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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ignorance, evolution, and space weather

Self-awareness is tragically uncommon amongst humans.

There are lots of kinds of self-awareness, and I suspect that none of them are abundant; but here, I'm thinking in particular of the kind of self-awareness that involves an understanding of what you don't know.  Ignorance, per se, is not something to be ashamed of; it is simply something to correct.  Ignorance only becomes a problem when you are unaware that you are ignorant -- and then trumpet your views to the world as if they had the same relevance as those of someone who actually understands the topic being discussed.

I find this problem to be especially bad in the realm of politics, where everyone seems to feel the need to have an opinion about everything, despite the problem that many of those opinions are entirely unencumbered by facts.  But given that this is a touchy subject for many, and one that I myself am admittedly ignorant on, let's turn to a different and (hopefully) less controversial example.

A friend of mine sent me a link yesterday to the webpage of one Susan Joy Rennison.  Ms. Rennison begins her homepage thusly:
This website keeps online some of my research about the new phenomena of space weather driving massive evolutionary change. When I wrote my book Tuning the Diamonds: Electromagnetism & Spiritual Evolution, I was well ahead of the curve. I realised that Modern Mayan Elders were trying to point out that the citizens of planet Earth were entering a New Age dominated by aether or space, and the basic premise of my book was that the dramatic increase and impact of Space Weather was the predicted arrival.
We are put on notice that she is perhaps not a pinnacle of self-awareness a little further along, wherein she states:
Please note: I am NOT a New Ager and this is NOT a New Age website. Please read my Joyfire Philosophy webpage and my essay Spiritual Evolution in the Cultic Milieu, where I make it very clear that not every Seeker in the Cultic Milieu is a New Ager and thus steeped in certain New Age beliefs.
Ah.  So, you think that the Mayan Elders are ushering us into a "New Age dominated by aether or space," but you're not a New Ager.  Thanks, it all becomes clear, now.

Anyhow, Ms. Rennison's lack of awareness of her own ignorance is demonstrated fairly graphically when she starts blathering about solar weather, geomagnetic storms, and their significance to... evolution.  Yes, she seems to think that space weather is causing evolution.  No, I'm not making this up.  To wit (this is a bit of a long quote, but worth reading):
In September 2008, NASA announced that the inhabitants of Earth will be exposed to significantly more cosmic and galactic radiation, as part of a long term trend that started in the mid 1990s. The new phenomena of Space Weather, is the bombardment of Earth by solar, cosmic and galactic energy now causing concern to government agencies, satellite communication manufacturers and the power supply industry. Yet, the September 2008 announcement by NASA, that our planet is now being flooded by galactic cosmic rays as part of a long term trend that started in the mid 1990s, was even more startingly [sic], as scientists speculate that the shielding around our solar system might 'evaporate'.

On January 5th 2009, a press release about a NASA funded study stated that severe space weather will have “an impact” on humans, after years of only stressing the impact on technological systems. As galactic cosmic radiation floods our planet, this will most certainly cause an increase in DNA mutations and therefore generate evolutionary change. Certainly, environmental signals are now being affected by fluctuating geomagnetic signals, which humans use to maintain balance.

Whatever, as the shield around our solar system provided by the solar wind continues to drop, as the Earth's magnetic field also continues to drop, with the December 2008 announcements of recent evidence that current magnetic configurations are generating massive breaches that will permit stronger geomagnetic storms in the future and the ionosphere has also contracted permitting more radiation to reach the ground, there can be no denial that all life on Earth will be greatly influenced by new cosmic conditions. My book, Tuning the Diamonds: Electromagnetism & Spiritual Evolution explains the myriad of effects, including the spiritual and evolutionary implications of this high energy bombardment. The Human Genome Project that cost 2.7 billion dollars over 13 years revealed that our DNA is actually 'tuned' by the environment and our consciousness. Therefore, I hope the many recent announcements from the Space community will propel many in the alternative and mainstream world to consider how well placed they are to co-operate with this evolutionary impetus.
Well, now.  Where do I begin?  Here's a list of the errors I found in this passage, without even trying hard:

1.  "Space weather" is nothing new.  All of the indications we have are that solar storms, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections have been going on for millennia.  Yes, the incidence of such violent solar events waxes and wanes, for reasons that are poorly understood; but they seem to have relatively little effect on the Earth, causing minor problems for communications networks but otherwise not doing a hell of a lot except for creating impressive auroras.

2.  Humans do not use "geomagnetic signals" to maintain balance.  Balance is maintained by the fluid pressure in the semicircular canals, a structure in our inner ears that works a little like a carpenter's level.

3.  The shielding around our solar system is not "evaporating."  To be honest, I don't even know what the hell that means.  I can only think that she's referring to the heliopause, the point outside the solar system where the solar wind finally is slowed to zero by contact with interstellar material.  But this point is not some kind of Star Trek-style "shield" that's keeping cosmic bad stuff from hitting us, and there's no evidence whatsoever that it's somehow contracting.

4.  Evolution is not speeding up because of "galactic cosmic rays."  Yes, cosmic rays do cause mutations, but so do naturally-occurring radiation from radioactive minerals, and chemical mutagens (both natural and artificial) in the environment.  The speed of evolution is far more sensitive to the amount of selective pressure than it is to the amount of mutations in any case; and since most mutations are deleterious, an increased mutation rate (should it occur) would cause more cases of cancer than it would some kind of burst of evolution.

5.  The Human Genome Project said nothing about DNA being "tuned by the environment and our consciousness."  This statement makes me wonder if Ms. Rennison actually has any background in science at all, or, perhaps, is simply incapable of reading a press release.


Okay, so I guess I've hacked enough at the poor woman's webpage for now.  My point in going through all of this is not simply to poke at another New Ager -- heaven knows, those are a dime-a-dozen, and if I started to analyze every one of them I'd never be done.  My main point here is that it is as critical to be aware of what you don't understand as it is to be aware of what you do.  There are many areas in which my knowledge is significantly lacking, but I try my hardest not to pontificate on those topics as if I actually knew what I was talking about.  And if it's an area in which I feel that I should be more knowledgeable, I work to rectify that gap -- because, after all, ignorance is correctable.

It puts me in mind of a conversation I had with my dad when I was perhaps ten years old.  He was talking about a man we knew, and he said the man was ignorant, and then amended his comment to state that the man was actually stupid.  I asked my dad what the difference was.

"Stupidity is willful ignorance," he said.  I said I still didn't understand.

My dad looked thoughtful for a moment.  "Ignorance is only skin deep," he finally said.  "Stupidity goes all the way to the bone."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Go Team Woo-Woo!

I love it when woo-woos team up.

It's a twist on the old maxim that two heads are better than one.  You get several wackos in the same room, all throwing around ideas, and what they come up with is a synergistic explosion of weirdness, far more wonderful than anything they could have come up with working independently.

Take, for example, this article, entitled "Brown Dwarf Star Flyby: Estimated Maximal Earth Impact June-July 2013," written by none other than Skeptophilia frequent flyer Alfred Lambremont Webre.  Webre, you may recall, is the one who said the Earth would be bombarded by "4th dimensional energy" on November 11, 2011.  This would cause the Earth's axis to shift by 90 degrees, meaning that we'd all evolve.  Apparently it would also mean that we'd have to get used to having "4th dimensional sex."

For the record, I'm not making any of this up.

Well, now Webre has teamed up with a variety of other contenders for the Nobel Prize in Wingnuttery, including:
  • Andrew Basiago, who claims that he ran into President Obama on Mars
  • Courtney Brown, an expert in remote viewing
  • Marshall Masters, an "expert on Nibiru"
All we need is Diane Tessman there to add some Cosmic Quantum Vibrational Energy Frequencies, and we'd be all set.

But the foursome of Webre, Basiago, Brown, and Masters did pretty well without her, I have to admit.  Here are a few gems from the article I linked above:
  • A brown dwarf star will make a close pass to Earth in summer of 2013, causing great distress to those few of us who survive the Mayan apocalypse.
  • This brown dwarf star is also the Planet Nibiru, or, as the scientists refer to it in their scholarly papers, "The Lost Star of Time and Myth."
  • Actual astronomers can't see this object coming, because the government has hidden it from sight using chemtrails.
  • When the dwarf star passes by, it could be a hazard to Earth because of "electrical discharges between our Sun and the brown dwarf star."
  • We have some idea of how bad this event is going to be because Basiago, Brown, and other remote viewers, using a device called a "chronovisor," looked into the future and saw that the Supreme Court building is going to be under 100 feet of water.
  • However, other remote viewers said that we have only a 39% chance of our future timeline being "catastrophic."  A full 29% said it would be "non-catastrophic."  Presumably the other 32% just said, "Meh."
  • The Global Seed Vault on the island of Svalbard is not a research facility devoted to preserving plant biodiversity; it's actually a huge underground shelter that will host two million Norwegians when Nibiru comes, leaving the rest of us to die horrible deaths.  Of course, given that then the two million survivors will then be stuck on a godforsaken island above the Arctic Circle, I kind of think I'd rather just let Nibiru take its best shot at me.
  • Basiago, however, did say that these predictions might not come to pass.  The chronovisor, which was "developed by two Vatican scientists in conjunction with Enrico Fermi," might be showing "an alternate time line that does not show up on our timeline" coming from "somewhere else in the multiverse."  Which makes me think he's been spending too much time watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • Webre, on the other hand, says that we can make sure we have a safe flyby if all of us work together to create an "intention vortex" to create "proactive consciousness" and keep the brown dwarf star from doing bad stuff.  Because of course we all know how much our thoughts and prayers alter the laws of physics.
 See?  Wasn't that amazing?  I told you it would be awesome.  Teamwork is so important.

