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.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pancakes for Jesus

Because ultra-religious televangelist Jim Bakker is totally not about making money, today we consider his "Faith-based Home Shopping Network."

This was one of those links I was hesitant to click, but I'm glad I did, because when I landed there the first thing I saw was a video clip of a guy selling "13 Extreme Warfare Survival Bottles" for $250, which, if you buy them right now, come with "14 Bonus Christmas Ornaments."  Which was kind of wonderful for the juxtaposition, if for nothing else.  (I suppose even if we Evil Unbelievers are waging Extreme Warfare on the Christians, and the Beast with Seven Heads is chomping up the devout right and left, you still shouldn't neglect to set up your Christmas tree.)

So I poked around on the site a little.  There were baseball hats featuring crosses, some nutritional supplements containing colloidal silver (which has little health benefit although it does turn your skin blue), and some oddments like a camp shower and a sippy cup for toddlers.  But I noticed something interesting in the food category; virtually all of the foods offered are large-quantity freeze-dried goods and big containers of packaged mixes.

Apparently, Bakker is certain there's going to be a horrific apocalypse, but he wants to make sure that at least during the carnage we can chow down on a nice big stack of pancakes.

Bakker really wants his listeners to buy his stuff, because, he says, his network costs "$17,000 an hour to operate."  Which is intended to sound impressive to people who failed fifth-grade math.  Because his network is on 24/7, and if it really cost $17,00 an hour, he'd have to cough up $148,920,000 per year.

That, my friends, is a lot of pancakes.

Bakker's empire, of course, is built on two things: (1) donations, and (2) fear.  He has his followers convinced that Christianity is under attack (both in the figurative and literal sense) from secular people like myself, despite the fact that all the atheists I know just want to be able to live their own lives without government-supported religion being rammed down our throats.  Oh, and having people like Bakker and his ilk denying rights to others based on their beliefs and sexual orientation.  But I guess in his mind, this constitutes a frontal attack.

I suppose it's to be expected that I think the situation is actually the other way around.  Without even trying hard, I found the following stories this morning:
  • The GOP is lobbying hard to repeal a law prohibiting churches from publicly endorsing political candidates, while maintaining their tax-free status.
  • Violent right-wing loon and accused pedophile Roy Moore is currently ahead in the race to fill Jeff Sessions's senate seat in Alabama, and in fact has received an endorsement from Donald Trump, despite stating outright that homosexuality should be illegal, and spouting racist bullshit, most recently referring to Native Americans and Asian Americans as "reds and yellows."  Despite all this, The Federalist recently claimed that Roy Moore was "chosen by God" to win the election.
  • Ultra-Christian conspiracy theorist Rick Wiles gave a fiery sermon last week in which he said the recent sex scandals engulfing many public figures were due to the "left [waging] a vicious war against Christianity for the last fifty years," instead of attributing it to its actual cause, which is that for centuries powerful men of all stripes have had trouble keeping their dicks in their pants, and count on their status to keep their accusers silent.  (Allow me to point out that both Roy Moore and Jim Bakker, and many other evangelical figures, have been involved in sex scandals of their own.)
  • People who believe in separation of church and state are once again having to fight a public school employee (in this case, a football coach) who demands that his team members pray with him before games.  
And that's just from the last couple of days.  So if there really is a war on Christianity, Christianity seems to be winning.

So, to put it bluntly, Bakker and company are lying.  They're capitalizing on people's fears so they can obtain money and power.  Which is kind of odd given their other professed beliefs.  Didn't someone once say that the way to salvation begins with giving everything you have to the poor?

Hmm.  Wonder who that was.

Even so, Bakker doesn't seem to be losing any of his followers.  Neither have the other multi-millionaire televangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Franklin Graham, and the ironically-named Creflo Dollar.  Instead, such hypocritical money-making schemes seem to be making these religion-for-profit scam artists filthy rich.

Praise the lord and pass the pancakes.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Deus ex machina

If you needed further evidence of how powerful surveillance technology has become, consider that Google Street View has captured a photograph of god.

At least that's what some people think.  The photograph, taken near Quarten, Switzerland, shows two blurry figures hovering above a lake, and some people have decided that they are the Father and the Son.

I've beaten unto death the whole why-the-human-brain-is-wired-to-see-faces thing, so I won't revisit that topic, but for myself, I'm not seeing Jesus and God the Father in the photograph.  The one on the left looks too tall and gawky, and the one on the right far too short and tubby, to fit my image of the Supreme Being and his Only Begotten Son.  In fact, if the rightmost is the one people think is God, my personal opinion is that the Big Guy needs to lay off the Hostess Ho-Hos and Little Debbie Snack Cakes for a few months.  On the other hand, if it's not God and Jesus, who is it?  After studying the photograph carefully, I've decided that it's Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria.  Why they'd be visiting a lake in Switzerland in the afterlife, I don't know.  I guess there are worse places to take a vacation.

On the other hand, if I were a deity, I'd definitely opt instead for a pub on the southeast coast of Australia, which is another place that Jesus has been spotted lately. The front wall of the Seanchai Irish Tavern in Warrnambool, Australia, was in need of a paint job, and the flaking of the paint left a bare patch that looks by some stretch of the imagination like a tall, thin figure with outstretched arms.

The manager, John Keohane, who is a devout Roman Catholic, immediately decided that it was Jesus.  Many of the pub's patrons agreed, which goes to show that pints of Guinness definitely don't contribute to rational thinking.  The priest of a local Catholic parish is apparently interested in the image, and encouraged Keohane to place a protective screen over the image so that over-enthusiastic tourists (evidently there have been busloads of them) don't touch the image and cause more paint to flake off, thereby causing Jesus to morph into Queen Victoria.

Lastly, there was a sighting in my home state of Louisiana of Jesus on the cross. Rickey Navarre, of Hathaway, Louisiana, saw a vine-covered telephone pole which looked to him like a crucifix.

Navarre was inspired to devotion by the image, which is not necessarily a bad thing, although I do wonder what he would expect a bunch of vines on a cross-shaped telephone pole to look like.   Concerned electrical company workers hastily cleared away the vines, fearing that hordes of the devout would attempt to climb the pole to touch the vines and summarily be ushered into heaven via electrocution.  One disappointed resident placed flowers at the base of the pole, but on the whole, I think that it's probably better that they're gone.  The last thing we need is people erecting a shrine around an electrical pole.  The electric companies think they're omnipotent enough as it is.

That's about it for Jesus sightings lately.  It's a bit of a nice change that he seems to be avoiding food items these days -- tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches really don't have the gravitas that you'd like to associate with the Almighty.  And although there are clearly rational explanations for all of the above -- vines on a cross-shaped pole, randomly flaking paint, and what was probably just two blobs of schmutz on a camera lens -- if you prefer to think of them as images of god, don't let me discourage you.  Humble human that I am, I wouldn't presume to tell Jesus where he should visit.  I will suggest, however, that if he appears anywhere near where I live, he should dress warmly, as this time of year upstate New York can be a little "brisk," as the eternally-cheery weather forecasters like to call it.  He might want to mention the same thing to Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria, in case they decide to tag along.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Going up

Well, it's happened again; a reader has sent me a weird superstition (this one almost amounts to an urban legend) that I'd never heard of before.

You've all heard about the goofy children's game "Bloody Mary," wherein you're supposed to stare into a mirror at night and chant "Bloody Mary" a bunch of times (even those in the know vary the requirement greatly; I've seen everything from twenty to a hundred), and then... nothing happens.

