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, September 29, 2012

Psychics and the right to comforting self-delusion

Today's post is a question with no answer provided: If an alleged psychic, or medium, or someone of that ilk brings healing and closure to a person who is grief-stricken from the loss of a loved one, has the psychic done good or harm?

I ask this because of a story called "I Only Want to Help: Psychic to Sceptics," that appeared in the New Zealand-based media outlet Stuff.  The article describes a visit to New Zealand by Australian psychic Deb Webber, where she will hold a free "private reading" this week for people who lost family members and friends in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and another next month for those who lost loved ones in the Pike River mining disaster in November 2010.

Skeptics, of course, are disdainful of the whole thing.  New Zealand Skeptics spokeperson Vicki Hyde said that Webber's "readings" were "another sick example" of exploitation by the psychic industry, using vulnerable, grieving families as "a marketing drive" for free publicity.  "It's as bad as any of those shonky finance companies putting up free investment evenings - and it's about as useful," she said.  "No doubt at some point she will also be selling her services, which are very highly priced."

Webber, of course, defends herself, saying that she can't understand why she and her practice are being criticized.  "People need healing," she said.  "I never want to cause anyone more grief."

As far as the money end goes, Webber will be doing a public show in Christchurch, at a venue that seats 150, for $70 a person.  She denies, however, that she's living high from what she makes.  Anyone who thinks she's rich, she says, should look at her bank account.  "I'm actually skint," she said.

 Okay.  We've considered in this blog before the question of whether or not psychics actually believe that they're doing something real, or if they're just hucksters who are well aware that they can't do what they claim.  So for now, let's assume that Webber is acting from all good intentions, and really thinks she's contacting people's dead relatives.  My question is: does it really matter if what she's doing is real, as long as it makes her clients feel good?

The people who come to her, who lost family members and friends in dreadful natural disasters, want only one thing; to have comfort for their grief.  They want to believe that the people they loved are in a better place, and are happily past all suffering and pain.  They want to be given closure.

Webber gives them that.  She assures her clients that their loved ones are still there, smiling down from the afterlife, watching over those they left behind.  And I've no doubt that the majority of the people who attend her readings leave feeling better.

So if I, in my hard-headed rationalism, tell her customers that they're being deluded, that Webber didn't really speak to Grandma Betty and Uncle Frank, that the whole thing is a scam, who is doing more harm -- Webber or me?

It's a hard question to answer.  I once had a student tell me, in some distress, that he was finding himself unable to believe what his minister was saying in church on Sunday, but he was resistant to leaving the faith.  "I just don't know if I can do it," he said.  "Religion tells me that there's a reason that everything happens, and that if I just believe, everything will turn out okay in the end.  I don't know how I can trade that for a belief in nothing, that tells me that bad things just happen because they do, and that when I die, I'm just... gone."

It's strange, isn't it?  We are (obviously) drawn to what gives us comfort -- but will even stay with that source of comfort when the rational parts of our brains are certain that what is comforting us isn't true.  But the dilemma really falls on the shoulders of those of us who have already chosen the rather bleak road of accepting that the rationalist view is correct.  What should we do when we see others falling for -- perhaps even paying good money for -- a comfort that we believe to be based in a falsehood?

I can't bring myself to do it.  Even being a fervent, at times rather militant, atheist, I couldn't bring myself to tell my student, "Be brave and face up to it.  You know you're right, now act on it."  I just told him to keep thinking, reading, and talking to people he trusted, and eventually he'd find an answer he could accept.  As far as the New Zealanders who are planning on attending Deb Webber's talks -- it wouldn't work for me, but if it helps them to move past their grief and loss, I can't argue with the outcome.  I guess there's times that my compassion for humanity's inevitable sorrows trumps my determination to broadcast the cause of rationality.

On the other hand, there's a niggling part of my brain that keeps quoting Carl Sagan:  "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."  And I can say that for myself, that is what I want -- but I would hesitate to make that decision for anyone else.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Quantum entanglement, and the path of mental laziness

There are, as far as I can see, two reasons why people believe the counterfactual, unsubstantiated nonsense that I deride daily as "woo-woo."  One of them I can actually sympathize with; and that's "wishful thinking."  I know what it feels like to wish, vehemently, that the universe was other than it is.  And some of the things woo-woos would like to be true are admittedly pretty cool.  Wouldn't it be awesome if crystals could heal you of incurable diseases?  If you could find out why your love life is in a tailspin by looking at patterns of Tarot cards?  If there really was a reason for everything that happened, and that all of the apparent chaos of life was linked by some grand, cosmic plan?

The second reason for woo-woo beliefs, however, is one for which I have no sympathy whatsoever, and that's "laziness."  Practitioners of woo-woo often end up there because they are too mentally indolent to be bothered to learn the basics of scientific induction, or, in fact, any science at all.  Once you start delving into scientific explanations, and learning how to construct a rational argument, most woo-woo beliefs simply fall apart at the seams.  But science is hard; and the crystals-and-Tarot-cards set, it seems, would prefer the easy road of doing no real work to earn their understanding of the universe.

I ran into a spectacular example of this from our pal, frequent Skeptophilia flyer Diane Tessman, just yesterday.  Tessman, you might recall, is the one who believes that clouds are created by UFOs as camouflage, that the Higgs boson was predicted in Mayan prophecy and is responsible for consciousness, and that there is a superintelligent alien being called "the God Cloud" that is going to usher in a New Age of Enlightenment really soon.  So anything that Tessman has to say is bound to be worth reading, wouldn't you think?

Thus my excitement when I saw yesterday that she'd weighed in on the subject of Quantum Entanglement.  Here's a bit of what she had to say:
Quantum entanglement, which we humans are just now beginning to comprehend to some small degree, may explain many of the deepest, most sacred secrets of the cosmos, and open vistas to us of which we could only dream, before.

The first thing to realize: Quantum entanglement, although it sounds like one has been enveloped in an evil alien butterfly net, can be and often is – a good thing...

The second thing to realize: I believe there is general quantum entanglement and specific quantum entanglement; the latter is the kind of entanglement which aliens might use to reach individuals.

General quantum entanglement: We can look at love – particularly unconditional love – as the most powerful and ubiquitous form of general quantum entanglement. You love your daughter, unconditionally. You “get a feeling” when she does not come home on time after a date, that something is wrong. You have been involved with this other soul since her birth. Is it just genetics? No, it is all the crazy memories, all the times you protected her, all the special moments; you have become entangled with this other mind (this other being), beyond any undoing...  I believe there is a morphic (quantum) field which winds between two people like an electric spider web.

I feel quantum entanglement is one of the basic methods by which the universe electrically conveys evolution. Intelligence travels on the electromagnetic webbing, it travels in the quantum field of particles, waves, and strings. 
It all sounds pretty... nice, doesn't it?  We're all connected, and a Quantumly Entangled Field conveys to us all such things as love and caring and special moments and warm fuzzies.  The Sacred Secrets Of The Cosmos are available to everyone because we're linked through a mysterious Electromagnetic Webbing.  Everything is all New-Agey and cosmic and dreamy.

