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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two takes on a drunk driving accident

All media is biased.

Even the most conscientious news sources and the most unflaggingly even-handed reporters introduce a bias into the stories they give us -- if from nothing else, from what they decide is news.  They can't report everything, and by making the decision for us that we need to hear story A and don't need to hear story B, we're getting only part of the picture.

But it's often worse than that.  There's the sort of unavoidable bias I describe above, and then there's deliberate slant.

And then, of course, there's downright sensationalist trash.

I found a great example of the last-mentioned yesterday.  To tell you about it, I'd like to show you the same story, done two ways, and see which one you go for.

Let's start with the version of the story done by the Plains-Valley Online News, an outlet from southeastern New Mexico.  In it, we hear about an unnamed driver and his passenger, who spent way too much time drinking in a bar on US 70, and rolled their car.  But the police arrived on the scene to find that the driver and his friend were AWOL.

State Police Officer Lieutenant Emanuel Gutierrez said that they tried to find the accident victims, without success.  But seven hours later, they got a second call to the scene, after the two drunk guys woke up from their bender and wandered back to the road.

"The driver stated that he and his passenger were drinking at Way Out West and doesn’t remember what happened next," Gutierrez said.  "The driver also stated that he woke up in a field next to some donkeys."

The driver was charged and released, and was treated at a local hospital for minor injuries to his hand and shoulder, placing him squarely in the "damn lucky" department, and reinforcing what my mother used to say, that "God protects fools and drunks."

So far, you're probably wondering why this ended up in Skeptophilia.  A couple of drunks wreck their car -- so what?  But let's move on to our second source for this story...

Yes, somehow this rather ordinary and uninteresting little piece was picked up by the notorious British news outlet.  Why, you might ask?

Well, take a look at the headline they gave it:  "Mystery As Two Men Missing For Seven Hours After Car Accident Outside UFO Capital Roswell Wake Up In Field of Donkeys With No Memory of the Night Before."

Let's start with the fact that it's not a mystery.  If you read the original story, you find out that they were sleeping off being drunk. And like many drunks, they had no memory of the night before, because being drunk will do that to one.

Of course, the reporter over at The Daily Mail de-emphasized that point, slipping in a mere passing mention that the driver "admitted he'd been drinking."  What came out much more clearly was the MYSTERY about how these men DISAPPEARED for seven hours and afterwards COULDN'T REMEMBER ANYTHING.  And it all happened near *cue scary music* Roswell, New Mexico.

And for the low-IQ reader who still doesn't understand what they're (wink-wink-nudge-nudge) implying, here's how the story in The Daily Mail ends:
Roswell, New Mexico sprang to international fame on July 8, 1947, when the local newspaper reported the capture of a 'flying saucer' by government officials in the town. 
Over the decades since the discovery, conspiracy theorists have insisted that the debris came from an alien spacecraft, and that the fact was covered up by the military. 
The continuing belief of alien activity in the area led the Air Force to launch an investigation into the crash in 1995. 
Officials concluded that the 'UFO' was part of a balloon launched into the atmosphere as part of a secret government surveillance programme aimed at the USSR. 
However, many have refused to accept that explanation, alleging a conspiracy to hide the existence of extra-terrestrial life.
So what are we left with?  Time slips, and aliens, and abductions.  We've gone from two drunk morons wrecking their car to allegations of the paranormal, driven in with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

Never mind that close to 50,000 people live in Roswell without ever seeing a UFO or being abducted.  Let The Daily Mail get a hold of anything that happens nearby, and it turns into a trash piece about aliens.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Needless to say, this kind of bullshit journalism makes me crazy.  It's hard enough to get people to think skeptically without this sort of nonsense -- even though a good many folks recognize The Daily Mail for the click-bait garbage it is, there is still a sizable number who read this muck and believe it.

But if you needed an example of why you have to question what you read, this should serve as a good cautionary note.  Don't ever turn your brain off when you're reading the news, whatever the source.  Always find out if the claims hold water, and cross-check facts.

And for cryin' in the sink, don't trust The Daily Mail.  I swear, if they reported that grass was green, I'd want to go out in my front yard to check for myself.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Water into wine, version 2.0

If you want the best insurance against being taken in by swindlers, hoaxers, and charlatans, cultivate a healthy skepticism and a rational view of the world.

Whenever I see something that pushes the boundaries of credulity, my first thought is, "what other explanations are there?"  I try not to dismiss it out of hand; a habit of instant disbelief is as lazy as gullibility.  But I do look for a scientifically plausible explanation, rather than just jumping on the woo-woo bandwagon.

Unfortunately, though, a good many people don't see it this way.  Which is why the money keeps flowing to people like South African preacher Lesego Daniel.

Daniel claims to be able to work miracles, and performs them before standing-room-only crowds.  And he has his followers convinced that he can turn gasoline into pineapple juice.

He has one of his helpers pour what he says is gasoline into a basin, and sets it aflame; and then takes a bottle of it, says a prayer, and gives it to volunteers to drink.  Some cough and gag...

... but they just keep coming up anyhow.  And, apparently, believing.

"It has a lot of fumes," said Daniel, after taking a sip from the bottle himself.  "But I don't have any side effects."  And the true believers go wild.

Pastor Daniel has a video of his dog-and-pony show uploaded to YouTube, and it's worth watching.  "With the flame that will burn here," he shouts to the enthusiastic crowd, "that it is evident enough for you to have faith."

Now, if you've watched the video, you probably noticed what I did; that (1) there were many opportunities for sleight-of-hand, and switching the bottle with the gasoline for a different bottle; and in any case, (2) there's no certainty that Daniel himself actually swallowed any of the liquid.  It'd be easy enough just to put the bottle to your lips, and mime swallowing.  But this hasn't stopped his followers from coming to his performances, and giving him donations of cash for his blessings.

"The level of anointing is not the same," says a disclaimer on his video link.  "If you cannot turn water into wine, do not try this."

This, by the way, is the same man who last year had his followers eating grass, saying that it "would rid them of their sins and heal them of any ailments they may have had."

When people ask me what appeals to me about skepticism, I always answer the same way; skepticism starts from doubt and then proceeds toward either belief or disbelief, based on the evidence.  Other approaches to knowledge, especially those that value faith, require you to turn off your brain and "simply believe."

And there is no way in the world that I would want to cede my own understanding to anyone else -- especially given the fact that there are charlatans like Lesego Daniel in the world.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Primed to see ghosts

Yesterday we had a report from Española, New Mexico that a surveillance camera at a police station had caught an image of a ghost walking across a locked compound.

"At first I thought it was a fly or moth, then I saw the legs," Officer Karl Romero said.  "And it was a human.  But not a real human.  No.  A ghost."

The local television station picked up the story, and reporters showed up on the scene.  "There's no way in or out of the secured area without an opened gate, or an alarm sounding," the reporter who covered the story said.  An unnamed officer showed her the area where the "ghost" was seen, and said, "You can see it walks through in the direction of the old transport cages, and you can see there's no way for it to get out through there, but it walks right through."

"Detectives say there is no logical explanation," the reporter continues.  "It's not an issue with the lighting, or a technical glitch.  And it turns out, there are a lot of ghost stories around here."

"A lot of our officers have seen certain things," one of the policemen said.  "Some of the officers have felt what appears to be someone breathing down their neck as they're working on reports in the briefing room."

