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.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beam me up

After spending the last few days looking at such topics as the current US presidential race, the ethics of publishing teacher evaluations publicly, and the separation of church and state, let's get back to the issue that should be occupying the mind of every serious, concerned human being: lights appearing over Mayan pyramids.

It's kind of funny how lately, just mentioning the Mayans is enough to get you noticed.  This is becoming increasingly annoying to the Mayans themselves -- there are groups of Mexicans of Mayan descent, living primarily in the states of Campeche, Yucat√°n, and Quintana Roo, and with the exception of the few who are happy to have the money from woo-woo tourism, most of them just seem to be rolling their eyes.  In fact, one of them, Apolinario Chile Pixtun, spoke to reporters about the phenomenon, and was quoted as saying, "I came back from England last year, and man, they had me fed up with this stuff."

Well, Mr. Pixtun may be fed up, but let me tell you, the woo-woos are still starved for it.  Witness the following photograph, taken by Hector Siliezar, which was taken in 2009 but just hit the internet last week:


The photograph, which was taken while Siliezar and his family were on vacation, is of one of the pyramids at Chichen Itza.  A thunderstorm was coming, and Siliezar thought the pyramid with the dark clouds behind it would make a dramatic photograph, so he snapped several shots with his iPhone.  It was, he said, only after he looked at them afterwards that he saw what appeared to be a beam of light coming from the top of the pyramid.

It's unclear why he didn't make the photograph public until now, but be that as it may, he decided to release it a couple of weeks ago to what he calls "occult investigators."  And from there to every woo-woo in the world having multiple orgasms was only a short step.  For example, check out this article, which not only contains an interview with Siliezar and his wife,  but ends with the following hyperbolic quote from Schele and Freidel's A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya:  "...As the Maya exploited the patterns of power in time and space, they used ritual to control the dangerous and powerful energies their [pyramids and structures] released.  There were rituals which contained the accumulated power of objects, people, and places when they were no longer in active use."

So, basically, they're implying that the beam is some kind of gigantic psychic carpet shock -- that all of the rituals and whatnot built up energy in the pyramid, and eventually it just discharged, and Siliezar was lucky enough to get it on film.

Predictably, I'm not buying it.  But that still leaves the question of what the beam actually is.  For that, let's turn not to an "occult researcher," but to a real scientist -- Jonathon Hill, research technician for the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University.  Hill, who specializes in image analysis, says that the beam is nothing more than a digital camera glitch.

What happened, explains Hill, is that Siliezar snapped the photo just as a lightning flash occurred, and the intensity of the flash "...caused the camera's CCD sensor to behave in an unusual way, either causing an entire column of pixels to offset their values or causing an internal reflection [off the] camera lens that was recorded by the sensor."  This created the appearance of a bright column on the image.  But how can he be sure of this?

Well, it turns out if you examine an enlarged copy of the image on Photoshop, you find that the beam is perfectly vertical on the image - not one pixel's variation.  I don't know about you, but that strikes me as pretty hard to explain if you think it's a photograph of a real beam of light.  It certainly struck Hill, who figured all this out, that way.  "That's a little suspicious since it's very unlikely that the gentleman who took this picture would have his handheld iPhone camera positioned exactly parallel to the 'light beam' down to the pixel level," Hill told reporters.

So, there you have it, not that it will convince the woo-woos.  In an interesting but clearly non-meaningful coincidence, I was just chatting with a student yesterday about what all the woo-woos are going to do when December 22, 2012 rolls around, and Quetzalcoatl hasn't reappeared, and our general take on it was that they'll just come up with some kind of bullshit recalculation of the date, and a few months later we'll have to go through it all again.  Because that is, after all, what it's all about -- being a woo-woo means never having to say you're sorry.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Grading the teachers

Educators across New York state were shocked and alarmed by last week's decision by the New York City School District to release the scores earned by 18,000 teachers.

The reduction of a teacher's entire year's performance to a single numerical score is the result of the New York State Education Department's effort to comply with President Obama's "Race To The Top" initiative, which demands greater accountability from educators and administrators.  The scores are calculated by a complex "value-added" formula, that supposedly takes into account student performance, student growth, and a variety of other factors.

And of course, the reaction by teachers to this public release of individual data has made the anti-education crowd howl with triumph.  The teachers don't want the data released, they say, because it finally points a finger at underperforming educators, who should either fix what they're doing or else find a new career.  The unions are complicit in this desire for secrecy, because they don't want to reform tenure law to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.  Why, they ask, shouldn't taxpayers get a chance to see the job evaluations of the people whose salary and benefits they are directly subsidizing?

Well, I've talked to a great many of my colleagues about this, and let me correct a few misapprehensions.  First of all, no teacher I've ever met has ever stated a desire to retain teachers who aren't doing their job.  In fact, more than one have expressed resentment against "rubber rooms" and other mechanisms sometimes employed to keep bad teachers on the payrolls.  It gives, they say, a bad name to the whole profession.

Most teachers are afraid to have the data published for an entirely different reason.  It is that they do not trust NYSED to score them fairly.

Here is an agency that spent, last year, 13.7 million dollars to develop, print, and distribute the Regents examinations statewide, and still can't write a test that meets any kind of reasonable minimum standard for reliability.  As an example, a few years ago, there was a pair of questions on the "Living Environment" (Biology) Regents exam that went something like the following (I cannot find the specific questions, so am having to rely on my memory - but you'll get the gist):

31.  Asexual reproduction produces offspring that
a)  are exact copies of the parent.
b) contain a mixture of genes from both parents.
c) have many dominant genes.
d) are better adapted than the parent was.

32.  Based upon your answer to #31, the organism that has the slowest rate of evolution is
a) humans.
b) bacteria.
c) oak trees.
d) mice.

Well, almost everyone got #31 correct; we make a major point of the fact that sexually reproducing species have varied offspring, and asexual species produce clones.  But what, then, is the answer to #32?

The answer that keyed as correct is (b) bacteria.  I remember checking the key more than once, thinking I'd misread it.  Surely they can't be implying that solely because they reproduce asexually, bacteria aren't evolving -- that the method of reproduction is the only thing that controls the rate of evolution?

Yes, in fact, that is exactly what they were implying.  Despite abundant evidence that bacteria evolve rapidly (witness the appearance in recent years of antibiotic-resistant strains of everything from staphylococcus to TB), this test claims that humans are evolving faster because we reproduce sexually.  So I emailed the science specialist at NYSED, and asked if there was some mistake.  Within hours, I got back a highly snarky response, that they had "consulted their experts" and the answer stood.  I had to mark students wrong who correctly identified humans as evolving more slowly than bacteria.

In fact, the tests are so poorly constructed, and the questions (and therefore the allowable answers) so open to interpretation, that NYSED is no longer allowing teachers to grade their own students' Regents exams.  Even more telling -- there is now a recommendation by NYSED that Regents exam scores not be used in a student's final grade calculation.  How's that for a vote of confidence in the reliability of their own exams?

So I think New York state educators are to be excused if we lack confidence in NYSED's ability to design a fair assessment.  I'll go even further; I believe that the scores that they are assigning to teachers are completely meaningless.  Teachers have no control over what students they teach; no control over the poverty level, home life, and other outside stressors their students experience; and little to no control over what kinds, and how many, subjects they are assigned to teach each year.  The idea that given that number of variables,  you could find a single measure that could equally reliably represent the performance of a teacher of AP Calculus in a wealthy school in Westchester County and a 6th grade special education teacher in a poor school in the Bronx is ludicrous.

But that, unfortunately, is exactly what the micromanaging b-b stackers at NYSED have done, and that is what is being released to the public.  Imagine if we did the same to our students -- gave them no feedback of any kind for most of the year, nor informed them how their grade was to be calculated -- just waited until the end of the year, and then assigned, on a seemingly random basis, grades between 0 and 100 for everyone.

That is, in effect, what NYSED is doing.  And you wonder why teachers don't want this made public.  If your own job evaluation was done in this fashion, and by people with this kind of track record for reliability, would you want it published in the newspaper?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Faith, the "secular left," and hypocrisy

In what appears to be nothing more than a coincidence, the top four stories in the "Most Popular" column on the Yahoo! News this morning form a fascinating quartet.

Santorum Says He Doesn't Believe In Separation Of Church And State
Gingrich Warns Of Role Of "Secular Left"
Penn Judge: Muslims Allowed To Attack People For Insulting Mohammed
Santorum: No Apology Needed For Quran Burning

In the first two, GOP candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich make statements that all of us -- not just the "secular left" of Newt's warning -- should be concerned about.  Let's hear first from Gingrich, who bemoans the eroding of the American principles our Founding Fathers intended to establish:

"The forces of the secular left believe passionately and deeply, and with frankly a religious fervor, in their world view and they will regard what I am saying as a horrifying assault on what they think is the truth," Gingrich said.  "Because their version of the truth is to have a totally neutral government that has no meaning."

