going to end the work week with three stories we're carefully following here at Skeptophilia's main offices, nestled in the lovely hills of upstate New York.

The first story comes from the nearby state of West Virginia, where a Pentecostal pastor famous for handling poisonous snakes during his sermons as evidence that god was looking over him has died from a bite from a poisonous snake.  (Source)

Pastor Mark Wolford, 44, was a popular preacher on the revival circuit, drawing large crowds to his outdoor services.  Shortly before what was to be his last Hallelujah, Wolford posted on his Facebook page, "I am looking for a great time this Sunday.  It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good 'ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers."

Wolford's trademark was handling live rattlesnakes during his sermons, because of Mark 16:17-18:  "And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

"Anybody can do it that believes it," Wolford said, in an interview in The Washington Post in 2011. "Jesus said, 'These signs shall follow them which believe.' This is a sign to show people that God has the power."

Well, I'm thinking that the rattlesnake might have had a say in the matter, too, because at a service last week, he put one of his snakes down, and it bit him on the leg.  Recalling the part about "they shall recover" from the bible passage quoted above, Wolford refused medical treatment, but was taken to a family member's house, where he died shortly afterwards.

Interestingly, Wolford's father, who was also a Pentecostal preacher, died at the age of 39 of snakebite in exactly the same circumstances.

"(H)e died for what he believed in," the younger Wolford said about his father's death in the interview in The Washington Post.  "I know it's real; it is the power of God.  If I didn't do it, if I'd never gotten back involved, it'd be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real."

Mmmm, okay.  We'll just leave that last statement as is, and move on to our next story.

We next have a story from far-away Zimbabwe, where two witches failed at flying their brooms under the radar.  (Source)

In Shackleton compound, a small mining village near Chinhoyi, a ruckus was raised when two women, Rosemary Kamanga and Esnath Madoza, were found dancing around naked after informing a neighbor that they needed some human flesh for a ritual.

The neighbor, Eneresi Mufunga, was awakened at 4 AM from a sound sleep, and got up to investigate.  She found Kamanga and Madoza running about without any clothes on, and (according to the article) "quizzed them on their mission."

I suspect this latter is just a quaint Zimbabwean way of saying, "what the hell is wrong with you two?", or some stronger variant, but in any case Kamanga and Madoza informed them that they were trying to find some human flesh, and wondered if Mufunga might have any she'd be willing to part with.  "It's a subtle, cunning approach," they were heard to say, earlier.  "It might just work!"

Understandably, Mufunga informed them that, as missions go, this one was a non-starter, and proceeded to raise the camp.  A crowd gathered, including the two unsuccessful witches' husbands, who "whisked them away home" where they were later found by the police.  At that point, they had decided to put on clothes, but they did confess to being witches, so they were then whisked away to a different place, namely jail, and charged with breaking Section 98, Chapter 9:23 of the Zimbabwean Criminal Law Code, wherein it is declared that it is illegal to practice witchcraft, caper about naked, and ask your neighbors for some human flesh.

Our last story hails from New Brunswick, where a farmer named Werner Bock has been charged with animal neglect after losing nearly 250 cattle over the past ten years.  (Source)

Police claim that Bock failed to feed the cattle, so they died of the effects of malnutrition.  Bock, on the other hand, says that the cattle were killed by "alien death rays."

"At least 250 head of cattle have died from what we call a death beam," Bock said on a YouTube video posted in May 2011. "Where the atmospheric air is manipulated into a death beam, focused on the noses of the animals."  The animals "breathe in the death beam" and then slowly die.

Veterinarians in the case have said that there are no signs of burns on the cattle, but that Bock might have been a little more successful with his ranching enterprise had he taken the step of providing his livestock with food.  Bock, who intends to be his own legal defense in the case, has already subpoenaed three veterinarians and one police officer to provide evidence.