"Española police tell us that as far as they know, this is not an ancient Indian burial ground, and they say that the police station has been there since 2006, but no inmates have died here," the reporter tells us.

And to wrap things up, the officers are asked if they believe in ghosts, and if they think this was the real deal... and predictably, they say yes.

Now, I want you all to go to the link I posted above, and watch the video for yourself.  You'll see why in a moment.

Alrighty then.  Let's stop and think about this a little.

When I watched the video, I was immediately reminded of a quote from Michael Shermer: "Before we jump to an explanation that is out of this world, we should rule out an explanation that is in this world."  I can think of two possible explanations for the ghost image without even trying hard.

First, the ghost could easily be an insect or spider walking across the lens of the camera.  Something that close up would appear blurry and indistinct -- much like the "ghost" was.  But I'll bet that when you watched the video, you were in complete agreement with the officers that the image was shaped like, and walked like, a human.  Why?

Because you'd been primed to believe that it was a human shape.  The officers said so.  When we're told what to see, we most often see it.  Turning back to Michael Shermer, and the talk he gave from which I pulled the above quote, the phenomenon of priming is a well-studied, and well-understood, characteristic of the human mind.  In his talk, he presents us with a bit of a Led Zeppelin song played backwards, and it sounds like gibberish -- until we are given subtitles that tell us what we're supposed to be hearing.  And then, lo!  We hear exactly that.  (And no surprise that the backmasked lyrics are all about Satan.)

So if you go back and watch the video again, and consciously try to see the image on the surveillance tape for what it is rather than what you were being told it was, suddenly it doesn't seem as clear that it's human, any more.  It could well be a bug, in fact.

But suppose further analysis, should such become possible, shows that the image is in fact human-shaped?  It still doesn't mean it's a ghost.  Some older security cameras aren't digital, meaning that they run on a magnetic tape system, similar to old VCRs.  Since there's no need to keep tapes on which nothing interesting happened, they are frequently reused and recorded over -- sometimes resulting in what amounts to an echo from a previously recorded video.  It's possible that there was a video recorded of a guy crossing the compound when the gates were open, and that those images weren't fully recorded over in the new video.

Do I know that one of these two explanations is correct?  No.  Maybe there was no bug, and for all I know the security system used in the Española Police Department is running on digital video recording only.  But I'd want to explore all of the possibilities of a natural explanation before I jump to a supernatural one.  And unfortunately, that isn't happening here.  The reporter, especially, wasn't helping matters, by suggesting that if there was no ancient Indian burial ground nearby, and no one had died in the station, that we'd exhausted all the possible avenues of inquiry.

Let's not let prior belief, priming, and fear hobble our capacities for rational thought, okay?

Friday, September 26, 2014


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[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

A chat with grandma

I frequently find myself wondering why people are more willing to believe folksy anecdote than they are sound scientific research.

I ran into an especially good example of that yesterday, over at the website Living Whole.  This site bills itself as "a landing spot for all things parenting, common sense, and healthy living," so right away it sent up red flags about veracity.  But the article itself, called "I Was Told To Ask the Older Generation About Vaccines... So I Did," turned out to be a stellar example of anti-science nonsense passed off as gosh-golly-aw-shucks folk wisdom.

In it, we hear about the author's visit to her hundred-year-old great-grandma, who still lives in her own house, bless her heart.  But we're put on notice right away what the author is up to:
I’m not sure why people in my family live so long.  It could be the organic diet, the herbs, or the fact that all of my century-old relatives are unvaccinated.  If my grandmother dies in the near future, it will only be because she’s started eating hot dogs and no one has told her that hot dog is mystery meat.  Do they make a vaccine for that?
Or it could be, you know, genetics.  As in, actual science.  My own grandma's family was remarkably long-lived, with many members living into their 90s, and my Great-Aunt Clara making it to 101.  More on them later.

We then hear about how her grandma got chicken pox, mumps, and German measles, and survived 'em all.  So did bunches of the other family members she knew and loved.  The author says;
Mumps, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, and even the flu were rights of passage that almost every child experienced which challenged and groomed the immune system and protected them from more serious diseases as adults.  Deaths from these diseases were rare and only occurred in the really poor children who had other “things” as well.
Like my two great-aunts, Aimée and Anne, who died of measles five days apart, ages 21 and 17, and who were perfectly healthy up to that time.

Hopefully this last-quoted paragraph will shoot down the author's credibility in another respect, though.  How on earth does surviving mumps (for example) "groom your immune system" to fight off other diseases?  Any of my students from high school introductory biology could explain to you that this isn't how it works.  Your immune response is highly specific, which is why getting chicken pox only protects you against getting chicken pox again, and will do bugger-all for protecting you against measles.  And sometimes it's even more specific than that; getting the flu once doesn't protect you the next time.  The antibody response is so targeted that you are only protected against that particular flu strain, and if another crops up, you have to get revaccinated -- or get sick.

Then, there's the coup-de-grace:
In the last decade I have had to explain to my grandmother what Crohn’s disease is, autism, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, ADHD, peanut allergies, and thyroid conditions.  She never saw those health conditions growing up. “Vaccine preventable diseases” were replaced with “vaccine-induced diseases.” Can we even compare chicken pox to rheumatoid arthritis?
No.  No, you can't.  Because they have nothing to do with one another.

But you know why great-grandma didn't know about all of those diseases listed?  Because there was no way to diagnose or treat them back then.  Kids with type-1 diabetes simply died.  Same with Crohn's.  (And that one is still difficult to manage, unfortunately.)  Autism has been described in medical literature since at least the 1700s, and thyroid conditions long before that.  So sorry, but this is just idiotic.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Let me point out what should be the most obvious thing about all of this, but which seems to have escaped the author entirely: your great-grandma's reminiscences aren't relevant.  Neither is the survival of my own grandmother, and many of her brothers and sisters, into old age.  You know why?  Because it would be a little hard to have a friendly chat with the tens of thousands of people who did die of preventable childhood diseases, like my grandma's brother Clarence (died as an infant of scarlet fever) and sister Flossie (died as a teenager of tuberculosis).  Of course the survivors report surviving.

Because they survived, for fuck's sake.  What did you think she'd tell you?  "I hate to break it to you, dear, but I actually died at age six of diphtheria?"

But that didn't seem to occur to most of the commenters, who had all sorts of positive things to say.  Many said that they weren't going to vaccinate their children, and related their own stories about how their grandparents had survived all sorts of childhood diseases, so q.e.d., apparently.

I'm sorry.  The plural of "anecdote" is not "data."  There is 100% consensus in the medical community (i.e. the people doing the actual research) that vaccines are safe and effective, serious side effects are rare, and that leaving children unvaccinated is dangerous and irresponsible.  You can go all motive-fallacy if you want ("of course the doctors say that, it keeps them in business"), but it doesn't change the facts.

But unfortunately, there seems to be a distinct anti-science bent in the United States at the moment, and a sense that telling stories is somehow more relevant than evaluating the serious research.  Part of it, I think, is laziness; understanding science is hard, while chatting about having tea with great-grandma is easy.

I think it goes deeper than that, however.  We're back to Isaac Asimov's wonderful quote, aren't we?  It seems a fitting place to end.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Throwing out Quentin

You often hear the True Believers in such questionable phenomena as UFOs, Bigfoot, psychic phenomena, and so on rail against us skeptics for not taking them seriously.  "You dismiss us out of hand," they say, "which isn't being skeptical, it's being a scoffer.  How can we gain any credibility amongst serious investigators if you won't even listen to our claims?"

