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, July 24, 2014

Irrationality, insanity, and the teachings of J. Z. Knight

One of the problems I face in selecting stories to highlight in Skeptophilia is that it is often difficult to tell the difference between a crazy idea that merits ridicule, and claims coming from a person who is mentally ill, and therefore deserves sympathy (and help).

Put another way, when does espousing an essentially irrational worldview cross the line into an actual psychosis?  There are millions of people who subscribe to belief systems that are profoundly irrational, and yet the people themselves are otherwise sane (although how a sane person could adopt an insane model for how the universe works is itself a question worth asking).  But there are clearly times where you've gone beyond that, and crossed into more pathetic territory.

As an example of the latter, consider the ravings of YouTuber Dave Johnson, who contends that the Civil War, World War II, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq never happened.  All of them were "media events" with manufactured battles and casualties, designed by political leaders to achieve various goals.  I'm not sure I can really describe the content of the videos -- and I'm also not sure I can, in good conscience, recommend that you watch them -- but he seems to be enamored of symbolism and numerology (he calls the attack on Fort Sumter "a 9/11-style attack on a pentagon") and then just denies everything else without stating any evidence.  "They went on to tell you that over 600,000 people died in (the Civil) War," he says.  "Untrue.  There's zero evidence of any battlefield footage of any death that I can find."

Well, the absence of "footage" may be because the Civil War happened before the invention of motion pictures.  But even forgiving that as a slip of the tongue, is he really discounting all of the photography by Mathew Brady?

Aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, by Mathew Brady

I'm sure he'd call them all modern fakes.  He seems to have a profoundly paranoid worldview, which (by the way) includes believing that the Moon is a hologram.

The whole question comes up because of a much more public figure than Dave Johnson -- J. Z. Knight, better known as "Ramtha."  Knight has run her "Ramtha School of Enlightenment" since 1988, wherein she and her followers share the teachings of "Ramtha," a 35,000-year-old being from "Lemuria" who claims to be the "enlightened one."  Knight "channels" Ramtha, and then offers his pronouncements to the masses.

Up until recently, the whole thing has seemed to me to be an enormous scam -- a way to bilk the gullible out of their hard-earned money.  But just in the last couple of years, Knight/Ramtha has left behind her bland, "find-the-god-within" message, and has apparently gone off the deep end.

According to a story this week at AlterNet, Knight is no longer promoting "enlightenment" in Ramtha's voice; she is going off on drunken homophobic and racist rants.  Video and audio recordings of Knight that have been made covertly and then smuggled out of her compound in Yelm, Washington have revealed that the cult has moved into decidedly scarier territory of late.  The article states:
During the 16 or so hours... Knight will disparage Catholics, gay people, Mexicans, organic farmers, and Jews. 
“Fuck God’s chosen people! I think they have earned enough cash to have paid their way out of the goddamned gas chambers by now,” she says as members of the audience snicker. There are also titters when she declares Mexicans “breed like rabbits” and are “poison,” that all gay men were once Catholic priests, and that organic farmers have questionable hygiene.
Add to this the fact that this ritual involves the drinking of huge amounts of alcohol -- they're called "wine ceremonies," and audience members are supposed to take a drink of wine every time Knight does -- and this begins to take on some of the characteristics of a meeting of the Aryan Nations instead of some quasi-religious ceremony.

And, of course, this is fuel to the fire to the neo-Nazis.  Knight/Ramtha is quoted at length on the race hate forum Stormfront, for example.  The two cults, different as they appear at first, both espouse a lot of the same ideology -- survivalism, an "elect" who will be protected when civilization falls, and a sacred message that needs to get out to the people -- at least the right people.

But she also likes to take pot shots at the Christians, and one of the recordings that has come to light begins with, "Fuck Jehovah!" and goes on to state that Jesus is "just another alien" who is on equal footing with Ramtha, and who came to the Earth to teach the same things that Ramtha did, but failed when power went to his head.

