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, March 31, 2014

Cane toads and climate change

My dear Skeptophiles,

Skeptophilia is rapidly approaching ONE MILLION HITS, and we are sponsoring a 50/50 contest that you can win by guessing exactly when the millionth hit will occur!

As of Friday, 3/28, at 2:00 PM, the pageviews ticker was about 980,828, and at that point we took the counter down.  We've been averaging about a thousand hits a day, with a range of about 700 to about 1,400 on average days.  The highest number of hits in one day was a little over 70,000 -- but as great as that would be, it's not at all the norm, nor is it expected again soon!

It's $10 to enter the pool, and the winner (whoever guesses the closest) will get half, the other half going to support Skeptophilia.  To enter the pool, send $10 either by mail (contact info at CBGB-Arts) or use PayPal to with your name, contact information, and best guess as to when the millionth hit will occur (date and time - specify AM or PM).  Closest guess wins and will be announced on April 19 (assuming it's occurred by then)!

The pool will be split in case of a tie.

Have fun and here's to a million hits!




Humans, sad to say, have a fairly lousy track record for fixing problems that they've created through their own negligence and/or stupidity.

Take, for example, the case of the gray-backed cane beetle, a native Australian insect that is a pest on sugar cane.  Back in the 1930s, sugar cane growers were having a devil of a time with the beetle, because not only do the larvae feed on the roots, the adults feed on the leaves, creating a double whammy that was playing hell with the crop yields.  So someone thought it'd be a smart idea to introduce the cane toad, a South American species with a voracious appetite, as a way of controlling the beetle.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem was that the individual who introduced them seemed to be unaware that beetles can fly and the majority of toads cannot.  Also, the toads are venomous, get huge, eat damn near everything in sight up to and including small mammals, and reproduce like mad.  The result: northeastern Australia still has cane beetles, and now it also has to contend with the cane toad, which seems to be spreading slowly south and west.

So I'm perhaps to be forgiven for expressing some doubt when I hear someone saying about an ecological problem, "Hey, this will fix it!"  Which is why, when my buddy and fellow writer Andrew Butters (of the wonderful blog Potato Chip Math) sent me an article proposing to use geoengineering to solve climate change, my immediate response was, "This may be the dumbest fucking idea I've heard in years."

The idea is not new, but it has a new champion; David Keith, professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard.  And in the article I linked above, Chris Wodskou (writing for CBC News) tells us that what Keith is thinking about is not on a small scale:
Geoengineering is an attempt to arrest the course of climate change through a number of different schemes, such as seeding the atmosphere with reflective particles.  Or putting gigantic mirrors in orbit around the Earth to reflect sunlight back to space.  Or fertilizing the ocean with iron to stimulate the growth of carbon-absorbing plankton...  [Keith] is
particularly interested in solar geoengineering, or solar radiation management, which would involve putting tiny sulphur particles into the stratosphere, where they would reflect solar energy back to space.
Keith acknowledges the controversial nature of what he is proposing; in fact, he calls it a "brutally ugly technological fix" that does not get at the root of the problem.  But nevertheless, he says, we should be giving it serious consideration:
Carbon dioxide is like filling a bathtub.  The climate risk comes from the historical sum of all emissions.  The only way to stop adding to that risk is to stop putting more carbon dioxide in.  But let’s say you’re going to stop carbon dioxide emissions over 100 years.  If you do this solar geoengineering, you could spread out the climate change over 200 years, slowing down the amount of climate change, and I would say most climate risks have to do with the rate of change.
Well, okay, I agree with that, but there's a big "if" -- and that is "if we understand completely what the results of the geoengineering will be."  It took us 150 years just to notice the global result of all of the additional carbon dioxide we were adding to the atmosphere (counting the start date as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, give or take).  It's taken us another sixty to come to a reasonable scientific consensus, but due to special interests, the media, and sheer human pigheadedness, we are still yet to get up off our asses and do something about it.

And compare the results of climate change with the predictions.  Some of the predictions haven't come true, or at least not yet (e.g. the slowing of the Atlantic Conveyor).  Others have (e.g. loss of Arctic pack ice and the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves).  Some results have been entirely unexpected, such as this year's unhinged winter, with the northeastern United States being socked with temperatures that were more than once colder on the same day than Fairbanks, Alaska and Irkutsk, Siberia.

Honestly, though, this is more or less what the climate scientists expected.  You can't perturb a complex system like global climate and expect it to behave like a clockwork.

So why in the hell do we think we can perturb it even more and that this will somehow push it back into equilibrium?  Isn't it far more likely that the further perturbation will only serve to destabilize the climate more, and in far more unpredictable ways?

Listen, I'm no conspiracy theorist, as regular readers of this blog will know well enough.  My doubt about this plan isn't because I'm afraid of some Big Bad Government Plot To Destroy Us All (undoubtedly using HAARP and chemtrails and so forth).  It's more that we have shown, over and over, that we simply don't know enough to try some kind of brute force approach with this problem, simply because the one real solution -- cutting back on fossil fuels -- is too bitter a pill to swallow.

For cryin' in the sink, if we can't get something as simple as the cane toad right, what makes us think that we can manhandle climate change into submission?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The stone hand illusion

One of the reasons I trust science is that I have so little trust in my own brain's ability to assess correctly the nature of reality.

Those may sound like contradictions, but they really aren't.  Science is a method that allows us to evaluate hard data -- measurements by devices that are designed to have no particular biases.  By relying on measurements from machines, we are bypassing our faulty sensory equipment, which can lead us astray in all sorts of ways.  In Neil deGrasse Tyson's words, "[Our brains] are poor data-taking devices... that's why we have machines that don't care what side of the bed they woke up on that morning, that don't care what they said to their spouse that day, that don't care whether they had their morning caffeine.  They'll get the data right regardless."

But we still believe that we're seeing what's real, don't we?  "I saw it with my own eyes" is still considered the sine qua non for establishing what reality is.  Eyewitness testimony is still the strongest evidence in courts of law.  Because how could it be otherwise?  Maybe we miss minor things, but how could we get it so far wrong?

A scientist in Italy just knocked another gaping hole in our confidence that our brain can correctly interpret the sensory information it's given -- this time with an actual hammer.

Some of you may have heard of the "rubber hand illusion" that was created in an experiment back in 1998 by Matthew Botvinick and Jonathan Cohen.  In this experiment, the two scientists placed a rubber hand in view of a person whose actual hand is shielded from view by a curtain.  The rubber hand is stroked with a feather at the same time as the person's real (but out-of-sight) hand receives a similar stroke -- and within minutes, the person becomes strangely convinced that the rubber hand is his hand.

The Italian experiment, which was just written up this week in Discover Online, substitutes an auditory stimulus for the visual one -- with an even more startling result.

Irene Senna, professor of psychology at Milono-Bicocca University in Milan, rigged up a similar scenario to Botvinick and Cohen's.  A subject sits with one hand through a screen.  On the back of the subject's hand is a small piece of foil which connects an electrical lead to a computer.  The subject sees a hammer swinging toward her hand -- but the hammer stops just short of smashing her hand, and only touches the foil gently (but, of course, she can't see this).  The touch of the hammer sends a signal to the computer -- which then produces a hammer-on-marble chink sound.

And within minutes, the subject feels like her hand has turned to stone.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What is impressive about this illusion is that the feeling persists even after the experiment ends, and the screen is removed -- and even though the test subjects knew what was going on.  Subjects felt afterwards as if their hands were cold, stiff, heavier, less sensitive.  They reported difficulty bending their wrists.

To me, the coolest thing about this is that our knowledge centers, the logical and rational prefrontal cortex and associated areas, are completely overcome by the sensory-processing centers when presented with this scenario.  We can know something isn't real, and simultaneously cannot shake the brain's decision that it is real.  None of the test subjects was crazy; they all knew that their hands weren't made of stone.  But presented with sensory information that contradicted that knowledge, they couldn't help but come to the wrong conclusion.

And this once again illustrates why I trust science, and am suspicious of eyewitness reports of UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, and the like.  Our brains are simply too easy to fool, especially when emotions (particularly fear) run high.  We can be convinced that what we're seeing or hearing is the real deal, to the point that we are unwilling to admit the possibility of a different explanation.

