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, August 30, 2016

The necessity of compassion

Yesterday I ran into the story of Sigourney Coyle, the high school student in Emmaus, Pennsylvania who is claiming she is being discriminated against because of the school's policy to allow transgender students to use the locker room and bathroom of the gender they identify with:
I am a woman, and I identify as a woman, and you can't make me change in front of someone who I don't identify with who is physically male...  Gym requires us to participate to pass high school and if I don't change I'm not allowed to participate.  So my options are to let myself be discriminated against or fail gym for not participating and not pass through high school, which would jeopardize my future...  I feel nothing against transgenders, I would just not like their rights to overrule mine.
Sigourney's mother, Aryn Coyle, tried at first to have her daughter excused from PE on religious grounds, but was told that religious exemptions only applied to the curriculum on sexuality in health class (which is a topic for a whole other post some time).

So Sigourney is painting this as her rights being trampled.  Not, of course, as a step toward treating with humanity and compassion a group of people who have been systematically demonized, ridiculed, bullied, and discriminated against.  And this stance is not because of any actual identifiable risk; according to studies conducted by the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Transgender Equality, the number of times a non-transgender person has been harassed or otherwise accosted in a bathroom or locker room is...

... zero.  The Advocate reports that "there has never been a verifiable reported instance of a trans person harassing a cisgender person, nor have there been any confirmed reports of male predators 'pretending' to be transgender to gain access to women's spaces and commit crimes against them."

As Elisabeth Parker put it in a pointed piece in American News X, "Despite all those transgender bathroom laws GOP state legislatures keep passing, a child is far more likely to be molested at church."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That's not the way the Coyles see it.  Their dogmatic stance that anything except straight cisgender identification is wrong is pushing Sigourney into a position where she is risking her high school diploma to make their bigoted point hit the front page of the newspaper.

Oh, and did I mention that there are no self-identified transgender students currently at Emmaus High School?  That's right: the Coyles are blowing this issue up to maintain their right to discriminate against people who may not even exist.

But just so we can end on a good note, let's take a look at what happens when you do religion right.  Yesterday NPR did a piece on Reverend Danny Cortez, pastor of the New Heart Community Church of La Mirada, California (which belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention), who back in 2014 found himself in a philosophical bind when his son, Drew, came out as gay.  He agonized over it for some time, but finally realized what he had to do.  He went into his church, and preached a sermon that should be required reading for any folks who are on the fence about LGBT issues for religious reasons.  I want you to read the entire thing, which is available at the link I posted, but here's a particularly poignant excerpt:
The last night [at a conference on LGBT Christians and their struggles], I met a man by the name of Coyote.  He approached me, thanking me for my story—I told some people about my journey.  He said, “This conference is meaningful for me and my friends because this is the only church we get to go to once a year.” 
I was like, “What do you mean?” 
He said, “In the places we live, in the small communities, there are no churches that will accept us.” 
And my heart broke.  I thought, “That really sucks.” 
So, when I was asked the question recently, “How does it feel to know that you might be terminated in a few weeks?”  I said, “I am at peace.”  I’m at peace because I know my heart has been enlarged for people like Coyote who need a church.  I know that whatever happens, compassion is giving me clarity. It’s giving me clarity in my calling; it’s giving me clarity in my purpose.  People like Coyote, they need a church.  They need to be pastored.  They need a community of people that will not judge them because of their sexual identity. 
So, I pray that as a church we would open ourselves to how God directs us, and I caution you to realize that it’s so easy to look at the word of God and merely look at the letter of the law.  But there is something underneath it, a deeper current that is only understood by the Spirit, moved by love, and drawn into compassion.  Our thoughts cannot just be about arguing the biblical text.  It must be understood in the context of love, and that means in the context of real, human relationships.  Because compassion is what gives clarity to this matter.
In fact, that's what's missing from the entire battle surrounding the Coyles and Emmaus High School; any mention of compassion, any acknowledgement that what they're talking about aren't voiceless abstractions but real living, breathing human beings who have to live every day with the pain of discrimination.  But Reverend Cortez and his family are illustrations that the same force that drove the Coyles to their narrow-minded bigotry can also open the heart and bring people to a place of acceptance they never thought they'd see.

