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, April 30, 2014

Nikola Tesla vs. the Martians

I'd like to go on record as saying that claiming that a scientist said or did something crazy, which (s)he almost certainly did not say or do, is dirty pool.  Especially when said scientist is dead and cannot mount an effective counter-attack.

It's bad enough when (s)he's alive, as theoretical physicist and prominent science writer Lawrence Krauss found out, when some wackos who believe that the Earth is the center of the universe cherry-picked quotes from his talks to make it sound like he agreed with them.  (For Krauss's blistering response to the perpetrators, take a look at his article in Slate.)

But of course, one does not have that kind of recourse when one is dead.  Which explains why Einstein's quotes show up hither and yon to support all sorts of stuff, from theism to atheism to quantum-consciousness-frequency lunacy.  All of which makes me kind of hope that there's no afterlife, because it pains me to think of poor Einstein, watching his name being taken in vain by unscientific wingnuts, and not being able to do a damn thing about it.

But lately, Einstein has been supplanted as the Most Misleadingly Quoted Scientist by a different man, whose work is cited by a different group of wackos for different reasons.  This scientist is mostly cherry-picked to prop up claims like Infinite Free Energy (and the conspiracy theories regarding government coverups thereof), UFO antigravity propulsion systems, and superpowerful directed energy weapons.  He allegedly had all of this stuff figured out, but depending on whom you believe, (1) his research was actively suppressed during his lifetime, (2) all of his relevant papers were mysteriously destroyed after he died in 1943, or (3) he forgot to write it down.  All of this explains his current surge in popularity (forgive the pun) -- because of course, I am referring to the brilliant electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla.

Tesla was certainly a genius, even if you only consider the things he actually did.  There's the Tesla coil that bears his name, not to mention his well-known work with alternating current, the induction motor, radio-controlled machines, wireless telegraphy, and a bladeless turbine.  He spoke eight languages fluently, had an eidetic ("photographic") memory, and was gifted with flashes of insight that would often result in his drawing diagrams from memory that would then guide his further pursuits.  He died in possession of 278 patents -- but died in debt and impoverished, which (of course) further adds to his mystique.

So it's no wonder that Tesla is a favorite amongst the woo-woos.  Which is why just yesterday, there was an article on the fantastically wacky website Exopolitics by our pal, Skeptophilia frequent flier Alfred Lambremont Webre, called, "Nikola Tesla Re-started Earth's Exopolitical Communication with an Intelligent Civilization on Mars in 1901."

Just the title makes so many ad hoc claims that it might be sufficient simply to analyze it, but we would be remiss in not looking at the text.  And it does not disappoint.  Webre doesn't beat around the bush:
There is substantial documentation of Nikola Tesla's role as an early pioneer in re-establishing in 1901 public exopolitical communications between our Earthling human civilization and an intelligent civilization on Mars, most probably our human cousins known as homo martis terris. Public Earth-Mars exopolitical communications had most probably been severed since the solar system catastrophe of 9500 BC that greatly damaged Mars atmosphere and its surface ecology, and destroyed Earth's great maritime civilization. 
Nikola Tesla's early work in re-establishing interactive communication with an intelligent Martian laid the foundation for the U.S. government's secret DARPA time travel and teleportation program 1968-73 that employed Tesla-based technologies, and ironically perhaps for the secret CIA Mars "jump room" program that was initiated in the early 1980s that reportedly employed grey extraterrestrial technologies.
The "great maritime civilization" is, of course, Atlantis, and the "jump room" is the teleportation chamber via which the CIA has been transporting people to Mars, beam-me-up-Scotty style.  These individuals apparently include President Obama, who Webre says was seen on Mars by Seattle lawyer and noted wackmobile Andrew Basiago.   But this is just the outer skin of the onion, because apparently there are intelligent creatures on Mars -- not just lots of dust and rocks, which is pretty much all the Mars Explorer has found, despite numerous claims to the contrary.

Now, apparently it's true that Tesla once made a claim that he'd received a radio signal from Mars.  The signal, Tesla said, contained the following message: "1...2...3...4."  Which doesn't seem like a very intelligent thing to say, considering all the other things that one could say.  I mean, if I was on Mars, and I realized that someone on Earth was listening, I'd probably say, "It is really dry and cold and dusty up here, please send a rescue ship RIGHT NOW."  But Tesla thought it might be from the Martians, and proceeded to send messages back, none of which were ever answered.  We now think that he'd picked up signals from the magnetic field fluctuations of Jupiter, and eventually even Tesla moved on to other stuff.

As proof of Tesla's involvement, and his communications with Martians, Webre has large quantities of quotes from Tesla that really don't prove much of anything except that Tesla seems to have wanted to communicate with Martians.  He also has the following advertisement:

So that cinches it, then.

And all of that is apparently enough for Webre et al.  After quoting Tesla ad nauseam, he goes on into even more rarefied air.  He devotes a large section of his article to the research of Gregory Hodowanec, who has received radio transmissions that were either from somewhere in the constellation Andromeda or else from a Martian named "AAAAAATTT."  I'm not making this up.  Hodowanec told Webre all about his communications, and ended by saying, "I would appreciate that you keep this info somewhat confidential now.  The Earth may not be ready for what I will have to say eventually.  Nothing dire, just fantastic and thus perhaps unbelievable!"

So Webre put the whole thing online, including Hodowanec's request, which I find kind of funny.

The problem is, of course, that Tesla may have been a visionary, but he wasn't insane (the jury is still out on Hodowanec).  So I have no doubt that he would have been swayed by the evidence, as any good scientist is.  Or in this case, the lack of it.  Mars is significantly uninhabited, and I don't think the situation was any different 113 years ago.  Quote-mining Tesla's papers to support some crackpot theory doesn't make it true, and it's really hardly fair, given that Tesla himself is not around to defend himself.

I hate to say it, but it's getting to the point that whenever I read anything online that has Tesla's name attached to it, I immediately put on my suspicious face.  Which is unfortunate because I know he did some really forward-thinking research, much of which I have yet to investigate, and it'd suck if I missed out on learning about something Tesla actually did because of loons like Webre.

So that's today's voyage through the stratosphere.  How Nikola Tesla definitely didn't talk to someone on Mars.  There's no one up there on the Red Planet, more's the pity.  If there was, NASA would know about it by now, and scientists would be trampling each other to death trying to get first dibs on studying the Martians, because how cool would that be?

I mean, really.

And just for the record: I would certainly need more than an early 20th century advertisement for soap to convince me otherwise.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Aliens in Antarctica

In H. P. Lovecraft's seminal horror story, At the Mountains of Madness, explorers in Antarctica stumble upon an ancient city that was inhabited by an alien race eons ago.  High up in the frozen, windswept mountains are the ruins of colossal buildings hewn from stone, a holdover from when the Southern Continent was warm, tropical, and covered with plant life.  Beneath the crumbling masonry and ice-covered stonework is a maze of subterranean tunnels, where bizarre creatures once roamed...

... and, perhaps, still do.  *cue ominous music*

I won't tell you any more about it, because if you haven't read what (in my humble opinion) is one of Lovecraft's five best stories (my other four favorites are The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Colour Out of Space, and In the Walls of Eryx), then you should rectify that error immediately.

But the thing that sets Mountains of Madness apart, I think, is the novelty of setting it in Antarctica, a continent that is deeply imbued with mystery.  The ice shelves, the endless nights during the winter, the central dry valleys (a place Carl Sagan said was "about as close to Mars as we have here on Earth"), all seem hostile, inhospitable, alien, and utterly fascinating.  Which is why I immediately perked up when I saw a headline on Open Minds that said, "Did the Smithsonian Discover Alien Skulls in Antarctica?"