But I think there are still some unexplored avenues, here.  Me, I think we should have the whole gang collaborate.  Dirk vander Ploeg and Nick Redfern could throw in some stuff about Bigfoot.  James van Praagh could get in touch with Great Aunt Mildred and find out if she can give us any advice from the afterlife.  Alex Collier and Paul Hellyer could call in some UFOs to pick up the survivors.  David Icke could wind it all up with a two-hour-long talk about how the government is covering the whole thing up.

It'd be a party!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Travelin' and a-livin' off the land

I was listening to the 70s station on satellite radio yesterday, and up pops "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo," a song I haven't heard or thought about in probably twenty years.  In my opinion, this song is right up there with "Signs" (by the Five Man Electrical Band) as the embodiment of the hippie ideal of the late 60s.

The whole thing got me to thinking about the hippie movement, and how much has changed in forty years.  The hippies of the sixties were not thought of as the fringe, the weird, comically out-of-touch characters that they are today.  Back then, the hippies were the cutting edge; the rebels, the Threat to Society -- a little dangerous, and (to the establishment) more than a little scary.  The Flower Children seemed, in the minds of most middle-class Americans, to be part of a smooth continuum whose end was formed by Charles Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Their rejection of everything that the middle class stood for -- especially property ownership, etiquette, monogamy, and public education -- and their acceptance of drug use, loud music, and commitment-free sex, seemed to be not just a slippery slope, but already to represent the bottom of the pit.

Now, hippies have evolved into nothing much more than a caricature.  When one of my students calls another "a hippie," usually that just means that the student in question has long, unruly hair, or favors tie-dyed shirts, or has a "Peace Now" bumpersticker on his/her car.  There aren't many people any more that really represent what the hippies did back in the sixties and early seventies.

Honestly, this is probably a good thing, and I'm not saying this because I'm a white, middle class, establishment member with a bank account and a career.  The hippie movement never really could last, because it was founded on a lie -- that it was possible to separate yourself entirely from "the establishment."  The burning of draft cards and drivers' licenses was supposed to represent a severing of bonds with the government -- but as long as you're on American soil, and there is any kind of law enforcement around, you aren't really going to be free of connection to laws and restrictions, regardless of what document you choose to burn.  The ideal of freedom -- as represented in "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo" by leaving everything behind and getting "back on the road again" -- is only possible if you own a car, which means that you have to have it registered, purchase gasoline, and so on.  Even the back-to-the-basics idea that came out of the hippie movement turned out not to be very easy to achieve.  The sad fact is that unless you own a lot of land, it is virtually impossible to raise enough food to subsist on, and even if you have enough land, it requires a great deal of expertise and means doing manual labor pretty much 24/7.  Note that in "Me and You" (if you know the song) our free-as-a-bird road travelers get caught robbing a chicken coop for eggs.  The hippies justified this sort of thievery as being a Robin Hood-like "stealing from those who deserve to be stolen from," but in reality this only occurred because in practice, it takes less time and effort to be parasitic on the culture you claim to despise than it does to learn enough skills, and save enough money, to actually become self-sufficient.

I'm not claiming that the hippie movement was all bad, or was all a sham.  Their resistance to the Vietnam War represented a watershed moment in our nation's attitude toward blindly trusting the government; we've never been the same since.  Their stance on civil rights and race relations was twenty years ahead of its time.  It was in part the hippie movement that gave rise to the environmental movement of the 70s and the "Greens" of today.  They were a reaction to a corrupt government, that was pursuing a divisive and bloody war, and as such there was a certain honor to their stance.  But like all reactive movements, it couldn't last.  Vietnam ended; idealism faded in the face of practicality.  Most of the former hippies of the 60s had already cut their hair and settled down by the time I was in college, and the wild radicalism had been replaced by a reluctant acceptance that you can't really change society by refusing to take part in it.

Anyway, these are my musings on a stormy, unsettled morning.  Given that tomorrow's Sunday, it seems appropriate to end with the last verse of "Signs:"

"And the sign says, 'Everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray,'
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn't have a penny to pay.
So I got me a pen and a paper, and I made up my own little sign,
It said, "Thank you, Lord, for thinking about me, I'm alive and doing fine..."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Higher, faster, stronger

I'm of two minds with regards to the Olympics.

Okay, to be fair, I'm of two minds with regards to most things.  More than two minds, sometimes.  My friends have been known to quote Tolkien at me - "Go not to the Elves for advice, for they will say both yes and no."  I can usually argue both sides of any point, often equally persuasively - and can talk myself into almost anything.

Well, except for the whole evolution thing.  I'm pretty rabid about that.  Other than that, I'm kind of ambivalent by nature.

But I digress.

This evening will be the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics, when the most talented athletes will meet in London to being a series of grueling competitions for the gold.  Most of these young men and women have trained all of their lives for this moment, and a tremendous amount rides on success.  You don't get that far without a huge competitive streak -- and the fact that the majority of the participants will not receive a medal is simple mathematics.  So, my question: is the heartbreak worth it?

I still remember watching an event in the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Some friends and I were in a bar following a Cornell hockey game, and the television was tuned in to the women's hockey game between Canada and Slovakia.  Evidently not having had enough opportunities that evening to watch a puck sliding around, I became glued to the set.

When we came in, it was 13-0 in Canada's favor, with 19 minutes to go in the third period.  As I watched, the score finally climbed its way up to 18-0.

I couldn't take my eyes off it.  Besides loving hockey, it was a little like watching a car crash.  You're seeing it, you know it's going to be bad, but you can't take your eyes off it.  That poor Slovakian goalie was powerless to do anything about facing an offense that basically steamrolled her own defense, and one shot after another went in to the net. When the teams lined up to shake hands afterwards, she was in tears.

Don't get me wrong; I like watching skill.  The Canadians were clearly more talented and better trained, and deserved the win.  But the compassionate side of me hates to watch what amounts to an athletic car crash happening, in full view of millions.

This, of course, isn't the only time this sort of thing has happened.  I still remember some years ago when French figure skater Laetitia Hubert was catapulted from 20-some-oddth place into 5th by a flawless short program, and had to go into the finals against the Big Dogs of the likes of Surya Bonaly and Midori Ito.  The poor kid couldn't take the pressure, and completely fell apart.  The tears of amazed joy from the previous day turned into a performance that was acutely painful to watch, as she tried again and again to land jumps that her nerves just wouldn't handle.  It is the only time I've ever seen the camera cut to a commercial break in the middle of someone's performance -- even the network techs couldn't bear to have her humiliation televised.

It's an odd thing, the Olympics.  We watch it to see the best of the best strut their stuff, to see people do what 99% of us couldn't in a hundred years dream of doing ourselves.  When the inevitable happens, and some of them fail, they sometimes do so in such a spectacular fashion that it makes us want to turn away, to pretend it isn't happening, but we know that we will remember these people as much - or perhaps more - than the ones who get the medals.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not against competition per se.  And I think that our current self-esteem obsessed educational establishment's emphasis on making sure that everyone wins is wrong-headed; true self esteem comes from challenging yourself, working hard, and succeeding at something you didn't think you'd be able to do.  But I do have to wonder if extremely high-stakes competition, from medical schools to American Idol to the Olympics, is more destructive than constructive.

I know that the athletes would say -- most of them, anyway -- that it's the mere fact of making the Olympic team, of getting there, that is the most important, and that the medals are secondary.  I only believe that up to a point.  If we set up a contest whose sole aim is to raise the fastest, strongest, and most skilled to the skies, then the ones who fall will always draw our sympathy.  I honestly don't know if the whole Olympic concept is a good thing or a bad; probably some of both.  But for me, the despairing face of Laetitia Hubert, picking herself up off the ice after the sixth bad fall, and the tears on the face of the Slovakian goalie are as much a part of it as is the joy of the gold medalist.  If you want the one, you have to accept the other.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wheat, chaff, and alien abductees

My question today is one that haunts many skeptics -- the question of how one would know if a bizarre claim was actually true, especially in the absence of evidence.

The hardest-nosed of us would probably object to the premises of the question; if there is no evidence, they would say, then there is no basis on which to make a judgment in the first place.  And while I agree with that general attitude -- and have applied it myself on numerous occasions -- it always leaves me with the worry that I'll miss something, and just through the weakness of the evidence and my preconceived notions I won't see the grain of wheat in amongst the chaff.

I riffed on this whole idea in my novel Signal to Noise (and if you'll allow me a moment of shameless self-promotion, it is available as an e-book for Kindle from the link on the right side of the page).  In the story, a skeptical wildlife biologist, who had decided that all woo-woo claims were bullshit, is confronted with something bizarre going on in the mountains of central Oregon -- and has to overcome his preconceived notions even to admit that it might be real.  And in the story, it doesn't help that the news is delivered to him with no hard evidence whatsoever, by a total stranger who just "has a feeling that something is wrong."  (I won't tell you any more about it; you'll just have to read it yourself.  And at the risk of appearing immodest, it rocks.)