Besides the general rule of "animals need to be fed," someone might want to explain to Bock about the concept that a subpoena for the defense only works if the people being subpoenaed can actually provide information that supports the accused's claims.  All three veterinarians have stated that they saw no evidence of "death beams," and the police officer, who was supposed to verify Bock's claims of seeing UFOs hovering over the farm, has said that he knows about no such thing.

So Bock might want to reconsider his legal strategy.  And also find a new career that doesn't involve anything that's alive.

And that's our end-of-the-week wrap-up, here at Skeptophilia.  We'll wish you a lovely Friday, and hope that your weekend is pleasant, and free from snakebite, naked witches after your flesh, or alien cow-killing death beams.  Because all three of those could put a damper on things.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My cup runneth over

As a slightly-past-fifty-year-old, it will come as no surprise to you to hear that I'm seeing some gray hair, and a few more laugh lines than I had ten years ago.  Myself, I'd always thought of this as a natural consequence of reaching this venerated age.  Imagine my surprise when I learned this morning that gray hair and wrinkles are not caused by the death of melanin-producing cells in the hair follicles, and a decrease in the elasticity of the skin, respectively; no, both of these phenomena are caused by an imbalance of energy flow through your kidneys, and can be fixed by applying suction cups to your skin.

I wish I was making this up, but here's the source for this bit of medical wisdom, which comes from the tenets of a practice called "cupping."  The idea is that whatever ails you -- and I do mean whatever, because practitioners claim that cupping can cure everything from sciatica to constipation -- it is due to a combination of improper energy flow and pooling of toxins in the tissues, and it can all be set right by allowing a glass cup attached to a suction pump to give you a giant hickey.

At this site, we get some of our Frequently-Asked Questions answered.  Only "some," because my most frequently-asked questions while I was researching all this were, "Are you people kidding?  Or what?"  But we do find out, for example, that cupping is a "powerful detoxifying, pain relieving and energy building modality that people all over the world use for health maintenance" and can be used to treat "a huge number of conditions," including colds, abscesses, arthritis, insomnia, vertigo, high blood pressure, asthma, and hemorrhoids.  It works because it "drains stagnation."  And also, we shouldn't be worried about any bruising that occurs, because bruising is caused by "tissue compression/injury" and "(t)here is no compression in properly applied suction cup therapy."

No, you morons, of course there isn't.  Compression is the opposite of suction.  And both can cause bruising, which is localized rupture of capillaries.  But not to worry: the site linked above says that the greater the discoloration you see after the procedure, the more you needed it and the better it worked, because "the more (discoloration) is visible, the greater the level of stagnation and toxicity...  This is clearly the result of having internal unwanted toxins systematically purged."

But wait, you might be saying; how can this be drawing out "stagnation" from your body, when there's nothing actually crossing your skin and being sucked away by the suction cup, given that when you take the cup off the "patient's" skin, it's empty?  Well, someone thought of that, too, and they developed "wet cupping," in which they do the whole cupping procedure, but they cut your skin first.

Yes, folks, the cuppers have basically rediscovered bloodletting, a practice that was generally discontinued back in the 18th century, when it was discovered that an unfortunate side-effect was frequently the death of the patient.  But a little historical tragedy like that isn't going to stop these folks.  No way, not when cupping can have benefits like "facilitating the movement of Qi," "promoting the flow of lymphatic fluid," "breaking up and expelling congestion," and "balancing pH."

Now, of course, we've run into the phenomenon before that there's no woo-woo idea so ridiculous that someone can't improve it to make it even more ridiculous, so allow me to introduce you to the idea of "fire cupping."  In fire cupping, instead of being attached to a suction pump, the glass cup has a cotton ball saturated with rubbing alcohol placed into it and ignited, and then the hot cup is placed on the person's skin.  As the air cools, it contracts, and that creates the suction that pulls out the stagnant Qi energy lymph, or whatever the fuck they claim it's doing.  The problem is, hot things have an unfortunate side effect, namely burns, and there have been several cases of victims... oops, sorry, patients... having to be treated for circular burns after being "fire cupped."

