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, October 30, 2014

Secession talk

I mentioned yesterday that the tactics being employed by the ultra-religious faction in the United States were seeming increasingly desperate.  And in a rather troubling example of synchronicity, just after publishing yesterday's post, I ran across an article in the Washington Times wherein we read that Douglas MacKinnon, a conservative columnist, author, and former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Bush I, is recommending that the southern states secede.

My first thought was, "Didn't they try this once?  And it didn't end so well?"

Sure, says MacKinnon.  The Confederacy had seceded "peacefully" and "legally," and then "President Lincoln waged an illegal war."

Makes you wonder about the whole Fort Sumter thing, doesn't it?  Never mind, MacKinnon probably would say that the North should have abandoned the place and given up.  It was their fault they fought back, ya know?

His argument only gets more bizarre from there, though.  The reason MacKinnon wants the South to re-secede is mostly religion.  Oh, yeah, and guns and evil environmentalists:
A growing number of our leaders seem determined to erase our borders... [to] do away with the rule-of-law, expand the nanny state into a theology, bankrupt or punish American companies in the name of fighting climate change, do away with the Second Amendment, censor or demonize the history of western civilization and replace it with multiculturalism, give every kid a trophy and turn them into wimps… and attack all faith in God with a particular and unhinged bias against the Christian faith.
Righty-o.  And what would he call this new god-fearing, gun-loving, zero-tree-hugger nation?

"Reagan."  I'm not making this up.  At least, MacKinnon said, until they could come up with a better name.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

"I simply want those who believe the downward spiral of our country is irreversible, to know that an option to preserve their values does exist," MacKinnon said.

It's all too easy to laugh at the likes of MacKinnon.  After all, his decrying of the United States as becoming a "nanny state," and then saying that the South should rise up and be a pinnacle of economic rectitude, ignores the fact that three of the top four states that rely most heavily on federal assistance are Mississippi (#1), Alabama (#3), and Louisiana (#4).  And despite the ongoing fear-talk that President Obama is COMING FOR OUR GUNS, he's nearing the end of his second term, and guess what?  Guns still abound.  If he's after the guns, dude better get his ass in gear, because he's wasted six years not confiscating guns and destroying the Second Amendment.  If he procrastinates further, he'll only have himself to blame when we remain as heavily armed as ever.

But if MacKinnon thinks that even in the South there's uniformity of belief, he's delusional.  Okay, a lot of the Southeast is heavily conservative and majority Christian, but "majority" doesn't mean "unanimity."  What are the southern atheists, liberals, and environmentalists to do?

Leave, is my guess.  I've heard it before, but usually referring to the United States as a whole; "America is a Christian nation.  If you don't like it, get out."

So there's our wacko screed of the day.  I live in hope that people like MacKinnon are a dying breed, but even if I'm right, they don't seem to be ready to Go Gentle Into That Good Night.  They're apparently more about the "rage, rage" part.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Creationist street theater

Is it just me, or are others noticing that the creationists seem to be getting a bit... desperate?

I ask the question because this Saturday (November 1) they're holding a conference at Michigan State University called the "Origin Summit."  This strikes me as a little like a guy tiptoeing up to a sleeping grizzly bear to boop him on the nose.  MSU is a highly regarded research institution, and in fact is the home of both Richard Lenski, whose decades-long study of evolution in bacteria is considered one of the best right-in-front-of-your-face examples of natural selection in action, and Robert Pennock, who testified as an expert witness in the landmark Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District court case, which found that teaching intelligent design in public schools was against the law.

So the whole thing is a good example of chutzpah, if nothing else.  But that hasn't stopped the creationists.  Amongst the topics in the conference will be the role of evolution in the philosophy of Adolf Hitler, "why the Big Bang is fake," a talk called "Natural Selection is NOT Evolution," and a "critique of Lenski's research."