The reason I bring all of this up is a website called Little Sticky Legs: Alien Abductee Portraits, owned by Steven Hirsch.  On this website, which you should definitely take a look at, there are photographs of a number of people who claim that they were abducted by, or at least contacted by, aliens, and their first-hand accounts (and in some cases drawings) of their experiences.  I thought this was an unusually good example of the phenomenon I've described above, for a variety of reasons.

First, the accounts are weird, rambling, and disjointed, and many of them seem to have only a loose attachment to reality.  Second, the photos don't help; whether Hirsch deliberately set out to make his subjects look sketchy is a matter of conjecture, but my sense is that he was playing fair and this is the way these people actually look.  And some of them, not to put too fine a point on it, are a little scary.  And third, of course, the content of the accounts is fairly contrary to what most scientists think is realistic.  So, all of these things combined seem to put them squarely into the category of most of the subjects of this blog; bizarre, possibly delusional, nonsense.

But reading the earnest narratives of these supposed contactees left me feeling a little uneasy.  Part of it was a sense that if their stories aren't true, then these people are either lying or else are the victims of hallucinations that could qualify as psychotic breaks.  And although I am rather free about poking fun at people who generate strange ideas, I just don't feel right about including as targets people who have genuine mental illnesses.

My unease, however, had another source, and one that haunts me every time I see something like this; what if one of these stories is actually true?

A person who had been abducted, but was left with no physical trace of the experience, might well describe it in just these terms.  And if the victim was someone who wasn't highly educated, there's no reason to expect that (s)he would remember the details, or explain them afterwards, in the way a trained scientist would.  The general vagueness and lack of clarity is, in fact, exactly what you'd expect if an ordinary person experienced something shockingly outside their worldview.

Now, please don't misunderstand me.  I'm not, in any sense, committing to a belief in alien abductions in general, much less to any specific one of the stories on Hirsch's website.  My hunch is that none of these stories is true, and that whatever these individuals is describing has another source than actual experience.  But it is only a hunch, and an honest skeptic would have to admit that there is no more evidence that these claims are false than there is that they are true.  My only point here is that if one of them was telling the truth, this is much the form I would expect it to take... which means that it behooves all of us, and especially the skeptics, not to discount odd claims without further investigation.  Skeptics tend to rail against the superstitious for jumping to supernatural explanations for completely natural phenomena; we should be equally careful not to jump to prosaic explanations when an odd one might be correct. 

The best thing, of course, is to withhold judgment completely until the facts are in, but that is pretty solidly counter to human nature, and is probably unrealistic as a general approach.  And given the ephemeral nature of some of these claims, the facts may never come in at all.  So all we can do is keep thinking, keep watching and listening and investigating... and not be afraid to push the envelope of our own understanding when the time comes.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Time lapse

Well, the first thing I need to do in today's post is to figure out if I can correct the timestamp, which is clearly wrong.  Hmmm... let's see... no, it won't let me do it.  Okay, then, I'll just have to state for the record that today you should date all of your checks, documents, and correspondence with "July 25, 1715."

What?  How can that be true, you ask?  1715... so, J. S. Bach would still be alive, King George I would just have been crowned king of England, and the USA wouldn't exist for another sixty-odd years?  To which I chuckle gently, and explain: of course that's not what I mean.  You can't just jump backwards in time, that would be ridiculous.  What I'm saying is that the calendar is wrong, not because we've leapt back to the 18th century, but because...

... the years between 614 and 911 C.E. did not exist.

Yes, according to the Phantom Time Hypothesis (sources here and here), devised by Hans-Ulrich Niemitz and Heribert Illig, time actually went from the year 613 directly to the year 912.  Any events that occurred during those years, or people who are alleged to have lived then are:
1) legends being misunderstood as reality;
2) misinterpretations of documents that refer to events or people from other time periods;
or 3) deliberate fabrications by a bunch of calendar conspirators.

Some of the people who therefore didn't exist are King Harald I Fairhair of Norway, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, the writers Alcuin, Caedmon, Li Po, and Bede... and Charlemagne.

Why, you might ask, do Niemitz and Illig believe this?  Apparently it's based on hiatuses in historical records (the Early Middle Ages in Europe was a chaotic time, and most of the few records that were written during that time have been lost), coupled with perceived gaps in building in Constantinople.  Niemitz and Illig also believe that the development of religious doctrine in Europe goes into a stall between the 7th and 10th centuries, as does the progress of art, language, and science.  All of these gaps, they say, can be explained if those three centuries didn't exist -- they were inventions of a conspiracy of church fathers in the 11th and 12th centuries, that originated with Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II, and has continued lo unto this very day.

Well, let me see here.  Where do I start?

Interesting, if three centuries fell out of historians' pockets somewhere along the way, that astronomical records (especially records of comets and solar eclipses kept by the Chinese) agree precisely with back-calculations done by present day astronomers.  The Tang Dynasty -- which coincides almost perfectly with Niemitz and Illig's lost centuries, and which they consider a "Golden Age Myth" -- not only produced art and artifacts, but kept intricate records of observations of events in the sky.  It's a little hard to explain the solar eclipses that occurred during that time, and which line up perfectly with when astronomers know they occurred, if (1) those three centuries never happened, and (2) the Tang Dynasty astronomers were themselves later fabrications.

We also have the problem that this is the period during which Islam spread across the Middle East -- so we're supposed to believe that we jump right from 614 (Muhammad is still alive, but has yet to make his pilgrimage to Mecca) to 911 (the Muslims are in control of territory from southern Spain to Arabia and beyond)?  And I guess they should revoke my master's degree, because the subject of my thesis (the Viking conquest of England and Scotland) occurred during those years... and so is an elaborate fiction, as is the linguistic and archaeological evidence.

Or, maybe I'm one of the conspirators.  I've been accused of that before.

Anyway, this whole hypothesis seems to be a lot of nonsense, and is yet another good example of Ockham's Razor, not to mention the ECREE Principle.  So, you can relax, and cancel any plans to go back and yell at your high school history teachers -- Charlemagne was almost certainly a real person.  As were Alfred the Great and the rest.  Me, I'm glad.  I have a hard enough time remembering to write the correct year on my checks when January 1 rolls around; I don't know what I'd do if I had to remember that it was a whole different century.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cryptid menagerie

It's been a busy week, here in the cryptozoological wing of the Skeptophilia research offices.  We're currently tracking three stories about alleged spine-chilling, bizarre, non-human life-forms, and we're not even talking about the cast of Jersey Shore.

First, we've got a story from The Examiner about an old man in the Philippines who was attacked by a shape-shifting monster called an "aswang" or "manananggal," which attacks humans and eats their livers.  The still photographs show, lo and behold, an old man being confronted by someone who looks like he's wearing one of the rubberized monster heads from the movie Alien:



So, anyway, the story goes on to say how there's a video of the incident but it "hasn't been released yet," which sounds kind of fishy right from the get-go.  Also a bit sketchy is the lack of detail; the victim wasn't named, although it does say that the victim's brother "José" filmed the entire incident.  Which raises the question of why he didn't run to help, instead of standing there with a video camera while his brother had his liver eaten.

Then, I noticed that the guy who went to the Philippines to gather information for the report was none other than Blake Cousins, who appeared in Skeptophilia just last week -- as the "investigative reporter" who did the video clip about the 12-year-old boy from Australia who made himself an "Atlantean copper headband" that allowed him to talk to spirits from inside the Hollow Earth.  In fact, even the site Phantoms and Monsters, not generally the most skeptical of sources, called this story "possible buffoonery."  (Here)  So given those two strikes against it, this story is almost certainly a non-starter, especially considering the credibility Cousins has, or the lack thereof.  So let's move on to our next story, which takes us to the dry hillsides of Utah.


The UK Daily Mail is reporting on a story about some hikers near Ben Lomond Peak in Weber County, Utah, who saw... a goat man.

In fact, one of them, Coty Creighton, took a photograph of Goat Man:


Creighton told reporters at the Utah Standard Examiner that he "...thought it was a deformed goat. It was clumsy, not nimble…  He was on his hands and knees, crawling along the mountainside."

In a separate communication with Salt Lake City's CityWeekly.Net, Creighton said, "I was racking my brain trying to figure out what other type of animal it could be.  An albino bear?  A honky Sasquatch?"

At this point, I had to stop for a moment to clean the coffee spatters off my computer screen.

Creighton, however, got out binoculars and took a closer look, and found out that it was none of those things.  It was...

... a guy in a custom-made goat suit.

Creighton stared at the guy for about five minutes, and at some point, the Goat Man realized he was being observed, and stopped moving -- and just stared back.  Creighton got creeped out, and said he wasn't going to get any closer, because "Something was definitely off with that guy."

I'd say that's a major understatement.  So if you're going to be in Utah any time soon, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for Goat Man.


Our third report comes all the way from the Moon, via MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network) and the site Ghost Theory.  (Source)  It shows a still photograph, and a video clip, of a pulsating, cloudlike "anomaly" hovering over a lunar crater.  Scott McMan, of Ghost Theory, writes, "The person who submitted the video seemed as confused as I was because he could only make the following statement: 'I don’t know what to make of this object.'"  People who've analyzed the video say that the "entity... moves in a lifelike fashion."

