Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Water ionizers, alkalinity, and surfing

Are you unhealthy?  Stressed?  Overweight?  Perhaps you think that the solution to all of these is to seek medical care, find ways to reduce stress, eat smaller quantities of better quality food, exercise more.

Ha.  A lot you know.

All you really need is to drink alkaline water.

Due to my daily research for topics for this blog, and the website-tracking software that is ubiquitous these days, I am frequently bombarded with advertisements from the extreme end of the woo-woo spectrum.  It amuses me slightly that the tracking can get it so wrong; you have to wonder how long it will take for software designers to figure out that it's all well and good for their software to pick up on words like "psychics," "crystals," and "homeopathy," but it really doesn't work if it doesn't simultaneously pick up on words like "bogus," "nonsense," and "bullshit."

Be that as it may, there's one particular advertisement that has popped up about a dozen times lately, and I thought that such tenacity deserved at least a cursory look, so I clicked the link, which brought me here.

If you'd prefer not to give the tracking bots the impression you like this stuff by clicking the link yourself, let me give you the skinny on what they're claiming.

All of life's problems, the ad claims, are caused by the fact that the body is functioning at the wrong pH.  "The body prefers an alkaline balance," it says.  "Diet and stress causes acids to build up in the body, resulting in weight gain and contributing to health problems.  A healthy body produces enzymes that provide natural detoxification.  Toxins and oxidative acids break those enzymes down."  Furthermore, "acidic water" contains "water molecules in large clumps" that are hard for the body to absorb.  On the other hand, "alkaline ionized water is microclustered -- large molecule clusters are broken down -- (it is) easier to absorb, cells hydrate quickly, and it speeds athletic hydration and recovery."

Um... okay.  Now that I know that, what do I do?

You should clearly purchase a "water ionizer," which this company sells.  The first model I looked at sold for... $1,997.00.

Can't afford that?  They have LOTS of other products.  My favorite was "Dr. Life's Vortex Water Ionizer," which was, as far as I could see, a water pitcher, except that it was priced at $197.00.  However, if you can't afford anything better, "These pitchers will produce a moderate pH and moderate negative Oxidation Reduction Potential (-ORP) levels.  A negative ORP level means the water works as an antioxidant.  Regular water has a positive ORP, which means it is an oxidant which could create damaging free radicals in your body!"  Of course, "The Pitcher of Life and the Dr. Life Vortex Water Optimizer are great when you’re away from home, but they don’t match the pH, nor the high negative ORP levels recommended for optimal health results.  They also don’t micro-cluster water or filter it as well as home ionizers do."

So, if you're willing to skimp on your health, and possibly not detoxify the damaging free radicals that are currently trying to tear you limb from limb every time you drink a glass of water, then have it your way.

Except, of course, for the fact that this is the biggest load of nonsense I've seen since I read about the practice of sticking a lit candle in your ear to suck out the earwax.  (If you missed that post, you can read it here.)

Okay, where do I start?  Since evidently the whole market for "water ionizers" consists of the people who didn't pay attention in their high school chemistry class, let me do a brief chemistry lesson.

pH is a measure of the quantity of hydrogen ions in a solution.  For reasons that don't really matter for our discussion, pH is a logarithmic scale (i.e. one difference in pH amounts to a difference of a factor of ten in the concentration of hydrogen ions), and pHs above 7 are basic (alkaline), below 7 are acidic, and 7 is neutral (the pH of pure water).  Alkalinity is a measure of the capacity of a solution to neutralize an acid.

So, that's the basic idea (ba-dump-bump-kssssh).  Let's take our now vastly increased knowledge of chemistry, and analyze the claims made by the LifeIonizer people, okay?

If acidic fluids are toxic, how do we survive drinking orange juice and lemonade?  I drink orange juice every day, and typical orange juice has a pH of about 5.  This corresponds to a hundred-fold higher concentration of hydrogen ions than pure water has.  I am, surprisingly enough after all of that bodily abuse, still alive and kicking.  And how about stomach acid?  You have to wonder why, if acids are as bad as all that, your body deliberately produces a fluid with a pH of about 1.5, which is then mixed with every single item of food we eat.  So let's say you drink water that has somehow been "alkalinized," and its pH raised to 8 or so.  The alkalinity of the water you just drank will be overwhelmed by being mixed into an acidic fluid that is over a hundred thousand times higher in hydrogen concentration than it is.

Oh... well... okay.  Maybe we just need to make the water more alkaline, so that it neutralizes those toxic acids better.  The problem is, the higher you drive the pH, (1) the worse it will taste, and (2) the more caustic it becomes.  If their argument is correct -- that the more alkaline a solution is, the better it is for you -- they should demonstrate this for us by swigging Drano, which has a pH of about 13.  That'll neutralize those nasty acids, all right, not to mention cleaning out their pipes in a fairly spectacular fashion.

So, to sum up: yes, your body produces acids.  Yes, some of the foods you consume are acidic.  No, that doesn't mean you're gradually destroying your own tissue.  If you purchase a "water ionizer," all that will happen is that your pocketbook will be two grand lighter; you will have no positive health effects whatsoever, above and beyond the health effects that any of us would have by drinking more water.  And no, you won't lose weight unless you eat less and exercise more.  "Alkaline water" doesn't "melt off the pounds," it just tastes vaguely nasty.

And I won't even dignify the "large water molecule clusters" claim with a response.

Anyway, there you have it.  See the kind of thing I get subjected to on a daily basis?  Maybe I should start to blog on, say, surfing.  Okay, I know, I've only had one surfing lesson in my life, but given that the tracking software thinks that I believe in all of this woo-woo bullshit, I doubt that will matter, as long as I mention "surfing" enough.  And then, I'd get advertisements that would be nice to look at, featuring scantily clad women on beaches in Hawaii, instead of advertisements for "LifeIonizers."  So, toward that end: surfing surfing surfing bikinis surfing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The psychic and the guru

A question I frequently am asked is why I care so much about whether people believe weird, irrational, counterfactual stuff.  What does it matter?  How is it harming anyone if someone believes in ______ (fill in the blank with your favorite from amongst the following: astrology, psychics, homeopathy, Bigfoot, aliens, crystal energies, or about a hundred others).

Rather than answer that question directly, let me tell you two stories.  (Sources: The Orlando Sentinel and JREF)

Priti Mahalanobis is a college-educated mother of two who managed her father's business, Shiv Shakti Enterprises, LLC of Orlando, Florida.  Due to the economic downturn, the business had not been doing very well for about two years.  Add this to the fact that Mahalanobis had been experiencing some health problems, and her brother, to whom she was very close, was having marital problems.  Mahalanobis was understandably depressed, anxious, and stressed.

It would not be out of the ordinary for someone in this situation to seek out counseling, and Mahalanobis went to the Meditation and Healing Center in Windermere when she received a coupon for a $20 introductory session with a "spiritual guide."

The guide she met called herself Mrs. Starr, but her real name is Peaches Stevens.  Stevens, after a brief "psychic reading," told Mahalanobis that there was a curse on her family, which could only be lifted with her assistance.  Over the next few months, Mahalanobis went to Stevens repeatedly, purchased a variety of items from her including seven "tabernacles" that were intended to help lift the curse, and performed a variety of rituals under Stevens' direction.  Stevens reportedly told Mahalanobis that the cure for the curse would be costly, but that the price of leaving it in place would be a dreadful toll on herself and her family.

Mahalanobis opened several new credit cards, sold as many personal items as she could manage without her husband knowing (including a reported $65,000 worth of jewelry), and all told ended up giving over $135,000 to Stevens for her curse-removal services.  By this time, she had put herself into hock up to her eyeballs, her father's business had folded, and she had to find work part time in a school cafeteria to make enough to live on.

She did, however, finally recognize that something was amiss, and hired a private investigator to look into Stevens.  With the information from the investigation, police were finally able to arrest Stevens for fraud last week.

"I learned a lot," said Mahalanobis.  "Not to let fear or guilt control you or your actions.  Also, listen to your gut, your instinct, that little voice in the back of your head.  Because your mind can fool you."


Someone should have given that same advice to Chantale Lavigne, a Québecois woman who followed a self-help guru named Gabrielle Frechette.  Frechette runs seminars and gives advice on life, health, and spirituality, and claims to be able to channel the biblical figure Melchisedek.  According to sources, Frechette has quite a commanding presence and an "air of authority."

Last week, Frechette was running a session called "Dying in Consciousness," and Chantale Lavigne was one of her "students."  As part of the session, the participants were supposed to allow themselves to be covered with mud, wrapped in plastic, and have their heads placed inside cardboard boxes with instructions to hyperventilate.  They were told that they had to remain motionless in this situation...

... for nine hours.

When Lavigne was removed from her mud and plastic cocoon, she was unconscious, and only at that point did Frechette call 911.  When paramedics arrived, her body temperature was 40.5 C (105 F).  She died soon afterwards at a hospital in Drummondville.  Frechette has "denied all responsibility for Lavigne's death."