Santorum went even further, stating that the separation of church and state should not be "absolute," and he pronounced himself sickened when he thinks of John F. Kennedy's assurance to a group of Baptist ministers in 1960 that he would not attempt to press his Catholic views upon the nation's policy.

JFK's removal of faith from the public square, Santorum said, "... makes me want to throw up."

The problem is, of course, that people like Gingrich and Santorum are never really talking about faith in its general sense.  What they'd like is to have their own faith drive policy.  It's why you have the Catholic bishops up in arms about having to include birth control in insurance coverage for their employees, and fundamentalists trying to get creationism and/or intelligent design implanted in high school biology curricula -- but rarely the reverse.  The complaints about the inroads made by secularism never seem to focus on anything more than the particular religious beliefs of the person making the complaint.

This is what makes the third and fourth stories so interesting.  In the third, a state judge in Pennsylvania, Mark Martin, threw out an assault case in which an atheist, Ernie Perce, was attacked by a devout Muslim, Talaag Elbayomy.  Perce, it seems, was in a Halloween parade -- dressed up as "zombie Mohammed."  Elbayomy, outraged, attacked Perce, and was arrested.  And in an astonishingly bizarre interpretation of the law, Martin threw out the case, stating that the First Amendment does not give one license to "provoke others," and pronounced Perce a "doofus."

In the fourth story, we're back to Rick Santorum -- who is upset with President Obama for apologizing to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, and to the Afghan people, for the inadvertent burning of some copies of the Quran in a trash pit, an act which caused riots and loss of life.  Santorum said that Karzai should be the one apologizing to us on the behalf of the "Afghan people for attacking and killing our men and women in uniform and overreacting to this inadvertent mistake."

Easy to say, isn't it?  Funny how on the one hand, the secularization of America makes Santorum want to "throw up," and yet when you look at the one place in the world where faith most strongly drives policy -- the Middle East -- any admission that their faith is worthy of respect is some sort of sign of weakness.  And as far as Mark Martin, the Pennsylvania judge who believes that religious opinion should trump secular law -- isn't this exactly the kind of thing that Santorum and Gingrich want?  Oh, wait -- that's the wrong kind of faith.  Now I get it.

It's why secularism in the public square -- and that includes public schools -- is imperative.  You should be allowed to believe what you choose, and let those beliefs guide your actions in your own home and in whatever house of worship you choose (or none at all).  However, when it comes to any imposition of those beliefs on another person, secular law has to win.  Are you outraged by zombie Mohammad, Mr. Elbayomy?  Tough.  Deal with it.  Rail about it to your children, your spouse, your imam.  But assaulting someone?  Sorry, that's not allowed.  Do the fundamentalists hate the teaching of evolution in public schools?  Oh, well.  That's why we call it "science class."  You are free, in your home and in your church, to claim that the biology teacher is a big fat liar, or failing that, to put your child in a private religious school.  Do the Catholics object to the fact that health insurance covers contraception?   Too bad.  Contraception is legal in the United States.  No one is mandating that your followers use it -- simply that it is available.

It's why Santorum's bemoaning the separation of church and state, and Gingrich's fear of the "secular left," are blatant hypocrisy.  When Santorum supports Mark Martin's dismissal of the "zombie Mohammad" assault case, and Gingrich pushes to see Hindu creation stories mandated in high school science classes, I'll believe that they really are supporters of faith in its broad sense.  Until then, they are just trying to accomplish here what the ayatollahs and imams already do in their own countries -- imposing, from the top down, their own religious views upon the rest of the citizenry.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Everything in this blog is true

Regular readers of this blog may remember that about a year ago, a student of mine attempted to kill me by sending me a video clip of an apparently pathologically stupid woman attempting to defend the practice of homeopathy.  This student, who by all appearances is a moral and upstanding young man, nevertheless induced me to watch something which he knew might well have the effect of making me choke on my own outrage and die in horrible agony.

Needless to say, I survived the first murder attempt.  Not satisfied with failure, however, this same student has tried again, this time sending me a link to a website called “Truthism.com.”

I must say that as murder attempts go, this one was pretty inspired.  The homeopathy clip was only about eight minutes long, while this website took a half-hour to read thoroughly – thirty minutes of my life that I will never again get back, and a half-hour during which I made many muffled snorting noises, rather like a bulldog with a sinus blockage.  In case you’re understandably reluctant to waste that amount of time, or possibly risk dying of Exploding Brain Syndrome, I present below a summary of the gist of the Truthism website.
1) Everything on this website is true.

2) If you doubt anything on this website, you are at best asleep, and at worst a mindless sheep who is being led about by evil government disinformation specialists.

3) Many things which turned out to be true were disbelieved, even laughed at, at first. Therefore if you disbelieve and laugh at this website, it must be true.

4) You do not have access to government Top Secret facilities and records. Therefore, anything this website claims is in those facilities and records must be true, because you can’t disprove it.

5) Science is just another means for the ruling elite to control the populace.

6) The ruling elite also invented religion and morality as a way to control the populace. The fact that science and religion are often in conflict is an indication that they are both wrong.

7) The current ruling elite are the same individuals who created the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Nazca lines.

8) These individuals, for good measure, also created humanity itself.

9) Because the ruling elite aren’t actually people, but are super-intelligent reptiles from another planet.

10) Called “Annunaki.”

11) Did I mention that everything in this website is true?

12) The fact that many ancient cultures depicted snakes in their art is proof that the earth is being ruled by reptiles from outer space.

13) The caduceus, the symbol of medical science, is a pair of snakes coiled together. It looks a little like a DNA molecule, which is the repository of all the genetic information in the cell.

14) There you are, then.

15) If that doesn’t prove it to you, then consider the following chain of logic: Crop Circles, Area 51, Ancient Astronauts, the Face on Mars, Freemasons, the Hollow Earth Theory!

16) Ha. That sure showed YOU.

17) And as a last piece of evidence; everything on this website is true.
I have to point out, at this juncture, how much it cost me to write all this out for you.  I can hear the pathetic little death screams of the neurons in my frontal cortex as I’m writing this.  But being the selfless reporter that I am, on the front lines of investigation, I’m willing to undergo significant risks to my own health, safety, and IQ in order to bring this story to your doorstep.

And you know, it’s not as if I can’t see the attractiveness of this as a theory.  Think how positing the existence of evil, super-powerful cold-blooded reptilian alien propaganda specialists would explain, for example, Ann Coulter.  But alas, it’s not enough simply to like a theory, it has to fit with the data, and at the moment, the lion’s share of the evidence is in the “against” column.  So, sad to say, we must conclude that despite the website’s repeated claims of being true, its domain name should probably be changed to “EgregiousBullshitism.com.”

And with that said, I think I should go lie down for a while and recover from this latest assassination attempt. If this keeps happening, I may have to hire a bodyguard.

Friday, February 24, 2012

End of the week wrap-up

Well, it's Friday, and "TGIF" is the slogan of the day here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  But before we kick back for the weekend, there are a few stories we need to put to bed, all contributions by regular readers of this blog.

The first one, which comes from Hebei Province, China, is a tawdry story of bigamy -- a girl playing fast and loose with the hearts of two young swains.  Worse still, the parents of all three were aware, even complicit in, the affair.  (Source)

Worst of all, all three of the participants were dead at the time.

Apparently in this region of China, it's considered adding insult to injury if you die single.  Presumably being dead is bad enough, but being dead and not getting any is just intolerable.  So if a single family member dies, it's considered the only reasonable thing to do to find a nearby eligible person (eligible in the sense of being approximately the same age, unmarried, and also dead), and marry them to each other post-mortem.  The dowry, paid to the young woman's family, can run over 30,000 yuan ($4,700).

In this case, however, another young man's family wanted the same for him, so they hired grave robbers to dig up the woman's body, and married her off to their young bachelor, again at a cost of 30,000 yuan.

You have to wonder how the spirit world will handle all of these three-way goings-on.  Bigamy is illegal in China, so presumably the best thing to do would be to find a dead lawyer who is willing to write up divorce papers.  On the other hand, maybe the rules are different in the afterlife, so perhaps we should leave well enough alone if the happy, um, trio is okay with it.


Speaking of leaving well enough alone, we now travel to the town of Totnes (Devon), England, where a war is being fought over some gnome statues that were placed, by the approval of town officials, in a local roundabout.  (Source)

Well, to be more accurate, they're not your typical, quaint garden gnomes.  What they are is statues of the Seven Dwarfs, spray-painted bright blue.  The overall effect is that they look like the love children of Dopey and Smurfette.

Many Totnesians are not amused.

"Please assure me I haven't been imbibing an illegal hallucinogenic substance and that the shiny blue monstrosities on the roundabout in Totnes are not a figment of my fevered mind," said Hazel Fuller, of Dartington.

