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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The case for optimism

A friend and frequent contributor of topics to Skeptophilia asked me recently how I don't completely lose faith in humanity, after all these years of focusing on the ridiculous things people believe.

"How you continue to post, day after day," he wrote to me, "and not end up raising your arms in the air, fists clenched in rage, throwing your head back, and screaming a slew of expletives that would make the San Quentin warden blush, is beyond me."

Well, sometimes I do, you know.  I spend a lot of time yelling at my computer, which may explain why it doesn't work sometimes.  But honestly, I'm an optimist.  If I thought that humanity was irredeemable -- that we will never learn, will never figure out how to think rationally, will always be mired in superstition -- my writing this blog would be kind of pointless.

So would my being a science teacher, now that I come to think of it.

 I am by nature an optimist.  A cautious optimist, but an optimist nonetheless.  And three stories that just came out in the last couple of days give me some support in my contention that humankind is capable of moving in positive directions.

First, from Australia, we have a story from The Brisbane Times, wherein we learn that a court in Queensland has denied a woman taxpayer-funded assistance for a $20,000 "spiritual healing" she received in Canada.  [Source]

The woman, who is identified only as "BN," sounds like she has had a rough time of it -- she was assaulted, and had trauma associated with a motor vehicle accident -- and I do not mean to sound unsympathetic with her plight.  In fact, the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal agreed; in their ruling, they said, "It is not disputed that BN suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder."

But the woman's claim was that she needed "Native spiritual healing," and the only place that she was willing to go was to a Cree spiritual retreat center in Canada.  She required the flight to and from Canada not pass through any American or Asian airports, because she found them "stressful."  The total bill, for travel and for the "spiritual healing"  came to close to $20,000, which she expected would be covered by the Australian health care system.

It is crazy that taxpayers should be expected to bear the costs when someone wants to pursue unscientific alternatives to conventional medical treatment.  I'm happy to report that the courts agreed.  Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie said, "I absolutely respect and understand the benefits of rehabilitation for victims of crime, but it was inconceivable that treatment couldn't be found here in Queensland."

A second story that gives me hope that rationality can sometimes win the day comes out of Florida, where a psychic is currently on trial for fraud to the tune of $25 million.

Rose Marks, who has used her alleged powers to advise such well-known figures as romance writer Jude Deveraux, is unrepentant.  Her lawyer, Fred Schwartz, said in an interview, "She said she uses psychic powers to help advise people as a life coach and that she's a spiritual adviser," and added that Ms. Marks' powers have "been in her family for 1,500 years."

You have to wonder how she knows that.  Psychically, I'd imagine.

Well, the U.S. Attorney's office isn't buying it.  The indictment, in part, reads, "Rose Marks, a/k/a Joyce Michael, along with co-conspirators, represented herself as a psychic and clairvoyant, gifted by God to communicate with spirit guides to assist her clients through personal difficulties...  [She] would offer services to walk-in customers, some of whom would be suffering from mental and emotional disorders, who had recently gone through personal traumatic events and/or who were emotionally vulnerable, fragile and/or gullible...  [Marks induced clients] to make 'sacrifices', usually consisting of large amounts of money (but also at times including jewelry, gold coins and other property) because 'money was the root of all evil.'"

Oh, indeed it can be, which is why these charlatans do what they do.  Well, if the prosecutors do their job, we may see one fewer of them out there defrauding their customers, a possibility that should give Sylvia Browne, Derek Acorah, Theresa Caputo, and Sally Morgan pause.

Our last story seems to indicate that courts are disinclined to let people get away with harming someone because of irrational beliefs even if those beliefs are part of their religion.  "It's my religion" has, for a long time, been a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card in the United States, and in many other parts of the world -- but that may be ending.  Just last week, two members of The Church of the First Born, a fundamentalist faith-healing sect in Albany, Oregon, were arrested for manslaughter after their daughter died of untreated type I diabetes.

Travis and Wenona Rossiter prayed over their twelve-year-old daughter, Syble, convinced that the line from James chapter 5 was true -- "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord." 

This, despite the fact that two other children of members of this sect of loonies have died in similar circumstances -- a seven-year-old of leukemia in 1996, and a seventeen-year-old just last year of appendicitis.  You'd think they'd realize it wasn't working, wouldn't you?  Nope.  They probably just thought they weren't praying hard enough, or rationalized it by saying it was "god's will," or some such nonsense.

The courts aren't buying it.  The Rossiters are in jail, and with luck, will stay there.

Now, all of this is some pretty harsh stuff, and it might be hard to see how this supports my original contention that we have cause for optimism.  But look at the overall trend -- we've gone from rampant superstition, faith healing, and anti-science sentiment being the majority opinion, to its being repeatedly slapped down by the courts, in only a hundred or so years.  Even as little as fifty years ago, the authorities were reluctant to step in when cases involved "matters of faith" -- churches and "spiritual practices" were given carte blanche.

Now?  We're seeing an increasing push to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches, especially in cases where church leaders publicly push political agendas.  We're seeing courts uphold sentences in cases where people inflict damage, whether personal or financial, on the gullible, innocent, or helpless because of their commitment to counterfactional irrationality.  It's getting harder and harder to get away with murder -- sometimes literally -- because you hold an umbrella labeled "god's will" over your head.

And I, for one, find this to be movement in the right direction.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A "9.8" on the Sacredometer

Today, we have a story out of Canada that is a combination of heartening and puzzling, sent to me by my friend (and frequent Skeptophilia contributor) Andrew Butters, author of the wonderful blog Potato Chip Math.  (And do yourself a favor -- add his blog to your list, it's thought-provoking and funny and generally all kinds of awesome.)

The story comes from The National Post, and has the headline, "Atheism a creed that needs the same religious protections of Christianity and Islam: Ontario Human Rights Tribunal."  The whole thing comes up because of an odd, although probably not unique, policy by the Niagara School District, wherein all fifth graders were offered Gideon Bibles as long as they got parental consent to receive one.

Well, the "parental consent" clause seemed to cover any possible charges of proselytization in public schools -- until René Chouinard, of Grimsby, Ontario, who is a self-described secular humanist, offered to provide copies of Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children to fifth graders, and the school board told him he couldn't do that.

Chouinard complained to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, and the school district, in a rather frantic attempt to cover their asses, changed their policy -- to allow the distribution of other religious texts, "so long as the religion is included in the Ontario Multifaith Information Manual" and "the text in question qualifies as a sacred text."

Now, what exactly does that mean?  Is there some kind of sacredometer that measures the sacredness of a text?  Does the Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, count as sufficiently sacred?  I mean, no one much worships Thoth and Anubis any more, far as I can tell.

And the problem, of course, is that this specifically eliminates consideration of any secular texts, since they are by definition not sacred, given that atheism is a religion in the same sense that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Fortunately -- in one way, at least, and I'll get to that in a moment -- the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal agreed with Chouinard.  On August 13, they issued a ruling stating that the policy, even as it was modified, was discriminatory.  "The policy was discriminatory because its definition of acceptable materials violated substantive equality by excluding the kinds of materials central to many creeds," the ruling, in part, reads.  "The restriction to sacred or foundational texts excludes some creeds and is therefore discriminatory."

Well, right on, and I agree with that... but.  Here's the problem.  Is it the job of the school to get involved in religious instruction at all, beyond teaching students about world religions as a lens into history and culture?  It seems to me that this is exchanging one problem for another, and saddling schools with yet another responsibility, namely, making sure that all kids get access to the sacred (or not-so-sacred, depending on the reading that pops up on the sacredometer) text that they, and their parents, want.

But isn't this the job of the parents?  I mean, fer cryin' in the sink, if my fifth grade kid had wanted a bible, I'd have gotten him a bible, not waited for the school to hand him a freebie based on some kind of weird sacred-text-distribution policy.  Same goes for The Book of Mormon, the Qu'ran, the Talmud, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or The God Delusion.  Honestly, in fifth grade my sons were more interested in reading Animorphs and playing with Lego, but hey, kids are different, and maybe there are fifth graders out there who are desperate to delve into sacred texts.  I dunno.

