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, December 30, 2010

Addenda and errata

In my post on the alleged haunting of Ballechin House, I made reference to an investigation into the affair by a member of the Society for Psychical Research.  I commented that the members of this organization were "only surpassed in gullibility by people who think that the Syfy channel's Ghost Hunters is a non-fiction documentary."

This elicited a comment from one of my readers, to the effect that I "obviously don't know much about the Society for Psychical Research and its members."

Well, that may be putting it a bit strongly; I'd read quite a bit about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a prominent spiritualist and SPR member, and the Cottingley "fairy photographs," and perhaps unfairly had come to associate the entire society with this hoax.  Nevertheless, I was honestly stung by this criticism, and I thought it only fair to do a bit of research and rectify not only the error in my post, but my own ignorance on the subject.

The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882, and has as its explicit goal the scientific and unbiased exploration of purported psychic phenomena.  Everything that I've been able to read on the subject of the Society - both that written by its members and those outside - indicates that when at all possible, it approaches each new instance of alleged haunting, telepathy, psychokinesis, and so on, with a skeptical eye, and it doesn't have a "dog in the race," so to speak -- its goal is to establish the phenomenon as true if so, and expose it as a hoax if it is one.

The SPR is still very active today, and was instrumental in the investigation of such well-known cases as the Enfield Poltergeist.  This last is an interesting example -- the conclusion by the two SPR members who investigated it, Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse, was that it was an actual haunting, even though two of the children who lived in the alleged haunted house admitted faking some of the events that occurred in it.  (Read one account of the Enfield haunting here.)

As you might expect, I'm still of two minds with regards to the SPR and other organizations like it.  On the one hand, I applaud their apparent skepticism; it's a great pity that all investigators of the paranormal don't approach such phenomena that way.  The credulousness of the likes of Hans Holzer (whose career I'll save for a later post) only serves to muddy the waters and to make it less likely that any real paranormal occurrences, should they exist, will be believed.

On the other hand, I do take issue with the fact that the mere existence of the SPR lends credence to the whole field.  The fact that there are now universities with "Departments of Parapsychology" is, to me, worrisome; to borrow a line from Richard Dawkins, it's a little like a university having a "Department of Fairyology."  The oft-mentioned million-dollar challenge by James Randi, the award to be given to the first person who can demonstrate any sort of paranormal ability under scientifically controlled conditions, certainly gives lie to the contention that there's anything for a Department of Parapsychology to study.

On the SPR's home page (take a look at it here) is the quote from Carl Jung, "I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud."  Well, perhaps.  I'm perfectly willing to accept the idea of there being thousands of phenomena that science has yet to explain; science, at its best, is always pushing the envelope, moving outward into areas we don't yet understand.  At the same time, the leap from "I can't explain this" to "it's the supernatural" is all too easy, and has proven time and again to ignore a more conventional explanation -- that the occurrence under investigation is in fact an altogether natural phenomenon, an optical or auditory illusion, or an example of human gullibility, credulousness, or outright fraud.

In conclusion, I hope this has rectified the regrettable error in my previous post.  As far as my own thoughts, based on my now much-improved knowledge, I would label myself as guardedly in support of the SPR and its goals.  If I still prefer James Randi's approach, I am perhaps to be forgiven; but between the two different ways of attacking the problem of paranormal phenomena, one can only hope that if there are such things out there, they will one day be given support by scientific means, and not just by easily faked or misinterpreted anecdotal "evidence."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A jewel of a scam

As if there weren't enough ways to prey upon the gullible, in the last few years there has been a dramatic rise in offers for "energy jewelry," which includes necklaces, bracelets, anklets, earrings, and so on, all of which are somehow supposed to improve your health.  I thought this was worth investigating, so I did a Google search for "energy jewelry" -- and it resulted in over 42 million hits.  Here are a few from the first page, chosen randomly:

EnergyMuse -- leading the world in holistic crystal energy healing and jewelry.

Jewelry to harmonize the body's energy fields, auras, and chakras!

Energy Shop jewelry, designed to fit your dreams!  Each gemstone has been individually energy-charged and smudged. specializes in energy healing gold and silver jewelry, and improves reiki, chakra, and psychic energy by using the Earth's magnetic field through induction coil rings.

And so forth.  I checked a few of these sites to see about cost, and the prices seemed mostly to start at $25 - but they went as high as $1500!

So, the basic idea is, give us large quantities of money, and we'll send you a piece of jewelry.  If you wear it, it'll harmonize your psychic energy fields (which don't exist), rearrange your chakras (which don't exist), and improve your aura (which also doesn't exist).  One has to wonder if there's a money-back guarantee.

My all-time favorite fake-energy-jewelry vendor is  This company claims that their products "align the body's atoms" so that one can "tap into the limitless energy of the tachyon field."  (Isn't the "tachyon field" one of the things Geordi LaForge was always blathering on about on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in situations where he had to explain why Data was suddenly remembering the future, or something?  That and a "rip in the space-time continuum."  "Captain, if we can introduce a tachyon field into the rip in the space-time continuum, I think we might just be able to return us to our own universe and stop Data from answering questions we haven't asked yet, all before the final credits."  "Make it so, Mr. LaForge.")

Anyhow, has a variety of products that will allow you to access this unlimited energy source.  It doesn't stop with jewelry -- oh, my, no.  They have tachyon-capturing blankets, eyemasks, headbands, wristbands, night cream, massage oil, belts, scarves, sport suits, toothpaste, and water.

Yes, you read that right.  They're selling you (not you personally, I hope) tachyon-infused water.  For $35 for a 17-ounce bottle.

Me, I'm wondering if I missed my calling.  If there are people out there who will buy a plastic bottle of tap water for $35, I'm thinking I could be making a helluva lot more money doing that than being a public school teacher.

Anyway, I hope you haven't already been bamboozled by any of these folks and their pseudoscience.  I can categorically state that not one of the claims made by any of these folks -- not one -- has passed any kind of rigorous scientific test.  So, the bottom line is, if you want to be healthy, then eat right, exercise, don't smoke, and don't drink and drive.  Your jewelry may make you look nice, but it's not really going to help you out in any other way.

I'll just finish up by putting in a plug for the one bit of energy-jewelry that does perform as advertised.  It is the Placebo Band, sold for just $2 at  It comes in many lovely bright colors, is labeled "PLACEBO," and has a nice holographic image of the SkepticBros logo on the front.  It comes with the following disclaimer:

"Placebo Band doesn’t come preprogrammed in any way. If you wish to have your band 'imbedded with frequencies' we suggest placing the band prominently on top of or in front of the largest speaker you have while playing your absolute favorite song ( e.g. Groove Is In The Heart by Dee Lite). Not only will you have listened to something that improves your mood straight away but you will be reminded of the song and that good feeling every time you wear Placebo Band." also promises to replace your Placebo Band for free if it explodes for any reason.

