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

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Make a little noise

Sometimes, you can mislead people not only by what you say, but by what you leave out.

Take, for example, the "Moodus noises," that have been reported for centuries near the village of Moodus, Connecticut, in the town of East Haddam.  The sounds themselves are real enough; in fact, the village's name comes from the Algonquian matchitmoodus, which translates to "place of noises."  Rumblings and deep booms are frequent, especially in the vicinity of nearby Mount Tom, and were apparently part of the inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft's terrifying short story "The Dunwich Horror":

No one, even those who have the facts concerning the recent horror, can say just what is the matter with Dunwich; though old legends speak of unhallowed rites and conclaves of the Indians, amidst which they called forbidden shapes of shadow out of the great rounded hills and made wild orgiastic prayers that were answered by loud crackings and rumblings from the ground below...  Noises in the hills continue to be reported from year to year, and still form a puzzle to geologists and other physiographers.  Other traditions tell of foul odors near the hill-crowning circles of stone pillars, and of rushing airy presences to be heard faintly at certain hours from stated points at the bottom of the great ravines; while still others try to explain the Devil's Hop Yard -- a bleak, blasted hillside where no tree, shrub, or grass-blade will grow.

Which is pretty damn atmospheric, you have to admit.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Reuben C. Dodd - DeviantArt - Facebook, The Dunwich Horror - "Wilbur Whateley's Twin" by Reuben C. Dodd, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Interestingly, not only was Lovecraft springboarding off a real phenomenon of subterranean noises; the Devil's Hop Yard is also a real place, but it's not as eerie as Lovecraft would have you believe.  In fact, it's pretty enough that it was set aside as a state park, and as far as its diabolical name, no one's quite sure where it came from.  One theory is that a brewer who lived there was named Dibble, and the locals thought using the name for his hop fields was an amusing pun.

Of course, Lovecraft was writing fiction, and actually, he himself was not at all superstitious.  When fans wrote him letters asking for the directions to Dunwich or Arkham or Innsmouth -- or, worse, said they'd been there and wanted to tell him all about it -- he'd respond with admirable patience, "None of those are real places.  I know that for certain, you see, because I made them up."  But the fact remains that the Moodus noises are quite real, even if he and others spun fictional tales around them.  So what are they?

There are dozens of websites and books and YouTube videos claiming that they're supernatural in origin -- citing Native or early colonial legends but not going any further.  They often quote the passage from Charles Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Land:

It was finally understood that Haddam witches, who practiced black magic, met the Moodus witches, who used white magic, in a cave beneath Mount Tom, and fought them in the light of a giant carbuncle [ruby] that was fastened to the roof...

If the witch-fights were continued too long the king of Machimoddi, who sat on a throne of solid sapphire in the cave whence the noises came, raised his wand: then the light of the carbuncle went out, peals of thunder rolled through the rocky chambers, and the witches rushed into the sky.

Most of the paranormal-leaning sources claim the area is haunted -- either by demons, or nature-spirits, or the ghosts of dead humans (or some combination).  They claim that there's a grand mystery still surrounding the place; you'll frequently see phrases like "no good explanation" and "unexplained phenomenon" and "scientists are baffled" (given the frequency of this one, you'd think scientists do little more than shrug their shoulders in helpless puzzlement all day long).  What these books, articles, and websites conveniently leave out is that in fact, a cogent scientific explanation for the Moodus noises was published by a geologist named Elwyn Perry...

... all the way back in 1941.

Perry proposed -- and the explanation has borne up under scrutiny -- that the Moodus noises are caused by minor seismic activity.  The area around Moodus is prone to earthquake swarms, despite its being far from obvious active fault lines.  In the 1980s there were four separate clusters of small quakes, numbering more than one hundred temblors in all, accompanied by a corresponding upswing of reports of booming and rumbling noises, and another swarm occurred in 2011.  Later studies found that the culprit is the Lake Char Fault, the subterranean suture line of a terrane (a microcontinent that ends up welded to a larger land mass) that stuck to North America during the lockup of Pangaea 250 million years ago.  The boundary was a weak spot when the Atlantic Ocean opened, and the tensional stress of rifting is still being released as the land settles.

So there's a completely natural explanation for the Moodus noises, however reluctant some people are to say so.  In a way, I get it; there's a certain frisson you get from accounts of orgiastic rites and conjuring evil spirits from underground caverns, that "it's a geologic fault zone and what you're hearing are small, shallow earthquakes" simply doesn't provide.

But predictably, I'd much rather know the real answer, and if I want to scare myself, I'll just read "The Dunwich Horror."  As far as the supernatural explanations, I tend to agree with journalist/skeptic Carrie Poppy: "We use these as stopgaps for things we can't explain.  We don't believe them because of evidence, we believe them because of a lack of evidence."


Monday, July 22, 2024

Life in the background

Robertson Davies's brilliant book Fifth Business opens with a quote that explains the title:

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.

Davies attributes the quote to the Danish playwright Thomas Overskou, but in reality Davies himself made it up, as he admitted to a scholar almost a decade after its publication when a thorough scouring of Overskou's work failed to turn up any such passage.  To give a rather meta twist to the whole thing, the novel is about a man (Dunstan Ramsay) who feels overlooked and marginalized in life, always the minor character eclipsed by everyone around him -- the one who is essential to the plot but never center stage -- and Davies has stated that the entire trilogy of which Fifth Business is the first installment is semi-autobiographical.

So Robertson Davies, essentially, wrote a memoir disguised as a novel about a sort-of fictional character whose accomplishments were overlooked or misattributed, and opened it with a quote he himself had made up and then attributed to someone else.