Of course, the problem here is twofold.  First, to judge by their content, the name of the site Open Minds apparently refers to leaving your mind so open that your brains fall out.  Other headlines on their site include, "Jaden Smith Says Obama Confirmed Aliens are Real" and "Teleporting Superhero Alien, or Video Game Character?"

Second, there is a general rule that whenever a headline of a story asks a question, the article that follows should state, in its entirety, "NO."

Despite all that, I looked at the article, which directed me to what apparently is the origin of the claim, a site called American Live Wire.  And here is what they have to say about it:
Smithsonian archaeologist Damian Waters and his team have uncovered three elongated skulls in the region of La Paille, Antarctica.  The discovery came as a total surprise to the world of archaeology as they are the first human remains uncovered from Antarctica, thought never to have been visited by humans until the modern age.  
"We just can’t believe it!  We didn’t just find human remains on Antarctica, we found elongated skulls!  I have to pinch myself every time I wake up, I just can’t believe it!  This will redefine our view of mankind’s history as a whole!" excitedly explains M. [sic] Waters. 
Elongated skulls have been found in Peru and in Egypt, proving past civilizations made contact long before history books want to acknowledge. 
But this discovery is plain incredible. It shows there was contact thousand of years ago between civilizations in Africa, South America and Antarctica.
Well, first, I have a hard time imagining a scientist in a press conference telling the world how he has to pinch himself when he wakes up because he's so "excited."  Secondly, there seems to be no region called "La Paille" in Antarctica.  "Paille" is French for "straw," something I haven't seen much of in photographs I've seen of Antarctica, so it's a little hard to see why someone would name a place down there "La Paille."

[image courtesy of photographer Andrew Mandemaker and the Wikimedia Commons]

Third, I haven't been able to find a single mention of a "Damian Waters" who works for the Smithsonian, other than in stories about the alien skulls.  So I suspect that he was made up, along with the skulls and La Paille and everything else about the story.  The whole thing just seems to be riffing on the "Starchild Skull" bullshit about the frontally-flattened skulls found in Peru, and trying to jump it back into the news by stating that some people had found similar skulls in a highly unlikely place.

[image of the Paracas skulls in the Museo Regional de Ica, Peru, courtesy of photographer Marcin Tlustochowicz and the Wikimedia Commons]

So, it's a lie.  It's a shame, really.  Given the cachet that Antarctica has, it would be cool if there was some kind of weird mystery down there, or at least something other than penguins and leopard seals and high winds and a crapload of ice.

But this ain't it.  I still don't really get why people start hoaxes; it's not like there aren't enough cool real things to talk about.  But whether this was written by some wingnut over at American Live Wire, or whether ALW just picked it up from another source, the whole thing seems to be cut from whole cloth.

On the other hand, it might be better in the long haul that it isn't true, you know?  Lovecraft's Antarctic explorers mostly came to bad ends.  It'd kind of suck if a bunch of scientists went down there, trying to find more skulls (all the while "excitedly pinching themselves"), and they all ended up getting eaten by shoggoths.  You can see how that'd be kind of a bummer.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Common Core product placement conspiracy

I've been asked, at times, if I think it's possible that some conspiracy theories may be true.

And my answer is: of course.  Humans conspire.  It's the evil side of being a social animal; we sometimes use our social proclivities for immoral reasons.  So clearly there are some cases where "conspiracy theory" is actually "conspiracy fact."

It's just that I don't think most of the best-known ones -- the 9/11 inside job/controlled demolition claim, the Sandy Hook crisis actors claim, the HAARP weather modification claim -- have a scrap of evidence in their favor.  But other ones?  They have to be evaluated on their own merits, or lack thereof.

This comes up because I ran into a story yesterday that has all of the hallmarks of a conspiracy -- and yet I find it entirely believable.  I will say up front that I have no hard evidence that my claim is true.  It may be that what occurred here was entirely innocent, and the individuals involved are being straightforward and aboveboard.

But my opinion is that this stinks to high heaven.

I found the article because I was doing some reading about the latest on the Common Core, the ill-conceived and poorly-executed fad of the month for fixing public education by administering more standardized tests.  Oh, the standards themselves look okay: more understanding of math holistically, with less focus on minute details of symbol manipulation; more reading from source materials and writing to express understanding.  But the way it has been implemented has been haphazard at best, with an emphasis on test preparation, leading up to nationally-administered exams that put millions of dollars in the pockets of corporations like Pearson Education.

There has been a groundswell of anger about the whole thing, not only from teachers and administrators, but from parents.  This has led to a growing opt-out-of-the-tests movement, which is gaining traction across the country.  Oh, the fourth grade reading exam is tomorrow?  I'm sorry, my son is sick.  The make-up exam is in three weeks?  Oh, darn, I'm sorry.  He's going to be sick then, too.

But right here in my home state of New York, there's been a revelation of an even darker side of the whole thing.  A story in the Syracuse Post-Standard ran a few days ago that described the fact that the Common Core exams, provided by Pearson, include multiple examples of...

... product placement.

Yes, you read that right.  This has gotten out despite Pearson's tight control on the exam content -- teachers and students are expressly forbidden to reveal, much less copy and distribute, test materials, even once the test has been administered.  But you can't keep something this egregious a secret.  So the 3rd through 8th grade assessments were barely collected and scored when it came out that Barbie, Nike, iPod, Life Savers, and Mug Root Beer had all made their way into the exams.

And not in subtle ways, either.  The Nike brand and slogan appeared in a paragraph about risk-taking.  A story about a busboy cleaning up a root beer spill was specified as cleaning up Mug (a trademark owned by PepsiCo).  They weren't even taking the trouble to hide the product placement, the way that television sitcoms do -- such as placing a two liter bottle of Coca-Cola on a counter in the background of a scene.  This was blatant.

Everyone involved, of course, has denied that Pearson is receiving kickbacks from the corporations that produce the products mentioned.  "There are no product placement deals between us, Pearson or anyone else," Tom Dunn, an Education Department spokesman, said in an interview on Fox News. "No deals.  No money.  We use authentic texts.  If the author chose to use a brand name in the original, we don’t edit."

Mmm-hmm.  And if several of those texts mention products from multi-million dollar corporations, that's purely a coincidence.


The growing influence of corporations on education is a horrifying trend.  Kevin Kumashiro, writing for the American Association of University Professors, writes:
Current reforms are allowing certain individuals with neither scholarly nor practical expertise in education to exert significant influence over educational policy for communities and children other than their own.  They, the millionaires and billionaires from the philanthropic and corporate sectors, are experimenting in urban school districts with educational reform initiatives that are not grounded in sound research and often fail to produce results.  And yet, with funding for public education shrinking, the influence of these wealthy reformers is growing...  The result is a philanthropic sector that is inseparable from the business sector, advancing school reforms that cannot help but to be framed by corporate profitability.
And that's just it, isn't it?  The corporate leaders are not specialists in education; they have never been teachers, administrators, served on school boards.  It is just that by virtue of the money they have, they feel entitled to direct educational policy.  And the sad fact is, because of the increasing desperation of school districts to stay afloat financially, the corporations are succeeding.  More and more, state educational systems are making deals with the devil, and sacrificing our children as a consequence.

So could the appearance of product placement in Common Core-based exams be an accident, a result of random choice of textual material that mentioned modern corporate products that are appealing to children?  Could it have nothing to do with the ongoing attack on the public school system by special interest groups and money-hungry boards of directors?  Could Tom Dunn have been telling the truth when he said that Pearson got nothing for their blatant product placement?

Sure.  It could be.

But I don't believe it for a moment.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Pseudohistory of the world

I have wondered for some time what starts a person down the path of inventing some crazy crackpot theory.  When I was a teenager, I went through a wishful-thinking, proto-woo-woo stage myself, during which I desperately wanted stuff like Tarot cards to work.  But after I messed around a little with them, I figured out pretty quickly that (1) the card patterns were entirely random, and (2) any meaning that emerged therefrom consisted of what I, or the person for whom the reading was being done, was imposing upon them.

