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.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Canine chakra cleansing

After having dealt, in the last few days, with problems with the oversight of public education, the ongoing effort to force the teaching of Intelligent Design in biology classrooms, and the attitudes of the religious toward atheists, it's time to turn to a much more pressing issue, to wit: Do dogs have chakras?

Chakras, you may know, are "energy flow centers" in your body, and are connected with the "meridians" that are the basis of a lot of alt-med modalities, including acupuncture, reflexology, and tapping.  The idea, apparently, is that human diseases are caused by having clogged chakras.

The Skeptic's Dictionary says about chakras, "According to kundalini yoga, a chakra (pronounced chuckrah and meaning wheel or circle in Sanskrit) is a center of prana or energy. It is said that there are several of these that begin at the base of the spine and end at the top of the head... The alleged energy of the chakras is not scientifically measurable, though some have tried to connect the chakras with physical organs such as the pineal gland and the thymus."  The wonderful site Skeptics South Australia is blunter still: "The fact that, even amongst so-called ‘chakra experts’ there are so many different opinions as to their numbers, and locations, strongly suggests that chakras exist only in the imagination of believers, that they are nothing more than a metaphysical belief that has no substance in reality."

Now, of course, we should never let a little matter like whether something actually exists stop us from blathering on about how it might manifest in other species.  Which brings us to an inadvertently hilarious article on the site The Blissful Dog called, "Dogs Have Chakras, Too!"
The chakras can have various levels of activity. When they’re open, balanced or aligned the Chakras are considered working as they should. Ideally, all chakras would be balanced. Instincts would work with our feelings and thinking. However, this is usually not the case. Some chakras are not open enough (being under-active), and to compensate, other chakras are over-active. The ideal state is where the chakras are completely balanced. This is as true for your dogs as it is for you! Especially since they pick up and take on so many of our emotions.
Mostly what my dogs seem to pick up is dropped food, but maybe that's just because their TableScraps Chakra is over-active.

Then we hear about how despite Skeptics South Australia's pointing out that hardly anyone agrees about where these mysterious (i.e. nonexistent) forces reside, everyone really agrees, especially with regards to dogs:
Most agree that there are seven major Chakras and for simplicity’s sake, we will work with that system for now for our dogs. I do feel that additional Chakras are located in their paws, tails (or tail area) and in their noses, in my humble opinion and will share information as I gather it.
One specific example will suffice, but I strongly recommend that you go to the website and read them all.  I will not be responsible for damage to your computer screen if you are drinking anything while you do so:
Third Eye Chakra – Color: Indigo Stone/Crystal: Sapphire, tourmaline, sapphire, sodalite, azurite and clear quartz. The Third Eye chakra is about insight and visualisation. When it is open and balanced, your dog will be intuitive and well balanced between the world of people and that of dogs. If it is under-active, your dog will not be not very good at thinking for herself, and you [sic] may tend to rely on you too much and might even get confused easily.
This clearly sounds like the problem with my dog Grendel, who is very well-meaning but who seems to have about three active synapses in his brain, two of which are devoted to the concept of "Let's play tug-of-war with this rope toy."  He is a very sweet dog, but his facial expression can best be summed up by the word, "Derp?"  I guess I'd better balance his Third Eye using sapphire, or something.

So, the important question is: what do you do for your dog if his chakras are unbalanced?  Turns out it's simple:
Your dog may fit some of the patterns discussed above and you want your beloved one to be BALANCED! There are a few things you can do quite easily… You can also spend more time alone, in a quiet space with your dog. Pet them, even a brief massage and just concentrate on THEM for 10-15 minutes a day. This can be pretty miraculous in itself…the intention is the focus, isn’t it?
Well, I'm sure that both my dogs would be completely in favor of that.  Petting could happen for 24 hours a day, and they would both still be of the opinion that it was Insufficient To Meet Their Needs.

But this all raises a more important question: if dogs have chakras (The Blissful Dog says, "... why not?  They are energetic beings!"), do other animals?  Does a cockroach have chakras?  How about a tapeworm?  Or a jellyfish?  Doing acupuncture on a jellyfish sounds downright messy.  What about possums?  I'll be damned if I'll give a possum a massage.  Those things creep me right the hell out.  They're just going to have to continue to waddle around the back yard with misaligned meridians.

So, anyhow, the bottom line is: spend more time petting your dog.  This is actually good advice, even if you take the whole chakra thing out of it.  I know when I have a hard day, it always makes me feel better to sit on the floor and snuggle with Grendel for a while.  And it always warms my heart when, after I've spent some time scratching his ears, he looks up at me with a searching expression in his big brown eyes, as if to say, "Hey, rope-toy?  Whatcha think, huh?  Derp?"

Thursday, May 30, 2013

How not to evaluate educators

In his talk "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" (which you can, and should, watch in its entirety here), Daniel Pink describes how the micromanagement and punishment-and-reward system built into the American workplace model simply don't work.  Pink, who worked as an aide to Labor Secretary Robert Reich and who was listed as one of the fifty most influential management thinkers in the world, describes several studies that have findings that are astonishing -- including one that found that in tasks that require engagement and creativity, reward-and-punishment strategies lead to poorer performance.

But what interests me most comes in the middle of the talk, where he describes an Australian software company, Atlassian, that instituted a policy that runs completely counter to the usual business model.  Once a month, every employee at Atlassian is given an entire day to do whatever they'd like to -- in Pink's words, "you can work on whatever you want, with whoever you want, but you have to show us the result in 24 hours."

"In that one day of pure, undiluted autonomy," Pink states, "this has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software, and a whole array of ideas for new products that otherwise would never have emerged."

Autonomy, then -- up to a point, certainly, but far beyond what most businesses are willing to try -- increases productivity, engagement, motivation, and morale.  We do our best, most creative work without someone breathing down our necks.

Which brings me to the latest from the New York State Department of Education.

Some of you may remember from previous posts that the most recent brainstorm from NYSED is that this year the teachers are getting numerical grades.  Yes, folks, in a month or so, I'm going to be getting a report card!

Only fair, you might say, given that I do the same to my students.  And honestly, I have no problem with accountability; I welcome being observed and evaluated.  There is nothing to be gained by a policy that allows inadequate teachers to continue indefinitely in the same job.

The problem is the way the grade is calculated.  Part of it is based on observations by an administrator; but 40% comes from how well students meet "SLOs" -- "Student Learning Objectives" -- based on their performance on standardized tests.  To determine whether the students met their SLOs, an exit exam is administered, and used to see if the student met or exceeded a "target" score based on scores on a pre-assessment.

Let me give you an example from my own class that will illustrate why this is a statistically spurious method.

I teach, amongst other things, AP Biology.  It's a notoriously tough subject, full of technical terms and difficult concepts.  For this class, the "pre-assessment" used is the average of the students' scores on the Regents (Introductory) Biology and Regents Chemistry exams.  Now, the problem is, these are both dramatically easier classes and exams; most of the students who made it to AP Biology scored in the 90s on the Regents Biology exam and at least in the 80s on the Regents Chemistry exam.  So the students walk in with, most of them, a "pre-assessment" score of around 90.

Then, at the end of the year, they hit my cumulative, college-level final.

I can say that almost without exception, everyone scores lower on that exam than they did on their "pre-assessment."  In fact, this year, 12 out of 23 students who took my final did not meet their "state target scores" -- in other words, in New York State's eyes, the students, and I, have failed.  From the point of view of the people at NYSED, it looks like the year my students spent in my class actively made them stupider.

But it gets better.  Because just yesterday, we received a communiqué from Ken Slentz, the Deputy Commissioner of Education in New York State.  The message stated that students who are not eligible to take the science Regents exams because they did not turn in enough labs during the school year -- New York has a requirement that high-school-level science students do a minimum of thirty hours of labs to get credit -- are counted as zeroes against the teacher's score.

You read that right.  A student who was out for medical reasons, and who is on home tutoring and cannot do labs -- which three of my students were, this year, for months at a time -- not only is penalized by not being allowed to take the final exam, but that zero is counted as a failure of the teacher's.  Students who simply disengage, and decide that they have no particular interest in turning in anything, are also counted against the teacher's evaluation score.  "It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that all students meet lab requirements so that they are able to sit for the Regents exam," Slentz wrote in an email that was sent to every high school science teacher in New York.  "The Department recommends that districts... create processes that ensure students have opportunities to make up lab requirements."

As a student put it, when I discussed this policy in my Critical Thinking classes, "Wow.  First, teachers have an incentive to give easy final exams.  Now they have an incentive to lie about whether we turned in our lab reports."