Anyhow, that's the current news from our neighbors to the north, and another shout-out to my bud Andrew for turning me on to the story.  It's nice to have folks send me leads, and this was an especially good one.  I'll make sure and say a good word to Anubis in Andrew's favor, next time I'm in the temple.  You know how it goes.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elements of style

When scientists this week at Lund University in Sweden confirmed the production of an atom of element 115, I thought it was just a story that would be of interest to physicists, chemists, and assorted science nerds.

The atom, like those of all "superheavy" elements, disintegrated almost instantaneously.  All of the high-atomic-weight atoms -- those on the bottom tiers of the periodic table -- are extremely unstable, and undergo radioactive decay within a fraction of a second after they're created in the lab.  None of them occur naturally.

This confirms a claim made by Russian scientists in 2004, and completes another row of the periodic table, bringing to 118 the number of confirmed elements.  Like its near neighbors with atomic numbers of 113, 117, and 118, it doesn't have an official permanent name yet, so it is called "ununpentium" (a placeholder name that simply means "115").

So far, only a story that would interest people who are fond of esoteric chemistry.  Thus my surprise when stories started popping up all over woo-woo websites with headlines like, "Element 115 proven to be real!  Bob Lazar was right!"

My first reaction was, "Who the hell is Bob Lazar?"  So I looked him up, and found that he's a pretty famous guy, even though I had never heard of him.  He even has a Wikipedia page.  And his story turned out to be quite interesting.

Lazar is (appropriate for our unofficial theme-of-the-week) a conspiracy theorist of the first water.  He claims to be a physicist with degrees from both the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; attempts to confirm this have turned up nothing, although he did once take an electronics course at Pierce Junior College.  Lazar says this is because the government tampered with his academic records to discredit him.

Why would the government do that?  Because Lazar worked at Area 51, of course.  And while at Area 51, he was allegedly the leader of a group of physicists who studied some downed extraterrestrial spaceships.  And guess what he claimed was the fuel that powered said flying saucers?

Got it in one.  Element 115.

Ununpentium, Lazar said, created "antigravity effects" when bombarded with protons.  Antimatter was also somehow involved.  Put 'em all together, says Lazar, and the "intense strong nuclear force of element 115's nucleus" would warp space and time, creating a way to cross interstellar space.

Oh, and he knows where these aliens came from.  Zeta Reticuli, the favorite star of conspiracy theorists everywhere, alleged home to both the Reptilians and the Greys.  Which ties in neatly with stories of government collaboration with extraterrestrials, and the replacement of various world figures by shapeshifting evil aliens.  This last allegation might be true, of course.  I myself am suspicious about recently-disgraced San Diego mayor Bob Filner.  Doesn't he look like someone trying to mimic a human, but who can't quite make it look authentic yet?

I think that is exactly the expression you'd see on the face of an alien who had just learned the rule, "When you smile, retract the lips and expose the teeth."

But I digress.  Let's return to our consideration of Bob #1.

Bob Lazar's ideas have achieved considerable buzz in the UFO community, and also in the world of the conspiracy theorists, being that his ideas combine the best from both.  And he was taken at least seriously enough to have an actual physicist, Dr. David L. Morgan, give a close look to his ideas.  And after careful consideration, Morgan has concluded that Lazar is a raving wingnut.

"After reading an account by Bob Lazar of the 'physics' of his Area 51 UFO propulsion system," Morgan stated, "my conclusion is this: Mr. Lazar presents a scenario which, if it is correct, violates a whole handful of currently accepted physical theories...  The presentation of the scenario by Lazar is troubling from a scientific standpoint.  Mr. Lazar on many occasions demonstrates an obvious lack of understanding of current physical theories."

Which is much nicer than I would have put it, but amounts to the same thing.

Any time someone comes up with a "theory" that will "destroy all of physics as we know it," I'm always inclined to give him the raspberry and walk away.  It might be narrow-minded of me, but think about it; what's the chance that the best brains the Earth has produced -- people like Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Lise Meitner, Murray Gell-Mann, and Peter Higgs -- are all wrong?  That they've missed the boat completely, and some new guy, with no particular access to research facilities or technical equipment, or possibly even a college degree, has figured it all out?  Okay, I guess it's possible, but I need more than just his word for it, especially when that word contains mention of "the Grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli."

The bottom line is: if you think that you've got a revolutionary idea, turn it over to peer review like the rest of the scientific world.  If it stands, I'll be happy to eat my words.

Anyway, this explains why the woo-woos all started jumping up and down and making excited little squeaking noises about element 115, in spite of the fact that the Swedish scientists only succeeded in making one atom of it, which would hardly be enough to power a spacecraft.  And the atom in question (1) decayed in less than a tenth of a second, and (2) showed no signs of generating an "anti-gravity field."

But I guess when you are resting your claims on no evidence, then any evidence is an improvement.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The new weapon of the "elite:" vaccinations

This week we had two news stories that are mostly noteworthy in juxtaposition.

First, we had an interview that took place between Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and political pundit, erstwhile presidential candidate, and noted wingnut Alan Keyes, regarding the plan by liberals to reduce the world's population using vaccines.

Gohmert asked Keyes about the claim by "some liberals" that the world was overpopulated.  Keyes responded:
A lot of people who fancy themselves elites, right, because they’ve made a lot of money, their names are all over the media and so forth, they’ve really signed on to an agenda that requires the depopulation of the globe.  And in the name of fighting global climatological change, called global warming — that’s proven to be something that’s wrong — they are saying that we’ve got to cut back the population of the world.

Bill Gates gave a famous talk back in 2009, which he was talking about actually abusing vaccinations, which are supposed to keep people healthy and alive, and saying how this could lead to a 15 percent reduction in the population of the globe as a way to achieve this result.

They’re preaching that doctrine because they actually believe we’re a blight on the face of the planet, we human beings.  And we should, therefore, be put on a path toward our own semi-extinction. I often try to get people to see that if you think about it, if we actually get back to the levels they’re talking about, it would just be these elitists and the people needed to service them. That’s all that will be left in the world.
And instead of doing what I would have done, which is to guffaw directly into Mr. Keyes' face and then get up and walk away, Gohmert responded as if he had just said something sensible.

"Scary thought," Representative Gohmert responded.

Yes, it is a scary thought, and doubly scary because there are presumably people who believe this.  We're all being duped by the elite liberal scientists.  Vaccines, as we all know from watching the historical documentary The X Files, are just the government's way of tagging the entire citizenry, i.e., marking us for "culling."

Oh, and global climate change is "wrong."  How do we know?  Because elitism, that's how.  Stop asking questions.

But I must interject a question of my own here, and it's one that I've asked before: why in the hell is the word "elite" used as a compliment in sports and an insult in intellectual pursuits?  Isn't it a good thing to be really smart?  Given Mr. Keyes' grasp of the facts, it's understandable that he doesn't think so, but in general?

The whole thing is interesting especially given our second story, which occurred only a little west of Representative Gohmert's home of Texas' First Congressional District, in the town of Newark -- where an evangelical megachurch has has an outbreak of measles after its pastor, Terri Copeland Pearsons, promoted faith healing as an alternative to vaccination.

Pearsons' father, televangelist Kenneth Copeland, has publicly stated his anti-vaxxer sympathies in a broadcast called "God's Health and Wellness Plan."  (The relevant bit comes about twenty minutes into the broadcast, if you decide to watch it.)  He talks about the whole topic of vaccination becoming "personal" when his first great-grandchild was born, and the doctors advised the parents to have the baby vaccinated "with all of these shots, and all of this stuff."  Some of what they wanted to vaccinate the baby with, Copeland said, "is criminal."

"You don't take the word of the guy that is trying to give the shot about what's good and what isn't!" Copeland said.

Nope.  Those damned doctors, with their advanced degrees.  What do they know, anyway?

But then Copeland's daughter's church was visited by someone who had just come from overseas, and had been exposed to measles -- and before you can say "liberal elite," twenty church members had contracted the disease.