But as Senna's elegant little experiment shows, we just can't rely on what our senses tell us.  Data from scientific measuring devices will always be better than pure sensory information.  To quote Tyson again:  "We think that the eyewitness testimony of an authority -- someone wearing a badge, or a pilot, or whatever -- is somehow better than the testimony of an average person.  But no.  I'm sorry... but it's all bad."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Attack of the sex goblins

It strikes me as kind of curious that paranormal creatures always seem to show up amongst people who already believe in them.

Odd, isn't it?  And I'm not talking about cryptids, per se -- creatures that, if they exist, might be expected to have a native range just like any other animal.  I'm talking about real supernatural entities like the Jinn (who, strangely enough, are never seen outside of the Middle East), Trolls (more or less limited to Scandinavia), and the Tokoloshe (ditto South Africa).

It's a funny thing.  I mean, if they really are powerful, and can appear wherever they want to, I would think that on the whole it would be more effective for some of these creatures to show up in front of complete non-believers.  Like, at a stockholder's meeting, or something.  Can you imagine?  Especially if it was the Tokoloshe, a grotesque being that is supposed to run around naked, and to have an enormous penis and only one buttock?

I don't know about you, but I would love to see the look on Donald Trump's face.

But it never happens that way.  The big, dramatic appearances are always around people who already are convinced such things exist.  Usually while they're alone.

I wonder why that is.

The question comes up because of an incident at a school in Zimbabwe last week, wherein Headmaster Peter Moyo has been accused of terrorizing his students with goblins that are under his command.  Why Mr. Moyo would do such a thing isn't clear; and the specific accusations are peculiar, to say the least:
Villagers in Dongamuzi area under Chief Gumede in Lupane are demanding the transfer of Ekuphakameni Secondary School headmaster Mr Peter Moyo, whom they accuse of owning goblins that have been terrorising pupils and teaching staff at the school.  Last term lessons at the school were disrupted for almost two weeks after teachers abandoned the school following several nights of sexual abuse by the alleged goblins...

Female teachers at the school claimed that during the night they would dream making love to someone and woke up the next morning with signs that they would have actually had sex during the night.

Some male teachers also claimed that they woke up every morning wearing female panties whose origin they did not know.

Villagers have called for the transfer of the school head whom they say was fingered during a recent cleansing ceremony held at the school.
Notwithstanding the fact that given the nature of the accusations, they could have chosen their wording better than to say that Mr. Moyo was "fingered" at the cleansing ceremony.

Be that as it may, the ceremony appears to have helped:
A cleansing ceremony dubbed Wafawafa, was held at the school on 5 March this year by the International Healers’ Association, during which the villagers say Mr Moyo was exposed after an assortment of paraphernalia associated with witchcraft was recovered from his bedroom.

A village head from the area, Mr Emmanuel Chasokela Maseko, said normalcy had returned to the school since the cleansing ceremony was held but insisted that Mr Moyo should be transferred from the school as he was a risk to the community.
So... Mr. Moyo was exposed, was he?  Okay, that's it; you need to repeat the journalism class in "Avoiding Double Entendres."

But anyway, what strikes me about all of this is that (1) the appearance of panties and the "signs of having had sex" could both be accounted for by the people in question actually having had sex, and then not wanting to admit it; and (2) the goblins seem like a convenient way to get rid of the headmaster, especially if he knew about the nighttime shenanigans and was trying to put a stop to it.  Only a supposition, but this seems more likely to me than there being a real Pack of Sex Goblins under Mr. Moyo's command.

But since the authorities obviously believe in goblins who visit at night to have their wicked way with you, it appears that poor Mr. Moyo is out of a job.

[The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781: image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So that's our excursion into the regional nature of supernatural entities.  It's a pity, really.  I'd love it if a Frost Giant showed up up at my school.  We've had the right kind of winter for it; and it might cut down on misbehavior.  "Okay, that's the third homework assignment you've missed this week.  Into the cave with the Frost Giant."

But you never get that kind of break when you need it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Strong medicine

Pleo-FORT, Pleo-QUENT, Pleo-NOT, Pleo-STOLO, Pleo-NOTA-QUENT, and Pleo-EX are all names of homeopathic "remedies" that are being sold as cures for infections of various kinds.  All of them are made from extracts of molds from the genus Penicillum, which is then (as is typical with these remedies) diluted until there's basically none of the original substance left.  As an example, here's what the site Natural Healthy Concepts has to say about Pleo-QUENT:
Pleo QUENT (Quentakehl) Drops 5X is a homeopathic decongestant medicine indicated for supporting the temporary relief of congestion due to colds and minor respiratory infections*.
  • Supports the temporary relief of congestion due to colds and minor respiratory infections* 
  • Quentakehl is indicated for acute, chronic and latent viral conditions* 
  • Quentakehl, extracted from the mold-fungus Penicillium glabrum, is not an antibiotic and produces no antibiotic substances. Therefore, there are no side-effects which could occur during an antibiotic treatment, such as allergies, liver damage, destruction of the intestinal flora and the formation of penicillin-resistant strains.
You could, of course, change the line about "no side effects" to read "no effects whatsoever" and the sentence would still be true.  A 5x serial dilution means that you now have 9,999 parts water added to 1 part of the original substance -- a dilution which would render far more dangerous substances than mold extract completely harmless.

[image courtesy of photographer Casey West and the Wikimedia Commons]

So imagine my surprise when I found out that Terra-Medica, Inc., the company that manufactures the various Pleo-WHATEVERS, is voluntarily recalling 56 lots of the "remedies."  Here's part of the statement from Terra-Medica:
Terra-Medica, Inc. is voluntarily recalling 56 lots of Pleo-FORT, Pleo-QUENT, Pleo-NOT, Pleo-STOLO, Pleo-NOTA-QUENT, and Pleo-EX homeopathic drug products in liquid, tablet, capsule, ointment, and suppository forms to the consumer level. FDA has determined that these products have the potential to contain penicillin or derivatives of penicillin.
If you're wondering if you read that right, you did:  Terra-Medica is recalling these remedies because they have actual medically active ingredients in them.

Just reading the headline in the Patheos article I linked above, which says, and I quote, "Homeopathic Products Recalled Because They Might Have Actual Medicine In Them," made me choke-snort an entire mouthful of coffee.  This might, in fact, be the best headline I've read in years.

Because, let's face it: we wouldn't want anything potentially effective sneaking into our homeopathic remedies.  *brief pause to stop guffawing uncontrollably*

Terra-Medica is, I have to admit, doing the right thing; if there really is penicillin in the "remedies" they're selling, then some poor misguided soul, who evidently failed high school biology and thought he could cure his cold by taking drops of water, could be killed if said poor misguided soul was also unlucky enough to have a penicillin allergy.  But that the chemical they suspect of having contaminated their "remedies" is an actual medicine is a circumstance that brings the term "poetic justice" to whole new levels.

You have to wonder how much longer the homeopaths will be allowed to remain in business, what with admissions like this one (not to mention an increasing number of websites devoted to debunking the whole thing, including What's the Harm, which is devoted to stories of people who were injured or killed by taking a homeopathic remedy instead of seeking conventional medical care).  There is no scientific support whatsoever for this practice; it is pseudoscience at its worst, because not only is it ripping people off, it's putting lives and health in jeopardy.  By not taking proven, effective, safe medications for treatable diseases, people are risking protracted illness, complications, and death, not only for themselves but (worse) for their children.  Simply put, a sugar pill or a bottle of water from which virtually all biologically active molecules have been removed will not treat disease.

Which makes the strong medicine that Terra-Medica is having to swallow taste pretty sweet to me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lost and found

Every once in a while I'll run across something and think, "Yeah, I remember hearing about that," but even after thinking about it, I can't bring back to mind much in the way of detail.  So it was today when a friend of mine, who is a loyal reader and frequent contributor to Skeptophilia, sent me a link along with the message, "Take the bait, little mouse... take the bait."

Of course, I couldn't let something like that just sit there, so I clicked on the link.  Which is just what he intended.  And the link turned out to be about the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  And I thought, "Don't they have something to do with the Babylonian Captivity?  And Mormons?  Or something?"