It brings me back to a quote I heard long ago.  I've never been able to find a source for it, but it still strikes me as one of the most powerful guides to behavior there is, and it can apply to anyone -- religious, atheist, or agnostic.  It goes like this:  "Always be more compassionate than you think you need to be, for everyone around you is fighting a terrible battle that you know nothing about."

Monday, August 29, 2016

Sawney Bean and veracity of folklore

One of the creepiest legends to come out of old Scotland is the tale of Sawney Bean (or Beane), whose cave-dwelling, cannibalistic family allegedly ran amok in South Ayrshire in the 16th century.  Bean, born Alexander Bean in East Lothian, was said to be the son of a manual laborer, but had a vicious streak from childhood that was exacerbated when in his late teens he married a woman who was worse.

The couple set up housekeeping in a deep cave in Bennane Head, a promontory between Ballantrae and Girvan on the west coast of Scotland.  There, he and his evil wife were the progenitors of quite a brood; eight sons, six daughters, and thirty-two grandchildren (many of them born to incestuous unions).  The Beans survived in their remote abode by waylaying travelers...

... and eating them.

"Sawney Beane at the Entrance of his Cave."  Note the woman in the background -- holding a severed human leg.  [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Local villagers knew about the disappearances, and sometimes they'd find bones and other body parts -- but apparently were completely unaware that the culprits were a crew of depraved cannibals living nearby.  The local law enforcement cast a suspicious eye on local innkeepers and pub owners, since they were often the last people to see the victims alive.  But eventually one lucky guy fought back against the Beans when attacked, survived (his wife, apparently, wasn't so lucky) and brought back a tale of being swarmed by men and women intent on murdering him.  King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) launched an attack on the family, sending soldiers in to destroy them and their stronghold.

The Beans were defeated, and those not killed in the skirmish were brought back to Edinburgh in chains.  The men were executed by having their hands, feet, and genitals chopped off, and allowed to bleed to death; the women were burned at the stake.  One daughter, "Black" Agnes Bean, who had escaped before the attack and attempted to settle down in Girvan under an assumed name, was eventually found out and hanged.

So that was the end of the Beans.  But the question that I'd like to ask is: is any of it true?  How would we know?

One reason we might cast a skew glance at the tale is how varied the different versions of it are.  Sean Thomas wrote a piece on the Bean clan in Fortean Times, a bit of which was excerpted at the site The Spooky Isles (the original article, unfortunately, seems no longer to be available):
... from broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI [ca. early 1600s], whilst other versions claim the Beans lived centuries before.  Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years.  Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership...  To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediaeval Scotland and that Galloway was in mediaeval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place, but every story grows and is embroidered over time.
While the main part of the story itself doesn't involve the supernatural -- something that would lead me to doubt the whole thing -- there's a paranormal twist to the execution of Agnes Bean in Girvan:
Historically, Girvan was significant as the home of the Hairy Tree.  According to legend, the Hairy Tree was planted by Sawney Bean’s eldest daughter in the town’s Dalrymple Street.  However, when her family was arrested, the daughter was implicated in their incestuous and cannibalistic activities and was hanged by locals from the bough of the tree she herself planted.  According to local legend, one can hear the sound of a swinging corpse while standing beneath its boughs.
When you add to this the fact that there is an ongoing dispute amongst the people in Girvan regarding which tree in the town is the authentic "Hairy Tree," it does tend to make you wonder how much of the rest of it can be true.

Another suspicious factor is the similarity of the Bean story to an earlier tale from Scotland, that of "Christie Cleek."   Christie Cleek, born Andrew Christie in Perth in the mid 14th century, was driven to murder and cannibalism during the horrible famine that followed the ravages of the Black Death in the British Isles in the 1350s.  "Cleek" means "shepherd's crook" -- the tool Christie used to pull down travelers and pluck riders from their horses.  Like the Beans, Christie Cleek and his family lived in hiding, feasting on human flesh and striking fear into the hearts of the locals.  It has a different ending, though -- after the famine eased, an armed force was sent in to rid the countryside of the menace.  Everyone in the family was killed but Christie himself -- he escaped, and lived to a ripe old age under an assumed name.  The name "Christie Cleek" became a synonym in that part of Scotland for the bogeyman, useful for scaring children to the pants-wetting stage during late-night storytelling sessions around the fire.