This left Pastor Pearsons to deliver the news to the faithful, which she did, albeit a little awkwardly:
There has been a ... confirmed case of the measles from the Tarrant County Public Health Department. And that is a really big deal in that America, the United States has been essentially measles free for I think it's ten years. And so when measles pops up anywhere else in the United States, the health department -- well, you know, it excites them. You know what I mean... I don't mean... I don't mean they're happy about it, but they get very excited and respond to it because it doesn't take much for things like that to spread.
Sure.  The Health Department just loves outbreaks.  It's some excitement to distract them from their otherwise humdrum job of figuring out ways to cull the human population.

So it was wryly amusing when last week, Pastor Pearsons announced that there would be free measles vaccination clinics held in the church, in spite of the fact that the bible should be enough:
There are a lot of people that think the Bible -- we talk about walking by faith -- it leaves out things such as, I don't know, people just get strange. But when you read the Old Testament, you find that it is full of precautionary measures, and it is full of the law.

Why did the Jewish people, why did they not die out during the plague? Because the Bible told them how to be clean, told them how to disinfect, told them there was something contagious. And the interesting thing of it, it wasn't a medical doctor per se who took care of those things, it was the priesthood. It was the ministers, it was those who knew how to take the promises of God as well as the commandments of God to take care of things like disinfection and so forth....

Many of the things that we have in medical practice now actually are things you can trace back into scripture. It's when we find out what's in the scripture that we have wisdom.
Yup.  Because priests have such a better track record for curing disease than medical doctors do.  Oh, but by all means, Pastor Pearsons, don't let little things like facts get in your way.  Do carry on.

And in neat contrast to all of this, we have two new peer-reviewed papers this summer showing that vaccinations save lives.  As if we should need more evidence.

Well, we might not, if it weren't for anti-science whackjobs like Keyes, Pearsons, and Copeland babbling their bizarre, fact-free opinions on the air.  All of which just goes to show, as I've said before -- if you want to learn how the world really works, don't listen to politicians and pastors.

Ask an "elite scientist."  They're the ones who actually know what they're talking about.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Homeopathic chemtrail remedies

Following on the heels of my post yesterday regarding how much smarter and saner the conspiracy theorists are than us skeptics, today we will take a look at: homeopathic anti-chemtrail spray.

Yes, folks, guaranteed to "alleviate symptoms of chemtrail exposure," this homeopathic preparation (i.e. a bottle of water) is to be sprayed up the nose "until symptoms disappear."

At first, I thought this had to be a joke.  Or, at least, unique.  Surely no one else would come up with the idea of using worthless remedies for nonexistent chemtrail exposure.

I was wrong.

Check out, for example, ChemBuster.  The website starts out by asking a very important question, namely: "Have you experienced symptoms of unknown origin?"  Because if you had "chronic fatigue," "chronic pain," "chronic headaches," or "mental and emotional problems," there could only be one answer:

The government is putting chemicals into jet fuel, so that when the jet fuel is burned, the chemicals are dispersed over the unsuspecting citizenry, where they are inhaled and cause you to feel crummy.

So who you gonna call?  ChemBuster!
ChemBuster contains 4 herbals and 9 homeopathics blended in a proprietary process designed to defeat, to annihilate, the pools of mycoplasma, heavy metals, respiratory problems and even mental problems associated with Chemtrail poisoning.
But ChemBuster has to be "activated" before use.  How do you activate it?  By purchasing an "orgone energy generator," setting the bottle next to it, and turning it on, which will "potentiate" it, increasing its strength by a factor of ten (following the mathematical principle that 10 x 0 = 0).

At this point, I should mention that the "orgone energy generator" uses the power of gemstones to "collect, concentrate, transmute and radiate all ambient subtle energy into life force," and that the person who came up with the idea of "orgone," Wilhelm Reich, believed that it was the "life energy" that was released suddenly during an orgasm.  I'm not making this up, by the way.  So here we have a claim that combines four ridiculous ideas -- homeopathy + chemtrails + gemstone energies + orgone.

Which may be a new record.

Now, if you don't want to buy homeopathic remedies and orgone energy generators to combat chemtrails, there could be a cheaper solution, namely: a spray bottle filled with vinegar.  Once again, I feel obliged to state outright that I'm not making this up.  Last year, we had a claim going around that was given some momentum by such pinnacles of rationality as Alex Jones and Jeff Rense, stating that if you were worried about the government dousing you with chemicals, all you had to do to "cleanse the air" was to spray some vinegar up toward the sky.  So people did it, because of course there never is an idea so completely idiotic that there won't be large quantities of people who will believe it.  Here is one explanation, if I can dignify it with that word (spelling and grammar as written, because you can only write "sic" so many times):
Vinegar does a lot as a support to our orgone devices. Why ? Reason is pretty simple:

It is all about the electrical charge of the atmosphere. Fellow gifters all around the world were trying to figure out how it is possible, that such cheap and funky substance, as vinegar, is delivering such spectacular effects on the chemtrail-rich atmosphere. Here is the simple explanation:

During the chemtrail attack, atmosphere is charged with a lots of positive ionts. Well, and dispersed vinegar is charging the atmosphere with negative ionts.

TRY IT YOURSELF. If you see the chemtrail attack in your sector is going on -  buy a liter or two of the vinegar, and disperse it on the asphalt surface of the road (it is the best platform for the vinegar to go up to the sky). Or throw black T-Shirt into the vinegar and leave it on the sunlight.  

Vinegar begins AT ONCE to vapor to the sky, and sky is getting charged with the negative ionts by very aggresive chain reaction. Within maximally ONE HOUR you will get the results.
Yup.  Using a "funky substance" to fight "positive ionts" from "chemtrail attack in your sector."  Gotcha.

And lest you think that this explanation was immediately laughed into oblivion, I read the comments, without even putting on my anti-stupidity protective eyewear, and immediately came across one that read, "The idea of countering thousand dollars of chemtrail with cheap vinegar is very apealing [sic].  I'll try it. Must be very humiliating to them."

Ah, yes, them.  Those evil guys who are chemtrailing the hell out of us.  You know, I think that's the thing I understand the least about all of this; if the Illuminati in the government are dousing the skies with chemicals via jet contrails, and those contrails can be seen every day from damn near any spot in the United States, why don't we see all of the government employees walking around wearing big ol' respirators?  No, they're breathing the same air that we unsuspecting sheeple are.  So are the families of the government employees.  Everyone, pretty much, is breathing the same air, Illuminati and sheeple alike, and it seems that only the sheeple are affected?

Oh, wait, I forgot.  The government employees are Reptilian aliens, and they're immune.  Duh.

So, there you have it.  Using homeopathy, crystals, orgasmic energy, and vinegar to fight the chemtrails created by the llluminati.  I really think they should find a way to work in astrology, chakras, and the planet Nibiru, which would create a perfect storm of woo-woo quantum psychic vibrations, raising us to the next level of enlightenment.

On the other hand, I'm probably not ready for that.  Just let me stay unenlightened for the time being, at least until I recover from the forehead bruises I got from all of the headdesks I did while researching this post.

Monday, August 26, 2013

New studies show that the author of Skeptophilia is brilliant!

I would love it if some psychologist who studies the effect of media on people's beliefs would do a specific experiment, and then let me know the results.

The experiment I'd like done is to have a series of fake news articles that test subjects would read.  There would be two different kinds of articles -- ones in which the headline basically summarized what the text of the article said (as it should be), and ones in which the headline made a statement that was at odds with what the text of the article actually claimed.  Then, subjects would answer some questions, and see which had a greater impact in their memory -- the contents of the headline, or the contents of the article text.

I strongly suspect that when the text of an article and the headline conflict, it's the headline that will have the biggest effect on what readers remember.  It's the first thing they see; it's in bold print; and it gives a catchy, terse summary of what the story supposedly is about.  All of the details in the text, I think, are much more likely to be lost, misremembered, or ignored outright.

This comes up because of an article sent to me by a friend, which was entitled "New studies: ‘Conspiracy theorists’ sane, while government dupes are crazy and hostile."  The story, which appeared in 21st Century Wire, is making a pretty bold claim -- that what the conspiracy theorists have been claiming all along is correct.  All of us skeptics, who have scoffed at the chemtrails and Illuminati and mind control and RFID chip implants and evil Satanic Masonic rituals, are not only wrong, we are the crazy ones.

