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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Candy bars for Satan

Happy Halloween to all of my loyal readers.  I'm saying this because "Happy Scary Day Of Your Choice" sounds ridiculous, so if you don't celebrate Halloween, you can feel free to get your knickers in a twist.

Because it's a day long associated with legends about ghosts and hauntings and demons and so on, Halloween is not a big favorite with the ultrareligious types.  It's interesting, however, that the day itself has a (sort of) Christian origin; in the Celtic calendar, there were twelve months of thirty days each, which left five days at the end that belonged to no month.  Because of this, they were thought to be days when all of the natural laws were suspended, the dead came back to life, and other special offers.  The culmination was the last of the five days, Samhain, on which your local priest was supposed to get together with the pious members of the village and fight back the forces of evil, after which there was a big celebration complete with high-fives about how they beat the hell out of the demons yet again.  This practice was later co-opted by kids, who would disguise themselves as demons and go from door to door, demanding a gift (a treat) in exchange for their not vandalizing your house (a trick).

The next day, November 1 (All Saints Day) was a holy day, celebrating the start of the new year and the triumph of good over evil, and a time to remember the dead, at least the ones who were buried on sanctified ground.  All Saints Day is sometimes called "All Hallows Day," so the day before is "Hallow's Eve."

And thus Halloween was born.

[image courtesy of photographer Jarek Tuszynski and the Wikimedia Commons]

So the whole thing has a connection to some at-least-sort-of-Christian mythology, although its roots go back much further, to the pagan rites of the ancient Celts.  I suppose I can see how the ultrareligious would object to the whole thing.  But this still doesn't explain Linda Harvey, televangelist and founder of Mission:America, who said last week that you should definitely not let your kids participate in trick-or-treating, because it could...

... turn them gay.

I kid you not.  Harvey said:
Yes, America’s recent exaltation of Halloween as a festival second only to Christmas owes a lot to promotion by homosexuals and their new favorite comrades — gender-confused males and females. 
And as usual, the “LGBTQ” folks have no problem using any tool, Halloween included, to corrupt children.
How did she figure all this out?  It's hard to say, although she says she escaped from the magnetic lure of evil only by the skin of her teeth:
When I was 14, I had my own bizarre encounter with the enemy spirit world by experimenting with a Ouija board.  Since my parents were Episcopalians, I received no warnings of spiritual danger because at that time, they lacked a mature, informed level of faith. 
But when my friend and I asked the “board” questions, some unseen force pushed the pointer around.  At times, our fingers were hanging on for dear life as it flew around the board, often spelling out messages. 
I had little biblical background to understand what this presence surely was.  Now, I can only thank God for mercifully protecting me from being drawn more deeply into this spooky and alluring world where the unseen has real, tangible power.
What "this presence" was is the well-studied ideomotor effect, where people's conscious or subconscious thoughts drive their bodies to respond, often in such a way that it feels "reflexive" or out of their control.  So there's nothing much to a Ouija board, and it's only able to tell us what we already knew (or what we might imagine).  No evil "presence" required.

Oh, and Linda: that's a hell of a dig at the Episcopalians, not to mention your own parents.  I guess "ecumenism" forms no part of your religious practice, then?  Nor familial respect?

Fortunately for Linda and her followers, there's an alternate celebration available.  It's called -- and I am so not making this up -- "JesusWeen."  The idea is instead of dressing up in costume and getting candy on the evening of October 31, you dress in conservative clothing and pass out religious study materials.

I just bet the neighborhood kids are going to be busting down the front door to participate in that.

Anyhow, if you're planning on going out trick-or-treating tonight, be ready for attacks from Satan and coming back gay.  I guess we all have to decide what kind of risks we're willing to take.  And this is just me, but if I heard that a neighbor was passing out full-sized Mounds bars, I would throw caution to the wind with respect to either of these.

Monday, October 30, 2017

I saw the light

We are currently in the middle of an early nor'easter, which is supposed to bring rain, wind, lightning, and thunder to us well into midday, which is probably why I was thinking this morning about the subject of Lights in the Sky.

The topic had also come up a few days ago in a conversation with a student, a young man who shares my skeptical outlook.  He showed me a video montage he'd found on YouTube of recent UFO sightings, and laughingly described a conversation he'd had with a friend who evidently liked the "alien spacecraft" hypothesis so much that he needed some reminding of what the "U" in "UFO" stands for.  In any case, I decided to do a little research regarding mysterious lights.

[image courtesy of photographer Andy Pham and the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, allow me to state up front that although several of these are as-yet unexplained, I strongly believe that they all have perfectly natural explanations.  The rush to blame any odd phenomenon on the paranormal is a tendency I've blogged about before, and I wouldn't want anyone to interpret my love of a mystery as an unwarranted attribution of these occurrences to ghosts, demons, or Little Green Men.

That disclaimer made, here are a few examples of odd light phenomena that I found out about.  I've included links for each of them that you should peruse if you want more information.

The Hessdalen Light has been seen since the 1940s in the valley of Hessdalen in Norway. It's a stationary, bright white or yellow light, floating above the ground, sometimes remaining visible for over an hour. With such a cooperative phenomenon, you would think it would be easily explained; but despite the efforts of scientists, who have been studying the Hessdalen Light for decades, there is yet to be a convincing explanation.  Hypotheses abound: that it is the combustion of dust from the valley floor; that it is a stable plasma, ionized by the decay of radon from minerals in the valley; or even that it is an electrical discharge from piezoelectric compression of quartz crystals in the underlying rock.  None of these is completely convincing, and the Hessdalen Light remains one of the most puzzling natural phenomena I know of.

Similarly peculiar are the Brown Mountain Lights, near Brown Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina.  These brightly-colored lights have been seen since the early 20th century, usually hovering near the horizon, and skeptics have claimed that they are the headlights of a train or automobiles, as there is a highway and a train track fairly near to the site where the lights are most often seen.  However, when a flood washed out the train overpass and rendered the highway impassable, the lights continued to be seen.  They're still seen today, apparently most commonly between September and November.

Likely to be a combination of lights from a highway and an atmospheric condition are the Paulding Lights, of Paulding, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This phenomenon is the subject of a variety of YouTube videos (search for "Paulding Lights" and you'll find a bunch), and in fact became the topic of an episode of Fact or Faked: The Paranormal Files on the Syfy Channel.  The FOF people, as you might predict, concluded that it was "unexplained."  However, after doing some digging myself, I found that researchers had concluded that the mysterious lights seen near Paulding were due to automobile headlights refracting through an inversion layer -- a layer of cool air near the ground bounded by warmer air above.  So I will respectfully disagree with the investigators on FOF and place this one in the file labeled "Probably Solved."

The Gurdon Light, of Gurdon, Arkansas, is one that has a lot of supernatural folklore attached to it.   It's a bobbing light seen in a wooded area near railroad tracks, and the legend is that it is a lantern held by a ghostly man who had been killed by a train.  Needless to say, I'm not buying that, and the information I found indicates that this one is fairly poorly documented -- leading me to surmise that it can be explained by nothing more than the overactive imagination of the superstitious.  Nonetheless, Gurdon remains a popular destination -- on Halloween.

Lastly, we return to Norway for what is in my opinion the best documented of these occurrences -- the Norwegian Spiral Anomaly of 2009.  (Do check out this link, which has excellent photographs and video of this strange and beautiful phenomenon.)  On the 9th of December in 2009, thousands of people all over central Norway took photographs and video footage of a spiral light in the sky, with a blue-green filament coming from its center, that opened up into a black hole.  Naturally, there was a rush to explain it as visitation by aliens, or as a physics experiment gone very wrong that had resulted in the formation of an actual black hole.  A more conventional explanation -- that it was a spiral vapor trail left by a failed flight of a Russian Bulava missile -- is only partially convincing; there was a missile test that day, and simulations of the pattern made by the ignited fuel from a spinning missile did form a spiral pattern, but the Spiral Anomaly looked essentially the same from all observation points, and this would not be true if it had been a missile vapor trail (some people would have seen it center-on, others from the side, etc.).  In my mind, it's still a mystery, and remains one of the most recorded, and most perplexing, light phenomena I've ever heard of.