Well, I'm a bit at a loss myself, but my initial reaction is that it looks like a stationary object whose image is being distorted by the passage of the light rays from it through the Earth's atmosphere.  This effect, similar to the heat shimmer you see above a hot roadway on a clear day, is caused by light bending as it passes through media with different indices of refraction, warping the image, and (if the medium itself is moving) making it appear that the object itself is moving.  I'll admit, though, that it's pretty bizarre-looking.  And even though I strongly suspect that this has a perfectly natural explanation that has nothing to do with an alien entity moving in a lifelike fashion, at least it doesn't shout out "hoax!" to me.

Which is more than I can say for the "aswang" photographs and the Utah Goat Man.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lemmings, hockey fans, and fire pits

Friday, the Silicon Valley Mercury reported that 21 people were treated at a local hospital for burns after participating in a firewalking activity at an event organized by inspirational speaker Tony Robbins.  (Source)

My first reaction was that I find it hard to fathom how 21 people were injured.  One or two, okay.  But 21?  You'd think that even by person number 5, the rest of the crowd would see that persons number 1 through 4 were writhing on the ground, screaming with agony, and would say, "Hmmm.  Maybe not.  I think I'll just watch from the sidelines, thanks."  But that's not what happened.  Mr. Robbins kept telling the participants, "C'mon!  You can do it!  This time it's really going to work!", and for some reason they kept believing him.  Perhaps he had them lined up in reverse order of IQ, so that each person in line was incrementally stupider than the previous one.

The interesting thing is that even now, Robbins and the events staff aren't admitting that walking on hot coals is basically a stupid thing to do.  "We have been safely providing this experience for more than three decades, and always under the supervision of medical personnel," a spokesperson told reporters after the fiasco on Friday.  "We continue to work with local fire and emergency personnel to ensure this event is always done in the safest way possible."

And even the injured firewalkers aren't willing to say that the problem is that "hot things will burn you."  One participant, Andrew Brenner, told reporters that he did get burned, but it was his own fault, for not having enough "faith and concentration."  "I did it before, didn't get into the right state and got burned," Brenner said.  "I knew I wasn't at my peak state.  I didn't take it as serious."

What strikes me about all of this -- besides the general observation that given a contest between "faith and concentration" and "extremely hot object," the hot object is going to win every time -- is how this is indicative of the lemming-like aspects of human behavior.  All of us, when in large groups, tend to participate in behavior that we would never dream of doing while alone or in smaller groups.  Look at the kinds of things that can happen at athletic events, concerts, and festivals.  I think it unlikely, for example, that I would paint my face, shoulders, and chest red-and-white (Cornell colors, for those of you who are non-New Yorkers) in any group with less than ten members, and the number might rise to 25 if we were talking about a freezing cold day in early March.  However, at the ECAC hockey finals, buoyed up by the energy of thousands of cheering Big Red hockey fans...?  But perhaps I've incriminated myself enough already.

It all comes from being a social primate, really.  We do what the group does, for a variety of reasons.  Most of such behavior is probably pretty harmless, honestly, and the sociologists would point to its importance in group cohesion and our sense of belonging.  Of course, the dark side of this tendency is the capacity for mob violence.  In groups, people will often break their own moral and ethical precepts, not then (if ever) recognizing the point where they crossed that line, because a sort of group mentality takes over.  As Stanislaw Lec said, "Every snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty."  And from one of my own personal favorites, Terry Pratchett: "The IQ of a mob is equal to the IQ of its stupidest member, divided by the number of people in the mob."

Leaders, from corporate CEOs to high school principals to motivational speakers, take advantage of this tendency, often with the best of motives.  Get the group stirred up; get them excited about something.  Identify a few of the major power brokers in the group (the Head Lemmings), and get them on your side.  At that point, you can propose damn near anything, and the whole group will follow you.  I've seen it accomplish great things; in my own school, five years ago, the creation of our highly successful electives program was accomplished using just such a method.  Of course, it's also resulted in riots, crusades, and wars.  Any tendency in human nature can be used for good or for evil.

Or just to make people do stupid stuff, like walking across a fire pit after the first twenty people burned their feet up, just because some silly motivational speaker was shouting, "do it! I believe in you!"

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Headbands, Hollow Earth, and hoaxes

Much has been made about how impolite our society has become.  In some ways, this may be true; certainly, the conventions of social etiquette that prevailed a hundred years ago have largely been discarded.  But in one respect, I think, we've become more polite -- and maybe too polite.  And this is in situations where individuals are clearly talking nonsense, and no one seems to have the gumption to look them straight in the eye, and say, "I'm sorry, but at the moment you are babbling like a lunatic."

Witness this conversation, between a guy named Blake Cousins and 12-year-old Johnny Zoltkowski of Australia.  Zoltkowski makes a bizarre claim; that a copper headband that he made himself, and which sports a silver coin and a quartz crystal, allows him to "communicate with interdimensional beings."  Zoltkowski goes on for several minutes, encouraged by Cousins and under the watchful eye of his proud and supportive mother, about how he can "channel" these beings.  "The stuff that I can do is quite amazing," Zoltkowski says, "but it's a part of me now."  The headband, he says, allows him to "ask spiritual questions from people in other dimensions."

But it gets better.  Because Johnny didn't learn how to make the headband, or do all of this "amazing stuff," alone; he had the help of a guy named Billy Woodard -- who comes from inside the Hollow Earth.

"Billy Woodard came to Earth on a mission to get the people awakened on Earth, so we get more awakened," Zoltkowski told Cousins, which sounds like a pretty profound mission statement to me.  "With this mission he has told us how to make the Atlantean crystal headband... He worked in Area 51, and he said the government was hiding lots of stuff... in Area 51 they worked with alien Grays and Reptilians."

Well, that all sounds pretty believable, don't you think?

As far as Johnny's mother, she seems to be entirely in favor of the whole thing.  When asked if her son has changed since he started wearing the headband, she says, "I don't think he has, he meditates a lot and is very calm and quite wise.  For a 12-year-old to be able to evaluate... a situation like this, to me it's really amazing...  I'm learning so much through him."

At the end of the video, we find out that we can purchase headbands ourselves from www.hollowearthnetwork.com -- for around $200 (not including the coins and quartz crystals -- those cost extra)!

Might I just say that when I heard that, I had a sudden "AHA" moment?

I don't know for sure if Johnny or his mother actually believe what they're saying, or if they're yet another pair of hucksters trying to turn a quick buck (two hundred of them, to be more specific) via the gullibility of others.  Hucksters, after all, are all too common, as are the delusional (and the gullible).  What appalls me more is Cousins, who sits there calmly discussing the whole thing with the two of them, acting as if they're talking about something as ordinary as Johnny's Little League Baseball team winning the regional championships.  Not once does he say, "Oh, come on, now.  A copper headband from Atlantis that allows you to talk to alien beings?  A guy who comes from inside the Hollow Earth who worked with aliens in Area 51?  You sound like you need to get back on your meds, kid." 

Of course, Cousins himself is kind of suspect; apparently he's appeared on other clips, usually having to do with UFOs and other woo-woo claims.  It might well be that Cousins was not just being polite -- he might be part of the whole publicity stunt.

But whichever it is, my point stands; you see all sorts of things pop up in news reports these days, in which reporters seem to give serious credence to people who, from their claims, should probably not be walking around unsupervised.  And no one much objects.  It's as if our current desire to avoid offending anyone at all costs extends to ideas -- that somehow the (proper) impulse that encourages us to be kind to people implies the (ridiculous) claim that we should never point it out if an idea is complete bullshit.

It puts me in mind of the words C. S. Lewis placed in the mouth of his arch-demon Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters, regarding how thinking had changed since the previous century: "At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it.  They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning."  While I don't share Lewis' opinions regarding much else, I have to admit that he struck that one spot-on.  We seem, as a society, to have lost our ability to recognize, and our will to point out, specious reasoning and foolish claims.  And since this lies at the heart of critical thinking, it is no wonder we so often fall prey to hoaxers and charlatans -- even to the extent of spending $200 for a copper headband in the hopes that we will be able to speak with "interdimensional beings."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Flea, tick, and baloney repellent

Do you subscribe to views of medicine that involve the words "frequency" and "vibration?"  Do you think that when you're ill, it would really be a good idea to take a "remedy" from which every last potentially useful molecule has been removed?  Do you think that when you get the sniffles, it's because you have a clogged chakra?

Do you have pets?

If you answered all of those questions "yes," you will be thrilled to know that the woo-woos have now extended their wacko ideas into treating Fido, Mr. Fluffums, and your other furry friends.

A friend of mine sent me a link yesterday advertising "Only Natural Pet EasyDefense Flea & Tick Tags," available for $71.99 (on sale), should you have no better uses for 72 bucks, which in my opinion would include using it to start a campfire.  Here is the pitch, which (for the record) I am not making up:
Protect your dogs and cats from fleas, ticks and mosquitoes naturally! The Only Natural Pet EasyDefense Flea & Tick Tag is a safe, chemical-free way to keep harmful pests off of your pet. Using state of the art holistic technology, the EasyDefense Tag utilizes your pet’s own energy to create a natural barrier to pests. There are no chemicals or pesticides involved. It is completely safe for pets and humans in the household...

