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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Out-of-body experiences and alien abductions

In her novel Passage, Connie Willis depicts two doctors, both researchers in neuropsychology, who attempt to alter the brain chemistry in their subjects to simulate the sensations of a person having a near-death experience.  One of her main characters, the project leader Dr. Richard Wright, speculates that there is a chemical reason for commonality of images, sounds, and so on that occur in near-death experiences -- that they are caused by a neurotransmitter cascade, the brain's last, desperate attempt to send an SOS.  These sensations don't reflect any external reality, but are simply the sensations activated by a last-ditch effort for survival.

While such a study is still in the realm of fiction, now we have news that an analogous one may have shown a similar conclusion for out-of-body experiences.

Michael Raduga, an experimenter at UCLA, became interested in the whole phenomenon of out-of-body experiences as they connect with individuals who have reported being abducted by aliens.  After interviewing a number of "abduction survivors," he began to wonder if he could induce the same sensations in an ordinary person.  So he has developed a technique (detailed in his book The School of Out-of-Body Travel, downloadable here) by which he claims that 90% of people can achieve an out-of-body experience in two weeks.  (I downloaded it, of course -- and it seems like it requires little more than a disruption of the normal sleep cycle, followed by a series of visualization exercises.)

When he used these techniques with twenty volunteers, he found that seven of them had out-of-body experiences, and a number of them reported contact with alien beings.  That this differs from the 90% success rate he reports in his book he explains by stating that a number of the test subjects were about to have an out-of-body experience, but snapped back to normal consciousness because of "extreme fear."

Here is just one account, from test subject "Alexander N."  (You can read several others on his press release, here.)
I got up from my body in my own room. However, my physical body was no longer to be found in my bed. I tried to employ “deepening” and scrutinized everything around. I lost my bearing and everything naturally became somewhat awkward.

Not wanting to waste any more time, I tried to find aliens. Three of them materialized right before my eyes. They seemed more like creatures from the movie “The Thing” than tadpoles with eyes like Princess Jasmine. They wanted to scare me, not to “make contact”. As a result, I was extremely frightened and regained awareness in my own body.
Despite some inconsistencies, and the inevitable subjectivity of results that rely entirely on the accounts of the subjects themselves, I think that Raduga draws exactly the right conclusion from this research:
The fact that UFOs and extraterrestrials may be deliberately encountered in a controlled manner and within a few days proves that such experiences are a product of the human brain. It was the first experiment to ever prove that close encounters with UFOs and extraterrestrials are a product of the human mind. The experiment also demonstrated that alien contact is not indicative of the existence of otherworldly civilizations, but rather of a poorly studied state of consciousness that people occasionally fall into inadvertently.
All of this brings up a point I've made more than once; that skeptics demand hard evidence in cases of alleged paranormal experiences not because they're obnoxious cranks, but because they are all too aware of the potential for the human mind to be fooled.  I've never said that aliens, ghosts, Bigfoot, El Chupacabra, and the rest are impossible; merely that in order to believe in any of them, I need more than "My Uncle Fred says he saw one."  Much as I like to think I'm a pretty good observer, I wouldn't even trust my own experiences without any kind of corroborative evidence -- especially if they occurred, as most out-of-body experiences do, when I was half asleep.

So, anyway, that seems to be at least a first step toward explaining what's happening when people think they've been abducted.  It'd be nice to have some test subjects induce out-of-body experiences while lying inside a PET scanner -- similar to what Dr. Wright's NDE simulators did in Passage.  This might elucidate what is actually happening in the brain during an out-of-body episode -- although it would still leave unexplained why anyone would see "alien tadpoles with Princess Jasmine eyes."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Finals week for Psychic Sally

Yesterday, you may recall, I posted about alleged psychic James van Praagh receiving a visit from some zombies representing the James Randi Educational Foundation, challenging him to prove that he can do what he claims -- namely, speak to the dead.  And I ended with a fervent wish that the same sort of thing happen to other self-styled mediums, including "Psychic Sally" Morgan.

In a lovely example of synchronicity, I discovered this morning that Psychic Sally is also receiving an unwelcome visit -- from the Merseyside Sceptics' Society.

Psychic Sally has had her share of problems lately.  A month ago, she was accused of receiving information about her subjects in a public "reading" in Dublin through an earpiece, after some of her staff were overheard making suspicious comments in a back room.  Morgan has denied any wrongdoing, stating that they were just off-duty technicians having a chat, and that statement was supported by the theater in which the event was held -- just showing, in my opinion, that both of them know what side their bread is buttered on.

Be that as it may, Morgan filed a defamation suit against the reporters who made the claim, and now is trying to rehabilitate her image.  She has a significant stake in doing so; not only does she perform to sold-out shows, she gives psychic readings over the phone (hundreds of dollars per session; and she has a waiting list almost a year long), and is currently filming the third season of her show Psychic Sally on the Road.  The monetary incentive is, by itself, enormous.

As is just the face-saving aspect.  This woman has spent her entire life building up an image as a psychic; she claims to have seen her first ghost when she was four.  If the allegations of fakery become much louder, she has a lot to lose.

Enter the Merseyside Sceptics' Society.

Just as in the case with van Praagh, the whole idea here is for alleged mediums to put their money where their mouth is.  You say you're a psychic, that you can communicate with the dead?  Okay, let's take that as a working hypothesis.

Now prove it.

The MSS has set up a test for Psychic Sally, to be run on Halloween night -- a time when you'd think the dead would be especially eager to communicate.  All she has to do is to show up at a venue in Liverpool, where she'll be handed ten photographs of deceased women, and a list of ten names -- and she has to match the photographs to the names.  Seven right, and the skeptics who organized it, who include such prominent voices as Chris French and Simon Singh, will give Psychic Sally their stamp of approval.

You'd think this would be child's play for her.  It's what she does all the time -- take photographs from audience members, and "establish contact" with the person in the photograph, and then deliver messages to their loved ones.  If she can really do that, just putting faces to names should be a walk in the park, right?

Interestingly, Psychic Sally hasn't responded to the MSS's challenge.  (Note my shocked expression.)

"If Sally really is able to demonstrate in a very simple test that her skills are in fact psychically derived, as opposed to produced via the various magic tricks and techniques we know fraudulent mediums could use to appear to have psychic powers, then we'll be first in the queue to celebrate her talents," said Michael Marshall, vice president of the MSS.  "But until she can show her readings are genuine, we don't think it's right that vulnerable people are led to believe she's really talking to the dead."

It may not be right, but it is lucrative.  And my guess is that Psychic Sally won't want to risk any further damage to her reputation by taking, and then failing, the challenge.  I'm thinking she's going to skip her exam on Monday night -- which by itself should be damning.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Communicating with the sort-of dead

In a move that left me saying, "Why didn't I think of doing that?", an organized flash mob of zombies recently showed up at one of James van Praagh's psychic medium shows.

Van Praagh, in case you haven't heard of him, is one of the folks who claims to bring messages from the dead to living relatives, and has become filthy rich doing so.  I've always found it interesting that van Praagh's messages to survivors are universally positive -- the deceased are, one and all, in a "place of peace and light and love" and tell the living how wonderful heaven is.  You'd think, statistically speaking, that at least a few folks would end up in hell, and deliver messages such as "it sure is hot down here" or "when you come join me, could you please bring along a fan and a bucket of ice?"

Interestingly, van Praagh's "evidence" that he's actually able to do all this hocus-pocus seems to depend largely on the excellent research abilities of him and his staff.  In a recent appearance on ABC's Primetime Nightline: Beyond Belief, van Praagh wowed Good Morning America's anchor Josh Elliott with information about his life and background -- until it turned out that everything van Praagh said had appeared in a two-year-old interview with Elliott that was available online.

So anyway, you can see why the zombies were pissed off.  If anyone would have a perspective on the whole subject of talking to the deceased, it would be zombies.

Carrying signs that said, "Talk To Us, We Won't Bite" and "Zombies Against Fake Mediums," the zombies demanded that van Praagh come out and chat with them about how he communicates with the dead.  "We'd like to pick his brain," one zombie told reporters.

It probably will come as no surprise that the whole thing was organized by the JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and in fact the head zombie at the demonstration was D. J. Grothe, the president of JREF.  JREF has repeatedly invited van Praagh to give the famous million-dollar challenge a try -- a long-standing JREF offer to the first person who can demonstrate any kind of psychic ability in a controlled, scientifically-monitored setting.  Van Praagh has thus far refused even to respond to JREF's requests.

As far as the zombie attack, JREF claims that they weren't just trying to be obnoxious.  "We're not rabble rousing," Grothe told reporters.  "This is a guy who is taking advantage of people's grief.  He's not performing for entertainment, he's claiming he's giving messages from dead relatives.  He gets people when they are at their lowest and sees them as his target market."