So, there you have it; some reasons to keep your eye on the sky.  And even if I'm in no rush to attribute any of these to spirits or alien spacecraft, I have to admit that they are intriguing.  And there's something in all of us that loves a good mystery, isn't there?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A sugar pill for creativity

Following hard on the heels of a post about the possibility of creativity existing in a machine (and how we could tell if it did), today we look at recent research from the Weizmann Institute of Science (of Rehovot, Israel) showing that your creativity can be increased...

... by a placebo.

In a paper released last month, neuroscientists Liron Rozenkrantz, Avraham E. Mayo, Tomer Ilan, Yuval Hart, Lior Noy, and Uri Alon used three standard measures of creativity -- the creative foraging game, alternate uses test, and Torrance test of creative thinking -- to see if subjects' creativity levels improved if they were given a vial of a cinnamon-scented liquid to sniff beforehand.  The interesting thing is that the aromatic chemical in the liquid isn't neuroactive, but some of the test subjects' creativity improved anyhow.

As long as they were told ahead of time that's the effect it would have.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The authors write:
Creativity is the ability to generate ideas, solutions or insights that are new and potentially useful.  Creativity is often viewed as a trait characteristic of a person; however, creativity can also be viewed as a state, affected by expectation and motivation...  
We find that placebo can enhance the originality aspect of creativity...  What are the psychological mechanisms that allow placebo to increase the originality aspect of creativity?  There are at least two possibilities. The first mechanism is based on extensive research by Amabile and Deci and Ryan, that suggests that creativity is modulated by motivation.  Extrinsic motivators were shown to be mostly detrimental to creativity, whereas intrinsic motivation is conductive to and strongly associated with creative abilities.  A key factor in intrinsic motivation, according to self-determination theory, is the belief in one’s competence.  For example subjects who practiced encouraging statements (related to self-confidence, releasing anxieties etc.) and omitted self-incapacitating statements showed improved creativity scores.  This is in line with the verbal suggestion in our study that the odorant increases creativity, which may have made subjects feel more competent.  Additional components of intrinsic motivation, such as social relatedness, may also have been increased by experimenter effects in the present study, by the experimenter’s perceived interest in the effects of the odorant. 
A second possible psychological mechanism of placebo, as suggested by Weger et al., is to weaken inhibitory mechanisms that normally impair performance.  Creativity was found to increase in several studies that tested conditions with reduced inhibitions, such as alcohol consumption.  Wieth and Zacks showed that creative problem solving was improved when participants were tested during non-optimal times of day, and suggested that this is due to reduced inhibitory control... This effect was suggested to be in line with paradoxical functional facilitation theory, which attributes improved performance of damaged nervous system to release from inhibition. Informal notions in improvisation theatre suggest that the inner critic is a source of inhibition that limits creativity.  The verbal suggestion made in our study that the odorant increases creativity and reduces inhibitions may thus work through a reduced-inhibition mechanism and/or by increasing belief in one’s competence.
So this suggests that there are two outcomes, here:
  • Anything that works to increase your confidence in your own creativity will improve your ability.  This undoubtedly varies greatly from person to person, but it does make me wonder if all of the happy-talk "self-affirmation" stuff, which I had previously derided as pop psychology, might not have something to it.
  • Ernest Hemingway may have been right when he said, "Write drunk, edit sober."
I can say from my own experience that frustration is the thing that kills my creativity the fastest.  Whether with music or writing (my two main creative outlets), if I start becoming frustrated with my skill, output, or proficiency, all it serves is to get in my way and make things worse.  I used to grit my teeth and try to plow through it, but I learned that this only tightened the downward spiral -- once frustration has set in, every fumbled note, every clumsy sentence, only serves to further shut me down.  The only solution was to leave the instrument or the keyboard behind -- not easy to do for a tightly-wound type-A personality like myself -- and do something completely different, preferably something active like going running.

Afterwards, it was amazing how the cogs had been loosened and the cobwebs blown away.  With writer's block, I often found that it was while I was running that the solution to whatever plot point I was wrestling with suddenly came to me, seemingly out of nowhere.  The research by Rosenkrantz et al. suggests that the loss of inhibition and cessation of negative self-talk from switching gears entirely might have been what shook the ideas free.

In any case, it's fascinating to find how malleable our minds are, how amenable to suggestion.  It also brings to mind the 2010 study that found that placebos work even when subjects know they're being given a placebo -- and makes me wonder if I should take a good whiff of cinnamon before I next sit down to write.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Artificial scriptwriting

When I was a young and cocky junior in college, a couple of friends and I wrote a (very simple) computer program to generate free-verse poetry.  With input of a list of promising-sounding verbs, nouns, and adjectives, we were able to produce hundreds of poems that sounded a little like William Carlos Williams on acid.

It was pretty clunky stuff, really, although at the time my friends and I thought it was the funniest thing ever, a poke in the eye of the full-of-themselves modern poets.  Honestly, it was really nothing more than souped-up MadLibs.  But there were a few of the "poems" that got close to making sense -- that did in fact sound a bit like loopy, arcane examples of modern poetry.

Of course, that was almost forty years ago, and back then the capability of software (not to mention programmers' capability of writing it) was rudimentary to say the least.  Now, there are artificial neural networks that are able not only to learn, but to abstract patterns from observations in much the way a human child does, trying things out, seeing what works, and improving as they go.  And just last year, a very-far-evolved version of our Modern Poetry Generator produced a movie script by looking at tropes in dozens of futuristic science fiction movies, and then writing one of its own.

The neural network named itself Benjamin -- itself a curious thing -- and the result was Sunspring, a surreal nine-minute long script showing the interaction of three people in what appears to be a love triangle.  Best of all, the people who created Benjamin hired some actors to stage Sunspring (the link is to a YouTube video of the production), and it's predictably a mashup of nonsense and strange passages that come damn close to profound.

[image courtesy of photographer Michel Royon and the Wikimedia Commons]

Oscar Sharp and Ross Goodwin, who oversaw the creation of Sunspring, entered it in the Sci-Fi London contest -- and it won.  I suspect that part of its success was simply the novelty of seeing a film whose script was written by an artificial neural network.  But part of it was that there is a disturbing sort of sense behind the script, which you can't help but see when you watch it.

When Benjamin won the contest, his creators arranged for him to be interviewed by the emcee at the awards ceremony.  When Benjamin was asked how he felt about competing successfully against human filmmakers, he replied, "I was pretty excited. I think I can see the feathers when they release their hearts.  It's like a breakdown of the facts.  So they should be competent with the fact that they weren't surprised."

Which, like much of Sunspring, almost makes sense.

As a fiction writer, I find this whole thing intensely fascinating.  I've often pondered the source of creativity, not to mention why some creative works appeal (or are meaningful) to some and not to others.  It strikes me that creativity hinges on a relationship -- on establishing a connection between the creator and the consumer.  Because of this, there will be times when that link simply fails to form -- or forms in a different way than one or both anticipated.

One minor example of this occurred with a reader of my time-travel novel Lock & Key.  One of the main characters is the irritable, perpetually exasperated character of the Librarian, the guy whose responsibility is keeping track of all of the possible things that could have happened.  I describe the Librarian as being a slender young man with "elf-like features" -- by which I meant something otherworldly and ethereal, a little like the Elves in J. R. R. Tolkien but not as badass.  But one reader took that to mean that the Librarian was a Little Person, and she maintains to this day that she sees him this way.

