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, February 28, 2013

A call to civil disobedience

This time of year is always a difficult one in public schools -- and it has little to do with it being March, a month with no three-day weekends.

It's budget time.  State and federal funding levels have been set, local school boards are deciding on this year's tax levy -- and that means the announcement will soon come that identifies whose head is on the chopping block.  This is the season when younger teachers and teachers in the "non-core" disciplines such as art, music, and technology begin to polish up their resumés.  This, despite the fact that the number of years a teacher has taught has little correlation with his or her skill.  This, despite the fact that the areas dismissively referred to as "non-core" subjects are ones that expand the mind, foster creativity, push students to draw connections between disparate fields, and are downright enjoyable.

People -- teachers, students, and community members -- give lip service to how unfair it all is.  Every damn year.  "We should be committed to keeping excellence in our schools."  "We need to support public education."  "Build more schools, or build more jails."  And yet, each year at this time, we fight the same battles, having to cross swords with school boards who are strapped for money, arguing that our programs shouldn't be cut.  Inevitably we teachers end up in the uncomfortable position of trying to protect our own asses.  I give an impassioned plea to the board to save my job -- all the while knowing that if my position isn't cut, that of the teacher in the next classroom may well be.  At the same time, the state and federal government lays on more unfunded mandates, more high-stakes testing, as if you can legislate inspiring teaching, as if you can quantify the ability to foster creative connections with children.

Most teachers are team players.  Most of us went into the field because it seemed a good fit -- meaning we respect order and authority, believe that employees should do as told, think that whoever is in front of the room must know what (s)he is talking about.  So we grumble about all of the new laws -- laws that, in my state, will give teachers a numerical grade at the end of each year, based in part on how students perform on high-stakes end-of-the-year tests.  We complain about every year doing more with less.  We mourn for talented teachers who have been laid off, curricular areas that are simply not going to be taught any more because the school district couldn't afford to teach art, or choral music, or foreign language, or AP classes, or computer-aided design.

But we do little more than talk.  A big news story in New York state came just this week from the town of New Paltz, where the school board voted unanimously to protest on the state and federal level the increased reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, and the unfunded mandates, and the skewed and statistically absurd teacher rating system ("APPR"), and the destructive funding formula that has every year in the past five years caused significant reductions in staff.  (Read the whole resolution here.)  Although a step in the right direction, this amounts to nothing more than a symbolic gesture; Governor Cuomo and the state and federal Departments of Education have no particular motive for listening.  It still, honestly, is little more than talk, albeit on a different level than the demoralized complaining I hear on a daily basis.

Maybe it's time for something bigger.

Maybe it's time that schools band together and rebel.  No teacher, staff member, or school administrator I've ever talked to thinks that the way things are currently being managed is beneficial to the people who count the most in this endeavor -- the students.  All of us seem to feel that our hands are tied, because the state and federal governments oversee funding -- and if we don't follow the mandates, which (I must add) are almost all generated, crafted, and passed by individuals who have never taught a day in their lives, the purse strings get cut.  Both "No Child Left Behind" and "Race To The Top" carry significant financial penalties for districts who fail to meet the standards.  Because that makes sense, right?  Take districts that are failing, and withdraw more funds from them.  That'll help.

But maybe the time has come for some civil disobedience.  Maybe it'll take a group of school districts who have school boards with some backbone, to take what the New Paltz School Board did, and go a step further.  Say "no" to high stakes testing.  Send back the standardized tests that are now used to evaluate students, staff, administrators, and entire districts, and which have been shown time after time to be an unreliable measure either of student performance or of teacher performance.  Include a note saying, "Sorry, we're choosing not to participate."  Issue an ultimatum to the agencies that hold the power of the purse; revise funding formulas, so that schools can continue to provide quality education to our children -- or we will simply close and lock the doors.

It might be time to play a game of "Who blinks first?" with education, because at the moment, all of the power rests with a group of people who I am becoming increasingly convinced haven't the vaguest notion of what they are doing.  State and federal departments of education are revealing themselves to be a costly failed experiment.  It's time that committed individuals on the local level flex their muscles, and take some risks, to save public education. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A giant conspiracy

Sometimes accusations of conspiracy can come from unexpected sources -- and can create odd bedfellows.

Just last month, I ran into a TEDx talk by a gentleman named Jim Vieira (now removed from the internet by the powers-that-be).  In this talk, he made some rather curious claims.  To sum up: the Mound Builder cultures of early eastern North America were not just comprised of the ancestors of today's Native Americans, they included a race of red-haired giants.  And I do mean giant -- some of these folks were twelve feet tall... or more:

Oh, and did I mention that they had two, or even three, rows of teeth?

Man, those would have been some seriously scary dudes.

As evidence, Vieira trotted out some newspaper clippings from the early 20th century, one of which I include below:

A few photographs of actual bones were shown, but then Vieira really went into deep water.  Because not only did he claim that such bones were commonly found in burial mounds in eastern North America, he claimed that hundreds of such bones had been sent to the Smithsonian Institution...

... which has, ever since, covered up their existence and denied it ever happened.

Now, my first thought was, "Why would they do that?"  What earthly reason would an institution founded to further knowledge have to arbitrarily pick one interesting archaeological finding, and deny it?  But that's what Vieira thinks; the giants walked the Earth, but the Smithsonian doesn't want you to know about it.

But that was only the beginning.  Vieira's talk spurred an unlikely association between several groups of wackos who normally don't have much to say to one another.  These included:
  • Government cover-up types, who just loved having the Smithsonian involved in a conspiracy
  • UFO believers, who think this is the result of human/alien hybridization
  • Sasquatchers, who think the bones are the remains of Bigfoot
  • Fundamentalist Christians, who believe in the whole Nephilim/ "there were giants in those days" thing (Genesis 6:4) and believe that this supports biblical literalism
  • Various other wingnuts who just like it when the scientists are put in a bad light
Websites supporting one, two, or all of the above viewpoints began to spring up all over, most citing Vieira's research as if it were the Holy Writ.  Then they began to cite each other, and the whole thing exploded in a giant cloud of woo-woo quantum frequencies, to perpetuate itself lo unto this very day.

The problem is, the evidence for any of this is kind of... non-existent.  As for the photographs, the late 19th and early 20th century were rife with frauds involving skeletons (think Piltdown Man, the Cardiff Giant, and so on).  The newspaper articles aren't any better; I could find you a hundred newspaper clippings from that era that are demonstrably false, so this sort of "evidence" really doesn't amount to much.  As for the Smithsonian participating in a coverup, the following is a quote from an archaeologist who actually has worked for the Smithsonian:
In 2007 I was a visiting scientist at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center, and while it is full of amazing and bizarre material (e.g., an entire herd of elephants that Teddy Roosevelt shot occupies one floor), there is no conspiracy to cover up or hide Native American giant skeletons or artifacts. Like most museums, the Smithsonian displays less than 1% of its collections at any given time, meaning that a lot of material spends decades (or sadly centuries) in its vaults awaiting exhibition. We can debate whether or not this is responsible stewardship (a debate that would also have to include a discussion of the chronic underfunding of public museums and the economics of public education), but to portray the Smithsonian today as part of some sort of a conspiracy of ‘misinformation and corruption’ to cover up Native American history by hiding giant Mound Builder skeletons excavated in the 19th century is ridiculous.
And if that wasn't enough, here's a quote from a spokesperson for the Center for American Archaeology, one of the most respected anthropological research establishments in the world:
I can assure you that the archaeological Woodland and Mississippian populations were not giants. In some cases, one can observe a slight decrease in average height (a few centimeters) with the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. This is a trend that is observed in many cultures that undergo an agricultural transition, and is likely related to shorter nursing times and increased early childhood grain consumption (maximum height is highly correlated to childhood protein consumption, so a high reliance on grain during childhood tends to result in shorter stature).
As a result of all of this, TEDx removed Vieira's talk (read the stinging rebuke Vieira received from TEDx curator Stacy Kontrabecki here). But that hasn't stopped the claims -- far from it. Kontrabecki was promptly accused of caving under pressure from the Evil Cadre That Runs The Smithsonian. Some bloggers claimed she'd been paid to silence Vieira. Virtually all of them agreed that the reason Vieira's talk was taken down was that... we can't just have this information about giants getting out there.