But the problem is, is that really what physicists mean by the term quantum entanglement?  Well, let's do some actual work and find out.  First stop, the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon:
Quantum entanglement occurs when particles such as photons, electrons, molecules as large as buckyballs, and even small diamonds interact physically and then become separated; the type of interaction is such that each resulting member of a pair is properly described by the same quantum mechanical description (state), which is indefinite in terms of important factors such as position, momentum, spin, polarization, etc. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, their shared state is indefinite until measured.  Quantum entanglement is a form of quantum superposition. When a measurement is made and it causes one member of such a pair to take on a definite value (e.g., clockwise spin), the other member of this entangled pair will at any subsequent time be found to have taken the appropriately correlated value (e.g., counterclockwise spin). Thus, there is a correlation between the results of measurements performed on entangled pairs, and this correlation is observed even though the entangled pair may have been separated by arbitrarily large distances. 
Quantum mechanical framework:  Consider two noninteracting systems A and B, with respective Hilbert spaces H_A and H_B. The Hilbert space of the composite system is the tensor product
 H_A \otimes H_B .
If the first system is in state \scriptstyle| \psi \rangle_A and the second in state \scriptstyle| \phi \rangle_B, the state of the composite system is
|\psi\rangle_A \otimes |\phi\rangle_B.
States of the composite system which can be represented in this form are called separable states, or (in the simplest case) product states.
Not all states are separable states (and thus product states). Fix a basis \scriptstyle \{|i \rangle_A\} for H_A and a basis \scriptstyle \{|j \rangle_B\} for H_B. The most general state in \scriptstyle H_A \otimes H_B is of the form
|\psi\rangle_{AB} = \sum_{i,j} c_{ij} |i\rangle_A \otimes |j\rangle_B.
This state is separable if \scriptstyle c_{ij}= c^A_ic^B_j, yielding \scriptstyle |\psi\rangle_A = \sum_{i} c^A_{i} |i\rangle_A and \scriptstyle |\phi\rangle_B = \sum_{j} c^B_{j} |j\rangle_B. It is inseparable if \scriptstyle c_{ij} \neq c^A_ic^B_j. If a state is inseparable, it is called an entangled state.
For example, given two basis vectors \scriptstyle \{|0\rangle_A, |1\rangle_A\} of H_A and two basis vectors \scriptstyle \{|0\rangle_B, |1\rangle_B\} of H_B, the following is an entangled state:
{1 \over \sqrt{2}} \bigg( |0\rangle_A \otimes |1\rangle_B - |1\rangle_A \otimes |0\rangle_B \bigg).
If the composite system is in this state, it is impossible to attribute to either system A or system B a definite pure state. Another way to say this is that while the von Neumann entropy of the whole state is zero (as it is for any pure state), the entropy of the subsystems is greater than zero. In this sense, the systems are "entangled". This has specific empirical ramifications for interferometry.  It is worthwhile to note that the above example is one of four Bell states, which are (maximally) entangled pure states (pure states of the  H_A \otimes H_B space, but which cannot be separated into pure states of each  H_A and  H_B ).
Now suppose Alice is an observer for system A, and Bob is an observer for system B. If in the entangled state given above Alice makes a measurement in the \scriptstyle \{|0\rangle, |1\rangle\} eigenbasis of A, there are two possible outcomes, occurring with equal probability:
  1. Alice measures 0, and the state of the system collapses to \scriptstyle |0\rangle_A |1\rangle_B.
  2. Alice measures 1, and the state of the system collapses to \scriptstyle |1\rangle_A |0\rangle_B.
If the former occurs, then any subsequent measurement performed by Bob, in the same basis, will always return 1. If the latter occurs, (Alice measures 1) then Bob's measurement will return 0 with certainty. Thus, system B has been altered by Alice performing a local measurement on system A. This remains true even if the systems A and B are spatially separated. This is the foundation of the EPR paradox.
The outcome of Alice's measurement is random. Alice cannot decide which state to collapse the composite system into, and therefore cannot transmit information to Bob by acting on her system. Causality is thus preserved, in this particular scheme. For the general argument, see no-communication theorem.
Had enough yet?  I certainly sympathize if you have.  This stuff is difficult.  I was a physics major, fer cryin' in the sink, and I have a hard time with this subject; the math is frankly beyond me, and just the concepts are tough to wrap your brains around even if you've read your share of Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking.  I get that.  To learn what the scientists are talking about requires some serious effort.

But at least try, for heaven's sake.  Find out a little bit of what the physicists actually mean by the word "quantum" before you start using it.  Read a couple of good books (by actual working physicists) on the subject.  At least do a damn Google search.  With sources like Wikipedia available to everyone who has a computer, there is no excuse whatsoever for the kind of mental laziness that the woo-woos seem to embrace.

The universe is weird, wonderful, mysterious, and beautiful.  But it is also complex, deep, and requires effort to comprehend.  Falling for Diane Tessman's "electromagnetic web of love and quantum consciousness" is taking the easy way out, accepting a wrong answer regarding how the universe works just because (1) it sounds nice, and (2) it takes less mental work.  Take the time to learn a little actual science; learn how the actual scientists do what they do.  You'll be amazed at how quickly whole worlds of new and astonishing knowledge will open up for you.  And even if you have to give up the comforting children's stories of Quantum Spiritual Energies Linked By Love And Light, you'll have gained insight into the actual workings of the cosmos.

And I consider that to be a fair trade.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A chocolate war

I spend a lot of time on this blog railing at the internet as being a conduit for nonsense.  But today, I have a positive story, a wonderful story, about a Norwegian skeptic, some woo-woo chocolate makers, and an unsuccessful attempt by the latter to bully the former into silence.  [Source] [Source]

Xoçai is an American chocolate company.  Besides having a brand name that sounds like a Klingon death threat, they have a seriously New Age/alternative health slant on their marketing, and make a variety of wild claims about what their product can do for you.  The following advertisement was widely distributed in Norway:

Here's the translation:
Millions of people all over the world eat chocolate every day. Unfortunately not all chocolate is healthy, but a healthy alternative does actually exist. Xoçai chocolate products don’t just taste nice; they’re also very healthy because of the high antioxidant-content.
- Three bites cover your daily need of antioxidants
- No preservatives
- No added wax or fillers
- No artificial coloring
- No artificial sweeteners
- No refined sugar
- Caffeine and sugar free
- Beneficial for diabetics
- Gluten and lactose free
- ORAC and Kosher certified
- Strengthen the immune system
- Help against fatigue and give extra energy
- Improve memory and concentration
- The antioxidants catechin and phenols, as well as the vegetable antioxidants flavonoids, can prevent different forms of cancer, heart disease and the formation of blood clots
- Balances blood glucose levels and are beneficial for diabetics
- Can help against skin disease, e.g. psoriasis.
- Cleanse the body of toxins and improve digestion
- Can help against osteoporosis and calcium deficiency
- Can help against depression and early aging
- Prevent inflammation of blood vessel walls
- Prevent infections
- Can stabilize blood pressure
Yes, Xoçai is actually claiming that eating their chocolate is "beneficial for diabetics" and "can prevent cancer."  I suppose that at least we should be thankful that at least they didn't include "helps to remedy the aftereffects of Dementor attacks."

Anyhow, a Norwegian blogger, who (for reasons that will become obvious) has preferred to remain anonymous, challenged these claims.  (My sources, links posted above, gave him the pseudonym "Morten" and I will stick with that to avoid confusion in case you are interested in reading further about this.)  Morten questioned not only the unsupported medical claims but also Xoçai's sales model, which is an Amway-style MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) approach.  Shortly after he wrote his piece, he received the following email:
As an association for over 9 000 Norwegian Xoçai-members, we have over the last year received over a hundred complaints from our members concerning your blog www.[anonymous].no
Most of our members seem to think enough is enough when it comes to your defamatory claims about the product and brand name Xoçai, the company MXI Corp. and the representatives of the company – thus everything you have written on your blog for some time now has been sent to the company’s lawyers in the USA – where these are currently preparing a lawsuit on the grounds of your untrue claims that have damaged the brand name and product Xoçai, the company MXI Corp. in the USA and the company’s representatives.
From the signals we have received it will be a seven digit lawsuit, and that’s not in Norwegian «kroner». This because the company now wishes to make an example once and for all, and such create precedence for other countries in Scandinavia and Europe.
We have also been asked on numerous occasions to account for your blog and person on our website, which we now have done on the grounds of information sent by our members. You can read more on:
We are of course aware that the company [anonymous company] doesn’t have any responsibility for your blog – but as it can be documented that a lot of your activity on the blogpage has been during work hours, we assume it is with your employer’s [anonymous company] knowledge and blessing in accordance with your terms of employment.
In the light of your cynical activities it must be admitted that this isn’t the best advertisement for the company [anonymous company] and your co-workers, neither now nor when the process starts.
Best regards
Foreningen Sjokoservice Norge
The email was also sent to his employer and various coworkers.

Sjokoservice Norge, the Norwegian legal arm of Xoçai, followed this up by a post on their own website that included Morten's name, place of employment, telephone number, and address, and a sly suggestion that Xoçai employees might want to "contact (him) directly."

Then it got worse.  Sjokoservice Norge sent Morten a second email, with an attachment that included Morten's address, the names of his parents, siblings, and wife, and a direct statement that the information was being sent out to nine thousand Xoçai employees!

Morten contacted Xoçai's representatives, asking them to elaborate on which claims he had made that they considered incorrect, and saying that if they could prove that he had misspoken, he'd amend or remove the post.  Sjokoservice Norge said that it was too late, that they had already initiated a lawsuit, but hinted that they might be willing to stop pursuing legal action if Morten deleted his posts and removed all mention of the company from his blog.  Morten caved, and removed the posts.

So far, I guess the message is: "don't make a woo-woo mad."  And at this point in reading the source material on this story, I'm remembering all of the snarky posts I've done in the past about various weird claims, and wondering if maybe I should change my name and move to a small uncharted island off the coast of Mozambique.  But then, I continued reading, and found that a wonderful thing happened.

