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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Calling a fraud a fraud: James McCormick and the bomb dowsers

I know I tend to write about frustrating topics -- my usual fare is illogic, irrationality, gullibility, hoaxes, and general foolishness.  And it's got to be wearing, at times, to read a non-stop parade of human craziness and credulity.  So it's heartening to me that today we'll start the day with a positive story -- a story of the triumph of science over woo-woo nonsense.

You may have heard about James McCormick, the man who developed a "bomb detector."  The device, he said, worked on the same principle as a dowsing rod; it was a metal antenna that sits in a hole in a plastic sleeve, and it detects the "electromagnetic disturbance" created by the bomb and swivels toward it.  (The whole thing is described in detail in Phil Plait's wonderful blog Bad Astronomy, in an article called "Dowsing for Bombs" that then appeared in Slate.)

You can see how such a device, if it worked as advertised, would be invaluable to the military.  The problem is, it didn't work.  The whole thing was basically just a plastic handle with a ten-dollar Radio Shack antenna glued into a rotating plastic cylinder.  But the military was suckered right in -- to the tune of between $16,500 and $60,000 per device.  Well, it wasn't long before the people in charge realized that they'd been sold a bill of goods; as Plait said, the devices "might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks.  They were useless."

And, they cost lives.  The Iraqis began to use them at terrorist checkpoints, and (of course) their reliance on them caused them to miss bombs -- including one incident where terrorists sneaked two tons of explosives past a checkpoint, right past McCormick's dowsing rods, resulting in 155 casualties.

Well, the military finally wised up, and McCormick was arrested and charged with fraud.  And last week, he was convicted.

This should be a cause for celebration by skeptics the world over -- that finally, a major governmental institution has seen to it that science triumphs over the peddlers of woo-woo.  But I do have a question, however, that tempers my jubilation.

Why stop at McCormick?  If what he was doing is fraud -- in the sense that he was knowingly hoodwinking the gullible, making claims that were demonstrably false, and becoming filthy rich in the process -- then so are the homeopaths.  So are the psychics, the astrologers, the faith healers.  And yet we still have psychics like Theresa Caputo, the "Long Island Medium," who is booked for readings two years ahead and allegedly charges $400 for a thirty-minute reading over the phone.  (I say "allegedly" because she doesn't reveal her fees publicly; all we have to go by is claims by former clients.)  We still have astrologers like Susan Miller, "astrologer to the New York City fashion set," whose astrology website gets six million hits per month.  (If Skeptophilia gets six million hits in my lifetime, I will die a happy man.)  We still have faith healers like Peter Popoff, who was roundly debunked by James Randi and yet who still attracts tens of thousands of hopefuls to his "healing ministries."

We still have homeopathic "remedies" sold online -- and over the counter in damn near every pharmacy in the United States and western Europe.  Worse, there are groups like "Homeopaths Without Borders" making sure that their useless, discredited sugar pills and vials of water get distributed to needy (and poorly educated) people in places like Haiti, Honduras, and Guatemala, where they are used by the ill in place of actual, effective medications.

How is James McCormick guilty of fraud, and these people are not?

Oh, I know the difference is in who McCormick defrauded.  "Don't piss off the military-industrial complex" is a pretty good guide for life.  But even though the woo-woos of various stripes aren't ripping off the US Army -- they're just ripping off ordinary slobs like you and me -- the principle is the same.  They're making claims that are unscientific bullshit, are charging money for their useless services, and yet they seem to get away with it, day after day and year after year.

Okay, I know I said I was going to be positive, here.  And honestly, I'm glad that they nailed McCormick -- he richly merits everything he gets.  And perhaps this will act as a precedent; maybe the fact that the courts stood by reputable, testable science, and identified fraudulent woo-woo as such, will be one step toward pasting that same label on other deserving targets.

The bottom line is: the good guys won, for a change.  Let's hope that it's a trend.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Precision, presumption, and "time crystals"

If there's one thing I have learned from years of studying science, it's that precision is critical.

I'm not talking about mathematical precision, here, although that's pretty important, too.  What I'd like to consider today is how imprecise, or even flippant, use of terms can lead to misunderstanding.  Further, it can result in a complete misrepresentation of what the science actually says.

It can also give false hopes to the woo-woos, and heaven knows, we can't have that.

We've already seen this in two other cases -- how physicist Leon Lederman's injudicious choice of the nickname "The God Particle" for the Higgs boson led some ultrareligious types to claim that its discovery last year proved that god exists, and how demonstrations of quantum entanglement resulted in wingnuts of Diane Tessman's ilk to write reams of nonsense describing how the phenomenon was the explanation of everything from consciousness to telepathy.  (In fact, entanglement seems to be useless for communicating information; the speed of light remains the upper bound to the speed with which meaningful information can be transmitted.  Oh, and the Higgs boson has nothing whatsoever to do with a deity.)

I ran into another example of this yesterday, in an article whose title alone was enough to raise eyebrows: "Perpetual Motion Test Could Amend Theory of Time."  In it, we hear about the research of MIT physicist Frank Wilczek, who has been researching a peculiar construct called a "time crystal:"
In February 2012, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek decided to go public with a strange and, he worried, somewhat embarrassing idea. Impossible as it seemed, Wilczek had developed an apparent proof of “time crystals” — physical structures that move in a repeating pattern, like minute hands rounding clocks, without expending energy or ever winding down. Unlike clocks or any other known objects, time crystals derive their movement not from stored energy but from a break in the symmetry of time, enabling a special form of perpetual motion.
Now, the author of this piece, Natalie Wolchover, is pretty clear that the emphasis should be on the words "special form" and not on the words "perpetual motion:"
Now, a technological advance has made it possible for physicists to test the idea. They plan to build a time crystal, not in the hope that this perpetuum mobile will generate an endless supply of energy (as inventors have striven in vain to do for more than a thousand years) but that it will yield a better theory of time itself.
Further, the article ends on a cautionary note:
(S)ome physicists... remain deeply skeptical.  "I personally think it’s not possible to detect motion in the ground state," (theoretical physicist Patrick) Bruno said. "They may be able to make a ring of ions in a toroidal trap and do some interesting physics with that, but they will not see their ever-ticking clock as they claim."
Unfortunately, the caution hasn't traveled along with the story.  The site io9, which covers "science, science fiction, and the future," amplified Wilczek's research into an article titled "Physicists Believe It's Possible to Build a Perpetual Motion Machine."  It quotes, and links, the Wolchover story, but begins with the rather presumptuous phrase "All bets are off."  And if you want to take a further climb down the ladder, read the comments that follow the io9 iteration of the story, a few of which I quote verbatim below:
"Let's say this turns out to be true: how much energy could these things generate? Are there any immediate practical uses that come to mind?  ...I mean if a football field sized grid of these things could only power an alarm clock it's not very practical, but I am completely in the dark about what sort of energy yield we are talking about here."

"If we up the scale a bit, we can get nearly or very long perpetual motion/energy from a Dyson sphere, so of course it's possible.. Is it doable now - well that's completely different matter."

"Haven't we watched enough movies about how this will lead to a black hole, tear to a different dimension, or the entire planet crumbling?"

"What's more important, in my mind, is "breaks in the symmetry of time" which sounds so much like science fiction I wonder if it could lead to time travel...  More interesting than that... could it lead to reactionless space drive or faster than light travel?"
Okay, can you people just chill out a little?

First, let's focus on the fact that first, Wilczek hasn't even demonstrated that these things exist on the microscopic level, much less the macroscopic.  I mean, I think they sound intriguing, and wish him all the luck in the world, but maybe it might be a good idea to see if they're even real before we start trying to power our spaceships with them.

Second, even if they do exist, I'm pretty sure they'll be reconcilable with the existing laws of physics, which have been tested every which way from Sunday.  The idea that Wilczek's "time crystals" (speaking of an injudicious choice of a name for a phenomenon...) turn out to be real, I highly doubt that this will revoke the General Theory of Relativity or the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  "Free energy," in the sense of some system generating more energy than it consumes, will remain impossible.  So calling this thing a "perpetual motion machine" equates it with the device the cranks have been trying to produce for hundreds of years, just as Wolchover pointed out, and isn't all that accurate in any case.