Well, part of it is the fact that the True Believers are so bad at self-policing.  They take claims that might be worthy of serious consideration, and mix them liberally with the rantings of wingnuts, and then seem surprised when we throw up our hands in frustration and stop paying attention.

Take the pair of posts that appeared this week over at UFO Digest, a site that bills itself as follows:
UFO Digest (UD) and its contributors create content that engages us all in thinking consciously about our planet and beyond: be it extraterrestrial, terrestrial, scientific or supernatural or other phenomenon.
Sounds pretty thoughtful, doesn't it?  Well, consider these two articles, which appeared UFO Digest in the last week, both by one Lester Maverick, and both of which sound like the plot of a low-budget made-for-TV movie on Syfy.

Let's start with "About Quetzalcoatl and Quentin," which purports that the Mayan feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl was actually a space dude named... Quentin.

Quetzalcoatl, or perhaps Quentin [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm not making this up, although Lester Maverick certainly was.  Here's an excerpt:
Perhaps you might be intrigued by how Quentin (his space name) became the legendary god Quetzalcoatl in South America...  Quentin is a real to life extraterrestrial SUPERMAN originally from the fifth Spectran dimension with all the super powers of a superman!  Also Quentin is a grade 5 personal representative of the Council of Guardians who are a kind of a group mind of super beings who are the elder brothers of humanity everywhere in multiple universes... 
Currently, Quentin is grade 5 Spectran adviser to the Federation of Psychean Worlds whose Psychean astronauts have landed on our world millenia ago and now are even walking our streets...  Quentin is even part of our history because he was Quetazalcoatl, plus Kukulcan and Viracochia all in South America thousands of years ago.
Right.  Makes perfect sense.  But you might be asking, "who are these Psycheans of whom Lester speaks?"  For that, we must go to article two, "Who Are the Psycheans?"  Here's a bit of that one, just so you can get the flavor:
Well they, the Psycheans, look exactly like us and one characteristic that I noticed is that they are very psychic and maybe that is why they call themselves the Psycheans.  Since the Psycheans look exactly like us then pretty well, the only way to recognize them is through psychic means so it's mostly extremely intuitive or very psychic humans who manage to recognize them.  The Psycheans are allied with many other human ETs like the Plaedians, the Arcturians or the Lyrians.  Well, Oscar Magocsi eventually wrote a book about his UFO adventures and his own meetings with the Psycheans and the book is called "My Space Odyssey in UFOs."  This book is available from me if someone wants it.  Some of the Psycheans even became part of our history like "Jason and the Argonauts."
Because the voyage of the Argo really happened.  You know, with the Golden Fleece and Circe the Witch and the Harpies and all.

And I love the way you can only recognize a Psychean if you're psychic yourself.  Maybe I'm a Psychean, you think?  Use your own psychic powers and see if you can tell.  I'll be eagerly awaiting your responses, but I won't promise to tell you if you're right or not, because "Quentin" might be unhappy with me for spilling the beans.  And the last thing you want is to make a feathered-snake-god-space-dude unhappy.

So anyway.  You get the point.  If the UFO crowd (and/or Bigfoot-chasing, paranormal-believing, ghost-hunting types) want us to take them seriously, they need to do a better job of cleaning up their own act.  Some do a good job with it; the Society for Psychical Research comes to mind.  But when stuff like the Ravings of Lester show up on a site that claims to take a serious approach to studying paranormal phenomena, it's no great wonder that we skeptics tend to throw out the whole shebang.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Opening the floodgates

There's a bizarre battle going on right now in the state of Florida.

First, a Christian group was allowed to hand out bibles to students in eleven high schools in Orange County.  So an atheist group asked the Orange County School Board for permission to hand out atheist pamphlets, and was denied.  This resulted in a lawsuit from the atheists, which was summarily thrown out.

The school board wouldn't comment on the reasons for their denial, only saying that the atheist literature would be "disruptive."  Others opined that since atheism isn't a religion, it's not covered under the freedom of religion clause.

This last suggestion, however, opened the floodgates.  The next to step up to the plate was the Satanic Temple, who applied to the school board to pass out promotional materials including a book called The Satanic Children's Big Book of Activities, the cover of which I show below:

[image courtesy of the Satanic Temple]

The tall kid looks kind of grumpy, doesn't he?  You can tell he's regretting posing for this picture.  Maybe he was coerced somehow, you think?  ("If you won't be part of the group photo, we won't let you take part in sacrificing the goat on the equinox tomorrow.")  And the kid on the left could probably use going up a shirt size or three.

The Satanic Temple, of course, was trying to make a point, and they were completely up front about it.  "There has to be an understanding that they probably have a student body that is generally aware of Christian teachings," Temple spokesperson Lucien Grieves said.  "Kids know about the Bible. They probably go to church on Sundays with their parents. But our material juxtaposed to that offers differing religious opinions, not just the view that's dominating the discourse."

"We don't argue the merits of any one voice in a school environment," Grieves added.  "We think it's in the best interests for everyone, especially the kids, that the district not to have religious materials of any kind distributed in schools."

If that wasn't enough to make the school board question the wisdom of their actions, just yesterday we had another group throw their hat into the ring.  This, unfortunately, was the Raelians, a religion based in France that believes that the Earth was created by an extraterrestrial species, who are still more or less managing matters.  The core beliefs of the Raelians are that we should strive for world peace, feel free to have lots of sex with anyone who is willing, and both men and women should run around shirtless all the time.

"It's about equality for all," Donna Newman, spokesperson for the International Raelian Movement in South Florida said.  "No violence, peace on Earth.  If society is just leaning towards just one specific doctrine, it's not fair.  Why can't they open up their doors to other beliefs?  Let the children choose, not just pound one doctrine into their heads all their lives."

So.  Yeah.  If the whole debacle brings up the phrase "Be careful what you wish for," I have to say that it did for me, too.

But the main thing that bothers me, here, is that none of the groups -- Christian, atheist, Satanist, Raelian -- seem to be thinking much about the children, here and now, who are in the middle of what is turning into a four-way tug of war.  Sure, the school board created this mess, through a misguided Freedom-Of-Religion-As-Long-As-It's-The-Right-Religion approach.  But now the kids are the victims, hearing every other day about some new group who wants a crack at their allegiance.

Can we clarify one thing, here?  Schools are about free education.  They are not about proselytizing, a lesson that I can only hope the Orange County School Board has learned.  But they are also not about using high school students to score political points, however important the issue is (and I do think this issue is important).  Children are not pawns on a chessboard, and partisanship has no place in the classroom.

Being an out atheist in my community means that a good many students walk into my classroom knowing my views on religion.  But that's no different, really, than students seeing one of their teachers walk into any of the half-dozen or so churches in our village.  I keep my religious opinions (and my political ones, as well) out of my classroom.

And so should every teacher.  And so should school boards.  The Orange County School Board's misstep, therefore, serves as a shining example of what not to do.  All of us -- religious and atheist alike -- hopefully get that by now.  So to all the groups currently clamoring for these poor Florida teenagers' ears, I can only say one thing:

Point made.  Time to lay off.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Exorcism While-U-Wait

In the latest from the Bizarre Religious News department, we have word that Catholic exorcists in Italy are being told to take it easy by the powers that be.

The Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertori, has become concerned that priests are conducting too many exorcisms.  There's a danger, Bertori said, that some of the purported possessed actually are suffering from conventional mental illnesses, and would be better off consulting a psychiatrist than a priest.