It's hard to see what exactly they hope to accomplish, here, and even its organizers seem a little shaky on what they're doing.  "The Origin Summit is not overtly evangelistic," wrote Mike Smith, executive director of the group who is sponsoring the event.  "We hope to pave the way for evangelism (for the other campus ministries) by presenting the scientific evidence for intelligent design.  Once students realize they're created beings, and not the product of natural selection, they're much more open to the Gospel, to the message of God's love and forgiveness."

[image courtesy of photographer Amy Watts and the Wikimedia Commons]

The whole thing sounds more like street theater than a serious academic conference, though, given that there is no scientific evidence for intelligent design, much less young-earth creationism.  Lenski himself was asked to comment on the summit, and he responded, "In my opinion, this event will be just another forgettable blip in the long history of antiscience, antievolution screeds.  I suppose the speakers chose to target our research… because their event is being held here, and maybe because they find it confusing to their worldview that evolution isn’t supposed to happen."

"Confusing" is an understatement.  The amount of science that you have to ignore outright in order to accept creationism is staggering.  The summit has, of course, left some legitimate scientists a little uneasy; is having this kind of foolishness hosted at a university sending the wrong message?

"Free speech is at the heart of academic freedom and is something we take very seriously," wrote Kent Cassella, MSU’s associate vice president for communications.  "Any group, regardless of viewpoint, has the right to assemble in public areas of campus or petition for space to host an event so long as it does not engage in disorderly conduct or violate rules.  While MSU is not a sponsor of the creation summit, MSU is a marketplace of free ideas."

Which is, of course, exactly the right approach.  The creationists should be given every opportunity to publicly embarrass themselves.  I was initially against Bill Nye debating Ken Ham, for example, but in the end Ham showed so abysmally that even Pat Robertson said, "The dating of Bishop Ussher just doesn't comport with anything that is found in science and you can't just totally deny the geological formations that are out there...  (W)e have skeletons of dinosaurs that go back like 65 million years.  And to say that it all came around six thousand years ago is nonsense...  I don't believe in so-called evolution as non-theistic.  I believe that God started it all and he's in charge of all of it.  The fact that you have progressive evolution under his control.  That doesn't hurt my faith at all."

"I think it's time we come off of that stuff and say this isn't possible," he added.  "Let's be real, let's not make a joke of ourselves."

Wise words, albeit from a guy who usually gives every evidence of having a screw loose.

So about the Origin Summit: my thought is, let 'em have their fun.  If they want to go over to the Big Kids' Yard and put on a play, they can knock themselves out.  It's not going to slow down the real research for a moment, and may actually highlight how devoid of reason their stance is, which is all to the good.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


If there's one thing I find discouraging, it's how resistant crazy beliefs are to eradication.

You'd think that as we know more about how the universe actually works through science, the remaining spaces would become smaller and smaller, forcing woo-woos to cede ever greater amount of territory to the rationalists.  The parts we can't explain would be all they'd have left to fill up with wacky claims.

"Crap of the gaps," is kind of how I think of it.

In practice, of course, this isn't true.  Crazy ideas like astrology are as popular as ever.  And if we needed further evidence of this rather dismal tendency, we got it this week with the release of the Chapman University Survey of American Fears.

In this survey, they looked at a representative sampling of 2,500 Americans, and asked them whether they believed in a variety of claims.  You want to feel depressed?  Consider the following:

  • The percentage of Americans who believe in Atlantis (63%) exceeds the percentage who think that vaccines are safe and effective (53%).
  • The belief that "Satan causes most of the evil in the world" is held by a greater number of people (46%) than is belief in anthropogenic climate change (33%).
  • More people believe that UFOs are alien spaceships (41%) than believe that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old (27%).
  • People are far more likely to believe in ghosts and hauntings (54%) than evolution (31%).
  • Almost exactly the same percentage of people believe in Bigfoot as believe in the Big Bang (21%).

There are a lot of reasons for this, of course.  One has only to turn on the This Really Isn't History Channel or Imaginary Animal Planet or the Discovery of Things That Don't Exist Channel to see one of them.  When shows like Ancient Aliens get a longer run than shows like Cosmos, we have a problem as a culture.

