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.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Music from beyond the grave

What do you do if you get tired of those nasty old scientists insisting that your woo-woo claims pass the test of hard evidence?

You move your claims into the realm of the untestable.

That, at least, is the tactic employed by one Jennifer Whisper, an 83-year-old musician from San Diego, who says that she gets her music and lyrics from dead songwriters who have provided her with what they would have written, if they were still alive.

Whisper started out channeling music from the dead in the 1970s, and began at the top, with none other than George Gershwin, who introduced himself in a straightforward manner: "I heard a knock on the door and no one was there," Whisper said to a reporter from The Huffington Post.  "Then I heard a voice say, 'Hello Jenny! It's me, George Gershwin.'"

After recovering from her surprise, Gershwin dictated a song, "Love Is All There Is," to Whisper.  He's come back a bunch of times since then, she says, and she now has over a hundred posthumous compositions by Gershwin.

She also has channeled songs by Judy Garland, Johnny Mercer... and Jimi Hendrix.

Oh, and Whisper also says that she found out that Marilyn Monroe adopted JonBenet Ramsay after her death.  So that all ended happily enough.

The problem, of course, is that you can't exactly prove that she's not getting these songs from the dead.  This is a claim that is outside of what is even potentially testable.  If you're curious, though, Whisper has attracted the attention of musicians and musicologists -- and not in a good way.  One, Los Angeles-based studio musician Jim Briggs, has analyzed her alleged Gershwin composition "My Stars Above"and said that he's not buying her story.

It's amazing, Briggs said, that "My Stars Above" is way worse than you'd expect from a composer who's had 78 years to improve beyond where he was when he composed his masterpiece Porgy & Bess.   "If [Gershwin's] communicating musically from beyond the grave," Briggs said, "I can't believe that at no point did he suggest 'My Stars Above' be an instrumental."

It's also opened up some legal challenges for Whisper, but the ramifications of what she is doing are unprecedented -- and unclear.  She could potentially be violating the publicity rights of the people who hold the estates of the deceased composers, but even so, it's hard to know how a court would decide the case.  Joy Butler, an attorney specializing in copyright law, has said, "I've never run across a case like this.  But she'd have a hard time convincing a court."

So that's the latest from the world of the woo-woo, and yet another case of switching your tactics if the heat is on.  It's a shame, though, that Whisper hasn't gotten in touch with some older classical composers, because I'm passionately fond of J. S. Bach, and I'd love to know what he's doing these days.

Other than decomposing, that is.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Homeopathy for gunshot wounds

I was just thinking about a study I read about years ago, done by Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper back in 1979.  Called "Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence," this study came to the following rather sobering conclusion:
People who hold strong opinions on complex social issues are likely to examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner.  They are apt to accept "confirming" evidence at face value while subjecting "disconfirming" evidence to critical evaluation, and, as a result, draw undue support for their initial positions from mixed or random empirical findings.  Thus, the result of exposing contending factions in a social dispute to an identical body of relevant empirical evidence may be not a narrowing of disagreement but rather an increase in polarization.  To test these assumptions, 48 undergraduates supporting and opposing capital punishment were exposed to 2 purported studies, one seemingly confirming and one seemingly disconfirming their existing beliefs about the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty.  As predicted, both proponents and opponents of capital punishment rated those results and procedures that confirmed their own beliefs to be the more convincing and probative ones, and they reported corresponding shifts in their beliefs as the various results and procedures were presented.  The net effect of such evaluations and opinion shifts was the postulated increase in attitude polarization.
Argument, then, doesn't change people's minds; it makes believers believe more strongly.

This is why, I think, the homeopaths have been doubling down on their rhetoric as of late.  The critics of homeopathy have been outspoken -- from James Randi's fiery takedown of homeopaths to "What's the Harm?", a running list of people who are documented to have been harmed or killed by taking homeopathic "remedies" rather than seeking conventional medical care.

All of this has, I think, contributed to a "siege mentality" amongst the practitioners of homeopathy, leading them to espouse ever more extreme views -- a result that Lord, Ross, and Lepper would not be surprised by, I think.  Take, as an example, this webpage, the work of John Benneth, a strident homeopath who claims therein that homeopathy doesn't just work for your standard-issue colds, flu, headache, and heartburn, it works for... damn near anything.

Think I'm kidding?  Here are a few of the things that Benneth wants to "treat" with homeopathy.

Child abuse:
30,000 or more children were left permanently physically disabled from abuse and neglect. Child abuse in the United States afflicts more children each year than leukemia, automobile accidents, and infectious diseases combined. With growing unemployment, incidents of abuse by jobless parents increased dramatically. Homeopathy could have helped with individualized constitutional treatments and a remedy such as Magnesium muriaticum.
Gunshot wounds:
In one year 85,000 Americans were wounded by firearms, of which 38,000 die, 2,600 children. Homeopathy could have helped with ledum pelustre , aconitum napellum, arnica Montana and individualized constitutional treatments.
In one year, 160,000 Americans died from diabetes. Homeopathy could have helped with remedies such as Apoc. Carc. Kali-n. Squil. and Uran-n.
1,000,000 Americans were estimated to have AIDS as of 1996; over 250,000 died of it. Homeopathy could have helped with a remedy such as Carcinosin.
Mental illness and mental retardation:
In one year 255,000 Americans mentally ill or retarded Americans, released in recent years were in flophouses or wandering U.S. streets. Homeopathy could’ve helped with remedies such as Arg-n. Arn. Bor. Calc. Carb-v. Form. GRAPH. Hep. Hyos. Kali-c. Nat-m. Nit-ac. Nux-v. Petr. Ph-ac. PHOS. Plb. Psor. Puls. Ran-b. Rhus-t. Sep. Sil. Sulph. Tab. and Tarax.
The trauma of rape:
700,000 American women were raped, one every 45 seconds. Homeopathy could have helped with remedies such as Staphysagria, AIDS Cench. Kreos. LSD. Petr. Posit. Sep.
Elder abuse:
1,800,000 elderly Americans who live with their families were subjected to serious abuse such as forced confinement, underfeeding, and beatings. The mistreatment of elderly people by their children and other close relatives grew dramatically as economic conditions worsened. Homeopathy could’ve helped the victims in their recovery and the victimizers with their anger with remedies such as Nux-v, Cere-s. LSD. Posit. Salx-f. Staph.
Drug addiction:
In one year six and a half million (6,500,000) used heroin, crack, speed, PCP, cocaine or some other hard drug on a regular basis. Homeopathy could have helped with remedies such as Agar. Ant-c. Bry. Chin. COLOC. Hydr. Lach. NUX-V. Op. Ruta and Sulph, indicated in drug poisoning.
And finally, amazingly, child abduction:
150,000 American children are reported missing every year. 50,000 of these simply vanish. Their ages range from one year to mid-teens. According to the New York Times, “Some of these are dead, perhaps half of the John and Jane Does annually buried in this country are unidentified kids.” Homeopathy could have helped with individualized treatments. Homeopathy could have helped with remedies like Absin. Cimic. OP. Phos. Plb. Rhus-t. Staph. Stram., Falco-p, and Magnesium muriaticum .

Mad yet?  I hope so.  Benneth and his fellow purveyors of sugar pills have, as the opposition grows louder, grown louder themselves, making ever wilder claims about what their magic remedies can do for you.  And if you think that Benneth himself is just a lone voice, read the comments section on his webpage -- you'll find that the vast majority of them agree with him.  (I realize, of course, that this is a skewed sample -- the comments on the page represent those who (1) found Benneth's site, (2) read it all the way through, (3) felt motivated enough to write a response, and (4) Benneth himself didn't delete.  But still.)  Here's an example:
At the foundation of John’s extremely informative post, with statistics that should humble our allopathic arrogance, is that humans in an imbalanced condition are sick, damaged, damaging and in pain.