Okay.  Let's just get a few things straight, here.  Disease is not caused by "energy stagnation."  If you apply a suction cup to your skin, you are accomplishing nothing but bursting a few capillaries and giving yourself a nice, symmetrical bruise.  Any "toxins" in your body are capable of being handled just fine by your kidneys, which incidentally have nothing whatsoever to do with gray hair.  There is no such thing as "qi."  And if you allow anyone with a glass cup containing a flaming cotton ball anywhere near you, you deserve everything you get.

So that's today's pseudoscience -- an idea which, in every sense of the word, sucks.  Amazing how after three years of writing daily on this blog, I'm still running into goofy ideas I'd never heard of before.  It's really kind of a depressing thought, isn't it?  Oh, wait -- depression is something that can be cured by cupping!  Yay!  If I show up later today with a giant circular bruise on the side of my head, don't worry -- it's just that I had all of those stagnant toxic thoughts removed by attaching a suction cup to my temple.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Staking a claim

Last week, it was zombies all over the news, what with guys biting each other's faces off, and cutting up  former lovers, and committing various other antisocial, body-part-related atrocities.  And I observed that once one person mentions a woo-woo explanation for something (we're having a zombie apocalypse), every possibly-related story gets cast in that light, and the whole thing sort of develops a life of its own.

Given that these conjectures have no basis in reality, it's no surprise that most of them are short-lived.  Once enough people look around them, and acknowledge that no, the people on the bus and at work are not, in fact, turning into zombies, then they're forced to conclude that the whole thing was rather a non-starter from the beginning.  (Although I will add, in the interest of fairness, that a few nutty ideas seem to be in the Undead Immortal category themselves, such as the Rebecca Black/JFK assassination thing, and the Baltic Sea UFO thing.)

But most woo-woo crazes are just that -- fads -- and as such, they have a limited life-span.  So last week, it was zombies; and this week, we have moved on to another terrifying, immortal, soulless being that doesn't exist...

... vampires.

Things got rolling this weekend, when some archaeologists working in Bulgaria found two medieval skeletons at a dig site in Sozopol, and were shocked to find that the skeletons had metal rods driven through them.  (Source)

Of course, the only reason to do this to a dead body is to make it dead again, because it had risen up from the grave, sharpened its canine teeth, and was prowling around the village looking for beautiful young women dressed in gauzy white garments to terrorize.  And the fact that people in Eastern Europe used to believe this was possible is never cast in the light of, "Wow, people sure were superstitious, back then."  The article states, "The discovery illustrates a pagan practice common in some villages up until a century ago, say historians.   People deemed bad had their hearts stabbed after death, for fear they would return to feast on humans' blood."  Unfortunately, the writers of the article didn't add, "... although this never actually happens."

I say "unfortunately," because there are people with rather tenuous grips on reality who periodically forget the definition of "fiction."  Some of these people then act on those ideas, and it seldom ends well.

Witness the unnamed man "with vampire teeth" who attacked a homeless guy in San Diego a couple of days ago.  (Source)  Police in La Jolla were called when passersby saw someone assaulting a man near a shopping center, and once they arrived, they found a 55-year-old transient bleeding from bites inflicted by a man whose canine teeth were filed to points.  The Dracula wannabee was arrested and charged with assault.  (You should go to the site and look at the attacker's photograph, which gives lie to the claim that vampires were supposed to look sultry and devastatingly sexy, and also that they seldom ever wear baseball caps.)

Now, lest you think that this is just one deluded, possibly high, individual, consider another story that just popped up -- about a Texas inmate who sued the state prison system for preventing his carrying out ritual religious beliefs related to his being a vampire.

Courtney Royal, who is serving a life sentence for aggravated assault and robbery, filed the suit (in which he refers to himself as "Vampsh Black Sheep League of Doom Gardamun Family Circle Master Vampire High Priest") claiming that he had beliefs that stem from West African and "18th century Catholicism" practices.  These beliefs are "marked by prayer to Africans reincarnated by blood."