Glitzy, hyped woo-woo -- Monster Quest and Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot and The Unexplained -- has soared in popularity.  To be fair, it's not that I don't see the draw; I love a good scary story, myself, and still consider The X Files to be the pinnacle of television to date.

But The X Files was marketed as fiction, for fuck's sake.  This stuff is being broadcast with the premise that it's true.  And because we don't really put a premium on critical thinking, in public schools or pretty much anywhere else, lots of people are just swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.

Of course, that's not all.  There's also some more insidious forces at work, ones that really aren't about the profit motive.  You only have to consider the influence of evangelical religion to understand why evolution and the antiquity of the Earth and the Big Bang scored so low.  And for the vaccines thing, look at Jenny McCarthy (Not Directly!  Always Use Eye Protection!)  Why so many people consider an actress a more credible source of information on medical science than an actual medical researcher is a minor mystery.  We still tend, as a society, to buy into the whole "cult of ignorance" -- that the scientists are out-of-touch ivory tower intellectuals, who could just as well be evil as be good, and that we're better off trusting good ol' boys who talk plain English.

Or, as the case may be, Playboy models who are college dropouts.

I live in hope that we're still making progress, even despite Chapman University's rather discouraging findings.  After all, if I didn't think humans were educable, my raison d'être for being both a science writer and a science teacher would be gone.  And as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "Science literacy is a vaccine against the charlatans of the world who would exploit your ignorance."

But the poll results indicate that we still have a long, long way to go in fighting intransigence.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween 2.0

Well, Halloween is this Friday, and you might want to be aware that if you're planning on going trick-or-treating, there are some folks who won't be playing along.

And I don't just mean leaving their lights off and their front doors locked, something that I have to admit I occasionally do.  Dealing with kids in school all day leaves me unenthusiastic about their coming to my house at night.  Call me selfish, but there you are.

But this year, it may go further than that, if folks listen to the urgings of actor Kirk Cameron.

Cameron, you're probably aware, has brought his sort-of-high profile to the Christian apologetics scene, and has partnered with evangelical wingnut Ray Comfort (he of the "bananas therefore god" argument) in a ministry called The Way of the Master.  He has been vocal in his disbelief in evolution, and his attitude that homosexuality is "unnatural, detrimental, and ultimately destructive to the foundations of civilization."

And now he's decided that he needs us to retool Halloween.

[image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

He's not the first, of course; Pat Robertson has for years claimed that Halloween is evil, and in fact went on record as saying that candy companies were hiring witches to curse Halloween candy, and that if children ate it, "the curse would enter them."  But this hasn't slowed the sale of candy and costumes, nor put a significant dent in the number of kids participating in trick-or-treat, so I guess it's only natural that the next option is to turn the day into something more in line with Christian beliefs.

Christians, he said, have to take back the holiday, because it was originally intended as a day to show that Christianity had defeated Satan.  "Early on, Christians would dress up in costumes as the devil, ghosts, goblins and witches precisely to make the point that those things were defeated and overthrown by the resurrected Jesus Christ," Cameron says.  "The costumes poke fun at the fact that the devil and other evils were publicly humiliated by Christ at His resurrection."

Well, not exactly.  Halloween traces back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain.  The Celts divided the calendar into twelve months of thirty days each, which left five days at the end that didn't belong to any month.  During those five days, the ordinary laws of nature were suspended -- the dead could rise, ghosts came back to haunt places or people, monsters walked the roads.  On the night of the last of the five days, the priests and their followers would drive the evil spirits back where they belonged, bringing right order back into the world.  And food was left out as both propitiation for the spirits (in hopes that they'd leave households alone) and for the priests and their helpers, so the tradition of going from place to place to get free food was worked into the whole thing.  Once the beliefs in the actual spirits began to wane, and especially when Christianity was introduced and the celebration had to be sanctified, it slowly morphed into the harmless kids-running-around-in-costume that we have today.  (Followed, it must be noted, by "All Saints' Day" -- the day in which holiness is restored and the good guys are back in charge.)