"A magician or psychic entertainer tells you in one way or another that they are going to play a trick on you," he said.  "But Van Praagh looks people straight in the eye and says 'I am honestly communicating with your deceased loved ones, getting messages from them.'  Reasonable people may say, 'You can't talk to the dead,' but others believe this stuff hook, line and sinker.  Thinking that some opportunistic huckster is giving you a message from beyond keeps you from experiencing the natural stages of grief, from dealing with the loss in a healthy way.  It is offensive that he seems to be bilking the bereaved."

"If James Van Praagh is making his living by faking psychic powers and pretending to speak to people's deceased family members, that's truly shameful," Grothe said.

To which I say, "hear, hear."  I would have gladly participated in such an event, and in fact think that while they're at it, the zombies should pay a visit to Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and "Psychic Sally" Morgan.  After all, you're only undead once, you might as well make it count.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Psychic grounding, telepathy, and tinfoil hats

Are you bothered by your psychic abilities?  Do you find yourself unable to tune out others' thoughts?  Is the color of your aura clashing with your favorite shirt?

Maybe you need to do some psychic grounding.  (Read about how here.)

Honestly, I can imagine that it might be inconvenient to be psychic, if such things actually existed.  Especially if you were telepathic.  Consider what it would be like if you really could read the minds of the people around you.  I don't know about you, but my mind is a continuous jumble of random thoughts, most of them inane, weird, and/or irrelevant.  There is frequently musical accompaniment, usually consisting of whatever song I heard on the radio on the way to work.  And like most people, I also often have thoughts that I hope fervently never leave my skull, because of the sheer embarrassment potential.  If my thoughts really could be recorded, sequentially, they'd probably look something like the following:

"I'm hungry...  What did I do with my pencil?... Do I have a faculty meeting today?... Slip slidin' away, slip slidin' away... Wow, she's hot!... Is 'occurred' spelled with one 'r' or two?...  I'm cold... Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go... Did I remember to remind Carol to pick up cat litter on the way home from work?...  Geez, that guy is wearing a dorky-looking hat..."

And so on.  I would think that being telepathic would be at best highly distracting, and at worst the mental equivalent of being trapped 24/7 in a noisy bar.  I know that there are people I have to interact with on a daily basis that I already want to scream "dear god, will you please just shut up!" at, and that's just from hearing what they say out loud.  If I could hear their thoughts, too... well, let me just say that this could well be at the heart of some seemingly unpremeditated homicides.

Be that as it may, if this is you... help is on the way, in the form of the aforementioned article, which was written by someone who signs his name only as "Nathaniel." 

The gist of shutting down your psychic abilities lies, apparently, in "grounding" yourself.  Nathaniel says that you can do this in the following ways:
1)  Stop noticing weird stuff.  Nathaniel refers to this as the "11:11 effect" -- how you notice when a digital clock reads some time that is peculiar, and once you've noticed it, it jumps out at you every time it happens.  He seems to seriously consider this a psychic ability, and in fact says that training yourself to notice such things more is a way to amplify your abilities if you want them to increase.  
2)  Tell yourself you're not going to be psychic any more, until you say otherwise.  It's important to include the last part, because if you don't you could risk losing your abilities permanently.
3)  Don't give psychic readings for yourself or others, and don't mess with "power objects" like crystals or Tarot cards.
4)  Create a "psychic shield" for yourself to stop negative people from throwing destructive stuff at you.  I read all about this here, and I must admit that I still don't see how this could work, as it seems like all it amounts to is visualizing yourself as surrounded by a shield.  Whether this could help with negative aura energies, or whatever, I don't know, but I suspect it might be less than successful if what the negative person had thrown was, for example, a brick.
So anyway, all of this seems to me like a lot of hooey -- if it really was this easy to gain and lose psychic abilities, all of us would be doing it all the time, constantly picking up each other's thoughts, and I would really have to watch myself when I see Dorky Hat Guy.  Most of what Nathaniel is describing is just wishful thinking, combined with dart-thrower's bias -- the tendency all of us have to notice seemingly odd stuff (such as when the clock reads 11:11) and ignore irrelevant background noise (such as when it says 5:48).  Our attention to such things doesn't make us psychic -- all it reflects is that evolutionarily, it's better to give attention to something that turns out to be unimportant than to ignore something that turns out to be critical to our survival.

So, honestly, I found Nathaniel's advice to be a bit of a disappointment.  I'd hoped for more concrete advice -- something along the lines of, "To avoid picking up the thoughts of those around you, fashion yourself a tinfoil hat.  Make sure that you use at least three layers for best effect, especially if you are using the cheap generic stuff and not genuine Reynolds Wrap."  But maybe it's better that way.  If I had to go around all day with a tinfoil hat, I'd be the one people were thinking "dorky" about -- even if, at the time, my "psychic shield" was keeping me from hearing about it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Woo-woo round up

It's been another busy week here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.

First, we have news that the Church of Scientology spent years investigating the creators of South Park.

You may remember that about five years ago, South Park made headlines with an episode called "Trapped in the Closet," which featured noted Scientologists Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and ridiculed Scientology in general.  Cruise responded, predictably, by having a tantrum, but this time he didn't assault Oprah; he just announced that he wouldn't help publicize Mission Impossible III, as Comedy Central and Paramount are both owned by the same parent company, Viacom.  Paramount executives basically shrugged and said, "Okay," and Mission Impossible III went on to net nearly $12.48, so it probably wouldn't have mattered if Cruise had helped publicize it or not.

In any case, you'd think that in any normal situation, this would have all blown over and been forgotten, but your mistake would be applying the word "normal" to the Scientologists.  They began to secretly look into South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, trying to dig up dirt about them so as to discredit them.  Marty Rathbun, former Church of Scientology executive and current critic, has made records public that state that the Scientologists were even going through Stone and Parker's trash looking for evidence that they were using drugs or otherwise engaged in illicit behavior.

My general feeling is, anything that keeps the Scientologists busy rummaging through trash is probably in everyone's best interest.

And in case my commentary on this situation induces any Scientologists to look through my trash, allow me to just say up front that what appear to be bags of used kitty litter are, in fact, just bags of used kitty litter, and there is NO ILLICIT DRUG EVIDENCE IN THERE.  No, sir.  Don't even bother going through them, because you won't find anything incriminating.

And the same goes for the blobs of old coffee grounds.


Then, we have a video clip from Brazil that claims to have captured what appears to be an alien taking a piss behind a tree.

Or at least that's what it looks like to my untrained eye.  Let's take a look at a still from the video:


The video, which you can view here, is described by Mike Cohen of All News Web (which bills itself as "the world's only intergalactic news network") as being "highly compelling footage that will be hard to discredit."  This didn't stop Marc Dantonio, of the Mutual UFO Network, from noting that the head of the alien appears to wobble when the wind blows, in the fashion of one of those bobble-head dolls that truckers like to put on their dashboards.

Myself, though, I still like the "alien taking a piss" theory.  After all, I doubt there are many rest stops in interstellar space, so you can't blame the little guy.  When you gotta go, you gotta go.


Next, we have news from the Kemerovo region of Russia that the hunt for the Yeti has been unsuccessful.

You may recall a Skeptophilia post a few weeks ago about an expedition into the wilds of Siberia, looking for the Asian cousin of America's Bigfoot.  The whole thing was the brainchild of Russian Yetiologist Igor Burtsev, who organized a Yeti Conference for researchers from all over the world, and then led an expedition to go see the sites where Yetis had allegedly been spotted.  These included a cave and a "Bigfoot nest."  And, right on schedule, the team found gigantic footprints, broken branches, and bits of hair.  Case closed!  The Yeti is real!

Well, maybe not.  Dr. Jeff Meldrum, an American researcher who went to the conference, isn't buying it.  He said the whole thing went a little too easily to be convincing -- it had the air of something staged.  The hair has yet to be analyzed, and the footprints, Meldrum said, "show depth and line characteristics that are consistent with fakes."  As for the "nest," Meldrum became suspicious of it when he noticed that the "bent and twisted saplings" had actually been notched with saws.

Another curiosity is that the alleged Yeti footprints are only from right feet, as if the Yeti that produced them had been engaged in a game of hopscotch.

So, I guess we have to place this one in the "probably not" column.  Too bad.  Because it would have lent critical credence to our next story, to wit:


A brief report has come in from comically-named High Knob, Virginia, where a fellow named Tyler Bounds allegedly struck a Bigfoot with his car Sunday night at around 2 AM.  We're unsure how much to credit this story, however, as (1) there was no blood or hair on the car, and (2) Bounds is an associate of Matt Moneymaker, of Animal Planet's "Finding Bigfoot," which made history as the only paranormal television show that jumped the shark faster than Monster Quest.  So we'll just state for the record that in the dark, an oak tree can look a lot like a Bigfoot, and move on.


In the Obituaries Section, we regret to inform you of the passing of Malcolm Dent, 67.  Dent was a boyhood pal of legendary Led Zeppelin rocker Jimmy Page, and was the curator of Boleskine House in the Scottish Highlands during the twenty years Page owned it.  Boleskine House is famous as having been the occult headquarters of Aleister Crowley, famed Satanist and self-styled "wickedest man on earth."