Right.  Because that's plausible.  The government has nothing better to do than to make sure the general public doesn't find out that Hagrid once lived in Ohio.

 It can't just be that Vieira, and the other folks who are putting forth these claims, are just making shit up.  Nope.  It has to be a conspiracy.

So the removal of Vieira's talk that hasn't stopped the aforementioned woo-woos from continuing to quote him, and his "evidence," as hard, cold fact.  If you do a search for "giant skeletons Smithsonian conspiracy" you will get thousands of hits, leading you to websites authored by people who, in my opinion, should not be allowed outside unsupervised.

So, that's it.  Zero hard evidence, a bunch of wild claims, accusations of a coverup, and a very peculiar association of groups arguing for the same thing for different reasons.  Once again illustrating the truth of the saying from South Africa -- "There are forty different kinds of lunacy, but only one kind of common sense."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

An end to squatchery: Ketchum screws up big time

At what point, given lack of evidence -- and often plenty of confounding conditions, such as hoaxes -- is it appropriate simply to tell people who make wild claims, "Sorry, you had your chance, we're not wasting any more time on you?"

It's an interesting question.  Lots of the more dedicated woo-woos, especially those whose chosen field of woo is cryptozoology, UFOs, hauntings, or psychic phenomena, regularly rail against the scientific world for not taking them seriously.  You hear words like "closed-minded," "arrogant," and "hidebound" thrown at the scientific establishment, because skeptical scientists won't even consider their claims worth investigating.

And up to a certain line, the woo-woos have a point.  We skeptics shouldn't dismiss claims out of hand just because they seem "out there."  But there comes a time when, with failure after repeated failure, the scientists and skeptics are well within their rights to give up.

Unfortunately, that point may have been reached with Bigfoot.

I say "unfortunately" because being an evolutionary biologist by training, no one would be more delighted than me if it turned out that there was a large, previously-unstudied hominin out there wandering in the woods.  But recent events may have finally, sadly, pushed that claim across into the same realm as homeopathy and astrology -- contentions that are so ludicrous that they are not even worth considering.

The events that have dropped Sasquatch into the Bog of Eternal Stench began last year, with a claim by a geneticist named Dr. Melba Ketchum that she had sequenced the DNA of some alleged Bigfoot tissue, and found that it had novel sequences identifying it as an unknown hominin.  Big news, eh?  A lot of folks, myself included, wondered if this might be the real deal at last.  Then Dr. Ketchum delayed... and delayed... and delayed releasing the results for peer review.  Then she did, and the paper got rejected because of "multiple problems with the research methodology."  So in a fit of pique, Dr. Ketchum and her associates started their own science journal (current number of publications: one) to publish her paper in, because that's the way to be taken seriously in the scientific world.  But just two days ago, some sharp-eyed folks at JREF (James Randi Educational Forum) spotted an even more fundamental problem with the paper...

... she used citations that were completely bogus.

This trick, common to lazy college students, amounts to putting references in your "Sources Cited" list that you either (1) are misrepresenting, (2) didn't look at, or (3) made up, in order to make it look like your paper was well-researched and well-supported.  Well, wait till you hear what she tried to pull in this one...  (The following is thanks to Sharon Hill, whose awesome blog Doubtful News should be on all of your bookmarks.)

Ketchum's references include:

(1) Milinkovitch, M C, Caccone, A and Amato, G. Molecular phylogenetic analyses indicate extensive morphological convergence between the ‘‘yeti’’ and primates. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31:1–3. (2004)  This paper is a well-known April Fool's joke, which places Sasquatches in the same clade as... horses and zebras!  But if that wasn't enough to clue you in that it's satire, there's a footnote with the following:  "More significantly, however, this study indicates that evolutionary biologists need to retain sense of humor in their efforts to reconstruct phylogenetic relationships.  Happy April Fool’s Day !"  Did Ketchum not even look at this paper? Because my 10th graders in Introductory Biology would have recognized it was a joke, even without the tag line.  Oh, and did I mention that Ketchum's specialty is... horses?

(2)  Coltman, D and Davis, C. Molecular cryptozoology meets the Sasquatch. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution 21:60–61. (2006)  This paper is not itself a hoax, but is about a hoax -- not at all how she represents the citation.

(3)  Lozier, J D, Aniello, P and Hickerson, M J. Predicting the distribution of Sasquatch in western North America: anything goes with ecological niche modeling. Journal of Biogeography 36:1623–1627. (2009)  Check out the conclusion of the abstract on this paper: "We compare the distribution of Bigfoot with an ENM for the black bear, Ursus americanus, and suggest that many sightings of this cryptozoid may be cases of mistaken identity."  Doesn't really support your conjecture, does it, Melba?

When confronted with this, Ketchum responded with the following rambling diatribe on Facebook.  Spelling and grammar has been left intact:
Do to the wild rumors out on the internet. I felt it important to address a new rumor about a possible hoax. First we have never hoaxed anything as there is no need to. We have the proof we need in the science. I hope this helps everyone understand.
One of the early reviewers asked for any and all references related to our subject matter. We neither agreed with nor endorsed any of those references used though Bindernagel’s books are a good effort since at the time he didn’t know the human element involved. It was not our choice to use any of them though. That ref was a testament to the idiocy surrounding not only the scientific bias against the existence of these “people” but also the request by reviewers for refs that we had not felt had any place in our manuscript and were not included originally. This same reviewer required the so-called folklore that is in the introduction. That also was not in the original manuscript.
"We have the proof."  Oh, okay, right, that's all I need!  After this sideshow, Ketchum et al. would damn near have to trot a live Bigfoot onto stage for any scientist to give her the time of day.  Her snide little "I hope that helps everyone understand," and snarky comments about "idiocy" and "scientific bias" lead me to wonder if she's not a hoaxer, but simply has a screw loose.

In any case, much as it pains me to admit it, I think it's time to put the whole Sasquatch thing to rest.  No more shall we hear the mournful cry of the Bigfoot in the forests at night, no more shall we go-a-squatchin' in the trackless woods of the Pacific Northwest.  Sad to say, but we have better things to do with our time than to waste them chasing shadows, which is what Melba Ketchum and her team seem to be doing.

Farewell, old friend.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The New World Order and "the Harlem Shake"

Well, I'm sure you're all wondering this morning what the Illuminati are doing.  My suspicion, given that it's Way Too Early o'Clock, is that any Illuminati in the United States are probably doing what I do at this time of day, which is to swear at the alarm clock, and then yawn, put on my bathrobe, and stumble around the kitchen trying to figure out how to operate the coffee maker.  Any sensible Illuminati are still asleep, of course.  If I was an evil, super-powerful, super-intelligent member of the Inner Circle, bent on world domination, I certainly wouldn't feel obliged to get up early, and I would definitely have one of my minions let the dogs out and fix my breakfast.

Be that as it may, it behooves us to keep an eye on these people.  After all, they're up to all sorts of bad, highly secret stuff, conspiracies so amazingly secret that you can find out all about them if you google "illuminati secret conspiracies."  Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, we found out that Beyoncé had caused a power outage at the Superbowl by flashing a special hand signal.  The source of this intriguing claim was one Sarah Wilson, who writes for and who seems to be a wingnut of nearly David Icke proportions.  And now, Sarah Wilson is making another, even more amazing claim: that the Illuminati are trying to brainwash people...

... using "the Harlem Shake."

I'm not making this up, and if you don't mind doing repeated headdesks, you can read her whole piece here.  And for the three people worldwide who have not yet seen the "Harlem Shake," and who might be understandably reluctant to watch the video link posted above, allow me to explain that it is a 30-odd second clip of a piece of syntho-pop music by the American musician Baauer that someone decided to videotape a "dance" to.  I put "dance" in quotation marks, because as far as I can tell, it consists mostly of scantily-clad people flailing their arms and doing repeated pelvic thrusts, although in all honesty I have to admit that it probably takes more skill than "the Macarena."

