Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The haunting of Hinton Ampner

On her mom's side, my wife is descended from English nobility, a fact of which she reminds me periodically when I get uppity.  Her great-great grandfather, one William R. Hylton, was born in Jamaica to a family of British sugar planters, and the line (if you extend it back far enough) includes not only the Mad Baron Hylton (about whom I should write another time) but a woman named "Benedicta de Shelving," a member of the Norman gentry named "Marmaduke de Thweng," and best of all, an illegitimate daughter of King Edward IV.

One of her ancestors on the maternal side of her Hylton lineage is a Rachel (Ricketts) Johnson, who would have been (if I'm counting correctly) the aforementioned William R. Hylton's great-great grandmother.  I found out quite by accident that Rachel is related to the central figures in one of Britain's creepiest ghost stories -- the tale of the haunting of Hinton Ampner, a mansion in Hampshire.

Hinton Ampner was built in the 1620s, during the reign of James I, by one Sir Thomas Stewkeley.  Sir Thomas's great grandson Hugh had no male heirs; his daughter, Mary, married Edward Stawell, a nobly-descended young man who was also apparently a little loose on the morals side.  Despite this, Stawell was appointed as Sir Hugh's heir.

After his father-in-law's death, Stawell apparently decided that he could get away with whatever he wanted, and he invited his wife's beautiful young sister, Honoria, to come live with them at Hinton Ampner.  Mary Stawell died shortly afterwards -- an eventuality that many of their neighbors found convenient -- and he lived there with Honoria (carrying on, sources say, in "a scandalous manner") until her death in 1754.  Stawell himself died the following year, and some claimed that the couple's demise was "divine retribution" for their having done away with an illegitimate child born to the union -- perhaps more than one.

Be that as it may, the house was purchased and then rented out to William Henry Ricketts (cousin to Carol's forebear Rachel (Ricketts) Johnson) and his wife, Mary (Jervis) Ricketts.  William was frequently away for long periods of time -- as I mentioned earlier, he and his family had ties to Jamaica, and voyages across the Atlantic were dangerous and drawn-out affairs -- but Mary was a no-nonsense, down-to-earth type who was quite up to the task of running a household (including their three children and a bevy of servants) by herself.

Whether she was up to dealing with ghosts remains to be seen.

The haunting, if such it was, started out slowly.  Mr. and Mrs. Ricketts both heard noises at night, prompting them on more than one occasion to awaken the servants for a thorough search of the house, which turned up nothing.  Then the nurse to the Ricketts's infant son saw a "man in drab clothes" walk into "the Yellow Room" -- Mary Ricketts's own bedroom.

Once again a search found no one.

Events accelerated.  Servants saw not only the apparition of the drab-clothed man, but a woman in a silk dress.  "Dismal moans" were heard at night, and doors opened and quietly shut by themselves.  Mary Ricketts, at first scornful of the claims of the servants, began to experience them herself -- especially when the disturbances intensified while her husband was away in Jamaica in 1769.  She was terrified one night to hear heavy, plodding footsteps near her bed, and in the days following began to make inquiries in the neighborhood regarding the history of the house.  She found only one curious story -- an elderly man who said that a long-time friend of his, who was a carpenter, had been summoned to the house while old Sir Hugh Stewkeley was still alive to pull up some of the floorboards in the dining room.  The carpenter saw Stewkeley and his son-in-law, the depraved Edward Stawell, place something in the space underneath.  The carpenter was ordered to replace the floorboards -- and not to tell a soul what he'd seen, on pain of death.  (A threat the carpenter either didn't believe, or didn't break until Stewkeley and Stawell were both dead themselves.)

Oddly, Mary Ricketts didn't have the floorboards pried up to determine the truth of the claim.  She was apparently reluctant to ascribe the occurrences to ghosts.  But even she began to have second thoughts when the haunting continued to worsen.  A strange murmuring could be heard in several rooms in the house, which sometimes resolved itself into intelligible words.  Not only did Mary hear it, but so did her brother, the famous British Navy officer Captain John Jervis, who wrote about it in his journal (a document that still exists today in a museum in London).  They also heard a tremendous "rushing sound," like a great wind, that would "fall with infinite velocity and force" upon a room, without a breath of air stirring.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Mary wrote about the entire story herself in a narrative that was given for publication to The Gentleman's Magazine by her descendants in 1872.  Throughout the tale, Mary strikes you as sane, calm, and collected, always looking for rational explanations, and not immediately leaping to the conclusion that ghosts were to blame.  One passage reads as follows:
Thoroughly convinced there were persons in the lobby before I opened the door, I asked her [Mary's servant Elizabeth Godin] if she saw no one there.  On her replying in the negative, I went out to her, examined the window that was shut, looked under the couch, the only furniture of concealment there; the chimney board was fastened, and when removed all was clear behind it.  She found the door into the lobby shut, as it was every night.  After this examination, I stood in the middle of the room, pondering with astonishment, when suddenly the door that opens into the little recess leading to the yellow apartment sounded as if played to and fro by a person standing behind it.  This was more than I could bear unmoved.  I ran into the nursery and rang the bell there that goes into the men's apartment.
I think if it'd been me, "not unmoved" would have been putting it mildly.  I think I would have fallen more into the "pissing my pants and then having a stroke" category.

Eventually, however, even Mary's stalwart patience was tried to the limit.  During his stay, her brother -- who is certainly a credible witness if anyone is -- heard groans, banging, dragging footsteps, and (on one occasion) a gunshot.  None of the noises seemed to have a corporeal source.  Jervis pressed his sister to leave the mansion, which she did in 1771.  Its owners were understandably unable to find anyone else who would rent the place, and shortly afterwards Hinton Ampner was demolished.

Okay, I know, you can't put much weight into anecdote, but this story to me has some characteristics that have the ring of truth.  I think it's the open-endedness of it that is the most persuasive, and the most creepy as well.  A lot of ghost stories have predictable endings -- the haunting ends when a skeleton is unearthed and reburied in hallowed ground, when the guilty party is arrested for a murder, when well-deserved revenge is taken against a killer.  Here, we have two seemingly reliable people recounting experiences that have no easy wrap-up.  In the end, Mary Ricketts and her family moved away, John Jervis went on to win the Battle of St. Vincent, and the haunted house itself was torn down.

So I find this a pretty cool story, even though I wouldn't call myself a true believer by any stretch.  Cool, too, that we have a family connection to the main characters; in fact, Captain John Jervis had no children of his own and chose as his heir Mary's son Edward Jervis Ricketts, who spent his childhood in Hinton Ampner, and who would be Carol's third cousin several times removed.  But whether it's true or not, and whether the explanation is supernatural or entirely rational, I still think it's a good tale for a particular day in late October.  And with that, I'll wish you all a happy and dismal-moan-free Halloween.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Trip to the stars

Because the news down here on Earth in the last few days is making me angry, frustrated, depressed, or all three simultaneously, in today's post I'm going to go to my Happy Place, which is: outer space.

This all comes up not only because of the goings-on I'm exposed to every time I read the news, but because of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia who sent me a link to a wonderful article by Nola Taylor Redd in Astronomy magazine online entitled, "The Outer Solar System Keeps Getting Weirder."  In it we find out that recent research has shown that our home system is not nearly as orderly or predictable as we thought it was back when I was in grade school and remembering the mnemonic "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies" gave you all of the planets in order, and that was pretty much that.