Crowley, who died in 1947, was infamous during his lifetime for holding rituals of black magic at Boleskine.  He belonged to the occult organization called "The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn," but founded a couple of others, Ordo Templi Orientis and Thelema, when it became apparent that one organization wouldn't provide him with nearly enough people of either gender to have sex with.  Boleskine House became known as a center of depravity and amoral behavior, so you can kind of understand Page's interest in owning the place.


So, that's the news here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  We keep Watch on the Wackos, so we can bring the stories straight to your doorstep.  As usual -- All the News That's Fit to Guffaw At.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Comet Elenin redux

I'll bet you thought that earthquakes were caused by plate tectonics.  I'll bet you buy your 9th grade earth science teacher's explanation that as the Earth's crustal plates move around, they sometimes slip and release large quantities of energy, causing destructive events such as the one that occurred Sunday in eastern Turkey.

A lot you know.

Earthquakes, according to Mensur Omerbashich, are caused by the alignment of the Earth with the Comet Elenin and some other astronomical body.  He presents his theory, along with his data on the incidence of earthquakes above magnitude 6, in table form here.  My general opinion is that his argument should be completely convincing to anyone, as long as they have waffle batter where most of us have brains.

Here I thought that Comet Elenin had broken up and disintegrated, and I'd hoped that along with it the wingnuts who for some reason connected it with the Planet Nibiru, Mayan prophecy, the Rapture, and UFOs.  But I should know better by now.  It takes more than just some silly facts to dissuade these people.  I suspect that long after the shattered remnants of Elenin are once again winging their way into the cold darkness of outer space, they will still be blathering on about how it is about to "go into alignment" with the Sun and Orion's Belt, resulting in gravitational anomalies that will increase our likelihood of tripping over curbs.

It is, sadly, a waste of breath to explain to this bunch of clowns that if you have a system of nine planets (I'm still clinging desperately to the hope that the astronomers will give us back Pluto), a star, over a hundred moons, and probably thousands of asteroids, various combinations of them will always be "in alignment."  Couple that with the fact that the Earth has experienced 181 earthquakes above magnitude 6 thus far in 2011, and I could have found a nonexistent pattern without even breaking a sweat.  This might well explain Omerbashich's whine that his "scientific paper" has not received any attention from "mainstream scientists," who continue to "ignore this valuable warning tool."

None of this, however, is likely to make any difference to people who've already decided that a tiny, broken-up chunk of ice hurtling away from us in far-off space has something to do with what happens here on Earth.  It's all well and good for me to babble on, day after day, about causation/correlation issues, confirmation bias, and so on, but if you aren't willing to examine your favorite theory's assumptions -- whether it's astrology, homeopathy, astral projection, flower essences, or Comet Elenin -- none of it will make the slightest difference.

To quote Thomas Paine, "Arguing with someone who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Spirit guides and orgasms, or your money back!

This morning, I was sitting at my computer, drinking coffee and hoping that the caffeine would jumpstart my brain despite being awakened at 5:30 AM by my dogs, who definitely do not understand the concept of "the weekend," and I happened upon the following advertisement:

"The Unexplainable Store (TM) !  100% Guaranteed!  Altered State of Consciousness or YOUR MONEY BACK!!!"

Naturally, I had to click on the link, and it brought me here.

The homepage, as you may have just discovered, has dozens of little links with titles and cartoon images for things like the following:
  • Astral Projection
  • Lucid Dreaming
  • Remote Viewing
  • Past-life Regression
  • Spirit Guide Contact
  • Shaman Consciousness
  • Christ Consciousness
  • Immune System
  • Endorphin Release
  • Serotonin Release
  • Allergy Relief
  • DNA Stimulation
  • Fountain of Youth
  • Orgasms
(The last one's cartoon drawing is just some fireworks, so don't get your hopes up.)


To save you a little time, and countless valuable cells in your prefrontal cortex, let me tell you what you find if you click on the links.

Each one starts out with a brief description, basically telling the reader how nice it would be if you had a spirit guide, shaman consciousness, stimulated DNA, the knowledge of past lives, and so on.  They feature sentences such as the following:
Imagine a world where communication with the dead is possible.  What could we discover about others, and even ourselves?
and
How often do you use wisdom gained from your past to plan your future?  What if there were a whole other life filled with memories and experiences?  What would you be able to do with the added wisdom of a whole other life?
Now, when I first started clicking on these links, I expected each one to lead to a pitch for a different product, as allergy relief has little to do with (for example) orgasms.  But no, each one ultimately led to an advertisement for the following:
Binaural Beats- Sine wave generators are used to create two separate frequency waves, which are introduced to each ear independently. The brain reacts by creating a third tone, making up the difference of the two. It instantly reacts to these frequencies causing a Shift In Consciousness. Using this technology, your brain can be programmed to weed out interferences and open up the communication channels inside your mind that are blocked by your own consciousness. 

Isochronic Tones- If you are looking for the most effective type of brainwave entrainment, Isochronic Tones are the way to go. Isochronic Tones also use equal intensity tones, but the pulse speed is greater, causing the brain to synchronize with the rhythm.  In 1999, Thomas Budzynski Ph.D.  published a case in the Journal of Neurotherapy which showed that a group of 8 college students increased their GPA with the use of audio brainwave stimulation, and their GPA continued to increase even after the brainwave entrainment was finished...
In the realm where Alpha and Theta waves exist, creativity becomes infused with the deep subconscious thoughts that comprise our dreams.  In this state, the deepest and oldest thoughts manifest and are pushed into your consciousness, allowing you to finally understand things that may have been significant to you for several years without you even being aware.  Irrational behavior becomes crystal clear and transparent.  Your true motivations, fears, hopes, and dreams become clear so you can set out to become the person you really want to be!
And you can download both of these INSTANTLY for only $38!  ($14 for the "binaural beats" and $24 for the "isochronic tones;" no explanation for why the "binaural beats" are cheaper.)  They have a sample that you can listen to (only a 45-second clip, not enough to have a full past-life regression or anything), and my general reaction is that it sounds like someone playing New Age synthesizer music with a washing machine running in the background.

So, anyway, I'm thinking that if you are interested in contacting a spirit guide, or whatever, this probably isn't going to do it for you.  But I do encourage you to take a look at the site, and listen to the clip.  Let me know if it triggers you to experience some shaman consciousness, or to have a lucid dream.  If it makes you have an orgasm, however, that's between you and your "binaural beats."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pat Buchanan and the death of American culture

In his most recent column, "Is America Disintegrating?" (read the whole thing here), Pat Buchanan laments the passing of his vision of America.  No more, he says, are we a nation of a common blood, faith, language, history, customs and culture:
I argue that the America we grew up in is disintegrating, breaking apart along the fault lines of politics, race, ethnicity, culture and faith; that the centrifugal forces in society have now become the dominant forces...  We are not now and will not (in thirty years) be "descended from common ancestors."  We will consist of all the races, cultures, tribes and creeds of Earth — a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual stew of a nation that has never before existed, or survived...  The moral consensus and moral code Christianity gave to us has collapsed...  There was a time not so long ago when the nation was united on a common faith, morality, history, heroes, holidays, holy days, language and literature.  Now we fight over them all.
I question this on a variety of grounds.

First, his bemoaning of the increasing multiculturality of America ignores the fact that a little over a hundred years ago, a significant chunk of citizens -- including my wife's ancestors and my own -- did not speak English.  My ancestors spoke French -- both on my dad's side, where they were recent immigrants, and on my mom's, on which they had lived in North America since the 1600s and in what would become the United States since the 1780s, resisting the forces of assimilation and acculturation by sheer stubbornness.  My wife's ancestors spoke Yiddish, and maintained their cultural identity even in that enormous mixing vat that is New York City.  Far from threatening the fabric of American society, they enriched it.  And more of us today are of mixed ancestry -- of a really homogenized genetic background -- than ever before.

Second, and more importantly, Buchanan's idealization of life prior to the most recent influx of immigrants -- the apogee of the white middle class, the Leave It To Beaver squeaky-cleanness of the 1950s -- was hiding a good many ugly secrets.  The unity of a common set of morals, standards, language, and the rest came at a significant cost.  This "moral consensus" was at the root of the assumption of inferiority of those of other races and religions, leading within our borders to bigotry, persecution, and denial of basic rights to African Americans, and outside our borders to colonialism and exploitation.  It was at the root of "keeping women in their place," denying them the opportunities that men had in every venue.  It was the root of the demonization of those who were different -- of atheists, of homosexuals, even of free-thinking men and women who simply elected not to marry or pursue traditional careers.