In any case, it didn't strike me as anything that might lead to brainwashing, but Sarah Wilson begs to differ:
Why would some make a connection between the Harlem Shake videos and the Illuminati? For starters, some have questioned the motives of the dance craze based on the lyrics. It isn’t that far-fetched that the Harlem Shake could play a role in a conspiracy to brainwash people...  Is there a possibility that the trending videos are part of a conspiracy to infantilize adults in America – to the point that they "become unaware of the gradual loss of civil liberties?"
Because that makes sense.  If I take my shirt off and gyrate around for thirty seconds, I'll become so addled that Congress could repeal the entire Constitution and I wouldn't even notice.

But of course, it's not like she doesn't have some big guns backing her up:
...the Harlem Shake could be seen as a way to program and influence the actions of today's younger generation. According to Alex Jones of, the Harlem Shake promotes an approach to 'freeze' the development of men and women and keep them at the mental capacity of 12-year-olds. The objective is to prevent these members of society from becoming able-bodied, free-thinking adults. As a result, these people are less likely to understand (or oppose) larger political and social issues.
Let me get this straight; you quote Alex Jones for support, and this is supposed to increase your credibility?  The guy who believes that everything from the Moon landing to the Oklahoma City bombing were government fabrications?  The guy who wanted to wrestle Piers Morgan so he could find out what flag Morgan had stitched to his underwear?  The guy that even Glenn Beck thinks is a wacko right-wing extremist?

Now, mind you, I'm not saying that I'm pro-"Harlem Shake."  As far as I'm concerned, it's a little ridiculous, and I have better things to do with my time than to put on a Spiderman outfit and leap around on the furniture.  I mean, if you're going to learn to do an Internet-craze dance, go for "Gangnam Style," which at least requires some dancing skill, now that we know that it wasn't Psy et al. fulfilling one of the prophecies of Nostradamus.

The whole thing leaves me a little weary, not to mention bruised from the repeated facepalms I did while writing this.  So I'll just end with one recommendation, for any Illuminati who are reading this; next time you come up with a YouTube craze for Achieving World Domination, can you make sure it doesn't involve guys in their underwear performing pelvic thrusts?  Because I really don't need that image haunting my nightmares.  Thank you.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fostering awesomeness

I spend a lot of time in this blog being negative.  On some level, it's inevitable, given my subject matter.  I've chosen to seek out bad thinking, stupid ideas, bizarre beliefs, and random illogic, and hope (by bringing that stuff to light) to sharpen awareness of the dangers of irrationality.

The personal danger, of course, both to myself and my readers, is becoming cynical.  One of the first points I make in my Critical Thinking class is that credulity and cynicism are equal and opposite errors; trusting no one is as lazy, and as wrong, as trusting everyone.  But still, it's hard not to be a little critical of humanity at times.  Like George Carlin said:

Yesterday, one of my coworkers (for reasons I'll describe in a moment) challenged me to write something positive, to (for once) not write about failures of human reason, rationality, and compassion, but about its successes.  It's easy enough to poke fun at the woo-woos; my teacher friend set me the task instead to celebrate the ways that the human mind have made things better.

It was an important reminder for me, honestly, because as a teacher, I can't afford to become cynical.  If I ever give up hope that my students can grow up to make the world a better place, that they are capable and smart and moral and worthy of the best I can offer them, I should retire and get a job as a WalMart greeter.  And sadly, I do hear teachers say those sorts of things; any number of negative statements preceded by the words "Kids these days..."  Usually insinuating that when we were children, all of us were hard working, diligent, ethical, honest, and respectful.  Not only do I feel like asking people who make these sorts of statements, "Do you really not remember anything about being a teenager?", I think that attitude is profoundly unfair to kids today.  Admittedly, there are some differences; the ubiquity of electronic media, access to information, changes in attitudes toward relationships and sexuality -- all make today's cultural milieu a different place to grow up than it was the four-odd decades ago that I was a teenager.  But kids are kids, people are people, and they have the same hopes, dreams, and desires that we do.  If you want an outlook that I like better, watch the following:

*brief pause to blow my nose*  Sorry, that one makes me cry every damn time.

And of course, there's the video that's the reason all of this came up.  Yesterday, we had an assembly, run by our principal (who, as an aside, is far and away the best administrator I have ever worked for).  The whole gist of it was that we each need to find our voices -- a message that resonated especially strongly with me, because when I started this blog four years ago it was in an effort to find my own voice, to have a way to express myself about the things I thought were important.  And he ended with this video:

It was as we were leaving that my coworker, the physics teacher, said to me, "You need to work this into your blog."  I told him I'd rise to the challenge if I could.  So I'll end with issuing the same challenge to you; go out and speak up.  Take on the issues you think are critical.  Encourage the people around you to make your community a better place.  People do, you know.  Yes, there are bigots, lazy thinkers, and irrational individuals, but there are also plenty of smart, kind, self-sacrificing, compassionate people, and I live in the hope that the latter are more numerous:

So, in the words of Kid President: "Now go out, and create something that will make the world awesome."

Friday, February 22, 2013

Andrew Jackson was half African, and other urban legends

Did you know that daddy-long-legs have an incredibly poisonous venom, so poisonous that they'd be the most deadly spider in the world, except their mandibles are so weak that they can't pierce human skin and inject it into you?

Did you know that you shouldn't throw rice at weddings, because birds will eat it, and then it will swell up in their stomachs and their stomachs will rupture and it will kill them?

Well, if you answered "No," good, because as it turns out, neither of these is true.  The first one still makes the rounds despite its being entirely false -- not only did Mythbusters debunk it, but technically, daddy-long-legs aren't even true spiders (they belong to an arachnid group called "harvestmen").  As far as the birds, if that were true, it would make it hard to explain why there are a number of bird species who are major pests in rice fields -- they are presumably not taking the rice they steal home and cooking it in tiny rice pots before serving.

These old-wives'-tales, or urban legends, or whatever you want to call them, are still out there, and I still periodically get asked about them by students.  But we have one advantage, these days, as compared to when I was young -- we now have the internet as a giant fact-checking device.

I've done a good bit of railing against the internet as being a conduit for bullshit, but used properly, it does have one truly wonderful function; if you have access to a computer, you can get nearly instantaneous access to information for the purpose of verifying claims.  For example, take a look at the following website, "The Seven Black Presidents Before Obama," which (despite being written in 2008) is still circulating today.  (In fact, I just saw it for the first time two days ago as a Facebook post.)

In case you don't feel like reading it, the gist is that there were seven earlier US Presidents -- Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and a pre-George-Washington guy who was supposedly the first actual president, a gentleman named John Hanson -- who had significant amounts of African ancestry.  And we're not just talking about one African ancestor way back; the site claims that Andrew Jackson, for example, was the son of an Irish woman by an African American father.

Well, the whole thing set my skepti-senses ringing immediately.  For one thing, among the "evidence" given (if I can dignify it by that name) is that Coolidge's mother's maiden name was "Moor," and we all know that "Moor" is an old name for North Africans.  (If that's the way it worked, I suppose President Bush was descended from a hedgerow.)  Now, if this had been handed around thirty years ago, and you doubted it, your only recourse would have been a painstaking search through the encyclopedia, or, failing that, a trip to the library.  As for me, it took me a grand total of fifteen seconds to find this page -- wherein each of the claims is analyzed, to be summed up as follows:  "Historians' and biographers' studies of these presidents have not supported such claims, nor have the claims above been peer-reviewed.  They are generally ignored by scholars."  (They also note that Coolidge's mother's maiden name, Moor, can not only mean "dark or swarthy," but also refers to a geographical feature common in the British Isles, and that there are tens of thousands of people named Moor(e) who aren't of African descent.)

