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.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Ghost baby

In the "Loyal Reader One-Upmanship" department, over the last couple of days we have had here at Skeptophilia an escalating series of topics suggested by fans.  First, we had the one about "sound-induced orgasms."  That prompted another reader to send me a link to an article about "astral sex," so I wrote about that yesterday.  And just this morning I got yet a third email, this one with the rather hysterical message, "I THOUGHT YOU SAID ASTRAL SEX NEVER RESULTED IN PREGNANCY???!!!!  WELL, EXPLAIN THIS, BUB!!!!" along with a link to an article about a couple in Plymouth, England whose apartment is being haunted by a "ghost baby."

I suppose his concern is logical enough.  I mean, what would astral sex produce if not "ghost babies?"  It does raise some purely biological questions such as how someone's spirit would give birth, not to mention things like ghost baby gestation period, how genetics works in the spirit world, and so forth. Not to mention the issue of custody if one of the spirit parents decides to disappear in a swirl of ectoplasm.

Be that as it may, the article tells us about a British couple who is remarkably blasé about the fact that they're being haunted by a ghostly infant, which is doubly strange because said spirit baby has been seen in the crib of their own real, flesh-and-blood baby.

What Haigh and Evans saw on the baby monitor.  The yellow circle is a little superfluous, don't you think?

I don't know about you, but however open-minded and accepting I am, I would draw the line at having my kid sharing a bed with a ghost.  But the couple, Laura Haigh and Dean Evans, don't seem especially concerned how a ghostly visitor might affect their son, Sebastian.  They were certainly alarmed enough when it happened the first time.  Haigh says she and Evans saw something peculiar on the baby monitor, a shape next to their sleeping son who appeared to be waving things and moving around:
When I noticed this face appear in the corner of his cot I got my sister to look on Skype and there was nothing there at all.  Sometimes [Sebastian] brings a teddy to bed with him so at first I thought it could be that, but this just looks weird. 
Dean said straight away, 'it will be just a teddy' and went straight upstairs.  However he was a little bit gobsmacked that there was nothing there but it was still appearing on the monitor.  He was a bit spooked as he doesn't believe in that kind of thing and just can't explain it. 
He usually says 'don't be silly' about anything like this.  This has opened his mind a little but he doesn't like to talk about it much.  He just kept asking on the night 'has it gone yet?' as he was a bit freaked out.  I have checked out the camera and I'm sure there's nothing wrong with it. 
Friends think it's really creepy.  Whatever it was stayed in the cot until 1.30am and disappeared when I went to feed him.  But during the night it moved positions.
Yes, you read that right: this couple saw a ghostly figure leaping about in their son's crib, and they left the baby in the crib.  For hours.  I don't know about you, but if I saw something like this, "a bit gobsmacked" would be putting it mildly.  Honestly, I'd have grabbed my kid and my significant other, and gotten right the fuck out of the house.

And that's coming from a guy who doesn't believe any of this stuff.

But belief is one thing, and risking my kid's safety is another.  My general response in situations like this is "panic first, think afterwards."  I figure if I freak out and run, there'll be plenty of time later to sit down and ponder it rationally and have a good laugh at my own gullibility.  On the other hand, I've watched enough horror movies to know that the guy who says calmly, "Come on, it's safe, there's nothing here" is always the first one to get eaten by the monster.

So I find their reaction completely incomprehensible.  Unless, of course, they're making the whole thing up for attention, which upon reflection seems the likeliest explanation.

Anyhow, the upshot of it all is that you can't even have some hot astral sex without worrying about pregnancy.  It's a shame, really, since real sex is fraught with risks of various kinds, and here I thought that at least the astral variety would be safe and fun.  I guess the conclusion is that if you decide to send your soul out to look for a hookup, you should still use protection.

Although it does open up the question of how you get a condom on a spirit.  But if yet another loyal reader has found an article about birth control in the spirit world, I don't want to know about it.  Seriously.  This has gone far enough.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The spirit is willing

Yesterday's post, wherein a set of musical pitch combinations that was supposed to induce a "mind-blowingly intense hands-free orgasm" ended up inducing nothing more than a puzzled frown and a head-tilt, prompted a loyal reader of Skeptophilia to send me an email saying, "Well, if the 'binaural beats' didn't juice up your libido, maybe 'astral sex' will."  And he provided a link to a page on the site Mysterious Universe called, "Astral Sex is the Latest Thing in Out-of-Body Experiences."

My first thought was to wonder how astral sex would work, given that sex is one of those things that (insofar as I understand it) pretty much requires that you and your significant other both have bodies. But according to "astral projection specialist" Steve G. Jones, the whole point is that with "astral sex," you're "more than naked," and you and your friend kind of merge your souls together, or something.

Which brings up a number of questions, first and foremost of which is, how do you become an "astral projection specialist?"  Do you go to Woo U. and major in Soul Travel?  Most importantly, how do you study a phenomenon which even the Wikipedia page labels unequivocally as evidence-free pseudoscience?

That, of course, doesn't stop Steve G. Jones, who says that "astral sex" is totally real, and he gives us some fascinating details on how it's done.  Instead of foreplay, you spend the time beforehand "getting into a meditative state that is somewhere in the sweet spot between awake and asleep."  Then, apparently, you just float together, and proceed to engage in some out-of-body bow-chicka-bow-wow.  It doesn't end in orgasm, however, at least not in the usual sense:
That intertwining depends on how adept you and your partner are at astral projection. The merging of souls or energy is the ‘orgasm’ that is reportedly a combination of both physical and astral pleasure that is said can still be felt after each person returns to their physical bodies.
Which I guess is fine if that's what you're after.

Then we're cautioned that there's a sketchy side of "astral sex."  Because you're out-of-body when you're doing it, there's nothing (except for morality) to stop you from merging with someone while they're asleep, without their permission.  The result for the unwitting object of your attention is that they'd dream of having actual sex with you, but it's really not something you should do.  It's critical, Jones says, to ask the permission of the person you're intending to get down-and-dirty with.

I wonder how that'd go, don't you?  You're in a bar, looking for a hookup, and propose to the nice-looking person sitting next to you that you'd like to seal the deal with them.

"So we'll both go to our respective homes," you say, "and meditate for a while, and meet in the astral plane for some hot spirit-on-spirit action."

I don't know about you, but if someone approached me with this kind of proposal, I would suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere.

But the possibility of non-consensual astral sex isn't the only hazard of playing the etheric field, says Steve G. Jones.  Besides unscrupulous human spirits, there are also demons who are eager to have their way with you.  And both genders are at risk.  There are incubi, lustful male spirits looking for human women to couple with, and succubi, the female equivalent who are trying to find a human man.  No matter how horny you are, Jones cautions, it's best to stay away from these entities, because they can "sap your energy."

Charles Walker, Incubus (1879) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So you'd think that the astral plane would somehow be more refined and genteel, but what goes on there doesn't strike me as any better than your typical nightclub.

Anyhow, there you have it.  If yesterday's libido-enhancing "binaural beats" didn't do it for you, there's still the possibility of "astral sex," which at least has the advantages of not passing along STDs and having zero risk of pregnancy.  I doubt it'll ever replace the real thing, however, regardless of how nice a "spirit orgasm" is.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The beat goes on

A loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link yesterday with the question, "Could there be anything to this?"

The link was to a website called "Binaural Beats: A Meditation Shortcut."  The idea, apparently, is that you listen to two sounds simultaneously, which differ slightly in frequency (the example given was a 114 hertz tone in the left ear and a 124 hertz tone in the right).  This will result in your hearing a "beat frequency" or "binaural beat," whose frequency is equal to the difference between the two (in this case, 10 hertz).