In the case of the teachers in my school, I have to say that virtually all of them have responded with indignation.  "I'll be damned if I'll compromise the integrity of my course for some bullshit rule," one said.  "If the state wants to grade me down because of things that are outside of my control, they can knock themselves out."

But what it has done is to destroy morale.  More and more teachers I know are actively looking for other jobs.  One, a friend of long standing who has young children in the school, is looking into finding a way to take her own children out of the public school she teaches in -- a stinging vote of no confidence in the direction public education is going.

My fear, though, is that this trend of turning everything -- students and teachers alike -- into numbers is only beginning.  Micromanaging b-b stackers like Deputy Commissioner Slentz, who evidently don't have the vaguest idea of the reality of classroom teaching, will accomplish nothing by these new mandates but driving those of us who actually care about educating children into other jobs.

As for me: I'm not too far from retirement, and would be eligible for a buy-out (should one be offered) in three years.  I can stick it out that long.  How much longer I'll be able to keep my morale up is another matter.  But after all, given the mediocre grade I'm likely to get on my Report Card this year, it's probably better that I start thinking about getting a job where my evaluation is actually based on my level of performance.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Choosing an intelligent designer

Here we go again.

Last week, the Springboro (Ohio) City Community School District announced that they are considering a policy that would "encourage students to 'think critically' about 'controversial' issues like evolution, abortion, climate change, UN Agenda 21 and sustainable development. The policy directs teachers to fully explore 'all sides' of these issues."

To take the two pieces of the proposed policy that I actually know enough to comment on, there is no controversy in scientific circles about evolution and climate change -- a point I have made often enough that I don't see the need to defend it further here.

What makes this situation interesting was something that appeared on Reddit yesterday -- a back-and-forth email exchange between an Ohio resident who is outraged by the policy, and Kelly Kohls, president of the Springboro School Board.  I quote the posted emails below:
Ms Kohls et al,
As someone who grew up in Cincinnati during the 70s and 80s, I well remember the attempts to bring religious teachings into the classroom. As it has been ruled clearly unconstitutional many times, you are merely wasting time and resources better spent on actually helping children of your school district. Please keep religion at home or in your houses of worship. It has no place in a science classroom. There is no scientific controversy with respect to Evolution except within the ranks of the fundamentalists.
In case you or your board are unsure about the legal precedents, please see:
Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)
Segraves v State of California (1981)
McLean v Arkansas BOE (1982)
Edwards v. Aguillard (1897)
Webster v New Lenox (1990)
Peloza v Capistrano (1994)
Freiler v Tangipahoa Paris BOE (1997) - this one SPECIFICALLY mentions "critical thinking" by the way, and calls it what it is, a ruse.
Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005)
There are more but I think you get my point.
Please, please, please...focus on facts. You are educators. You should act like it.
Thank you for your time,
Stuart Thomas
Ms. Kohls responded as follows.  I would run out of "sics" so you'll just have to keep in mind that this is verbatim:
Please read the rulings, they are not saying unconstitutional or illegal. Please also go to the Discovery Institute and view the science the blows gigantic wholes in Evolution. I also went to school in the 70's and 80 and and do not agree with you.

Please focus on the facts and read the rulings for yourself.

Kelly Kohls
The original poster, in apparent bafflement at getting a response from a school board president that barely qualified as English, wrote back the following:
Ms Kohls,
I'm, first of all, surprised that you would actually cite The Discovery Institute, which is clearly a heavily biased lobbying group and advances only one view, the completely unscientific concept of creationism.
Second, you ask me to "read the rulings", which I have. I would not have cited the cases if I hadn't. Granted, in some cases, it may have been a lower court ruling which may not be citable in a higher court but, and I know you know this, the Circuit Court or the Supreme Court cases clearly define constitutionality. In no case did creationists prevail. This should be of particular interest and goes back to my earlier point that this attempt to inject religion into a secular environment is futile at best, and ultimately harmful to the students in your district.
Let me address your points one by one, and, while I grant that not every case was lifted to the Supreme Court, creationism was never upheld and religious rights were never violated by the teaching of evolution:
"they are not saying unconstitutional or illegal"
I'll just start at the first three...
Epperson v. Arkansas - The U.S Supreme Court found that, ultimately, it was unconstitutional. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruling was overturned by the US Supreme Court. "The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools." Please note the use of the word "constitutional".
Segraves v State of California - Summarized as "learning about evolution in public schools does not infringe upon the free exercise of religion." Your First Amendment rights are not violated. Note that if you teach the Christian version, you then automatically violate the rights of people of other religions.
McLean v Arkansas - "the Act was passed with the specific purpose by the General Assembly of advancing religion," which violates the First Amendment.
"I also went to school in the 70's and 80 and and do not agree with you"
Whether or not you agree with me is not the issue here. The issue is Constitutionality. On this point, you are already at a disadvantage. I am unclear why you think you can overturn decades of previous rulings.
Would you like me to continue or do you understand that your "facts" are not, in any way, facts.
"blows gigantic wholes in Evolution"
Honestly, I'm appalled that in your reply, you, as an educator, did not even know the difference between "whole" and "hole". Now, I know this is not a specific refutation of your argument and normally I would have overlooked it, but you are on the Board of Education. By now, I would have hoped that the simple act of proof-reading would have been second nature.
This is a battle which you will not win. Again, you are welcome to your beliefs, but keep them out of the classroom unless you are willing to allow scientists into your church to "teach the controversy".
Stuart Thomas
At this point Ms. Kohls had evidently had enough of Mr. Thomas and his damn logical, rational thinking, because she sent back a one liner:
Thanks for your opinion and I respectfully disagree.
 I, too, thought it was interesting that she would immediately blow her cover and mention the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based "think tank" (although I use that phrase with some reluctance) that has championed forcing Christian intelligent design and climate change denialism into public school curricula.  They are adamant especially about the former, and more than one of the posts on the Institute website tears into the idea of abiogenesis, stating that the origins of life required a "skilled technical chemist" -- i.e., a deity who got life going.

Fine.  God started life, did he?  I'll be sure to teach that next year in my biology classes.  The problem is, which Scientific Theory of God do you want me to use?  Intelligent designers abound in the mythology of humanity.  We have more than a few to choose from:
The first humans were generated by the Sky (Marduk) having sex with the Earth (Tiamat).  [Babylonian]

The Earth is made of the dead body of a frost giant, and the first humans were carved out of logs.  [Norse]

Dry land was formed by a deity (Izanagi) stirring the Celestial Sea with his spear.  The first humans were the children of Izanagi by his wife (Izanami), but she had also previously given birth to a leech, a floating island, and a child who was on fire, which musta hurt like hell.  [Japanese]

The first people were made out of rocks and minerals by a god called "Black Hactcin."  [Jicarilla Apache]

The first life was created out of pond muck by a guy named Obatala.  Some of the weirder-looking creatures in the world were made while Obatala was drunk, which I would expect accounts for the duck-billed platypus.  [Yoruba]

So, anyhow.  I'd guess that Mr. Thomas is right, and that this latest assault on science is doomed to fail, but for cryin' in the sink, it does get tiresome fighting the same battles over and over again.  In any case, keep your eye on Ohio.  As for me, I'm off to go prepare my lesson on how the different races of humans came about because a god named "Kche Mnedo" didn't bake some of them long enough, and the half-baked ones came out as white people.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The coolness of Pope Francis

The Roman Catholic world is buzzing because of an announcement made at morning mass last Wednesday by Pope Francis.

"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” the pope said.  "'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone!  We must meet one another doing good. 'But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!'  But do good: we will meet one another there."  [Source]

This isn't the first time that the new pope -- just installed as the church's leader -- has weighed in on us nonbelievers.  Shortly after his election, he told a crowd,
[W]e also sense our closeness to all those men and women who, although not identifying themselves as followers of any religious tradition, are nonetheless searching for truth, goodness and beauty, the truth, goodness and beauty of God.  They are our valued allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in safeguarding and caring for creation.
As an atheist, I think that all of this is nice to hear, and I have to say that Pope Francis seems like a pretty cool guy.  And this kind of statement is a refreshing change from what we secularists usually hear.  After all, being told over and over that you're going to burn in horrible agony for all eternity is a little off-putting, even if you don't technically believe that hell exists.  Especially given how happy the folks who say those things seem to be about it.  You can take schadenfreude too far, in my opinion.

But of course, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the Catholic world questioned Francis' statement.  The powers-that-be need to remind the world that they're still an exclusive club, however welcoming the pope was trying to be.  Reverend Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesperson, clarified Pope Francis' statement by saying that "every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved.  Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit.  No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin."  On the other hand, Rosica said that people who are aware of the Catholic church "cannot be saved" if they "refuse to enter her or remain in her."