The whole John Hanson thing, by the way, seems to be an outright fabrication that conflates John Hanson of Maryland (a Caucasian who was the president of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution) with a John Hanson who was an African American who went to Liberia in the 1800s and served as a senator there.  The two were (obviously) different men.  [Source]

So, the bottom lines is that we have even less excuse these days for (1) not checking what we're told, and (2) believing bullshit.  Now, that's not to say that there isn't lots of bullshit out there on the internet.  For example, 95% of the nonsense I rail about daily on this blog comes from the 'web.  But there's an easy solution; the simplest way to find the good stuff is to append the word "skeptic" or "debunk" after what you're searching for on Google.  That's what I did with the "Black Presidents" thing -- I just Googled "Seven Black Presidents Before Obama Debunk" and it brought up the page I linked above (and also a page that had basically the same information).

Anyhow, that's my musings on critical thinking for today.  It looks like, in fact, Barack Obama really is the first African-American president, unless you count the fact that in reality we're all from Africa if you go back far enough.  It did get me thinking, though, that what'll be even more interesting is if the College of Cardinals selects an African pope, which is looking like a possibility.  Wouldn't it be cool to have the Catholic Church not run by an old, homophobic, bigoted white guy?  An old, homophobic, bigoted black guy would be at least a step in the right direction.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Science, rigor, and hostility

One of the things I find hard to understand about woo-woos is their hostility toward the people who want to test their beliefs.

Not the actual charlatans, mind you.  I get why they're hostile; we skeptics are trying to ruin their con game.  But the true believers, the ones who honestly think they're in touch with Great and Powerful Other Ways of Knowing -- shouldn't they be thrilled that finally, there are scientists who will submit their claims to rigorous investigation?

Of course, they aren't, for the most part.  They hate skeptics.  Take, for example, the outright fury that James Randi's Million-Dollar Challenge evokes.  This site even goes so far as to call Randi a cheat, and states that he and prominent skeptic Michael Shermer (author of the wonderful book Why People Believe Weird Things) are "not real skeptics."  Then there's the piece "The Relentless Hypocrisy of James Randi," by Michael Goodspeed, which ends thusly:
I must again remark on the irony of self-described magicians trying so desperately to debunk paranormal phenomena. After all, Magic in its purest form is an embracing of the Unknown, and these people run from it every chance they get.
I must point out, in the sake of honesty, that the Goodspeed article appeared at -- the website owned by Jeff Rense, who is a wingnut of fairly significant proportions.  RationalWiki says about Rense that he is an anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, conspiracy theorist, and alt-med peddler who is "the poor man's Alex Jones."

So.  Yeah.  Randi and Shermer make people angry, but most of their objections seem to be just whinging complaints about "not playing fair" and denying specific requests (Goodspeed, for example, takes Randi to task for not even considering the claim of Rico Kolodzey, who claimed to be a "breatharian" -- that he could live on nothing but air and water.  Me, I would not only have refused to consider Kolodzey's claim, I would have laughed right in his face.  Maybe I'm "not a real skeptic," either.)  You rarely hear anyone explain why the woo-woos think that the scientists' methods are wrong.  Most of the attacks are just that -- free-floating ad hominems.  Other than the occasional, Uri-Geller-style "your atmosphere of disbelief is interfering with the psychic energies," no one seems to have a very cogent explanation of why we shouldn't turn the hard, cold lens of science on these people's claims.

Except, of course, that none of them seem, under laboratory conditions, to be able to do what they claim to do.  When pressed, or even when subjected to a simple set of controls, all of the claims fall apart.  Of course, some of them even fall apart before that:

And it's not that we skeptics don't give them plenty of chances.  Take, for example, last week's challenge by an Australian skeptics' group, the Borderline Skeptics, to anyone who thinks they can successfully "dowse" for water.  Dowsing, for those of you unfamiliar with this claim, is the alleged ability to use vibrations in a forked stick to find water (or lost objects, or buried treasure, or a variety of other things).  Dowsing has failed all previous tests -- most of the vibrations and pulls allegedly felt by practitioners are almost certainly due to the ideomotor effect.  Still, dowsers are common, and vehement in their claims that their abilities are real.  So the Borderline Skeptics have organized a challenge in which supposed dowsers have to try to locate buried bottles of water.  The event is scheduled for March 10, and any winners will be candidates for a $100,000 cash prize.

And instead of being happy about this, dowsers are pissed.  They've already started to claim that the game is rigged, that the Borderline Skeptics are a bunch of cheats, and that they wouldn't stoop to the "carnival sideshow atmosphere" that such a test would inevitably generate.  "I will not debase myself," one alleged medium wrote about the James Randi challenge, "to have these cranks take pot shots at my God-given abilities."

Thou shalt not put thy woo-woos to the test, apparently.

You have to wonder, though, how anyone from the outside doesn't see this for what it is -- special pleading, with a nice dose of name calling and shifting of the ground whenever they're challenged.  So I suppose I do get why the woo-woos themselves don't want to play; at the best, it would require them to reevaluate their claims, and at the worst, admit that they've been defrauding the public.  But how anyone considering hiring these people, giving them good money, can't see what's going on -- that is beyond me.

Which brings me to my last news story -- just yesterday, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that a Delray Beach psychic center was robbed by an armed man, who burst in brandishing a gun, made the three women and one child who were present at the time lie on the floor, and took all the money in the place.

You'd think they'd have seen this one coming, wouldn't you?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Battle rejoined: the Oklahoma "Academic Freedom" bill

One of the frustrating things about being a skeptic is that I feel like I fight the same battles over and over.  I know that there's a point to continuing the battle; new generations of kids keep coming, and they need people who are committed to teaching them to think rationally.  And there are hopeful signs, such as a recent poll that indicated that the number of people who identify themselves as atheists has increased to its highest level ever (1 in 5).

But nowhere do I get that "oh, hell, here we go again" feeling like I do with the ongoing efforts by fundamentalist Christians to insinuate religion into public school science curricula.  This time it's the state of Oklahoma, where state bill HB1674 -- the so-called "Academic Freedom Bill" -- will allow students to submit work without penalty, even if it contradicts the understanding of evidence-based science.  [Source]

"I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks," said Gus Blackwell, a state representative and evangelical Christian who spent twenty years on the Baptist General Convention.  "A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations."

They're getting craftier, I have to say.  Being that intelligent design and "irreducible complexity" didn't work (given that they are no more scientific than a theory that Christmas presents must be made by Santa Claus, given that there's no way that presents just show up by themselves on Christmas), they've had to turn to a different tactic -- branding disbelief in evolution as "critical thinking."  And if it wasn't obvious that they were talking about evolution, and not, for example, the periodic table, the bill itself explicitly states that its purpose is to encourage teachers to point out "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that "cause controversy," including "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Yeah.  And that has no political and religious agenda.  Right.

A heartening point, though, is that of the eight "academic freedom" bills proposed since 2004, none have passed.  So one can only hope that even in a relatively conservative, religious state like Oklahoma, wiser heads will prevail.

Isn't it interesting, too, that they call these bills "Academic Freedom" bills?  They follow a long succession of pieces of legislation that are given names that are far more positive than their content -- No Child Left Behind, the Clear Skies Initiative, the Patriot Act.  You have to wonder if legislators actually read the content of the bills they're voting on, or if they just look at the title, and think, "Whoa, I can't have it go on record that I voted against that."  I suspect that some of them would probably vote for the Happy Bunnies and Rainbows Act even if the act itself legalized using tasers on kittens.

So, just to set things straight: "academic freedom" and "critical thinking" do not mean some brainwashed 9th grader writing a paper in biology class claiming that Adam and Eve rode triceratopses, and that his teacher then has to give him an A.  Doubting mountains of evidence-based, peer-reviewed science because your pastor says different is not "thinking independently."  And there are enough vocal rationalists in this country that every time you ultra-religious try this, we will fight you.  No matter how tired of the battle we get.

Every damn time.

Update, 22 February 2013:  House Bill 1674 passed in committee, 9-8.  [Source I can only hope this generates a challenge in the courts.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The archangel video hoax

I really, really dislike hoaxers.

I've made the point more than once in this blog that we skeptics have a hard enough time counteracting the built-in errors -- things like confirmation bias, dart-thrower's bias, and the inherent inaccuracies of our brains and perceptual apparatus.  The last thing we need are people out there, callously and deliberately creating convincing fakes.