The arguments presented here , critical of JB’s information, deny, overlook or dismiss the philosophical proposal that healthy people do not become criminals and that healthy, victimized people can heal from their traumas. Socially, economically, emotionally, politically, physically and psychically, – health is a fundamental condition. Without it every outcome is a compensation and a handicap. Every solution We have lowered our expectations for health. Shame on us for acquiescing to the precepts of a patriarchal system that wants to keep us sick, sad and hopeless.
Right.  Because all of the "allopathic" (i.e. effective) doctors I know have, as their main career goal, keeping their patients "sick, sad, and hopeless."

I can only draw one positive message from all of this, and it comes from looking at the converse of Lord, Ross, and Lepper's main thesis; that the wild and desperate claims of the homeopaths are an indication that their anti-science, zero-evidence views are on the way out.  But "on the way out" and "gone" are two different things, and I can't help but wonder how many more lives will be lost before homeopathy joins the "four humors" model of human health in the dustbin of history.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Masonic Red Cross vampire conspiracy

Well, I have reached the woo-woo equivalent of Nirvana.  I just ran across the single stupidest claim in the world.  This one beats the previous odds-on favorite, which was the medicines that you pay for online, and which then download directly into your body as you sit in front of your computer monitor.  Because of quantums, of course.  Everything woo-woo has to be because of quantums.

But nope.  That one is a weak second-place finisher by comparison to what showed up on the David Icke forums last week.  Are you ready?  Here we go:

You shouldn't participate in Red Cross blood drives.  Because the Red Cross is working hand-in-glove with the Masons, who then use most of the donated blood to drink in their Satanic, animal-sacrificing, devil-worshiping rituals.

If you don't believe me, here's the link.  But in case you're understandably reluctant to push David Icke's hit tracker up, and give him the impression that what he hosts on his website is even vaguely connected with reality, I will quote the relevant passages for you.
So we have all heard of the Red Cross, and how they hold blood drives around the world.

In America, many of these blood-drives occur at your local Masonic/Satanic Lodge.

We, as donors, are misled into believing that this donated blood will "saved the lives" of many people, and no doubt a LITTLE of this blood DOES help save lives. But there is something more sinister, more satanic, goin gon [sic] with these blood-drives than meets the eye.

Clearly, 90% of the donated blood is, literally, drank by Masons, Illuminati, and the Church, with about 5% going to help those who need it, the rest spoils before it's used.
Oh, clearly.  Do go on.
The Red Cross could care less if you live, and prefer that you die. But the demand for "fresh" blood by these Vampires is what started this whole blood donation thing. Think about it. Someone from your family needs blood, then a family member can donate within a few minutes. If there are no family members alive to donate, then a list a people willing to donate is/has been/still is, available. Nothing better that "super-fresh", minutes-old blood.

But you see, people like the Royals in the U.K., the scum buckets in The White House, Senate, Congress, your local Masonic Mayor, Police Chief, Masonic business owners....well, they drink blood like you and I drink beer.
Blood is the "life" in a body, and these vampires believe that drinking blood will keep them young (and other reasons).

The Red Cross. Feeding Masonic/Illuminati Vampires for decades. If you give to this Masonic controlled organization....STOP IT.
Righty-o.  And that explains why the Red Cross is always on the scene in disaster-stricken areas -- so they can find new and helpless victims.  To exsanguinate.  And then bring the fresh blood to the Masons, so they can drink it.

Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Initially, I hoped that this was just the work of one lone wacko, and that no one else could possibly believe it other than the delusional individual who wrote it.  So when I came across this post, I Googled "Masons Red Cross blood drinking rituals," thinking that I'd get "No Relevant Results," and would have my faith in humanity assuaged.

This turned out to be a mistake.  I got over 30,000 hits.  The first few not only implied that the Masons and the Red Cross were working together to deprive you of your life's blood, but that they were in cahoots with various combinations of the following, depending on which version you go for:
  • the Vatican
  • the Jews
  • the Reptilians
  • the Jesuits
  • the Muslims
  • the Bilderberg Group
  • the Knights Templar
  • the Rosicrucians
And I cannot help but think it is significant that the two ads on the webpage about the Masonic Red Cross Blood Drinking Conspiracy have to do with (1) removing "flouride" [sic] from your tap water because the government is trying to poison you, and (2) claims that the medical establishment has been wrong all along, and "cancer is a preventable fungus."

So.  Yeah.  I feel like this is sort of the mother lode, the most concentrated vein of sterling-pure stupidity ever discovered.  It almost makes me feel like my job as a blogger is over -- that anything I could say or do after this would be an anticlimax.

Of course, the problem is, saying "this is the dumbest idea ever conceived" is always a false statement, because no sooner do you say it than the woo-woos take it upon themselves to prove you wrong.  They take that kind of thing as a challenge.

But even so, I think they'll have a hard time beating this one.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sunday Assembly redux, and some thoughts about blind spots

I always know that some reconsideration is in order when I start getting "you're WRONG" posts from people who I, by all rights, should be agreeing with.

After my post yesterday on the Sunday Assembly -- the recently-formed "church for atheists" -- the comments started coming in hard and fast.  And these were not, for the most part, the kind of comments that make a blogger lean back, hands cupped behind head, and bask in the glow.

For those of you who didn't catch yesterday's post, the gist was that I suspected that the Sunday Assembly was going to be short-lived, because it's easier to form a long-term association around common belief than it is around common disbelief.  Well, the disagreement on that count was loud and clear.  Here is one comment I received:
I share your reluctance to go to something like the atheist church. I'm very happy to be solitary for the vast majority of the time, and when I do socialise I much prefer very small groups. But I don't agree with your take on social gatherings. I think that in any group situation, something will be needed to bring the group together initially but, very soon, the group becomes its own thing. People will go to church, slimming class, book club, whatever and then if they become friends they are just friends, and it immediately moves beyond that initial glue you mention. How they became friends becomes just a point in the past. Something like this could start out as a gathering of recent atheists who miss their old church trips, or long-term atheists who just want to meet people. But it would succeed or fail based on whether or not the people show up and become friends. If they do, then it would just become a regular get-together between friends who may well start to meet in other contexts. And if they do want to do some organised outreach activities, like the Atheist Community of Austin, then it should contribute to the pushback against religious claims and default assumptions in society. I think it's wrong to think of it as "basing a church around not believing in something", and much better to think of it as a gathering of people who have certain things in common. Unbelief in gods would be one thing, but atheists tend to have other things in common too.
There was also the following:
Perhaps its because I identify as an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I derive tremendous satisfaction from congregating (usually unintentionally) with other atheists and agnostics. As you may remember from school, I have a LOT to talk about, but it's usually challenging to engage people in conversation about religion and its impacts on the globe without provoking their defense mechanisms. It might be nice to walk into a room and recognize that many of the people there are likely to be rational, intelligent, and open-minded.

I think that humans have a fundamental need to form communities and social constructs, and that cohesive belief structures arise as an emergent property of these constructs.

If Eddie Izzard is to be believed, the Church of England isn't really much more than a Sunday social club at this point anyway. If someone extended an invitation to a social club that met weekly and gave me a wink and said "don't worry, no religious people allowed" I would probably jump at the opportunity.
And this:
Although it may be hard to imagine the godless moving beyond the conversation that there is no god, that is exactly what SA have managed. As their public charter states "We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do". The talks revolve around how to live a better life and how to help others, not belief systems or religion bashing. Speakers are different at every service so there are no central tenets to the talks beyond them all being advice from public speakers in a particular field: community workers, academics, doctors etc.

One may argue that they are proselytising that central message of 'Live better, help often, wonder more' and if that's the case, it's the best darn message I've ever heard being proselytised.

In my opinion, you should attend an assembly one day. Hang out at the back, don't join in and leave early. At least then you can write an informed blog on something you've actually experienced.
Well.  Like I said, when like-minded individuals are more-or-less unanimous in telling me that I got something completely wrong, I'm not just going to sit there with my fingers in my ears chanting, "la-la-la-la, not listening."