So Cameron is wrong.  Unsurprising, honestly.  But then he goes on to urge his fellow Christians not to buy into the dark side of Halloween, but to throw "the biggest party on the block" to reclaim the holiday.  Part of this involves not handing out candy, but handing out religious literature.  "Halloween gives you a great opportunity to show how Christians celebrate the day that death was defeated, and you can give them Gospel tracts and tell the story of how every ghost, goblin, witch and demon was trounced the day Jesus rose from the grave," Cameron says.  "Clearly no Christians ought to be glorifying death, because death was defeated, and that was the point of All Hallows Eve."

Whoo-wee.  The kids will just be lining up to get to your door, Mr. Cameron.  What first grader wouldn't pass up mini-Snickers bars and Reese's Pieces in order to get a gospel tract or a flier from a local church?  Hallelujah to that, right?

Of course right.

But Cameron never lets a little thing like "reality" intrude on his vision.  In fact, he's already got his next salvo planned.  In November, he's releasing a film called "Saving Christmas," presumably all about how we atheists are determined to undermine everything that's holy about the season by wishing people "Happy holidays."

So anyhow.  I doubt Cameron's ideas for reworking Halloween are going to catch on, frankly.  Too many people enjoy it like it already is, and every year it happens and almost never do you see some kid in an Incredible Hulk costume become possessed by Satan.  Bellyaches abound the next day, to be sure, but I doubt that any of them are due to demons.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The tree planter

Yesterday I was thinking about issues of empowerment versus despair.

I get asked questions along this line frequently.  Being an atheist, how can I not let my perception that the world is without final purpose drive me downward emotionally?  And linked to this is the similar question of how, as someone who is very aware of human failings (both in the intellectual and social realms), I don't give up on our species entirely.

I think it has to do with my attitude that even if all I make are small steps, it is still better to make those steps than to give up and stand still.  It is my motivation for writing this blog.  Perhaps a lot of what I do here at Skeptophilia is preaching to the choir; I suspect that most of my readership comes from people who, like myself, are questioners and skeptics and rationalists.  But if by what I write I can prod even one person to take a closer look at his or her basic assumptions about how the universe works, then what I am doing is worth it.

The same impetus keeps me teaching.  I know that most of my students won't become scientists, and I am absolutely fine with that.  I also know I won't be able to reach them all, a truth which is discouraging but perhaps inevitable.  But if I can open up the eyes of some of the people in my classes -- show them a bit of the world they hadn't ever thought about, make them go, "Wow, this universe is a strange and cool and wondrous place!" -- then I will have succeeded.

Which brings me to Wangari Maathai.

In this disillusioned and jaded world, Maathai was a true hero.  She was born in Kenya in 1940, and grew up in traditional Kikuyu culture -- strict gender roles, and an attitude toward the land that it was meant to be used, not protected.  Her shattering of the terribly low glass ceiling for women in east Africa started early, though.  She graduated with a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine 1971, becoming the first east African woman to earn a doctorate, and shortly afterwards was hired to teach veterinary science at the University of Nairobi.

Wangari Maathai [image courtesy of photographer Martin Rowe and the Wikimedia Commons]

But Maathai was not content with being a college lecturer, as groundbreaking as that was for a woman of her culture.  She looked around her at the environmental devastation in her beloved country, and the lack of empowerment many women felt, and decided that there was no reason she had to accept either of those things.

So she changed the world.

She started the Green Belt Movement, a campaign for tree replanting.  "When resources are degraded, we start competing for them," Maathai wrote, "whether it is at the local level in Kenya, where we had tribal clashes over land and water, or at the global level, where we are fighting over water, oil, and minerals.  So one way to promote peace is to promote sustainable management and equitable distribution of resources."

She fought for the rights of women, successfully instituting a small business loan program in rural Kenya with the hopes of making villages self-sufficient, and making women no longer dependent on men for income.  She fostered tree replanting and environmental protection programs all over east Africa, while simultaneously encouraging sustainable farming practices that did not rely on cutting down forests and exhausting farmland.