The latest in this long string of liars came to my attention because of a video link that popped up on Facebook.  The individual who posted it headed it with the caption, "And you think angels aren't real!"  Underneath, another poster had responded, "I don't see how this could possibly have been faked."  So, naturally, I had to take a look... and so do you.  So take two minutes and watch the whole thing.  [Link:  Is he SUPERMAN or an ARCHANGEL?]

Pretty wild, eh?  If you watched it till the end, you might have noticed that they even got the angle of the shadows right -- as the truck bears down on the cyclist, the shadow turns and lengthens at just about the angle I'd expect.

Now that's what I call attention to detail.

So, why, then, don't I believe it's real?

Let's leave aside my usual objections that "there is no evidence that the world works this way."  Let's just take what information we have from the video.

First, there is no reason to claim that this would be "impossible to fake."  All you have to do is go to any recent action/adventure movie and consider how easy (albeit not cheap) it is to create completely convincing special effects.  This one -- with shadowy figures disappearing and rematerializing -- would not be difficult at all to a sufficiently skilled video technician.

Second, did you notice the little spinning logo in the lower left?  This is the logo for the owner of the YouTube channel that posted it -- a fellow who goes by the name Cybert9.  So I took a moment to check out other videos he'd posted, and they included:
Chemtrails over Central America
Shape-shifting Reptilian on TV
HAARP Activity again
Female masseuse hybrid
and... UFO Clouds
So I think we have a little problem with source credibility, here.

Then, we have the Chinese characters in the upper right.  Notice those?  I don't read or speak Chinese, so I'm going on second-hand information, but I found that the characters read "Zhu Xian."

Which is the name of a Chinese video production company that specializes in video games.

So, apparently, what we have here is a clip from a promotional video that was taken out of the original context, and launched into the repost network by someone who claimed that it was real.  I'm not saying that Cybert9 was the one who perpetrated the original hoax; it may well be that he was somewhere further down the line, and was taken in like all of the other millions of people who have watched this video.  (There are three versions of the "archangel video" that I found on YouTube, and together they have gotten well over two million total hits.  And while a few commenters seemed to be of the opinion that it was fake, a good many posted comments like, "Wow!  How can this not have been on the news?" and "It looks real to me.  I believe it.")

The whole thing just pisses me off, because, as I said, it's not like there aren't a hundred natural reasons that people believe crazy stuff.  My job as a skeptical writer and critical thinking teacher is hard enough, thanks.  So, to the person who started this hoax, I have only one further thing to say:

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Breaking news: Russian meteor explosion causes major eruption of nonsense

Why oh why can't people just accept the scientific explanation for something?  Why must they come up with wacky woo-woo bullshit every damn time?

I am, of course, referring to the news story that I'm sure all of you have heard of by now; the meteor explosion that injured over 1,000 people yesterday near Chelyabinsk in the Urals region of Russia. 

It was, to be sure, quite an event.  The shock wave from the explosion shattered windows and damaged buildings, and because it occurred near a populated area, it was captured more than once on cameras.

But the first problem with the public understanding of what had occurred was that it happened on the same day as a near pass by a different piece of rock, asteroid 2012 DA14.  Eminent astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson went on record as saying that the two events were unrelated, and the fact that they occurred on the same day was nothing more than a coincidence.

But no.  It couldn't be just a coincidence.  Start with a post in the blog Twilight Language, wherein we find the following quote from "astrologer Philip Levine:"
In other times and places, these would be a sign, a very big sign, saying something (what depends on which prophet or psychic you listen to). If you think the Universe is intelligent and an embodiment of some kind of Being, then you would want to know what It is saying.
If, like most, you believe the Universe is just a random collection of debris with no meaning other than chaos, then Statistics is your God. And the statistical chance of ONE of these things happening is immensely small, but TWO on the SAME DAY, within hours, in this infinitely vast Universe, is something to give one pause.
If you aren't sticking your head in the sand, how does this coincidence/synchronicity strike you?
It strikes me as a damn coincidence.  That's what you call it when two events coincide.

Then we had Russian parliament member Vladimir Zhirinovsky blathering on that the meteor wasn't actually a meteor, it was an American weapons test:
Those were not meteorites, it was Americans testing their new weapons... (Secretary of State John Kerry) was looking for (Russian Foreign Minister) Lavrov, and Lavrov was on a trip.  He meant to warn Lavrov about a provocation against Russia.
Right.  Because that's plausible.  The US Secretary of State calls up, and says, "Um... just so you know, we're about to blow up a weapon over one of your cities today.  Hope you don't mind.  Give my regards to the wife and kids."

Things only got worse from there.  A "senior clergyman" in Yekaterinburg said the meteor was a Sign from God:
From the Scriptures, we know that the Lord often sends people signs and warnings via natural forces.  I think that not only for the Ural [regions] residents, but for the whole of humanity, the meteorite is a reminder that we live in fragile and unpredictable world.  It is the Lord's message to humanity, and we need to pray to understand it.
Or, maybe, just consult an astronomer.  They seem to understand it pretty well.

Which is more than I can say for major league baseball player José Canseco, who weighed in on the event with the following series of tweets:
No way was that a meteor in russia today
Governments think truth is a poison that will kill them
we have lots of enemies dont underestimate them
long range test deal with russia operation meteor
north korea do the math
The media is now calling Canseco a "meteor truther."  Which makes me want to weep softly and bang my head against my desk.

NASA, of course, had the straight scoop, and said that the Russian explosion was, in fact, a meteor, and that this meteor and the flyby asteroid were unrelated:
According to NASA scientists, the trajectory of the Russian meteorite was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, making it a completely unrelated object. Information is still being collected about the Russian meteorite and analysis is preliminary at this point. In videos of the meteor, it is seen to pass from left to right in front of the rising sun, which means it was traveling from north to south. Asteroid DA14′s trajectory is in the opposite direction, from south to north.
But why listen to a bunch of silly old scientists when you can get your information from an astrologer, a clergyman, a batshit crazy politician, or a washed-up baseball player?


Oh, and one last thing; if you see people post a photograph that they claim is the crater from yesterday's meteor, and it looks like this:

Please do me a favor and set them straight.  This is the Derweze Gas Crater in Turkmenistan, a place where a combination of natural gas seeps and soil that's high in flammable organic matter resulted in a giant burning hole in the ground.  It has nothing to do with the meteor.

Thanks.  I'll just go take my high blood pressure medication, now.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Money, bias, and climate science

I've often wished that politics was more frequently informed by good science, but the pessimistic side of me (never very deeply buried) wonders if that is even possible.  There are politicians who understand science, but given the complexity of the situations that lawmakers deal with -- combining the hard facts uncovered by scientific research with the economic and business impacts, considering how any proposed changes would affect the average citizen, and keeping in mind what it takes to get reelected -- it's no wonder that governmental policy often makes a hash out of it.

You need no conspiracies in effect to have that result.  Our government is built in such a way that this is the inevitable outcome.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the current battle over climate change.  You would think that people would see the simple dichotomy between whether climate change is actually happening (something about which climatologists are hardly in doubt) and what, if anything, should be done about it.  It's amazing how few people understand that these two questions aren't the same thing.  I have more than once seen people arguing, with no apparent awareness of a break in the logical chain, that climate change isn't happening because decreasing fossil fuel use would have devastating effects on our economy.

Oh, that it were that simple.  If the world worked that way, I could just state that I didn't believe in my home and car needing expensive maintenance because it's having "devastating effects on my bank account," and they would magically take care of themselves.

Still, the politicization of the climate issue is having tremendous effects on the public perception of what is, at its base, a scientific question.  Interesting, isn't it, that by and large liberals accept that anthropogenic climate change is happening, and conservatives deny it?  You'd think that a scientific conclusion would be based upon the evidence, not on your political party.  And the research is clear; as I mentioned in a recent post, the number of peer-reviewed studies that support climate change outnumber the ones that question it by over 500:1.