Knight, for her part, refuses to issue a retraction for any of her drunken screeds, claiming that all of the ugliness on the recordings is just a matter of Ramtha's words "being taken out of context."  She also accuses two ex-followers, Virginia Coverdale and David McCarthy, of spearheading a smear campaign started because of a love triangle involving Coverdale, Knight, and Knight's significant other.

But back to our original question; is Knight still, on some level, rational, or has she simply become psychotic?  Certainly her message now clearly qualifies the Ramtha School of Enlightenment as a hate group; but I'm more curious about Knight herself.  Before, she has just been classified as a religious version of P. T. Barnum, a huckster, suckering in the gullible and relieving them of their cash in exchange for a more-or-less harmless message.  Now?  She shows every evidence of insane paranoia.  So personally, she's more to be pitied than censured.

The difference, though, between a J. Z. Knight and a Dave Johnson -- the war-denier we started this post with -- is their relative reach and influence.  Johnson's YouTube videos, when I watched them, had on the order of a thousand views each.  Knight's message has reached millions -- her followers include some famous names like Selma Hayek, Linda Evans, and Mike Farrell.  Her New Age nonsense wrapped up as an educational video on quantum physics, What the Bleep Do We Know?, grossed ten million dollars and was in movie theaters for a year.  Knight herself lives in a 12,800 square foot French-style-chateau next to her school, can earn up to $200,000 for every speaking engagement, and has a net worth estimated in the tens of millions.

Which means that regardless of the cause of her crazy rantings, the damage she can do is very real.  Her home town of Yelm is full of her followers -- non-Ramtha-ites call them "Ramsters" -- and the Ramtha symbol appears on many businesses in town, telling RSE members that it's okay to do business there.  Local churches have started anti-RSE campaigns.  Ordinary citizens, caught in the middle, are scared.

For good reason.  Whatever Knight is now, her teachings are now no longer merely New Age pablum, but ugly, racist, homophobic invective.  And you have to wonder when she'll cross another line -- into saying something that induces the authorities to intervene.

Considering her followers, we could have another Waco on our hands.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Damned aliens!

I wonder sometimes how outrageous public figures have to become before people will stop following them.

Just last week, we had Rush Limbaugh claiming that the media coverage of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was a deliberate attempt to distract us from the problem of how President Obama is handling illegal immigrants.  "I don't want appear to be callous here, folks, but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border?" Limbaugh said, in his radio show last Thursday. "And, no, I'm not suggesting anything other than how the media operates."

To which I have two responses:  (1) Trying to do anything at this point about your "appearing callous" is a bit of a lost cause.  (2)  Why haven't you lost your entire audience yet, you bloviating blob of blubber?

I had a similar reaction when I read yesterday about the latest pronouncement from Ken Ham.  Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, is best known for having his ass handed to him in a debate with Bill Nye last year.  But that didn't stop him from moving forward with his project called "Ark Encounter" wherein he intends to build a life-sized model of Noah's Ark and demonstrate once and for all that there's no way it could have held pairs of every species on Earth.

Just a couple of days ago, however, Ham showed that he had not yet reached the nadir of his credibility, by offering up the opinion that we should give up the search for extraterrestrial life because any alien life out there is going to hell regardless.


Here's the direct quote, from an article he wrote over at AiG's website on Sunday:
I’m shocked at the countless hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent over the years in the desperate and fruitless search for extraterrestrial life.  Life did not evolve but was specially created by God, as Genesis clearly teaches...   
Christians certainly shouldn’t expect alien life to be cropping up across the universe.  Now the Bible doesn’t say whether there is or is not animal or plant life in outer space. I certainly suspect not.  You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe.  This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation.  Jesus did not become the ‘GodKlingon’ or the ‘GodMartian’!  Only descendants of Adam can be saved.  God’s Son remains the ‘Godman’ as our Savior.
Once again, I have two responses:

(1)  You're spending millions of dollars to build a replica of Noah's Ark, and you have the balls to criticize NASA for wasting money?

