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 30, 2022

An open letter to straight Americans

Dear straight people:

I hope you recognize the path the United States is on, and where it leads.  Because it's easy to blind yourself to problems that don't affect you.  That is, at its heart, what minorities mean when they talk about privilege.  As a Black friend of mine put it, "White privilege doesn't mean White people's lives are easy; it just means that race isn't one of the things making them harder."

Recent developments in Florida (why the fuck is it always Florida?) should bring that into sharp focus.  Because of the state's "Don't Say Gay" law, school administrators in Orange County have now told staff that they can't display rainbow "Safe Space" stickers in their classrooms, they can't assign reading material with any LGBTQ content to their classes, they are required to tell parents if they find out a student is queer, and LGBTQ staff members cannot have photographs of their families displayed anywhere -- including on their own desks.

My first question to my straight readers is: do you have any idea what effect this has, both on staff and on students?

This kind of ugly, bigoted horseshit is why I spent forty years unable to admit that I was bisexual.  During most of that time I couldn't even admit it to myself.  I grew up thinking same-sex attraction was something to be ashamed of, or at the very least, to be fearful about.  Well, fear was justified; I want you to think, really think, about what it'd be like if you were afraid to take your significant other out to dinner because then people would realize you were together.  That you couldn't walk down the street of your own home town holding hands because you'd be jeered at, have hateful epithets thrown at you, and (in all too many places) risk actual physical violence.  That you'd been told over and over that loving who you love made you abnormal, sinful, disgusting, aberrant.

It's that hell that this law is forcing LGBTQ people back into.

We never really left it, honestly, but a lot of us felt like at least we were heading in the right direction.  In the last five years I've become more and more like the iconic character Nick Nelson from Alice Oseman's brilliant graphic novel series Heartstopper:

I'm damn lucky I'm in a situation I can do that.  I live in a pretty tolerant part of the country.  I'm married to a woman, which is fortunate in two respects; not only does it shield me from the stigma that people in same-sex relationships face every single day, my wife is a wonderful human being who accepts me for who I am.

But consider what I, and countless others like me who spent most of their lives hiding, lost in the process.  Think about what it'd be like if there was something about you that you didn't ask for and couldn't change, and now there were laws against it being out in the open.  How about... wearing glasses?  What if at work, you were told you couldn't wear glasses, and had to pretend you could see well?  If anyone asked you about it, you had to say you could see just fine.  Any visits to the optometrist had to be made in secret -- if possible, in another town where you wouldn't be recognized going into the place.  No books in your kids' school could show, or even mention, characters who didn't have 20/20 vision.  And if you did become angry enough to say "fuck it" and wore your glasses in public, you would be ridiculed or beaten up for it.

See how horrifying that sounds?

It's been years that we've known that homophobic ignorance flies in the face of the actual science, but we Americans don't exactly have a stellar record of listening to the scientists about anything.  Back in 2015, Scientific American published an article that goes into the biology of human sexuality, and the details are fascinating; but truthfully, it can be summed up as, "Sexuality is complex, and it isn't binary."  

The homophobes have responded by mischaracterizing how the medical professionals address the issue, because (unfortunately) straw man arguments are all too effective when people don't know, or don't want to know, the facts.  Just last week I saw someone post on social media, "If a five-year-old is old enough to decide what gender they are, an eighteen-year-old is old enough to own a gun."  I'm not going into the last half of it, but the first half is so abjectly ridiculous it's a wonder it generated anything more than derisive laughter.  It makes it sound like an anatomically male five-year-old says, "Hey, I'm a girl now," and the parents immediately whisk them off to get gender-reassignment surgery.  According to a statement by medical professionals who address issues of gender dysphoria, surgeries of this sort are only done if the child is anatomically intersex, and even then doctors almost always wait until the child is the age of puberty before taking any kind of irreversible action.

Unfortunately, no one I saw responded to the person who posted that with, "THAT NEVER HAPPENS."  We've become afraid even to fight the battle, or perhaps just too damn exhausted to argue.

It's understandable.  This is the third time this month (ironically, Pride Month) I've written about these issues here at Skeptophilia.  At some point we feel like, "What more can I say?  And what good is it doing anyhow?"  So that's why I'm going to ask not my queer readers, but my straight ones, to think long and hard about something: what would it take to make you stand up and say, "Hell no, this is wrong," even though it only directly affects a group you don't belong to?  If you were a straight teacher in Orange County, Florida, would you be willing to put up a rainbow flag in your classroom and say to administrators, "Bring it on"?  To say to Ron DeSantis and the hundreds of other elected officials in this country cut from the same cloth, "This is not gonna happen.  Not on my watch."?

"Tired," by the inimitable Langston Hughes

It's easy to support LGBTQ rights in ways that risk nothing.  You vote for candidates who support equal rights for all?  Great, awesome, good for you.  But we are hurtling down a tunnel into a deep, dark place that a lot of us thought we'd left back in the 1980s.  And that downward spiral won't stop until straight people stand up and say, "I'm going to do whatever it takes to halt this, even if it means putting myself in the bullseye."

That is what it means to be an ally.

Thankfully, there are straight people who do just that.  I've laughed with a dear friend of mine, who is straight as they come, because he owns (and wears publicly) more Pride gear than I do.  He's one of the ones who would not hesitate to give a big old middle finger to homophobes, and say, "What are you gonna do about it, asshole?"

But there are too damn few people like him.

So I'm asking my straight readers to stand up and make your voices heard.  It's the only way any of this is going to stop.  And keep in mind that if the bigots win this fight, it isn't going to end there, because queers aren't the only ones these people hate.  Remember the oft-quoted statement by anti-Nazi activist Martin Niemöller that ends, "Finally, they came for me -- and by then, there was no one left to speak for me."

Please, please don't wait until then.

Maybe there's a time that other-sides-ism is appropriate, but that's not now.  I am not obligated to respect your opinion if your opinion denies the rights, and even the humanity, of another group of people.  There is no morally and ethically defensible justification for what is happening in the United States right now.

Pride ends today, but don't expect me to shut up about it.  I was silent for forty years, and it doesn't work.  And maybe -- just maybe -- if enough straight allies will commit to standing in the breach with us, we won't have another generation of queer children growing up going through the hell that I and so many others did.  


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Propriety, privacy, and prudery

I think a lot of the problems I have come about because I've never really understood people.

Yes, I know, I am a people.  But that natural, seemingly effortless ability most folks seem to have, to look at an interaction and say, "Oh, here's why they did that," or better yet, to predict what's going to happen afterward -- I think I was born without that particular brain module.

So I've no doubt that many of my difficulties come from my own inherent inabilities.  It's like the hilarious opening scene of the Doctor Who episode "The Halloween Apocalypse," which finds the Thirteenth Doctor and her companion, Yaz, suspended upside down in mid-air by their ankles over a lake of boiling-hot acid:

"You know, I can't help feeling that some of this might have been my fault."

Take, for example, the weird reaction someone had to a photograph I posted on Instagram a couple of days ago.  It was a selfie I took after going for a swim in my pond on a sweltering day.  I was happy, and my phone was right there on the dock, so I snapped a photo of myself and later that day, I posted it.