Who could pass up a deal like that?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Footprints in the snow

The great blizzard of December 2010 has come and gone, but my upstate New York village received a mere dusting as compared to the 18 to 24 inches they got in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine.  In fact, this morning the sun came out for a bit, and yesterday's snow is beginning to melt, although at this time of year I figure that the comparative warmth is only a tease.

Watching the effect that the sun had on footprints I made yesterday while hauling firewood, as they widened from the clear indentations of a human wearing ridge-soled Timberland boots into diffuse, open blobs, put me in mind of one of the most peculiar legends of Merrie Old England.  Perhaps you've not heard of it; if not, you may find it an interesting tale for a cold, snowy winter day.

Early in the morning on February 8, 1855 (so the story goes), the people of five small towns in south Devon -- Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish -- woke to find a line of footprints in the snow.  The London Times of February 16 reported on the story in detail:

"It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighborhood of Exeter and the south of Devon.  On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot-prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places - on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields.  There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the footprints were not observed.

"The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other.  The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across.  Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the center remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex.

"The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor.  On Sunday last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the footprints being those of a kangaroo; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.

"At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors at night."

The snow, as it melted, accentuated the strangeness of the prints, just as it did with the bootprints in my front yard.  The resemblance to a cloven hoof, with its suggestion of the devil, became more pronounced, and the fear grew to near hysteria.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, for those of us who like to know the solutions to mysteries) the events were never repeated, and never satisfactorily explained.

The Devon footprints were credited by some as a visitation not by Satan, but by one of his uniquely English cousins -- Spring-heeled Jack.  Spring-heeled Jack was first sighted in London in 1837 by a businessman walking home from work.  The gentleman described being terrified by the sudden appearance of a dark figure which had "jumped the high railings of Barnes Cemetery with ease," landing right in his path.  The businessman wasn't attacked, and was able to keep his wits sufficiently about him to describe a "muscular man, with a wild, grinning expression, long, pointed nose and ears, and protruding, glowing eyes."  Sort of like the love child of Salvador Dali and Mr. Spock, is the way I think of him.

Others were attacked, and some were not so lucky as our businessman.  A girl named Mary Stevens was attacked in Battersea, and had her clothing torn and was scratched and clawed, but survived because neighbors came to help when they heard her screams.  The following day Jack jumped in front of a coach, causing it to swerve and crash.  The coachman was severely injured, and several witnesses saw Jack escape by leaping over a nine-foot-high wall, all the while howling with insane laughter.

Several more encounters occurred during the following year, including two in which the victims were blinded temporarily by "blue-white fire" spat from Jack's mouth.

Although publicity grew, and Spring-heeled Jack became a character of folk myth, song, and the punch line to many a joke, sightings grew less frequent.  Following the footprints in the snow-covered Devonshire countryside in 1855, there was a flurry of renewed interest (rimshot), but the last claimed sighting of Spring-heeled Jack was in Lincoln in 1877, and after that he seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

As intriguing as this story is, all of the evidence points to pranksters (and, in the case of Mary Stevens, an unsuccessful rapist).  I'm not inclined to believe in Jack's phenomenal jumping ability, except in cases where Jack jumped down off a wall -- that requires no particular skill except the agility to get up there in the first place, and after that gravity takes care of the rest.  It seems to me that nighttime, fear, a wild costume, and the witnesses' being primed by already knowing the story create a synergy that makes their accuracy seriously in question.

The fact remains, however, that it's a very peculiar story.  I remember reading about the Devon footprints when I was a kid (I didn't find out about Spring-heeled Jack until later), and the idea of some mysterious non-human creature pacing its way across the English countryside, silently crossing fields and farms and streets, peering in the windows at the sleeping inhabitants, was enough to give me the cauld grue.  Still does, in fact.  Enough that I hope that the fitful December sun has eradicated my bootprints in the front yard completely -- which goes to show that even a diehard rationalist can sometimes fall prey to an irrational case of the creeps.

Monday, December 27, 2010


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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Animal planet

Ever have a sudden epiphany?  Has this epiphany been that you weren't actually human?

If you're saying, "Why, yes!  I have!" then I have an explanation for you.  It won't stop me from backing slowly away from you, keeping my eyes on you the whole time, but at least now you can be reassured in the knowledge that you're not, unfortunately, alone.

People who think they aren't people call themselves "Otherkin."  (Their friends and relatives usually call them "loonies," but that may be a tad harsh.)  Given the kind of wackiness that's out there on the 'web, it will come as no surprise that there is a whole internet community of Otherkin (you can peruse the web pages, and/or join various listservs, here).  The definition of an Otherkin is "a person who, either biologically or spiritually, claims kinship with another species."  Now, we're not just talking about someone with a marked physical or personal similarity to an animal, such as saying that someone is as fierce as a tiger or as strong as an ox, or when my students immediately prior to major exams compare me to a cold-blooded poisonous snake.  No, we are talking about people who think that they actually are members of another species, and it bears keeping in mind that here we are using the word "species" to include creatures which, technically speaking, don't exist, such as elves, naiads, centaurs, dragons, dryads, and so forth.

Perhaps at this point you are saying to yourselves, "what the hell?" or some stronger variant.  To which I reply:  just wait, I've hardly even started.

Otherkin claim that there are two main types; ones who have the spirits of another species (or elf, et al.), and ones who actually are honest-to-Legolas descended from one.  The site states that the latter claim is "virtually unprovable except through extensive DNA testing," but cites as examples the descent of the ancient Irish kings from the Tuatha de Danann and the Japanese royal house from dragons.  They say, without any sense of irony, that both of these have "some support from ancient texts," because of course it goes without saying that anything appearing in ancient texts has to be true.

On the website is a list of Otherkin, each entry submitted by someone who really believes that they are one.  There are thousands of them.  A few, just so you can get the flavor of it, are "Fangtastic" (a werewolf/vampire hybrid, presumably to obviate the need of deciding between Team Jacob and Team Edward), "Xandrael" (an angelic being who lives in Oswego, New York -- I've been to Oswego and you have to wonder why, if you were an angel, you wouldn't pick somewhere rather nicer), "Faelaenx" (a dragonish sort), "Nitefae" (someone who "thinks she is a sylph but is still exploring"), "Lynaelynx" (one of the big cats, not surprisingly; and must they all have an "x" and an "ae" in their name?  Is it a club requirement?), and, finally "AmaltheaSkye" (a unicorn, who makes up for having no "x" or "ae" by having a superfluous "e" at the end).

