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, June 4, 2020

Falling in line

What amazes me about so many crazy claims is that you get the impression that the people making them didn't even try to find a natural explanation.

It's one thing to speculate wildly about a phenomenon for which science is still searching for explanations.  Déjà vu, for example, is one experience that virtually everyone shares, and for which no convincing explanation has yet been found.  It's no wonder that it's fertile ground for people who prefer to ascribe such occurrences to the paranormal.

But in other cases, there is such a simple, convincing natural explanation that you have to wonder why the claimant isn't going there.  Such, for example, is the suggestion over at the phenomenally bizarre quasi-religious site The Watchman's Cry that geographical locations on the Earth that have been the sites of disasters (natural or manmade) fall along connecting lines, making some sort of mystical, meaningful pattern.

The article starts out with a bang, with the phrase, "Several months ago, I had four prophetic dreams which took place on the same night."  Four precognitive dreams is pretty impressive, I have to say, especially since most skeptics don't think precognition occurs at all.  Be that as it may, these dreams involved train wrecks, which is ironic, because that is what the rest of the site turns out to be.

Both literally and figuratively.

The site goes into great detail about various train derailments, and how if you connect them by lines (great circles, to be more precise), those lines then go around the Earth and connect to other sites that have had bad things happen.  These then intersect other such great circles, which go other interesting places, and so on.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

It's just ley lines all over again, isn't it?  If your search parameters are wide enough -- basically, "anywhere that anything bad has happened in the past two centuries" -- you can find great circles that link them up.  Which is entirely unsurprising. I could draw a great circle anywhere on Earth and pretty much guarantee that I'll find three or more sites near it that had some kind of natural or manmade calamity in the past two centuries.  The Earth is a big place, and there are lots of calamities to choose from.

So this whole thing is an excellent example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, the choosing of data points favorable to your hypothesis after the fact.  The name comes from a folk story:

A traveler through Texas passed a barn that had a bullseye painted on the side, with three bullet holes near the dead center of the target.  There were two old-timers leaning on a fence nearby, and the visitor slowed down his car and said, "That's some pretty good shooting, right there."

One of the old-timers grins, and says, "Why, thank you."

The other one scowls.  "Don't pay any attention to him.  He just got drunk one night and shot the side of his barn, then the next morning painted a bullseye around the bullet holes."

Anyhow, what gets me most about the claim in The Watchman's Cry is that they don't even seem to understand that given the fact that the Earth is a sphere (an oblate spheroid, to be precise, but let's not get technical), a given point on Earth has an infinite number of great circles passing through it.  Just as two points on a plane define a line, two points on a sphere define a great circle.  And his lack of grasp of simple geometry becomes apparent when he tells us that it's amazing that two intersecting great circles (ones connecting Houston, Texas to train derailment sites in Rosedale, Maryland and Bear Creek, Alabama, respectively) were "only 900 feet apart."

How can you say that two intersecting lines are any specific distance apart?  If they intersect, they are (at that point) zero feet apart.  Farther from the intersection, they are farther apart.  Because that's how intersection works.

But the author of this site trumpets this statement as if it were some kind of epiphany.  It's like being excited because you found a triangle that had three sides.

I'll leave you to explore the site on your own, if you're curious to see more of this false-pattern malarkey, but suffice it to say that there's nothing at all mystical going on here.  He's adding geometry to coincidence and finding meaning, and it's no great surprise that it turns out to be the meaning he already believed going into it.

So like the ley lines people, this guy doesn't seem to be trying very hard to see if there's a natural explanation that sufficiently accounts for all of the facts, a tendency I have a hard time comprehending.  Why are people attracted to this kind of hokum?  Science itself is a grand, soaring vision, telling us that we are capable of understanding how the universe works, from the realm of the enormous to the realm of the unimaginably small.  With a little work, you can find out the rules that govern everything from galaxies to quarks.

But that, apparently, isn't enough for some people.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is a fun one -- George Zaidan's Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put In Us and On Us.  Springboarding off the loony recommendations that have been rampant in the last few years -- fad diets, alarmist warnings about everything from vaccines to sunscreen, the pros and cons of processed food, substances that seem to be good for us one week and bad for us the next, Zaidan goes through the reality behind the hype, taking apart the claims in a way that is both factually accurate and laugh-out-loud funny.

And high time.  Bogus health claims, fueled by such sites as Natural News, are potentially dangerous.  Zaidan's book holds a lens up to the chemicals we ingest, inhale, and put on our skin -- and will help you sort the fact from the fiction.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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