Have you ever heard of the Streisand Effect?  It occurs when someone attempts to censor or suppress a story on the internet, and as a result causes the story to become viral.  (The name comes from a 2003 lawsuit by Barbra Streisand that attempted to force photographer Kenneth Adelman to remove an aerial photograph of her California mansion from an online photograph collection; the photograph was viewed six times before the lawsuit was filed, and 420,000 times afterwards.)  Well, in their heavy-handed, mafia-style bullying of a blogger who asked too many questions, Xoçai may have triggered the same thing.  Morten's original posts, which he removed when Xoçai threatened him, have been translated and posted on a mirror site (read them here and here).  As far as Sjokoservice Norge, which was acting as Xoçai's brass-knuckles organization in Norway, chairman Terje Babsvik and his brother, Jon-Atle Babsvik, have denied any knowledge of the threatening emails to Morten, and Roger Meyer, Sjokoservice Norge's spokesperson, has "gone on vacation" and "is impossible to get a hold of."  The whole thing has bounced into the skeptics network worldwide, and has been featured on The Baloney Detective, Letting Off Steam (you should definitely check this one out and read the responses by Xoçai drones; they come off sounding like scary Scientologists), and Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News, among many.

Of course, a rich corporation like Xoçai is probably not going to be seriously harmed by this -- although it'd certainly be nice if they stopped making unsubstantiated (and almost certainly false) medical claims in their advertisements.  And Xoçai has attempted to put the quietus on the story by flooding Google with stories that use the keywords "Xoçai," "threatens," and "blogger," but lead you to links that basically state how wonderful their product is, and how it "threatens" rival and inferior chocolate brands, so much so that many "bloggers" mention it.  Thus far, I'd have to call this Chocolate War a draw.  But even if it doesn't knock them back as hard as I'd like, it does lead me to one cheering conclusion; given the chance, the internet can be a force for rationality.

Oh, and also: don't piss skeptics off.  We generally know how to do research, and we're pretty good at arguing from a factual basis.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The stars of Wall Street

Last week, Marketplace ran a story entitled, "Astrology Guides Some Financial Traders."  Thinking that the headline couldn't possibly mean what it seemed to mean, I read the article, and found that yes, in fact, it did.  The author, Heidi Moore, reports, in all apparent seriousness:
(T)he course of true investing never did run smooth, and there are some traders who look to the stars to tell them what to do. Financial astrologers like Karen Starich say traders know they're up against a lot of rich, smart people.

"They want to have that edge," she says. "They want to know what the future is."

Starich chargest $237 annually for her newsletter... (which contains) news of what will happen to the stock prices of companies, or even bigger, to the Federal Reserve.
So, we have the people who are responsible for managing investments, who are the heart and soul of the Stock Exchange, making their decisions based on... horoscopes?  Apparently, yes:
(Starich) sees dark times ahead in the Fed's horoscope.

"They now have Saturn squared to Neptune, which is really bankruptcy," Starich explains.
Neptune represents money. But when Saturn shows up in a chart, it indicates restriction. So for the Fed, that means the "fiscal cliff is here, and there’s no place to go except to print more money or unravel these financial institutions," Starich says.
But... but... really?  Are we talking about only one or two wingnuts, here?  The answer is no.  Three hundred Wall Street traders subscribe to Starich's newsletter; her rival, "financial astrologer" Arch Crawford, is even more successful, and has a newsletter that is delivered monthly to a readership of over 2,000.  Crawford is also predicting setbacks in the nation's finances, but not because "Saturn is squared to Neptune;" no, he says we're in for trouble "because Mercury is in retrograde:"
Crawford warns his 2,000 subscribers particularly against the dangers of Mercury in retrograde, a time when the planet appears to be going in reverse across the sky. The phenomenon, which happens three times or more a year, indicates a month when communications will be screwed up. He warns his subscribers never to start anything new during that time. He points to the fact that Knight Capital launched a new software program in August, when Mercury was in retrograde, and the brokerage firm nearly went out of business. He also notes that most major market glitches have happened while Mercury was in retrograde.
Can I just point out here that Mercury isn't really traveling backwards?  That it's just a sort of optical illusion based on the relative motion of Mercury and the Earth?  That there is no possible way it could have any effect on events anywhere?  That since it happens three or four times a year, for several weeks each time, that of course there will be times when "market glitches" occur during those periods?

That there is this thing called confirmation bias?

Crawford reports that some traders are cautious about letting people know they're making their decisions based upon the stars, and one even asked Crawford if he could have his newsletter delivered "wrapped in brown paper."  At least this is a hopeful sign; on some level, at least a few of these people are aware that what they're doing is ridiculous.

I don't honestly know what about this story appalls me more; that serious financial professionals are relying on astrology to make their decisions, or that a respected and credible media source published this article and treated its subject as if it were completely plausible, with only the weakest of caveats at the end that "...most people would say... (astrological predictions coming true are due to) coincidence."  What's next?  Tarot card readings by stock brokers?  Seances to consult deceased economists?  Sacrificing a goat to assure a good return on investments?

If so, I'm sure Marketplace will be the first to tell us all about how well it works.

Some days I just despair.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Anti-blasphemy laws and the right to criticize ideas

Goaded by the recent riots in the Muslim world over a YouTube video ridiculing the prophet Muhammad, representatives of a 57-country coalition are planning to propose a measure to the United Nations General Assembly that would criminalize blasphemy.  [Source]

The move has been tried before, unsuccessfully.  This year, the coalition is led by Turkey, a country with significant clout at the UN.  Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, plans to speak at the General Assembly, demanding international legislation making it a crime to defame religion.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has given some indication that he is in favor of such a move, saying that there should be limitations on free speech if it is "used to provoke or humiliate."

This is, unequivocally, a terrible idea.

Let me be clear about this.  People deserve respect.  Human beings have the right to have their basic needs met, and to be able to live without fear of persecution.  We also, in differing ways and to differing degrees, should respect and protect animals, plants, and the environment.

On the other hand, there is no good reason to demand that everyone respect ideas.  Ideas only deserve respect insofar as they merit it.  If you believe in something wrong, foolish, harmful, counterfactual, or dangerous, there is no logical reason in the world that I should be required to respect it just because it happens to be your belief.  Enacting anti-blasphemy laws is a way of putting religious beliefs out of the reach of criticism -- which is equivalent to giving carte blanche to anyone, for saying or doing anything, as long as the phrase "and thus sayeth the precepts of my religion" is appended to it.

The bottom line is that your beliefs have to earn my respect, based upon (1) how they are manifested in your treatment of others, and (2) their consonance with the facts about the world that we have discovered from science.  If your beliefs lead you to oppress women, if they encourage you to blow yourself and others up, if they demand that you suppress free speech and dissent, if they impel you to foist your mythological and erroneous views of the origins of life on children, then your beliefs are not worthy of respect.  And your saying, "but it's my religion!" is entirely irrelevant.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying we should silence people from voicing these beliefs.  That's as wrong-headed as the proposed anti-blasphemy laws.  You have every right to trumpet your beliefs from the rooftops, if you want to.  However, no one, myself included, has the right to demand that his opinions, once voiced, be immune to criticism.  Or ridicule, either; ridicule may not be nice, but it is powerful, and satire can be a potent force for positive social change (think of the impact that Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal had).  So, you may not like it if I or others make fun of your beliefs, but your taking offense cannot trump my right to speak.  If it does, it sets up a dangerous precedent, creating a world where every word has to be sifted through the mesh of "Will This Bother Anyone?"

I still think that it would be wonderful if people were kinder.  "Don't go out of your way to be an asshole" is still a pretty good guide to behavior, and I believe that a lot of the recent deliberate provocation of Muslims is mean-spirited, crass, and frankly unwise, given how devout Muslims generally respond to such goading.  But my saying "it isn't nice," or even "wow, that was a dumb thing to say," is a far cry from "you are forbidden by law from saying that."  So, what the filmmaker had to say about Muhammad on his YouTube video might have been banal, crude, foolish, disgusting, and worthy of a hundred other disparaging adjectives.

But he did have the right to say it.  And no one, up to and including Ban Ki-moon, should be able to tell him that he can't.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Shifting your moral magnetic north

Most of us are pretty certain of our own moral compasses.  Circumstances might change, the attitudes of those around us might waver, but at least we know right from wrong -- and why we believe what we do.

A new study, headed by Lars Hall at Lund University in Sweden, seems to indicate that we're not as rock-solid in our beliefs as we think we are. [Source]

The experiment took 160 volunteers and asked them to fill out a two-page survey rating how strongly they believed each of twelve statements on the morality of certain issues, from the ongoing struggles in the Middle East to prostitution to covert government surveillance of its citizens.  The researchers, however, employed a magic trick; the surveys were actually composed of two sheets lightly stuck together, and the clipboard had a dab of adhesive on it.  When the subject turned the sheet over to answer the back, the top sheet stuck to the clipboard and pulled away, revealing the second sheet.  The participants' answers were also recorded there (presumably using some sort of carbon paper to impress the answers onto the page as the subject wrote) -- but the second page had two questions that were different.