The EasyDefense tag is treated with a bio-energetic process and sealed in an electro-magnetic shielded envelope. When opened and placed on your pet, it uses your pet's own inherent energy to send out frequencies that repel pests. The process operates with quantum mechanic's [sic] refined frequencies, and is somewhat similar to the basic principles of homeopathy. (It does not use traditional energy forms like electrical, chemical, thermal, magnetic, or radioactive.)

This holistic energetic approach combines the knowledge of Eastern medicine with advanced Western technology, and is the result of more than 10 years of targeted research in collaboration with renowned doctors and scientists. This quantum energy approach has been used in Europe for many years to enhance human health and wellness through the energizing of objects, water, drinks, and supplements.
Okay.  I do have a few questions about this:

1)  Seriously?

2)  I kind of doubt that my "pet's own energy" repels much of anything.  I own two dogs that seem to be magnets for dirt, filth, burs, and dead animal residue, so I think if this tag somehow enhanced my "pet's own energy," every bad-smelling thing in a five-mile radius would suddenly fly through the air toward my house, sort of like the last scene in the movie Carrie only way more disgusting.

3)  Saying that something you're promoting is "somewhat similar to the basic principles of homeopathy" is not a selling point, okay?  This is a little like a person running for political office saying that his fiscal policy is "somewhat similar to the basic principles of fraud."

4)  What is a "quantum mechanic?"  Is this a guy who wears a jumpsuit with "Rick" embroidered on the pocket, who works on atoms?  "Well, it's gonna be kind of expensive.  I had to rotate your quarks, and your electrons' spin kinda had a bit of a shimmy, so I replaced the bearings, and then tuned up the nucleus and lubed the neutrons.  She should run pretty smooth now."

The advertisement then goes on to say that the EasyDefense tag is "completely safe for your pet, with no possible side effects."  I'm sure this is true.  In fact, in my opinion, they should broaden that statement to read, "completely safe for your pet, because it has no effects whatsoever."

It is unclear to me whether there should be a point where the government steps in to prevent hucksters from making claims that are clearly false.  However, being that caveat emptor seems to be the general rule, there's nothing to stop anyone from claiming anything, even if it's total baloney (although there are some restrictions with respect to human health -- you are required to state, "The FDA has not evaluated these claims" if, in fact, what you are claiming is patently untrue).  In general, the law sides with the seller -- for example, just last week, a Louisiana judge ruled that the claims of fortunetellers and mediums to be psychic are protected free speech.  [Source]  This makes it all the more important that people learn critical thinking skills early -- because that is the only thing I know that acts to repel frauds, fakes, and phonies.  And it does so without even having to resort to using "quantum mechanic's refined frequencies."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kiss kiss bang bang

There's apparently a evolutionary significance to kissing.  Who knew?  I'm an evolutionary biologist by background, and I didn't know.  Me, I just thought it was kind of fun.

Wendy Hill, a neuroscientist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, published research a couple of years ago that indicates that there are changes in levels of hormones when couples kiss.  Apparently, Hill's team paid heterosexual couples to kiss for fifteen minutes, and measured blood levels of various hormones before and after (and I can only imagine the lines of horny college guys waiting to sign up for this opportunity).  (Source)

The results were intriguing.  In particular, the hormone oxytocin seems to be affected by kissing. Oxytocin is one of the "feel-good hormones," and has been nicknamed the "cuddle hormone" because it is associated with the maternal instinct and caring for an infant, and the fact that its levels skyrocket in both genders immediately after orgasm.   The research indicates that oxytocin levels spike in men during kissing, but they fall in women.  This I find surprising, but I can't find anywhere that the researchers speculated as to why oxytocin falls in women after they kiss.  This to me would seem to indicate that men feel better after kissing and women feel worse, which seems a little odd.  Maybe it's because kissing makes men think about having an orgasm and makes women think about taking care of a infant.

In any case, it's interesting that 90% of human societies (according to the research study) "practice kissing." I don't know about the other 10%. Perhaps they rub foreheads together, or something. Perhaps they don't practice any more because they've figured out how to do it right.  It's a mystery.

The other intriguing find of the study was that men prefer "sloppy kisses," whereas evidently women don't.  The researchers explain this by positing that saliva contains trace amounts of testosterone, which is linked to increased sex drive in both genders, and swapping spit is a way of dialing up the response in your partner.  So, I guess that sloppy kisses are just another human male equivalent of the peacock shakin' his tail feathers -- a chemical way of saying, "hey, baby."  So, it falls in the same category as going to the gym to build up your biceps or owning a Jaguar.  It's a non-verbal statement that says, "I am just the most virile male you will ever meet in your life.  I have so much testosterone that I can just throw it away.  You definitely want me to be the father of your children."

Recently Paul Zak, "the world's expert on oxytocin," has published further studies (read about them here) that support the claim that oxytocin has a role in more than just sex, pair bonding, and the mother/infant relationship; it's apparently vital in all sorts of positive social interactions.  Zak, in fact, calls oxytocin "the moral molecule."  His studies indicate that people's oxytocin levels rise when they have pleasant encounters of all sorts; and if given boosts of oxytocin artificially, they tend to make more moral decisions and behave with more generosity and trust.  Oxytocin levels also spike, Zak found, when people play with their pets, socialize with their friends, and watch romantic movies with happy endings.  All of these are activities that are connected with pair bonding, social cohesion, and reciprocity -- phenomena that are intrinsic to life as a social primate, so no wonder this response is ubiquitous.  It'd be a pretty unpleasant world without it, wouldn't it?

Ah, natural selection. It explains so much.

Anyway, I find all of this stuff pretty fascinating, and I wish you luck conducting any empirical research on the subject that you have the opportunity to do.  Here's to raised oxytocin levels.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The woo-woos go high tech

I suppose it was only a matter of time.  The woo-woos have gotten hold of high tech.

I find this a kind of curious idea, given how they harp so continuously on how their beliefs are Ancient Magick Passed Down From The Elders -- it never occurred to me that they would jump on the "app" bandwagon.  But given the utility, ease of use, and low cost of your typical iPhone or iPad app, it was bound to happen.

So, put away your crystals and dowsing rods and sacred knives, and get out your electronic device of choice.  Here's a few of the hundreds of apps I found. 

Rune Magic ($2.99) - "Rune Magic is a state of the art application for rune divination and studying. Ask runes about your destiny, fortune, love, health and business.  The application provides four types of runic divination with the detailed descriptions of rune meanings.  The runes will tell you about the past, the present and the future, and also will give an advice about your problems.  The application is also perfect for studying runes.  A strict compliance with all magical rules makes application predictions highly accurate. Try it, you would be impressed! The application is on sale, it is the best time to buy it."

Ouija Board version 6.2 ($1.99) - "A talking board, generically referred as "Ouija Board" and also known as spirit board, witch board, oracle board, mystic board or channeling board, is any flat board printed with letters, numbers, and other symbols, to which a planchette or movable indicator points, answering questions from people at a séance. The fingers of the participants are placed on the planchette that is moved by the spirits about the board to spell out messages. These boards are considered to be a spiritual gateway used to contact the dead or to receive information from beyond."

New Age Stone and Crystal Guide ($3.99) - "New Age Stones and Crystals Guide provides metaphysical property information for hundreds of stones and crystals. Search through indexes of stone names or property types to find the exact stone needed for your self development. The most extensive virtual stone and crystal guide available, this application identifies stones helpful for improvement of spiritual, mental and psychological aspects."

Erzulie's Voodoo ($3.99) - "Learn all about the secrets of Voodoo & Vodou with the world’s FIRST authentic Voodoo app, from Erzulie’s Authentic Voodoo in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Erzulie’s Voodoo “Advanced” app delves into the roots, detailed history, advanced spiritual concepts, Vodou rituals and magic of this vast and mysterious tradition, written by highly experienced, initiated, Vodou priests and priestesses.  Erzulie’s Voodoo Advanced App offers comprehensive information on Voodoo beliefs, performing your own authentic Voodoo spells, extensive sections on the Divine Voodoo Spirits (Lwa), how they are served in Vodou, and their Catholic Counterparts plus Magical Veve’s (sacred symbols of the Spirits), Spiritual Possession, New Orleans Voodoo, Palo Mayombe, Voodoo dolls, fetishes, Voodoo magic and much more... Perform your very own powerful Voodoo Love Spells, Wealth Spells and Banishing Spells with our extensive collection of authentic Voodoo rituals found only in the Erzulie’s Voodoo Advanced App, complete with their very own detailed instructions and resources."

Goddess Inspiration Oracle (free) - "Get inspired! The Goddess Inspiration Oracle offers a free one card oracle reading to grant you guidance for your day. It features eighty goddesses from around the world, all whom offer inspiration and guidance. These powerful feminine role models range from Abeona, goddess of gateways, to the Zorya, each of whom are represented in this app with gorgeous art and inspiring, well-researched text... Since time immemorial, humans have invoked the wisdom of goddesses by using oracles. Oracles provide an experience of synchronicity, a term created by Jung to describe a series of random events that connect within us to gain a deeper meaning. By doing so, the oracle helps us release information we already possess, thus allowing inspiration to strike when we most need it."

iTarot Classic (free) - "iTarot Classic provides straightforward two-card readings --"Daily Tarot" and "Love Tarot"-- with a streamlined design that makes consulting the Tarot effortless.
Features:
• Draw new cards with a simple shake
• Display only a one-card reading, if desired
• Use only the Major (or only the Minor) Arcana
• Allow or prohibit reversed cards
• Draw "Daily" and "Love" cards independently, from separate decks"


And those are just six out of hundreds.  I'm kind of overwhelmed, and not just because I'm a Luddite.  I just never would have thought that the whole electronic media thing would have caught on with these folks.  My question is: do they really think it's the same thing?  I mean, isn't the basis of these beliefs that when you handle the crystals, Tarot cards, rune stones, or whatever, the act of touching the objects is what is creating some kind of mystical interconnectedness of being?  Can putting your fingers on a touch screen made in China really accomplish the same thing?

