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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Aliens in the family tree

A frequent contributor to Skeptophilia sent me a link a couple of days ago with the note, "More grist for your mill."  As soon as I looked at the website address, I knew it was gonna be good, for two reasons.

The first is that the link was from The Daily Mail, a "news" source so sensationalized and tripe-filled that a lot of people call it The Daily Fail.  It seems to have replaced The National Enquirer as the go-to spot for information about celebrities, political sex scandals, and UFO sightings.

The second was that the title of the article was, "Humans Do NOT Come From Earth."

Upon opening the link, we find that a gentleman named Ellis Silver has written a book, coincidentally given the same title as the article.  Silver himself is a Ph.D.  How do I know?  Because on his book cover, which shows a picture of the Earth with Photoshopped black alien eyes, he calls himself "Ellis Silver Ph.D."

I'm always a bit put off when people do this.  It's a bit of a recursive appeal to authority.  My feeling is that if your ideas stood on their own merits, you wouldn't need to brag about your degree -- and that if what you're saying is ridiculous, the fact that you have a degree doesn't somehow make it sensible.  I wasn't able to find where his degree was from, but most of the sites that mention him call him "an American ecologist," so I suppose that must be what his doctorate is in.

Be that as it may, the review in The Daily Mail begins thusly:
A U.S. ecologist has claimed that humans are not from Earth but were put on the planet by aliens tens of thousands of years ago.

Dr Ellis Silver points to a number of physiological features to make his case for why humans did not evolve alongside other life on Earth, in his new book.

They range from humans suffering from bad backs - which he suggests is because we evolved in a world with lower gravity – to getting too easily sunburned and having difficulty giving birth.

Dr Ellis says that while the planet meets humans’ needs for the most part, it does not perhaps serve the species’ interests as well as the aliens who dropped us off imagined.
Well, this tells me two things right off: (1) Silver doesn't understand how evolution works; and (2) he hasn't spent much time looking at the problems other animals have.

Evolution is, at its heart, the law of "whatever works."  The fact that we are the only primate species that stands upright for long periods is what has resulted in our lower back problems -- our spines, which have the characteristic gentle s-bend in the middle, are a brilliant way to carry weight if you support yourself on your knuckles, but don't work so well if you are standing up.  (When was the last time you saw a front porch supported by a curved pillar?)  But the problems such a design engenders were, apparently, outweighed by the advantages conferred to our distant ancestors -- seeing further over tall grass and leaving our hands free to manipulate tools being two probable ones.

Secondly, we are hardly the only species that has trouble managing the vagaries of its environment.  Every species has traits that can backfire, or work well in some contexts and not so well in others.  Even the lowly brine shrimp of Great Salt Lake die by the millions of osmotic shock every time there's a sudden snow melt and subsequent influx of fresh water.

Maladaptive traits can exist for a variety of reasons.  One possibility is that they once were beneficial, but aren't any longer because circumstances changed -- a so-called "evolutionary misfire," like moths and other insects circling around light bulbs and ultimately getting fried.  (This behavior apparently originates from insects using distant light sources to navigate at night, and that strategy being confounded by nearby light sources.)  Others, like the peacock's unwieldy and cumbersome tail, probably evolved because of sexual selection pushing a trait to the point that it becomes a hindrance.  Still others crop up because of pleiotropy -- the fact that a single gene can have several different phenotypic manifestations, each carrying their own advantages and disadvantages.  The gene that causes seal-point coat color in Siamese cats, for example, can result in their having crossed eyes.

But Dr. Silver discounts all of the hundreds of examples of evolutionary compromise and outright maladaption in nature, and claims that humans are "the only ones who have these problems."  And his answer, according to The Daily Mail:  "He suggests that Neanderthals such as Homo erectus were crossbred with another species, perhaps from Alpha Centauri, which is the closest star system to our solar system, some 4.37 light years away from the sun."

Right.  "Neanderthals such as Homo erectus."  Which were two entirely different species, making that statement a little like saying, "Pigeons such as eagles."  And somehow, an alien species coming from an entirely different star system would have DNA that was compatible enough to proto-hominids (whatever species they were) that they could produce offspring at all?

Funny, isn't it, that there is a 98.7% overlap, genetically, between humans and our nearest relatives, the bonobos?  And that our bone structure shows 100% homology with other primates?  And that we give every evidence, in every respect, of being perfectly ordinary terrestrial animals, without a drop of green extraterrestrial blood?

Of course, this hasn't stopped woo-woo websites from picking up the story, and giving Dr. Ellis Silver Ph.D. all sorts of undeserved attention.  Besides his appearance in The Daily Mail, Silver has made Prison Planet, Above Top Secret, UFO Sightings Hotspot, Unexplained Mysteries, and a host of other "news" sources even less reputable.

Oh, and I forgot to mention why Silver thinks all of this happened.  "One reason for this," Silver says,"is that the Earth might be a prison planet, since we seem to be a naturally violent species and we're here until we learn to behave ourselves."

Well, that certainly seems to be working out well, doesn't it?

You know, I think this sort of thing springs from the same desire that drives a lot of the religious attitudes toward humanity vis-à-vis nature -- that we humans are somehow different, special, set apart.  I still see it in my biology classes, in which even bright kids will use phrases like "humans and animals," as if humans weren't animals themselves.  So I guess if you don't get your sense of species superiority from being a Unique Creation of God, you have to get it from being the Progeny of Aliens.

So that's our journey into the far side for today.  It's not, mind you, that I have any particular objection to the conjecture that life may exist elsewhere in the universe -- in fact, I think that to be so likely as to be a near certainty.  I just think that the chance of their being our great-grandparents contradicts everything we know about biology, human and otherwise, and that's even taking into account how odd my own family can be at times.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The ghost of Robert Schumann

Yesterday, I was driving home from work, and was listening to Symphony Hall, the classical music station on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, and the announcer said that we'd be hearing the Violin Concerto in D Minor of the brilliant and tragic composer Robert Schumann.

"And there's quite a story to go with it," he said, and proceeded to tell us how the composer had written the piece in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend and fellow musician Joseph Joachim.  Joachim, however, thought the piece too dark to have any chance at popularity, and after Schumann attempted suicide in 1854 the sheet music was deposited at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, and everyone forgot about it.

In 1933, eighty years later, two women conducting a séance in London were alarmed to hear a "spirit voice" that claimed to be Schumann, and that said they were to go to the Prussian State Library to recover an "unpublished work" and see to it that it got performed.  So the women went over to Berlin, and found the music -- right where the "spirit" said it would be.

Four years later, in 1937, a copy was sent anonymously to the great conductor Yehudi MenuhinImpressed, and delighted to have the opportunity to stage a first performance of a piece from a composer who had been dead for 84 years, he premiered it in San Francisco in October of that year.  But the performance was interrupted by one of the two women who had "talked to Schumann," who claimed that she had a right to first performance, since she'd been in touch with the spirit world about the piece and had received that right from the dead composer himself!

We then got to hear the piece, which is indeed dark and haunting and beautiful, and you should all give it a listen.

Having been an aficionado of stories of the paranormal since I was a teen -- which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a long time ago -- it's not often that I get to hear one that I didn't know about before.  Especially, given my love for music, one involving a famous composer.  So I thought this was an intriguing tale, and when I got home I decided to look into it, and see if there was more known about the mysterious piece and its scary connection to séances and ghosts.

And -- sorry to disappoint you if you bought the whole spirit-voice thing -- there is, indeed, a lot more to the story.

Turns out that the announcer was correct that violinist Joachim, when he received the concerto, didn't like it much.  He commented in a letter that the piece showed "a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy, though certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist."  And he not only tucked it away at the Prussian State Library, he included a provision in his will (1907) that the piece should not be performed until 1956, a hundred years after Schumann's death.  So while it was forgotten, it wasn't perhaps as unknown as the radio announcer wanted us to think.