I.e., Tarot cards don't work.  Another cool idea smashed to smithereens upon the shores of reality.

But for some folks, apparently that fact-checking protocol never kicks in.  So what starts out as a minor glitch in thinking grows, and grows, and eventually becomes this enormous counterfactual ball of bullshit, and all the while its inventor sits there thinking (s)he has revolutionized human knowledge.

Take, for example, Anatoly Fomenko, a Russian mathematician who for some reason left his chosen field of study and decided to become a historian.  But he didn't do what most historians do, to wit, examining primary documents and reading scholarly papers on historical research; he set out to revise history.

Because apparently all along, we've been doing history wrong.

He invented something that he calls the New Chronology.  And when he calls it "new," he's not just whistlin' Dixie.

Here are a few features of his "New Chronology:"

  • None of the dating methods we use are accurate.  I mean, none.  This includes archaeological stratigraphy, dendrochronology, proxy records, and radioisotope dating.
  • Pretty much nothing that occurred before the Early Middle Ages (8th century C. E.) actually occurred.  What we think we know about those times comes from Renaissance-era forgeries, hoaxes, and lies.
  • This includes the entire Roman Empire, the city-states of the Ancient Greeks, and the pharaonic period of Egypt.
  • Jesus never existed.  The biblical story of Jesus is a mythologized account of the life of Byzantine emperor Andronikos I Komnenos.
  • The 2nd century Almagest of Ptolemy, one of the most famous mathematical treatises of the ancient world, was written in the 17th century.
  • The Tartar and Mongol invasions never happened.  Russia has pretty much always been inhabited by Russians.  And lemme tell you, the Russians are awesome.  They are pretty much the awesomest people ever.
  • The Old Testament Jerusalem is the same place as Constantinople.  Why then, you might ask, do we have a city that is now called "Jerusalem" which is in a completely different location?  Stop asking questions.
  • The Anglo-Saxon King Egbert of Wessex is the same person as Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great.
  • Because the name "England" is a cognate to the Byzantine imperial dynasty, the "Angeli."
  • Yes, I know that England and Byzantium are on opposite sides of Europe.  I believe I've already told you once to stop asking questions.

And so on and so forth.  Jason Colavito, writing for Skeptic magazine, did a blistering takedown of Fomenko's theory (if I can dignify it with that name), which you would think would be unnecessary, given that a better name for "New Chronology" would be "My First Big Book of Batshit Insane Ad Hoc Assumptions."

Now, the fact that some crank has written some crazy books (seven of them, in fact) isn't an indicator of anything particularly odd, except that it still doesn't answer my original question of how someone wouldn't realize pretty quickly that what they were proposing made no sense whatsoever (with luck, before (s)he'd written seven books about it).  But what I find more surprising is that there are people who believe Fomenko.  And they include Russian chess grand master Garry Kasparov.

Yes, I realize that being a chess grand master doesn't necessarily mean that you're sane in other respects.  But Kasparov seems to be a pretty reasonable guy, all things considered -- he's a political activist and has been articulate in his criticism of Vladimir Putin, and currently is on the board of directors of the Human Rights Foundation.

And yet, somehow, he thinks that Anatoly Fomenko's "New Chronology" makes sense.

All of which hammers home the point that I don't really understand human thought processes all that well.  Because however good you are at chess, or mathematics, you're not going to convince me that the ancient Greeks didn't exist.

Friday, April 25, 2014

All in the family

In the latest from the Wishful Thinking department, we have a woman in Murrysville, Pennsylvania who claims she is the Virgin Mary's first cousin, 65 times removed.

Mary Beth Webb began her inquiry into her genealogy in 1999, shortly after her brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Like most of us who have done genealogical research, Webb started with census and other vital records, and used online resources like and Rootsweb.  But this evidently proved inadequate -- she began to run into dead ends, which genealogists call "brick walls."  I have several of these frustrating people in my own family tree, the most annoying of which is the direct paternal ancestor of my grandmother.  His name is recorded as John Scott in all of the records -- but a recent Y-DNA study of one of his patrilineal descendants proved beyond question that he was actually a Hamilton, allied to the Scottish Clan Hamilton of Raploch.  And interestingly... two of his grandsons were named Hamilton Scott.

But we have been unable to find anything more about his origins, despite extensive research.

Perhaps, though, we should take a page from Webb's book.  Because when she became stymied by various long-dead ancestors, she adopted a novel method for researching her roots.  She simply asked her parents.

The "novel" part comes in because her parents were both dead at the time.

But fortunately for her, her cousin is a medium, and was happy to contact her parents for her, and (after his death) her brother.  And all three of the dear departed told her all sorts of details about her ancestors, because (after all) the whole lot of them were up in heaven with them.

I don't know if that'd work so well in my family.  I've got some seriously sketchy ancestry, including a guy who spent years in prison in New Jersey for "riot, poaching, and mischief," a Scottish dude who lost his soul to the devil in a game of cards, and a French military officer who almost got hanged for killing a guy he found in flagrante delicto with his wife.  So I might have better success if the medium tried contacting people down below, if you get my drift.

"Yes... great-great-great grandpa Jean-Pierre says to tell you hi, and to also to let you know you're a direct descendant of Attila the Hun.  Also, please send down an air conditioner, because it's a bit toasty down here.  Thanks bunches."

But of course, Webb's relatives all were either nicer or luckier or both, so she got scads of heaven-sent information about her genealogy.  And after a bit of this kind of "research," she found out that she was a direct descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, who was allegedly the Virgin Mary's uncle.  According to Webb's calculations, this makes her Mary's first cousin 65 times removed.

The problem is, the whole thing about Descent From Antiquity (as genealogists refer to any claims of pre-medieval proven ancestry) is that the best historians don't consider any of it to be true.  The time between the Fall of Rome and the beginning of the Medieval Age was seriously lacking in reliable documentation, and what we have in the way of such records stands a good chance of being (1) a forgery, or (2) a lie.  Or (3), both.  By the time the Medieval Age was in full swing, the Romans were looked upon as being a Golden Age, despite the fact that a good fraction of the nobility in ancient Rome seemed to have some major screws loose.  So there were lots of people claiming descent from the Emperors and Empresses to boost their own stature, with several proposed routes going the proconsul Flavius Afranius Syagrius, and thence to the Egyptian pharaohs and whatnot.

But some people one-up even Webb's claims, and trace their lineages all the way back to Adam and Eve.  I kid you not.  If you go into Rootsweb, you can do a search for people descended from Adam and Eve, and find thousands.

Now that's what I call descent from antiquity.

But, sadly, even the descent from the Romans relies on poor historical research and lots of wishful thinking, as does Webb's claim to have proven descent from Joseph of Arimathea.  About as far back as anyone with European ancestry can reliably get is Charlemagne, which sounds cool but isn't because damn near everyone with European ancestry descends from him, because he was proficient at one other thing besides ruling most of Western Europe, if you catch my meaning.

But honestly, that's really not that surprising.  Given the small size of the population back then, if you go back far enough (some geneticists say 1200 C.E. is sufficient), then you descend from everyone in your ancestral homeland who left descendants.  Put another way: prior to 1200 C. E., you can divide all of humanity into two groups; those who were the ancestors of most everyone alive on the Earth today, and those who were the ancestors of no one.  So we're all cousins, really.  And if Joseph of Arimathea left progeny -- which no one knows for sure -- then chances are, Mary Beth Webb is his descendant.

But chances are so am I, and (if you have European or Middle Eastern ancestry), so are you.