Of course, all this won't stop the wingnuts from making all sorts of bizarre claims about what Wilczek's yet-to-be-tested theories imply.  Look for Diane Tessman to weigh in soon, probably stating that "time crystals" explain déjà vu and precognitive dreams.

I'm already arranging cushions on my desk to protect my forehead from the faceplant that will result.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Breaking the lockstep of standardized tests

I've been an educator for 26 years.  During that time, I've handed out, proctored, and graded more quizzes and exams than I would even try to estimate.  Through it all, when asked why I give conventional tests (at times when I have a choice), my answer has been that they act as formative assessments -- allowing students and teachers to see how far their understanding of the subject at hand has progressed, and (importantly) to give them feedback on where the "holes" in their knowledge lie.

Standardized tests are defended with some of the same arguments, with the added one that (given that everyone is taking the same exam at the same time) it also allows administrators to judge how the school as a whole is performing.  In other words, it gives a basis for evaluating the entire system.

The Educational Testing Service, which is responsible for a large percentage of the standardized tests given in the United States, defends standardized testing in schools as having the following purposes:
  • Placement: Determine which courses or level of course a student should take.
  • Curriculum-based End of Course Testing: Determine whether students have mastered the objectives of the course taken.
  • Exit testing: Find out whether students have learned the amount necessary to graduate from a level of education.
  • Policy tools: Provide data to policymakers that helps them make decisions regarding funding, class size, curriculum adjustments, teacher development and more.
  • Course credit: Indicate whether a students should receive credit for a course he or she didn't take through demonstration of course content knowledge.
  • Accountability: Hold various levels of the education system responsible for test results that indicate if students learn what they should have learned.
This is predicated, however, on a pair of assumptions that runs through all of these justifications.  These assumptions are rarely questioned, but if either one of them is false, it would be sufficient to call into serious question our increasing reliance on test scores.  These assumptions are:

 (1)  Test scores are an accurate measure of student understanding;

and (2) How well students do on tests is solely due to how well they're taught.

I have come to believe that both of these statements are wrong.

The flaw in Assumption #1 comes from the definition of the word "understanding."  What does it mean to "understand" something?  Does it mean that you can recall, and use correctly, the relevant vocabulary?  Does it mean that you can apply your knowledge in some practical way?  Does it mean that you can draw connections between that knowledge and your knowledge of other fields?  I would argue that traditional tests -- even well-designed ones -- measure vocabulary-related knowledge fairly well, but almost never measure practical application or creative divergent thinking.  To measure those would take a great deal of time -- far more time than teachers or students are ever given for testing purposes.

It brings up the question, too, of "how does understanding happen, and how do tests contribute to that understanding?"  In my experience, understanding is unpredictable, sudden, and frequently comes out of collaborative problem solving; and that tests, as they're usually administered, almost never improve understanding in any way.  More often than not, test scores are looked upon as an end in themselves, not as a benchmark for growth or an opportunity to remediate.

A recent experiment by Peter Nonacs, a professor of behavioral ecology at UCLA, turned the whole exam model on its head by creating a novel testing environment.  Students were told a week ahead of time that they'd be allowed to "cheat" on a major exam.  They could do whatever they wanted during the exam, short of anything illegal.  They could bring in books, bring in notes, bring in a knowledgeable friend.  They could talk to each other, talk to students who'd taken the class before, call someone on their cellphone, leave the room to go consult a reference they'd forgotten.  They could ask the professor for hints (whether he provided them would be his decision.)  Work alone, work in groups, have the whole class take part and turn in identical answers.  In short: it was a free-for-all.

The result?  Most of the students chose to collaborate.  They divided up the class into teams, and gave each team a piece of the test -- but the individual groups had to present their answers to everyone to make sure they were good enough.  They argued points, proposing solutions that were ranked for plausibility and eliminating weak arguments.

In the end, they turned in a strong, well-reasoned examination, and I would argue that they learned far more from that experience than they would have learned by studying, and testing, alone.  Nonacs writes, "In the end, the students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years. To win at some games, cooperation is better than competition. Unity that arises through a diversity of opinion is stronger than any solitary competitor."

Then, there is Assumption #2; that somehow, test scores are well-correlated with what the classroom teacher is doing, and that teachers (and, by extension, the curriculum) are accurately assessed by how well students do on examinations.  If this were true, shouldn't there be far greater uniformity on assessment scores given by the same teacher using the same curriculum?  Of course, the flaw in this idea is glaringly obvious to everyone who has spent any time teaching; students are not little empty vessels that we can fill with knowledge, and measure by opening up their brains at the end of the school year and seeing how much is still there.  They come with differences in their mental hardwiring, differences in attitude, differences in their emotional and physical maturity.  They have different home lives, different amounts of parental support, differences in the demands they deal with outside of school.  Some use drugs and alcohol.  Some are mentally ill or developmentally disabled.

And we pretend, for some reason, that a sufficiently trained and motivated teacher, using an excellent curriculum, can get all of these children to the same place at the same time.

Get real.

The problem is, oversight agencies haven't admitted that reality yet, so that is exactly what they do pretend.  The pressures to "succeed" in that impossible task (whatever form "success" would actually take) are incredible, and the penalties for failing are harsh.  More and more there is a push to tie teacher salaries and job retention to test scores, and to link educational funding for school districts to the pooled results on standardized examinations.

The result has been panic on the part of a lot of school administrators, and some of the solutions they have come up with have been byzantine, not to mention disheartening.  Just this week, the Broward County (Florida) School District proposed that the minimum grade for students be raised from 0 to 50.  Students would receive the same grade -- a 50 -- for doing half of the required work as they would for sleeping through class, every single day, for 180 days straight.

The argument by the school board is that it creates a safety net.  "It's eliminates situations a child cannot possibly recover from, thus allowing them an opportunity," said Cynthia Park, the district's director of college and career readiness.  "Once they become hopeless, it's like why should I try?"

I would like to ask Ms. Park, however, if the real message here isn't that grades simply don't mean what educators have claimed that they mean, and that we need to reconsider our reliance on them.

But how can we change things?  To alter this model, it would take a complete overhaul of how we approach education; it would be costly.  It would require administrators to let go of their demand that everything in student and teacher performance be turned into numbers.  It would require us to redefine what we mean by "learning," to include the kind of creative, collaborative problem solving that Professor Nonacs saw in his class.

But it might, perhaps, change the face of education, and pull us out of the downward spiral in which schools have been locked for decades, and create an environment where all children get the opportunity to learn the knowledge they need, and progress as fast as they are able.  It might free us from the lockstep march toward uniformity that insists on throwing away talent that it cannot, or will not, foster.

Is this utopian?  Why?  If our commitment is, as it should be, to create smart, versatile, creative individuals, we had better rethink what we're doing -- because the system, as it is, is not working.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The horse worshipers

I am endlessly fascinated with animal behavior.  Besides having been a pet owner for more or less my entire life, I have been a fanatical birdwatcher for years.  Beyond this, though, I just think the interactions of the non-human species with which we share the planet are interesting from the standpoint of evolutionary biology and neuroscience -- two areas of biological science that are intrinsically awesome.

It may be because of this that I tend to react with revulsion toward an all-too-common human tendency, which is to treat non-human animals as if they were something other than they are.

This can take many forms, and they are not all equally bad.  Our anthropomorphizing of pets is usually fairly harmless, and I've fallen into that trap, myself; what dog owner out there has looked into those loyal, liquid eyes and not thought, at least for a moment, that Rover is far more intelligent than he really is?  It's understandable, particularly since dogs are highly social animals who have been selectively bred for millennia to be responsive to humans.  It'd be surprising if we didn't by this time have dogs who were capable of eliciting this reaction in us.

It can lead to problems, however, when this natural and rather innocent tendency leads us to treat animals in (*ironic word choice alert*) inhumane ways.  I've seen more than one obese, unhealthy dog whose owner insisted on feeding it, both in quantity and quality, as if it were human.  But there's even worse than that; in our determination to make non-human animals into something other than they are, we ignore the (interesting) reality and create a (dangerous) fiction surrounding them.

We, in effect, create a modern-day mythology, analogous to our distant ancestors' imbuing of animals with magical powers.