So it's a pretty exciting game, as you will no doubt agree.

What's supposed to happen is that the blood-drenched visage of a female ghost will appear in the mirror instead of your own face.  She's supposedly the restless spirit of a woman who killed children.  Which I can sort of sympathize with.  If I was yanked around and forced to appear in mirrors over and over all night long by kids at sleepovers chanting my name, I'd probably want to throttle the little brats, too.

Be that as it may, we have a tale out of Korea that is similar in spirit (rimshot), if not in detail, to the Bloody Mary legend.  This one is called "Elevator to Another World," and gives you instructions for using an elevator to access some hitherto unreachable and mysterious place.

[image courtesy of photographer Joe Mabel and the Wikimedia Commons]

Here's what you're supposed to do:
  1. Find a building that's at least ten stories tall.  (Nota bene: Through all of the remaining steps except the last one, you're supposed to stay in the elevator.)
  2. Go to the tenth floor.
  3. Go to the fourth floor.
  4. Go to the sixth floor.
  5. Go back to the tenth floor.  If you hear voices at this point, don't answer 'em.
  6. Go to the fifth floor.  When the door opens, if a woman gets on, don't talk to her.  Which sounds like good advice re: people on elevators in most cases.
  7. Press the button for the first floor.  If the elevator goes down, you did something wrong.  What should happen is that the elevator should go back up to the tenth floor.  The woman may shriek at you at this point, but you're supposed to ignore her, even if she shrieks what I would, which would be, "Will you stop playing with the fucking elevator and let me go to my floor?"
  8. When the door opens on the tenth floor, get out.  You're in another world.  What you're supposed to do about the woman, I don't know.
So after having a nice look-see in the alternate universe, to get back, return to the elevator (it has to be the same one you used for steps #1-8), and do the steps again in that order.  When you press the button for the first floor in step #7 and the elevator begins to ascend, find the "stop" button and halt the elevator, then press the first floor button again.  You should return safely to the first floor, and must exit the building immediately.

What is this "Other World" like, you might be wondering?  From the account linked above, the two most common characteristics reported are that the Other World is (1) dark, and (2) empty. Which makes it sound rather unappealing. If I'm going to expend a lot of time and effort, I want to at least end up somewhere sunny, featuring drinks with little umbrellas.  But none of that, apparently.  Some people have mentioned seeing a "red cross" in the distance, but the author of the article says that "it may not be a cross."

Whatever that means.

This all puts me in mind of a wonderful book by Haruki Murakami called Dance Dance Dance, wherein a guy in a Japanese hotel takes an elevator and stumbles on a mysterious floor that is somehow sandwiched in between two other ordinary floors, and therein he meets a weird character called the Sheep Man.  It's weird, surreal fun, and is written with Murakami's signature lucid, simple style -- he has a way of making the oddest things seem as if they're absolutely normal.

I'm not sure if the Korean urban legend inspired Murakami's book, which would be nice because then it'd actually have accomplished something other than making gullible people waste time going up and down on an elevator.  On the other hand, if you want to give it a try, I encourage you to do so and post your results here.  

Other than building security telling you to stop playing with the elevator.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Language vs. superstition

Yesterday I ran into a piece of research that links two of my most passionate interests: critical thinking and linguistics.

In a paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology called "Breaking Magic: Foreign Language Suppresses Superstition," Constantinos Hadjichristidis and Luca Surian of the University of Trento (Italy) and Janet Geipel of the Vrieje Universiteit Amsterdam have shown that your tendency to experience superstitious beliefs and feelings decreases when you are forced to think in a different language from your native tongue.

The authors write:
Participants read scenarios either in their native or a foreign language.  In each scenario, participants were asked to imagine performing an action (e.g., submitting a job application) under a superstitious circumstance (e.g., broken mirror; four-leaf clover) and to rate how they would feel.  Overall, foreign language prompted less negative feelings towards bad-luck scenarios, less positive feelings towards good-luck scenarios, while it exerted no influence on non-superstitious, control scenarios.  We attribute these findings to language-dependent memory.  Superstitious beliefs are typically acquired and used in contexts involving the native language.  As a result, the native language evokes them more forcefully than a foreign language.
I never fail to be amazed at how easy it is for our context to manipulate our thoughts and feelings.  I have -- I suspect we all have -- this sense of being solid, rooted, that my beliefs are what they are and won't change unless I make a conscious decision to change them.  In reality, we are all being buffeted about by the winds of circumstance, and worse, we're generally unaware of it when it happens.

Alex Fradera, writing about the Hadjichristidis et al. paper at The Journal of the British Psychological Society, points out that this is not the only effect of thinking in another language.  We are --unsurprising, considering this new research -- less prone to cognitive biases when we're not speaking or listening to our first language.  Fascinatingly, we also swear more freely and richly in other languages -- perhaps because the emotional punch of our non-native languages is almost certainly going to be less than that of our first, so we feel greater inhibitions toward turning the air blue in the language we learned as an infant.

Of course, there are exceptions.  My mother's brother, who (along with the rest of that side of the family) spoke French as his first language, had a creative mastery of the swear word that it would be hard to beat.  One of his milder ones was "ca ne vaut qu'un pet de lapin" for something that's worthless -- "it's not worth a rabbit's fart."  A somewhat more pungent one was "j'en ai plus rien a foutre" -- basically, French for "I have run out of fucks to give."  And I never noticed him having any particular reluctance for using them.  He did lay off a little when my mom was around, but that wasn't due to inhibitions so much as the fact of her smacking him whenever he swore.

About the recent research, Fradera writes:
Intuition depends on easily accessible connections, such as the term “broken mirror” being repeatedly associated with dismay or discomfort.  These connections tend to be built in earlier life, and invariably in our native tongue (the German participants in this research had only begun learning English from age 12, on average).  When we encounter a concept loaded with superstitious symbolism in our second tongue, we know what it means literally, but the emotional associations don’t come along automatically. 
Left unchecked, our thinking is always influenced by our intuitions, which means even those who want to live as hard-nosed materialists may find magical thinking creeping in through the side gate.  One way to combat this is to monitor the ideas that form and try to expel the unwanted influences. But this research suggests another approach: bar the gate so the influences don’t enter in the first place.  For now, this option is only available to bilinguals, but it opens a route for discovering other modes of thinking that are more intuition-free.
One has to wonder if a person in a circumstance where (s)he is forced to think in a non-native language -- such as someone spending a year abroad -- might see a lowered influence of superstition carrying over when they return home.  Patterns of thought do become habits -- wouldn't it be nice if a propensity for rational thought could be fostered simply by sending someone to a different country?

Of course, there would be a lot of other benefits as well. As Mark Twain put it, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Flerfs in space

At the time of this writing, I have been sent five times a link to a story about a Flat-Earther who wants to prove his case by taking a ride in a home-made rocket ship.

I know I say "I wish I was making this up" a lot, but honestly?  There's something kind of awesome about how earnest this guy is.  Most Flat-Earthers -- who were recently christened "Flerfs" by some wag on Twitter, an appellation that I think carries exactly the right amount of gravitas -- are so full of themselves and self-righteous that all they elicit from me is an eyeroll.  But this guy?

He's got a strange sort of moxie.

His name is Mike Hughes, and he's a 61-year-old retired limo driver from California.  He has spent over $20,000 to build his rocket, which includes (the article says) the bright yellow and red Rust-O-Leum paint that he used to letter "RESEARCH FLAT EARTH" on the side.  He bought an old motor home, took it apart, and converted it into a firing ramp.  The rocket runs on steam power, and the idea is to launch it over the town of Amboy, California today.