Man, there are some layers there to analyze.

I was immediately reminded of Davies's book when I came across a recent paper in the Journal of Research in Personality a couple of days ago.  The study, conducted by psychologists Ryan Goffredi and Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri, looks at how we see our roles in our own autobiographical memories -- if we view ourselves as being the main character in our own story, driving the narrative and affecting the outcome, or as a minor character primarily acting as a foil for others' successes.  Interestingly, Goffredi and Sheldon found that people who see themselves in the starring role in their own life's story are generally more psychologically healthy -- they have lower rates of depression and anxiety and higher scores on assessments for emotional well-being and satisfaction with life.

It's not surprising, really.  A sense of agency in your own life has a huge effect on how you see the world.  The authors write:

These results support our notion that the way in which an individual perceives themselves as a character in their life story is likely to impact their well-being.  When people see themselves as being the agentic force in their lives and make decisions for themselves, as major characters do, rather than being swept about by external forces (and other people), they are more integrated and fully functioning selves.

Such individuals feel more autonomous, more competent and effective, and also experience better relational satisfaction with others, as evidenced by their increased basic psychological need satisfaction.  Conversely, those who see themselves as minor characters are more likely to feel thwarted in getting these needs satisfied, a condition associated with diminished self-integration and well-being.

This cut pretty close to the bone for me, because I have suffered from depression and anxiety my entire adult life, and have also felt very little agency in what goes on around me, but never really thought to link the two.  It's always seemed to me that in most situations I'm the perpetual outsider, not really central to anything or anyone, always trying to find my footing but never really succeeding, and only useful apropos of others' accomplishments.  And when I think of most of the big events in my life, it's always struck me how few of them I honestly was in control of.  Even my choice of a career happened more or less by accident -- and halfway through my first year of teaching, I was about a micron away from quitting, from admitting that I just wasn't up to the job and needed to find some other way of making a living.

But teaching itself is kind of emblematic of that mindset, isn't it?  You are there to facilitate your students' learning and advancement, launching them on their lives and careers and hopes and dreams, while you yourself stay put.  Each year you wave goodbye to one set of students and say hello to the next -- like a rock in the stream, watching the water perpetually flowing away from you and out of sight.

Reading the Goffredi and Sheldon paper, though, I find myself wondering how much of my sense of being "fifth business" in my own life's story is because I'm viewing it through the skewed lenses of mental illness.  After all, what the researchers found was a correlation; so if there is a causation there, which way does it point?  Does depression make you feel like a minor character in your own life, or does being marginalized in actuality lead to a loss of a sense of agency?

Could be both, of course.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Uark Theatre, As You Like It (14523154077), CC BY 2.0]

But perhaps that's why I enjoyed Davies's novel Fifth Business (and its sequels, The Manticore and World of Wonders) so much.  It was easy for me to identify with Dunstan Ramsay -- a man who spent his whole life with circumstance catching him by the tail and whirling him around, who never felt as if he were central to the narrative of his own story.  

The character Percy Boyd Staunton -- who is Ramsay's opposite, very much the main character of every scene he's in, for better or worse -- puts it this way: "If you don't hurry up and let life know what you want, life will damned soon show you what you'll get."

I have to wonder, though, if that option was ever really open to me.  And, after all, minor characters are necessary, too -- the ones who facilitate the protagonist's success or the antagonist's eventual comeuppance, even if they never reap any rewards for their actions.  It may be a little underwhelming to see your name in the playbill listed in a forgettable role like "Third Male Bystander," but hey, a role is a role.  Life in the background is, at least, usually safe.


Saturday, July 20, 2024

The wind walker

One of the most terrifying legends to come out of the Algonquian tribes of northeastern North America is about a creature called the Wendigo.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Віщун, Wendigo, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The Wendigo is a spirit that haunts the deep woods, lying in wait for unwary travelers.  When it takes corporeal form it's humanoid, skinny and bony, and its approach is heralded by a sharp drop in temperature and a foul smell.  The Wendigo uses humans as food -- cannibalism is one characteristic the legends always mention -- but it's never sated, and is always looking for new victims to consume.

This myth is found across the region.  The English name comes from the Ojibwe word wiindigoo, but most of the Algonquian tribes have some version of it.  Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, in his book The Manitous, gives the following rather ghastly description of the Wendigo:

The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones.  With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash-gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave.  What lips it had were tattered and bloody...  Unclean and suffering from suppuration of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.

For me, though, the most spine-chilling thing about the legend is what you're supposed to do if you see it before it sees you.  (If it sees you first, apparently you're pretty much fucked sideways.)  You're supposed to turn around and walk -- not run -- away.  It can only get you if your gazes meet, so if you turn your back on it and act like it's not there, you have a chance.  The Wendigo will then call your name in an appealing voice, trying to get you to turn around, but you have to just keep walking until you reach safety.

For me, I think the "don't run" part would be the hardest.  If I saw something like this, my legs would look like those comical Looney Tunes characters who are running so fast the lower half of their body turns into this elliptical blur.  I might not even stop when I reach safety.  I might keep running long enough to end up in Mozambique.  (Yes, I know that Mozambique is across the ocean from where I live.  The Looney Tunes characters never let a body of water stop them, and neither would I.)