And it worked, but it was not without cost.  Her husband divorced her in 1977, claiming that she was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he was "unable to control her."  The government, then a one-party dictatorship, tried to silence her, first with a disinformation program (they called her women's rights group "a bunch of divorcees controlled by a crazy woman").  She was attacked and beaten by policemen, arrested more than once, and was on a list of people targeted by President Daniel arap Moi for assassination.

It didn't stop her.  "In order to accomplish anything," Maathai said, "we must keep our feelings of empowerment ahead of our feelings of despair.  We cannot do everything, but still there are many things we can do."

Many things.  Yes, she did indeed.  She was instrumental in Kenya's return to a multi-party democracy.  She singlehandedly drove the regreening of Kenya's rural areas.  In 2002, she was elected to Kenya's parliament.

In 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

All this from a woman who would not accept the role she'd been cast in, would not simply sit back and weep over the way things are.  Maathai never gave up on her vision, and because of that, she overturned generations of repression and sexism and environmental degradation.

No, she didn't eradicate those things entirely.  Kenya, and the rest of the world, still has a long way to go.  Yet Maathai never let the pitfalls and backslides get in the way of her belief that humans are fundamentally good, and the world is worth saving.  When she died in 2011 at the age of 71, she had accomplished more than most of us would in ten lifetimes -- all through being steadfast and brave and, most importantly, not accepting that the status quo was inevitable.

She remained, to the end, modest about what she'd done.  Any of us, Maathai said, could do the same; all it takes is a vision and sufficient courage.  "I don't really know why I care so much," Maathai said.  "I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it...  It's the little things citizens do.  That's what will make the difference."

She smiled, and added, "My little thing is planting trees."

Friday, October 24, 2014

Local squatch alert

The unfortunate part of what I do here at Skeptophilia is that I so seldom get to participate in any first-hand active research.  I have a day job, and limited time and finances to fly to Nepal to investigate claims of Yeti sightings, much as I would love to do so.

So it's with great joy that I announce that there are cryptids in upstate New York, within reasonable driving distance from where I live.

First, we have the Connecticut Hill Monster, which is veritably in my back yard.  Connecticut Hill, says enthusiast Tim Holmes, is home to a "migratory pod of Sasquatch."

This raises two questions:  (1) Sasquatch migrate?  I mean, I can hardly blame them if they do, considering the winters we have up here, but still.  (2) The collective noun for Bigfoots is "pod?"  I thought that was whales.  I think they deserve a more creative collective noun, don't you?  Maybe a "lope of Sasquatch."

Be that as it may, I've spent many hours tromping around Connecticut Hill and the Finger Lakes National Forest with my valiant Bigfoot-tracking dog, Grendel, and we've seen nary a trace of squatches.  Disappointing, that.

But there may be another spot to search, at least if you believe Peter Wiemer, who just last week petitioned legislators from Chautauqua County to have Bigfoot declared as an endangered species.

Wiemer, who is a Bigfoot tracker, is also the owner of the "We Wan Chu Cottages" on Chautauqua Lake, which should win some sort of prize in the Inadvertently Creepy Motel Name Contest.  But he certainly feels passionate about his cryptozoological avocation.  "Bigfoots are not a paranormal, not scary or troublesome and are living among us in peace and harmony in Chautauqua County," he said, resulting in a number of near-fatal choke-snorts from legislators.  "You should err on the side of caution."

He also added, "You're not going to be looked at as being crazy," which is debatable.

There is a problem with all of this, though, and it goes beyond being thought crazy.  According to the National Wildlife Federation, to be listed as endangered, a species has to meet the following criteria:
  • Has a large percentage of the species vital habitat been degraded or destroyed?
  • Has the species been over-consumed by commercial, recreational, scientific or educational uses? 
  • Is the species threatened by disease or predation? 
  • Do current regulations or legislations inadequately protect the species? 
  • Are there other manmade factors that threaten the long-term survival of the species?
Given that the amount of scientifically admissible evidence for Bigfoot is zero, how do you determine whether any of these criteria are met?  Add that to the fact that current estimates of the Sasquatch population also stand at "zero," and trying to determine whether the population is declining becomes kind of a moot point.