For example, sheet one (the questions originally answered by the subject) might have the statement, "Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism."  The subject then rated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with that statement.  The second sheet had the same statement, with the word "permitted" substituted for "forbidden."  So, if the subject strongly agreed with the first statement, you'd think (s)he would strongly disagree with the second, and would recognize that the statement had been altered.

That's not what happened.

When showed their responses to the original statements marked on statements that had the opposite meaning, half of the subjects did not notice any changes -- even when they were asked to read the statements, and their answers, out loud.  Only 31% noticed every change that had been made.  A full 53% were willing to argue in support of their answers on one or both of the statements that had been altered to mean the opposite of the statement they had actually responded to.

Hall and his team call this "choice blindness."  Once we are confronted with evidence that we made a certain choice, many of us internalize that information even if it's in conflict with what we really believed at the time the choice was made.  And after that, we are perfectly willing to argue in favor of our new opinions.  Memory, of course, is plastic and unreliable, as a multitude of experiments have shown, and any good book on optical illusions can illustrate how easy it is to baffle our sensory apparatus.  Now Hall's clever little experiment shows that our moral sense might be as easy to fool as our memory centers and sensory organs.

I find all of this simultaneously creepy and reassuring.  I've always felt that on those topics I have strong moral opinions about, I wouldn't flex just because I'm around someone with different attitudes.  I've always had the impression that my ethical sense is rooted in concrete.  Okay, there are gray areas; but some things are simply wrong, and they'll always be wrong.  It's kind of scary to think that if a sneaky researcher convinced me that I'd answered a question the opposite way to how I actually feel, that I could be tricked into arguing for something that (minutes ago) I'd disagreed with.

On the other hand, maybe it is a good thing that the human mind is as open as it is.  After all, it's raging dogmatism that is now ripping the Middle East to pieces, after a moronic filmmaker made a banal fourteen minute film insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and devout Muslims worldwide have responded by blowing themselves up and setting stuff on fire.  Maybe the fact that we have such play in our moral compasses is a hopeful sign, that if we're somehow forced into considering opposing viewpoints, we might actually be capable of seeing the other side of the argument.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Dream job

Are you interested in research?  Do you like hiking and camping?  Are you knowledgeable about technical equipment?  Do you have a desire to spend your time looking for a creature that may not, technically, exist?

Well, a nonprofit in upstate New York has a job for you.  [Source]

Apparently, a Bigfoot research group based in Whitehall, New York, has an advertisement in the "Help Wanted" section of Craigslist, inviting interested parties to apply for a position as a research assistant.  Here's the main body of the ad:
Not for profit organization, located in Whitehall, NY is a high-energy, team-oriented research entity that is involved in the tracking, documenting, and study of cryptozoological creatures, with a deep interest in the study and search of bipedal primitive apes.
We seek an experienced researcher with a deep understanding of cryptozoology, primatology, with a good background with scientific research and interest in great apes. The ideal candidate must be able to work both autonomously and as part of a large team. The individual must also be able to solve problems creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate well with project leaders and team members.
Duties and Functions:
• Develop actionable tracking program in designated geographic area.
• Investigate, document and interview individuals with reported Bigfoot sitings.
• Occasional travel to remote areas of Adirondacks including spending several nights in the wilderness, checking motion cameras, collecting hair and dung samples for laboratory analysis amongst other related activites.
• Must have own transportation, four-wheel drive a plus.
** Serious Inquiries only **
Compensation: based on experience, this is a grant funded position and is expected to last 6 months with the possibility of renewal.
This sounds like a job made in heaven for me -- the combination of the hiking and backpacking aspects, the biological research aspects, and the cryptozoological aspects, not to mention that this is veritably in my back yard, seem to cry out that I apply.  Of course, there's the downside that this job is only guaranteed for six months, and I'd have to quit my other gainful employment, which I suspect both my principal and my wife would have an opinion about.  But come on -- a Bigfoot research assistant?  In the Adirondacks?  How cool would that be?

Of course, I do have some questions.  First, the salary is based on experience?  Experience with what?  Actually finding Bigfoot?  Because if so, this is looking like it could be a volunteer position.  Also, you have to wonder who is actually funding this whole thing.  I tried to find out more about it, but whoever is behind it seems to be keeping their names out of sight.

Also, I had no idea that the Whitehall area was as much of a hotspot for Sasquatches as it is.  I knew about the Connecticut Hill Monster, which is even closer to my home (a mere thirty miles) than the Adirondacks; but I hadn't heard of the sightings around Whitehall.  But evidently this is a seriously squatchy area, with tales of giant apelike creatures going back at least a hundred years, perhaps more.  In 2008, the Glens Falls Post-Star did a story on the whole phenomenon:
For Whitehall, the pivotal year for sightings seems to be 1976. The country was celebrating its bicentennial, but Bigfoot was the local center of attention that summer and fall.
[Paul] Bartholomew details the encounters in his book.
On Aug. 24, three Whitehall teens reported seeing a 7-to-8-foot-tall brown, hairy creature in a field off Abair Road. The teens allegedly saw the figure two times that night. They also claimed to hear a noise that sounded like a "cross between a woman screaming and a pig squealing."
The next day, a farmer found "big, human footprints" nearby and a ravaged deer carcass.
That night, a local off-duty police officer, who was a brother of one of the teens, went to the site with a New York State Trooper.
Around midnight, the police officer spotted a pair of red eyes reflecting off his headlights. He shut off his lights and radioed the trooper, who put a spotlight on some nearby bushes.
The police officer said he turned his headlights back on when he heard something crashing through the shrubs. He claims to have seen an almost 8-foot-tall creature that he estimated weighed 400 pounds.
He didn't fire his gun because he said the figure looked too human. The creature then vanished into the bushes.
Later that year, a village police sergeant reported hearing an "eerie, high-pitched yell" while hunting in the same area.
A few days later, a man from Granville reported shooting at "Bigfoot."
For the record, Paul Bartholomew is also the guy who spearheaded the successful effort ten years ago to get Whitehall to pass a law designating the forests around the village "protected Bigfoot habitat."

So anyway, the whole thing sounds pretty interesting, and I'm bummed that I won't be able to apply.  I do wish the best of luck to whoever gets the job, and hope that they get some hard evidence, something that has been sorely lacking in all previous efforts.  As I've said before, I see nothing scientifically impossible about the existence of Bigfoot, but I'm certainly not going to throw myself in with the True Believers with only uncorroborated eyewitness testimony and fuzzy photographs as proof.  If more data surfaces, however, I'm perfectly willing to consider it, in the spirit of skepticism, and also because it would be wicked cool if it actually was true.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Confirmation bias, and the story of Jesus' wife

In well-done science, conclusions are based on one thing and one thing alone: the quality of the evidence.  When physicists announced a few months ago that they had data that seemed to support the conclusion that neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light, every high-energy physicist  in the world began to sift through the evidence, looking for flaws, looking for inaccuracies, trying to see if the data supported such an earthshattering outcome.  And after rigorous analysis, the result did not stand -- Einstein's fundamental speed limit on the universe seems to have been vindicated once again.

Contrast that to how conclusions are drawn in other realms, where vanishingly small pieces of evidence are considered enough to support any conclusion you happen to favor.

This whole thing comes up because of the recent announcement that a small fragment of papyrus, covered with faded Coptic script, seems to indicate that Jesus might have been married.  [Source]  The finding, which has been analyzed extensively by historian and ancient language scholar Karen King, is the subject of a paper that was presented Tuesday in Rome at an international meeting of Coptic scholars.

Of course, the first question asked was, "Is the artifact a fake?"  And the conclusion was: probably not.  The script was examined by experts, and looks authentic.  The phrasing of the text seems consistent with other early writings in that language.  While the piece is too small to carbon-date, there is apparently some talk of a non-destructive spectroscopy on the ink that could give a rough estimate of its age.  One phrase begins, "And Jesus said, 'My wife...'" and then is cut off.  A later phrase on the piece says, "... she should be my disciple."

So: what we have here is a small fragment of paper, of unknown age, with two incomplete (but admittedly provocative) phrases.  And that was all it took.

Already we have people who are against the Catholic policy of celibacy for the clergy saying that this should change church law.  If Jesus was married, why shouldn't priests be able to?  Folks who want women to be priests jumped on the second phrase; the lack of a clear mention of female disciples in the bible is the only justification for church policy on the issue, they say, and this fragment clearly supports the ordination of women.