Which brings us up to the séance, and the spirit voice, and the finding of the manuscript -- conveniently leaving out the fact that the two woman who were at the séance, Jelly d'Arányi and Adila Fachiri, were sisters -- who were the grand-nieces of none other than Joseph Joachim himself!

Funny how leaving out one little detail like that makes a story seem like it admits of no other explanation than the supernatural, isn't it?  Then you find out that detail, and... well, not so much, any more.

It's hard to imagine that d'Arányi and Fachiri, who were fourteen and nineteen years old, respectively, when their great-uncle died, wouldn't have known about his will and its mysterious clause forbidding the performance of Schumann's last major work.  d'Arányi and Fachiri themselves were both violinists of some repute, so this adds to their motivation for revealing the piece, with the séance adding an extra frisson to the story, especially in the superstitious and spirit-happy 1930s.  And the forwarding of the piece to Menuhin, followed by d'Arányi's melodramatic crashing of the premiere, has all of the hallmarks of a well-crafted publicity stunt.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to discover how easy this one was to debunk.  Of course, I don't know that my explanation is correct; maybe the two sisters were visited by the ghost of Robert Schumann, who had been wandering around in the afterlife, pissed off that his last masterwork wasn't being performed.  But if you cut the story up using Ockham's Razor, you have to admit that the spirit-voices-and-séance theory doesn't make nearly as much sense as the two-sisters-pulling-a-clever-hoax theory.

A pity, really, because a good spooky story always adds something to a dark, melancholy piece of music.  I may have to go listen to Danse Macabre, The Drowned Cathedral, and Night on Bald Mountain, just to get myself back into the mood.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Flipping out

Coming hard on the heels of claims that Comet ISON is an omen of impending doom to humanity is another claim, to wit: the upcoming reversal of the Sun's magnetic field is...

... you guessed it...

... an omen of impending doom to humanity.

Beginning with a site with the cheerful title, The Warning: New Prophecies Reveal Global Events in the Lead Up to the Second Coming, which describes the pole flip as follows:
The closer the Day of My Great Coming draws, the more people, who say they love God, will withdraw from Me. Even those who say they are holy and exalt themselves within the hierarchy of My Church on Earth, won’t be able to see the Truth. They will not see the Truth because they will be so busy attending to matters and ceremonies, which will be insulting to Me.  The first sign will be that the Earth will spin faster. The second sign concerns the sun, which will loom larger, brighter and begin to spin. Beside it you will see a second sun. Then the weather will cause the world to shake and the changes will mean that many parts of the Earth will be destroyed... 

Wars will spread; earthquakes will shake the four corners of the Earth and famine will grip mankind and every wicked gesture and insult made before God will result in a terrible chastisement. When those who accept My Mercy lead My Church – every demon will curse these children of God. To protect them, God will intervene and woe to those who spit in the Face of their Creator.

The time has come. Those who curse Me will suffer. Those who follow Me will live through this persecution, until the Day when I come to sweep them into My Merciful Arms. And then, only those who remain, because they refused My Hand of Mercy, will be given over to the beast they idolized and to whom they sought pleasure from.
So that sounds pretty cheerful.  Then we have this guy, posting on the apparently well-named site Lunatic Outpost:
The Sun starting flip its magnetic field early in May 2012 as ISON was crossing the Orbit of Saturn.

This was the infamous Quadri-Polar issue last year, which when viewed in the lead up to the end of the Mayan Calendar and Comet Elenin swing in was considered an omen of doom.

It was then explained away as the beginning of the solar magnetic field flip which was due in May 2013 the mechanism being that the north pole splits first into a positive end at the north pole and two negative poles at the equator which the link to the positive south pole to form a quadri-polar structure...

While I can't speculate on what this means in terms of major doom it does indicate that ISON has a strong magnetic field with a spherical iron core with a potential for a major electro-magnetic event with the Sun at perihelion...
An interesting number appears if we take Immanuel Velikovsky's rough orbit of Nibiru of 3600 years and round it up to the closest whole number multiple of the 11 year cycle of 3663 years and assuming ISON is Nibiru, it means we are in the 333rd Sunspot cycle which is really a half cycle as the Sun returns to its original polarity configuration every 22 years.

Looking at the quarter cycle of 5.5 years this is the 666th cycle!
Then we have this rather alarming post, on the amazingly wacky David Icke Forum:
Solar flairs [sic], the north pole moving, the weak magnetosphere allows more solar wind into the atmosphere, the tectonic plates are moving much more, we have the earth tilting and springing back on its axis as we can see from the sunset being out of place and its timing. All of these things have a profound effect on our psyche...  are you feeling off lately?
So put the first post, with all the devils and demons and so on, together with the second, with Nibiru and the number 666, and the third, with "out-of-place sunsets," and you have a trifecta of evil that just makes me want to hide in bed under my down comforter.  But of course, given that it's currently 19 F outside, I felt like that already, so maybe that's not all that significant.

Let's put this in perspective, why don't we?  Maybe look at some facts?  Crazy idea, I know, but it might just work! did a nice job of explaining the pole reversal, as follows:
Every 11 years or so, the two hemispheres of the sun reverse their polarity, creating a ripple effect that can be felt throughout the far reaches of the solar system. The sun is currently going through one of those flips in its cycle, said scientists working at Stanford University's Wilcox Solar Observatory, which has monitored the sun's magnetic field since 1975.

"The sun's poles are reversing, and this is a large-scale process that takes place over a few months, but it happens once every 11 years," Todd Hoeksema, a solar physicist at Stanford said in a video about the polarity reversal. "What we're looking at is really a reversal of the whole heliosphere, everything from the sun out past the planets."

The polarity reversal probably won't harmfully impact Earth, in fact, it could even protect the planet in some ways, scientists have said.
The sun's huge "current sheet" — a surface extending out from the sun's equator — becomes wavier as the poles reverse. The sheet's crinkles can create a better barrier against the cosmic rays that can damage satellites, other spacecraft and people in orbit, scientists said.
So, the whole thing happens every eleven years?  Meaning I have so far lived through four of these pole flips already, and have yet to be eaten by demons, gone through a "major doom," or observed a sunset that didn't happen exactly when it was supposed to?

Well, that's kind of anticlimactic.

If, like me, pictures help you to understand, take a look at Karl Tate's lucid explanation of the whole thing, where along with great diagrams he tells us the following:
Electric currents inside the sun generate a magnetic field that spreads throughout the solar system. The field causes activity at the surface of the sun, surging and ebbing in a regular cycle. At the peak of the cycle, the polarity of the field flips, during a time of maximum sunspot activity...  The sun is not a solid ball, but rather like a fluid. It exhibits differential rotation, meaning the surface moves at different speeds depending on latitude. This results in the magnetic field lines getting wound up. When the winding gets extreme, the magnetic field lines "snap," causing solar flares at those locations on the surface.
So there you have it.  The Sun is undergoing a field reversal, an event that would only have been noticed by astronomy nerds if it hadn't been for the rather odd subset of humanity who seems to like to look around for Portents of Doom.  The pole flip isn't going to do much to us here on Earth, so you don't need to worry about your refrigerator magnets all falling off, your GPS malfunctioning, or the Second Coming of Christ.

You know what I wish?  I wish that once, just once, we'd go through one of these Omens of Evil Where Nothing Happens, and all of the nutty apocalyptoids would get together and publish a retraction.  "Hey, guys," the retraction would say.  "We were wrong!  The Earth didn't end, after all.  I guess we better go sign up for some science classes!"  But of course, that will never happen.  They take what they do, and each other, way too seriously for that.

It's the deadly serious aspect of it that is honestly what amuses me the most -- because people have been foretelling the future for millennia, and have almost always gotten it wrong, and yet they keep trying.  And people keep believing them.  Myself, I'm more like the Roman philosopher and writer Cicero, who quipped, "I do not understand how two augurs can pass each other on the street without laughing."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

ISON is Wormwood! Or Nibiru! Or not!

My younger son, who shares my interest in investigating wacky beliefs, sent me a perplexing email a couple of days ago.

"Look up 'wormwood,'" is all it said.