Of course, I might be speaking too hastily, here.  A couple of days ago, a coworker and friend of mine sent me an alarming photograph that was taken on her husband's trail-cam.  She gave me permission to use the image, so take a look at this:

Well, if that's not convincing, I don't know what is.

So there you have it.  Claims of a lope of Bigfoot, and near enough for me to go do some first-hand research.  I'll get right on that.  I better, because it's soon going to be winter, and as devoted as I am to the cause, I am not going to risk freezing off important body parts hiking around in four feet of snow in some godforsaken corner of Chautauqua County.  Call me a wimp, but there you go.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Playing cards with ghosts

So there's the story of the little kid who starts a snowball rolling at the top of a hill, and as it rolls it accumulates more snow, getting bigger and bigger, until finally it reaches the bottom and crushes a car or something.  Thus the coining of the term snowball effect and a cautionary lesson about getting things started that might eventually get away from you.

I feel a little like that kid this week.  Tuesday I posted about the fact that I loved it when woo-woos conducted hybridization experiments on disparate bizarre claims, and as an example talked about a guy who said he could summon UFOs by telepathy.  This generated an email from a reader, who said that if I liked that one, I'd love the guy who said, basically, that Bigfoot was elusive because quantum.  I ended that piece saying that if anyone had any further weird combos up their sleeve, for example, a recommendation that we choose our homeopathic remedies using Tarot cards, I didn't want to know about it.

This prompted a different loyal reader of Skeptophilia to send me an email that said, "I tried to find one combining Tarot cards and homeopathy, but I found this one instead.  Do I win?"

Despite my feeling of foreboding, I clicked the link.  And found myself reading about "Using Tarot Cards to Communicate With Ghosts."

Like the other two, I kept looking for some sign that this was satire, but sadly, I don't think it was.  "Tarot cards are a great way to communicate with spirits," we're told in the introduction.  "It’s because they open up your intuition, so you become receptive to the ghost’s or spirit’s message."

But then we're immediately told to be cautious.  Ghosts and spirits, apparently, can do bad stuff, so we have to speak to them sternly right from the get-go.  There are four rules one must follow:
  1. Never allow the spirit to enter your mind
  2. Tell the spirit it may only guide your hand to the right card
  3. Tell the spirits that you have the power to end the session when you want
  4. Tell it exactly how you want it to communicate or confirm a card
There are even concrete hints on how to accomplish all of this.  These include using "protective charms and stones" such as tiger's eye and hematite to keep those spirits where they belong.

Oh, and we're told that we have to do our research about what the cards mean, and be reasonable about what we ask, because "spirit communication tires out ghosts."  I'm not all that sympathetic about this, because honestly, what else do ghosts have to do?  It's not like they have day jobs, or anything.  They can nap pretty much whenever they want to.  So if I want to talk to a ghost, I'm expecting it to get up off its ectoplasmic ass and talk back.  I don't want to hear any pathetic excuses like "I'm just too sleepy tonight," or to pull out my Ouija board and have it spell out "zzzzzzzzzzzzz."

Then we're told that we should also research what ghosts might be present, and that if (for example) we suspect that there's a female ghost haunting the place, we can expect lots of feminine imagery in the cards we draw.  But then there's the caveat that we might accidentally attract a different spirit, so we might not get the cards we expect.  Which seems about right.  We will either get cards we expect, or not, every time, which certainly sounds like hard evidence of ghostly communication to me.

Then there's a bunch of stuff about thanking the ghost and making sure he's sent back to the ghost realm and cleansing the cards with spiritual detergent or something.  By this time, my eyes had kind of glazed over.  I'm thinking I may need to read a chapter or two of this book, just to recover:

Not that it'll help.  If you're looking for me, I'll be in the corner of my office, sitting on the floor, rocking and quietly sobbing.  So thanks for the cards and letters and all.  I hope you're happy.