As you might imagine, the legend is creepy enough that it's appeared in many works of fiction, starting with Algernon Blackwood's 1910 short story "The Wendigo."  H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, in their Cthulhu Mythos stories, incorporated many of the characteristics of the creature into their "Great Old One" named Ithaqua the Wind Walker.  I even gave a crack at it; my novella "The Conduit" (currently out of print) featured a spirit based on the Wendigo, but I used the cannibalism thing metaphorically; in my story the Wendigo didn't eat its victims' bodies, but instead possessed them and consumed pieces of their personality -- so that when it went on to a new host it retained the knowledge and abilities of the people it had previously inhabited.

What's most interesting about this legend is how many people think it's true.  If it weren't real, the argument goes, there's no way it would have become so widespread in the Indigenous tribes of the northeast.  There was a spirited discussion over at Quora a while back over whether the Wendigo actually exists, with the consensus being "Yes, of course it does."  If you do a Google search for "Wendigo legend true" or "Wendigo real" you'll get literally thousands of hits, including ones from people who claim to have narrowly escaped getting eaten by it.

Needless to say, I'm highly dubious.  Not only do we have our old friend "the plural of anecdote is not data" here, we've also got the problem that science (i.e. determining what is real and what is not) does not proceed by popular vote, so saying something is widely believed has no impact on its truth or falsity.  Take, for example, religion.  To make at least a passing attempt to stay off the thin ice I usually skate on, pick a religion that you don't happen to believe.  Let's say Greek mythology, for instance.  (My apologies to anyone who is a Poseidon worshiper -- please don't come at me with a trident, I'm just trying to make a point, here.)  Back in the heyday of ancient Greece, damn near everyone venerated the various gods and sub-gods and spirits and whatnot; you'd have gotten close to one hundred percent agreement that of course Zeus was up there hurling lightning bolts whenever there was a thunderstorm.  

"Lots of people think so" is simply not a reliable guide to the truth.

As always, what we need is hard evidence, and in the case of the Wendigo (not to mention Poseidon, Zeus, et al.) there isn't any.  As one of the lone voices of reason on Quora put it, "Yes, the Wendigo exists.  In the imagination.  Otherwise, no."

But that doesn't make the story any less scary.  And next time I go out for a trail run in our local National Forest, if I hear a soft, beckoning voice call out "Gordon...." from behind me, I am not turning around.  Maybe it'll be some friend of mine back there trying to get my attention, but that's just too bad.

If they really want to talk to me, they can text me or something.  I doubt the Wendigo has a phone, so at least that'd be safe enough.


Friday, July 19, 2024

The microcontinent

One of the nice things about science is that it allows us to understand the parts of the universe that are beyond common sense.  

Don't get me wrong, common sense is often a decent guide to figuring things out, and there's some truth to the lament that it'd be nice if it were more common.  The problem is, our intuitive grasp of how stuff works evolved in the context we live in -- moderate sizes and masses, moderate speeds, and moderate time durations.  Get very far out of that context, and common sense can give you the wrong answer.  One of the first times I ran into this was in high school physics, where I learned the startling fact that an object's vertical and horizontal velocity are entirely independent of each other.  This is illustrated by the oft-quoted example that if you fire a bullet horizontally, and at the same time drop a bullet from the height of the gun's barrel, the two bullets will hit the ground at precisely the same time (assuming level terrain).  It may seem counterintuitive, but it's true -- and it took Isaac Newton to show why that was.

We run into problems not only when we deal with things moving quickly, but when they're moving slowly -- so slowly they appear not to be moving at all.  I got to thinking about this when I was sent a link by my friend, the awesome author Andrew Butters (you should follow him at the link provided, and also immediately order his phenomenal new novel Known Order Girls, which is one of the most poignant books I've ever read).  Andrew is, like me, a science nerd -- we were both drastically unsuccessful physics majors in college, who despite that experience maintained a deep fascination with how the universe works.  (Interestingly, our comeuppance as incipient scientists came in different classes.  His nemesis was Electromagnetic Theory, and mine was Classical Mechanics.  In both cases we passed the class largely because the professor didn't ever want to see our names on his roster again, and afterward we both decided that maybe a career as a physicist was not in the cards.)

In any case, this time the topic he sent me was geology -- in particular, plate tectonics, a particular interest of mine.  Researchers have just found that a part of Nunavut, Canada is actually a microcontinent -- a geologically-anomalous piece of continental crust that came loose from Greenland and welded itself to North America on the other side of the Davis Strait.  

The Davis Strait and the west coast of Greenland [Image licensed under the Creative Commons brewbooks via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

What's curious about this is that up until about 45 million years ago, Canada and Greenland had been moving apart.  The evidence is that there was a rift zone -- that's what formed the Davis Strait in the first place -- and that some time in the Mid-Eocene Epoch, the rift failed.  (This is not that uncommon; there's a good possibility that the Cameroon Line and the New Madrid Fault are both failed rift zones.)  In any case, after the Davis Strait Rift sealed back up, Greenland started moving in tandem with the North American Plate -- except for a piece of it that sheared off and stuck to what is now Canada.

"The reinterpretation of seismic reflection data offshore West Greenland, along with a newly compiled crustal thickness model, identifies an isolated terrane of relatively thick (19–24 km [12-15 miles]) continental crust that was separated from Greenland during a newly recognised phase of E-W extension along West Greenland’s margin," the team wrote.  "We interpret this continental block as an incompletely rifted microcontinent, which we term the Davis Strait proto-microcontinent...  As our seismic reflection interpretations indicate an extensional event in the eastern Davis Strait between 58 and 49 Myr, spatially coincident with the zone of thinnest continental crust between the continental fragment and Greenland, we infer this extensional event [rift] led to the separation of this fragment from Greenland."