The whole thing reminded me of a conversation I had a week or so ago with a friend about blind spots.  She and I were discussing places in our lives where our unquestioned assumptions about how things work make us miss stuff that is obvious to others.  Everyone, my friend said (and I agree), has these blind spots; the thing is to try to become aware of yours.  It's unlikely that you will ever get rid of all of them, but we should work to fix the places where we aren't seeing clearly.  In the words of the wonderful Paul Brady song "The World Is What You Make It" -- "clean up them windows, let the sun shine through."

And it seems as if one of my blind spots has to do with what people get out of social interactions.  I wouldn't call myself antisocial -- but I am very shy, and extremely hesitant to speak up in social situations.  (This may come as a surprise, given how outspoken I am in written form.  All I can say is that writing gives me an outlet for my creative, thoughtful, and emotional side, and that I'm not nearly this voluble in person.  In fact, a friend of mine has described me as being the quietest person she knows.)

It's easy to slip into the blind spot that given a specific set of circumstances, everyone would react the same way you would -- and that seems to be what I did here.  Now I still doubt, even after the cogent and articulate responses I received from readers, that I personally would be inclined to join a Sunday Assembly, should one open up near me (which is unlikely, given that I live in the hinterlands).  But evidently, there are many other atheists who find such a thing extremely attractive, and even in my original post I was in no way trying to imply that they are wrong to feel that way.  The connections that would be established by meeting with other "godless heathens" (as one commenter put it) are apparently enough of a draw that the Sunday Assembly could well become a going concern, despite my prognostications of doom.

And, for the record, I would like to state that I think this is a good thing.  If my original post was read to mean that I somehow was hoping that the Sunday Assembly would fail, all I can say is that you should blame it on a lack of clarity in my writing and not on my actual intent.  It was simply hard for me to imagine a group of atheists getting together and then doing what I would do -- standing around, cow-eyed, waiting for someone else to say something -- week after week.

So I appreciate the correction, and am honestly glad that there are enough non-theists out there that this may spread to other areas.  And to anyone I offended or annoyed by my original post, I humbly apologize.  If a Sunday Assembly ever does open up near me, I promise to attend at least once, so I can have some first-hand experience before commenting further.

I might even try to talk to someone.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The First Church of Atheism

Some of you may have heard of the recent weird twist that has occurred in the world of non-theists -- the founding of an "atheist church."

Lest you think that I'm just being funny or hyperbolic, let me say up front that I'm not the one who is calling it that, although its founders have been studiously avoiding the term.  London atheists Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans purchased a deconsecrated church this January and have turned it into a spot for what they are calling the "Sunday Assembly," which they describe thusly:
Life can be tough... It is. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness or life just isn't fair.  We want The Sunday Assembly to be a house of love and compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted and loved.
Which sounds like at least they have the right approach.  They have said that if they are successful -- which, thus far, they are, showing a 3000% growth rate in just under ten months -- they will open other Sunday Assemblies elsewhere in England.  Their stated goal is to create "a godless assembly in every town, village, and city that wants one."

As Harry Cheadle of Vice put it:
Since I'm an atheist, I'll base this claim on data: Studies have shown that those who go to church are happier, more optimistic, and healthier than others; attending religious services helps kids fight depression and by some (admittedly biased) accounts makes people more charitable.  Obviously most atheists won't have a very good time gathering at a church or synagogue or temple where everyone is devoted to praising and beseeching an imaginary being, but if you believe these studies, they could do with attending something like church.
Ian Dodd, cofounder of a similar assembly in Los Angeles, said wryly, "The church model has worked really well for a couple of thousand years.  What we're trying to do is hold on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus."

The friend who sent me the news story about this movement ended his email with, "See you there next Sunday?"  My response -- after thanking him for the lead -- was "not very likely, sorry."  Which got me thinking why it was that I didn't find this idea immediately attractive.

You'd think I would, wouldn't you?  Getting together with a community of like-minded individuals, supporting each other in difficult times, discussing the ramifications of our beliefs (and lack thereof), and so on -- it all should be quite a draw for an "out" atheist like me.  And yet I can say with some assurance that if such a "congregation" started in my home town, I probably wouldn't attend.

Part of it is personal.  I am actually a very shy individual.  I'm intensely uncomfortable in large social groups.  At parties I'm much more likely to be the guy standing in the corner silently sipping a glass of scotch and watching the goings-on than I am the person at the center of attention.

Which is probably part of why I'm a writer, although it does make me wonder sometimes how I ended up in the teaching profession.

But it's more than that, and I think that the additional reasons are going to make it very unlikely that the Sunday Assemblies will succeed in the long-term.  And it has to do with what brings churchgoers together in the first place.

Churches cohere as institutions, I think, because of a commonality of belief and the shared acceptance of a set of core values.  Now, there can be disagreement about the details, and sometimes even serious argument; but there is a set of unquestioned assumptions at the basis of belief, and those are generally universal to all members.

It's hard to see how disbelief could provide the same kind of philosophical and social glue.  There are, after all, a great many more versions and gradations of disbelief than there are of belief.  If you think that Jesus rose from the dead to save us from original sin -- well, you can differ in the interpretation of what exactly that means, but the basic concept is the same for everyone.

But why do people disbelieve in that claim?  I know people who reject the central tenet of Christianity because (1) they don't like a lot of the Christians they know, and don't want to be associated with Christianity because of it; (2) they would rather there not be an all-knowing, all-seeing deity watching them and judging their actions; (3) they figure that if they believed, they'd be compelled to go to church, and like to have their Sundays free; and (4) they just don't give a damn about the whole argument, and prefer not to think about it at all.  All of the above consider themselves atheists -- and, frankly, I doubt they'd have much to say to one another about it.

As for me, of course, my objections to the core beliefs of religion come from a different source still -- the lack of evidence for religious belief.

So it's hard to see how you could base a "church" (or whatever you want to call it) around not believing in something.  It'd be a little like having a bunch of guys who get together every week so they can eat pizza and not watch football.

So my suspicion is that the whole thing will be short-lived, because groups need a common purpose to survive, not just a shared lack of identification.  There's only one common purpose I can think of that an atheist gathering could have that would induce them to hang together -- the purpose of proselytization.  Spreading the good word that there's no Good Word.  Sending out missionaries to induce religious people to deconvert.

And once again -- I have no interest whatsoever in this.  To me, belief (or disbelief) is an intensely personal decision.  I am, obviously, up front about my own atheism, and have no problem with describing how I arrived where I am philosophically.  On the other hand, by doing so I am honestly not trying to talk anyone into, or out of, anything.  Proselytization implies an unequal power structure -- "I know what is correct, and I will instruct you about it if you will just open your mind and listen."  There's an undercurrent of condescension there that I find repellent.  So I'd be happy to discuss what I think, with anyone who isn't inclined to pull out a machete when they find out I'm an atheist -- but I'm just really not into persuasion.

So I think I'll be staying home next Sunday.  Happy for you if you like this sort of thing, but not my cup of tea.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The ghost on the road

Coming right on the heels of yesterday's post about proof, souls, and always keeping in mind the possibility of being wrong, a friend of mine sent me an interesting story about something that happened to her last week.

Here's the story, quoted directly from her email to me (and used with her permission).  Keep in mind, as you read this -- although you'll have to take my word for it -- that this friend of mine is one of the most intelligent, rational individuals I know.
I was driving to Tim Horton's after dropping off [my son] at school, and I have to pass the lovely Keefer Inn.  I always look up at it as I pass.  Today, there was a man standing on the right hand side of the road, dressed in an old brown suit with a funny tie and leaning heavily on a cane.  Sour face, kinda chubby.  Dour.  He stared at my car as I passed, so of course I stared back.  Then I checked my rear view mirror.  Didn't see him.  So I craned back to see if he was in my blind spot.  Not there.  Not anywhere.  So on impulse, I pulled into the nearby arena drive, parked, and scanned for where he could have gone, keeping in mind he needs a cane.  I supposed he could have ran quickly behind the other house, but why would he?  So I drove back up the hill, and saw no one.

I tried to dismiss it, went to Tim's, got my tea, but it bugged me... So I looked up the mansion...