So the inconsistencies and variations in the Bean story, plus the analogies to earlier tales, makes you wonder.  The most likely answer is that Bean himself (and possibly his savage wife) were real, but that a lot of the excesses attributed to them and their progeny were exaggerations.  About the veracity of the details, there is simply not enough hard documentation to be certain.

It's a gruesome and fascinating story.  Certainly a good one for a shiver up the spine.  It'd be nice to know if it was true, but as with most things in the distant past, it's probably not possible.  So like a lot of folklore, we have to let it be -- filed under the heading of "Who knows?"

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sea change

A couple of weeks ago, I did a post about how scientists are beginning to learn how to talk to the rest of us slobs.  The problem, as I see it, is that scientists are trained to be cautious, not to draw unwarrantedly strong conclusions from the evidence, and to admit up front that future studies could change our understanding.  This leads the lay public to believe that they're uncertain -- which, in many cases, is not true.

One of the fields that has been plagued by this is climate science, which has become not only ridiculously politicized but rife with misunderstandings, deliberate falsifications, and outright idiocy.  (I'm lookin' at you, Senator James "Snowball" Inhofe.)  So it was with a great deal of joy that I read Phil Williamson's amazing takedown of climate change denier James Delingpole in this week's edition of The Marine Biologist. Williamson's piece, entitled, "Two Views of Ocean Acidification: Which is Fatally Flawed?" is a point-by-point response to Delingpole, who in April published an article in The Spectator entitled, "Ocean Acidification: Yet Another Wobbly Pillar of Climate Alarmism."

Delingpole's screed was, Williamson said, so full of factual errors and misquotations that it was completely worthless.  But let me quote Williamson's own words:
James Delingpole considers that ocean acidification is a scare story that is not only ‘fatally flawed’ but also grossly over-hyped by climate alarmists, for political reasons.  To give credibility to these views, information and quotes are given from four scientists (Patrick Moore, Mike Wallace, Matt Ridley and Craig Idso).  However, those sources are unreliable: none has relevant marine expertise, and the evidence they provide is either inaccurate or incorrect.  Three other scientists (Howard Browman, Richard Feely and Christopher Sabine) who do have direct research experience are either mis-quoted or their competence is dismissed.  The wider scientific literature is not considered.  Overall, Delingpole’s arguments are based on exaggeration, false dichotomy, deliberate selectivity and bravado assertion: almost everything that could be factually wrong, is wrong.
Which is ScientificSpeak for "BAM."

So the scientists are now playing hardball.  Which they should.  We're gambling with the long-term habitability of the planet.  There is no bigger threat to security, world-wide, than what we're doing to the climate.

The positive part of this is not that the deniers are being converted.  By and large, they aren't.  The reason, of course, is money and political bias.  Consider, for example, Craig Idso (cited repeatedly by Delingpole as a reputable climate scientist), who is the science advisor for the Science and Public Policy Institute, which is funded in part by -- you guessed it -- Exxon-Mobil.  Idso is also associated with the rabidly pro-fossil-fuel Heartland Institute, and has written papers for them calling into question established climate science.

Oh, and I should add that the SPPI has also questioned the dangers of mercury toxicity, and the Heartland Institute was hand-in-glove with Philip Morris to downplay the risks to children of secondhand smoke and to fight smoking bans in public places.

Tell me again how Idso is a reliable source?

[image courtesy of NOAA]

As for Williamson, he pulls no punches at all.  Which he shouldn't.  What is heartening about all of this is that the scientists are finally calling out the deniers for what they are -- either ignorant, anti-science, or in the pay of fossil fuel interests.  At this point, the evidence is incontrovertible.  Anthropogenic climate change is real.  You can deny it if you like.

But don't expect me, or anyone who has a background in science, to take you seriously.