A study that was just reviewed in The Guardian points up why that may be.  Over the past ten years, conservative billionaires have funneled over $120 million dollars into think tanks that have only one purpose; to cast doubt in the minds of voters and lawmakers regarding climate change.  [Source]  The two umbrella organizations that oversaw the handling of the funds -- Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund -- spent the money on strategic planning, public disinformation campaigns, and beefing up the coffers of the handful of scientists left who deny that climate change is real.

And the conservatives, with straight faces, accuse the climatologists of being in the pay of environmental organizations.  I wonder who has deeper pockets, Donors Trust or the Sierra Club?

Lest you think that I'm just showing my bias here, take a look at "Plutocracy, Pure and Simple," by George Monbiot.  Starting in 2002, the Republicans recognized that climate change could be used as a wedge issue, and that acknowledging the science was tantamount to political suicide.  Conservative consultant Frank Luntz actually said, "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.  Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."  And this script has been followed to the letter.  The think tanks that were funded by Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund, and the likes of the Koch brothers have generated not only campaigns to raise doubt in the minds of voters, but public school curricula that include explicit statements that whether climate change is happening is "a major scientific controversy."

By my definition, a "controversy" is "something people disagree about."  500:1 in favor hardly qualifies as a "controversy."

But of course, that's not how they want the layperson, the average citizen, to see the situation.  They want the voters to think that the science is uncertain, because if the scientists can't even figure out what's going on, then we sure as hell don't want to give up our gas-guzzling cars and coal-fired power stations. 

I find the whole thing infuriating.  It's not that I don't realize that the profit motive can lead to abuses; money corrupts, and all that sort of thing.  It's more that these wealthy donors and giant money-handling machines are sowing confusion in the minds of the average man and woman -- the people who, above all, need correct information in order to make informed decisions.  And that confusion is leading to all of us, lawmaker and citizen alike, doing nothing, as the world continues to warm, the ice continues to melt, the seas continue to rise.

The result: let's stay with the status quo, even if it marches us right off a cliff.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Water of life

I bet you think that water is healthful.  I bet you buy the silly old scientifically-supported contention that plain, ordinary, clean water, direct from your tap, is the best thing for you, and that consuming enough water has been shown to reduce your likelihood of everything from high blood pressure to kidney stones.

Ha.  A lot you know.

There's been a whole industry that's arisen whose motto is, "My water is better than your water."  We have all of the bottled water companies, trampling each other to prove that their brand is the most Natural Clear Clean Mountain Spring Water you've ever drank, and everyone else's is the equivalent of drinking sewer effluent.  (You may want to know that four-year study, released in 2000 by the National Resources Defense Council, showed that in general, bottled water has poorer quality with regards to chemical and bacterial contamination than typical municipal tap water.)

Then you have your vitamin-enhanced water, your fruit-flavored water, your aroma-essence-infused water.  Many of these have enough sugar added that you risk type 2 diabetes just from walking past the display in the grocery store.  And every year, new brands crop up.

But the silliness doesn't end there.  Just yesterday, in rapid succession, I ran across two new, special kinds of water, and the wackiness of these two outstrips the claims of all of the other kinds of water put together.

Let's start with "Pi Water."  I don't recommend clicking on the link, because the website is equipped with some sort of extremely annoying graphic device that makes the text blink, and I wouldn't want anyone having a seizure because of me.  But anyhow, what is "Pi Water?"  At first, I expected it to have something to do with 3.14159 etc., but no:
Pi Water is the water that is very similar to your body water (Living Energy). Living energy means “the energy to live.” Do you know anyone who rarely gets sick or recover quickly when they get hurt? These people have strong living energy. Pi Water has the same function (energy) that your body water has.
My favorite part of this is the definition of "living energy."  It reminds me of the entry in the glossary of my favorite science spoof, Science Made Stupid:   "reasoning, circular (n.) -- see circular reasoning."

So, how was this "living energy water" discovered?  It turns out that a guy was researching plants, and just kind of stumbled on it:
Pi Water was discovered in 1964 during the study of physiology of plants by Dr. Akihiro Yamashita, a professor at the Agricultural Department, Nagoya University. He was studying about FLORIGEN. What makes the bud become a flower? Researchers thought it might be related with hormones. They had named the phenomenon FLORIGEN and studied it.

During the study, Dr. Yamashita discovered “body water,” which affects the difference of the bud change instead of hormones. He also discovered that the body water contains a very small amount of Ferric Ferrous Salt (Fe2Fe3) and the water has the function to control our body function normally. After that, through many studies and research, Dr. Yamashita succeeded to make the water that has the same function with your body water artificially and named it Pi Water.
So... if you give humans something that makes plants flower, we'll blossom too?

How might this work, you're probably asking?  I know that's what I asked.  Well, the site tells you, in great detail.  I apologize for the length of this passage, but you really should read the whole thing:
Pi Water is compounded with Fe2Fe3, which is effective when its quality becomes very small (2 x 10^-12 mol). At this level, Fe2Fe3 is an elementary particle, such as an electron, a proton and a neutron, and it works like a conductor of a medium to transmit energy and information to other substances. The following is the assumption of Pi Water principles at the present time:
Generation cycle of electron energy.

Substance generally consists of a group of molecules and a molecule is a group of atoms. An atom consists of atomic nuclei and electrons, and an atomic nucleus consists of protons and neutrons. The electrons circle, while spinning, around an atomic nucleus on a certain orbit. When the atom receives undulation of cosmic energy, the electrons start to spin faster and circle on farther than the usual orbit, causing the electrons to have high energy called, "erected state". However, the electrons cannot keep their erected state/high energy condition for too long, and they tries to get back to the usual orbit. In Pi Water, we believe that such energy creating cycles by the electrons are happening, and that the transmission of energy and information is very actively taking place.
Oh.  Okay.  What?

I have to admit that I may be having trouble understanding this because I was too busy laughing about electrons being in an "erected state."  I guess that in some sense, an erection is a type of excitation.  Given that today is Valentine's Day, it does open up whole new possibilities for geeky come-hither lines:  "Hey, baby, I'm in a highly energized quantum level tonight.  You want to help my electrons return to the ground state?"

After this, the site goes on to blather on about how the "Pi Water" process infuses water with the subatomic particle called a "pi meson," and at that point, I gave up.  (Go here to find out what a pi meson actually is.)

But we're not done here yet.  Because I found a second site, a site that makes "Pi Water" look like Nobel Prize material.  This site tells you how to make "Sun and/or Moon Water:"
Water was designed to carry the Sun’s sub-atomic nutrients (sound and color vibrations) to all living things. It was also meant to carry the cosmic energy of the moon, stars, and planets. This is referred to as The Music of the Spheres.  Structuring the water first (as described in Chapter 11 of Dancing with Water) makes it more receptive to imprinting but simply placing water in the Sun or Moon will imprint the water to a certain degree.
One more bit will suffice:
When making water in the sunlight, place it in a glass container directly on the Earth. This way, the gentler Earth frequencies will balance the strong solar energy. Depending on the position and strength of the sun, leave it exposed for no more than 10-30 minutes. (Direct sunlight on standing water will eventually rob it of its energy.) Drinking water that has been placed in the sunlight is a wonderful way to get the vibratory energy of the complete color spectrum. It is also very energizing...  Setting water out on the night of the full moon creates water that carries the feminine energy of the full moon. If you want to lengthen the influence of the full moon (or of a particular full moon) in your life, this is a good way to do it.  To program your water with the energy of the moon, stars, and planets, choose a clear night (it does not have to be a full moon). Place your covered, glass or egg-shaped clay container directly on the Earth in a place where it will receive the full night sky. (Glass allows the light of the moon and stars to penetrate the water better but the shape of the egg gathers cosmic frequencies just as efficiently—if not more so.)
There also a part later about how you can enhance your sun and/or moon water by using crystals, copper triskelions, and "tensor rings."  Just reading it made me pretty freakin' tense.

So, we're back to my usual question: how can anyone with an IQ higher than that of road salt believe any of this horse waste?  An average middle-school student knows enough science to recognize this as ridiculous.  But evidently this kind of woo-woo foolishness is becoming increasingly popular, and because of that, is big business.  Big lucrative business.  (Google "structured water" and see how many hits you get.  I dare you.)