So, anyhow, I'm of two minds about all of this.  On the one hand, I think that being treated with more respect by the religious is pretty awesome, and I'm impressed with the fact that Pope Francis has reached out his hand to us atheists.  In no way do I want to be seen as scorning what was, honestly, an unprecedented and kind gesture.

But on the other hand, the implication is still, "... even though you're wrong about the most important question in the universe."  Now, to be fair, we all kind of start out from that stance -- that we have the answers, and anyone who disagrees is very likely to be mistaken.  Obviously, I wouldn't consider myself an atheist if I thought the pope et al. were right.  But isn't his approach kind of curious, when you think about it?  The pope seems to be saying, "Hey, atheists, we recognize that you can be nice people and do good stuff.  So why don't you just accept that god exists and start coming to church?"  You have to wonder why he thinks that's an appealing offer, given that by definition, we atheists see no particular reason to tie up our Sunday mornings worshiping a god that we are pretty sure isn't there, and asking for forgiveness for a bunch of things that mostly are just basic human nature.

In any case, it's all a step in the right direction.  I'm all for dialogue, mutual understanding, and treating each other nicely.  We don't all have to agree, after all, but it's just so much nicer if we just get along and tolerate one another.  It'd be wonderful if some of the other religions on Earth would follow Pope Francis' lead, and move toward acceptance of people of other beliefs -- or no belief at all.

Yeah, I'm looking at you, Muslims.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Wand waving and hand waving

Consider four general truths about your average human.

First, people are attracted to novelty.  Look at how often "New and Improved!" shows up on product labels -- although I've always wondered how something can be "new" and "improved" simultaneously.

Second, the idea of curing chronic pain is a pretty attractive proposition to a lot of us.  Many people deal with pain sufficient to change our lifestyles, and in some cases bad enough to trigger thoughts of suicide.  All of us know someone whose life has been plagued with chronic pain.  Because of this, tremendous amount of (legitimate) medical research goes into developing therapies to manage, treat, or mitigate pain.

Third, we have the sad fact that most folks don't have much background in real science, so anything with science-y words is going to sound impressive, even if on analysis those words don't turn out to mean much.

And fourth, it's pretty obvious that money is a powerful motivator.

Add these four things together, and you have the makings of a scam of mammoth proportions.

Meet the Amega Amwand -- a device that uses "minerals and crystals" that have been treated with an "amized fusion process" (the details of which are, of course, a proprietary secret) to treat pain.  The minerals and crystals are encased in a steel sleeve the size of a ballpoint pen.  To treat the pain, all you basically do is to wave the wand around over the painful area, and the pain miraculously goes away.

How can this possibly work, you may be asking?  They say that the wand accesses "zero-point energy" and then uses that to stimulate your body's "bioelectric fields" and it promotes healing.  Of course, we also have the disclaimer that the wand "is not intended to treat, prevent, cure, or diagnose any medical condition," which makes me wonder what exactly "Improves body’s ability to self-regulate – more harmonized bodily functions like never before!" means.

Oh, and a video interview with a guy who sells the things says it'll also make your wine taste better.  Your food, too.  Why?  Because it "oxidizes" it.  Now, in case you're curious, burning something is also oxidation.  And my general experience with burnt food is that it doesn't, in fact, make it taste better.  But maybe that's just me.  (You should definitely watch this video, which ends with an interview with a physicist that debunks the whole claim.)

I haven't told you yet how much these things cost.  The website I linked above has wands priced at $370 each -- $704 for one that has "activated rubies" in it.

Add this to the fact that the Amega brand is a multi-level marketing (pyramid) scheme -- and this explains why Sam Adams, who is identified in the video as being one of the top "generations" of the company, is allegedly making $3,600 a day from this stuff.

So, here's the central point: could this thing actually work?

The simple answer is: no.  There's no way that a magic wand filled with minerals can have any effect on your body.  It's not "shooting out energy" (as the site claims); it's not "inducing homeostasis" any more than your body's systems already were; and it's not stimulating anything in you except the placebo effect.  The whole hand-waving "explanation" given on their website basically amounts to throwing out some technical-sounding jargon and making extravagant promises, including the inadvertently humorous statement that "this Zero Point Energy Field, gives a ginormous amount of Life Giving Energy to the body and reminds it’s [sic] cells where they came from."

Oh, and by the way: the idea of "accessing the zero-point energy" is bullshit.  Zero-point energy is a real thing, defined as the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical system could have.  If you could "extract energy" from it, then it wouldn't be the lowest possible energy, you know?  To quote the Wikipedia article directly:
As a scientific concept, the existence of zero-point energy is not controversial although the ability to harness it is.  Over the years, there have been claims of devices capable of extracting usable zero-point energy.

In quantum theory, zero-point energy is a minimum energy below which a thermodynamic system can never go.  Thus, none of this energy can be withdrawn without altering the system to a different form in which the system has a lower zero-point energy.

Current claims to zero-point-energy-based power generation systems are in contradiction with known physics laws and have the status of pseudoscience.
So there you go, then.

I live in perpetual amazement that people fall for something like this, especially given how pricey these things are.  I mean, if I were in chronic pain, I might risk twenty bucks on something that was a little sketchy -- but $370?  $704 for the special, ruby-enhanced version?  I suppose pain could motivate people to try something out of desperation -- which makes what these hucksters are doing even more reprehensible.  Because getting rich by selling a steel sleeve full of snake oil is also, for the unethical, a strong motivator.

After all, it's no new thing that a fool and his money are soon parted -- nor that there's a sucker born every minute.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Magic in the water

It's always struck me as baffling to see people how much people will pay for woo-woo stuff.  Not so much the alt-med stuff like homeopathy, because there, the recipient has been bamboozled (usually via some science-y sounding nonsense about vibrations and energies and quantum signatures) into thinking that the remedy being sold actually does something that has been verified experimentally.  (i.e., they have been lied to.)

On the other hand, it's less understandable to see someone buying something that doesn't even come with any sort of rational explanation -- when the item being sold falls into the Magic, Pure & Simple department.  It's probably narrow-minded of me, but whenever I hear about this sort of thing, I always think, "How on earth do people expect this to work?"

For example, there's Temitope Balogun Joshua, the Ghanaian pastor of the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Accra.  Joshua, a charismatic figure who attracts huge crowds in Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, goes about preaching the gospel and selling stuff, including "new anointing water."  "New anointing water" has been blessed by Reverend Joshua and has been credited with miraculous cures of diseases, and the relieving of stress and anxiety.  It usually sells for 80 cedis (about $40) per bottle -- a sizable sum in West Africa.

Well, unfortunately, a radio station announced last Saturday that Reverend Joshua would be giving away bottles of "new anointing water" for free at the service on Sunday.  Crowds began to form at two in the morning.  So many people showed up that it "brought traffic in large parts of Accra to a standstill."  And then, when the doors opened, there was a stampede, which killed four and injured thirty.

Joshua himself was apparently upset by how the whole thing turned out, and he's promised to pay the hospital expenses of the ones who were injured.  This shouldn't be a hardship...

... because apparently his net worth exceeds $15 million.  That, my friends, is a crapload of bottles of water.

Now, it's not that I think this kind of magical thinking is uncommon, mind you.  After outlaw John Dillinger was gunned down, bystanders soaked handkerchiefs and the hems of skirts in his blood.  Earlier, men and women who met their end by losing their heads had their spilled blood treated the same way -- notable examples were Anne Boleyn and King Louis XVI.  The idea of magic (of various kinds) clinging to a substance, be it water, blood, or something else, is as old as humanity.

But still.  How, precisely, do these folks think Reverend Joshua's bottles of miracle water can work?  I know I'm approaching this from my squared-off, show-me-the-goods rationalism, and that the mystical worldview allows for all sorts of other stuff going on.  But try as I might, I just can't see how this guy's magic potions and preaching have made him worth $15 million, despite his hawking his wares in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Magical thinking, apparently, is big business, even if you don't resort to science-y words.

On a more hopeful note, though, is a second story, this one from Spain.

Another idea that is hardly new is the love spell -- magic cast to make the target of your amorous feelings fall in love with you, or (more prosaically) at least willing to have sex with you.  Like Reverend Joshua's magic water, this one is still with us today, and is still as ineffective as ever -- as Zaragoza businessman José Laparra found out.