I responded, "Wormwood like the plant?  Wormwood like the junior devil in C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters?"

He came back with, "Wormwood like the comet."

So I obligingly did a Google search for "wormwood comet," and found out something that would be funny if the people who believed it weren't so sincere: there is apparently a growing number of ultra-Christian types who believe that Comet ISON is the "falling star" mentioned in Revelation 8:10-11:
Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.  The name of the star is Wormwood.  A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was made bitter.
ISON isn't a star, of course, but taking the bible literally doesn't apparently stop people from taking it metaphorically when it's convenient.

(Photograph courtesy of the European Southern Observatory and the Wikimedia Commons)

Take a look, for example, at this site, which mixes so many different kinds of crazy that it's hard to know where to begin -- biblical literalism, astrology, the magical significance of names, conspiracy theories, theosophy, and what appears to be completely original batshittery.  As an example of the latter, take a look at this paragraph:
Biblically, Joseph (Israel) is at the Altar (Initiated); Gentiles are on the Porch (Un-initiated). I cannot stress enough Stay on the Porch!! The Mark of this Beast is real! The Hopi aka Welsh Gypsies continuing the Solar Cult of ancient Egypt correctly forecasted the arrival of White Men, Railroads, Interstate Highways and Jet Travel complete with Chemtrails described as Spider Webs; their prediction at Prophecy Rock will in all likelihood, come true as well! 
Besides that entirely incomprehensible paragraph, the site contains pages and pages of stuff that all leads us to one conclusion: ISON is Wormwood, and in a week or so we're all gonna die in horrible agony as part of the long-ago-foretold plan of the God of Love and Mercy.

Now, you might say that this website is just the work of one crazy person, which could well be true -- but stuff like this is popping up all over the internet.  Some people disagree, though, which should be reassuring.  On the site Escape All These Things: End Times Prophecies Made Plain, we are told that we are told that ISON can't be Wormwood because Wormwood is the "third trumpet" and the first and second trumpets haven't sounded yet, because we probably would have noticed if a third of the world's plants had been burned up and a great mountain had fallen into the sea.

On the downside, though, is the possibility that ISON could be the Planet Nibiru, a mythical planet that is best known for conspicuously failing to show every other time it was supposed to.  In one of the best examples of pretzel logic I've ever seen, take a look at this page from the bizarre site Before It's News, wherein we find out that all of the other non-appearances of Nibiru were because the Illuminati wanted to play a game of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to get us to let down our guard:
A few of those people could not live with the knowledge that millions of their fellow human beings were going to die in the future without even an opportunity to know what they were facing. There were a few who felt that the public had a right to know what was coming in order to make whatever preparations were possible. So from time to time there have been “leaks” of information. Little by little more and more information has been “leaked” until the whole grim picture has come together. In fact there were so many “leaks” of information about Planet X that some “brilliant insider” [Sic!] came up with the idea of planting disinformation designed to discredit the whole subject in the eyes of the public. So in 2001, 2002, and 2003 there was all kinds of information about Planet X being deliberately “leaked” to the public. Much of the information being released at that time claimed that the coming of Planet X would occur in May of 2003, and the public should prepare themselves for imminent destruction. On the one hand “official” sources were denying the whole story, while on the other hand equally “official” sources were steadily “leaking” disinformation to the public. Their SCAM worked like a charm. When Planet X DID NOT show up in May of 2003, most people labeled the whole subject of Planet X a hoax and began ridiculing anyone who would even bring up the subject.
I don't think I've ever seen anyone come right out and say, "You should believe us because we have a record of being 100% wrong in the past" before.

Anyhow, I just wish everyone would stop freaking out every time something interesting happens in the world of astronomy.  ISON has the potential to put on a great show during the first week of December, and I, for one, would love it if it did.  Weather permitting -- always a dicey thing in my cloudy, snowy part of the country -- I'll be out there looking for it on the morning of December 3 through 6.

Even if it means that I have to "get off the porch."

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mokele-Mbembe, debate, and anecdotal evidence

A couple of days ago, a student and I were discussing the issue of how much weight should be given to purely anecdotal evidence.  It's an important question, not only in "fringe" fields like cryptozoology and UFOlogy, but in medicine and law -- because what, after all, is eyewitness testimony but anecdote?  In scientific circles, anecdote is usually considered the lowest tier of evidence, for the very good reason that it relies on the very unreliable human memory.  Anecdotal evidence is simply too prone to cherry-picking, misremembering, or outright lying to be given much credence in the absence of any more reliable support, even if you have lots of it.

As my student put it: "The plural of anecdote is not data."

I bring this up because of a debate that happened last week at Utah Valley University between paleontologist Paul Bybee and folklorist Danny Stewart, called "Surviving Dinosaurs in Africa."  The gist of it was to look at claims that there is a holdover from the Cretaceous Period still stomping around the Congo Basin, a fearsome beast called the Mokele-Mbembe.

(Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

An excellent summary of the alleged sightings of this creature can be found here, wherein we can read accounts like the following:
In 1909, Lt. Paul Gratz, after hearing a number of natives describe the creature and having been shown a hide that purportedly came from Mokele-mbembe, became the first to describe the alleged creature as resembling a sauropod (which means lizard foot). In the same year, renowned big game hunter Carl Hagenbeck said that a number of independent, reputable sources familiar with the region reported a large animal that resembled a sauropod, and, as a result, stories about the cryptid became a popular media topic for a while afterward.

In 1913, a German officer, Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz (try to say that while eating crackers), a surveyor of the German colonies in what is now Cameroon wrote of reports of a creature the size of an elephant or hippo with smooth brown/grey skin and a muscular tail like an alligator. He was shown a path that was said to be a Mokele-mbembe made trail, but because of the multitude of large game (elephant, hippo, etc.) tracks, there was no real, clear evidence to be found.
Despite (by some accounts) over 20,000 sightings of this giant animal, there is not one piece of hard evidence supporting its existence -- not one bone, tooth, or bit of skin.

But that doesn't stop silliness like last week's "debate," in which we get to hear statements like the following, from folklorist Stewart: "The scientific method has a hypothesis.  I see folklore, fantasy and mythology as synonyms of hypothesis."

Sorry, but this is one of the wackiest examples of the If-By-Whiskey fallacy I've ever heard -- simply altering the definition of a word to suit whatever point you were trying to argue.  "Hypothesis" in science has an extremely precise meaning -- a testable proposed explanation for a phenomenon (I actually rather detest the grade-school definition of "an educated guess" because it makes the whole thing sound far more random than it actually is).  "Folklore" isn't a synonym for "hypothesis;" "folklore" is a synonym for "people making shit up."

Now, I realize that sounds pretty harsh, and before all of the mythology buffs out there start throwing heavy objects in my general direction, allow me to point out two things.  First, I love mythology and folklore myself -- I have had a positive passion for it since childhood.  However, I have always been certain that the stories about Odin and Loki and Thor et al. were stories, and that however much I sometimes think the world could use a good dose of Ragnarök, it's not gonna happen.  (You might be interested, though, to read about a publicity campaign currently being run by the Jorvík Viking Museum in York, England, which claims that the Norse myths were all true, and that the world is gonna end in 100 days, on February 22, 2014 -- a date that coincidentally enough, marks the start of the annual Jorvík Viking Festival.)

But second, honesty demands that I point out that there have been times when folklore has proven true.  Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy is often cited as an example, although you might argue that The Iliad is more mythologized history than it is folklore -- similar, in that way, to Le Chanson de Roland and the bible.  *dodges heavy objects thrown by a whole different set of people*  There are other examples where folklore has a basis in fact, of course; one in my own field is the tradition, common in northern Germany and Denmark, that when a baby is born, the eldest woman in the family is to kiss the baby's forehead, and if she tastes salt, the baby is going to be sickly and die young.  A weird superstition, you might think, until you find out that in this area of Europe, the gene for cystic fibrosis is common -- and among its symptoms is producing very salty sweat.