It's not just domestic animals that we do this to.  The people in Tuesday's post who thought they were magically in touch with whales are examples of this phenomenon.  (One reader posted a comment wondering why woo-woos think that only the charismatic megafauna have mystical powers -- why they try to connect to the Wolf Spirit and the Whale Consciousness, but no one tries to create a telepathic link to, say, a chicken.  It's a good question, although I must say that it would be entertaining to watch someone try.)

I was sent a particularly egregious example of this whole phenomenon yesterday by a frequent reader and contributor to Skeptophilia.  Entitled "Equinisity Retreats: A Transformational Journey," this website describes a ranch in British Columbia where horses are... more than just horses:
Our Sacred Land is home to a herd of free roaming horses, llamas and our resident Buddha, Tesoro the bull. The 320 acres of enchanted forests, hills, lakes, rivers of underground crystals and magnificent views, is an energetic matrix for personal transformation through higher consciousness, universal love and connection to all life...  Equinisity Retreats are transformational journeys hosted by Liz Mitten Ryan, Author, Artist and Animal Communicator and her herd of equine higher beings.
Now, I will be up front with you; although I've been around animals my whole life, I am not a horse person.  I have ridden a horse exactly once, a patient, gentle old guy named Tonto on whom I sat for an hour's beach ride in Montauk fourteen years ago.  That's it: my one and only contact with horses.  I have, however, a friend who is a passionate equestrian, with whom I have had many conversations on the topic.  She understands that horses are, first and foremost, herd animals, who have evolved for millions of years to interact with each other and with members of other species in the ways evolution molded them.  In their original habitat, they are highly social animals, but are also prey; any interaction with them has to be predicated on that understanding.  And like any social animal, they have unique gestures, signals, and modes of non-verbal communication that you must understand in order to interact with a horse without its either running away from you or kicking you into the middle of next week.

But her understanding of horses is based on science, not on wishful thinking about their being "spiritual masters."  She studies, appreciates, and loves horses; she doesn't worship them.  On the other hand, listen to the way Liz Mitten Ryan talks about the interactions with her "equine higher beings":
These spiritual retreats offer re-connection, re-vitalisation and healing, dispelling illusion, shifting consciousness and tuning and raising personal and universal vibration...  Untainted by human mass mind consciousness, this perspective provides a life-changing understanding of the enlightened journey. You are invited to rest, reconnect, and heal with the Land and the Herd. Tune and raise your vibration through the powerful crystals of Gateway and healing sessions with the Herd; learn to see vortices, feel and see auras, and connect and communicate with all life.  Learn animal and communication with all life through journaling, dowsing, opening to channel and trusting and refining your innate abilities.
Now, I'm not claiming that what she's doing is in any way detrimental to the animals.  From what I could tell from the website, the horses are probably well cared for.  But her selling point -- that somehow, she is allowing you to learn animal communication through some kind of mystical contact with equine "higher beings" -- is absurd.  Be that as it may, if you wanted to, you can even go there to get certified to lead "horse healing sessions" yourself:
Horses are coming forward as teachers and healers in programs everywhere. Here at Gateway 2 Ranch we have pioneered the Equinisity Programs and have interest from people all over the world who would like to incorporate these at liberty horse healing programs that are producing miraculous results. 
The most miraculous result for the owners of Equinisity is that there are people who are willing to shell out $6,800 to take the training.

On some level, I get why people do this sort of thing.  Horses are beautiful, majestic animals.  But they are animals, not "spiritual beings," and are far less intelligent than humans.  Worshiping them as if they are "higher beings" that are "enlightened" and can allow you to see vortices and auras is, simply, false, and taking people's money on this pretext is unethical at best.

Once again, the reality is far more interesting (not to mention far cheaper).  Most places in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe are within a reasonable drive of a place where you can learn to ride and to interact with horses, if that's what you want to do.  And learning about how the behavior of horses (and every other animal in the world) has been driven by evolutionary pressures will help you to see why horses do what they do, in their interactions both with humans and with their herdmates.  In the long haul, you will learn more than you would by going to British Columbia to have a "spiritually transformative experience" involving a made-up view of animal nature.

As usual: learn some science.  Learn some facts.  Allow yourself to be awestruck at how cool the biological world actually is, even if it forces you to abandon your mythology.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spiritual ascension, triple helices, and the tragic story of Alfie Clamp

Yesterday, we saw an example of how woo-woos will embrace a warm fuzzy fiction in order to escape the hard work of learning science.  While I think this is a shame, and that said woo-woos are losing out on the thrill of actually understanding the universe, I have some sympathy for the desire to have the universe be like you would like it to be (not to mention the mental indolence that prevents you from sticking with the actual science until you understand it).

Unfortunately, however, there is a darker side to such things.  Sometimes the woo-woos lie outright.

I ran into an especially sad example of this yesterday, and it has to do with a bizarre claim by the "spiritual ascension" crowd.  These folks have taken a wafer-thin understanding of genetics and evolution, and onto this they have duct-taped all sorts of goofy ideas -- aliens, channeling, ESP, and a quasi-Buddhist "progress toward enlightenment."  Out of it has come a completely wacky amalgam that basically claims that some kind of "life force" is driving us to evolve into "higher beings," and that part of this "spiritual ascension" will involve activating parts of our DNA that are currently switched off.  Many of the proponents of this idiotic idea believe that we'll be able to tell the "ascended masters" from the rest of us slobs because they will have three, four, or even (in some versions) 1,024 strands per DNA instead of the standard-issue two.  (I.e., their DNA will not be composed of double helices -- it will be triple, quadruple, or 1,024-uple helices.)

Now, so far, this is just in the same realm as yesterday's post, wherein an alt-med wingnut claimed to be in psychic touch with alien whales -- weird but essentially harmless.  But this one took a turn toward the Dark Side of Woo-Woo with the claim by some of them to have discovered a child who is the first person who has this triple-stranded DNA, and thus represents the first step toward "ascension."

His name is Alfie Clamp, and he lives in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England.  Listen to what Greg Giles, of the site Ascension Earth, had to say about this child in his post "First Child Officially Diagnosed With Three DNA Strands":
As we as a species approach the culmination of our ascension in 2012, our outdated 2 strand 'Double Helix' DNA must experience an upgrade. What has long been considered 'junk DNA' by the scientific community must now be reevaluated as the human species experiences an incredibly rapid advancement of our evolution. All throughout the existence of the human species on this planet, thee has never been gradual shift in our evolution, instead there have been a series of massive leaps. One of the more recent leaps in our evolution could never be explained by science, hence a name for this mystery was implemented instead, resulting in this phenomena being referred to as the 'missing link'. Human DNA is now evolving from a mere two strands (which are responsible for lower dimensional traits such as survival and pro creation), to three, four, and even twelve strands of DNA fully activated. A human with two strands of DNA activated is plugged into a 3rd dimensional reality which we have experienced here on earth. When a third strand is activated, a human can experience the fourth dimensional reality, and after activation of a fourth strand of DNA, the fifth dimensional reality can be experienced, which is precisely where we are headed in 2012. These third and fourth strands of DNA have remained dormant within the DNA structure, and are being activated throughout our planet by energies currently bathing our world. It is believed forerunners in our ascension process, known as Indigo Children have been born with three and four strands of DNA fully activated. The scientific community, which has shown strong skepticism towards new DNA theories, must now reevaluate their position as a two year old British boy named Alfie Clamp has become the first person in the world to be officially diagnosed with a third strand of DNA located in his seventh chromosome.
We are then treated to a picture of what this supposedly looks like:

Esoteric Online went even further, in their post "Scientists: Our DNA is Mutating As We Speak!  We Are Developing Twelve Strands!"
I was amazed to read that the modern medical industry finally released to the press that the 'first human with 3 DNA strands' had been born. Of course, the case of little Alfie is the first one to be officially acknowledge by the medical community, but not the only one existent.

In fact, I've read years ago that independent doctors were already working with children who developed the third DNA strand. But are they different than the average human? I am absolutely delighted to inform you that they are very special and in fact all humans are mutating to a superior species, as we speak...