Hughes and his rocket ship

The rocket, Hughes says, will travel at a maximum speed of 500 miles per hour, something that does give him some trepidation despite his enthusiasm for the project.  "If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot," Hughes said.  "It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive.  I like to do extraordinary things that no one else can do, and no one in the history of mankind has designed, built and launched himself in his own rocket.  I’m a walking reality show."

What exactly his launch will prove, Hughes doesn't seem exactly clear about.  "I don’t believe in science," he said, rather unnecessarily, in my opinion.  "I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust.  But that’s not science, that’s just a formula.  There’s no difference between science and science fiction."

Which explains how much overlap there is between NASA and Lost in Space.

Danger, Will Robinson.

Hughes has big plans, if the outcome of today's launch is different from what I expect, which is that he will leave a large impact crater surrounded by gaily-painted red and yellow shrapnel, rather like the times Wile E. Coyote strapped an Acme Jet Pack to his back and proceeded to fly directly into a cliff side.  If he survives, Hughes says, he's going to launch himself right into a new project, which is the California governor's race.

I wonder what his campaign slogan will be?  I think "Vote Flerf!  We're down to Earth!" would be a good choice.

What I'm wondering is why he thinks launching himself in a rocket will prove that the Earth is flat.  Does he think that a spherical Earth would mean that his ship would take off in a tangent line and end up in space?  Or that from up there, he'll be able to see the entire flat disc?  You can see how a different perspective could clear things up:

Anyhow, I wish him luck.  Despite the fact that I think he has a single Froot Loop where most of us have a brain, I have no desire to see him end up winning the Darwin Award for 2017.  So keep your eye skyward today.  Who knows?  You might see a red and yellow rocket streak overhead, unless his trajectory takes him out over the edge of the world, which would be unfortunate.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Black Friday blues

Today is the day on which I will not go within ten miles of the nearest mall or department store, namely, Black Friday.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, "The day we fight our neighbors and friends to get more stuff, immediately after we gave thanks for what we already have."

Please understand that I mean no disrespect to people who love shopping.  Everyone has their hobbies, and I wouldn't expect others necessarily to participate, or even understand, mine.  Take birdwatching, for example.  I'm the guy who zoomed out of the door at just before 8 AM, drove almost 30 miles, and stood on the lake shore in the freezing wind clutching my binoculars, because there'd been a report of a King Eider (a rare species of duck) at Myer's Point on Cayuga Lake.  I and two other equally insane birdwatchers shivered in the cold for a half hour, scanning all of the hundreds of ducks bobbing out there in the lake, and finally, after all that work and discomfort... we didn't see the bird.

And, oddly, none of us felt like we'd wasted our time.  "Ha ha, these things happen, if you're a birdwatcher," was our basic response, and I've no doubt if the King Eider suddenly reappears, all three of us will rush right back without a second thought.

So people, in the throes of a pastime, will do some pretty odd things.  Add to that the bonus of getting a good deal, money-wise, and you've got a combination that leads people to engage in behavior that under normal circumstances would be grounds for a psychiatric evaluation.

The news reports are already beginning to come in... apparently the parking lot of the Toys "R" Us in Nanuet, New York was already full by 10 PM on Thanksgiving night.  This means that these people are going to sleep in their cars, or (more likely) stand in line in the cold and dark, to be amongst the first to be able to shop.  Myself, I'd choose the King Eider over that in a heartbeat.  I might even choose a root canal.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What I find the most amusing about this is how we as a society let ourselves be drawn in to media-driven rituals.  I'm not even talking about Christmas and Easter and so on, because those were holidays of long standing, with religious significance and replete with traditions, long before the media got involved.  I'm more thinking of the ones that the media and corporations either created (e.g. Black Friday) or morphed so drastically from their original versions and purpose that they're virtually unrecognizable (e.g. Halloween).  And we allow ourselves to be drawn in.  We dress our kids up as Batman, Superman, the Little Mermaid, and so forth, with the traditional plastic masks with poorly-lined-up eyeholes, on October 31 because that's what the media says we should do.  As an experiment to support this, I challenge you to dress your kid up as, say, Shrek on April 17, and send him out to knock on your neighbors' door and say "Trick or Treat."   Odds are, it won't work.   Odds also are that your neighbors will begin to wonder if you yourself need to up the dosage on one or more of your prescriptions.  But it'd still be an experiment worth running.

Once again, I'm not questioning the motives of people who participate in these activities because they think they're fun; I'm more thinking about the folks like myself who actually loathe shopping, but they go out on Black Friday anyhow, because "that's just what you do."  For myself, I can't imagine allowing myself to be coerced into shopping.  I can barely even tolerate grocery shopping -- my idea of the proper technique for grocery shopping is to zoom down the aisles at 45 miles per hour, knocking over small children and little old ladies, while hurling various grocery items into the cart after barely looking at them to check and see if it's what I actually wanted to purchase.  Every once in a while this will mean that I buy something I really didn't intend to.  "Gerber Mashed Carrots?" Carol will ask, while putting away groceries. "Our kids are 27 and 29 years old.  And you hate carrots."  But I consider this a small price to pay, if it allows me to beat my previous record time for completing my shopping list.

In any case, if you love shopping and deals and Black Friday, I hope you enjoy yourself.  Me, I'm sticking close to home today.  Unless that King Eider comes back.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Empathy training

A couple of days ago, I had a migraine.

I was fortunate in a couple of respects.  First, I hardly get migraines at all any more -- by comparison with my early twenties, a period in my life during which I was getting them two or three times a week.  Second, this one was pretty mild.  Not much in the way of pain, and no nausea.  When I used to get migraines, it came with pain so bad it felt like someone had my head trapped in a vise, not to mention gut-twisting nausea, sometimes for 24 hours straight.

Mostly what I experienced this time was visual disturbances and generalized brain fog.  When I get a migraine, lights are uncomfortably bright -- I feel like I need to wear sunglasses indoors -- and anything shiny or reflective has a halo or starburst surrounding it.  My hearing also gets terribly sensitive, and there's something about the quality of the sound that changes.  Everything has a weird, echoic sound, even my internal chatter -- the closest I can come to describing it is that it feels like my head is hollow, and there's someone in that empty space shouting at the top of his lungs.

The brain fog is a little hard to describe, too.  I honestly don't remember large chunks of the day.  I didn't feel bad enough to justify staying home from school, although I should have; heaven only knows what I told my classes.  I suspect that if I'd said anything too dopey, someone would have asked me what the hell was wrong with me (my students are just up-front and honest like that), and no one did.  But I do recall feeling a little disembodied, like I was watching someone else go through the motions of the day, but not really fully understanding what I was seeing and hearing.

Luckily for me, after a good night's sleep I felt a great deal better, although still a little foggier than usual.  But what it makes me realize is how impossible it is for someone who hasn't experienced something like a migraine to understand fully what it's like.  The painkiller company Excedrin has created virtual reality goggles that recreate some of the visual effects, and it's well worth watching; one of the non-migraine-sufferers who wore the goggles for a few minutes said, "Oh, my God, I don't even know how you function."

Of course, the same could be said about any debilitating disease.  Depression.  Fibromyalgia.  Chronic fatigue syndrome.  Chronic back pain.  Trigeminal neuralgia.  Obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Bipolar disorder.  Multiple sclerosis.  Schizophrenia.  About this last one, Anderson Cooper spent some time wearing earphones that simulated what it was like for a person to hear voices, and what has struck me every time I've seen it is how it destroyed his ability to focus and left him completely wrung out emotionally -- even though he knew the whole time that it was a simulation.