I suppose this is why I always cringe a little when I hear they're making a movie of one of my favorite books.  That relationship between reader and story is sometimes so powerful that no movie will ever depict accurately the way the reader imagined it to be.  (I had a bit of that experience when I first watched the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings.  By and large, I found the casting to be impeccable -- by which I mean they looked a lot like I pictured -- with the exception of Hugo Weaving as Elrond.  Hugo Weaving to me will always be Agent Smith in The Matrix, and in every scene where Elrond appeared, I kept expecting him to say, "I will enjoy watching you die, Mr. Frodo.")

So meaning in books, music, and art is partly what the creator puts there, and partly what we impose upon them when we experience them.

Which leaves us with a question: what, if anything, does Sunspring mean?  It features exchanges like the following, between one of the male characters ("H") and the female character ("C"):
H:  It may never be forgiven, but that is just too bad.  I have to leave, but I'm not free of the world.
C:  Yes.  Perhaps I should take it from here...
H:  You can't afford to take this anywhere.  This is not a dream.
Which I'm not sure actually means anything, but is certainly no weirder than dialogue I've heard in David Lynch movies.

In any case, as Benjamin's creators would no doubt agree, the application of neural networks and AI learning to creative endeavors is only in its infancy, and I suspect that within a few years, Sunspring will be considered as laughable an attempt at computer scriptwriting as our clumsy foray into poetry-writing was software 37 years ago.  But it does give us an interesting twist on the Turing test, the old litmus for determining if an AI is actually intelligent; if it can fool a sufficiently intelligent human, then it is.  Here, there's the added confounding condition of our bringing to a creative experience our own biases, visions, and interpretations of what's going on.

So if someone finds a computer-created work of literature, art, or music beautiful, poignant, or meaningful, where is the meaning coming from?  And how is it different from any experience of meaning in creative works?

I don't even begin to know how to answer that question.  But even so, I'll be waiting for the first AI novel to appear -- something that can't be far away.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Distilled spirits

Today is my 57th birthday, which I bring up primarily because I look at that number and think, "How the hell could I be this old?"  I'm only three years from another Dreaded Zero Birthday, and next year is my fortieth high school reunion.

I have tried to combat this by remaining immature.  But even watching cartoons and laughing at fart jokes only gets you so far.

In any case, if any of you are looking for a gift for your favorite blogger, allow me to suggest something that I just found out about yesterday: a bottle of gin personally cursed by a real witch.

Professional witch Julianne White, infusing the spirits with spirits

I'm not making this up.  It's called "Evil Spirits Gin."  Made by Union Distillers in England, the gin is produced by "an authentic and unique triple-chilling filter process," and then infused with apples and mint grown in Pluckley, which was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the most haunted town in Britain."

I was naturally curious about Pluckley, and after a little research I found out one of the main ghosts in Pluckley is called "Watercress Woman."  "Watercress Woman" is apparently the ghost of an old lady that is seen frequently on Pinnock Bridge, near the village center.  The old lady apparently made a living by sitting on the bridge selling watercress.  Which, I must say, strikes me as a difficult way to make a living.  I would think that you'd have to sell a crapload of watercress in order to make enough money to buy anything, not to mention the fact that I don't think watercress is really all that big a seller in the first place.

Maybe it's more popular in Pluckley than it is in upstate New York.  I dunno.

Be that as it may, the old watercress saleswoman spent her days sitting on the bridge, selling watercress, while smoking her pipe and drinking gin.  Until one day she dropped her pipe, and it set fire to her gin-soaked dress, and she burned to death.

Which makes me wonder how soused she was.  Because I have drunk plenty of gin in my time, and I can say that I have never dumped enough of it on my clothes that I would burst into flame if I dropped my pipe, if I smoked a pipe, which I don't.

But she's only one of a variety of ghosts in Pluckley.  Amongst the other spooks and specters to be found there are the spirits of a screaming brickworker who fell off the factory roof, a highwayman who was run through with a sword and pinned to a tree, and a schoolmaster who was so unpopular that his students revolted and hanged him from a tree.

The last-mentioned making me feel like any problems I have in my classroom are minor by comparison.

But anyhow, back to Evil Spirits Gin.  Not only do the distillers add apples and mint from the Haunted Gardens of Pluckley to the gin, they also add an extract of an African plant called "devil's claw."  Why?  I have no idea.  Because of the devil or something.

The best part, though, is that after all of this, the distillers hand over the bottles of gin to Julianne White, the aforementioned "professional witch."  Which, frankly, sounds like a worse way to make a living than selling watercress.  But anyhow, White casts a spell on the gin, so that drinking it "empowers the drinker to follow whatever their hearts desire – whether it is for good or evil."

So that's pretty cool, and would be a nice benefit to having a gin & tonic.

In any case, I would definitely enjoy a bottle of Evil Spirits Gin.  Otherwise I will have to make do with ordinary uncursed gin, which means I won't be able to blame any hangovers I experience on black magic, an excuse I really wish I'd thought of thirty years ago.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Paint thinner cure

Let me preface this post by saying, once, "I am not making any of this up."  Because, as you'll see, otherwise I'd have to say it every other line.

I will also suggest ahead of time that the folks who coordinate the Darwin Awards might want to keep an eye on the people I'm going to tell you about, because trust me, this is a Darwin Award waiting to happen.

What, you're probably asking, could induce me to make such a blanket statement right out of the starting gate, especially considering the ridiculous stuff I deal with here at Skeptophilia on a daily basis?  The reason is that a loyal reader sent me a link about a group of people who think...

... that the key to health and curing disease is in drinking turpentine.

You read that right.  Turpentine, i.e., paint thinner.  The stuff that has "Harmful or fatal if swallowed, do not induce vomiting" on the side of the container.  This has become a popular enough alt-med remedy that there is actually a (closed) Facebook group devoted to the practice.  The contention is that all disease is caused by parasites, and that turpentine will kill the parasites and therefore cure your disease.

Which is 1/3 true.  There are lots of diseases that are caused by something other than parasites -- genetic illnesses, for example.  So "killing the parasites" would only work if that's what's making you ill.

The part of it that is true is that turpentine will kill parasites.  The problem is, it also will kill you.  The upside is that your corpse will be delightfully parasite-free.

What about the "harmful or fatal" business?  That, turpentine-aficionados say, is put on there because turpentine manufacturers are "forced to do this by our corrupt FDA."  And if that doesn't appall you enough, there's the comment from one turpentine-drinker that when she has a bowel movement, "lots of red liquid comes out, is this normal?"

To which another proponent of the practice responded, "Maybe old and damaged intestinal wall is coming out.  Don't worry."

Okay, a couple of things here.
  • The red stuff is blood If you're pooping blood, this is a bad sign.  You definitely should worry.
  • Even if the guy who responded is right, "your intestinal wall" is also high on the list of things that you should not be pooping out.
  • Lastly: are you people fucking insane?
Time for some science.  Turpentine is what is called a nonpolar solvent -- a liquid that is good at dissolving other nonpolar substances, such as oils and fats.  (That's why it's used to clean up brushes after using an oil-based paint.)  Here's the problem: your cell membranes are largely composed of double layers of a specific kind of organic compound -- a type of fat called a phospholipid.  What's holding the two layers of the membrane together are hydrophobic interactions -- the watery solution both inside and outside your cells push away nonpolar (hydrophobic) regions of the phospholipids, and it forms sheets.  If you replace the water outside the cells with a nonpolar solvent like turpentine (or gasoline or kerosene or benzene), it replaces that repulsive force with an attractive one.

End result?  Your cell membranes dissolve.


The Toxicology Database at the National Institute of Health website is unequivocal about this.  Here's what they have to say about turpentine:
Vapor is irritating to eyes, nose, and throat.  If inhaled, will cause nausea, vomiting, headache, difficult breathing, or loss of consciousness.  Liquid irritates skin.  If ingested, can irritate the entire digestive system, and may injure kidneys.  If liquid is taken into lungs, causes severe pneumonitis.  Men exposed to concentrations of 720-1100 ppm complain of chest pain, and vision disturbances.  Turpentine is a skin irritant and skin contact may cause eczema.  Workers in the chemical, rubber and welding industries exposed to turpentine have developed contact dermatoses.  In humans, chronic inhalation of turpentine has caused extensive glomerulonephritis.  Chronic dermal contact may cause allergic erythema, headaches, coughing, and sleeplessness.
Oh, but the National Institute of Health is probably corrupt, too.  My bad.