I think the problem was that in addition to some innocuous hashtags like #outdoors and #fingerlakesny, I tagged it #skinnydipping.  Our pond isn't visible from the road; unless you were actually standing in my back yard, the only way you could see it is from a low-flying aircraft.  So I never bother with swim trunks.  Not only do I prefer skinnydipping over getting out and having clammy wet fabric clinging to my skin, trunks would be another thing to wash, dry, and mess around with.  I figure it's not a problem, since the only ones who can see me when I'm swimming are my wife, who has seen me naked once or twice, and my dogs, who don't care because they also enjoy skinnydipping.

Well, furrydipping.

In any case, that prompted the following DM that evening, from someone who followed me but apparently doesn't any more:

I don't know why you have to post photos like the one you posted today.  Everyone is entitled to indulge in the lifestyle they want, but that doesn't mean the rest of us want to see it.  Posting nude selfies is offensive to a lot of us and it's just plain rude.  That's why we have laws about keeping your private parts covered.  So if you choose to post stuff like this, I choose not to follow you.

Now, before we go any further, here's the photo she objected to:

If you will examine this photo closely, you will see that there aren't any salacious body parts even close to showing.  If I had stopped before snapping the picture to put on my shorts, there'd be no way to tell.

For the record, I would never post an actual naked pic on Instagram, for two reasons: (1) it's against Instagram's Terms of Service; and (2) actual naked pics do offend people, because they're often construed (whether or not that was the person's intention) as an unwanted sexual advance, and knowing something will probably offend or upset people but doing it anyhow is synonymous with "being an asshole."

But what my ex-follower seems to be objecting to is implied nudity.  The rules of propriety, apparently, have to be applied even to what you can't see.  It reminds me of the joke the eminent biochemist, writer, and polymath Isaac Asimov used to tell to illustrate the meaning of the word prude:
A woman owns a house overlooking a river with a gravelly beach frequently used as a swimming spot, and one warm day she looks out of her window and sees some teenage boys skinnydipping, so she calls the police to complain.

The police come and give the boys a warning, telling them either to put on some swim trunks or else move farther up river and away from the woman's house.  The boys acquiesce and decide to find another spot.

An hour later, the police get another call from the woman complaining that the boys are still swimming in the river naked.

"They came back?" the policeman asks.

"No," the woman said, "but I can still see them if I lean out of my window and use binoculars."
It really does seem like there are a lot of people who look around for stuff to be offended by.  Maybe they like being offended, I dunno.  As I said, I'm flat-out mystified by people a lot of the time.

Just to be on the safe side, maybe from now on I should only post selfies that look like this:

On the other hand, and I am loath to point this out: underneath all these clothes, I'm still naked.  You can't get away from implied nudity no matter how hard you try.

So anyhow.  My apologies to the people I've offended, and I'll be a lot more careful when I post photos, not only apropos of what you can see, but of the stuff you can't see but imagine you could if the camera was pointing in a different direction.

However, I still don't think I'll ever really understand what makes some people tick.


Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Praying with captives

Maybe ten years ago I got in a protracted argument over the phone with a local man.  The subject was an online social media group he'd started, and which I initially had joined, that protested the privatization of nursing homes in our area.  The practice, the group description rightly said, has put appropriate health care for the elderly out of the reach of all but the wealthiest.

The call that evening was precipitated by the fact that I left the group.  Quietly -- I posted a quick note that the group was heading in a direction I wasn't comfortable with, and disconnected.  My reason for doing so was one member, who was (and is) stridently ultra-left, going so far as to ridicule and/or call evil anyone who didn't share his views.  The long screeds he posted were not only unpleasant, they were outside of the specific focus the group had been created to address, and as a result the group was devolving into a rant-filled political free-for-all.

The gentleman who started the group (I'll call him Steve) demanded to know what it was that I had disagreed with so vehemently that I felt the need to exit.  I was a well-known and well-respected figure, he said, a veteran teacher, and my leaving the group would be seen as a blow to its standing.

I told him that it wasn't about disagreement, it was about partisanship.  "I teach several classes which have political aspects," I said.  "If I'm seen as being publicly partisan, I will lose credibility with my students about being unbiased and open-minded."

"Don't you have opinions?" Steve shouted at me.

I sighed loudly enough that he heard me, and said, "Of course I have opinions.  But that's what they are: opinions.  I don't foist them off on my classes.  I present my students with facts, ideas, and critical thinking strategies, and let them come to their own conclusions."

"What if a kid asks you for your opinion on something like politics or religion?"

"I have one of two answers," I replied.  "If it's not germane to what we're discussing in class, I'll say so.  If it is, my usual response is, 'Why do you need to know my opinion?'  If the answer is simple curiosity, which it usually is, I just shake my head and tell them I'm not going there.  I steadfastly refuse to tell students what my religious views are and what political party I belong to.  Students are a captive audience.  It's way too easy for 'this is my opinion' to morph into 'and it should be yours, too.'"

By this time, Steve was so mad he was about to burst a blood vessel.  "But this isn't at school!  It's online!  You can't state your opinion to anyone?"

My own temper was fast rising, but I kept my voice level with an effort.  "I didn't say that.  What I'm saying is that I'm very careful.  Like it or not, I'm a public figure, and if I get involved in publicly-visible online partisan rants, it will damage my standing in the classroom."

He lost it.  "I can't believe someone as smart as you is just fine with private corporations taking over every fucking health care facility in the region!"

I snapped back, "I'm not fine with it.  I hate it.  For fuck's sake, my wife's a public health care nurse.  What the hell do you think my opinion is?"

That shut him up.  At least momentarily.

The bottom line, though, is that he never did get my point; students are required to be in school, so teachers have to be really cautious about how they use their position of power to maneuver students' opinions, even inadvertently.  Sometimes our beliefs can't help but be exposed; I never hesitated to confront racism, sexism, and homophobia in the classroom, for example.  But I always tried to be as careful as I could on most other topics.  Students look up to and trust teachers (well, most of them do most of the time), and if I used my authority to push my religious or political views, it would be a significant betrayal of that trust.

Which brings us to Monday's decision by the United States Supreme Court that a high school football coach praying with his athletes on the field was protected free speech.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The decision, unsurprisingly, was 6-3 along ideological lines.  In the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, "We are aware of no historically-sound understanding of the Establishment Clause that begins to (make) it necessary for government to be hostile to religion in this way."

I'm no expert in law, but I do see that saying, "You can't pray with students at an event they're required to attend" is not equivalent to "hostility to religion."  Just like teachers in the classroom, coaches are looked up to by athletes.  Gorsuch said that "students were not required nor expected to participate [in the prayer]," which is disingenuous to say the very least.  Show me one high school athlete who, at a practice or a game, would be willing to say to a well-respected coach, "I'm not going to participate in this prayer, I'll just stand here to the side and let everyone watching stare at me.  Tell me when you're done."

But it also brings up the question of why having the coach lead a prayer is a good thing.  Despite Christian alarmists screeching about God not being allowed in schools, no one stops students from praying privately.  I knew a young man who always quietly recited the Grace Before Meals prayer before eating lunch, and I never saw anyone bat an eyelash.  (And I bet there are lots of prayers wafting aloft right before final exams.)  If students want to pray, they certainly can do so.  Why does a coach or a teacher need to cross that line into leading a prayer?

It also brings to mind a particularly inconvenient quote from Jesus himself, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter six: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."

And as an aside, I wonder what the Supreme Court vote would have been if the coach had led the players in a prayer to Allah and asked them to bow toward Mecca.  Or any of the other hundreds of religious expressions of faith that are out there in the world.