Now, I realize that some of these people -- perhaps, in my optimistic moments, I can even believe that most of these people -- are merely having some fun with role-playing, participating in a kind of free-floating Dungeons and Dragons game without any rules.  I've no problem with escapism, per se, but I myself can't escape the conclusion that some of these people have escaped permanently.  Some of them claim peculiar aversions which are supposedly emblematic of your actual identity (e.g. if you're afraid of iron, you might actually be an elf; if you're afraid of running water, you might be one of the Sidhe; if you're afraid of Universal Health Care, you might be a Republican; and so on).  One article gives some moral support to those who are in the process of "awakening" (read it, if you're curious, here), and seems to take the whole thing completely seriously. 

I know I shouldn't poke fun, as it's not nice to laugh at people who hold beliefs that are, frankly, delusional; but given that that's my opinion about most superstitions, I suppose it's to be expected.  And, honestly, as delusional beliefs go, thinking you're a dryad is pretty harmless -- I don't suppose it'd cause you to do anything worse than dressing in earth tones and trying to photosynthesize when you're hungry.  I can see how thinking you're a wolf, tiger, vampire, or (god forbid) a horsefly, could lead to some unpleasantness at work or home, but otherwise, it doesn't seem to be in the same category as the delusions which make people blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces or think they have the right to march out and take over the world.

So, if you want to run about claiming that your real identity is Xaepnoo the WeaselFaerie, knock yourself out.  Myself, I think I'll stick with Gordon the Plain Old Human.  It may be pedestrian and dull of me, but there you are.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


I was discussing the alleged phenomenon of hauntings with one of my students, and he said, "There's one thing I don't understand.  Some people believe that the souls of humans can survive after death, and become ghosts.  If humans can become ghosts, why can't other animals?"

Well, after pointing out the obvious problem that I'm not really the right person to state with authority what a soul, human or otherwise, could or could not do, I mentioned that there are many cases of supposed hauntings by animals.  The most famous of these is the haunting of Ballechin House in Scotland.

Ballechin House was a beautiful manor house,  built in 1806 near Grandtully, Perthshire, Scotland, on a site that had been owned by the Stuart (or Stewart or Steuart or Steward, they seemed to spell it a new way every time the mood took them) family since the 15th century.  The story goes that a scion of this family (sources seem to point to his being the son of the man who had the house built), one Major Robert Steuart, was a bit of a wacko who had more affection for his dogs than he did for his family.  That said, he provided quarters for his sister Isabella, who was a nun -- I'm not sure why she wasn't living with her fellow sisters in a convent, but some claim that it was because she'd had an illegitimate child and gotten herself, um... de-habited?  Anyhow, she lived with them for a time, finally dying and being buried on the property.  As for Major Steuart, he apparently took enough time away from his dogs to marry and have at least one child, John.

As the Major got older, he got more and more peculiar, and finally started claiming that after he died he was going to be reincarnated as a dog.  One runs into these ideas pretty frequently today, but back then, it must have been a sore shock to his nearest and dearest.  So this partly explains why when the Major did go to that Big Dog Kennel In The Sky, his son John rounded up all of the Major's dogs and shot them.

I say "partly" because I fail to understand how, even if you believed that the Major was going to be reincarnated as a dog, killing dogs that were currently alive and therefore presumably none of whom were actually the Major would help.  But that's what he did.

And boy was he sorry.

Almost immediately thereafter, John Steuart and his family and servants began to experience spooky stuff.  They heard doggy noises -- panting, wagging of tails, sniffing, and the really nasty slurping sounds dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene.  (Okay, I'm assuming that they heard that last sound.  I certainly hear it enough from my own dogs.)  Steuart's wife several times felt herself being pushed by a wet doggy nose, and reported being in a room and suddenly being overpowered by a strong doggy smell.

Other apparitions began -- the sighting of a ghostly nun, all dressed in gray, in the garden; doors that would open and close by themselves; and the sound of limping footsteps (the Major apparently walked with a limp).  Steuart himself was not long to worry about them, because he was killed in an accident, supposedly the day after hearing a knocking sound on the wall.  (Maybe it was a coded message from the Major that meant, "The dogs and I can't wait to see you!")

In the 1890s the hauntings were investigated on the urging of a certain Lord Bute -- I can't figure out whether by that time Bute was the owner of the house, or just a busybody.  Thirty-five psychics descended upon the house, which created such a cosmic convergence of woo-wooness that you just know something was gonna happen.  And it did.  A Ouija board spelled out "Ishbel" (recall that Major Steuart's sister who was a sister was named Isabella, and recall also that this entire family seemed to have difficulty with spelling their own names).  The psychics experienced various doggy phenomena; one of the psychics, who had brought her own dog along, reported that one evening her dog began to whimper, and she looked over, and there were two disembodied dog paws resting on the bedside table.  (I'd whimper, too.)

In the interest of honesty, it must be recorded that the house was let several times during this period, once to a Colonel Taylor who belonged to the Society for Psychical Research.  Taylor's diary records, with some disappointment, that he slept in the Major's bedroom on more than one occasion, and experienced nothing out of the ordinary.

Be that as it may, Ballechin House acquired the reputation of being "the most haunted house in Scotland," and by the 1920s became impossible to rent.  It fell into increasing disrepair, and finally was torn down in 1963.  I think this is a little sad -- I'd have loved to visit it.  I might even have brought my dogs.  If anyone could whip a bunch of out-of-control dog ghosts into shape, it's my dog Doolin, who is half border collie and thinks that all other living creatures are her sheep.  I see no reason why she'd draw the line at attempting to herd a bunch of dogs who, technically, were dead.  There'd have been an end to the whole undisciplined leaving-your-front-paws-on-the-nightstand sort of nonsense, if she were in charge.

So, the believers in Survival seem to, for the most part, believe that dogs have an eternal soul.  However, this opens up a troubling question.  Why stop there?  If dogs have an eternal soul, do cats?  (My own cats seem to be cases more of demonic possession, frankly.)  How about bunnies?  Or weasels?  Or worms?  Or Japanese beetles?  (I'd be willing to believe that if there are gardens in hell, there'll be Japanese beetles there to eat the roses.)  I find this a worrisome slippery slope.  It may be a cheering thought that something of Woofy's nature will survive his demise, even if he terrorizes the guests with "sudden overpowering doggy smell," but I'm not sure I want to be stung by ghostly yellowjackets, or have to spray my plants for ghostly aphids.  The real kind are enough of a problem.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A second helping of banana pudding...