Saint Francis Borgia Conducting an Exorcism by Francisco Goya [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, yeah, I'd agree, especially if you substituted the word "all" for "some."  But Bertori obviously still thinks that the whole demonic possession thing is real, because instead of telling the Get-Thee-Behind-Me-Satan crowd simply to knock it off, he's telling them that they have to apply for and receive permission from the higher-ups before going through with it.

This strikes me as simultaneously appalling and hilarious.  Because if bureaucracy is good at anything, it's dragging its feet.  Can you see the problem here?
Italian church member:  Father, you need to come conduct an exorcism on my wife.  She froths at the mouth whenever anyone near her says a prayer, can't stand the sight of crucifixes, chews on the upholstery, and recently turned her head a full 360.  It's scaring the pets. 
Priest:  I'll have to apply for permission.  I'll get right back to you. 
*a year and a half later* 
Priest:  Good news, we've got permission!  I have you on the calendar for March of 2018.  I hope that works for you.
So that could be problematic.  But Bertori et al. seem to be more worried that unauthorized exorcisms are making the church look kind of... silly.  So he's sent all the priests a manual called (I'm not making this up) "Regarding Magic and Demonology," telling them to pay special attention to the section called "Exorcisms and healing prayers… pastoral rules and recommendations."

"Some priests, with the best intentions," a Catholic spokesperson said in an interview in La Nazione, "are making themselves available to listen to these people and sometimes perform exorcisms on them in a way that is not permitted, not regular and not coordinated."

Well, the last thing we want is uncoordinated exorcisms.  And lest you think I'm simply being snide, allow me to point out that there are regular reports of people dying during exorcisms -- just this week a man in Zambia died during a ritual to expel evil spirits, in which the victim was given a poisonous liquid to drink because supposedly the demons would be poisoned, not the man.  It didn't turn out that way.  The pastor, once he realized that his ritual had killed the man he was supposed to be helping, dumped the body and is currently on the run from the law.

This sort of thing hasn't stopped the practice, nor diminished the support of many religious leaders.  And no one is more convinced than Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's "chief exorcist," who claims to have expelled 70,000 demons in his 25 years of service in the position.  Keep in mind, though, that this is the same dude who thinks that yoga is "satanic," and that it "leads to evil, just like reading Harry Potter."

So we're not talking about someone with a particularly sound grasp on reality, here.

In any case, I am heartily in favor of anything the church patriarchy can do to cut back on the exorcisms being conducted by the rank-and-file.  It'd be nice if they'd abandon "magic and demonology" stuff entirely, but that's probably too much to hope for.  In the meanwhile, if you need an exorcism, you might be looking at a long wait.  I might suggest trying a good psychologist in the meantime.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Signs and portents

What would it take to convince you that you were wrong?

It was the question that was asked to Ken Ham and Bill Nye in their famous debate, and significantly, Ham replied, "Nothing would."  Any evidence, any argument, the best data available, would be insufficient.  In other words: his worldview is invulnerable.  Which is why the Nye/Ham debate was, at its most fundamental level, not a debate at all.

That inviolability is an all-too-common aspect of the belief system of the devout, where "unshakeable faith" is considered a cardinal virtue.  Even as a child, going every Sunday with my parents to the Catholic church, this attitude struck me as awry.  I remember asking my catechism class teacher, "If you're supposed to have faith no matter what, how could you tell if you were wrong?"

My teacher responded, "But we're not wrong."

Circular reasoning at it's best.  How do we know our beliefs are correct?  Because they're correct.  q.e.d.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

There was a tragic, but vivid, demonstration of this approach to understanding in Lagos, Nigeria this week.  Evangelist T. B. Joshua, the faith healer and self-styled "prophet" whose revival meetings attract thousands from all over Africa, had some 'splainin' to do after a guesthouse owned by Joshua collapsed, killing eighty of his followers, some of whom had come from as far away as South Africa to hear him preach and take part in his "healing ministry."

Turns out Joshua's people had been doing some major renovations, and apparently didn't notice that the floors they were renovating were occupied.  So the whole building collapsed like a house of cards.

After this, Joshua had three possible responses:
  1. Shoddy construction, not to mention doing work on the weight-bearing walls of a building while people are living in it, is likely to result in said building falling down and bunches of people dying.  My bad.
  2. God is sending me a sign that I'm misleading people and ripping them off.  I better discontinue my revival meetings forthwith.
  3. The building collapse was Satan's work.  The fact that the devil is after me and my followers just means that I'm hot on the devil's trail!  Go me!
Three guesses as to which was Joshua's response.

"The church views this tragedy as part of an attack on The Synagogue Church Of All Nations," a church spokesperson said in a press release.  "In due course, God will reveal the perpetrators."  The collapse was due to "demonic forces" that were determined to destroy Joshua, who is a "man of God."  As a result, church members have become even more devoted than ever to Joshua's message.  The collapse, apparently, has activated the rally-around-the-flag response.  "You think you'll get away with this, Satan?" they seem to be saying.  "We'll pray at you even harder!"

All of which supports a contention I've had for some time, to wit: you can't argue with these people.  The devout are coming at understanding from a completely non-evidence-based angle, so there's  no evidence that would be convincing.  It puts me in mind of the quote, variously attributed, that "you can't logic your way out of a stance that you didn't logic your way into."

But I must say that the whole approach is foreign to me.  On a fundamental level, I've never understood this attitude, which is why my stay in the Catholic Church was largely an exercise in frustration both for me and for the priests and nuns who tried to get me to see it their way.  I know that faith is a great comfort to people who have it, but I can't for the life of me comprehend how anyone could get there from the outside.  It boils down to "believe because you believe," as far as I can see, a summation I saw clearly when I was still in grade school.

And forty-odd years later, I still don't see how anyone could find that a reasonable approach to understanding the universe.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Following Bigfoot down the wormhole

Today, we turn to the ever-entertaining Nick Redfern over at Mysterious Universe, and an article that appeared yesterday called "Bigfoot: An Inter-Dimensional Entity."

What, you might ask, does "inter-dimensional" mean?  I'm not sure.  Over at we read the following definitions for the word "dimension:"
  1. extension in time.
  2. measurement in length, width, and thickness.
  3. scope; importance.
  4. magnitude; size.
  5. a magnitude that, independently or in conjunction with other such magnitudes, serves to define the location of an element within a given set, as of a point on a line, an object in a space, or an event in space-time.
  6. any of a set of basic kinds of quantity, as mass, length, and time, in terms of which all other kinds of quantity can be expressed.
  7. a property of space; extension in a given direction:
  • the generalization of this property to spaces with curvilinear extension, as the surface of a sphere.
  • the generalization of this property to vector spaces and to Hilbert space.
  • the generalization of this property to fractals, which can have dimensions that are non-integer real numbers.
I guess "inter-dimensional" is "between two or more definitions on the above list."  So I still have no idea, really, what the hell it means, and I suspect Mr. Redfern doesn't either.  Because in the article itself, we discover that he is of the opinion that Bigfoot's elusiveness has come about because of the Hairy Dude's ability to jump through wormholes.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Redfern seems to have picked up the idea from one Ronan Coghlan, a paranormal investigator from Ireland.  Here's Coghlan's take on the whole thing:
Now, how do you get into, or out of, alternative universes?  Well, the answer is quite simple: You have heard of worm-holes, I’m sure?...   Physicists admit there is a possibility that this exists, and it would be like a short-cut, from one universe to another.  Thus, for example, it’s rather like a portal: Something from the other universe would come through it.  Or, something from another planet could come through it... If there are any of these worm-holes on Earth, it would be quite easy for anything to come through, like a Bigfoot, and it’s quite possible any number of anomalous creatures could find their way through from time to time.
I have to admit, of all of the possible manifestations of wormholes I've ever heard of, their being used as means for avoiding capture by elusive North American proto-hominids is probably the last thing I'd have come up with.  But Coghlan and Redfern think that this may also explain Mothman and UFOs, so apparently wormholes aren't the highly theoretical and unproven phenomena that posers like Stephen Hawking think, they're scattered around in the woods of North America as thickly as beer bottles after a college campout.  You have to wonder, if they're that common, how random hikers aren't getting sucked into wormholes every other day, disappearing from the Appalachian Trail and reappearing milliseconds later in, say, downtown Peoria.