Naturally, I was pretty interested to read about this.

The first paragraph basically mirrored the headline, stating that "those labeled 'conspiracy theorists' appear to be saner than those who accept the official version of contested events."  Then, we hear about the first study:
The most recent study was published on July 8th by psychologists Michael J. Wood and Karen M. Douglas of the University of Kent (UK). Entitled “What about Building 7? A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories,” the study compared “conspiracist” (pro-conspiracy theory) and “conventionalist” (anti-conspiracy) comments at news websites.

The authors were surprised to discover that it is now more conventional to leave so-called conspiracist comments than conventionalist ones: “Of the 2174 comments collected, 1459 were coded as conspiracist and 715 as conventionalist.” In other words, among people who comment on news articles, those who disbelieve government accounts of such events as 9/11 and the JFK assassination outnumber believers by more than two to one. That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.
By this time, I was already bouncing up and down in my chair, yelling, "Just wait a moment!  That doesn't support what the headline said at all!" at my computer.  So we have double the number of conspiracist comments as conventional ones posted on news websites -- we're supposed to conclude from this that the conspiracists are more likely to be right?  Or sane?  All it means is that conspiracist comments are common, which is hardly the same thing.

I don't even think that the we can even conclude from this that the conspiracists themselves outnumber the "conventionalists."  For that, we'd need to make the further assumption that people of all beliefs are equally likely to post, which seems like a leap, considering what a rabid lot some of the conspiracy theorists seem to be.

Then, we hear about the second "study:"
(T)hese findings are amplified in the new book Conspiracy Theory in America by political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith, published earlier this year by the University of Texas Press. Professor deHaven-Smith explains why people don’t like being called “conspiracy theorists”: The term was invented and put into wide circulation by the CIA to smear and defame people questioning the JFK assassination! “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.”

In other words, people who use the terms “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” as an insult are doing so as the result of a well-documented, undisputed, historically-real conspiracy by the CIA to cover up the JFK assassination. That campaign, by the way, was completely illegal, and the CIA officers involved were criminals; the CIA is barred from all domestic activities, yet routinely breaks the law to conduct domestic operations ranging from propaganda to assassinations.
Ah.  So because (1) conspiracy theorists don't like being called conspiracy theorists, and (2) the CIA engaged in some nasty business surrounding the JFK assassination, the conspiracy theorists are actually sane when they babble about chemtrails and the Bilderberg Group.  Got it.

Then, we have an alleged conclusion from psychologist Laurie Manwell, of the University of Guelph, summarized as follows:
Psychologist Laurie Manwell of the University of Guelph agrees that the CIA-designed “conspiracy theory” label impedes cognitive function. She points out, in an article published in American Behavioral Scientist (2010), that anti-conspiracy people are unable to think clearly about such apparent state crimes against democracy as 9/11 due to their inability to process information that conflicts with pre-existing belief.
So, I did a little digging on Manwell -- and as you might already be anticipating, the author of the article in 21st Century Wire is misrepresenting her, too.  Turns out Manwell thinks that laypeople of all stripes tend to ignore factual information, and pay more attention to claims that support what they already believed.  Take a look at what she wrote in a June 2007 paper, "Faulty Towers of Belief:"
Most laypersons would agree with research showing that attitudes influence a person's evaluation of a subject -- whether it be an idea or another person -- and that the stronger the attitude, the greater influence it will have in evoking a positive or a negative evaluation.  However, the types of reasoning processes that laypersons believe they use when evaluating information are not necessarily the processes that they actually use.  Research repeatedly shows that what people say they are doing, and what they are actually doing, are often two very different things... Thus, in evaluating the events of 9/11, we need to keep in mind that there are many factors that influence our judgments, including previously formed attitudes and beliefs, many of which are resistant to change, and some of which we may not even be aware of at the time of evaluation.
So, the bottom line is that Manwell's contention is that we're all prone to confirmation bias, which is hardly the same thing as claiming that the conspiracy theorists are clear-eyed exponents of the truth, and the skeptics are dim-witted obstructionists.  And as far as who is entering the argument with more "previously formed attitudes and beliefs," might I just ask you to consider that question from the standpoint of contrasting Alex Jones with, say, Michael Shermer?

Oh, but don't let that stand in the way of your drawing the conclusion you'd already settled on.  Here's the last line of the article in 21st Century Wire:
No wonder the anti-conspiracy people are sounding more and more like a bunch of hostile, paranoid cranks.
So, there you have it.  Take some actual research, claim it supports the contentions you already had, then turn around and accuse your opponents of doing what you just did.  Craft a nice, inflammatory headline that basically says, "You Should Believe Me Because the People Who Disagree With Me Are Big Fat Liars," and call it good.

Chances are, the most your readers are going to remember about what you wrote is the headline, anyway, which gives me an idea.  Maybe I should start giving my posts headlines like "New Studies Show That You'll Have Good Luck If You Send Gordon Money."  It's worth a try, because attempting to become independently wealthy as a writer seems to be a losing proposition any other way.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

UFOs, eyewitnesses, and the persistence of hope

I have something of an obsession with aliens.

I own t-shirts with pictures of UFOs and little gray guys.  My favorite movie of all time is Contact.  I have a poster on the wall of my classroom of a glowering alien, purchased on my visit to the International UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico, and another one that is a replica of the spaceship poster from Fox Mulder's office in The X Files -- the one with the caption, "I Want to Believe."

I daily peruse reports on sites like UFO World News and Latest UFO Sightings and Real UFOs and The UFO Casebook, wherein we get to read reports like the following:
Orlando, Florida - 08-19-13 To give a better idea of the area, I am right near UCF and out west from here is the executive airport; it is not uncommon to see many planes flying in an east/west fashion here.

I was on my back porch grilling and noticed a light hanging in the sky, off toward the west.

Initially I thought "Far off plane, no big deal."

I suppose it must have seemed a little strange when I first spotted in retrospect, because I remember thinking "I am going to watch this thing move, it's certainly a plane."

Well, what originally looked like landing lights began to seem a little less so; the longer the thing held its position and size in the air.

The thing was hovering and sort of pulsating and possibly rotating at times.

The light would change from red to blue to white to greenish almost randomly, but at times would seem to follow a sequence as well.

It was slowly descending over the 30-40 minute period, sometimes making abrupt motions. Overall, its motions were slow, though.
And no, I never seem to get tired of reading this stuff.

Of all of the wild claims I hear, I think an alien visitation to Earth is the one that I would be the most excited about, should it turn out to be true.  And I'm not alone; eminent physicist and science writer Michio Kaku has weighed in on the topic, saying, "95% of UFO sightings can be immediately identified as the planet Venus, weather balloons, weather anomalies, swamp gas, you name it, we’ve got it nailed.  It’s the 5% that give you the willies.  5% remain totally unexplained."

And, he says, we should seriously investigate that 5%.

Now, far be it from me to contradict a brilliant man like Dr. Kaku, but my first thought when I heard him say this was, "What, precisely, does he want the scientists to investigate?"  In virtually all of these cases, all we have is eyewitness testimony -- which is notoriously unreliable, and leaves nothing behind for an investigator to study.  Even in cases where the witness isn't lying outright, there's no guarantee that the person is recalling correctly what (s)he saw, or not misinterpreting some completely natural, terrestrial phenomenon.  Thus this handy chart for identifying what you see up in the sky:

In all seriousness, I think the issue here is very much whether there is anything at all in this realm that qualifies as evidence.  In the case of the sighting from Orlando, Florida, quoted above, should an astronomer be contacted, the question very much remains to be asked what exactly it is that the eyewitness wants the scientist to do about it.  Okay, you saw some flashing lights.  So?  How is that a scientific claim, one that I could evaluate on the basis of rational inquiry?