And following right on the heels of my last post, I read today that there is a controversy forming around Martin Gaskell, an astronomer who claims that he was denied a post as the director of an observatory at the University of Kentucky because he doesn't believe in evolution.

Gaskell, who is known (among other things) for giving a lecture called "Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation," is quoted as saying that the theory of evolution has "significant scientific problems" and includes "unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations." However, now that his views have come into the public spotlight, he seems to be backpedaling like mad, and has made statements that he is "not a creationist," and that the assertions of people who claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old are based upon "very poor science."

I find even that statement inaccurate -- the claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old isn't based upon science at all.  But we'll let that go by.

What I think is rather extraordinary about this man is how he wants it both ways.  He clearly has beliefs that run contrary to the views held by the vast majority of scientists, and yet he wants those same scientists to take him seriously.  "Wait," some of you may be saying, "there have been other scientists whose views were considered heretical at the time, who went against the mainstream views of their peers, and who were vindicated in the end."  That is certainly true.  The most famous of these, Alfred Wegener, who described continental drift long before the modern theory of plate tectonics was developed, was in fact so vilified by his peers that he assuaged his despair by joining an expedition to the arctic, and promptly froze to death in Greenland.

The difference between Wegener and Gaskell is that in Wegener's time, the actual evidential support for plate movement -- especially deep-sea magnetometer data -- was unavailable.  Wegener's ideas were solely based upon the shapes of the continents and the geologic similarity in mountain ranges on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  This was suggestive, certainly; and in hindsight, he proved to be correct.  But at the time he had no idea of the mechanism involved, and when asked by his fellow geologists how continents could move in solid rock, he said, "I dunno, beats the hell outta me."  (Well, he probably didn't say exactly that, but that was the gist.)  In the case of evolution, on the other hand, we have a model that explains the phenomenon elegantly and simply, an understood mechanism by which it works, mountains of evidence from every branch of biology, and exactly no evidence that supports any of the competing theories.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the death of Darwinian theory have proven to be great exaggerations.  A scientist who disbelieves in evolution today is not a maverick who is steadfastly bucking the tide of conventional thought and championing a contrary model; (s)he is ignoring one of the most completely researched and thoroughly understood ideas in all of science.  As I've said before, we know far more about the mechanisms involved in evolution than we do about those involved in gravitation -- and no one is going around saying "gravity is just a theory" and expecting that one day it'll all prove to be a great big lie, and we'll all begin to float.

I find it a little ridiculous that Gaskell thinks his being bypassed for a job as director of an observatory is unfair, when he apparently takes the biblical creation story literally (whatever his statements to the contrary, his writings and lectures make his views fairly clear).  How on earth could he be expected to fulfill his role as director of an observatory when his opinions on the origins of the universe run clear contrary to those of 99% of working astronomers?

Perhaps turning the situation around will illustrate the point. 

Suppose I were to apply for a job as a Christian minister.  (Stop laughing, it's just a thought experiment.  Just play along, okay?)  I go to the interview by the church committee, and in answering their questions it comes out that I'm an atheist.

The committee then recommends against hiring me, of course.  Would I be within my rights to claim discrimination?  How dare they refuse to offer me the job based upon my beliefs?  Of all the nerve!

It's really the same thing, but Gaskell, of course, doesn't seem to see it that way.  His attitude is that his beliefs should have no bearing on his qualification for the job of observatory director.  I think he is very far wrong about that.  You cannot fulfill your role as the director of a major science institution -- which includes the responsibilities of education and outreach -- if you disbelieve in a fundamental part of the science, and therefore in the role of evidence in establishing scientific theories.  Once again -- you are free to believe the earth is filled with banana pudding, but don't complain if you don't get hired as chairman of the geology department.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fairness, balance, and banana pudding

Last week, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 6-1 to approve an industry-standard high school biology textbook, despite a desperate end run by anti-evolutionists to try to have it voted down.  The book, the naysayers claimed, did not teach the "controversy about evolution" nor present a "balanced representation of the debate over the theory's merits."

Well, predictably, my response is:  y'all just did my home state proud.

Equally predictably, the hue and cry started immediately.

Casey Luskin, of the Discovery Institute and the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center, wrote, in an op-ed piece published yesterday, "So much for critical thinking... the Darwin lobby is taking the separation of church and state... and abusing it to promote censorship."  He also complained that because "75% of Americans" have doubts about evolution, the decision by the state school board was irresponsible.  "The students are the real losers here," Luskin said.

Let's take these objections one at a time.

First, Mr. Luskin seems to have the misapprehension that science is somehow a political process -- that a "lobby" promotes its own interests and crushes any others who stand in the way.  He states that "one can be a critic of neo-Darwinism without advocating creationism," and that the media is "confusing (articles) asking for debate with those asking for the teaching of religion."  I find this a curious claim.  If it is true, isn't it odd that evolution (and other models which run contrary to young-earth creationism, such as the Big Bang) are the only ones ever targeted in these discussions?  If "debate," and evidence against a prevailing scientific "lobby," are what he advocates, why stop with evolution?  Why is it "balanced debate" to introduce intelligent design (for which there is not a shred of evidence) into biology classrooms, when no one is suggesting introducing alchemy (for which there is not a shred of evidence) into chemistry classrooms?  The answer, of course, is that he has an agenda, whatever his claims to the contrary. 

Mr. Luskin includes a snarky comment about a question from the biology textbook -- "Describe five pieces of evidence for evolution" -- and wonders why the question doesn't ask students to consider the evidence against evolution.  The reason, of course, is that there isn't any significant evidence against evolution.  There's no less evidence for evolution than there is for any other branch of biological science, but of course he doesn't mention that.  His "balanced" approach, carried to its logical conclusion, implies that students should spend their time describing evidence against cell theory, the model for how nerves carry signals, DNA as the carrier for genetic information, and so on, and that this would somehow promote "critical thinking."

He seems to consider it unfair that responsible textbook writers don't represent ID and creationism as on an equal footing with evolution, that this is somehow silencing debate.  The fact is, of course, this isn't the way science works.  Science is the least democratic of fields; no one is "owed equal time" just because (s)he has a theory.  You may have a theory that the earth is actually made of a crispy graham cracker crust on top of a layer of banana pudding, but giving your theory equal time in a geology class isn't "balanced," it's "moronic."  Your theory, like all theories, stands and falls on the even playing field of the available evidence.  If yours has no evidential support -- well, sorry.  It may sound harsh, but you're simply wrong.