So before I tell you what the link had to say -- which is truly stunning, and for which I should give you a while to prepare either your mind or else a strong drink -- let's look at what I found out when I did some research on the Ten Lost Tribes.

Apparently the idea is that of the twelve tribes of ancient Judea, ten of them were overrun by the Assyrians somewhere around 722 B.C.E. and deported, presumably because they had done something naughty in god's sight, which always seemed to be what kicked off these kinds of mass genocides.  In any case, the whole lot of them were killed or else sold off into slavery, and were never more seen or heard of.  Except that (1) a good many reputable historians seem to think that the whole thing is a myth, and (2) now everyone and his next-door-neighbor is claiming descent from them even though there seems to be no hard evidence of any of it.

We have the Chinese (Kaifeng) Jews.  We have the Bnei Menashe of India.  We have the Igbo Jews of Nigeria.  We have the Pashtun of Afghanistan.  We have the Cimmerians of the Caucasus.  We have the Beta Israel of Ethiopia.  Further afield, we even have a few wackos who think the Japanese are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes.  And further afield yet (in fact, given the spherical nature of the Earth, about as far afield as you can get) are the Mormons, who think that the Native Americans are actually of Ten Lost Tribes descent, despite no archaeological, genetic, or any other kind of support for the contention.

So a great many people are of the opinion that the Ten Lost Tribes aren't really all that lost.  In fact, if you believe half of the tales out there, you'd come away with the impression that you can't swing a stick without hitting a Ten Lost Tribesman.

What may come as an even greater surprise, though, is that I haven't told you the wackiest theory on record about these Palestinian Hide-and-Seek World Champions.  Because the website that my friend sent me claims that the Ten Lost Tribes are actually...

... inside the Earth.

And I don't mean underground, as in caverns or something.  I mean that the Earth is hollow, and the Ten Lost Tribes vanished because they found a big hole up at the North Pole and went down there and haven't come out since.  And they're not the only ones down there, either:
What is Our Hollow Earth like?

It is a terrestrial paradise,
...where the original Garden of Eden is located today
...where the Lost Tribes of Israel live
...where the Political Kingdom of God is located
...where the Lost Viking Colonies of Greenland migrated to
...where vanquished Germans migrated to after World War II
...where flying saucers come from
...where people live to be hundreds of years old in perfect health
...where peace and prosperity exists for everyone
...where Heaven is located (the inner sun)
Well, with all of that inside the Earth, no wonder they stayed lost, although you have to question how nice it would be given the presence of Vikings and Nazis.  But maybe if everyone has been living for centuries in peace, prosperity, and health, there's no reason for the Vikings and Nazis to engage in rape, pillage, plunder, and mass executions any more.

I dunno.  But on the website there are all sorts of testimonials from people who claim to have been inside the Earth, so I took a look at the first one, which was written in the 19th century by one Willis Emerson, who was (he said) recording the narrative of an Olaf Jansen of Sweden.  Jansen claimed to have sailed north into the Arctic and ended up going down some kind of hole into an "inner land" inhabited by giant beautiful people who spoke "something like Sanskrit."  The whole thing sounded like Jules Verne on acid, so I can't say I was all that impressed.

We also have Phoebe Marie Holmes, who claims to have visited the Sun.  Yes, the real Sun, not the "inner sun" that the Hollow Earth people claim is where the Earth's core should be, along with the stars and galaxies and all:

Note: diagram not to scale.

Holmes wrote all about it in a book called, surprisingly,  My Visit to The Sun, in which she claims that the New Jerusalem is being built there for us by Jesus and all the Saints, in the interior of the Sun, because apparently it's hollow, too.

How she got there, being that the Sun is kind of hot and all, I'm not sure.  Perhaps she went at night.

In any case, the whole site reads like an Encyclopedia Wingnuttica, so I spent most of it torn between laughing and looking around for the footnote that said, "Ha ha.  This is a satire."  But no, however bizarre it seems, these people are sincere.

What did sort of impress me, though, is that the header for the site says that the information contained therein qualifies as "WORLD TOP SECRET."  So secret, in fact, that you would never find it unless you Googled "World Top Secret Hollow Earth."

Or else had a friend who knows just how to bait you just right to get you to open a ridiculous link.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Elegy for an unpredictable universe

I was asked not too long ago how, as an atheist, I cope with tragedy.

"I don't see how you could possibly find a way to understand loss and grief," my friend said, "without some sense that there's a larger meaning in the universe."

In some ways, of course, I don't.  Not only do I not believe there's meaning in the universe (at least not in the sense he meant), I don't understand loss and grief at all.  I experience it, all too deeply -- I've lost both parents and a beloved grandmother, not to mention friends and colleagues.  It's impossible to live 53 years without going through the sorrow that comes with knowing that you will never, ever see someone you care about again.

But it is when the magnitude of the loss is amplified -- as it was yesterday with the announcement that Malaysia Flight 370 was almost certain to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 people on board -- that we struggle hardest to wrap our brains around what has happened.  How could the world be so built, we think, that something like this could occur?

It brings back one of the formative books of my teenage years, Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  This book chronicles the search by the 17th century Franciscan monk Brother Juniper, who is shocked when a bridge in his Peruvian village collapses, killing six people.  He is a devout man, and is certain that god must have had a reason for bringing those six onto the bridge, and no others, in time to die when the cable holding the bridge aloft snapped.  So he traces the life history of each of the six, trying to see if he can discern a pattern -- to see if he can read god's mind, determine what it was that led those particular six people to die when hundreds of others crossed the bridge daily and survived.

In the end, of course, he fails; and he concludes that either god's mind is too subtle, too deep to parse, or else there is no pattern, and things simply happen because they happen.

 It is a devastating conclusion.

Brother Juniper's search for meaning in apparent chaos is the genesis, I think, of religion, not to mention other worldviews perhaps less sanctified.  When you think about it, conspiracy theories come from the same place; a desperate need for there to be a reason, even a dark one, behind all of the bad stuff that happens in the world.  It seems that many of us would rather there be an explanation -- even if, in Christopher Moore's vivid turn of phrase, it involves "heinous fuckery most foul."  Better that than the universe being some kind of giant pinball game.

And in extremis, even we atheists still look for explanations, don't we?  Faced with tragedy, the first thing I've asked is, "Why me?", as if there is some answer to that question that is even possible given my philosophical worldview.  But it's a natural inclination, and seems to be universal to the human condition.  It is this aghast recognition that the world could treat us this badly that was captured in the starkly beautiful painting by Eugène Delacroix, depicting a Greek woman looking at the ruins of her home after her town was sacked by the Turks:

Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, 1826 [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Sometimes there is no reason, no pattern; the world's machinery seems to work much of the time without any regard to us at all.  I flew Malaysia Airlines a year and a half ago, from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, and arrived there safely; two weeks ago, a similar bunch of passengers, expecting (as I did) nothing more than a few hours of tedium, ended their lives in the turbulent waters of the Indian Ocean.  And if you think that the phrase "there but for the grace of god go I" hasn't gone through my head more than once in the last few days, you're sorely mistaken.

Of course, for an atheist, that phrase is only a metaphor, and perhaps not even a very good one.  I don't have the recourse of falling back on "they're with god now" or even "god has a plan."  All I'm left with is a sense that the universe is a strange, chaotic, and unpredictable place, full of beauty and goodness and love and pleasure, and pain and danger and fear and death, sometimes meted out in unequal parts and in ways that I will never really comprehend.  But I do know one thing: we need to be more conscious, right now, about the gratitude and compassion with which we treat the people around us.  None of us have any idea how many minutes we will be given; none of us have time to waste.  Hug your loved ones, your friends, your pets -- hell, hug total strangers if you want to.  There is nothing certain about tomorrow, so you damn well better make every second of today count.

As Thornton Wilder put it in the last line of The Bridge of San Luis Rey: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead; and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fair and balanced nonsense

I suppose by now that I should have expected something like this, but still, I was surprised when I heard that the creationists are now asking for airtime for their views, so that the media can be more "fair and balanced."