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So far, nothing too strange, and a phenomenon that would be familiar to anyone who has tried to tune the strings of a guitar.  But what this site, and others like it, claim is that the induced beat frequency will change the frequency of your brain waves, and cause... well, all sorts of things.

The site he sent says that it will bring on a "meditative state:"
When you listen to sounds of a certain frequency, your brain waves will synchronize with that frequency.  You entrain every time you hear a musical beat that has you bobbing your head or tapping your foot. 
By listening to MP3s or CDs that produce brainwave entrainment, you can induce a desired brainwave pattern quickly and reliably.  Binaural beats is one of the most popular methods to utilize the phenomenon of brainwave entrainment... 
Using binaural beats provides an easy shortcut.  All you have to do is put on a set of headphones or earbuds, relax, and listen.  For many people, this brings their brains into the same state as deep meditation quickly.
Which was interesting enough, so I decided to do a little digging.  I found out quickly that meditative states aren't the only things that binaural beats allegedly can induce.  If you hit the right binaural beat frequency, supposedly you can:
So naturally, I had to investigate all this.  I skipped the first three, given that (1) I already sleep poorly and have weird dreams, and have no particular desire to make this any worse, (2) I'm too impatient to conduct a long enough experiment to see if my memory improves, and (3) I do pretty well in the creativity department already.

The fourth one, on the other hand, was intriguing.  I thought it might be interesting to see if I felt high and/or stoned after listening to some tones going "wah-wah-wah" in my ears, so I gave it a shot.

If a sample size of one means anything, I can report back... nothing.  I didn't feel any loopier after listening to drug-simulating binaural beats for fifteen minutes than I did before.  So I went on to the "jumpstart your energy levels" one (I really don't need to lose weight), and once again... nada.

Then -- purely in the interest of scientific research, of course -- I had to try the last one.

I found two places that supposedly had orgasm-inducing binaural beats.  Listening to the first one was about as arousing as listening to a washing machine on spin cycle.  So I thought, "Maybe my sex frequency isn't attuned to that one, or something."  So I clicked on the second one, and I found out that on this recording, the binaural beat frequency was overlain with the sounds of a couple in the throes of noisy, and apparently extremely pleasurable, sex.  (And no, I'm not going to provide a link.  You'll have to track that one down yourself.)

So it was not exactly a well-controlled experiment.  Of course, I didn't listen for all that long, because otherwise my wife would have come down to my office to see what the hell I was doing down here.  ("Research, honey!  Empirical research!  Really!")

In any case, my own investigation of binaural beats was kind of a bust.  So I decided to see if there'd been any good studies done of the effect, and I found a site that had what seemed to me to be fair and unbiased summaries of the research.  And the general conclusion is...

... it doesn't seem to work. Most of the effects recorded were small and very temporary, and the consensus is that your expectations going into the experience have a major effect on what you'll get from it.  If you think it's going to relax you, then you relax.  If you think it's going to energize you, then you're energized.  If you think you're going to have a spectacular orgasm...

... well, you get the idea.  Although I have to add that throwing in the sex noises was hardly fair.

I suppose the whole thing is harmless enough, of course, and if it helps you to attain whatever it is you're after, then more power to you.  I've done a bit of meditating over the years -- never consistently enough to make it a practice, but enough to get the flavor of it -- and found it to be great for calming the mind and centering the body.  If "binaural beats" helps you to get there faster and deeper, cool.

As for the rest of it -- have fun experimenting, but if you're approaching it skeptically, keep in mind that the results might be less than "mind-blowingly intense."

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Sinking the ark

I guess Ken Ham is finally seeing the handwriting on the wall with respect to "Ark Encounter," his $92 million temple to young-Earth creationism in Williamstown, Kentucky, given that the number of visits it's received during its first year is only about 60% of what he and his financial partners had predicted.

The Ark Encounter parking lot on a typical day

But if you thought that this realization was going to lead to some kind of epiphany on the part of Ham et al., vis-à-vis the fact that spending huge amounts of money to convince the general public that a rather perverse fairy story is science was not a great investment strategy, you are fated to be disappointed.  Because Ham doesn't blame himself for Ark Encounter's dismal performance.

He blames us atheists.  Of course.  Ham said:
Sadly, they are influencing business investors and others in such a negative way that they may prevent Grant County, Kentucky, from achieving the economic recovery that its officials and residents have been seeking.  Why so many lies and misinformation?  Simply because we are in a spiritual battle, and the intolerant secularists are so upset with such world-class attraction like the Ark (and Creation Museum) that publicly proclaim a Christian message.  They will resort to whatever tactics they deem necessary to try to malign the attractions.
No, Ken, honestly we see this as more of a "battle against anti-scientific bullshit," and I find the lack of interest the public is showing a welcome ray of sunlight in a year that has otherwise been pretty dismal.  And I'd love to claim responsibility for Ark Encounter's falling on its face, but I honestly think it's more that people deep down realize that the idea of a 600-year-old man and his family getting two of every kind of organism on Earth, including gorillas from Uganda and mountain lions from the Rocky Mountains, and keeping them all fed and happy on a boat whose dimensions would have (by one estimate I saw) given each creature 6.5 square millimeters of space to roam around in, followed by it raining enough to cover the whole Earth and then the water just kind of disappearing, is really fucking stupid.

But people like Ken Ham won't get within shouting distance of that as an answer, so they have to find something else to blame.  And if it's not the atheists, maybe it's... fake news:
Nowadays, it seems very few reporters in the secular media actually want to report facts regarding what they cover as news.  I’ve found that not only do these kinds of reporters generally do very poor or lazy research, they will actually make things up for their agenda purposes.
Yes, those evil reporters with their agenda purposes!  I'm quite sure that a reporter without an agenda purpose would have reported the above photograph as showing a completely full parking lot, much the way that if you looked at the photos of the less-than-impressive crowds at Donald Trump's inauguration just right, and tilted your head a little, he had the best-attended inauguration ceremony ever.

Keep in mind that all of this less-than-impressive performance was with a tremendous influx of public tax money.  Amazingly, legislators decided again and again to give their support to this project, despite the clear intent of the place to proselytize.  According to an analysis by the organization Church & State:
[Ark Encounter received] $18 million in state tax incentives to offset the cost of the park’s construction; a 75 percent property tax break over 30 years from the City of Williamstown (a town of about 3,000 near where the park will be located); an $11-million road upgrade in a rural area that would almost exclusively facilitate traffic going to and from the park; a $200,000 gift from the Grant County Industrial Development Authority to make sure the project stays in that county; 100 acres of reduced-price land and, finally $62 million municipal bond issue from Williamstown that Ham claims has kept the project from sinking.
If I lived in Kentucky, I would be raising hell over this.

Of course, there's a wryly funny side to the whole thing, and that's that Ham and his pals believe that the project was built because it was part of god's divine purpose and holy plan, and yet a few atheist bloggers, secular organizations, and reporters were apparently sufficient to thwart the Omnipotent Deity's intent.  Kind of calls into question god's ability to make stuff happen, doesn't it?  He's coming off more like one of the inept bad guys in an episode of Scooby Doo, whose plans to get rich off a haunted carnival came crashing down when Shaggy pulled off his mask.  I bet Yahweh is up there right now, scowling and muttering, "Ken and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you crazy kids and your mangy mutt!"

Anyhow, my general feeling is that it couldn't have happened to a more deserving individual, and I wish him many more years of this kind of turnout.  Now we just need to make sure that this same load of nonsense doesn't end up in public school science curricula, in the guise of "religious freedom."

We may be winning this battle, but the war's far from over.

Monday, June 26, 2017

In the dark

To further investigate our general topic of people giving woo-woo explanations to damn near everything, today we investigate: The Dark.

First, a brief physics lesson.