Secondly, it is not relevant that "75% of Americans" have doubts about evolution.  The fact that 75% of Americans (if Mr. Luskin's estimate is correct) disagree is more an indication of the level of science education in American schools than it is an indication of any problems with the theory.  Given this fact, I was unsurprised at the other big education news story released this week -- that students in China were outstripping Americans in science and math education.  If religious indoctrination is really creating a 75% level of doubt amongst Americans about something which is the underpinning of all of the biological sciences, that the Chinese are winning the education race is hardly to be wondered at.

Lastly, his statement that "students are the real losers" implies that if kids aren't presented with an opportunity to see religious views (i.e. intelligent design) branded as science, that science education has failed.  Myself, I think the opposite is true.  We should call ID and young-earth creationism exactly what they are -- religious statements with no scientific credibility whatsoever -- and let the proponents of these theories present what they think the evidence for these statements is.  I find it interesting that in every so-called debate on this topic, the focus of the anti-evolutionists is just that -- anti-evolution -- finding the bits and pieces that the evolutionary model has yet to explain.  I have never once seen any of them present any positive evidence for their own ideas.  How about a dinosaur fossil and a human fossil with contemporaneous radioisotope dates, sedimentary strata showing a catastrophic, worldwide flood five thousand years ago, and so on?  No?  Hmmm.  I wonder why that is?

In any case, I find the recent decision in Louisiana to be a hopeful sign that the nation's educational system may finally be getting behind the idea of teaching science in a realistic, evidence-based fashion.  It's too much to hope for that the likes of Mr. Luskin have given up, but at least we're making progress.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Deus ex machina

If you needed further evidence of how powerful surveillance technology has become, consider that Google Street View has captured a photograph of god.

At least that's what some people think.  The photograph, taken near Quarten, Switzerland, shows two blurry figures hovering above a lake, and some people have decided that they are the Father and the Son.  (See the original here.)  I've beaten unto death the whole why-the-human-brain-is-wired-to-see-faces thing, so I won't revisit that topic, but for myself, I'm not seeing Jesus and God the Father in the photograph.  The one on the left looks too tall and gawky, and the one on the right far too short and tubby, to fit my image of the Supreme Being and his Only Begotten Son.  In fact, if the rightmost is the one people think is God, my personal opinion is that the Big Guy needs to lay off the Hostess Ho-Hos and Little Debbie Snack Cakes for a few months.  On the other hand, if it's not God and Jesus, who is it?  After studying the photograph carefully, I think it's Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria.  Why they'd be visiting a lake in Switzerland in the afterlife, I don't know.  I guess there are worse places to take a vacation.

On the other hand, if I were a deity, I'd definitely opt instead for a pub on the southeast coast of Australia, which is another place that Jesus has been spotted lately.  The front wall of the Seanchai Irish Tavern in Warrnambool, Australia, was in need of a paint job, and the flaking of the paint left a bare patch that looks by some stretch of the imagination like a tall, thin figure with outstretched arms.  (See a photograph here.)  The manager, John Keohane, who is a devout Roman Catholic, immediately decided that it was Jesus.  Many of the pub's patrons agreed, which goes to show that pints of Guinness definitely don't contribute to rational thinking.  The priest of a local Catholic parish is apparently interested in the image, and encouraged Keohane to place a protective screen over the image so that over-enthusiastic tourists (evidently there have been busloads of them) don't touch the image and cause more paint to flake off, thereby causing Jesus to morph into Queen Victoria.

Lastly, there was a sighting in my home state of Louisiana of Jesus on the cross.  Rickey Navarre, of Hathaway, Louisiana, saw a vine-covered telephone pole which looked to him like a crucifix.  (See a photograph here.)  Navarre was inspired to devotion by the image, which is not necessarily a bad thing, although I wonder what he would expect a bunch of vines on a cross-shaped telephone pole to look like.  Concerned electrical company workers hastily cleared away the vines, fearing that hordes of the devout would attempt to climb the pole to touch the vines and summarily be ushered into heaven via electrocution.  One disappointed resident placed flowers at the base of the pole, but on the whole, I think that it's probably better that they're gone.  The last thing we need is people erecting a shrine around an electrical pole.  The electric companies think they're omnipotent enough as it is.

That's about it for Jesus sightings lately.  It's a bit of a nice change that he seems to be avoiding food items these days -- tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches really don't have the gravitas that you'd like to associate with the Almighty.  And although there are clearly rational explanations for all of the above -- vines on a cross-shaped pole, randomly flaking paint, and what was probably just two blobs of schmutz on a camera lens -- if you prefer to think of them as images of god, don't let me discourage you.  Humble human that I am, I wouldn't presume to tell Jesus where he should visit.  I will suggest,  however, that if he appears anywhere near where I live, he should dress warmly, as we're currently under a Winter Weather Advisory.  He might want to mention the same thing to Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria, in case they decide to tag along.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hums, bloops, and snores

Today I was perusing the online news and happened to note a link to LiveScience called "The Ten Top Unexplained Phenomena."  Contrary to its name, LiveScience seems to specialize in catchy little blurbs on stuff that hardly qualify as actual science, but do attract the attention because they're either about stuff that most everyone is interested in even if they won't admit it (e.g. sex) or stuff that many of us are curious about even though some of us think it's nonsense (e.g. the supernatural).  This particular "top ten list" was predictably ordinary, and listed several things as "unexplained" that I have a fairly good explanation for, such as psychic phenomena (explanation: people are gullible), UFOs (explanation: people are gullible), Bigfoot (explanation: people are gullible), and mysterious disappearances, such as that of Jimmy Hoffa (explanation: don't screw around with the Mafia).  But the number one unexplained phenomenon on LiveScience's list was one I'd never heard of, so of course that caught my attention. 

It's called the "Taos Hum."  The Taos Hum is, as you presumably have already figured out, a pervasive humming noise heard near Taos, New Mexico.  (Check out the Taos Hum Page if you're interested in more information, or in signing up for the Taos Hum email listserv.  Of course there's a listserv.)  The Hum was featured on the television show Unsolved Mysteries, wherein they tried to capture the hum on recording equipment and failed, so they instead created an audio clip that was what the hum allegedly sounds like, to people who can hear it.  (And as anyone who's ever seen Unsolved Mysteries knows, they completely downplayed that the audio clip wasn't actually a recording of the real hum, but a simulation of a sound that may or may not exist in the first place.  It didn't stop them from acting all amazed and freaked out when they were listening to it, which made me want to scream, "You people just made this stupid recording, and you're acting like it's real!  Are you crazy, or just stupid?"  But I didn't, because yelling at a video clip would make my family members ask the same question about me.)