It's another jab at Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos again, of course.  Tyson is, as I mentioned in a recent post, unabashedly supportive of the evolutionary model, as well he should be; if you accept the methods of science at all, the amount of evidence in favor of evolution (and the complete dearth of evidence for any other competing model) leaves you little room to escape.  But that doesn't stop people from disbelieving, and it certainly didn't stop folks like Ken Ham from squalling like mad when Tyson called creationists simply "wrong."

What I didn't expect, though, was that the creationists were going to turn things around and demand that they have equal air time for their views, in the interest of fairness.

The idea jumped into public media a couple of days ago when Danny Faulkner of Answers In Genesis and the Creation Museum appeared on The Janet Mefferd Show.  Mefferd opened the topic up by asking if Cosmos will "ever give a creationist any time," and Faulkner answered that "creationists aren’t even on the radar screen for them, they wouldn’t even consider us plausible at all."

Mefferd said in response that Tyson and the writers of Cosmos weren't playing fair.  "Boy, but when you have so many scientists who simply do not accept Darwinian evolution," she said, "it seems to me that that might be something to throw in there, you know, the old, 'some scientists say this, others disagree and think this,' but that’s not even allowed."  (To listen to an audio recording of the interview, go here.)

There are two problems, of increasing seriousness, with this statement.

First, would you care to name for me the "so many scientists" who do not accept evolution?  There might be a few non-biologists, perhaps.  Amongst biologists, I think you'd be hard pressed to find more than one or two serious doubters -- and I would argue that even those, if they indeed exist, inhabit some sort of fringe-y twilight zone of biological research.  I.e.: I suspect they're cranks, not serious researchers.  At this point in the game, a biologist doubting evolution would be a little like a chemist doubting the periodic table.

A second, and more troubling problem, is that Mefferd and Faulkner think science needs to be "fair."  Wherever did they get that idea?

Now, don't get me wrong; in many circumstances, fairness is a good thing.  I try to deal with my students fairly; I expect to be treated fairly in business; I expect politicians to engage in fair dealings.  In any kind of human social interactions, fairness forms a good base guideline for behavior.

But science... science isn't fair at all.

Why not?  Well, partly it's because the universe isn't fair either.  There is absolutely no reason why the universe has to behave in such a way as to make me happy.  On a simplistic level, I would love it if magic was possible, if there was life after death, if there were friendly aliens who paid us visits periodically (I'm thinking of the wonderful final scene in Star Trek: First Contact).  Hell, while I'm wishing, I wish I could fly.  But there is no reason to believe that just because I'd like something to be a certain way, that the universe must conform to my wishes.  And more to the point, if science finds out different -- e.g., if controlled studies show that my magic wand can not make my dog levitate -- then science isn't being unfair to me.

It's simply showing me how things are.

[image courtesy of photographer Des Colhoun and the Wikimedia Commons]

So in a way, I misstated the fact; it's not that science isn't fair, it's that it's kind of above considerations of fairness and unfairness.  It deals with what is demonstrably real, and leads our understanding where the evidence takes us.  If that's a different place than where we'd hoped to be, well... too bad, so sad.

And there is no reason in the world that any responsible media outlet should feel compelled to give the creationists equal time, any more than I should be encouraged to teach the Theory of Magical Dog Levitation in my science classes.  Creationism and Magical Dog Levitation are both supported by equal amounts of hard evidence (i.e., zero), and therefore to give time to either one wouldn't be fair, it would be idiotic.

But of course, the media is not controlled by what is scientifically sound, it's controlled by what gets viewers (and therefore, what gets sponsors and makes money).  Witness what has happened in the past few years to the This Really Has Nothing To Do With History Channel.  So I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see a series coming down the line called The Six Days of Creation.

At least I can feel some joy in the knowledge that whoever they'd get to narrate it wouldn't be nearly as badass as Neil deGrasse Tyson, because he seems to have cornered the market on badassery these days.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Throwing the first stone

Occasionally I hear about someone doing something so simple, powerful, and admirable that it makes my jaw drop a little.

It also often makes me wish I'd thought of doing something like it first.

Some of my readers may have heard about the Atlah World Missionary Church of Harlem, New York, whose pastor, one James David Manning, put the message "Jesus Would Stone Homos" in front of his church last week.

This isn't the first time that Manning's church has posted homophobic messages.  Two weeks ago, in what may be a world record for the number of different groups offended by the fewest words, he simultaneously pissed off feminists, atheists, LGBTQ people, non-racists, and liberals with the sign, "Obama has released the homo demons on the black man.  Look out black woman.  A white homo may take your man."

He even had a YouTube video -- now removed -- in which he said, "Stoning of the homos is now in order.  Stoning is still the law."

It's an open question how reasonable people should respond to this sort of thing.  Being that here in the US we're guaranteed free speech, it is Manning's right to post stuff like this.  But a lot of us feel a sense of impotent rage that he can get away with it.  Shouldn't there be a way to shut down his message?

Jennifer Louise Lopez found one.

Lopez showed up at Manning's church, and while someone videotaped, she told the person who answered the door that she was a lesbian, and was there for her stoning.

In what may be one of the most wonderful exchanges ever recorded -- and which you can watch on the link above -- the following conversation took place:
Lopez: I saw your sign.  And I'm here for my stoning.  I'm a lesbian.  You guys are going to stone me?   ...Is it you that's going to stone me?"

Man at church door:  No, I don't have any stones.

Lopez:  Are you going to send a person to stone me?

Man at church door:  He's not here.  Come back tomorrow.

Lopez:  So, you're not going to stone me?  All right, thank you.
To which I can only respond:

Time to call the biblical literalists' bluff.  You want the United States to function under biblical law?  Fine.  Here is my list of offenses against the laws in the Book of Leviticus, or at least the ones I'm willing to admit publicly and in print:
  • I'm a nonbeliever
  • I'm married to a nonbeliever
  • I've actively worked to convince people to question their religion
  • I was a stubborn and rebellious son
  • I work on the sabbath
  • I eat shellfish and pork
  • I have tattoos
  • I wear clothing made of mixed types of thread
There, I think those should be enough.

Dear biblical literalists: I'm standing with Jennifer Lopez, and with, I think, a great many other Americans.  We admit our transgressions against biblical law.  We're all here to be executed.

Go ahead.  Pick up a stone, and throw it at us.

I dare you.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Infinite stars, important dust, and light's vacation home

I get the oddest emails sometimes.

I guess it's an occupational hazard.  Some of them are very earnest, trying to get me to see the error of my ways and just believe in (circle one: homeopathy, astrology, auras, psychic energy fields, ghosts, Bigfoot, chakras, god).  Others are angry at me for not believing in any of the above, and call me all sorts of names, sometimes giving me anatomically impossible suggestions as a bonus.

The most puzzling ones, though, are when someone simply sends me a link.  What am I supposed to do with this?  Is it an appeal to believe whatever the website is claiming?  Is it a suggestion for a future blog post?  Is the sender trying to convert me?  Or is it a case of trolling -- sending me something intended to raise my blood pressure to near aneurysm levels?

I got one of those types yesterday -- an unsigned email from an address I did not recognize, with a link to the site "Scientific Proof of the Bible."  Clearly I couldn't see a site with that title and not click the link.  If the individual who sent it was fishing for skeptics, (s)he hooked one on the first try.

The site has the following header:
The Bible is estimated to have been written between 1450 B.C. and 95 A.D. This chart shows scientific facts and principles referred to in this ancient Bible, but not actually discovered by humankind until later centuries. Dead sea scrolls, historical documentation, and word of mouth all confirm the authenticity of the Bible. Since people had no official knowledge of these scientific facts until more than a thousand years after the Bible was written, is this scientific proof that the Bible was inspired by God?
There follows a list of scientific facts and claims, the bible verse that allegedly predicted them, and the year that the scientists finally discovered them (proving the bible right after the fact, is the implication).  For instance we have "Light is a particle and has mass (a photon)," which I think is supposed to be some kind of description of the wave/particle duality of light (I'm being generous, here).  The scientists discovered this in 1932 (says the website), but it had been predicated thousands of years earlier, in Job 38:19.  So I looked up Job 38:19, and it says: "Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof?"