Would you really return to the 50s?  Would you return to a time when being of a different race meant that you couldn't eat in the same restaurants, work in the same offices, even drink at the same water fountains as whites?  Would you return to a time when talented, brilliant women had only two choices -- to buck a system that was set up to keep them from succeeding in the career of their choice, or to cave in and become secretaries, lab assistants, or wives?   Would you return to a time when conformity was the gold standard for behavior?

I'm not saying that our society isn't facing problems.  I'm no sociologist, capable of teasing apart the causes of immigration (legal or otherwise) and proposing policy for governing our nation's response.  I understand that the changes we will undergo to respond to shifts in culture, language, and religion may well be painful and difficult.  I'm merely saying that this is hardly the first time we've had to face these kinds of problems, and that the shifts we've seen in morality since World War II have not all been negative.  Americans are freer now than they have ever been to express themselves, to pursue careers they find meaningful, to practice the religion of their choice -- or no religion at all.  Yes, there problems with poverty, crowding, and resources stretched too thin and too far.

But I think, to paraphrase Twain, that rumors of America's death will turn out to be vast exaggerations.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The paws that refresh us

New from the “You’ll Think I’m Joking, But I’m Not” department, news has just come in that the Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers, Massachusetts is offering a worship service for dogs.

The program, called the “Perfect Paws Pet Ministry,” is alleged by Reverend Thea Keith-Lucas to “give area pet owners a greater likelihood of their dogs going to heaven.”  Owners will receive communion at the service, and dogs will receive dog treats and blessings.  Barking will be allowed.

While this has all the hallmarks of a story from “The Onion,” I assure you that it’s 100% true.

You have to wonder what the bible reading is going to be.  Maybe a few verses from the Letter of St. Paul to the Dalmatians: “And the Lord said unto them, ‘To the Good Dogs shalt be given biscuits and squeaky toys and pats on the head, and there will be much wagging and playing of Fetch-the-Stick.  But unto the chewers of shoes, biters of mailmen, and those who pee on carpets shall be said, ‘No! No! Bad dog!’ and they shall they be cast out into the Back Yard, even if it be raining, and lo, there shall be no biscuits.’”

It’s not that I don’t understand the desire of pet owners to hang on to their pets.  If you believe in an afterlife, it’s kind of a sad prospect to think that you are going to live in eternal bliss, and Rocky the Black Lab just… won’t.  Many people feel as close to their pets as they do to their friends, and it’s natural to project onto them our hopes and fears for the future, and to want for them what we want for ourselves.

It does open up some potentially iceberg-strewn theological waters, however.  If we decide that dogs have an eternal soul, then what about other animals?   I own two dogs and two cats, and I can state that from my perspective, the cats’ niche in the religious world seems to fall more into the “Possessed by Evil Spirits” category.  But if pets, why not other animals?  Do cows have an eternal soul?  What about pigeons?  What about slugs?  I don’t know about you, but if there are Japanese beetles in the gardens of heaven, I’d have second thoughts about going there.

The other problem I have with all of this is one that I have with a lot of religious thought, and that’s the idea that because something appeals to you, it’s likely to be true.  A friend of mine once told me, “I can’t imagine a universe where there was no god to guide things and give purpose to life.”  Well, it may well be true that you can’t imagine it, but I can’t see that that has the least bearing on whether or not god actually exists.  Honestly, I’ve found that there seems to be little to no correlation between my finding an idea appealing and its being true.  So it may seem sad to picture heaven without dogs, but it’s hard to see how that has any impact on (1) whether heaven exists, and (2) if it exists, whether dogs are allowed or not.

On the other hand, like many things, I suppose that attending a worship service with your dog isn’t doing any harm, even if the basic theological underpinnings of the idea are a little shaky.  So, if it makes you happy, by all means bring Rex along to church with you.  If it gives him some encouragement to be a Good Dog, all the better.  Me, I think I’ll stay home until Reverend Keith-Lucas hosts a Rite of Exorcism for the cats.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Atheism, morality, and Newt Gingrich

In the Republican debate Tuesday night, Newt Gingrich made clear his views that an atheist does not belong in a position of public trust.

"How can you have judgment if you have no faith?" he said.  "How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?  The notion that you are endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America."  On other occasions, he has stated that he fears a "secular atheist America," dominated by people for whom "morality means nothing," and who have "no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."

My response:  How dare you question my morality, you smug, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious prick.

The charge that atheists have no moral compass is one I hear levied all too often.  If you don't acknowledge a deity, what's stopping you from lying, stealing, cheating on your significant other?  Your morals must be arbitrary, a thing of convenience that will slip the first time they're pressed hard.

In point of fact, there's no such correlation.  I defy you to show evidence that atheists are any more likely to act immorally or unethically than the religious.  And actually, if you look at the last few years' worth of American political scandals, nearly all of the culprits have been amongst self-professed Christians.  (Of course, that may be because the distrust the general public has for atheists makes it damn near impossible for people to get elected unless they espouse some form of theism, so I'll admit that it's a skewed sample.)

You have to wonder, given that we don't think there's Somebody watching us, keeping track of every time we transgress, why we atheists aren't running around, wreaking havoc, committing immoral acts right and left.  I can't answer for anyone but myself, but for me, it's because correct moral action is what gives society cohesiveness.  I act morally because it makes my family life run happily, and it gives my children a role model for growing up to act the same way.  It makes me a valued part of my community.  It gives me pleasure to be known as someone who is ethical, who considers others' needs and desires as equivalent to my own.

Far from devaluing my morals, my lack of belief in an invisible supreme authority makes them nobler.  I act morally because I choose to, because it's the right thing to do -- not because I'm under threat from some all-powerful Cosmic Gatekeeper.

And what about you, Newt?  Where has your high-flung, god-given morality gotten you?  Oh, yeah, I believe you're the one who is on his third wife, after having cheated on the first two (cheating on the first one while she was undergoing chemotherapy, as I recall?).  And when the facts of the matter became public, you admitted it -- and then said, "There's no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

So, let me get this straight; you cheated on your wife because you were passionate about America?  You were sitting there in your office one day, and thought, "Man, I've been working hard to keep the country that I love functioning.  I think I'll run right out and have an affair!"

So, I'll reiterate; until you can demonstrate that your ethical standards are superior to my own, don't try to claim that we atheists are destroying the moral fiber of America.  You smug, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious prick.

Oh, yeah, and "arrogant."  I forgot "arrogant."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Good vibrations

As if we didn't have enough to worry about, what with the world ending on Friday (recall that October 21, 2011 is Harold Camping's revised date for the Rapture, given that it didn't happen the other two times he's predicted it), the Blue Aliens descending upon us on June 21, 2012, and the world ending again on December 21, 2012, now we have to worry about the Earth being bombarded by "4th dimensional energy" on November 11, 2011.

It is, says noted wackmobile Alfred Lambremont Webre, not a coincidence that this will all happen on 11-11-11.  Despite the fact that most of us just figure that going through November 11 is the most convenient way to get to November 12, Webre thinks this has colossal significance.  Why?  Because, of course, he was told about it by a representative of the Galactic Governance Council, an alien named "Tolec."

Here's what Tolec told Webre, and I quote this directly from his website.  Webre's, not Tolec's.
The official beginning of 4th dimensional energy will affect Earth's solar system on 11.11.11 as it encounters the galactic equatorial plane region - as a universe & galactic wide harmonic frequency - will open and affect this whole area of space. The saturation of this higher frequency energetic vibration will continue through all of 2012, reaching full strength during the time frame of December 2012, through March 2013 when the final rotation of the 90 degree shift of Earth's crust happens with the present day East/West orientation of the continents moving into their new North/South orientation.
Which should make total sense to you, as long as you've spent the last half-hour doing sit-ups under parked cars.

Me, I'm pretty upset about the whole geographical shifting thing.  I have a hard enough time finding my way around as it is, being that I was seemingly born without a sense of direction.  If all this crust-rotation stuff happens, and Canada ends up west of us, Louisiana east of us, and so forth, I'm probably just going to give up and never leave home. 

The good news, Tolec says, is that if we can make it through all the cosmic wackiness and shifting around of the Earth's land masses, then we will settle down into our new "4th dimensional vibration existence" by January 2014, at which point we will all be offered an "opportunity to evolve."  I don't know about you, but I want to evolve wings.  Great big feathery wings, like a giant falcon, so I could fly to work and avoid the traffic.  It might be hard to find shirts to fit, but I'm willing to take that risk.

In any case, we will all have to make a bunch of adjustments to being 4th dimensional.  Tolec says that amongst the things we'll have to get used to is 4th dimensional money, because "there won't be any."  This seems unfortunate, but not really all that different from what most of us are dealing with already.  On the brighter side, we will be able to teleport, and use telepathy.  He also said that we'll have to get used to having "4th dimensional sex," which sounds like it could be fun.  I was disappointed not to get any further details on this point, so I can only speculate that it will have to do with giving a somewhat new twist on the what Tolec said about "energetic vibration."