George Keefer's picture is in there. He's the original owner, was a Captain in war of 1812, EXACT SAME GUY.  
*cue scary music*

Like I said, you'll just have to believe me when I say that this friend of mine is not given to woo-woo flights of fancy.  She's been a regular reader of Skeptophilia for years, and is far more likely to respond to my posts with "Yeah!  Get 'em!  You tell 'em, dude!" than to defend the purveyors of the paranormal.  So the question is:

Did my friend see a ghost?

As a skeptic, we have to admit that possibility.  It certainly is a suggestive story, and I've heard many others like it -- although this is the first time that I've had one from a trusted (and rational) friend.

Here, though, is how she explains it -- and at this point, it bears mention that my friend is the inimitable horror writer A. J. Aalto, author of Touched, Death Rejoices, and Cold Company, whose novels combine brilliant humor and gut-clenching terror better than just about anyone:
This just happened -- but keep in mind that I've been under a lot of stress lately, so my brain is capable of all sorts of wonkiness.  I've been info-cramming ghost stuff for book 3, and I have researched the mansion in question long ago, so my brain is clinging to stuff that I don't even remember that I know, if that makes sense...

[And Keefer's] face is also on the website, and I know I've scanned that site in the past, so I could have seen him and just filed that away.

But for about two seconds there...  I ALMOST believed I saw a ghost this morning.

OH, I forgot the BEST PART. I was driving in my driveway after seeing him, and Pearl Jam's "Rearview Mirror" came on the local station, and I hate that song, but I burst out laughing.  It was too perfect.  I'm using it ALL in book 3.
I just think it's amazing what the human brain can do when your subconscious knows what you want to see.  How it can just make connections and go, "well, I could show you anything right now, but I'm going to choose George Keefer out of your memory banks from that one time you might have glanced at his pic in passing, and throw him in time-appropriate clothing, and then make him vanish."

And for (estimating here) a good five minutes, my heart was pounding so hard, and my whole world view went WHOMP to one side, like I had the answers at my fingertips.  I was very disappointed to unravel this riddle.
Now, before you say, "Well, of course she perceives the supernatural -- she's a horror writer!", allow me to point out that my novels are about the paranormal, too.  I've found that paranormal writers are often skeptics, in fact.  We're very clear on the fact that our works are shelved on the "Fiction" aisle.  Even H. P. Lovecraft was an ardent rationalist -- he used to respond to people who wrote to him with earnest letters about how they'd found the ruins of Innsmouth and Dunwich and were descended from Obed Marsh with the curt response, "I'm sorry to have to point this out, but my stories are works of fiction.  I know this for a fact, for, you see, I made them up myself."

But still, the possibility remains that A. J. saw something real as she was driving past the Keefer Mansion.  And that others who, like her, report running into spirits, have also somehow seen the remnant images of the dead.

If we're being honest with ourselves, we have to weigh all possibilities -- that the human mind, with its flawed perceptual apparatus, imprecise processing ability, and plastic memory systems, has created something because we were primed to see it; or that what we are seeing is something that has a real, external existence, albeit one that science has yet to detect.

Interesting, though, that even after her rather alarming experience, A. J. is still putting her money on the former.  But she did have an interesting postscript to add, to the effect that we skeptics have a vested interest in science being right -- because we're as comforted by science as the paranormalists are by their worldview:
If I didn't have a background in science, I'd have absolutely considered this a ghost sighting.  Especially after Googling Keefer and seeing the same face staring back at me.  My mouth went dry.  It was SO MUCH FUN.

But I'm telling you right now... if I see him again?  That's it.  I will be forced to have some serious thoughts.
I'm a closet want-to-believe-er.  I really really really want to think that was George.  My doubts prevent it.  And if it ever DID happen, I'm not sure I'd handle it well.
Maybe we're skeptics because the possibility of ghosts is too scary?  Science as security blankey.  Or teddy bear.

Oh, and I'm going to stay at Keefer Mansion soon, in this guy's own bedroom. Then we'll see, won't we?
Yes, A. J.  That we shall.  Make sure you bring your blankey along -- and your skepticism.  Given how suggestible we all are -- even us skeptics -- you may find that you need them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Proof, souls, skepticism, and being wrong

I think one of the problems with scientists and non-scientists not understanding each other revolves around the meaning of the word "proof."

I ran into two interesting instances of this in the last couple of days.  One of them was a response to my post last week about the conspiracy theorist conference that's being held next Saturday in my home town, in which I wrote (amongst other comments) a rather snarky paragraph about people who believe in chemtrails, anti-vaxx propaganda, and so on.

Well, that sort of thing always upsets some readers.  "I hate these damn skeptics," wrote one commenter, "who think they have everything proven!  The world always has to be how they see it!"

First off, in my own defense, I've never claimed that I was infallible; only that the evidence very much supports the contention that (1) chemtrails don't exist, and (2) vaccinations are safe and effective. And just because I'm pretty certain to be right about these two things doesn't mean that I think I'm right about everything.

But the more interesting thing is the use of the word "proof."  Because in science, disproof is usually far easier than proof.  If you have a model of how you think the world works, you design a test of that model, and see if the results are consistent with what the model predicts.  If they are not -- assuming that nothing was wrong with the research protocol -- then your model is disproven (although scientists generally prefer the word "unsupported").

Of course, the problem is that in this context, you never really "prove" your model; you simply add to the support for it.  Nothing is ever proven, because additional experiments could show that your model hadn't predicted correctly in all cases, and needs revision.

But still the sense persists out there amongst your average layperson that scientists "prove their theories," and that all you need is some hand-waving argument and a few fancy-looking diagrams to accomplish this.

As an example of the latter, consider the site that is making the rounds of social media with the headline "Scientists prove the existence of the soul!"  Of course, when I clicked on the link, I was already primed to view the whole thing with a jaundiced eye, because it's not like I don't have my own biases on this particular topic.  But I'm happy that in this case, I wasn't off base in my skepticism, because this link turned out to be a wild woo-woo claim par excellence.

The whole thing is based upon the "research" of a Russian scientist who claims to have photographed the soul leaving the body as someone dies.  Here's a pair of his photographs:

And here is the accompanying explanation:
The timing of astral disembodiment in which the spirit leaves the body has been captured by Russian scientist Konstantin Korotkov, who photographed a person at the moment of his death with a bioelectrographic camera.

The image taken using the gas discharge visualization method, an advanced technique of Kirlian photography shows in blue the life force of the person leaving the body gradually.

According to Korotkov, navel and head are the parties who first lose their life force (which would be the soul) and the groin and the heart are the last areas where the spirit before surfing the phantasmagoria of the infinite.

In other cases according to Korotkov has noted that "the soul" of people who suffer a violent and unexpected death usually manifests a state of confusion in your power settings and return to the body in the days following death.  This could be due to a surplus of unused energy.
Well, first, those doesn't look to me like Kirlian photographs.  Kirlian photography is a way of capturing an image of the static electrical discharge from an object, and shows distinctive bright "flame" marks around the object being photographed.  Here, for example, is a Kirlian photograph of a leaf:

What Korotkov's photograph looks like to me is a false-color photograph taken with an infrared camera, which colorizes the regions of a human body (or anything) based upon its temperature.  So naturally the heart (positioned, as it is, in mid-torso) and the groin would tend to be warmer.  I don't think it has anything to do with your soul sticking around because it's especially attached to your heart and your naughty bits.

I also have to wonder how Korotkov was able to study people who experienced "violent and unexpected deaths."  It's not as if you can plan to have a scientist around for those, especially the unexpected ones.

But in the parlance of the infomercial -- "Wait!  There's more!"
The technique developed by Korotkov, who is director of the Research Institute of Physical Culture, St. Petersburg, is endorsed as a medical technology by the Ministry of Health of Russia and is used by more than 300 doctors in the world for stress and monitoring progress of patients treated for diseases such as cancer.  Korotkov says his energy imaging technique could be used to watch all kinds of imbalances biophysical and diagnose in real time and also to show if a person does have psychic powers or is a fraud.
This technique, which measures real-time and stimulated radiation is amplified by the electromagnetic field is a more advanced version of the technology developed for measuring Semyon Kirlian aura.