The most entertaining part of the whole story is that Vampsh Black Sheep etc. stated that his beliefs were no different from Christianity, given that both are "unproven."  In which, I have to admit, he has a point.

In the end, Courtney/Vampsh's lawsuit was denied on the basis of its being "frivolous," which would seem to indicate that the judge thought that he wasn't serious.  Myself, I'm not so sure.  It certainly wouldn't be the weirdest thing I've ever heard people claim to believe (that award would have to go to the members of Werewolf Cathedral).  But just like with the zombies last week, I suspect that we haven't heard the last of the vampire stories.  Now that some archaeologists found a few skeletons with stakes driven through them, proving the existence of vampires to the scientific world, and we've had not just one, but two, instances of real-life vampires show up in the news, we are clearly facing an outbreak.  It's time to get all of your supplies ready, including garlic, crucifixes, and guns with silver bullets (wait, is that werewolves?  I think I'm getting my nonsense mixed up.  Crap.  I hate it when that happens).  Spot checks of your coworkers are recommended ("Excuse me, can I see your teeth?")  Keep it up until the furor dies down next Tuesday, at which point we can all start freaking out about the next craze involving a mythological creature.  I hope this one is about centaurs.  We haven't had a good centaur outbreak in a long time.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Repeat offenders

If there's anyone I owe a debt of gratitude to, here at Skeptophilia headquarters, it's the woo-woo frequent flyers.  Where would I be without Dirk Vander Ploeg's pronouncements about psychic telepathic alien Bigfoots, and how Lord of the Rings was actually a historical document?  Or Alfred Lambremont Webre's claims that President Obama has visited Mars, and that the US government has already developed long-distance space and time travel?  Or Diane Tessman's missives to the world about the Celestial Convergence, which she claims are the musings of a super-intelligent alien named Tibus?

None of the repeat offenders, however, has provided me with quite so much wonderful material as Alex Collier, the Canadian woo-woo extraordinaire who claimed last year that the Earth was about to be attacked by the Borg (apparently they changed their Collective Mind), and also that there was a huge alien/human war in the 1930s, which none of us know about because during the war we were summarily catapulted through a rip in the space/time continuum into another timeline, and now we have to get back, which will be difficult without the assistance of Geordi LaForge.

Well, once again we have evidence that Collier has been using his Netflix membership to watch old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, because now he's claiming that we're being bombarded by "alien orbs" whose pilots are "demonic hyperdimensional entities" who have "artificially engineered... our current space-time continuum." (Source)

As evidence, Collier produces a scrolling set of images, the majority of which are photographs of the sky with fuzzy spots of light.  One, however, is just baffling, and shows Adam and Eve (or possibly another naked couple, it's hard to be certain) being sternly lectured by something that looks like a figure from a painting by Picasso.  I suppose this represents something profound, but I'm damned if I can figure out what.

In any case, Collier says that there have been large numbers of sightings lately of UFOs in groups of three, and this is highly significant, because three is such a special number, having a great deal of emphasis in the woo-woo world because of its inherent magic, and also because it's the most convenient way to get from two to four.  The "Pagan Gnostics," Collier said, believed in the Archons, who were "demonic interdimensional and artificial life forms who appeared in threes," and after all, we know what authoritative sources on science the Pagan Gnostics are.  "To hell with Einstein," you frequently hear physicists say.  "Let's find out what the Pagan Gnostics have to say about the General Theory of Relativity."

Of course, Collier doesn't just use "Pagan Gnostics" as sources; he also calls upon that trifecta of credibility, Alex Jones, David Icke, and Jesse Ventura.  Yup, I'm convinced.

The best part of the whole article, however, and in my mind the kind of thing that places Collier in a higher tier of woo-woo than the other recidivists mentioned above, is when he starts going into why the number three is so significant:
(N)umerous researchers have presented that “3” has been a recurring theme in a path of apocalyptical destruction.  A distinctive pattern of disasters, has occurred on days, months or years which are either perfectly dividable by “3” or when divided by three produce a perfectly recurring decimal of “3”, ie 646.333333.