Things are generally called "dark" for one of two reasons.  First, there are objects whose chemical makeup results in their absorbing most of the light that falls on them.  Second, there are things that don't interact with light much at all, so they neither absorb nor reflect light -- light passes right through them.  An example of the first would be a charcoal briquet.  An example of the second would be interstellar space, which is sort of dark-by-default.

This whole thing comes up because of the discovery of an extrasolar planet with the mellifluous name TrES-2b.  TrES-2b orbits the even more charmingly named GSC 03549-02811, a star about 718 light years away.   More interestingly, it has the distinction of being the darkest extrasolar planet yet discovered.  David Kipping, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, stated, "TrES-2b is considerably less reflective than black acrylic paint, so it is truly an alien world."

Artist's conception of TrES-2b [image courtesy of of NASA/JPL-Caltech and the Wikimedia Commons]

That was all it took.  Whereas my reaction was, "Huh!  A Jupiter-sized charcoal briquet!  That's kinda cool," the woo-woos just couldn't resist wooing all over this story.  We now have the following speculations, all from websites owned by people who probably shouldn't be allowed outside unsupervised:
  • TrES-2b is made of antimatter, and we shouldn't go there because it would blow up.  We know it's antimatter because antimatter has the opposite properties to matter, so it's dark. 
  • TrES-2b is made of "dark matter," and yes, they're not just talking about stuff that's black, they're talking about the physicists' "dark matter," about which I'll have more to say in a moment. 
  • TrES-2b is dark because it's being hidden by aliens who are currently on their way to Earth to take over.  Lucky for us we spotted it in time! 
  • TrES-2b is hell.  No, I'm not making this up. 
Well. You just opened the floodgates, now didn't you, Dr. Kipping?

The first two explanations left me with a giant bruise on my forehead from doing a faceplant while reading.  At the risk of insulting my readers' intelligence, let me just say quickly that (1) antimatter's "opposite properties" have nothing to do with regular matter being light and antimatter being dark, because if it did, the next time a kindergartner pulled a black crayon out of the box, he would explode in a burst of gamma rays; and (2) "dark matter" is called "dark" because of the second reason, that it doesn't interact with much of anything, including light, so the idea of a planet made of it is a little ridiculous, and in any case physicists haven't even proved that it exists, so if some astrophysicist found a whole freakin' planet made of it it would KIND OF MAKE HEADLINES ALL OVER THE FUCKING WORLD, YOU KNOW?

Sorry for getting carried away, there.  But I will reiterate something I have said more than once, in this blog; if you're going to start blathering on about science, for cryin' in the sink at least get the science right.  Even the least scientific woo-woo out there can read the Wikipedia page for "Dark Matter," for example, wherein we find in the first paragraph the sentence, "The name refers to the fact that it does not emit or interact with electromagnetic radiation, such as light, and is thus invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum."  (Italics mine, and put in so that any of the aforementioned woo-woos who are reading this post will focus on the important part.)

And I won't even address the "secret alien base" and "hell" theories regarding TrES-2b, except to say that it should come as a relief that the evil aliens or Satan (depending on which version you went for) are safely 718 light years away.  To put this in perspective, this means that if they were heading here in the fastest spacecraft humans have ever created, Voyager 1, which travels at about 16 kilometers per second,  it would still take them eleven million years to get here.

In any case, I guess it's all a matter of how you view what's around you.  I find the universe, and therefore science, endlessly fascinating, because what scientists have uncovered is weird, wonderful, and counterintuitive.  I don't need to start attaching all sorts of anti-scientific bunk to their discoveries -- nature is cool enough as it is.

Okay, thus endeth today's rant.  I will simply end with an admonishment to be careful next time you barbeque.  I hear those charcoal briquets can be made of antimatter, which could make your next cook-out a dicey affair.  You might want to wear gloves while you handle them.  Better safe than sorry!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The sticker price

Once again, famed medical professional Gwyneth Paltrow is promoting the latest be-all-and-end-all for your health, to wit: "Body Vibes stickers."

These are silver-dollar-sized stickers that you stick on your body to "rebalance the energy frequency in your body."  Whatever the fuck that means.  But the pseudoscience technobabble doesn't end there:
The concept: Human bodies operate at an ideal energetic frequency, but everyday stresses and anxiety can throw off our internal balance, depleting our energy reserves and weakening our immune systems.  Body Vibes stickers come pre-programmed to an ideal frequency, allowing them to target imbalances.  While you’re wearing them—close to your heart, on your left shoulder or arm—they’ll fill in the deficiencies in your reserves, creating a calming effect, smoothing out both physical tension and anxiety.  The founders, both aestheticians, also say they help clear skin by reducing inflammation and boosting cell turnover.
The stickers, Paltrow tells us, are made of "the same conductive carbon material NASA uses to line space suits so they can monitor an astronaut’s vitals."  But herein lies the problem.  Because once you make an easily-verified statement -- i.e., veer away from vague, hand-waving bullshit about imbalanced energy frequencies -- you've kind of sealed your own fate.

And it didn't take long for NASA to respond.

Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist in NASA's human research division, was unequivocal.  "Wow," Shelhamer said.  "What a load of BS this is...  Astronauts do not have any conductive carbon material lining the spacesuits.  Not only is the whole premise snake oil, the logic doesn’t even hold up.  If they promote healing, why do they leave marks on the skin when they are removed?"

This, of course, has exactly zero impact on the alt-med crowd, who absolutely hate it when people bring up pesky stuff like "facts" and "science" and "peer review."  Richard Eaton, founder of AlphaBioCentrix, which developed the stickers, was undeterred by NASA's skepticism.  "Without going into a long explanation about the research and development of this technology, it comes down to this," Eaton said.  "I found a way to tap into the human body’s bio-frequency, which the body is receptive to outside energy signatures.  Most of the research that has been collected is confidential and is held as company private information."

Oh, no, please, Mr. Eaton.  Do give me your long explanation of the research and development.  Define such terms as "bio-frequency" and "energy signatures" using scientifically valid language.  Show me how you can "pre-program" a fucking sticker to "target imbalances."  Give me some well-controlled research showing that the things actually work through something more than the placebo effect.

Until then, don't pretend that what you're hawking is anything more than a convenient way to make money from the gullible and ignorant.

Speaking of which, did I mention that "Body Vibes" stickers cost $120 per pack of 24?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Just as a contrast, let's look at some actual science having to do with stuff you stick on your body, which coincidentally just appeared over at New Scientist yesterday.  Joseph Wang, of the University of California-San Diego, has just published research on a new technology -- a small, flexible square that you can stick on your skin, and which will generate enough power to run a mobile device, using chemicals from your sweat.

It's a biofuel cell -- a power-generating device that runs on organic chemicals broken down by enzymes in the material.  Mirella DiLorenzo, of the University of Bath, was impressed by Wang's creation.  "The most exciting application is wearable sensors that can monitor health conditions, then sweat could generate enough power for a Bluetooth connection so that the results could be read straight from a smartphone," DiLorenzo said.  "This is an amazing proof-of-concept work.  The applications will come quickly in the near future."

Those applications could include monitoring an athlete's performance by tracking lactate levels in the sweat -- which is an indication of how hard the muscles are working.

See the difference, here?  We have, on the one hand, Paltrow and Eaton babbling about quantum bio-energetic frequency vibrations as if anything they said made sense; and on the other, Wang and DiLorenzo talking about actual experimental science, producing a measurable and replicable effect, and based on a solid understanding of biochemistry.

The problem is that actual research just isn't as sexy as alt-med, which can claim any damn thing it wants without the need for verification.  You want to claim that smearing peanut butter on your face will cure your anxiety by resynchronizing your chakras and changing the color of your aura?  No problem!  No one can challenge you, because what you're claiming is that a useless remedy will fix something that almost certainly doesn't exist, which even if it does, is apparently invisible for some reason to every piece of scientific equipment available.  I.e., you're making an inherently unverifiable statement.