First, we have the discovery of a small icy planet (or dwarf planet; the astronomers aren't exactly sure yet) called L91, which has a highly elliptical orbit varying from 50 Astronomical Units (an AU is the average distance from the Sun to the Earth) to 1,430.  Not only does L91 have an odd orbit, the orbital trajectory isn't stable.  "Its orbit is changing in quite a remarkable way," said astrophysicist Michele Bannister of Queen's University Belfast at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences Conference in Pasadena, California.  "There are minute changes in the object’s orbit that could come from the passing gravity of other stars or interactions with the hypothetical Planet Nine."

Artist's conception of the Sun as viewed from Sedna (a dwarf planet three times more distant than Neptune) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I remember when the whole Planet Nine thing first was proposed, right around the time I was an undergraduate student of physics at the University of Louisiana.  Two of my teachers, Daniel Whitmire and John Matese, had proposed the periodic disturbance of comets in the Oort Cloud by a large planet outside the orbit of Pluto as a mechanism for periodic mass extinctions (the idea being that the planet, as it passes through the Oort Cloud, interacts gravitationally with the comets, slingshotting some of them in toward the inner Solar System, and increasing the likelihood of an impact with the Earth and a resultant catastrophe for us Earthlings).  Apparently, Whitmire and Matese are still at it, and have been vindicated at least so far as the existence of Planet Nine; earlier this year Konstantin Batygin of the California Institute of Technology announced independent evidence of a large planet that was perturbing the orbit of dwarf planets in the distant reaches of the Solar System.

So that's pretty cool.  I mean, not the comets striking the Earth and obliterating everything part, but the odd stuff in the far reaches of the Solar System part.

To further explore my Happy Place, I then went to the Hubble Telescope image gallery, and found the following extremely cool photographs, further emphasizing that although things can get ugly down here on Earth, we live in a gorgeous universe.  Here are a few of my favorites.  All images are courtesy of NASA/Hubble Space Telescope and are in the public domain.

A supernova in the galaxy NGC3021

The Helix Nebula

A supernova remnant in the constellation Cassiopeia

The Sombrero Galaxy, NGC 4594

The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51

There.  I don't know about you, but I feel much better now.  The idea that there are billions of stars out there, many of which probably host intelligent life, is a real source of comfort to me.  Especially considering that just by the law of averages, some of them must get by without doing the stupid stuff we do down here on Earth.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A trio of straw men

I had three interactions in the last 24 hours that left me wanting to bang my forehead against the wall.

I was going to call them "conversations," but "conversation" implies "exchange of ideas," which is not what this was.  This was more "one person ranting at the other, followed by the target of this rant trying unsuccessfully to find some way of responding other than shouting 'Are you a moron?  Or what?'"

The common thread in all of them was the straw-man fallacy -- mischaracterizing an argument, and then arguing against that mischaracterization.  Honestly, it's a way of saying "ha ha, I win" without doing the hard work of finding out what your opponent actually believes.

The first of these interactions was over a piece I posted here at Skeptophilia a while back on the evolution of bills designed to block the teaching of evolution.  I thought the academic paper I was writing about was absolutely brilliant, but evidently not everyone does, because I received the following comment:
I don't understand how anyone can believe in the fairy tale of evolution.  You honestly expect us to believe that one animal can just morph into another by magic?  It's so easy for you to believe that a chihuahua would become a race of large sea creatures?
 So against my better judgment, I actually responded.  The whole time, my brain was shouting at me, "You doofus.  Why are you bothering?  What do you think you're going to accomplish?"  But I wouldn't listen to me.  So I wrote:
Of course evolutionists don't think chihuahuas turned into orcas.  The very fact that you can't come up with an actual example of what evolutionists are saying indicates that you're not really all that interested in the discussion, you're just looking for an opportunity to make foolish statements and then pretend you've won the argument.
He then did something kind of sneaky; he set out bait for me.
Okay, then, tell me something evolutionists do believe.
And like an idiot, I fell for it.

I responded:
Here's just one example.  Birds are clearly descended from dinosaurs, especially the deinonychid dinosaurs (including the famous Velociraptor).  They show a lot of homologous bone structure -- and in fact, some members of this dinosaur group had feathers.  Recent protein sequencing of soft tissue preserved in dinosaur bones has also supported a close relationship to modern birds.
And he responded:
Oh, okay.  So it's not chihuahuas morphing into orcas, it's a T-rex morphing into a hummingbird.  That makes so much more sense.
So I gave up...

... only to get caught again shortly thereafter by someone who posted the following image on Twitter:

And not having learned from what had happened only two hours earlier, I responded:
So the fact that they were also both crazy homicidal dictators had nothing whatsoever to do with it?
At which point the original poster called me a "sheeple," which in my opinion is a word whose use should immediately disqualify you from rational discourse in a public forum for a year, unless in that time you can show evidence of your successful completion of a college-level logic course.

But since I never make the same mistake twice -- I make it five or six times, just to be sure -- I then got into a snarl with a Facebook friend who posted an article saying that all of the polls are wrong, that Donald Trump is going to win in a landslide.  By this time I was completely fed up with counterfactual nonsense, and I said, "How can making up reality as you go along be comforting to you?"

She immediately unfriended me, which I guess I deserved, if not for the message, for the snarky way I said it.

So apparently, I'll never learn.  Not only does engaging in arguments on the internet piss off all of the participants, it's completely futile.  And trying to reason with someone who didn't come to their conclusion using rational evidence is a losing proposition right from the get-go.  It reminds me of the quote -- attributed to several different sources -- "You can't logic yourself out of a position you didn't logic yourself into."  Or, as Thomas Paine put it, "To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hiding from reality

I have never understood the inclination on the part of some folks to pretend that if you just don't talk about something it will go away.

This has been the approach of a lot of politicians vis-à-vis climate change (at least among those who actually acknowledge that it exists).  Let's not even talk about our role in wrecking the planet, nor (especially) what changes we'd have to make in our own cultures and lifestyles to have a prayer of a chance of altering what is now increasingly looking like the outcome.

Which is the adult equivalent of a little kid pulling his blanket over his head because that makes the monster go away.

The latest in the "la-la-la-la-la-la, not listening" department are the states wherein teachers are not allowed to discuss homosexuality in public school classes.  There are currently eight states that have such laws: Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.  The general attitude seems to be that if kids don't hear about homosexuality, it'll stop happening, as if there are 100% straight kids sitting around in high school health class one day, and the teacher mentions homosexuality, and all of a sudden the kids go, "Holy shit!  I never thought of that!  I think I'll go have sex with a member of my own gender right now!"

Some states go even farther than that. Take, for example, Alabama State Code § 16-40A-2(c)(8):
Classes must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.
And South Carolina State Code Statute § 59-32-30(5):
[T]he program of instruction provided for in this section may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.
And Arizona AZ Revised Statute § 15-716(c):
[N]o district shall include in its course of study instruction which…(1) promotes a homosexual life-style…(2) portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style…(3) suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.
So yet another way that LGBT kids are systematically marginalized and stigmatized. Is it any wonder the suicide rate among LGBT teens is so high?

In Utah, however, we may be seeing the first sign of a sea change.  Last week, Equality Utah sued the state over its so-called "No Promo Homo" law.  Troy Williams, president of Equality Utah, said that the law "sends a message that our lives are something shameful, something that must be censored and erased... the time has come to end the stigma."  The lawsuit itself states that such laws "create a culture of silence and nonacceptance of LGBT students and teachers... They  leave LGBT students at risk for isolation, harassment and long-term negative impacts on their health and well-being."