Well, I don't know about you, but as far as I can see, that has fuck-all to do with photons.  Other than the mention of the word "light," that is.  And it implies, incorrectly, that light dwelleth somewhere, as if light had a vacation home in Palm Beach or something.

So I thought, okay, maybe that was just a bad example.  So I tried "An infinite number of stars exist," which was supposedly predicted by Genesis 15:5.  Here's Genesis 15:5: "And he brought him [Abraham] forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be."

Well, the number of Abraham's descendants isn't infinite.  In fact, it isn't even close to the number of stars in our galaxy alone (currently estimated at about 300 billion).  So this one isn't so much irrelevant as it is simply wrong.

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

So then I looked at "Dust is important to survival," allegedly discovered by scientists in 1935.  And it's true, I suppose; dust storms carry minerals out over the oceans, and have a great effect on oceanic productivity.  But the quote that allegedly should have told those silly scientists all they needed to know about the phenomenon millennia ago is Isaiah 40:12, which says, "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of Earth in a measure, and weighed out the mountains in scales, and the hills with a balance?"

Well, I certainly haven't, but the preceding verse seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with dust being "important for survival."

Then we have "Radio astronomy (stars give off signals)," which brings us back to the Book of Job -- Job 38:7, to be specific.  And that verse is: "When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy."

By this point, I was thinking, "Oh, come on.  Is that really the best you can do?"  Because a lot of the rest of them were patently ridiculous -- like claiming that it took scientists until the 19th century to realize that blood was necessary for life, that oceans have currents, and that thunder and lightning were related (hell, my dog figured that last one out). 

Oh, and supposedly it wasn't until the 17th century that the scientists realized that both a man and a woman are necessary to make a baby.

How exactly stupid do these people think that scientists are?  I mean, I know that sometimes we nerds can be a little hopeless in the romance department, but even we understand how sex works.

So at this point, I kind of gave it up as a bad job.

I guess I should be, in a way, heartened; that the biblical literalists are feeling threatened enough even to try to create a list like this means that they're recognizing the inroad that rationalism is making.  But man, you'd think if they were going to try to craft a cogent argument, they could manage something a little more convincing.

Of course, this still doesn't answer my initial question, which is whether the person who sent it to me meant it as a suggestion, a criticism, or a dubious attempt to anger me into a coronary.  I'm taking it as the first-mentioned, which is at least the nicest of the three.  And if the person who sent it reads this, please let me know in the Comments section if I'm right, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

But do try to avoid any anatomically impossible suggestions.  Those are kind of off-putting.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Calling all cryptids!

Calling all people who have found a Bigfoot bone!  Or a Tatzelwurm tooth!  Or Huaychivo hair!  Or a Chickcharney claw!

The International Cryptozoology Museum wants to talk to you.

Loren Coleman, of Cryptozoonews, has put out an all-call for anyone who claims to have hard evidence of... well, of anything of cryptozoological note.  To quote Coleman's article:
A reputable serious  British TV production company is working with the scientific nonprofit International Cryptozoology Museum to gather promising cryptozoological organic samples (particularly hair shafts, teeth, skulls), suitable for DNA testing by qualified genetic scientists, for a potential future documentary project and the related publication of the results in a scientific journal.

The chosen samples will be tested at the company’s cost and the detailed results will be shared with the donor. Well-known, world-renowned genetic scientists will be working with this project. The scope of the project is international. The range of cryptids being surveyed encompass the entire realm of cryptozoology, from the standard organic samplings of Yeti, Yeren, Yowie, Sasquatch, Lake Monster, Mapinguari, Globsters to biological indications of new populations of Coelacanths, Thylacines, Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers and more. All evidence will be considered and screened open-mindedly.
All of which is at least approaching the topic the right way.  So if you think you might have some random chunk of cryptid in your closet, consider sending it in.  To see what your chunk might be from, you might start by checking out the canonical guide to cryptids on Wikipedia, which reads like a veritable petting zoo of animals that probably don't exist.

I say "probably" because if I am trying my hardest to be a good skeptic, I have to admit that there's something to the aphorism that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  I would add, though, that absence of evidence is at the same time highly suggestive.  There is no evidence of Bigfoot -- but realize that there is also no evidence of unicorns or centaurs or dragons or the Giant Carnivorous Flying Bunny of Upstate New York.  And if you try to claim that it isn't significant that these exhibit an absence of evidence, especially the last one, I am pretty likely to laugh directly into your face.

Still, I'm open to having my views revised, and there's nothing for that like hard evidence.  I'm hoping that when the inevitable flood of hair and bones and teeth start to pour in, the International Cryptozoology Museum will get someone reputable to do the genetic testing, and not some crank with an agenda and a dubious grasp on reality (I'm looking at you, Melba Ketchum).

So it sounds like the whole thing has more scientific merit than the continuous stream of eyewitness accounts and blurry photographs that is all we've had up to this point.  So see what you can find, and send it in.  As I've said more than once: I'm a doubter, yes, but this is one case in which I would be beyond delighted to be proven wrong.  I mean, really -- I'm a biology teacher, and my area of specialization is evolutionary biology, so how could I not be thrilled if someone finally proved the existence of a proto-hominid, or a holdover from the dinosaur era, or even some animal thought to be previously extinct like the thylacine, or sabre-toothed tiger, or moa?

Man, that would be cool.  I would, however, prefer not to have moas stomping around in my general vicinity.  If you don't know what those are -- or, more accurately, were -- they were like badass ostriches on steroids.  They were, in a word, scary.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, it would still be way cool to find evidence of any of them.  So I encourage you to participate, if you actually have anything in your possession that you think might be relevant.  Who knows?  Maybe someone does.  It reminds me of what Michio Kaku said about UFO sightings: "You simply cannot dismiss the possibility that some of these UFO sightings are actually sightings from some object created by an advanced civilization, a civilization far out in space, a civilization perhaps millions of years ahead of us in technology...  When you look at the handful, the handful of cases that cannot be easily dismissed, this is worthy of scientific investigation.  Maybe there's nothing there.  However, on the off chance that there is something there that could literally change the course of human history, so I say: let the investigation begin."

Exactly, Dr. Kaku.  So despite my standing as a skeptic, I want to go on record as wishing the International Cryptozoology Museum all the luck in the world.

Let the investigation begin!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Big brawl over the Big Bang

So apparently, there are a number of people who have their knickers in a twist over the new Cosmos.

The young-Earthers are, predictably, upset with host Neil deGrasse Tyson's repeated mentioning of evolution.  Dan Dewitt, writing for Baptist Press, was perturbed by the whole message, but showed evidence of a severe irony deficiency when he stated that Tyson's Cosmos was "regurgitating... old myths... and proposing theories that have zero physical evidence."

Then we have the climate change deniers, who were torqued by a mention of anthropogenic climate change in each of the first two episodes, with more likely to come.  Jeff Meyer, writing at Brent Bozell's conservative outlet Media Research Center, said, "...deGrasse Tyson chose to take a cheap shot at religious people and claim they don't believe in science, i.e. liberal causes like global warming."

Well, yeah.  Because, largely, they don't.  And climate change is hardly a "liberal cause," unless you accept the idea that in Stephen Colbert's words, "reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Then, we have the people who object to the idea of the Big Bang, which was more or less the topic of the entire first episode.  Elizabeth Mitchell, writing over at the frequently-quoted site Answers in Genesis, had the following to say:
The “observational evidence” [for the Big Bang] to which Tyson refers is not, however, observations that confirm big bang cosmology but interpretations of scientific data that interpret observations within a big bang model of origins. The big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned.
What makes Mitchell's comment even more ludicrous than it would be if read alone is how it appears in juxtaposition with the news from two days ago, in which we find that scientists working in Antarctica have conclusively proven the existence of gravitational waves -- remnants of quantum fluctuations that were created in the first 0.00000000000000000000000000000001 seconds of the universe's existence.  (For those of you who don't want to count, that's 31 zeroes; if you're conversant in scientific notation, it's 10-32 seconds.)