But I wish more people would turn to the actual science when they have questions, rather than unscientific charlatans like Gwyneth Paltrow.  Because not only are the victims of these scams wasting their money, they're not seeking effective care for actual medical conditions.

And that crosses the line from just being a bunch of harmless bullshit to being truly dangerous.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fake news agenda

If you needed something else to feel discouraged about, a study released this week in the journal New Media & Society found that fake news and political clickbait sites had twice the effect on the media landscape in the United States as legitimate sources and fact-checking sites.

Authored by Chris J. Vargo, Lei Guo, and Michelle A. Amazeen, "The Agenda-Setting Power of Fake News: A Data Analysis of the Online Media Landscape From 2014 to 2016" looks at not only the influence that fake news has on politics and culture, but how difficult it is to fight it.  The authors write:
Journalists have little ability to proactively fight fake news. Even worse, partisan media can be susceptible to its influence.  Other news organizations fight fake news. The BBC, for instance, has announced a commitment to debunk fake news that is shared widely on social media Fact-checking organizations have become another bulwark against fake news with PolitiFact,, ABC News, the Associated Press, and Snopes all fighting it on Facebook.  However, this reactive desire to thwart fake news has required traditional media to divert resources—in the form of time and attention—to fighting it.  What is worse, by being forced to respond to fake news journalists may be affording fake news websites with the ability to push topics, issues, and even attributes into the public agenda.
The worst part of all, of course, is the fact that many of these partisan media sources wield tremendous influence over voters' understanding of the issues:
The relationship between fake news and partisan media is worthy of particular attention. Instead of valuing balance, fairness, and objectivity, partisan media often frame stories in a way to advance certain political agendas driven by in-group or tribal identification.  Traditional partisan media include cable news (e.g. Fox News) and talk radio (e.g. the Rush Limbaugh Show).  The Internet has contributed to the proliferation of new forms of partisan media: partisan websites and blogs such as Drudge Report and Daily Kos.  With the emergence and popularity of social media services, partisan news coverage is more popular than ever before.  Moreover, these social media networks facilitate the spread of misinformation via automated, anonymous accounts which target users already engaged in conversation on a particular topic.
Crown that with our current administration's tendency to shriek "Fake news!" whenever there's a news story they don't like, and you have a complete political clusterfuck, and one that I see no way out of any time soon.

Lead author Chris J. Vargo isn't much more optimistic than I am.  "Fact checkers largely were independent in what they chose to cover, but their topical focus didn’t really translate very well to other media," Vargo said.  "The media landscape isn’t listening to fact checking as much as it is to fake news, which is particularly troublesome...  I think the big thing that I’m realizing across these studies is that anything can distract us."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is that exaggerated, sensationalized, or outright false headlines are much more likely to grab our attention than are headlines about the actual issues, which (by comparison) are often boring.  Add to this a heaping helping of confirmation bias -- our tendency to believe with little evidence things that conform to our preconceived notions -- and it's no wonder that the folks who detested Hillary Clinton's politics fell for the whole idiotic "Pizzagate conspiracy" last fall.

Vargo remains optimistic, however, and cites the fact that even in the face of partisan media and fake news sites, the responsible and balanced media have soldiered on even in the face of repeated attacks.  "Our study found that to a small degree, yes, fake news does influence what the press talks about." Vargo said.  "But largely, the press has the ability – and maintains the ability – to cover the issues that are most important to a society today."

Of course, covering the important issues and getting the voters to listen are two entirely different things.  Encouraging people to stop paying attention to such serial offenders as Fox News and Daily Kos, and to get their information from places like BBC, is proving to be pretty difficult.  After all, once you have a government leader convince you that 99% of what you hear on the most reliable media sources is fake, and that fact-checking sites are biased and unreliable, you are set up to believe damn near anything.

So unfortunately, I don't share Vargo's optimism.  I think the last vestiges of my positive attitude toward people's ability to think critically were shattered when Fox News persuaded the evangelical Christians to support a sociopathic serial adulterer who lies every time he opens his mouth, claiming that he was the perfect embodiment of the Ten Commandments.

After that, I don't hold out much hope for the collective brainpower of humanity.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Music and the mind

Despite being a 30-year veteran teacher of what is referred to as a "core" discipline -- science -- I have always been vociferous in my support of increasing the emphasis on arts, music, and electives.  In fact, I find the use of the word "core" a little insulting to the teachers and students in these latter subjects.  It makes it sound like science, math, English, and social studies are central to a child's education, and everything else is just peripheral fluff.

In fact, for many of us, it's just the opposite.  Think about what classes you remember from your own trip through the school system as being the most inspiring.  For a lot of us, it's those "electives" -- the subjects that are the first ones on the chopping block when funding gets cut.  Further, think about your own life as an adult.  What activities or pursuits bring you the most joy now?  With no slight meant against the math teachers, I doubt very much that most of us look forward to our leisure time so we can sit and do algebra.

Now, I'm not saying that arts and music are more important than science, math, English, and social studies; but they are easily as important.  Which, unfortunately, is not how a lot of the people involved in educational oversight see things.  And what is the most short-sighted about this approach is that the benefits of education in creative disciplines spill over into the "core" courses.

Some experimental support for this contention appeared last week in the journal Neuron, in a paper by Sibylle C. Herholz and Robert J. Zatorre called "Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure."  What they found is that studying music improves the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function in response to new information, a capacity called neuroplasticity.

Most examples of neuroplasticity only are operative during a narrow critical period in an individual's life.  In imprinting in ducklings, for example, their ability to learn who their mother is, and follow her around, only lasts for a few days after hatching.  In humans, language learning works in a similar fashion; our ability to learn language peaks in our early years, declining rapidly after age ten or so.

Which is why another appallingly stupid thing about our educational system is how we teach foreign language -- usually starting in middle school, i.e., when we first start to get really bad at learning a new language.  If we took first-year foreign language courses out of middle and high school, and started a program for preschoolers to be in bilingual classes, they'd come out fluent, without ever memorizing a vocabulary list or verb conjugation pattern.

But I digress.

Anyhow, Herholz and Zatorre looked at the effects of musical training on a lot of different modalities in the brain -- auditory, tactile, motor, and cognitive.  The authors write:
Music requires fine-grained perception and motor control that is unlike other everyday activities, thereby reducing confounding influences of other types of experience.  Also, the framework of musical training allows the study of both short- and long-term training effects...  An important higher-level phenomenon in the context of learning and plasticity is that long-term training can result not only in specific learning, but also creates greater potential for short-term changes to occur quickly.  Musical training not only changes the structural and functional properties of the brain, but it also seems to affect the potential for new short-term learning and plasticity.  Such interaction effects of long- and short-term training have been demonstrated in the auditory, in the motor, and in the tactile domain.
They also consider the role of music in developing social skills and teamwork:
Music also has some reward value beyond the pleasurable sounds and direct feedback—it also has an important role in social interactions, both in contexts of group listening and music making.  While the effects of such interactions during music making have not been investigated to our knowledge, the role of social influences and well-being on brain plasticity has been shown in other contexts.  Important aspects in the context of music and learning could include pupil-teacher interactions and imitation learning, social reward and influences on self-perception, but also negative influences like stress in professional situations and performance anxiety.
All of which makes it that much more wrong-headed to cut music programs -- and by extension, art programs and other areas where students are challenged to be creative, to work collaboratively, to express themselves, and simply to enjoy the aesthetic experience that such experiences provide.