But I don't know that because my dead relatives told me so, I just know it because of genetic studies and logic.  Which may be less cool, but is a damn sight more reliable than trying to get a direct line to great-great-great grandpa Jean-Pierre down in hell.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A dog's best friend

First, I'd like to thank my readership in general, and the people who put in donations and guesses for the 50/50 contest in particular, for their support in bumping Skeptophilia over the one million hits mark!  We hit a million at about 12:00 noon, Tuesday, April 15, and the winning guess (and winner of half of the donations) was submitted by Dorothy S. of Trumansburg, New York, who was only off by two hours!  We have chosen to donate the other half of the pot to the wonderful National Center for Science Education, for all of the work they do in fostering the teaching of science in America's classrooms.  Thanks again to all who played, and please know that I value each and every hit and comment I get.  Here's to the next million!


I've always been an animal lover.  I grew up with dogs, and have also had one or more cats all of my adult life.  Add to that a near-fanatical passion for birding, and a general fascination with wildlife of all sorts, and it's no wonder I went into biology.

My background in evolutionary genetics has also driven home the point that humans aren't as different from the rest of the animal world as a lot of us seem to think.  The false distinction between "human" and "animal" is a pretty hard one to overcome, however, which explains the argument I got into with a professor at the University of Washington over a lizard he'd killed for experimental purposes when I was in an animal physiology class.

Even back then, I understood that non-human animals die for experimental purposes all the time.  Despite my youth, I had thought deeply about the ethical conundrum of sacrificing the lives of our fellow animals for the benefit of science and medicine, and had come to the conclusion (an opinion I still hold) that it is a necessary evil.  But what I could not stomach was the professor's cavalier attitude toward the life he'd just taken -- joking around, acting as if the little warm body he held in his hand had been nothing but a mobile lump of clay, worthy of no respect.

"It's not like animals have feelings," I recall his saying to me, with a faint sneer.  "If you spend your time anthropomorphizing animals, you'll never make it in this profession."

I remembered, while he was lecturing me in a patronizing fashion about my soft-heartedness, pets I had owned, and I had a momentary surge of self-doubt. Was he right?  I began to question my own sense that my dogs and cats loved me, and were feeling something of the same kind of bond toward me that I felt toward them.  Was my dog's wagging tail when I talked to him nothing more than what C. S. Lewis called a "cupboard love" -- merely a response that he knew would get him fed and petted and played with, and a warm place to sleep?

But I couldn't bring myself to believe that thirty years ago, and I don't believe it now.  And I'm happy to say that just this week there was research published that showed that pet dogs (and probably cats as well) have the same neurochemical reaction in their brains that we do with respect to love, friendship, and bonding.

The study came from the lab of Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University, the "world's expert on oxytocin."  He's actually written a book on it (The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity) and has come to the conclusion that it is the chemical basis of pair bonding, friendship, the emotional side of love, and the pleasant feelings associated with being with the people you like.  I've written about his research before, specifically about his conclusions the the oxytocin spikes during friendly activities contribute to positive social interactions of all kinds (and vice versa).  It's a nice example of the snowball effect; the more happy and social we are, the more oxytocin our brains produce; and the more oxytocin our brains produce, the more happy and social we are.

Zak has now extended his research to look at friendship-bonding in animals.  Anyone who has ever watched two dogs who are pals chasing each other will be unsurprised to hear that the oxytocin levels in dogs spikes when they're around their friends.  Now, my long-ago professor might challenge this, saying something like, "Well, of course.  They are social animals, and have evolved to depend on their fellow pack members for food, protection, and mates.  It's no surprise that they show bonding behavior and neurochemistry with members of their own species."

But Zak has found that dogs, in particular, can show the same response to members of a different species -- demonstrating pretty conclusively that dogs can form emotional bonds that are completely unrelated to evolutionary advantage, and are analogous to the reciprocal ones human pet owners experience:
At an animal refuge in Arkansas, where a large variety of animals interact with one another, I obtained blood samples from a domestic mixed-breed terrier and a goat that regularly played with each other. Their play involved chasing each other, jumping towards each other, and engaging in simulated fighting (baring teeth and snarling). Both animals were young males. We then placed the dog and goat into an enclosure together and let them play. A second blood sample was done after 15 minutes.  
We found that the dog had a 48 percent increase in oxytocin. This shows that the dog was quite attached to the goat. The moderate change in oxytocin suggests the dog viewed the goat as a "friend." 
More striking was the goat's reaction to the dog: It had a 210 percent increase in oxytocin. At that level of increase, within the framework of oxytocin as the "love hormone," we essentially found that the goat might have been in love with the dog. The only time I have seen such a surge in oxytocin in humans is when someone sees their loved one, is romantically attracted to someone, or is shown an enormous kindness.
All of which doesn't surprise me at all.  There is no reason any more to doubt Charles Darwin's contention in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals -- that emotional depth forms a continuum across the animal kingdom.  We get the benefit of emotional attachments to our pets, but they experience much the same connection to us, and for the same neurochemical reasons.

Which makes me feel vindicated, honestly.  And also less embarrassed about what a complete sap I am about animals.  When we lost our aged border collie, Doolin, last November, I went into a real period of mourning -- and so, I think, did our other dog, Grendel.  But just last week we brought in a new member of the family to be a pal for Grendel.

Skeptophilia, meet Lena the Wonder Hound.

After being together for only a week, they have already begun to play together, and just last night we caught Grendel washing Lena's face, causing Carol and me to begin chanting, "Grendel's got a girlfriend!  Grendel's got a girlfriend!"  (Maturity-R-Us, lemme tell you.)

I don't know about you, but it makes me happy to know that when I come home to find a pair of wagging tails waiting for me, the feeling I experience is something that my dogs are probably experiencing themselves -- towards each other, and toward my wife and I.

Zak is right, you know.  Oxytocin rocks.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ishtar vs. Easter vs. the truth

There has been a rather unfortunate upswing lately in sites that have names like "The Dark Truth About ____," and which try to put us all in a state of shock and dismay by informing us about the rather sketchy origins of some of our most cherished institutions and traditions.

Because, apparently, such institutions and traditions never change.  At all.  If you decide to participate in a May Day celebration next week, you are not just having a party to welcome in spring -- you are actively participating in a tradition that comes from the medieval witches' celebration of "Walpurgis Night" and are therefore you are directly guilty of paganism, devil worship, sacrificing virgins, and who knows what else.  (Actually, for the record, I like Jonathan Coulton's take on this tradition, as he describes in his song "First of May." WARNING: this is SERIOUSLY NSFW, and not for those who are easily offended.  But also funnier than hell.  You have been warned.)

It's not just religious traditions that evidently can't ever change.  Ann Coulter, that voluble purveyor of pretzel logic and ad hominems, has claimed outright that Democrats are all racists because the Democratic Party was a staunch supporter of the institution of slavery.

150 years ago.

Even worse, though, is when these claims tie a tradition to some dark origin... and then gets those origins completely wrong.

I.e., when people lie about stuff just to stir folks up.

All of this comes up because of a link that was sent to me by my pal and fellow blogger Andrew Butters, of the wonderful and entertaining Potato Chip Math.  Entitled "The Truth About Easter and the Secret Worship of the Annunaki," this site makes some rather astonishing claims.  Here, in a nutshell, is what the author says that you're doing when you celebrate Easter:

  • Actually worshiping the goddess Ishtar, who was known to Germanic tribes as "Eastre," who was the goddess of sex and fertility.
  • Revering Ishtar's grandfather Anu, who was a Babylonian god and also part of the Annunaki, who lunatics like the person who wrote this think are actual aliens who have visited the Earth in spaceships.
  • Probably going to church services where ministers wear vestments, which are representations of the god Dagon's "scaly fish suit."  (For the record, I did not make that quote up.)
  • Participating in an occult ritual (if all of the above wasn't enough).  All of the world's prevailing religions are actually run by Satanists.
  • Hinting that you'd like to sacrifice children to the Phoenician god Moloch, and would do so if you had the chance.
  • Taking part in "dark and gory rituals."
And here you probably just thought you were going to church, having Easter egg hunts, and coming home to a nice baked ham with mashed potatoes and steamed peas.