What's most infuriating about this is the same basic thing I was arguing with Steve about; saying "doing this is inappropriate" doesn't mean "I'm anti (whatever the topic is)."  I am not anti-Christian; I have lots of Christian friends and mostly we get along just fine.  The frustration I have is with the subset of Christians who equate the secular society's insistence that Christianity not drive public policy with a desire to destroy Christianity itself.

I have no problem with someone saying "my faith requires me to do this."  I have a big problem with someone saying "my faith requires you to do this."  And that includes situations where the coercion is implicit, such as what school personnel say to young people.  Monday's decision should be deeply troubling to the religious and non-religious alike.  But given the current makeup of the court, I'm worried that we're only seeing the beginnings of an attempt to reestablish the hegemony of Christianity over the lives of all American citizens, irrespective of their own beliefs or lack thereof.


Monday, June 27, 2022

A life-like glow

One of the problems faced by people who would dearly love to find unequivocal proof of extraterrestrial life is: space is big.

No, not big.  Really fucking huge.  Here's an analogy that may help.  Let's start out with saying the Earth has been shrunk to the size of the period at the end of this sentence.  The Sun would be the size of a pool ball, and would be located about six meters away.  The farthest decent-sized object in the Solar System we know of -- Pluto (yes, yes, I know it's not a planet, I don't want to discuss it) -- would be a dust speck 230 meters away, a bit more than twice the length of an American football field.  The nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, would be another pool ball 1,570 kilometers away, roughly the distance between where I sit now (in upstate New York) and Jacksonville, Florida.

And in between us and it is a whole lot of bugger-all.

Just seeing any kind of detail in objects that far away is tremendously difficult, and that's even considering the amazing strides we've taken in telescope design.  Not only is there the distance involved, but there's dust and debris in between us and everywhere else, blurring the image further.  There could be friendly aliens on one of the planets orbiting Proxima Centauri leaping about and waving their six arms and holding up signs saying, "HERE WE ARE!", and we wouldn't see them.

And that's the nearest star.

Things become even worse when you consider actually going there.  Voyager 1, currently the most distant human-made object from Earth, is traveling outward at a little over sixty thousand kilometers per hour.  A decent clip, right?  Well, even so, it would take ten thousand years to reach Proxima Centauri, if it were heading that way.

Which it's not.

To me, this is the strongest argument against UFOs having an extraterrestrial origin.  Every indication we have is that the laws of the Special and General Theories of Relativity, which prohibit faster-than-light travel, are enforced in every jurisdiction.  It's hard to imagine space-faring aliens crossing all this distance to come see us (only to abduct some cows and leave a crop circle in Farmer Bob's wheat field, then leaving).  We may well not be the only intelligent life in the cosmos, but the likelihood of having a face-to-face (or face-to-whatever-they've-got) visit is slim to none.

Even having a nice chat with them from a distance is gonna be tricky, not to mention boring.  Once again, using Proxima Centauri (at 4.2 light years distant) as an example, if we were to beam a focused radio wave signal toward it containing some kind of encoded message, the best-case scenario of what it'd be like in Earth's SETI Command Central would go something like this:

Us (into microphone): Hey, Proxima Centaurians, how are y'all doing?

[8.4 year silence]

PCs (voice from speaker): We're doing fine.  The weather's been nice, although we could use some rain.  How are you?

Us (into microphone): Same old, same old.  You know how it goes.

[8.4 year silence]

PCs (voice from speaker): Don't we ever.  It's the same everywhere in the universe, amirite?  LOL

So anything approaching scintillating repartee would be kind of out of the question.

Another complication is that intelligent life doesn't mean intelligent life we can communicate with.  Consider the fact that until the invention of the radio telescope (1937), there could have been extraterrestrials positively screaming at us, and we'd have had no way to know.  And it's no better with messages going the other way.  Prior to our own radio signals, the Earth itself would have appeared completely silent; there would have been little in the way of indication that there was anything alive down here, despite the fact that the Earth had already hosted life for three billion years.  

As an aside, it's an interesting question as to whether we're going silent again, given the increasing efficiency of signal transmission -- our "radio bubble" is getting weaker, not (heaven knows) because we've got less to say, but because less of the signal is leaking out into space.  This might not be a bad thing, although it's probably already too late.  Recall in the brilliant send-up of the original Star Trek, Galaxy Quest, that the aliens (the Thermians from the Klaaaaaatu Nebula) thought our early television signals were documentaries:

Lieutenant Madison: They're not all "historical documents."  Surely you don't think that Gilligan's Island...

Captain Mathazar (sadly): Oh, those poor people.

So those of us who are kind of desperate to demonstrate that we're not alone in the universe have to figure out another way to do it other than the obvious ones.

Enter the Compact Color Biofinder.  This amazing device, developed at the University of Hawaii - Manoa, uses an interesting feature of many organic compounds -- fluorescence.  Fluorescence occurs when light at one frequency is absorbed by a molecule, resulting in the electrons in its atoms bouncing to higher energy levels; when those electrons fall back into the ground state, they emit light at certain characteristic frequencies.  (An example you may, unfortunately, know about; if you shine an ultraviolet light on cat piss, it fluoresces green, which will allow you to find where you need to clean up if Mr. Fluffums decides not to use his litter box.)

Because the fluorescence spectrums of different types of organic compounds are pretty well known, this allows you to analyze the light coming from an object that contains organic residues and determine what those residues are made of.  The concept, of course, is hardly new; it's the basic idea of spectroscopy, which has been around for two hundred years.  But the Compact Color Biofinder has refined the process to unbelievable levels.  It was able to detect and identify traces of the biological compounds in a fifty-million-year-old fish fossil from which you'd think every organic trace would have disappeared long ago.

"The Biofinder is the first system of its kind," said Anupam Misra, who led the team that developed the new device.  "At present, there is no other equipment that can detect minute amounts of bio-residue on a rock during the daytime.  Additional strengths of the Biofinder are that it works from a distance of several meters, takes video and can quickly scan a large area...  If the Biofinder were mounted on a rover on Mars or another planet, we would be able to rapidly scan large areas quickly to detect evidence of past life, even if the organism was small, not easy to see with our eyes, and dead for many millions of years.  We anticipate that fluorescence imaging will be critical in future NASA missions to detect organics and the existence of life on other planetary bodies."

So we may be fast approaching the point that we'll be able to analyze the faint light reflected from a distant exoplanet and say, "Yes, that's an organic biosignature."

As much fun as it'd be actually to meet aliens -- well, most aliens, I'll take a pass on Daleks, the Sycorax, and the Vashta Nerada -- at this point, I'll happily settle for evidence that they're out there.  The Compact Color Biofinder is looking like it may be our best tool yet for doing exactly that.  Until we can find a way around Relativity, we'll have to content ourselves with looking up into the night sky and saying, "They're out there, even if we can never get to have a conversation with them."


Saturday, June 25, 2022

A ripple in space-time

I find it nothing short of mind-boggling how far we've come in creating equipment with which to explore the cosmos.

The first telescope was invented in 1608, and it was so crude (mostly with respect to the clarity, resolution, and magnification of the lenses) that it accomplished little more than make the blurry bits look bigger.  For example, Galileo used it to see Saturn's rings in 1610, but to him they looked like "handles" -- it took another half-century for the telescope to improve enough to allow Christiaan Huygens to see that they were actually full rings encircling the planet.