[image courtesy of photographer Nickolai Kashirin and the Wikimedia Commons]

One can only hope that studies like this one will underscore the fact that electives and "core" subjects need to be on equal footing, especially with regards to support and funding by school districts.  Cutting program to the bone to focus exclusively on math, science, English, and social studies is completely contrary to what we know about how children learn -- and what activities enrich their lives and broaden their minds.

Now, I think I'll wrap this up -- I just got the sheet music for a piano transcription of Rameau's "Rondeau des Indes Galantes," and I can't let it just sit there unplayed any longer. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Two weeks ago I wrote about how some overzealous evangelical Christians have denounced "Fidget Spinners" as being a demonic symbol, so when you spin it, you're invoking Satan or something.  Well, these people are nothing if not versatile.  Because yesterday I found out that some of the same lot are now saying no, Fidget Spinners aren't demonic; in fact, quite the opposite.

They actually represent the Holy Trinity.

I have to say that even in my churchgoing days, when I was trying like mad to understand and believe the whole shebang, the idea of the Holy Trinity never made much sense to me.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are distinct, but not; and the first one generates the other two, but actually they've all been around forever; and so on and so forth.  The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 tried to clear the whole thing up with the following statement:
[I]t is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds; and in their relations with one another, they are stated to be one in all else, co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial, and each is God, whole and entire.
Which really didn't help much.  Of course, in the interest of fairness I have to say that a lot of quantum physics isn't a whole hell of a lot better.  If you put the Holy Trinity up against quantum nonlocality and Bell's Theorem in a contest of purely counterintuitive weirdness, I'm not sure which would win.

The early church fathers, however, felt pretty strongly about "trinitarianism."  Believing otherwise, or even saying "this makes absolutely no sense," was enough to get you burned at the stake.  To forestall such unpleasantness, some religious folk tried to come up with ways of explaining it in simpler terms, such as the (almost certainly apocryphal) use of the shamrock by Saint Patrick to get across the three-in-one thing.

So I suppose, given the Fidget Spinner's shape, it was only natural someone would think of this.  Apparently more than one priest or minister has made the analogy, to judge by the responses of the parishioners on social media.  Some have been impressed:
You know your priest’s sermons are on point when he compares the Holy Trinity to a fidget spinner.
Others, not so much:
Today I watched a priest use a fidget spinner to represent the Holy Trinity and felt my soul leave my body.
But no one took umbrage over the whole thing as much as Toy Adams over at Unsettled Christianity, who said that to make the comparison was heresy:
Any time folks begin to teach on the Trinity and say, “the Trinity is like….” I immediately brace myself for impact.  Too often something inaccurate is said.  The Trinity is not only beyond our grasp, but if you teach on Him using objects like shamrocks, the states of water, an egg, or a fidget spinner, you are sure to commit heresy. 
Not to be a heresy hunter, but heresy is serious.  Many pastor-types like to joke about being heretics, but, in all reality, it’s spiritually dangerous to flirt with heresies pertaining to the Trinity.
So if the Trinity isn't like a Fidget Spinner, what is it like?  Adams isn't so sure:
The Trinity is the doctrine by which we affirm God’s threeness in God’s oneness, celebrating the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are of one substance; each person of the Trinity is fully God yet distinct.  To compare the Trinity to a fidget spinner (as with the shamrock) is to commit the heresy of partialism, for it undercuts the full divinity of each person, so as to indicate that each are only one part of a three part God... 
To be spiritually vibrant, we must seek to properly understand who God is.  We know that God is Trinity, but such a mystery we cannot surely comprehend.
Which to me is the difference between this stuff and quantum mechanics.  Because QM is weird, but it is comprehensible.  No one looks at Schrödinger's Wave Equation and throws their hands into the air and says, "Welp.  You just have to take this on faith because it's revealed truth.  Don't expect to understand it."  (Okay, that was kind of my reaction when I took Quantum Mechanics from Dr. John Matese back in college, but I must admit that my attempt to master physics was, by and large, unsuccessful.  Let's just say that when I was 20, studying was not near the top of my priorities list, and leave it at that.)

So anyhow, to me it all seems like a tempest in a teapot, although given my own views I really couldn't be expected to come to any other conclusion.  I guess if the Fidget Spinner strengthens your religious beliefs, that's fine by me.  And if you think it's the "Devil's Yo-Yo" (a term I did not make up), then don't mess with 'em.  Either way, my general feeling is that you'd be better off studying quantum mechanics.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Planetary spin cycle

I try not to spend too much time focusing on completely loony ideas here at Skeptophilia -- wackos are, after all, a dime a dozen, and grabbing the low-hanging fruit is kind of a cheap way to run a blog.  But sometimes I run into a claim that is so earnest, so serious, and at the same time so completely bizarre that it's kind of charming.

That was my reaction when a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to a site called "Bibliotecapleyades."  I have to admit that I have no idea what that means.  I know that biblioteca means "library" in Spanish, and pleyades sounds a little like "Pleiades," the star cluster that is thought among some of the astro-woo-woos to be the home of the Nordic aliens, who are tall, blond, blue-eyed, and muscular.

Sort of Liam Hemsworth from Outer Space, is how I think of them.

Whether that's the origin of the name or not, I have no idea.  He doesn't mention aliens, but given the rest of the content, I wouldn't be surprised if it came up at some point.

Anyhow, this particular page on "Bibliotecapleyades" is called "Earth Changes: Future Map of the World," and goes into how "international known [sic] and respected futurist Gordon-Michael Scallion" has a vision of how the world is going to end up.  And I do mean "vision."  His ideas aren't based on science (big shocker, there) but on his "ongoing visions concerning the Earth" that he experiences "sometimes as many as ten or more in a day, lasting from a few seconds to minutes."  But instead of seeking professional help for this condition, he started writing it all down, and put them all together into a unified, consolidated picture of what we were in for.

You really should look at the website itself, preferably after consuming a double scotch.  It's just that good.  But in case you don't want to risk valuable brain cells going through it, I present below a few highlights of what's going to happen.  Forewarned is forearmed, you know.
  1. First, we're going to have a pole shift.  Scallion seems unaware that the position of the magnetic pole and the position of the rotational axis of the Earth are related but aren't the same, so he gets a little confused talking about the precession of the Earth's rotational axis (which is true; the Earth wobbles like a top, meaning that Polaris won't be the North Star forever) as somehow triggering a shift in the magnetic pole.  You get the impression he thinks when the poles reverse, the Earth is kind of going to fall over or something.  But he soldiers on ahead, saying that the Earth is going to be like "a washing machine that is out of balance in the spin cycle," and this is going to fling the poles about like damp socks.  Havoc will ensue.
  2. Africa is going to fall apart into three separate continents.  Some waterways will open up in a kind of a "Y" shape, inundating large parts of what is now dry land.  Madagascar is going to sink into the ocean.  Don't ask me why.  The Pyramids will also end up under water, but the flipside is that before then, "there will be great archaeological discoveries."
  3. The news is more positive for Antarctica, which is going to "be reborn, and become fertile land again."  In addition, the relics of the lost civilization of "Lumania" will be found when the ice all melts, and "great cities and temples will be discovered."  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  In the historical document "At the Mountains of Madness" by H. P. Lovecraft, some explorers went into Antarctica, discovered big abandoned cities and temples, and almost all of them ended up getting eaten by Shoggoths.  So we might want to be a little cautious about investigating "Lumania."
  4. The tectonic plate underneath Europe is going to "collapse."  This will cause Scandinavia and Great Britain to sort of slide off the edge into the Atlantic Ocean.
  5. The Middle East will be engulfed in war.  For a change.  But this one will be a "holy war with purification of the land by fire and water," whatever that means.  I hope no one tells the End Times folks about this, because they already spend enough time yammering on about stuff like this, and I really don't want to add any more grist for their mill.
  6. North America also looks like it's in for a rough time.  California will be split up into 150 islands, and the "west coast will recede to Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado."  The Appalachians will be a long skinny island.  At least here in upstate New York it looks like I'll have beachfront property.
He then ends with a disclaimer, a little like the "this preparation is not intended to treat or cure any medical condition" thing you see on bottles of homeopathic "remedies."  He says:
[N]o event or prediction is final.  Predictions are given as probabilities.  Even at this time, consciousness can alter an event, modify changes in a particular area or at the very least help us to prepare for what is to come...  One final note, the areas of change presented in the Future Map of The World should not be taken as absolute. They may differ from a few miles to several hundred miles depending on many variables.  In the end, Mother Nature and our own collective consciousness will have the final say.
Be that as it may, he provides us with a map of the world showing all of the new land contours.  I'd post it here, but I don't know how Gordon-Michael Scallion feels about the copyright on images he's created, so you'll just have to go take a look for yourself if you want to figure out whether it's time to pack up and move.  Here's a map of what the world looks like now, so you'll have a basis for comparison.