This map represents nine years' worth of data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which shows minor temperature fluctuations registering in the microwave region of the spectrum -- fluctuations caused by inflation that occurred 13.7 billion years ago.  [image courtesy of NASA, the WMAP team, and the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm sure Mitchell would shriek about "observational" versus "historical" science, and how I wasn't there during the Big Bang to observe what the universe was doing (and given what was happening at the time, I'm damn glad I wasn't).  But keep in mind that the gravitational waves that have been observed were predicted years ago by Andrei Linde, one of the chief architects of inflation theory -- a model of Big Bang cosmology that has now been given a significant leg up over other theories of the early universe.

The synchronicity of Mitchell's snarky little commentary, followed by the triumphal announcement of Linde's vindication, makes me think that if there is a god, he's got quite a wicked sense of humor.  It puts me in mind of a quote from Voltaire: "God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh." And if you want to see something uplifting to counterbalance Mitchell's ignorant criticism, watch this video of Linde being told by physicist Chao-Lin Kuo that the existence of gravitational waves had been proven.  It'll make you smile.

But back to Cosmos.  I do find it heartening that Tyson isn't pussyfooting around on these subjects.  Sagan, partly driven by the fact that the original series was filmed in the 1970s, had to be a little more circumspect about what he said, a little more diplomatic.  Myself, I think Tyson is taking the right approach.  I'm sorry if you don't "believe" in the Big Bang, in evolution, in climate change.  You're wrong.  You can continue to claim that the evidence doesn't exist, or is inconclusive or equivocal.  You're wrong about that, too.  If you'd like to remain ignorant of the reality, that's entirely your prerogative, but you can no longer expect the rest of us to go along with you out of some odd notion that ideas, however ridiculous they are, deserve respect.

Time to play hardball, people.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sayonara, Fred

Well, the news is being spread far and wide: Fred Phelps, the founder and primary spokesperson of the Westboro Baptist Church, is dying.

This has been the cause of widespread jubilation amongst folks belonging to a variety of groups: LGBTQ individuals and their allies; atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers; members of the military, who had seen funerals of their comrades picketed; and people of all stripes who were simply repelled by the hatefulness of his message.  Every time his little group of angry, bitter followers showed up in a new town, waving their placards saying "God hates fags" and "God laughs when a soldier dies," they made a few more enemies.

So I suppose it's only natural that there would be some crowing at the man's imminent demise.  "God hates Fred," read the subject line of one post on Reddit.  Others stated their determination to picket his funeral, and some went the further step of describing, in detail, their plans to desecrate his grave.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, I'm no apologist for the WBC.  I'm an atheist, which already places me amongst the individuals that they believe are destined for the Fiery Furnace.  Further, I'm a supporter and ally to LGBTQ people, and in fact two of my dearest and closest friends are lesbians.  I think that the pain he has caused to the families of military men and women who were killed in action is inexcusable.

But I would not join in a protest at his funeral, even if I had the opportunity.

Everything Fred Phelps did was a bid for publicity.  The protests, the outrageous statements, the inflammatory signs -- all of it was a pathetic, twisted attempt to turn the nation's eye on him and his followers and keep it there.  Did he actually believe what he was saying?  Perhaps.  I don't know.  In the end, it doesn't matter.  Whatever he was -- a zealot or a snake-oil salesman -- he brought out the very worst in the people around him, and through the hatred he spewed, he caused a lot of people to sink to his level.

Not all, of course; there were the people who formed silent human shields, so that mourning families wouldn't have to see his nasty messages as their loved ones were being buried.  Even more wonderful was the time that Phelps and his cadre showed up in Brandon, Mississippi to protest a soldier's funeral, and the day of the funeral every car in the town with Kansas plates was found to be blocked in place by a car or truck with Mississippi plates.  The Mississippi cars were removed, with many apologies for the inconvenience -- after the funeral was over.

But mostly what he provoked was hatred.  Not as vitriolic as his own, usually, but still hot and dark and damaging.  And that, I think, was precisely what he wanted.

So, you want to make a real statement, now that Fred Phelps is soon to be no more?  Don't give his followers the satisfaction of knowing that his life, or death, has had any impact at all on you.

More than perhaps anyone else I can think of, Fred Phelps deserves obscurity.  He is dying, alone in a Kansas hospice, estranged from much of his family, by some accounts excommunicated from the church he founded.  Let him.  Let his legacy of hatred die with him.  People like him deserve none of our effort, no piece of our hearts, no more attention than an irritating mosquito on a beautiful summer day.  Acknowledge his death, then let it be forgotten along with him and the rest of his bitter and vindictive followers.

I remember my grandmother once telling me that because we have the capacity to grow to be like what we love, we must be careful, because sometimes it can backfire and we can grow to be like what we hate instead.  If that message is not understood, then in some bizarre sense, Phelps himself has won.  He will have turned us into the caricatures he always thought we were; evil, nasty, ugly, forsaken by all things that are good and worthwhile.  By turning away from him, even in his hour of death -- at this time when we could shout triumphantly that he's getting what he deserves -- we are depriving him of the victory of being right about us.

Phelps is soon to be no more, for which I am glad; his is a mouth that should be shut.  But now that his voice has been silenced -- or is soon to be -- let us give thought to using our own voices for better things.  For caring for each other, for ending inequality, for speaking out for truth and love and compassion.

Only in doing so can Fred Phelps be said, finally and completely, to have failed.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Ignorance sucks

I bet you think you know what science is for.

I bet you subscribe to such ideas as "science is a means for understanding the universe" or "science provides a method for the betterment of humankind."  And I bet that you think that, by and large, scientists are working to elucidate the actual mechanisms by which nature works, and telling us the truth about what they find.

Ha.  A lot you know.

Yesterday I found out that scientists are actually all in cahoots to pull the wool over our eyes, and are actively lying to us about what they find out.  They work to stamp out the findings of any dissenters (and, if that doesn't work, the dissenters themselves), and to buoy up a worldview that is factually incorrect.

Why would they do this, you may ask?

I... um.  Let's see.  That's a good question.

Well, because they're that evil, that's why.  And you know, that's how conspiracies work.  They just cover stuff up, sometimes for the sheer fun of doing it.  Even the scientists gotta get their jollies somehow, right?  I mean, at the end of the day, rubbing your hands together and cackling maniacally only gets you so far.

I came to this rather alarming realization due to a website I ran into called, "Is Gravity a Pulling or a Pushing Force?" wherein we find out that what we learned in high school physics, to wit, that gravity is attractive, is actually backwards.  Gravity isn't pulling us toward the center of mass of the Earth, like your physics teacher told you.  It's more that... space is pushing you down.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It's a little like my wife's theory that light bulbs don't illuminate a room by emitting light, they do it by sucking up dark.  She has been known to say, "Gordon, when you get a chance, can you replace the Dark Sucker in the downstairs bathroom?"  Presumably when the filaments in the bulb become saturated with dark, they become incapable of doing their job any more and need to be replaced.

But unlike my wife, the people on this website are serious.  Here is one representative section from the website:
Be sure to understand that any volumetric expansion of the Pressure of electrical-mass that surrounds the earth is what then compresses back and pushes free electrons along any given conductor. This elasticity of the quantum particles of space is the very source of "all" generated electricity around the world at this very moment. The Pressure (Density x Temperature2) of that ocean of electrical-mass that surrounds the earth is also the very origin of Gravity (your compared Density).

And so now - You - know the exact answer to what Albert Einstein spent 20 years searching for while he lived at 112 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey.

The very connection between Gravity and Electricity.

Gravity is absolutely "pushing" us down onto the earth. Gravity is the Pressure of electrical-mass that permeates space and surrounds the earth. And that pressure is responsible for both the pressure of the earth's atmosphere as well as the pressure of water below any ocean.

Three layers surround the earth; The ocean, The atmosphere, and Gravity. Gravity is exactly equal to the ocean of water or the ocean of atmosphere that is surrounding the earth except Gravity is the third and outermost ocean of electrical-mass that surrounds the earth and moves through all mass.

Electrical-mass is invisible to the eye and does not possess temperature. Keep in mind that molecular Velocity = Temperature.
A = Acceleration Z = Time AZ = Velocity (Temperature) AZ2 = Distance.

The combustion of all stars (Energy) produces a pressure of electrical-mass (Gravity) that surrounds all planets and this is the exact connection between Energy and Gravity that Albert Einstein was diligently searching for.