Not long after that, Isaac Newton invented the reflecting telescope, substituting parabolic mirrors for lenses, allowing for a much shorter tube length (and thus easier alignment).  The equipment gradually grew in power and resolution, and we were able to peer farther and farther out into space with increasing clarity.

Then, a little before 1900, things exploded.

In 1887, Albert Michelson invented the interferometer, which used a property of light to analyze the motion of the Earth through space, and which led directly to Albert Einstein's Theories of Relativity.  The idea here is that you take a beam of light, split off part of it, and reflect that split part at right angles to the original beam; then you bounce both pieces back so they recombine after traveling equal distances.  At that point you should see positive interference -- the wave crests and troughs should all still be "in phase" (i.e. lined up).

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Krishnavedala, Michelson interferometer with labels, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Michelson and his colleague Edward Morley used the interferometer to test a model that had been used to explain the wave nature of light -- the "luminiferous aether."  The idea here is that if light is a wave, something had to be waving -- just as water molecules move in a water wave, air molecules move in a sound wave, and so on.  When light goes through a vacuum, what, exactly, is waving?  Because it was impossible for people to imagine how a wave could travel through a complete vacuum, it was suggested that space wasn't a complete vacuum -- that there is some kind of stuff (the aether) filling it, and it is through this medium that light propagates in space.

Because the interferometer involved beams of light traveling at right angles, Michelson and Morley surmised that this meant they were moving at different speeds through the aether because of the Earth's motion around the Sun.  To take the simplest configuration, if you place the device so that one beam is parallel to the direction of the Earth's motion and the other perpendicular to it, the parallel one would be dragged back by the aether on the way out and propelled faster on the way back (in the fashion of a boat first moving upriver, then turning around and going downriver).  The perpendicular one, on the other hand, would be deflected slightly to the side (like a boat moving cross-current).  In that case, it was possible to calculate exactly how out of phase the two beams would be with each other by the time they recombined at the detector.  You should see an interference pattern -- the two waves would partially reinforce each other and partially cancel each other out, creating a pattern of stripes.

Interference between two separate waves, the green one moving to the right and the blue one moving to the left -- the red wave is what you'd see as the waves pass through each other, with the peaks and troughs alternately adding to and subtracting from each other. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Lookangmany thanks to author of original simulation = Wolfgang Christian and Francisco Esquembre author of Easy Java Simulation = Francisco Esquembre, Waventerference, CC BY-SA 4.0]

In fact, they didn't see an interference pattern -- the two beams were still completely in phase when they recombined -- which proved that the luminiferous aether didn't exist, and there was no "aether drag" phenomenon as the Earth moved through space.  It left unsolved the original question -- "what's waving when light moves through a vacuum? -- until Albert Einstein added the electromagnetic theories of James Clerk Maxwell to light apparently having an invariant speed regardless of how fast you're traveling to completely upend physics with his Special Theory of Relativity.

All this is just a lead-up to looking at how far we've come since then.  Because it's a twist on the Michelson-Morley interferometer that is currently being used to test a prediction of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity -- the existence of gravitational waves.  The General Theory, you'll recall, says that space-time is like a three-dimensional fabric that can be stretched and compressed by the presence of massive objects -- that, in fact, is what gravity is, a deformation of space-time that's a little like what happens when you put a bowling ball on a trampoline.  Objects are deflected toward a massive object not because there's a literal pull being exerted, but because they're following the lines of curved space-time they're passing through (picture rolling a marble on the aforementioned trampoline and you'll get the picture -- the marble might appear to be attracted to the bowling ball, but it's just following the curves of the trampoline it's rolling on).

So the General Theory states that if you have massive objects moving at a high velocity, they should create waves in space-time that would propagate outward at the speed of light.  Those waves would be really small, unless you're talking about very large masses moving very fast -- such as two black holes orbiting each other.  Here's a rather contrived way to picture it:  Take a barbell, and attach it at the center of the bar to a powerful motor that spins it rapidly.  Lower it into a pond so that the weights are sweeping in circles across the surface.  The rippling waves created would spread out across the pond -- those are what gravitational waves of two orbiting black holes do to the fabric of space-time.

The problem is, the waves are incredibly feeble.  Gravity, although it seems powerful, is by far the weakest force; in fact, it's about 10^40 times weaker than the next strongest force (electromagnetism).  (That's a factor of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, if you don't like scientific notation,)  Consider that a weak magnet can pick up a paperclip -- overcoming the gravitational pull on the clip exerted by the entire planet.

So how in the hell could you detect something that weak, from so far away?

Enter LIGO -- the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatories, in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington.  The idea here is precisely the same as the Michelson-Morley interferometer I described earlier, except instead of some mysterious aether, they're looking for gravitational waves sweeping past the Earth from a billion light years away.  What General Relativity predicts is that as those waves roll past, the tube of the device that's parallel to the wave should compress a little, while the one perpendicular would be unaffected (well, it'd shrink a little in diameter, but that wouldn't affect the experiment).  Since the two laser beams would for an instant be traveling different distances, they'd momentarily go out of phase, and you'd pick up an interference pattern.

And it worked.  In 2015, gravitational waves were detected, just as Einstein predicted.  They've now been seen over ninety times.

I've said before that just about every time I talk about astrophysics, I should just write "Einstein wins again!" and call it good.  (Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, whose wonderful YouTube channel Science Without the Gobbledygook is a must-watch, just pops a photo up on the screen of Einstein sticking his tongue out every time his name comes up, and says, "Yeah, that guy again.")  Relativity, as bizarre as some of its predictions are, has passed every single test.  And now, the physicists are using LIGO to look for another prediction of Relativity -- that as gravitational waves pass other massive objects, the waves themselves will be deflected -- just as the waves in the pond would be if there was rock protruding above the surface of the water.  That deflection should be detectable from Earth, even though it's even more feeble than the original wave.

I bet they'll find it, too.  We've come light years from the crude telescopes of the seventeenth century -- in only four hundred years, we've progressed from blurry glimpses of large objects in our own Solar System to observing the faint traces of phenomena that occurred (to borrow a phrase) long ago in a galaxy far, far away.  With the speed our equipment is improving, you have to wonder what refinements we'd see a hundred years from now -- or even a decade.

What new wonders will open up before us?  Galileo and Huygens and the rest, I think, would be thrilled to see what they started -- and where it led.


Friday, June 24, 2022

The haunted forest

Thanks to a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I now have a new travel destination to add to my list.

Like I need one.  I'm always saying things to my wife like, "Honey, can we set aside a little money from each paycheck?  I'd like to go to Madagascar."  Fortunately, having a wife who is amazingly tolerant of my various eccentricities, I've gotten to fulfill a lot of this wanderlust, and have been to places as exotic as Iceland, Malaysia, Trinidad, Ecuador, and Estonia.

But not Madagascar yet.  I'm working on it.

And neither have I visited Romania, home to the vacation site suggestion I received a couple of days ago.  Romania is, of course, the site of Transylvania, of Dracula fame, but is also where you can visit a place called the Hoia-Baciu Forest, which sounds like a must-see.

It's in northwest-central Romania, and was set aside some years ago for recreation and outdoor activities. There are biking and hiking trails, a rugged and beautiful valley called Cheile Baciului where there are picturesque rock formations and a lake for swimming and canoeing, and tracts set aside for paintball games and archery.  The whole thing sounds awesome, and even more so when you find out that Hoia Baciu Forest is...

... haunted.