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Anyhow, that's our excursion into the deep end of the pool for today.  Me, I'm not concerned.  He didn't provide a timeline for all of these catastrophes in any case, so right now I'm going to worry about more pressing issues, such as how the hell we here in the U.S. ended up with a spoiled toddler with orange spray-on tan as the president.  Frankly, compared to that, "Lumania" doesn't really bother me much.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dowsing and statistical significance

A while back, my wife and I and two friends were in a gift shop, and on a rack of books for sale I saw one called Dowsing for Beginners by Richard Craxe.  I picked it up, and flipped through a bit of it.  I was a little surprised -- I never thought of dowsing as something anyone would write a how-to manual about.

Dowsing, for those of you (probably few) who don't know about this practice, is the use of a forked stick (or in some cases) a pair of bent wires to locate everything from sources of water to lost objects.  The claim is that the dowsing rod exerts a pull on the dowser's hands, or actually turns and points toward the desired goal.  As strange as this idea is, I find that of all the odd practices I hear about from students of mine, this one is the one that they will argue the most vociferously for.  This, surprisingly, includes students whom I would normally think of as rationalistic skeptics -- students who scoff at other forms of woo-wooism.

You might wonder how this practice is supposed to work.  Explanations, of course, vary.  The use of willow branches for dowsing for underground water is sometimes explained, in all seriousness, as working because willow trees like growing near water, so the wood is magically attracted to sources of it.  Other people believe that dowsers themselves are "sensitive," so that the dowsing rod itself is only acting as a tool to focus their mysterious ability.  Dowsing for Beginners goes through some nonsense about there being a "universal mind" that everyone has access to, and it knows everything, and therefore when you practice dowsing, you're tapping into a source of knowledge that can provide you with information about where to drill for water or where you accidentally dropped your car keys.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The next question is, does it work?  The simple answer, of course, is no.  Controlled studies have shown no results whatsoever, an outcome discussed at length in James Randi's wonderful book Flim-Flam!  The fact is, my students who know "an uncle of a friend" who successfully dowsed for water are being suckered in by the fact that there's hardly anywhere in upstate New York that you won't hit water if you dig deeply enough.

A subtler problem with practices like dowsing is that a lot of people don't understand the concept of statistical significance.  A fine example of this, apropos of dowsing, is a study done in 1988 by Hans-Dieter Betz, in which six dowsers were said to "[show] an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely if at all be explained as due to chance."  However, the Betz experimental protocol was highly suspect from the beginning -- Betz and his group evaluated 500 dowsers in a preliminary test, eliminated all but the most successful fifty, and then found that of those, six of them scored much better than you would expect from chance alone.

The flaw is not that Betz hand-picked the subjects -- if dowsing works, presumably some individuals would be better at it than others, being more in touch with the "universal mind," or whatever.  The problem is that even if success at dowsing is pure probability -- i.e., it doesn't work at all except by chance -- some people will do astonishingly well, and that fact means exactly nothing at all.  To explain this a little more simply, let's suppose that we had a thousand people take a random, hundred-question test consisting of four-choice multiple-choice items.  There is no skill involved; you just fill in a paper with a hundred random A's, B's, C's, and D's, and it's graded against an equally random key.  What's your likely score?

Well, 25%, of course, would be the likeliest outcome.  You have a 1/4 chance of getting each question "right," so you would be expected to score somewhere around a 25%.  The problem is, that's just the most likely score; that's not necessarily your score.  In fact, you might score far better than that, or far worse; 25% is just the average score.  In a large enough sample of test-takers, some people would seem to score amazingly well, and it's not that they're psychic, or brought their dowsing rods along to point at the correct answers, or anything; it's just a probabilistic effect.

Same with the dowsers.  Jim Enright, a prominent skeptic, criticized the Betz study, and showed statistically that in a group of 500 dowsers, you'd expect that six or so of them would be high scorers, just by random chance.  Enright described the Betz study not as proving that dowsing is a real phenomenon, but as "the most convincing disproof imaginable that dowsers can do what they claim."  Six above-average scorers out of a sample of 500 is simply not a statistically significant finding.

So, what we have here is a phenomenon that has (1) no empirical evidence in its favor, (2) no scientifically reasonable explanation about how it could work, and (3) a cogent argument that explains away cases where it has seemed to be successful.  However, as usual, people are more convinced by a flashy practitioner of mystical arts than they are by talk of probability and scientifically controlled studies, so I've no real hope that dowsing will become any less popular.  On the other hand, I suppose if it resulted in your finding a good site for your well, or locating your car keys, then who am I to argue?  As Alexandre Dumas famously quipped, "Nothing succeeds like success."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Flower power

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link yesterday with the note, "Maybe you need this for your dogs."  So I clicked on it, and was brought to a site called "Flower Essences for Animals."

If you're wondering what a "flower essence" is, then allow me to explain. A flower essence is made by floating flowers in water, and exposing them to the light of the sun, moon, or stars, so that the water is "potentized" -- the "energy vibrations" of the flowers are "transferred to the structure of the water." This then creates a "mother tincture" that can be used to treat physical or emotional problems.

[image courtesy of photographer Hong Zhang and the Wikimedia Commons]