All of this, of course, is not to say that the Hum may not exist.  There are peculiar sounds in the world, many of them without a current explanation, and not all of which have proven impossible to detect.  An unexplained hum in Auckland, New Zealand, for example, was actually captured in a recording.  It is an acoustic signal that peaks at 56 hertz, near the bottom of the range of audibility for most people, and has yet to be explained.  But this makes it all the more odd that the Taos Hum hasn't been detected on sound equipment, much less recorded -- the Unsolved Mysteries people made it sound like making recording devices detect in that range is extremely difficult, when in fact it isn't hard at all.  A typical cassette recorder isn't very sensitive in that range, no; but with professional recording equipment, it shouldn't be a problem.

Another problem is how few people actually report hearing it.  Even a website that clearly considers the Hum to be real, and suggests as an explanation something that would be worthy of an X-Files episode -- they imply that the Hum is either of supernatural origin, or caused by some secret government technology -- admits that only 2% of Taos residents can hear it.  Most people who've allegedly heard the phenomenon, when asked to listen to recordings of various low frequency sounds and identify which is closest, perk up when they hear recordings in the 50-80 hertz range, which is definitely in the audible range for most people with unimpaired hearing.  This raises the question of why, if it's as powerful as hearers say it is (some even say they can't sleep when the Hum is going on), everyone in Taos who isn't deaf hasn't reported the phenomenon.

Still, 2% is enough people that it deserves an explanation.  I tend to lean toward the idea that it's some form of tinnitus, combined with a dose of confirmation bias -- when people have an explanation they favor (or, in this case, an appealing lack of an explanation), they tend to interpret further evidence in the light of what they already have decided they believe.  Once you think that the low-pitched ringing in your ears is a real phenomenon that is audible by others, you (1) pay more attention to it, and (2) become more and more convinced that it's true every time it subsequently happens.  I also must add, in the interest of honesty, that I've been to Taos, and not only did I not hear any humming noise, I was immediately struck by the fact that there seemed to be an inordinately large number of Purveyors of Woo-Wooness -- Tarot card readers, palm readers, sellers of crystals, and metaphysical book stores.  Even at the time, before I'd ever heard of the Hum, it seemed to me a population of people who were primed to interpret everything with a mystical twist.

Of course, I could be wrong.  It's been known to happen.  After all, the Auckland Hum was shown to be a real phenomenon, and researchers haven't been able to find anything that explains it.  There are lots of unexplained noises in the world -- the most famous being the Bloop, which has actually been recorded by subs.  (Check out the latest on the Bloop here.)  Of course, with the Bloop, there's a perfectly rational explanation; it's the noise made by Cthulhu snoring.  You think I'm joking.  Apparently the most common projected origin for the Bloops recorded by subs is right near the spot where H. P. Lovecraft said, in The Call of Cthulhu, stands the majestic sunken city of R'lyeh, where the octopoid god lies snoozing peacefully.  This fact should put the quietus on just storming in there with subs and recording equipment.  It's not that I'm for impeding the progress of science, mind you; it's just that we ought to be careful.  Cthulhu, as far as I've heard, is not a morning person, and resents being awakened suddenly.  He also tends to wake up hungry, and with a serious case of morning breath.

But I digress.

Assuming the Taos Hum actually is a real, external phenomenon, and isn't just a case of collective tinnitus or a resonance generated by a critical mass of woo-woos, it definitely deserves some more careful exploration.  I'd volunteer, but Taos is one place in the United States that is even colder and snowier in the winter than upstate New York, so I think any investigative team I lead will have to wait until spring.  Call me a wuss, but freezing my ass off listening for a sound that only 2% of people can hear anyway doesn't sound that inviting.  So I'm not planning on a trip to Taos any time soon, and if you're a Taos resident, you'll just have to deal with it for the time being.  I'll do what I can on my next visit, but until then, you'll just have to hum along or else ignore it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Shhhh... it's a secret

Recently my son and I were talking about secret societies.  The first thing we concluded was that we couldn't have a meaningful discussion about truly secret societies, because, well, they'd be secret and we wouldn't know about them.  So we were confined to talking about the sort-of-secret variety -- the ones that people know about, or think they know about, but don't know enough about to make them just garden-variety social clubs.

One of the ones we discussed was the infamous Skull & Bones Society at Yale, about which much has been written and even more has been speculated.  George Bushes Sr. and Jr. are both members, as is John Kerry; numerous other famous Yale alumni are also "Bonesmen."  The most reputable inside information is that it amounts to an organization for wealthy social-climbers, but the rumors about what goes on behind the windowless walls of 64 High Street, New Haven vary from the wild but possible to the patently ridiculous.  Some of the more colorful ones are the legend that they stole, and still have, the skulls of Martin van Buren, Geronimo, and Pancho Villa; and that during the initiation ceremony, prospective members have to lie naked in a coffin and recount their sexual exploits to the assembled membership.  The Skull & Bones Society also figures high in events favored by conspiracy theorists, such as the Kennedy assassination and the faking of the moon landing.  Members have been asked about the veracity of these rumors, but have maintained a steadfast silence -- which, of course, conspiracy theorists have taken as tacit admission of guilt.

No discussion of secret societies would be complete without at least a brief mention of the Freemasons.  Freemasonry developed in the 16th or 17th century, and apparently was never really a trade organization, despite the name -- it started out as a mystical society, probably in Scotland or England.  Then, the whole thing began to shake itself to pieces, and now we have (to name a few) the Grand Lodge of England, the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the Ancient Grand Lodge of England, the United Grand Lodge of England, the Ancient and Accepted Grand Lodge of Scotland, and the Great Big Huge Lodge Of Really Impressive Freemasons of England and Scotland Who Are Way Cooler Than Any Of You Other Posers.  Okay, I made the last one up.  Each one of the different lodges has its own set of ranks, titles, rituals, secret handshakes, vestments for officers, and so on, which makes them sound a lot like the whole "Grand Pooh-Bah of the Leopard Lodge" thing on Happy Days.