To some extent, I feel like letting these people do what they want, and if they die, well, it's not like the information wasn't out there.  A kind of life-or-death version of caveat emptor.   But part of me believes that even people who are this catastrophically ignorant shouldn't suffer gastrointestinal distress and kidney injury.

Much less pooping out blood, which I regret even thinking about.

So, if you are at all of the "alternative medicine" bent, and were considering drinking turpentine to rid yourself of the parasites causing your ingrown toenail, I have one thing to say:


Seriously.  That shit'll kill you.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A fight over teeth

It may seem like a trivial thing to gripe about, but I am absolutely sick unto death of people taking some completely ordinary scientific discovery, and shrieking, "This will completely rewrite every textbook on the subject!", or worse, "This invalidates everything we thought we knew about X!"

I know a bit about the history of scientific inquiry.  I'm no expert, but I'm definitely Better Than The Average Bear.  And when it comes to real, honest-to-Galileo scientific revolutions, I can only think of a few:
  • The Copernican idea of the planets (including the Earth) going around the Sun, further modified by Kepler, who found out they weren't moving in perfect circles
  • Isaac Newton's theories of force, motion, and gravitation
  • Charles Darwin's explanation of the mechanism of evolution
  • The elucidation of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell and others
  • The discovery of the gene as the fundamental unit of heredity, followed by a century and a half of refinement of our understanding of how DNA produces traits
  • The discovery of radioactivity, which directly led to our understanding of atomic structure and quantum mechanics -- a discovery, it must be said, that immediately followed the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin stating, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.  All that remains is more and more precise measurement."
  • The discovery of plate tectonics as a driver for geological processes, by Alfred Wegener, Harry Hess, J. Tuzo Wilson, and others
And that's about it.  Oh, there were other big developments.  The invention of the computer, for example, has changed our experience about as much as anything I can think of.  But it really wasn't an overturning of our understanding of how the world works; it was more a new and clever application of known physical laws to the problem of computation and information storage.

So what stands out about real scientific revolutions is how uncommon they are.  And given the precision of our tools, and the level of our inquiry in the past century, the chances of our having missed something fundamental is pretty slim.

Which is why I rolled my eyes and said a very bad word when I saw an article over at Inverse entitled, "9.7 Million-Year-Old Teeth Found In Germany Could Recast Human History."  The discovery, which is actually fairly cool, is that a team led by Herbert Lutz, director of the Natural History Museum of Mainz, Germany discovered some hominin teeth in a dig near the Rhine River.  It is an unusual find; most of the hominin fossils of that age have been confined to Africa.  But it certainly doesn't "rewrite human history."  The fact that there might have been a branch of hominins that made it to Europe ten-odd million years ago is interesting, but doesn't really overturn anything.  It just adds a branch to our family tree (and one that almost certainly isn't our director ancestor, anyhow).

One of the Eppelsheim teeth [image courtesy of the Mainz Natural History Museum]

Lutz himself didn't help matters any by his statement to the press.  "It’s something completely new, something previously unknown to science," Lutz said.  "It’s a complete mystery where this individual came from, and why nobody’s ever found a tooth like this somewhere before."

I can put this reaction down to a scientist being understandably excited about his own work.  But when the media hears the words "unknown to science" and "mystery," they picture scientists sitting around with befuddled looks on their faces, then standing up and throwing away all of the textbooks and journals on the subject in question.

Which is a far sight from the truth, as Michael Greshko of National Geographic states.  "Do these teeth, as many news outlets have proclaimed, 'rewrite human history?'" Greshko writes.  "In a word, no."

In fact, there's still a lot of argument amongst paleontologists over whether the teeth are actually from a hominin, as Lutz believes.  Bence Viola of the University of Toronto, a world-renowned expert on the structure of hominin and hominoid teeth, is doubtful.  "I think this is much ado about nothing," Viola said.  "The second tooth (the molar), which they say clearly comes from the same individual, is absolutely not a hominin, [and] I would say also not a hominoid."

Viola suspects that the teeth are from some kind of pliopithecoid, a branch of primates only distantly related to humans, and which are known to have lived in Europe and Asia between seven and seventeen million years ago.

Viola's colleague, paleoanthropologist David Begun, is even more dismissive.  "The 'canine' looks to me like a piece of a ruminant tooth," Begun said.  "It has a funny break that makes it look a bit like a canine, but it is definitely not a canine, nor is it [from] a primate."

So not only do the teeth not "rewrite human history," there isn't even agreement about what animal the teeth were from.  So if you were thinking we were going to add an eighth scientific revolution to the seven I mentioned above based on Lutz's discovery, I fear you are destined for disappointment.

And the problem only gets worse when you're talking about a field in which people have a vested interest to disbelieve.  I can't tell you the number of times I've seen headlines like, "Paleontologist Finds Bone in a Dig Site -- Evolutionists Baffled!" or "Blizzard On the Way -- Climate Change Supporters Fumble for Explanation."  Trust me on this: no one's baffled or fumbling, and they're not rewriting the textbooks.  What the scientists are doing is adding another bit to our understanding of the universe.

Because that's how science works.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Dog days

As I mentioned in my last post, I have two dogs.  First we have Grendel:

Grendel is a very mixed breed.  We think that in his ancestry he has some boxer, pug, German shepherd, and (given his general build) potato.

And in case you were wondering: no, he's not a bit spoiled.

Then we have Lena:

Lena always has this chipper, alert expression, which we didn't realize until we got her home was her way of expressing the concept, "Derp."  She's one of the sweetest dogs I've ever met, but also possibly the dumbest.  She has been known to stare at a stuffed toy on a shelf for 45 minutes straight, presumably because she thought it was a squirrel, or possibly because she was simply interested in interacting with something that was on her intellectual level.

So we're totally dog people.  They're a nuisance sometimes, make a lot of noise, and a lot of the past twenty years has been one long series of carpet stains.  But we love 'em, and honestly, I can't imagine living without at least one dog.

This comes up because of two academic papers that I ran into last week that shed interesting light on dog behavior.  In the first, by a team led by Biagio d'Aniello of the University of Naples, we find out that dogs actually can smell fear -- but it doesn't make them attack, it makes them scared, too.

The authors write:
Do human body odors (chemosignals) produced under emotional conditions of happiness and fear provide information that is detectable by pet dogs (Labrador and Golden retrievers)?  The odor samples were collected from the axilla of male donors not involved in the main experiment.  The experimental setup involved the co-presence of the dog’s owner, a stranger and the odor dispenser in a space where the dogs could move freely.  There were three odor conditions [fear, happiness, and control (no sweat)] to which the dogs were assigned randomly.  The dependent variables were the relevant behaviors of the dogs (e.g., approaching, interacting and gazing) directed to the three targets (owner, stranger, sweat dispenser) aside from the dogs’ stress and heart rate indicators.  The results indicated with high accuracy that the dogs manifested the predicted behaviors in the three conditions.  There were fewer and shorter owner directed behaviors and more stranger directed behaviors when they were in the “happy odor condition” compared to the fear odor and control conditions.  In the fear odor condition, they displayed more stressful behaviors.  The heart rate data in the control and happy conditions were significantly lower than in the fear condition.  Our findings suggest that interspecies emotional communication is facilitated by chemosignals.
Which certainly squares with what I've observed in my own dogs, especially Grendel, who is (and I say this with all due affection) a great big coward.  Just last night, I woke up in the middle of the night to a pack of coyotes howling nearby, and Grendel (who was sleeping in bed with me because my wife is currently away at an art show, and that's how we both cope with her being gone) jerked awake, whimpered, and then snuggled up closer to me.  The message was clear: "Protect me from the big mean wild dogs."  Presumably he knew that the big mean wild dogs were outside and he was in the house, but he still engaged in the horizontal equivalent of hiding behind my legs.