Then the woo-woos got involved.  Fans of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, both of which claimed that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, are saying that the fragment supports that contention.  Many of these people seem not to realize that the book and the film both reside in the "fiction" aisle.

Even wilder stories have started up.  Take a look at this article, that claims that the piece of papyrus is a clear vindication of the wacky ideas from Laurence Gardner's The Bloodline of the Holy Grail, in which Jesus survived the crucifixion, lived another hundred years in which he traveled to Tibet, and his wife and children ended up in France where they founded the Merovingian dynasty and ultimately ended up on the throne of Scotland. 

And to all of the above, I can only say: will you people please just chill?

There's a name for taking a tiny, questionable piece of evidence, and pretending that it trumpets support for an idea that you already agreed with; it's called confirmation bias, and unfortunately for the proponents of married priests, female priests, and Jesus being the ancestor of the Kings of Scotland, it's a logical fallacy.  Meaning that thinkers who are being honest should not engage in it.  The evidence we have is flimsy at best; Karen King, who is clearly a scholar of some repute, isn't even willing to hazard a firm opinion about the piece's provenance, but has given a guess that it probably dates from the Fourth Century.  So even if it is authentic, the thing was written three hundred plus years after Jesus died.  At that point, anyone could have written anything, and it wouldn't necessarily have any bearing on the truth of the matter.  The piece of paper could state that Jesus had blond hair and was left-handed and liked to eat donuts for breakfast, and there's no reason to conclude that those statements have any relevance to what the real man was like, since it was written long after anyone who actually knew him had died.

But, of course, unlike in science, that's not how these things work.  The married-priest cadre will certainly be harping on this finding for a while, as will the female-priest cadre.  The Dan Brown Writes Non-Fiction Society is probably also going to continue making little excited squeaking noises about all this, and any woo-woos further out on the plausibility scale will have a field day drawing conclusions from what in any other field would hardly constitute any evidence at all.

As I've observed before: confirmation bias is these people's stock in trade.  So honestly, I shouldn't be surprised.  But I still am, somehow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wheat from chaff

Yesterday, I looked at the general idea of separating science from pseudoscience, and my conclusion is that any sufficiently educated person can learn to distinguish the two.  The main hallmarks of good science are (1) the characteristic of prediction and falsifiability, and (2) reliance on mechanisms that are consistent with already-verified science.

How, though, do you make the distinction between pseudoscience and valid, "emerging" science?  New ideas in science are frequently ridiculed, especially before the mechanisms governing them are completely elucidated; even such rock-solid (pun intended) models as plate tectonics were considered to be foolishness before the magnetometer data discovered in the late 1950s showed that the ocean floor was spreading.  Some ideas that fly in the face of what is currently known will turn out, on analysis and through experiment, to be verified science.  How do we know that by labeling something as pseudoscience, we're not tarring good ideas and bad with the same brush?

Here are a few things that seem to be general characteristics of pseudoscience.  Note that not all pseudoscientific theories have all of these traits -- but this will at least provide a few general rules-of-thumb for recognizing it when you see it.

1)  The reliance on undefined, or poorly-defined, terms.  I've harped on this one so many times that it doesn't bear much more description than that.  Watch out, especially, for terms that are firmly defined in one realm (e.g. physics), but are being used in a fluffy, non-specific way.  Favorites are frequency, vibration, quantum, energy, field, wavelength, and resonance.

2)  Any idea that claims to contradict a thoroughly researched and experimentally verified model.  If someone starts by saying, "My theories overturn the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics," I pretty much stop listening.  Take a look at the webpage of The Thunderbolts Project, which claims that pretty much everything we know about physics -- gravity, electromagnetism, particle physics, convection, heat flow, quantum mechanics, nuclear fusion -- is wrong.  Instead, the universe is linked by "a web of electrical circuitry connects and unifies all of nature, organizing galaxies, energizing stars, giving birth to planets and, on our own world, controlling weather and animating biological organisms."  While it is always possible that new data could force a revision of a pre-existing model -- look at what Einstein did to Newtonian mechanics -- the chance of a few "progressive scientists, researchers, and laypeople" trashing all of physics in one blow is unlikely in the extreme.  If you take a look at the video clips put out by these people (such as this one) you find that mostly they are relying on the fact that physicists' models are themselves incomplete.  While no reputable physicist would argue that point -- after all, if their models were complete, they'd all be out of a job, because there'd be nothing left to research -- our ignorance about how some features of the universe work doesn't mean that the framework of science itself is faulty and needs to be replaced.

3)  A theory that blurs the distinction between a model and the reality.  This one can be pretty insidious, because scientists use models (especially mathematical ones) all the time, and frequently explain their ideas using analogies.  On its crudest level, we have people like the Rosicrucians, who think that because much of the universe is describable using mathematics, that the universe is numbers (and those numbers have mystical significance).  A subtler example is the work of Stephen Wolfram, who has modeled systems behavior using a construct called a cellular automaton, but who seems to me to cross the line from stating that cellular automata can model many observable processes (this model has been used in everything from developmental biology to particle physics), to stating that the universe is composed of cellular automata.  While the first statement is no doubt true, the second remains very much to be demonstrated.

4)  Experimental claims that no one else seems to be able to replicate.  Replicability is one of the most important characteristics of good science, which is why any peer-reviewed paper is expected to give thorough detail about the experimental protocol used.  Examples of this abound: three well-known ones are the famous "polywater" debacle, "cold fusion," and Cleve Backster's claim that he'd done an experiment proving that his house plant was aware of his emotional state.

Of course, there are many other good questions to ask that can help separate good science from bad.  Is there a profit motive involved in the claim?  Does the researcher have an ideological bent that is biasing him/her to ignore contrary evidence?  Are the results published in a journal that has adequate peer review?  Is anyone who questions the results viewed as hostile/biased/closed-minded?

Given the number of crazy ideas out there, it's absolutely critical that we learn how to recognize what constitutes a scientifically sound idea, and what characteristics should raise red flags that we're looking at pseudoscience.  Millions of dollars of hard-earned money are wasted every year on homeopathic "remedies," psychic and astrological readings, crystal therapy, chakra and "energy field" realignment, and so on.  The methods of science aren't error-proof, and scientists are fallible humans, just like the rest of us; but if you're looking for the best way to gain a solid understanding of how the universe actually works, science is the only game in town.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On the detection of pseudoscience

In yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education I read an article by Michael D. Gordin, professor of history at Princeton University, entitled "Separating the Pseudo from Science."  Gordin's stance is that establishing a particular area of study as pseudoscience is not as easy as it sounds:
The renowned philosopher Karl Popper coined the term "demarcation problem" to describe the quest to distinguish science from pseudoscience. He also proposed a solution. As Popper argued in a 1953 lecture, "The criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability." In other words, if a theory articulates which empirical conditions would invalidate it, then the theory is scientific; if it doesn't, it's pseudoscience.

That seems clear enough. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Epistemologists present several challenges to Popper's argument. First, how would you know when a theory has been falsified? Suppose you are testing a particular claim using a mass spectrometer, and you get a disagreeing result. The theory might be falsified, or your mass spectrometer could be on the fritz. Scientists do not actually troll the literature with a falsifiability detector, knocking out erroneous claims right and left. Rather, they consider their instruments, other possible explanations, alternative data sets, and so on. Rendering a theory false is a lot more complicated than Popper imagined—and thus determining what is, in principle, falsifiable is fairly muddled.
He then goes on to describe the theories of the noted crank Immanuel Velikovsky, whose work Gordin has studied extensively.  Velikovsky's most famous book, Worlds in Collision, describes how a chunk of the planet Jupiter was ejected, went into a highly elliptical orbit, and in several close passes with the Earth caused a variety of catastrophes that were recorded in historical documents (e.g. the biblical flood story and the parting of the Red Sea).  After zooming about the solar system for several centuries, near contacts with the other planets (notably Mars) caused it to settle down into an almost perfectly circular orbit -- and became the planet Venus.