Maybe we should try a different app to see if we can get an answer to this question.  How about:

Magic 8 Ball ($0.99) - "Magic 8 Ball™ has all the answers!  And now it’s available for your iOS device!   Ask it any yes or no question, shake your device (or tap the screen) and, “without a doubt,” it will give you an answer to life’s most complicated questions.  Inquire about romance, friendship, school, work…whatever! "


Let's see...  "Reply hazy, try again."


I shoulda known.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bias, self-awareness, and evil spirits

If there's anything that is a sign of true intelligence, it's caution regarding accepting ideas at face value.  The tendency of many, unfortunately, is to accept whatever is being said, or read, without question, especially if the claim comes from a reputable-looking source.

The issue becomes further complicated when we're biased ahead of time to accept (or reject) the source itself.  A study (here) by Charles Lord and Cheryl Taylor, of Texas Christian University, indicates that people are more likely to accept as correct false statements if they're told that the false statement came from someone whose political or religious stance they share, and conversely, to think true statements are false if they're told that the true statement came from a source in the opposite ideological camp.  Another study (here), by Emily Pronin, Daniel Yin, and Lee Ross of Stanford University, further indicates that just about everyone believes him/herself to be unbiased as compared to others; and worse still, a study by David Dunning (here) suggests that we are likely to rate ourselves as "above average" in knowledge, even in realms in which we score in the bottom quartile.

In other words, none of us is aware of how unperceptive, biased, and ignorant we actually are.

So, the salient question becomes: given that this is the case, how do we know what is true or false?

Well, in the absolute sense, we can't.  We're trapped inside our own skulls, and certainty about anything is probably unrealistic.  Science helps, because it establishes a baseline for validity, along with a reliance on hard data.  But even science doesn't solve the problem entirely; as James Burke, one of the finest thinkers I know of, said, in his wonderful documentary series The Day the Universe Changed, "Even when you get the raw data, the situation doesn't improve.  Because it isn't raw data.  It's what you expected to find.  You'd designed your equipment based on what you already thought was going to happen, so what your equipment is good at doing is finding the kind of data you reckoned you were going to find."

Still, the situation isn't as dire as all that, or we'd be in doubt about everything.  There are ways we can detect specious thinking, and an assortment of red flags that will alert us to bias, slant, and outright lies.  Let's look at one fairly simple example, which appeared in the rather goofy online magazine Who Forted? (although let's not dismiss it just because of the source; see paragraph 2).

Entitled "Bad Vibes: Can Dealing With Evil Spirits Kill You?", this article makes the claim that delving too deeply into the occult puts you in touch with "forces" that can have negative effects on your health.  "(W)hat about those few people who make it a career to deliver the mortal souls of sinners from the grip of evil?" the author, Greg Newkirk, asks.  "What of exorcists, demonologists, and ghost hunters with a flair for the dramatic and a reality show audience?  Is there a risk in placing yourself between a negative spirit and it’s [sic] prey?  Surely the religious will believe that it’s your own soul at stake, but do the scars of spiritual warfare have a physical manifestation?  What I’m asking essentially amounts to one question: Can the pursuit of evil spirits affect your heath?"

Newkirk then goes on to describe the various ways in which evil spirits could cause you harm, including (to his credit) the practitioner simply experiencing continuous stress, fear, and negative emotions -- i.e., the effect could be real even if the spirits themselves aren't.  (This, then, might qualify as a sort of nocebo effect -- a documented phenomenon in which a person who believes himself to be in harm's way from supernatural causes actually experiences negative health effects.)

The most interesting part, to me, is when Newkirk begins to list off various psychic researchers, exorcists, black magicians, and so on, gives a brief curriculum vitae for each, and describes how and at what age each died.  If you want the complete stories, check out the link, but here's a list of names, ages, and causes of death:
  • Malachi Martin, 78, brain hemorrhage
  • Ed Warren, 79, cause not listed (but was chronically ill during the last five years of his life)
  • Lou Gentile, early 40s, cancer
  • George Lutz, 59, cancer
  • Tom Robertson, still alive (from his photograph, he appears to be 60-ish), has prostate cancer
  • Ryan Buell, still alive (age 30), has pancreatic cancer
Several things jump out at me about this list:

1) It's short.  Beware of small sample sizes.  Given a small enough sample size, you can find just about any sort of statistically unlikely pattern you'd like.  (Sort of like if you rolled a die four times in a row, and got four sixes -- and decided that the chance of rolling sixes on a fair die was 100%.)

2)  Given that the writer already had decided that working with evil spirits is dangerous, it's pretty likely he'd have selected examples that supported the conclusion he already had, and ignored ones that didn't.  This kind of cherry-picking of data isn't always this obvious -- unfortunately.

3)  Even despite #2, this was the best he could do?  The first two men listed actually lived longer than the average American (US male average life expectancy currently stands at 75.6 years).  A third, Tom Robertson, is still alive, and has a form of cancer that is often treatable.  A fourth, George Lutz, died young of cancer -- but one of two photographs of Lutz in the article shows him sitting with a cigarette in his hand, in front of a full ashtray!

My point here is that there's a middle ground between accepting a source whole-cloth or rejecting it out of hand.  There's no substitute for taking a cautious look at the argument presented, asking yourself some pointed questions about bias and slant (especially, given the Lord and Taylor study, if the source is one you habitually agree or disagree with!), and engaging your brain, before deciding one way or the other.  And, if there isn't enough information to decide, there's nothing wrong with simply holding a judgment in abeyance for a while -- indefinitely, if need be.

A wonderful take on the whole idea of how to analyze claims is the chapter entitled "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" in Carl Sagan's wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (which, in my opinion, should be required reading in every high school science curriculum in the world).  Check it out, while you're taking a break from expelling evil spirits.  It'll be good for your health.

Monday, July 16, 2012

*ding* You've got mail!

I'm frequently the recipient of posted responses and emails, and I'm pleased to say that the majority of them are quite pleasant and supportive.  Some, unfortunately, are downright hostile.  Others fall somewhere in the middle -- questioning my views, requesting that I reconsider, providing me with additional source material that I didn't have before.  And while compliments are awesome, I really appreciate the people who take the time to provide me with constructive criticism -- because, as I recently commented, I'm always happy to revise my views when presented with facts, evidence, or even a logical argument I hadn't heard before.

Last week, I was the recipient of three responses to recent posts, that I thought were worthy of responding to in a subsequent post.  So, lo, here is the response.  In order not to leave my readers on a negative note, I present them in decreasing order of vitriol.

The first one was a reply to my last post, regarding the "Baltic Sea Anomaly," in which I described the beliefs of certain folks that the structure is a sunken Nazi superweapon.  The response I got said, in part, that the structure was "perfectly circular" with "vertical straight lines," and therefore couldn't be natural in origin; the writer then went on to say that "no one except me" claimed that the thing could interfere with planes, and asked why if I "obviously had no understanding of the facts" I "waste my time and my reader's time writing this drivel."

Well, okay, then.  First of all, I'm not the one claiming that the alleged "Nazi superweapon" was interfering with airplanes; the source did, which I both quoted and posted a link to.  I, you might recall if you'd read more carefully, was the one that doubted such claims were true.  Second, I don't know where the responder took geometry class, but the "Anomaly" is certainly not a perfect circle.  And as far as straight lines -- those abound in nature.  In fact, I just saw yesterday, in a park not ten miles from my house, fault lines in a cliffside so straight they look like they were cut with a saw.

However, allow me to clarify one thing, because perhaps I did overstate my case.  The point of the post was to rail against people who seem bound and determined, without any hard evidence, to turn this thing into something bizarre.  My statement, "It's just a pile of rocks," should have said, "As far as the evidence we now have, there is no reason to reject the conclusion that it's just a pile of rocks."  Could it be something else?  Of course.  It could be a drowned structure from a Stone Age settlement, constructed when the sea level was far lower.  It could be a something-or-another from the Nazis.  It could, although it is much less likely, be a crashed spaceship.  But thus far, all we have is a few images, and some anecdotal reports of electronic equipment malfunctioning -- and myself, I am hanging onto the conclusion that William of Ockham would have favored, which is that it is some sort of geological formation, such as a faulted pillow basalt.  If hard evidence proves me wrong, that's fine, and will undoubtedly be more interesting than my rather ho-hum explanation -- and I will happily eat crow and print a retraction here.  But until that time, the wild speculation is getting to be rather tiresome.