Then there was the study by Juliane Kaminski et al. of the University of Portsmouth, wherein we find out that dogs don't just pick up on our emotions; they manipulate them toward their own ends.  The "puppy dog eyes" we get from our dogs are reserved for their human companions -- and, as I've suspected for ages, they use 'em in a completely calculated fashion to get attention and treats from us.

The experiment studied 24 family dogs, who were tested with and without their owners, and also when the owners were watching them and when the owners were present but turned away from them.  And they found that dogs produce a much greater range of facial expressions when their owners are looking at them.

"Domestic dogs have a unique history," Kaminski said.  "They have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years and during that time selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs' ability to communicate with us.  We knew domestic dogs paid attention to how attentive a human is - in a previous study we found, for example, that dogs stole food more often when the human's eyes were closed or they had their back turned.  In another study, we found dogs follow the gaze of a human if the human first establishes eye contact with the dog, so the dog knows the gaze-shift is directed at them."

This behavior is remarkably sophisticated, Kaminski said.  "We can now be confident that the production of facial expressions made by dogs are dependent on the attention state of their audience and are not just a result of dogs being excited.  In our study they produced far more expressions when someone was watching, but seeing food treats did not have the same effect.  The findings appear to support evidence dogs are sensitive to humans' attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays."

Which again squares with my experience.  I know that both of my dogs turn on the charm when they want something, and know I'm watching.  When I'm busy writing and Grendel wants attention, he comes quietly into my office and puts his chin on my leg, then just waits.  Sometimes I try to ignore him, but inevitably I look down and make eye contact, and he starts wagging, because he knows he's won.

Making me wonder sometimes who trained whom.  

Lena is at least a little more subtle.  When she wants us to notice her, she adopts what my wife and I have called her "splat pose" -- flat on the floor on her belly, legs splayed out, her long floppy ears stretched straight out from the side of her head -- a position that makes her look like she was dropped from a considerable height.  Then she stares at us with her liquid brown eyes until we give her what she wants, which is typically either food, an ear skritch, or a stuffed toy to have a philosophical conversation with.

So it's nice to know that we're not the only ones being played by our pets.  In the long haul, though, I doubt it'll change our behavior.  They're just too good at what they do.  In fact, I have to wind this up, because Grendel is currently staring at me.  I'd better go see what he wants, or he'll resort to his "Sad Eyes And Furrowed Brow" tactic, and heaven knows we wouldn't want that.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Saturday shorts

It's been a busy week here at Skeptophilia headquarters.  Our staff (me, my main dog Grendel, and Grendel's comical sidekick Lena the WonderHound) have been hard at work keeping you up to date on the latest from the Wide World of Woo-Woo.

Well, at least I have.  At the moment, Grendel is snoring on his bed in my office, and Lena is derping around outside.  I don't hear her barking at the moment, which is good, because she has been known to bark at:
  • squirrels
  • birds
  • farm equipment, which is a problem because we live next to a farm
  • our pond's resident snapping turtle, whom my wife has christened "Mitch McConnell"
  • the wind
  • a particularly threatening-looking stick
  • her own reflection
So maybe she's not that useful, after all.

But while the dogs have been wasting time, I've been combing the internet for current news stories, and I found three things that you definitely will want to know about.

First, we have the discovery of some strange stone structures in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.  Four hundred of them have been found on the ancient lava plain Harrat Khaybar, and they've been christened "gates" because that's what they look like from the air, although their actual function is unknown.

Well, there's nothing like "mysterious stone structures" to get the woo-woos going, and we're already seeing speculation that they may have been the foundations of temples or landing strips for ancient aliens.  Me, I find the latter a little far-fetched, because as you can see in the above aerial photograph, the "gates" are laid out in a vaguely rectangular fashion, which is a stupid way to design an alien landing strip since spaceships generally don't corner all that well.

I'd also recommend a little bit of caution in investigating these structures, because the desert wastes of Saudi Arabia are where the Nameless City was located in the historical document of the same name by H. P. Lovecraft, wherein ye Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred found the cursed book of ancient magic, the Necronomicon.  And considering all the trouble that caused in later historical documents such as "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," maybe we really shouldn't go poking around there, or we might wake up That Which Is Not Dead And Can Eternal Lie.

Which would suck.

Then we have a story from central California that was spotted by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, wherein we learn that photographs have been taken of not one, not two, but five Bigfoots.  The photographer, Jeffrey Gonzales, a "self-described paranormal expert," tells quite a tale of his encounter.  He'd heard about the creatures from a farmer who lives on Avocado Lake, east of Fresno, and went to investigate.  Once he got there, the creatures were easy to find. "One of them, which was extremely tall, had a pig over its shoulder," Gonzalez said.  "And the five scattered and the one with the pig was running so fast it didn’t see an irrigation pipe and it tripped, with the pig flying over."

Which gives new meaning to the phrase "when pigs fly."  But Gonzales kept his presence of mind and fired off some photographs.  Fortunately, he remembered to put his camera on auto-blur, because this is one of the results:

Which to me only proves one thing, namely, if your photograph is grainy enough, you can find anything in it.  In fact, if you'll look immediately to the right of the Bigfoot, you'll see a huge screaming creature with hollow eyes and a gaping, round mouth.

See it?  It's a wonder the Bigfoot wasn't running for his life, with that thing around.

Last, it wouldn't be a normal week without a new conspiracy theory, and this one is a doozy:

When Melania Trump appears in public, it's not actually Melania, it's a body double.

Twitter user Andrea Wagner Barton is absolutely certain about this, and points to a video clip in which President Trump was speaking to reporters about the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, and made the statement, "My wife, Melania, who happens to be right here."  Barton thought this was odd, and tweeted the following:
Will the real Melania please stand up?
Is it me or during his speech today a decoy “stood in” for Melania??
Why would the moron say “my wife, Melania, who happens to be right here...”
Seriously, watch very closely!
I did, and as far as I can tell, it's Melania.  On the other hand, that's what I would say, given that I'm probably a conspirator myself.  The conspiracy theorists disagree, however, and say that Melania hasn't been Melania for some time now.  Especially in the highly publicized video clip from Inauguration Day where her smile turned into a scowl, and the one in which the president tries to take her hand and she swats it away.

Of course, there are other explanations, such as Melania having more self-awareness than Donald does, which could also be said of many species of mollusk.  If I had to hang around with someone who made that number of cringe-worthy statements daily, I'd scowl too.

So that's our excursion in the deep end of the pool for this week.  Alien airstrips in the desert, Bigfoots carrying pigs, and FLOTUS body doubles.  I'm gonna wrap this up now, because Lena's just started barking, and I better go out and rescue her before she gets her nose bitten off by Mitch McConnell.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Mocking vs. smiting