But just because "some folklore has partial basis in truth" is a far cry from "all folklore deserves scientific investigation."  Every culture has its accounts of big horrible monsters, which in my mind stem more from a love of scary stories than they do from an accurate representation of reality.  And it bears mention that as anecdotal evidence builds up in the absence of hard evidence, the likeliness of the claim being true does not increase, it diminishes, as counterintuitive as that might seem.  If there really have been 20,000 sightings of Mokele-Mbembe in the Congo Basin, what is the likelihood that such an apparently large population of animals has never once left behind a corpse for someone to find, or even a Jurassic Park-style bunch of dinosaur poo?

So much as I'd love to see a "survival" like this, I'm of the opinion that it's nothing more than a wild tale.  And even Stewart, last week at Utah Valley University, admitted, "There's nothing to back this up, but it's a fun story," which makes me wonder why anyone thought that there was anything there to debate.

Anyhow, now that we've got that taken care of, maybe we can move on to other things, such as the claim by a guy from Antioch, Tennessee that there was a Bigfoot in his back yard, and he has a photograph to prove it, which looks exactly like Bigfoot would look if it was a large featureless black lump.  But he did say that he howled at the Bigfoot, and it howled back, which sounds promising.  I think we should definitely send someone down to investigate, preferably before Heimdall blows the Gjallarhorn and the Frost Giants attack.  You can see how that would put a damper on things.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Putting the brakes on the Common Core

If you want to get a near-violent response from 98% of current public school students, about 75% of teachers, and unknown (but probably large) percentage of parents, administrators, and various other folks associated with education, all you have to do is utter two words:

Common Core.

It's a funny thing, really.  On the surface, it seems like such a good idea -- creating a set of uniform standards, high ones, that establish what students at every level should know and should be able to do.  Of course, there's the immediate knee-jerk reaction from both the Right and the Left -- Right-Wingers resent the intrusion by the federal government into what rightfully should be state or local decision-making, and Left-Wingers hate the infringement that the new mandates will have on the freedom of teachers to teach as they see fit and as their students might need.

What I've found, though, is that lots of people from all sides, and (sadly) many of the people who comment the most loudly on the Common Core, are ignorant about what it really is -- and ignorant, too, about what deeper, more subtle problems this movement engenders.  So maybe it's time for some facts, before we get to the opinions (but don't worry, those'll come sooner or later).

The English and math standards -- the ones currently driving the changes we're seeing K-12 in 46 of the 50 states -- can be viewed here (links to the English and math overviews, which contain additional links to the complete standards).  And even a careful reading will probably leave you little room for disagreement with any of what the standards, in their most general framing, say.  As most of my readers know, I've been a vocal critic of current trends in public education, and have not hesitated to speak my mind on the subject -- but it's hard to see how could you argue against statements like the following, from the English standards:
Through reading a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects, students are expected to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective. Because the standards are building blocks for successful classrooms, but recognize that teachers, school districts and states need to decide on appropriate curriculum, they intentionally do not offer a reading list. Instead, they offer numerous sample texts to help teachers prepare for the school year and allow parents and students to know what to expect at the beginning of the year.
Likewise, the math standards seem equally commendable:
The standards stress not only procedural skill but also conceptual understanding, to make sure students are learning and absorbing the critical information they need to succeed at higher levels - rather than the current practices by which many students learn enough to get by on the next test, but forget it shortly thereafter, only to review again the following year.
Aubrey Neihaus, a specialist in teacher professional development, has some gentle but firm words for the naysayers on her website, I Support the Common Core:
One thing that  frustrates me the most when I’m reading the mainstream media’s handling of the Common Core is conflation. Too often, well-intentioned journalists publish pieces that never explain that the “Common Core” is a set of learning standards (see the rest of the title of the document: “State Standards”). This inaccuracy (and perhaps ignorance) leads to a conflation of learning standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Sometimes, teacher evaluation systems and data collection are also thrown in for good measure. We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? An article professing to be about the “Common Core” when it’s really about another element of education. 
But therein lies the problem, doesn't it?  As a veteran teacher -- 27 years in the classroom, and counting -- I have seen over and over again that you cannot unhook the standards from the curriculum, from the instructional methods, from the assessments, from how the data are used.  So however noble-minded Ms. Neihaus's wish is, that we evaluate the Common Core based on the standards alone and not on how they are being implemented, that is a fallacious approach (and may be impossible in practice).

Let me give you an example from my own classroom.  In my AP Biology classes, we are currently studying statistical genetics.  I teach this topic as a process -- typical problems involve calculating the likelihood of a trait showing up in the offspring, given a particular type of gene and certain information about the parents.  This decision (the standards for the topic) drives the instruction (how I present it), the assessment (how I design the problem sets and tests to see if the students have met the standards) and even the data (how I weight and score those assignments and tests).  If my standards were different -- if, for example, I valued the students learning large numbers of terms, and memorizing examples of each genetic inheritance pattern, every single part of instruction would be different because of that decision.

So you can't tease apart the standards from the other pieces of the puzzle, and something has got to drive the decision-making.  And the unfortunate bottom line is that in this case the assessments are the driver -- because the data they generate are being used not only to evaluate students, but to evaluate teachers, administrators, schools, and entire school districts.

Diane Ravitch, whose stance on education I greatly admire, has said that she cannot support the Common Core because it is foisting an untested schema of education on schools by fiat, with the Race to the Top money as a carrot (although it bears mention that my school district's share of the RTTT money was about $50,000 -- one year's salary for a first-year teacher, counting insurance and other benefits).  Much as I often agree with Ravitch, I think she doesn't go nearly far enough.  However the standards themselves sound good, the Common Core's implementation has been chaotic, with toxic effects on students, staff, and parents.  And lest you think that my including the parents is unjustified, a friend of mine with two daughters just last week sent a letter to her younger child's principal saying that she is calling halt to the time the girl spends on Common Core homework a night.  An hour after dinner, every night, just for the math homework, is excessive...

... especially if you're in third grade.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has summarized the reasons for their opposition to the Common Core standards, but by far the most damning is that the greater rigor in the standards has translated into unrealistic and poorly-constructed tests:
In New York, teachers witnessed students brought to tears (Hernandez & Baker, 2013), faced with confusing instructions and unfamiliar material on Common Core tests.  New York tests gave fifth graders questions written at an 8th grade level (Ravitch, 2013).  New York and Kentucky showed dramatic drops in proficiency and wider achievement gaps.  Poor results hammer students’ self-confidence and disengage them from learning. They also bolster misperceptions about public school failure, place urban schools in the cross hairs and lend ammunition to privatization schemes.  If a child struggles to clear the high bar at five feet, she will not become a "world class" jumper because someone raised the bar to six feet and yelled "jump higher," or if her “poor” performance is used to punish her coach.
The sad truth is that the powers-that-be have sold out the public education system to corporations like Pearson, Educational Testing Service, and CTB/McGraw-Hill, who have a long history of poor-quality products, scoring errors, and general incompetence.  The corporate test-designers are now making the decisions regarding what gets taught, and how -- and the teachers and their students get dragged along behind, with as much decision-making power as a leaf in a windstorm.

Lest you think that I'm overstating my case, here, I recall vividly the last time I went through a sea change like this one -- when then New York State Commissioner of Education Richard Mills launched his ill-conceived "Raise the Bar" revamping of the Regents Exams, the high school exit exams required for graduation.  One of the changes in my subject was that there were now four labs that were mandated -- labs that had to be performed, by every student studying biology across New York State.  The four "state labs" are uniformly poorly written, and one of them has glaring factual errors, a problem I brought to the attention of the science specialist at the New York State Department of Education.

This initiated an increasingly hostile exchange of emails, with her defending the labs and claiming that in any case I had missed the deadline for commenting on them, and my stating that I didn't care about deadlines but that I wasn't going to teach my students something that was scientifically wrong.  I enlisted the help of Dr. Rita Calvo, professor of Human Genetics at Cornell University, who was entirely in support of my position.  All of our efforts were fruitless.  Finally I became angry enough that I said to the science specialist, "Do I understand correctly that the bottom line here is that you are telling me that I have to do this lab, mistakes and all, for no pedagogically sound reason, but simply because you're in charge and you say so?"