And I said that deniers aren't changing their minds -- but that's not entirely accurate.  People who were in doubt, but kept their minds open and their understanding focused on the evidence, are coming around.  Just this week, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers, who for years placed himself in the doubtful column, wrote a piece called "Changing Opinions on Climate Change."  He methodically traces the evidence that has been uncovered since climate change was first made an issue in the mid-1980s, and describes how his thinking -- "There may be another explanation" -- eventually changed:
I was no longer a skeptic.  Humans were polluting the atmosphere to a point of no return.  I had finally excluded all other possibilities.  Had I flip-flopped?  Well, that is what it would be called in politics.  But in science, it is just an evolution of understanding.  I concluded that my original theory of "it could be something else" wasn't likely the case. 
As I tell my 11-year-old, "It's OK to be wrong as long as you learn from your mistakes." 
The records continue to be shattered every year.  The 15 hottest years on record have been since 2001 except for 1998.  2016 will likely be the hottest year on record, breaking the old record set in 2015, and the beat goes on.  With each year, with each major disaster, it becomes harder to be a skeptic of man-made climate change -- and that is why I am not one.
Well, exactly.  It's okay to be doubtful.  Being able to maintain a position of uncertainty for a while is a huge piece of being a skeptic.  But once the evidence is in, you're done.  To continue to cover your ears and say "la-la-la-la-la-la, not listening" isn't skepticism, it's anti-science bullheadedness.

So the tides are turning.  With luck, it won't be too late, although we still have the perennial roadblock in congress to deal with.  But it's to be hoped that once the word is passed to the public that the time for doubt and discussion is over, the pressure brought to bear on our leaders will finally force a sea change.

Friday, August 26, 2016

View from the fringe

Call me masochistic, but every so often I like to check in and see what people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones are saying.

Those two, and various others I could name, always have seemed to me to be seated right at the triple point between true belief, crass commercial pandering, and outright batshit craziness.  Far be it from me to make a determination between the three; I think both of them have some measure of all three.  (Okay, with Jones, there's a bigger proportion of craziness, but still.)  As evidence, let's see what our two pals have been up to this past week.

Rush Limbaugh went on record as saying that President Obama's latest scheme to overturn life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was unleashing hordes of lesbian farmers on the midwest.  The midwest, Limbaugh claims with some degree of accuracy, is the last bastion of the solidly conservative Republican core in the United States (although you might make the same argument for much of the southeast).  So naturally, given a largely right-leaning region, what else should someone like Obama do but search and destroy?

And what better weapon than lesbian farmers?  I guess that "learning to use heavy equipment" is now officially part of the "gay agenda."

Don't believe me?  Here's the quote:
They are trying to bust up one of the last geographically conservative regions in the country; that’s rural America … So here comes the Obama Regime with a bunch of federal money and they’re waving it around, and all you gotta do to get it is be a lesbian and want to be a farmer and they’ll set you up … apparently enough money it make it happen, and the objective here is to attack rural states.
So there you have it.

But that's small potatoes compared to the latest from Alex Jones.  He interviewed Steven Quayle (the guy who thinks that HAARP is still operational, and is what is currently creating hurricanes in the south Atlantic, because that doesn't happen every year or anything) and Gary Heavin (conservative activist and founder of the Curves fitness center chain) to discuss how the descendants of fallen angels are currently running the world.

I kid you not.  Here's the conversation:
Quayle:  Donald Trump, in my opinion, is God’s prosecuting attorney.  He’s laying out the evidence.  It’s like everything evil is swarming upon him.  I think the fascinating thing about this is that, you probably heard this, I gave a word that I really thought was an answer to prayer, God said, "Before I allow America to be destroyed by the Russians and the Chinese, now this is hard to take, I’m going to reveal the sins of America’s leaders to the people and the people’s sins before a Holy God."
Jones:  Doesn't that always biblically happen, that before a country goes under judgment, they're given warning after warning, then one really big warning? 
Quayle:  The big warning is coming.  I believe the ultimate warning is coming. 
Heavin:  Let me just...  Steve's taught me a lot about this.  You know, there's no aliens; there's demons.   And Steve has a great explanation, you know, he's taught me about this.   Where these demons come from.  We know that fallen angels rebelled against god, came down to Earth, and we know they had sex with human women.   We know that the offspring were these entities that Steve will talk about... 
Jones: That's in the bible. 
Heavin:  It's all biblical. 
Jones:  So that's why the elites intermarry, to try to keep that bloodline. 
Heavin:  Absolutely.  The idea is, Satan knew that if he could contaminate the human DNA, he could prevent the coming of Jesus, because Jesus had to be of pure DNA.  A lot of the really awful things that happen in the bible, entire cities being wiped out, driving out the bad guys, was to cleanse the DNA so that Jesus, Satan could not prevent Jesus from coming.
So there you have it.  While the militia composed of lesbian farmers attacks the country's midsection, the elite people with angelic DNA will be having lots of sex to create progeny that will go back in time and prevent Jesus from being born.  Unless Donald Trump does something to avoid the evil swarming upon him, and stop all of that from happening.

