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.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Chinese alien research station

New from the "Harmless If It Amuses You" department, today we have a story about a retired Chinese military man who has built what he calls an "alien research station" in his back yard.  (Source)

Xiang Kuansong, 79, of Mayang, Hunan province, has worked 17 years on the project, which shows if nothing else amazing determination.  He said he was told to build it by two aliens, who said, "Don't be afraid.  We are not ghosts or god.  We are people from another planet who want to help you."  So Xiang decided to create a site that would memorialize the encounter.  The aliens, he said, are from the planet "Dongsheng," are 1.95 meters tall, and wear clothing that makes them invisible to everyone else but him.  They've been back to talk with him many times, and requested that he build this "way station" so they would have a place to rest on their intergalactic travels.

He has hung a sign over the door saying, "The Harmonious Way to a Foreign Planet," and has stones marking the places that the aliens have appeared.  Otherwise, the place looks, according to the source, more like a temple than a research station; there is a model of a spaceship, presumably to make the aliens feel at home, but there is no scientific equipment.  Xiang evidently doesn't need to rely on clunky radio telescopes for his extraterrestrial contact; they simply come to him, which I have to say is pretty convenient.

What immediately jumped out at me about this story, being of a linguistic bent, is that the planet has a Chinese name.  Doesn't that strike Xiang as kind of unlikely?  You'd think that whatever language an alien race might speak on their home planet, it wouldn't be Chinese (or English or Lithuanian or Swahili or any other language found on Earth).  And just like when two human cultures have been in contact, the things that tend to retain their original morphology the longest are personal names and place names, you'd think that the name of the planet would be more... well, alien-sounding.  Of course, the same thing happens with contactees from other cultures.  I think it's a bit of a coincidence that when English speakers are contacted by aliens, they (and their planets) always seem to follow the Star Trek naming convention of ending in either -us or -a depending on whether the name in question is masculine or feminine, a morphological constraint adopted from Latin.  (Without even trying hard, I found accounts online of contacts with aliens called Tibus, Mytria, Manus, Vertra, Boratus, Lorcus, and Bellatria.)  Of course, there are exceptions.  This website, which (sadly) does not appear to be a parody, tells of contact with aliens called Quetzal, Semiase, Sfath, and Ptaah, and then has pencil sketches of three very human men and one woman who supposedly are inhabitants of the Pleiades.  (Yes, yes, I know.  The Pleiades is a star cluster, and you can't inhabit a star cluster.  Just play along, okay?)

So even though the names sound marginally less human (you have to wonder about Quetzal, however, given that it's the first half of the name of a Central American god), here the aliens themselves are clearly three middle-aged guys with  beards, and a sexy young woman with a seriously come-hither expression.  The whole thing seems pretty suspect to me.

Of course, your alien abduction devotee would probably object that the aliens, being superintelligent, converse with their human contacts in the language the contact speaks, and in a form that wouldn't immediately scare the contact into having a brain aneurysm.  So this explains why people always hear the aliens speaking, and using names, clearly derived from human languages familiar to the speaker, and take (more-or-less) human form when appearing to us.

Me, I think if there are intelligent aliens out there, any languages they speak are much more likely to sound like the guy in my favorite clip from Men in Black (watch it here) in which Will Smith talks to an alien masquerading as a postal worker.  (How they filmed that scene without laughing is beyond me.)  Our languages evolved to be speakable, and comprehensible, based on our biology, and there's no reason to suppose that an intelligent species with a different biology will have languages at all analogous to ours -- or perhaps, even readily recognizable as language at all.

So, anyway, that's our story for today.  I wish the retired Chinese soldier best of luck with his alien research station, and hope he gets lots of visits from "Dongsheng."  As for me, I think I'm going to sit here and practice making the sounds that guy made in Men in Black.  I'd like to be able to do that.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Species, types, and the No True Scotsman fallacy

One of the most frustrating of logical fallacies is the No True Scotsman fallacy.  It gets its name from an almost certainly apocryphal story, in which a serial rapist and killer is being pursued by the police in Glasgow, and a Scottish MP encourages the police to search amongst the immigrant population of the city.  "No Scotsman would do such a thing," the MP said.

When the criminal was caught, and turned out to be 100% Scottish, the MP was challenged about his remark.

"Well," he said, drawing himself up, "no true Scotsman would have done such a thing!"

The crux of this fallacy is that if you make a statement that turns out, in view of evidence, to be false, all you do is shift your ground -- redefine the terms so as to make your original point unassailable.

Very few other fallacies have such a capacity for making me want to smack my forehead into a wall as this one.  Someone who commits this fallacy can't be pinned down, can't be backed into a corner, can't receive his comeuppance from the most reasoned argument, the most solidly incontrovertible evidence.  The dancing skills of a master of the No True Scotsman fallacy are Dancing With The Stars quality.