Be that as it may, it'll give us all something to look forward to, if we can make it through all of the other stuff that probably isn't going to happen first.  At least this sounds like more fun than Camping's predictions of the unholy being roasted on Satan's George Foreman Grill.  Given that I'm clearly one of the unholy, I think I'll opt for wings, telepathy, and 4th dimensional sex instead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Today's sermon: justifying genocide

I find it simultaneously amazing and appalling the lengths to which fundamentalist Christians will go to defend the bible.  And I’m not even talking here about my usual subject for ranting, the astonishing, evidence-defying circular reasoning that it takes to accept the creation myth over the theory of evolution.

I’m thinking about other parts of the bible, the exhortations to violence by “the god of love” – from execution by stoning for minor offenses (such as collecting firewood on the sabbath), to treatment of women (if a woman was raped, and would not marry the man who had violated her, she was stoned to death), up to and including genocide (as only one of many examples, consider the lovely passage from 1 Samuel 15:3 which reads, "Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.  But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.").

Then there’s Psalm 137, which includes the charming lines, "O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us!  Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!"

Initially, I thought that most fundamentalists must be unaware of these lines.  After all, how many people, even devout Christians, read the bible that thoroughly?  I grew up in a traditional Catholic parish, and when (as a teenager) I started to actually read the whole bible rather than just the selected passages we got in mass on Sunday, I was astonished at how much there was in the bible that the priest wasn’t telling us.  His sermons revolved around only a handful of Old Testament stories, some of the nicer psalms and more edifying bits of history, and of course vignettes from Jesus’ life and various bits and pieces of Paul’s letters.  But there was a lot in there I hadn't realized, including some seriously weird stuff.  Who knew that it was a sin to wear cloth made of two different kinds of thread woven together?  I didn’t, until I read Leviticus.  Then there is the bad acid trip that is the Book of Revelation (the evangelicals love that book, but the Catholics seem to be mostly embarrassed by it.)  But it wasn't the goofy or trippy passages that bugged me; being Catholic, no one was asking me to accept the bible as literal, factual truth.  Out of it all, it was the violence that appalled me the most.  "Does the priest even know about all of this stuff?" I remember asking myself.  If he did, he certainly didn’t talk about it much.

Tragically, it appears that I was giving the Christians far too much credit.  It’s not a matter of ignorance over what their own scripture says; they know about it, all right, and what’s worse, they embrace it.  "The Amalekites deserved it," said one person, on an internet discussion group.  "They were evil people.  They sacrificed children, they practiced bestiality.  The bible says so.  That’s why god ordered their destruction."

So, let me get this straight; because they occasionally sacrificed one of their own children, god told the Israelites to go and kill all of them, including the children?  This is supposed to make sense?

What the Israelites did to the people of Canaan, Amalek, and various other Middle Eastern civilizations is the same thing as what Hitler tried to do to the Jews.  So why is one an atrocity and the other the justifiable command of god?  I’m sorry, genocide is genocide, whether it’s committed by a megalomaniac or by someone who was ordered to do so by his Invisible Friend.

You would think that today’s devout Jews would at least get that point right, considering what they went through only seventy years ago.  You, sadly, would be wrong.  I was beyond appalled when I found an article in which a Jewish writer actively defended the actions of the Israelites against Amalek and Canaan (this story is part of the Torah as well as the Christian Old Testament).  The author states, apparently with a straight face, “As opposed to other religions, Judaism never pursued a religious crusade to impose on others its beliefs,” and goes on to describe how the Israelites destroyed all of the neighboring tribes because they were pagans.   The passage ends with the nearly unbelievable line, “Tell me if you find any benevolent parallel in our entire human history!…  Was there ever a war fought with such high standards?”

High standards, my ass.  If you accept the biblical account of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and religious zealotry as high standards, as the basis of our morality, I want to know what the hell we have against Al Qaeda, which seems to operate by much the same principles.  Or does the “god of love” now consider the Americans “his chosen people,” casting the whole rest of the world in the role of the Amalekites and Canaanites?

How far we’ve come in three thousand years.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Psychic vampire attack

Are you feeling run down lately?  Low in energy?  Does the face that greets you in the bathroom mirror in the morning look pale and tired?  Is it hard to make it through the working day?

You might be experiencing stress, or maybe you need more sleep.  You might have some kind of physical condition causing your fatigue, and need a visit to your doctor.

Then again, maybe you're just the victim of an Energy Vampire.

I didn't know about Energy Vampires until I was sent a link by a loyal reader, who said, "Get a load of this."  At first I was expecting more nonsense about people who are way too much into Twilight, but then I was sent to the website of Dr. Bruce Goldberg (here).  The website goes into great detail, not about blood drinking monsters, but about people who extract the energy from people around them.  At first I thought he was speaking metaphorically; we've all known people who are demanding, exhausting, draining of energy.

But no.  Dr. Goldberg thinks that there are people who can literally, honestly suck out your energy.

For those of you who would rather not risk having your energy drained by even reading this stuff, Dr. Goldberg classifies Energy Vampires into five types: the Paranoid Type, the Ethereal Type, the Insecure Type, the Passive-Aggressive Type, and the Robot Type.  Each of them, however, is a "psychic parasite," capable of "initiating a psychic attack" on you, resulting in your "psychic energy" being depleted.  The only option is to avoid any kind of contact, especially physical, with these people.

Then, I found that Dr. Goldberg's stuff is only scratching the surface.  It gets way more ridiculous than that.  The Psychic Vampire Resource and Support Page (here) contains links to literally dozens of sites that go into tremendous detail about Energy Vampires, who, they say, are people "who can't create their own energy" and so need to drain energy from others.  Some Energy Vampires are more benevolent of nature, and simply go around and handle objects that ordinary people have handled, subsisting on traces of used energy left behind, sort of like a psychic version of the folks who feel compelled to frequent garage sales.  But others, apparently, prefer fresh energy straight from the source, and will try to touch you so as to establish a "psychic link," and then they feed on your energy, leaving you listless and depressed.

Then, there's the Vampirism and Energy Work Research Study (here), which has enormous amounts of data, including pie charts and bar graphs, detailing the responses to questions like "Do you consider yourself a sanguinarian, psychic, or hybrid vampire?" and "What blood substitutes do you use when you can't feed on real blood?"  And thousands of people responded to these surveys. 

I don't know about you, but this worries me.  I'm willing to believe that at least some of these people (1) participated because they thought it was funny, or (2) belong to the aforementioned Twilight fan club, but that still leaves at least a few people who really, honestly think they're vampires.

And my general response to that is, "You people are loons."

So once again, we're up against a phenomenon that seems to skirt the line between role playing and insanity.  As I've mentioned before, I don't want to be perceived as ridiculing someone who is mentally ill, so I'll just end by saying: Dear vampires, psychic or otherwise: I don't think you want my energy.  My energy is probably all sour and thin from the fact that I don't get nearly enough sleep, so I'm sure you wouldn't enjoy it much anyway.  If you're really desperate, however, you can come by and touch my mailbox, which probably has traces of my psychic energy on the handle.  That way, you wouldn't need to get out of your car, or actually even come to a complete stop.  Thank you.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Avataricide

In news of people taking revenge in odd ways, a woman in Japan is currently in jail after killing her ex-husband's character in an online role playing game.

That's right.  She didn't kill her actual husband; she got into his virtual reality game, called "Maple Story," and killed his online "avatar" -- the individual in the game who represents the player.

Apparently these sorts of games are extremely popular.  Who knew?  I am, as I have mentioned previously, a techno-Neanderthal, and while I had some vague idea that such games existed, I didn't know how common (nor how elaborate) they are.  In "Maple Story" you can form relationships with other players' avatars -- in fact, you can even get married there.  As with many role-playing games, each player has a career -- teacher, military leader, magician, elf, and so on. 

And I thought, "'Elf' is a career?  Why didn't anyone in the Career Counseling Center at my college tell me this thirty years ago?  Here I am being Bill Nye the Science Guy when I could have been Legolas."

In any case, once you've selected your career, you proceed to interact with other characters, forming alliances and having relationships, all the while battling evil and defending your territory against the onslaught of monsters. 

It did momentarily occur to me that if what you really enjoy is the idea that you are a valiant warrior defending the world from the Evil Monsters from the Outside Lands, it'd be simpler and easier just to join the Republican Party.  Then I realized that being from Japan, perhaps this option did not appeal to him.

But I digress.

So, anyhow, this fellow in Japan was a devoted "Maple Story" player, and he described his online persona as his "beloved avatar."  And when his wife discovered that he was cheating on her (for real, I presume, not just in "Maple Story") his wife got into his game, and killed his character.

If I belonged to law enforcement, and a man came up to me asking me to arrest his wife because he'd cheated on her and she'd responded by killing his online avatar, my exact response would have been: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  I'm just compassionate that way.

But no; in the actual case, police were sent out, and they arrested the woman.  She is currently facing charges of hacking, which in Japan could potentially carry a five-year jail sentence.