Don't forget: you heard it here first.

Anyhow.  I can totally understand why people still listen to Limbaugh and Jones; it's the undeniable attraction of listening to someone who might without provocation say something that's loony enough to be funny.  It'd be nice to get them off the air, though -- the last thing this country needs is to have more people spreading around conspiracy theories.  But since listeners = sponsors = money, it's unlikely to happen any time soon.  I can only hope that the majority of the people paying attention to what they say are not leaning back and thinking, "My god!  That makes total sense!"

Although that would explain a lot about how we get the elected officials we always seem to end up stuck with.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Messengers of god

I have a question for the religious people in the studio audience: don't you get tired of people saying that they've heard something directly from god, and then telling you exactly what god wants you to do?

Such pronouncements become increasingly common around elections, because apparently god is deeply interested in the details of American politics.  Unfortunately, though, his track record is pretty shabby, given that he told Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz that they were all going to get the Republican nomination and float their way into the presidency, and it sort of didn't work out that way.  I've was half expecting every time one of those guys got knocked out of the race to hear a booming voice from the heavens saying, "Ha!  Psych!"

But it didn't happen, more's the pity.

Now, though, we've got two people who are claiming that they are channeling the deity's political views.  The first is, unsurprisingly, Glenn Beck, who has said that he was anointed by god to warn us about what will happen if Donald Trump is elected, thus ushering in the apocalypse:
I can only do what I'm supposed to do, what I feel the Lord has commanded me to do and that is tell the truth.  He has commanded me to do my own homework.  He has commanded me to never compromise on what you truly believe ...  As I started to say in 2004, privately at least, there is a warning in Ezekiel that in those days there will be a watchman on the tower and at the gates.  That means all of us, in our own way, are watchmen on the gates, in your own life.  And if you see trouble coming, you are supposed to warn the people and, if you don't, the blood of everyone who could have heard the warning and could have done something, that blood is on your hands. 
This audience is the only hope because you are the only audience that is truly been prepared for these things at this time.  You will be our republic's last line of defense.  So what do I do?  People are telling me, 'At least just shut up.'  I can't.  I can't.  You condemn me if I continue to warn, but God condemns me if I fail to warn.
You may recall that a while back he had a war of words with Trump himself, claiming that Trump wasn't a "true conservative."  He spoke directly to the election on his Facebook page:
History shows a strong man can and always does rise.  Someone who will say "I will restore order."  Do you remember me warning of top down, bottom up and inside out?  I believe this is that moment.

Trump is that strong man.
So at least that's one thing that Beck and I can agree on, not that I needed a deity to point it out; all the good done for the world by "political strongmen."

Speaking of shabby track records.

Beck, however, is not the only person who thinks that he has a direct pipeline to heaven's political wing.  Lance Wallnau, over at Charisma News, has received a message from god that is the exact opposite of what Beck did.  he believes that Trump is the Chosen One, and in fact will drive out evil spirits once he's elected:
I believe I've heard God... 
There is a spirit assigned to destroy America.  The strategy is laid bare if you read the 51-page democratic platform.  It's the manifesto Hillary is expected to enforce when she is president.  They call this revolution a "reset!"  Read it for yourself.  Under Hillary, America will undergo the final phase of Obama's radical socialist cultural transformation with astonishing speed. Just one man stands in its path... 
With 15 candidates running, and many of them strong Christians, it didn't seem likely that Mr. Trump, the business man outsider, would go very far.  But I heard the Lord say something: "Donald Trump is a wrecking ball to the spirit of political correctness."  That was the first word I heard about him.  Immediately I began to wonder what God was doing... 
As I traveled to Trump Towers I wondered, how far will this wrecking ball go?  Why would God choose Trump when so many true conservatives and Christians were already running?  Is he an interruption to God's plan or is the battle for America changing in a way we haven't caught up with?...  By putting America first and building a people movement, Donald Trump becomes a wild card that messes up the elite globalists' insider game.  Whatever you bow to on the way up the mountain controls you at the top.
Is it just me, or is it a little odd that the evangelicals are embracing a three-times-married serial philanderer who values money and power over anything else?  This is especially puzzling considering Wallnau's last statement about "whatever you bow to on the way up the mountain controls you at the top."  How can he reconcile this with Jesus's statements about it being "easier than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?"  And "give away everything you have to the poor, and follow me?"  And "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth?"  And "take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions?"