Korotkov observations confirm, as proposed by Kirlian, that "stimulated electro-photonic light around the tips of the fingers of the human being contains coherent and comprehensive statement of a person, both physically and psychologically."

In this video interview Korotkov speaks of the effect in the bioenergy field with food, water and even cosmetics. And emphasizes one umbrella drink water and organic food, particularly noting that the aura of the people in the Undies [sic] suffers the negative effects of nutrients as technologization distributed in this society.

Korotkov also speaks of their measurements in supposedly loaded with power and influence that people have in the bioenergy fields of others. Checking Rupert Sheldrake's experiment of the feeling of being watched : Because a person's bioenergy field changes when someone else directs his attention, even though it is backwards and not consciously perceived. Also a place fields are altered when there is a concentration of tourists.
Well then.  We have "electro-photonic light" (is there another kind?), "bioenergy fields" (sorry, Sheldrake, but there's no evidence they exist), a reference to "real" versus "fraud" psychic powers, and a contention that tourists affect a person's soul.  Not to mention the thing about "undies," which I sincerely hope was a typo or mistranslation, because I would hate to think that my boxers are somehow creating negative effects in my spiritual nutrients.

And this is what people read, and say that it "proves the existence of a soul?"

Of course, what we have going on here is confirmation bias -- when you already believed something, so a tiny piece of sketchy evidence is all you need to shore up that belief.  I think I can state without fear of contradiction that no one who didn't already believe that souls exist would be convinced by this article.

So that's the problem, isn't it?  And not just in this admittedly ridiculous claim that equates dead bodies cooling off with their souls escaping.  Think of people who listen, uncritically, to "news" about their favorite controversial story -- evolution vs. creationism, the safety of vaccinations, the role of human activities in climate change, whether the public school system is headed for disaster.  If you uncritically accept what you're hearing as proof, just because it supports the contentions you already had, you'll never find out where you've got things wrong.  And that, to me, is the heart of science -- and the only way to lift yourself above your biases.

If you have fifteen minutes, and want to listen to someone who demonstrates this point brilliantly, take a look at the TED talk by Kathryn Schulz called "On Being Wrong."

I can honestly say that watching this short video was to me an eye-opener to the point of being life-changing.  She asks us to shift our viewpoint from trying to "prove" what we already believed to be true, to thinking seriously about the possibility of our being wrong -- and frames it in a way I had honestly never considered.  I think that the first time I watched it, I spent the last half of it listening with my mouth hanging open in sheer astonishment.

You have wonder how much pain and suffering could be averted in the world if more people would entertain the possibility of their being wrong.  Right now, there are hostages being held in a mall in Kenya (and 68 known dead in the incident) because of men who are so convinced that their worldview is right that they are willing to slaughter innocent people in its name.

Maybe we have been, as a species, looking at things the wrong way round.  Maybe we shouldn't constantly be looking for proof for what we already believed.  Science (at its best) approaches the world tentatively, testing, probing, and wondering -- and constantly asking the question, "what if this model is wrong?"  I know we can't all be scientists, and that not all problems are scientific in nature, but the general approach -- always keeping in mind our own fallibility -- has a lot to recommend it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ethics, religion, and the right to die

One of my failings is that I never seem to be able to see ethical questions in black-and-white.

Life would undoubtedly be easier if I did.  Humans, myself included, appear to me to be impossibly complex, full of competing motives, attitudes, thoughts, and prejudices, with an incomplete access to the facts (and a fallible machine with which to process those facts).  Given all that, a lot of the time I really don't know how to make decisions on ethical matters -- I can too easily see the arguments from both sides.  All of which makes it all the more baffling to me how people can seem so sure of themselves in (for example) politics.

Maybe it's why I'm comfortable in the realm of science.  There, there's a clear decision-making protocol, and rules of logic that govern it.  Things may not always be simple in science, but they sure are a hell of a lot clearer.

I ran into an especially good example of this yesterday, with the story of the seventeen-year-old Sydney, Australia boy who is fighting in court for the right not to be treated for his probably-curable Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The boy is a Jehovah's Witness, and they believe that you are showing a lack of faith in god if you seek medical care when you're ill.  You should, they say, pray for healing.  If you die, then (1) you didn't pray hard enough, or in the right way, or (2) it was god's will that you died.  Either way, they're insulated against criticism of the claim, which strikes me as pretty convenient.

The case was in the courts in April, and was characterized as a situation of neglectful, ultra-religious parents victimizing an ill child by denying him treatment.  Supreme Court Justice Ian Gzell agreed, stating in his ruling that, ''The sanctity of life in the end is a more powerful reason for me to make the orders than is respect for the dignity of the individual.  X is still a child, although a mature child of high intelligence.''  The boy was ordered into Sydney Children's Hospital, where he began chemotherapy.

But the case jumped back into the news when it was reported that the boy himself is threatening to rip the IV needle out of his arm -- after his father wrote a line from the bible on a whiteboard in the boy's hospital room that allegedly supports the contention that it is against god's will to have a blood transfusion.

A spokesperson for Sydney Children's Hospital said the boy had a ''cocooned upbringing'' and his family had ''little exposure to challenges of their beliefs from outsiders''-- implying that he and his family were simply wrong, and therefore incapable of making a responsible decision.  The boy himself expressed horror at the thought that he might be sedated and treated against his will -- likening it to being raped.

So, what's the answer?  I teach seventeen-year-olds, and a good many of them are highly mature, sensitive, and intelligent.  Some are less so.  Even the less mature ones feel strongly that they should be able to make their own decisions.  In the eyes of the law, however, they are still legally their parents' responsibility.

Then we have the religious aspects.  It's easy enough to ridicule the beliefs of these folks from the outside -- but put yourself in their places.  What if you really, truly believed that death was not final, that your soul lived on -- but that you might end up in eternal torment if you sought out medical care?  You are in pain now, but that's temporary.  Hell, on the other hand, lasts forever.  Wouldn't you choose a few months' discomfort over an eternity in agony?

Then there's the aspect of "brainwashing" -- as it's been widely characterized.  I agree to the extent that the Jehovah's Witnesses' view of the world is unsupported by everything I know about science, logic, and nature.  There is, in my opinion, not a shred of evidence for their claims.  Still -- shouldn't we all be allowed to make those decisions for ourselves?  Why should my reliance on science and logic dictate what someone else does?  I sure as hell would resent that if the situation were reversed -- which it sometimes is.

It's not an easy thing to decide, is it?  It would be different if the boy were younger; but even that is an ethical conundrum, because there's no on/off switch for maturity.  Are you capable of making this sort of decision at sixteen?  Fourteen?  Ten?  In most places, you become the master of your own fate at eighteen, but even that is an arbitrary number.  I know some people who are more mature at fifteen than others are at twenty-five.

So I'm left with a question.  We have a boy who is almost certain to die because of his, and his parents', religious beliefs, and a hospital that is desperately trying to stop that from happening.  And all I can say is that I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make the decision about what is best to do.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Freedom Festival comes to town

Much was my surprise when I found out that the wingnuts are coming to visit my own home town.

Let me say, at the outset, that my home town is tiny.  It has no stoplights.  Traffic jams consist of times you have to wait for three cars to pass before you can turn into the Shur-Save Grocery Store.  The high point of excitement in my village, and I am not making this up, is the day once a month when the Doug's FishFryMobile parks at the Fairgrounds so you can get takeout fried fish for dinner.

It is not, to put it mildly, a happenin' place.

So I was a bit surprised to find out that we were going to be the hosts of the Finger Lakes Freedom Festival.  Of course, at first, I didn't know what the Finger Lakes Freedom Festival was going to be; from the name, it sounded like it could be anything from a picnic for veterans to a meeting of the local Tea Party members.  The flyer didn't give anything much further in the way of clues:


Share your passion for freedom!  Learn how to preserve it!