This is not the first such death from hyperthermia during a quack cure or woo-woo ritual.  Sweat lodges, and overheating to "remove toxins," have become commonplace, and just last year James Arthur Ray was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in his New Age "spiritual warrior" retreat, in which he had encouraged dozens of people (who had paid Ray big bucks for the privilege) to spend hours in an overheated, smoky room in the Arizona desert without drinking any water.  So despite Frechette's denial of responsibility, there is precedent for "gurus" to be found culpable for their followers' deaths -- in the US, at least, and it's to be hoped that Canada will follow suit.


It's easy to say that in both the case of Mahalanobis and Lavigne, they "should have known better."  And in one sense, that's true.  But we live in a culture that celebrates, even encourages, ridiculous beliefs, and in many cases turns them into big business.  Skeptics like James Randi and Michael Shermer are accused of being "narrow-minded" when they call these beliefs what they are -- unscientific, irrational, bogus, potentially dangerous nonsense. 

The question is, why should we handle such beliefs with kid gloves?  Why should we look the other way when psychics are allowed to bilk the public for millions of dollars annually?  Why should homeopathic "cures" be allowed on pharmacy shelves?  Why should the so-called mediums and channelers of the spirits of the dead be on television, raking in money from people made vulnerable by their grief?

Except in a few cases -- such as Ray's case, where deaths occurred and were directly attributable to the influence of a "guru" -- our government has been reluctant to step in.  The only answer that remains, then, is education -- teaching people how to think, giving them a sound backing in the principles of scientific rationality and skepticism.  I'll end with a quote from Carl Sagan, from his wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (which should be required reading in every high school in the world):
If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power.  But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.  In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights.  With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.  In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

UFO vs. bird

Yesterday, we looked at what I consider to be a typical ghost report; today we'll look at a recent report of a UFO that, similarly, has features in common with most such claims.

According to a story released last Thursday, a man filming two odd, glowing orbs in the sky also caught on video a collision between one of the orbs and a bird.  The bird, which we would presume would have been killed on impact, goes hurtling off toward the right and is soon lost to view.  UFO aficionados have hailed this video as convincing -- stating that it would be "difficult to fake" (one site said "impossible," which I think is a serious overstatement), "evidence of surveillance by a highly advanced species," and "one of the best pieces of video evidence in the past few months."

(Take a look at the video here; the alleged bird collision occurs at 3:30.)

Okay, let's look at the points in favor of the video being authentic.

First, it's otherwise just kind of... boring.  One thing I've noticed, after watching lots of supposed UFO videos, is that fakers go out of their way to make the video cool -- hearing people react, having the UFO do amazing things.  (Remember the Jerusalem UFO video?)  Here, all we have is some guy with a hand-held video recorder tracking some lights in the sky.  The guy himself seems to be stoned; he doesn't even act like it's odd to be watching a pair of pulsating lights in the sky.  (All he says is, "Thar's one" and "Thar's two of 'em now" about five times each.)  When the alleged bird collision comes, he still doesn't even say, "Whoa" -- he tracks the falling object for a little bit, then goes back to the lights and saying "Thar's one."

Another positive point is the way the lights move relative to a jet contrail.  The movement of the objects looked realistic to me -- as far as that goes.

Now, some negatives.

Like with the ghost photograph from yesterday -- what do we actually have?  A video of some lights in the sky.  The lights have no detail at all -- nothing to indicate what they might be.  Even the alleged bird is just a bright point falling across the sky; we're too far away to see anything more.  So, even if we accept for the moment the possibility that the video itself isn't a fake, we're left with emphasizing the "U" in "UFO," and must rule out as an overconclusion that statement that we're under surveillance by a highly advanced bunch of aliens.

Now, could it be a fake?  Of course it could.  To say that I'm no expert in video editing is an understatement of mammoth proportions, but I have been assured by people who do know a bit about the topic that adding a couple of featureless lights to a video of the sky would be pretty simple.  (To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, "Photoshop probably has an 'Add UFO' function.")  Now, to be sure, most of the fakers get caught because it's nearly impossible to get everything right, and to fool folks who know what to look for.  Real objects have shadows, reflections, and other features that behave in known ways, and your average "Let's Make A UFO Video" hoaxer would have to be awfully smart to get all of that stuff exactly right.  (One of the strongest bits of evidence that the Jerusalem video was a fake was that the UFO, brilliant light source though it was, didn't seem to create a reflection from the gold-covered top of the nearby Al Aqsa Mosque.)

Interestingly, it's the simple videos that are harder to debunk.  Here, we have nothing but a pair of lights in a sky that's featureless except for the jet contrail, so there's nothing in the way of reflections or shadows that might clue us in.  However, there is one thing that crossed my mind while watching the video -- something that probably wouldn't occur to you if you hadn't already been primed to think that the glowing objects were what was moving.

What I noticed was that the two orbs aren't moving relative to each other.  Try watching the video again, and this time tell yourself that the jet contrail is what is moving, against a backdrop of a sky (with stars or planets) that is stationary.  Changes your perception of the whole thing, doesn't it?  Contrails move, just as clouds do, and the apparent motion of the orbs could easily be explained as motion of the only reference point we have -- the contrail.  And as for the bird -- well, it could be a bird, but I see nothing about its motion that convinces me that it struck one of the orbs.  It could just as easily be a bird flying past, who escaped the whole non-encounter without injury.

My vote: it's a video of two stationary bright lights in the sky, possibly Venus and Jupiter, which were quite close together in the sky on that date.  The jet contrail is what was moving, and the guys filming the lights were in a self-induced mental state that resulted in their thinking that four minutes of video of two motionless bright lights in the sky would be interesting.

And relative to UFO claims in general -- if I may conclude by quoting Tyson again:
I'm not saying we haven't been visited.  I'm saying that the evidence thus far brought forth does not satisfy the standards of evidence that any scientist would require for any other claim that you're going to walk into the lab with.  So next time you get abducted... you're there, you're on the slab, because you know how they always do the sex experiments on you when you're on the flying saucer, and so they're poking at you... here's what you do: you say to the alien that's poking you, "Hey!  Look over there!"  And when he looks over there, you quickly snatch something off the shelf.  You put it in your pocket, and then you lay back.  Then, when you're done, you come back, you say, "Hey!  Look what I got!  I stole the ashtray off a spaceship!"  And you bring that to the lab.  And then it's not about eyewitness testimony at that point, because you'll have something of alien manufacture.  And anything you pull off a flying saucer that crossed the galaxy is gonna be interesting.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The ghost in the window

One of the difficulties of being a skeptic interested in claims of the paranormal is to determine what is meant by "credible evidence."

Today and tomorrow we'll take two of the most common paranormal claims -- ghosts and UFOs -- and consider what it would take to turn someone like me into a believer.  Then we'll look at one (of each), representative recent claims of a ghost and a UFO respectively, and see if they meet some kind of baseline of evidential support.

Today's topic: ghosts.

Aficionados of hauntings usually have a variety of arguments in favor of the existence of ghosts.  An experience of seeing the spirits of the dead, they say, is ubiquitous.  Just about every culture on Earth has a tradition of an afterlife, and virtually all of them describe the experience of meeting a relic of the dead.  Anecdotal accounts probably number in the millions.  Ghostly photographs, of course, are also common, and some are undeniably creepy (whatever you can say about their authenticity).  Newer, higher tech methods are cropping up, including the use of electromagnetic field sensors and sensitive audio equipment, and modern ghosthunters claim that both of these tools have yielded positive results.

Okay, now for the skepticism.  Just about every culture on Earth has a tradition of a deity, and even if you accept that some conception of god is right, they can't all be right because their gods differ wildly from each other.  So even accepting, for the sake of argument, that some sort of god exists, 99% of cultures on Earth got the majority of his/her/its attributes wrong.  Simple ubiquity as an argument for a belief is mildly suggestive, nothing more.  As far as photographs, they are becoming increasingly easy to fake (which doesn't mean that they all are fakes, but simply that it might be difficult to tell the fakes from any out there that are real).  And you have to wonder if the claims that new equipment picking up EMF and suspicious sounds aren't mistaking correlation for causation -- perhaps EMF or peculiar sounds exist in a place because of some purely natural phenomenon, and those are then interpreted by us as evidence for a ghostly presence.  (This last statement is pure speculation, of course, but you might want to recall the famous case of a low-frequency standing sound wave in a building causing an illusion of ghosts -- read about it here.)  In order to convince me, I'd have to see a ghost myself, under conditions that precluded the possibility of trickery, or else have some sort of experiment done, with an adequate set of controls, that showed hard data indicating the presence of some sort of "ghostly energy" (a frequent claim by ghosthunters).

Now for the case study.