I recognize that I'm probably shouting in a hurricane, here.  The people who fall for this kind of claptrap are not the ones who are going to be reading skeptical websites.  But still.  "Pi Water?"  Now with more pi mesons?  Sun water with the sun's "vibratory energy of the complete color spectrum?"  Egg-shaped containers to "gather cosmic frequencies?"

The whole thing just makes me want to give up water entirely.   I'm thinking of switching to scotch.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Papal prophecies

Well, it's begun.

I knew that as soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the wingnuts would have a field day with it.  And sure enough, the woo-woo websites were hopping yesterday.  The words "conspiracy" and "prophecy" and "antichrist" and "apocalypse" were used.  Obviously, it couldn't be just what the Vatican said it was -- that Benedict was retiring because he was too pooped to pope.  No.  It had to be something much bigger than that.

Let's start with the fact that shortly after the pope announced his resignation, lightning struck St. Peter's Basilica in Rome:

According to a story in USA Today, experts have analyzed the photograph and found that it's actually not a fake (which was my first thought when I saw it).  On the other hand, I'm not ready to say it's a sign from god, either.  After all, according to lightning expert Martin A. Uman, there are over eight million lightning strikes in the world every day, which is a crapload of signs from god if that's what they are.  Maybe god's "smite" button is stuck on, or something.

But that's not where the nonsense stopped, unfortunately.  According to the site International Tribunal Into Crimes of Church and State, the pope's resignation was because "a European government" was planning on issuing a warrant for his arrest.  The upshot was that the "European government" had its sights set on the Vatican because "...Pope Benedict's complicity in criminal activities of the Vatican Bank (IOR) was compelling his eventual dismissal by the highest officials of the Vatican."

Because that's plausible.  We all know how much the Vatican complies with the demands of other governments.  If the president of, for example, Bulgaria were to ask for the pope's arrest, the Vatican would have no choice but to turn him over.  (Chaos would then ensue as other world leaders gave their two cents' worth, with Hugo Chávez demanding that everyone in Vatican City subscribe to Socialist Worker's Monthly, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad requiring that nuns switch to wearing burqas, and Kim Jong Un asking the College of Cardinals to adopt a "really sexy new hairstyle.")

Then the apocalyptoids began to chime in.  There was a prophecy, they said, made back in 1139 by a guy named Saint Malachy, who either received a vision from god or else had a really bad acid trip, and who claimed that each of the popes was fulfilling a prophecy.  Saint Malachy listed 112 popes, and said that the last one, "Petrus Romanus" (Peter the Roman) would reign throughout the Tribulation, and his reign would end with Jesus returning to judge us all.

Pope Benedict XVI was number... 111.


Of course, most modern scholars think that the "Prophecies of Saint Malachy" are a late 16th century forgery; even Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro, an 18th century Spanish monk, thought the whole thing was ridiculous, noting that the "prophecies" prior to 1600 are extremely accurate, and the ones thereafter seemed like wild guesses.

There are a couple of hits, though, if you squinch your eyes up and look at the prophecies juuuust right.  For example, the prophecy for John Paul I is that he came from "the midst of the moon," and his month-long reign began during a half-moon.  (Okay, I know that half-moons happen twice a month.  Just play along, okay?)  Then we have his successor, John Paul II, whose line has to do with the "labor of the sun," and he was supposedly born during a solar eclipse and buried during a solar eclipse.  But even if eclipses aren't as common as lightning strikes, they're still pretty damn common, with between two and five occurring somewhere in the world every year.  So some date relevant to John Paul II would be bound to occur near an eclipse, no matter what.  The prophecy of Benedict himself requires yet a further reach; his is "gloria olivae," the "glory of olives."  And the best they could do with that was that Benedict was named after St. Benedict of Nursia, who founded the Benedictine Order, which has as its emblem a picture of St. Benedict holding an olive branch.

So, anyway.  Saint Malachy (or whoever forged all of this nonsense in the 16th century) says that the next guy, Petrus Romanus, will have a bit of a rough go:
In persecutione extrema S.R.E. sedebit Petrus Romanus, qui pascet oves in multis tribulationibus: quibus transactis civitas septicollis diruetur, & Judex tremêdus judicabit populum suum. Finis.

In the extreme persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations: and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the terrible judge will judge his people.  The End.
So the College of Cardinals had better be careful.  If I were a cardinal, I'd made sure to vote for a guy named "Steve" just to be safe.

Anyhow, that's the latest from the world of crazy quasi-religious prophecy.  It'll be interesting to see what happens next.  Myself, I'm guessing that the College of Cardinals will vote in a new pope, who will pretty much keep doing what they've always done, and everything will settle down, with no further lightning strikes, arrest warrants, or tribulations.  But who knows?  Maybe Saint Malachy was right.  The whole "terrible judge" thing sounds pretty dire.  Maybe I ought to invest in a smite-proof bunker. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fast modules, slow modules, and ghost photographs

So, yesterday, I was looking at photographs of alleged ghosts, and completely creeping myself out.

Just so I can share the experience with you, here are a few that I found especially shiver-inducing.

First, from a security camera in a library in Evansville, Indiana, comes this image of a hunched, shadowy creature creeping across the floor... of the Children's Reading Room:

Or how about this one, an old photograph from the 1940s that shows a screaming ghost reaching out towards an unsuspecting young couple:

Or this shot of a stern man standing behind an elderly woman -- a man who supposedly wasn't there when the photograph was taken:

Or the shadow in the kitchen -- a shadow cast by no object visible in the photograph (this one immediately reminded me of the episode "Identity Crisis" from Star Trek: The Next Generation -- one of the flat-out scariest episodes they ever did):

So, anyway, there I am, getting more and more weirded out (and still, for some reason, not simply switching to a website with cute pictures of puppies, or something).  And I thought, "Why am I freaking out about all of this?  Not only have I never had a single experience of anything supernatural, I don't even believe in any of this stuff.  I am morally certain that all of these photographs were either deliberate hoaxes, or were camera malfunctions/artifacts, or are examples of pareidolia -- some completely natural explanation must be responsible.  So why am I scared?"

And my mind returned to a book I just finished last week, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002.  Kahneman's specialty is why humans make irrational decisions; his research into how that applies to economic decision-making is why he won the Nobel.  More interesting to me, though, is the facet of his research that shows that human thinking is split into two discrete modules -- a fast module and a slow one.  And those two modules are frequently at odds with one another.

The fast module is what allows us to take quick stock of what's around us.  It is, for example, what allows us to do an immediate assessment of the following photograph:

No "rational thinking" is needed to come to the conclusion that this woman is angry.  On the other hand, the slow module is invoked when doing a math problem like, what is 223 x 1,174?  The vast majority of us could solve that problem, but it would take time and concentration.  (The fact that there are savants who can solve problems like that nearly instantaneously makes me wonder if their brains are somehow wired to do math with the fast module of the brain; merely a speculation, but it's suggestive.)

As an example of how the two modules can be at odds, consider the "Linda Problem."  Participants in a study were told a story about Linda, a single woman, intelligent and outspoken, who was very concerned with issues of social justice.  The participants were then asked which of the following possibilities was more likely:  (1) Linda is a bank teller; or (2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.  By a vast majority, participants chose option 2.  (Did you?)

The problem is, option 2 is wrong.  Not just maybe wrong, it's flat-out wrong, as in impossible.  How could the likelihood of Linda's being a feminist bank teller exceed the likelihood of her being a bank teller?  All feminist bank tellers are bank tellers; adding an extra detail to the description can only have the effect of decreasing the probability.  (To make this clearer, how can there be more brown dogs than there are dogs?)  But the fast module's quick assessment of the situation was that from the information given, she was very likely to be a feminist; the likelihood that she was a bank teller was equal in both possibilities; so it jumped to the (incorrect) conclusion that the combined probability was higher.

So, you can see how the fast module, however useful it is in making the snap judgments that are essential in getting us through the day, is not, at its basis, rational.  It is primed by previous experience, and is inherently biased toward finding the quickest answer possible, even if that answer is completely contrary to rationality.