Another Totnes resident, Chris Keleher, said, "The offending gnomes may be appropriate in Las Vegas or in Disneyland but to claim that they enhance the image of Totnes in any way is to insult the values of what Totnes is supposed to stand for."

Apparently, a few folks have even called for the resignation of the mayor, Judy Westacott, for "a breach of public trust and humiliation."

Others have defended the gnomes (and the mayor).  In what may be one of the oddest non sequiturs I've ever heard, Ann Rutherford, of Totnes in Bloom (the organization that sponsored the gnomes in the first place), said, "Real Totnesians have fallen about with laughter at the blue gnomes.  They are great fun.  It is only uptight, humorless incomers who object.  Do we constantly have to go round in hair shirts eating organically grown food?"

So there you have it, Totnes: your choices are (1) fall about with laughter at the spray-painted Disney dwarfs, or (2) wear hair shirts and eat organically-grown food.  The choice, I think, is clear.


Speaking of choices, our last story brings us back to the US, where all of the furor over the 2012 presidential election is about to be resolved in a singularly spectacular fashion.

Some of you probably have heard about UFO Phil, and in fact I did a post on him last October (here) describing his plans to build a UFO refueling station on Alcatraz Island.  Now, he's back in the spotlight, for a different reason -- he says that by the power invested in the aliens from another galaxy who he's been talking to, he's going to assume the US presidency in November regardless of who wins the popular vote or the ballots cast in the electoral college.  (Source)

Now, before you say that this is impossible, remember that this is essentially what George W. Bush did in 2000, if you replace "aliens from another galaxy" with "his brother Jeb and other cronies from the state of Florida."

In any case, UFO Phil is content to let the debates and all continue for the time being.  "I'm going to become your new president," he said, brimming with his usual ebullient confidence.  "Don't worry, Obama, Mitt Romney and whoever else can still have their little election.  That's not going to affect me."

As far as what his platform is, he says that the first thing he'll do as president is to establish a "Senate for Terrestrial Relations," whose purpose would be to prepare for the arrival of "our brothers from space."  He would then decommission the military, and replace all of the airplanes and so on with spaceships.  Last, he would take down the Statue of Liberty, and replace it with a monument to Zaxon, the leader of the friendly aliens.

"He has very nice skin and will look phenomenal as a statue," UFO Phil told reporters.

Me, I'm okay with it.  It can't be much worse than what some of our other government leaders are currently doing.  So UFO Phil would have my vote, as long as he promises not to sing at his inauguration, because I've heard some of his songs (you can find plenty on YouTube), and I have to say that if I had a choice between listening to UFO Phil sing and removing both ears with a belt sander, it would be a tough call.


Anyhow, that's our news for Friday here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  Chinese dead bigamists, blue dwarf statues in England, and UFO Phil destined for the presidency.  So thanks to all who submitted links, and a happy TGIF to all of you.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Spinning away the rough edges

Is it too much to ask to have an honest political debate?

I'm not referring to any particular candidate having lied; I'm more referring to the entire spectacle.  All the candidates are coached to a faretheewell, told by their strategists and tacticians what to say, when to smile, when to get angry, and where to look.  As a result, what we see has little to do with the reality of any of the candidates' personalities or approaches to leadership, and more to do with what their handlers think would be expedient apropos of getting elected.

Really, did we -- or more to the point, could we -- learn anything about the Republican candidates from last night's GOP debate in Arizona?  Santorum and Romney both spent most of their time jockeying for the position of Least Liberal Man On Stage; Gingrich seemed mostly to smile paternally, and when asked for a one-word description of himself, said, "Cheerful," as if that were a qualification for public office; and Paul continued to sound his "small government" mantra.  We didn't learn a single new thing about any of them, and given the way debates are run (and analyzed afterwards), I doubt we could have.

I think the last time that I saw any real authenticity in a debate was during the Bentsen/Quayle vice presidential debate, when Quayle compared himself to JFK and Bentsen shot back with the now-famous quip, "Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. And senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."  Pow!  Zing!  Can you think of any moment in a more recent debate when a candidate has actually responded, in an unscripted and honest fashion, to anything?

Oh, for the times when there was a real exchange, when you could actually learn something about a politician's personality, views, articulateness, and quickness of mind from watching him or her speak.  It's not that it was always (or even often) polite; more than once, such debates drew blood (figuratively, if not literally).  Possibly the most brilliant retort ever recorded was the exchange on the floor of the British Parliament between the Earl of Sandwich and the redoubtable John Wilkes.  Sandwich was so infuriated by something Wilkes had said that he blurted out, "Wilkes, I predict that you will either die on the gallows or else of some loathsome disease!"  Wilkes coolly responded, "Which it will be, my dear sir, will depend entirely on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

Zing!

Can you honestly imagine anything of the kind occurring in one of today's "debates?"

Winston Churchill has a well-deserved reputation for thinking on his feet, and few could best him in an intellectual argument.  There's the famous exchange between him and Lady Astor ("Sir Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your coffee!"  "Lady Astor, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.")  But there were others.  Churchill was doing a public speech, in front of hundreds, and a man came up to one of Churchill's aides and handed him a sealed envelope.  Thinking it was a crucial message, the aide went up to Churchill (still on the stage) and handed him the envelope.  Churchill paused in his speech, and opened the letter, only to find a sheet of paper with the word "IDIOT" scrawled on it in huge, black letters.

Totally unflustered, Churchill showed the paper to the audience and said, "I've often received letters where the sender forgot to sign his name, but this is the first time I've received one where the sender signed his name but forgot to write the letter."

Pow!

It's not just in public speaking events that politicians used to feel freer to express their views; knowing that every time a public figure speaks, his or her words could be recorded, excerpted, and broadcast on the internet, leaders today have to be constantly on their guard.  It didn't used to be that way.  Even the taciturn Calvin Coolidge knew how to use his tongue, when he chose to.  After watching a particularly dreadful opera performance, President Coolidge was cornered by a reporter while leaving the theater.  "What do you think of the singer's execution?" the reporter asked.

Coolidge responded, "I'm all for it."

Zap!

It's not that people like Wilkes, Churchill, and Coolidge didn't prepare, didn't write scripts, didn't have advisers.  It's just that in those days, before the terms "spin" and "sound bite" had been coined, speakers were not hesitant about letting their personalities (rough edges and all) show.  Even Ronald Reagan, much as I hate to admit it, was more authentic than any of today's candidates are; although I usually disagreed with what he said, I had no doubt that what we were seeing was the real Reagan.

Today, I wonder.  And I also wonder how far today's Wilkeses and Churchills could get in the political arena without being tamed, muzzled, or simply swept aside by the media and the party machinery.

It's also why I tend to pay attention to the candidates' pasts.  What they said when they were less watched, less guarded, is often more telling than what they're saying now, where an unfortunate word choice can lead to a drop in the all-important polls.  It's why, for example, I think it's critical that we think carefully about declarations like the ones Santorum made in his 2008 "America is under attack by Satan" speech.  When the media resuscitated this speech, made at Ave Maria University, Santorum at first defended himself by saying that he simply "believes in good and evil," but finally added with some annoyance that the comments he'd made were from an "old speech" and so were "not relevant."  On the contrary; they're extremely relevant, mostly because there's no way in hell he'd admit to any such thing in what currently passes for presidential debate.  Old stump speeches, made to people whose views the candidate shares, are the best way to get a window into what the candidate's views actually are.  It may, unfortunately, be the only way.

Evidently, glib but unimaginative scripted responses, rather than speaking from the heart, are now the currency of debate.  How sad for American politics; how sad for us all that we cannot be allowed to see who we are actually voting for.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A democracy of ideas

Lately I've been doing something I probably shouldn't do, to wit: reading the reader responses to articles in the Yahoo! News.

I realize that this is a skewed sample -- but I will say, and I know it sounds harsh, that the average IQ of the responders seems to be in the range more commonly associated with shoe sizes.  And they seem to have no particular problem with trumpeting their stupidity in an international public forum.  I know that there are many, many topics about which I am ignorant, but I try my best not to make moronic pronouncements about them.  There's that well-known quote, variously attributed to Confucius, Mark Twain, and others -- "Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it."

Well, that lesson has yet to sink in for many.  Take, as an example, the article that appeared today, regarding the fact that this is (thus far) one of the warmest winters on record, worldwide, despite some regional lows (such as the viciously cold winter eastern Europe has had).  Here are a sampling of responses, which I'm paraphrasing from memory, because if I have to go back and re-read the actual responses, I'll scream and wake up my sleeping family:

"Warmest winter my ass.  I looked up the record high temperature in my city, and it hasn't been broken since 1960.  If it's not happening to me, it isn't global!"

"It's all a lie made up by Obozo and company to get you to lie down and let them walk over you with their stormtrooper boots."

"So what if it is global warming.  The Arctic Ocean will be free of ice and we can use it for shipping.  It'll inconvenience the polar bears and penguins and the rest of us won't give a damn.  Bring it on."