A derelict Victorian guesthouse in Kendal, Cumbria, England was scheduled for demolition a couple of weeks ago, and the demolition supervisor took some photographs of it for his company's records.  After having the photographs printed, he noticed something pretty peculiar in one of them:


Let's look at a closeup:


Okay.  So, what is it?  Well, apparently the demolition supervisor, who is named David Armstrong, was pretty creeped out when he saw this.  In Armstrong's words, "There was only a black wall behind the window, we had taken everything out – there were no visible features or anything with a skin color."  Couple this with the claim of one of Armstrong's workmen, Stuart Shan, that the place is haunted:  "The day before we took the photo we were stripping the building inside and I noticed the chandelier swinging on its own.  We said at the time the place felt strange.  My hairs were standing on end when I saw the photo.  I believe it is a ghost."

Given all of the scary stuff happening, Armstrong brought the story (and the photograph) to the attention of the property owner, David Grimshaw.  And Grimshaw took one look at the photograph -- and said that the figure was clearly that of of his deceased mother, Frances Grimshaw, who used to "stand looking out of that very window, and wore large earrings and a bow on her dress just like the figure in the window."

So, what do we have here?  I have to admit that the photograph is pretty odd, whether or not it actually is depicting an old lady's ghost.  Let's, for the moment at least, admit it into evidence.  What about Shan's story of a swinging chandelier?  Well, you'll note from his statement that he made his claim after seeing the photograph, so you have to be at least a little skeptical at this point, wondering if perhaps he wasn't adding a story of a ghostly presence pushing the chandelier to bolster his boss' claim that the photograph was of ghostly provenance (or, possibly, to get in on the publicity that was sure to come -- which worked, didn't it?).

Then, we have the claim by David Grimshaw that the figure looked "just like his mother."  Well, one of the sources I used actually had a photograph of the late Mrs. Grimshaw, so let's take a look:


Well, the first thing that strikes me is that the figure in the window looks nothing like Mrs. Grimshaw.  The figure in the window has what looks like brown hair, possibly pulled back into a bun, and a high forehead, and seems to me to be on the skinny side.  Then we have blonde, curly-haired, stocky Mrs. Grimshaw.  Any resemblance between the two certainly escapes me.

Well, perhaps the figure isn't Mrs. Grimshaw, but could it still be a ghost?  Myself, I just can't take a single photograph, however creepy, and turn it into evidence for an afterlife.  Because, honestly, that's all we have.  Meaning no disrespect to Mr. Shan's reputation, but corroborating the photographic evidence after the fact with a story of the chandelier swinging really doesn't meet what I would consider the minimum standards of reliable evidence.

As far as the photograph, there is just too much chance of fakery, or (failing that) our old friend pareidolia (the tendency of humans to see faces in random patterns of color, light, and shadow) to put too much weight on it as evidence.  So with the Kendal haunting, we're right back where we started; weakly suggestive evidence that really doesn't provide what a true skeptic would consider convincing.

Again, to reiterate: that doesn't mean that ghosts don't exist.  All it means is that the jury's still out.  As befits a true skeptic, we don't have to decide now -- the jury can remain out forever, until we have enough in the way of hard evidence to make a judgment.

Tomorrow:  a UFO collides with a bird?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

sOFU dna KFJ

One of the endearing things about woo-woos is that they never, ever, ever give up.  Once they become convinced that their favorite weird idea is real, no power on Earth can shift them, not a mountain of evidence against, not the most flawless argument.

You have to admire their tenacity, really.

This comes up because of a recent claim by a gentleman named Jon Kelly, who claims to be an audio analyst.  (I use the word "claims" not to cast any doubt, but simply because I was unable to verify his credentials.)  Kelly was going through some recently declassified recordings of President John F. Kennedy discussing a variety of topics shortly before his death, including the space program, and Kelly claims that Kennedy was speaking in code.  The text of the speeches was about the space program of the time; but the real message, Kelly says, was encrypted, and had to do with contact with aliens.  But you can only discern the real message...

... if you listen to it backwards.  (You can watch his video here.)

Backmasking has been around for a long, long time, and the first accusations of secret messages encrypted backwards were levied by a variety of fundamentalist ministers against rock musicians, notably the Electric Light Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, and Styx.  (When ELO songwriter and singer Jeff Lynne found out that their song "Eldorado" allegedly had the message, "He is the nasty one / Christ, you're infernal / It is said we're dead men / Everyone who has the mark will live," he famously responded, "Skcollob.")  Not ones to take such accusations lying down, many of the musicians began to include such messages deliberately, my favorite one being the inclusion by Styx in one of their songs on their next album the backwards message, "Why are you listening to me backwards?"

In any case, what is ridiculous about all of these claims is that if the intent was to influence the listener's behavior subliminally, it doesn't work.  A study at the University of Lethbridge all the way back in 1985 using a variety of messages played backwards (including the 23rd Psalm) found that listeners showed no ability to pick up the information content of messages played in reverse.

Of course, our friend Jon Kelly is not implying that subliminal alteration of behavior is what JFK was trying to do; he's implying that JFK was deliberately hiding information, encrypting it in such a way that only the ones in the know could figure out the real message was.  (Apparently, it includes such pithy bits as "I found a spacecraft.  I saw a Gray.  Proof aliens landed here.")  What comes to my mind, besides the inevitable thought of "you are a loon," is, does he realize how difficult it would be actually to do that? 

In fact, if you think there is any level of plausibility in this claim at all, I want you to give it a try yourself.  Take a simple message you want to encrypt -- only a few words.  Perhaps, "The aliens have landed in downtown Detroit."  Now, figure out a piece of sensible text that when you say it forwards includes a bit that sounds like that phrase read backwards.

C'mon, let's get on with it, we're all waiting.

*taps foot impatiently*

Not so easy, is it?  The English language is not, to put it mildly, a phonetic system that is read with equal ease, not to mention meaningfulness, forwards and backwards.  Any examples we could find that said one thing forward, and a different (but sensible) thing backwards, would be so contrived that they would significantly limit both what you actually said, and also what the encrypted message could be.

In other words; it's an idiotic conjecture.  But that hasn't stopped it from being made repeatedly, all the way back into the 1970s, by a variety of different woo-woos each with their own theory about why it was done.

So, anyway, that's today's little dose of wackiness.  Yet another example of a repeated claim that is held firmly despite repeated debunking.  You have to wonder what these woo-woos could accomplish if they turned this level of dogged tenacity onto something that really matters, like solving world hunger.  I guess that's too much to ask, however, given that the majority of these people seem to be sekactiurf.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Double stars, SETI, and Luke Skywalker

Continuing to explore yesterday's theme of Life On Other Worlds, today, I thought I'd start with the most recent discovery from the extrasolar-planet crowd; two worlds, both (from our vantage point) in the constellation Cygnus, that orbit double stars.  (See the full article here.)  If you were a resident of one of these planets (which seems unlikely, for reasons I'll discuss in a moment), you would see two suns in the sky.

Luke!  Use the Force, Luke!

It was long surmised that double (and triple) star systems would not have planets in stable orbits -- that a gravitational field generated by two heavy objects would have an odd enough shape that it would make it impossible for a planet to settle into a regular path around them.  The new study, however, surmises that such combos are "common" in the universe, however incomplete our understanding of the classical mechanics of the situation.

However, neither of these worlds is a good candidate for being Tatooine -- both of the planets, named Kepler 34b and Kepler 35b, are large, gaseous worlds, more like Saturn than like Earth.  Additionally, astronomers suspect that both of these planets, and probably most planets that orbit double stars, would have wildly changing climates due to the varying proximity of the planet to each of its stars at different times during its year.

Be that as it may, I'm blown away by how many planets these folks have discovered, since the first evidence of an extrasolar planet several years ago.  The current total stands at 728, and every week more are found.  This further bolsters the conjecture I've had all along -- that planets, and very likely life, are common in the universe.

The exciting part of all of this planet-finding is finding out how similar the rest of the universe is to our own cozy little solar system.  The more we look out there, and the better our instruments get, the more planetary systems we find.  The Drake equation, named after astronomer Frank Drake, is a way of estimating the number of planets with intelligent life, by boiling the entire argument down to a few parameters, estimating the probability of each, and then multiplying the probabilities.  One of the parameters - f(p) - is the fraction of stars which have planetary systems.  Back in the 70s, when I was in college, f(p) was thought to be quite low.  The general consensus was that the formation of our own planetary system was something of a fluke, and that the likelihood of there being such systems around other stars was small.  However, as astronomy, and its associated technology, has improved, we are now finding that many - perhaps most - stars have planetary systems.  Estimates of f(p) start at around a very conservative 20% and, according to some scientists, might range as high as 50 or 60%.