(2)  So in your view, a loving and all-powerful god might have created intelligent extraterrestrial life, but in his infinite mercy, he's making certain that they are all tortured forever in the Lake of Fire for something some dude and his wife did here on Earth?

I don't know about you, but this makes his pronouncements on why we should all abandon science and become young-earth creationists seem lucid and rational.

So, my advice: shut up, Ken.  If your ignominious thrashing at the hands of Bill Nye wasn't humiliating enough, you're now becoming a laughingstock.  I'll end with a quote that has been variously attributed to Will Rogers and British politician Dennis Healey:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

God in the driver's seat

I'm firmly of the opinion that you are free to believe anything you want, religious or otherwise.  People come to their understanding of how the universe works in their own fashion, and I really don't object if someone has come to a different understanding than I have, unless (s)he tries to force that understanding on everyone else.

That said, I am also of the opinion that religion makes people do some really bizarre things, sometimes.  Take Prionda Hill, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who just last week ran into a motorcyclist with her car because she had decided that it was time for Jesus to take a turn driving.


Hill was driving down the road, and all of a sudden her car swerved, and ran straight into motorcyclist Anthony Oliveri.  Hill kept on driving, despite the fact that she had damn near killed Oliveri.  According to the police report, Hill said that "she was driving and out of nowhere God told her that he would take it from here, and she let go of the wheel and let him take it."

Well, that didn't turn out to work so well.  God, who (at least in Hill's worldview) created the laws of physics, has also seen to it that they're strictly enforced, and her car went where not where god took it but where momentum took it, which was right into Oliveri's motorcycle.

But what makes this even crazier is that Oliveri, whose injuries include breaks in all of the ribs on his left side, a damaged spleen, and a bruised kidney, is attributing his survival to divine intervention.

"I remember it happened and I didn’t quite know what was going on for a split second," Oliveri later told reporters.  "As I grabbed the handle bars as the bike was losing control and I looked back around my left shoulder, all I see is her tire and the left bumper getting ready to run my face over.  Literally I was inches from that bumper and I just said to myself today is the day I die.  I just shut my eyes and said if this is the way that God wants to do it then I guess that this is the way we’re going to do it.  But I guess God has other plans for me, and I survived."

I... what?

A woman hands the steering wheel over to god because she trusts that god will take charge of things, and runs over a motorcyclist, who thinks he survived because god takes charge of things?

I don't know about you, but I feel like I just got an irony overdose.

Of course, this sort of thing is what devout Christians really profess to believe, isn't it?  I mean, few of them take it to these sorts of extremes, but still.  When something good happens, it's because god has showered them with his blessings.  When something bad happens, "it's all in god's plan."  I don't know about you, but I think a lot of stuff just kind of happens because it happens, and the laws of physics really don't give a damn what your religious beliefs are.  If you let go of your steering wheel, your divine buddy is not going to take a turn driving.

So anyway, another hat tip to loyal reader Tyler Tork for this story.  His comment, which seems a fitting way to close:  "I expect that SCOTUS would rule that she was within her rights."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flight of the dead

If there's a group of people that I enjoy arguing with even less than I enjoy arguing with young-earth creationists, it's conspiracy theorists.

At least the young-earth creationists admit that there's evidence out there that needs an explanation.  Fossils?  Left behind by the Great Flood.  Genetic and morphological homology between related species?  Coincidence.  Light from stars further away than 6,000 light years?  The speed of light changes as it goes.  Or light stretches.  Or weakens.  Or something.

So, okay, they're wrong, about nearly everything scientific that you could be wrong about.  But at least they don't come up with batshit crazy nonsense for which there is no evidence, and then argue that your evidence doesn't exist.