A couple of days ago, televangelist Jim Bakker announced that he has it on good authority that god will smite anyone who makes fun of him.
When God says something to you, you don’t always know the exact time it’s going to happen.  [So] stop beating up the prophets because God says, "Woe unto you when you beat up on the prophets." 
God is speaking to his people.  The only ones who probably aren’t talking to God these days are mean people in America, people who just are anti-Christ. 
If you don’t want to hear it, just shut me off.  Especially you folks that monitor me every day to try to destroy me.  Just go away.  You don’t have to be there, you don’t have to hear it.  But one day, you’re going to shake your fist in God’s face and you’re going to say, "God, why didn’t you warn me?"  And He’s going say, "You sat there and you made fun of Jim Bakker all those years. I warned you but you didn’t listen."
What I find especially comical about all of this is that I have mocked Jim Bakker for years.  Here are a few of the things I've said about Bakker in various posts:
  • Is it too much to ask that people leave their bizarre mythology out of politics?  I mean, our political situation at the moment is surreal enough.  We don't need anything to make it more embarrassing to the world at large...  Which is a message that needs delivering to televangelist Jim Bakker.  Bakker hosted an interview with Robert Maginnis, of the Family Research Council, a far-right evangelical organization that was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 because of their stance on LGBT issues.  In the interview, Bakker opined that President Obama was showing his preference for Muslims by appointing Abid Qureshi to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. (in Bakker's mind, "one out of hundreds of federal appointments" apparently constitutes a "preference").  [Afterwards, Bakker] made an even wackier pronouncement -- that our federal government is being controlled by witches.
  • [P]eople like Bakker and Wiles never let a little thing like reality interfere with their message...  Lying for Jesus, is how I see it...  [And this comes from] a guy who resigned from his first ministerial post because of a sex scandal (in which he offered to pay $279,000 to the victim to keep silent), and in a separate incident was imprisoned for five years on fraud and conspiracy charges.
  • Bakker himself said that by "blaspheming against Donald Trump," we're hastening the End Times.   Which, honestly, I can't say is a particular deterrent for me at the moment.  Considering the news lately, the Dragon With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns, the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, and the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons sound like a distinct improvement.
  • [Apropos of Bakker having a fit over Starbucks changing their holiday coffee cup design]  What strikes me about this tempest in a coffee cup is that these are, by and large, the same people who scream bloody murder about "political correctness" whenever someone objects to derogatory language being directed toward minorities, and yet they consider a change in a coffee cup design to be the moral equivalent of carpet-bombing Whoville.  So I guess their blathering about political correctness translates to "you can't take offense to anything I say, but I'm still entitled to get my panties in a twist over absolutely nothing."
So I haven't exactly been complimentary.  You'd think that if anyone has a target pasted on top of his head, it'd be me.

And yet, here I sit, unsmote.

Go ahead, Jimmy Boy, do your worst.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Bakker is constantly claiming that various awful events are due to god's wrath, most recently the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England during an Ariana Grande concert, which he said occurred because  concert-goers "literally invited the attack by mocking god."  Of course, since these claims are always made after the fact -- god never tips him off about a shooting or bombing or what-have-you before it happens, which is kind of odd if he's a "prophet" -- he can attribute them to any supernatural agency he wants, and there's no way to prove him wrong.  If he said that Hurricane Maria was caused by the god Lagomorphus, Who Doth Appear Unto Mankind As A Giant Bunny Rabbit, and that he triggered the storm by farting toward the south Atlantic, it's not like there's anything you could respond to effectively contradict him.

Other than science, logic, and common sense, of course.  But if you are fond of magical thinking, you've sort of abandoned those three in any case, so it's not like that'd do any good.

In any case, let me hereby make it clear:  Jim Bakker, I am officially mocking you.  You are a narrow-minded, hypocritical, bigoted, homophobic loon whose pronouncements are such a combination of weirdness and sheer nastiness that it's a wonder anyone still listens.  So there you are.  I invite you to use your connections to see to it that I get smote.  Who knows?  Maybe it'll happen.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Purging the experts

One of the political trends I understand least is the increasing distrust of scientists by elected officials.

It's not like this disparagement of experts is across the board.  When you're sick, and the doctor runs tests and diagnoses you with a sinus infection, you don't say, "I don't believe you.  My real estate agent told me it sounded like I had an ulcer, so I'm gonna go with that."  When you get on an airplane, you don't say to the pilot, "You damn elite aviation specialists, you're obviously biased because of your training.  I think you should hand over the controls to Farmer Bob, here."  When you have your car repaired, you wouldn't say to the mechanic, "I'm not going to do the repairs you suggest, because you have an obvious monetary interest in the car being broken.  I'll get a second opinion from my son's kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hinkwhistle, who is a disinterested party."

But that's how scientists are treated by politicians.  And it's gotten worse.  Just yesterday, Scott Pruitt, who is the de facto leader of the Environmental Protection Agency despite his apparent loathing of both the environment and the agency, announced that there was going to be a purge of scientists on EPA advisory boards.

"What’s most important at the agency is to have scientific advisers that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations,” Pruitt said when he spoke to a group at the Heritage Foundation, an anti-environmental, pro-corporate lobby group.  "If we have individuals who are on those boards, sometimes receiving money from the agency … that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way."

Well, of course environmental scientists get funding from the EPA, you dolt.  One of the EPA's functions is providing grants for basic research in environmental science.  Saying that environmental scientists can't be on EPA advisory boards is a little like excluding doctors from being on medical advisory boards.

Can't have that, after all.  Those doctors are clearly biased to be in favor of policies that promote better health care services, because then they get money for providing those services.  Better populate the medical advisory boards with people who know nothing whatsoever about medicine.

Of course, I am morally certain that the purging of trained scientists from EPA advisory boards is not simply because of this administration's anti-science bent, although that clearly exists as well.  The fight between corporate stooges like Scott Pruitt and the scientific community stems from the fact that much of what the scientists are saying runs counter to economic expediency.  You know, such things as:
  • Climate change exists and is anthropogenic in origin
  • Dumping mining waste into streams and lakes is a bad idea
  • Corporations need strictures on the impact of what they do on the environment, because they have a poor track record of policing themselves
  • Reducing the allowable amounts of air pollutants improves air quality and eases such conditions as asthma and chronic bronchitis
  • Oil pipelines have a nasty habit of breaking and leading to damaging oil spills
  • It's a stupid idea to store pressurized natural gas in unstable underground salt caverns
All of which we environmental types -- by which I mean, people who would like future generations to have drinkable water, breathable air, and a habitable world -- have had to fight in the past year.  The Trump administration's approach to environmental policy is like the Hydra; you cut off one foul, pollution-emitting head, and it grows two more.

The whole thing is driven by a furious drive toward deregulation, which in turn comes out of unchecked corporate greed.  Jennifer Sass, senior scientist for the National Resources Defense Council, nailed it:  "Pruitt’s purge has a single goal: get rid of scientists who tell us the facts about threats to our environment and health.  There’s a reason he won’t apply the same limits to scientists funded by corporate polluters.  Now the only scientists on Pruitt’s good list will be those with funding from polluters supporting Trump’s agenda to make America toxic again."

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, agreed.  Halpern said that if Pruitt succeeds in his purge, he "would be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment."

The problem is, stories like this get buried in the ongoing shitstorm that has characterized the leadership of the United States in the last ten months.  It's another Hydra, and people simply can't pay attention to all of the horrible news at the same time.  That's what they're counting on -- that with outrages over kneeling athletes and disrespect by the president of military widows and allegations of sexual impropriety, we'll just ignore the fact that while all this other stuff is happening, our leaders are gutting every protection the environment has gained in the last fifty years.

You'd think that with the natural disasters this year -- unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires and floods -- we'd wise up and say, "You know, maybe it's time we started paying attention to the damage we've done."  But unfortunately, we're heading in exactly the opposite direction.  My fear is that by doing this, we're making the eventual backlash from the environment unstoppable.

And it would be a Pyrrhic victory, but I hope Scott Pruitt is around to watch it happen.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Uncharted waters

There's a scuba diving site off the coast of Belize called the Blue Hole.  It's a circular limestone sinkhole in the middle of Lighthouse Reef.  You're swimming along in water that's 30 to 35 feet deep, and quite suddenly the bottom drops out from underneath you -- as you pass over the edge you get the feeling that you've been launched into space.  It's disorienting; there are accomplished divers who have reported that they couldn't quite bring themselves to swim over the edge.  The bottom is invisible, 480 feet beneath you, but the sensation is that there is no bottom, that the depths keep sinking away beneath you forever.