Laparra, the owner of Spanish football team Club Deportivo Castellon, had his eye on a woman who evidently was resistant to his advances.  Frustrated, he went to a psychic, Lucia Martin, who said she would help him -- if he paid her $210,000.

Now that is desperation.

Be that as it may, Martin said she knew the very spell, and she took Laparra's money, and proceeded to do her magical stuff.  To no avail; Laparra was no more successful than before.  So he went to Martin, and demanded his money back.

Only fair, I suppose, but according to the source, the psychic "foresaw his arrival" and tried to prevent him from entering.  She called the police, who came in, and found the money wrapped up in a newspaper -- and promptly arrested Laparra, because he'd apparently paid the psychic by embezzling the money from the funds belonging to his football club.

Laparra, for his part, proceeded to have an "anxiety attack," which is hardly a surprise, considering the circumstances.  Maybe someone should have gotten him some "new anointing water."

Friday, May 24, 2013

The New Holy Writ

This morning, I'm pondering what it takes for a piece of writing to be accepted as Holy Writ.

Now, anything can be seen as divinely inspired, if you're willing to play fast-and-loose with the definition of fiction.  We've seen, for example, that there are people who think that The Lord of the Rings is describing actual history, and others who have decided that H. P. Lovecraft's pantheon of Elder Gods is real.  But I'm wondering what it would take for such an idea to spread beyond just a handful of wingnuts.

I'm talking the Bible, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Sutras, the Vedas.

Clearly, there's a religious answer to all of this, and I'm not trying to be disingenuous by ignoring it.  Of course adherents to a religion believe, to one extent or another, that their holy book was divinely inspired, if not the exact word of god, or gods, or whatever.  But if you look at it from the outside, it does pose an interesting question -- and not one that is as easily answered for most religions as it is for Christianity, for which the history of the documents in question, and how decisions were made about which texts to incorporate into the Bible and which to exclude, are somewhat better known.  (See this page for a good overview of how the biblical canon was put together.)

All of this comes up because yesterday I stumbled on a claim by a guy named Marshall Vian Summers to have a "New Message from God."  It showed up on Reddit, and in fact has its own subreddit that I saw because it got cross posted to r/Atheism.  This new message was, Summers says, received over a thirty-year period from god himself, and "is not based on any existing religious tradition or spiritual teaching."  (You can see a summary and excerpts on Summers' website here.)

On July 1 and 2 Summers is having an "event" in Boulder, Colorado to proclaim his new message (which apparently hinges on the idea that the Divine Deity wants to "end our isolation" and allow us to interact with our alien brothers and sisters on other planets).  His candidate for the next generation Holy Scripture runs to over 9,000 pages, and will be available for purchase on July 15.

Being a writer myself, I can tell you that to write 9,000 pages, no matter what the content, is no mean feat even if you are divinely inspired.  So whatever else you can say about the guy, you have to admire his dedication.

Anyhow, I read a bit of what's on his website, and most of it sounds like pretty ordinary stuff.  (One passage goes, "But who can recognize the Messenger?  He appears to be very average. He is not sensational looking.  He does not hold a great position in the world.  He will disappear into the masses of people.  He will walk amongst them.  No one will recognize him, except perhaps for those who have been struck by the Revelation.")  There certainly wasn't anything there that struck me as being of divine origin, but then, I suppose that's to be expected.  What I wonder, however, is what other folks -- people who are, perhaps, more receptive to persuasion on the topic of religion than I am -- will make of Summers' writing.  After all, all current holy writings started this way; with some person or group of people writing a bunch of stuff down, and then saying, "Look, I have this book I wrote, except it wasn't really me that thought it up, I was just taking dictation from god!  It's really great!" 

It's always been a matter of curiosity to me why people gravitate toward certain belief systems, beyond ones into which they were born (the vast majority of people, after all, belong to the same religion as their parents and community members -- making geography a far stronger driver of belief than any perception of the inherent truth of a religion).  But new ideas do come along, and (as I said) every religion was new at some point.  What happens in a person's mind that makes them read something, or hear someone speak, and think, "This is it?"

Anyhow, I must say, Summers isn't doing it for me, not that anyone would probably expect that he would.  It'll be interesting to see how people react to his "event" and book release in July -- if he is hailed as the latest prophet of The Truth, or if -- as happens to most self-proclaimed Mouthpieces of God -- he, and his 9,160 page Holy Scripture, will simply vanish back into obscurity.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Living on light

When is a claim so bizarre that it deserves to be dismissed out of hand?

The fair answer is "never."  If we were to use a "common sense about how the world works" approach to decide what claims don't even merit an experiment, scientists would probably never have discovered quantum entanglement (for example).  Still, I think there are times when laws of science have been so well established, have been verified in such a myriad of ways, that anyone who says they've discovered an exception probably deserves nothing more than a dismissive laugh.  (This probably explains why the United States Patent Office will no longer even read submissions for designs for perpetual motion machines.)

All of which brings us to a 65 year old spiritualist named "Naveena" who claims she is living on nothing but light for nourishment.

Naveena does drink water, tea, and (most importantly) coffee, because let's face it; you just can't get that warm morning buzz from gulping down rays of sunlight.

She's not the first to make such a claim.  There's an Indian yogi named Prahlad Jani who claims he hasn't eaten or drunk anything in seventy years.  He allows himself to "dip in water" and sometimes "gargle," but he doesn't swallow.  Ever.  Another, who calls herself "Jasmuheen" but whose legal name is Ellen Greve, is an Australian who wrote a book called Pranic Nourishment: Living on Light.  Jasmuheen participated in a test of her claims, which had to be discontinued after 48 hours because she was on the verge of going into shock from dehydration.  About four of her followers who died, she denies all responsibility, and in fact said about one, "(Lani) Morris was not coming from a place of integrity and did not have the right motivation."

So now Naveena is going to try the same thing.  Maybe her "motivation and integrity" are better.

"As early as 1910 Richard Steiner, scientist and philosopher, proclaimed that 'Matter is Condensed Light.'  Breatharians, Sun-gazers and Yogis have claimed the capacity to 'Live On Light' for centuries but without hard evidence their claims have been dismissed and ridiculed," Naveena said in a press release last week.

Yes, well, Steiner may have said that, but basically, he's wrong.  We now have this thing that explains the properties of matter and energy, and how they interact.  It's called "physics."  Recommended that you take a course or two in it.

Of course, she admits that things might not work out for her.

"Since death is what normally occurs when a person does not eat food, she warns people not to try this," her press release stated.  "It might be untrue or it might be that there are certain criteria needed in terms of physical, mental and spiritual readiness."

And that's just it, isn't it?  If you can fall back on blaming the practitioner for the failure -- as Jasmuheen did with the death of Lani Morris -- you don't have to admit that the whole claim is a sham.  As far as Prahlad Jani, I'd bet that he's simply lying.  There are organisms that can survive on light -- they're called plants.  Animals like us, on the other hand, don't get by so well unless we're allowed to nosh every so often.  So unless Jani et al. can show me that their cells contain functional chloroplasts, I'm not buying it.  (Here's the Skeptic's Dictionary's take on Jani, which outright calls him a fraud.)

Still, I guess Naveena has the right idea.  At least she's willing to participate in a test.  She's got a YouTube channel, from which she is broadcasting updates.  The problem is, given the extraordinary claim we've got here, just periodic film clips documenting her progress aren't going to be enough to convince me, and (I suspect) most people; if what Naveena is doing is real, I'd want some round-the-clock footage, that she had no way of controlling, that would assure me that she wasn't periodically sneaking out for a cheeseburger.

So that's today's dip in the deep end of the pool (just immerse your toes!  No ingesting the water!).  My guess is that one of two things will happen, in Naveena's case; (1) she'll discontinue her experiment, voluntarily, at the advice of her doctor; or (2) she'll be exposed as a hoaxer.  Either way, the "breatharians" and their "living on prana and light" will remain a fringe claim, meriting nothing but a shrug and the comment, "sorry, the world doesn't work that way."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The twisted world of the Tornado Truthers

If I can sum up the rationalist view of the world in one sentence, it would be: your belief in something does not make it the truth.

If you would like me to agree with you, I need more than hearing that you believe it's so.  I need evidence -- or failing that, at least a good, solid, logical argument in favor.

The problem is, there is a slice of humanity for whom a lack of evidence for a claim becomes some kind of twisted argument for its correctness.  These are the people who become conspiracy theorists -- people whose belief in their warped view of reality is so strong that a complete absence of any support for their views is turned inside out, is used to show that the coverup is real.  They are absolutely convinced, and are damn near impossible to argue with.

And now, of course, they have weighed in on the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma in the last three days.