The changes are not known publicly, because the scientific community feels it would frighten the population. However, people are changing at the cellular level. I am working with three children right now who have three DNA helixes. Most people know and feel this. Many religions have talked about the change and know it will come about in different ways. We know it is a positive mutation even though physically, mentally, and emotionally it can be misunderstood and frightening...  These are children who can move objects across the room just by concentrating on them, or they can fill glasses of water just by looking at them. They're telepathic. You would almost think by knowing these children that they are half angelic or superhuman, but they're not. I think they are what we are growing into during the next few decades...  We are being changed physically from carbon-based beings with 2 strands of DNA into crystalline beings with 1,024 strands of DNA (eventually, in time), because only crystalline substances can exist on higher dimensional levels. But the immediate changes are from 2 to 3 DNA strands, and later into 12.
My first thought was that these people are merely deluded individuals who believe that the X-Men movies are historical documentaries, but when I started looking into it, I realized something more insidious was going on here:

They weren't delusional, they were lying.

I found what appears to be the original public-media article on Alfie Clamp's condition (here).  It was published in April of 2011.  In it, it says that Alfie doesn't have a third strand of DNA -- i.e., triple helical DNA -- he has a third arm on his seventh chromosome, which is not the same thing at all.  His chromosomes, like yours, are tightly-wound bundles of double-helical DNA.  His having an extra arm on a chromosome is basically an odd form of duplication, which is a chromosomal mutation in which genetic material appears three times in the genome (instead of the normal two).  Duplications, like all chromosomal abnormalities, are devastating to the individual (in fact, most never survive to be born).  And poor little Alfie Clamp, far from being a "superior species" that is "half angelic or superhuman," has had medical issues since the day of his birth.  He nearly died when he was only a few days old, his eyes didn't fully develop until three months after he was born, and he was a year and a half old before he was strong enough to roll over unassisted.  He is two now, and still requires daily medications just to help him digest his food.

The original story was intended to be inspirational -- the devotion of a pair of loving parents to a little boy whose physical condition was profoundly impaired, and whose problems are likely to be incurable.  And it was inspiring... until the woo-woos got a hold of it, and twisted it to buoy up their ridiculous concept of reality.  They are coldly, callously capitalizing on the tragic story of Alfie Clamp for one reason and one reason only -- they don't have any facts to back up their views, so they have to lie about a sick child's plight in order to gain credibility in the eyes of their gullible followers.

Greg Giles simply pretended that Alfie's medical problems didn't exist; the people at Esoteric Online went a horrifying step further, claiming that Alfie's symptoms are just growing pains, because we should expect ascension to hurt:
Is it any wonder therefore, that there is a great deal of anxiety and fear being felt because these changes are already in progress, even though most people are not conscious of it. Also, the changes to our physiological makeup are currently speeding up and there are MANY TEMPORARY PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS that are occurring in our bodies as a consequence of this...  Some of these symptoms are being felt by a great many people. Many are rushing off in panic to their doctor, chiropractor, herbalist, etc. and are usually told that there is nothing wrong with them. And this is the truth. For all these symptoms are just temporary and simply indicate that these physiological changes are occurring.... You aren't dying, you're just changing!
Somehow, I doubt Alfie's doctors, or his parents, would agree with this.

It's bad enough when woo-woos try to twist reality to fit their mythology, and then hoodwink others.  It's worse when they use their warped worldview to bilk the public out of their hard-earned money.

Worst of all, though, is twisting the story of a little boy's pain, and his parents' commitment, into "proof" for a false claim about the universe.  That they would sink to this level shows that what needs to ascend isn't the number of strands we have in our DNA, but the morality with which we treat the truth and our fellow humans.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Easy fiction vs. hard science

One of my most common reactions to woo-woos is, "What, isn't the real world cool enough for you?"

I have a decent background (although definitely in the broad-but-shallow category) in a variety of scientific fields, and I think what impresses me about each of them is how endlessly fascinating it all is.  Take your pick -- chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, geology, climatology... you could choose any one of them, and spend the rest of your life with it, and never run out of new amazing things to discover about the field.

The downside is, it's hard work.  Reality is complex.  Also, virtually any scientific field will require some level of mathematical expertise; even back in the 17th century, Galileo recognized this when he said, "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."  And this can certainly be a stumbling block.  (It was for me; my career as a physics student came to a screeching halt when I was a junior in college, largely from difficulties with the math required.  Admittedly, a fondness for partying might also have had something to do with it.)

Woo-woos, on the other hand, want it easy.  What "feels right?"  The philosophy seems to be, "Let your heart guide you.  Rationality just gets in the way."  Understanding should "come naturally" -- i.e., no struggling with textbooks, no sweating over mastering abstruse equations and complicated theories.  Just become One With The Universe, and you'll know all you need to know.

So let's contrast the two views of the world, shall we?

Last weekend I stumbled on the site "Whale/Dolphin Reiki -- Celestial Pyramid Massage," which is about as good an example of the latter viewpoint as I've ever seen.  This website, which is primarily an alt-med site (therapeutic massage, Reiki, chakras, flower essences, "emotion code," etc. -- they've got it all), has a page dedicated to one of the practitioners who claims that his/her skill (the author of the page isn't named, as far as I saw) from channeling "whale and dolphin spirits" who are in touch with, um, the entire galaxy.  Or something.
In late 2010 I started getting information during meditations from Whales and Usui Sensei, the Father of Reiki, that I would be a conduit for a type of Reiki that would be coming from Whales and Dolphins from their Source within this galaxy.  The path this would take was through Sirius.  Nothing was very specific except that each session would be tailored to the individual through a meditation before the client arrived.  I personally had issue with this as I am the type of person that needs to know what specifically is happening and how this is to proceed.  This was a leap of faith on my part to release expectations and the ego part of needing control and complete knowledge.
So, let me get this straight: you "need to know what specifically is happening," and so you decide you're in touch with an alien whale?  The answer, apparently, is "yes:"
After more meditations I was told by Usui Sensei and the Whale Guardian who is an Orca Whale that I needed to start giving free sessions to get clients in and to familiarize myself with the energies coming through and how they, the Whale and Dolphin communities,  would work with me during these sessions.  Now after many clients, meditations and communications with the Whale Guardian and others I realize that many things seem to happen during the sessions and I have to allow the energy to move through me at the direction of the Whale Guardian or the Whale or Dolphin that comes in to assist the clients.  At times I am instructed as to what crystals if any to use and placement on or around the client. 
Okay.  The "Whale Guardian" told you to use crystals, for what, exactly?
Issues that seem to be concentrated on the most are grounding and balancing of the physical body with the earth mostly with the crystalline core of the earth.  I have also been told that neuro pathways within the brain are made that opens communications within the multi-dimensional layers of the body.  In some instances more work seems to concentrate on the pineal and pituitary glands clearing and cleaning debris that has built up around these glands by food additives and pollution.  These changes increase the client’s vibration and frequency which allows acceptance physically as the earth increases in vibration and frequency.

So, there you have it, then.  A whale that's in contact with the galaxy told these people to use Reiki to clean up the schmutz on your pituitary gland left there by consuming food additives.

Now, let's contrast this to some actual scientific research -- a project in Orca communication done by the Marine Mammal Research Consortium:
Killer whales extensively rely on sound for orientation, prey detection, and communication. Different types of sounds fulfill different functions for killer whales. Echolocation clicks, for example, are used for orientation and prey detection. Whistles are high-frequency sounds typically used by killer whales in social contexts, and pulsed calls are communicative sounds thought to play a role in the coordination of behaviours and maintenance of group cohesion.
Isn't that nice?  No vague, hand-waving "energies" and "vibrations;" just some real information about what whales are really doing:
Pulsed calls can be categorized into highly stereotyped call types. Different social groups within the same population have group-specific repertoires of different call types. As a result, resident killer whales in British Columbia and Alaska exhibit an intricate system of vocal dialects. The structure of these call types evolves slowly over time and is thought to be learned.
And, most importantly, it's all backed up by data -- sonograms, recordings, and behavioral observations collected over years of research.  I encourage you to peruse the site, and then come back and try to tell me that's not more interesting than the Alien Whale Crystal Massage thing.