Okay.  So can we take a look at these claims, then?

First, there is no evidence that "Ishtar" and "Easter" are cognates, however they may sound a little bit alike.  Ishtar (and her Phoenician cousin, Astarte) seem to be names that have changed relatively little since their Proto-Indo-European roots.  To quote linguist Paul Collins on the subject:
The name of the goddess Eshtar (later Ishtar) occurs as elements in both Presargonic and Sargonic personal names.  It has been suggested that Eshtar derives from a form of 'Attar, a male deity know from Ugaritic and South Arabian inscriptions (Roberts, 1972: 39).  The corresponding female forms are 'Attart/'Ashtart.  The two names may have designated the planet Venus under its aspect of a male morning star ('Attar) and a female evening star ('Attart).  This would apparently account for the dual personality of Ishtar as a goddess of love (female) and of war (male).  In Mesopotamia the masculine form took over the functions of the female and a goddess developed contrary to its grammatical gender; perhaps under influence from the Sumerian Inanna who may have possessed similar attributes.
The origin of the word Easter comes from the name of a Germanic goddess of spring, Eostre, but her name has a different etymology, apparently completely unrelated to Ishtar.  The origin of the name is in the Proto-Indo-European root *aus-, meaning "shine."  (As such, the name is a cognate of the word "east.")

Okay, so maybe the Christians did adopt the bunnies and eggs and whatnot from a Germanic spring festival.  Can't see how that's a problem, really, if all of the Hoppin' Down The Bunny Trail nonsense floats your boat.  But it doesn't have anything to do with Ishtar -- and therefore neither has it any connection to Anu (and the Annunaki, who, by the way, are mythological figures, and therefore not real.  Cf. the definition of the word "mythological.").  Which means that any idea that Easter is secretly about sacrificing children to Moloch is three degrees removed from anything even resembling the truth.

And throwing in Dagon is just plain weird.  "Scaly fish suit," indeed.  I mean, all right, the pope's vestments are a little goofy-looking, if you regard them with an unbiased eye.  But I'm not seeing the "fish suit" thing.

The whole thing makes me nuts.  I mean, if you're going to dream up some ridiculous conspiracy theory, at least get the freakin' facts right.  Linguistics is not some kind of cross between free association and the Game of Telephone.

And don't claim that decent, ordinary people are actually participating in something they're not actually participating in.  You haven't scored any points in your favor by doing so, and you haven't proven anything except that you may be an asshole.

So to anyone who celebrates Easter, and who saw this floating around on the interwebz and was upset by it, you can relax.  Your festivities last Sunday were not somehow a thin veneer of good cheer over a "dark and gory ritual."  As for me, I'm waiting for next week.  The First of May sounds like more fun, all things considered.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Speaking up against the lunatics

It hasn't been a good week for reasonable, moderate Christians.

Which, allow me to point out, the majority of them are.  Even the ones who consider themselves very devout do, by and large, follow the most important of Jesus's dictums, namely, "Love thy neighbor" and "Treat others as you would be treated."  There are Christians whom I count amongst my very dear friends, and although we may differ regarding what we think the ultimate answers are to Life, the Universe, and Everything, we all get along pretty well by following the general rule of Don't Be An Asshole.

I can't help but think that the reasonable Christians, though, might oughta have a word with some of their leaders.  Because let me tell you, those folks need either to stick a sock in it or else get professional help, because lately the lot of them sound like they've lost their minds.

Let's start with our dear old friend Pat Robertson, who you'd think by now would have also lost most of his audience, given the way he blathers on.  He has variously claimed that Katrina was god's punishment on New Orleans, the 2010 earthquake was god's punishment on Haiti, and god was going to punish little kids for indulging in Halloween because the candy they were being given had been cursed by witches.  So old Pat has had a screw loose for some time, but for reasons that are beyond me that hasn't stopped people from watching his television show, The 700 Club.

And this week, Pat told his listeners something horrific; that what we saw with Katrina and the Haitian earthquake was peanuts.  God had something even worse in his arsenal, and it was going to happen soon.  God has had it with us.  No weaseling out of it this time.

An earth-destroying asteroid.

[image courtesy of artist Don Davis and the Wikimedia Commons]

Yes, based on Pat's extensive knowledge of science, he has concluded that wacky apocalyptic stuff in the Book of Revelation is all about an asteroid hitting the Earth.  I dunno how that accounts for the Mark of the Beast and the Scarlet Whore of Babylon and so on, but I guess his mind was made up (actually, he said he knew because god told him personally) -- sufficiently that Pat has written a book about it, called The End of the Age.

"I wrote a book!" Pat told his viewers.  "It deals with an asteroid hitting the Earth.  I don’t see anything else that fulfills the prophetic words of Jesus Christ other than an asteroid strike.  There isn’t anything that will cause the seas to roil, that will, you know, cause the skies to darken, the moon and the sun not to give their light, the nations terrified on Earth of what’s happening.  There isn’t anything that’s going to do that."

Well, alrighty, then.

Now, lest you say to yourself, "Well, that's just Pat Robertson, and we all know he's a loon," what about Franklin Graham, the pastor son of Billy Graham?

The elder Graham, however fundamentalist he is, always struck me as a compassionate and honest man.  His son, however, appears to be more cast from the "rant and rave while making random shit up" mold.  On Newsmax's "America's Forum," the younger Graham went on record as saying that Christians are being persecuted and attacked, especially by the media.

"Are we at a point now that is maybe unparalleled in history, about the amount of anti-Christian behavior and sentiment... rising around the globe?" the interviewer asked him, and Graham responded, "We do see it rising around the globe, no question about it, and it's frightening.  We see the anti-Christian position in this country, so much of it coming out of the entertainment industry, especially in certain segments of the news media.  Christians are being attacked...  We are living in a world that is changing, and it's frightening to see how quickly it's changing.  And I think we're going to see real persecution of Christians and Jews in the years to come."

Really?  Persecution?  Here in the United States?  Maybe you're confusing "no longer having carte blanche" with "being attacked," Reverend Graham.  And regarding the entertainment industry -- can I remind you that there have been two, count 'em, two movies so far this year that were biblical epics -- Noah and Son of God -- not to mention the rather defensively-titled God's Not Dead?

But the winner in the lunatic rant contest this week has to be Ray Moore, president of Frontline Ministries and candidate for lieutenant governor of South Carolina, who is trying to get Christian parents to take their kids out of public schools because he thinks that 40% of children are turned into atheists by the evil public school system -- by the end of elementary school.

"It’s our hope and prayer that a fresh obedience by Christian families and educating their children according to biblical commands will prove to be a key for the revival of our families, our churches, and our nation,” said Moore told a gathering of Tea Party activists on April 12.

"Christians must leave the Pharaoh’s school system, and seek out religious schools or home schools," he said, to wild applause.

"We cannot win this war we’re in as long as we keep handing our children over to the enemy to educate.  All of the symptoms, the things that we’re fighting and complaining about today has [sic] been caused because the culture has changed.  The culture has turned against God, against the Constitution, and against traditional values.  It’s fundamentally and largely responsible because of the public school system we’ve had (for) six or seven generations, when most of us have put our children in the godless, pagan school system.  It cannot be fixed, the socialistic model, and we need to abandon that.  As conservatives and Christians, if you think you’re going to win this war you’re in, and leave your children in those schools, it will not happen."