Still, "planets" does not equal "life," and "life" does not equal "intelligent life."  We currently have no way to figure out if there is intelligent life out there - the distances are so amazingly huge that any contact is prohibitive. Even if Kepler 34b and 35b were hospitable places, which they're not, they're 4,900 and 5,400 light years away, respectively.  If we sent a focused radio signal saying "hello" to the Luke Skywalker, we'd have to wait a minimum of a little under ten thousand years to receive a message saying, "Help me, I'm caught in a trash compactor!" in response, which might be a little too late to do anything helpful.  The closest star to ourselves, other than our own sun, is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.3 light years away.  There, the lag time, assuming an immediate response, would still be 8.6 years.

And that's for radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, which is three hundred million meters per second.  Our fastest man-made vehicle, the Voyager space probe, is moving at about fifteen thousand meters per second - twenty thousand times slower than the speed of light.  At that speed, and not counting relativistic effects, it would take Voyager 86,000 years to get to Proxima Centauri, if it were heading that direction, which it's not.

All of this makes any kind of contact by whatever intelligent life is out there very unlikely indeed, regardless how common I might suspect it is.  Now, I strongly believe that the combined forces of abiotic production of organic chemicals, coupled with evolution by natural selection, make it virtually inevitable that intelligent life has arisen many times in the history of the universe.  On the other hand, however thrilling the scene in Contact was, in which Elly Arroway finds the transmission from an alien culture, however exciting the final moments of Star Trek: First Contact were, when the Vulcan walks out of the spacecraft and the people of Earth finally find out that they are not alone, I think that such an occurrence is monumentally unlikely.  The distances are much too big, and Einstein's general theory of relativity, along with its requirement of the speed of light as a permanent speed limit, seems to be strictly enforced everywhere except possibly Switzerland.   But even if they're not likely to contact us, I'm still virtually certain that we're not alone in the universe.  As a biologist, I find this incredibly exciting, and it is a shame that projects like SETI have such a low likelihood of succeeding.

Astronomers are pioneering novel ways of finding extraterrestrial life, including developing methods for detecting biotically produced compounds in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets.  These techniques are in their infancy, but at least give hope that we might be able to answer the question of the existence of extraterrestrial life without having to receive a radio transmission or an actual visit.

You have to wonder how the discovery of incontrovertable proof of the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would change our worldview.  It certainly would knock askew our sense of being at the center, left over from the Judeo-Christian idea of humans as God's Favorite Species.  It would confirm what biologists have claimed for years, that the abiotic genesis of life and organic evolution are common and universal.  And, most importantly, it would give me a much-needed excuse to brush up on my Klingon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Life in the cauldron

Despite being rather adamant about wanting evidence for everything, I've always had a hunch that the universe is inhabited, probably rather thickly.  I am aware that it's just a hunch, however.  I'm not translating a gut feeling into anything like certainty.  But given what I know about the conditions necessary for generating organic molecules, and the power of natural selection even on the molecular level, I'd be mighty surprised if Earth turned out to be the only inhabited planet.

It does, however, demand a question -- one I remember my son asking a while back.  Why is there any necessity that life (however we define that term, and it's far harder to define comprehensively than you'd think) has the same chemistry that it does here on comfortable old Earth?  I still remember the first time I ran into that idea, back on the old Star Trek -- if you're my age, you probably remember the famous episode "Devil in the Dark," in which the intrepid crew of the Enterprise ran into the Horta, a creature whose biochemistry was based upon silicon instead of carbon.  This is not as outlandish as it might seem.  Silicon, like carbon, has four valence electrons, allowing it to form sheets, chains, rings, and other complex molecules rather readily.  Most silicates don't dissolve much in water, which would require that any silicon-based life form have a different carrier in its vascular system; in the case of the Horta, it was hydrofluoric acid (which doubled nicely as a defensive weapon in dissolving any unfortunate red-shirted security officers it happened to run into).

My point here, and I'm hardly the first to make it, is that a life form with a dramatically different biochemistry might well be hard to recognize as life.  In our search for extrasolar planets, we tend to get most excited about the earthlike ones, because of a sense that those are the only ones that could harbor life.  But is this necessarily true?

The whole topic comes up because of a recent statement, by Russian astronomer Leonid Ksanformaliti, that he has discovered evidence of life on Venus.  Now, Venus was one of the first solar planets that was ruled out as possible site for life when it was discovered exactly how inhospitable is is.  Clouds cover the surface, the discovery of which led many to speculate that it had liquid water, oceans, and possibly a breathable atmosphere (H. P. Lovecraft and C. S. Lewis both wrote stories about an inhabited Venus), but now it is known that the clouds are largely made up of sulfuric acid, and the surface temperature is a balmy 850 degrees Fahrenheit, with a barometric pressure 92 times higher than Earth's.  The conditions are so hellish that the first probes dropped onto the surface fried before they returned much useful data back to scientists here at home.

So, Ksanformaliti, who made his claim in Russian journal Solar System Research, is making what appears to most scientists a pretty outlandish claim.  Ksanformaliti and his team analyzed photographs from earlier missions, some dating back to 1982, and found what he calls "biological forms" -- he nicknames three of them "black flaps," "disks," and "scorpions."  “What if we forget about the current theories about the non-existence of life on Venus?" Ksanformaliti told reporters for The Daily Caller.  "Let’s boldly suggest that the objects’ morphological features would allow us to say that they are living.”  (See a photo of one of them here.  Don't get your hopes up about the video clip, however -- it's just a gradual zoom-in on the object in the still, along with hyperdramatic music.)

Of course, this makes most of us raise our eyebrows.  Organic compounds as we know them fall apart when subjected to conditions like those on Venus, so life should be impossible there.  But we are, of course, basing that judgment on the life we know.  Is it possible that even considering the high-pressure inferno that is Venus, that something may be down there that qualifies as life?

Possibly -- but I need more than a bunch of fuzzy photographs before I'm ready to join Team Leonid.  As I've had reason to comment before, humans are just too prone to attribute lifelike qualities to non-living objects to trust that we would recognize life here on such flimsy evidence.  And, for the record, I still think our best bet for life in our own solar system is one of the larger moons of either Jupiter or Saturn.

But I will maintain that regardless, if Ksanformaliti makes us reconsider our assumptions about life, that's all to the good.  If SETI and other projects like it have a prayer of a chance, it will only come from thinking outside the box -- and from being willing to redefine what we mean by the words "life," "organism," and "intelligent."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fake out

Woo-woos will fool you, sometimes.

Last night I was doing my typical evening's scouring of news stories for this morning's post, and I bumped into an article about the alleged recent spate of "weird noises" that seemed like about the most reasonable thing I've read on the topic.  (See the article here.)  Now, I don't know if you've heard about the whole issue with the noises, but to make a long story short there have been about a dozen reports from places as widely separated as England, Costa Rica, and Arnaudville, Louisiana (a stone's throw from my home town), mostly of booming or thunder-like noises, and one of "loud, trumpet-like noises."  (The article linked above includes links to YouTube videos purporting to be recordings of the noises.  Others can be easily found with a quick YouTube search.)

Well, the author, Tony Elliott, does a pretty good job of taking apart the whole phenomenon, and unhesitatingly calls it a hoax.  He lays the blame at the feet of the Mayan calendar enthusiasts and other apocalyptic wingnuts, who (he says) are trying to build up the tension as the Big Year arrives, and also bolster their contentions that Things Are Happening.  Apart from the author's conjecture that the origin of the "noises" phenomenon can be traced back to one man, a Baptist minister from Indiana named Paul Begley -- it is seldom, I think, that hoaxes like this are attributable to one person's efforts -- Elliott makes a pretty good case for the side of skepticism.  In fact, the article ends:
In today's world, we must all become aware of how to determine fact from fiction.  This can only be done through the research of topics, in finding the evidence needed to either legitimize a claim or toss it, because it is baseless.
Not bad, eh?  Particularly given that his article appeared on the online site UFO Digest!

So, anyway, I'm feeling pretty good at this point, and made it all the way to the end of the article wondering how something so logical made its way onto a website usually devoted to wild woo-woo speculation.  Even Elliott's "About This Author" was impressive; he has (he says) worked for several newspapers in Oregon, and most recently was a political columnist for the Cimarron News Press in Cimarron, New Mexico.  All sounds pretty reasonable...

... and then I read the list of "Other Articles By This Author."  To wit:


I looked at the first one, at the cost of thousands of valuable brain cells I will never ever have again, and found claims such as the following:
  • The human race was created when beings from Mars came to Earth and integrated dinosaur DNA into their own to make them more suited to Earth's environment.
  • Mars lost most of its atmosphere when its planetary neighbor exploded (the cause of this explosion wasn't mentioned); this catastrophe generated the asteroid belt.
  • Insects have reptilian DNA because they both have "scales."
  • Octopuses and birds are related because both of them have beaks.
 So, I'm reading this, my jaw hanging lower and lower, and I'm thinking, "Wait... wait!  What about 'separating fact from fiction?'  What about 'finding the evidence needed to legitimize a claim?'  Why would you fake me out like this, Tony?  Why?"  So I closed the link, a sadder, wiser skeptic.