It's why I get a little defensive when I see stuff like this:

You know what?  If you haven't experienced depression, I can almost guarantee that you don't get it.  Some of us are only alive because of antidepressants.  You can rail against "Big Pharma" all you want, but if -- as is the case with a friend of mine -- someone is only able to lead a normal life because of some medication that causes the firestorm in their brain to calm to manageable proportions, then you have no damn right to give them another thing to feel inadequate about.

And the same is true of all the other chronic illnesses, especially the ones that produce few obvious outward symptoms.  You can remedy this to some extent by talking to people who actually live with disorders like these, or better still, try a migraine simulator or schizophrenia simulator.  I can almost guarantee that afterwards you will be far less hasty to conclude that the people with these conditions need to just "suck it up and deal," or (worse) "get over it," or (worst of all) that they're faking it.

Believe me, when I was in the throes of a full-blown migraine, I would have given damn near anything to be rid of it permanently.  Sucking it up and dealing wasn't really high on my priorities list.  I was more concerned with wondering if I would ever be able to leave my darkened room for any other reason than running to the bathroom to puke.

It's all about empathy, really.  Just because you are lucky enough not to suffer from a particular illness (or, if you're extraordinarily lucky, any chronic illnesses at all), don't roll your eyes at others for doing what they need to in order to cope.  Spend some time thinking what it would be like to inhabit another person's body and brain -- perhaps a body and brain that don't cooperate as readily as yours do.

It brings back to mind something a wise family friend told me when I was about ten, after I was complaining about how hard it was to be nice to a particular classmate of mine.  "Always be more compassionate than you think you need to be," she said.  "Because everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle that you know nothing about."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A governmental cult

Cult (n.) -- a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object, often involving a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing; a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
I bring this up so that we can have a working definition right at the outset, because it's a term that has been misused (and in some places overused) to the point that it's lost a lot of its punch.  But two news stories in the past week have brought the word to mind -- apropos of the veneration with which the extreme wing of Trump voters treat the president and his cronies.

Let's start with the less egregious of the two -- an Alabama pastor, Earl Wise, who said in an interview with The Boston Globe that he would vote for accused sexual predator Roy Moore for Senate, even if the allegations against Moore were proven true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

In a tirade that combines "tone-deafness," "misogyny," and "excusing pedophilia" into a truly nauseating confection of venom, Wise said:
I don’t know how much these women are getting paid, but I can only believe they’re getting a healthy sum.  If these stories were true, the women would have come forward years ago...  There ought to be a statute of limitations on this stuff.  How these gals came up with this, I don’t know.  They must have had some sweet dreams somewhere down the line...  Plus, there are some fourteen-year-olds, who, the way they look, could pass for twenty.
So now what a child looks like determines the age of consent?

Make no mistake about it; if we were talking about a Democrat here -- hell, if we were talking about a non-Trump-supporting Republican -- Wise would be recommending crucifixion.  This is a man who thinks that two men in a committed relationship getting married is "an abomination," but a grown man targeting children is "championing conservative religious values."

If you think that's bad, wait till you hear about the other one.  Mark Lee, a Trump voter who participated in a panel discussion on CNN, was talking about how wonderful the president is, how he's "draining the swamp" and "helping the little guy" even though mostly what the president seems to be doing is appointing unqualified cronies to public office, lining his own pockets, and tweeting messages that sound like they came from a petulant and rather stupid fourth grader.  But all of that pales by comparison to a statement Lee made later in the discussion: "If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, 'Hold on a second.  I need to check with the president if it's true.'"

Okay, what?

Isn't the whole idea of traditional, conservative Christianity that Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority?  Because it sure as hell sounds to me like in Mark Lee's mind, Donald Trump has somehow usurped that position.

What I'm most curious about this is what could possibly be the motivation.  Are these people simply siding with the person they think will give them what they want -- pro-life legislation, anti-LGBTQ legislation, conservatives running the courts, religion in school (only the right religion, of course), the Ten Commandments in every government building?  Because that's pretty Machiavellian, but at least I can understand it.  To some extent, most of us make deals with the devil when we vote -- there is seldom anyone who is 100% aligned with our beliefs and interests.

My fear, however, is that this goes way, way beyond pragmatism.  This kind of thing, especially the statement by Mark Lee, smacks of the same kind of single-minded veneration the people of North Korea are supposed to have for Dear Leader.  No, of course the president couldn't be wrong.  About anything.  It's the kind of thinking that inspired this:

Cf. the definition of cult above.

There's a real danger when people start claiming to know the Mind of God.  As Susan B. Anthony put it, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."  It is far more dangerous, however, when people believe that some flesh-and-blood human is the embodiment of the divine -- and infinitely more so when that person has shown himself to be venial, corrupt, greedy, lecherous, and dishonest.

I'm not at all sure what to do about this.  Once you've ceded your will to anyone or anything else, there's not much anyone can do to help you.  I keep hoping that Robert Mueller will step in and put a stop to the miasma of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism our government has become, but I know that these people won't go down without a fight.

And what absolutely terrifies me is that the Earl Wises and Mark Lees of the world will be right there in the front, very likely well-armed, fighting for the man they've turned into a god.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Pet warp

In recent posts we have dealt with sending a binary message to extraterrestrial intelligence, helicopters in ancient Egypt, and a creature in southern Africa that looks like some bizarre three-way cross between a human, a bat, and a pig.  So I'm sure that what you're all thinking is, "Yes, Gordon, but what about pet teleportation?"

At this point, I should stop being surprised at the things that show up on websites such as the one in the link above, from the site Mysterious Universe.  In this particular article, by Brent Swancer (this is not his first appearance here at Skeptophilia, as you might imagine), we hear about times that Fido and Mr. Fluffums evidently took advantage of nearby wormholes to leap instantaneously across spacetime.

In one such instance, Swancer tells us, a woman had been taking a nap with her kitty, and got up, leaving the cat sleeping in bed.  Ten minutes later, she went back into the bedroom, and the cat was gone.  At that point, the phone began ringing.  It was a friend who lived across town -- calling to tell her that the cat had just showed up on their doorstep.

Another person describes having his cat teleporting from one room in the house to another, after which the cat "seemed terrified:"
All the fur on his back was standing up and he was crouched low to the ground.  He looked like he had no idea what just happened, either.  That was about 10 minutes ago.  He won’t leave my side now, which is strange in itself, because he likes independence, but he is still very unsettled and so am I.
And Swancer tells us that it's not just cats.  He recounts a tale by "the great biologist... Ivan T. Sanderson," wherein he was working with leafcutter ants and found sometimes the queen mysteriously disappears from the ant nest.   "Further digging in some cities within hours," Sanderson tells us, "brought to light, to the dumbfoundment of everybody, apparently the same queen, all duly dyed with intricate identifying marks, dozens of feet away in another super-concrete-hard cell, happily eating, excreting and producing eggs!"

However, in the interest of honesty it must be said that Sanderson might not be the most credible witness in the world.  He did a good bit of writing about nature and biology, but is best known for his work in cryptozoology.  According to the Wikipedia article on him (linked above), he gave "special attention to the search for lake monsters, sea serpents, Mokèlé-mbèmbé, giant penguins, Yeti, and Sasquatch."  And amongst his publications are Abominable Snowman: Legend Come to Life and the rather vaguely named Things, which the cover tells us is about "monsters, mysteries, and marvels uncanny, strange, but true."