The second response came as an email, shortly after I posted "Thought vs. experiment," which was about how experimentation (and data, and hard evidence) should be the sine qua non of understanding -- that knowledge, in my opinion, is seldom ever arrived at by simply "thinking about stuff."  This generated a response, which I quote in part:
You have written more than once in your blog that you will only accept something if you have hard evidence, and that beliefs in the absence of hard evidence are what you call "woo-woo."  I think the flaw in your argument has to do with what you would consider "hard evidence."  Why couldn't there be a natural phenomenon that we haven't yet designed a machine to detect?  Maybe ghosts exist, and the only way to sense them is with our minds.  You would rule that out because you don't see a needle moving on a device, and yet it's real.  And my sense is that you're so closed-minded that even if you were to be presented with evidence for the supernatural, you'd rule it out because you'd already decided that none of that stuff is true.
First of all, I must point out that the latter is the hazard not only with perennial skeptics like myself, but with everyone.  We all come with our set of preconceived notions about how the world works.  If I hear a creaking noise in an old house at night, of course my first inclination will be to assume that it's some sort of natural phenomenon (a branch rubbing the roof, an animal in the attic, or the like).  But how is that different than the True Believer?  To him/her, a creaking of the floorboards is automatically assumed to be evidence of haunting.

The difference, I think, is that for a skeptic (and I would include here skeptics who are inclined to believe in ghosts -- and there are a few out there), you don't stop at that assumption.  You examine your evidence, and you keep your biases out front where you can see them -- and you look for more data.  Skeptics, I think, tend to have restless minds, and aren't content with just saying, "Oh, okay, I know what that is, I can stop thinking about it now."  We are, in our best moments, open to a revision of our explanations -- but only if the evidence supports it.

And as far as there not being a machine to detect ghosts, that one I've heard before -- the argument that goes along the lines of, "We didn't know x-rays existed until scientists built a sensor that could detect them.  Maybe there are energies we haven't learned to detect, yet."  That is possible, but I'd put it in the "doubtful" category -- physicists have become exceedingly good at measuring energy of varying types, even when those traces are faint (to give just one example, look at the Cosmic Microwave Background Anisotropy study, which detects extremely small fluctuations in the microwave background radiation in the sky as a way of elucidating the structure of the early universe).  I find it hard to believe that with all of the big effects that the woo-woos claim -- telekinesis, telepathy, spirit survival, and so on -- that none of our current devices can demonstrate unequivocal hard evidence of any of them.


The third response was to my post, "Grilled cheese sandwiches and sacred stones," which looked at the rather difficult question of how to respond to people who claim that you're not showing proper respect to an object that they venerate and you don't:
You shouldn't scoff at people for venerating, or finding spirituality, in objects.  All of our ancestors did that very thing.  I'll bet that there are objects you are attached to -- for sentimental reasons, perhaps, but still, it's not "just a thing" for you.  And maybe the people who find spirituality in objects are right, and you're missing a big part of the universe by considering everything around you to just be inanimate matter.
Well, first of all, I reread my post, and I didn't think I did much scoffing.  At least, not nearly as much as I usually do.  Maybe I did some covert, implied scoffing, I dunno.  But in any case, the responder is correct that I don't think there is "spirit" in matter, and that our ancestors did, in general, believe that there was.  Our ancestors, you might recall, believed a lot of other things, too, and a good many of them have since been proven to be false, so just because some great-great-grandmother of mine thought that a particular ring had magical powers doesn't impel me to believe it out of some sense of familial respect.

In any case, it all comes back to my favorite word, "evidence."  A random pattern burned into a piece of toast is just not sufficient for me to conclude that Jesus has sent me his Holy Image.  Some people in Venezuela declaring that a particular rock is their Wise Grandmother doesn't mean that out of respect for their cultural beliefs, I have to accept that it is literally true.  I will fall back on what I said in the post; I believe in treating all people with respect, dignity, and kindness, but that does not require me to accept that what they're saying is correct.


In any case, I really appreciate the feedback, and although I would prefer not to have what I write referred to as "drivel," it's better to have hostile responses than no responses.  As Brendan Behan famously said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."  So keep those cards and letters comin'.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Baltic Sea Anomaly, the Nazis, and "Vril"

The "Baltic Sea Anomaly" is becoming the woo-woo phenomenon that will not die.

You probably remember that the whole thing started last year, when some Swedish treasure-hunters discovered a pile of rocks on the floor of the Baltic Sea that was vaguely circular.  The presence of a circular pile of rocks on these people had exactly the effect it would on anyone, provided he had the IQ of a jar of peanut butter: the people who took the photograph decided it was a downed spaceship.

This caused all sorts of excitement amongst the world of woo-woo, especially when the Ocean Explorer team who had made the initial "discovery" told the press that they couldn't go back because of funding problems and the onset of winter.  They promised, however, to return this year, and anticipation grew, until a couple of months ago, they went back, took more photographs, and found that the downed spacecraft was...

... still just a pile of rocks.  But they were really special rocks!  Really!  And this definitely isn't a publicity stunt intended to draw the whole thing out interminably!

The latter, of course, is happening anyway, because woo-woos are nothing if not tenacious.  So, now we have a new proposal, based on the claim by the Ocean Explorer team that the "Baltic Sea Anomaly" (as the rocks have come to be known) was interfering with electronic equipment, that their cameras and so on "refused to work" when they got close to it.

So now, the pile of rocks has been morphed from a downed spacecraft into...

... wait for it...

... a superpowerful Nazi secret weapon.  (Source)

Yes, this is quite an amazing pile of rocks, isn't it?  It is a remnant of "super-secret WWII technology" that was "designed to block enemy radar and even causing ships and airplanes to lose their way, either crashing into the sea or sinking below the waves."

And as I've commented before, there is no silly idea that someone can't make sillier, so now the buzz is that this is the at-long-last evidence needed to prove the discovery by the Nazis of an ultrapowerful energy source called "Vril."

The whole Vril thing has been going around for years -- that the Nazis had found evidence of alien technology from a civilization on Alpha Centauri, and were working on a doomsday weapon that would be powered by "Vril."  Apparently the story of the Nazis looking for Vril is true; it was one of a whole lot of ridiculous, pseudo-mystical lines of "research" the Nazis were pursuing.  The fact that they were looking for Vril, though, is especially comical, because the whole idea came from an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton called Vril: The Power of the Coming Race, which the Nazis evidently didn't notice had been shelved in the "Fiction" section of the bookstore.

But that, of course, never stops either Nazis or conspiracy theorists, because they always have recourse to saying, "Of course it's shelved as fiction -- it was written in the guise of a fictional novel to cover up the fact that it was all true!  How's that for a clever strategy?"  And the result is that there are numerous secret and not-so-secret societies today that base their philosophy (if I can dignify it with that name) on the truth of the Vril story.  (Here's a webpage that goes into detail about the Nazi Vril program, but unfortunately seems to take the whole thing a little too seriously; and a highly, but inadvertently, comical page that tells you how to purchase your very own hand-held "Vril Generator.")

So.  Anyway.  Can we just clarify a couple of things, here?

1)  The "Baltic Sea Anomaly" is a PILE OF ROCKS.  How many times do I have to say this?  The Ocean Explorer team, in a sudden fit of honesty, admitted this when they went back there in May.

2)  Call me a cynic, but I just flat-out don't believe that the pile of rocks is interfering with electronic equipment.  That's just too convenient.

3)  There's no such thing as "Vril."  Bulwer-Lytton made it up for his novel.

4)  The Nazis were, for the most part, superstitious, irrational loons, whose only use for science was to make weapons.  Many of the reputable scientists they had fled to safety when the Nazis came to power, including Albert Einstein, Max Born, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, Erwin Schrödinger, Hans Krebs, and Bernard Katz, with the result that most of the "science" they accomplished with the ones who stayed behind was pure garbage.

5)  Can we just move on to some other crazy idea, now?  Because this one is seriously getting old.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thought vs. experiment

To a scientist, there's no more fundamental approach to knowledge than experimentation.  You want to find something out?  Design an experiment to see if your idea about how the world works is correct.  Good scientists are always testing, questioning, and trying to find new ways to tweak the system and see how it responds.

What's fascinating from a historical perspective is that this is a fairly new way to approach knowledge.  In general, the pre-Enlightenment attitude was that if you wanted to learn, you simply had to think about stuff.  Thought was considered to be the purest way to gain knowledge; no need to contaminate your brain with dirty, clunky, uncooperative matter.  Even Kepler started out from this standpoint -- when he first started to work on the problem of the shapes of planetary orbits, he began from the assumption that they were circles (because circles are "perfect") and that the relationship between one planet's orbit and the next had something to do with the "Five Perfect Solids" of Greek mathematical theory.  Fortunately, Kepler was (1) working with a rigorous experimentalist, Tycho Brahe, and (2) honest, because he found out pretty quickly that his ideas weren't working -- and was forced to the uncomfortable conclusion that planetary orbits were messy, lopsided ellipses.  Galileo, you might recall, faced persecution for church officials not because of heresy with regards to religious doctrine, per se -- his problems with the Vatican started because of three claims, one famous (his acceptance of the heliocentric model) and the other two less-known (his rejection of Aristotle's claims that an object's falling speed is dependent on its mass, and that objects float or sink in water depending upon their shape).  It's fascinating, and not a little horrifying, that church officials had demonstrated for them experiments supporting Galileo's conclusions -- and they still didn't believe the evidence of their eyes, preferring instead the "pure thought" of Aristotle and Plato, for whom experimentation was somehow intrinsically suspect.