It's not that I don't understand the temptation of easy answers.  I've found myself frustrated with how hard science can be.  I've struggled with comprehension, misunderstood things, gotten things wrong, had to go back and revise my mental model of how the world works.  More importantly, I've had to get used to admitting, "I don't know the answer to this."

Tolerating uncertainty, however, is uncomfortable for a lot of people.  For some, it's a happier solution just to embrace what "feels nice," to go along with the pleasant fiction of whale spirits communicating with aliens from Sirius, or whatever weird mythological view of the universe suits their fancy.  But I can't escape the conclusion that by doing so, they've cheated themselves of the joy that comes from catching a glimpse of the actual grandeur of what is around us -- that ecstatic moment when you say, "Yes, I understand!"

And there is no amount of comforting fiction that is worth taking in trade for that.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Crowd funding for antigravity

I've commented before how the advent of the internet has changed information transfer -- both in good ways (such as the availability of databases for quick fact-checking) and bad (such as offering a rapid, and virtually unstoppable, conduit for bullshit).  What I want to look at today is the way that the internet has changed how we view ideas and innovation -- again, in good ways and bad.

In the past, informal groups of like-minded individuals generally coalesced in some kind of formal setting -- a school, a church, a community center.  Now, there are places like Reddit where people, most of whom have never met, come together to discuss everything from gaming to world news.   This is all to the good, of course; I check several "subreddits" daily, including the ones that specialize in stories on science and skepticism.

The problem is, of course, like-minded people are... like-minded.  Groups form that seem to have the sole purpose of reinforcing the opinions that the members already had.  (And for every group, there's an equal and opposite group.  Check out "Conspiracy" and "Conspiratard" for a pair of good examples.)

Reddit isn't the only place this happens.  The same devolution into self-reinforcing silliness can even infect groups that started with the best of intents.  Take "Kickstarter," for example.

Kickstarter started out as a way for people with great ideas in any field, but who lacked the funds to see them realized, to get small donations from large numbers of people.  From their front page, the organizers of Kickstarter say,
Kickstarter is a new way to fund creative projects.

We’re a home for everything from films, games, and music to art, design, and technology. Kickstarter is full of projects, big and small, that are brought to life through the direct support of people like you. Since our launch in 2009, more than 3.9 million people have pledged over $577 million, funding more than 39,000 creative projects. Thousands of creative projects are raising funds on Kickstarter right now.
There's no doubt it's a groundbreaking idea.   CNN called Kickstarter "paradigm-shifting" -- which is certainly apt.  But the problem is that once you've opened up the gates to anyone, you've opened up the gates to... anyone.  The field starts widening to include people who are, to put not too fine a point on it, wingnuts.  Take the Kickstarter proposal by Peter Fred, for example, that has as its aim making an anti-gravity device:
The gravity theory that I am trying to promote has the fundamental hypothesis that gravitational phenomena is the result of transferred momentum produced by "stopped wind" a term which will be described. We already know a lot about momentum and the dynamics of wind.  Thus the fundamental idea of my theory is further interpretable in terms of familiar physics.
Of course, there's the obligatory declaration that everything we think we know about physics is wrong:
This lesson from the past seems to be lost on today's scientists who seem once again to be championing an unphysical idea that is supported by widespread observation.   The unthinking acceptance of the observationally supported "strange" and mysterious  idea that mass can warp space or that it can attract other mass has resulted in a preposterous universe where 95% of it is little understood.   This situation does not call for hordes of experimenters spending billions keeping the ancient basic mysterious hypothesis in place.  What it calls for is a lone self-financed theorists working for years the attic trying to come up with an idea that would replace the idea mass can attract other mass or warp space. 
He then goes on to explain what he believes to be the real mechanism causing the pull of gravity, which is that cool air is "attracted to" warm air, causing lift.  To illustrate this, he uses the following diagram, which apparently comes from a middle school Earth Science text, with some added clumsy application of Photoshop:

 Note that he has simply blurred out the return arrows, showing the complete movement of air in the convection cell -- so that it looks like some mysterious force is making the cool air over the ocean move toward the warm air on land.  (For those of you who haven't had any atmospheric science, what's actually happening is that the warm air is rising because of a change in density, and the cool air from the ocean is being pulled in to replace it; the reverse happens at high altitudes, creating an "overturning" of air between the land and the ocean.)

So, what's my problem with this?  A crank has a silly idea.  Big deal.

Well, the big deal is that it was launched two weeks ago and he's already raised almost $500, presumably donated by people whose training in physics ended in sixth grade.  As with the Conspiracy subreddit, wingnuts attract other wingnuts.  Now, I know that he's unlikely to reach his goal ($15,000), and by the policy of Kickstarter, if the goal isn't reached no one loses their money.  But my worry is twofold: first, dumb ideas gain credibility by appearing here; and second, Kickstarter itself loses credibility by hosting them.

Maybe I should temper this, however, with the admission that the same kind of altered approach has changed the publishing industry -- and has allowed me to e-publish my own fiction (note the handsome lineup of book covers on the right of your screen, ready for your Kindle or Nook).  And while this change has, in some sense, opened the floodgates to people publishing garbage, it has offered an entrée to talented writers who became frustrated with the gatekeeping aspect of the old agent/publishing editor route.  And there's a Darwinian aspect to all this; lousy novels can't compete with good ones, and get lost in the morass of self-published manuscripts after having sold copies only to the writer's significant other, parents, and best friend.  Likewise, ideas such as the aforementioned antigravity device simply don't get enough money to launch.

So maybe the fact that the bad ideas on Kickstarter won't get funded is its saving grace.  I have to admit that there have been some cool projects that have succeeded; consider the 3-D Pen (you should definitely watch the video on this one), the workout shirt that changes color to show your muscle activity, and, of course the Cthulhu knitted ski mask:

Also comes in "Slime of R'lyeh green."

So there you are.  Look around at some of the Kickstarter projects -- there are some really interesting ones.  Whatever else you might say about it, Kickstarter is a unique approach to funding innovation, just as e-publishing is to writing, and Reddit is to the formation of intellectual communities.  And if each of those things comes with a downside, what doesn't?  It's just another feature of our technological evolution, an outcome of human intelligence that never fails to fascinate and surprise me.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Psychic cat energy clearing services

A frequent reader of Skeptophilia complained to me a couple of days ago that he might need to stop reading my blog, because every time he did, his blood pressure spiked out of sheer indignation at the level of idiocy that some humans are capable of.  "You either need to stop making so much sense," he wrote to me, "or you have to start blogging about kittens."

Be careful what you wish for.

Figure 1:  A kitten.

Prompted by his comment, and with a little bit of research, I discovered the page, "Psychic Cats Are Probably More Common Than Other Psychic Animals," which launches us off onto our topic for today.

The author of the page starts us out with a good question, to wit: How can we know that cats are psychic?  The answer comes in two parts: (1) because we own cats, and they sure seem psychic to us; and (2) the ancient Egyptians liked cats a lot.  Also, we have the inarguable fact that cats are nocturnal:
Then there's the long association of cats with witches as their 'familiars'. Actually, witches had a whole range of 'familiars', but it is only the cats which are remembered.  Cats go out at night and roam around in the moonlight.  In other words, cats are 'different'. They have something which sets them apart.
Actually, I see way more possums out at night than I do cats, and I don't think that anyone is arguing that possums are psychic.  But there were no Ancient Egyptian Possum Gods, so maybe that's the difference.

In any case, these folks are really invested in cats being psychic because they have a business in "geomancy," which is figuring out through ESP if a location has negative or positive Quantum Energy Frequency Vibrations, and then "clearing" it of any bad ones so that the negative energies won't infest your aura.  Or something like that.  It's hard to tell, frankly, because most of their explanations sound like this:
Sometimes saying that we do earth energy healing is a shorthand way of saying that we work with a variety of different energies.  If you have read some of the other pages on this site, you will realize that there are a variety of different energies to be found in any environment. Therefore, to say that geomancy or space clearing is only involved in earth energy healing is somewhat misleading.  Obviously (I hope!), you will recognize the need to keep your environment clear of those energies which can affect you negatively.
Oh!  Sure!  That makes it completely clear!  I mean, my only question would be, "What?"