I didn't even look at the one about the "Sinister Global Warming Plot," or the one about "ghost rockets."

It is a mystery to me that someone can (on the one hand) be so reasonable, so logical, so completely sane sounding, and (on the other) write articles that are filled with claims that are ridiculous even by comparison to your typical woo-woo.  Don't people have one consistent standard for evaluating claims?  If one set of conjectures falls because of the poor quality of evidence, how can another succeed based on an even poorer quality of evidence?

No, I don't know, either.
 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Alone again, naturally

Apparently, there's some reasonable conjecture that the more socially connected we are, the unhappier we get.

The rise of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and all the rest would, you'd think, leave us feeling more certain of our place in the world, and (being social primates) you'd think that'd lead to a greater sense of happiness.  Two studies, one old and one new, seem to indicate exactly the opposite.

The older is a fascinating idea that, despite its publication twenty years ago, I only ran into recently.  It's called the Friendship Paradox (here's a recent article about the idea), and is the discovery that the statement that "most of my friends have more friends than I do" is apparently statistically true.  Sociologist Scott Feld noted the commonness of this claim, and wondered if it was just a perceptual bias related to inaccurate self-image, or was actually a real phenomenon.

It turned out to be the latter, and the proof of it requires abstruse mathematics that I am incapable of understanding, much less explaining,  but an example might suffice to illustrate the idea.  Let's say we have 50 people in a (rather artificial) social group.  One of the 50 knows all of the others; two of them know half of the others; and the remaining 47 only know two of the others, each.  What is the perception of each person's friends, regarding the number of people each of them knows?

Well, of our 47 subjects who only know two people each, all of them know the top dog who knows everyone, and the other person each of them knows has to be one of the two people who know half of the group.  Therefore, for those 47, it is literally true that both of their friends have more friends than they do -- by a large margin.  Even the two who know half of the group know each other, and the guy who knows everyone.  So in this admittedly unrealistic scenario, almost everyone's mean number of friends of friends is greater than their number of friends.

It works any time you have a network with multiply interconnected nodes.  Chances are, your professional contacts have more contacts than you do; the people you've had sex with have had more partners than you have; your connections in social networks have more connections than you have; and so on.  But it has nothing to do with being a loser (as the title of the article humorously implies) -- it's a purely statistical phenomenon.

The other study, that just came out last week (described here), was done by Utah Valley University sociologists Hui-Tzu Grace Chou and Nicholas Edge, and involved people's perceptions of their own happiness, vis-à-vis social networks.  They took 425 students, and asked them to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with a variety of statements like, "I am usually a happy person," "Life is fair," and Many of my friends have a better life than me."  And they analyzed the results as a function of how many "friends" each of the student had on Facebook, and how many hours a day each of them spent on the site.

The rather interesting result is that the more "friends" on Facebook you have, the more you tend to rate your own life as substandard.  "Those who have used Facebook longer agreed more that others were happier, and agreed less that life is fair, and those spending more time on Facebook each week agreed more that others were happier and had better lives," Chou and Edge wrote.  "Furthermore, those that included more people whom they did not personally know as their Facebook 'friends' agreed more that others had better lives."

The speculation is that because of the fact that most people's photographs on Facebook show them doing happy, fun, social things, the more you look at those photographs, the more you tend to think your own life sucks.  I wonder, though, if this explanation is right, or might be committing that cardinal sin of mistaking correlation for causation -- it may be that unhappier, more socially awkward people may take the avenue of socializing online rather face-to-face, thus leading to the result that heavy Facebook users, especially those who friend relative strangers, are less satisfied.

In any case, the whole thing had a painfully personal touch for me, because in the last year I've been trying to market my e-published fiction (available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, if you're interested) through such social networking sites as Twitter, and my continual sense is that all of the other authors I've bumped into this way, and there have been a lot, (1) have had way more success than I have, (2) have more contacts than I do, and (3) get way more responses from people when they post than I do.  This has elicited many bouts of highly unbecoming self-pity on my part, so I suppose it's a comfort to know that what I'm experiencing is hardly unusual.  My perception of the numbers of contacts that these other authors have is just another example of the Friendship Paradox; and my perception of their success is due to the Facebook-photograph phenomenon, to wit, you wouldn't likely post on Twitter, "Wow!  My book didn't sell any copies at all this week!  Yay!", preferentially weighting Tweets toward messages that are more positive than what most of us are feeling most of the time.

I guess this might pull me out of the Slough of Despond to some extent, but maybe what I really need to do is what the Chou and Edge article suggests -- turn off the damn computer and go visit some friends.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Asstrology

I bet, if I gave you a thousand guesses, you'd never be able to figure out what Sylvester Stallone's mother does for a living.

Go ahead, guess.  You'll be wrong.

You give up?  Okay.  Here it is:

She does psychic readings for people from seeing pictures of their butts.

See?  I told you you'd never guess.  And, for the record, I'm not making this up.

Stallone, apparently not one to skimp on patting her own, um, back, calls herself "America's foremost Rumpologist."  (I'd like to think she's America's only rumpologist, but chances are she can't be the only one who does this.)  So, you send her a photograph of your butt, along with a hefty check for her services, and she tells you what your personality is like, what's going to happen in your future, and so on. 

So I guess when Stallone says she's "getting a little behind in her work," she means it.

As far as how this could possibly work, she gives a wonderful explanation on her website, to wit:
Rumpology is sometimes called butt reading in modern parlance.  It is the art of reading the lines, crevices, dimples, and folds of the buttocks to divine the individual's character and gain an understanding of what has occurred in the past and get a prediction of the future... Jacqueline has discovered that the left and right cheeks reveal a person's past and future, respectively.  The right buttocks represents the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain, while the left buttocks represents the right hemisphere.  It is similar to palmistry -- where the left palm represents the past and the right palm represents the future.
So, wait... let me get this straight... your left butt cheek is connected to your right brain, so it tells you your past, and your right butt cheek is connected to your left brain, so it tells you your future?  I can't tell you how anxious I am to bring this up in my neurology class!  I think there's only one thing I will add, when I tell them about it, which is:

BA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA *falls off chair*

She also says that your butt crack has a lot to do with your personality.  I'd like to be able to tell you what, but when I got to the part about "lawyers having unusually long butt cracks," I was laughing so hard that I don't think I remember much of what I was reading.

But that's not the only thing that Stallone does; and I guess it would be kind of a pain in the ass if all you did all day long was to look at photographs of people's butts.  She is also the "Dean of the University of Astrology" (accreditation pending), and describes it here, a webpage wherein we are subjected to music that sounds like the unholy bastard child of Pachelbel's Canon and "The Wind Beneath My Wings."  On this page are two photographs of Stallone, one in which she is blonde and smiling, and the other in which she is brunette and in which, to put it politely, the resemblance to Rambo is fairly obvious.  You can purchase her videos, in which you learn about things like the "Love Scale of Compatibility," for $99.95.

She also requests that you call her "Dean Jackie."

So there you have it, folks: astrology, and asstrology.  The latest from the world of the woo-woo.  You know, I keep thinking that I've found the wackiest belief possible -- putting holographic stickers on water jugs to "alter the water's health resonance field," using crystal pendulums to diagnose disease, treating those diseases by giving the patient pills from which all the marginally useful molecules have been diluted out of existence.  But people always seem to be one step ahead of me.

Which, if I was Jacqueline Stallone, would be exactly the vantage point I'd want.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Music, DNA resonators, and mind control

Every once in a while I'll run into a woo-woo whose determination, creativity, and style evoke in me some grudging admiration.  Such is Leonard Horowitz, whose theories are so out there that they read like well-crafted fiction (which, in fact, they are).

Horowitz himself was a dentist, who despite the medical training that is required for the field, evidently never absorbed much in the way of standard biological information, nor (for that matter) common sense.  He claims, for example, that flu vaccines cause sterility, which I know will come as a great shock to the millions of presumably fertile individuals who get flu shots yearly.  Instead of getting a flu shot, Horowitz says, you should merely dose up on vitamin C and D, and purchase from his website (c'mon, you knew he was selling something) "alkalanizing water" and "covalently-bonded silver hydrosols" that will render you invincible.

Two other wonderful Horowitz creations are the "Water Resonator" (a sticker you apply to the water jug in your fridge) that "displays the precise sound frequencies of universal creation to restore nature's resonance energy and electromagnetic purity of water," and the "DNA Enhancer," another sticker that you place on your acupuncture points, which works because "DNA is nature's bioacoustic and electromagnetic (that is, 'spiritual') energy receiver, signal transformer, and quantum sound and light transmitter."