Which is, by and large, the conspiracy theorist's favorite modus operandi.  Take, for example, the latest wacko explanation (if I can dignify it by that name) of the recent tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 by Ukrainian separatists: the whole thing was staged in order to force a confrontation between the United States and Russia, and the plane itself was being flown remotely and was peopled entirely by corpses.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

My first thought upon reading this was that the originator of this "theory" must have believed that the Sherlock Holmes episode "A Scandal in Belgravia" was a historical documentary.  What evidence, you might rightly ask, does anyone have that this conjecture is true, other than that provided by Mr. Freeman and Mr. Cumberbatch?

A statement that rebel leader Igor Girkin made that a number of the bodies at the crash site did not appear to be "fresh."

Well, if the plane I'm on gets blown out of the sky, and I fall 30,000 feet, I'm guessing I won't be looking my "freshest" at that point, either.  And afterwards, Girkin reportedly said that he could "neither confirm or deny" the claim.

But that was all it took.  The plane was full of corpses.  The whole thing was a setup.  This, despite the fact that one of the passengers on the doomed plane, Mohammed Ali Mohammed Salim of Kuala Lumpur, took a video of himself and other passengers getting settled right before the plane was preparing to take off, and uploaded it to Instagram along with the message that he was "a little nervous."

For good reason, as it turned out.

But no, say the conspiracy theorists, Salim's video itself is a fake, made hurriedly by the Evil Conspirators once Pillars of Sanity and Rationalism like Alex Jones and Jeff Rense began to figure the whole thing out.

Then, of course, we had the people who said that it couldn't be a coincidence that disaster has struck Malaysia Airlines twice within just a few months.  Maybe... maybe it wasn't a coincidence.  In fact, maybe MH 17 and MH 370, the flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean this past March were...

... the same plane.

At least, I think that's what is being claimed on this site, wherein we are treated to the following brain-boggling chain of thought:
How brain dead do they think we are??? 
Our previous articles have covered the MH370 who, when, where and why but not the WHAT. What happened to MH370 after they whisked it into the airport hangar at Diego Garcia? 
The WHAT question has now been answered. MH370 was remarked and became Malaysian flight MH17. It was flown to Amsterdam where it picked up passengers and flew over the western allied Ukraine where it "disappeared from radar" and was shot down and destroyed. The Russian government was blamed in order to alienate and inflame existing Ukraine tensions with Russia. Now who would want to do that exactly???? Duh... 
In view of the unlikely coincidence of two Malaysian Boing 777's being downed within 3 months of each other, there's undoubtedly a connection
Over 500 passengers have been murdered on board two "downed" Malaysian Boeing 777's within 3 months of each other. This is NOT a coincidence. 
Well, yes, actually it is.  That's what you call it when two events coincide.

Oh, and from March to July isn't three months.  But maybe I'm splitting hairs, here.

What gets me about this, and (in fact) what gets me about all conspiracy theories, is how the proponents of these nutty ideas think that an absence of evidence is actually a point in their favor.  No conclusive proof that the dead bodies at the MH 17 crash site were already badly decomposed?  Well, it must be true, then.  No trace whatsoever of missing flight MH 370?  It must have landed on Diego Garcia.

Which, of course, makes them impossible to counter.  Any evidence you can produce against their argument has been manufactured; any lack of evidence on their part is just proof of how sneaky these false-flag-loving illuminati are.

All of which kind of makes me pine for a nice rip-roaring argument with a young-earth creationist.  Ken Ham?  Kent Hovind?  Andrew Snelling?  Anyone?

Damn.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Magic eggs and faith healers

It's a question I've asked before: how do "alternative medicine" and "faith healing" therapies that don't work get started, and then continue to sucker people?  You'd think that if you're told that "pressing a quartz crystal to your forehead will cure your headache," the first time you got a headache that didn't go away after the application of a crystal, you'd say, "Okay, this doesn't work," and go take an aspirin (i.e., medicine that is actually effective) instead.

Oh, I know about the placebo effect, and the possibility of spontaneous remission of symptoms.  But still.  That only takes you so far, especially given the crazy, non-scientific basis of some of these so-called remedies.