Which is it exactly.  It also, of course, is a fine example of ideologues pretending that if they only close their eyes tight enough, everything they don't like in the world will vanish.  The evidence is incontrovertible at this point that homosexuality is not a choice -- it is either inborn or else wired in so early that it may as well be.  (You straight readers, when did you decide to be attracted to members of the opposite sex?  And if you say, "Well, I didn't decide to, it just happened that way," why in the hell do you think it would be different for homosexuals or bisexuals?)

So what this amounts to is institutional discrimination against people for something over which they have absolutely no control.  Explain to me again how this is fair?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Most appalling of all is the fact that the majority of the people of this stripe justify their beliefs using religion.  Isn't there also something in the bible about "judge not lest ye be judged" and "love thy neighbor as thyself" and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you?"  I seem to remember those were pretty important parts.

In any case, it's heartening that people in Utah may be taking the first steps toward repealing these idiotic laws.  It can only be hoped that this will spread to other states that have similar statutes.  And that the supporters of such legislation are forced to take their hands from over their eyes and look squarely at reality -- not only that LGBT individuals exist, but what the years of bigotry, intolerance, bullying, and systemic marginalization has done to them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Clickbait directory

Coming hard on the heels of a story about how hexagonal cloud formations in the south Atlantic proves the existence of the Bermuda Triangle, we have: a story about a guy in an evil clown mask who, after scaring people for weeks in rural Cambodia, died by accidentally stepping on a land mine.

This is one of those stories that those of us with a twisted sense of humor just would love to be true.  Much to the annoyance of most of us, the whole clown thing has (as I mentioned in a previous post) exploded recently.

Wait, that was a poor choice of words.  Let's just say that clown sightings have skyrocketed.  This of course leads to false sightings, not to mention copycats, and my guess is that the legacy of the evil clowns will be with us long after Halloween has come and gone.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem with the story about the clown stepping on a land mine is, it's fake.  And that's why I'm writing about it.  Not only is the story false, the source of the story -- the Times of Cambodia -- is a recently-created bogus news site.  In other words, the Times of Cambodia appears to have been put online specifically to give visibility to this story.

And the problem is, it worked.  The story has progressed its way up the credibility ladder, and has (thus far) appeared in the Evening Standard, the Mirror, and the Daily Star, to name three.  Not that any of these is above posting a dubious news story to get readers' attention.  But these are at least approaching mainstream media -- in other words, a cut above such unadulterated baloney as InfoWars, Before It's News, and Area 51.

Whoever created the story (not to mention the Times of Cambodia) has also benefited greatly from social media.  I've now seen this story at least a half-dozen times on Twitter and Facebook, usually from people who apparently think that it's true.  So we're back to "check your sources, dammit," a theme I've rung the changes on so many times that I've lost count.

So I thought it might be a good idea to post a list of unreliable news sources.  This is not my own list (although I agree with it 100%) -- to give credit where credit is due, this comes from Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News.  But I'm hoping that since she and I are entirely on the same page about this, she won't mind my swiping her list and reposting it here.

Starting with the nearly always unreliable, not-even-once sites. Some of these are deliberate spoof sites (e.g. Topeka's News), others are claiming they're telling you the straight scoop but are so wildly biased that I'd automatically discount any claim they make (e.g. Natural News).  Here are the top offenders:
  • Natural News (Mike Adams, “Health Ranger”)
  • Pat Robertson (700 Club)
  • Before It’s News
  • Info Wars / Prison Planet (Alex Jones)
  • (Joe Mercola)
  • News-hound
  • The Canadian (
  • All News Web
  • World News Daily Report
  • World Net Daily (
  • Empire News (
Then, there are the ones that are such ad-revenue-seeking clickbait that they tend to pick up any story that sounds sensational (like the killer clown story), so what they post is a complete hash of actual news, biased political grandstanding, and outright nonsense.  Anything from them falls into the "check another source" department:
  • Daily Mail (U.K.)
  • The Sun (U.K.)
  • Bubblews
  • European Union Times
  • Siberian Times
  • Buzzfeed
  • Gawker network of sites
  • Mother Nature News
  • Epoch Times
  • The Blaze
  • Drudge Report
  • Mirror (U.K.)
  • Breitbart
  • IFLS (I Fucking Love Science)
So there you have it.  Some news sources to avoid.  Of course, that doesn't mean that what you find elsewhere is reliable; as always, use your brain and double check your sources.  Especially if you're considering forwarding a story about exploding clowns in Cambodia.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The hexagons of doom

New from the Woo-Woo Bullshit That Would Not Die department, we have: stories popping up all over the place claiming that the discovery of hexagonal clouds "solves the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle."

There are dozens of these articles all over the place, many at clickbait sites like the Daily Mail Fail, so I will only post one link -- to a dubiously-less-clickbaitish site called the Mother News Network.  In it, we find that a meteorologist named Randy Cerveny has been studying atmospheric turbulence patterns, and found that a phenomenon that creates hexagonal-shaped clouds is also likely to create the proper conditions for a microburst -- a sudden downdraft that can reach hurricane-speed in a matter of seconds (and usually dissipates just as fast).  "These types of hexagonal shapes over the ocean are in essence air bombs," Cerveny said.  "They are formed by what are called microbursts, blasts of air that come down out of the bottom of a cloud and then hit the ocean and then create waves that can sometimes be massive in size as they start to interact with each other."

Which is all well and good, and of obvious interest to weather nerds like myself.  I'm fascinated by weather, which is why I'm always updating my poor long-suffering wife about the status of low-pressure systems in Saskatchewan.  So I think the discovery is cool.


You may want to back slowly away from your screen, 'cuz I'm gonna yell.


I dealt with this in a post way back in 2011.  Let me quote for you the relevant paragraph:
[T]he whole preposterous idea [of the Bermuda Triangle] was brought to the public's attention by a fellow named Charles Berlitz, who wrote a bestselling book on the subject in 1974.  Berlitz's book, upon examination, turns out to be full of sensationalized hype, reports taken out of context, omitted information, and outright lies.  Larry Kusche, whose painstaking collection of data finally proved once and for all that there were proportionally no more ships and planes going down there than anywhere else in the world, said about Berlitz, "If Berlitz were to report that a ship was red, the chances of it being some other color is almost a certainty."
So the Bermuda Triangle Mystery is actually the Bermuda Triangle Ordinary Patch Of Ocean.  But far be it from the woo-woos of the world to say, "Well, I guess we were wrong after all.  There's nothing to see here, folks."  No.  We have to keep hearing about how ancient aliens built the Pyramids, that ley lines determined the siting of Stonehenge, how you can heal yourself with crystals, and that homeopathy works.

And, heaven help us all, that there's a mysterious "Bermuda Triangle" where ships and airplanes vanish regularly, never to be seen again.

So poor Randy Cerveny has joined the rank of scientists who have had their legitimate (and interesting) research co-opted by wingnuts who then use it to support a loony claim.  I don't know how he feels about this.  Maybe he's just laughing it off.  Me, I'd be pissed.

In fact, I'm pissed enough just reading about it.  I better go check the weather forecast for Quito, Ecuador and calm down a little.  It'll also give me something to tell my wife about over dinner tonight.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Wish upon a star

If I had one wish for something that I will live long enough to see, it'd be incontrovertible evidence of intelligent life on other planets.