About Velikovsky, Gordin says:
(Velikovsky) courted his fellow Princeton resident Albert Einstein for legitimacy and sought to bolster the scenario from Worlds in Collision with claims that discoveries from the emergent Space Age confirmed his theories about Venus and other planets. He tried to establish himself through testimonials from scientific authorities and validated predictions as a legitimate scientist, not a crank...  There is an important lesson in this. All so-called pseudoscientists believe they are simply scientists, albeit ones with heterodox views marginalized by the mainstream...  But to be a scientist, you need to behave like one, and one thing scientists do constantly is, well, demarcate. Velikovsky and his peers knew there was an edge to legitimate science, and they policed it very carefully, just like "establishment" scientists did and continue to do.
And of Velikovsky's detractors, especially the late astronomer Carl Sagan, Gordin says:
Carl Sagan and other anti-Velikovskians believed that greater scientific literacy could "cure" the ill of pseudoscience. Don't get me wrong—scientific literacy is a wonderful thing, and I am committed to expanding it. But it won't eradicate the fringe, and it won't prevent the proliferation of doctrines the scientific community decries as pseudoscience.
Finally, he concludes that demarcation is critical, even if it is (in his opinion) a moving target:
Demarcation may be an activity without rules, a historically fluctuating marker of the worries of the scientific community, but it is also absolutely vital. Not everything can or should be taught in science courses in school. Not every research proposal can or should receive funds. When individuals spread falsehood and misinformation, they must be exposed.

We can sensibly build science policy only upon the consensus of the scientific community. This is not a bright line, but it is the only line we have.
Gordin's analysis is an interesting one, and although he speaks of the scientific process and the men and women who engage in it with obvious respect, I can't help but feel that he has things the wrong way around.  Pseudoscience, such as Velikovsky's ideas and a hundred other wild theories (astrology, homeopathy, psychic phenomena, and so on) fail not simply because they are heterodox -- they fail on the grounds of lacking evidence and a plausible mechanism.  They are not pseudoscience because the scientific community says they are; the scientific community considers them pseudoscience because they fail to meet the criteria of (1) making predictions that can be verified in controlled studies (what Gordin and Popper call "falsifiability") and (2) positing a mechanism by which they could operate that is consistent with already-verified science.

So even the realms of science that make claims that aren't falsifiable (the first standard) can still be considered from the standpoint of the second.  Gordin says, "the more 'historical' sciences, like geology and astronomy, pose theories that are more explanatory narratives than up-or-down (and therefore falsifiable) protocol statements of empirical bullet points," which he believes places them outside Popper's criterion of falsifiability.  We can't, for example, falsify claims by geologists that the continents were once a single land mass that subsequently fragmented, because no one was there to see it.  However, the Pangaea theory still lies in the realm of science, not pseudoscience, on the basis of (1) having a plausible mechanism that is in agreement with processes we do see operating in the here and now, and (2) being consistent with the evidence left behind in the rocks, minerals, and fossils we have at hand.

So, my sense is that demarcation isn't as complicated as Gordin makes it.  That's not to say that scientists practice it perfectly; one of my heroes, the Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, was ostracized by the scientific community for years because of her claims that genetic material moved around in the genome, a phenomenon she called transposition and her detractors ridiculed as "jumping genes."  Transposition has now been observed in every eukaryote studied, and is considered one of the main processes regulating gene switching during development.  The scientists who refused to consider McClintock's groundbreaking work for over two decades did so because they weren't applying the rules correctly, not because the rules themselves are "muddled."  McClintock's evidence did support transposition, and once geneticists began to look for a mechanism by which it could occur, it was found in short order.

Just because it may be difficult at time to separate the wheat from the chaff in science doesn't mean that we should give it up as a bad job, nor that we should wait for the scientific community to come to consensus on a topic before labeling it as pseudoscience.  Any sufficiently literate person has the tools to analyze the claims of (for example) homeopathy, and to come to the correct conclusion that it is unscientific nonsense.  The methods of critical thinking are not so fluid, nor so esoteric, that anyone can't learn to apply them.  While "eradicating the fringe" might be, as Gordin claims, an impossibility, educating yourself in the scientific method is a pretty good way to avoid falling prey to its claims.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Who'll stop the rain?

In Umberto Eco's brilliant novel Foucault's Pendulum, three worldly and skeptical book editors whose company specializes in publishing woo-woo nonsense decide to skip the middle-man.  Enough with trying to lure in writers with manuscripts about astrology, psychic phenomena, secret societies, and conspiracy theories; given the amount of time the three editors have spent reading all of this stuff, they have the background to out-woo-woo the woo-woos, and write a book themselves that will trump all the rest.

So they do.  Their manuscript ties together the Templars, the Masons, ley lines, the Holy Grail, black magic, Atlantis, and psychic super-energy.  Their tale is left open-ended, though; the final resting place of the Object of High Magic that has been sought by every secret society in the history of humanity is still being researched, and the Object itself is yet to be found.  After all, everyone knows how irresistible a mystery is!  When their book is printed, the editors congratulate themselves on having taken advantage of the gullible and credulous, and laugh up their sleeves at how anyone could be foolish enough to buy it.

But then, one of them is kidnapped by the very people they've catered to.  A ransom note is delivered to the other two, demanding to know what the solution to the puzzle is.  There is no way, the kidnappers say, that you got that far with putting the clues together, and didn't actually figure out where the Holy Grail is.  Tell us -- or we'll kill your friend.

And, of course, the more the kidnapped man and his two friends insist that there is no mystery, there is no Holy Grail, no Super-Powerful Magical Device hidden in some sacred spot in the world, that they made the whole thing up, the more convinced the kidnappers are that they're lying.  Why would they argue so hard if they didn't have something, something big, to hide?

It's the problem with conspiracy theorists, isn't it?  No power on Earth can convince them they're wrong; facts can be spun or made up, and the people arguing against them are either deluded, stupid, or else part of the conspiracy themselves.  And the trouble -- like with our skeptical book editors in Foucault's Pendulum -- is that sometimes, you end up convincing someone you wish you hadn't.

Which brings us to the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Ahmedinejad has long belonged to that unfortunately extensive list of world leaders who have a rather tentative grip on reality.  He's a hard-line Muslim, is (by all accounts) extremely superstitious, and is a raving Holocaust denier.  Now, however,  he's made statements that indicate that he's also spent too much time reading websites like AboveTopSecret.

Iran is currently suffering through one of the worst droughts in thirty years, and last week Ahmedinejad issued a statement claiming that hostile countries have used their technology to change the weather and cause the drought.  (Source)

"The enemy destroys the clouds that are headed towards our country and this is a war Iran will win," Ahmedinejad said on Monday of last week.  The West, he says, is "using special equipment" to "prevent rain clouds from reaching regional countries, including Iran."

Well, well.  I hope you HAARP conspiracists are proud of yourselves.  You have spent the last ten years blathering on about how the US military now can control the weather (and, according to some, cause earthquakes, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions), and now you've convinced a hostile world leader that you were right.  And not just any hostile world leader; a hostile world leader who (1) hates the United States, (2) is currently trying to develop nuclear weapons, and (3) already showed signs of being a delusional whackjob.

Nicely played, gentlemen.  Nicely played.  But what are you going to do now?

Of course, saying, "Ha-ha, we made it all up," like the editors in Foucault's Pendulum, isn't really an option, because you still believe it's all true, don't you?  So now we have to wait and watch while a nutcase threatens us with war because he believes an elaborate lie concocted by a bunch of other nutcases.

The whole thing is absurd enough that it almost does sound like the plot of a novel.  It makes me think that when the aliens from the planet Nibiru actually do arrive here on December 21, 2012, they're just going to destroy the planet on the basis of there being no intelligent life present.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The ECREE Principle and the Lost Polar Pyramids

I'm often asked why I am so confident in my disbelief of all of the ideas I lump together as "woo-woo" -- ghosts, psychics, Bigfoot, UFOs, conspiracy theories, crystals, homeopathy, and so on.

That question contains two misleading words: "confident" and "disbelief."  As I've mentioned before, in the absence of evidence either way, I'm anything but confident.  If there is no particular scientific reason that something is impossible -- for example, as in the case of Bigfoot -- I am perfectly willing to sit there not knowing whether it's real, forever if need be.  I might doubt a particular sighting of Bigfoot, based upon the circumstances, but I am in no way saying the the whole phenomenon is impossible.  As a scientist, any level of confidence in the complete absence of evidence is an absurd stance.  I neither believe nor disbelieve in Bigfoot; it is, at this point, a possible, but unproven, assertion, and I am content to leave it that way indefinitely until such time as hard evidence is uncovered.

On the other hand, there are cases in which I lean toward disbelief because the claim is so outrageous (although again, not scientifically impossible) that my sense is that the burden of proof is on the person making the claim, not on me to disprove it.  Here, the ECREE Principle comes into play -- Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.  Yes, I know this isn't some kind of scientific law, it's only a rule of thumb, but taken as such, it works pretty damn well, keeping us from demanding the same level of evidence for every claim regardless of its plausibility.

Which brings us to the Lost Polar Pyramids.