They call themselves the "Tornado Truthers."  Don't believe me?  Here is a collection of direct quotes, taken from Twitter and Facebook.  [Note to readers who are offended by such things; there's a good bit of bad language in these quotes, but to edit that out would diminish the intensity of these people's feelings on this subject.  In any case, be forewarned.]
255 tornadoes issued today.  43 caused by HAARP.


Government-made tornadoes - HAARP - check out HAARP maybe with one A - can't remember offhand Tesla's work

That tornado pic is insanity, hey government, I know you [sic] watching, TURN THAT FUCKING HAARP MACHINE OFF!!!!

Tornadoes is wild man it's not tornado season... #haarp

Dutchsince on issued a warning for the east coast.  The HAARP induced tornadoes that leveled cities in the midwest is now on its way to the east coast.  East coast get prepared.  Facebook just like Obama refuses to post information to warn America.  Why?

Notice to all these tornados this week are the result of haarp to set the stage for martial law and FEMA camps


Thank you h.a.a.r.p. for this crazy fucked up weather
HAARP, of course, stands for High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, a government-run ionospheric research station in Alaska.  It has nothing to do with weather modification.  It cannot generate tornadoes (or earthquakes, or volcanoes, or hurricanes, or sinkholes, or any of the other hundreds of things it's been claimed to do).

Oh, yeah, and it is tornado season, actually.  The peak of it.  But by all means, "Tornado Truthers," don't let any facts get in the way of your beliefs.

And then Alex Jones, of course, had to weigh in.  Could the recent tornadoes be generated by the US government, a caller asked?  Don't be a ninny, of course they could.  After all, we now know that the insurance companies have been using weather modification to avoid having to pay out to ski resorts during winters when it doesn't snow.  "Of course there's weather weapon stuff going on," Jones said, one eyelid twitching spasmodically.  "We had floods in Texas like fifteen years ago, killed thirty-something people in one night.  Turned out it was the Air Force."  Of this week's tornadoes, he admitted that he wasn't sure that it was the government, but that if you saw small aircraft "in and around the clouds, spraying and doing things, if you saw that, you better bet your bottom dollar they did this, but who knows if they did.  You know, that's the thing, we don't know."

Heh.  We don't know.  *wink wink nudge nudge*  It's the government.

To Jones and his intrepid band of loony followers, anything constitutes evidence.  In fact, nothing constitutes evidence.  "I haven't seen any aircraft spraying stuff and immediately triggering a tornado" simply becomes, "They've got cloaking technology.  Of course you didn't see anything."  And all you have to do is append the word "Truther" to your particular warped view of the universe, and it becomes de facto Truth, capital T, no evidence necessary.

The whole thing makes me want to scream.

Better, though, to focus on what we should be doing; assisting with the cleanup and rebuilding, donating money if you can't go there to help directly.   (Here's a site that has a list of places to donate.)  Beyond that, focusing on the positive stories that have come out of this tragedy -- of the selfless teachers who tried to save their students' lives, some of them who lost their lives in the process; of the first responders who risked their safety to dig survivors out of the rubble of their homes; of the neighbors, friends, and families who pitched in to help as soon as the funnel clouds lifted.  And of the little miracles, like Oklahoma resident Barbara Garcia, who lost her home but was reunited with her little dog who she thought had been killed when her house collapsed.  (Have kleenex handy if you watch the video on this link.  Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Focus on what's important, here.  With any luck, the deafening silence that greets the screeching pretzel logic of the "Tornado Truthers" will convince them to crawl back under their rocks where they belong -- at least until the next natural disaster occurs.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shame, lying, and Archie Bunker

One of my sensitive spots has to do with embarrassment.  Not only do I hate being embarrassed myself, I hate watching other people in embarrassing situations.  I remember as a kid detesting sitcoms in which a character (however richly deserving) was made to look a fool -- the sensation was close to physical pain.

Of course, it's worse when it's a real person, and worst of all when (s)he doesn't realize what's going on.

This whole wince-inducing topic comes up because of a wonderful academic paper called "Cooperation creates selection for tactical deception," by Luke McNally and Andrew L. Jackson of Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland).  The paper describes research into the evolution of deception, and is a sterling piece of work, showing how a game-theoretical model of cooperation results in selective pressure favoring "tactical deception" -- better known as lying.

"Our results suggest that the evolution of conditional strategies may, in addition to promoting cooperation, select for astute cheating and associated psychological abilities," the authors write.  "Ultimately, our ability to convincingly lie to each other may have evolved as a direct result of our cooperative nature."

It's a fascinating piece of research, and it generated some buzz in the media -- even meriting an (also nicely done) summary in HuffPost Science.

So far, what's the problem?  A well-written paper on how game theory predicts the evolution of behavior, and the media (for once) reporting it as they should.  No cause for wincing here, surely?

Nope.  The winces started once the creationists got wind of this.

The site Creation Evolution Headlines evidently found out about McNally and Jackson's paper -- although whether they actually read it remains to be seen.  Because the piece they wrote in response is called...

... wait for it...

"Evolutionists Confess to Lying."

Yes, you're interpreting this correctly; they think that because the paper supports an evolutionary edge for people who are deceptive, it is equivalent to the evolutionary biologists stating, "Ha ha!  We were lying all along!"

I couldn't make something this ridiculous up if I wanted to.

Don't believe me?  Here is an excerpt.  Make sure you have a pillow handy for when you faceplant.
If lying evolved as a fitness strategy, can we believe anything an evolutionist says?...  Brooks [the author of the HuffPost piece] has the Yoda complex.  So do McNally and Jackson.  They believe they can look down on the rest of humanity from some exalted plane free of the evolutionary forces that afflict the rest of humanity.  No; they need to climb down and join the world their imaginations have created.  In the evolutionary world, there is no essential difference between cooperation and deception.  It’s only a matter of which side is in the majority at the moment... 

Having no eternal standard of truth, the evolutionary world collapses into power struggles.  The appeals by Brooks and Sam Harris to try to “resist our temptations to lie” are meaningless.  How can anyone overcome what evolution has built into them?  How can either of them know what is true?

Since all these evolutionists believe that lying evolved as a fitness strategy, and since they are unable to distinguish between truth and lies, they essentially confess to lying themselves.  Their readers are therefore justified in considering them deceivers, and dismissing everything they say, including the notion that lying evolved.
My wincing-at-people-embarrassing-themselves response was activated so strongly by all this that I could barely tolerate reading the entire article... especially given that the Creation Evolution Headlines piece got linked on the Skeptic subreddit by the obviously astonished friend of one of the original paper's authors.  (Of course, you're probably thinking, "If you hate seeing people embarrassed so much, why are you calling further attention to it by writing about it?"  To which I can only respond: touché.  And also, that my outrage over a nice bit of evolutionary research being trashed this way trumped my dislike of watching morons shame themselves.)

Let's just take this a piece at a time, okay?

First, McNally and Jackson didn't say that everyone is lying; they said that some people are lying, and benefit by it, a contention that I'd guess atheists and theists would both agree on.  Second, given that the original research looked at cooperative species -- of which there are many -- why does that somehow turn evolution into "power struggles," into a world of every man for himself?  Do ants in a colony only cooperate because they recognize an "eternal standard of truth?"

And I always find it wryly amusing when the theists claim that we atheists must be without morals because we don't think morality comes from some higher power, and suggest that we aren't to be trusted.  Honestly, devout Christians; if the only thing that's keeping you from running around stealing, raping, and murdering is some Bronze Age book of mythology, I think you are the ones we should be watching out for.

And last: saying that lying is an evolved strategy doesn't mean that we "are unable to distinguish between truth and lies."  If evolutionists were unable to distinguish between truth and lies, IT WOULD BE KIND OF HARD TO WRITE A SCHOLARLY PAPER ABOUT LYING, NOW WOULDN'T IT?

*pant pant gasp gasp*

Okay, I'll try to calm down a little.

What's the worst about these people is that they don't seem to have any awareness that what they're saying, with apparent confidence, is absolute nonsense.  It reminds me of watching the character of Archie Bunker on the 70s television series All in the Family, who week after week would have conversations like the following:
Mike (Archie's son-in-law):  Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Archie: Denmark ain't no state, it's the capital of Colorado.

And, of course, Archie would never admit that he was wrong.  In his world, he was always right, world without end, amen.

I bet Archie would have loved that article in Creation Evolution Headlines.  And he'd probably look at me and say, as he did to once to his wife, "You don't believe in nothin', Edith.  You're one o' them, whaddyacallem, septics."

Monday, May 20, 2013

Breaking news: precision matters.