When you think about it, it's unsurprising that it took so long for geologists to figure plate tectonics out.  Despite such broad hints as the puzzle-piece outlines of South America and Africa, a process this slow is not obvious.  Add to that the fact that this particular plate is in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, accessible to researchers for maybe two months a year (that's being generous.)  The entire picture is still being pieced together.  Our tectonic map is pretty good, but the new research shows us that we don't have it all parsed quite yet.

Which is the way it should be.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, the more we learn, the more we extend the perimeter of our ignorance.  And this, after all, is what drives science -- the fact that every question we answer brings up a dozen more.

I think we'll be working at this for quite some time to come.


Thursday, July 18, 2024

A celestial do-si-do

A common -- although, as it turns out, completely understandable -- error is to say that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun.

No, I'm not recommending a return to the geocentric model, where the Earth is at the center of the universe and everything orbits around it in perfect circles, as decreed by the Almighty at the moment of creation (which, of course, was six thousand years ago).  The inaccuracy I'm referring to is much smaller than that -- but is still significant.

Instead of saying "the planets orbit the Sun," the more precise way to state it is that the planets and the Sun all orbit their common center of gravity.  Newton's Third Law describes how every force exerted creates an equal and opposite force -- so just as the Sun is pulling on the Earth, the Earth is pulling on the Sun.  The result is that both are in a dance around the system's center of gravity.  Given the Sun's vastly larger mass, their mutual center of gravity is well inside the Sun, so to say "the Earth orbits the Sun" is a sufficiently close approximation to account for what we observe on a daily basis.

The effect is big enough, though, that this is one of the ways that exoplanets have been discovered -- mostly in nearby systems, where it's easier to see.  A star with an unseen companion gets pulled around as they orbit their common center of gravity, so from our perspective it looks like the star has a slight wobble.  As the wobble is bigger if the planet has a larger mass, this technique has been used mostly to find exoplanets that are gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, which are big enough to sling their host star around more effectively.

Sometimes, though, looking for a stellar wobble results in discovering something else -- an invisible object much too massive to be a planet, in a celestial do-si-do with a star.

That was the subject of a paper published this week in The Open Journal of Astrophysics, describing research led by Kareem El-Badry of Caltech.  The team found 21 stars with heavy but invisible companions, which from their size appear to be neutron stars, the collapsed, ultra-dense cores left behind by giant stars after they exhaust their fuel.

The curious thing is that prior to the formation of a neutron star, the giant star went supernova -- so why didn't that colossal explosion completely blow away the Sun-like star it's paired with?  The simple answer is we don't know.  "We still do not have a complete model for how these binaries form," El-Badry said.  "In principle, the progenitor to the neutron star should have become huge and interacted with the solar-type star during its late-stage evolution.  The huge star would have knocked the little star around, likely temporarily engulfing it.  Later, the neutron star progenitor would have exploded in a supernova, which, according to models, should have unbound the binary systems, sending the neutron stars and Sun-like stars careening in opposite directions...  The discovery of these new systems shows that at least some binaries survive these cataclysmic processes even though models cannot yet fully explain how."

If El-Badry et al.'s research bears up, it will be the first time neutron stars have been detected purely by their gravitational effects.

So that's today's cool news from science.  A stellar dance between a Sun-like star and a collapsed, super-dense neutron star.  And I love that El-Badry ends with the words, "... models cannot yet fully explain how."  Focus on the word "yet."  These are the sorts of things that push science forward -- some unexplained observation that makes scientists scratch their heads.  As Isaac Asimov put it, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but '... that's funny.'"


Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Traveler's tale

Yesterday's post focused on the unfortunate fact that gullible people will always be with us, as will the charlatans and fakers who make it their life's work to take advantage of credulity wherever they find it.  It's a theme regular readers of Skeptophilia will be all too familiar with.  However, today I'd like to look at something else -- something hopeful -- that, fortunately, will also always be with us.

My example of this is someone I wonder if you've heard of.  His name was Lābīn Sǎowùmǎ (拉賓掃務瑪), but he is more commonly known by his name rendered in the Syriac language, Rabban Bar Ṣawma ("Rabban," and the Chinese version "Lābīn," are honorifics, translating as "leader" or "master").  Bar Ṣawma was born into a wealthy family, probably of either Uyghur or Ongud descent, in Zhongdu (near modern Beijing, China) in around the year 1220 C.E.  

Bar Ṣawma was a Christian, a member of a small enclave of Nestorian Christians which had been founded during the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century.  In an open-mindedness unusual for the time, the Tang emperors allowed the Church of the East to coexist with the majority Confucian religion of the Han Chinese.  Although they had some ups and downs -- there was a bout of persecution in the tenth century -- there was still a small group practicing their religion by the thirteenth, officially overseen by a Patriarch who lived in what is now Iraq.

Bar Ṣawma became a monk at about age twenty, and quietly taught in Zhongdu for the next two decades.  It wasn't until the mid-1260s that he and a student of his, Rabban Markos, decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  And that was when their lives changed irrevocably.

It's a sad fact that a lot of religious people approach going to other cultures as "let's see how many people I can convert, voluntarily or otherwise."  Bar Ṣawma and Markos seemed to look at it more as "let's see how much I can learn from this amazing world."  Perhaps it came from their upbringing in a minority religion that had been treated with gracious tolerance; but however they came by the attitude, it allowed them to view other cultures with curiosity and not with fear, superiority, condescension, or condemnation.