Okay, I'll admit that there may be a lot I don't understand, here.  Being an atheist myself, maybe I just don't get how the true believers think.  But it does strike me as a little dangerous to listen to people who tell you that they speak with god's voice.  After all, it pays to consider how often those people will tell you that what god just said happens to agree perfectly with what they already believed.

Odd coincidence, that.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Medium test

Think you can communicate with the spirits of the dead?

Well, you now have a chance to prove it.

Norwegian Rolf Erik Eikerno was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a terminal disease.  But instead of simply bemoaning his fate, Eikerno saw his illness as an opportunity.  He teamed up with the producers of the television program Folkeopplysningen ("The Public Enlightenment") to set up a puzzle for any would-be mediums.

Eikerno wrote a message on a sheet of paper, sealed the paper in an envelope, and locked the envelope in a vault.  Only the show's producers have the combination to the lock.  No one but Eikerno knows what is written on the paper, nor even whether it was written in Norwegian or English, a language in which he was fluent.

Shortly before his death, Eikerno made a public statement that if he was approached by anyone in the afterlife, he'd be happy to give them detailed information about what was in the note.  The program's staff have put out the following all-call:
Can you make contact with him?  Do you know someone who may be able to do so? 
Fill out the form further down in the article if you think you know what Rolf Erik wrote before he died. 
IMPORTANT: It is possible to answer only once.  The deadline is September 25th.
This is an experiment conducted by the TV-program "Folkeopplysningen".  Will anyone make contact?  The answer will be revealed in the ultimate episode of this years season, broadcast on Wednesday October 5th.
If you think you might know what Eikerno wrote, you can provide your answer at the link I posted above.

What's interesting about all of this is that it's been tried before.  Harry Houdini left a message with his wife, who offered ten thousand dollars to anyone who could contact Houdini's spirit and tell her what the message was.  She even held a séance every Halloween -- fittingly, the anniversary of Houdini's death -- for ten years, hoping for some contact from her husband's spirit.  Nothing happened, and no one came forward with the correct message, although several tried unsuccessfully.  After ten years, his widow withdrew the offer and stopped having séances, reasoning that ten years was an adequate time for a ghost to make arrangements to contact her.  If she hadn't heard from him by then, she figured, she wasn't going to.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, Folkeopplysningen is going about things the right way.  Here's their description of the program's goals:
Every day we are bombarded with information and claims about what is good for us, what we should be careful about, and what choices we should make to live healthy, good and safe lives. 
"Folkeopplysningen" is a TV-program that investigates such claims.  We pick up subjects where there is a discrepancy between what people think they know, what commercial providers claim, and what science is telling us.  While we in the two first seasons scrutinized different kinds of alternative treatments and health related issues, we have been given free hands this year to look at any possible subject. 
We investigate everything, from finance to dieting, motivation business, cannabis, genetically modified food, ecological food and death.
So sort of a Norwegian version of Mythbusters, without the explosions.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see what turns up, although I'm perhaps to be excused if I'm doubtful anyone will come up with the right answer.  I've always said that my mind is open about an afterlife -- I have no real evidence one way or the other, although I expect that like everyone I'll get some eventually.  On the other hand, the idea that if there's an afterlife, it leaves behind remnant spirits who then can interact with humans -- I'm afraid the evidence is very much against.  If there are any well documented cases of spirit survival that can't be explained either as hoaxes or human gullibility and wishful thinking, I haven't heard about them.

I also doubt if any of the well-known (and well-paid) mediums -- people like Theresa Caputo, John Edward, Sally Morgan, and Sylvia Browne -- will volunteer to try the test out.  They tend not to like those nasty things called "scientifically controlled conditions."  I wonder why that is?