Amazingly, that idea -- that you can arrive at the truth just by thinking about it -- lingers still.  Some of it is relatively innocent, the sort of thing I see in high school science classes -- misconceptions that stem from the thought, "Well, of course it works that way.  That seems logical."  More insidious, though, are the schools of thought that embrace that approach, that deliberately eschew experimentation in favor of contemplation.  And in the last couple of days, I found two excellent examples of just this way of thinking.

The first one was in the online version of Fate magazine, so I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised, considering the source.  Entitled, "Auric Energy Fields and Their Effects on Electronics," the article in question, written by "noted wisdom teacher" Kala Ambrose, looks at the alleged phenomenon of people whose presence can somehow interfere with electronic devices from computers to DVRs to streetlights.  And she makes the following statement:
As a psychic, I see the aura around people, which is a flexible field of energy around the body with many layers. The level closest to your body, is described as the etheric body and in a sense, it’s the battery of the body, receiving and emitting electrical impulses in and out from your body. You bring energy in and you release energy, all through the auric body. There are many layers extending outward from the etheric body including the mental layer and the emotional layer, both of which are also energy fields where we store and emit energy and we bring this energy into and down into the physical body from these layers... For some people, who also tend to have psi abilities, they release this pent up energy in a wave. I refer to it as an energy blast, which can affect the environment around them. One way that these people begin to notice this effect, is that they will find when walking or driving by street lights, that the lights will go off or turn on when they pass by. If this has happened to you, you are releasing this pent up energy or someone near you is releasing their energy... The over-abundance of energy that you described, can affect lights and other electronics when released in a quick blast. Think of it as an energy surge. Typically this indicates that the person is not aware of the energy they are releasing and so it comes as a surprise when an electronic device is affected. For many people, they emit this energy the strongest when they are agitated, stressed or in a high emotional state (positive or negative).
Now, let's assume for a moment, just for fun, that the phenomenon is real; i.e., that the people who claim to interfere with electronic devices are telling the truth.  What I find the most interesting about Kala Ambrose's claims is that never once does she seem to think, "Hey!  If some guy's body is emitting enough energy to interfere with a computer, that has to be measurable!  Maybe we should build a device to measure, test, and study this 'auric energy field.'"  No, she seems to believe that all you need to do to understand this is to think about it:
The next time this occurs, stop right away and ask yourself, How am I feeling, What’s on my mind right now? Also ask those present what they noticed when it occurred. Gather this information to discern what the triggers are that set off the energy spikes.
An even more striking example of this philosophical approach to science comes from Joseph Farrell's blog Giza Death Star, in which he responds to a press release from the world of physics in a post titled "Space-Time Crystals."  Farrell, to his credit, posts a link to the original press release, and from that press release we learn that Frank Wilczek of MIT and Xiang Zhang and Tongcang Li of UC Berkeley are working on trapping loops of ions inside crystals, creating an rotating charge signal that would "(break) temporal symmetry."  Wilczek is careful to specify that the "space-time crystal" thus created would span only extremely small distances (a tenth of a millimeter) and exist only at phenomenally low temperatures (one-billionth of a degree Kelvin), and that "being in their ground states, such systems could not be employed to produce useful work."

Farrell, on the other hand, begs to differ.

He says that he beat Wilczek, Zhang, and Li to the punch years ago, and did it without ever performing a single experiment:
Way back when, when I began writing my high speculations and sharing them with the public, I began by deciding to “take the plunge” and “high dive” off the deep end, and share my hypothesis that the Great Pyramid may have been a sophisticated kind of phase conjugate mirror manipulating the fabric of the physical medium itself. And at the end of my first book on the subject, I speculated on a kind of crystal that would somehow be able to trap and rotate EM waves. Not knowing what to call such bizarre things, I simply call them “phi” crystals, since they were suggested to me by the constant phi, and by the Fibonacci sequence. My reason for thinking that such crystals would be an integral component of any such machine was simply that there would have to be some sort of coupled oscillator able to interact with the “rotation moment” of the fabric and structure of the local medium, or local space-time.
Now, from my admittedly rather rudimentary understanding of physics, this sounds like a lot of horse waste right from the get-go, but what I find the most interesting about all of Farrell's blathering on about this is that he jumps right past Wilczek's cautions that since space-time crystals are in their ground state, the laws of thermodynamics would render it impossible for them to perform work -- and describes how these curiosities could become "sources of energy" that would "make our largest thermonuclear bombs look like firecrackers."

And how did he arrive at all of this?  Apparently, just by pondering the Fibonacci sequence and other such constructs:
But imagine, for a moment, the possibility that such a technology could be turned into, say, a source of energy...  (T)o my mind anyway, the possibility – long term to be sure – opens up that such things could eventually become sources of energy. We’re a long way from that, to be sure, and even a long way of any such verified understandings of these wildly speculative ideas, but nonetheless, the possibility should be mentioned.
I find it even more curious that Farrell is weighing in on subtle concepts in physics when his own Ph.D. is in patristics.  What is patristics, you might ask?  I had to ask, because I didn't know, and found out that patristics is "the study of early Christian writers, known as the Church Fathers."  Yup, that will certainly prepare you to comprehend abstruse concepts in solid-state physics.

So, anyway, the Platonic ideal of arriving at knowledge just by analyzing it with Pure Thought is with us still, apparently.  And just as it did in the case of Galileo's detractors, without the foundation of data, evidence, and experiment to support it, theoretical musings are just as likely to go wrong as right.  It is exactly this error in approach that science corrects -- even though there are people out there who still don't see why all that silly experimentation should be necessary.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Grilled cheese sandwiches and sacred stones

A friend of mine, and frequent contributor of topics for Skeptophilia, read my frequently-used tag line on the description of my just-released essay collection ("... considering why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches"), and had the following to say: 

"What would you do if you saw the face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich?  Would you eat it?  Sell it?  ... (and) what happens once the faithful show up at your door to venerate the miraculous image? Do you sell tickets? It is ethical for an atheist to profit from misguided believers? Is it respectful to destroy an object some see as holy?"

Which I thought were excellent questions.  The veneration of objects (and places) is so common that it's taken for granted; the statuary, chalices, and rosaries in the Catholic church, the scrolls and certain items of clothing for devout Jews, the Koran to Muslims -- all are treated with reverence, and in varying ways are considered the repository for the divine.

It is an interesting question, however, to consider how much reverence you are obliged to show these objects if you don't share in those beliefs.  Let's for a little while take this out of the realm of the mainstream religions, because that inevitably conjures up strong feelings of various sorts, and look at a curious situation that happened last month.  (Source)

79-year-old German artist Wolfgang von Schwarzenfeld had an idea for an artistic installation in Berlin's Tiergarten Park.  He obtained (legally and with permission, he claims) a large pinkish boulder from the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela, carved the word "love" in various languages on its surface, and placed it on a pedestal.  It has since become something of a mecca for New Agers, and is a frequent site for offerings of flowers, incense, and so on.

The problem is, the pink rock was an object of veneration for the Pemon natives of Gran Sabana, who claim that the rock is the sacred "Wise Grandmother" of their tribe, and that they have seen drought and food shortages since the rock was taken because the "Grandmother" is no longer there to watch over them.  Von Schwarzenfeld says he's not about to give it back, and the whole thing has become something of a cause célèbre for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who always seems to be spoiling for a fight.

There have been varying accusations flying back and forth -- that Chavez and others are stirring up trouble, that von Schwarzenfeld should never have taken something that was a vital part of the Pemon's "cultural heritage," even that the Pemon are lying about the importance of the stone in order to get money.  Now, I'm not an anthropologist (nor a political scientist), and I can't with authority state which of these claims (if any) is true.  But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that the Pemon are telling the truth, and that the stone was a venerated object.  To what extent are von Schwarzenfeld and the rest of us, not sharing those beliefs, obliged to treat the stone with reverence?

Now, first off, I'm a big believer in just being nice.  There's no particular point in walking around being an asshole; if someone believes that an item is worthy of reverence, then my usual approach is to play along out of respect and kindness to the person.  But here, in a sense, the damage is already done (whether knowingly or not is a matter of conjecture).  Should von Schwarzenfeld destroy his art installation, and at what would be a great personal expense return the stone to Venezuela?  Does it matter that he'd already desecrated the stone by carving on it?

It's all very well for free-thinking westerners to sit in our comfortable living rooms and say, "For crying out loud, it's a rock.  It wasn't really protecting the Pemon from droughts, famine, and whatnot.  It doesn't matter."  The fact is, such things matter greatly to some people, and when different groups have competing interests, a resolution is decidedly non-trivial.  Almost the reverse situation is happening right now in Mali and Egypt -- where radical Islamists are destroying historical sites in the city of Timbuktu, and are calling for the demolition of the pyramids, because they are edifices that are "symbols of paganism."  (Source)  This isn't the first time this has happened -- recall the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, an act that one archaeologist called "an irreparable loss to humanity."

So, what do you do when different groups have different attitudes towards the sacred, the secular, and the profane?  I wish I had an answer.  When my friend asked me the question about what I'd do if I found a Holy Grilled Cheese Sandwich, I responded, "I'd write about it," which was true if somewhat disingenuous.  The bottom line is that I don't know that it's possible to reconcile these claims, given that they stem from mutually exclusive views of the world.  In the end, perhaps, there is no answer to this question other than, "Be as kind and respectful as you can manage to be, and hope like hell that it doesn't blow up in your face."