Some UFO enthusiasts believe that the sheer volume of claims indicates that there is something real to all of it (and you also hear an undercurrent of conspiracy there, too, in that some of them believe that the US government is actively suppressing those claims).  To which I respond: yeah, and recent polls indicate that 46% of the citizens of the United States believe that the Earth is less than ten thousand years old.  Science, fortunately, is not done by popular majority vote.

So, sad to say, there's still not sufficient hard evidence (i.e. any) to believe that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are visiting the Earth.  Still less that it happens dozens of times a day, which is the impression you get from reading the reports on UFO websites.  It's a shame, really.  Think of how many cool things that a real alien visitation would show -- that we were not alone in the universe, that biological life and intelligence can evolve on other worlds, that interstellar flight was possible.  But at the moment, if we're being honest, we have to hold off on that conclusion -- the fair thing, in the absence of evidence, is to keep our desire for an answer in abeyance.

Forever, if need be.

That doesn't mean, however, that I'm going to take down my posters or stop reading the reports from MUFON (The Mutual UFO Network). 

A guy can keep hoping, after all.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Diagnosing demonic possession using crayons

There are times when I wonder if some people aren't really crazy, but are engaging in a sort of elaborate game of self-parody.

I do, after all, spend a lot of time saying, "I'm not making this up.  I promise," and still some of the topics I find for this blog seem to have the effect of making my readers say, "No, really?  That's just straining credulity to the snapping point."

Yeah.  I know.  Take, for example, the televangelist and the "ex-gay" therapist who got into a discussion this week about how you can diagnose both homosexuality and demonic possession using a drawing of a brain and a box of colored pencils.

Toufik Benedictus "Benny" Hinn, an Israeli-born evangelical who runs the Benny Hinn Ministries and the "Miracle Crusades" revival meeting/faith healing circuit, was interviewing Jerry Mungadze, a psychologist who claims that his therapy turns gay people straight and even "changes their brains to be more like straight people's."  So we're definitely talking about a serious meeting of minds, here.  The following is a transcript of the conversation that ensued:
Mungadze:  Everything that I talk about is based on numbers, is based on studies.  Which is what you do when you're a scientist.  Now, one thing that surprised me, is that for many, many years when I lived in Africa, I saw people that were demonized, but I didn't know that you can actually see demonization in people's brains, which I can now.

Hinn:  Wait, wait, wait, stop.  You can see demonization in people's brains?

Mungadze:  Yeah.

Hinn:  How?

Mungadze:  There is a certain color that I won't mention that tells me if a person has been demonized.

Hinn:  Now, let me explain what he just said to you.  What he has you do, and we're going to show you materials that you can have on your own [holds up drawing of a brain], he divides the brain into different parts, and each part speaks of one area of your life.  This [points to various areas on the drawing] is how you relate to people, this is your compassion, this is your identity, and this deals with your focus, and so on.  And by the colors you choose, you take colored pencils and color every area, he can tell you everything about yourself.  Now, you hear this, and you go, "no, no, that's impossible."  Now, trust me.  This man really can.

Mungadze:  I can be in a room with some people, for example some of the people of the occult, people who were steeped in demonology.  I may not know just by sitting next to them, but I let them do that [color the brain drawing] and I can tell them what spirit they have and what it is doing in their life. 

Hinn:  By the color.

Mungadze:  Yeah.  The trouble, it is a spiritual trouble.  Demonization, for instance.  Or if the trouble is abuse, if they grew up in a family where there is abuse, or people who come from the occult, or come from witchcraft.

Hinn:  What colors do they choose, usually?

Mungadze:  Usually blacks and browns, and grays.

There was also this earlier interview with Mungadze on the Daystar Network, wherein he revealed that he can diagnose men as being gay using the same technique.  Gay guys, apparently, like to use pink crayons more than straight guys do.

Every time I think these people can't possibly find a way to make themselves appear more ridiculous, they do, somehow.

I have sometimes been accused of only going after the low-hanging fruit -- of choosing the most absurd fringe beliefs out there, and highlighting those, rather than engaging in the more difficult job of countering subtle, intelligent arguments (and those do exist).  To some extent, guilty as charged.  On the other hand, I wouldn't feel the need to point out the idiotic claims of people like Hinn and Mungadze if everyone had the reaction of laughing them into oblivion.  But according to the Wikipedia article I posted above, Benny Hinn is incredibly successful at convincing people -- his television show This is Your Day is one of the world's most-watched Christian broadcasts, and his revival meetings are incredibly well-attended.  In three meetings on a "crusade" in India, his message was heard by 7.3 million people.

He is also incredibly wealthy.  Using donations from the faithful, he was able to purchase a personal Gulfstream G4SP jet (dubbed the "Dove One") valued at $36 million, and which costs an estimated $600,000 a year to maintain and operate.

We're not talking about some kind of fly-by-night revivalist preacher at the county fair, here.  People listen to this guy, and mostly, they believe him.

So it's easy for the rationalists to sit back and laugh.  "Colored pencils?  Demonization?  Diagnosing psychiatric conditions using crayons?"  But unfortunately, such is the widespread credulity in the world, the no-evidence-needed, faith-based approach to knowledge, that even such an apparent act of self-parody as Hinn and Mungadze just engaged in doesn't seem to elicit much besides a resounding "Hallelujah."

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Yesterday I did what I should never do, something that is even sillier than responding to a post in the "Comments" section on the online news: I responded to someone who had posted inflammatory rhetoric on Facebook.

Even as I was doing it, part of my brain was shouting, "No!  Don't do this!  It'll just make things worse!"  But the other part of my brain just responded with a helpful hand gesture involving one finger, and made me go ahead and click "Post" on my response.

What incited me to do this was a Facebook page link that led me to the website of The Alliance Defending Freedom, which has the headline, "How anti-Christian extremists are using our public schools to radically transform our culture (and how YOU can use the $1.2 million matching grant to stop them!)."  We are also treated to this picture, which illustrates how serious all this is:

In fact, it was the picture that was what triggered my response, which was, "...except that this never happened.  But carry on."  The original poster responded, "But it's heading that way!"  And I responded, "Oh, c'mon.  I would never do any such thing to one of my students, and I'm an atheist, for cryin' out loud."  And she responded, "That's because YOU have common sense.  Not everyone does."

At that point, I gave up.

When I looked at the Alliance Defending Freedom's website, I think what struck me most was the following bit:
Act now to protect religious freedom in public schools!
  • Planned Parenthood
  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • The Obama administration
  • Advocates of homosexual behavior
All of them have big plans for eliminating your faith from our public schools.

The first step in their scheme has been to crack down on any form of religious expression in school.

Prayers are forbidden. Religious references are censored in students’ schoolwork. Students are punished for speaking out about their faith in class.

And these extremists are not stopping there. They’re striving to use public schools to undermine our children’s faith and indoctrinate them with anti-Christian propaganda.
And I thought, "propaganda?"  Really?

Webster's defines propaganda as, "(1) Information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view; or (2) The dissemination of such information as a political strategy."

And these people are accusing the atheists of using propaganda?

Let's start with poor little Emily's school paper, which has been marked with an "F" and "Remove Jesus please!"  This is so obviously a poorly Photoshopped image that I wouldn't think anyone would fall for it; still less for a scenario where any teacher, in any school in the US, would give an assignment to their students to "give an example of someone who impacted your life" and then add the caveat of, "Oh, but it can't be Jesus.  No Jesus allowed."  Despite the impression of the people who wrote this website, that Christians are some kind of small, desperately embattled group, might I point out that in the US, Christians are still vastly in the majority, at (as of last year) 71% of the population?  In many places in the US, it is hard to find anyone who isn't Christian.  So tell me: what's the likelihood of some evil atheistic teacher getting away with giving a child an F on a paper for mentioning Jesus?  Nearly three-quarters of the nation would be seething with outrage.

Oh, but try even having kids learn about other religions, and see how these people react.  Just last week, an elementary school in Wichita, Kansas was forced by public outcry to remove a display that described the "Five Pillars of Islam" after a photograph of the bulletin board went viral (and especially after The Washington Post said that the display was promoting Islam).  Never mind that the school also had displays about Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, the latter including a poster of the Last Supper.  Never mind that teaching about world religions -- including Christianity -- is part of the state's elementary school curriculum.