I know, when it comes to human problems, feeling alone in the galaxy isn't one of the more pressing ones.  Finding a cure for cancer, finding ways to prevent or treat dementia, developing a universal vaccine for flu and colds and malaria -- those should be up there somewhere.

Oh, and eliminating poverty and ignorance, and having peace on Earth.  Those, too.

But man.  Aliens, you know?  There's something magnetic about the idea of an intelligence that (in C. S. Lewis's words) "floats on a different blood."  So whenever there's a new development in SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- I always read it with great enthusiasm.

And just last week, astronomers found what might be the best candidate yet.

According to a paper published last week at the pre-print site arXiv, Emmano F. Borra and Éric Trottier, two astronomers at Laval University (Québec City), have found 234 stars (out of 2.5 million studied) whose spectra show "peculiar periodic modulations."  The authors write:
A Fourier transform analysis of 2.5 million spectra in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey was carried out to detect periodic spectral modulations.  Signals having the same period were found in only 234 stars overwhelmingly in the F2 to K1 spectral range.  The signals cannot be caused by instrumental or data analysis effects because they are present in only a very small fraction of stars within a narrow spectral range and because signal to noise ratio considerations predict that the signal should mostly be detected in the brightest objects, while this is not the case.  We consider several possibilities, such as rotational transitions in molecules, rapid pulsations, Fourier transform of spectral lines and signals generated by Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI).  They cannot be generated by molecules or rapid pulsations.  It is highly unlikely that they come from the Fourier transform of spectral lines because too many strong lines located at nearly periodic frequencies are needed.  Finally we consider the possibility, predicted in a previous published paper, that the signals are caused by light pulses generated by Extraterrestrial Intelligence to makes us aware of their existence.  We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an ETI signal predicted in the previous publication and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis.  The fact that they are only found in a very small fraction of stars within a narrow spectral range centered near the spectral type of the sun is also in agreement with the ETI hypothesis.
When I read this, I said, and I quote, "Holy shit."

That two reputable research astronomers would go out on a limb like this and say, "Yeah, this pretty much looks like ETI" is stunning.  Hell, they didn't even do that with "Tabby's Star" -- the star discovered by Tabetha Boyajian whose brightness profile over time showed some really weird fluctuations.  Boyajian and others said that the change in brightness was strange, and could be consistent with an alien civilization constructing a huge Dyson sphere around the star, but that it was way premature to conclude that this was what was happening.  Further studies have left astronomers still saying "We don't know" -- which is exactly the stance a good scientific skeptic should take when the evidence is insufficient to come to a conclusion.

Here, though, they appear to have eliminated all of the other likely possibilities.  Borra and Trottier are seriously considering the possibility that these odd signals might be signals from extraterrestrial beacons -- and that a civilization who could create pulses this powerful would be significantly beyond us technologically.

It behooves us to recall, however, that when Jocelyn Bell first discovered pulsars, they were nicknamed LGM (Little Green Men) until it turned out that there was a perfectly natural, and non-ETI, explanation for them.  So caution is recommended.  But to me -- and I'm admitting up front I'm not an astronomer, so my opinion probably doesn't count for much -- this seems like the most promising candidate for ETI yet.

So I hope that other astronomers follow up Borra and Trottier's study, because what we need now is more information.  And of course, if it does turn out to be ETI, the question then becomes, "What do we do now?"  Do we signal back "Hey, we're over here?"  The level of terrestrial intelligence sometimes seems to me to be so low that you have to wonder if the aliens would just say, "Oh, man.  This planet is just not worth the trouble."  And in any case, the distances are so great that a two-way conversation wouldn't be possible.

But even so.  Just the idea that we might be looking at the first real evidence of intelligent life beyond our solar system is amazingly cool.  Once in arXiv the paper goes into peer review, and so far it appears to be "generating interest" -- science-ese for "it hasn't been dismissed out of hand."  So we'll watch and wait.

Of course, me, I'm already preparing for the reception committee when they land in my back yard.  I'm not nearly as cool as Zefram Cochrane, but I hope that the Vulcans will still find me an acceptable proxy.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


As a teacher, I've developed a pretty sensitive bullshit detector.

It's a necessary skill.  Kids who have not taken the time to understand the topic being studied are notorious for bullshitting answers on essay questions, often padding their writing with vague but sciency-sounding words.  An example is the following, which is verbatim (near as I can recall) from an essay on how photosynthesis is, and is not, the reverse of aerobic cellular respiration:
From analyzing photosynthesis and the process of aerobic cellular respiration, you can see that certain features are reversed between the two reactions and certain things are not.  Aerobic respiration has the Krebs Cycle and photosynthesis has the Calvin Cycle, which are also opposites in some senses and not in others.  Therefore, the steps are not the same.  So if you ran them in reverse, those would not be the same, either.
I returned this essay with one comment:  "What does this even mean?"  The student in question at least had the gumption to admit he'd gotten caught.  He grinned sheepishly and said, "You figured out that I had no idea what I was talking about, then?"  I said, "Yup."  He said, "Guess I better study next time."

I said, "Yup."

Developing a sensitive nose for bullshit is critical not only for teachers, because there's a lot of it out there, and not just in academic circles.  Writer Scott Berkun addressed this in his wonderful piece, "How to Detect Bullshit," which gives some concrete suggestions about how to figure out what is USDA grade-A prime beef, and what is the cow's other, less pleasant output.  One of the best is simply to ask the questions, "How do you know that?", "Who else has this opinion?", and "What is the counter-argument?"

You say your research will revolutionize the field?

Says who?  Based on what evidence?

He also says to be very careful whenever anyone says, "Studies show," because usually if studies did show what the writer claims, (s)he'd be specific about what those studies were.  Vague statements like "studies show" are often a red flag that the claim doesn't have much in its favor.

Using ten-dollar buzzwords is also a good way to cover up the fact that you're sailing pretty close to the wind.  Berkun recommends asking, "Can you explain this in simpler terms?"  If the speaker can't give you a good idea of what (s)he's talking about without resorting to jargon, the fancy verbiage is fairly likely to be there to mislead.

This is the idea behind BlaBlaMeter, a website I found out about from a student of mine, into which you can cut-and-paste text and get a score (from 0 to 1.0) for how much bullshit it contains.  I'm not sure what the algorithm does besides detecting vague filler words, but it's a clever idea.  It'd certainly be nice to have a rigorous way to detect it when you're being bamboozled with words.

The importance of being able to detect fancy-sounding nonsense was highlighted just this week by the acceptance of a paper for the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics -- when it turned out that the paper had been created by hitting iOS Autocomplete over and over.  The paper, written (sort of) by Christoph Bartneck, associate professor at the Human Interface Technology laboratory at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, was titled "Atomic Energy Will Have Been Made Available to a Single Source" (the title was also generated by autocomplete), and contained passages such as:
The atoms of a better universe will have the right for the same as you are the way we shall have to be a great place for a great time to enjoy the day you are a wonderful person to your great time to take the fun and take a great time and enjoy the great day you will be a wonderful time for your parents and kids.
Which, of course, makes no sense at all.  In this case, I wonder if the reviewers simply didn't bother to read the paper -- or read a few sample sentences and found that they (unlike the above) made reasonable sense, and said, "Looks fine to me."

Although I'd like to think that even considering my lack of expert status on atomic and nuclear physics, I'd have figured out that what I was looking at was ridiculous.