And so on, for pages and pages. I could go on, but I won't; I think I lost several dozen brain cells just typing those three out.  However, I have to man up and write out one other one, which stood out for an interesting reason:

"Will you people wake up.  Global warming IS A LIE made up by the liberal tree-huggers to get you to buy into their agenda.  Wise up, or I hope you'll be happy walking everywhere you go, with no electricity for your house and the American economy destroyed."

I find this one interesting because I think it's illustrative of a tendency I see in a lot of areas; "I don't like this idea" = "this idea isn't true."  Clearly, this individual thinks that the result of a drastic decrease in fossil fuel use would be bad -- no gasoline for cars, no coal for electrical plants, and the hit on the economy from the collapse of the petrochemical industry.  From this, (s)he has inferred that global warming isn't happening.

I have no particular issue with someone questioning, from a scientific standpoint, the evidence for global warming (although I really wish people could get into their heads the difference between "climate" and "weather" in these discussions).  I also have no problems with debating whether the cure (reduction in petrochemical use) might be worse than the disease.  However, I didn't think it took a particularly advanced brain to recognize that the two aren't connected, except insofar as the disproof of global climate change would obviate the need to do something about it.  The point is, just because you don't like the solution doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist.  If you engage in that sort of thinking, you're just doing the adult version of "la la la la la, not listening."

In any case, I don't intend to get into the evidence for climate change here.  I really meant this more as a commentary on the way people think, and their tendency to feel that it's their god-given right to bloviate about topics regardless of whether they actually know anything about them.  Maybe that's the problem; people have the misapprehension that the word "democracy" extends to ideas.  Democracy is all well and good in politics; everyone has a say, and it tends to blend out the voices of the extremes.  However, "your vote is equal to mine" and "your rights are equal to mine" does not imply that "your ideas are equal to mine."  Your ideas might be better than mine, if you're an expert and I'm not.  If I jumped up and said to Stephen Hawking, "You need to listen to what I have to say about quantum mechanics!" I wouldn't be exercising my rights as a citizen of a democratic country, I would be a moron.

To quote Richard Dawkins: "If there are two opposing ideas, it is not always true that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  It is possible that one person is simply wrong."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Six impossible things before breakfast

Yesterday's post, about the ridiculous aspects of conspiracy theories, prompted a regular reader of Skeptophilia to send me a link that indicated how deep the pools of craziness go.

The link was to a paper (you can download the entire thing here) by Michael Wood, Karen Douglas, and Robbie Sutton that appeared in the January 2012 issue of Social, Psychological, and Personality Science.  Called "Dead and Alive: Belief in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories," this paper describes an experiment supporting a fantastic conclusion -- that people who believe in conspiracy theories are likely to believe simultaneously in different versions of them, even if those versions are mutually exclusive.

The set-up, which is positively brilliant, is that the three researchers asked 137 participants to take a survey ranking a variety of scenarios from "extremely unlikely" to "extremely likely."  The scenarios included various tropes from conspiracy theories, including:
  • 9/11 was an inside job by the US government
  • The moon landing was faked
  • The CIA was behind the JFK assassination
  • Global warming is a hoax
Sprinkled amongst the questions were a variety of scenarios that involved the death of Princess Diana:
  • Diana was killed by a rogue cell of the British Intelligence
  • Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed were killed by Al-Fayed's relatives, who disapproved of their relationship
  • Diana was killed by agents of the royal family to prevent her marrying an Arab
  • Diana faked her own (and Al-Fayed's) deaths in order to escape from the notoriety
Now, you would think that even the most conspiratorial of conspiracy theorists would see that whatever you believe, no two of these could possibly be true simultaneously.  But, amazingly, that isn't what the results showed.  The study supported two eye-opening conclusions, to wit:
  • If you believe in any conspiracy theories at all (e.g. 9/11 was an inside job), you are likely to believe in all of them; and
  • The higher you rank a particular version of a conspiracy theory, the higher you rank others -- even if those alternate explanations are self-contradictory.
Yes, you read that right -- people who said that it was "highly likely" that Diana was killed by members of her own family also said it was "highly likely" that she had faked her own death and was still alive.

Thinking this couldn't possibly be a valid conclusion, the researchers tried the experiment again, with a different set of test subjects, and this time using Osama bin Laden as their example.  Again, the subjects had to rank such statements as "Osama's death was falsely reported by the Obama administration; he is still alive" and "Osama was already dead by the time of the raid" -- and the researchers found a strong correlation between belief in both statements.

Well.  I hardly know what to say that the study doesn't make abundantly clear on its own.  Mostly, I find myself wondering if belief in conspiracy theories should be considered a mental illness, given that it so obviously derails rational thought.  Here is the conclusion of Wood, Douglas, and Sutton's paper:
In any case, the evidence we have gathered in the present study supports the idea that conspiracism constitutes a monological belief system, drawing its coherence from central beliefs such as the conviction that authorities and officials engage in massive deception of the public to achieve their malevolent goals.  Connectivity with this central idea lends support to any individual conspiracy theory, even to the point that mutually contradictory theories fail to show a negative correlation in belief.  Believing that Osama bin Laden is still alive is apparently no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Conspiratorial conspiracies

I have once again been thinking about conspiracy theories.  This time, the culprit is "College Humor," the occasionally brilliant perpetrators of countless YouTube videos.  This particular one, called "Deceptive Deceptions," definitely falls into the "spot-on hilarious" range of the spectrum (see the clip here).  It makes wonderful fun of the Zeitgeist mindset, which is desperate to find clues and hints everywhere of a global conspiracy.  (And if you've never seen "Zeitgeist," my recommendation is "don't bother."  Just sit down, close your eyes, and spend five minutes contemplating the idea that the Illuminati are running the world and that a coalition between Monsanto and the Vatican is pulling the strings of everyone from Barack Obama to Quentin Tarantino, and try not to let the rational part of your mind interrupt with any busybody-comments about how unlikely it all is.  Then go sit on your couch and have a cold beer and give thanks for the forty-five minutes of your life that you didn't waste watching this ridiculous video.)

Unfortunately, though, there are a lot of people who believe this stuff.  We've discussed conspiracy theories in my Critical Thinking class, and the discussion has often centered around the idea of Ockham's Razor -- if there are two (or more) theories to explain something, and all of them account for the known facts, the simplest one is the most likely to be true.  Ockham's Razor is, of course, only a rule of thumb -- there have been times when some incredibly convoluted series of events turns out actually to have happened -- but in my experience, it works pretty damn well.

This still hasn't stopped websites like "Conspiracy Planet" from cropping up.  This website, which once again I would caution you from spending too much time with lest your brain turn to cream-of-wheat, is a bit of a clearinghouse for wingnuts.  Some of the high points:
  • The ultimate aim of the Illuminati is to have Arnold Schwarzenegger become president.  Evidently, the Illuminati are unfamiliar with the fact that you have to have been born a United States citizen in order to run for president, but hey, ultra-powerful black-robed secret world leaders need never let paltry things like facts stand in their way.  Another entry on the page for Ahnold states that he is the third Antichrist.  I didn't even know that we'd already had two, did you?
  • A crop circle, shaped like a human with butterfly wings, is a sign that evolution is speeding up.  It has -- and this is a direct, word-for-word quote -- "accelerated evolution on a quantum level, sending out ripples of transformative energy."  Reading this made me have to decide between guffawing and doing a face-plant directly into my desk, and the whole thing is leaving me wondering about my choice of spending over two decades attempting to educate children in the principles of scientific induction.
  • The whole, tired, "NASA faked the landing on the moon" malarkey, reworked and revisited and regurgitated.
  • Chemotherapy actually causes cancer.  This will no doubt come as a great shock to my friend who is currently recovering from leukemia after intensive chemotherapy.
  • Cold fusion actually is true.
  • You don't need flu shots to prevent flu. There is a new therapy which uses "resonant frequencies" to "shake viruses to pieces." Flu shots, in fact, are completely ineffective and were developed in order to keep money flowing into the pharmaceuticals industry.
And so on.  I can only take so much of this.  Believing in this sort of stuff seems to take a combination of factual ignorance, a desire to believe, and a huge dose of confirmation bias.  It's amusing to read about, but I keep coming back to the fact that for these websites, magazines, and so on to exist, someone actually finds it plausible.  I really should stop thinking about it, because despair isn't a healthy state of mind.

I'll just finish up with a quote by H. L. Mencken, which seems fitting:
The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts.  He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stonehenge and the sound of silence

Scientists understand the world through the use of models.  These models, most often mathematical systems, are an attempt to describe how the world works, and (with luck) make predictions that then can be supported (or not) by experimental data.