Trumansburg Fairgrounds @ Trumansburg, New York

Saturday, September 28, 2013 10 AM - 10 PM

Movies, Seminars, Info booths, Vendors, Exhibits, BBQ

Enter contests:  Art, Essay, Poetry, Song, and Bumper Stickers!

Still not much to go on.  Could be innocuous, could be... scary.

My first inkling of what was actually happening came from a student of mine, who said, and I quote, "I think these people are insane.  You might want to look into it."  Then a colleague of mine said that he'd been given one of the flyers by a parent, who seemed a little... intense about the whole thing.

So I started doing some research.  And let me tell you, this is a dog-and-pony show of considerably larger proportions than I realized.

Let's look, for example, at the guest speakers.  Starting with:

Tom DeWeese, who is going to be speaking about "Sustainable Development and the Wrenching Transformation of America."  Again, innocent enough title -- could be a talk by a Natural Resources professor at Cornell, from the sound of it.

Nope.  In fact, DeWeese has been flagged by Daily Kos' "Wingnut Watch," who characterizes him as follows:
At the risk of giving him and his organization exposure, I thought it worth putting up a post here so we can be on the watch for him and his message. If you're serious about wanting to deal with major problems the world is facing - growth, energy, climate - you need to know about DeWeese. Because he's bound and determined to keep anything effective from being done. He's a classic case of Libertarian paranoia gone toxic.

If you're someone interested in seeing your local community adopt policies that save energy, conserve resources, and plan for the long run, Tom DeWeese is there to make sure it's not going to happen. He'll turn you into a communist/internationalist/socialist seeking to tell people what they can and can't do. He'll accuse you of brainwashing their kids, trying to take away their guns, driving jobs out of town, and just about anything he can get away with. He'll help organize all of the local low-information, paranoid folks to stop you. And he'll portray it all in terms of doing the Right Thing, the Patriotic Thing, the American Way.
Then we have Sheriff Richard Mack, the Arizona sheriff who gained notoriety by suing the Southern Poverty Law Center for slander, libel, and defamation, and sued the United States itself on the grounds that the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act was unconstitutional.

But Mack seems sane as compared to Rosa Koire, whom the North Coast Journal describes as follows: "[Koire is] a 'forensic commercial real estate appriaser' from Santa Rosa who helped found a group called the Post Sustainability Institute. Koire explains how local governments use something called the Delphi technique to brainwash people into believing in such nefarious concepts as smart-growth, environmental stewardship and energy conservation.  'This is war,' Koire declares."

Then there's Laurie Murray, whose LinkedIn profile reads:
Save lives through education and awareness of suppressed information about the causes, prevention, and recovery from serious chronic diseases such as Mercury Poisoning, Autism, Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer's, ALS, Diabetes, and other autoimmune and neurological disorders caused by environmental toxins and heavy metals.
That is: chemtrails, anti-vaxx, and so on.

Ultra-right-wing political contributors will include KrisAnne Hall ("The Roots of Liberty and the Bill of Rights"), Michael Chapman ("Our Censored Heritage" and "Education for Sustainable Tyranny"), and Judith Whitmore ("Citizen Vigilance Centers - Holding Elected Officials Accountable to the Constitution").

All in all, it should be good times.

I think what bothers me about all of this is how surreptitious they're being about the whole thing.  The names of the talks don't tell you much; the anti-vaxx, anti-public-education, conspiracy-theorist leanings of these people are being fairly thoroughly smothered under a veneer of respectable-sounding words like "freedom" and "liberty" and "constitutional" and "accountable."  If they aren't trying to hide anything, why don't they come out and be up front about what this "festival" is?

The answer, of course, is that they want to (1) get lots of people to show up who don't know what's going on, in the hopes of catching them off guard and convincing them; and (2) avoid hecklers.  While I can understand (2), (1) really pisses me off, because it smells of being disingenuous.  These flyers are being handed out all over my school, and kids are considering going without knowing the level of propaganda this represents -- and that isn't even addressing the political slant.  As I've mentioned before, I'm neither qualified nor inclined to comment on politics most of the time, but I do know science -- and the claims of these people that are scientific in nature are simply bogus, unsupported, and irresponsible.

I'm probably not going to attend, however.  For one thing, I'm not into seeking out conflict, especially in my home town.  I have to live here, after all.  For another, I don't think anything I say is going to convince any attendees who aren't already convinced.  But I do think it's important to know what you're getting into, if you are a local who's trying to decide whether to attend.

What seems certain is that the agenda is going to have to do with a lot of other things besides "freedom."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Magnets, politics, and preconceived notions

Two stories showed up just in the last couple of days that are interesting primarily in juxtaposition.

First, we had a scholarly paper published in PLOS One, entitled "Copper Bracelets and Magnetic Wrist Straps for Rheumatoid Arthritis – Analgesic and Anti-Inflammatory Effects: A Randomised Double-Blind Placebo Controlled Crossover Trial."  In it, we find out what most skeptics suspected from the get-go -- that magnetic and copper bracelets and anklets and necklaces and shoe-sole inserts and so on are a complete non-starter when it comes to treating disease.

These claims have been around for years, and usually rely on pseudoscientific bosh of the kind you find in this site, wherein we have the following "explanation:"
Life developed under the influence of the earth's geomagnetic field.  We are surrounded by a sea of magnetism.  The human body, its individual organs and each of the millions of cells making up the organs and the body bathed by this sea are magnetically charged.  Cell regulation, tissue function and life itself are controlled by internal electromagnetic currents.  In disease states, these electromagnetic potentials are altered but fortunately can be favorably influenced by the external application of magnetics...  Used correctly, Electro-Magnetic Energy Fields are a proven therapeutic modality.  Research and clinical experience has established that the very gentle, EULF, low power pulsed magnetic energy improves the repair of damaged tissue and reduction of pain, improved oxygen transport in the red blood cells, increased nutrient and oxygen uptake at the cellular level.  Greater elasticity of blood vessels, changes in acid/alkaline balance, altering of enzyme and hormone activity, all play an important role in the return to good health...  Negative magnetic fields oxygenate and alkalize by aiding the body's defense against bacteria, fungi, and parasites, all of which thrive in an acid medium.  In degenerative diseases, calcium is found deposited around inflamed joints, bruised areas on the hell, and in bones and kidney stones.  Infections occur because they function well in an acidic, oxygen deficient state.
Which, in my opinion, should win some kind of award for packing the most bullshit into a single paragraph.

So the whole copper-and-magnet thing never did make much sense.  But don't take my word for it; here's what Richardson, Gunadasa, Bland, and MacPherson said, after having run a double-blind efficacy test on magnetic bracelets:
The results of this study may be understood in a number of ways. The most obvious interpretation is that they demonstrate that magnetic wrist straps, and also copper bracelets, have little if any specific therapeutic effects (i.e. beyond those of a placebo) on pain, inflammation, or disease activity in rheumatoid arthritis...  The fact that we were unable to demonstrate... a difference for the primary outcome measure on its own, nor indeed any of the other core measures employed, strongly suggests that wearing magnetic wrists straps, or copper bracelets, in order to minimise disease progression and alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis is a practice which lacks clinical efficacy.
But as I said, this is hardly a surprise to skeptics, who doubted the whole thing pretty much from the outset.

The second story at first seems to connect to the first in only a tangential fashion at best.  Chris Mooney, a skeptical writer of well-deserved high reputation, wrote about it this week in Grist in a piece called "Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to do Math."   In Mooney's article we hear about a study by Dan Kahan and his colleagues, of Yale Law School, in which two groups of people were asked to solve the same (rather difficult) mathematical problem -- but one group was given the problem in the context of its being about "the effectiveness of a new skin cream for rashes," and the other group that it was about "the effectiveness of a new law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public."