And boy, the people who run this website think that flower essences can do everything but balance your checkbook.  If you understandably would prefer not to risk valuable brain cells by clicking the link yourself, I present here a few highlights:
"Flower essences (remedies) are specially prepared extracts of the flowering parts of certain plants. They work through energy fields to heal stress and disease from the inside." 
"Many other essences have been created around the world, not only from flowers, but also from gems, minerals, animals, butterflies, lakes, sacred earth sites, stars, celestial phenomena, and Ascended Masters. Many of them are very useful in helping our animal companions recover from trauma, injury, and stress. These non-flower essences are often referred to as 'energy' or 'vibrational' essences." 
"Essences heal underlying negative emotional states by 'flooding' the patient with the opposite, positive quality. For example, the essence of Holly is love. Use Holly in any situation where there is a lack of love, such as anger, jealousy, or rage. Similarly, the essence of Rock Rose is courage; it is helpful in cases of deep fears, panic, and terror." 
"Since essences act energetically, not physically, they are completely safe and non-toxic. They cannot be overused or misused, and they are compatible with all other treatments, including drugs, surgery, and holistic treatments like herbs and homeopathy. Even if you give the wrong remedy, it will not have any negative effects, but simply no effect."
This, of course, brings up a few questions, to wit:
  1. How do you make an "essence" of a celestial phenomenon?  "Here, have a few drops of Lunar Eclipse?"  Making an "essence" of an animal is even more problematic.  I know if anyone tried to dose me with Essence of Weasel, I wouldn't be happy about it.  And I don't even want to know how they make an essence of an "Ascended Master."
  2. If you are giving your pet something that is completely safe and non-toxic, can't be overused or misused, is compatible with all other treatments, and can be given to the wrong animal at the wrong time with no effect, isn't it safe to assume that the treatment itself is worthless?
  3. Lastly, who comes up with this stuff?  I mean, come on.  How on earth would putting the reproductive organs of a plant into water and exposing it to moonlight "imprint vibrational energy" into the water?  (Whatever the hell "imprinting vibrational energy" is supposed to mean.)  If you want me to believe this blather, then design me an Vibrational Energy-o-Meter, and show that the needle pegs when you put the sensor in flower essence water, and doesn't respond with plain old tap water.  Until then, this just strikes me as a way to rip off the gullible.
And believe me, it's not that I wouldn't welcome such a thing, if it worked.  I own two dogs, who between them are a walking encyclopedia of canine psychiatric issues.   One of my dogs, Grendel, is a tough-looking, barrel-chested mutt whose appearance has "junkyard dog" written all over it, but whose personality has resulted in our giving him a variety of nicknames, including "CreamPuff," "Mr. Fluffums," and "WussieDog."  He's a cuddler, not a fighter.  Plus, he's terrified of nail clippers, squirt bottles, and other hand-held devices, and runs and hides if we are holding one.  Our other dog, Lena, is a coonhound, and has a brain the size of a Cocoa Puff.  She is constantly cheerful, and has this extremely alert expression, which we did not realize until we brought her home was her way of communicating the idea, "Derp?"  When our son was home visiting last time, he looked out of the window, and said, "Um... Dad?  Lena's staring at a tree."  And sure enough, she was.  Not even looking up into the branches, searching for squirrels; staring at the tree trunk from a distance of about six feet, as if she expected it suddenly to burst into flame or something.

She stared at the tree for almost forty-five minutes, then kind of gave a canine shrug as if to say, "Well, I guess it's not going to do anything interesting today," and meandered off to bark at her own reflection in our pond.

Even given our dogs' rampant mental issues, however, I'm not going to waste my time and money messing around with flower essences.  For one thing, they're not cheap -- in the sites I looked at, small bottles of essences start at $15.99.  For another thing, I'm not eager to support people who are hoodwinking the public with pseudoscientific horseshit for which there is not a shred of hard scientific evidence.

And for yet another thing, Grendel would probably be afraid of the dropper bottle.

Friday, June 16, 2017

We'll discuss this at the meeting

Dave Barry once said, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings'."

To which I say: amen.  We are now at the end of another school year, for which there has been much rejoicing, mostly because it'll be another two and a half months before I have to attend another meeting.  I loathe meetings almost as much as I loathe grocery shopping.  Note that I am not talking about quick, to-the-point meetings, where vital information is conveyed in an efficient fashion. I wouldn't classify those as "fun," but I recognize that they're important.  No, I'm referring to meetings such as "educational training seminars," often run by professional seminar-runners (they probably have a fancier sounding job title, but don't deserve it).  Words cannot describe how much I detest these things.  I hate having my time wasted, I hate being expected to pretend I'm vitally interested in something that is pointless, and I hate being spoken to in a patronizing fashion.  And training seminars usually combine all three.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I thought that this type of meeting was unique to the world of education, but I found out I was wrong.   I was discussing this with Carol, and it seems that nursing training seminars are run pretty much the same way as educational ones are.  Here's the way a typical training seminar runs.  If you've never attended something like this, and you think I'm exaggerating, ask a teacher or nurse and they'll happily corroborate what I'm saying.

"Hi!  I'm Penelope Farklewhite-Smythe, and today's program is called 'Making Schools Better.'  We'll be brainstorming some ideas in just a minute, but first, we'll do an icebreaker activity.  On your table are some stickers with blue, red, green, or gold stars.   Pick up a sticker, and stick it to your forehead.  And then find three people with different color stars than you have, and tell them what you ate for breakfast today!"

*five minute pause to mill around discussing eggs, bacon, and breakfast cereal*

"There, wasn't that fun?  I'm glad no one asked me what I had for breakfast, because I was so excited to come to today's training seminar, I couldn't eat breakfast!"

*overly cheerful grin, followed by a brief pause to wait for laughter, which doesn't come, except for the one person in the front of the room who feels sorry for the presenter and thinks she needs the support*

"Today we'll start by brainstorming some ideas.  I've assigned five people to each table.  Each of you has a job.  One of you will be the Scribe.  Once we've brainstormed some ideas for 'Making Schools Better' the scribe will write down each table's ideas on a piece of butcher paper.  Write in red for ideas that Help Students Succeed, green for ideas that Make Teachers Happy, and blue for ideas that Keep Parents From Voting Down The Budget.  Two of you are the Evaluators.  The Evaluators will critique the ideas.  They will rate each idea with five stars for the Most Important down to one star for the Least Important.  The last two people will be the Presenters, and will present the ideas to the rest of the faculty.  But to make it fun, you'll present each idea using only interpretive dance, and we'll all try to guess what the idea is."

You'd think that at this point, there would be guffaws of laughter, followed by the entire faculty (except the supportive person in the front of the room) standing up and leaving.  Astonishingly, this never happens.  Being obedient little sheep, we all follow right along, bleating softly, writing on the butcher paper and giving ideas four stars and doing the interpretive dances.  Never once have I seen anyone stand up and say, "This is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard, and I refuse to participate."

Which brings us to Skeptophilia's Two Questions of the Day:
  1. Does anyone actually enjoy these sorts of meetings?
  2. Do the seminar-runners actually think that this is the best way to train professionals?  Or are they really sadists who enjoy annoying the absolute shit out of everyone?
No one I have ever talked to thinks these meetings are interesting, or enjoyable, or productive.  I, and most of my colleagues, leave such training seminars so pissed off that we spend the rest of the day looking for a small furry woodland animal to kick.  I also happen to know that the training seminars our school district has participated in have cost significant amounts of money -- some of these professional seminar-runners make upwards of a thousand dollars for a full day's presentation.   Which, incidentally, answers question #2 -- I doubt they really care if it's the best way to train professionals.  I might not care, either, if I could make a thousand bucks by ordering a bunch of presumably intelligent adults to wander around in a room with stickers on their foreheads talking about breakfast.

I find it frankly baffling, however, that the professional seminar-runners remain in business, given that the general consensus is that these seminars accomplish nothing and are therefore a gigantic waste of money and time.  So someone, somewhere, thinks that these things are productive.  Maybe it's the same people who came up with the idea of "paperwork" as being the best and most efficient way of keeping track of information.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Rock wars

Because clearly the news hasn't been surreal enough lately, today we have: an Australian geologist is suing the U. S. National Parks Service because they denied him the right to remove thirty pounds of rocks from the Grand Canyon in an attempt to prove that the biblical account of the Great Flood is true.

The geologist -- although how in the hell you'd get a Ph.D. in geology and somehow still be a young-Earth creationist is beyond my comprehension -- is named Andrew Snelling.  Snelling is a bit of a frequent flier here at Skeptophilia; regular readers may recall that he's the guy who (among other things) claimed that Beowulf shows that dinosaurs coexisted with humans and that an Allosaurus skeleton proves the six-day creation story.

So Snelling is a bit of a Johnny One-Note with respect to scientific inquiry; if it doesn't have something to do with the Book of Genesis, he's not interested.  And now he wants to show that the Grand Canyon was formed during the Great Flood, and is convinced that if he can only get his hands on some rocks, he'll be able to show that to the world.