And she wrote back one line:  "You got it."

This spirit of top-down micromanagement, and disdain for the opinions and experience of the rank-and-file teacher, is still in evidence today.  Just last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan created a firestorm when he responded to criticism of the Common Core with a dismissive, and rather insulting, claim:
It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.  You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.
The implication, of course, is that the only reason you could criticize the Common Core is if your own kid showed a drop in scores -- and the only reason for that is that your kid isn't as smart as you thought (s)he was.  Seriously, Mr. Duncan?  There couldn't be another reason that scores drop, such as that the test questions are poorly written, like the idiotic "talking pineapple question" on the 2012 New York State eighth-grade reading assessment?  There couldn't be another reason to criticize the standards, like the research of Tom Loveless, which found that the rigor of the standards has little effect on student achievement?
Loveless notes that there are three main arguments for having all public schools teach the same subjects at the same level of rigor and complexity. First, students will learn more if their learning targets are set higher. Second, students will learn more if the passing grade for state tests are set higher. Third, students will learn more if lesson plans and textbooks are all made more complex and rigorous through required high standards...

(N)one of those arguments holds enough validity to risk all that money and effort...  states with weak content standards, as judged by the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (not ideological bedfellows), had about the same average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as states with strong standards.
Schools will undoubtedly weather this chaos, as will teachers -- with the exception of the increasing number of teachers who, tired of the frustration and the atmosphere of distrust, are finding other jobs or retiring if they can.  But I fear for the students -- because, after all, we only get one shot at them.  They move through the system and out, and with luck, into careers and college and productive adult life, still with their curiosity and love for learning and enthusiasm intact.  The test-and-data driven model we are currently using is already showing signs of crushing those delicate mental constructs, of turning kids into anxious, think-inside-the-box exam bubblers who worry more about why they got an 84 instead of an 85 on the test than they do if they actually can apply what they learned -- or (amazing thought!) enjoyed learning it.

I can only hope that enough of us are getting angry about the whole thing that maybe, maybe we can stop the whole thing in its tracks.  Not throw it out, necessarily; as I said, the standards alone aren't necessarily bad.  But for crying out loud, let's see what's happening with implementation before we simply plunge on ahead.  Let's remember that all of us -- teachers, administrators, parents, and members of the state and federal departments of education -- are supposed to be on the same side.

The side of the children.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fractal morphic energy fields of love

I'm happy to be the one to inform you that the woo-woos have added another word to their vocabulary, and that word is "fractal."

It's about time they come up with something new.  The old ones -- quantum, energy, field, dimension, vibration, flux, resonance, and frequency -- were getting kind of trite, frankly.  So it is with great joy that I bring you the latest in woo-woo silliness...

"Fractal Healing."

How can fractals have anything to do with healing, you might ask, given that a fractal is a mathematical construct, albeit a very useful one?  A fractal is a structure that is "self-similar" -- it shows an identical pattern (or at least a similar one) on small scales as large ones, and has a precise mathematical definition involving recursive functions (and for those of you who are calculus nerds, it is a function that is differentiable nowhere -- which I find kind of mind-blowing).  Fractal mathematics has been useful in various realms, including mapping, creating realistic computer animations of things like animal fur and leaves on trees moving in the wind, and studying natural phenomena such as lightning bolt paths, geologic faults, and coastlines.

But let's leave reality behind, as we so often have to do.  What about "fractal healing?"

As is usual in such cases, they start off well enough, with at least a modest understanding of what the word means.  Here's the description that they give of the concepts associated with the term:
A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems - the pictures of Chaos. Geometrically, they exist in between our familiar dimensions. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc. Abstract fractals - such as the Mandelbrot Set - can be generated by a computer calculating a simple equation over and over.
Okay, that's not bad, you have to admit.  Even if it's not what I'd call rigorous, at least it's within hailing distance of correct.  (Although calling fractals "pictures of Chaos" is kind of ridiculous, given that the whole idea is that it's a pattern that is infinitely deep -- the exact opposite of chaos.)

(Image of the Mandelbrot set courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, woo-woos never keep their eye on the ball, and ultimately end up having said ball zip right past them and shatter the Plate Glass Window of Reality, and this is no exception:
The fractal field is the coded field of the sacred geometry of nature.  It lies beyond the morphic field of energy and actually creates the morphic field...   The fractal field holds the geometry of the natural world.  By repairing, resetting, and upgrading the fractal codes within our fractal field, we can heal ourselves, enhance our life experience, and move our evolution forward, in ways never before known that are exponentially more powerful.

When our fractal field is returned to its original perfection, we return to our natural state of grace.  We perceive and manifest our reality through the knowing of our inner divinity and perfection.  We transcend all limitation and express and experience transcendent love in perfect human form in union with all.  This is our journey.
Predictably, what drives me crazy about this is that they're taking something that really is cool and weird and interesting (fractal mathematics, about which you can learn more here) and using a vague understanding of it to support whatever wacky view of the universe they happen to have.  The same is true of all of the other terms woo-woos use, though, isn't it?  If you actually bother to put in the hard work to learn about phenomena like quantum mechanics, resonance, energy dynamics, and so on, you are rewarded by opening your mind to some pretty amazing stuff, with the added benefit that it's real.

Here, though -- we have the usual New Age mushy philosophy about returning to our State of Transcendent Love and Grace and Perfection, and it's given undeserved credibility by appending a word to it that honestly has nothing to do with pop psychology.  All because it's easier to do that than it is actually to learn what fractals actually are.

So, that's our new woo-woo vocabulary word for today.  Watch out for it.  I predict it's gonna be popular.  They certainly have gotten enough mileage out of "quantum," after all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The odds against creation

New from the Department of Specious Statistics, the owner of a biblical timeline business and self-proclaimed mathematician has stated that she has calculated the likelihood of the biblical creation story being wrong as "less than 1 in 479 million."

Margaret Hunter, who owns Bible Charts and Timelines of Duck, West Virginia, stated in an interview, "I realized the twelve items listed in the Genesis creation account are confirmed by scientists today as being in the correct order, starting with light being separated from darkness, plants coming before animals and ending with man.  Think of the problem like this.  Take a deck of cards.  Keep just one suit—let’s say hearts.  Toss out the ace.  Hand the remaining twelve cards to a one year old child.  Ask him/her to hand you the cards one at a time.  In order.  What are the chances said toddler will start with the two and give them all to you in order right up to the king?"

Not very high, Hunter correctly states.  "Being a mathematician, I like thinking about things like this," she says.  "Moses had less than one chance in 479 million of just correctly guessing [the sequence of the creation account].  To me, the simplest explanation is Moses got it straight from the Creator."

Righty-o.  This just brings up a few questions in my mind, to wit:
  • Are you serious?
  • Where did you get your degree in mathematics?  Big Bob's Discount Diploma Warehouse?
  • There's a town called "Duck, West Virginia?"
Of course, the major problem with all of this is that we can all take a look at the events in the biblical creation story, and see immediately that Moses didn't get them right.  Here, according to the site Christian Answers, is the order of creation:
  • the Earth
  • light
  • day & night
  • air
  • water
  • dry land
  • seed-bearing plants with fruit
  • the Sun, Moon, and stars
  • water creatures
  • birds
  • land animals (presumably birds don't count)
  • humans
One immediate problem I see is that there was day and night three days before the Sun was created, which seems problematic to me, as the following NASA photograph illustrates:

But of course, the problems don't end there.  Birds before the rest of "land animals?"  Plants before the Sun and Moon?  The plants are actually the ones on the list that are the most wildly out of order -- seed-bearing plants didn't evolve until the late Devonian, a long time after "water creatures" (the Devonian is sometimes called "the Age of Fish," after all), and an even longer time (about 4.5 billion years, to be precise) after the formation of the Sun.   Humans do come in the correct place, right there at the end, but the rest of it seems like kind of a hash.