Oh, and it's all well and good to "pray for our efforts to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel in public schools," to quote the Alliance Defending Freedom's website again.  But don't even let the kids be exposed to information about any other worldviews.  Can't have that.

Apparently, it's perfectly fine to break down the Separation of Church and State, but you damn well better make sure that it's the right church you're letting in.

Bottom line: proselytizing, of any kind, has no place in public schools.  I would be wrong to try to force my atheism on my students, or even to try to convince them in some more subtle fashion.  Matters of belief have no place in the classroom.  But if I would be wrong to put up some kind of Atheist Manifesto in my classroom (if such a thing existed), then the teacher in Muldrow High School, of Muldrow, Oklahoma was also wrong for putting up the Ten Commandments in her room.  (And lest you think that the Ten Commandments are just some kind of universally-accepted norms for good behavior, allow me to remind you that the first one reads, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.")  I might also point out that when 11th grader Gage Pulliam contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation about this unconstitutional display, he was harassed by Christian students to the point of being threatened with physical violence, despite the fact that he said publicly, "I want people to know that this isn't me trying to attack religion.  This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal."

The knife cuts both ways, doesn't it?  Funny thing, that.  And unlike little Emily's Jesus paper, Gage Pulliam and the harassment he faced is real.

What we need here is tolerance, and an understanding that belief is a matter of conscience, best left to discussion between children and their friends and families.  There are, actually, places where religion should be checked at the door -- and public schools are one of them.  This doesn't mean abandoning your beliefs, it just means not using them as some kind of hammer to smash over the heads of people who don't happen to think like you.

And it also means not using sleazy propaganda to try to convince people.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How not to administer First Aid

In the latest from the Now I've Seen Everything department, Amazon is offering a new item for sale: A Homeopathic Emergency First Aid Kit.

No, I'm not kidding.  Here's a picture of the item, which costs $55.

My first thought was to wonder how you could provide "homeopathic first aid," given that homeopathy rests on the idea that to prepare a "remedy," you take a sample of whatever it is that creates the same symptoms you have, and dilute it until there's none left.  How do you do that, for first aid situations?  If you accidentally smash your thumb with a hammer, do you stick the hammer in a container of water and shake it up, serial dilute the water with more water, and drink the result?

This would be even more difficult if you'd been, for example, hit by a car.

But the advertisement lists the remedies included, and unfortunately, there is no Tincture of Hammer or Extract of Oldsmobile included.  The kit includes: Aconite, Arnica, Apis, Arsenicum, Belladonna, Bellis perennis, Bryonia, Calendula, Cantharis, Carbo veg, China, Gelsemium, Hypericum, Ignatia, Ipecac, Phosphorus, Pulsatilla, and Silica.  The latter to be used, undoubtedly, when you get cut by broken glass.

What amazes me, here, is how Amazon doesn't see that this is a liability lawsuit waiting to happen.  Suppose you're out camping, and someone in your family gets stung by a bee, and goes into anaphylactic shock.  Well, fear not!  The handy Homeopathic First-Aid Kit has "Apis," which is (I am not making this up) extremely dilute bees.  So you give the little pills to the bee sting victim, instead of doing what anyone with more than five working brain cells would do, which is to get the victim to a hospital where he could get an epi pen shot.

I think we can all predict how this little scenario will end.

But no, the homeopaths claim; it's all based in science!  We've done experiments!  And it works!  To which I respond: I'm sorry, but homeopathy is only slightly more scientific than the "Four Humors" model of human physiology, which claimed that (for example) the best way to cure a fever was to remove a pint or two of the patient's blood.

Curiosity being what it is, however, I did look up "Apis" on the site "ABCHomeopathy," and I found that taking Apis is supposed to "act especially on outer parts, skin, coatings of inner organs, serous membranes.  It produces serous inflammation with effusion, membranes of brain, heart, pleuritic effusion, etc.  Extreme sensitiveness to touch and general soreness is marked."  If, actually, that was something you were trying for.  The list of conditions for which it is recommended is lengthy, and I will only mention a few of them that struck me as amusing:  "Stupor alternating with erotic mania;" "Jealous, fidgety, hard to please;" "Bores head into pillow and screams;" and "Feet too large."

Oh, and peritonitis.  Yes, you read that right.  This site recommends taking a sugar pill for peritonitis.

Speaking of asking for a lawsuit.

So, anyway, there you are.  You can buy your own homeopathic first-aid kit, if you have nothing better to do with $55, which in my opinion would include using it to start a campfire.  But to leave you on an upbeat note, I encourage you to watch this sketch from the British comedy show That Mitchell & Webb Look, wherein we get to see some actual use of "alternative medicine" in an emergency room.  Make sure to stick around to the end for a demonstration of how to make "homeopathic beer."  It'll cheer you up, even if you are "jealous, fidgety, and hard to please."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Comet ISON, and the end of the world as we know it

Ever since the media started calling Comet ISON the "Comet of the Century," I was waiting for the woo-woo hoopla to start.

There's something about comets that excites the imagination, to be sure, and I use the word "imagination" deliberately.  When the 1910 appearance of Halley's Comet was imminent, astronomer Camille Flammarion let slip that one of the materials present in comet tails was cyanide, and furthermore stated that the passage of the Earth through the comet's tail could "possibly snuff out all life on this planet."  This unleashed a panic wherein people purchased gas masks by the thousands, and more improbably, "anti-comet pills" and "comet umbrellas."  Because we all know that if you are exposed to cyanide, all you have to do is huddle underneath your umbrella and things will be just fine.

Of course, none of that came to pass, but that doesn't mean that people are any more sensible about things nowadays.  Halley reappeared in 1986, but not before we had another "Comet of the Century," Comet Kohoutek in 1973, which was supposed to be spectacular but which got downgraded to the Comet of Next Tuesday At 11 PM when it turned out to be nearly impossible to see.  This didn't stop noted wingnut David Berg, leader of the fringe group the Children of God, from claiming that Kohoutek was the harbinger of doom and a sign of the End Times, thus becoming one in a long series of instances where the world failed to cooperate and End, as planned.

Then, of course, we had the never-to-be-forgotten Comet Elenin, which in 2011 was rumored not to be a comet at all, but (1) a UFO, (2) a planet called Nibiru, (3) an incoming megaweapon that would destroy Earth, or perhaps (4) all of the above.  Elenin also sparked mass panic amongst people who failed 8th grade science when it was claimed that the comet was going to spark massive tsunamis, and cause the magnetic poles to flip.  Or possibly cause the whole Earth to flip over.  Or slingshot us right out of our orbit.  But fortunately for us, the Law of Gravitation is still strictly enforced in most jurisdictions, and Elenin's miniscule mass relative to the Earth's caused no effects whatsoever other than a disappointed "Awwww" from the woo-woos, especially when it disintegrated completely on close pass with the sun.

But all of that isn't stopping people from claiming that ISON is going to be the one.  Really, this time we mean it.  We already have one site claiming that ISON is an alien spacecraft, because when you digitally monkey around with the NASA photograph of the comet...

... you get this:

Well, q.e.d., as far as I can tell.

Then, there's the chance that ISON will cause a solar flare -- something not outside the realm of possibility, apparently, according to recent research by astronomer David Eichler of Ben Gurion University in Israel.  Eichler believes that even something as relatively small as a comet could cause a shock wave when it struck the sun because of how fast it's moving, and that shock wave would cause a solar flare/coronal mass ejection event that could wreak havoc with electronics here on Earth.  Not content with just having our cellphones get fried, the alarmists have already nicknamed ISON "the Sungrazer" and predicted that it will cause an "Extinction-Level Event."

Is it just me, or do these people seem to be happy about the obliteration of all life on Earth?

In any case, the actual research on ISON seems to indicate that (1) it's going to be another Kohoutek-style flop, visually, and (2) if it gets close to the sun, it will just disintegrate, like Elenin did.  Which means we'll have to wait for the next Comet of the Century to kill us all.