So I'm inclined to view Sanderson's teleporting ants with a bit of a wry eye.

What strikes me about all of this is the usual problem of believing anecdotal evidence.  It's not that I'm accusing anyone of lying (although that possibility does have to be admitted); it's easy enough, given our faulty sensory processing equipment and plastic, inaccurate memory, to be absolutely convinced of something that actually didn't happen that way.  A study by New York University psychological researcher Elizabeth Phelps showed that people's memories of 9/11 -- surely a big enough event to recall accurately -- only got 63% of the details right, despite study participants' certainty they were remembering what actually happened.  Worse, a study by Joyce W. Lacy (Azusa Pacific University) and Craig E. L. Stark (University of California-Irvine) showed that even how a question is asked by an interviewer can alter a person's memory -- and scariest of all, the person has no idea it's happened.  They remain convinced that what they "recall" is accurate.

Plus, there's a little problem with lack of a mechanism.  How, exactly, could anything, much less your pet kitty, vanish from one place and simultaneously reappear somewhere else?  I have a hard time getting my dog even to move at sub-light speeds sometimes, especially when he's walking in front of me up the stairs at a pace I can only describe as a cross between a "plod" and a "waddle."  In fact, most days his favorite speed seems to be "motionless."

Given all that, it's hard to imagine he'd have the motivation to accomplish going anywhere instantaneously.

As intriguing as those stories are, I'm inclined to be a bit dubious.  Which I'm sure you predicted. So you don't need to spend time worrying about how you'll deal with it when Rex and Tigger take a trip through warped space.  If they mysteriously vanish only to show up elsewhere, chances are they were traveling in some completely ordinary fashion, and the only thing that's awry is your memory of what happened.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Messages to the stars

Much has been made of the fact that our television and radio signals are expanding outward from the Earth at the speed of light, so the first things that alien civilizations might see from us are 50s music and bad television shows.  The most memorable example of this is the brilliant and absolutely hysterical movie Galaxy Quest, in which the aliens not only intercepted our television signals, but thought they were documenting historical facts.  It led to the following exchange:
Gwen DeMarco (played to the hilt by Sigourney Weaver):  "They're not all historical documents.  I mean, surely you don't think that Gilligan's Island... 
Captain Mathazar:  "Oh, those poor people."
The truth is, any alien civilization who intercepted our signals would have to have their radio telescopes pointed exactly in the right direction, and because of the inverse-square law (the intensity of a pulse of electromagnetic radiation decreases proportionally to the square of the distance covered) the telescopes would have to be mighty powerful, if they had any hope to keep up with the antics of Gilligan and the Skipper.  The immense distances to even the nearest stars are a nearly insurmountable obstacle to any alien hunters -- or, worse, anyone who dreams of voyaging there.

It's different, however, if you are sending a specific message to a specific star, which is what a group called Sónar did last month.  Last Thursday, a spokesperson for Sónar revealed that they beamed a binary message containing scientific and technical information about us, and 33 short musical compositions, directly toward Luyten's Star (also called GJ273), a red dwarf with a planet circling it that is thought to be in the habitable zone.  So if anyone's living there, in a little over twelve years, they'll get our signal -- and twelve years after that, we might get a response.

As exciting as this is, there are a couple of problems with this venture.  The first is that the planet in the habitable zone, GJ273b, orbits its star in only eighteen days -- meaning that it is very likely to be tidally locked (the same side of the planet faces the star during its entire revolution).  In my mind, this significantly decreases the likelihood of there being complex life, as the light side would be too hot and the dark side too cold for water to be in its liquid state.  (It does bring up a possibility that life could exist in the crescent-shaped slivers on either side of the planet that are in constant twilight -- something that would make for an interesting set of problems to investigate in a science fiction story.)

The other issue has more to do with safety than feasibility.  No less a mind than Stephen Hawking has advised against our advertising our presence to alien species, out of pure self-preservation.  "One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like [Gliese 832c, another candidate for hosting life]," Hawking said.  "But we should be wary of answering back.  Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus.  That didn't turn out so well."

Any civilization capable of going to the stars, Hawking said, would be so far ahead of us that they would probably consider us hardly sentient at all -- like a human views the ants in an anthill.

Humorist Dave Barry didn't even like Carl Sagan's idea of sending a plaque with information about Earth out on the spacecraft Pioneer 10.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As he wrote in his wonderful book Bad Habits:
(W)hen they decided to send up Pioneer 10, Carl sold the government on the idea that we should attach a plaque to it, so that if the aliens found it they'd be able to locate the Earth.   This is easily the stupidest idea a scientific genius ever sold to the government...  (I)t's all well and good for Carl Sagan to talk about how neat it would be to get in touch with the aliens, but I bet he'd change his mind pronto if they actually started oozing under his front door.  I bet he'd be whapping at them with his golf clubs just like the rest of us.
In fact, he even thought the choice of the art work on the plaque was ill-advised:
(The plaque) features drawings of... a hydrogen atom and naked people.  To represent the entire Earth!  This is crazy.  Walk the streets of any town on the planet, and the two things you will almost never see are hydrogen atoms and naked people.  Plus, the man on the plaque is clearly deranged.  He's cheerfully waving his arm as if to say, "Hi!  Look at me!  I'm naked as a jaybird!"  The woman is not waving, because she's clearly embarrassed.  She wishes she'd never let the man talk her into posing naked for this plaque.
I'm of two minds about all this.  It has long been my deepest wish to live to see the day that we have unequivocal proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  (The behavior of my fellow humans in the last year has called into question whether we even have intelligent life down here, but that's beside the point.)  On the other hand, attracting the Borg to come in and assimilate the whole lot of us isn't all that appealing.

The good news is that even if there is intelligent life on the second planet of Luyten's Star, it'll be 25 years or so before we could even potentially hear from them, and unless they have access to warp drive or wormholes, it would take orders of magnitude longer for them to get here.  So I'm not losing any sleep over Sónar's message.

I have to admit that sending some music and scientific stuff is a pretty good choice for an introduction, however.  Otherwise, they'd be judging us as a species based on Fibber McGee and Molly and The Beverly Hillbillies, and heaven knows we wouldn't want that.  Eventually they'd get to The Gong Show and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Real Housewives of New Jersey, and at that point the aliens would probably just target us with their photon torpedoes and be done with it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Navigating the imaginary

As many of you know, I've been writing fiction for over four decades.  I won't claim that what I wrote in the first half of that period was good fiction, but it was a long period of honing my skills so that now I can (with all due modesty) tell a pretty good story.

Something my publisher has encouraged me to do in the last three years is to push into what he calls "deep point-of-view."  In deep point-of-view, the reader isn't watching the character act; the reader becomes the character.  The dialogue and narrative are so immediate that you are, effectively, seeing through her eyes and hearing through her ears.

It's not an easy skill to master, and to be honest I'm still trying to learn how to do it effectively. But when done well, it is incredibly powerful, allowing us to feel as if we are actually inhabiting the imaginary worlds that authors create.

Young Man Reading by Candlelight  (Matthias Stom, early 17th century Holland) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This connection between language and our sense of space is why I found some research published last week in the journal Neuroimage so fascinating.  The study, described in the paper "Cortical Networks for Reference-Frame Processing are Shared by Language and Spatial Navigation Systems" by Nikola Vukovic and Yury Shtyrov of Aarhus University in Denmark, looks at the way our arrays of neural structures called "cortical generators" function when we are picturing ourselves finding our way through a crowded space -- and many of the same ones are activated when we interpret either written or spoken language.