On a more serious note, there's a much more pressing reason that we all need to arm ourselves against bullshit, because so much of what's on the internet is outright false.  A team of political fact-checkers was hired by Buzzfeed News to sift through claims on politically partisan Facebook pages, and found that on average, a third of the claims made by partisan sites were outright false.  And lest you think one side was better than the other, the study found that both right and left were making a great many unsubstantiated, misleading, or wrong claims.  And we're not talking about fringe-y wingnut sites here; these were sites that if you're on Facebook you see reposts from on a daily basis -- Occupy Democrats, Eagle Rising, Freedom Daily, The Other 98%, Addicting Info, Right Wing News, and U.S. Uncut.

What this means is that when you see posts from these sites, there is (overall) about a 2/3 chance that what you're seeing is true.  So if you frequent those pages -- or, more importantly, if you're in the habit of clicking "share" on every story that you find mildly appealing -- you damn well better be able to figure out which third is wrong.

The upshot of it is, we all need better bullshit filters.  Given that we are bombarded daily by hundreds of claims from the well-substantiated to the outrageous, it behooves us to find a way to determine which is which.

And, if you're curious, a 275-word passage from this Skeotphilia post was rated by BlaBlaMeter as having a bullshit rating of 0.13.  Which I find reassuring.  Not bad, considering the topic I was discussing.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Death in Warsaw

What frustrates me most about woo-woos isn't that I disagree with them on their conclusions.  Heaven knows there are lots of people who disagree with me on a lot of things, and if I disliked them all, I wouldn't have any friends.

What bothers me is their tendency -- and I know I'm overgeneralizing a bit -- to accept a claim despite (or even because of) a complete lack of evidence.  That "because of" bit becomes especially powerful with conspiracy theorists; they seem to consider "zero evidence" a badge of honor.  "Of course there's no evidence," they seem to say.  "Do you think the Illuminati would leave around stuff like evidence?"

As a good example of this, take the case of the death of Max Spiers, prominent British ufologist, supernaturalist, and conspiracy theorist, this past July.  I found out about it over at Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News, and it certainly is a little on the peculiar side.  You can learn more of the details (such as they are) in Hill's article, but the bare-bones of the case seem to be as follows:

Spiers died in Warsaw in mid-July; the date isn't certain but was probably the 15th or 16th.  He had made a video three days earlier in which he seemed to be either ill or on drugs.  His speech was slurred and at some points unintelligible, and what he was saying devolved into an incoherent ramble.  Spiers is known to have had problems with misuse of opiate drugs in the past, and those symptoms are certainly consistent with being on a narcotic.

Max Spiers [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Spiers's body was flown back to the UK and presumably autopsied, but the results of the toxicology and post mortem have not been made public.  "An inquest is expected," but the authorities have not been forthcoming with further details.

Then we have a claim by his mother, Vanessa Bates -- unsubstantiated as yet -- that Spiers had texted her shortly before his death with a cryptic and sinister warning: "Your boy’s in trouble.  If anything happens to me, investigate."

And that's it, as far as the facts go.

I'll admit that the circumstances are strange, especially if the text to Vanessa Bates turns out to be authentic.  Certainly worth an investigation.  But the woo-woos have taken this extremely slim bunch of information, and come to...

... well, conclusions.  Lots of conclusions.  Here are just a few that have been circulating on conspiracy and UFO websites:
  • Spiers was the victim of a group of neo-Nazis running a government mind-control program.
  • Spiers was a "supersoldier" who was being controlled by an implant.  When his superiors saw that he was getting out of control and preparing to blow the whistle on him, the killed him by turning off the implant.
  • Spiers was fighting against "Energy Vampires," beings who "feed on negative energy" (whatever the fuck that is).  The Energy Vampires caught up with him and killed him by draining him dry.
  • Spiers was about to go public with a claim that the world is being run by a circle of politicians and celebrities who do what they do by "black magic."  So they killed him.
  • UFO researchers around the world, including Spiers, are being targeted for assassination because the Illuminati don't want information on aliens getting out to the rest of us slobs.
  • Spiers was killed because he didn't like Hillary Clinton, because, you know, she does that to people she doesn't like.
And so on, and so forth.

Now let's go back to the facts here.  A guy died under fairly mysterious circumstances.  We don't have any information on why or how.  The guy himself had some pretty odd ideas.  There may or may not have been a sinister text from him to his mother shortly before he died.

And that's all.  I'm sorry, you can't take that and add it together and get computer-controlled supersoldiers and evil Energy Vampires.  It's all very well to be suspicious of official reports, but the lack of an official report doesn't prove a damn thing.

Anyhow.  I hope that there's more information coming down the pipeline on this story, although you know that if it comes out that Spiers died of an opiate overdose none of the aforementioned woo-woos will believe it.  As we've seen all too many times before, once conspiracy theorists decide on something, not only is a lack of evidence considered evidence for, but evidence against is considered evidence for as well.

You can't win.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Rigged thinking

Skepticism often requires maneuvering your way through equal and opposite pitfalls.  As I frequently say to my classes, gullibility and cynicism are both signs of mental laziness -- it is as much of a cognitive error to disbelieve everything you hear as it is to believe everything.

The same is true of reliance on authority.  It certainly is inadvisable to believe without question anything an authority says (or believe it simply because (s)he is an authority); but dismissing everything is also pretty ridiculous.  Stephen Hawking, for example, is a world-renowned authority on physics.  If I refused to believe what he has to say on (for example) black holes I would be foolish -- and very likely wrong.

So categorical thinking tends to get us into trouble.  It's an excuse to avoid the hard work of research and analysis.  It is also, unfortunately, extremely common.

Which brings us to "everything the government tells you is a lie."

Distrust of the government is in vogue these days.  "The government says..." is a fine way to start a sentence that you're expecting everyone to scoff at, especially if the piece of the government in question belongs to a different political party than you do.  That spokespeople for the government have lied on occasion -- that they have, sometimes, engaged in disinformation campaigns -- is hardly at issue.  But to decide that everything a government agency does or says is deliberately dishonest is sloppy thinking, not to mention simply untrue.

It also has another nasty side effect, though, which is to convince people that they are powerless.  If the Big Evil Government is going to do whatever they damn well please regardless of what voters want, it leads people to believe that they're being bamboozled every time they vote.  And powerless, angry, frustrated people tend to do stupid, violent things.

Which is why the whole "the election is rigged" bullshit that Donald Trump is trumpeting every chance he gets is so dangerous.  For fuck's sake, the election hasn't even happened yet; one very much gets the impression that this reaction is much like a toddler's temper tantrum when he doesn't get the piece of candy he wants.  Trump can't conceive of the fact that he could compete for something he wants and lose fair and square; so if he loses (and it very much looks like he's going to), the election must be rife with fraud.