I keep telling myself not to expect much from how science is covered in commercial media.  They are beholden to sponsors, who pay attention to only one thing; how many people partake.  So if media can get more sponsors (= more money) by sensationalizing scientific news, that's what they do, however it misleads the gullible and undermines the reputation of science as a whole.

I guess I just thought that National Geographic would be above that kind of thing.

Yes, National Geographic, that venerable institution that sends out the monthly glossy, yellow-edged magazine that from its density appears to be printed on sheets of lead.  That wonderful source of information and photographs from exotic locales that teenage boys the world over peruse in the hopes of seeing a topless native woman.  Yes, National Geographic.  Even they have succumbed.

I came to this realization when I was perusing the News section of the online National Geographic, and I saw the headline, "New Sea Monster Found, Rewrites Evolution?"  It happens that this particular turn of phrase is one that really grinds my gears -- it seems like every time some paleontologist finds a new fossil, the media shrieks that it's going to "rewrite everything we know about evolution!"  And, of course, it never does.  Given that what we have from the fossil record represents a tiny percentage of the living things the Earth has seen during it's three-odd-billion-year hosting of life, it's only to be expected that we'll find new and amazing things in fossil beds, more often than not.  And surprisingly, astonishingly, the evolutionary model has survived, intact, despite all that "rewriting."

Now, to be fair, this discovery was pretty cool -- a new species of ichthyosaur, Malawania anachronus, so named because it dates to 66 million years after its nearest cousins were supposedly extinct.  But like I said: this is interesting, but hardly earthshattering.  A group of seagoing prehistoric carnivores were still around more recently than scientists thought.  No "rewriting of evolution" necessary.

Also, must they always call them "sea monsters?"

Now, you may well think I'm overreacting, here.  But cut me some slack; given that I'm a biologist, it's to be expected that precision in speech on this particular topic is something I value.  But seriously, you may be saying; does anyone take that "rewriting evolution" thing as more than hyperbole?

You have only to look at the comments section on the article in question to see that the answer is "yes."

"As most scientists now know who are brave enough to admit it, the entire 'theory' of evolution needs to be rewritten," said one commenter.  "As long as we try to cover up its many problems, we are the problem."

"Evolved animals 'appear' in the Jurassic or whatever period...I guess out of nowhere," wrote another.  "As if by magic without numerous specimens leading to the found fossil.  You would think that life on earth after 3 billion years of evolution would look like the 'Island of Doctor Moreau' of blended animals."

One person, at least, tried to bring some sense into the discussion.  "Oh come on, National Geographic, pul-eezzze stop using the word 'monster' in your headlines to suck in readership," he wrote.  "That's tabloid journalism, and National Geographic should know better.  A ten-foot long aquatic reptile is not a 'monster' in any sense of the word.  This animal was a sleek, efficient predator of fish and has many characteristics of already-discovered fossils of similar animals.  And while it may ADD valuable information to our understanding of how evolution has worked, it will NOT 'rewrite evolution' as the headline further claims.  That would seem to shred Charles Darwin's masterpiece of science, and is plainly not what's happening here. "

Unfortunately,  he was immediately shouted down.  "Stop whining," one person responded.  " If you don't like the headlines here, go elsewhere and complain."  Another said, "So, you are complaining about how they try to suck in readers with the word monster, yet you were here, reading this article. Think ahead before you comment mouse brain."

Herein lies the problem, and it's not just an issue of civil discourse.  Precision matters, especially when writing about topics that are, by their very nature, controversial.  I'm guessing that the author of the piece, Christine Dell'Amore, had no intention of giving fuel to the fire of the creationists -- but what are the anti-evolution crowd supposed to think, when every other week there's an article with the headline, "Evolution Has To Be Rewritten?"  However much I lambast them for their anti-science, anti-rational stance, you have to admit that anyone would begin to wonder about a scientific model that has to be "rewritten" every time some tiny new piece of evidence is found.

Okay, I'm ranting.  But really, it's National Geographic.  I expect better from them.  I've completely written off the Discovery network, for example, which has just announced that ANIMAL PLANET'S MONSTER WEEK BEGINS TODAY.  (Capitalization theirs.)  And despite the fact that to a biologist, the word "animal" means "a type of real, live creature, i.e. not fictional," they are going to kick off the week with a special about...

... mermaids.

Just 'scuse me while I go pound my forehead on the desk.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Squatchery antics

Some free advice to any woo-woos who complain that we skeptics don't take their claims seriously: try not to act like a bunch of raving lunatics.  Turning your chosen field of study into some kind of bizarre street theater does not improve your credibility in the eyes of those of us who aren't already convinced.

This suggestion comes too late for the Bigfoot enthusiasts, who created a piece of performance art last week that was Harry and the Hendersons meets "the Keystone Kops."

The whole thing started on May 16 with a claim that some hunters in Pennsylvania had shot a Bigfoot.  Here's how it appeared in Cryptomundo:
This is unconfirmed at the moment and we’re still trying to figure out what exactly transpired here.

According to our source, PBS is looking into a possible shooting of Bigfoot somewhere in Pennsylvania. “It has been all over the police scanner in the area,” our source tells us, but he will not confirm the exact location.

Last month, a surge of Bigfoot sightings In Clearfield PA prompted police to put up traffic signs in an area where they were alerted to “increased animal activity.”
PBS, I hasten to point out, is not what you were thinking.  It's the "Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society."

They went on to add:
We think we know where this Bigfoot shooting claim originated from. About 4 hours ago, Daniel C. left the following message on the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society’s Facebook page:

“You guys might want to check out the somerset county state police call log. I heard a call come over my scanner about a gobbler hunter shot a bigfoot this morning and they did find a body. This is no joke that call was real.” – Daniel C. On Twitter, received a message from @pabigfoot saying the shooting probably took place north of Altoona (either Clearfield or Tyrone). It’s unclear how this person got the information. Altoona is a city in Blair Country, and it’s popularly known as “the Mountain City.”
 Why throwing in Altoona's nickname was considered important, I don't know.

So, anyway, now we had a real, verifiable claim -- that the police in Somerset County, Pennsylvania had received a call that a turkey hunter had shot a Bigfoot.  So, naturally, the police were contacted, and they stated unequivocally that they had received no such call.  So, what do the Bigfoot chasers do?  They decide that they were simply looking in the wrong state.  Here's what happened next, according to the site Bigfoot Evidence:
Johnny Bigfoot just posted on his blog that the alleged "Bigfoot shooting" probably took place in Somerset WI -- not Somerset PA or North of Altoona, Pennsylvania as we reported Tuesday.
Right!  Because (1) a claim becomes more plausible if you can't even figure out what state you're talking about, and (2) we should give a lot of credibility to someone named "Johnny Bigfoot."  I mean, really.  If I were to claim that I'd seen a live Woolly Mammoth, and someone asked me where, and I said, "I saw it in Ogunquit, Maine!  Or maybe Poughkeepsie!  Or possibly Nebraska!", you'd be perfectly in your rights to guffaw in my face.  Especially if my name turned out to be "Mikey Mastodon."

Anyhow, the Squatchers all went running off to Wisconsin, where they found a report of a guy who had been shot by some turkey hunters:
SOMERSET TOWNSHIP, Wis. - A Washington County Sheriff's commander is recovering at a Twin Cities hospital after being shot while scouting for a turkey hunt in western Wisconsin. St. Croix County deputies were called to the 1900 block of 80th Street in Somerset Township just before 7:30 a.m. Tuesday on reports someone had been shot. When they arrived on the scene witnesses told deputies that a group was hunting turkeys when one hunter fired a shotgun and struck 53-year-old Commander Jerry Cusick. Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton says Cusick, a 28-year veteran of the department, was unarmed and was walking an area where he often hunts when he was shot.

Cusick was transported to Regions Hospital in St. Paul; The Pioneer Press says he is reported in good condition. St. Croix County investigators and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are looking into the shooting to determine if criminal charges will be filed. 
So, the story of a Bigfoot being shot in Somerset County, Pennsylvania turned out to be completely correct, as long as you changed the word "Bigfoot" to "guy" and the word "Pennsylvania" to "Wisconsin."

And they wonder why we're unconvinced.

I mean, really.  First we had Melba Ketchum going off the deep end trying to defend her claim that she'd found Sasquatch DNA, and now we have these folks.  It's enough to make a cryptozoologist sing the blues.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The new, eviscerated AP Biology exam

You would think that, after spending 26 years as an educator, I would have figured out that whenever an educational oversight group says, "We are restructuring and reconfiguring this, for sound pedagogical reasons, in order to improve it," this really means, "We are going to scramble this for no good reason whatsoever, and the result will be something far worse than what you started with."