And that, I think, explains why a diehard skeptic can still be completely weirded out by ghost pictures.  The slow module in my brain thinks, "Okay, pareidolia.  Or the photo was doctored.  No way is this real."  My fast module, on the other hand, is thinking, "Good lord, that's terrifying!  Time for some adrenaline!"  And no amount of soothing talk from my slow module seems to make any difference.

Especially that one with the creeping thing in the library.  That one is freakin' scary.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Invisible lung gorillas

In recent posts, I've made the point more than once that eyewitness testimony is inherently flawed because of built-in inaccuracies in our perceptual apparatus.  Put simply, we are just poor observers.  Not only do our brains sometimes make stuff up, we also remember events inaccurately, and given appropriate priming, interpret things based on what we thought was happening

None of this is meant to malign our brains, honestly.  They are extraordinarily good at a great many things, and evolution has crafted them into a data-processing device that is orders of magnitude more complex than the best computer in the world.  The fact that they fail sometimes is only to be expected.

You can't be good at everything, after all.

However, a recent experiment, done by Trafton Drew, Melissa Vo, and Jeremy Wolfe of Brigham and Women's Hospital of Boston, has delivered yet another blow to our opinion of the brain's accuracy.  And this one is not just humbling, it's downright scary -- especially to anyone who has had to rely on the skills of medical professionals.  [Source]

The trio recruited a group of 24 trained radiologists as volunteers, and an equal number of average, non-medical types.  The volunteers were given a set of lung CT scans from five different patients to look at on a computer, and were instructed to click on any anomalous nodules they saw.  (The untrained group were given a brief description of what they were looking for.)  The nodules were small, and there were only ten of them in the hundreds of scans analyzed.

What they didn't tell any of the volunteers, however, was that hidden in the slides of the final patient was an image of a gorilla.  (The gorilla was chosen because of the seminal study of inattention, by Simons and Chabris -- see their famous video here.)  The gorilla image was huge by comparison with the nodules -- an estimated 48 times larger than the typical nodule size.

Twenty of the 24 radiologists, and all of the untrained volunteers, didn't see the gorilla.

And it wasn't hard to see.  Every single one of the people who didn't see the gorilla were shown the slide in question afterwards, and asked, "What is that?" and they all answered, "That's a gorilla."  Nevertheless, the vast majority of people who had analyzed the image closely didn't see what was right in front of their faces.  (The phenomenon has been named "inattentional blindness.")

Now, to their credit, the radiologists, who presumably would know that a gorilla in your lungs is abnormal, were better at spotting the anomaly than the average guy.  They were also (reassuringly) way better at finding the nodules.  But this once again punches a hole in our certainty that what we notice (and remember) is what is actually there.

I'm often asked -- usually apropos of UFO sightings, and less commonly about phenomena such as hauntings -- why I am so skeptical, when eyewitnesses report thousands of encounters every year.  It's not, honestly, that I think it's impossible that there is something weird out there; especially in the case of UFOs, I think that the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe is near 100%, and I'd be mighty surprised if some of it didn't turn out to be intelligent.  (Why they'd want to come here, though, is a bit of a mystery.)  So, my beef isn't that I think the claim is impossible.  My problem is that eyewitness testimony is so inherently flawed that I need more than just your claim of having seen a UFO in order to believe it myself.  (In fact, I need more than just "I saw it," as well.  I don't trust my own brain any more than I trust yours.)  Our perceptual systems are simply too easy to fool, and too poor at remembering details, to be reliable recorders of data.

So, anyway, that's the latest from neuroscience.  More evidence of the inaccuracy of the human brain.  Makes me wonder what I'm missing, as I wander through my day -- all the stuff I'm not noticing.  Probably most of it is trivial, and it's just as well that my brain dismisses it -- but you have to wonder how many times something truly marvelous crosses your path -- the equivalent of an invisible lung gorilla -- and you don't see it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Noah goes to Hollywood

There's no pleasing some people.

When I heard that Darren Aronofsky was making a movie, due out in 2014, about the Great Flood -- and starring such Big Names as Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Anthony Hopkins -- I thought that the über-Christians would be delighted.  After all, they mostly seem to be wildly in favor of movies like The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Passion of the Christ.  Even Ben Hur was one of my extremely Catholic mother's all-time favorite movies, despite the most literal reading of the bible turning up very few chariot races.

But no.  Noah, with Russell Crowe in the title role, is stirring up a lot of controversy amongst the literalist crowd.  And it's not just because, in producer Scott Franklin's words, "Noah is a very short section of the Bible with a lot of gaps, so we definitely had to take some creative expression in it.  But I think we stayed very true to the story and didn't really deviate from the Bible, despite the six-armed angels."

To get a flavor for why fundamentalists are howling about this movie -- and also to understand how far out of the realm of reality they've gone -- take a look at a webpage, courtesy of,  a website for and about literalist/Christian apocalyptic ideas.  Entitled "Russell Crowe's Noah -- A Warning for Christians," this website makes the following claims:
1)  The movie pushes a liberal, pro-environmental message.  Apparently we don't want to conflate sea-level rise from global warming with sea-level rise from god sending rain to smite the wicked.
2)  The main wicked guys that god was aiming to smite were the Nephilim, who were a race of evil giants that were born when fallen angels had sex with human women.  God didn't want "the entire human gene pool to be corrupted by fallen angels," so he decided to kill everyone.
3)  Well, almost everyone.  Noah and his family, of course, were "righteous" so he saved them.
4)  So god was "us(ing) the flood to preserve the human gene pool."  No, I'm not making that quote up.
5)  The whole "raining for forty days and forty nights" thing was really a big deal, not only because that is a crapload of rain, but because prior to the Great Flood it had never rained.  "The moisture in the environment came from geysers in the ground...  A mist from underground pressure provided water for plant life.  The pre-flood word in short had a hyperbaric environment.  (Some Christian researchers have theorized that this environment contributed to the long life spans of the people before the flood, where some people lived over 900 years. However, after the flood, there is a sharp decrease in life spans down to the lengths seen today.)"  Because we all know how higher atmospheric pressure makes people live longer.  And no, I didn't make that quote up, either.  And if you don't think that there are people who seriously believe that the long life spans reported in the bible were due to higher atmospheric pressure, take a look at this website, which is inadvertently hilarious in its attempt to explain the biblical account "scientifically."  You know, with math and graphs and all.  It's amazing.
6)  It's a serious problem that the movie shows that on the Ark, Noah had an "animal hospital" to take care of injured animals.  This is non-biblical, the website tells us.  Nowhere in the bible does it say that Noah had an "animal hospital," despite the fact that given that he had only two of each kind of animal, having one of them die would be pretty awful.  (Maybe that's what happened to the unicorns, which by the way are mentioned in the bible as being real -- check out Job 39:9-12.)
7)  So, all in all, the movie Noah is a wicked and evil film.  "Pray for the makers of this movie to repent and believe the Word of God, rather than abusing it," we're told.  "And spread the Word to other Christians to not support such a blasphemous, anti-Christian film."
So, yeah.  Yikes.  It's hard to know where to start.  For me, being a science teacher, the best part was when they started talking about how before the Great Flood plants were watered by "geysers."  But really, the whole thing is worth reading, if for no other reason to get a feeling for the twisty anti-logic fundamentalists use to explain the parts of the biblical account that couldn't possibly have happened.  Of course, all they have to do is to fall back on "anything is possible with god," and also, "if you don't believe this, down to the last word, you are going to be doomed by the god of mercy to eternal hellfire ha ha ha ha."  Which, you have to admit, are pretty persuasive arguments.

Anyhow, like I said, some people are impossible to please.  You'd think that just the fact that Hollywood is giving a nod to the biblical account would have been enough, but no.  They didn't do it the right way.  Can't have Noah appearing to be an eco-wacko.  Can't have any mention of anything that wasn't mentioned in the bible.  Got to include lots of naughty angel/human sex.

Of course, it's not like I'm going to go see the movie anyhow.  I'm not into biblical epics.  If I want to watch a movie based in mythology, I'll take Lord of the Rings any day.  All in all, it's a hell of a lot more moral a story.