But Coghlan admits that wormholes aren't the only possibility for Bigfoot's elusiveness:
I think, looking at a great many legends, folk-tales, and things of that nature, it is possible to vibrate at different rates.  And if you vibrate at a different rate, you are not seen.  You are not tangible.  And, then, when your vibration changes, you are seen, and you are tangible.  Maybe that this has something to do with Bigfoot appearing and disappearing in a strange fashion.
Righty-o.  As far as this goes, which Coghlan describes as "cutting-edge physics, as it were," I can say with some authority that you can make fiddle strings vibrate at a variety of different rates, and one thing that it almost never does is make the fiddle become invisible.  So Coghlan's grasp of actual physics seems to be tenuous at best, and his ideas about why we don't seem to be able to get a hold of an actual Bigfoot are cutting-edge bullshit.

As it were.

Which may seem a little harsh, but it's a point I've made before: if you're going to use scientific terms to support your argument, you should take the time to learn what the fuck said scientific terms mean.  I mean, it's nice to keep an open mind to strange ideas, and all, but this just strikes me as lazy.

"Inter-dimensional entity," my ass.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The not-a-scientist dodge

I'm getting a little tired of politicians dodging questions -- usually about either climate change or evolution -- by saying, "Well, I'm not a scientist."

In other words, don't expect me to answer authoritatively.  Allow me to proclaim my ignorance as if it somehow implied open-mindedness, as if Not Knowing Stuff was a job qualification.

First there was Marco Rubio (R-FL), who back in 2012 was interviewed by GQ and was asked point blank how old the Earth is.  "I'm not a scientist, man," he said.  "I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.  I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.  I’m not a scientist.  I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that.

"At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all.  I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says.  Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that.  It’s one of the great mysteries."

Rubio must have discussed strategy with the governor of his state, because when Rick Scott was asked this May whether he thinks climate change is real and/or anthropogenic, his response was similar in tone.  "I'm not a scientist," Scott told reporters.  "I've not been convinced that there's any man-made climate change... Nothing's convinced me that there is."

Right around the same time, Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked the same question, and gave a nearly identical answer.  "I'm not qualified to debate the science over climate change," Boehner said.

And just this week we have Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, joining the ranks of the proudly ignorant.  Asked at a public event whether he believed in the evolutionary origins of biodiversity, Jindal said, "Well, the reality is that I am not an evolutionary biologist.  What I believe as a father and a husband is that local schools should make decisions on how they teach...  I want my kids to be taught about evolution; I want my kids to be taught about other theories."

This despite Jindal's Bachelor of Science degree from Brown University, with a major in biology.

Can we just clarify one thing, here?  None of the politicians in Congress, or in the governors' mansions, are scientists.  If they were scientists, they would be doing research, or teaching in a university somewhere.  But politicians don't have to be scientists, you know.

They just have to be smart enough to listen to the scientists when they talk.

The statements by Rubio, Scott, Boenher, and Jindal are about as intelligent as a man who isn't sure he should take the antibiotics his doctor prescribed to treat his strep throat.  "Well, I don't know if I should take this medicine or not," he tells his friend.  "After all, I'm not a doctor."

No, you're not, you doofus.  That's why you just went to the doctor.  All you need to do is to trust his knowledge and expertise, and do what he says.

Honestly, however much I like to write about science, I'm not a scientist, either.  I'm a high school science teacher.  I've never done original research, never had a job working in a lab, never written a scholarly paper.  On the other hand, I do know how to read.  If I want to know what the latest research says, I can pick up a science journal and see what conclusions have been reached.  If it's an area outside of my expertise, I can find someone who knows more than I do to explain it to me.

Politicians have these guys, you know?  They're called advisors.  The job of an advisor is to help out elected officials when there are issues about which they lack information or depth of understanding.  Which there always will be; holding high office means dealing with extraordinarily complex situations, and doing what amounts to multivariable analysis on the fly.  And to be fair, you can't be an expert about everything.

But you can trust the experts when they reach consensus.  Which they have, on both the subject of evolution and of anthropogenic climate change.  There is no debate; and especially in the case of evolution, there are no other theories.  The alternatives to evolution are unsupported mythological worldviews, on par with an astronomical model that has the Earth resting on the back of four elephants standing on the back of a gigantic flying turtle.

Drawing by Camille Flammarion (1877) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Look, I understand that Rubio et al. were being disingenuous.  Given the religious fervor of their constituencies, especially in the American Southeast, it would not be politically expedient to say, "Of course evolution is true.  Duh.  Next question."  But dodging the question, and giving the impression that ignorance is the same thing as keeping an open mind, is simply handing the science deniers ammunition.

And the last thing we need here in the United States is to do something that makes the citizenry understand science even less than they already do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The possessed microwave

Spurred by my post a couple of weeks ago debunking claims that microwave ovens are unsafe, a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me an email saying, "Ha.  A lot you know.  Your microwave has just lulled you into a false sense of security.  Because, you know... demons."

Along with the message, he sent me a link to an article from Empire News called "Paranormal Investigators Confirm Poltergeist Possession of Microwave."  And as soon as I saw the title, I knew this was gonna be good.

[image courtesy of photographer Christian Rasmussen at, and the Wikimedia Commons]

Turns out that Bill Michaud, of Louisville, Kentucky, has been having trouble with his microwave oven.  "We found [the microwave] in the attic when we moved in a few months back," Michaud said.  "Didn’t have one, so figured, ‘what the hell,’ might as well try it.  I tell you, the thing heats up the food real nice.  Sometimes it beeped or turned itself off in the middle of cooking, though.  Then really weird things started happening.  It zapped at food as if we were putting shards of metal in it.  I couldn’t figure it out."

Michaud's wife, Betty, concurs.  "It turns on by itself.  It turns off by itself, too," she said.  "It’s like it’s messing with me.  No matter how many times I popped the door shut, the minute I leave the room it pops open again.  One night, really late, I walk into the kitchen and I’m about to open the fridge, and the microwave door flies open, lighting the whole kitchen up in a horrible, scary lightning-blue color.  It’s like it wanted to electrocute me."