It is an all too common error, however, to then decide that the model is the reality.  We see this in the realm of simple analogy, where the analogy is substituted for the real phenomenon (as in my student who began one of her AP exam essays with the sentence, "Antibodies are trash tags.").  On a more sophisticated level, we have people like Stephen Wolfram, the iconoclastic mathematician and theorist whose book A New Kind of Science (2002) makes the claim that because some processes in the universe resemble a mathematical construct called a "cellular automaton," the universe is, in fact, just a bunch of interacting, interlocking cellular automata.  This conjecture led Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg to state, "It's possible, but I can't see any motivation for these speculations, except that this is the sort of system that Wolfram and others have become used to in their work on computers.  So might a carpenter, looking at the moon, suppose that it is made of wood."

An interesting example of mistaking the model for the reality was just published recently, and was the subject of a talk at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Archaeologist Steven Waller has proposed, apparently seriously, that Stonehenge was built to resemble the interference pattern that develops when two nearby instruments play the same note continuously.

He studied the phenomenon of acoustic interference by connecting two flutes to air pumps so that they played the same note, and then observing the areas of reinforcement (where the sound waves add together, resulting a louder tone) and interfere (where the waves cancel out, resulting in silence).  He took blindfolded volunteers, and had them walk around the room, and then draw what they experienced -- and came up with a pattern that looked a little like Stonehenge.

"If these people in the past were dancing in a circle around two pipers and were experiencing the loud and soft and loud and soft regions that happen when an interference pattern is set up, they would have felt there were these massive objects arranged in a ring," Waller stated.  "It would have been this completely baffling experience, and anything that was mysterious like that in the past was considered to be magic and supernatural.  I think that was what motivated them to build the actual structure that matched this virtual impression.  It was like a vision that they received from the other world.  The design of Stonehenge matches this interference pattern auditory illusion."

Well.  I have a variety of objections to this conjecture, and I have to hope that someone in at the AAAS meeting brought them up as well (the article describing Waller's findings doesn't mention any questions asked after Waller's talk).   The first one is that the position of the "nodes" (places where interference causes sound cancellation) depends on the pitch being played.  It's interesting that he chose an instrument in his experiment (the flute) and in his talk (the pipes) that are both instruments I play, because I happen to know a bit about those instruments and how they produce sound.  The flute was a convenient choice for his experiment, because it produces fairly pure tones, with few overtones, and therefore a pair of flutes playing the same note would create a simple, stable interference pattern.  The bagpipes, however -- being a double-reed instrument, it has lots of overtones (resulting in the, shall we say, distinctness of its sound).  This would make any perfect cancellation and resulting "areas of silence" a near impossibility, crushing any hopes you may have if you ever happen to be unfortunate enough to be trapped between two bagpipers.

There's also the problem that no musicians, either then or now, are going to simply stand there and play the same note for hours on end.  They were presumably playing an actual tune, which means that the pitches would be shifting all over the place -- shifting any nodes produced all over the place, as well.

But the fundamental problem is one of mistaking appearance for reality.  Stonehenge might very well look like the pattern of nodes in an acoustic interference pattern, but that doesn't mean that it is one, any more than antibodies are trash tags or the universe is a cellular automaton.  I find it interesting that this research even made it past the peer review stage, especially given Waller's seemingly incessant focus on sound as a motivator for prehistoric art and architecture (his website, for example, describes his conjecture that sound echoes were the motivators for cave paintings -- notwithstanding that most cave paintings are representational, depicting ordinary things like horses, cattle, bears, and people).  It's possible, of course, that the acoustic characteristics of a particular place may have led prehistoric people to attribute magical properties to the locale; but to go from there to the conjecture that Stonehenge was built to mimic an acoustic interference pattern is a stretch indeed.

Of course, given that the whole thing centers around Stonehenge, I'm sure there will be a lot of buzz surrounding this paper for some time to come.  If you want to get attention from the woo-woo crowd, Stonehenge is a sure-fire winner.  But as far as scientific validity goes -- I'm afraid I'm not convinced.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Linguadiversity

Yesterday I finished reading the amazing book The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison, which chronicles a Yale-educated linguist's travels to Siberia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and South America to study and try to record some of the world's most endangered languages.

The central theme of the book is the idea that language diversity is analogous to biodiversity -- that having a great many languages is a sign of a stable, healthy, rich "cultural ecosystem."  His claim is that language becomes the lens through which a person sees, describes, and understands the world, and therefore when a language dies, that cultural knowledge is gone forever, because other languages could never encode the same knowledge as deeply and thoroughly.

As a language nerd (my own MA is in linguistics), it's subject I think a lot about.  Current estimates are that there are 7,000 languages in daily use by native speakers (so excluding languages such as Latin, which are in daily use in schools but of which no one is a native speaker).  A great many of these are in danger of extinction -- they are only spoken by a handful of people, mostly the elderly, and the children aren't being raised fluent.  It is an eye-opening fact that 96% of the world's languages are spoken by 4% of the world's people, and the other 96% of the world's people speak the other 4% of the world's languages.

Run that one around in your head for a while.

Top of the list is Mandarin Chinese, the most widely-spoken language in the world.  English, predictably, follows.  Of the people who speak neither Mandarin nor English, a substantial fraction speak Spanish, Russian, Hindi, or some dialect of Arabic.  Most of the rest of the world's languages?  Inconsequential -- at least in numbers.

The open question is "should we care?"  Harrison clearly does; his passion for protecting the world's languages comes through with every word.  His view is echoed by Michael Krauss, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who has stated, "... it is catastrophic for the future of mankind.  It should be as scary as losing 90% of the biological species."

Are they right? I will admit that their argument has its points; but it also is specious in the sense that most languages can encode the same knowledge somehow, and therefore when the last native speaker of Eyak dies, we won't have necessarily lost that culture's knowledge.  We may have lost the ability to figure out how that knowledge was encoded -- as we have with the Linear A writing of Crete -- but that's not the same as losing the knowledge itself.

The comparison to biodiversity is also a bit of a false analogy.  Languages don't form some kind of synergistic whole, as the species in an ecosystem do, where the loss of any one thread can cause the whole thing to come unraveled.  In fact, you might argue the opposite -- that having lots of unique languages in an area (such as the hundreds of native languages in Australia) can actually prevent cultural communication and understanding.  Species loss can destroy an ecosystem -- witness what's happening in the Amazonian rain forest.  It's a little hard to imagine language loss as having those same kinds of effects on the cultural landscape of the world.

Still, I can't help wishing for the extinction to stop.  It's just sad -- the fact that the numbers of native speakers of the beautiful Irish Gaelic and Breton languages are steadily decreasing, that there are languages (primarily in Australia and amongst the native languages of North and South America) for whom the last native speakers will die in the next five to ten years without ever having a linguist study, or even record, what it sounded like.  I don't have a cogent argument from a utilitarian standpoint about why this is a bad thing.  It's aesthetics, pure and simple -- languages are cool.  The idea that English and Mandarin can swamp Twi and Yanomami is probably unavoidable, and it even follows the purely Dawkinsian concept of the competition between memes.  But I don't have to like it, any more than I like the fact that my bird feeders are visited more often by starlings and house sparrows than by indigo buntings.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Enough miracles

I'm sure most of you are aware of the current fight in the US between a group of Catholic bishops and the Obama administration regarding a proposed requirement that contraception programs be part of medical coverage for employees -- even if the employer's institution has a religious issue with using birth control.

This group of bishops has presented the president with a letter demanding that the mandate be rescinded, in the name of protecting "religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all."  The result is that Obama appears to be backpedaling, working on a compromise that would give religious institutions with objections to providing contraception coverage an out.  The bishops are mollified but not yet willing to withdraw their objection; contraception coverage, they say, should be removed completely, and any talk of compromise is doomed to fail.  Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, "It's the unstoppable force meets the immovable object."

This stance, of course, has the complete support of Pope Benedict XVI, who has himself been something of an immovable object on the subject.  Three years ago, a group of fifty "dissident" bishops presented the pope with a letter entreating him to lift the Catholic church's ban on contraception.  Interestingly, the letter made it clear that they were not promoting contraception because they were somehow in favor of promiscuity, a charge that has been levied against pro-contraception groups in the past.  They simply stated that the ban on contraception, which was passed into church law forty years ago by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life") had, according to the letter, "had a catastrophic impact on the poor and powerless around the world."

Well, yeah.  In fact: duh.  It doesn't take a Ph.D. to notice the worldwide correlation between several different demographics -- lack of access to contraception, poor access for women to higher education, large families, poor access to modern medicine, and high infant mortality.  (Note that I am not claiming that lack of contraception causes the others; as I harp on continuously in my environmental science class, correlation does not imply causation.  But the fact that these demographics all cluster this way is certainly suggestive of some sort of connection.)

It seems clear that when women have choices to limit the number of children they have, they will do so.  It becomes easier to provide for the children they do have, and it affords the mothers a better chance of doing something else with their lives besides bearing and raising children.