So by Hunter's brilliant mathematics, if putting the twelve events of creation in the right order has a 1 in 479 million likelihood of happening by chance, then the likelihood of putting them in the wrong order by chance is 478,999,999 in 479 million.  Which is what happened.  Leading us to the inevitable conclusion, so well supported by the available hard evidence, that Moses was just making shit up.

You know, I really wish you creationists would stop even pretending that this nonsense is scientific.  Just stick with your "the bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it" approach, because every time you dabble your toes in the Great Ocean of Science, you end up getting knocked over by a wave and eating a mouthful of sand.  And it's becoming kind of embarrassing to watch, frankly.  Thank you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Elf kidnapping

It's not often you get to be a witness to the birth of an urban legend.

Or not so urban, actually, as this one supposedly happened in rural Iceland.  Have you seen it?  It's making the rounds of social media -- a story about a Danish anthropologist, missing for seven years, who showed up last week, naked and confused, claiming that she'd been kidnapped and held hostage by elves.  As of now, I've been sent links to the story a total of six times, so chances are you've run across it, too.

The story is that an anthropologist, Kalena Søndergaard, went off in February of 2006, "seeking proof of elves," and vanished.  Searches for her, centered around the Álfarkirkjan -- the "Elf Church Rock" where she was last seen -- turned up no trace of the missing woman.  Then, last week, some hikers stumbled upon her, crouching on a rocky ledge, looking "more ape than human."  The article says:
Danish researcher Kalena Søndergaard was stark naked, covered by dust and babbling incoherently when rescuers found her outside a tiny opening in the famous Elf Rock, traditionally believed to house the underground dwelling place of mankind’s tiny cousins.

“She was crouching like an animal and spoke only in a language unrelated to any we know,” said Arnor Guðjohnsen of the National Rescue Service, which airlifted the 31-year-old survivor to a hospital by helicopter.

“The only word we could understand was ‘alfur,’ an old Icelandic word for elves. On her back were strange tattoos similar to those markings Viking explorers found on rock formations when they settled Iceland in 874, traditionally known as ‘elf writing.’ ”
When I hit the name of the gentleman from the National Rescue Service, I frowned a little, because "Guðjohnsen" isn't a properly formed Icelandic surname -- all surnames in Iceland, by mandate, are the father's first name, in genitive case, followed by "-son" if it's a boy and "-dottír" if it's a girl.  So Arnor should have been "Guðjohnsson," not "Guðjohnsen."  (A similar problem happened later in the story, with a "folklore expert" named "Eva Bryndísarson" -- she would have been "Eva Bryndísardottír.")

Those, of course, could have been typos or mistranscriptions, and in any case are minor compared to the other whoppers that occur in the story.  Let's start with the fact that Kalena Søndergaard apparently doesn't exist, at least by my attempts to research her name online in connection to any citations for anthropological research.  Then let's take the photograph that was posted to "prove" the claims in the story:

So, on the surface, it does seem to be a photograph of some guy rescuing a naked woman sitting on a rock, and how many situations like this can have happened?  Turns out, it only took one, and it had nothing to do with elves; in March of 2011 the Daily Mail reported on the story of a woman in San Diego who had gotten stranded on a rock ledge trying to climb down to a nude beach, and had to be rescued from above.  Besides the very photograph that was used for the elves-in-Iceland story, the Daily Mail article had a series of further photographs showing the hapless nude sunbather being lifted to safety.

Then, there's the photograph that's supposedly of Kalena Søndergaard, prior to her harrowing experience with the Little Folk:

The problem is, this girl isn't named Kalena Søndergaard, she's not Danish, and she isn't an anthropologist.  Sharon Hill of the wonderful site Doubtful News found out that the photograph was grabbed from a Russian dating site -- probably selected because the girl looks vaguely like the woman in the rescue photograph.

So, due to the wonders of the internet, the whole thing was debunked in short order.  But the problem is that with hoaxes like this, often people only see the first half -- the claim -- and never run into the story disproving it.  It's probably human nature, of course.  Crazy claims have much more cachet than dry-as-dust debunkings do; who is going to forward a link making the not-too-earthshattering claim, "Elves don't exist?"

Anyhow, that's the straight scoop regarding the kidnapped Danish anthropologist and her terrifying encounter with the huldufólk.  The story is no more legitimate than the Crystal Pyramids of Atlantis thing or the Alien Mass Burial in Uganda thing.  Not that I expect this will make it die down -- for apparently one of the characteristics of bullshit is that once created, it never, ever goes away.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The evolution of Little Red Riding Hood

Every once in a while, I'll run across a piece of scientific research that is so creative and clever that it just warms my heart, and I felt this way yesterday when I stumbled onto a link to the article in PLoS ONE called "The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood," by Jamshid Tehrani of the University of Bristol.

The reason I was delighted by Tehrani's paper is that it combines two subjects I love -- evolutionary biology and mythology and folklore.  The gist of what Tehrani did is to use a technique most commonly used to assemble species into "star diagrams" -- cladistic bootstrap analysis -- to analyze worldwide versions of the "Little Red Riding Hood" story to see to what degree a version in (for example) Senegal was related to one in Germany.

Cladistic bootstrap analysis generates something called a "star diagram" -- not, generally, a pedigree or family tree, because we don't know the exact identity of the common ancestor to all of the members of the tree, all we can tell is how closely related current individuals are.  Think, for example, of what it would look like if you assembled the living members of your family group this way -- you'd see clusters of close relatives linked together (you, your siblings, and your first cousins, for example) -- and further away would be other clusters, made up of more distant relatives grouped with their near family members.

So Tehrani did this with the "Little Red Riding Hood" story, by looking at the similarities and differences, from subtle to major, between the way the tale is told in different locations.  Apparently there are versions of it all over the world -- not only the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales variety (the one I know the best), but from Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Korea, and Japan.  Oral transmission of stories is much like biological evolution; there are mutations (people change the story by misremembering it, dropping some pieces, embellishment, and so on) and there is selection (the best versions, told by the best storytellers, are more likely to be passed on).  And thus, the whole thing unfolds like an evolutionary lineage.

In Tehrani's analysis, he found three big branches -- the African branch (where the story is usually called "The Wolf and the Kids"), the East Asian branch ("Tiger Grandmother"), and the European/Middle Eastern Branch ("Little Red Riding Hood," "Catterinella," and "The Story of Grandmother").  (For the main differences in the different branches, which are fascinating but too long to be quoted here in full, check out the link to Tehrani's paper.)

Put all together, Tehrani came up with the following cladogram:

WK = "The Wolf and the Kids," TG = "Tiger Grandmother," "Catt" = "Catterinella," GM = "The Story of Grandmother," and RH = "Little Red Riding Hood;" the others are less common variations that Tehrani was able to place on his star diagram.

The whole thing just makes me very, very happy, and leaves me smiling with my big, sharp, wolflike teeth.

Pure research has been criticized by some as being pointless, and this is a stance that I absolutely abhor.  There is a completely practical reason to support, fund, and otherwise encourage pure research -- and that is, we have no idea yet what application some technique or discovery might have in the future.  A great deal of highly useful, human-centered science has been uncovered by scientists playing around in their labs with no other immediate goal than to study some small bit of the universe.  Further, the mere application of raw creativity to a problem -- using the tools of cladistics, say, to analyze a folk tale -- can act as an impetus to other minds, elsewhere, encouraging them to approach the problems we face in novel ways.

But I think it's more than that.  The fundamental truth here is that human mind needs to be exercised.  The "what good is it?" attitude is not only anti-science, it is anti-intellectual.  It devalues inquiry, curiosity, and creativity.  It asks the question "how does this benefit humanity?" in such a way as to imply that the sheer joy of comprehending deeply the world around us is not a benefit in and of itself.