They made their way through western China and Mongolia, into what are now Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, along the way making friends with the Mongol ruler Abaqa Khan.  The ended up in Baghdad, where they were welcomed -- amazingly, given the fact that the Crusades were kind of in full swing at that point -- and Markos decided to stay in a monastery in Mosul, where he was elected as Patriarch of the Church of the East, taking the name Yahballaha III.  (Markos/Yahballaha didn't always meet with such positive reactions; he was imprisoned by the Muslims twice, and each time had to be ransomed.  Despite this, he stayed in his role as Patriarch until his death in 1317.)

Bar Ṣawma, though, had a lot farther yet to go.

Chosen as the ambassador of the Church of the East to the Pope (then Honorius IV, although Honorius was to die before Bar Ṣawma arrived), as well as the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos and the various monarchs of Europe, he took off again in 1287 -- at which point he was 67 years old, so hardly a young man even by modern standards.  (I'm 63 and know whereof I speak, on that count at least.)  As hard as it is to imagine, Bar Ṣawma made his way through Armenia, across the Caucasus Mountains and through the Byzantine Empire, then on into the Greek Islands, Sicily (where he saw Mount Etna erupt), Naples, Rome, Genoa, Paris, and finally reached the Atlantic Ocean at Bordeaux, along the way having audiences with the various rulers of the lands he passed through, including King Philip IV "the Fair" of France and King Edward I of England (who was in Bordeaux at the time; in 1287 Gascony was ruled by the English).

Even more astonishing is that after this long voyage, he still had enough energy left to make the return trip.  He crossed Europe a second time, from west to east, and decided to settle down in Baghdad, where he spent the rest of his life, dying in 1294 at the age of 74.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons PHGCOM, VoyagesOfRabbanBarSauma, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In the final years of his life, he wrote his memoirs, which were first published in English in 1928 under the rather cumbersome title The Monks of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China: or The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khans to the Kings of Europe, and Markos Who as Mar Yahbh-Allaha III Became Patriarch of the Church of the East in Asia.  I've read excerpts of it -- I'd like to find a complete copy -- and what strikes me in every bit I've read is his deep curiosity and respect for the lands, people, and cultures he was visiting.  Here's a bit about his stay in Italy:

And from that place they travelled inland on horses, and they passed through towns and villages and marveled because they found no land which was destitute of buildings.  On the road they heard that Mar Papa [Pope Honorius IV] was dead...  Three days later the Cardinals sent and summoned Rabban Ṣawma to their presence.  And when he went to them they began to ask him questions, saying, "What is thy quarter of the world, and why hast thou come?"  And Rabban Ṣawma said unto him, "The Mongols and the Catholicus [i.e. the Patriarch] of the East have sent me to Mar Papa concerning the matter of Jerusalem; and they have sent letters with me."  The Cardinals said unto him, "Where is the Throne of the Catholicus?"  He said to them, "In Baghdad...  Know ye, O our Fathers, that many of our Fathers have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians... "  Then Rabban Ṣawma said unto them, "I have come from remote countries neither to discuss, nor to instruct [men] in matter of the Faith, but I came that I might receive a blessing from Mar Papa, and to visit the shrines of the saints and to make known the words of King [Arghon] and the Catholicus.  If it be pleasing in your eyes, let us set aside discussion, and do ye give attention and direct someone to show us the churches here and the shrines of the saints; [if ye will do this] ye will confer a very great favor on your servant and disciple."

It's interesting how much you can gain in understanding when you go to a place with the attitude, "I'm not here to do anything to you, I just want to learn.  Show me whatever's cool."  I've tried to adopt that approach when I've traveled -- I've been lucky enough to visit a great many lovely places, and have met with nearly one-hundred percent positive responses from the people I've spoken with.

On the other hand, I have to admit that Rabban Bar Ṣawma rather puts me to shame.  After all, I had the convenience of an airplane to get where I was going.  He did the whole thing -- a one-way distance of over eight thousand kilometers -- in the thirteenth century, using a combination of horses, boats, and his own two feet.

It's easy to look back at the people of those times as being narrow-minded bigots whose only thought was forcing others to conform, at the point of a sword if necessary.  And certainly some of them were.  Don't get smug about how much more enlightened we are, though -- it's clear that we still have people of that mindset around today.  The Middle Ages didn't have the market cornered on bigotry, more's the pity.  

But more importantly, Rabban Bar Ṣawma is a reminder that then, as now, there were people who were kind, accepting, and broad-minded, who gazed around with wonder, saying "Look at this, isn't it all so beautiful?"

When you read the news every day, and it seems populated by the worst representatives of the human species, remember Rabban Bar Ṣawma and his long odyssey, driven only by his intellectual curiosity and his deep love for his fellow human beings.  Then set aside the doomscrolling, and reassure yourself that there are still those sorts of people around today, too.  Plenty of them.

Like Bar Ṣawma knew 750 years ago, to find them, all you have to be willing to do is to look around you.


Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The descendants of Dr. Dee

One of the difficulties with establishing paranormal claims is that there are so many ways of getting the wrong answer.

There are the inevitable battles with confirmation bias and dart-thrower's bias, and even when there's actual numerical data to work with, you have to contend with the subtler problem of cherry-picking and p-hacking (something that has plagued experiments designed to detect telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition).  The difficulty becomes even worse when you have the additional problems that sometimes people honestly believe what they're claiming even though it's false (i.e. they're delusional) or that they don't believe what they're saying but say it anyhow for their own reasons, often having to do with personal gain (i.e. they're lying).