And not just by ghosts.  This place is home to every paranormal phenomenon you can think of.  There have been UFO sightings, mysterious disappearances, orb-like apparitions, disembodied voices, visitors experiencing time slips... you name it.  It sounds like your one-stop shop for woo-woo-ism of all brands.

Hoia-Baciu Forest and the town of Grigorescu, Romania [Image is in the Public Domain]

According to the tourism promotional site I linked above:
The Hoia-Baciu Forest (World’s Most Haunted Forest) is situated near Cluj-Napoca, Romania covers an area of ​​over 250 hectares and is often referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of the country.  Hoia-Baciu Forest (World's Most Haunted Forest) has a reputation for intense paranormal activity and unexplained events.  Reports have included, ghost sightings, unexplained apparitions, faces appearing in photographs that were not visible with the naked eye, and in the 1970s, UFO sightings were reported.
Visitors to the forest often report intense feelings of anxiety and the feeling of being constantly watched.  Moreover, the local vegetation is somehow bizarre in appearance, like something out of a make-believe story with strangely shaped trees, and unexplained charring on tree stumps and branches...  Many of the locals who have been brave enough to venture into the forest complained of physical harm, including rashes, nausea, vomiting, migraines, burns, scratches, anxiety, and other unusual sensations.
Yes!  Unexplained intense anxiety, vomiting, and migraines!  That's what I want in a vacation spot!

But the weirdness doesn't end there:
Some people believe that the forest is a gateway to another dimension.  Within the dark interior of Hoia-Baciu Forest (World’s Most Haunted Forest), people have been known to disappear, strange lights have been seen, the wind seems to speak.  Several stories tell of people entering the forest and experiencing missing time.  Some have known to be missing for quite some time with no recollection of how they had spent that time.  One such story focuses on a 5-year-old girl who wandered into the woods and got lost.  The story goes that she emerged from the forest 5 years later, wearing the same untarnished clothes that she wore on the day she disappeared with no memory of where had happened in that interval of time.
And worse still, through all of this you might get laughed at by invisible women:
People also report hearing disembodied female voices breaking the heavy silence, giggling and even apparitions,  There are many cases of people reportedly being scratched.  All these things happen with no reasonable explanation.
Well, all I can say is these people really need some advice about how to write a travel website.  For one thing, you don't need to tell us every single time that it's the "World's Most Haunted Forest."  We remember, okay?  Also, you might dream up a better sales pitch than, "Please come visit us!  We have archery, paintball, hiking, and disembodied female voices making fun of you!  Spend your days swimming and cycling, when you're not puking!  Try not to disappear for five years!"

Of course, maybe they have the right idea.  Paranormal travel is becoming quite a thing, and I'll bet people go there solely to experience all of the aforementioned attractions.  I have to admit that if I go to Romania, I'm going to make a point of visiting Hoia-Baciu Forest (World's Most Haunted Forest), if for no other reason, to see what all the buzz is about.  I'm still struggling with my disappointment over not getting to visit the ruins of Borley Rectory when I was in England, so I wouldn't want to miss this one.  I'll just make sure to bring along my migraine meds.

So, many thanks to the loyal reader who sent me the link about Hoia-Baciu Forest (World's Most Haunted Forest).  It's now on my list.  Right behind Madagascar.  I'll see what Carol has to say about setting aside a little more money in our travel fund.


Thursday, June 23, 2022

The domino effect

I find it fascinating how many important discoveries were made more or less by accident -- either because a researcher was looking for something and stumbled upon something else, or because (s)he was just playing around in the lab and noticed something cool.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

  1. Two researchers, George Beadle and Edward Tatum, were researching nutrition in a mold called Neurospora, and were particularly interested in why some strains of Neurospora starved to death even when given adequate amounts of food.  Their research generated the concept of "one gene-one protein" -- the basis of our understanding of how genes control traits.
  2. Charles Richet was studying how the toxin of a rare species of jellyfish affects the body.  His research led to the discovery of how anaphylactic shock works -- and the development of the epi pen, saving countless lives from death because of bee sting allergies, nut allergies, and so on.
  3. Wilhelm Röntgen was researching the newly-invented cathode-ray tube, which at that point had no practical applications whatsoever.  That is, he was playing around.  He noticed that when he activated the tube, even though it was completely covered, some fluorescent papers at the other end of the room began to glow in the dark.  He had just discovered x-rays.
  4. In 1945 an engineer named Percy Spencer was working with a device called a magnetron that looked like it might have applications in ground-based radar systems.   While messing about with it, he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted.   He patented a design that year that we now call the "microwave oven."
  5. Alexander Fleming was something of a ne'er-do-well in the scientific world.  He did a lot of raising of bacteria on plates, and his favorite hobby was to take brightly-colored species of bacteria and paint them on agar media to make pictures.  One day, a mold spore blew in and landed on one of his picture-cultures and spoiled it.  His further investigation of how the mold spoiled the culture led to the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin.
  6. Roy Plunkett was working with gases that could be used to quickly cool vessels in scientific experiments, and after one failure he found that the vessel was left coated with a slick substance.  He eventually named it "Teflon."
Stuff like this is one good reason to support pure research.  The criticism "I don't see what possible application this can have" is best answered, "you don't see what possible application this can have yet."  We never lose by finding out more about the universe we live in.  My own opinion is that there's a benefit to knowing stuff even if it never does have a practical use; but even if you're a pure utilitarian, there's no question that putting money into pure research pays back far more than it costs.

This came to mind because of a cool study that appeared two weeks ago in the journal Physical Review Applied about what controls the speed of collapse of a row of dominoes.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Nara Cute, Wallpaper kartu domino, CC BY-SA 4.0]

It's hard not to be fascinated by the phenomenon.  For example, take five minutes and watch this amazing record-setting collapse -- of thirty-two thousand dominoes:

Watching this is kind of mesmerizing, but it did bring up two things: (1) I would never have the patience to do this, and (2) if I did, knowing my luck, I'd be somewhere around domino #31,500 and my dog would come galumphing in, knock the whole thing down, and I'd have to start over.

The researchers into the domino collapse phenomenon found that the speed with which the row collapses is dependent upon two things -- the friction between the dominoes and the surface they're standing on, and the friction between one domino and the next one in line.  If you want the collapse to propagate quickly, you want a high coefficient of friction between the dominoes and the surface, but a low coefficient between the dominoes and each other.  The former means that there won't be much slip-back as the domino falls -- as it tips over, the bottom corner of the domino stays put, and the piece pivots around that fulcrum so that most of the energy of the fall is transmitted into the next domino in line.  The latter means that once a domino hits the next one, the slipping of the two surfaces across each other doesn't get "hung up" and lose energy from friction as the top corner of one domino slides across the surface of the next one.

The result lines up pretty well with common sense, but it's cool to have it confirmed experimentally, and that the researchers actually came up with a mathematical model that predicts the velocity of the collapse.

So, what use is it?  We don't know.  Maybe it could be used as a model of systems you don't want to collapse -- like buildings.  But one of the fantastic things about science is when a model in one area of study turns out to illuminate something completely different.  Maybe the mathematical principles of domino collapse rate could be applied to other phenomena that are caused by a phase transition -- a sudden change between one state and another, often caused by a tiny input of energy (like a finger pushing over a single domino).  There are a number of familiar phenomena that involve rapid phase transitions, including earthquakes, explosive volcanic eruptions, breakup of the ice sheet over a river during the spring thaw, and the firing of a neuron once the stimulus threshold is crossed.