But if you disagree with me, here's your chance to prove me wrong.  As always, evidence and logic are the watchwords around here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Razor's edge

So yesterday we looked at how using magnet balls in your washing machine won't get your clothes any cleaner.  Today, in a similar vein, we look at how putting your razor blades under a pyramid won't make them any sharper.

This comes up because of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia who, after yesterday's post, sent me an email that said, "You think that's idiotic?  Wait till you see this."  And he attached a link to a site called "Pyramid Razor Sharpener: It Actually Works!  Make Your Own In 10 Minutes!"

This is the first I've seen any pyramid-power bullshit in a while -- the last one I recall was back in 2012, when someone took a photo of one of the pyramids at Chichen Itza and found that it had a mysterious beam of light shooting upwards from it.  It turned out that the whole thing was easily explainable as a common digital camera malfunction, but that didn't prevent the woo-woos from jumping around making excited little squeaking noises about how everything they'd said about pyramids was true after all, take that, you dumb ol' skeptics, etc.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I suppose it's unsurprising that there is still a lot of latent interest in pyramids lying around, waiting for some unsuspecting nimrod to come along and pick it up.  This at least partly explains the "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" website, wherein we find out how wonderful pyramids are for sharpening razors by having the words "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" thrown at us (no lie) fifteen times.  Here are a few of the other things we learn:
  • A pyramid is a "cone shape, but with flat sides and corners."  Which is true in approximately the same fashion as saying that a cube is "a sphere shape, but with flat sides and edges."
  • Razor blades and other sharp metal objects become dull not because use wears and blunts the edges, but because of "a crystaline build-up on the blade, static electricity and dehydration."
  • It's especially hard on razors to use them for shaving, because the "repeated rubbing of the blade on the face hairs induces an ionic crystal formation of the water molecules upon the skin."
  • Pyramids work because "alignment with the magnetic field provides for the naturally present charged particles to be 'entrapped' by the pyramid and their resulting focus at the corners."  Whatever the fuck that means.
  • It can't be a different shape than a pyramid (such as a cylinder, which is like a cube shape but with flat circles on the end) because "the particular dimensions of the pyramid cause a concentration, or focus of a negative static charge at one third of its height at an equal distance from the four corners."
  • Because we're talking about static charges, here, you shouldn't build your pyramid out of something that conducts electricity.  He suggests cardboard.  (I bet the ancient Egyptians wish they'd realized this before they busted their asses hauling around all of those gigantic rocks.)
  • If you put your dull razor under the pyramid, it will become sharp because of ions.  More specifically, the "positive ions of the crystals on the blade are effectively neutralized by the negatively charged ion concentration inside the pyramid.  The crystals are stripped of their bonds and water molecules are released.  This results in the dehydration (this is the same with mummification) of the crystals, which are destroyed.  The blade is now clean and feels sharp once again."  So q.e.d., as far as I can tell.
The funny thing about all of this, besides the fact that in order to believe any of it your science education would have had to cease in the fourth grade, is that this guy doesn't appear to be selling anything.  He doesn't wind up by saying "send me fifty bucks, and I'll tell you how!" or "for a hundred bucks, I'll send you a build-your-own-pyramid kit!" or "for the low price of only $199.99, I'll send you my motivational lecture series 'Things I've Learned While Sitting Under a Pyramid,' with a bonus set of ultra-sharp razor blades as a FREE gift!"  He seems to be openly and honestly sharing something he feels to be a legitimate and scientifically-supported life hack, despite the fact that way back in 2005 pyramid power was tested on Mythbusters and found to be (surprise!) completely bogus.

So there's something kind of endearingly earnest about this guy, even though if he thinks that water forms "ionic crystals" he really should sign up for a chemistry class.  (He did say that he'd written his "scientific explanation" of how it works in such a way as "not to sound too sciencey," and I'd say he succeeded at least as far as that goes.)  My general conclusion, however, is that you probably should stick to ordinary strops and knife sharpeners, and/or buying new razor blades when yours get dull.  Even if you built your pyramid out of scrap cardboard, you're better off recycling it and finding a different way to "neutralize your positive ions."