At this point, you may be wondering what the cats have to do with it.  I know I was.  The whole cat angle comes from the fact that you can apparently use your cat to figure out which parts of your house have bad energies:
Energetically speaking, cats tend to be drawn to places noxious to humans. Therefore, they can be useful indicators of such areas, simply by observing them.  However, they also appear, from what we have been discovering with our own cats, that they also act as transformers of negative energy in some fashion.  As we became more and more involved in house clearing, and tackled more and more difficult places, so we found that our cats are of greater help.  For instance, they sit with us, or on the plan of the place we are working on and wander away when we are finished.
I can say with some degree of assurance that from observing my own cats, Puck and Geronimo, "sitting around looking bored" and then "wandering away to be bored elsewhere" are both activities at which they excel.  It also bears mention, however, that my cats are not exactly your textbook Fluffy Kitty:

Figure 2: What neither of my cats looks even remotely like.

Puck's physical appearance makes her look like she's got a screw loose, an impression which is helped out by the fact that she's got one broken fang and frequently walks around with her tongue sticking part way out.  She's really quite a sweet-natured cat, but even people who like cats think she looks slightly demented.  Geronimo, on the other hand, is generally pissed off at the entire world.  Sometimes he just sits there and stares at me, his yellow eyes narrowed to slits.  It's unnerving.  He would have made a good witch's familiar, if he had been able to find a witch who was in his league, evil-wise, which would have been a challenge.

Oh, and did I mention that both of these cats are black?  I'm sure that's relevant, somehow.

The "Psychic Cats" page ends with a question, which certainly seems like a good one:
If cats are attracted to your house, to you and you have many of them, you need to look at why that is. Is it because they are protecting you?
To which I can only answer: if you think that your cats are protecting you, you might want to ask yourself who you would rather have by your side if an armed burglar broke into your house -- Brutus the Rottweiler, or Mr. Fluffums the Persian Cat?

So anyhow, I'm pretty sure that my cats aren't psychic.  For one thing, if they actually were psychic, I doubt they'd let our neurotic border collie, Doolin, push them around.  Plus, I'm guessing that they'd use mind-control to get something better than dry cat food for dinner.  And as far as being "drawn to places that are noxious to humans," Geronimo's favorite spot is on top of our hot tub.  So unless somehow the hot tub has become a Reservoir Of Negative Energy, I'm thinking that he's only sitting there because it's warm.  The upshot of it all is that in my experience, cats are kind of useless.  They're sort of like home decor items that run up vet bills and poop in a box in the corner of the laundry room.

So, that's our in-depth analysis of feline psychics.   And to the reader who wanted a kitten post, I hope you're satisfied at what you've done.  I suspect I've just unleashed a torrent of hate mail from (1) people who love cats and resent my criticizing them, (2) people who believe in psychic abilities and resent my poking fun at them, and (3) people who own psychic cats and simply hate my guts.  But it's a risk I'm willing to take.  As a blogger, you have to be responsive to your readers.  Even given the criticism I sometimes get, they're still an easier audience than Geronimo, who looks like he would happily claw my eyes out even though I feed him every day.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Glenn Beck, liberal indoctrination, and public schools

It's nice when your intuition is right, every once in a while.

Last week, Glenn Beck's media outlet The Blaze reported on a story out of Jacksonville, Florida.  The upshot of it was that a parent of a child who attends Cedar Hills Elementary School was "furious" to find the following note amongst his child's school work:

The father was horrified about the apparent liberal indoctrination going on here, so he checked with other parents of kids in the same class, and found that those children, too, had written the sentence down on a piece of paper.

So the dad contacted The Blaze, and the story broke.  Soon the district and the teacher who was identified as responsible, Cheryl Sabb, were receiving threats.  It flew around the internet, especially on Facebook -- a posting of it I saw had garnered over 14,000 hits, and comments such as, "I HATE those goddamn liberal public schools.  We should shut them all down," and "That teacher should be fired tomorrow, and so should the administrators who let this happen."

Anyhow, I read this, and the entire time I was thinking, "This can't be right."  Most of us teachers simply don't have time to proselytize even if we had the inclination.  And in a fourth-grade class?  Something seemed wrong here.  But as befits my stance as a skeptic, I wasn't just going to write a post and say, "Hey, this doesn't feel right to me" when I didn't have any evidence to support my point.

Lo and behold, though, I was right.  The firestorm of controversy that was generated by the story led to an investigation, and the upshot of it was that damn near the entire story reported in The Blaze was flat-out wrong.

The identified teacher, Cheryl Sabb, had nothing to do with it.  The note was part of a civics lesson on constitutional rights given to a class by a local attorney, who had instructed the children to write the sentence on a piece of paper -- and then state their opinion as to whether they agreed or disagreed with it, and craft an argument supporting their viewpoint.

Several things about this debacle appall me.  One is that no one in the chain of communication in the original story -- the father, the reporter who was contacted, the editor who approved the story for publication -- thought to do the one thing that seems ridiculously obvious to me, which is: call the teacher and find out for sure what happened.  Even the kid was apparently too dumb to understand the point of the assignment -- the whole thing could have been avoided if the kid had simply said, "No, dad, that's not what the lesson was about."  And then, The Blaze published a "followup" (it's linked at the top of the page for the original story) instead of doing what they should have done, which is publishing a retraction.  Isn't that what responsible news sources do when they screw up royally?

Oh, wait.  We're talking about The Blaze.  Never mind.

And of course, the damage is done.  Hardly anyone is circulating the actual correct information; this allows the people who hate public schools, who think they're little Liberal Indoctrination Camps, to go on living in their fantasy world.  Glenn Beck and his cronies at The Blaze have nothing to gain by retracting the story; they've long been virulently against public education, and if the reputation of the public school system was damaged by their false reporting, so much the better.

It leads me to wonder how much longer public schools will be able to survive.  Between funding cuts, increasing mandates from state agencies (including adding more worthless standardized tests), and external attacks on teachers, it's a wonder any college student in his or her right mind would choose to go into teaching.  I'm nearing the end of an (all things considered) happy career as a secondary-level science teacher, but if I were in college now, I wouldn't even consider teaching as an option.  It's a hard enough job to do well at the best of times, but with the recent changes, it's becoming next to impossible.  Some school districts can't find qualified applicants for job openings, leading them to eliminate positions, bump up class sizes, and (in some cases) hire uncertified individuals to teach children.  The result: quality goes down, criticisms increase, schools receive more pressure to change, and the whole thing goes into an ever-faster downward spiral.

I fear that the ultimate result will be the demolition of the entire system.

Which I'm sure that Glenn Beck would applaud.  But I hope he realizes what he's asking for.  Public schooling in the United States, for all of its flaws, has been an amazingly successful social experiment.  It started from the standpoint that (1) a general, broad-based education is good for everyone, and (2) all children should have the opportunity to learn, both of which ran counter to the earlier idea that only rich kids needed to be educated, and that the lower social and economic tiers were irredeemably stupid in any case.  And I would argue that our society has benefited tremendously from this experiment -- the amount of creative talent wasted in earlier centuries by the decision not to offer education to most of the boys and almost all of the girls is one of the tragedies of our past.

Any regular reader of this blog knows that I am no apologist for the Department of Education; I think that many of their decisions, apropos of the oversight of the school system, are downright destructive.  But the way to effect change here is not to tear down the edifice itself.  It's to use what we've learned about successful pedagogy from the people who know -- the teachers -- to guide policy, to improve the system from the inside out.

But that's not what Glenn Beck et al. want to do.  Their continual lobbing of verbal bombs at the school system has, as its aim, breaking the power of unions and remodeling teaching on conservative principles.  (Recall that the actual, verbatim stance of the Texas Republican party is that they "oppose the teaching of higher-order thinking skills, values clarification, (and) critical thinking... which have the purpose of challenging students' fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.")  And judging by the reactions I saw to the civics lesson in Jacksonville, Beck and his followers are succeeding.

I just hope that I'll be retired before the entire system collapses.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Gay vaccines and porn pheromones

As a followup to my last post, today we have two stories from people who fall clearly into the "you have no idea what you are talking about, and therefore should just shut up" department.