Right.  Because that's what I spend my time doing, along with teaching kids the parts of the cell and how the digestive tract works, in the hopes that they'll learn it well enough that they'll pass the state exams so I'll get a passing grade and actually have a job next year.  In all my spare time, I'm indoctrinating my students into godless paganism.

Whatever the hell that is.

You know, I think part of the problem here is that we're taught, in church, to listen to the leaders and mostly accept what they say.  I was raised Roman Catholic, and that was certainly my parents' approach; unless the priest did something to indicate that he really had gone off his rocker, you were supposed to just kind of sit there and listen and nod.  But I think the time has come that good, sensible Christians need to say to some of these leaders, "You are talking complete rubbish."  Better still, stop sending them money, and allowing these wingnuts to live a lavish lifestyle.  Because however they yammer on about what Jesus said and what Jesus wants people to do, evidently Jesus's comment about "give everything you have to the poor and follow me" never really sunk in.  Take John Hagee, the Texas pastor I wrote about a few days ago who claimed that the lunar eclipse was a sign of the End Times; his salary last year is estimated at $840,000, and he lives on a "$2.1 million 7,969-acre ranch outside Brackettville, with five lodges, including a 'main lodge' and a gun locker.  It also includes a manager's house, a smokehouse, a skeet range and three barns."

Not exactly emulating the Poverty of Christ, there, are you, Reverend Hagee?

Anyhow.  I know I'm to be expected to be critical, being an atheist and all, but what really galls me is that most of the Christians I know are as disgusted by these crazy pronouncements and royal lifestyles as I am, and so few of them seem motivated to do anything about it.  The problem is, I can't do much to fight this myself; as I said in a recent post, being an atheist is a one-way ticket to being completely powerless politically (despite what Franklin Graham would say to the contrary).  But if these nutjobs' constituencies and congregations stood up and said, "Look, knock it off, or we're cutting the purse strings," maybe they'd listen.

Well, most of them.  I doubt Pat Robertson would.  Anyone who thinks that Hershey's Inc. hires witches to curse Halloween candy is probably beyond help no matter what.

Monday, April 21, 2014

There were giants in those days

My students, as a final projects, are required to perform an experiment of their choice, and report back the results of their research.  And one of the directions I give them is, "Beware of over-concluding."

It's an easy enough error to slip into.  If you test the effects of increasing concentration of nitrogen-based fertilizers on the growth of marigold plants, and you find that increasing amounts of soluble nitrogen make marigold seedlings grow faster, you cannot extrapolate that and assume that all plants will respond in the same fashion.  It is a difficulty that plagues medical researchers; a drug that has beneficial effects in test animals may not behave the same way in humans.

The woo-woos, however, raise over-conclusion to an art form.  They will take some anomalous observation, and run right off the cliff with it -- coming to some pronouncement that is so ridiculous that the word "unwarranted" doesn't even do it justice.  Take, for example, the conclusion the woo-woos are drawing from the announcement that Italian "anomalist" researcher Matteo Ianneo has discovered the ruins of an ancient city in the Saudi Arabian desert:
If you look carefully, you can see the ancient ruins next to it, even an old profile.  This is a sensational discovery that no one had noticed. In photographs from 2004, one can observe that there was nothing in this place, it was definitely covered by sand...  The strong winds and desert storms have brought to light this discovery that I think is very sensational.  Now archaeologists are to affirm this archaeological area.  Perhaps it is certainly ancient ruins belonging to an ancient and magnificent city, which dates back to a long time ago.  I hope I have given a contribution to science, in order to find a small piece that the story is all redone, and it’s hard to tell.
Well, so far, so good.  And so far, nothing too surprising.  The Saudi Arabian desert is full of ruins, many of them dating to a time when the climate there was far more congenial for human habitation:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

First, though, it bears mention that Ianneo isn't the most credible witness himself.  He is, after all, the guy who announced last year that he'd found an alien base on Mars.  But even leaving that aside for a moment, take a look at what noted wingnut and Skeptophilia frequent flyer Alfred Lambremont Webre had to say about Ianneo's discovery:
Many who know of Matteo Ianneo's fantastic discoveries on the surface of Mars, other planets and earth, know how remarkable his findings are.  As a researcher and investigative journalist myself, I personally believe Matteo has surpassed all others involved with extraterrestrial geophysics... 
The lost cities that are spoken about in our earthly legends may be truth.  Gigantic monuments populate our Earth and it is my belief that they were created by actual giants who were moving in to leave a clear trace of their coming to our planet.  These giants were produced by continuous changes and an evolution in DNA.  It is also quite possible Giants were the very gods narrated in our remote history. The legends are from millions or perhaps billions of years ago.  Most of earth has suffered many cataclysms since then, and it is a misfortune that much of this history was destroyed. 
The gods of these legends existed long ago and at one time, they were very real to our ancestors, these beings of great intelligence and height were to be envied.  They were most likely our actual creators.  They built gigantic monuments so wondrous, many of the ruins still defy logic to this day.  Majestic pyramids and gigantic monuments were created for us, for our humanity.  Their technologies were able to model and mold the rock, to do with it whatever they wanted. 
Their technology had to have been very advanced.  Many of them were been able to save people to help them escape from their dying worlds, by bringing them here to our Earth.  The stories have all been redone and retold over and over throughout the years.  Many men of the earth chose to hide the truth a very long time ago, out of fear.  This history has already taught us.  The truth can have other implications, some truth that most humans cannot accept.
We have an observation: ruins of a city in Saudi Arabia.  Webre's conclusion: there used to be technologically advanced alien giants on the Earth, who created the human race, and whose existence is being systematically covered up by the powers-that-be.

It reminds me of the wonderful quote from Carl Sagan's Cosmos episode called "Heaven and Hell," wherein he describes the wild speculation people indulged in when it became obvious that the planet Venus was covered with a thick layer of clouds:
I can't see a thing on the surface of Venus.  Why not?   Because it's covered with a dense layer of clouds.  Well, what are clouds made of?  Water, of course.   Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it.  Therefore, the surface must be wet.   Well, if the surface is wet, it's probably a swamp.   If there's a swamp, there's ferns.   If there's ferns, maybe there's even dinosaurs.  Observation: I can't see anything.  Conclusion: dinosaurs.
But Webre has apparently one-upped even the "anomalists" that Sagan was parodying, with his wild talk of giant aliens and directed evolution and ancient gods.  He even goes on to tell us what the giant aliens felt like when humans turned out to be so difficult:
Atlantis and other cities have existed in the distant past, most of these great civilizations fell and these Gods probably view us with a great sadness.  Ancient peoples in the past were always power hungry, war crazed and violent in nature, some possibly even dealt with nuclear war. 
The possession of the planet was the only important thing to carry on.  But something went wrong. The suspicious and greedy nature of these peoples caused them to rebel and destroy all their knowledge. 
Today, I present my discovery that I’ve kept for a long time. I have made a very complex study of our Earth.  I have gathered images to prove the existence of gods in our past.  Beings who left their prints and pieces of their once great kingdoms behind here on our earth. 
I assure you that the legends are true.
Sure they are.

And there are probably alien bases on Mars, too, and NASA has decided that we naive humans couldn't deal with it if they came clean and told us about it.  Because Matteo Ianneo says so.

And accepting anything Webre and Ianneo say as correct can't be an over-conclusion, right?

Of course, right.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How to piss off an ecologist

There's a fundamental disconnect in the American brain.  I suspect that it's also true in most other "First World" countries, but that's only supposition.  I can say with some assuredness, however, that it's true here in the United States, because I've witnessed its results over and over.

This disconnect has to do with where stuff comes from, and where it goes after it's out of our sight.  If you asked people, for example, what the most common pigment in ordinary white paint is, most folks wouldn't know, despite its ubiquity.  (It's titanium oxide, zinc oxide, or a combination, if you're curious.)  Likewise, once something hits the trash can, it most people's minds, it's gone -- very few have any knowledge of, or interest in, what happens to garbage once it gets to a landfill.