Scariest of all was his suggestion in last night's presidential debate that he might not concede the election if Clinton wins.  As CNN senior political analyst David Gergen put it:
More importantly, many in the press, as well as others (I am among them) were horrified that Trump refused to say he would accept the verdict of voters on November 8.  No other candidate has ever taken the outrageous position that "if I win, that's legitimate but if I lose, the system must be rigged."  It is bad enough that Trump puts himself before party; now he is putting self before country.
[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In fact, actual voter fraud in the United States is so rare as to be insignificant with respect to the outcome of elections.  A comprehensive study by Justin Levitt, a constitutional law scholar and professor of law at Loyola University, found 31 cases of credible voter fraud out of one billion ballots cast in the past sixteen years.  A separate study by Lorraine Minnite, professor of political science at Rutgers, came to the same conclusion.  Further, she found that irregularities in elections were almost always due to innocent human error rather than a deliberate attempt to throw the election.  Here are four examples Minnite cites:
  • In the contested 2004 Washington state gubernatorial election, a Superior Court judge ruled invalid just 25 ballots, constituting 0.0009 percent of the 2,812,675 cast. Many were absentee ballots mailed as double votes or in the names of deceased people, but the judge did not find all were fraudulently cast. When King County prosecutors charged seven defendants, the lawyer for one 83-year old woman said his client “simply did not know what to do with the absentee ballot after her husband of 63 years, Earl, passed away” just before the election, so she signed his name and mailed the ballot. 
  • A leaked report from the Milwaukee Police Department found that data entry errors, typographical errors, procedural missteps, misapplication of the rules, and the like accounted for almost all reported problems during the 2004 presidential election. 
  • When the South Carolina State Election Commission investigated a list of 207 allegedly fraudulent votes in the 2010 election, it found simple human errors in 95 percent of the cases the state’s highest law enforcement official had reported as fraud. 
  • A study by the Northeast Ohio Media Group of 625 reported voting irregularities in Ohio during the 2012 election found that nearly all cases forwarded to county prosecutors were caused by voter confusion or errors by poll workers.
It's easy to say "the system is designed to screw voters!" or "the election is rigged!"  It's not so easy to answer the questions, "What evidence do you have that this happens?" and "How would you actually go about rigging a national election if you wanted to?"  (If you want an excellent summary of the argument that the risk of hackers or other miscreants affecting the outcome of an election in the United States is extremely small, check out the CNN article on the subject that just came out yesterday.)

So what we have here is one more example of baseless partisan rhetoric, which has as the unsettling side effect making people on the losing side feel like they've been cheated.  Which, I think, is why we're seeing a serious uptick in threats of violence by people who don't like the way the election seems to be going -- from the woman at a Trump rally who cited "rampant voter fraud" and said, "For me personally, if Hillary Clinton gets in, I myself am ready for a revolution" to Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke who tweeted, "our institutions of gov, WH, Congress, DOJ, and big media are corrupt & all we do is bitch. Pitchforks and torches time."

To reiterate what I said at the beginning; it's not that I condone, agree with, or like everything government has done.  Nor do I think that government officials (or whole agencies) are above doing some pretty screwed up stuff.  But to say "government sucks" and forthwith stop thinking -- or, worse still, threaten violence because of that simplistic view of the world -- is not just wrong, it's dangerous.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ugliness filters

What is it about elections that makes us treat each other so horribly?

This election has been a bad one -- divisive and petty, appealing to our basest impulses -- but really, it's hardly unique.  And we let the nastiness seep into everything, turning us against others simply because we disagree with them.

"Republitards."  "Damn-o-craps."  "Republican'ts."  "Libtards."  "Demoncrats."  Just a few of the ugly names I've seen bandied about in the last few days.  Calls for candidates to be "taken out" (and no one is in any doubt as to what that euphemism means).  Threats of violence -- more than likely against innocent civilians -- if their team doesn't win.

Have we really come to the place where we are so tribal, so fearful of the "other," that we will without hesitation demonize and threaten violence against close to half of our fellow Americans?  It reminds me of the wonderful quote from Kathryn Schulz: "This is a catastrophe.  This unwavering attachment to our sense of being right about everything keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely have to, and causes us to treat each other terribly."

This all comes up because of a story that should be heartening -- a Democrat-led crowdfunding campaign that raised over $13,000 in 24 hours to help rebuild a GOP office in North Carolina that was firebombed.  Proof, I felt, of a contention I've long held; that the majority of humans are kind, compassionate, and just want what all of us want -- shelter, food, clean water, friends, family, security.  We may differ in our ideas about how to achieve those goals, but fundamentally, we're far more alike than different.

So this story was posted on Facebook, and a guy I don't even know -- a friend of a friend -- posted a snarky comment about how no way would Democrats do something this selfless, that it was clearly a hoax or a set-up.  And I did something I almost never do: started an argument on the internet with a stranger.

I said:  "You are really scared and angry enough that you can't conceive that people who disagree with you might be capable of something unselfish and compassionate?  If so, I truly feel sorry for you."  He responded with a dismissive, "I wasn't talking about the firebombing," (neither was I), and "no anger intended or inferred."

Which is kind of disingenuous, isn't it?

Note that I'm not talking here about what you think of the candidates and their positions.  You might be vehemently against the stance of one of them (or both!), and that's just fine.  What I'm talking about is how you speak about the people around you, because it's all too easy to fall into the trap of "I disagree with you, therefore you are unworthy of respect."  Unfortunately, during this election, that kind of behavior has become almost normal.  So I'm going to issue a statement and a plea, and I'd ask that you consider them carefully -- not as a liberal or a conservative, but simply as a human being.

Your political beliefs do not define who you are as a person.  There are kind, compassionate Democrats and kind, compassionate Republicans; there are some people of either stripe who are selfish, nasty, and unpleasant.  Neither party wants to "destroy America" or "take away people's rights" or "round up anyone who disagrees," regardless of what you'll hear from the extremely partisan talking-heads whose entire raison d'être is getting people stirred up so they'll tune in.  Most people in both parties are just ordinary folks who want what ordinary folks want.

So here's the plea: stop posting and forwarding ugly stereotypes that make the other team look like idiots or crazies at best and demons at worst.  All you have to do is look around you and you'll see that this isn't true.  There are both Democrats and Republicans (and Libertarians and Socialists and people who don't give a damn about politics at all) in your schools, churches, businesses, and clubs, and most of us get along pretty well.  None of us have horns, and damn few of us want to get rid of everyone who disagrees with us.  Maybe you can't change the beliefs of the extreme fringe who live to capitalize on such assumptions, but you can stop those ideas from spreading.  You can dedicate yourself not to being a Pollyanna who sees only the best in everyone, but a realist who understands that most of us, most of the time, are doing the best we can.

The election will be over in three weeks, but we'll be dealing for months with the results of the partisan rhetoric we've been exposed to, unless all of us -- right here, right now -- vow not to let such ugly invective rule our lives.  You don't have to agree with the people you meet, but you can speak about them with respect.  Most importantly, you can choose not to look at the world through lenses that filter out everything but the worst side of everyone.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Faith in science

I was asked an interesting question by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia yesterday: Are people who say they "believe in science" admitting that for them, it's a religion?

I think that a good place to start is with the definitions of "religion" and "belief."  So here you are, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:
  • religion: the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods; a particular system of faith and worship.
  • belief: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing; conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence
I think you can see that in its most literal sense, science isn't a religion given that it has nothing to do with any superhuman controlling powers, but it does involve belief by the second half of the definition -- becoming convinced of the truth of a statement because of examination of the evidence.

However, I think this is a fairly shallow analysis.  People have come to use the word "religion" to mean "any set of beliefs arrived at by faith, or that cannot be arrived at by rational analysis."  The belief in reincarnation, therefore, would qualify as a religion in that sense, because there's bugger-all evidence that it happens, and yet people believe it fervently.