Any time I hear someone mention the word "pyramid," my skepti-senses are automatically activated, because so much patent nonsense has been claimed about them.  You have your Pyramids-As-Energy-Collectors crew, not to mention your Egyptian-Pyramids-Were-Built-By-Aliens crew and your Curse-Of-The-Pyramids crew, all vying for the craziest phenomenon to attribute to what honestly are just piles of rocks, albeit very impressive ones.  And now, we have the claim that human-constructed pyramids have been discovered in Alaska (Source) and Antarctica (Source).

If you read the articles in question, you'll find that mostly what the writers do is to show you some photographs and say, "Wow!  Isn't this weird!  Pyramids in the polar regions!  They have to be artificial constructs."  In the case of the Alaska article, we have testimony from a retired intelligence officer named Douglas Mutschler that he and others detected an "underground pyramid" while monitoring the seismic waves from a Chinese nuclear detonation.  The author supports this claim with an aerial shot showing something with a vaguely squarish contour that is so hard to see that in the article, you have to be told where in the photograph to look.  In the Antarctic article, all we're given is some photographs with pointy-topped rocky structures, and we're told they're manmade pyramids.

(Let's for the moment ignore the fact that the Alaska article also goes into something the author refers to, with unintentional comic effect, as the "Alaska Bermuda Triangle," a region bounded by Juneau, Anchorage, and Barrow where allegedly planes tend to disappear.  This is a whole different argument, involving a whole different set of assumptions and implausibilities -- so we'll concentrate for the time being simply on the "human-constructed pyramids in the polar regions" claim.)

So, back to the ECREE principle.  Is the idea of a set of manmade pyramids in Alaska and the Antarctic an "extraordinary claim?"  Given the small population of Alaska, and the absence of an archaeological record of large-scale building there, not to mention the nonexistence of a human population in Antarctica, I'd say we have here a pretty outlandish idea.  Is it impossible?  No.  But a fuzzy aerial shot, the twenty-year-old testimonial of one man, and some random pictures of pointy mountaintops, are just not sufficient grounds for accepting that there's something weird going on.  As I've pointed out before, there are many examples of purely natural geological formations that have straight lines, right angles, polygonal cross-sections, and so on.  If you want me to believe that what I'm looking at is some mysterious artifact of a mysterious culture, built in an entirely unexpected place, what we currently have has not met any sort of minimum standard for evidence.  You'd better head on back to your alleged pyramids and bring us back something better if you want the scientific world to sit up and take notice.

But of course, in the case of the Antarctic pyramids, there's a good reason that we might not want to know if they exist, because you H. P. Lovecraft fans probably recall what happened when scientists found an ancient city in Antarctica in "At the Mountains of Madness."  Of the two people who survived, one ended up in an insane asylum because of the horrors he'd seen; the rest of the team variously got dissected, had their heads bashed in, or got eaten by Shoggoths.  And heaven knows, we wouldn't want that to happen.

But I digress.

In any case, what we have here is an excellent example of why I find most woo-woo claims lacking.  It is not, as I mentioned, because I don't think that there are weird things in the world; it's that if you bring a weird thing to my attention, you'd better have a pretty convincing argument to back you up.  Otherwise, like our Alaskan and Antarctic pyramid hunters, your story will just get filed in the folder labeled "Maybe, But I Doubt It."

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bad moon rising

A frequent reader and contributor to Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site that I had to look at really closely before I could figure out whether it was a parody or not.

Called The Mad Revisionist, the site offers up an argument that the Moon does not exist.  Yes, you read that right; this site is not claiming that the Moon landing was fake, it's claiming that the whole Moon is.

It opens with the following paragraphs:
In 1995, the American Historical Association, in an attempt to stifle revisionist scholarship, marked the 50th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism with a resolution calling on scholars to "initiate plans now to study the significance of the Holocaust." This, however, was not enough of a blow to free academic discourse for the enemies of truth. The president of the AHA, William Leuchtenburg, was asked why the resolution did not go so far as to explicitly recognize the Holocaust as a fact of history. He answered that for a group of historians to say that there had been a Holocaust was tantamount to "an organization of astronomers saying there is a moon."

While, on the surface, this appears as nothing more than a shameless attempt to trivialize and thereby discredit the work of revisionists, it nonetheless got me to thinking: why did this historian single out the moon? Why would a scholar, so familiar with academic standards of evidence, use such language to imply that the existence of the moon, unlike any other issue, was a given and not subject to proof? What, in other words, was he trying to hide?

It was then that I embarked on my research, which has led me to this day when I can confidently make the following assertion: The Moon does not exist.
At this point, I was caught in that uncomfortable region of, "No... um, really?  You're joking, right?"  So I kept reading.  The whole thing is quote-worthy, but I'll leave you to explore the site on your own, which is well worth doing, and only give you a few highlights.

To the objection that we can see the Moon in the sky:  it could be a hologram, or a model, placed there by one of the following: (1) the Illuminati; (2) the CIA;  (3) NASA; or (4) the Rosicrucians.  I think we can all agree that all of the aforementioned would have their own insidious reasons for fooling us into thinking we're looking at the Moon.

To the objection that all of the scientists agree that the Moon exists: we should automatically be suspicious of 100% consensus and scientific orthodoxy.  It means that they're hiding something, and that the Scientific Establishment is determined to squash the views of Brave Mavericks Who Have Discovered The Truth.

To the objection that astronauts have landed there:  Oh, please.  Haven't we debunked that one before?

To the objection that scientists have seen, and analyzed, lunar rocks:  Come on.  How do you know they're from the Moon?  Because the scientists told you they were, and they're in on the conspiracy.  In what may be the best line from the whole site, the author writes, "... if NASA permitted unbiased researchers access to these objects, the fraud would be exposed immediately."

To the objection that the Moon creates tides:  Clouds are closer to the alleged Moon than the oceans are; if the Moon could exert that kind of force on something as massive as the oceans, something as comparatively light as a cloud would go flying off into space.  Ergo: the tides are caused by something else, which "scientists are still researching."

Then follows a "proof" using Newton's Law of Gravitation that if the alleged Moon's path wasn't perfectly circular, the force between the Earth and Moon would fluctuate to the extent that the Moon would crash into the Earth.  As this hasn't happened, the Moon doesn't exist.

There are also several responses to Moon Believers who have written in, and a challenge put out there to anyone who can give unequivocal proof of the Moon's existence.  The first one with acceptable proof will, the site says, receive a $100,000 cash prize.

So, what do you think?  Parody or serious?  I'll give you the answer: it's a thorough, intricate, and brilliantly-constructed parody.  Look down at the bottom of the home page, and in tiny letters, you'll find the following:
DISCLAIMER: All editorial content on this website is strictly not the writer’s/author’s opinion. THE MAD REVISIONIST, located on the moon, is owned and operated by accident. The content of this page is the copyrighted property of THE MAD REVISIONIST. Any illegal copying or circulating of this page, in whole or in part, without the expressed permission of THE MAD REVISIONIST will be taken as a compliment. And no, we're not really offering $100,000. What are you, crazy?
Myself, I think the whole thing is pure genius, and points up in a spectacular fashion how completely impossible it is to argue with conspiracy theorists.  Because once you think that (1) there's a massive disinformation campaign, (2) the people who are the most knowledgeable on the subject are lying to you, and (3) such general rules of thumb as Ockham's Razor and the ECREE Principle do not apply, you can be convinced of anything (or, more likely, can't be unconvinced of whatever crazy idea you happen to be wedded to -- be it Holocaust denial, UFO coverups, New World Order nonsense, the NASA/Nibiru thing, or whatever).

In any case, whoever the Mad Revisionist is, (s)he has a bow and a sincere doff of the hat from me.  Just how long it took me to figure out if it was serious earned some major props -- after all, Woo-Woo Detection is what I do, so the fact that I was fooled for a while is pretty awesome.  And I hope that this shout-out gives you some well-deserved site traffic -- and opens a few people's eyes to how absurd the majority of conspiracy theories actually are.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nye vs. Ham, and the futility of debating creationists

Most of you probably heard that last month, Bill Nye made a short film called Creationism is Not Appropriate For Children, lambasting creationists for holding back the progress of science in America, and for brainwashing children:
Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology... it's very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates.  You're just not going to get the right answer...  Once in a while, I get a person who says, "I don't believe in evolution."  And I say, "Why not?"  Your world just becomes fantastically complicated if you don't believe in evolution.  Here are these ancient dinosaur bones... here is radioactivity, here are distant stars that are just like our star except at a different point in their life cycle.  The idea of deep time, of billions of years, explains so much of the world around us.  If you ignore that, your world view just becomes crazy, it becomes untenable.  And I say to the grown-ups, if you want to deny evolution, if you want to live in your world that is inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine.  But don't make your kids do it, because we need them.  We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers in the future, we need engineers.
Well, of course the creationists weren't going to take that lying down.  First, Dr. David Menton and Dr. Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis crafted a video responding to Nye, claiming (without any apparent sense of irony) that Bill Nye doesn't understand science.  (If you watch their video, note that Purdom has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, which I'm not sure isn't the thing about all this that appalls me the most.  How someone could achieve doctoral level work in molecular genetics without accepting evolution seems to me not just astonishing, but nearly impossible.)  Purdom explains that she teaches her young daughter about evolution "so that she can see the problems with it, which include a complete lack of a genetic mechanism which allows organisms to gain genetic information and go from simple to complex over time."