But by far my favorite Horowitz claim is that the standard musical tuning of A = 440 hertz is gradually turning music listeners into mindless zombies.  The problem, apparently, is that the "natural" tuning of A = 444 hertz was suppressed by the Rockefellers, who realized that tuning orchestral instruments to 440 would allow them control the minds of anyone exposed to music.  The whole thing involves the Illuminati, the Federal Reserve, Lucifer, Muzak, the Manhattan Project, Elvis Presley, Pat Robertson, the Nazis, Pythagoras, Nikola Tesla, and the Beatles.  Which, I believe, makes it the single most comprehensive conspiracy theory ever invented, needing only a mention of HAARP to make it a shoo-in for the Gold Medal of Woo-Woo.

To prove to you that I'm not lying, here's a link to Horowitz's paper on the subject, which you really should read in toto, because just the illustrations alone make it one of the most inadvertently hilarious things I've ever read.  But in case you don't have the time, inclination, or spare brain cells to kill, here's the abstract (yes, it's set up like a traditional scientific paper, with an abstract, introduction, background, methodology, and so on):
This article details events in musical history that are central to understanding and treating modern psychopathology, social aggression, political corruption, genetic dysfunction, and cross-cultural degeneration of traditional values risking life on earth.  This history concerns A=440Hz “standard tuning,” and the Rockefeller Foundation’s military commercialization of music. The monopolization of the music industry features this imposed frequency that is “herding” populations into greater aggression, psychosocial agitation, and emotional distress predisposing people to physical illnesses and financial impositions profiting the agents, agencies,  and companies engaged in the monopoly.  Alternatively, the most natural, instinctively attractive, A=444Hz (C5=528Hz) frequency that is most vividly displayed botanically has been suppressed. That is, the “good vibrations” that the plant kingdom obviously broadcasts in its greenish-yellow display, remedial to emotional distress, social aggression, and more, has been musically censored. Thus, a musical revolution is needed to advance world health and peace, and has already begun with musicians retuning their instruments to perform optimally, impact audiences beneficially, and restore integrity to the performing arts and sciences. Music makers are thus urged to communicate and debate these facts, condemn the militarization of music that has been secretly administered, and retune instruments and voices to frequencies most sustaining and healing.
 Myself, I like the "greenish-yellow good vibrations" part the best, and will now immediately re-tune my flute to A = 444 hertz.  (I'd also attempt to do the same with my bagpipes, but given that "soothing psychosocial agitation" is really not something most people associate with bagpipe music, I probably shouldn't bother.)

His "About the Author" bit at the end of the paper (in case you didn't get that far) also makes for good reading, and includes a mention of various accolades he's received:  "Dr. Horowitz has been honored as a 'World Leading Intellectual' by officials of the World Organization for Natural Medicine for his revelations in the musical mathematics of creationism that are impacting the fields of metaphysics, creative consciousness, sacred geometry, musicology, and natural healing according to his life’s mission―to  help fulfill humanity’s Divine destiny to actualize world peace and permacultural sustainability."

Whoooo.  Those are some credentials, dude.  You had me at the "revelations in the musical mathematics of creationism" part, not to mention the whole "sacred geometry" thing, which always makes me picture people worshiping equilateral triangles and chanting Euclid's Postulates while burning incense.

Anyway.  That's our woo-woo of the day, and one of my particular favorites.  Whatever else you can say about Dr. Horowitz, he's certainly earnest, and one should never discount the humor value of some of these people.  So thanks for the chuckles, Lenny.  Keep up the good work.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The mathematician and the Bible decoder

One of my besetting sins is riffing continuously on the same themes, and if I seem to be saying the same thing over and over again in different guises, I hope I can be forgiven on the grounds that there is so much work to do in the realm of getting people to think critically.

I feel the need to start with this disclaimer because once again I've bumped into a wonderful example of how good humans are at assigning meaning to random patterns.  Our minds are really pattern-finders; we are constantly, and mostly subconsciously, looking for relevance in what we experience, because (as I've commented before) we evolved in a context where a rustle in the grass might or might not have been a hungry lion, and far better to assign that meaning to it and be wrong than to fail to assign that meaning to it -- and be wrong.  The result is we often invent meaning where there is only randomness, only chaos.

Enter Michael Drosnin, author of The Bible Code, The Bible Code II: The Countdown, and The Bible Code III.  Drosnin is the fellow who took the Hebrew original of the Torah (Genesis, Leviticus, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers) and purported to find hundreds of encoded messages predicting the future -- everything from the Holocaust to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.  His technique, if you can dignify it by that name, involved running all of the letters in the Torah in a string, and then finding patterns -- taking every nth character, or characters that formed straight lines (including diagonal ones) when the text was assembled in lines of X letters long.  He generated hundreds of diagrams like the following, which supposedly predicts the attacks of 9/11:


Well.  This whole thing got various mathematicians and statisticians in a lather, because the general rule is, if you're allowed to assemble a string of characters of sufficient length any way you want, and apply the rules of character selection any way you want, you can create any message you want.  The whole thing seems self-evident to me, not to mention my general skepticism that prediction of the future is possible however you might want to go about it.  Mathematician David Thomas was more blunt than that, saying, "The Bible Code is a silly, dumb, fake, false, evil, nasty, dismal fraud and snake-oil hoax."

And Drosnin responded, "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them." 

As the saying goes: be careful what you wish for; you may get it.

Mathematician Brendan McKay rose to the challenge, and took the text of Moby Dick, applied Drosnin's technique to it, and found "predictions" of the assassination of:
  • Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India
  • President René Moawad of Lebanon
  • Soviet exile Leon Trotsky
  • Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss of Austria
  • Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Robert F. Kennedy
  • Princess Diana
For the entire thing, which is well worth reading, go here. And to Drosnin, I can only say:  ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

None of this is recent news; but on the other hand, none of it seems to be discouraging Drosnin from continuing to Bible Code like mad.  His most recent book (The Bible Code III) was just released a year and a half ago, and the word is he's working on a fourth book (tentatively titled The Bible Code IV).  And, of course, his books still sell like hotcakes, which I have to admit bugs me for a variety of reasons.  It galls me that someone who is so obviously using spurious reasoning to make ridiculous, illogical claims is making money by taking advantage of the credulity of the book-buying public.  It also bothers me when someone just won't quit when they're debunked; we've seen it with such luminaries of the woo-woo world as Erich von Däniken, Uri Geller, and Immanuel Velikovsky, not to mention apocalyptic religious fanatics like Harold Camping.  Arguments, facts, and evidence pile up, you're shown to be a misguided wingnut at best and a deliberate hoaxer at worst -- and you don't do what most of us would do in this situation, which is to turn bright red, mumble an apology, and vanish -- you keep going.

Unfortunately, the fact is that there are still enough people who believe all of this stuff that the money still flows, even after the theories are debunked and disproven.  So whatever else you can say about woo-woo bullshit, it's lucrative.  And if I can be allowed to make a rather depressing prediction of the future myself -- I'm sure that The Bible Code IV, V, and VI will all be raving successes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Birds, ancestors, and intellectual honesty

Last week I was messing about with a genealogical search engine called RootsWeb.  RootsWeb indexes, and allows you to search, the submitted databases of thousands of genealogical researchers, and can be a valuable tool for finding out bits and pieces of information that other folks have uncovered.

It's also a fine way to perpetuate error.  When I was using it last week, for example, I came across a database in which a researcher had identified one of the early residents of Louisiana as having been born four years before his father was.

Now, having done genealogical research for years, I can tell you that this kind of mistake is easier to make than it would seem.  Genealogical software allows you to link up people quickly and easily, and while some (mine, for example) has features which give you an error message if you try to link two people who can't possibly be parent and child (or husband and wife), not all of them do.  So, my point is, not all errors of this type are careless research; many are probably just the genealogical equivalent of a typo.

In any case, the point of all this is that the RootsWeb server allows you to place an electronic post-it on others' databases, asking questions, giving additional information, or whatever.  So I posted, "How can this be _____'s father when he was born four years before his father was?"

The following day, I got a very snarky email from the owner of the database.  The gist of it was that I was finding fault with research that she had identified on her site as "tentative," and it ended with, "... you should have read my website notes before you posted your rude commentary, which clearly wasn't intended to be helpful."

Now, leaving aside the presumptuousness of thinking you can discern a total stranger's motives from a single sentence on a post-it, I find this attitude baffling.  I felt like writing back, "you 'tentatively' thought a person could be born prior to his father?  Are you ignorant of biology, or just generally stupid?"  But of course, I didn't; I sent a quick note apologizing, saying I hadn't meant to offend.  But really; why would any researcher object to having an obvious, simple error pointed out?

I ran afoul of the same attitude years ago, with a cousin of mine who wanted our mutual great-grandmother's family (the Iams family) to be descended from royalty.  He proposed a scheme for descending them from the kings of Scotland, which (upon delving into it a little) I found to be impossible.  In this case, I was a little more tactful right from the get-go, sensing that he was pretty happy to have royal blood - I sent him a letter gently breaking the news to him, and providing photocopies of the records I'd found that disproved his cherished hypothesis.