My own perception of things -- and I'm no philosopher, so take this with a grain of salt and feel free to argue with me if you like -- is that the only sense in which science is like a religion is at its very basis, i.e., the assumption that the universe obeys certain physical laws, and is knowable through examination of evidence.  Belief systems that reject the reality of the external world -- such as the stricter forms of Buddhism -- would also reject that science is telling you anything valid, because in their view, there's nothing relevant about the external world to study.  But we do have the fact that science has a pretty damn good track record of producing results consistent with what we observe.  If you reject the basic assumption that the scientific method is a valid way of getting to the truth, you're also rejecting just about every technological advance humanity has made since our distant ancestors left their caves.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But once you've accepted the baseline assumption that the method works, the rest doesn't rely on belief at all.  Anyone with access to the data can do the evaluation themselves; anyone with the equipment can replicate the experiments that generated the data.  Science is, in that sense, the most egalitarian of pursuits.  It's open to anyone with sufficient brainpower, and even the most set-in-stone law of science can be challenged if the data contradict it.

It's why this video, that appeared on YouTube last week, pissed me off so much.

This is a woman speaking to a class at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), claiming that science needs to be "decolonized" -- i.e., that it is the province of rich white males, and therefore the results are suspect.  It's inarguable that the pursuit of science has for years been accessible only to rich white males; the fact that our society has for centuries been male-dominated and white-European-dominated is hardly in question.  And she's right that it's a tragedy.  The idea that we have for generations wasted the talent, brains, and creativity of anyone but the privileged few is dreadful.

But the claim that because of that, the results generated are probably wrong is idiotic.  Again, once you accept the methods of science -- and that does not appear to be what she's arguing against -- you are driven to your conclusions by the evidence, not by what gender or ethnicity you are.  Further, anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or any other personal or social criterion, is able to challenge your claim if they have better or different evidence.

So science does share some things in common with religion and belief, but it is only at its most basic assumptions, which hardly anyone questions.  After that, logic and evidence take over -- no faith, trust, or blind belief necessary.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Gay demon infestation

In support of my recent contention that the world has gone completely batshit crazy, today we have: exorcising gay demons that are infesting the White House.

This is the demand of one Julio Severo, a fundamentalist Christian blogger who writes over at Last Days Watchman, which has as its raison d'être proving that liberals and atheists (and worst still, liberal atheists) are bringing us ever closer to the End Times, as hath been foretold in the scripture.  Severo feels it is his duty to warn us all about how the aforementioned bad guys are going to usher in the appearance of the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons, not to mention the breaking of the Seven Seals and the blowing of the Seven Trumpets and the pouring out of the Seven Bowls and the flushing of the Seven Toilets.

Okay, I made the last one up.  But it's not so much weirder than the rest of the Book of Revelation, which in my opinion reads like a bad acid trip.  But to Severo, it's all literally true, and therefore is a serious cause for concern.

Which is why Severo had a conniption when he found out that there was a briefing at the White House wherein Victor Raymond, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe who is an out bisexual, spoke on matters of addressing the treatment of bisexual individuals in our culture.  To make it worse, Raymond began with a prayer addressing his tribe's supreme deity, calling on "the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, to guide our words and thoughts so that we can speak true and strong."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, that was enough to send Severo into near apoplexy.  Raymond had "invoked homosexual demons," and stern measures needed to be taken:
An interaction between spirits of homosexuality and Indian religions is not uncommon. 
In Brazil, the most prominent homosexualists are adherents of African and Indian religions, very similar to voodoo. These religions embrace all forms of homosexuality as a gift from their “gods.” Such deities are considered demons in the Christian worldview. 
In Christianity and Judaism, homosexuality is accepted only when there is apostasy in those religions. But in Indian religions, heavily affected by witchcraft, no apostasy is necessary for a homosexual presence in their practices, because homosexuality is active among their witchdoctors and other adherents. 
A homosexual culture is a culture of demon possession. 
Has the White House turned into a haunt of demons? 
The first step for a “visitation” of such spirits is invocation — which was made at the White House. Homosexual spirits heard. Their presence is in the place where they were invoked, until their expelling, which can be done only by people who know and use the authority of Jesus’ name. 
The Bisexual Community Briefing focused on “policy and cultural issues of significance for the American bisexual community.” Spirits focused on the invisible, lethal and destructive.
All of which would be the rantings of a single wacko, and an opportunity for the rest of us to say, "Aww, isn't it cute when you try to make sense?" if it hadn't been for the fact that the story was picked up by Matt Barber in his site Barb Wire.  Barber is a virulently anti-LGBT commentator who got his degree in law from Pat Robertson's Regent University, and is Associate Dean for Career and Professional Development at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (so he's a twofer, higher-education-wise), and whose site is a go-to place for anyone who is trying to find the latest in hatred, homophobia, and institutional discrimination.

But he also has a huge readership.  So his (perhaps unsurprising) pickup of Servero's Gay Demon Infestation story is giving it much more visibility than it otherwise would have had.  And worse still, the comments section indicates that there are people...

... who believe the whole shebang.

Okay, the readers of Barb Wire are a biased sample.  I get that.  But take a look at what some of the commenters said:
  • A demented and confused native American calling upon demons?  That is consistent.
  • Isn't it simply amazing how many weird, abnormal, sick groups of people the White House can manage to find to honor & expose the world to in a sordid attempt to make us think they are normal & even to be cherished?  What a Satanically inspired regime our current administration is &, with Hillary, the Evil, in charge, it will only get worse.  Batten down the hatches, my friends. May God help us!
  • The word "bisexual" is another word used by the homosexual movement to take away the stigma of homosexual perversion and make it seem more normal.  There is no such thing as a "bisexual", only a homosexual who is capable of having sex with a woman, or an animal, or anything that walks. 
  • And rest assured that it is no coincidence that it is "the first black president" who tarnished and demeaned the office of the president forever by introducing and glorifying homosexuality inside the white house, making it spirtually[sic] unclean.  I hope people have learned their lesson from making the mistake of electing someone like him because he was actually worse than our worst fears come true.  He used the White House to openly worship the devil. It's stunning.
All of which leaves me torn between screaming, crying, and spending the rest of the day hiding under a blanket and pretending that the rest of the world doesn't exist.

So just what you needed to cheer you up: further evidence that a significant fraction of humanity is insane.  I live in hope that some of this sturm und drang is because of the fact that the election is in three weeks, and it's brought out high emotions in everyone.  Maybe after the dust settles, the lunatic fringe will go back to quietly chewing on the straps of their straitjackets and stop feeling like they need to spew their vitriol all over the place.

If not, it's going to be an ugly, ugly winter.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Inventing reality

It's understandable that people get upset when the world turns out to work differently than they wanted or expected.  We all have our preconceived notions and our biases, and it can be jarring when those turn out to be false.

This only becomes a problem, however, when we look at the facts and evidence, plug our ears, and say "La la la la la la la, not listening."

It will come as no surprise that I'm once again talking about climate change, a topic on which I have rung the changes so many times that I've lost count.  But I was more or less forced to return to the subject by not one, nor two, but three news stories that appeared one after another over at the r/skeptic subreddit, and which left me seeing red to the extent that I have to pass along the anger to all of my readers.

You're welcome.

The first article comes from the Orlando Sentinel, and is called, "Voters Need Truth About 'Clean Coal.'"  Those of you who watched the second presidential debate will no doubt recall that the topic came up with respect to energy policy.  We need to restore mining jobs in places like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, because there's "clean coal" which is environmentally friendly and won't cause all sorts of ecological havoc.