This is an even stronger tendency when it comes to our own bodies, especially the "where stuff goes" part, because there's the added icky-poo factor when it comes to dealing with our own bodily wastes.  The concept of "materials cycling" is sadly lacking in our consciousness, most of the time.  When I tell students, "Every molecule of water in your body has been in many forms -- it's been glacial ice, it's been in the ocean, it's been in rivers, it's been water vapor in clouds, it's been groundwater, it's been tree sap, it's been in dinosaur piss," it usually elicits a few disgusted exclamations and a good many looks of disbelief.  When I further tell them that the molecules of water in them today aren't going to be the same ones that will be in their bodies in five years, mostly what I pick up from them is complete incomprehension.

It's true, though; this collection of atoms I call "me" is only going to be in association temporarily, and I'll be made up of a whole different collection of atoms, albeit in more or less the same configuration, many times before I die.  Earth is the great recycler, and unless the mechanism is pressed too hard, it moves stuff around with great efficiency, into, through, and out of organisms and ecosystems.

Which is why I thought it was somewhere between funny and horrifying that Portland, Oregon water management officials chose to drain 38 million gallons of water from the Mount Tabor Reservoir after security cameras caught footage of a teenager peeing into the reservoir.

Mount Tabor Reservoir [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

First off, don't they realize that other animals live around the reservoir?  Deer, raccoons, and bunnies don't pee in tidy little Non-Human-Mammal Port-a-Potties in the woods, for cryin' out loud.  Every drop of water you drink has been processed many times through another animal's digestive and excretory system -- and once the solutes are removed, either by natural or artificial processes, what's left is pure, drinkable water.

Second, we have an issue of the water officials not understanding the concept of "dilution" here.  The officials said that the urine poses "little to no risk" to the public -- which is true if you put emphasis on the "no" part -- but Portland Water Bureau official David Shaff told the Associated Press, "The basic commandment of the Water Bureau is to provide clean, cold and constant water to its customers, and the premise behind that is we don't have pee in it."

Sure you don't.  No animals pee near the reservoir, because, you know... they have signs up forbidding it.  ("No pissing allowed.  That means YOU, Bambi.")  But if the real concern is the human pee -- because humans, after all, are somehow different than other animals -- let's see how much pee there is in the reservoir from the one "incident" they caught on the security camera.

A webpage on kidney health from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services says that an average person's bladder capacity is about 1.5 to 2 cups.  According to Wikipedia, urine is 95% water and 5% solutes (the one usually in the highest concentration is urea, a biodegradable nitrogenous waste; the next three, in order, are chloride, sodium, and potassium).

But never mind that.  Let's lump the 5% solutes together as the "icky" part.  So we have two cups of urine (assuming the guy really had to go bad), of which 5% is something other than water.  That's 0.1 cups of solute...

... mixed in 608 million cups of water in the reservoir (38 million gallons times 16 cups per gallon).  That is a ratio of 0.00000000016 : 1.  And that doesn't even account for the fact that microorganisms take up and degrade the urea and most of the other organic molecules, so within days, even that would be gone.

These are concentrations that only a homeopath would be concerned about.

Now, I know that there have been studies that have found human sewage contaminants in river water -- most famously, a study of the Thames River in which there were measurable (albeit small) amounts of the breakdown products of cocaine, diazepam, caffeine, acetaminophen, nortriptyline, and other legal and illegal drugs in river water.  Keep in mind that we're talking about a huge population -- the water that comes out of the London sewage treatment system, and into the Thames, has been filtered through a great many kidneys before it ends up in the treatment plant -- and still the amounts were tiny, averaging below one part per million.  (It's still being researched if these chemicals remain biologically active at those concentrations.)

But one kid taking a piss in the reservoir?  Not an issue.  Not even close to an issue.  Okay, ticket him and fine him for public urination, if you want to make a deal out of it.  But draining the reservoir, at the taxpayers' expense, because the water monitoring board of Portland (and/or their constituency) has no understanding of materials cycles or dilution, and an exaggerated "this-is-gross" reaction to human waste?


Friday, April 18, 2014

Fear, the amygdala, and "Whistle"

I find fear fascinating.

Fear is an eminently useful evolved characteristic; the ability to recognize and avoid threats has an obvious survival benefit.  Fears can be learned, but as the famous "Little Albert experiment" showed, the object of our fear can result in overgeneralization, which is probably the origin of phobias and other irrational fears.  (For those of you unfamiliar with this interesting, but dubiously ethical, experiment, researchers back in 1920 showed a toddler a variety of objects, including a white rat -- and when the baby reached for the rat, they made a loud noise.  Soon, "Little Albert" would cry when shown the rat, but also when shown other white objects, including a rabbit, a stuffed bear, and a Santa mask.)

All of this comes up because of some recently-published research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where neuroscientist Bo Li and his colleagues have discovered how we encode fear in the brain -- and how those memories result in behavior.

It has been known for some time that the fear response results from activation of neurons in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep inside the brain.  In 1998, K. S. LaBar et al. used fMRI studies to demonstrate the role of the amygdala in responding to fear stimuli, but it was still unknown how that structure actuated the behaviors associated with the fear response -- sweating, increased pulse, freezing in place, and the fight-or-flight reaction.

Now Li and his colleagues at Cold Spring Harbor have found that there are neurons that connect the amygdala to the brainstem, and that activation of a fear response causes a feedback between the amygdala and brainstem via those neurons -- thus turning an emotional response into a behavior.

"This study not only establishes a novel pathway for fear learning, but also identifies neurons that actively participate in fear conditioning," says Li.  "This new pathway can mediate the effect of the central amygdala directly, rather than signaling through other neurons, as traditionally thought."  Li hopes that his study will be useful in understanding, and perhaps remediating, cases of severe phobias and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

I find myself wondering, however, how this evolved system, with its elaborate architecture and neurochemistry, can explain why some people seek out fear-inducing experiences.  I've been drawn to horror stories since I can remember, and have written more than one myself.  The cachet that writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz have is hard to explain evolutionarily -- given the fact that fear is unpleasant, intended to drive us to avoid whatever the evokes the response, and is supposed to communicate to our brains the message, "Danger!  Danger!  Run!"

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Take, for example, one of my favorite scary stories -- one I remember well from my youth.  My grandma, who was an avid book collector, had a little paperback copy of a book by C. B. Colby called Strangely Enough.  This book had dozens of odd little one-to-two page stories, most of which fell into the "urban legend" or "folk tale" categories and were entertaining but not particularly memorable.  But one of them, a story called "The Whistle," has stuck with me -- and evidently not only me.  When researching this post, I looked up Colby, and found his little book had been mentioned more than once in websites about scary stories -- and damn near everyone mentioned "The Whistle" as being the scariest of the lot.

I don't have to tell you the story, though, because two film directors, Eric Walter and Jon Parke, thought it was good enough to make a short film based on the story.  It's only seven minutes long, but it captures the essence of what is chilling about Colby's story -- without a single word of dialogue.  It's not gory (for those of you who dislike such things), just viscerally terrifying.  And all of you should right now take seven minutes and watch "Whistle."

There.  Did I tell you?  What I find the scariest about this film is that... almost nothing happens.  You never see the monster, if monster it was.  All there is is a whistling noise.  But it's got all the elements; a widowed woman living alone; a dog who tries to warn her that something is amiss; an old house; a radio that mysteriously malfunctions.

But why is it scary?  It is, I think, precisely because we fear the unknown.  What is known is (usually) harmless; what is unknown is (possibly) deadly.  We've undergone millions of years of evolutionary selection to create brain wiring that keeps us from making stupid decisions, such as confronting a predator while weaponless, trusting a stranger without caution... or staying outside when there's a strange, unearthly noise.