Both of these are people who have weighed in on the origins of homosexuality, despite the fact of having no training whatsoever in either human behavioral science or developmental genetics.  (In fact, one is a professor of law and the other one a proponent of "alternative medicine.")  To clarify right from the outset:  the scientists who have done some actual research on the topic, and who therefore are actually qualified to give an opinion, have stated unequivocally that sexual orientation is due to a variety of factors, both genetic and environmental:
Despite almost a century of psychoanalytic and psychological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person's fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation. It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment. Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice.  [Source]
Okay, that's clear enough, and certainly informs us about the ethics of discriminating against LGBT individuals, doesn't it?  But even this statement -- from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in the UK -- isn't enough for some people, especially if they have an agenda.

Which brings us to Gian Paolo Vanoli, a purveyor of alternative medicine in Italy.  Vanoli is a prominent anti-vaxxer, who is unmoved in his ridiculous stance despite last week's deadly outbreak of measles in Wales that has thus far sickened 700 people.  And now, Vanoli has added another outcome to his list of bad effects from vaccination.  Vaccination, Vanoli says, can make you gay:
The vaccine is introduced into the child, the child then grows and tries to find its own personality, and if this is inhibited by mercury or other substances present in the vaccine which enter the brain, the child becomes gay. The problem will especially be present in the next generations, because when gays have children, the children will carry along with them the DNA of their parent’s illness. Because homosexuality is a disease, even though the WHO has decided that it is not. Who cares! The reality is that it is so. Each vaccination produces homosexuality, because it prevents the formation of one’s personality. It is a microform of autism, if you will. You will see how many gays there will be in the next generation, it will be a disaster... One of the main causes is represented by vaccines, which go against life, disturbing our mind and our spirit. The proof of that is the big increase in the number of homosexuals. Since mass vaccination began, this is the result.
And if you think that this is faceplant-inducing, wait till you hear the proclamation made recently by Judith Reisman, a professor of law at Liberty University:
As principal investigator during President Reagan’s term, I piloted the largest unbiased U.S. Department of Justice study ever conducted on pornography. Big Pornography paid millions to taint our rock-solid findings. Our study was “burned” as science confirmed the 3,500-year-old biblical reality: Pornography would have to cause pornography/sex addiction...  We’ve just been educationally and morally dumbed down enough for deviance to really catch up...

“Pornography is inducing a cultural pheromonic effect,” recording the mis-orientation of male gypsy moths.  In 1869 gypsy moths, imported to create an American silk industry, instead decimated our deciduous trees – oaks, maples and elms – and devastated our forests for the next 150 years. In the ’60s scientists found male moths mate with the female “by following her scent,” her “pheromone.”  A 1967 paper, “Insect population control by the use of sex pheromones to inhibit orientation between the sexes,” reported that scientists permeated the moth’s environment with strong, artificial female moth pheromone “This … scent overpowered the normal females ability to attract the male, and the confused males were unable to find the females.”  So, our trees got saved by what could be called olfactory moth pornography, a heavy-duty phony scent that unmanned male orientation to create an impotent moth population.

In 1972 another paper described mating disorientation as “preventing male gypsy moths from finding mates,” using pheromones. Called the confusion method:

“An airplane scatters … pellets imbedded with the scent of the pheromone … [that] overpower the male’s ability to find the female. He is thus desensitized to the natural scent of the female by this artificially produced pheromone. … The male either becomes confused and doesn’t know which direction to turn for the female, or he becomes desensitized to the lower levels of pheromones naturally given out by the female and has no incentive to mate with her.” (emphasis added)

Gypsy moth pornography? In the trapping method, male moths looking for the female, enter traps with no exit “only to find a fatal substitute...”
So can Cynipidae desensitization tell us genius humanoids about pornographic mating desensitization, say, about pornography as Erototoxic, as the toxic form of Eros? Gosh.  [Source]
Oh.  Okay.  What?

Erototoxins?  Gay gypsy moths?  Pheromones from pornography?

I'm not sure that the most surprising thing of all isn't that this woman actually has a Ph.D. and holds a professorship.  Of course, it is at Liberty University, which isn't exactly a hotbed of erudition, and she teaches law even though her Ph.D. is in communications.  And it bears mention that she has gone on record as saying that people who view pornography suffer brain damage, and so "are no longer expressing 'free speech' and, for their own good, shouldn't be protected under the First Amendment."  Oh, and that Nazism was caused by homosexuality.

Then, there's the fact that she ended what was apparently intended to be persuasive journalism with the word "Gosh."

Anyhow, given the dubious credentials of both Reisman and Vanoli, I don't suppose we should have expected any better.  But it does make me wonder why, given the fact that most people are vaccinated and that porn is damn near ubiquitous, everyone isn't gay.

In any case, there you have it.  Another pair of individuals who should follow the "you are obviously an idiot, and therefore should just shut the hell up" rule.  But as we've seen, being blitheringly dumb doesn't seem to come along with any inhibitions against proclaiming your views in public.  Say, I wonder if there's such a thing as a "moronotoxin?"  Believing idiotic ideas causes a flood of moronotoxins in your brain, and before you know it, you're talking to the press about gay vaccines and porn pheromones.

Hey, it's possible.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Vietnamese mystery rocks, and the fear of admitting ignorance

Yesterday I ran across a story that is mostly remarkable because of the last paragraph.

Entitled "Odd Rock Covered in Unidentified Hieroglyphics Rumored to Cast Spells," the article was written by Dana Newkirk, and appeared in an online compendium of "Forteana" called Who Forted?  (The "Fort" references, for those of you unfamiliar with this peculiar little slice of Americana, come from Charles Fort, an iconic figure in the investigation of the paranormal and "anomalous phenomena" in the early 20th century.)

Anyhow, the story starts off in an ordinary fashion, for this sort of thing.  We hear about a large rock in Vietnam, covered with carvings, that was donated to the Thuong Temple in Phu Tho in 2009.  Of course, as you might expect, it isn't the anthropological or linguistic significance of the artifact that is the point of interest here; there's got to be something weird going on with said rock, and in short order we find out that the residents of Phu Tho think the rock has "the ability to cast a strange enchantment," and are staying away from the temple because they're afraid of it.

As far as what the carvings mean -- or even how old they are -- that's unknown.  "Unfortunately not much else is known about the strange rock or the ancient symbols covering its entire surface," Newkirk writes.  "Currently the province is compiling a scientific committee with the intention of studying the strange rock with the hopes of finding some answers regarding where it came from and what the strange markings might mean."

Okay.  So far, we've got a mystery rock and some superstitious people in a remote country.  Neither one is a rare commodity, and would certainly not warrant a mention by themselves.  But here's how Newkirk wraps up her article:
So, what the heck is it? A star map? Some kind of tool? Or is it just some really bored guy [sic] a few hundred years ago? We want to know what you think! Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page, tweet us @WhoForted, or leave a comment below!
I'm pretty sure she meant "was it really just made by some bored guy a few hundred years ago," not that the rock itself was a fossilized person, but even that's not the point.  When I read the last paragraph, my immediate response was, "Why on earth is what I think even remotely relevant?"  I know nothing whatsoever about the "odd rock" except what Newkirk just told me; I can't find any mention of it anywhere except in Who Forted?  I know zilch about Southeast Asian archaeology, history, and linguistics.  My opinion on this topic would be completely worthless.

And yet, I'm sure that Newkirk will be inundated with opinions from ignorant individuals like myself.  Because -- and I have the sense that this problem is especially bad here in the United States -- everyone thinks it's their god-given right to have an opinion about everything, and to trumpet that opinion from the rooftops, regardless of how little in the way of facts they might know about the issue at hand.

I find this whole thing intensely irritating, because I run into it almost on a daily basis.  For example, just a couple of weeks ago, I was asked by a friend, "What do you think the federal government should do about the sequester?"  I responded, "I have no idea.  I don't know nearly enough about economics or politics to weigh in."  My friend frowned and laughed at the same time and said, "Come on.  You must have some kind of opinion."

No, actually I don't.  And if I did, it wouldn't mean anything.  I'm pretty aware of the topics about which I am ignorant, and I try my hardest not to pretend I'm well-informed about them; and I don't have any particular problem with saying, even to my students, "I don't know the answer to that."  (In my classes, I usually follow it up with, "... but I'll look into it and see if I can find an answer for you.")  But I find that a lot of people are acutely uncomfortable with admitting ignorance, and feel the need to have an opinion on topics for which they should simply withhold judgment until they actually know what they're talking about.