Take the claim that was just covered in The Daily Mirror -- that in order to cure hemorrhoids, all you have to do is to go to a temple in the Kunagami Shrine, north of Tokyo, and aim your butt at a "holy egg" (actually an egg-shaped rock) while a Shinto priest chants a prayer, and lo!  Your hemorrhoids will be cured.


The article explains how the whole thing works:
Temple priest Osamu Hayakawa explained: "We perform a short service and afterwards individuals have to point their rear ends at the holy egg and say a special prayer. 
"The devout will find the trip to the Kunigami Shrine will have the desired effect." 
Sufferers apparently used to wash in a local river and afterwards ate boiled eggs at the temple to cure themselves of the condition, but the ceremony has been modernised. 
Mr Hayakawa said: "In the modern world, it is not acceptable for people to be showing off their rear ends while bathing in public but we believe that it is fine if the essence of the ritual is still maintained."
Right!  Modernized!  Because that's the word I'd use to describe pointing your ass at a magic egg to cure an unpleasant medical condition.

Of course, we once again bump up against the reluctance people have to criticize silly ideas when they come under the aegis of religion, which this one clearly does.  My reaction predictably, is, "Why not?"  Ideas are just ideas; they either reflect reality, or else they don't.  Just because a particular ridiculous claim is a ridiculous religious claim shouldn't make any difference.

And the magic butt-mending egg is such a counterfactual religious claim.  But before we laugh too hard at the Japanese ritual, keep in mind that it's really no different from Christian claims of faith healing except on the level of details. 

Which, unfortunately leads us into a darker side of this topic.  Just last year, Herbert and Cathleen Schaible of Philadelphia were charged with murder when a second child of theirs died from a treatable illness.  Their seven-month-old son Brandon died of bacterial pneumonia after days of prayer; four years earlier, they'd lost their two-year-old son Kent from a similar illness.  In both cases, they were directed by leaders of their church, the First Century Gospel Church, to use "faith healing" rather than conventional medicine.

"The church believe [sic] that people get sick because they’re not doing the right thing," a church member named John told reporters for NBC Philadelphia.  (He refused to give his last name during the interview.)  "God promised us that if we do his will, that there’s no infection; all these diseases that you name, would not come to you."

And, he added, the arrest of the Schaibles and the criticism of the church leaders amounts to "persecution."

My attitude is: if you want to call it persecution, fine.  The authorities should persecute the hell out of them.  If your faith involves letting a seven-month-old baby die because you think god is punishing him for "not doing the right thing," you have abandoned your right to claim "freedom of religion" for your practice.

But back to my original point; at what point do the adherents to such beliefs look at this sort of thing, and revise their worldview?  How long will it take before people stop, look at all of the examples of diseases left uncured by "the power of prayer," and say, "Okay, this doesn't work?"

Evidently, the answer for some people is, "forever."

I try to be understanding of people, I really do.  But this is one case where I just don't get it.  This is so far off in the realm of the completely irrational that I can't find any point of contact from which I could comprehend them.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Farts, craters, Mick Jagger, and the problem with lousy science reporting

One of the reasons that it is critical that we all be science-literate is because it is becoming increasingly apparent that the popular media either (1) hires reporters that aren't, or (2) values getting people to click links over accurate reporting.

I suspect it's (2), honestly.  The most recent examples of this phenomenon smack of "I don't care" far more than they do of "I don't know."  Just in the last week, we've had three examples of truly terrible reporting in media outlets that should have higher standards (i.e., I'm not even considering stuff from The Daily Mail).

And, for the record, this doesn't include the recent hysterical reporting that melting roads in Yellowstone National Park mean that the supervolcano is going to erupt and we're all going to die.

The first one, courtesy of the Australian news outlet News.Com.Au, pisses me off right from the outset, with the title, "A Mysterious Crater in Siberia Has Scientists Seeking Answers."  Because seeking answers isn't what scientists do all the time, or anything.  Then, right in the first line, we find out that they're not up to the task, poor things:  "Scientists baffled by giant crater... over northern Siberia -- a region notorious for devastating events."