Those last two can be hard to tell apart.  Our memories are plastic enough that if you tell the same lie often enough, you're in danger of falling for it yourself.  Take, for example, the strange figure of John Dee, who was in his heyday during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Portrait of John Dee (ca. 1594, artist unknown) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Dee was of Welsh ancestry but was born and raised in London.  His father was one of Henry VIII's courtiers; John had access to a good education, and got a degree at Cambridge University (something that was as prestigious then as it is now).  He studied in Belgium, France, and Italy, ultimately returning to England with an excellent background in mathematics, astronomy... and divination.

It was this last-mentioned that got him in trouble for the first (but not the only) time.  He was arrested and charged with the crime of "calculating" -- casting horoscopes -- in particular doing one for Queen Mary, who was a bit on the superstitious and paranoid side herself and looked upon anything like that as tantamount to wishing her dead.  He ultimately cleared his name through what appears to have been mere luck; "don't shoot the messenger" didn't carry a lot of weight with monarchs back then.  But when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558, he found a much more willing ear, and in short order really saw his star in ascendancy.  (*rimshot*)

Where things get interesting -- and where the question of "did he really believe what he was saying?" comes up -- is when he fell in with one Edward Kelley.  Kelley is a mysterious figure, probably by choice.  It is thought he was born in Worcester in 1555, but what he was doing between childhood and ending up in the Elizabethan court in his twenties is pure conjecture.  Kelley was obviously educated -- he knew Greek and Latin -- and in 1582 he approached Dee with the idea of a partnership.

Kelley told Dee he was in contact with angels, and they spoke to him in a language called "Enochian."  As the angels dictated, Kelley said, he'd transmit what they told him to Dee, who would then write it all down.  And they did... resulting in numerous diary entries and two books, the Liber Loagaeth and the Claves Angelicae.  Linguists have analyzed Enochian to a fare-thee-well, and found that it's in that odd shadowland between a conlang (i.e. an invented language with actual syntax, morphology, and phonology) and glossolalia, the random noisemaking that occurs during "speaking with tongues."  What syntax it does have is remarkably like English; this is a tipoff that it's not even an authentic conlang, but a simple one-to-one substitution code.  (As someone who has tried his hand at writing a conlang, I can verify that it ain't easy to come up with a language that has its own distinctive structure, and not merely to copycat the languages you know.)

Kelley's "Enochian alphabet" [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Obankston, Enochian alphabet, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Now, I hasten to reassure you that I don't think Kelley actually was in communication with angels.  But you have to wonder if he thought he was.  A lot of the portrayals of Dee and Kelley in historical fiction have painted Kelley as a cunning liar and charlatan and Dee as a dupe, but from the extant records they both seem awfully earnest.  Both of them ended their lives still clinging to the claim that they were capable of magic -- they traveled all over Europe trying to convince people of their angelic communications, eventually ending up at the court of King Stephen Báthory of Poland and Hungary (interestingly, the uncle of the infamous serial killer Elizabeth Báthory).  The king, though, was a devout Catholic and told Dee and Kelley to shove off, that any claims of that sort had to get the approval of the Pope before they'd get his imprimatur.  Little chance of that; Dee and Kelley were both Protestants, and had worked in the court of the much-detested-at-the-Vatican Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Their case was not helped when Kelley told Dee to relay the message that the archangel Uriel had told him that men were now commanded to share all their possessions freely, including their wives.

You can only imagine how that went over.

Kelley, in fact, never made it back to England.  He and Dee parted ways in the 1590s, and Kelley ended up in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whom he had convinced that he could transmute lead into gold.  He couldn't.  Kelley died in prison in 1598 -- by one account, from injuries incurred while trying to escape, by another from poison at his own hand.  His end is as mysterious as his origins.

Dee didn't fare much better.  He got back to England to find his huge library had been burglarized, his home damaged by vandals, and his reputation sullied by his association with Kelley.  When James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, Dee found his presence at the royal court was no longer welcome -- James was deeply religious and hated anything that smacked of occultism or witchcraft.  Dee died in poverty and obscurity in Mortlake, Richmond upon Thames, in 1608 or 1609.

Dee's name, however, was still revered centuries later by the Spiritualists, Hermeticists, and Rosicrucians.  (Kelley's, not so much, which is odd; it's hard to imagine an explanation for the whole thing where Dee was speaking revealed truth but Kelley was a liar.)  Aleister Crowley (and many other members of The Golden Dawn) thought Enochian especially was the cat's pajamas, and claimed it was the "Adamic language" -- i.e., the language spoken by humans prior to getting their phonemes blenderized by the Almighty during the whole Tower of Babel incident.  Others have claimed that Kelley was in touch with a spiritual power, all right -- but an evil one.  In other words, a demon.

It's a curious story.  Like I said, whatever spin you put on this, both Kelley and Dee were claiming stuff that was objectively false.  But you have to wonder if they thought they were telling the truth.  And it's tempting to think that in our scientific, high-tech world, we're immune to falling for people like this -- either delusional fanatics or else cunning and persuasive liars.  I don't think I need to name names for you to come up with a few modern examples that prove we're still all too susceptible.  They may not be trying to persuade us that they can turn base metals into gold any more, but the falsehoods they're promulgating are perhaps even more dangerous.  The descendants of Dr. Dee, it seems, are still with us -- and now, as then, the only cure for their poison is a combination draught of facts, evidence, and critical thinking.


Monday, July 15, 2024

The strange tale of Clarita Villanueva

When I was a kid, I was big fan of books with names like Strange True Tales of the Supernatural and World of the Weird.  These books often had seriously nightmare-inducing cover illustrations, stories that were (to a twelve-year-old, at least) pantswettingly terrifying, and that important little word on the spine: "Non-fiction."