Fukushima occurred on 3/11; hence ‘3’.

The War on Terrorism was launched on 9/11, henceforth 9 divided by three equals ‘3’.

“Battle Los Angeles” was a movie on an alien invasion which also precisely coincided by the very day that Fukushima occurred -- 3/11.

World War I began in 1914, which is perfectly dividable by “3”.

World War II began in 1939, which results in a repeated decimal of “3”, I.e. 646.33333

If we conclude that “3” is a significant number in apocalyptical events including World War, we therefore need to look at dates in which “3” become a prominent theme.

As a result, 15 June 2012, or “6/15” becomes at least a candidate for an apocalyptical event, and would represent a “Day of Symmetry” for the archon mind; and 2012 also produces a recurring decimal of “.666” which is the “Number of the Beast”.
When I read all of this, I was torn between laughing and crying -- and of course, you've already seen what the problem is.  If you take any number and divide it by 3, a third of them will divide evenly, and a third of them will leave a repeating decimal .333....  And the remaining third will leave a repeating decimal of .666...., the "Number of the Beast."  So any date that Collier picks will work!

That, of course, is the difficulty with woo-woos in general, isn't it?  They have a totally different definition of the word "evidence" than the rest of us do.  Couple that with a general disdain for the kind of rigorous self-questioning that is the hallmark of good science -- are the correlations we see relevant?  Do they indicate a causation?  If so, what is the correct model to explain that causation? -- and you have a recipe for egregious bullshit.  And, now that the "Information Age" has arrived, they have a more effective venue for disseminating their views to the world than ever before.

Of course, one has to hope that the same mechanisms that allow quick transfer of idiotic nonsense like Collier's aforementioned numerological musings can also act to spread reliable information.  The key is to train people to recognize the difference, so they don't get suckered by wingnuts, hoaxers, liars, and charlatans... which is about as powerful an argument for teaching critical thinking in public schools as any I can come up with.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Demonic ink

A friend of mine sent me a link yesterday with the sinister message, "Dude, you are so screwed."  When I clicked it, it brought me to a webpage called "TATTOO: The Cup of Devils," wherein I learned that anyone with tattoos is doomed to the fiery pit for all eternity.

I have two tattoos, one of them that I got some years back, and the other one done only last month.  Little did I know that when I went under the needle gun, I was sealing my fate.

My one-way ticket to hell

Other things I learned on this page:
Throughout history the tattoo bears the mark of paganism, demonism, Baal worship, shamanism, mysticism, heathenism, cannibalism and just about every other pagan belief known. The tattoo has NEVER been associated with Bible Believing Christians. And whenever and wherever, in history Christianity appears – tattoos disappear. The only exception -- 20th century, lukewarm, carnal, disobedient, Laodicean Christians.
Yup, that's me.  A Baal-worshiping cannibal.  Caught red-handed.

The problem, the author (Terry Watkins) says, is that tattoos are not just decorative, they're portals for demonic entities:
The tattooist, shaman or the occult priest many times uses the tattoo as a point of contact, or inlets into the spiritual world. The tattoo is much more than just a body decoration. It’s more than just a layer of ink cut into the skin. In fact, the tattoo in every culture, in every country, up until the 20th century, was a vehicle for pagan spiritual and religious invocations. Even today, in many countries (including the United States), the tattoo is believed to be a bridge into the supernatural world... Tribal tattoos are designs that bear serious symbolic mystical and occult meanings. Tribal tattoos, especially, are possible channels into spiritual and demonic possession.
My designs aren't "tribal," they're Celtic, in honor of my Scottish and Breton ancestry, and also because they're cool-looking.  So I wonder if that counts?  It'd be kind of a shame if I went to all of that trouble and pain, and could have gotten myself a Demonic Portal, but chose the wrong design, and now all of your better demons are possessing guys with Maori tribal tattoos on their shoulders.