The Blue Hole [image courtesy of the USGS]

I had something of the intellectual version of that experience while searching for a topic for today's post.  On days when nothing in the news presents itself, I usually just snoop around online until something comes up.  The keywords "weird news" are usually fruitful in this regard, and within short order I had found a possibility -- a website about Cadborosaurus, a mythical dinosaur species that supposedly accounts for sea serpent sightings off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.  (At first I misread this as "Cadburysaurus" and wondered if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs, but sadly, this was not the case.)  But while I was reading about various sightings of the mysterious sea serpent, I was distracted by a link on the Cadborosaurus article to another site, which was called "Psychic Sasquatch Revisited."

Now, that sounded more interesting than sea serpents, so I clicked on the link.  I was brought to an article by a fellow named (I am so not making this up) Kewaunee Lapseritis, which to me sounds like the name of an obscure gastrointestinal disorder.  Lapseritis has written a new book, entitled The Sasquatch People and Their Interdimensional Connection, and the website acts as if this book is some kind of cross between Earth in the Balance, Chariots of the Gods, and the bible. Here's a brief excerpt from the preface, written by a guy named Christopher Murphy:
He [Kewaunee Lapseritis] elaborates on why they are humanoid beings and their purpose here is based on 32 years (out of the 55 years researching them) interacting with the giants (and ETs).  Kewaunee draws information from 187 witnesses who also experienced telepathic communication.  Quantum physics that describe the reality of mental telepathy, invisibility, inter-dimensionalism, and other PSI phenomena, actually juxtapose psychic Sasquatch and ET behavior.
Not only that: on this website you can purchase your very own SasqWatch, a wristwatch with a band shaped like a huge, hairy foot.

So I thought, "Wow, this is pretty fertile ground. Plus, I really enjoy saying 'Kewaunee Lapseritis.'  I bet I could make a blog post about this."  Then I noticed a link on that website for yet another website.  This link was entitled, "Mayastar: Pleiadian DNA Clearing." So I clicked on that, and was brought to a website for the "Mayastar Academy of Natural Healing and Spiritual Development."

Here is only the very first paragraph of their mission statement:
The Pleiadian DNA Clearing & Activation Attunement Programme is a series of 7 attunements facilitated by the Pleiadian Light Beings of the Star Alcyone.  These activations work on an etheric level to awaken and develop the full 12 strand DNA system that is the inheritance of all humans.  This awakens additional spiritual healing capacities and talents within us which can assist us and enhance our lives in many ways.  This system clears any blockages and activates the dormant elements of your DNA coding in order to fulfil [sic] the potential of your spiritual energetic blueprint.
Sort of spiritual Ex-Lax, is how I see it.  But maybe I only say this because I'm not a Pleiadian Light Being With Twelve-Stranded DNA. 

So unfortunately for me, I began to snoop around on the website.

I very quickly found out that to go through all of the nonsense on this website would take days -- there are books for sale, crystals (of course) for sale, instructions for mystical rituals regarding "focusing energy from Ancient Egypt and the Pyramids," courses on using Norse runes for divination, something called "Rainbow Sequence Healing Techniques," and... and... and enormous amounts of other stuff.  I know that sounds lame, but I was just overwhelmed.  I was faced with a source from which I literally had too much material to write a coherent post.  I think that was the point where my brain gave a little kick with the old mental scuba fins and zoomed right out over the edge of the Blue Hole.

I've made the statement before that the the credulousness of the public and the greed of the purveyors of sham worldviews seem to be boundless.  The bottom of that Blue Hole apparently doesn't exist.  I find it astonishing that anyone would look at this website, regardless of his/her level of education, background in science and critical thinking, or philosophical stance, and not guffaw and say, "wow, what a load of bullshit."  But evidently "Mayastar" is a successful business enterprise, to judge by the fact that the "Academy" has had over 700 students, and their website has been "liked" on Facebook over 2,000 times.

And that's what I mean about swimming out over the edge, and the disorientation that results.   Because after reading about Mayastar, I'm thinking that Kewaunee Lapseritis's studies of psychic communication with interdimensional quantum Bigfoots sound by comparison like they're pretty well grounded in reality.  And from there, it's only a short step to believing in Cadborosaurus, even if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Weighty matters

Despite all of the daily litany of depressing and/or fury-inducing news, I'm pleased to say that the scientists are still hard at work showing us more of the internal workings of the universe, giving us better insights into the nature of the cosmos even as most of the rest of us focus on the minuscule doings of one species on a tiny planet around a completely ordinary star in the edge of a spiral galaxy that is one amongst billions.

Not to denigrate my fellow humans, of course.  I rather like being human, and I'm awfully fond of the little floating green-and-blue sphere where I live.  But it's nice to know that while we focus on our petty concerns, we have people who are looking outward, not downward.

The discovery I'm referencing is the observation by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) of the collision of two neutron stars.  Neutron stars are the phenomenally dense cores of exploded giant stars; their matter is so compressed that, in the famous comparison, one teaspoon of neutron star-stuff would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

What is stunning about this observation isn't just the thought of what it would be like to see two such dense objects collide; in fact, the collision itself is just part of what's fascinating about this event.  Other amazing features are:
  • In the moments before the collision occurred, the two stars were circling their center of mass at a rate of a thousand times per second.
  • The collision not only created gravitational waves and a burst of light across the spectrum, it's thought that such events are what create a lot of the heavy elements in the periodic table.  So yes: the gold in your ring was very likely formed in a cosmic cataclysm.
  • It is possible that the combined mass of the two stars exceeded the mass limit for a neutron star, and after the collision the stars immediately vanished -- became a black hole.  That point isn't settled yet.
The coolest part of all of this, however, is that the light and the gravitational waves from the collision arrived at detectors at the same moment -- showing that gravitational waves do indeed travel at the speed of light, which is one of the predictions of the General Theory of Relativity.  Put simply: Einstein wins again.  

If that doesn't put relativity into the "proven beyond a shadow of a doubt" column, I don't know what would.

The result was a flurry of papers being published, including one in Astrophysical Journal Letters that had 4,500 authors from 910 different institutions -- which surely must be some kind of record.

Daniel Holz, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, who worked on the LIGO project, said, "I can't think of a similar situation in the field of science in my lifetime, where a single event provides so many staggering insights about our universe."

So maybe it's time to take a step back from the dreary ongoing march of political news and think a little bit more about the bigger picture.  I mean, the really big picture.  The one that encompasses the entire universe in which we live.  And now, because of a cataclysmic event 130 million light years away, one piece of which we are now able to view with greater clarity and understanding.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Merry Christmas mandate

Last week, Donald Trump addressed the "Values Voter Summit," a group of people whose Values apparently include supporting a thrice-married serial philanderer whose main claim to fame is embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in the same person.

Notwithstanding the mindblowing irony of someone like Trump addressing issues of morality, the Values Voters were wildly enthusiastic about the speech.  The part that got the most rousing round of applause was when he informed the Values Voters that he was going to make it legal to say "Merry Christmas" again:
America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened and sustained by the power of prayer.  George Washington said that “religion and morality are indispensable” to America’s happiness, really, prosperity and totally to its success.  It is our faith and our values that inspires us to give with charity, to act with courage, and to sacrifice for what we know is right.

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence -- four times.  How times have changed.  But you know what, now they're changing back again.  Just remember that...  Religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.  And we all pledge allegiance to -- very, very beautifully -- “one nation under God...”  To protect religious liberty, including protecting groups like this one, I signed a new executive action in a beautiful ceremony at the White House on our National Day of Prayer, which day we made official.

We are stopping cold the attacks on Judaeo-Christian values...   And something I've said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don't talk about anymore.  They don't use the word "Christmas" because it's not politically correct.  You go to department stores, and they'll say, "Happy New Year" and they'll say other things.  And it will be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say it.  Well, guess what?  We're saying “Merry Christmas” again.
Okay, just hang on a moment.