Well, I know what it's like to own a mechanical device that appears to be not only sentient, but evil.  I feel that way about my lawn mower, which seems to have a sensor that detects how long the grass is, so it knows when to break down.  One time this summer, when the grass had gotten so long that my only other choice would have been to rent a flock of sheep, the Possessed Lawn Mower decided that this would be a fine time to stop working.  So it let me back it out of the garage, and get all the way down the hill into the back yard, and then in rapid succession (1) the blade suddenly stopped turning, (2) the engine stalled, and afterwards would only make obscene farting noises when I turned the key in the ignition, and finally (3) it simply decided to stop responding entirely and became the world's largest paperweight.  Because (4) the wheel release is broken, and the brakes engage whenever the motor isn't running, the Possessed Lawn Mower was left out in the back yard in the rain, with the grass slowly engulfing it, until the mower repair guy had time to come fix it three weeks later.

But I digress.

Bill and Betty Michaud certainly had reason to stop using the microwave, not to mention a good explanation as to why the previous owners had tossed it up in the attic.  But that didn't stop them from continuing to use it, until one day when Bill was heating up some leftovers.  "[I]t went off like the food was done," Michaud said, "and when I looked over, the damn thing was still going and said 6:66."

Well, that was enough for him.  Instead of doing what I would have done, which is throw it out and buy a new microwave, he called in some paranormal investigators.  They got Kevin Young, a professional ghost hunter, who got permission from the Michauds to spend the night in the house.

"The Michauds didn’t want to go without a microwave, or risk upsetting the spirit by taking it out of the house," Young said.  "My wife, who is also on my squad, is highly empathic.  As we warmed up TV dinners in the microwave, she sensed a presence.  As soon as she mentioned it, the microwave started beeping repeatedly.  The door flung open, and my 'Hungry Man' dinner went flying across the room.  We pressed the off button.  We unplugged it.  It beeped several times after we cut off the power.  Of course our digital recording became corrupted, which often happens when there is such strong energy."

Of course.  And you have to admit that the spirit crossed a line when it threw Young's 'Hungry Man' TV dinner across the room.  In the words of the inimitable Bugs Bunny, "Of course you know: this means war."

So Young called in the big guns, namely an "authority on mechanical possession," one Carl Richards.  Richards confirmed the presence of a poltergeist in the microwave, but cautioned the Michauds against simply throwing the oven out and getting a new one.

"It is important to remember, the malevolent presence does not strictly ‘live in’ the microwave," Richards said.  "Getting rid of the machine will not solve the problem.  It has the ability to travel throughout the electrical wiring in the house."

Which is pretty scary.  God forbid a poltergeist should get into the coffee maker or something.

In the end, Young and Richards advised the Michauds to stop paying attention to it.  "It is best not to engage the being," Young told them.  "Try not to be fearful.  Always remain calm.  If you’re facing a poltergeist in your kitchen devices, just ignore its outbursts, and it will not be able to feed off your energies."

Myself, I'd have been more worried about the damn thing malfunctioning and burning down the house.  But that's just me.

The Michauds still use the microwave, which "heats up leftovers like a champ," and they ignore its periodic demonic outbursts the same way you'd "ignore a child's temper tantrum."  So it all ended happily enough, which I suppose is good.

So Young and Richards have wrapped up their work in Louisville, and presumably are looking for other possessed devices to investigate.  I'd like to invite them to come look at my lawn mower.  My lawn is needing to be mowed, in what is likely to be the last mowing of the season, and this would be an inopportune time for it to malfunction.  Meaning that the demon that lives in the engine is going to be primed and ready.  I'd like to have a strategy in place by then.  Be prepared, that's my motto.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

War between the states

In a confluence of ideologies that should worry everyone, Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis fame) is giving a talk on October 18 sponsored by the "Institute on the Constitution."

It's entitled "Six Days and Millions of Years," and the topic would appear to be the same old nonsense if it weren't for the sponsoring organization.  Because the Institute on the Constitution is an organization run by Michael Peroutka and David Whitney, two individuals who work hand in hand with the "League of the South," a group dedicated to the secession of the southeastern states to create a homeland for Christian whites.

This isn't the first time Ham and Peroutka have teamed up.  Peroutka, you may remember, is the rich dude who obtained an allosaurus skeleton and then sold it to Ham for the Creation Museum.  But that move was only appalling to science types, who were understandably rage-filled at the thought of a beautifully-preserved dinosaur fossil being used to broadcast silly mythology.

Here we have the intersection of far more disturbing ideas; racism, secessionism, religious sanctimony, and biblical literalism.  Don't believe me?  Take a look at a piece David Whitney wrote in which he claims that only Christians should be citizens of the United States:
Loving thy neighbor means protecting their God given rights as Exodus 12:49 commands.  That means preserving the structure of civil government from all who would pervert the civil government into an agency of legalized plunder, whereby the God given rights of no one would be safe and secure.  This means, as we have seen in the commands of Scripture, that we restrict citizenship to those who, because they are committed to the Covenant of Disciples of Jesus Christ, are willing to submit themselves to serve in the roles of responsibility in choosing leaders who will preserve God ordained order.  Those who will serve as Jurors, committed to do justice in judging the law by the eternal standard of God’s Law.  Those who will serve when called up as Representatives to serve in civil government to do justice by God’s Law, and those who will put themselves in harms way serving in the Militia – only in just wars as defined by God’s Law.
And here's Peroutka on secession:
I don’t disagree with Dr. Hill [League of the South president] at all that this regime is beyond reform, and I think that’s an obvious fact, and I agree with him.  However, I agree that when you secede, or however the destruction of the rubble of this regime takes place and how it plays out, you’re going to need to take a biblical world view, and apply it to civil law and government.  That’s what you’re still going to need to do. We’re going to have to have this foundational information in the hearts and minds of the people or else liberty won’t survive the secession either.  You see what I’m saying?  I’m saying that because I don’t want people from League of the South that for one minute that I am about reforming the current regime, and that studying the Constitution is about reforming the current regime.
Oh, and the man that Peroutka, "doesn't disagree with," Michael Hill, president of the League of the South?  Here's a direct quote from him about the purpose of the League:
Just so there’s no chance that you’ll confuse The League with the GOP or any other “conservative” group, here’s what we stand for: the survival, well being, and independence of the Southern people.  And by “the Southern people,” we mean White Southerners who are not afraid to stand for the people of their race and religion.
Kind of curious, then, that when Peroutka was running for a council position in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and was questioned about his connections to the League of the South, he called it a "smear campaign:"
I am an anti-racist. I have spoken publicly against racism. I've gone out of my way to repudiate racism, and if there are any racists in the League of the South, I repudiate them, and I pray for them.
Well, Mr. Peroutka, it might be a good idea to start praying for the president of the organization, then.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Scared?  You should be.  The only reason these people aren't as bad as the theocrats in Iran is that they haven't been given their opportunity to be in charge of things yet.

The intersection of radical politics and religious fervor is terrifying; the politics for its heartless extremity, and the fervor for the gloss of righteous inviolability it confers.  These people can't imagine being wrong, and (worse) can't imagine that their stance is fundamentally immoral.

And heaven help us all if they are ever elected to lead us.

I'll end with a quote from James Waterman Wise (often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis): "If fascism comes... it will be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and the preservation of the Constitution."

And, I'll add, very likely wearing a cross.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hearing through your skin

I first ran into David Eagleman when a student of mine loaned me his phenomenal book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

Even considering that I have a decent background in neuroscience, this book was an eye-opener.  Eagleman, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, not only is phenomenally knowledgeable in his field, he is a fine writer (and needless to say, those two don't always go together).  His insights about how our own brains work were fascinating, revealing, and often astonishing, and for anyone with an interest in cognitive science, it's a must-read.  (The link above will bring you to the book's Amazon page, should you wish to buy it, which all of you should.)