Like I said earlier: the beauty of pure research is that we don't know what kind of applications it might have.  With the brilliant minds in the scientific community, you never know where it might lead.  One little paper on a curiosity of physics might trigger new research and go places you'd never expect.

You might even call it...

... the domino effect.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Healing yourself from nonsense

The past couple of days, my posts here at Skeptophilia have looked at a couple of loony beliefs -- that the Earth is hollow, and that satire sites like The Onion are actually telling the truth but no one believes them.  It brought to mind one question I get asked frequently: "Why do you care so much if people believe goofy stuff?  It's not hurting anything or anybody if someone falls for a weird claim for which there is no evidence."

It's a fair question.  

To start with, some of these loony beliefs are way more common than thinking that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel vanished into the interior of the planet.  Take astrology, for example.  But still, what's the harm?  The vast majority of people who believe the stars guide our lives take it only to the level of consulting their daily horoscope; many fewer pay for getting their star charts drawn up, and fewer still spend an amount that might cause a serious hardship.  So how is any of it harmful to anything other than their pocketbooks?

It's probably no surprise that I do think it's a problem, and the damage it causes is as insidious as it is subtle.  Accepting a claim in the absence of evidence -- in the case of conspiracy theories, often because there's no evidence -- establishes a habit of credulity.  Okay, reading and believing your horoscope causes no direct harm, but once you've decided that something sounding good, or wanting something to be true, means that it is true, you've set yourself up for belief in something that could potentially hurt or kill.

If you think I'm exaggerating, check out this new alt-med claim that I heard about from the wonderful Twitter user @Neuroskeptic.  It's called "German new medicine" and seems to be the brainchild of Ryke Geerd Hamer.  And I am not exaggerating when I say that anyone who believes this nonsense is literally putting their life at risk.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Rwebogora, Alternative medicines, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The claim is summarized in what he calls "five biological laws," although none of them are within hailing distance of anything like actual biological science.  In the interest of space, I'll paraphrase them; if you're so inclined, you can read about them at greater length at the site linked above.

  • First law: Every disease is due to one cause, which Hamer calls a "specific biological special program" -- a response the body has to a conflict, shock, or emotional injury.  This "program" affects not only the brain and psyche, but a specific organ that then manifests the "program" as a disease.
  • Second law: The "program" has two phases; a conflict-active phase in which you can have symptoms like high blood pressure, fast heartbeat, frequent urination, and loss of appetite, and a healing phase in which those symptoms abate.  Hamer states explicitly that cancer is caused by having a "conflict that requires tissue proliferation" and that people with cancer die not of the effects of the cancer itself, but directly because of chemotherapy.
  • Third law: Diseases should be classified not by the systems affected, nor by the cause (bacterial, viral, genetic, and so on), but by the "embryonic germ layer relation."  He seems to be claiming that the three embryonic germ layers (endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm) create some kind of fundamental functional linkage between organs in the adult organism.  Along the way, he makes statements that are patently idiotic.  He claims that the parts of the brain come from different germ layers; for example, that the brainstem comes from the endoderm.  (It doesn't; the entire nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord, comes from ectoderm, something that was conclusively demonstrated a hundred years ago.)
  • Fourth law: Microbes don't cause diseases.  The presence of microbes in damaged tissue is because -- this is a direct quote -- "the organism uses the microbes to optimize healing."  Because a healthy person has a large and diverse microbiome (which is true) he thinks that all microbes are beneficial (which is absurd).  I'd like to see if Hamer would volunteer to drink a culture of Vibrio cholerae -- the causative agent of cholera -- if he's so confident all microbes are harmless.
  • Fifth law: Diseases, basically, don't exist, because "Mother Nature doesn't create anything meaningless, malignant, or diseased."  All the symptoms of every "disease" (to mimic his use of quotes to indicate disdain) are caused by these "specific biological special programs" the body is running to try to heal itself, which would work if only the damn doctors would just step aside.
This goes one step further even than homeopathy, which encourages you to substitute a sugar pill for real medicine; this is saying that the symptoms themselves, however severe, are your body's attempt to cure itself, and will just go away if you let it do its thing.  

I do not exaggerate by saying that following these five "rules" will result in people dying.

Look, it's not that I think doctors have all the answers, nor that medical science always works.  My mom, who was a bit of a doctor-phobe and passed that along to me, used to say, "If you're sick, wait a while.  You'll either get better or worse.  If you get better, great.  If you get worse, you can go to a doctor then."  She had a point, if you don't push it too far; the human body does have a pretty good capacity for healing itself.  As my genetics professor said -- apropos of inheritable diseases, but it could equally well be applied to other kinds -- "What is amazing is not that what happens in your body sometimes can go wrong, it's that most of the time, it all goes right."  You can see the results of over-reliance on medications in our current crisis of opioid addiction, and the overuse of antibiotics triggering antibiotic resistance in bacteria that used to be easily treatable.

But saying "sometimes medical intervention is unnecessary" is a far cry from saying "medical intervention is never necessary."  I owe my life to medical intervention; my sister died when she was three days old of Rh incompatibility syndrome, and I would have as well, but in the fifteen years between her birth and mine a treatment had been discovered that suppresses the maternal immune response against the baby's blood.  If all diseases will cure themselves if you just let the body do its thing, I wonder how Hamer and his followers explain the dramatic increase in infant survival rate since the development of vaccines and antibiotics.  Do you personally know a single individual since 1960 who died of diphtheria, polio, measles, tuberculosis, or smallpox?

I'm guessing less than one percent of my readers do.  I certainly don't.

What Hamer is doing is irresponsible in the extreme.  As far as the gullible people who believe his bullshit, I'll come back to my original point; if you take the time to learn some logic and science, you not only insulate yourself from more-or-less harmless practices like Tarot card divination, you are safe from people whose claims could keep you from seeking treatment for life-threatening conditions.

Put simply: critical thinking saves lives.


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The title of this blog post is classified

I think we've all had moments when we were taken in by a prank or a hoax.  Some of them can be pretty clever, and after all, we're only human -- we can't call things correctly all the time.

And when it happens, most of us go, "Wow, what a goober I am!" and laugh a little, and move on -- with, one would hope, a resolution not to fall quite so quickly the next time.

Which is probably why the YouTube video link sent to me by a loyal reader had me torn between guffawing and crying.  Well, not the video itself; the video is a clip from The Onion, that awesome purveyor of satire, about a "Homeland Terrorism Preparedness Bill" (that doesn't exist) being reviewed by a Representative John Haller of Pennsylvania (who doesn't exist).

What had me twitching were the comments.

Yes, yes, I know, never read the comments section.  I broke the cardinal rule.  And now that I've done so, I'm even more worried about what might happen in the next election.  Because to put not too fine a point on it, the majority of the commenters appear to be walking, talking, computer-owning, voting Americans who have the IQ of a peach pit.

First, though, let's see what "Representative Haller" had to say:
Congress shall now vote for approval of HR 8791, the Homeland Terrorism Preparedness Bill, as said bill requests emergency response funding up to and including... I'm sorry, this section is classified ... dollars to prepare for a national level terrorist attack and/or attack from CLASSIFIED.  Funding for first responder personnel and vehicles would be doubled if said attack leads to more than 80% of national population being affected by CLASSIFIED.  This funding shall commence with the first attack on CLASSIFIED or the first large-scale outbreak of CLASSIFIED, dependent upon which comes first.  Civilian and military units shall be trained in containment and combat of CLASSIFIED including irradiated CLASSIFIED with possibility of CLASSIFIED airborne CLASSIFIED flesh-eating CLASSIFIED, and/or all of the above in such event as CLASSIFIED spewing CLASSIFIED escape, are released, or otherwise become uncontrollable.