Despite this, the receipt of the 2008 letter served only to prompt the talking heads at the Vatican to dismiss the letter as the "insignificant attempts of the pro-contraception lobby" to influence church policy, and suggested that the letter was "paid for" by dissident groups attempting to undermine the authority of the pope.  The recent kerfuffle regarding contraception in the US is indicative that things haven't changed much.

Note that I'm not especially interested in the question of whether the president overstepped his bounds in trying to induce religious groups to change their ways.  That is a question for a constitutional lawyer, which I am clearly not.  I'm more interested in the moral stance of the Catholic leadership in maintaining their resistance to contraception.

Population growth is reaching a critical state. You'd think that the hierarchy of the Catholic church, which is composed as a rule of extremely well-educated people, would not be unaware of this fact.  Some ecologists think that the human population has already passed the point of sustainability, and that a "correction" is inevitable.  (And you know what "correction" is a euphemism for.)  How can it possibly be a moral stance to tell a poverty-stricken woman that if she or her husband uses birth control, they are committing a sin, and taking the chance of damning their immortal souls to hell?

So, I must ask: which is more sinful, a poor couple being provided the pill to prevent the them from having children they can't adequately care for, or the wealthy, privileged autocrats in the Catholic church sanctioning women remaining trapped in the cycle of bearing children because they truly have no other choices available to them?

Pope Benedict apparently has, like the other Catholic leaders before him, championed Humanae Vitae, stating that it was "all too often misunderstood and misrepresented."  Okay, your holy popehood: why don't you explain it to us?  Why do you think it's a mandate from god that you sit in your air-conditioned office in the Vatican, with your robes and golden ring and all that other nonsense, and command that some poverty-stricken unfortunate who believes every word you say has to continue to have more children, and more, and after that, more again?  Tell us, clearly, why that is a moral and ethical thing to do.

I'm waiting.

Yeah. I thought so.

The Humanae Vitae told the Catholic world that it was god's wish that any sexually active couple (although presumably only doing so beneath the blessing of the church through marriage) "be open to the miracle of life."  Whether life itself is a miracle depends, I suppose, on your definition of a miracle; but even given that as a premise, one thing seems pretty clear.

7 billion miracles are enough.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Beauty, ugliness, and god's plan for Aunt Gertrude

Once again, I've been involved in arguments in online forums over belief.

Yes, I know it's pointless.  No, I don't seem to be able to stop myself.  The problem is, while (as I mentioned yesterday) I don't really care what people believe personally, it does bother me when someone trumpets a counterfactual or illogical statement in a public fashion, and the only responses are a sort of Greek chorus of "Right on!" and "You tell 'em, brother!" and "Bless you, sister!"  I feel like I am honor-bound to step in, even if it never seems to make a difference.

This particular iteration of that pointless pastime was launched by a woman who asked how anyone who was a biologist could look around at all of the wonderful things in the natural world and not be absolutely convinced that a deity, not evolution, brought them about.  "Look at how pretty everything is," she was basically saying. "God musta done that."

Well, that leaves us with one teensy little problem, which I pointed out, not that it did any good.  There are a lot of parts of the natural world that, well, aren't all that pretty.  Each December the Hallmark stores are full of next year's inspirational calendars featuring bible verses set against photographs of rainbows, birds in flight, waterfalls, sunsets, brilliant fields of flowers.  Okay, fine; if those are god's creations, and are supposed to inspire us with divine awe, then give equal time to the aphids, dung beetles, slugs, the Ebola virus, and the charred remains of trees following a forest fire, which are presumably the work of the same creator.  I wonder how many calendars of bible verses set against photographs of athlete's foot fungus and naked mole-rats Hallmark could sell.  One, is my guess, because I'd buy one, but I'm guessing not many others.

Funny how we're quick to attribute the Lilies of the Field to god's hand, but not the Pinworms of the Pig's Intestines.  They, too, toil not, and neither do they spin, but Jesus conveniently didn't mention that.  And if you claim that all of the nasty little parasites and so on were created by Satan, now you're just making stuff up, because I've never heard of a bible verse that says anything remotely like, "And then the Evil One didst fashion ticks from the dust of the earth, and he did sayeth unto the ticks, 'Go, thou ticks, and tormentest man and beast, for that shalt serveth them all right, ha ha ha.'  And it was so, and the Evil One was well pleased thereof."

It reminds me of the wonderful song by Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame), set to the tune of "All Things Bright and Beautiful:"
All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid--
Who made the spikey urchin?
Who made the sharks? He did!

All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small,
Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.

Amen. 

None of this, of course, is any kind of proof or disproof of the existence of a creator; it's more an interesting feature of how our psyches work.  It's just the Dart-Thrower's Bias again, isn't it?  We're quick to attribute beauty, happiness, and good fortune to god, but seldom if ever do the converse.  If you're crossing a street, and a Mack truck screeches to a halt within an inch of your torso, you might say, "Wow, god really had his Mighty Hand protecting me that time!  He must have some grand plan for me."  Whereas, if Aunt Gertrude falls down the stairs and breaks her neck, we almost certainly wouldn't say, "Man, god really creamed Aunt Gertrude, didn't he? Guess he was done with her."

My own attitude is, take your understanding, and follow where it leads.  If you believe that god really does create beauty, then he created ugliness and horror, too.  If he saves some people miraculously, he allows others to die in freak accidents.  Use one as an explanation, and it requires you to explain the other.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Beware of mermaids

It is an open question how much respect should be accorded to someone's beliefs and actions based simply on whether those form part of his/her religion.

"It's my religion" is, in many ways, a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card.  It stops conversation, it stops questioning.  Somehow, we're supposed to tiptoe around the subject, and not view beliefs labeled "religion" through the same critical lens as we would (for example) scientific or medical claims.  According to many, religious statements do not need to rise to the same standard of evidence as anything else; they are by nature personal, impossible to analyze, beyond the realm of logic. 

This is one of the major beefs that Richard Dawkins has with religion, and he goes into it in some detail in his book The God Delusion.  It is also, I think, why he rubs so many people the wrong way.  I remember a student telling me, "It's not even that I necessarily disagree with what Dawkins is saying.  It's just that he's kind of an asshole about it."  I think this view has a lot to do with the pervasive multiculturalism that is now the Flavor Of The Day in the media and in schools; we're supposed to unquestioningly respect, not respectfully question, the beliefs of others.  And that respect is supposed to be given regardless of whether the belief has the remotest connection with reality.

Because this is serious thin ice for a lot of people, and because I really would rather not get any more hate mail and death threats than usual, let me take just one recent example in the news that takes it out of the realm of what most of us come into contact with. 

This particular story (source here) comes from Zimbabwe, where some workers on a new reservoir were scared off the site by "mermaids."  The Minister of Water Resources, Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, told a parliamentary committee that the workers were refusing to go back to work because of their encounters.

The belief in spirits, including water spirits, is common in Zimbabwe, where many nominally Christian people combine their Christian beliefs with traditional animism.  So the mermaid encounters were definitely within the realm of what I'd call a religious belief, not a simple paranormal claim (such as if an American said he'd seen a UFO).  And Mr. Nkomo's suggestion in response to the workers' claims makes that point even clearer; he recommended to the committee that shamans be hired to brew traditional beer and carry out rituals to appease the mermaids.

My question is, why on earth wasn't the response, "Dear Workers:  There's no such thing as 'mermaids.'  Get a grip on reality.  Also get another job.  You're fired."  It may well be that Mr. Nkomo shares those beliefs -- it certainly seems likely, given his response -- but everyone seems to be going out of their way to respect the beliefs of the workmen, instead of saying, "Those are fairy tales."  And lest you think that this sort of thing only happens in deepest, darkest Africa -- just last year, a factory worker in Georgia was fired because he refused to wear for one day a badge that said, "666 days without an accident," because 666 is the mark of the devil.  He sued for damages and back pay -- and won.

Just to make it clear, I have no issue whatsoever with people believing whatever they want, as long as they don't mandate that I go along with them.  If you'd like, you can believe that the world is a flat, triangular plate resting on the back of a giant flying wombat.  (Go ahead, try to tell me this is more ridiculous than mermaids in reservoirs.)  But why does labeling this belief a "religious statement" immediately accord it respect?  By demanding that we hold religious statements to the same standard of critical thinking as we do anything else, does this make Dawkins "an asshole?"  (He may be an asshole in other regards, I don't know him personally and am unqualified to make that judgment.)

Anyhow, that's the question of the day.  I know that even asking it makes a lot of people wince -- and I do wonder why that is. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Apostasy and self-contradiction

I find it baffling how many of the extremely religious can believe (on the one hand) that god is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omni-most-everything-else, and (on the other) that mild criticism will be enough to cause god's kingdom to topple like a house of cards.

Our most recent example of this bizarre self-contradiction comes from Saudi Arabia, where a young writer is facing probable execution for criticizing Muhammad.