It may be that Tehrani's jewel of a paper will have no lasting impact on humanity as a whole.  I'm perfectly okay with that, and I suspect Tehrani would be, as well.  We need to make our brains buckle down to the "important stuff," yes; but we also need to let them out to play sometimes, a lesson that the men and women currently overseeing our educational system need to learn.  In a quote that seems unusually apt, considering the subject of Tehrani's research, Albert Einstein said: "I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge.  Knowledge is limited.  Imagination encircles the world."

Friday, November 15, 2013

Magic rock knowledge

The one thing I appreciate most about science is that it gives you a standard protocol by which to determine if a claim is supported or not.

That's not to say that the scientists can't get it wrong.  They do.  But science is self-correcting -- it is based on evidence and logic, and if at some point evidence and logic send you in a different direction than the prevailing wisdom, you have to abandon the prevailing wisdom and head off where the arrow points.  So the oft-quoted criticism of science by high school students everywhere -- "Why do we have to learn this, when it could be proven wrong tomorrow?" -- is actually science's great strength.

Better than studying something whose "truths" couldn't be falsified whether you wanted to or not, where there is no way to tell if a claim is wrong or right, where the directive is "just believe it because."

And I'm not just pointing a finger at religion, here.  Much of pseudoscience operates by this same evidence-free approach.  Take, for example, the page called "The Health Effects of Gemstones" on the site PositiveMed.  On it, we are told that rocks can help us in all sorts of ways, from physical health to mental health to relationships to "activating various chakras."

As an example, we are told that fluorite "enhances memory, intellect, discernment, and concentration, (and) brings wisdom."  Which sounds nice, doesn't it?

(photograph courtesy of Rob Lavinsky,, and the Wikimedia Commons)

Selenite "stimulates brain activity, expand(s) awareness, develops telepathy, and symbolizes the clearest state of mind available."  Carnelian "enhances creativity and sexuality, recycles past-life experiences, (and) speeds up the law of karma."  Black obsidian is a "spiritual protector, (and) helps one to understand and face their [sic] deepest fears."  Labradorite, on the other hand, "protects ones [sic] aura, (and) keep(s) the aura clear, balanced, and free of energy leaks."

Psychic Fix-a-Flat, is kind of how I see the last-mentioned.

All through reading this, I was thinking, "How on earth do you know any of this?"  There is no possible evidence-based way that someone can have come up with this list; it very much has the hallmark of some gemstone salesperson making shit up to sell polished rocks to unsuspecting gullible people.  I very much doubt, for example, that anyone did an experiment by leaving his black obsidian home, and seeing whether his deepest fears were more or less terrifying to face that day.

The whole thing, then, is a completely fact-free way of knowing the world, which I find fairly incomprehensible.  Even before I knew much science, I remember pestering my parents about how they knew things were true, and (more specifically) how you could tell if something was real or not.  As a five-year-old, I remember having a discussion with my mom about how she knew that Captain Kangaroo was real but Bugs Bunny was not, since she had clearly never met either one in person.

A junior skeptic I was, even back then.

It is perpetually baffling to me that there are so many people who don't see the world that way -- a bias, I suppose, that represents my own set of blinders.  My failing as a thinker seems to be that I just can't quite bring myself to believe that everyone doesn't evaluate the truth or falsity of statements the same way I do.

So those are today's philosophical musings, brought about by a rather silly website about magic rocks.  And now that I've gotten this written, I should go and apply some aquamarine to my forehead, which is supposed to "encourage the expression of one's truth, (and) reduce fear and mental tension."  Heaven knows I could do with more of that, some days.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

One ring to fool them all

There are some swindles that are so clever that you can't help but feel a grudging admiration for someone who could pull them off straight-faced.

P. T. Barnum, he that observed that "There's a sucker born every minute" and who co-founded Barnum & Bailey's Circus, perpetrated some doozies in his life.  But I think my favorite was one that was brilliant in its simplicity.  In his circus, he'd sometimes put up a big, elaborately-painted sign that said, "This way to the Egress!"  You followed the arrows, and saw subsequent, even bigger and more attractive signs, until finally you got to one that said, "To experience the AMAZING EGRESS, if you dare, go through this door!"

So you go through the door, and find yourself outside the circus -- and then have to pay to re-enter.  Because "egress," of course, is just a fancy way of saying "exit."

I ran into an example of this just yesterday on The Million-Pound Page (subtitled "Have a Bright Future!"), where we meet a gentleman named Alex Chiu who has developed something called an "Immortality Ring."  Before I tell you about immortality rings, though, you should check out Alex's "About Me" page, wherein we find out a variety of weird facts about Alex, including:
  • He thinks that China should take back Taiwan, and that any Taiwanese who doesn't agree with him "doesn't deserve to be immortal."
  • If Hilary Duff threw herself bodily at him, Alex would still prefer his cat over her.
  • He has had four stepmothers.
  • He thinks Alicia Silverstone represents physical perfection.  No mention of whether he'd choose her over his cat, however.
None of this, of course, gives us any information supporting the contention that we should believe anything he says, so I guess we'll have to evaluate his "immortality rings" on their own merits.

So, what are they?  Apparently they're a pair of magnets encased in ceramic rings that you are supposed to wear, one on each pinky, and they'll give you eternal life.  There's a cheaper pair (at $28, plus shipping and handling), if you're satisfied with a bargain-basement kind of eternal life; or the upgraded neodymium-based pair (at $39, plus shipping and handling) if you want grade-A eternal life.  The better pair has a field of 21,000 gauss (compare that to 50 gauss for a typical refrigerator magnet) -- wearing something like that on both hands seems to me to be fraught with risks, such as completely fucking up every computer you walk by, attracting metallic objects like meat cleavers and sledgehammers, and possibly becoming accidentally stuck to the side of a moving city bus as you're crossing the street.

Remember this scene?  It didn't end well for Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius.

Be that as it may, Alex Chiu is claiming that if you wear his rings, you'll live forever, as long as you don't get your head chopped off in the kitchenware department of WalMart or get dragged to your death by a metro bus.  How does it work, you may ask?  Well, Alex Chiu has answers for you:
How do Eternal Life Devices fix the wounds and scars back to perfect or close to perfect, in order to free blood circulation?
Alex believes this is how it works: "Well, every cell in our body is a magnet. Cells have north and south poles. They attract each other. That's why cells form into a straight line. That is also how they form into a community, an animal body."
And lo, he has pictures to prove that cells form into a straight line:

So q.e.d, as far as I can tell.  Furthermore:
Cells with weak magnetic energy don't attract too well. Cells with strong magnetic flux attract to each other strongly and tighter. Just like magnets.  But strong magnets attract strongly and tight - just like human cells.  If cells are weak. if cells don't have enough magnetic flux, they break apart easily and heal back slowly, or sometimes don't heal back.
We then find out that if your cells don't have enough "magnetic flux" they grow back "unstraight" when you're injured, and you form scar tissue, which is bad.

But here's the punch line:
Now cells can grow back 100 percent or close to perfect. Remember, every cell is a magnet. If magnetic forces are applied, cells attract to each other more strongly. Ugly scars disappear. Cholesterol, which jammed in damaged areas, slowly desolves [sic]! If cholesterol desolves [sic], blood circulation is liberated. With blood circulation liberated, enough food and oxygen goes to every cell of your entire body. Then, at this stage, you turn physically younger or stay physically young FOREVER. You will have a never ageing [sic] body. Your body condition stays the SAME for years and years!!
Well, that might sound more attractive to me if I didn't already have arthritis to the point that my knees sound like velcro when I stand up.  But maybe the rings could fix that first, and then I could stay the same for years and years after that.

The most hilarious part of all of this, though, is that there's a money-back guarantee if they don't work.  But how could you apply for it?  Just imagine the phone call to customer service:
You:  I'd like to return my "immortality rings" for a refund.

Customer service: Why?  Are you dissatisfied with them?

You:  Yes, I don't think they're working.

Customer service:  Are you dead yet?

You:  No, but...

Customer service:  There you are, then!  100% success rate achieved!  What are you complaining about?
The whole thing reminds me of what Woody Allen said, when someone asked him what he'd like written on his gravestone.  He responded, "He's not here yet."