I'm sure there'll be one soon.  Me, I'm content to wait.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Attack of the fnords

Today I learned a new term that is apparently gaining popularity amongst the conspiracy-theory crowd, and that term is "fnord."

Originally coined for the Illuminatus! Trilogy by authors Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a fnord is a typographic or symbolic representation of disinformation, intended to misdirect or hypnotize.  Wikipedia says about its use in Shea and Wilson's writings,
In these novels, the interjection "fnord" is given hypnotic power over the unenlightened. Under the Illuminati program, children in grade school are taught to be unable to consciously see the word "fnord". For the rest of their lives, every appearance of the word subconsciously generates a feeling of uneasiness and confusion, and prevents rational consideration of the subject. This results in a perpetual low-grade state of fear in the populace. The government acts on the premise that a fearful populace keeps them in power...  To see the fnords means to be unaffected by the supposed hypnotic power of the word.
So of course, it was only a matter of time before the conspiracy theorists latched onto this idea, despite Shea and Wilson's trilogy clearly being shelved in the "fiction" section of Barnes & Noble.  And once they decide that the government is planting fnords around, the next question is obviously... where?

Answer?  The logo for "Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers."

According to a guy who goes by the handle of "Solomon Sevens," this logo is just so fnordful that it's a wonder we don't lapse into some kind of catatonic state when we look at it.  If you listen to his YouTube presentation on the subject, which he delivers in a nasal monotone so dull that I expected him to end his sentences with, "Anyone?  Anyone?  Buehler?", you come away convinced either that (1) the entire superstructure of civilization is trying to destroy your mind, or else (2) the conspiracy theorists really need to institute some kind of quality control.

Because what is it that Mr. Sevens thinks are the super-evil symbolic fnords present in this logo?  He tells us that there are three of them:  (1) The circle around the little girl's head; (2) the curlicues underneath the word "Wendy's;" and (3) the fact that the logo is printed in all primary colors.

And I'm thinking, "that's it?"  That's the best you can do?  You're not even going to use numerology to show that the name "Wendy's" somehow generates the Number of the Beast?  You're not going to tell us that you can rearrange "Old-Fashioned Hamburgers" to spell "Balderdash! Humoring Foes?"  You're not going to comment on the oddly hypnotic black eyes which the little red-haired girl uses to bore into your soul and convince you that you really want to eat a truly terrible hamburger right now?

All you can come up with are a circle and a curlicue and some red and yellow printer's ink?  Those are your ultra-evil fnords?

Oh, Mr. Sevens tells us, it's because circles represent the Eye of Satan!  And the curlicues are just like the designs on the dollar bill that are next to the All-Seeing Eye in the Pyramid!  It's the Illuminati!  Trying to control us all!  Even coming at us when we stop for lunch!

It's kind of an anticlimax, isn't it?  Here I was expecting to find out that logos were going to be full of all kinds of subliminal messages, and I find out that I'm supposed to be afraid of clip-art.

So, anyway, that's what a fnord is.  I'm a little disappointed, frankly.  I thought they'd at least have some gravitas, given how weird the name is, but no luck.  So I'll just go get my breakfast, which I will eat off a circular plate using a fork with a curlicue design.  If I go missing, just look for me in the local insane asylum.  I'll be housed in the wing where they keep all the "sheeple."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jack the cuddly Chupacabra

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I had been interviewed for a podcast by a fellow named Robert Chazz Chute, a journalist and writer who was curious about how a guy who was born into a devout Roman Catholic family in southern Louisiana had ended up becoming a skeptic and atheist.  The podcast is now live -- I hope you'll give it a listen!  Check out Gordon Bonnet on The Cool People Podcasts.


I try not to spend too much time focusing on individuals who either (1) are yearning for attention or (2) have a screw loose, or possibly (3) both, but this one was too good to pass up.

Much has been made in cryptozoological circles of El Chupacabra, the "goat sucker," a canid cryptid that apparently first was mentioned in Puerto Rico about twenty years ago.  Since that time, reports have come in from all over, largely concentrated in the southwestern United States, although there have been mentions of the beast from as far away as Siberia.  Where there has been evidence, apart from eyewitness accounts and blurry photographs, the creature in question has always turned out to be a coyote or wolf, usually with mange (a condition that makes the affected individual lose patches of hair).

So, imagine my surprise when there was a story on the bizarre site Who Forted? wherein someone said that not only is El Chupacabra real, but he has one as a pet.

The gentleman in question, one Craig R. of San Diego, thinks his pet dog is a domesticated Chupacabra.  Let's hear his argument:
Chupacabras are real..

I am sure there are generations of groups that have figured out how to live in the wild. The wild ones will of course have more exaggerated wild features.

Jack is a coated Xolo. 4 out of 5 in a litter are black skin and hairless. One out of 5 still have the black skin but they have coats (like Jack) and a full set of teeth (hairless ones are missing most of there [sic] teeth which explains the wild hairless Xolo feeding habits). Standard size of Xolo is 35 pounds. Jack is an intermediate 20 pounds. They have minis to that look like Chihuahuas.

So forget that Jack is not hairless and study the features of Jack. The paws….the teeth. Jack has elongated fangs. I play tough [sic] of war with them they are so long. Look at the nose, the head, the ears.

The Shorter front legs. The rabbit like hips.

He is pretty much a spitting image of the museum Chupacabras and pics.

I can even explain the padding on the hind end of the Texas one. They’re hip bone because he has rabbit like hips stick out on each side of the tale.

If its [sic] a wild one, they will need extra PADDING there to comfort from hard rocks and hard surface while sitting. Plus they wedge they’re hips with those bones against a vertical surface to help them curl up in a tight ball. So those pads are easily explainable...

Chupacabras are wild or feral Xolos that’s it.
The "Xolo" he's talking about is short for Xoloitzcuintle, the so-called "Mexican Hairless Dog."  Craig is right that despite the name, some members of the breed do have hair.  But as far as his pet being an exact match for the fearsome goat-sucker, as he implies, let's look at an image of an alleged Chupacabra corpse:

Then, we have El Chupacabra, as artists have pictured it, from eyewitness testimony:

Then we have... Jack.

I don't know about you, but I'm just not seeing it.

Given that genetic testing on the small number of dead Chupacabras that have been recovered (including the one pictured above) have, one and all, shown them to be sick coyotes, I just don't think I'm ready to cast myself into Craig R.'s camp just yet.  If there were any other evidence of wild packs of Xolos running around...  but right now, that's it.  Just his word, with an assurance that Jack is really a great deal fiercer than he looks.

Because, face it; doesn't Jack just look a little... cuddly to be labeled as a "goat-sucker?"  If he really was a Chupacabra, you'd think that the general reaction would be running away screaming, while all I want to do is to skritch his head.  But that's just me.  I haven't, after all, played "tough of war" with him.

So, that's today's news from the cryptozoological world.  Once again, a wild claim and nothing really much to back it up, but it's not like that's anything new.  Who knows what's next?  If this sets any kind of precedent, the next thing we know, we'll have the Yeti being characterized as "very much like a baby panda."

Friday, August 16, 2013

Climate change, congress, and ice cubes

I'd like to say, for the record, that it would be a nice thing if I felt confidence that the people elected to public office in the United States were smarter than I am.

Isn't that a good thing to wish for?  I know I don't have what it takes to be in congress, or (heaven forfend) to be the president.  The number of disparate fields that you have to be conversant with in order to be effective, the degree to which you have to understand the government, law, foreign policy -- I'm overwhelmed just thinking about it.

It is, therefore, a little terrifying to me when I see people in leadership roles in our government who seem to be kind of... dumb.

I don't make this statement lightly, and it's not just on the basis of the fact that I might disagree with some of them.  I would expect that, considering the complexity of what they deal with.  But when someone in government, an elected official that a majority of voters thought the best person for the job, makes a statement that is pure, unadulterated idiocy -- that I find alarming.

Take the pronouncement that came from Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL) this week, regarding an increasingly hot-button issue -- climate change.