Last week was the anniversary of Muhammad's birth, and a 23-year-old writer, Hamza Kashgari, was reflecting on Muhammad's role in Islam, and sent out a few posts on Twitter that could not possibly be construed as anything but gentle questioning.  "On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you.  I shall not pray for you," he wrote in one tweet.

"On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more," he wrote in another, and in a third, "On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand.  Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me.  I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”

Well.  You'd have thought he'd recommended setting off a nuclear weapon in Mecca, or something, from the outcry that ensued.  Within a day, he had more than 30,000 responses, many of them calling for his death.  Alarmed, Kashgari posted a long apology, but it was too late; someone had posted his address online, with a recommendation to go and kill him, and he fled for his life.  He got as far as Malaysia, but in a stunning overreach of their authority,  he was arrested by agents from Interpol and returned to Saudi Arabia, where the king himself is recommending that he be tried for apostasy -- which is punishable by death by beheading.  (Sources:  here and here)

Okay, come on now.  Either your god is powerful, or else he isn't.  If he isn't, why do you worship him?  And if he is, surely he can withstand a few pointed questions.  You should take a look at the video in the first source, wherein Sheikh Nasser al-Omar openly weeps while describing the blasphemy Kashgari has committed -- a spectacle that would be funny if it weren't so deadly serious.  Apparently this guy really, honestly believes that a 23-year-old writing that he won't pray for Muhammad on his birthday is worthy of death because he has "annoyed Allah."  Oh, and after the guy's dead, Allah has "prepared a humiliating punishment" for him.

I guess Allah has a remarkably low tolerance for annoyance, then.  You have to wonder how any of us escape "humiliating punishments."

My conclusion -- besides the fact that Sheikh Nasser al-Omar is a bloodthirsty old geezer -- is that if a belief system is that fragile, and its god that subject to "annoyance," there must not be much to recommend it.  You'd think that it would take more than three posts on Twitter to accomplish all that, wouldn't you?

You'd be wrong.  "I fear that Allah will send a swift punishment upon us," al-Omar said, in between bouts of sniffling into his beard, "for our complacency in regards to the rights of Allah and his prophet."

Please.  If your religion was all you claim it is, there should be people flocking to it, converting to Islam because of the sheer force of its appeal.  Instead, you have to behead people for asking questions -- which surely identifies it for what it is, which is a morally bankrupt system whose rules only exist to maintain the current power structure, and prevent any scrap of free thought.  It is a belief system whose prime weapon is compulsion through fear.

And I can only hope that the news of Kashgari's arrest will trigger people across the Middle East to ask a lot more questions -- if they have not already been terrified, and brainwashed, into forever keeping silence.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Holy lands

It is a nearly universal tendency amongst human cultures to consider certain places holy.  Christians, Jews, and Muslims are well-known for declaring particular places sacred, and there have been wars fought over guardianship (witness the Crusades -- and note that Palestine was always referred to by Crusaders as "the Holy Land," a designation sometimes still used).  Even today, skirmishes erupt over who has control, or even access, to certain sacred sites.  For several years, there has been an ongoing feud over which sect of Christians -- Ethiopian or Coptic -- has the ownership of the Deir-al-Sultan Monastery in Jerusalem, a site which is next to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and has connections to the life and death of Jesus.  This particular incident might be funny if it weren't a microcosm of a tendency which has cost millions of lives, and if the monks in question weren't so deadly serious themselves.

However, such perceptions are not by any means limited to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Even the Buddhists, whose philosophy emphasizes "non-attachment" to the physical world as the cardinal virtue, have holy sites.  These are mostly connected with the life or death of Siddhartha Buddha and are the objects of pilgrimages from Buddhists around the world.  The Australian Aborigines have Ayers Rock (Uluru in the language of the Natives), which is central to their creation stories.  The Devil's Tower in Wyoming is sacred to the Sioux (and apparently also was of some significance to the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

I find this tendency fascinating.  Sacred sites seem usually to fall into one of two categories -- they are either places of historical significance (a friend of mine is working on a novel that has as its central theme the contention that the Vietnam War Memorial is a holy place), or places that have some natural oddness that makes them stand out, that begs an explanation.  These latter ones I find the most interesting.  There is a universal need in the human brain to explain our environment, and apparently if no natural explanation makes itself known, then we almost always respond by simply making one up and telling it convincingly enough that it is remembered.

I can't say that I'm immune to this.  I self-identify as a rationalist, but a friend of mine claims (with probable justification) that I doth protest too much.  She once stated that if I had the balls for it, I'd be a mystic, and that in a previous age I'd have been a monk.  That rather curious claim notwithstanding, I have to admit that I have been in places which strongly affected me, which (had I the balls to be a mystic) I might consider sacred.  One of them is Ahlstrom's Prairie, a highly peculiar place in Washington State that I used to pass through while hiking to the ocean on the Olympic Peninsula.  There's a boardwalk trail on the hike to the mouth of the Ozette River, and most of the way you are in dense Douglas fir forest, dripping and silent, with nothing but the clunk of your hiking boots on the wood planks to break the quiet.  Then, without warning, you are in an open meadow, a strip of land with not a tree, perhaps a quarter of a mile across and maybe two miles wide (although I never explored it well enough to know for sure).  It is an odd enough spot that I wouldn't be surprised if the Quiliute and Makah Natives who lived in the area considered it sacred.  For my part, I thought it was a little creepy, and was always glad to cross it and get back under the cover of the dark trees.

Another spot in Washington, not nearly so remote, is the Mima Mounds.  Near Littlerock, Washington, and right off of Interstate 5, is a wide prairie dotted with relatively circular grass-covered mounds, the largest of them about thirty feet across and maybe eight feet high.  Originally thought to be Native burial sites, they are now thought to be the result of some unknown geologic process, possibly glacial.  All I know is that they're spooky and mysterious.  I can easily see why someone might consider this a holy place.

Lastly, I would be remiss in not mentioning a place I visited on a hiking trip in the north of England.  I have always been interested in medieval history, and I made a point of visiting a number of abbey ruins, monasteries which were abandoned when Henry VIII decided that Catholicism wasn't his cup of tea, but Anne Boleyn was.  Most of them were of solely intellectual interest, but one of them -- Rievaulx Abbey -- strikes me as one of those places which did not become sacred because it was the site of a monastery, but became the site of a monastery because it was sacred.  It sits in a little, cup-shaped valley, with a narrow river running through it, and as I sat on a rock under the branches of an oak tree, dangling my bare feet in the cold stream water, I could almost become convinced that there was something to the idea of a place being holy.

Almost.  And so I don't have my Skeptic's License revoked, allow me to state for the record that I realize that in all of the above cases, it was just the oddity, remoteness, and beauty of the site acting on my emotions and my imagination.  I don't really believe that there's anything peculiar about any of these places, above and beyond the purely natural and aesthetic.

Be that as it may, there is a part of me that wishes it were true.  It's not scientific, it's not rational - but it would be awfully cool.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Baby supervillains, faces in the clouds, and a non-mammoth

Today here at Worldwide Wacko Watch we're keeping our eyes on three stories that are showing great promise.  We're not quite sure what they're promising, but we're keeping our eyes on them nonetheless, rather in the way you'd watch someone whose behavior is erratic and potentially threatening.

First, we have the strange case of the woman whose sonogram indicated that she is soon to give birth to Venom, one of the villains from Spiderman.

Perhaps even more unortunately, however, her husband is the Redditor who goes by the name of OzLebowski, so the first thing he did was to post it on the internet.  Here we have a side-by-side comparison of the Bundle o' Joy, and the evil, brain-eating supervillain:


Myself, I suspect that when his wife finds out about this, OzLebowski may have more to worry about than the upcoming birth of a fanged alien.  But that's just judging by how my wife would have reacted had it been me who posted the side-by-side pics.


Speaking of wacky examples of pareidolia, we next have the case of Brisbane (New South Wales, Australia) resident Gerry Wells appearing in the clouds to bid a fond farewell to his family.  Fortunately for all concerned, a photographer was able to snap a photograph of Mr. Wells' parting shot.

Mr. Wells died of a heart attack on January 24, and I have to admit that the cloud photograph does resemble him a bit.  Let's take a look:


The only problem is, the cloud photograph was taken on January 9, fifteen days before Mr. Wells' death.  But Mr. Wells' sister, Marion Dawson, is undaunted.  Her brother, she says, was flying home to Brisbane from Sydney when the photograph was taken, and therefore it can't have been a coincidence.  "Someone greater than us knew what was about to happen," she said.  She also said that when she saw the photograph of the clouds, which was published in a local newspaper, she got "goosebumps."

The family used the photo in leaflets handed out at the funeral.

Well, I have to admit that some cases of pareidolia can be pretty freaky, and this one certainly would have given me the shivers, had I been one of Mr. Wells' friends or relatives.  Be that as it may, I don't think we have any before-the-event appearance of Mr. Wells' ghost in the clouds -- it's a chance resemblance, however much it might appeal to think otherwise.