Now, let's be clear on this; she has not harmed, nor even threatened to harm, her actual real ex-husband.  She is being jailed for killing a character in a game, despite the fact that the character is not in fact a real live human.

This last point seems to have been lost on Japanese legal officials.  I seriously doubt that laws against hacking were put in place to prevent two overgrown ten-year-olds from "killing" each other's computer-generated imaginary friends.  You would think, in these days of computer piracy, stolen identities, viruses, and the tsunami of spam that clogs all our bandwidth, that the people in charge would have better things to do than to jail a woman who has basically done the equivalent of an elementary school bully stomping on another kid's teddy bear.

Now, I think that as far as most things go, the Japanese seem like a fairly sensible people, and I'll bet this woman is freed with a slap on the wrist ("you go and apologize to him RIGHT now and don't you DARE do that again!") within a few days.  But it still highlights a couple of interesting facts about humanity, to wit: (1) some people take role-playing games WAY too seriously, and (2) you need to be nice on the playground or you can get into some serious trouble, even as an adult.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Allergic to nuts

My loyal readers will no doubt recall that last week, I finally caved in, and decided to see an acupuncturist for my arthritis.

Feeling almost like I was doing something illicit, I called the acupuncturist who was recommended by a couple of friends, and made an appointment.  I had a nice chat over the phone with her assistant, who mentioned that she would be doing some "allergy screening" on me while I was there, just to rule out a dietary cause for my sore joints, and I said that was fine -- briefly wondering how an acupuncturist could test for allergies.  The assistant said she'd send me some literature on their technique, along with a health questionnaire, and I agreed to see them this coming Thursday.

Yesterday, the literature arrived in the mail, and I began to read about NAET -- Nambudripad's Allergy Elimination Technique.

The story is that an Indian physician, Deva Nambudripad, had discovered a revolutionary new way to diagnose and treat allergies, because of experiences she'd had regarding her own health problems.  She'd suffered from devastating physical issues since childhood, she said, sometimes hurting so badly she couldn't get out of bed for weeks at a time.  She lived, she said, on "water and broccoli," the only things she could consume without causing a severe reaction.  She took "thirty aspirin tablets a day."  Finally, having somehow become a trained medical professional despite all this, she decided to give herself an acupuncture treatment while holding a carrot, a food she was violently allergic to.  After the acupuncture treatment, she found she was no longer allergic to carrots.

She then found out she could diagnose allergies merely by seeing how people responded while holding particular food items.  If you were allergic to, say, apples, if you had an apple in your hand, your body would sense the "energy blockage" caused by your attempt to "reject the harmful apple," and this would screw up your energy meridians and cause muscle weakness.  So by having a person clasp her hand while holding an apple in the other hand, she could see if they were allergic to apples.

Then it got even weirder.

It was inconvenient to have lots of apples, potatoes, and cheese around, not to mention slabs of fish and hunks of beef, in order to test your patients.  In short order your office would reek of rotting food, which would cause a different kind of reaction, namely, puking.  So Nambudripad decided to take vials of water, and "charge the water with the energy frequency of the food item."  Now, all you have to do is hold a vial of water that is vibrating with, say, the frequency of a chicken, and try to contract your muscles, and the practitioner can tell if you're allergic to chicken.

I'm reading all this stuff, and thinking, "I actually signed up for this?  This person sounds like a nut."  And I'm beginning to have second thoughts.  And third and fourth ones, too.  And then I got to the part where it said that in order to achieve a cure, you have to have an average of fifty visits.  And also that a responsible practitioner will attempt to do "preventative cures" -- to treat you for allergies you don't even have yet.  (If you are curious, or think I'm making all this up, check out NAET's official website.)

At $100 each, and not, I hardly need to add, covered by health insurance.

That's when I called and cancelled my appointment.

I'm willing to try acupuncture, I really am.  But c'mon, people.  Vials of energy-infused water?  That's worse than homeopathy, because at least the homeopaths say you have to consume the water, while here, all you do is hold a glass vial of it in your hand, and somehow the bad energy frequencies cross through the glass and into your hand.  And I just don't buy the whole story of her health problems being cured miraculously.  For one thing, thirty aspirin tablets a day?  At an average per-tablet dosage, that's 9,000 mg of aspirin a day, which is damn near the lethal dose, according to WebMD.com.  The whole thing rings false to me.

So I just can't make myself go through with it.  Not even one appointment.  And it's not just the money.  Several of my coworkers were crowing with delight when I told them about this, and no doubt will be devastated when I tell them that I chickened out.  I think they were enjoying the mental image of me sitting there on the examining table, blindfolded, handling vial after vial of water labeled "quiche" and "bacon cheeseburger" and "refried beans" while the practitioner checks to see if my arm muscles went limp.  If I did exhibit muscle weakness, I suspect it'd be from the mental strain of not making snarky comments.

I'm afraid I can't allow my coworkers that degree of schadenfreude at my expense.  I may try to find a different acupuncturist, but I draw the line at NAET.  For the time being, I'll put up with the stiff joints, which seems like a decent trade-off for keeping my self-respect.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dear Ann: shut up.

So now Ann Coulter has taken time out from her busy schedule of claiming that everyone who doesn't agree with her has the IQ of library paste, and is weighing in on the idea of biological evolution.

For those of you who would prefer not to kill off massive quantities of brain cells by reading her absurd rant (here), allow me to present the main points in her column, none of which I am making up:

1)  The most detailed defense of evolution in a quarter-century in popular media occurred when a nine-year-old boy stood up at a Rick Perry rally and said "I believe in evolution."

2)  There are no transitional fossils.

3)  Evolutionists believe that bears turned into whales and squirrels turned into bats.

4)  There are no transitional fossils.

5)  During the Cambrian Explosion, the eye materialized, fully formed, presumably in some previously blind animal, who must have been surprised as hell when it happened.

6)  There are no transitional fossils.

7)  Dr. David Raup, geologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, believes that evolution is incorrect because the evolutionary tree of horses had to be significantly revised.

8)  Oh, and also: there are no transitional fossils.

Okay, let me address these one at a time.

There have been plenty of cogent arguments for evolution presented in the media in the last 25 years.  Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Eugenie Scott, P. Z. Myers, Barbara Forrest, Kenneth Miller -- the list goes on and on.  If Coulter could only find "a nine-year-old boy" as evolution's best exponent, she must not have been looking very hard.

No one, including evolutionists, thinks that bears turned into whales, nor squirrels into bats.  First, all four of those are modern animal groups; this would be like saying you are the great-grandparent of someone your own age.  Second, bears (Order Carnivora) and whales (Order Cetacea) are quite distantly related, as are squirrels (Order Rodentia) and bats (Order Chiroptera).  She basically picked pairs of relatively unrelated mammals, made the (false) statement that evolutionists claimed one was "turning into" the other, and used that to discredit the entire model.  I wonder if she's ever heard of the "Straw Man" fallacy?

The evolution of the eye, far from being a sudden appearance, shows a nice progression between a simple, light-sensing eyespot, to a cup-shaped parabolic light catcher, to a partly-enclosed sphere like a pinhole camera, to a fully-closed eye like our own.  The anti-evolutionists really need to find a new example of something the evolutionists haven't explained, because this one's getting old.

David Raup is a thoroughgoing evolutionist, and has written a number of papers on the subject of vertebrate paleontology and the role of extinctions in evolution.  His comment about the revision of the horse clade was taken out of context, another thing that Coulter seems to excel at.

Oh, and also: there are transitional fossils.  Tens of thousands of them.

The ignorance demonstrated in this article is only exceeded by the general nastiness Coulter exhibits.  I always come away from reading her columns feeling like I need to take a shower.  To wit, the last paragraph:
Intelligent design scientists look at the evidence and develop their theories; Darwinists start with a theory and then rearrange the evidence. These aren't scientists. They are religious fanatics for whom evolution must be true so that they can explain to themselves why they are here, without God.
I find it astonishing that there is any news outlet that is willing to print her obnoxious, fact-free screeds, much less why anyone would want to read them.  Of course, if she was turned down for publication, it wouldn't be because she'd written vitriolic garbage; it would be because the liberal media was trying to squelch her views.

So, a brief, personal note: Ann, do shut up.  You're out of your element, and frankly, you're embarrassing yourself.  Go back to subjects you're more comfortable with, such as how all liberals hate America, and leave the factual stuff to people who actually understand it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The psychology of drink-holding

I've spent a lot of time on this blog pointing fingers at the media for their inept, sensationalized portrayal of science, and at the general public for their appallingly low understanding of how science works.  In the interest of honesty, however, I have to admit that sometimes the fault lies with the scientists themselves.

Take the recently-released study by Dr. Glenn Wilson, of King's College, London, which ties your personality to how you hold your drink in a bar.