So far, other than Purdom's Ph.D., none of this is particularly surprising.  After all, we knew that Nye was a scientist, and we know that anyone working for Answers in Genesis has already decided that a Bronze-Age document written down in pieces three-thousand-odd years ago supersedes all of modern science.  But now, Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, has jumped in... and (brace yourself for the shock) he also claims that Nye doesn't understand science:
Bill Nye has an agenda to teach children not to believe in God, to teach them that they came from evolutionary processes, that they came from slime over millions of years.  In fact, Bill Nye doesn't really understand science...  He says that we shouldn't teach children evolution, because we need engineers... What does engineering have to do with evolution?  Bill Nye wasn't a scientist, he studied mechanical engineering, and he worked for Boeing at one point.  I hope he didn't apply his evolutionary principles to any of Boeing's airplanes, because if he did I wouldn't want to fly on one.  I wouldn't want to fly on anything that was built by chance and random processes.  What does he think, that all the parts are just laid out on the runway, and they just come together or something?...  Bill Nye is implying that if we want to teach children creation, that it's really a form of abuse...  I'll tell you what is abuse, what is inappropriate for children, it's when you take generations of children, and teach them that they're just animals...  Who determines right and wrong?  You do.  Who determines good and bad?  You do.  What is marriage?  Whatever you want to make it.  It's people like Bill Nye who are actually damaging the kids.  Creationists are telling children that they're special, that they're made in the image of God, and giving them a basis for knowledge, that we can trust the laws of logic, that we can trust the laws of nature...  (Nye) doesn't teach children how to think critically, he doesn't teach them how to think about science, he wants to teach them what to think.  If evolution was true, it would be totally obvious to kids.  The way to convince kids about evolution is that you've got to do what Bill Nye the Humanist Guy wants to do.  You protect them from hearing anything about creation, you totally indoctrinate them, you brainwash them, you don't teach them to think critically at all.
And once again, my general reaction was: *yawn*.

But now, the people at Answers in Genesis have thrown down the gauntlet and challenged Nye to a debate.  Dr. Georgia Purdom, the aforementioned creationist molecular geneticist, stated in an interview in the Christian Post that a debate between Nye and Ham "could be held at a public university, using an impartial moderator.  I would think that someone as polished and charismatic as Mr. Nye would relish the opportunity to debate a creationist.  In addition, since Nye will soon be hosting a new science program, I would think he would like to see the publicity generated by his participation in a major public debate."

And here's where I sat up and took notice.

There is no way in the world Nye should accept this offer.  Evolutionists have nothing to gain by debating with creationists, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with being afraid we're going to lose.  (Note that this hasn't prevented me, more than once, from doing just that; in fact, I was once a panelist on a debate between young-earth creationists, intelligent-design proponents, and evolutionists.)  The reason that Nye would be a fool to accept this challenge is that it implies that there is something to debate -- that scientists and creationists actually accept the same ground rules, the same methods, the same standards for evidence.  When you start out from the standpoint of saying, "I believe what this book says because this book says it, it's the word of god," you have trumped any other argument right from the get-go.  You have abandoned the principles of scientific induction and the basis of logical argument.  A "debate" with you would be about as productive as a discussion between two people who are speaking mutually unintelligible languages.

It's easy enough to get needled by the arrogant certainty of the creationists, by their steadfast blindness to mountains of evidence that would be absolutely convincing in any other field.  It's tempting to think, "If I just present it a different way, they'll understand."  The fact is, any debate with creationists only serves to legitimize their views -- and to further convince the public that there is doubt in scientific circles that evolution occurs.  As such, Nye should respond to Purdom, Menton, and Ham with one of his characteristic little smiles, and say, "No, thanks.  But do let me know if you ever come to your senses.  Then we can talk."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Could it be... Satan?

In what can only be described as a Great Leap Backward for rationality, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland has announced that it is publishing the world's only monthly magazine focused exclusively on exorcisms.  (Source)

The journal, called Egzorcysta, will feature stories about Satanic possession, how to recognize it in others, and how to avoid it for yourself.  Its first issue, released on Monday, has articles entitled "Satan is Real" and "New Age: The Spiritual Vacuum Cleaner."

The magazine was apparently conceived as a response to an increasing demand for the services of exorcists in Poland.  Father Aleksander Posacki, a professor of philosophy and theology and "a leading demonologist and exorcist," stated to reporters that the number of exorcisms has risen dramatically, and links the increase to the fall of communism.

"The rise in the number or exorcists from four to more than 120 over the course of 15 years in Poland is telling," he said.  "It's indirectly due to changes in the system: capitalism creates more opportunities to do business in the area of occultism.  Fortune telling has even been categorised as employment for taxation.  If people can make money out of it, naturally it grows and its spiritual harm grows too."

His colleague, Father Andrzej Grefkowicz, has stated that there is a "three-year waiting list for exorcists in Warsaw."

To which I can only respond: you have to wait three years to get an exorcism?  You'd think that if they really believed that Satan was possessing someone, and working through them to commit evil, they'd get someone right on it.  "Let's see... is your daughter making things float around?  Yes... Has she puked up any pea soup lately?...  I see... Is she able to turn her head a full 360 degrees?  Mmmm-hmmmm... I understand... Well, we'll send someone down.  Can you pencil us in for November 12, 2015?"

 Of course, the main problem I see with all of this is that I have never heard of credible evidence that any of it -- Satan, possession, exorcism, and the rest -- has the least basis in reality.  What's always been puzzling to me, and that I've never heard any True Believers adequately explain, is why (if Satan is out there looking for souls to inhabit), he doesn't pick likelier targets.  Odd how the people who get possessed, and who end up in the hands of an exorcist, are virtually always Catholics themselves.  You would think that a scoffing atheist like myself would be a perfect victim, given the apparent weakness of my own Eternal Spirit.  But I've never heard of a single case of a rationalist nonbeliever being possessed.

Which in my mind places demonic possession squarely in the realm of either (1) mental illness, or (2) hysteria brought on by fear.  In the first case, treating the problem using exorcism borders on criminal neglect -- to take some poor schizophrenic, and to try to cure his illness by mumbling some prayers and pouring holy water on his head, is in the same category as the Christian Scientists who waste time praying over someone with appendicitis.  In the second case, I have no doubt that exorcisms sometimes "work" -- in the sense that if your "demonic possession" was caused by your panicked fear that there was an evil entity trying to control you, then an authority figure performing a ritual and telling you that the entity had departed would undoubtedly help you to feel better.  It's a little like the nocebo effect -- the scientifically documented phenomenon in which people who believe that voodoo curses are real become ill if a practitioner tells them that they have been cursed.

The whole thing is profoundly bothersome.  I find it amazing that we sit here in the 21st century, with our incredible access to science, technology, and rational thought, and are still hearing stories about demons and Satan and witches (take a look at this BBC story about people in Ghana who are permanently exiled to "witch camps," away from their families, if they're accused of sorcery).  I know that things have improved -- far more people are rationalists, and have a good understanding of science, now than did even thirty years ago.  But when I read this sort of thing, I realize that we still have a very long way to go.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Unexplainable malarkey

A regular reader and frequent contributor to Skeptophilia sent me a link yesterday, with the message, "Oooh, look!  Another company has discovered that it can sell bogus woo-woo stuff using your favorite words - frequency, field, energy, and vibration!"

Many of you probably recall how pissed off I get when people use scientific words and can't even be bothered to look up the actual definitions.  It's even worse when they use said misused scientific words to rip people off, although clearly some of the responsibility lies with the consumers, because after all, they could also bother to look up the actual definitions if they wanted to -- caveat emptor, and all of that sort of thing.

So, anyway, when I clicked the link, and it brought me to a site called "Unexplainable Frequencies," I knew this one was gonna be good for a few faceplants.  Here's the banner headline on the homepage:

  • Manifestation
  • Wealth
  • Visualization
  • Astral Projection
  • Lucid Dreams
  • Spirit Guide
  • Chakra Work
  • Remote Viewing
  • Psychic/ESP
  • Christ Consciousness
  • IQ Increaser