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, March 30, 2023

Dark days

I'm going to propose a new law, in the vein of Murphy's Law ("If it can go wrong, it will"), Betteridge's Law ("If a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is 'no'"), and Poe's Law ("A sufficiently well-done satire is indistinguishable from the real thing"): "If a statement begins with, 'Scientists claim...' without mentioning any specific scientists, it's completely made up."

I ran into an excellent (by which I mean "ridiculous") example of that over at the site Anomalien just yesterday, called "The Mysterious Phenomenon of the Onset of Sudden Darkness."  The article, which is (as advertised) about times when darkness suddenly fell during the day for no apparent reason, gets off to a great start by citing the Bible (specifically the darkness sent by God in the Book of Exodus to punish the Egyptians for keeping Moses et al. in slavery), because that's clearly admissible as hard evidence.  "Scientists," we are told, "are seriously concerned about this phenomenon."

I have spoken with a great many scientists over the years, and not a single one of them has voiced any concern about sudden-onset darkness.  Maybe they're keeping it secret because they don't want us laypeople getting scared, or something.

That being said, and even excluding the Pharaonic Plagues, the claim has been around for a while.  One of my favorite books growing up -- I still have my rather battered copy, in fact -- was Strangely Enough, by C. B. Colby, which deals with dozens of weird "Strange But True!" tales.  One of them, called "New England's Darkest Day," describes an event that allegedly occurred on May 19, 1780, in which pitch darkness fell on a sunny day.  Colby writes:

May 19 dawned as bright and clear as usual, except that there appeared to be a haze in the southwest.  (One town history reports that it was raining.)  This haze grew darker, and soon the whole sky was covered with a thick cloud which was traveling northeast rapidly.  It reached the Canadian border by midmorning.  Meanwhile the eastern part of New York, as well as Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were becoming darker.

By one o'clock some sections were so dark that white paper held a few inches from the eyes couldn't be seen.  It was as dark as a starless night.  Apprehension soon turned to panic.  Schools were dismissed, and lanterns and candles were lighted in homes and along the streets...

That night the darkness continued, and it was noted that by the light of lanterns everything seemed to have a greenish hue.  A full moon, due to rise at nine, did not show until after 1 AM, when it appeared high in the sky and blood-red.  Shortly afterward stars began to appear, and the following morning the sun was as bright as ever, after fourteen hours of the strangest darkness ever to panic staunch New Englanders.

Surprisingly, there's no doubt this actually happened; as Colby states, it's recorded in dozens of town histories.  However, the actual cause isn't anything paranormal.  It was most likely a combination of dense fog and the smoke from a massive forest fire in what is now Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, which left evidence in the form of tree ring scars from the late spring of that year, precisely when the "Dark Day" occurred.  And, in fact, Colby conveniently doesn't mention that there are also reports in town histories that "the air smelled like soot" and after the sky cleared, some places (especially in New Hampshire) had layers of ash on the ground up to fifteen centimeters deep.

Kind of blows away the mystery, doesn't it?

Artist's depiction of the "Dark Day" [Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of the New England Historical Society]

The Anomalien article isn't even on as firm a ground as Colby is.  The majority of their accounts are single-person anecdotes; even the ones that aren't have very little going for them.  Take, for example, the case in Louisville, Kentucky, which they say is so certain "it's almost become a textbook" [sic].  On March 7, 1911, they say, a "viscous darkness" fell upon the entire city, lasting for an hour and resulting in massive panic.

Funny that such a strange, widespread, and terrifying event merited zero mention in the Louisville newspaper that came out only four days later.  You'd think it'd have been headline news.

That doesn't stop the folks at Anomalien from attributing the phenomenon to you-know-who:

Is it all aliens to be blamed?  Researchers... believe that unexpected pitch darkness occurs in the event of a violation of the integrity of space.  At such moments, it is possible to penetrate both into different dimensions and worlds, and out of them...  

Some researchers believe that the phenomenon of sudden pitch darkness is associated with the presence on earth of creatures, unknown to science, with supernatural abilities.  All these cryptids and other strange creatures enter our world through the corridors of pitch darkness.  And they seem to be more familiar with this phenomenon than we are.  They know when this passage will open, and they use it.  Only they do not immediately disappear along with the darkness, but wait for the next opportunity to return to their world.

Oh?  "Researchers believe that," do they?  I'll be waiting for the paper in Science.

Anyhow, there you have it.  Bonnet's Law in action.  I'm just as happy that the claim is nonsense; the sun's out right now, and I'm hoping it stays that way.  It's gloomy enough around here in early spring without aliens and cryptids and whatnot opening dimensional portals and creating "corridors of pitch darkness."  Plus, having creatures ("unknown to science, with supernatural abilities") bumbling about in the dark would freak out my dog, who is -- no offense to him intended, he's a Very Good Boy -- a great big coward.

So let's just keep the lights on, shall we?  Thanks.


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