Previous research had distinguished between people who are spatially egocentric and ones who are spatially allocentric -- the first primarily mapping the world based on the position of objects relative to their own bodies, the second considering positions as relative to other objects in the surroundings (and therefore independent of the observer's own position).  After performing tasks to sort test subjects into egocentric and allocentric types, Vukovic and Shtyrov had them navigate their way through a computer simulation of a twisty tunnel.  Afterwards, the subjects were asked to match pictures to sentences describing what was happening in them.  The sentences differed, however, in point of view; some were describing action as if it were outside of the test subject ("The man walks up to the door and knocks on it"); others as if the test subject was actually inside the story ("You walk up to the door and knock on it").

During both tasks, subjects were connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which monitored the activity in various parts of the brain.  And interestingly, the egocentric people performed better on the tunnel test; even more interesting was that the regions of the brain active in egocentric people during the tunnel test were the same ones that were active when they were placed inside the story by the wording of the description.

"When we read or hear stories about characters, we have to represent the inherently different perspectives people have on objects and events, and ‘put ourselves in their shoes,’" Vukovic said.  "Our study is the first to show that our brain mentally simulates sentence perspective by using non-linguistic areas typically in charge of visuo-spatial thought."

Shtyrov, who co-authored the study, added, "Brain activity when solving a language task is related to an individual's egocentric or allocentric perspective, as well as their brain activity in the navigation task.  The correlation between navigation and linguistic activities proves that these phenomena are truly connected...  Furthermore, in the process of language comprehension we saw activation in well-known brain navigation systems, which were previously believed to make no contribution to speech comprehension."

As an author, I find this tremendously exciting.  Writers call the creation of their fictional settings "world-building," and this turns out to be true in a very deep way.  By writing so as to put the reader inside the story, we are engaging the same neural circuitry that allows us to navigate the real world. This explains the ability of good fiction to transport us, to feel as if we're right there in medieval France or imperial Japan or Mordor or Tatooine.  When we have this experience, it's because our brain is allowing us to create an inner world -- but one that, at least for a short time, can seem as real as the world around us.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Motivated reasoning

Last week there was a paper released in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences called, "Epistemic Rationality: Skepticism Toward Unfounded Beliefs Requires Sufficient Cognitive Ability and Motivation to be Rational."  Understandably enough, the title made me sit up and take notice, as this topic has been my bread and butter for years.  The authors, Tomas Ståhl (of the University of Illinois) and Jan-Willem van Prooijen (of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), describe their work thus:
Why does belief in the paranormal, conspiracy theories, and various other phenomena that are not backed up by evidence remain widespread in modern society?  In the present research we adopt an individual difference approach, as we seek to identify psychological precursors of skepticism toward unfounded beliefs.  We propose that part of the reason why unfounded beliefs are so widespread is because skepticism requires both sufficient analytic skills, and the motivation to form beliefs on rational grounds...  [W]e show that analytic thinking is associated with a lower inclination to believe various conspiracy theories, and paranormal phenomena, but only among individuals who strongly value epistemic rationality...  We also provide evidence suggesting that general cognitive ability, rather than analytic cognitive style, is the underlying facet of analytic thinking that is responsible for these effects.
The first bit is hardly a surprise, and is the entire raison d'être of my Critical Thinking class.  Skepticism is not only a way of looking at the world, it's a skill; and like any skill, it takes practice.  Adopting a rational approach to understanding the universe means learning some of the ways in which irrationality occurs, and figuring out how to avoid them.

The second part, though, is more interesting, but also more insidious: in order to be a skeptic, you have to be motivated toward rational thought -- and value it.

Aristotle Teaching Alexander the Great (Charles Laplante, 1866) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This explains the interaction I had with one of my AP Biology students many years ago.  Young-Earth creationists don't, by and large, take my AP class.  My background is in evolutionary genetics, so most of them steer clear, sensing that they're in hostile territory.  (I will say in my own defense that I never treat students in a hostile manner; and the few times I have had a creationist take my class, it was a positive experience, and kept me on my toes to present my arguments as cogently as possible.)

This young lady, however, stood out.  She was absolutely brilliant, acing damn near every quiz I gave.  She had a knack for understanding science that was nothing short of extraordinary.  So we went through the unit on genetics, and I presented the introduction to the unit on evolution, in which I laid out the argument supporting the theory of evolution, explaining how it fits every bit of hard evidence we've got.

That day, she asked if she could talk to me after class.  I said, "Sure," and had no guess about what she might have wanted to talk to me about.

I was absolutely flabbergasted when she said, "I just want you to know that I'm a creationist."

I must have goggled at her for a moment -- after (at that point) two decades as a teacher, I had pretty good control over my facial expressions, but not that good.  She hastily added, "I'm not saying I'm going to argue with you, or that I'm refusing to learn the material, or anything.  I just wanted you to know where I was coming from."

I said, "Okay.  That's fine, and thanks for being up front with me.  But do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?"

She said, "Not at all."

So I asked her where the argument I'd presented in class fell apart for her.  What part of the evidence or logical chain didn't work?

She said, "None of it.  It's all logical and makes perfect sense."

I must have goggled again, because she continued, "I understand your argument, and it's logically sound.  I don't disbelieve in the evidence you told us about.  But I still don't believe in evolution."

The upshot of it was that for her, belief and rationality did not intersect.  She believed what she believed, and if rational argument contradicted it, that was that.  She didn't argue, she didn't look for counterevidence; she simply dismissed it.  Done.

The research by Ståhl and van Prooijen suggests that the issue with her is that she had no motivation to apply rationality to this situation.  She certainly wasn't short of cognitive ability; she outperformed most of the students in the class (including, I might add, on the test on evolutionary theory).  But there was no motive for her to apply logic to a situation that for her, was beyond the reach of logic.  You got there by faith, or not at all.

To this day, and of all the students I've taught, this young lady remains one of the abiding puzzles.  Her ability to compartmentalize her brain that way -- I'll apply logic here, and it gives me the right answers, but not here, because it'll give me the wrong answers -- is so foreign to my way of thinking that it borders on the incomprehensible.  For me, if science, logic, and rationality work as a way of teasing out fact from falsehood, then -- they work.  You can't use the same basic principles and have them alternate between giving you true and false conclusions, unless the method itself is invalid.

Which, interestingly, is not what she was claiming.

And this is a difficulty that I have a hard time seeing any way to surmount.  Anyone can be taught some basic critical thinking skills; but if they have no motivation to apply them, or (worse) if pre-existing religious or political beliefs actually give them a motivation not to apply them, the argument is already lost.

So that's a little depressing.  Sorry.  I'm still all for teaching cognitive skills (hell, if I wasn't, I'm seriously in the wrong profession).  But what to do about motivation is a puzzle.  It once again seems to me that like my student's attitude toward faith-based belief, being motivated to use logic to understand your world is something about which you have to make a deliberate choice.

You get there because you choose to accept rational argument, or you don't get there at all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Duplicating the crone

A pretty common belief in many different cultures is that inanimate objects can have, or can be imbued with, supernatural powers.

It's not like I haven't dealt with this topic before, here at Skeptophilia.  We've had posts about do-it-yourself voodoo dolls, a haunted wine cabinet, a cellphone that received texts from Satan, and a child's doll named "Robert" which shifts positions by itself, not to mention "giggling maniacally."