"It’s one thing to debate the science, but to deny access to the data not based on the quality of a proposal or the nature of the inquiry, but on what you might do with it is an abuse of government power," said Snelling's lawyer, Gary McCaleb of the Alliance Defending Freedom.  Which is a little disingenuous; no one "debates the science," because people like Snelling aren't arguing from a scientific stance.  When you thump the cover of a bible and say, "I don't care if this was written by a bunch of superstitious Bronze-Age sheep herders, every word of it is true, regardless of any evidence to the contrary," you are not engaging in science, you are engaging in circular reasoning.  And once you're there, no scientific argument in the world is going to convince you otherwise.

Snelling, of course, doesn't give a rat's ass about any of that.  All he wants is any kind of evidence that seems to support his belief.  Candida Moss over at The Daily Beast said it well:
Dr. Snelling... is looking for evidence of a Flood, not evidence of mass extermination; and he is looking for evidence of excess water on the earth caused by rain, not the underground or heavenly pools of primordial waters that caused the flooding.  This kind of research is not just bad science; it’s also predicated on poor reading comprehension.
Because, says Moss, even the biblical account of the Flood is rife with internal contradictions, so the idea that it's literally true is literally... impossible:
Sure, the animals did go onto the Ark “by twosies twosies.”  God tells Noah to assemble a pair of each kind of animal, but then a couple of verses later he tells Noah to bring seven pairs of the “clean” kinds of animal and one pair of the “unclean” kinds of animals.  That doesn’t rhyme at all, but it’s important because at the conclusion of the story, just before the rainbow, Noah goes and sacrifices a number of the clean animals to God.  And, if Noah didn’t have seven pairs of animals, he would have saved all those species only to engage in an ad hoc mass extinction project. 
The Flood does last for “forty days and nights.”  But it also lasts for 150 days and nights.  And while the Flood is caused by rain, it is also caused by the opening of primordial floodgates positioned above and beneath the earth.  Not only is this confusing, it does mean that scientific efforts to prove the historicity of the Flood should also have to explain where all of the water above and below the earth is.  And, for this purpose, an underground reservoir probably isn’t going to cut it with one’s fellow scientists. 
All of these inconsistencies make for pretty difficult reading, which is why Christian tradition has plumped for a streamlined version that cherrypicks certain details.
Then, there's the problem that there is exactly zero evidence of a giant flood and a mass extinction.  You'd think there'd be some evidence of this -- a sedimentary rock layer at the same depth, all over the world, with millions of fossils of a wide variety of organisms.  Including, presumably, humans, since one of the cheery aspects of this supposedly edifying story is that the all-loving god drowned every human on Earth, including infants, for some unspecified "wickedness," leaving only the family of a 600-year-old man from whom all of us are presumably descended over and over and over again, thus adding rampant incest into the mix.

Interesting that this is one of the most commonly-told tales in children's Sunday school classes, isn't it?

Anyhow.  My inclination would be to give Snelling his rocks and tell him to go away and have fun playing with them.  He's not going to be able to prove anything with them that any reputable scientist would accept, nor will he find anything out from them that could change his own mind (further indicating that what Snelling is engaging in is not science).  I know it's against National Park Service rules to let anyone take away anything from the park, but consider the upside: it'd keep Snelling and his cronies quiet for a while.  And I think that's well worth bending the rules for.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

American Caligula

If you've heard of Gaius Julius Augustus Germanicus, it's probably under his better-known nickname of "Caligula" ("Little Boots"), given to him when he was a child and demanded to have a set of boots like the military officers had, so he could go stomping around giving orders.  While such behavior is at least arguably cute in a kid, it becomes decidedly less so when said kid grows into an adult and continues to do the same sort of thing.

And it becomes downright scary when such an adult toddler ends up in charge of a whole nation.

Caligula [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Caligula became the ruler of Rome upon the death of his great-uncle Tiberius in March of 37 C.E.  It'd be nice if people like him (i.e. sociopathic narcissists) suddenly had an epiphany when they found themselves in a position of responsibility, but that seldom if ever happens.  In fact, it's often the opposite.  When they gain power, it takes the brakes off entirely.  In his short reign -- only three years, ten months -- here are a few things Caligula did:
  • He had a temple constructed in his honor, containing a life-sized golden statue of himself.  He ordered it to be dressed each day in clothes identical to the ones he was wearing that day.
  • Because he was embarrassed at the fact that he was going bald, he made it an offense for anyone to look down at him from a balcony.
  • He was so angry at the fact that there was a storm and uncooperative tides during his campaign in Britain that he ordered his soldiers to flog the waves with leather whips.  Afterwards, he had them collect seashells as "spoils of the battle."
  • Upon his return to Rome, he ordered that hundreds of beautiful young people be painted gold and stood, naked, alongside the road as he passed, holding torches.  Unfortunately, the gold paint contained arsenic, and all of the would-be statues died in agony from absorbing the toxin through their skin over the next three days.
  • He had his prized horse, Incitatus, appointed to the Senate.
  • He spent lavish amounts of money on parties celebrating himself, at which attendees were commanded to make lengthy speeches in his praise.  Within months of his accession, he had blown through most of the Roman treasury, so he levied taxes on parts of the Empire he didn't like.
And that's only scraping the surface.  The man was, to put it bluntly, a nutjob, and it is honestly a mystery why the Roman people put up with him for almost four years.

I mean, you'd think the self-laudatory stuff would wear thin pretty quick, especially since the guy was far more interested in self-aggrandizement than he was in running the country.  Every speech he made did nothing but heap praise upon his own head; "No one," he said at one meeting of his inner circle, "has done more [for the country] than I have."  And instead of laughing directly into his face, all of the people in attendance just kind of nodded sagely, as if that was actually the truth.  To add insult to injury, he then demanded that each of his counselors speak in his praise -- and they did.  For example:
  • "The greatest privilege in my life is to serve [here]."
  • "I am privileged to be here -- deeply honored -- and I want to thank you for your commitment."
  • "The people all love you."
  • "We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda."
  • "Congratulations to the men and women you have gathered around this table."
  • "It was a great honor traveling with you around the country for the last year, and an even greater honor to be serving here."
Oh, wait!  My bad.  That last bit wasn't Caligula, that was Donald Trump's last Cabinet meeting, which accomplished nothing than stroking the president's turgid ego.  (If you're curious, the quotes above are, in order: Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta; Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson; and Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin.)

As far as Trump himself, he was just tickled pink to receive all the adulation, because as we all know there's nothing as wonderful to receive as forced praise.  Trump ended the meeting on another self-congratulatory note -- about the only note he knows how to play, apparently -- saying, "I will say there never has been a president, with few exceptions -- in the case of F.D.R. he had a major depression to handle -- who's passed more legislation, who's done more things than what we've done.  We've been about as active as you can be, and at a just about record-setting pace."

Which, of course, ignores the fact that both his budget and his attempted revamp to health care are in serious danger, he and his cronies are under investigation for various sorts of malfeasance, and about all that he's done other than that is playing golf every weekend, turning the United States into an international laughingstock with ignorant gaffe after ignorant gaffe, and issuing executive orders dismantling every environmental protection ever passed.

You can't continue fooling people forever, though, and eventually even the ass-kissers get tired of the thankless (and potentially dangerous) job of working for a lying, amoral megalomaniac.  In the case of Caligula, the powers-that-be finally had enough, and there was a conspiracy between the Senate and the Praetorian Guard.  One evening Little Boots was caught unawares in a corridor beneath one of his palaces on the Palatine Hill, and a bunch of the conspirators hacked him to death with swords.

One has to hope that eventually there will be enough of our elected officials who see Donald Trump for what he is that they'll be willing to use the metaphorical sword of impeachment based upon his obvious lack of fitness for leadership (if not for obstruction of justice, collusion with the Russians, or outright treason).  It took almost four years for the Roman Senate to say finis to Caligula; let's hope that we don't have to wait that long for our own American Caligula to be deposed.