Perhaps that explains why we're drawn to horror fiction.  The character trapped in the story is in danger, perhaps mortal danger, from which (s)he may not be able to escape.  We, on the other hand, can experience the character's fear on a visceral level, but then we can turn the movie off, close the book, go back to our safe, normal lives, secure in the fact that we're not going to die, or at least not yet.  We can get the rush of terror, but then when the scary story is over, the pleasure-and-reward circuits that our brain also evolved can turn on and reassure us that the monsters didn't get us, that we've survived for another day.

And now Bo Li and his colleagues have discovered how the brain helps us to do that.  As for me, I'm going to go have some coffee, and wait until my amygdala calms down, because while I was doing this post, I had to watch "Whistle" again, and now I'm all creeped out.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The king's name is a tower of strength...

As regular readers know, I'm not particularly impressed at this point by the evidence that's been brought to bear in cases of alleged hauntings.  It's not that I'm saying it's impossible, mind you; it's just that we lack the two things that a skeptic would require: (1) hard evidence, for which a ghostly presence is the best explanation; or failing that, (2) a plausible mechanism by which spirit survival could occur.

Neither of these has yet been demonstrated.

Take, for example, the claim earlier this week that some spiritualists in England were contacted by a spirit who may have been King Richard III.  (The spiritualists were careful to say that it may not have been the Hunchback King himself, but someone else named Richard.  There are, after all, lots of Richards out there.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Medium Gill Hibbert was with a group in Donington le Heath Manor House, the place where King Richard spent his last night before riding out to his death in Bosworth Field in 1485, and they were using a "ghost box" that allegedly "allows spirits to speak through white noise."

So if you listen to the clip on the link provided above -- which I would prefer you do with your eyes closed, for reasons I'll describe in a moment -- you first hear nothing but crackles and static, and then you allegedly hear the ghost speaking a single word.

Now, here's the difficulty.  On the recording, there is captioning that tells you what the ghost is supposedly saying.  And therein lies the problem.  Because if someone tells you what you're hearing, it becomes almost impossible not to hear it.  Take, for example, this wonderful "Misheard Lyrics" version of the classic Orff choral piece "O Fortuna," from Carmina Burana:

I know a good bit of Latin, and when I watch this video, I find myself unable to hear anything but the rather twisted English version (I still guffaw at "Salsa cookies!  Windmill cookies!  They give you gonorrhea!").  So once the ghost hunters tell you what you're listening for in the white noise, they've biased you to hear it.

Still, they heard it when they first recorded it, right?  But remember, they already had an idea about what they were hoping the ghost would say.  And given that, is it any surprise that they picked out that particular word?  It's what they expected to hear -- which is the exact definition of confirmation bias.

So, okay, maybe it was King Richard III, hanging around the premises 530-odd years after his death, for some reason.  Seems like an odd thing to do -- if I was a spirit, I'd probably head off to Maui or Belize or somewhere, rather than haunting the place where I was hunted down by hostile knights and then gutted like a fish and left to die on the battlefield.  But to each his own, I suppose.  And I need more evidence than this to come to that conclusion.

Because this recording isn't doing much for me, honestly.  Hibbert et al. say they're going to turn the recording over to professionals to have it analyzed further, which is a good idea, but even if it turns out that it was a human voice, it very much remains to be seen that it was a ghost's.

So at the moment, I'm putting this into the "Interesting but unconvincing" category.  Once we have a ghost show up, in full view, preferably in broad daylight, and tell us some verifiable piece of information that no one in the room had any way to know ahead of time, then I'll be convinced.  Until then, I'm going with the "Suck juice from moose" explanation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blood moons and End Times

I would have thought that most of us knew enough science, and had discarded enough superstition, to be past the "Look For Portents In The Sky" approach to knowledge.

Apparently I'm wrong.

The next couple of years are going to be unusual in having four total lunar eclipses, the first of which happened two days ago.  (Subsequent ones will occur in October 2014, April 2015, and September 2015.)  Which is quite spectacular and cool, although I must protest to the Weather Gods (speaking of indulging in superstition) for sending upstate New York cloudy weather a couple of nights ago, obscuring our view of the first in the "tetrad."

[image courtesy of photographer Alfredo Garcia and the Wikimedia Commons]

So far, only something of interest to astronomy buffs.  But then someone nicknamed them "blood moons," because of the deep red color the Moon assumes during a total lunar eclipse, and that was enough to get the loons going full-force.

First, we had Pastor John Hagee, of Texas's Cornerstone Church, who claims that the "four blood moons" are signs of the End Times:
In Acts 2:19-20, it is written, “And I will show wonders in Heaven above and signs in the Earth beneath, the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord...”  Just as in biblical times, God is controlling the sun, the moon, and the stars to send our generation a signal that something big is about to happen.  The question is: Are we watching and listening to His message?
No, Pastor Hagee, actually the question is, do you understand how eclipses work?  There's nothing supernatural about them, so there's nothing supernatural about four in a row, either.  There was one such "tetrad" in 1949, and another in 1967, and the world didn't end.

Oh, but Hagee says, stuff happened both times!  Big stuff!  1967 was the year of the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, and 1949 was... um... soon after the state of Israel was founded.  Okay, two years after, but maybe god was busy elsewhere and didn't get to that event's Four Blood Moons until later.  He's got a lot to manage, okay?

Not to be outdone, Pastor Mark Biltz said that not only were the Four Blood Moons a portent of evil, it was President Obama's fault:
Barack Obama quite recently, expressing his frustration that Republican members of Congress won’t give him what he wants, threatened arbitrary executive action, promising that he has a “pen and phone.” 
But there are “flashing red warning lights” in the heavens that should command peoples’ attention right now, because the one behind those warnings, God, had “more than a pen and a phone in his hand,” according to the author of “Blood Moons: Decoding the Imminent Heavenly Signs.” 
Pastor Mark Biltz, whose book is creating a tidal wave of interest right now with the first of four lunar eclipses expected to become visible early Tuesday, was speaking to Breaking Israel News... 
“I believe the moons are like flashing red warning lights at a heavenly intersection saying to Israel as well as the nations they will be crossing heavenly red lines and if they do, they will understand as Pharaoh did on Passover night 3,500 years ago that the Creator backs up what He says. 
“Like Pharaoh the leaders and pundits of today will realize when it comes to crossing the red lines of the Creator of the universe he has more than a pen and a phone in his hand.” 
Whooo-weee, that's one persuasive argument.  "The Moon looks funny tonight" + "I don't like Obama" + "I don't understand science at all" = "God agrees with my political beliefs and is trying to send the Democrats a sign by coloring the Moon red."

Well, can't argue with that.

What's funniest about Biltz's argument, though, is that he's acting as if somehow god could have stopped the lunar eclipses from happening, if only President Obama had been a good boy.  It's not like we haven't known for years that this "tetrad" was going to occur; it would have happened even if Mitt Romney had been elected.  So how the hell can this be a portent of anything if it would have happened no matter what?

And the scary thing is, Biltz and Hagee are only two of hundreds.  If you Google "blood moons end times" you will get thousands of hits on sites all owned by people who apparently don't know a single thing about planetary astronomy.

I shouldn't let this kind of thing frustrate me, I suppose, but I keep hoping that humanity will one day choose science over superstition.  People like Hagee and Biltz, however, don't make it easy, with their appeal to people's primal fears and political biases.

As for me, I'm just going to enjoy the photographs people have posted of the event, and hope for better weather in October.  And I'll be willing to bet that we'll make it through all four lunar eclipses unscathed, with no sign of the Antichrist -- just as we've done countless times in the past.