What Kahan's study found was that when the problem involved the relatively emotionally-neutral context of a skin cream, your ability to solve the problem correctly depended upon only one thing -- your skill at math.  In other words, both Democrats and Republicans scored well on the problem if they were good at math, and both scored poorly if they were bad at math.  But when the problem involved handguns, a different pattern emerged.  Here's how Mooney explains the results:
So how did people fare on the handgun version of the problem? They performed quite differently than on the skin cream version, and strong political patterns emerged in the results — especially among people who are good at mathematical reasoning. Most strikingly, highly numerate liberal Democrats did almost perfectly when the right answer was that the concealed weapons ban does indeed work to decrease crime...  an outcome that favors their pro-gun-control predilections. But they did much worse when the correct answer was that crime increases in cities that enact the ban... 
The opposite was true for highly numerate conservative Republicans: They did just great when the right answer was that the ban didn't work... but poorly when the right answer was that it did. 
Put simply: when our emotions and preconceived notions are involved, data and logic have very little impact on our brains.

This is a profoundly unsettling conclusion, especially for people like me.  Every day I get up and write about how people should be more logical and rational and data-driven, and here Kahan et al. show me that all of the double-blind studies in the world aren't going to convince people that their magnet-studded copper bracelets aren't helping their arthritis pain if they already thought that they worked.

It does leave me with a sort of bleak feeling.  I mean, why test wacko claims, if the only people who will believe the results are the ones who already agreed with the result of the experiment beforehand?  Maybe this justifies the fact that I spend as much time making fun of woo-woos as I do arguing logically against them.  Appeal to people's emotions, and you're much more likely to get a result.

On the other hand, this feels to me way too much like sinking to their level.  I live in hope that the people who are convinced by what I write -- and maybe there have been a few -- have been swayed more by my logic than by my sarcasm.

But given human nature -- and Kahan's experiment -- maybe that's a losing proposition.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Aquatic cryptid update

It is amazing to me, after all of these years of having a (rather guilty) fascination with cryptozoology, that I still can run into cryptids that I've never heard of.  This week, for example, I discovered two that were new to me -- one veritably in my own back yard.

The first came up because it's the 25th anniversary of its alleged appearance.  Back in 1988, farmers in Rhyader, Wales, began to report that their large animals -- especially sheep -- were being killed by "a single bite to the sternum."  One farm, owned by the Pugh family, lost over three dozen of its sheep to the attacker.

The article summarizing the events of a quarter-century ago states that the townspeople initially attributed the attacks to a "black panther."  This is somewhat amusing given that the only black panthers in Wales are in zoos, and if one went missing, the zookeeper would probably have noticed.  On the other hand, reports of giant marauding felines in Britain are common enough that the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page, so I guess if we Yanks can have our Bigfoots, then the Brits can have their panthers.

Be that as it may, the Ginormous Kitty Theory received a serious credibility blow when it was found that the evidence left behind by the Beast of Rhyader, as it came to be known, showed that the creature had not been walking on four legs -- but had, instead, slithered up from the River Wye.  So rather than modifying their guess to the Ginormous Aquatic Legless Kitty Theory, the townspeople settled on a new model, namely the Ginormous Aquatic Serpent Theory.

Not an actual photograph of the Beast of Rhyader

The author uses the term "Lovecraftian" to describe the beast, which is apt only in that it killed things.  Most of the creatures in Lovecraft's stories also sucked out their victims' souls, ate their faces, or converted them to puddles of sticky goo.  So I think we can say that the resemblance, if any, was purely coincidental.

In any case, the attacks suddenly ceased of their own accord in December of 1988, never to be repeated, and the mystery was never solved.

But if that's scary enough, little did I know that there was a similar beast only a few miles away from me.  In Cayuga Lake, a long, narrow glacial lake that's only five miles (as the crow flies) from my front door, there is a creature called "Old Greeny" that resembles the Beast of Rhyader in that (1) it's aquatic, (2) it's reptilian, and (3) it almost certainly doesn't exist.  But this last isn't going to stop the reports from coming in, one of them from an "unnamed resident of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania," who was visiting our fair region back in 2009, and had the following to say:
I’ve been face to face with Old Greeny; not more than 100 feet away from me as I stood on the northern shore of Lake Cayuga looking south across the lake; eight or nine years ago. It raised its triangular-tooth-filled jaws with aquatic plants hanging from it’s half-open mouth to break surface for only about three seconds before once again submerging. I will never forget that large, unblinking eye staring to the west at nothing in particular; never acknowledging my presence. Don’t let anyone tell you I saw a floating log or a beaver! I know I saw an animal that is not supposed to exist!  By what I observed I can tell you it was standing on the bottom when it raised its head for me to see; not swimming; but stationary!
Not an actual photograph of Old Greeny

The same story reports that a local resident, one Steven Griffen, was bitten on the arm so hard by Old Greeny in 1974 that it broke his arm.  This might actually discourage me from swimming in Cayuga Lake if I was actually willing to swim in it in the first place, given that our climate is not exactly conducive to running around outside clad in nothing but swim trunks (this year, summer occurred on a Thursday).

But even so, I'll keep my eyes peeled when I'm down near the lake, and report back here if I see anything that is definitely not a beaver.

I'll also make sure that I'll listen for reports of local sheep being killed by "a single bite to the sternum."  That's gotta hurt, even if the attacker doesn't turn out to be "Lovecraftian."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life in the ozone layer

Some woo-woo ideas are at least understandable.  You can see how people might, through a combination of wishful thinking, dart-thrower's bias, confirmation bias, and the like, decide that the stars guide your future, that good luck charms (or evil curses) work, that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and El Chupacabra exist, that aliens regularly visit the Earth.

Other claims, however, leave me wondering how the ones making them have not been taken out by natural selection decades ago.

Consider, for example, the idea that has recently been making the rounds of social media -- that the road to good health comes through breathing ozone.

I've started seeing this pop up all over the place.  I even know someone who bought an "ozone generator" for his house.  Here's the claim:
The therapeutic properties of ozone can be astounding. Organized Medicine, the FDA, and above all the Pharmaceutical giants have been actively suppressing information about ozone therapy for the better part of this century. Officially, the FDA list ozone as a toxic gas, an utter and contemptible falsehood. Many healers, including licensed MD's and chiropractors have been jailed and viciously harassed for treating (and healing) patients with ozone. Why? It works and the pharmaceutical houses, along with their puppets in the FDA and local medical boards don't want you to know that it works! That's why.
So right from the get-go we have the pro-ozoners claiming that reputable scientists publishing in peer-reviewed journals (such as Mohamed Mostafa of UCLA, author of "The Biochemical Basis of Ozone Toxicity," and William A. Pryor et al. of LSU, authors of "The Cascade Mechanism to Explain Ozone Toxicity") are shills who are lying to you.

But it gets better.  Wait till you hear how they want you to get the ozone inside you, because it turns out that just breathing the stuff isn't good enough.  And let me say, at the outset, that I'm not making any of these up, and if you don't believe me, you can check the link I posted above.  So, here goes, in order of increasing weirdness.
  1. You can drink water that has been infused with ozone.
  2. You can smear ozonated olive oil on your skin.
  3. You can have the doctor take out a pint of your blood, bubble ozone through it, and put the blood back in.
  4. You can have the doctor blow ozone into your ear.
  5. You can have the doctor blow ozone up your ass.
  6. You can take off all your clothes, get into a plastic bag that ties at the neck, and have the doctor (or a friend) inflate the bag with ozone.
  7. You can have the doctor inject ozone gas directly into a vein.
This last one seems to me to be a good way of inducing a gas embolism and dying, but the pro-ozoners say this never happens.  Why?  Because ozone GOOD, that's why.  Stop asking questions.  (In fact, the site says about the potential for gas embolism, "Do not allow this bogus fear tactic to keep you from investigating this highly effective and safe therapy!")