Then we have the Rosicrucians, or the "Ancient Order of the Rosy Cross," another mystical society, this one founded in Germany.  Rosicrucianism didn't really take off until the beginning of the 20th century in France and England, mostly amongst the wealthy.  And have you heard the joke about how five Frenchmen were shipwrecked on a deserted island, and immediately founded six political parties?  Well, that's what the Rosicrucians are like.  You thought the Freemasons were complicated -- the list of subgroups and sub-subgroups of the Rosicrucians runs to several pages.  It's entirely possible that the number of Rosicrucian sects, as with our marooned Frenchmen, exceeds the number of actual Rosicrucians.  It should also be mentioned that the Rosicrucians are the ones who generated Aleister Crowley, who is notable for calling himself "The Great Beast" and claiming that he was the "wickedest man on earth," and who said he could transmute base metals into gold but who mostly seemed to be interested in screwing anyone of either gender who'd hold still for long enough.

Then, of course, there are the Illuminati, who are actually in control of every country's government and who secretly run all the big corporations, through cooperation with reptilian aliens from the planet Zeta Reticuli.  Oh, wait, I'm getting my nonsense confused -- how embarrassing!  Forget the part about the aliens, that's just ridiculous.  The Illuminati were formed as a mystical society by Bavarian Jesuit Adam Weishaupt around the year 1800, and after Weishaupt's death in 1830 it kind of pooped out for a while -- but with the resurgence of mysticism in the early 20th century, people started to claim that the Illuminati had survived in hiding and now were secretly running everything.  Once the 60s hit and being a wacko was more-or-less in vogue, there began to be books written about how the Illuminati were exerting mind control on people through putting hallucinogenic chemicals in drinking water and in jet contrails.  (Given how many hallucinogenic chemicals were being deliberately ingested back in the 60s, you'd wonder why the Illuminati would bother.)   I also found out that the Illuminati include(d) Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson, a foursome that sounds like it should somehow be worked into a joke.  ("Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson were in a bar one day, discussing world domination...")

This is only the barest sampling of the secret societies out there -- if you don't believe me, Google the words "secret societies" and you'll find hundreds, probably thousands, of societies so secret that you'd never guess their existence unless you happened to type "secret societies" into a Google search.  Myself, I find it a little funny that people are attracted to these things.  Most of them seem to be banal and a tad ridiculous -- little boys pretending to be grown ups Doing Great Big Important Mysterious Things.  (And sadly for my own gender, I'm using the masculine not as a catchall, but because the vast majority of members do seem to be male.)  I'm kind of curious as to the numbers of members these groups have, but there didn't seem to be much in the way of reliable information about that.  Apparently that part really is secret, or maybe most people are just embarrassed to admit that they're members.

So if you're interested in joining one, the field is wide open.  I'm not sure what the application process is like -- most of the societies seem to have websites, presumably to make sure that everyone knows how incredibly secret they are.  There are probably yearly membership fees, but maybe you'll get a monthly magazine ("Rosicrucian Home Journal" or "Illuminati's Digest").  Just watch out for those initiation rituals involving coffins and less-than-recommended amounts of clothing.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Accentuating the positive

Having grown up in the Deep South (as my dad used to say, any Deeper South and your hat would be floating), I'm frequently asked why I don't have more of an accent.  I think there are several answers.  First, my dad was a career Marine, and retired when I was seven, so I spent the first few years of my life moving from military base to military base, amongst people who came from all parts of the United States.  Second, although my mom was what they call "full-bleed Cajun," my dad was a complete mutt -- his father was born in Louisiana and was of French, German, Scottish, and Dutch descent, and his mother was a Scotch-Irish Yankee from southwestern Pennsylvania.  The third reason, though, I think is the most interesting; when I moved north (to Seattle) when I was 21, I got teased out of my accent.  To this day my voice can assume the south Louisiana Cajun swing in no time at all -- all I have to do is talk to one of my cousins on the phone, or better yet, go back down to visit.  It's like I never left.

To this day I still find it rather appalling that I was teased for having a southern accent, but I've found (having lived in YankeeLand USA for almost thirty years) that the perception of southern accents as being comical, or worse yet, a sign of ignorance, is common across the north.  Of course, the media is partially to blame; witness television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, and the comic strip and Broadway show Li'l Abner -- all four of which, I must point out, were produced and written by Northerners, and all of which portray Southerners as ignorant, backwards bumpkins.  However, if that stereotype had not already existed, no one would have found them funny.  The South was already considered an uneducated backwater beforehand.

The fact that the Southern accent is considered a sign of ignorance was highlighted a few years ago with an experiment in which groups of college students were shown different video clips of a pre-recorded speech.  It turned out that the content of the speech in each clip was identical; the only thing that differed was the accent.  The students were then asked to rate the speaker on articulateness, presentation, and content, and to guess the speaker's educational level.  Across the board, the clip that featured someone speaking with a Southern accent was rated lower -- even when the experiment was performed in Georgia, and the students themselves were from the South!

I recall some years ago hearing students in the high school where I teach talking about watching some clips from Ken Burns' The Civil War, and they referred to one of the historians interviewed as "that hillbilly dude."  "That hillbilly dude" turned out to be the late Shelby Foote, a highly educated man whose expertise on the Civil War allowed him to author a number of outstanding books, both fiction and non-fiction, on the subject.  To my ears, his graceful Mississippi accent sounds cultured; to my students', it apparently sounded foolish enough that they hardly listened to what he said.

All of this is just a preface to my telling you about a study recently released by Portfolio magazine, identifying the ten brainiest cities, and the ten least brainy cities, in the United States.  (The determination was done using the average number of years of education for adults in the city.)  While the brainiest cities were scattered about fairly randomly -- the five highest were Boulder, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Washington DC; Durham, North Carolina; and Bridgeport, Connecticut -- the ten least brainy showed a distinct grouping.  Anyone care to guess what state hosts four of Portfolio's least-brainy cities in the United States?


Interesting, no?  Furthermore, while a couple of the least-brainy cities were in Texas, none of them were in the states of the "Old South" -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

It's nice to know that I have a little more hard data to use when I lambaste my students for laughing when I say "y'all."

I guess it's time to revise some stereotypes, eh, Yanks?

Friday, December 3, 2010


Yesterday I was asked by a student of mine if I'd ever heard of Florida Swamp Apes.  After a brief moment in which I wondered if he were asking about a sports team, I answered in the negative.  He brought out his cellphone, on which he had downloaded an admittedly creepy image, which I include below:

Imagine my surprise when I found out that there's a whole site devoted to this odd beast, also called the "Florida Skunk Ape" for its strong smell.  (Visit the site here.)  Considered to be the "southernmost Bigfoot species in the United States," the Florida Skunk Ape has been sighted all over southern Florida, but most commonly in the Everglades region.  (And, if you're interested, this website also offers collectible Florida Skunk Ape silver coins for sale.)