I still enjoy many of those stories, all these decades later, but now it's solely for their entertainment value.  (I've recounted a number of them here, as long-time readers of Skeptophilia know.)  Some of the most memorable ones have all of the hallmarks of a great Tale For Around The Campfire -- a scary monster or ghost, an innocent victim, brave people trying to combat the forces of evil and bring order back to the world.  

One of the ones of that ilk that I still recall to this day is the story of Clarita Villanueva.

According to the best-known version, Clarita was a young Filipina girl in her upper teens, living in poverty in Manila in 1951.  One night in May, she was found on the street by a policeman, having an apparent seizure.  The policeman took her to the local jail to "sleep it off" (you have to wonder why the words "seek medical attention" didn't occur to him).  But during the middle of the night, the girl began to shriek, claiming that a "bug-eyed man" wearing a hooded black cloak had floated through the bars and was biting her.  The policeman ran to her cell, and found the girl writhing on the floor, and bite marks -- surrounded by saliva -- were appearing on her arms, and in one case, on the back of her neck.

Whatever was biting her, though, was invisible to everyone but Clarita herself!

The policeman got the girl calmed down, and summoned the medical officer on duty in the jail, one Dr. Lara.  Dr. Lara arrived just in time to see the girl go into hysterics again, this time saying that the bug-eyed guy in black had returned, this time bringing a friend.  The doctor, too, saw bite marks appear on her skin.

The doctor, in an understandable state of fear, had the girl transferred from jail to a local hospital, where he saw to it that her wounds were treated.  She gradually relaxed, and the attacks weren't repeated.  She remained at the hospital for six weeks, gaining strength, and her fear of the strange creatures diminished.  Eventually, she was released, and (as far as the story tells) led a completely normal life thereafter.

The reason for the attacks, and who the mysterious creatures were, were never explained.

So, anyway.  See why this one scared me?  Everything about it is classic backbone-shivering horror, even down to the fact that no one ever figured out who her attackers were.  But now, fifty-odd years later, I've come to think of this as the perfect example of why skeptics should not rely on anecdotal evidence.

Because if you do a search for "Clarita Villanueva," you'll come up with (literally) hundreds of different versions of the tale.  The one I've related was the one popularized in those books I was so fond of as a child, but it's not the only one.

You have your religious versions.  Those seem to have been launched by a Christian evangelistic minister named Lester Sumrall, who had worked in Manila and probably heard the story there, but who claimed he actually saw, and treated, the girl.  In his version, Clarita Villanueva was a prostitute whose mother had been "a fortuneteller by vocation... holding seances, communicating with the dead, and using clairvoyance to predict to sinful people what they could expect in the future."  In his account, Clarita was not just being tormented by the monsters, she was (more or less) possessed by them; at one point, she shouted out "in a cold and inhuman voice" at one of her jailers, "You will die!" and the guy obligingly dropped dead four days later.  Dr. Lara finally called in a minister -- in Sumrall's original version it was Sumrall himself, but in others it's a Catholic priest -- and the minister after a "three-day confrontation with the devil inside her" expelled the evil spirits, and she fell to her knees with a smile and said, "The evil one is gone."

Then you have the "Reptilian Alien" version of the story, in which Dr. Lara is female (her first name is given as "Marianna"), doesn't work for the jail but for the hospital where Clarita ended up, and the creatures are "interdimensional aliens from another world."  Cautions are given that these extraterrestrials are "non-emotional creatures intent on performing acts that are considered by humans as evil or malicious."  In this version, no religious folks of any kind were involved; the attacks subsided on their own, presumably when the aliens decided that unwashed human doesn't taste all that good, and buggered off to their own "dimension."

A third version takes a psychic angle on the whole thing.  Here, Clarita Villanueva was a vagrant who was arrested for living on the street, and only experienced the seizures and attack (or whatever they were) once she was already in jail.  It occurred in 1952, not 1951, as the other versions claimed, and the attending doctor was male again -- "Dr. D. Mariano Lara."  In this version, she also was given an exorcism, but before that was apparently receiving information as well as bite marks from the creatures -- prior to the exorcism she was speaking in English, but afterwards didn't understand the language at all!

And so on.  Some versions call her "Carlita," "Carla," "Carlotta," or "Clara," not "Clarita."  The girl's age varies from 15 to 23.  The outcome differs wildly, from her returning to her poverty-stricken existence, to her finding Jesus and devoting her life to religion.  Even the inimitable Jack Chick took a crack at the story, in his bizarre über-Christian "Chick Tracts:"

All of this is why anyone who is interested in more than a quick scary story -- i.e., fiction -- needs more than anecdote to be convinced.  Human memory being what it is, not to mention the human capacity for embellishment and outright lying, a story by itself proves nothing.  In order to believe something -- or even to determine if there's anything there to believe -- we need hard evidence, something beyond the vague reports of one, or ten, or even a hundred people.

And the problem goes deeper than that, because (of course) these aren't all independent reports.  A researcher, with adequate time and energy, might be able to track all of these versions backwards and see where they'd come from, developing (as it were) a cladistic tree for this odd urban legend.  Ultimately, we might find the Last Universal Common Ancestor (the urtext, if you prefer a musical analogy) of all of the versions of the Clarita Villanueva story, and see what form it took.  (Regular readers might recall that I wrote a few years ago about some anthropologists who published a lovely piece of research doing exactly that, creating a family tree for the story of Little Red Riding Hood.)