"Baffled."  Yup, that's the best they can do, those poor, hapless scientists.  A big hole in the ground appears, and they just throw their hands up in wonderment.

Before we're given any real information, we hear some bizarre theories (if I can dignify them by that name) about what could have caused the hole.  UFOs are connected, or maybe it's the Gates of Hell, or perhaps the entry to "the hollow Earth."  Then they bring up the Tunguska event, a meteor collision that happened in 1908, and suggest that the two might be connected because the impact happened "in the region."

Despite the fact that the new crater is over a thousand miles from the Tunguska site.  This, for reference, is about the distance between New Orleans, Louisiana and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Only after some time are we told that the Siberian crater site is also the site of a natural gas field in which explosions have taken place before.  In fact, the whole place is pocked with circular craters, probably caused by methane explosions from the permafrost -- i.e., it's a completely natural phenomenon that any competent geologist would have been able to explain without even breaking a sweat.


But this is world-class journalism as compared to ABC News Online, which just reported that Brazil got knocked out of the FIFA World Cup because of Mick Jagger's support.

To be fair, ABC News wasn't intending this as science reporting, but from all evidence, they did take it seriously.  Here's an excerpt:
It seems the Rolling Stone frontman has developed a reputation for jinxing whatever team he supports. Some Brazilian fans are even blaming Jagger for their team’s 7-1 thrashing by Germany in Tuesday’s semifinal game. 
The 70-year-old singer turned up at the game with his 15-year-old son by Luciana Giminez, a Brazilian model and celebrity. Though he wore an England cap, his son was clad in Brazil jersey and they were surrounded by Brazil supporters. 
The legend of the “Jagger Curse” dates back to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where he sat next to Bill Clinton for the USA-Ghana match, only to see the U.S. lose 2-1. When he attended the England-Germany game the next day, wearing an England scarf, his home country lost. But it wasn’t until the Dutch defeated Brazil during the quarterfinal round, where Jagger turned up in a Brazil shirt, that the Brazilians first blamed him for the loss.
Seriously?  It couldn't be that the winning team played better, could it?  You know, put the ball into the net more times?

It has to be Mick Jagger's fault?  Because of a magical jinx?


So I'm just going to leave that one sitting there, and move on to the worst example, which has been posted about five million times already on Facebook, to the point that if I see it one more time, I'm going to punch a wall.  I'm referring, of course, to the earthshatteringly abysmal science reporting that was the genesis of The Week's story "Study: Smelling Farts May Be Good For Your Health."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm hoping beyond hope that most of the people who posted this did so not because they believed it, but because most of us still don't mind a good har-de-har over flatulence.  But the story itself is idiotic.  Here's the first paragraph:
The next time someone at your office lets out a "silent but deadly" emission, maybe you should thank them. A new study at the University of Exeter in England suggests that exposure to hydrogen sulfide — a.k.a. what your body produces as bacteria breaks down food, causing gas — could prevent mitochondria damage. Yep, the implication is what you're thinking: People are taking the research to mean that smelling farts could prevent disease and even cancer.
Well, at the risk of sounding snarky, any people who "take this research" this way have the IQ of cheese, because two paragraphs later in the same article the writer says what the research actually showed:
Dr. Matt Whiteman, a University of Exeter professor who worked on the study, said in a statement that researchers are even replicating the natural gas in a new compound, AP39, to reap its health benefits. The scientists are delivering "very small amounts" of AP39 directly into mitochondrial cells to repair damage, which "could hold the key to future therapies," the university's statement reveals.
There is a difference between smelling a fart and having small amounts of dissolved hydrogen sulfide enter the mitochondria of your cells.  It is like saying that because sodium ions are necessary for proper firing of the nerves, that you'll have faster reflexes if you put more salt on your t-bone steak.  Worse than that; it's like saying that you'll have faster reflexes if you snort salt up your nose.