What, exactly, are they claiming that ozone does for you?  Well, it's not entirely clear, but here are the basics:
Ozone is an unstable, but highly beneficial molecule. It's the tri-atomic form of oxygen: Instead of the normal arrangement of 2 atoms of oxygen (O2), ozone is comprised of 3 atoms of oxygen (O3). Ozone, however, doesn't want to stay in that tri-atomic state very long and unless held in check or bound by other molecular couplings, ozone will usually break down from O3 to O2 + O1 within 20 minutes of so (at atmospheric pressure at least). O1 is called a singlet oxygen atom and it's HIGHLY REACTIVE. with just about any substance that should NOT be in the human body including all pathogens (virus, bacteria, etc.) and synthetic compounds or their metabolites such as drugs and their  metabolite residues.
So I see this as basically characterizing ozone as some kind of chemical superhero that seeks out and destroys bad guys in your body, but doesn't damage your own honest, law-abiding cells.  It flies in, wearing a cape festooned with "O3," kills pathogens and "synthetic compounds" (because we know that natural = good and synthetic = bad), and then flies away in triumph, leaving all of your organs happy, safe, and secure.

The truth, of course, is that ozone is toxic, and that using an ozone generator (or getting the stuff into your body via some more unorthodox route) is potentially dangerous.  An EPA report on the use of ozone generators to "clean household air" has this to say:
The same chemical properties that allow high concentrations of ozone to react with organic material outside the body give it the ability to react with similar organic material that makes up the body, and potentially cause harmful health consequences.  When inhaled, ozone can damage the lungs... Relatively low amounts can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath, and, throat irritation.  Ozone may also worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and compromise the ability of the body to fight respiratory infections.  People vary widely in their susceptibility to ozone. Healthy people, as well as those with respiratory difficulty, can experience breathing problems when exposed to ozone.  Exercise during exposure to ozone causes a greater amount of ozone to be inhaled, and increases the risk of harmful respiratory effects.  Recovery from the harmful effects can occur following short-term exposure to low levels of ozone, but health effects may become more damaging and recovery less certain at higher levels or from longer exposure.
Ah, yes, the EPA.  Yet another bunch of shills for Big Pharma, right?

Of course right.

What I find mysterious about all of this is how anyone ever came up with this idea.  Ozone has long been known to be a constituent of photochemical smog, and most people have learned the general rule that "smog is bad" well enough that you'd think no one would suddenly think, "Hey, I know what would work!  Let's concentrate the stuff in smog and then breathe it!  That'll improve our health!"

But apparently that's exactly what has happened here.

So I'm kind of at a loss about this one.  There doesn't seem to be any reasonable explanation for how this started, nor why anyone believes it.

All I know is that based on what I've read, no one is getting near any of my orifices with an ozone tube.

Monday, September 16, 2013

God particle jewelry

It's simultaneously amusing and frustrating to see the woo-woos trying to incorporate the latest scientific findings into their wooism.

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, there was a great deal of babbling about "etheric bodies" -- basically, their conception of the soul, which could project through time and space and which survived the physical body after death.  The "etheric body" was, supposedly, made of "ether," the mysterious substance suggested by scientists as the medium through which light waves propagated in the depths of space.

Because, after all, if the "etheric body" is made of "ether," then if the scientists say that the "ether" exists, the "etheric body" must, too.  Right?

Of course right.

But then the Michelson-Morley experiment and Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity demonstrated conclusively that the "ether" didn't exist, and unfortunately, the woo-woos of the time didn't use the reverse logic, and conclude that souls didn't, either.  They just changed the name to "astral body" and kept right on blathering.

Bait-and-switch, that's the ticket.

The master of this technique these days is the inimitable Diane Tessman, who uses scientific words incorrectly so often that someone should design a drinking game based on her writings.  (It is not recommended that you take a shot whenever she uses the word "quantum," however.  I'd prefer not to have any of my readers end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.)

Yesterday, though, I ran into the pinnacle, the epitome, the crowning glory of this technique.  If you know of a better one, I don't want to hear about it, because this one caused so many faceplants that I'm already going to have to go to school this morning with an icepack strapped to my forehead.

Most of you probably have heard of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle whose existence was proposed by Peter Higgs way back in 1964 as the manifestation of the Higgs field, which permeates space, interacting with matter and giving it the property of mass.  Higgs, now age 84, was fortunate enough to live to see his theory vindicated.  In March of 2013 an experiment in CERN generated traces of a high-energy particle that most physicists believe was the Higgs.

Unfortunately, twenty years earlier, physicist Leon Lederman had given the elusive particle the nickname "the God Particle" -- apparently because his publisher wouldn't let him use his first choice for a nickname, which was "the goddamned particle."

But far be it from the woo-woos to let an objection like "it's just the nickname, for cryin' in the sink!" stand in their way.  Because now we have someone is selling jewelry made from ball bearings pilfered from CERN...

... and claiming that they are infused with God Particles, and that wearing it will bring you divine guidance.

Here's the pitch:
The God Particle, which was recently discovered by our colleagues in CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, forever the Holy Grail of particle physics and nuclear research. The God particle is regarded as one of the fundamental forces of the cosmos. Many religious philosophers believe it constitutes the very ground of being, while others assert that it is the fabric of creation upon which the tapestry of the universe is woven. There are some who refer to the God particle as the clay of existence, whereas the Shaivites of India know it as Brahman and regard it quite reverently as sacred supreme Consciousness.

We still don't know if one of these theories is true, or maybe they all are. What we do know is that you are on the verge of a once in a lifetime opportunity of letting this infinite power into your life.

You deserve God's help, you deserve God's particle.
So these people apparently pilfered bits of scrap from CERN -- although frankly, they could just as well be steel ball bearings they picked up from Home Depot for $0.99 each, there's no way to tell for certain -- and made them into jewelry.

And are selling them for two hundred bucks each.

But the bullshit doesn't end there.  Oh, no.  These people are way more sophisticated than those "etheric body" yokels from the 19th century.  Read on, and be amazed:
Samples from the parts exposed to the surge of energy which showed substantial evidence of having the God Particle were sent to the leading universities and research centers in the world.

According to preliminary evidence found thus far by researches in the medical field, the energy of the God Particle has some amazing effects on migraine prevention, on treating different kinds of skin conditions, up to a surprising improvement among those who ailing from sexual dysfunction disorders. All those among a long list of other medical conditions.

The effects of the God Particle is also tested in the field of mental health and in this field the patients are also getting some surprising improvements in a wide range of medical cases, for example treating phobias and depressions of different kinds.

One of the theories being researched by the scientists is that the God Particle doesn't really cure the listed conditions but provides the human body with the energy needed to normalize and cure itself.

All those researches are performed in scientific methods demanding them to comply with a strict criteria before publication.

Therefore all the above should not be taken as a scientific fact, but should only be understood the way it is, a positive influence of material exposed to the God Particle on treating and preventing a wide range of medical problems.

The results of the researches are still censored. But there is an increasing assumption in the scientific community that in the future, when it becomes less expensive to produce the particle, it will completely change the face of modern medicine.
I especially love the penultimate paragraph, which to my ears reads like the woo-woo alternative-medicine's "Not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose human illness" that appears in microscopic print on things like herbal remedies.

And how did these folks come by chunks of one of the most famous pieces of scientific apparatus in the world, you might ask?
We are a part of a maintenance team in CERN. Among our responsibilities is to replace some of the worn out parts inside the collider.

We notices that something amazing was happening to many people during those days, and when we were summoned for tests by the research groups we realized that we were not the only ones who felt that way.

When the moment came to replace some of the parts around the center of the collision, we felt that we cannot dispose this material as waste. Instead, we started collecting the remaining bearings from the section which is under our responsibility. This material was exposed to the most powerful energy.

After the remaining bearings are collected, we remove them from the compound and later from the country, back to our countries of origin. Initially we gave small spheres which came from the collected bearings to our relatives and friends. In a short period of time the spheres started to leave their mark, and along with great responses we were flooded with requests from other acquaintances who heard about the amazing experience.
Which is either an outright lie, or else illegal, since profiting off of materials taken secretly from a scientific research facility is usually considered theft.  Of course, given that they are also making fraudulent claims about what said ball bearings can do, there are so many ethical angles from which you could attack this website that I almost wouldn't know where to begin.

So I think, instead, that I'm just going to stop here and leave it up to your consideration.  For one thing, in doing the research for this post, I did such a colossal headdesk that I think I jarred a Higgs boson loose from my skull, and my etheric body needs some time to recover before I go to work.