I thought I had heard of most of the cryptozoological claims from the United States, but this one was new to me.  Of course, the Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest is so familiar by now as to elicit yawns, and many of us know of the Boggy Creek Monster of Fouke, Arkansas, which generated not one but two truly dreadful movies.  I've posted before about the Connecticut Hill Monster, which is veritably in my own back yard, and roams the wild hills of the southern Finger Lakes.  But the Skunk Ape is one I'd never heard of before, and I'm finding myself wondering how I missed it.  It did cross my mind briefly that perhaps the Skunk Ape sightings were merely elderly Bigfoots from the north who had moved to Florida when they retired, but apparently this is incorrect, as one site talks about a sighting of a "young and vigorous animal, probably an adolescent" and another refers to "Skunk Ape mating season" (May, if you're curious).  All these years as a cryptozoologist, and you still keep coming across new and outlandish stories.  But isn't that what pseudoscience is all about?

As with most of these alleged animals, the claims of sightings are numerous and varied, and the hard evidence essentially non-existent.  There are a lot of photographs, but to borrow a line from the astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson, there probably is an "Add Bigfoot" button on PhotoShop, so we shouldn't consider the photographic evidence to be evidence at all.  Also on the website is an audio clip of a Skunk Ape's howls, which to my ear sounded more like a distant dog, or possibly a guy going "Awoo."  We also have an interview with Dave Shealy, who seems to be one of the people responsible for the whole Skunk Ape phenomenon (he is the director of the Skunk Ape Research Center of Ochopee, Florida, open 7 AM to 7 PM, admission $5, which I am definitely going to visit next time I'm in Florida).  Lastly, we are informed that Skulls Unlimited, a company which sells a virtually unlimited number of skulls (thus the name), is now offering resin models of Bigfoot skulls.  One has to wonder what they cast the mold from, but in the field of cryptozoology it is sometimes best not to ask too many questions.

In any case, the Florida Skunk Ape gives us yet another line in the ledger of Extraordinary Claims Requiring Extraordinary Evidence Of Which There Seems To Be None.  Too bad, because winter's coming on up here in the Frozen North, and I'd have welcomed a reason to assemble my research team and head on down to sunny Florida, as conducting cryptozoological research in shorts and a t-shirt certainly seems more inviting than stomping around Connecticut Hill in two feet of snow, dressed in seven layers of clothing and still feeling like I'm freezing off valuable body parts.  But I'm willing to make those kind of sacrifices to bring this sort of quality research journalism to your doorstep.  Don't thank me, the privilege of listening to the lonesome howls of the Florida Skunk Ape during mating season is thanks enough.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

May you stay forever young

This month's issue of Nature magazine includes a paper by Dr. Ronald DePinho of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard University, describing how he and his team were able to reverse aging in mice.

Now, first, it must be stated that these mice were genetically engineered to have a faulty gene for telomerase, so they aged much faster than normal.  Telomerase is an enzyme that protects the end caps on the chromosomes during cell division; the shortening of these end caps (telomeres) is thought to be behind a lot of the less-popular symptoms of aging, including graying of hair, wrinkling of skin, dementia, organ degeneration, and the wearing of knee-high socks with plaid shorts and black leather shoes.  The mice, whose telomerase gene didn't work in the first place, were given injections which activated the gene, and the expected result -- that any further aging would slow or stop -- didn't happen.  What happened, surprising DePinho's team, was that the aging symptoms actually reversed -- the mice began to repair damaged organs, increase in fertility, and manufacture new brain cells.  Some of them even stopped insisting that total strangers look at photographs of their grandbabies.

The conventional wisdom had always been that once the damage was done to the telomeres, reactivating the gene for telomerase was unlikely to rebuild them -- potentially, it could stop further damage, but wouldn't repair the damage already done.  Now, it appears that DePinho's team has shown that this is incorrect.  And this, of course, immediately raises hopes for the development of an anti-aging therapy in humans.

I find this interesting from two standpoints.  First, I'm fascinated with genetics, and anything that further elucidates how genes work is bound to be cool.  Second, I'm 50, and am beginning to experience a few of those aging symptoms myself, and I don't like it.  I'm not wearing knee socks with shorts yet, I'm glad to say; and I still remember where my reading glasses are most of the time.  On the other hand, the laugh lines, stiff joints, and graying hair are a little troublesome.  I remember the first time I noticed the gray -- my wife and I were in Iceland, and I decided to forgo shaving for the duration of the trip, and my facial hair grew in gray.  Carol's comment was, "You look like Kenny Rogers."  The facial hair was gone within ten minutes of our arrival back home.  Kenny Rogers, indeed.

In any case, the idea of being able to maintain the vigor and appearance of youth is certainly appealing.  However, consider the implications.  Suppose they really could drastically slow the aging process, without any untoward results (and it must be said, in the interest of honesty, that one concern about telomerase reactivation is that it might increase the likelihood of cancer).  Suppose human life span were drastically lengthened -- you might live to 500 or 600 years, barring an accident.  Since growth in size, sexual maturity, emotional/intellectual maturity, and aging are all controlled by different genetic constructs, and only the last-mentioned is being altered, there's no reason to believe that the others would be affected.  Therefore, you would reach your adult height at 17 or so, go through puberty at 13 or 14, reach emotional and intellectual maturity in your early 20s -- and then, you'd simply go into stasis.  For five hundred years.  You'd stand a good chance of meeting your great-great-great-great grandchildren, and when you did, you'd look pretty much like you did when you were raising their great-great-great grandparents.  Women would probably still hit menopause in their 50s -- the whole genetic control of sex would, once again, likely be unaffected -- but men would remain fertile indefinitely.  (Think of the effect on the population, which is already huge enough as it is.)  Then, there are the cultural effects -- people would not just have one career, or two, but twelve or thirteen -- imagine doing the same job not for thirty years, but for four hundred.  (The phrase "shoot me now" comes to mind.)  Still, would you want to retire at 65 if you still felt like a twenty-year-old?  And even if you did, could the current retirement system handle paying out retirement checks to you for 450 years?  You think the Social Security System has problems now...

While all of this has the sound of science fiction, Dr. DePinho's team has taken the first steps toward making it possible.  And every time I've tried to predict the timing of breakthroughs, I've always been wrong, and the error has usually been an overestimation.  (I'm the one who told my AP Biology class "adult-tissue cloning won't be possible for another ten years or more" -- one week before the news of Dolly the Cloned Sheep hit the newspapers.)  I'll be watching for further developments, but I'd say that we're not far away from being able to address the whole issue of human life span.  I just hope that when it becomes possible, we are careful to consider the implications -- but given our track record of thinking things through, that may be a forlorn hope.