Air Force units may also be directed to combat said CLASSIFIED due to their enormous size and other-worldly strengths.  Should event occur in urban areas... Jesus, that's... that's CLASSIFIED... far surpassing our darkest nightmares.  Should casualties exceed CLASSIFIED body disposal actions shall be halted and associated resources shall be reallocated to CLASSIFIED underground CLASSIFIED protected birthing centers.  A new Bill of Rights shall be drafted and approved by CLASSIFIED.
Having now reviewed the bill, I ask you to please cast your votes.
Okay, please reassure me; having heard that, you would immediately know that it was fake.  Right?  Right?

Apparently, "wrong."  Here's a comment that appears on the video link:
If you have any intelligence at all or if you are just "awake" you can easily enough fill in the blanks "classified"  Hmmm..  He is basically talking about radiation and disease(s) outbreak and containment, underground facilities and the general population which will evidently be gradually eradicated!  Better get your house in order, light your Lamp and have PLENTY of OIL this is going to be a long, tedious ride until Jesus comes back!  We don't know when, ONLY The Father knows so we should be ready AT ALL TIMES but these things happen FIRST, BEFORE He gets back, so you need to stay ready and "endure" with all you've got!  Remember Jesus IS The ONLY Way!  ~Heads UP!
Well, someone sensible responded to that, to wit:
This was a fake video made by The Onion.  Look at the logo in the lower right corner.  Get a grip on reality.
Remember my opening paragraph, about going, "Wow, how silly of me!  I got fooled!"  Apparently there are some folks whose motto is, "Evidence?  We don't need no stinkin' evidence."  Here's the followup comment.  Spelling and grammar are as written, because you can only add [sic] so many times:
It could be a fake, or maybe the onion logo is a replacement over the real logo.  Maybe somebody tampering with the video to make its seem like a fake and someone got their hands on it.  The onion logo could be a cover up scheme who knows...  But I will say this, all around us there is blood being shed, crazy earth quakes, murder, war, lies, the death toll is off the chain. muslims cut the heads off of little children and dance around with the corpses, evil media and music, promotion of violence adultery sexual immorality and greed.  Things are so bad it just is not funny anymore.  Rape is at an all time high and everywhere I turn I see gay people !!!  yo mad people are gay its freaking crazy.  yo we got dudes popping other dudes and little boys in the butt 24/7365.  the immorality these day is off the charts.  anybody who thinks things are ok today has a nothing in between the ear.  you gotta be real stupid not to see that something huge is going to happen.
So evidently I'm one of the ones who has a nothing in between the ear, because I am certain it's a fake.  Look up the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.  There is no Representative John Haller.  That alone should be enough, wouldn't you think?

At least one guy agrees with me:
Fuck's sake, people.  It's satire.  The Onion, you know?  Satire?  Meaning fake?  Hello? 
But he was immediately shouted down by the likes of the following rocket scientist:
I think it's quite funny that the majority of those saying this is fake all have blank profiles almost as if they were created just to argue the legitimacy of this video.
And the following:
Sounds like they have a plan if there's a biological outbreak they mite of created something that can be air born and something about flesh eating hmm and if this is true some one must of got their hands on it and preparing in chase they release it on the public for some reason zombie popping in my head head there experimenting rabbits on people and that there's a part in your brain that could make you so violent that your almost like a ghoul.
Yes!  That's it!  Zombie popping in your head head there experimenting rabbits on people!  Why didn't I think of that as an explanation?  It's brilliant!

So you see why I don't have a lot of trust in the citizenry of the United States, and their ability to vote in leaders who aren't batshit insane?

We have people here who, even when given repeated reassurances that a video that is obviously a fake is, well, obviously a fake, they still insist that it must all be a giant conspiracy to keep them in the dark about ghouls and radiation and diseases and underground facilities and the Second Coming of Christ.

Whenever I think I've plumbed the absolute depth of idiocy, I find that there are deeper wells that I have yet to explore.  As the quote attributed to Einstein puts it: "The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits."


Monday, June 20, 2022

Lost and found

Every once in a while I'll run across something and think, "Yeah, I remember hearing about that," but even after thinking about it, I can't bring back to mind much in the way of detail.  This happened just yesterday, when a friend of mine, who is a loyal reader and frequent contributor to Skeptophilia, sent me a link along with the message, "Take the bait, little mouse... take the bait."

Of course, I couldn't let something like that just sit there, so I clicked on the link.  Which is just what he intended.  And the link turned out to be about the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  And I thought, "Don't they have something to do with the Babylonian Captivity?  And Mormons?  Or something?"

So before I tell you what the link had to say -- which is truly stunning, and for which I should give you a while to prepare either your mind or else a strong drink -- let's look at what I found out when I did some research on the Ten Lost Tribes.

Apparently the idea is that of the twelve tribes of ancient Judea, ten of them were overrun by the Assyrians somewhere around 722 B.C.E. and deported, presumably because they had done something naughty in God's sight, which always seemed to be what kicked off these kinds of mass genocides.  In any case, the whole lot of them were killed or else sold off into slavery, and were never more seen or heard of.  Except that (1) a good many reputable historians seem to think that the whole thing is a myth, and (2) now everyone and his next-door-neighbor is claiming descent from them even though there seems to be no hard evidence of any of it.

We have the Chinese (Kaifeng) Jews.  We have the Bnei Menashe of India.  We have the Igbo Jews of Nigeria.  We have the Pashtun of Afghanistan.  We have the Cimmerians of the Caucasus.  We have the Beta Israel of Ethiopia.  Farther afield, we even have a few wackos who think the Japanese are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes.  And farther afield yet (in fact, given the spherical nature of the Earth, about as far afield as you can get) are the Mormons, who think that the Native Americans are actually of Ten Lost Tribes descent, despite no archaeological, genetic, or any other kind of support for the contention.

So a great many people are of the opinion that the Ten Lost Tribes aren't really all that lost.  In fact, if you believe half of the tales out there, you'll come away with the impression that you can't swing a stick without hitting a Ten Lost Tribesman.

What may come as an even greater surprise, though, is that I haven't told you the wackiest theory on record about these Palestinian Hide-and-Seek World Champions.  Because the website that my friend sent me claims that the Ten Lost Tribes are actually...

... inside the Earth.

And I don't mean underground, as in caverns or something.  I mean that the Earth is hollow, and the Ten Lost Tribes vanished because they found a big hole up at the North Pole and went down there and haven't come out since.  And they're not the only ones down there, either:
What is Our Hollow Earth like?

It is a terrestrial paradise,
...where the original Garden of Eden is located today
...where the Lost Tribes of Israel live
...where the Political Kingdom of God is located
...where the Lost Viking Colonies of Greenland migrated to
...where vanquished Germans migrated to after World War II
...where flying saucers come from
...where people live to be hundreds of years old in perfect health
...where peace and prosperity exists for everyone
...where Heaven is located (the inner sun)
Well, with all of that inside the Earth, no wonder they stayed lost, although you have to question how nice it would be given the presence of Vikings and Nazis.  But maybe if everyone has been living for centuries in peace, prosperity, and health, there's no reason for the Vikings and Nazis to engage in rape, pillage, plunder, and mass executions any more.