"People don't talk about" Christmas any more?  Then explain to me why this year the department stores started putting up Christmas decorations in September.  And I'm going to say this loudly, one more time, as plainly as possible:

I know a lot of liberals, atheists, agnostics, secularists, and what-have-you.  And not a single one of them gives a flying rat's ass if you say "Merry Christmas" or not.  The only two things I have ever heard any of them gripe about, apropos of the Christmas season, are the following:
  1. Saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" is polite because it's an acknowledgement that not everyone thinks like you do.  It's a way of saying, "I realize you may have a different set of beliefs, and that's okay."  It's not a slap in the face to Christians, it's not a way of belittling or eliminating Christmas from the national consciousness (hell, the retailers wouldn't let that happen anyhow), and for cryin' in the sink, it's not an "attack on Judaeo-Christian values."  It's simply saying, "I recognize that my beliefs and attitudes are not the center of the whole damn universe."
  2. For the same reasons outlined in #1, Christmas displays should not be put up at the expense of taxpayers.  No one has any objection to privately-owned businesses, much less homeowners, putting up Christmas displays using their own money.  Hell, I'm about as atheist as they come, and I don't care if you want to put up a Christmas display so garish that it interferes with air traffic and then stand on your roof wearing nothing but a Santa hat shouting "Jesus is the Reason for the Season!" at the top of your lungs.  Whatever floats your boat, you know?  But if you're using tax money -- i.e. money collected from all American citizens, regardless of their beliefs -- you shouldn't be putting up displays promoting one religion (or, honestly, any religion at all).
And the whole "America is a nation of believers" thing is more than a little troubling.  What does that imply?  That by not being a believer, I'm not an American?  Or that I should just pack up and leave?  If you think that last bit is just me being alarmist, only two days ago I saw a post of a photograph of a sign in a shop window (don't know where it was taken) that said, "Here, we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.  We say Merry Christmas.  We defend ourselves.  We salute the flag.  We worship Jesus.  And if you don't like it, LEAVE."

To which I'd respond, if I had the chance: I don't honestly care what you do.  You can live at the church and surround yourself with American flag wallpaper and salute it 24/7 with a gun in each hand, if that's what you want.  But if you imply that I'm not an American -- if, in fact, you're saying I don't have a right to live here -- because I don't do the same thing, I think you're sorely misunderstanding both the Right to Free Speech and the Separation of Church and State.

What it boils down to is that 99% of non-religious people don't object to, or even care, what others believe.  They're more concerned with not having a requirement of belief rammed down their throats. Okay, there are some asshole atheists who do disparage Christianity and Christians, and would love to see religious belief eradicated.  But you know what?  If you think that assholery is limited to the atheists, you aren't looking at other groups very carefully.

But messages of tolerance and live-and-let-live don't sell well to the perpetually outraged members of the Values Voter Summit, who think that Christianity is besieged and that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.  So if any people of that stripe are reading this, allow me to reassure you.

Relax.  Chill out.  We atheists have no intention of doing to you what you'd like to do to us.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The shadow knows

One of the most terrifying sleep-related phenomena is sleep paralysis.

I say this only from hearing about the experiences of others; I have never had it happen to me.  But the people I've talked to who have had episodes of sleep paralysis relate being wide awake and conscious, but unable to move -- often along with some odd sensory experiences -- such as feelings of being watched or having someone in the room; hissing, humming, or sizzling noises; a tingling in the extremities that feels like a mild electric shock; a feeling of being suffocated; and (understandably) the emotions of fear and panic.

The reason all of this comes up is an article that appeared over at the site Mysterious Universe last week about "shadow people."  The piece was by Nick Redfern, whose name should be familiar to anyone who is an aficionado of cryptozoology; Redfern has been involved in a number of investigations of the paranormal, and is the author of books such as The Roswell UFO Conspiracy, Shapeshifters: Morphing Monsters and Changing Cryptids, The Real Men in Black, The New World Order Book, and a variety of other titles I encourage you to peruse.

So Redfern has a pretty obvious bias, here, which is why I was already primed to view his piece on the Shadow People with a bit of a jaundiced eye.  Let me let him speak for himself, though.  Redfern tells us that there are these entities that we should all be on the lookout for, and then tells us the following:
Jason Offutt is an expert on the Shadow People, and the author of a 2009 book on the subject titled Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us.  He says there are eight different kinds of Shadow People – at least, they are the ones we know about.  He labels them as Benign Shadows, Shadows of Terror, Red-Eyed Shadows, Noisy Shadows, Angry Hooded Shadows, Shadows that Attack, Shadow Cats, and the Hat Man.
Shadow Cats?  Why only cats?  Cats, in my experience, are already conceited enough that they don't need another feather in their caps.  Of course, the positive side is that Shadow Cats wouldn't be very threatening.  My cats specialized in two behaviors: Sitting Around Looking Bored, and Moving Closer To Where We Are So We'll Appreciate How Bored They Are.  If their Shadow versions are no more motivated, it's hard to see why you'd even care they were around, since Shadow Cats presumably don't eat, drink, or use a litter box.  They'd kind of be a low-impact paranormal home d├ęcor item.

On the other hand, I'm just as glad there are no Shadow Dogs, because then we'd have yet another source of the really obnoxious noise that dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene, a sound my wife calls "glopping."  Our two dogs glop enough, there's no need for additional glopping from the spirit world.

But then there's "Hat Man."  On first glance, that seemed fairly non-threatening, but Redfern tells us that Hat Man is the scariest one on the list:
I sat and listened at my table [at a conference, speaking to an attendee] as he told me how, back in July of this year, he had three experiences with the Hat Man – and which were pretty much all identical – and which were very familiar to me.  He woke up in the early hours of the morning to a horrific vision: the outside wall of his bedroom was displaying a terrifying image of a large city on fire, with significant portions of it in ruins. It was none other than Chicago.  The sky was dark and millions were dead.  Circling high above what was left of the city was a large, human-like entity with huge wings.  And stood [sic] next to the guy, as he watched this apocalyptic scenario unravel from his bed, was the Hat Man, his old-style fedora hat positioned firmly on his head.  The doomsday-like picture lasted for a minute or two, making it clear to the witness that a Third World War had begun.  On two more occasions in the same month, a near-identical situation played out.  It’s hardly surprising that the man was still concerned by all this when we chatted at the weekend.
So he talked to some other people, and more than one person mentioned seeing Hat Man, and always associated with images of doom and destruction.  Toward the end, he mentions the fact that one of the people who'd seen Hat Man suffered from sleep paralysis... which kind of made me go, "Aha."

In a paper by Walther and Schulz back in 2004 entitled, "Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis: Polysomnographic and Clinical Findings," it was found that people who suffered from sleep paralysis showed abnormal patterns of REM and non-REM sleep, and (most interestingly) fragmentation of REM.  REM, you probably know, is associated with dreaming; suppressing or disturbing REM causes a whole host of problems, up to and including hallucination.  Another paper -- Cheyne, Rueffer, and Newby-Clark, in 1999, "Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis: Neurological and Cultural Construction of the Night-Mare" -- has another interesting clue, which is that during sleep paralysis, cholinergic neurons (the neural bundles that promote wakefulness and REM) are hyperactive, whereas the serotonergic neurons (ones that initiate relaxation and a sense of well-being) are inhibited.  This implies that the mind becomes wakeful, but emotionally uneasy, before the brain-body connection comes back online.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem here is that if you're in sleep paralysis, or the related phenomenon of hypnagogic experiences (dreams in light sleep), what you are perceiving is not reflective of reality.  So as creepy as Shadow People are -- not to mention "Hat Man" -- I'm pretty certain that what we've got here is a visual hallucination experienced during a dream state.

Not sure about the Shadow Cats, though.  I still don't see how that'd work.  Given my luck at trying to get my cats comply with rules such as "Stay The Hell Off The Kitchen Counter," my guess is that even feline hallucinations wouldn't want to cooperate.  If you expected them to show up and scare some poor dude who was just trying to get a good night's sleep, they'd probably balk because it wasn't their idea.  Shadow Dogs, on the other hand, would be happy to climb on the sleeping dude's bed and glop right next to his ear.  They're just helpful that way.