I wonder if perhaps this is one of the negative outcomes of living in a representative democracy.  We have a "one person, one vote" system, in which my vote and the vote of the greatest genius in the country have exactly the same weight and the same effect on the outcome.  (Which, honestly, I am all in favor of.)  But this has the untoward consequence of giving people the impression that because every person's vote is worth the same amount, everyone's opinion is worth the same amount.  Which it clearly is not.  To make it even more obvious: if I were to talk to Stephen Hawking, and I were to say, "Professor Hawking, let me tell you what my views are on quantum physics," he would not be obliged to listen to me, and in fact would be well within his rights to tell me to piss off.  Democracy is a lovely model for governance,  but makes no sense at all when it comes to ideas.

Unfortunately, this whole thing pervades our thought processes all the way to the top, and is why we have people like Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Representative Paul Broun of Georgia blathering on about how evolution is "unproven" and "controversial," even though from their comments it's pretty evident that they haven't the vaguest idea what they're talking about.  And I find this especially appalling given that both men have reasonably decent science backgrounds -- Jindal has a B.S. in biology from Brown University, and Broun a medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, so they should both know better.  Despite that, in the stories I linked (which you should definitely check out), Jindal says that creationism should be taught in public schools because we want kids exposed to "the best facts" and "the best science."  Broun was even more blunt, calling evolution "lies straight from the pit of hell."

Can anyone tell me why either of these men's opinions is in the least relevant, when they evidently have no knowledge about the topic upon which they are expounding?

So no, I won't tell you my opinion about the sequester, or about the Vietnamese mystery rock.  It wouldn't mean anything if I did.  And I might be prone to a lot of mistakes, but bloviating on a subject about which I am ignorant is one I try my best to avoid.

This always reminds me of the wonderful quote by Isaac Asimov, which seems a fitting way to end this post:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Silencing Alex Jones

Okay, I'm not going to beat around the bush, here.  Let's cut right to the chase.

Alex Jones needs to shut the hell up.

Before the dust even settled after Monday's horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon, Alex Jones and his wacko followers were claiming that the government had planted the bombs.  Here's a direct quote of his tweet from Monday, shortly after the story broke:
Our hearts go out to those that are hurt or killed #Boston marathon – but this thing stinks to high heaven #falseflag
And immediately afterwards, the following was making the rounds on Facebook:

Man, Jones et al. must think these conspirators are idiots.  Can't you imagine it?  Evil, Boris-and-Natasha types, but from our own government, concoct this big secret plan to blow up people at the Boston Marathon -- and then they slip up and post about it on the internet three days early.


How dumb would you have to be?  And yet... to Jones, these are the ultra-intelligent supervillains who are running everything.

Oh, and why do Jones and his knuckle-dragging True Believers think the government planted the bombs on Monday?  Because (1) it was Tax Day; and (2) so that the Transportation Safety Authority and other government agencies would have justification to clamp down and Deny Us Our Rights.

Same as the Newtown Massacre.  Same as Jared Loughner shooting up the crowd in Tucson, Arizona.  Same as the theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado.  Same as the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Same as 9/11.

In Jones' bizarro world, bad things don't sometimes just... happen.  Crazy people don't sometimes get hold of guns and kill people.  Religious extremists don't just slaughter innocents because of their warped view of what god wants them to do.  No; it all has to be the Big Bad Government, who in Jones' mythological view of the universe has replaced Satan as the root of all evil.

Look, it's not that I'm some sort of apologist for everything our government does.  I am well aware that we've pulled some really shady stuff, sometimes, and our projected self-image as the Global Good Guy is frequently unwarranted.  But using a tragedy like Monday's bombing as fodder for your delusional worldview, and then to trumpet that worldview publicly in order to make money, is a slap in the face to the people who survived the bombing (many of them with dreadful injuries), and to the families of the victims who died.

And it's time that we stand up and tell Alex Jones, as the leader of the pack, to shut up.

Toward that end: here is a list of the sixty AM and FM radio stations that carry his show.  Take a moment to look through the list, and then send a letter or an email to the stations of your choice and ask them to drop their sponsorship of this asshole.  He needs to have his forum taken away.

Of course, if it happens, he'll just claim that the government is trying to silence him.  But that won't matter much if no one is listening any more.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The stories we tell ourselves

Often, when I respond to a piece of art work, it's because of the stories that it evokes in my brain.

When I was in college, and took an art appreciation class, I fell in love with Édouard Manet's painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.  And it wasn't because of any knowledge of French Impressionism, and how Manet's work fit into the artistic movements of the time; nor was it really about the style, or the skill of the painter, although those certainly played a role in the capacity of the painting to touch me.  The whole thing was about emotion, and how it brought stories bubbling up from the depths of my brain.

Who is this girl with the despairing expression?  I imagined her as a country girl who'd come to the city, allured by its lights and excitement, and is having to support herself as a barmaid -- and now she's there, trapped and disillusioned, her mind and her heart a million miles away.  The painting struck me then as terribly sad.  And it still does.

All of this comes up because of a conversation I had with a friend who is working toward his Ph.D. in philosophy.  His dissertation is on the subject of phenomenological idealism, which is (as far as I understand it) the idea that the universe is a construct of the mind -- that reality is solely experiential, and may or may not have any external existence.  (Kant said that we "cannot approach the thing in itself" -- all we know is our experience of it, so that's what reality is.)

Anyhow, my friend told me a bit about what he's studying.  I did try my best to understand it, although I don't know how successful I was -- and it must be admitted that I am not entirely certain I have the brains required for such an esoteric subject.  But insofar as I understood him, I found myself disagreeing with him almost completely.

That said, I'm not going to try to craft an argument against idealism.  For one thing, I am wildly unqualified to do so.  My background in philosophy is thin at best, and my attempts at understanding classical philosophy in college were, on the whole, failures.  What interests me more is the immediate reaction I had to my friend's description of his philosophical stance.  It wasn't an argument; it was purely an emotional reaction that, if I put it into words, was simply, "Oh, now, come on.  That can't be right."

So I started thinking about why people respond the way they do to belief systems.  Why, apart from "I was taught that way growing up," does anyone believe in a particular view of the universe?  Why does a theistic model appeal to some, and others find it repellent?  Why do I find materialism "self-evident" (which it clearly is not -- from what my philosopher friend has told me, it's no more self-evident than any other view of the world)?  Why, within a particular religious worldview, do some of us gravitate toward viewing the deity as harsh and legalistic, and others as gentle, kind, and forgiving?

I suspect that it all comes down to the emotional reactions we have.  I'd bet that very few of us ever do the kind of analysis of our concept of the universe that my friend has done; for the vast bulk of humanity, "it feels right" is about as far as we get.

And I can lump myself in with that unthinking majority.  I'm drawn to the mechanistic, predictable, external reality of materialism, but not because I have any cogent arguments that that worldview is correct and the others are false.  I accept it because it's a solution to understanding the world that I can live with (and that's even considering the bizarre, non-intuitive bits, like quantum mechanics).  But for all that, I can't prove that this view is the right one.  Being locked inside my own skull, even the solipsist's answer -- that he, alone, in the world exists, and everything else is the product of his mind -- is irrefutable.  Why don't I believe that, then?  Because it doesn't "seem right."  Hardly a rigorous argument.

Now, I still think you can make mistakes; once you've accepted a rationalist view of the world (for example), you can still commit errors of logic, misevaluate evidence, come to erroneous conclusions.  But why is the rationalist worldview itself right?  You can't argue that it is, using logic -- because to accept that logic is valid, you already have to accept that rationalism works.  It's pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.   The only reason to accept rationalism is because it somehow, on a gut level, makes sense to you that this is the way the world works.

It's a little like my experience with art.  A Bar at the Folies-Bergère appeals to me because of the emotions that it evokes, and the tales I tell myself about it.  I wonder if the same is true in the larger sense -- that we are drawn to a worldview not because it is logically defensible, but simply because it allows us to sleep at night.  Beyond that, all we do is tell each other stories, and hope like hell that no one asks us too many questions.