Wilson, who apparently has done some reasonably good research in the psychology of personality, has now written a paper classifying people into eight basic personality types, based on observing them holding drinks (and then following it up with a short debriefing to determine their personality).  After observing people in a London pub, he came up with the following basic personality types: The Flirt, The Gossip, The Ice Queen, The Browbeater, Jack-the-Lad, The Funlover, The Wallflower, and The Playboy.  (For information on how each of them holds a drink, see a more complete description of the types here.)

My response: even the freakin' astrologers divide all of humanity up into twelve types (thirteen, if you count the new zodiac sign of Ophiucus).  You're saying there's only eight basic types of human?

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time that some psychological researcher or another has dramatically oversimplified human personality.  But there are two further problems with this "study;" it was written after observing only 500 people, without any sort of thought given to controls, even simple things like age, cultural background, and socioeconomic status.  And...

... Wilson was sponsored to do it by Walkabout Bars.

Yup.  We now have corporate sponsorship for writing science.  Next thing you know, Walt Disney is going to be demanding that we include a mention of "magic" in elementary science textbooks.

And despite all this, Wilson's "study" made the "science section" of a variety of news outlets, because it was Done By A Scientist.  Never mind that the whole "study" is methodologically flawed, and honestly, just kind of ridiculous.  And, because it was in the science section, people will probably believe it.  Folks will now be looking around them at bars, and thinking, "Wow, that woman is drinking wine with the glass held in front of her.  She is an Ice Queen, and will be Ready With A Castrating Put-Down.  I'd better not talk to her."  Which is still one step worse than astrology, because in order to find out what someone's sign is, at least you actually have to speak to them.

Of course, despite all this, I had to look at the "archetypes" and figure out what I am.  So I looked through the descriptions.  There was some mention in the media of people who do odd stuff -- one article I looked at specifically mentioned Hilary Clinton, who is right-handed but sometimes picks up her glass with her left hand, and this means she's "insincere."  And I thought: I do that all the time.  I mostly use my right hand, but I always put my drink on the left.  I just thought it was because I liked to be able to hold my beer and a slice of pizza at the same time, but no, apparently it means I can't be trusted.

As far as pub-drinking style, I clearly fall into the "Jack-the-Lad" category.  I often lean way back, but keep my hand on my beer bottle, unless I'm on a bar stool with no back, because then I'd fall over backwards, which would clearly classify me as "Jack-the-Dork."  Let's see the description of "Jack-the-Lad:"
The Jack the Lad: This "peacock" is conscious of his image and will drink a bottled beer, or cider. Inclined to be confident and arrogant, he can be territorial in his gestures, spreading himself over as much space as possible, for example, pushing the glass well away from himself and leaning back in his chair. If he's drinking with his mates, he would be unlikely to welcome approaches from outside the group, unless sycophantic and ego-enhancing.
Oh, yeah, that's me, all right.  If you're going to come up to a peacock like myself, you damn well better be sycophantic and ego-enhancing.  Hell yeah.  So you can just take your Wallflower self and go over there and talk to the Playboy over there.  Maybe he'll be more receptive to having you in his Territory.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

UFO Phil, performance art, and insanity

Most people my age remember Andy Kaufman, the comedian and performance artist whose most famous role was the deadpan, heavily-accented foreigner Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi.  Kaufman was famous for publicity stunts that left people uncertain as to whether he was (1) the most brilliant comedian ever, (2) doing outrageous things just to prove that he could, or (3) insane.  An example is when, during a performance at Carnegie Hall,  he invited the entire audience out for milk and cookies - and called out for twenty buses, which duly arrived, bringing as many people as wished to a local bakery.  Afterwards, he said he was done for the evening, but would continue the performance the next morning on the Staten Island Ferry -- which he did.  On another occasion, he told an audience that he wasn't going to do any standup that night, he was going to read to them from The Great Gatsby.  After twenty minutes of reading, when people started to leave, he asked the audience if they'd prefer to hear a record -- when someone shouted "yes," he put on a record.  Which was a recording of him reading The Great Gatsby.

His blurring of the line between performance and reality was so complete that some of his fans believe he faked his own death (of a rare form of cancer, in 1974 at the age of 35), even claiming that he lost weight in order to make his illness look real.  And while I don't actually think this is true, it's not that far out of the realm of possibility, considering some of the other stuff he did.

In writing this blog, I often have to try to discern whether people are "for real" -- if they really, honestly, think that they have evidence for whatever damnfool thing they're claiming, or whether they're just trying to get attention... or if they're just insane.  Because, honestly, I'm only interested in the first one.  I don't want to play into something that's just a premeditated publicity stunt, nor put myself in the position of ridiculing someone who actually needs psychiatric help.  But just as in Kaufman's case, it's hard to tell, sometimes.

Enter "UFO Phil."

UFO Phil has spent the last fifteen years organizing events designed to create awareness about the aliens who, he claims, are visiting us all the time.  He is planning a "Live Concert for Extraterrestrials" on July 21, 2012, the day that the aliens will arrive "as predicted by the Mayans."  These will be the "good aliens" -- they're blue, he says, and bad aliens are red.  And far from heralding the end of the world, the blue aliens will bring "the secrets of advanced medicine, new technology, and a new calendar."

Thank heaven for the latter.  Because I hate it when your old calendar runs out and you don't have a replacement.

UFO Phil's latest stunt is that he wants to build a pyramid on Alcatraz Island as a refueling station for aliens.  Pyramids, he says, generate beams of energy, especially ones built using the "secret blueprints and schematics" he has, which were given to him by incredibly advanced beings from another galaxy.  He says that the pyramid has to be 755 feet across at the base, which will cause him to run into problems right from the get-go because Alcatraz Island is only 600 feet across.  No problem, says Phil; he's going to support the base of the pyramid with underwater pylons until he can "make the island bigger."

And given that you never know when you're gonna run out of gas, he wants to build another, smaller pyramid near the "Hollywood" sign in the hills above Los Angeles.

Government land management agencies who maintain the land around the sign say they know nothing about any such plans.  And the National Park Service, which oversees Alcatraz, didn't even bother to comment when contacted by reporters.

So, which is it?  Is UFO Phil a publicity hound, a nut who needs some psychiatric evaluation, or a true believer?  See what I mean about it being hard to tell?  It's especially hard with the latter two -- at what point does a belief in something bizarre cross the line into an actual psychological condition?

The cynical part of me tends to think that Phil is just a guy who likes to be in the spotlight, and has found a way to get notoriety by proposing ridiculous stuff.  But there's something about him that seems awfully... earnest.  Take a look at his website (here) -- although you might want to wear noise-cancelling headphones, because his homepage now has an automatically launched song of his called "Gravity," which might well rival Rebecca Black's "Friday" as being the most annoying song ever recorded.  Check out his various pages and links, and let me know what you think.  Is he a brilliant performance artist, or a nut?  Or like Andy Kaufman, someone for whom the lines are so blurred that it's impossible to tell?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Putting Christ back in... Halloween?

In a recent post, I described how Pat Robertson and other evangelicals are stepping up the pressure on Christians to discourage them and their children from participating in Halloween, an event that they see as celebrating Satan.  Some of the devout even believe that demonic curses can be transmitted via Halloween candy.  This has made the candy manufacturers sit back, in the fashion of Jabba the Hutt, and say, "Your fundamentalist mind-tricks will not work on us.  Bo shuda."  And then they take a shot of insulin.

Most of the rest of us just seem to find the whole thing unintentionally hilarious.

All this hoopla has resulted in the evangelicals fighting back, and their response, which I am not making up, is called "JesusWeen."  At first I thought, especially given the, um, awkward-sounding name, that this was some sort of parody site meant to ridicule the fear-mongering, but it seems to be entirely serious.  Meant to encourage Christians to do something more than hiding inside and locking the doors on Halloween, JesusWeen suggests some bold and pro-active steps, to wit:
  • handing out bibles, scripture verses, or Christian teaching CDs instead of candy;
  • putting up signs in your town, encouraging people to give up participating in Halloween;
  • having prayer circles with neighborhood children instead of joining in trick-or-treating;
  • and going door-to-door on Halloween night, evangelizing and trying to get the demonic-candy purveyors to see the error of their ways.
All of which seems like a good way to have people lock their doors when they see you coming.

However medieval their beliefs seem to be, no one can accuse these folks of being in the Dark Ages with respect to electronic networking.  They have a JesusWeen chat, are on Twitter (@JesusWeen), have several videos on YouTube, and have a Facebook page (here).  They seem quite optimistic -- their Facebook message says, "Jesus Ween (Oct 31st) is expected to become the most effective Christian outreach day ever and that's why we also call it 'World Evangelism JesusWeen Venue: In Every Country, Every City, Every Street, Every Home.'"

I dunno.  That seems kind of like wishful thinking to me.  I'm doubting that Christian teaching CDs are ever going to be the draw for kids that candy is.  My guess is that no one who wasn't already a believer is going to have some kind of epiphany because of JesusWeen, and once you get a reputation for inviting trick-or-treating kids into your house for a prayer circle, you probably won't be getting many visitors on Halloween night, except maybe the police.