Which is more than we can probably say for our last story, which is the alleged appearance of a woolly mammoth in Siberia.

If you haven't already seen this video, you can go here to take a look.

At first, I have to say that I was intrigued.  There's nothing scientifically impossible about a large mammal going undetected in the vast, trackless birch and spruce forests of southern Siberia; and there have been other claims of sightings of mammoths before.  The video, which was allegedly taken by a Russian engineer surveying for a road, is undeniably blurry, but it was supposedly shot "from a long way away."  Some viewers noted the possibility that the animal was simply a bear carrying a large fish, but there's something about its outline that strikes me as unbearlike.

So anyway, I was at least prepared to admit it into evidence.  Until, that is, I began to look into who had publicized it.  Turns out the video was brought to light by one Michael Cohen.  You might not recognize his name, but he's the one who was behind the photograph of the alien in the Brazilian rainforest taking a piss behind a tree (you can see my post about the claim, and the photograph of the pissing alien, here). 

He also bills his website as the "world's only intergalactic news network."

So to say that his credibility is nil is putting it mildly, and I'm officially retracting my support from the woolly mammoth hypothesis.  It's kind of a shame, really, because it'd be pretty cool to have those guys back.  As long as they didn't take to stomping around in my vegetable garden.


So anyway, that's it for today -- a woman pregnant with an alien supervillain, a face in the clouds, and what is probably not a woolly mammoth.  More news from the world of the weird, just to prove to you that there's still work to do out there in the critical thinking department.  Here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, we're doing our best to ferret out the stories, so you can comfort yourself in the knowledge that no matter how odd people you know, there are some folks out there who are odder still.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Grass, gulls, mosquitoes, and mice

A couple of days ago, I got a rather nice email from a creationist.  Not, I got the feeling, a young-earth creationist, but someone who believes that a deity directed the creation of the Earth (whenever that happened), and that species can't change because they're the work of divine hands.

"I just can't believe in evolution," the writer said.  "It's impossible that species can change.  They go extinct sometimes, like the dinosaurs, but how could one thing change into another, like apes into humans?  It makes no sense."

Again, this was light years from the snide, spittle-flecked screeds that I've sometimes received regarding this subject; I very much had the impression that the writer was simply curious as to why I find the idea of evolution persuasive.  And as such, it deserves an answer.

I'm going to approach the idea of supporting evolution a little differently than most folks do.  It seems like the majority of evolutionary biologists, when confronted with questions about the plausibility of the evolutionary model, usually discuss the tried-and-true body of evidence (genetic homology between related species, homologous structures, vestigial organs, the fossil record, and so on).  These are well known, and in my opinion either you buy them or you don't.  Those folks who don't also usually fall back on a few tried-and-true arguments against them (vestigial organs actually have a use which we just don't happen to know, the fossil record lacks transitional forms, radiometric dating is inaccurate, and so on).

More to the point, one of the usual anti-evolutionist arguments often centers around the question, "if evolution happens, why don't we see new species?" and the ordinary answer is, "because evolution occurs so slowly."

Well, sometimes.  Maybe usually.  But my contention is that rapid, observable evolution has happened many times, and if you don't buy the evolutionary model, there are a few real-world situations that really allow no other explanation.

So, to quote my dad, let's run them up the flagpole and see who salutes.

First, though, a definition.  My understanding of creationism is that, at its basis, it states that new species cannot form.  Species can become extinct, but god created the species that are here, and that's what we're stuck with.  (If this statement is erroneous, I'd appreciate a correction.)  So as an evolutionist, I have a twofold job; to define species (so that we all know what we're talking about), and to show that there have, in fact, been new species evolved on the Earth.  If I can accomplish those two things, then I think I'll have made a pretty potent case that evolution happens.

The first task is relatively easy.  While there is an increasing push to define the term "species" genetically, at present most of us (evolutionist and creationist alike) define "species" as meaning "a population of morphologically distinct individuals, all of whom are potentially capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring."  By this definition, horses and donkeys aren't the same species because although they can mate and produce offspring, the offspring (a mule) is not usually fertile.  All breeds of dog are theoretically a single species, because although there are morphologically distinct sub-populations (breeds), they are all more or less mutually interfertile, even though a mating between a male chihuahua and a female St. Bernard raises a mental image which is simultaneously a little disturbing and strangely hilarious.

Okay, now for the next part.  Have there been any new species that have formed recently?  If you buy the definition of species from the last paragraph, the answer is undeniably "yes."  I know of three off the top of my head, which I'll describe below.  The first two are simple, the third more complicated (but well worth the effort to try to understand, because it's way cool).  And last, I'll describe a population phenomenon that I don't think is explainable unless you do accept evolution, although it's hard to classify exactly where it falls apropos of the definition of "species."

Number 1: The Faeroe Island House Mouse

About 250 years ago, mice were accidentally introduced onto the Faeroe Islands, an isolated island chain (way) north of Scotland.  In the intervening years, the mice were isolated from their mainland kin, and the harsh climate was a powerful selection mechanism.  Recent studies have shown that the Faeroe Island House Mouse is now no longer even potentially interfertile with mainland House Mice -- matings in the lab have resulted in no offspring or sterile ones, and the Faeroe Island mice are discernibly smaller and lighter in color than the mainland species.  If you accept the definition of "species," the Faeroe Island House Mouse is a new species -- morphologically distinct, and unable to interbreed with other populations -- and it's arisen in only 250 years.

Number 2: The London Underground Mosquito

When the London Underground (subway) was built about a hundred years ago, a population of mosquitoes of the species Culex pipiens was trapped in the tunnels.  Being that subways are warm and moist, the mosquitoes flourished.  Culex pipiens, which mostly preys on birds, is reluctant to bite humans and will only do so if there is no other food available; in the 100 years since the isolating event took place, natural selection has favored the individuals underground who are more attracted to mammals (mostly rats and humans), and the result has been a rapid speciation event producing the aptly-named Culex molestus.  C. pipiens and C. molestus will not interbreed -- in fact, in the lab they won't even mate.  Genetic studies have shown that their genetic makeup has diverged rapidly (due to the heavy selection underground and the fact that mosquitoes breed quickly) -- so by any conventional definition of the word "species," they are different species.

Number 3: Cordgrass

This one is fascinating. Cordgrass (Spartina) is a genus of marine grass, with a number of morphologically distinct species.  In England, Spartina maritima was the most common species, until the 19th century, when the American species S. alterniflora was accidentally introduced. The two occasionally hybridize, producing an infertile (although vigorous) hybrid, S. x townsendii.

Okay, so far, nothing amazing; it's just the botanical version of the horse and the mule.  Normally these interspecies hybrids are infertile because they lack paired chromosomes, and during meiosis (sex cell formation) the process goes awry because it is impossible to evenly divide the genetic material without this pairing.  But apparently at least once (possibly more), an individual of S. x townsendii underwent an odd transformation; in one of its flowers, the chromosomes spontaneously doubled.  This phenomenon, called allopolyploidy, is rare in the wild but rather easy to induce in the lab (it's how the huge tetraploid and triploid daylilies you often see in gardens are created, for example).  What this did was instantaneously produce an offspring with paired chromosomes, and a different number of chromosomes from either parent.  It is completely fertile with others like it; is not back-fertile with either parent species; and is morphologically distinct.  It's been accorded species status (as S. anglica), and for good reason, because if this is not a new species, I don't know what is.  Furthermore, it's an amazing competitor, and is in many locations outcompeting both its exotic and its native parent.


And one more, just for lagniappe, as my mom used to say (lagniappe is Cajun French for "a little something extra").  If none of these convince you, then look into the concept of a ring species.  A ring species is a set of morphologically distinct populations, which encircle a geographical barrier of some kind.  Each sub-population can interbreed with the ones adjacent to it, except at one point in the ring.  This has been observed at least three, possibly more times -- in Himalayan Greenish Warblers, in a group of salamanders (genus Ensatina) in California, and in a group of gull species (in this one, the ring goes all the way around the world!).

Let's just make it clear how weird this is; picture a group of populations (call them A through G) which go around some sort of geographical barrier (the Himalayas, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Arctic Ocean, respectively).  A can breed with B, B with C, C with D, and so on.  And you ring your way around the barrier, and find that A and G are right next to each other -- overlap, even -- but A and G can't interbreed!

So which are they -- one species, or many?  If you say "one," then why can't A and G interbreed? Breaks the definition.  If you say "several," where do you draw the line(s)?  No matter where you draw the line(s), you will separate populations that can interbreed, and produce fertile offspring (and therefore should be part of the same species).  So, once again: what is this?  And if "species" are all divinely created, immutable little populations which don't change, how on earth did this come about?


Myself, I find it impossible to explain any of these without recourse to the evolutionary model.  If anyone has a plausible alternative explanation, I'd love to hear it.  Encouragement of all viewpoints, as always, is the watchword hereabouts.