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

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ley lines redux

Last year I wrote a piece about "ley lines," which are supposedly lines of "Earth energy" that run through sacred sites and places where the ancients built settlements.  The whole thing is immensely popular in the UK, where there have been dozens of books written that claim that the siting of towns, cathedrals, monasteries, and stone circles was based (sometimes unconsciously) on the perception of these "energy lines" that channel psychic power beneath the Earth's surface.  (Ley Lines Across the Midlands, Earth Energy: A Dowser's Investigation of Ley Lines,  and Arks Within Grail Lands, not to mention the book that started the whole phenomenon -- The Old Straight Track -- are all available on Amazon, should you have nothing better to do with your money.)

Myself, I just thought that important places were sited along straight lines because Euclid et al. showed that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points.  Going from Stonehenge to Glastonbury via Cambridge doesn't, perhaps, make quite as much sense.

Having the general idea that the whole thing is a lot of woo-woo nonsense, I was pretty psyched when a friend sent me a link to the site "The Magical Mystical Ley Line Locator."  The home page of the site shows a map of England, and has the caption "Ley Lines: mysterious lines of force between ancient monuments.  Are you one of the lucky Britons that lives on a mystical energy highway?"  You are then invited to enter a postal code for your home town, and the site will see if you live on a ley line, or better yet, on an intersection of two or more ley lines, which is supposed to represent some kind of psychic node where the confluence of Earth energy causes all sorts of cool paranormal stuff to happen.

Now, I'm not British and don't know any postal codes -- as far as I can tell, they make even less intuitive sense than the US zip code system -- so I decided to look up a postal code for a town I've been to.  I chose Thirsk, in Yorkshire, because I have fond memories of being there when I was on a walking tour of northern England in the mid-90s.  I found that Thirsk's postal code is YO74LS, so I entered that in the "ley line locator."

And lo, I found that Thirsk is not at the intersection of two, but three, ley lines.  Next to the map showing the ley lines converging on Thirsk was the message: "This is amazing!  We found three ley lines that converge at that location, including one from Stonehenge...  You seem to live at a swirl of ancient energy highways; this may mean that your area is a hotspot for paranormal activity, or even for unidentified flying objects!"

Below this was the statement, "IMPORTANT: to understand these findings and any potential dangers, read this."  So I clicked that link, and the following message came up:

"So here's the truth: ley lines don't exist.  Sorry to disappoint you. The truth is, no matter where in England you are, this site will happily find you three ley lines — including one that goes through Stonehenge!  How?  Simple: there are over 9,000 scheduled monuments in England.  We're running with a smaller database - about 3,000 of the most impressive ones - but that's more than enough to guarantee that hundreds of "ley lines" will pass right through your house.  The site picks a few directions, draws a line, and finds the closest sites of interest. By discarding the misses and showing you only the hits, something that's incredibly common can be made to look spectacular.  That's how ley lines... work -- they take advantage of the fact that the human brain is really bad at statistics."

Well, all I can say is:  Well played.  Up to that moment, I really thought this was a serious woo-woo website.  My day was much improved by finding out that the designer of this website -- Tom Scott (*doffs hat in Mr. Scott's general direction*) -- has created it not to promote the fuzzy thinking that belief in ley lines represents, but to show it up for the foolishness that it is in a particularly elegant fashion.  (He also includes a link to a bit from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, winning him further points in my book.)

So, sorry to disappoint you, but your house doesn't sit on a confluence of Earth energies, and you'll have to look for another reason to explain why your clocks run fast and you keep losing your car keys.  Oh, well, that's the way it goes.  I'll end with my own favorite quote by Carl Sagan, which seems peculiarly relevant to this discussion:  "It is far better to understand the universe as it is than to persist in delusion, however comforting or reassuring."

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