So, that's today's contribution from the Chutzpah Department.  I wish Alex Chiu luck, although I have to say that I won't be buying any magnetic rings.  I already have enough computer problems, and the other risks just don't seem to me to be worth it, even if I would end up with "cells forming into a straight line."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lies, evangelicals, and girly hats

Is it just me, or do others find it weird how much the Religious Right focuses on issues of sexuality, and ignore the other biblical rules?

And I'm not just talking, here, about the oft-quoted bits in Leviticus that are just plain weird, such as the prohibition against wearing cotton-polyester blends (Leviticus 19:19).  I'm talking about much bigger stuff.

The whole thing comes up because of Gordon Klingenschmitt, the outspoken evangelical Navy chaplain who has been increasingly in the news because of his vitriolic opposition to anything approaching LGBT equal rights.  Most recently, he weighed in on the story that President Obama was changing the United States Marine Corps dress uniform code to require unisex hats, which an article in the New York Post described as "so 'girly' that they would make the French blush."

I'll ignore the Post's obnoxious characterization of the French, which I would have thought would be beneath any reputable news source, because that snide little remark was minor compared to the outcry from conservatives that erupted when the story hit.  The howls from Fox News alone were enough to bring down the walls of Jericho.  And then Klingenschmitt and other members of the Religious Right took up the thread, claiming that the whole thing was part of an evil plot to turn the members of the military gay.

"You can't have men in the United States Marines wearing clothing that's designed for women," Klingenschmitt said, on his weekly show Pray in Jesus' Name. "So you know what President Obama's solution is?  To make all the uniforms the same.  And this is going to usher in the possibility of transgender, cross-dressing men who want to look like women, they'll be able to wear a women's uniform.  This is not just a fashion stunt, it's setting the stage for transgender cross-dressing men to enter the military.  This decision came down from on high, I guarantee it, and that's a demonic spirit."

Righty-o, Reverend Klingenschmitt.  The only problem is, the entire story is false.  There was no command from President Obama, no plan to change the design of the Marine Corps' dress hats, no evil desire to turn everyone in the military gay.  And worse still, Gordo, you knew that, didn't you?  Because immediately after the story hit the Post (and launched into Fox News), the Marine Corps' own news source -- Stars & Stripes -- ran a story debunking the whole thing.  "The president in no way, shape or form directed the Marine Corps to change our uniform cover," said an official statement from the Marine Corps headquarters.  "We are looking for a new cover for our female Marines for one overriding reason: The former manufacturer went out of business. … The Marine Corps has zero intention of changing the male cover."

That's right; given that the story from the Marine Corps headquarters predated both Klingenschmitt's screed, and most of the hoopla on Fox News (and that it took me a thirty-second Google search to find the story debunking the claim), it's not too far-fetched a surmise that Klingenschmitt, and the reporters on Fox News, weren't just wrong; they were lying.

So it's all very well for Klingenschmitt and his pals to indulge in their peculiar obsessions about what people might be doing in their bedrooms, and claiming biblical justification for their stance.  The problem is, doesn't the bible have a few things to say about lying?

Oh, yeah, like the Eighth Commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."  And Leviticus 19:11, "Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie to one another."  And Psalms 101:7, "He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house: he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight." And Proverbs 19:9, "A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall perish." And Jeremiah 9:3, "And they bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord."  Oh, and my favorite one: Zechariah 13:3, "...Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the Lord."

Hmm.  A few more lying-related verses to fret about, there in the bible, than there are ones defining what people are allowed to do with their naughty bits.  A bit worrisome, that.

It's funny to me, in a wry sort of way, how the evangelicals claim the moral high ground over atheists like myself, and yet so many of them are perfectly happy to twist the truth into knots to support whatever political position they prefer.   And they will stand there and declare, with no apparent sense of cognitive dissonance, that because my general attitude is that I don't give a rat's ass what two consenting adults do in their bedrooms (and, if they're having fun, more power to 'em), that I'm the one who is somehow evil and depraved.

On that count, Klingenschmitt et al. might want to refresh their memories about another biblical verse that comes to mind, namely Matthew 7:1-5: "Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?  Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?  Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

Monday, November 11, 2013

The different flavors of "why"

In my last few posts, we've been looking at some of the various reasons that people believe odd, counterfactual things.  We've looked at fear, wishful thinking, lack of knowledge, and being hoodwinked by fast-talking, plausible charlatans, each of which plays its role in drawing people into the ethereal realms of pseudoscience.

There's one more, though, that we haven't looked at; and that is the desperation people have to know why things happen.

Most folks are uncomfortable with the idea of chaos -- the thought that there are random forces at work in the world, that some things are simply the result of chaotic processes that we couldn't predict if we tried.  This idea was brilliantly investigated in Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which I can truly say is one of the few books that changed my life.  When I read it, in my Modern American Literature class when I was in 11th grade, I felt like my outlook on life would never be the same.

In it, Wilder's main character, Brother Juniper, an 18th century Franciscan monk, witnesses the collapse of a rope bridge in Peru.  Five people are on the bridge at the time, and all die.  He sets out to trace the history of the five victims, to see if there was some underlying reason why those five people, and no others, were killed.  And in the end, he realizes that if there was an explanation -- if god really did have a plan in engineering this situation -- it is so subtle that we could never know what it is.  And for this heresy, Brother Juniper and his book are both burned at the stake in the public square.

We always, somehow, want to know why.  And when science came along, there was a lot of hope that it would supplant religion in answering that question.  In some ways, it succeeded; but it didn't give people the answers to the "whys" that most were looking for, because there are different flavors of "why" -- and science is exceptionally good at answering one of them, and not so good at the other.

There are proximal "whys" and ultimate "whys," and the first is easy, and the second spectacularly difficult.  I saw a good example of the difference when, in an AP Biology class a few years ago, I asked, "Why are virtually all marsupials found in Australia?"

A student responded, in complete seriousness, "Because that's where they live."

Well, yes, but that's not what I was looking for.  I was looking for a deeper why -- an answer to the question of why marsupials had survived in Australia, but very few other places (the North American opossum being the sole counterexample).  And that's a difficult question, one that requires speculation.  Frequently questions of "ultimate why" either lead to unprovable guesses, or else are outside of the provenance of science to answer.

Which is why people have been turning to woo-woo craziness to explain the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan has wreaked upon the Philippines this past weekend.

Why did the typhoon form?  Why did it become so powerful?  Why did it take the path it did?  Science can explain how it formed, and give some answers to the proximal "whys," answers that involve steering currents and sea-surface temperatures.  But as far as the ultimate "why" -- why Haiyan devastated the city of Tacloban, why it struck where it did and not somewhere else -- science is silent.

So we're already seeing the nonsense rearing its ugly head.  Haiyan was created as part of a super-secret experiment by the US military, using a microwave burst.  It was sent on the path it took because the US was trying to divert radioactive water coming our way from Fukushima.  Even further out, we have loony evangelicals claiming that god sent Haiyan to devastate the mostly-Catholic Philippines in order to punish them for "worshiping idols."

It's not hard to see how some people see science as offering incomplete answers.  Because it does, honestly.  Whenever we're in the realm of "why" we have to be careful, as scientists, because the ultimate "whys" often don't admit easy explanation.  Even such simple "whys," often taught in elementary school science classes, as "why do giraffes have long necks?" are almost certainly oversimplified answers to questions that are much more difficult to answer than they would have appeared at first glance.

So no wonder some turn to other realms, where the answers to "whys" come hard and fast -- conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and (okay, I know I'm gonna get flak for this) religion.  Those models for understanding the world give the comfort of explaining why things happen -- sometimes, even the horrid things like illnesses, accidental deaths, personal losses... and typhoons.  Science is silent on the ultimate "whys," most of the time, and if you are uncomfortable with that, you either have to do what I do -- remain uncomfortable -- or leap outside of science.

Because, as Brother Juniper learned, if you don't make that leap, you just have to accept that sometimes the events in the world are subtle and unexplainable.