I've since watched a number of Eagleman's videos, and always come away with the feeling, "This guy is going to turn our understanding of the mind upside down."  And just yesterday, I found out about a Kickstarter project that he's undertaking that certainly makes some strides in that direction.

It's widely known that the brain can use a variety of inputs to get sensory data, substituting another when one of them isn't working.  Back in 2009, some scientists at Wicab, Inc. developed a device called the BrainPort that gave blind people the ability to get visual information about their surroundings, through a horseshoe-shaped output device that sits on the tongue.  A camera acts as a sensor, and transmits visual data into the electrode array on the output device, which then stimulates the surface of the tongue.  After a short training period, test subjects could maneuver around obstacles in a room.

And the coolest part is that the scientists found that the device was somehow stimulating the visual cortex of the brain -- the brain figured out that it was receiving visual data, even though the information was coming through the tongue.  And the test subjects were sensing visual images of their surroundings, even though nothing whatsoever was coming through their eyes.

So Eagleman had an idea.  Could you use a tactile sense to replace any other sense?  He started with trying to substitute tactile stimulation for hearing -- because, after all, they both work more or less the same way.  Touch and hearing both function because of mechanoreceptors, which are nerves that fire due to vibration or deflection.  (Taste, which is a chemoreceptor, and sight, an electromagnetic receptor, are much further apart in how they function.)

It's a vest that's equipped with a SmartPhone, and hundreds of tiny motors -- the transducer activates the motors, turning any sounds picked up by the phone into a pattern of vibrations on your upper body.  And just as with the BrainPort, a short training period is all that's needed before your can, effectively, hear with your skin.

Trials already allowed deaf individuals to understand words at a far higher rate than chance guessing; and you can only imagine that the skill, like any, would improve with time.  Eagleman writes:
We hypothesize that our device will work for deaf individuals, and even be good enough to provide a new perception of hearing. This itself has a number of societal benefits: such a device would cost orders of magnitude less than cochlear implants (hundreds-to-thousands as a opposed to tens-of-thousands), be discrete, and give the wearer the freedom to not be attached to it all the time. The cost effectiveness of the device would also make it realistic to distribute it widely in developing countries. 
More exciting than this, however, is what this proof of principle might enable: the ability to feed all sorts of new and profound sensory information into our brains.
I find this sort of thing absolutely fascinating.  The brain, far from being the static and rigid device we used to believe it was, has amazing plasticity.  Given new sources of information, it responds by integrating those into the data set it uses to allow us to explore the world.  And even though the VEST is currently being considered primarily for restoration of a sense to individuals who have lost one, I (like Eagleman) can't help but wonder about its use in sensory enhancement.

What sorts of things are we missing, through our imperfect sensory apparatus, that such a device might allow us to see?

Consider giving Eagleman's Kickstarter your attention -- he's the sort of innovative genius who could well change the world.  Just what he's done thus far is phenomenal, moving us into possibilities that heretofore were confined to science fiction.

And man, do I want to try one of those vests.  I hear just fine, but still.  How cool would that be?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Revisiting Roswell

A couple of years ago, I went to visit my cousin's family in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and while in the state I insisted on making the drive out to see the International UFO Museum in Roswell.

Yes, it was campy, but it was fun.  My wife spent most of the visit rolling her eyes, but I did get a poster for my classroom, and an opportunity to have my photograph taken having a nice drink in an alien bar that would have only been improved by having a band like the one in Mos Eisley spaceport.

The "Roswell Incident" is one of the most talked about and thoroughly studied UFO stories in history.  In 1947, the museum's website says, "something happened" in the desert plains near Roswell.  The government says it was the crash of a high-altitude weather balloon, but there are alleged whistleblowers (most notably Lieutenant Walter Haut) who claim that it was the wreck of an alien spacecraft.  There are famous photographs of an "alien autopsy," traces of material from the wreckage, and dozens of eyewitness accounts.

What does it all add up to?  Not much, is my opinion.  Could the Roswell debris be the wreckage of an interstellar alien spaceship?  I suppose.  Could it be a hoax, a conglomeration of stories that grew by accretion after a completely natural, terrestrial event?  Yes.  What we have thus far does not meet the minimum standard of evidence that science demands, so for me the jury is still out.

Then of course, there's Neil deGrasse Tyson's comment about the whole thing:  "You're telling me that these aliens flew halfway across the galaxy, and then they couldn't land the damn ship?  If those are the kind of alien visiting the Earth, then they can go home.  I don't want to talk to 'em."

But even given the fact that we have all of the evidence that we're likely to get -- meaning that skeptics like myself will remain unconvinced either way, the believers will continue to believe, and the disbelievers will continue to disbelieve -- the whole thing is still debated endlessly.  People look for new angles, however unlikely those are to lead to anything productive.  And some of those new angles are so odd that they make the original arguments of the UFO crowd seem like peer-reviewed research.

Take, for example the article over at The UFO Iconoclast that says we have only one option for continuing our research into Roswell:

Remote viewing.

Because we all know how much more reliable a study becomes when you compound it with pseudoscience.  Not that that's the way they frame it:
The remote view protocol that we use at Spirit Rescue International is defined as ‘scientific’ and/or ‘coordinate’ remote viewing.  In order to apply it to the Roswell Incident there would need to be more monitor control, protocol modification, use of the correct data type and extended sessions.  The sessions would be conducted by remote viewers who have minimal knowledge of the Roswell Incident. We believe these objectives can be achieved.
Which brings up two rather thorny problems:

  1. How do you guarantee "minimal knowledge?"  Anyone who can successfully navigate a Wikipedia page can find out all sorts of facts and speculation about the Roswell Incident.   Given the amount of play this claim has had on television and in movies, and the ubiquity of such information online, "contamination" of the "remote viewers" isn't just likely, it's a near certainty.
  2. Since the US government is still denying anything paranormal happened in Roswell in 1947, how would you check the information the remote viewers obtained to determine if it was accurate?
This last issue is the hardest one.  Suppose a remote viewing team determined that the pieces of the Roswell crash -- incontrovertible evidence of a downed spaceship -- were being kept in a warehouse in Topeka.  Can't you just imagine the telephone conversation that might ensue?
UFO investigator:  We know the wreckage of the Roswell spaceship is in Topeka.  Can you let us have a look at it? 
Government official:  It doesn't exist, so no. 
UFO investigator:  Topeka does so exist.  My grandmother lives there.  Ha!  We've caught you in a bald-faced lie. 
Government official:  Not Topeka, the spaceship.  There's no spaceship parts, in Topeka or elsewhere. 
UFO investigator:  Your denial just proves that we're hot on your trail! 
Government official:  *click*
So the whole thing is kind of a non-starter, from a variety of angles.

Understand, though, that no one would be happier than me to have undeniable evidence of alien intelligence.  Even if the aliens in question couldn't successfully land their ship.  Hell, I'm 53 and I still have trouble parallel parking, so I'm not going to judge.  But I'm with Tyson on one thing: the evidence thus far is unconvincing.  And that includes any evidence -- if I can dignify it with that term -- that comes from psychics.

You can't use one unproven thing to prove another unproven thing.  Sorry, but logic just doesn't work that way.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The sound of music

One of the most important things in my life is music, and to me, music is all about evoking emotion.