During a "Coffee With a Congressman" event held on Tuesday, Miller was confronted by some residents of the district he represents, and asked to defend his views on the environment.  Miller railed against the people who are in favor of tougher environmental safety standards as follows:
There are people who want to shut down that entire facility [a factory in his district].  The president wants to shut down all coal facilities.  He wants to bankrupt the entire state of West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, too...  All these people who drive electric cars around, talk about how great they are, forget that when you plug that thing into the wall, it's getting its electricity from a power plant somewhere, and it probably is a coal plant.
Well, so far, okay; maybe he got a little carried away when he claimed that the president wants to bankrupt two entire states, but he's got a point that unless we clean up electrical production at the source, electric cars are just one step away from producing the pollution ourselves.  But then he goes right off the deep end:
Lemme tell you, this whole Al Gore thing of climate change, unfortunately, it's not doing this nation any good...  The scientific community is not at consensus with this... I will defund the EPA, it has done more to slow the growth of industry than any agency out there...  You ask, why do I go against the scientists?  Well, I have scientists that I rely on, the scientists that I rely on say our climate has changed [sic].  Look, it wasn’t just a few years ago, what was the problem that existed?  It wasn’t global warming, we were gonna all be an ice cube.  We’re not ice cubes.  Our climate will continue to change because of the way God formed the Earth.
 I... okay.  What?

Look, I know that there are still questions about climate change.  We don't know to what extent the current warmup is a natural rebound, and to what extent it is anthropogenic in origin -- although the vast majority of climatologists attribute the rapid rate of warming to anthropogenic causes.  We don't know how far it will continue, or how much we could slow it down if we cut back on fossil fuel use.  We can still discuss those issues, as well as discussing what, if any, response our government should have toward them.

But to have someone like this guy, behind the microphone, and clearly babbling incoherently... about "ice cubes?"  And the "scientific community not being at consensus?"  And that he consulted "scientists he relies on" and they say the climate is changing because of god?  I don't know about you, I sure as hell don't want the decisions regarding the welfare of this nation made by people who seem to have trouble stringing words together into sentences, and whose understanding of scientific principles apparently leveled out in fourth grade on a visit to the Creation Museum.

Like I said, it's not that I think being a congressperson would be easy.  It's not a job that I would ever want.  But at least I am honest enough to admit it when I don't know something.  I guess that's taboo in politics, though, isn't it?  You can't ever say, "I'm sorry, I don't know about that."  But is it really any better to stand in front of a large, increasingly surly crowd, yammering on about climate change happening because god wants it to?

And regarding climate change, it's an answer we'd better get right, because as a friend of mine put it, it's an experiment we only get to run once.  Getting it right will mean having people in charge who have some basic knowledge of the science involved.  Not, unfortunately, talking heads like Representative Miller, who frankly sounds to me as if his IQ doesn't exceed his shoe size.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Orson Scott Card, and separating creator from creation

Today I'm going to ask a question that I'm not at all certain I have an answer to:  Is it possible to separate creative people from their works, especially in cases where the work is good but the creators themselves are reprehensible?  Or outright crazy?

I bring this up, of course, because of Orson Scott Card, whose book Ender's Game is brilliant, but who personally seems to be a grade-A wingnut.

First, we had the revelation that Card had served for years on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an organization whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is opposing gay marriage.  (He quietly resigned in 2009, possibly because he knew that it would result in bad press for the upcoming movie version of his book.)  The story came out anyway, of course, as did homophobic vitriol he'd written that included the following [Source]:
The dark secret of homosexual society -- the one that dares not speak its name -- is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.
He still refers to the gay marriage question as requiring the "radical redefinition of marriage," which I find wryly amusing, given that he's a devout Mormon.

Be that as it may, his anti-homosexual opinions are sadly commonplace.  Not so his more recently revealed opinions, which move him from "narrow-minded right-winger" directly into the "card-carrying loony" column.  Because now Card is now claiming that there is a leftist conspiracy to trash the Constitution and turn President Obama into an emperor [Source]:
Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator. He hates the very idea of compromise; he demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press. He circumvented Congress as soon as he got into office by appointing "czars" who didn't need Senate approval. His own party hasn't passed a budget ever in the Senate.

In other words, Obama already acts as if the Constitution were just for show. Like Augustus, he pretends to govern within its framework, but in fact he treats it with contempt...

Michelle Obama is going to be Barack's Lurleen Wallace. Remember how George Wallace got around Alabama's ban on governors serving two terms in a row? He ran his wife for the office. Everyone knew Wallace would actually be pulling the strings, even though they denied it. Michelle Obama will be Obama's designated "successor," and any Democrat who seriously opposes her will be destroyed in the media the way everyone who contested Obama's run for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was destroyed.
How will Obama accomplish all of this? By hiring gang members as his personal hit men, of course:
Where will he get his "national police"? The NaPo will be recruited from "young out-of-work urban men" and it will be hailed as a cure for the economic malaise of the inner cities.

In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama's enemies.

Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people "trying to escape" -- people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.
All righty, then. I guess that's clear enough.

What is a bit perplexing is how little of this nuttiness comes through in Ender's Game, a book that is rightly popular and is (in fact) required reading in 10th grade English classes in the high school where I teach.  How could someone who has so clearly gone off the deep end can write a book as morally complex as this one?   (I know more than one person who is boycotting the movie, largely because of a desire not to put more money in the hands of a person who has such repellent ideas.)

Of course, Card is hardly the only author whose odd personal life has given readers pause.   Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Starship Troopers are classics of science fiction, was during his life a peculiar mix of forward-thinking and reactionary. (What other nudists who supported Free Love can you think of who worked on the Barry Goldwater campaign?)

And of course, you get into even deeper water when you throw actors, artists, and musicians into the mix.  I know one person who can't even watch a Tom Cruise movie because of his role in suppressing negative press for the Scientologists.  I have less of a problem here, because when Cruise is on the screen, he's playing someone else, after all.  (There's still the difficulty of bankrolling someone who is morally reprehensible -- I do get that.)

So, it's a question worth asking.  Do the repulsive and (frankly) counterfactual beliefs of people like Orson Scott Card give us a reason to avoid their creations, even if those creations have their own merit?  To what extent can you separate the creation from the creator?  I suspect, from personal experience, that this may not even be possible. In addition to writing Skeptophilia I write fiction, and it is undeniable that my views of the universe have a way of creeping in -- however much I try to make the characters their own people, with their own worldviews and their own motivations.  And sometimes it works better than others.  For example, I deliberately tried to shake up my own sensibilities when I wrote the novella Adam's Fall -- the point-of-view character is an elderly and devout Anglican clergyman, and (I think) a highly sympathetic and complex man. The separation isn't quite so clear in other cases, though, and when a friend read my novel Signal to Noise, she said about the main character, "Um... you do realize that Tyler Vaughn is you, don't you?"

I'd be interested to hear what my readers think about this question, particularly apropos of the homophobia and conspiracy-theory aspects of Orson Scott Card's beliefs.  Do these diminish your enjoyment of his fiction?  Or stop you from reading it entirely?  Should it matter what sort of personal life an author or artist (or, for that matter, a scientist) leads?  Should it matter that geneticist James Watson thinks that Africa will never amount to much because "their intelligence is [not] the same as ours"?  Does the child molestation conviction of biologist Carleton Gajdusek decrease the worth of his research into the etiology of mad cow disease, research that led to protocols that have undoubtedly saved lives?  Does it make a difference that Isaac Newton, the "father of mathematical physics," was a narrow-minded religious fanatic who spent his spare time poring the bible for secret messages so he could figure out when the Antichrist was coming to Earth?

Myself, I think this just points up something that bears remembering: humans are complex. We are all combinations of good and bad -- some of us, really good and really bad.  What positive things we might accomplish don't excuse us from the repercussions of our darker sides, of course; but perhaps we should stop being surprised when they occur in the same person.

Maybe the problem here is our desire for clear-cut heroes and villains.  People are never two-dimensional, however easier it might make the world if they were.  Realistically, we shouldn't expect them to be.  When we are surprised at how odd, and seemingly self-contradictory, the human mind can be, perhaps it's our assumptions that are at fault.