It happened with the New York State Regents Examinations, which (for those of you who do not live in New York) are the high-school-level course exit exams.  The rallying cry was "Raising the Bar," which makes it a little hard to explain why the biological sciences Regents examination is now so easy that it can be passed by anyone who has three working brain cells.  This exam was passed by a student who, on a quiz on human anatomy, incorrectly labeled the "anus" as being on the left arm.

Oh, but there was one major outcome of the exam restructuring: they changed the name of the course from "Regents Biology" to "Regents Living Environment," which raises the bar by virtue of having more letters.

So, when the College Board decided to restructure the curriculum and examination for AP Biology -- a course I've taught for twenty years -- I should have expected the same to happen.  Here's their rationale, as per the 2011 announcement of the planned changes on the College Board website:
“The revisions were enacted to address a challenging situation in science education at a critical juncture for American competitiveness,” said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. “The body of scientific knowledge is constantly expanding. The revisions will help science educators ensure that their instruction is fresh and current and that students develop not just a solid knowledge of the facts but also the ability to practice science and think critically about scientific issues.”

The revised AP Biology course and exam align with the knowledge and skills that many rigorous college-level introductory biology courses now seek to nurture, emphasizing the development of scientific inquiry and reasoning skills. Lab work is a critical component of the course, requiring students to master such skills as posing questions; collecting, analyzing and evaluating data; connecting fundamental concepts; and then defending their conclusions based on experiments.

“The revised course objectives will enable teachers and students to explore key topics in depth and will help students learn to reason with the rigor and objectivity of scientists,” said Trevor Packer, vice president of the Advanced Placement Program at the College Board.
So, I dutifully resubmitted my curriculum, and had it approved by the powers-that-be at the AP Central.  "How different can the exam be?" I thought.  "Biology is what biology is; the concepts are the same.  I already teach a rigorous course, that helps students to draw connections between disparate fields of science, that has an emphasis on application, reasoning, and synthesis, and that uses a strong lab component.  I'm told every year by students returning to visit from college that my class was a good preparation for college-level science.  It will be fine."

Optimism is a losing proposition, sometimes.

My students sat for the exam on Monday.  As you are undoubtedly predicting by now, I was not only wrong, I was so far wrong that it has made me question whether I should even offer this course next year.

The New and Improved AP Biology exam -- of which I only ever get to see the free-response section, the multiple choice section is hardly ever released to teachers for analysis -- was, in my opinion, a vague, confusing muddle that left students wondering, "is that all they're looking for?"  Here are four examples, which I will describe rather than quote in their entirety, for the sake of brevity:
1) A question in which fruit flies are placed in a "choice chamber" and given the choice of flying toward a dry cotton ball or one soaked in glucose solution.  Students are asked to "predict the distribution of the flies after ten minutes, and justify your prediction."  (As a student said to me after the exam, "A central principle of the animal world is that 'some food is better than no food.'")

2)  A question showing a "simplified carbon cycle" that looked, more or less, like this (but without the words in blue):

Students had to correctly label the arrows with "photosynthesis" and "respiration," and state that an example of an organism that does both processes is "a plant."

For reference, the unsimplified carbon cycle I use in my class is shown below:

3)  A question regarding the evolution of the earliest amphibians (363 million years ago) from lobe-finned fish (observed in rocks that are 380 million years old), that asked students to predict when, in geological history, you would might find fossils of the transitional species between the two groups.
4)  A question describing an experiment in which rats are given alcohol, and it is found that their urine output increases over rats that are given water.  Students were asked to "pose one scientific question that the researchers were most likely investigating with this experiment" and then "describe the effect of ethyl alcohol on urine production."
And so on.

Understandably, my students were pretty frustrated by gearing up for an examination that turned out to have been eviscerated of virtually all of its technical content.  And when you have a bunch of students who are pissed off because an exam isn't hard enough, you know there's something wrong.

Here are some direct quotes from some of my students:
"You needed to have barely any actual knowledge of biology in order to take this exam.  A few of the terms from Regents Biology would have been enough to get by on."

"I had worked hard and prepared for this exam.  I'd read the new curriculum and course outline, and I worked hard in class.  I felt like I had this material down.  This test was an insult to all of the hard work I put in."

"The reading passages and experimental design descriptions were too long to justify the extremely simple questions we were asked about them."

"The rat pee question wasn't even at the Regents level, it was below Regents level.  We already knew alcohol is a diuretic -- we discussed it in class when we were learning about the kidney.  If I had proposed to my Regents Biology teacher to do this as a final project, she would have said, 'You can do better than that.'"

"My brother is in college, and is taking biology.  I've looked at his textbook and lab manual.  And if I'd taken a course that prepared me to be successful on this exam, that course wouldn't have prepared me to be successful in the college biology course he's taking."

"I felt like even though they were shooting for a more conceptual approach, I wasn't being asked to apply concepts at a very high level.  The carbon cycle question, in particular, was not at a college level.  We knew that amount of detail in seventh grade."
Allow me to interject at this point that this group of 29 young people ranks amongst the top three AP biology classes I've ever taught in terms of drive, curiosity, and depth of understanding.  We're not talking about a bunch of slackers, here.  They had good mastery of the material, and are ready to make the jump to college science classes.  The fact that they ended the school year this way is a crashing letdown, and will remain that regardless of what their scores turn out to be.  (And interesting, too, that one of my best and brightest, who aced damn near every quiz and test I gave her this year, when I asked her what score she thought she got, replied, "I could have gotten a one.  I could have gotten a five.  I could have gotten a three.  I really, honestly have no way to tell how successful I was on this exam.")

So, there you have it.  The College Board has fulfilled its educational goal of taking a test that was, on the whole, rigorous but fair, and turning it into a hash.  Again, I shouldn't be surprised; that's been the result of virtually every educational shift I've seen in the last twenty years.  Oh, and one other thing I'm expecting: not only do educational oversight agencies take their Great Leaps Forward by mucking things up royally, they never admit afterwards that they screwed up.  So expect to see press releases soon from the College Board about how wonderful their New and Improved exam was, and how teachers and students everywhere are singing its praises to the skies.  Look, too, for them to begin to "improve" the exams in all of the other AP courses.

I hope I'm retired by then.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Welsh measles conspiracy

If, as I do, you have strong feelings about the irresponsibility of the anti-vaxxer movement, and the mountain of science that they ignore in order to bolster their beliefs that vaccination is dangerous, I recommend not reading this post.  Just reading the background material for it means that I'm probably going to have to double up on my high blood pressure medication today.

Because now the anti-vaxxers are claiming that the measles epidemic in Wales this year, in which 700 people were sickened and one killed by a disease that is 100% preventable, was faked.

Yes, you read that right.  Heidi Stevenson, writing for Gaia Health, has a stomach-turning "exposé" that begins as follows:

The Great Measles Epidemic of Wales—the one that’s being used to stampede sheeple into vaccine clinics for the MMR jab—never happened. Seriously! It was faked. The actual data from the Welsh government on cases of measles proves it.
Here's her "proof:"
The fact is that, though 446 measles notifications were made between 1 January and 31 March of this year, those were merely reports. The reality is that only 26 cases were actually confirmed!
You may have noted that this faux measles epidemic started in November, and the figures for last year weren’t included. However, that doesn’t help make the case for an epidemic, or even come close to the claim that 83 people had to be hospitalized for measles. You see, the total number of confirmed measles cases in Wales for all of 2012 was 14. So, adding 14 for all of 2012 to 26 for the first three months of this year, we get a total of 40 confirmed cases of measles—less than half the falsely reported 83 hospitalizations!
 The actual reason for the discrepancy was picked up on almost immediately, with one of the first comments on the story reading as follows:
Note that only the minority of measles test samples are sent to Welsh labs.

So in conclusion it shouldn't be surprising if the lab confirmed figures are low at present because the majority of samples are sent to English labs for confirmation and are not included in the All Wales reports.

You're drawing conclusions based on at best incomplete data.
Stevenson went on the attack in the comments section, responding to the above commenter with, "But the reality is that this is not an epidemic and even if every reported case had proven to be genuine measles, it would not amount to an epidemic - nor has it amounted to anything that anyone needs to fear."  She responded to another person who objected to her stance with, "You're a shill.  Goodbye."  To another, who had mentioned herd immunity and that it was "thought that a 95% vaccination rate was enough to protect the population from epidemics in most cases," Stevenson snarled back:
What garbage! It's isn't known, it's merely "thought that". The belief in how high the rate of vaccination must be to stop a disease keeps changing - it keeps going up. The fact is that no one knows if there is even such a thing as herd immunity. It's an idea, not a fact. And that 95% figure is something that was pulled out of the air. It's meaningless - nothing but a coverup for the fact that the vaccines are nowhere near as effective as they'd have you believe.