And that's just scratching the surface.  If you start asking people you'll find everything from the common and fairly innocuous belief in good luck charms (or in items that bring bad luck), all the way up to belief that there are objects that are cursed and/or inhabited by evil spirits capable of serious damage.

So far, nothing too unusual, although still examples of magical thinking that it'd be nice for the human race to jettison.  But just recently, there's been a technological twist added to all of this medieval superstition.

What if someone used a 3-D printer to make a perfect replica of a cursed object?

Of course, it opens up the question of "why would you want to?", but as we've seen over and over, asking that is not sufficient to dissuade people from doing something.

Brent Swancer, over at Mysterious Universe, tells us about some people who decided to copy a cursed object that's been nicknamed "the Crone of the Catskills."  Here's how Swancer describes the object:
[The Crone is] a strange hand-carved statue supposedly found by some hikers stashed away and abandoned, quite possibly hidden, in a dim cave somewhere in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  The doll is creepy to say the least, with a length of filthy cord wrapped around its neck and rusty nails driven into its eyes, and it seems like the sort of thing most people would cringe at and leave lying where it was, but in this case the hikers took it home with them.
According to Swancer, the unnamed hikers lived to regret bringing it back with them, as immediately bad stuff began to happen, like bumps, thuds, and bangs, a feeling of being watched, and worst of all, "odd smells such as that of stagnant water or decay."

If you're thinking "why the hell would they have brought it home?" it bears mention that I did something kind of similar a few years back.  My wife and I were hiking in the Finger Lakes National Forest not too far away from our home, and were a good ways off the beaten path, when I stepped over a log, and noticed that on the end of the log was...

... a Mardi Gras mask.

It was in perfect condition, and in fact looked like it had been placed there only moments before.  It was in October, the weather was cool, and we hadn't seen anyone else in the woods during our entire hike, so it's not like this was exactly a well-traveled part of the National Forest.  So it was pretty bizarre, to say the least.

I said, "Hey, Carol, come take a look at this."

I picked up the mask, and put it over my face.  She regarded me with a raised eyebrow and said, "You do realize that if you were a character in one of your own novels, you'd be about to die right now?"

Undaunted, I brought it home, and hung it on the wall in my office.  I did have a bit of a turn the next morning, when I walked into the room and found the mask in the middle of the floor.

Turned out the elastic loop had come loose.  So I reconnected it, and it's remained there quietly ever since.  No bumps, thuds, or bangs, and the only bad smells are when my dog decides to roll in Eau de Dead Squirrel and then comes to take a nap in my office.

Anyhow, all of this is just to say that if I'd found the Crone of the Catskills, I'd probably have taken it home, too.  The hikers who found her donated the Crone to the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult, and even afterwards it continued to do spooky stuff.  The Museum's owners, Dana Matthews and Greg Newkirk, report that after the Crone was obtained, furniture was found knocked over, there was the "smell of fetid pond water," and more than once they opened the place up in the morning to find small muddy footprints on the floor leading to and from the case the Crone occupied.

The Crone of the Catskills

So far, so good.  But the next thing that happened I have to admit I find a little baffling.  A pair of paranormal researchers, Karl Pfeiffer and Connor Randal, decided that it'd be a good idea to use a 3-D printer to make a replica of the Crone.

Havoc ensued.  The printer malfunctioned and a part of it "melted."  Other equipment broke down, or went missing entirely.  People in the room with the replica reported "a sense of dread" coming from the thing, and a "burning sensation" from touching it.

So apparently, the 3-D printer hadn't just copied the Crone's appearance, it had also copied its ghostly hanger-on.

Now, as a diehard skeptic, it's to be expected that I think this sounds a little silly.  But allow me to ask any true believers in the studio audience: how exactly could this work?

I mean, even if you accept that an object can be imbued with a "force" (whatever that means), isn't the usually accepted explanation that it's tied to the object itself?  If you made a copy of the object, you wouldn't expect a piece of the "force" to get knocked loose and attach itself to the replica.  Or at least, I wouldn't.  I didn't think that 3-D printers could make copies of ghosts, you know?

Which, honestly, is a good thing.  Just think of what would happen if you put a 3-D printer in a haunted house, and the ghosts got a hold of it and started duplicating themselves.  In short order, you'd have what paranormal researchers call "a shitload of ghosts."  It'd be a catastrophe, much like what happened in the Lost in Space episode "The Space Destructors," wherein Dr. Smith created an android who then began to create more androids, which was especially awful because the machine was programmed to make them look like Dr. Smith, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

So it'd be unfortunate if the 3-D printer did make a copy of the evil spirit haunting the Crone of the Catskills.  That being said, if Pfeiffer and Randal have any extra copies of the Crone hanging around, I'd love to have one.  I've got a nice space on the shelf in my office where she could reside.  Also, if all she does is push furniture around and leave muddy footprints on the floor, my dog pretty much has that covered as well.

I might even see if I can make a replica of my mysterious Mardi Gras mask, and we can do a swap.  I have to warn you, though, that the mask's antics are even less impressive than the Crone's.  "Falling on the floor once in four years" is really not that much of a superpower.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Advanced elegance

I think it's a natural human tendency to be awed by what we don't understand.

I know when I see some abstruse concept that is far beyond my grasp, I'm impressed not only by how complex the universe can be, but that there are people who can comprehend it.  I first ran into this in a big way when I was in college, and took a class called Classical Mechanics.  The topic was why and how objects move, how that motion affects other objects, and so on.

It was the first time in my life I had ever collided with something that regardless of my effort, I couldn't get.  The professor, Dr. Spross, was a very patient man, but his patience was up against a classical-mechanics-proof brain.  On the first exam, I scored a 19.


And I'm convinced that he had dredged up the 19 points from somewhere so I wouldn't end up with a single-digit score. I ended that class with a C-, which I think Dr. Spross gave me simply because he didn't want me back again the following semester, spending another four months ramming my poor physics-deficient head up against a metaphorical brick wall.

There's one memory that stands out from that experience, nearly forty years ago, besides the overwhelming frustration.  It was when Dr. Spross introduced the concept of the "Hamiltonian function," a mathematical framework for analyzing motion.  He seemed so excited about it.  It was, he said, an incredibly elegant way to consider velocity, acceleration, force, momentum, and so on.  So I thought, "Cool!  That sounds pretty interesting."

Following that cheerful thought was an hour and a half of thinking, "I have no fucking idea what any of this means."  It was completely opaque.  The worst part was that a number of my classmates were nodding their heads, writing stuff down, and seemed to get it with no problem.

So I was either the only dumb one in the class, or they were just better at hiding their dismay than I was.

Anyhow, I think that was the moment I realized a career in research physics was not in the cards for me.

To this day, the "Hamiltonian function" remains something that in my mind symbolizes the Unknowable.  I have deep and abiding admiration for people for whom that concept makes sense (first and foremost, William Rowan Hamilton, who developed it).  And I'm sure it is elegant, just as Dr. Spross said.  But experiencing that elegance was (and probably still is) entirely beyond me.