A "Pulling Force" is absolutely impossible. And it's actually quite astounding that this needs to be stated in the year 2012. Certainly no one possesses the ability to calculate "continuous" or "exhaustively" true and pure Physics until they have come to the above realization.
It bears mention that my bachelor's degree is in physics, which means that my knowledge of the topic is, while not exhaustive, certainly better than your average layperson's.  And after reading the above (and lots more like it) on this website, I had two reactions:
  1. What?
  2. Do you have the IQ of a wad of used bubble gum?
I think what gets me about this is the way it's written; not only does the writer seem to have no knowledge whatsoever of elementary physics, (s)he comes across (and, in fact, states outright later on in the website) that people who do have such knowledge are the dupes.  We folks who have studied science have been fooled by the evil establishment, which is trying to keep us all in abject ignorance about how the universe actually works.

This individual isn't embarrassed by a lack of knowledge; this person is proud of it.  The author of this website takes an abysmal understanding of the rudiments of physics as evidence that (s)he has not been contaminated by the wicked Status Quo.

As another quote from the website put it, "Keep getting the word out to the Physics community who's [sic] eyes have been blinded by complexity rather than enlightened by simplicity."

It's just the cult of ignorance rearing its ugly head again, isn't it?  We here in the United States -- and it may be so elsewhere as well -- tend to distrust the educated, for some reason.  Why else would the word "elite" be used as an insult -- at least in academics?  Recall what Isaac Asimov had to say on the topic: "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been.  The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"

And that, I think, is at the heart of this.  Why should we have to put in our dues, listening to the pointy-headed professor types pontificating, when we can just sit around and come up with our own theories?  Especially now that there's an internet, wherein anything goes, regardless of whether it has any connection to reality?  You can always find ignorant people, insane people, and disaffected academic-wannabees who will give you lots of positive feedback, no matter how far out your ideas are.

And given that Science Is Hard, it's all too easy to characterize the professors as wanting to make it harder.  They obfuscate, couching the science in complex terms not because it is complex, but because they're engaging in some kind of Freemason-like ritual to throw people off the scent.  You are in the dark not because you're too lazy to learn the actual science, but because the scientists want to keep you in the dark.

Or maybe you just need to replace the Dark Suckers.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Nurse Black"

Well, folks, I'm pleased to inform you that this is a milestone: my 1,000th post on Skeptophilia.

When I first started this blog, in October 2010, I had no idea what it would become.  It was a former student who suggested I create a blog (thanks, Brad!), and the first few weeks' worth of posts got little attention.  No surprise, really; it takes a while for anything like this to gain traction.

Then I passed 500, then 5,000, then 50,000, then 500,000 hits; and now, three and a half years later, I am within shouting distance of a million lifetime hits.  So I'd just like to start out with a huge thank you to all of my faithful readers for all of your suggestions, comments, reposts, and (even) criticisms.

Here's to the next thousand posts and the next million hits.

I thought I'd have a little fun with the thousandth Skeptophilia post, just 'cuz I can, right?  So sit back, friends, while I tell you my favorite ghost story.

Despite my general reluctance to believe in ghosts -- the evidence still seems to me regrettably slim -- I love a good scary story, and have been an aficionado of books with names like Twenty True Tales of Terror since childhood.  One of the scariest ones I've ever run into can be found in its entirety in John Canning's wonderful collection 50 Great Ghost Stories, which (according to the message written into the front cover that says "October 29, 1977... Mon Cher Ami... mieux vaut tard que jamais!... Amelia") I received from a family friend as a gift three days after my 17th birthday.

I read the whole thing voraciously, as I was wont to do with such books.  But none of the stories has stuck with me like the 19th century English tale of Nurse Black.

The story comes from the (real) English theater figures of Charles Kean and his wife, Ellen, but the central characters are Ellen's sister, Ann, and her publisher husband, John Kemble Chapman.  John and Ann and their eleven children lived in London in the 1850s, but London of the time was a polluted, disgusting-smelling, crime-ridden place, so they decided to find a country home that was a healthier place to raise children.

They settled on a home in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire.  It was spacious and picturesque, and at the time already about 200 years old.  But it seemed ideal, and in due time the home was purchased, and the family moved in.

And for a while, nothing untoward happened.

It was only when the Chapmans were expecting guests that the first events occurred that were eventually to impel them to sell their house.  For wealthy individuals, John and Ann were unusual in their time in that they employed few servants.  Ann was a practical, strong-minded individual, and preferred to see to the household chores herself.  So one day, she was making up the bed in the "Oak Bedroom," a room that had been left unoccupied for guests, when she realized that she was not alone.

Standing near the window was a young woman in antiquated dress, wearing a white shawl over a silk petticoat.  The woman was looking out of the window with an eager expression, as if she were expecting someone, and did not seem to be paying any attention to Ann.  But Ann herself was seized with a sudden panic; she knew, she said afterwards, that it was not some stranger who had wandered into the house unnoticed.  "I felt," she told her brother-in-law Charles Kean, "as if I was seeing something I ought not to have seen."  So she put her hands over her eyes for a moment.

When she removed them, the figure was gone.

Ann chalked the apparition up to fatigue and nerves, and was able to convince herself for a time that she'd been a victim of her own imagination.

Then a few days later, a young woman who had been hired to look after the youngest of the Chapman children came running upstairs in hysterics, saying that she had been taking the trash out through a back room, and had seen a face staring at her through a window.  The face, she said, was of an old woman, "hideously ugly" and with "an expression of awful malignance," wearing a nightcap.

With some difficulty, Ann was able to calm down the nursery maid, convincing her that it had been a trick of the light -- until three days later, when Maria Chapman, one of Ann's older daughters, told her that she had been scared during the night when she had awakened to find a "very ugly lady wearing a cap" who was peering around the edge of her bedroom door at her.

During this entire time, John Chapman had been away on business in London, and it's to be imagined that Ann was looking forward to his return.  But before he got back, she did something that I have to say I find impressive -- with the help of their few servants, she went over the entire house from stem to stern.  Every closet, cabinet, cupboard, and corner was investigated, to see if there was any evidence of someone hiding in the house without the owners' knowledge.  They found nothing -- but as Ann was going down the staircase away from the Oak Bedroom, she heard footsteps following her.

She turned around.  The staircase was empty.

John came home a few days later, and by this time Ann was so thoroughly unnerved that she told her husband everything.  Knowing her to be steady, reliable, and intelligent, John believed what she said, and instituted a second (fruitless) search of the house.  And he was to get his own evidence shortly thereafter, as events accelerated.  Footsteps began to follow him everywhere he went -- "soft, steady, infinitely menacing."  He took to carrying a loaded pistol with him.  Then most of their servants quit when during their meal, a door opened and closed -- to admit no one.

One of the only remaining servants, a Mrs. Tewin, promised to sleep in the same room with Ann Chapman the next time John had to be away.  And this was to precipitate one final incident, that induced the Chapmans to leave.

In the middle of the night, Ann Chapman awoke to hear Mrs. Tewin moaning, "Wake me.  Wake me."  Ann ran to her bedside, and shook the servant awake.  Upon coming to full consciousness, Mrs. Tewin said she'd been dreaming, and had been aware it was a dream -- but had been unable to wake up.

In the dream, Mrs. Tewin said, she was in the Oak Bedroom.  Standing near the window was a young woman in an old-fashioned white robe, with long, disheveled dark hair.  Across the room, near the fireplace, was an ugly old woman "with an evil expression," wearing a gray nightcap over scanty, wispy hair, seated in a rocking chair.

"What have you done with the child, Emily?" the old woman asked, in a sneering, mocking voice.  "What have you done with the child?"

"Oh, I did not kill it," the girl replied.  "He was preserved, and grew up and joined a regiment and went to India."

At this point, the young woman noticed Mrs. Tewin, seemingly for the first time, and said to her, "I have never spoken to a mortal before.  But I will tell you everything.  My name is Miss Black.  This old woman is Nurse Black.  Black is not her family name, but we call her that because she has been so long in the family..."

But here, the old woman stood, and went to Mrs. Tewin and put her hand on the servant's shoulder.  The pain was excruciating, but she could not wake up.  This is when she began crying out, and called for Ann Chapman to wake her.