Regarding learning math: The fact is that you've just spewed out figures that prove nothing in relation to this particular issue, and most assuredly do not demonstrate that you have any knowledge of the topic - just that you are able to spew out published figures.

You aren't actually providing any information that elucidates the topic at hand - the fact that the actual number of cases of measles is a small fraction of the reported number, though the reported number has been used to declare an epidemic and push for vaccination.
 Oh, yeah, and to further trivialize the Welsh epidemic, she threw in the following "photograph:"

Hmm, herd immunity is "meaningless?"  That would certainly come as a surprise to Dr. Paul E. M. Fine, whose 1993 paper on epidemiological modeling (available here) is considered the go-to source on how a sufficient pool of immunes in a population can prevent epidemics from taking hold.  Research by Thomas L. Schlenker et al. (available here) on measles in particular concluded that "Modest improvements in low levels of immunization coverage among 2-year-olds confer substantial protection against measles outbreaks. Coverage of 80% or less may be sufficient to prevent sustained measles outbreaks in an urban community."

And on a more emotional level, perhaps Ms. Stevenson would like to discuss the matter with Cecily Johnson, an Australian woman whose unvaccinated daughter Laine Bradley contracted subacute sclerosing panencephalitis as a complication of a measles infection, and lingered for five years, unable to speak, unable to feed, clothe, or wash herself, before dying at age twelve.

The long and short of it is that the actual research shows what we've known for years.  Vaccination has an extremely low rate of complications, while the complications from what are now entirely preventable diseases -- measles, polio, diphtheria, typhoid -- are often debilitating and sometimes fatal.  No medical intervention is 100% safe, and if you scour the records you can find cases of bad side effects (mostly allergic reactions).  But if you weigh those against the millions of people who are now alive because of vaccines, the choice is obvious.

At least, it is to me.  It apparently isn't to Stevenson and others in the anti-vaxxer movement.  Maybe it's because any quantification of the lives saved by vaccines is always going to be a guess -- it's not like you can look at someone and say, "If you hadn't been vaccinated, you'd have died at age six of diphtheria."

But all you have to do is to look into historical records to gain that perspective.  One of my hobbies is genealogy, and being that my family is from the French part of southern Louisiana, I own several books of church and courthouse record abstracts from that region that I have used in researching my family history.  That was how I found out about the 1853 yellow fever epidemic that struck southeastern Louisiana, costing thousands of lives -- the records are there, the chronicles of individuals who were killed by that gruesome disease:
Boutary, Adela Marie, wife of Théophile Daunes, d. 10 Sept. 1853 at age 20 years during yellow fever epidemic (Thibodaux Church: vol. 1, death record #55)
Himel, Mélasie d. 17 Sept. 1853 at age 16 years during yellow fever epidemic (Thibodaux Church: vol. 1, death record #92)
Poché, Joseph d. 3 Oct. 1853 at age 19 years during yellow fever epidemic (Thibodaux Church: vol. 1, death record #151)
Any guesses as to why we don't even have yellow fever in the United States any more?  I'll leave you to figure that one out.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Black Death, aliens, and the role of chaos in history

Yesterday's post, about the alien origins of humanity, generated a nice round of "you think that's a crazy belief, wait till you see this one!" from my readers.  The best contender in this game of Wingnut One-Upmanship came from another student, who found out that not only did aliens produce our species, they've been trying to kill us ever since.

I guess it's understandable, really.  Our stewardship of the globe hasn't exactly been praiseworthy.  It's no wonder that our superpowerful alien cousins, who still presumably live on our original homeworld (with its clement temperatures, 30-hour rotational period, and "no geomagnetic storms or glaciers"), would have some second thoughts about sending us here.  So it turns out that they've repeatedly tried to get rid of us.

This conclusion comes from a stellar piece of research entitled "Did Aliens Create the 'Black Death' and Other Diseases During the Middle Ages?  (And Are They Still Creating Diseases Today?)," which not only would win an award for the longest article title ever, but is yet another example of a piece of journalism that should say, in its entirety, "NO."  Unfortunately, the author doesn't take that route.  We're told that the 14th century plague has to be extraterrestrial in origin:
A great many people throughout Europe and other plague-stricken regions of the world were reporting that outbreaks of the plague were caused by foul-smelling “mists” and bright lights were reported far more frequently and in many more locations than were rodent infestations. The plague years were, in fact, a period of heavy UFO activity.
Well, I hate to be unimaginative, but the foul smells during the Middle Ages don't really require UFOs to explain them.  There was a fairly appalling lack of sanitation, particularly in the big cities.  Apparently just the amount of human waste lying around in heavily populated areas was enough to create a smell that would blow your hair back -- even 19th century London was a frightful-smelling place, according to Steven Johnson's wonderful book The Ghost Map (which chronicles the cholera epidemic of the 1850s, and how it led to the creation of an efficient city-wide sewer system).  And the fact that rodents weren't "reported frequently" is pretty certainly because of their ubiquity, not because they were absent.

But of course, it's not just the stinky mist and bright lights that are brought out as evidence:
A second phenomenon was sometimes reported: the appearance of frightening human-like figures dressed in black. Those figures were often seen on the outskirts of a town or village and their presence would signal the outbreak of an epidemic almost immediately. It appears that the “scythes” may have been long instruments designed to spray poison or germ-laden gas. Strange men dressed in black, “demons’ and other terrifying figures were observed in other European communities. The frightening creatures were often observed carrying long “brooms,” “scythes,” or “swords” that were used to “sweep” or “knock” on the doors of people’s homes. The inhabitants of those homes fell ill with plague afterwards. It is from these reports that people created the popular image of “Death” as a skeleton or demon carrying a scythe. In looking at this haunting image of death, we may, in fact, be staring into the face of the UFO.”
Right.  Because we're not talking about a superstitious, credulous bunch of people here.  They can't possibly have made this up to explain a terrifying event that they didn't have the science to understand.

 Maybe it wasn't rats or aliens.  Maybe it was the "saaaalmon mooouuussse."

But then we find out that it wasn't all aliens who were impersonating Death; it was only the crazy homicidal aliens who were responsible:
This Awareness indicates that what in Medieval times were termed demons, and what many of the Christian faith considered to be demons, are in fact what entities refer today to as extraterrestrial aliens. The Greys from Zeta Reticuli today are not precisely the same invaders as those of the Medieval times. The Medieval aliens were both Reptoid and also of the Grey community that now is underground and known as the Deros. The Deros underground are demented forms of Zeta Greys, which have been here for many thousands of years, living underground to avoid sunlight and to avoid communication with humans except on those occasions where they seek to make contact for one reason or another.
Oh.  Okay.  Because that makes sense.

You know, I think that the problem here is that people are uncomfortable with the chaotic, random nature of much of life, especially the bad parts.  If something bad happens, the immediate impulse is to look for someone, or something, to blame.  This explains so much woo-woo thinking, doesn't it?  Without even trying hard, I found three examples that were linked on Reddit in the last two days -- an article on the website of the Institute for Natural Healing that attributes all cancer to eating meat, a claim that the government is covering up how dangerous vaccines are, and an allegation that WiFi in schools is causing headaches in children

Somehow, we just can't accept that people get sick, sometimes for no obvious reason.  It's not enough to celebrate the astonishing advances in medical science over the last hundred years, that have generated new records in the healthy human life span -- because, unfortunately, they haven't eliminated all disease and suffering.  The fact that we still get sick, we still grow old and die, must mean that there is some insidious plan behind it all.

It can't just be that we live in a world that's kind of a rough place, a world where bad things happen sometimes.  Not even in the case of the Black Death, where we (1) have identified the bacterium that causes it, (2) know the vector that transmitted it, (3) have evidence from medical records of the time that the symptoms are consistent with subsequent outbreaks, and even (4) have tissue samples (bones) that show evidence of Yersinia pestis infection.  No, that's not enough.  It has to be the evil demented aliens causing it all.

Anyhow, however understandable it is to want there to be some kind of overarching reason why stuff happens, rationality forces us to concede the role that chaos has in human history.  No extraterrestrial epidemics necessary.

And in case any of you were considering trying to one-up this story, I have to request, with all due respect: if you know of anything loonier than this claim, you probably shouldn't tell me about it.  I've done enough facepalms over this one to last me a while.