But even if someone did find out where the story started and what form it originally had, there's no guarantee that it was true in the first place.  There may have really been a girl named Clarita Villanueva who lived in Manila in the early 1950s and had some bizarre experiences; but if she did, my bet is that she was either epileptic or schizophrenic, and everything else about the story (including the bites on the back of the neck) were later additions to add a nice frisson to the tale.  The fact that it's still making the rounds, seventy years later, doesn't tell you anything about its truth or falsity.

As author Gary Taubes put it, speculations and assumptions do not become the truth simply because they are endlessly repeated.  And anecdotes, however much they are embellished, and however often they end up in "non-fiction" anthologies, remain tall tales without much in the way of real value to skeptics.  In science, we need more than just a good story to convince us.


Saturday, July 13, 2024

Crash remnant

Well, another alleged UFO artifact has been analyzed and found wanting.

It's gotten to be a pattern, hasn't it?  Someone claims to have rock-solid evidence of something fringe-y -- hair or bone from a Bigfoot, the skull of a humanoid alien, ghost photographs, extrasensory perception -- and upon examination, it turns out to be tenuous at best and an outright fake at worst.  Nothing, certainly, that would convince an honest skeptic.

Now, allow me to state up front something I've said many times before here at Skeptophilia; I'm not a skeptic because I don't like the idea of the paranormal.  Honestly, I would love it if some of this stuff turned out to be true.  Not only is there simply the coolness factor, it would open up huge avenues for scientific research.  And don't @ me about how scientists are narrow-minded conservatives who are desperate to uphold the status quo and therefore would ignore hard evidence even if it existed; the truth is that scientists are constantly looking for new stuff, because finding something truly novel is how careers are made.  If they tend to give a suspicious side-eye at most of these claims, it's because they understand how data and evidence work.  (As astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "We know what the hell we're looking at.")  Their training has made them all too aware of how easy it is to be misled by what what you would like very much to be true.

To quote the great physicist Richard Feynman: "In science, the first principle is that you must not fool yourself.  And you are the easiest person to fool."

That said, I find myself in much sympathy with Fox Mulder, even so.

In this case, a chunk of metal was provided to the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a Pentagon program whose purpose is to check out anything odd that might have national security implications.  It was provided by To the Stars Academy, an independent research organization headed by Blink-182 front man (and UFO aficionado) Tom DeLonge.  The Academy's press release upon handing the artifact over to the AARO stated that "the material is clearly engineered with distinct layers of MgZn and Bi at structured thicknesses only microns thick" and "there is no precedent for this structured combination of materials."  Further, supposedly its composition would allow it to function as a "terahertz waveguide" (whatever the hell that is) which would give it the ability to "reduce inertial mass" -- in other words, to act as an antigravity device.

Ignoring the levitation bit for the moment, the part about there being "no precedent" for its structure highlights the problem with claiming something is an "alloy of alien origin."  Despite Georgi LaForge's analysis on Star Trek: The Next Generation that every spacecraft they run across is made of a phaser-resistant blend of whathefuckium and damnedifweknowite, there are only so many elements on the periodic table to choose from.  And there aren't any holes.  So to have a good case that a chunk of metal comes from an alien spacecraft, you have to be able to show that although the chunk might be made of the ordinary complement of chemical elements, the way it was put together is somehow different than what we could accomplish here on Earth.

Which is what DeLonge et al. are saying.  He also stated that the piece of metal comes from a crashed spaceship recovered in 1947 -- he never mentions the R-word, but that's the implication.  In any case, the AARO kind of went, "Okay, we'll look at it" (you'll have to imagine the sigh and eyeroll that probably accompanied it) and handed it over to Oak Ridge National Laboratories for analysis.

And what they found was...

... drum roll...

... it's terrestrial in origin.

The report said:

There was widespread domestic research on [magnesium] alloys for airframes, engines, weapons, and delivery systems starting in 1915 and peaking during World War II.  Many experimental [magnesium] alloys failed for reasons not well understood at the time of testing, e.g., stress corrosion cracking.  Unsurprisingly, records of failed [magnesium] alloy designs are scant.  Neither AARO nor ORNL could verify the specimen’s historical origin.  Unverifiable, conflicting personal accounts complicate its undocumented chain of custody...  The characteristics of the specimen are consistent with mid-20th-century magnesium alloy research and development projects, which often involved the use of zinc, lead, and bismuth additives for various purposes, including corrosion resistance.  The banding and structural features observed in the specimen align with manufacturing techniques from that era, such as vapor deposition.
And it doesn't have the ability to reduce inertial mass, so throw away your patent application for an antigravity/levitation device.  The Laws of Thermodynamics indicate that you can't decrease inertial mass unless you convert it into an equivalent amount of energy (the amount being determined by Einstein's equation E = mc^2).  This is not something to be undertaken lightly, as that kind of mass-to-energy conversion is how a nuclear bomb works.

You'd fly into the sky, all right, but I don't think you'd be happy about it.

In any case, if you're curious, you can find links to the complete report from AARO here.

There's nothing wrong with continuing to hope for positive results apropos of UFOs and other such alleged phenomena, and it's absolutely necessary to maintain an open mind and keep looking.  But -- disappointing as it is for those of us who grew up on science fiction -- the honest position at the moment is that the evidence we have thus far simply doesn't meet the minimum standard of what is required by science.  It'd be nice if that weren't true, and perhaps one day there'll be the proof we've all been waiting for.

But sadly, Tom DeLonge's chunk of metal from a 1947 crashed spaceship ain't it.