The next morning, Ann went into the village of Cheshunt to make inquiries, and was able to find out from an old inhabitant that many years earlier, the home had been inhabited by a Mrs. Ravenhall, who had had a niece named Emily Black.  But nothing else was recalled about them.

The Chapmans were becoming increasingly desperate to find out what was going on, and Ann (who was either incredibly courageous or else completely crazy) decided to spend a night in the Oak Bedroom, which seemed to be the epicenter of the haunting.  And late at night, she woke to see once again the figure of the young woman, this time wringing her hands and looking down at a particular spot on the floor.  The next day, she even went to the length of calling in a carpenter to pry up the floorboards at that particular spot.

Underneath was a hollowed-out space -- but it was empty.

At this point, the Chapmans had had enough, and put the house up for sale.  What happened afterwards -- who bought it, and if they had similarly uncanny experiences -- was not recorded in the story.

I think what appeals to me about this story is the open-endedness of it.  All of us have heard scary stories of the urban legend variety; the driver who picked up a beautiful hitchhiker late at night, loaned her his jacket, and afterwards finds out that she matches the description of a dead girl from the nearby village, and he finds his missing jacket folded up on her grave.  Those have always struck me as too neat, too pat, to be believable (even when I was in my much more gullible youth).  But this one has no easy tie-up, and is full of loose ends -- the Chapmans never did figure out who the ghosts were, what their story was, why they haunted the place.  Even the hollow space under the floorboards, which could have provided an easy way to give a punch line, was empty.

Now, it's not that I actually believe it, mind you.  Charles Kean, who enjoyed many a glass of brandy while scaring the absolute hell out of his friends with the tale, was a thespian, and presumably knew how to spin a good yarn, so I've no real doubt that he made it up.  But the twisty, unresolved messiness of the story has the ring of truth, I have to admit, and for me that makes it a hundred times scarier. 

Man, it should be true.

So there you have it.  One of my favorite ghost stories, in celebration of my thousandth post.  To my readers: another heartfelt thank you.  Keep reading, keep thinking, keep investigating, keep questioning.  And if tonight you hear footsteps behind you on the stairs, just say, "Emily Black, is that you?"

Maybe you'll get an answer.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Diamonds, water, the Great Flood, and car wrecks

When I was thirteen years old, I witnessed a car crash in front of my parents' house.

It was a bright red convertible, going far too fast -- and the driver was not quite able to negotiate the curve that the road made right by our driveway.  The car hit a road sign, went airborne, flipped in midair, and skidded down the hill in the neighbor's yard on its top.

My dad and I ran toward it, knowing that the likelihood was that there was a severely mashed human underneath.  But amazingly, this was the one-in-a-million situation where not wearing a seatbelt had saved the driver's life.  He'd been thrown clear, and came away with no more than cuts and bruises (and a totaled car).

But what I remember about this incident most of all is the feeling of complete helplessness -- watching the car careening down the road, seeing it launch itself into the air, being certain at the time (although I was happily proven wrong in the end) that that driver was seconds from his death.  To this day, I still have this feeling when I see something rushing toward an outcome that I am powerless to prevent.

It's an intensely uncomfortable sensation.

I experienced this feeling just yesterday, albeit in a less life-threatening situation, when I ran into a seemingly innocuous story over at the BBC News Online entitled, "Mineral Hints at Bright Blue Rocks Deep in the Earth."  In it, we hear about the discovery of inclusions of a mineral called ringwoodite in diamonds that had formed deep in the Earth (an estimated 600 kilometers underneath the Earth's surface).

[image of a ringwoodite crystal courtesy of photographer Jasperox and the Wikimedia Commons]

"Diamonds, brought to the Earth's surface in violent eruptions of deep volcanic rocks called kimberlites," the article states, "provide a tantalising window into the deep Earth.  A research team led by Prof Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta, Canada, studied a diamond from a 100-million-year-old kimberlite found in Juina, Brazil, as part of a wider project."

So far, something of interest only to geologists.  But then the article went on to explain one of the odd things about these inclusions:

"While ringwoodite has previously been found in meteorites, this is the first time a terrestrial ringwoodite has been seen. But more extraordinarily, the researchers found that the mineral contains about 1% water.  While this sounds like very little, because ringwoodite makes up almost all of this immense portion of the deep Earth, it adds up to a huge amount of deep water...  They also provide the first direct evidence that there may be as much water trapped in those rocks as there is in all the oceans."

And that's when I saw the impending car crash.

"A key question posed by the observation," the article continues, "is to understand the extent to which plate tectonics on Earth leads to oceans of water being recycled deep within our planet, and to predict the likely amounts of water trapped in other rocky planets."

No, no, stop, please stop...

"Prof Joseph Smyth of the University of Colorado has spent many years studying ringwoodite and similar minerals synthesised in his laboratory.  He said: 'I think it's stunning! It implies that the interior may store several times the amount of water in the oceans. It tells us that hydrogen is an essential ingredient in the Earth and not added late from comets.'"

Too late.

You do see where this slow-motion auto accident is heading, right?  Let me make it clear by posting three of the comments that showed up when the story, in somewhat abbreviated form, made its way onto The Daily Mail:
The Christian bible has some things to say about incredibly large amounts of water deep within the earth. KJV Genesis 7:11 Noah, his family and the creatures, enter the ark 11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. KJV Genesis 8:2 The waters subside 2 The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained; KJV Proverbs 8:27-29 27 When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: 28 When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: 29 When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment.

This water was mentioned in the bible when it told of God making all the water below the earth rise and flood the world. Read about Noah. Believe what the bible teaches us. Your soul is at stake.

"....all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened. And the rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights. " Genesis 7:11 cf John Lennox Mathematician Oxford U. It is certainly scientific to believe in God, and really now, what sort of spirit promotes hatred for people who do?
Then some poor slob, who hasn't figured out yet that arguing in the "Comments" section of popular media is completely pointless, responded that in order to believe the biblical account of the Great Flood, you'd have to accept that it rained enough in "forty days and forty nights" to cover the entire surface of the Earth, a quantity he calculated as 2000 million cubic kilometers of water.  (I haven't checked his math, but it doesn't seem to be off by much, given that the surface area of the Earth is 510 million square kilometers.)
To no avail.  Of course.
[1] Direct your free water clarifications to the DM which created the headline, "Revealed:The vast reservoir hidden beneath the Earth's crust that holds as much water as ALL of the oceans." [2] You say, "2000 M cubic km of water fell as rain." Where does the bible say that? Read Genesis 7:11 again. It specifically mentions the breaking up of the fountains of the deep along with the windows of heaven being opened up. This implies that all the water did not come from rain. Besides providing the source for your claim, please show your calculations along with your assumptions. [3] You don't know and can't prove that these bible stories are myths anymore than you can definitively show what a photon is or what gravity is. Neither can you prove by testable replication where and how life originated and diversified. You are as powerless to explain these things as you are to definitively reject these verses in the bible.
So if the initial publication of the article led me to feel like I was watching the beginning of an intellectual train-wreck, the aftermath left me doing repeated headdesks.

And just because I feel obliged to say it:  no, the discovery of a great deal of chemically-bound water in the mantle transition zone does not support the biblical flood story.  For one thing, the rocks down there are at at temperature of about 1600 C, so if god "broke up the fountains of the deep," what would come out is not pure, clear water, but a huge gusher of extremely hot magma.  No, there is nothing even remotely possible about a Great Flood Covering the Earth, not to mention the whole Noah's Ark nonsense.  In order to accept any of that as literal fact, you either have to be (1) ignorant, or (2) engage in confirmation bias to an extent that is truly mind-boggling.

And to the scientists who published this research; I know you were just trying to do some cool geology.  I know you were excited by your find, and what it might tell us about the chemistry of the Earth's mantle.  But we skeptics already spend way more of our time than we should arguing against the biblical literalist lunatics, and trying to stop them from spreading their nonsense into public schools -- and now they think they have some scientific support for their Bronze-Age mythology.

Yes, I know it doesn't really support their beliefs, but they think it does, and as a result we're going to be hearing about it for the next ten years.  And for that, I don't know if I can ever forgive you.