He never spoke to me again.

It's all about intellectual honesty, really.  I have had some theories of mine run headlong into the stone wall of factual evidence, and it's not pretty when that happens.  It's hard to go in, and where you had answers, put back in those blank-looking question marks.  But otherwise, what's the point?  Why would you engage in a pastime like this if you're satisfied with perpetuating falsehoods?

I have another hobby in which intellectual honesty plays a part, and that's birdwatching.  I'm what some birdwatchers derisively call a "twitcher" or a "lister;" I keep track of my sightings and actively search for birds I've never seen.  Now, anyone who's ever watched wildlife will know that the word "seen" isn't as clear-cut as you'd think.

A good example was the first time I "saw" a Ruffed Grouse, a bird which had eluded me for years.  I heard it first -- anyone who knows the fauna of the American Northeast will attest that this is generally the case, the call of a Ruffed Grouse carries for miles but the birds themselves are remarkably elusive.  Anyway, I'd been trying for nearly an hour to get a glimpse of the bird I heard calling, and suddenly there was a flurry of wings and a brownish blur took off through the trees and disappeared.

So, the dilemma: should I count it?   I knew what it was; I heard it, and was sure that this was the same bird I'd heard.  But by the rules I'd set for the game, that wasn't good enough -- to count it, I actually had to see it well enough to recognize it.  It was another year before I saw a Ruffed Grouse well enough to tick it off my list.

But I've met birders who don't have the same standards -- if they see a speck flying away, and someone else in the group is sure it's a particular species, they'll count it.  My question is, how is that honest record-keeping?

I know these are both just hobbies, and that I'm getting all serious about something that is just lighthearted recreation, but I still think the question is a valid one.  I find myself wondering about this when I read about intellectual dishonesty in other, far more serious venues -- when politicians will lie, or be selective with the truth, to achieve their political ends; when scientific researchers will falsify or ignore data to create an appearance of support of their favored theories. 

Just last week, a story broke about allegations that Dr. Dipak Das, whose research was responsible for the widespread contention that drinking red wine increases longevity and improves general health, had engaged in fraud.  His papers, which had appeared in peer-reviewed journals, and whose findings became part of the conventional wisdom on health and nutrition, were found to have 145 instances of "fabrication and falsification of data."  Das has, over the years, been the recipient of millions of dollars of federal grant money; the University of Connecticut just announced that they were returning to the government the last two grants, totaling $890,000.

Das, of course, has been "unavailable for comment."  But it is clear that these allegations are valid, and it is highly probable that his career is over.

What would possess someone to do such a thing?  How could someone, steeped in the honesty-at-all-costs tradition of the scientific method, not at least realize that sooner or later, he was bound to get caught?

I wonder if people like Das start small, like my genealogical acquaintances, and the cheating birders; if once you've become anesthetized to the effects of lying about small things, it becomes increasingly easy to lie about large ones.  It may seem silly, but it's the same thing; the only difference is scale.  We have a favorite theory, an outcome we really desire to be true, and we tell ourselves that it won't matter if we stretch the truth. 

And like anything, it becomes easier the more we practice.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Risky business

One thing that I find that many people don't understand is the concept of risk.

Risk has a formal, mathematical definition: it is equal to the probability of exposure times the probability of harm.  For example, an activity which is a commonplace occurrence (probability of exposure) and which, for those who participate in it, is very likely to cause injury or death (probability of harm) is considered to be highly risky.  An example is riding a motorcycle without a helmet.  Likewise, an activity for which both quantities are low -- such as eating a mango -- is a low-risk activity.

So far, easy.  When it becomes less intuitive is when one of the quantities is low, and the other is high -- such as riding in an airplane.  The probability of exposure is high (it's commonplace), but the probability of harm is extremely low (almost no one, of all the millions of people who fly daily, gets hurt doing it).  The overall risk is therefore quite low -- but the times when injury and death occur are spectacular, leading most people to overestimate the risk wildly.

An additional complicating factor occurs when engaging in one behavior stops you from doing another -- in which case you need to consider the net risk.  For example, if you're going to take a thousand-mile trip, and are undecided whether to fly or drive, the risk for flying is almost certainly lower than the risk for driving, so your net risk for the trip goes down by taking an airplane.  (I realize that there are other factors that can influence the decision -- such as cost.)

The whole issue comes up because of an article sent to me by a reader of Skeptophilia.  The article (here) is entitled "Twenty Things That Are More Dangerous To Children Than Lead Paint In Toys."  It is a perfect example of a combination of pseudoscientific bunk, alarmism, and a complete misunderstanding of the concept of risk.

To take just a few of their examples of their "things that are dangerous:"

1)  Mercury in dental amalgam.  Never mind that hundreds of controlled, peer-reviewed studies have concluded that the amount of mercury absorbed by the body from dental fillings is far below the amount that would cause harm; this article repeats the tired old claim that the mercury in your fillings is "poisoning you."  Odd, then, how many of us live long, healthy lives with mouths full of metal, isn't it?  (Here's one nice debunking of this claim -- with references.)

2)  Sunscreen.  Contains many "poisonous chemicals," says the article, and yet we "slather it all over our children."  First, given that the other options are getting sunburned, or avoiding the sun altogether, I think we can apply our concept of "net risk" here.  Ever heard of malignant melanoma, folks?  Second, the repeated use of the word "chemical" as something we should avoid is another ploy of the "holistic health" crowd, which cheerfully neglects the fact that we humans are really just a big bag o' chemicals already.  (Another statement from the article is that children's clothes should not be "washed in chemicals."  What, pray, should we wash them with, then?)  "Natural" does not mean "good;" the naturalistic fallacy is rampant in these sorts of claims.  I always get a laugh from food packages that say, "Made From All-Natural Ingredients."  I wonder what food made from "All Unnatural Ingredients" would look like?

3)  In the same vein, "synthetic vitamins" made the list.  I'm sorry to inform you, Mr. and Ms. Holistic Health,  but there is no difference between ascorbic acid (vitamin C) produced in a laboratory, and ascorbic acid extracted from oranges.  The body can't tell the difference.  There is no sorting station in your cells, looking at vitamin C molecules and saying, "Ooh, goodie!  This is a nice, natural vitamin C molecule from an orange!  Oh, YUK.  This is a horrid, unnatural vitamin C molecule from a laboratory!"

4)  Vaccines.  This one torques the absolute hell out of me, largely because of a personal connection; my mother contracted polio as a child, and as a result limped for her entire adult life; and my grandfather's two sisters, both teenagers, died three days apart from measles.  Died.  All of this occurred in the days before vaccines, and yet these "Natural Health" people somehow claim that vaccines are harmful to your health.  Yes, they often contain methyl mercury as a stabilizer (but like dental amalgam, the quantity is so low as to be insignificant to health), and every once in a while someone, somewhere will have an adverse reaction to a vaccine.  But if you compare the actual risk of vaccination as compared to the actual risk of going unvaccinated, they are orders of magnitude apart.  Vaccines have saved millions of lives -- and, to put not too fine a point on it -- if you are going to let unscientific bullshit like this persuade you not to vaccinate your children, you should be prosecuted for child endangerment.

Oh, and another thing; there is no connection between vaccines and autism.  None.  It has nothing to do with the "dumbed-down press" (direct quote from the article).  Once again, we have peer-reviewed studies that have repeatedly found no correlation, and the wild, unsupported claims of a "natural health practitioner" who sits there shrieking that vaccines cause "severe neurological damage" (another quote).

Well, I know who I believe.

All of this is not meant to say that we shouldn't be careful about what we put into our bodies.  Some of the things on the list (soda, fast food, and preserved meats such as hot dogs and bacon) clearly can have adverse effects if consumed in large quantities.  (In fact, I find it curious that "dryer sheets" made the list, while "high fructose corn syrup" didn't.  Compare the risk of type-2 diabetes from habitual overconsumption of sugar with recorded cases of dryer-sheet toxicity.  Let me know what you find.)

So, that's today's rant.  I'm off to consume my all-natural, chemical-free breakfast, and pray that the cumulative effects of my three dental fillings and years of vaccinations don't make me suddenly drop dead from "severe neurological damage."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Here lies an atheist: All dressed up, and nowhere to go.

I've been thinking a lot about death lately.  But for what it's worth, I'm not getting depressed about it or anything, so no need to start planning your intervention, or take away my Swiss army knife, or whatever.

I think the reason is because in the last two months, I've had three people I know die.  One, as I mentioned in a previous post, was my therapist, who died suddenly two days after Christmas.  The other two were long-term long distance friends, distant cousins of mine whom I'd met because of a mutual interest in genealogy, and with whom I had been corresponding for over twenty years.  Both were selfless and funny and kind, and although I'd never met either face-to-face, they were people that I counted amongst my friends.