And if once wasn't bad enough, I went and did it again.

Some of the source material that Watkins takes out of context is downright funny, especially the stuff from Ronald Scutt's book Art, Sex, and Symbol.  This book, which is a scholarly look at ritual art (including tattoos) through the ages, is neither pro nor anti-tattoo, but to read the quotes that Watkins lifts from Scutt, you'd think that it was composed of hundreds of pages of biblically-based warnings.  My favorite is the quote alleging that tattoos are associated with "megalithic building, ear-piercing, and serpent worship."  To which I can only respond that I have yet to build a megalith, I have no piercings of any kind, and I like and respect serpents, but "worship" is a bit of an overstatement.  The quotes from Steve Gilbert's book Tattoo History: A Source Book also provide for some entertaining examples of how you can lift quotes from anywhere to prove anything, as long as you cherry-pick carefully:
When Cortez and his conquistadors arrived on the coast of Mexico in 1519, they were horrified to discover that natives not only worshipped devils in the form of status and idols, but also had somehow managed to imprint indelible images of these idols on their skin. The Spaniards, who had never heard of tattooing, recognized it at once as the work of Satan.
Of course, the Spanish thought lots of things were the works of Satan, including most of the art work, historical artifacts, and writings of damn near every civilization they ran into, so I'm not sure they're all that reliable a source on the subject.

Watkins goes on and on about how evil it all is, concluding with:
Throughout history tattoos have symbolized rebellion. There’s nothing normal about a tattoo. A tattoo screams of unabashed rebellion and sexual deviancy...  Is there any doubt about who the "master tattooist" is???
Which reminds me of the Saturday Night Live "Church Lady" sketch, that always ended with, "Could it be... SATAN?"

So, anyway, that's today's jaunt through the world of bizarre superstition.  I find it kind of curious that Watkins is this concerned about body art, frankly; you'd think that as a bible-toting Christian, he'd spend more time talking about rather more pressing issues, such as the fact that "Love thy neighbor as thyself" hasn't really sunk in all that well for a lot of people.  And as far as me, I suppose I was headed to hell long before I got my first ink, given that at that point I was already an atheist.  But reading Watkins' webpage does make me realize how neglectful I've been, as a tattooed person.  I still have a long way to go in the cannibalism, unabashed rebellion, and sexual deviancy departments, and I've got to get right on that serpent-worshiping thing.  Oh, and I wonder where I'm going to put the megalith I'm supposed to build?  I'm thinking the front yard.  That would certainly make a statement.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Space donuts

A student of mine asked me yesterday if I'd ever heard of a "flux thruster atom pulser."  I said, "You mean, like in Back to the Future?"

He said, "No, that's a flux capacitor."  And he gave me a link to a site called Rodin Aerodynamics.

"You may want to wear a helmet while reading it," he said.  "It'll protect your skull when you faceplant."

Indeed, the site did not disappoint, and I was put on notice in the first paragraph:
Within, you will be taken on a spiraling tour through the toroidal roller coaster of our deterministic universe. Dark Matter, the vibratory essence of all that exists, is no longer on its elusive hide and seek trip -- it has been found! With the introduction of Vortex-Based Mathematics you will be able to see how energy is expressing itself mathematically. This math has no anomalies and shows the dimensional shape and function of the universe as being a toroid or donut-shaped black hole. This is the template for the universe and it is all within our base ten decimal system... You have entered a place where Numbers Are Real And Alive and not merely symbols for other things.
So, we live in a giant space donut made composed of dark matter, and 125.7 is a living entity.  Wheeee!  We are certainly off to a good start, aren't we?

The originator of the idea is allegedly a fellow named Marko Rodin, although I could find no independent corroboration of this -- as far as I could tell, Rodin seems not to exist except on this site and others that reference it.