I dunno.  But on the website there are all sorts of testimonials from people who claim to have been inside the Earth, so I took a look at the first one, which was written in the nineteenth century by one Willis Emerson, who was (he said) recording the narrative of an Olaf Jansen of Sweden.  Jansen claimed to have sailed north into the Arctic and ended up going down some kind of hole into an "inner land" inhabited by giant beautiful people who spoke "something like Sanskrit."  The whole thing sounded like Jules Verne on acid, so I can't say I was all that impressed.

We also have Phoebe Marie Holmes, who claims to have visited the Sun.  Yes, the real Sun, not the "inner sun" that the Hollow Earth people claim is where the Earth's core should be, along with the stars and galaxies and all:

Note: diagram not to scale.

Holmes wrote all about it in a book called, unsurprisingly, My Visit to The Sun, in which she claims that the New Jerusalem is being built there for us by Jesus and all the Saints, in the interior of the Sun, because apparently it's hollow, too.

How she got there, being that the Sun is kind of hot and all, I'm not sure.  Perhaps she went at night.

In any case, the whole site reads like an Encyclopedia Wingnuttica, so I spent most of it torn between laughing and looking around for the footnote that said, "Ha ha.  This is a satire.  Gotcha."  But no, however bizarre it seems, these people are sincere.

What did sort of impress me, though, is that the header for the site says that the information contained therein qualifies as "WORLD TOP SECRET."  So secret, in fact, that you would never find it unless you Googled "World Top Secret Hollow Earth."

Or else had a friend who knows just how to bait you just right to get you to open a ridiculous link.


Saturday, June 18, 2022

Howls from the losing side

After I wrote a piece two weeks ago about Pride Month and how critical it is for LGBTQ young people to see positive representation in books, television, and movies, I thought I'd finally said all I had to say about the subject.  After all, it's come up enough times before.  Hell, when I first came out as bisexual publicly, it was here at Skeptophilia.  Since then I've dealt with the general issue of homophobia, not to mention my reaction to having a homophobic slur (and a half-full can of soda) thrown at me personally.  I've responded to claims that any kind of queer representation in fiction is "virtue signaling" or an attempt to be "woke."  I've explained, as patiently as I know how, that the science is absolutely crystal clear that neither gender nor sexual orientation is a choice, and that neither one is binary.  I even responded to a reader who basically said that she was fine with my being queer as long as I went back into the closet and stayed there.

But I've also been hit between the eyes by enough horrifying stuff in the last few weeks that it's impossible for me to remain silent. 

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Let's start with Mark Burns, Republican candidate for the 4th Congressional District in South Carolina, who wants to re-launch the House Un-American Activities Committee specifically to root out "LGBTQ indoctrination" of children.  Such indoctrinators, he says, should be tried and executed for treason.

This "indoctrination" includes parents who are supportive of their trans children and teachers who have materials in their classrooms portraying LGBTQ individuals in a positive light.  All different subgroups under the LGBTQ umbrella, Burns said, are merely pedophiles in disguise, and as such deserve to die along with the people who support them.

I'm utterly baffled why such a statement -- threatening law-abiding American citizens with public mass execution -- doesn't immediately disqualify him from running from any office, anywhere, ever.  But no.  And Pastor Dillon Awes of Hurst, Texas, went even further; anyone identifying as LGBTQ should be executed without trial.  "They should be lined up against the wall and shot in the back of the head!" Awes said.  "That's what God teaches. That's what the Bible says.  You don't like it?  You don't like God's word, because that is what God says."

It's not only the horrific bloodthirstiness of these statements that is appalling; it's the hypocrisy.  Do you know what the Bible has way more prohibitions against than it does against homosexuality?  Usury.  Also known as lending money at interest.  In other words, the entire foundation of capitalism.  Don't believe me?  Check out Deuteronomy 23:19, Leviticus 25:13, and Nehemiah 5:10.   Oh, and don't overlook Ezekiel 18:13, where the required penalty for basically what we'd call "being a banker" is death.

Then there are the biblical prohibitions against tattoos, against wearing cloth made of two different kinds of fibers woven together, and against eating shellfish and pork.  (It also bears mention that the last-mentioned biblical passage also identifies a bat as being a bird.  Yay for biblical inerrancy, amirite?)

So until Burns and Awes start snarling as loudly about all these other things that are Abominations In The Lord's Sight, they can just shut their fucking mouths.

Then there's right wing author and commentator Nick Adams, who just tweeted last week, without any apparent sense of irony, "Straight white males are the most oppressed group in America today."  Really, Nick?  Show me one person who has recommended taking all straight white males and/or their allies and murdering them.

I'll wait.

Oh, but that's not all.  How about Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, who tweeted last week, "Take your children to CHURCH, not to drag bars."  She was evidently responding to a drag bar in Texas that hosted a "family-friendly brunch" where performers in drag read stories to the children who were in attendance.  While I have serious issues with children going to an event in any bar regardless of its description, the outrage here seems to be centered around the drag queens.  Because this is, apparently, something new?  These people have short memories -- I'll bet as children or young adults a good chunk of them watched Flip Wilson, Harvey Korman, Johnny Downs, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (Some Like it Hot), Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire), Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie), not to mention pretty much the entire cast of Monty Python's Flying Circus.  (In fact, one of their movies features a hilarious scene of men playing women pretending that they're men.)

Oh, and how about the fact that many of us, myself included, first learned about classical music from a cross-dressing rabbit?

On a more serious note, though, I feel obliged to request that Representative Boebert count up the number of children who have been harmed by drag queens (or any other LGBTQ individuals), and compare it to the number of children who have been molested and abused in churches by members of the clergy.

I'll wait.

The situation is not all dire, and I have some hope that the hypocritical yammering of people like this is a desperate, last-ditch attempt to push an agenda that, in fact, polls show is increasingly unpopular.  The article a friend sent me, that was actually what got the ball rolling on this diatribe, pointed out that the latest research shows that eight out of ten Americans believe there should be specific legislation designed to protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination -- and this includes two-thirds of the Republicans surveyed. 

People like Awes, Burns, Boebert, and all the others who have been howling about queers corrupting society and taking over America are losing, and they know it.  But the scary part is that they can do a great deal of damage on their way out of the door.  A better world tomorrow won't help the trans kids who commit suicide today after being labeled as aberrations and denied appropriate medical care.  Queer teenagers subjected to the horrors of "conversion therapy" won't ever completely lose those emotional scars, even if they end up in a place where it's safe for them to claim their identity.  Even the subtler damage of the fear, secrecy, and shame inculcated in queer kids by immersion in a homophobic culture doesn't heal quickly, if it ever does.  I knew I was queer at age fifteen, and was terrified to come out until I was fifty-two.

You do the math.

Yes, I know we're all dead exhausted by the necessity of ringing the changes on the same issues over and over and over.  On the other hand, it's no better to swing too far in the other direction and decide that because things are getting better (which they definitely are), we can relax.  We have to keep clamoring loudly for equality, for explicit anti-discrimination legislation, for the rights of people to love who they love and be who they are publicly and without shame.

And until all those goals are achieved, don't expect me to be silent.  Anyone who doesn't like it -- well, feel free to unfriend me, unfollow me, block me, or ignore me into nonexistence.  But I'm not going to do what I did for decades, which is to allow the ugly bigotry imbedded in our culture to shut me up and make me hide.

Never, ever again.