A beautiful and well-performed song or piece of music connects to me (and, I suspect, to many people) on a completely visceral level.  I have laughed with delight and sobbed helplessly many times over music -- sometimes for reasons I can barely understand with my cognitive mind.

And what is most curious to me is that the same bit of music doesn't necessarily evoke the same emotion in different people.  My wife, another avid music lover, often has a completely neutral reaction to tunes that have me enraptured (and vice versa).  I vividly recall arguing with my mother when I was perhaps fifteen years old, before I recognized what a fruitless endeavor arguing with my mother was, over whether Mason Williams' gorgeous solo guitar piece "Classical Gas" was sad or not.  (My opinion is that it's incredibly wistful and melancholy, despite being lightning-fast and technically difficult.  But listen to the recording, and judge for yourself.)

Which brings us to the subject of artificial intelligence.  Recently there has been a lot of work done in writing software that composes music; composer David Cope has invented a program called "Emily Howell" that is capable of producing listenable music in a variety of styles, including Bach, Rachmaninoff, Barber, Copland, and Chopin.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

"Listenable," of course, isn't the same as "brilliant" or "emotionally evocative."  As Chris Wilson, author of the Slate article I linked, concluded, "I don't expect Emily Howell to ever replace the best human composers...  Yet even at this early moment in AC research, Emily Howell is already a better composer than 99 percent of the population.  Whether she or any other computer can bridge that last 1 percent, making complete works with lasting significance to music, is anyone's guess."

And now, Ryan Stables, a professor of audio engineering and acoustics at Birmingham City University in England has, perhaps, crossed another bit of the remaining 1%.  Stables and his team have created a music processing software that is capable of recognizing, and tweaking, recordings of music to alter its emotional content.

"We put [pitch, rhythm, and texture] together into a higher level representation," Stables told a reporter for BBC.  "[Until now] computers represented music only as digital data. You might use your computer to play the Beach Boys, but a computer can't understand that there's a guitar or drums, it doesn't ever go surfing so it doesn't really know what that means, so it has no idea that it's the Beach Boys - it's just numbers, ones and zeroes...  We take computers… and we try and give them the capabilities to understand and process music in the way a human being would."

In practice, what this has meant is feeding in musical tracks to the program, along with descriptors such as "warm" or "dreamy" or "spiky."  The software then makes guesses from those tags about what features of music led to those descriptions -- what, for example, all of the tracks labeled "dreamy" have in common.  Just like a child learning to train his ears, the program becomes better and better at these guesses as it has more data.  Then once trained, the program can add those same effects to digital music recordings in post-production.

Note that like Cope's Emily Howell software, Stables is not claiming that his program can supersede music as performed by gifted human musicians.  "These are quite simple effects and would be very intuitive for the amateur musician," Stables said.  "There are similar commercially available technologies but they don't take a semantic input into account as this does."

Film composer Rael Jones, who has used Stables' software, concurs. "Plug-ins don't create a sound, they modify a sound; it is a small part of the process.  The crucial thing is the sound input -- for example you could never make a glockenspiel sound warm no matter how you processed it, and a very poorly recorded instrument cannot be fixed by using plug-ins post-recording.  But for some amateur musicians this could be an interesting educational tool to use as a starting point for exploring sound."

What I wonder, of course, is how long it will take before Cope, Stables, and others like them begin to combine forces and produce a truly creative piece of musical software, that is capable of composing and performing emotionally charged, technically brilliant music.  And at that point, will we have crossed a line into some fundamentally different realm, where creativity is no longer the sole purview of humanity?  You have to wonder how that will change our perception of art, music, beauty, emotion... and of ourselves.  When you talk to people about artificial intelligence, you often hear them say that of course computers could never be creative, that however good they are at other skills, creativity has an ineffable quality that will never be replicated in a machine.

I wonder if that's true.

I find the possibility tremendously exciting, and a little scary.  As a musician and a writer, who values creativity above most other human capacities, it's humbling to think that what I do might be replicable by something made out of circuits and relays.  But how astonishing it is to live in a time when we are getting the first glimpses of what is possible -- both for ourselves and for our creations.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Meet the "Crystal Children"

Last year I wrote a piece on the phenomenon of people labeling themselves or their kids "Indigo Children."  An "Indigo Child," it's said, is empathetic, sensitive, creative, and tends not to fit in well with regards to other people's expectations.  They are highly intelligent, and are especially gifted in areas that require thinking outside the box.

Oh, yeah.  They also have "indigo-colored auras."

So what we have here is yet another example of people trying to find an explanation and a label for something that really is best classified under the heading "People Are All Different."  Even, apparently, with respect to the color of their auras.

But "Indigo" is becoming passé, apparently.  As C. S. Lewis observed, "Fashions come and go... but mostly they go."  "Indigo Children" are now a dime a dozen.  So we have to move on to a new designation, an even more special kind of person.  One that shows up those silly Indigos for the bush-league posers that they are.

Now, we have "Crystal Children."

I'm not making this up.  In an opening passage that should win some kind of award for New Age Doublespeak, we read that the "empathetic and sensitive" Indigos better just step aside:
After discovering more about Indigo Children and the (often misunderstood) gifts that they possess, the question arose: now what?  The answer came in the form of the Crystal Children. 
The Crystal Children are the generation following the Indigo Children. Still thought to be relatively young, they have begun to be born from around 2000, though there is some speculation that they arrived earlier, around 1995.  Similar to their Indigo counterparts, these children are thought to be extremely powerful, with a main purpose to take humanity to the next level in our evolution and reveal to us our inner power and divinity.  Some things that make them unique from Indigo Children are that they function as a group consciousness rather than as individuals, and they live by the law that we are all one.  However, they are still are a powerful force for love and peace on the planet.
Yes, I have to say that when I read about the Indigo Children, my response was to shake my head and say, "Now what?"  But I don't think I meant it the same way.

And my goodness, those "Crystal Children!"  They're going to "take humanity to the next level in our evolution and reveal to us our inner power and divinity!"  Who could resist that?

We're then told the twenty-three ways to recognize a "Crystal Child," beginning with the first, that "Crystal Children" possess "large eyes with an intense stare."  I don't know about you, but that sounds vaguely terrifying to me.  If a large-eyed child was staring at me intensely, I wouldn't suspect that I was dealing with a child who was trying to "bring out my inner power and divinity," I would suspect that I was in an episode of The X Files and was about to have all of my blood removed via my eye sockets.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The rest of the ways that you tell if your kid is a "Crystal Child" are suspiciously like the rules for detecting "Indigo Children;" empathy, sensitivity, intelligence, creativity, and so on.  So once again this seems to me to be a way for gullible parents to find a way to feel better about having a child who might be experiencing trouble fitting in in school.  Not that this isn't an understandable goal; my younger son had a rough time in middle school, as many do, and it was a struggle sometimes as a parent to find ways to get him through the experience with his confidence and spirit intact.

But I'm just not convinced that making up a goofy label, and appending to it all sorts of pseudoscientific bosh, is the way to go about it.  Some good old-fashioned coping strategies are usually what's called for, not sticking a wacky name tag on your kid.  The latter, I'd think, would make it more likely the kid wouldn't fit in, especially if (s)he starts babbling to peers that they'd better be nice because you never know how a "Crystal Child" will react when provoked.

So that's our swim in the deep end for today.  I've got to wrap this up so I can go try and teach all of the various types of actual children out there.  I'll make sure to check out their auras.  That's bound to give me some valuable information about how to get them to understand science.