The whole thing leaves me thinking about connections, and the holes left behind when people die.  I find myself wondering (and I ask honestly, without any feeling of self-pity) who have I touched?  My students, presumably, at least some of them.  My family, obviously.  I've never found it easy to make friends, but I have lots of what I'd call "good acquaintances" -- people who'd probably come to my memorial service, but whose life would roll on more-or-less unchanged in my absence.  It's really struck me in the last couple of years that I hardly ever socialize with anyone unless they're someone my wife knows, so I really have few close friends.  I'm not sure how much this bothers me -- some days yes, some days no -- but I do sometimes wonder why in my five decades I've consistently found it easy to get along with almost everyone, and to have a deep friendship with almost no one.

So what would my memorial service be like?  And why do I care?  If my worldview is correct, I won't be there in any form whatsoever to pass judgment on what my loved ones do to remember me, or what they do with my remains.  If they decide to have a full-blown Catholic funeral, complete with a nun reciting the rosary, I'll be none the wiser.  Part of me, though, just can't bear to think that this could happen.  Maybe it's the last thing we want to have control over -- "just follow my wishes until after the memorial service is over, and after that, do what you please!"

Me, I want to have music.  And food.  I suppose dancing is too much to ask, but honestly, that would be cool.  Bring some instruments.  Have a jam session.  Don't play anything maudlin.  (I swear, if anyone sings "Danny Boy"...)  I can think of one lightning-fast Finnish tune that would be a great sendoff.  Show some photos of travels, dives, gigs.  Break open a bottle of really good Spanish red wine.  Maybe more than one.  Maybe the Irish had the right idea, with their wakes.  Leave 'em laughing -- or at least, smiling.

And afterwards, everyone will go home, and the world will keep spinning, the stars will still shine at night; the only difference is that I won't be there to see it.  It's boggling, really.  I doubt I really fully comprehend what that means.  I doubt anyone does.  How could anyone conceive of being gone -- really gone, really and truly entirely gone?  Strange thought.  Doesn't scare me, honestly, it's more just inconceivable.

Or, maybe I've been wrong all along, and there's an afterlife.  Could be, I suppose.  There are certainly enough traditions which propose such a thing, and enough tales of people's spirits hanging around after the funeral for various reasons.  (If I die before our local pharmacist, and I become a ghost, I'm coming back just to scare the piss out of him.  I can't stand that sonofabitch.  But I digress.)

Either way, I'm not really scared to die.  I was with my father when he died, and mostly what I thought was... how peaceful.  Not really very scary at all.  It was sad, but it was sad for me and my mom -- not sad for him -- wherever he was, if anywhere, he wasn't there anymore.  He was gone, or far, far away, beyond any more pain or anguish or sorrow.

So that's how I look at my own death.  The biggest question mark I will ever face.  I do fear pain, I fear debility, I fear being dependent; but I don't really fear death.  My attitude is that when I die, it will simply be my turn to leap forward into the unknown.

Friday, January 13, 2012

It's all in the wrist

In what I consider a nice bit of good news, PowerBalance has finally admitted that their bracelets are useless.

For those of you who haven't run into this particular piece of woo-woo nonsense, PowerBalance is an American-based company that came out a few years ago with a selection of brightly-colored plastic bracelets, with a holographic logo imprinted on them, and claimed that wearing them would somehow improve your health.  Users swore by them; for a time I used to see them regularly at the gym I belong to.  Supposedly, these things improved your lifting ability, flexibility, and reduced your likelihood of sore joints and muscles afterwards.  For an explanation of how a plastic bracelet could do all of that, the company had to resort to pseudoscience of the most egregious sort; the claim was that their "holographic technology" made the bracelet "resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body."

One of my pet peeves (okay, admittedly I have quite a few) is people who use scientific terms in a non-scientific way.  A favorite term for these folks is "field," which to a physicist means something specific, measurable, and quantifiable, but in the hands of these charlatans it becomes something mysterious -- an aura that surrounds your body and interacts with the world (and the fields of other people, presumably) in magical ways.  And somehow, this little strip of plastic was supposed to "resonate with your field" and improve your ability to bench press.

Well, finally, someone has forced them to admit that it's all a bunch of crap, and high time.  Apparently, PowerBalance has been under attack from consumer organizations all over Europe, but it was in Australia that they were forced to print a public notice that they'd hoodwinked the people who had purchased their products:

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility.
We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.
If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologise and offer a full refund.
To obtain a refund please visit our website www.powerbalance.com.au or contact us toll-free on 1 800 733 436.
This offer will be available until 30th June 2011. To be eligible for a refund, together with return postage, you will need to return a genuine Power Balance product along with proof of purchase (including credit card records, store barcodes and receipts) from an authorised reseller in Australia.
This Corrective Notice has been paid for by Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd and placed pursuant to an undertaking to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission given under section 87B of the Trade Practices Act, 1974.
My general response was: hallelujah.  It's about time that one of these ripoff artists gets called on their fraudulent claims.  I'm saddened (but not surprised) that it hasn't happened in the US yet; at the risk of overgeneralization, I think Americans tend as a whole to be more superstitious (and therefore more easily suckered) than are citizens of most other industrialized countries.  Worthless quack cures (such as homeopathy) still are multi-million dollar business here, and (to my knowledge) there has been no concerted effort on the part of consumer organizations to try to stop them.  The only consistent push in that direction has come from skeptics, notably James Randi.

But this is a start.  One can only hope that it'll spread.  I'd like to live to see the day that psychics have to put disclaimers saying "Any Predictions I Make Are Probably Going To Be Wrong" underneath their sandwich boards, astrology columns come with a header saying "Warning: The Contents Of This Column Are Fiction" -- and the homeopaths are simply out of a job.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The flying saucers of Iran

I am fortunate, for a variety of reasons, to be a teacher.  I am in the middle of my 25th year in the profession, and still (most days) look forward to going to work.  In large part, this is due to the enthusiasm of my students.

Given that I teach two AP-level science classes and various science electives (including Critical Thinking), most of my students know about my passion for skepticism, and my general disdain for ridiculous, counterfactual (or counterlogical) claims.  I'm happy to report that the majority of them share my views with regards to irrationality, and like me, find such beliefs simultaneously maddening and hilarious.  They have been some of my best advance scouts, bringing in stories on a regular basis that I probably would not otherwise have found.

Just yesterday, one of the students in my AP Biology class came in, obviously excited.  "Wait till you hear this one," he said.  "This needs to be picked up by Worldwide Wacko Watch."  He then reminded me of the capture last month by Iranians of the RQ-170 drone aircraft, one of the high-tech "flying wings" that are used to perform unmanned surveillance missions.  "Do you know how they managed to do that?" he asked me.

To say I'm not knowledgeable about aircraft and military technology is an understatement, so I merely said, "No."

He responded, with barely-contained laughter, "Using a flying saucer."

Upon investigation, I found that Mehran Tavakoli Keshe, an Iranian engineer, has claimed to be the mastermind behind the downing of the drone.  Although the US has yet to confirm that it was the RQ-170 that was captured, Keshe has recently released a photograph showing either the captured drone or else a model (it's not clear which they're claiming it is).  He then went on to crow that the capture had not been done using any kind of conventional technology, but had been accomplished using "field forces generated by a flying saucer... (harnessing) a fusion reactor that manipulates dark matter, regular matter, and antimatter.'

Wow, dude.  You really should have stopped while you were ahead.  You almost had us believing you, there, when you showed us the photograph.  But you really expect us to buy that you Iranians have a flying saucer when you can't even seem to manage to build a conventional nuclear reactor that works?  And the whole thing about "field forces" (we presume he means "force fields") and fusion reactors and so on is clearly the product of someone who has spent too many hours watching Battlestar Galactica.  Given that physicists haven't even been able to demonstrate that dark matter exists -- if it does, it seems not to interact with regular matter much at all -- I am at a loss to explain how you could have a spaceship whose engine runs on it.

What's next?  A spaceship that runs on fairy dust and rainbows?

Even though Keshe obviously has a screw loose, his heart seems to be in the right place with respect to aggression.

"We invite the US government and other nations to enter into negotiation with the Foundation and The Iranian government,” he posted on the Keshe Foundation's online forum, “for disclosure of the full space technology to all nations simultaneously that there shall be no more war race, but a pace [sic] race to join and conquer the space and not each others little peace of lands so called nations, this offer stands and is extended to all nations irrespective of their colour, race and religion."

Which I have to admit is pretty friendly, coming from a spokesperson from a government that routinely calls for the United States to be annihilated.

In any case, I think the more likely explanation for the downing of the drone was proposed by Wired magazine writers Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman (here) -- that the Iranians simply jammed the drone's navigation systems.  That doesn't have the cachet, however, of "we locked onto your drone with our tractor beam, which is powered by dark matter and antimatter.  And dilithium crystals."

Still, nothing I can say can beat the response from George Little, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, who said, "We have no comment on this individual's claims -- but tell him the Secretary wants his light saber back."