Well, the article calls that out for the nonsense it is in no uncertain terms:
Back in this circumstance called reality, what's actually happened in the energy sector is that much of the world has been moving away from coal for decades. U.S. mining jobs have been mostly in decline since the 1980s...  [T]he U.S. needs to take the threat from air pollution and climate change seriously. If we artificially boost demand for coal simply to put miners back to work, the country will pay through the nose — not only in higher energy costs but in human health and lives.  The toxins produced by burning coal, such as sulfur dioxide, ground-level ozone, heavy metals and particulates, contribute to four out of the five leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer. 
And climate change could prove just as life-threatening as rising sea levels, record-breaking heatwaves, droughts, floods, declining food production and other related effects take hold. 
None of those problems go away if we simply refuse to believe in them.  Coal's decline isn't a product of politics; it's a function of chemistry.
Then we had an article in The Guardian entitled "Climate Scientists Publish a Paper Debunking Ted Cruz," responding to a presentation in a hearing run by Senator Ted Cruz in the Senate Committee on Commerce last year.  Cruz had invited climate change denier John Christy to testify (speaking of having an agenda).  And Christy told the senators two things; that mid-tropospheric temperatures were rising three times slower than climate models predicted, and (more damning still) there had been no measurable warming of the troposphere for the past 18 years.

Well, it would be damning if it were true.  Which it isn't.  The study just released was unequivocal:
[T]his recent paper did a few things. First, they took the contrarian argument that the mid-troposphere temperatures have been rising at only 1/3 the rate predicted by models. They found that Christy’s team neglected the contamination of the cooling in the upper stratosphere. When they applied this correction, they found that Christy’s claim was incorrect. Differences between modeled and observed warming rates were much smaller, and had known explanations.

Next, the authors asked whether it is true that there has been no warming in the lower atmosphere (troposphere) in the past 18 years. They found that for five of the six groups that provide satellite temperature analysis, this claim was also incorrect. 
Finally, they asked whether it is true that the temperature changes in different layers of the atmosphere are in disagreement in models and measurements. Their result is that when temperature changes in different layers of the atmosphere are compared, one of three satellite records is in close agreement with the climate models.
Last, we had Representative Ken Buck of Colorado making the statement that talk of climate change was endangering Americans by deflecting their attention away from more important stuff.  "When we distract our military with a radical climate change agenda," Buck said, "we detract from their main purpose of defending America from enemies like ISIS."  He was explaining why he had introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriation Bill, asking them to cut funding for a directive called "Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience."

The only problem with this, according to an article in the Denver Post, is that Buck's claim is directly contradicting statements issued from the Department of Defense.  Who would, you'd think, know what they were talking about on the topic.  The DoD has said outright that climate change would lead to "prominent military vulnerabilities," that the Department would "need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on our facilities and military capabilities," and that 18 military installations in the United States are directly threatened by sea level rise.

Worse still -- for Buck's claims, anyhow -- is the statement from James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, who said that climate change is "an underlying meta-driver of unpredictable instability."

[image courtesy of NOAA]

Which is it exactly.  We're perturbing the climate at a rate higher than anything we find in the geological record, and it's no particular surprise that it is responding erratically, and from a human viewpoint, catastrophically.  While no one day of bad weather can be directly attributable to climate change, the pattern we've seen lately of larger storms (and storms taking different tracks than usual), droughts, floods, and other climatic weirdness all adds up to something the climate models have been telling us for years -- that dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the amounts we've been doing for the past hundred years is causing huge climatic changes that may already be beyond our powers to mitigate.

But back to my original point.  I can understand the desire by Cruz, Buck, Trump, and others for the world to be other than it is.  Hell, I get why the coal miners are upset; their jobs are vanishing.  But there are bigger issues at stake here, like the long-term habitability of the planet, and (in the short term) environmental devastation that could compromise the living space and agricultural production for millions of people.

So very sorry that the world doesn't conform to your desires.  That's true for many of us, and the appropriate response is, "Tough shit."  Part of being an adult is facing up to it when things aren't the way we want them to be, not stomping our feet, clinging to our invented version of reality, and saying, "But I want it this way!"  Climate change exists, whether we want it to or not, and the effects are increasingly looking catastrophic.  Best we stop trying to push an agenda based on our desires and tackle the problem head-on.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Speak of the devil

Just because I keep hoisting the banner of rationalism here at Skeptophilia doesn't mean I don't get pretty freakin' discouraged at times.

I suppose it's an occupational hazard.  My spending hours daily seeking out the most bizarre examples of irrational behavior I can find, so I have something to write about, means that inevitably I'm going to come to the conclusion that humanity is pretty much screwed.  It's like people who become addicted to shows like CSI and Cops and Law and Order.  At some point, you're pretty certain to decide that the world is full of criminals who are trying to kill you and get away with it.

So it's an effort at times to remain optimistic.  Especially given stories like the one over at Fusion a couple of days ago describing a poll taken in North Carolina wherein 41% of Donald Trump supporters said that Hillary Clinton is literally the devil.

As I've said before, I'm not here to discuss whether or not you agree with Clinton's politics.  But the idea that 41% of Trump supporters think that his opponent is the incarnation of Satan on Earth is troubling, to say the least.

That, however, is not the strangest thing about the poll.  Apparently, of the currently undecided voters, 15% thought Clinton was the devil.  So I'm thinking: You believe one of the candidates is literally the Prince of Hell (or Princess, in this case), and you're undecided?  What are you planning to do, stand there in the voting booth and say, "Let's see: candidate who is Satan, candidate who is not Satan... how to choose, how to choose?"

The weirdest thing, though, is that on the poll there were three choices: (1) Clinton is the devil; (2) Clinton is not the devil; and (3) Not sure.  And of the people who say they're voting for Hillary Clinton, 6% of them said they were not sure if she was the devil or not.

Now, I realize that this may be because 6% of the respondents thought the question was funny enough that they decided to fuck around with the results.  Or, perhaps, that this represents the 6% of respondents who are actual practicing Satanists, who think that Clinton might be the devil and are happy about it.  But if you look at the results, you will find that 33% of undecided voters are also undecided about whether Clinton is Satan.

So there are people in North Carolina (a lot of them, apparently) who when asked, "Who are you voting for?" said, "I dunno," and when asked, "Is Hillary Clinton the devil?" said, "Um... I dunno about that either."

Some days I feel like I've side-slipped into a bizarro world where this kind of stuff is normal.  Because this isn't the only insane thing that's happened lately.  When a map came out showing that if only men voted, Donald Trump would win, his followers immediately started calling for repealing the 19th Amendment, with one woman saying she would "give up [her] right to vote to make this happen."  Then we had a completely surreal video of Alex Jones making the rounds, wherein he bursts into tears on air and says that not only is Clinton a demon, so is Obama, adding that if you vote for Clinton you're "electing President Linda Blair."

I dunno, President Linda Blair could probably get stuff done, don't you think?  If Mitch McConnell stonewalled President Linda Blair, she could just puke up some pea soup on him.  "Oh, you won't give my Supreme Court nominee a fair hearing?  Well, take this!"  *BARRRRRFFFFF*

At least it would make C-Span more interesting.

So I guess we rationalists have a way to go, and it's an uphill battle.  I'm not ready to give up any time soon, so if you are a loyal reader, no worries: I still have a few posts left in me.  But it'd be nice if we could make more headway in convincing people not to engage in insane magical thinking.

Although it would make it harder for me to find material.  So I suppose I should be glad, in a backhanded way, that these people are keeping me in business.