The mysterious Rodin, however, has had quite a life:
At the age of fifteen Marko Rodin projected his mind as far as he could across the universe and asked the question, "What is the secret behind intelligence?" Due to his gift of intense focus or because it was time for him to know the answer, his stomach muscles turned to iron and as he was literally lifted forward he answered out loud, "I understand." What he had gleaned from his query was that all intelligence comes from a person's name. This led him to understand that not only do our personal names and the language they are spoken in highly affect our personalities but that the most important names are the names of God.
What intelligence did Rodin glean from his trip, and the contemplation of his name?  Well, here are a few gems of wisdom he brought back:
  • a propulsion system that can bring you "anywhere in the universe."
  • there is an "aetheric template" in DNA that guides evolution.
  • the "repeating number series that solves pi and proves that it is a whole number."
  • the fact that "zero does not exist on the number line."
  • infinity has an "epicenter."
These represent just the ones I could read without my brain exploding, because a lot of Rodin's "ideas" are completely incomprehensible.  A couple of these will suffice:
  • the world boundary seams consist of nested vortices.
  • the torus skin models harmonic cascadence.
A lot of his pronouncements sound like that -- a bunch of fancy-sounding words strung together that basically don't mean anything.

He goes on to mess about with number patterns, but brings in the Yin/Yang, the Mathematical Fingerprint of God, and Aetheric Flux Monopole Emanations.  What are those, you might ask?  You might be sorry you did:
Aetheron Flux Monopole Emanations, or Aetherons, are linear Emanations of quasi-mass/energy, traveling in a straight line from the center of mass outwards. They radiate in phased-array from the Aeth Coalescence (the central essence of God). The Aetheron Flux Monopole Emanations Rarefy the Diamond Tiles. This rarefication is spread over the Torus Skin, creating Doubling Circuits and Nested Vortices.

Aetherons cannot be seen or felt by the average human being. Yet, Aetherons are responsible for life as we know it. Aetherons are Life Force of the universe, and are responsible for all form and movement. Aetherons are the source of all magnetic fields and create instantly reacting, high inductance, dual magnetic field flows. Aetherons generate Synchronized Electricity. They are irresistible and can penetrate anything.

The Aetheron Flux Monopole Emanations comprise the positive, transparent ÎZÌ axis of the Abha Torus. This is not the traditional Z-Axis of the traditional, Euclidean geometry. The transparent Z-Axis of the Abha Torus is actually a point source from which linear Emanations pour in all spherical directions from the center, as demonstrated by the Dandelion Puff Principle.
Oh!  Right!  The "Dandelion Puff Principle."  I'd forgotten all about that, from my college physics classes.

Now, you might think that this is just some guy blathering on about how he will Revolutionize Physics despite the fact of having no scientific background whatsoever, and admittedly people like that are a dime a dozen. But now Marko Rodin has been championed by noted wackmobile Jeff Rense.

Never heard of Rense?  He is a conspiracy theorist par excellence, whose overall looniness quotient ranks him right up there with Richard C. Hoagland and Benjamin Fulford.  (Check out his site here.)  But Rense compounds his bizarre view of the world with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, which moves his ideas from the realm of the laughable to the completely odious.  He brags that his is the most "format and content-plagiarized site on the net," despite the fact that his most of his material seems to be outright lunacy.  (And even if you don't want to read any of his posts, you should at least go to his site to look at his profile photograph, in which he sports a mustache and a mane of flowing hair that in my eyes makes him look a little like an aging 70s porn star.)

So, anyway, that's today's Breakfast of Wingnuttery.  We live on a donut made of dark matter and numbers, and the whole thing is caused by invisible particles emanating from the Essence of God.  Oh, yeah, and despite what your math teacher told you, pi is a whole number, something I remember trying to convince my 7th grade math teacher of, many years ago.  "Can't we just call it '3' and be done with it?", I recall saying.  If only I'd known how many years ahead of my time I was, I could have dropped out of school and beat Rodin to the punch, and invented my own "flux thruster atom pulser" so I could "go anywhere in the universe."  That sounds like it would have been fun.