I know that media outlets are in business to make money, and that readers = sponsors = money.  I get that.  But why do we have a culture where people are so much more interested in spurious nonsense (or science that gets reported that way) than they are in the actual science itself?  Has science been portrayed as so unutterably dull that real science stories are skipped in favor of glitzy, sensationalized foolishness?

Or is it that we science teachers are guilty of teaching it that way, and convincing generations of children that science is boring?

Whatever the answer is to that question, I firmly believe that it's based on a misapprehension.  Properly understood, the science itself is cool, awe-inspiring, and fascinating.  Okay, it takes a little more work to understand mitochondria than it does to fall for "sniffing farts prevents cancer," but once you do understand what's really going on, it's a hell of a lot more interesting.

Oh, and it has one other advantage over all this other stuff: it's true.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The selfie from hell

"Selfies" are all the rage these days.  Heaven knows why, because they're usually poorly composed and not in focus.  They also tend to be taken at inadvisable times, such as when the subject-and-photographer has had one too many strawberry daiquiris, which is almost certainly what resulted in the invention of the truly unfortunate cultural phenomenon of "duck lips."

I won't say that I haven't succumbed to the temptation myself once or twice, although I hasten to add that it was sans daiquiris and "duck lips."  Here's a twofer selfie my wife and I took while we were hiking in the Grand Tetons a couple of weeks ago:


So they don't all turn out terrible, or embarrassing, the kind of thing you look at later and say, "How did this end up on my camera?"

Which was apparently the question that was asked by one Gina Mihai, 34, of an unnamed village in Romania, according to a story in The Daily Mirror (and reported on Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News, which is where I ran across it).  Mihai says she was looking through the photographs on her cellphone one day recently, and found the following rather horrifying image:



Pretty scary.  Mihai was understandably creeped out, but she had an explanation ready at hand.  She told reporters, "When I switched the phone on I was horrified to see my dead grandmother’s face.  She had what looked like a snake around her neck, and the whole image looked as if it had been taken through a hole, like it was shot through a tear in the fabric that separates the living from the dead."

In other words, poor grandma ended up in hell, and for some reason decided to send her granddaughter what amounts to an infernal selfie.  Here's grandma in real life, just before she died:


I don't really see a lot of resemblance, myself.  But maybe that's because being in hell, not to mention having a snake around your neck, would kind of have a tendency to change your facial expression.

Mihai followed up the experience with a visit to a fortune-teller, because of course that's who you'd want to see if you wanted a touchstone of reality.  And the fortune-teller said that Mihai was right, granny was in hell, and the snake around her neck was because she was "being punished for certain sins."

The trouble is, the article also had a photograph of Mihai herself, which I include below:


And what strikes me is that the "selfie from hell" looks more like Mihai than it does like her grandmother.  My contention (and Sharon Hill's, too) is that Mihai digitally altered a photograph of herself, an easy enough thing to do with any ordinary image modification software, and now is getting her fifteen minutes of fame by disparaging her poor grandma.

But even if her contention is correct, and grandma is in hell, I thought that once you were there, it amounted to solitary confinement in the Lake of Fire?  It's hard to imagine Satan allowing texting: 

Grandma:  Excuse me, Your Infernal Evilness, can you hang on a minute?  I just need to send a message to my granddaughter.  *takes pic of herself with her cellphone*  

Satan:  Well, okay, I'll let it go this time.  Just so long as you don't do "duck lips."  That earns you five more years in the red-hot lava pit.

Grandma:  How about the snake around my neck?  I can show my granddaughter that, right?

Satan:  Sure.

So the whole thing seems pretty improbable to me, just as improbable as the claim we looked at a couple of days ago wherein god was allegedly communicating with a chef via patterns of seeds inside an eggplant.  You'd think that being powerful supernatural beings, they'd pick more direct ways of speaking to us, wouldn't you?  Like gigantic burning bushes or pillars of fire or hosts of heavenly and/or demonic entities rushing about.  But you never see any of that stuff, despite what you hear in all the folklore.

I wonder why that is.