It's this tendency to find what we can't understand awe-inspiring that has led to the idea of the god of the gaps -- in which gaps in our scientific knowledge are attributed to the incomprehensible hand of the divine.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized what the problem with this was, at least for people who are religious:
How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.  If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.  We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know.
Anyhow, that was a long-winded preamble as an explanation of why all of this comes up in today's post.  I immediately thought of the awe-inspiring nature of what we don't understand when I read an article yesterday about two researchers at the University of Rochester, Tamar Friedmann and Carl Hagen, who found that a method for calculating the energy levels of a hydrogen atom generates the well-known number pi.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It turns out to have something to do with a mathematical function called the Wallis product, which says that you can generate π/2 by a simple series of multiplications:
π/2 = (2/1) x (2/3) x (4/3) x (4/5) x (6/5) x (6/7) x (8/7) x (8/9)....
The pattern is that the numerators of the fractions are 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8, 8... and the denominators 1, 3, 3, 5, 5, 7, 7, 9, 9...  And the cool thing is, the more terms you add, the closer you get to π/2.

Now, as for why this is so... well, I tried reading the explanation, and my eyes started spinning.  And I've taken lots of math courses, including calculus and differential equations, and like I said earlier, I majored in physics (as much of a mistake as that turned out to be).  But when I took a look at the paper about the energy levels of hydrogen and the Wallis product and gamma functions, I almost could hear Dr. Spross's voice, explaining it in a tone that implies that it would be immediately clear to a small child, or even an unusually intelligent dog.

And all of those feelings from Classical Mechanics came bubbling up to the surface.

So I'm left with being a little in awe about it all.  Somehow, even though I have no real understanding of why, the same number that I learned about in geometry class as the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter shows up in the energy levels of hydrogen atoms.  Predictably, I'm not inclined to attribute such correspondences to the hand of the divine, but I do think they're (in Dr. Spross's words) "elegant."  And even if I never get much beyond that, I can still appreciate the minds of the people who can.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Hypocrisy on parade

I told myself that I wasn't going to write about Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in the special election for Jeff Sessions's Senate seat in Alabama.  There didn't seem to be much to say.  Moore is, to put it bluntly, a raging bigot, only one example of which is his refusal to follow Alabama's non-discrimination rule with respect to same-sex marriage that got him suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court in May of last year.

But by now all of you know that bigotry isn't Moore's only problem.  In the last week, Moore has faced an accusation by five different women that he approached them for sex when he was in his thirties and they were all under 18.  (The youngest was 14.)  So to put in bluntly, Moore's been accused of pedophilia.

But that's not why I'm writing this post.  I'm writing this post because of the reaction of Moore's supporters.

First, there was conservative talk show host and former Illinois Representative Joe Walsh, who tweeted, "Roy Moore should stay in, stand strong, and fight hard against these allegations.  Oh...and he should ignore all these spineless Republicans hiding under their beds because of a 38 yr old accusation."  He later softened this to imply that all he was saying was that Moore deserved due process and "the voters of Alabama should decide."  But you know that wouldn't have been the message had Moore been a Democrat.

Even more blatant was (unsurprisingly) Ann Coulter, who has been doing nothing but tweeting about Moore.  As a couple of the more pointed examples, we had, "As an Alabaman said on @chucktodd yesterday, right now, all that matters is that Roy Moore will vote for a wall.  Luther Strange wouldn't & the Dem definitely won't."  Because "the wall" evidently supersedes any consideration of following the laws about age of consent and statutory rape.  But when that got her some backlash, she responded, "Hey Dems!  JFK had an extra marital affair with 19-year old Mimi Alford when he was 45 years old."

I just have two things to say about this:
  1. There is a difference between 14 and 19.  Cf. my earlier comment about age of consent and statutory rape.
  2. I'm quite sure the affair Coulter references will become a huge campaign issue the next time Kennedy runs for office.
Then there was Jim Zeigler, Alabama State Auditor, who said that his biblical values gave him no basis for saying that Moore's alleged affairs were wrong:
Take the Bible.  Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance.  Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist...  Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter.  They became parents of Jesus.
So now pedophilia is okay because all it means is that your underage girlfriend might give birth to a prophet, or failing that, the Second Coming of Christ.

Then Breitbart got involved.  Two reporters for the far-right media outlet were dispatched, by none other than Steve Bannon, to try to find information to discredit the accusers.  Never mind that the five accusers did not know each other prior to this, and given the backlash that women inevitably have to face when they make allegations of sexual abuse public, they had every reason to keep silent.  (Which itself is a pretty horrifying indictment of the way women are treated in our culture.)

Nothing, however, made me gag quite as much as the reaction of ordinary Alabama voters to the Moore accusations, particularly the people who said they'd vote for Moore even if they knew for certain the allegations were true.  Consider this one:

Then, there was the poll in which we find out that 37% of Alabama evangelicals said they were more likely to vote for Moore after the accusations than before.  Because, you know, the media lies.  All of them, all the time.

Except for Fox and Breitbart.  They tell the truth.

All the time.

Oh, and Sean Hannity.  Roy Moore appeared on Hannity's show, where he said, "This is a completely manufactured story meant to defrock this campaign.  They don’t want to acknowledge that there is a God.  And we have refused to debate them because of their very liberal stance on transgenderism."

Evidently Moore doesn't know the definition of "defrock," but we'll let that slide.  More interesting is that Hannity clearly believes Moore and thinks all five of his accusers are lying.  As a result, Hannity began to hemorrhage sponsors, including coffee-maker company Keurig.  But when Keurig made the announcement, you know what the response was?

A whole bunch of conservatives announced they were going to destroy their Keurig coffee makers, Office Space-style.  As for Hannity, he said he was going to buy five hundred new coffee makers of a different brand for people who would video themselves smashing their Keurigs and post it on Twitter.  First come, first serve.

Let me make this clear: these people are destroying their coffee makers as a protest against a company that doesn't want to sponsor someone who defends pedophilia.

I'm afraid I have to agree with Alabaman Kate Messervy, who is a volunteer for the campaign of Doug Jones, Moore's opponent.  Messervy said, "Trump is president.  Nope, this won’t change Republicans’ minds.  Grabbing women by the pussy didn’t sway votes.  This won’t sway anyone."

What I keep coming back to is that this is not a conflict over political ideals.  This is a conflict over morality and decency, with the party that used to call itself the "Family Values Party" largely coming down on the side of an accused pedophile (and, in some cases, declaring that they would vote for him even if the accusations proved true).  This is the determination of people to vote for an individual who has "R" next to his name on the ballot regardless of any other considerations.

It is, to put it simple, hypocrisy on parade.  Many of these same people are horrified at the idea of two consenting adults of the same gender having sex in the privacy of their own homes.  Even more telling is the argument they made regarding why transgender people should be blocked from using the bathroom for the gender they identify with.  "What's to stop grown men coming into the ladies' room and molesting your daughters?", they said.


I grew up in the Deep South, and my parents were both staunch Republicans.  And I know they would have been appalled at the accusations swirling around Moore's candidacy.  What has happened in those intervening years?  We have a cadre of talk show hosts and right wing activists who are training the rank-and-file to disbelieve anything in the media unless it aligns with conservative talking points.  Everything else, they say, is a liberal hit job, a smear campaign, or outright lies.

And it's worked.  Hell, they even fell for the claim that Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza parlor that doesn't have a basement.

The bottom line is that moral, decent conservatives -- and I know a good many of them -- need to stand up and say, "Enough."  I'm heartened by the fact that some have -- as just two examples, Mitt Romney, and amazingly enough, Mitch McConnell, have called for Moore to step down.  And this is what it takes.  It's not enough for the liberals to decry what's going on; the moral roots of the Republican party need to draw together and purge the party of screeching, we're-always-right bloviators like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.  The propaganda campaign by Fox and Breitbart will continue to be successful -- and we'll continue to have amoral individuals like Moore and (it must be said) Donald Trump elected to office -- until the conservatives themselves decide they're done, and put a stop to it.