So, that's the news from the evangelical movement.  Like I said in my previous post, you gotta admire these people for their consistency -- once they decide something, they follow through.  I almost hope that we have some show up at our door on Halloween night, just for the amusement value.  Maybe I'll hand out Richard Dawkins books.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The troubles of Psychic Sally

In what is certain to draw the attention of both skeptics and paranormal enthusiasts worldwide, "Psychic Sally" Morgan has announced that she is suing the journalist who released that story that she had cheated in a Dublin "reading" by having an earpiece through which she was being fed information by accomplices.

This, to me, seems like thin ice for Morgan.  A libel suit, as far as I understand it, can only succeed if it can be established that a false claim was made in print, which was intended to make the victim look bad.  For example, if someone wrote, "Gordon Bonnet is a complete moron about mechanical devices.  It is surprising he knows which end of the key to stick into the ignition of his car," I would be unlikely to win a libel suit, because I am in fact a moron with respect to machines.  I'm the one who called in our Technical Support guy at school to fix my document projector, because the lights mysteriously wouldn't turn on, and the mystery was cleared up when the Technical Support guy pointed out that this is typical when the switch that says "Lights" is set to the "Off" position.

Be that as it may, it would seem to me that in order for Psychic Sally to win, she would have to establish that she is actually capable of doing a "psychic reading" without assistance, and that could make for some interesting court proceedings.  Since the word that was bandied about in this case was "fraud," it looks like she might be called upon to prove that she's not one.  I wonder how that would work?

Attorney for the journalists:  "Ms. Morgan, can you answer the question that I'm thinking right now?"

Psychic Sally's attorney:  "Objection, your honor."

Judge:  "On what grounds?"

Psychic Sally's attorney:  "The hostile atmosphere in this courtroom is interfering with the psychic energy fields, and preventing my client from achieving interconnectedness in the spirit world.  I request that all further questions be asked aloud."

Judge:  "Sustained."

In any case, it should be interesting to watch.  I think, however, that the one who has the most to lose by this move is Psychic Sally herself; it's not like most people who go to psychic readings are all that concerned about hard evidence anyhow, because if they were they wouldn't be there in the first place.  If she'd just ignored the accusations of fraud, I bet that after a short downswing, Psychic Sally would be right back in business, drawing in the crowds, and the whole thing would have blown over.

Now, though, she's drawing more attention to the claims, and you have to wonder if it might not backfire on her.  She might want to recall the tragic example of Oscar Wilde, who sued the Marquess of Queensberry for defamation after Queensberry claimed that Wilde was gay.  The resulting trial unearthed conclusive evidence that Wilde was, in fact, gay, and this resulted in Wilde himself being arrested for "gross indecency." 

So Morgan might want to tread lightly, here.  In her position, I think that I'd probably lay low, given the public ridicule that could follow an unsuccessful libel suit.  But that's just me.  Maybe "Psychic Sally" already knows that she'll win, or something, or is planning on using telepathy to influence the judge.  In any case, it should be interesting, and I plan on keeping you updated on further developments as they occur.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The attack of the sky jellyfish

After recent posts about the state of education in the United States, the role of religion in politics, and the validity of non-Western approaches to medicine, it's high time we turn our eyes to more serious and pressing topics, namely:  giant invisible sky monsters terrorizing Japan.

Enter Brent Swancer, writer for the site Cryptomundo.  Cryptomundo is not only one of the world's leading sources for breaking news regarding creatures that probably don't exist, it is also one of the only places where you can buy a Sasqwatch, which is a wristwatch with a band shaped like a huge, hairy foot, and has a Bigfoot on the dial whose arms move to tell you the time.  I must point out at this juncture that my birthday is coming up soon, and I don't currently own a Sasqwatch.  So if you're looking for ideas, you might want to take that into consideration.

Be that as it may, Swancer has written an exposé regarding recent events in Japan, and it makes quite a story.  His article (which you can read in its entirety here) describes the upswing in weird events following the Japanese tsunami.  These include "strange flying anomalies" of various shapes.  Swancer looks first at the idea that these might be alien spacecraft, but then dismisses that notion; just because you see something odd in the sky, he says, you shouldn't jump to the conclusion that they're aliens.  No, you should jump to an entirely different conclusion: that they're giant flying monsters.

Wait, you may be saying; why, if there are giant flying monsters up there in the air, don't we see them more often?  Well, first, they fly so high that they usually can't be seen from the ground.  Second, they can "adjust their density from almost immaterial and invisible to more solid, depending on as yet unknown factors."  As proof, he then shows a series of photographs, some of which are oddly-shaped clouds, and the rest of which even I, with my limited technical expertise, could create from a photograph of the sky given five minutes of playing around with the "Distort" function on PhotoShop.  Here is an example:



He says this is, quote, "Some sort of sky jellyfish."

Swancer then speculates that the Japanese earthquake and tsunami caused a "release of highly-charged particles" that may have disrupted the navigation systems used by the giant atmospheric creatures, causing them to become confused and making them fly at lower altitudes, or possibly making them forget to turn on their cloaking devices.

You might be asking yourself, how do we know these creatures exist?  Well, Swancer says, we don't.  This is "all speculation," he states, but goes on to say that there are lots of other things that biologists have discovered that are so strange that we wouldn't have believed them without evidence, so if this is so strange that we don't believe it, it must be true, as well.  As further proof, he concludes with a final image:


Which, after a small amount of research, I was able to identify as a "Dogora Cloud Beast" from a Pokémon card (see the original card design here).

So, in any case, I think we can conclude from this that we are reasonably safe, for the time being, from having our hometowns attacked by giant flying squid.  Watch out for the enormous sky jellyfish, however.  I hear those things pack a nasty sting.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Getting the point

In a move that may well cost me my Skeptic's Card, I've made an appointment to see an acupuncturist.

No, wait, let me 'splain!

For about two years, I have shown many of the symptoms of early rheumatoid arthritis.  I have joint pain (particularly my neck, knees, hips, and occasionally fingers and shoulders), and prior to a bad episode I get a tingly, sensitive feeling in the skin over the joint that's about to get hit.  Often during those pre-pain periods, I'm unusually tired.  Plus, I have a family history of it - my mother and a great aunt both had rheumatoid arthritis, and I recall my mom describing exactly those symptoms, and at about the same age as I am now.

Despite this, my doctor doesn't believe that I'm developing RA, because a blood test came up negative for the antibodies.  (Never mind that I found out that many RA cases are negative for the antibodies in the first five years.)  Despite my symptoms and my family history, she wouldn't give me a referral to the only rheumatologist in the area, and my last two checkups have come with questions about how my joints are doing, followed with a patronizing, "Yeah, it sucks getting old, doesn't it?" when I tell her they hurt like hell sometimes.

Anyhow, given that my doctor has been less than sympathetic, I'm fishing around for other options.  Up till now, mainly what I did is limp around, act irritable, and swear a lot, which caused more than one of my students to compare me with Dr. House.  But I figured that this isn't a long-term solution, so I've begun to think of alternate approaches.

I've had five different people recommend acupuncture to me.  Now, allow me to point out that we're not talking about credulous woo-woos here -- they include three teachers (two of them science teachers) and a friend of mine who is one of the smartest people I know.  All of them prefaced their recommendations with, "I know this sounds crazy, but..." and went on to describe their own experiences with acupuncture, which were overwhelmingly positive.

I know, I know.  I don't believe in qi, energy meridians, chakras, or all the rest.  No, I have no idea how it could possibly work.  In researching the topic, both for this post and for more personal reasons, I found that most of the peer-reviewed studies on acupuncture have generated results that are described as "equivocal" -- which at least is better than nonsense like homeopathy, which has never generated anything but negative results, every time it's been researched.  I was actively looking for confirmation bias in the papers I read -- and it seemed like the researchers did everything right.  Even "equivocal" results for something as weird as acupuncture is pretty amazing.

So, anyhow, I decided to try it.  There's a well-recommended acupuncturist in Ithaca, and I thought, "what do I have to lose?"  Other than some money, that is, and possibly the respect of my readers.  But then, I thought, "Hey, I'm a skeptic, and that means an open mind.  Let's approach this in an experimental fashion.  Go in with no expectations one way or the other, and see what happens.  I could even report the results in Skeptophilia.  It could be interesting."

After all, what's the worst that could happen?  Besides the fact that my skin will be full of holes, that is.  I doubt that it could make my arthritis any worse, and there's a chance I may have a less-equivocal positive result -- and wouldn't that be nice?  I would sure like not to hobble around any more, and to do something about my neck, which often sounds like Rice Krispies when I turn my head.  I'd have to reconsider my Halloween costume -- I was simply going to stop shaving for a few days, mess my hair up, wear my lab coat with a pill bottle in the front pocket, and hang a stethoscope around my neck.  Then I was going to be obnoxiously sarcastic to everyone.  It won't be quite as awesome if I don't have the game leg, but I might still be able to make it work.