All of this comes up because of an online discussion that I read, and (yes) participated in, a couple of days ago, on the topic of the demonstrability of evolution.  Someone, ostensibly a supporter of evolution but seemingly not terribly well-read on the subject, was using such evidence as the fossil record as a support for the idea.  A creationist responded, "The fossil record, and fossil dating, are inaccurate.  You evolutionists always think that bringing us a bunch of bones and shells proves your point, but it doesn't, because no one can really prove how old they were, and none of them show one species turning into another.  You can't show a single example, from the present, of one species becoming another, and yet you want us to believe in your discredited theory."

Well, of course, I couldn't let a comment like that just sit there, so I responded, "Well, actually, yes, I can.  I know about a dozen examples of speciation (one species becoming another) occurring within a human lifetime."

Challenged to produce examples, I gave a few, including the ones that I described in an earlier post (Grass, gulls, mosquitoes, and mice, February 9, 2012), and then sat back on my haunches with a satisfied snort, thinking "Ha.  That sure showed him."

Well.  I should have known better.  His response, which I quote verbatim:  "All you did was show that one grass can become another grass, or a mosquito can become another mosquito.  If you could show me a mosquito that turned into a bird, or something, I might believe you."

Now, wait just a second, here.  You asked me for one thing -- to show one species turning into a different species, in the period of a few decades.  I did so, adhering to the canonical definition of the word species.  And now you're saying that wasn't what you wanted after all -- you want me to show one phylum turning into a different one, in one generation?

So I sat there, sputtering and swearing, and not sure how to answer.  So I said something to the effect that he'd pulled a No True Scotsman on me, and had changed the terms of the question once he saw I could answer it, and he'd damned well better play fair.  He humphed back at me that we evolutionists couldn't really support our points, and we both left the discussion as I suspect most people leave discussions on the internet -- unconvinced and frustrated.  So I was pondering the whole thing, and after taking my blood pressure medications I had a sudden realization of where the confusion was coming from.  It was from the idea of a type of organism.

Most people who aren't educated in the biological sciences (and I'm not including just formal education, here; there are many people who have never taken a single biology class and know plenty about the subject) really don't understand the concept of species.  They think in types.  A bird is one type of thing; a bug is a different one.  If you pressed them, they might admit that there were a few types of birds that seemed inherently different; you have your big birds (ostriches), your medium-sized birds (robins), and your little birds (hummingbirds).  I've had students that have thought this way, and when they hear I'm a birdwatcher, they seem incredulous that this could be a lifelong avocation.  Wouldn't I run out of new birds to see pretty quickly?  When I tell them that there are over 10,000 unique species of birds, they seem not so much awed as uncomprehending.

I suspect that the source of this misapprehension is the same as the source of the general misapprehension regarding the antiquity of the Earth and the origins of life: the bible.  In Leviticus 11, where they go through the whole unclean-foods thing that eventually would be codified as the Kosher Law, they split up the natural world in only the broadest-brush terms; you have your animals that have hooves and chew the cud, various combinations of ones that don't, creatures that have fins and scales and ones that don't, insects that jump and ones that don't, and a few different classes of birds (which, to my eternal amusement, included bats).  And that's pretty much it.  Plants were sorted out into ones that had edible parts (wheat, figs, olives), ones that had useful wood (boxwood, cedar, acacia), and ones that had neither of the above (thorn bushes).  And these distinctions worked perfectly well for a Bronze-Age society; it kept you from eating stuff that was bad for you, told you what you could build stuff from, and so on.  But as a scientific concept, the idea of "types of living things" is pretty ridiculous.  And yet it still seems to live on in people's minds, lo unto this very day.

So, anyway, that was my brief excursion into that least useful of endeavors, the Online Argument.  It gave me a nice example of the No True Scotsman fallacy to tell my Critical Thinking classes about, when we hit that topic in a few weeks.  And it really didn't affect my blood pressure all that much, but it did make me roll my eyes.  Which seems to happen frequently when I get into conversations with creationists. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

eBay, metaphysics, and caveat emptor

In what can only be called a puzzling move, online clearinghouse eBay has announced that they will no longer allow selling of "paranormal services."

From the 2012 Fall Seller Update, we read the following:
The following items are also being added to the prohibited items list: advice; spells; curses; hexing; conjuring; magic; prayers; blessing services; magic potions; healing sessions; work from home businesses & information; wholesale lists, and drop shop lists.
My reason for calling this "puzzling" is twofold.  First, they have a whole category called "Specialty Services," and it would seem that such things would clearly fall under that heading.  And as such claims are bogus from the get-go, it would be hard for a purchaser to file a claim under eBay's stated policies for sellers:
As a seller, you're expected to:
  • Charge reasonable shipping and handling costs.
  • Specify shipping costs and handling time in the listing.
  • Follow through on your return policy.
  • Respond to buyers' questions promptly.
  • Be helpful, friendly, and professional throughout a transaction.
  • Make sure the item is delivered to the buyer as described in the listing.
And all of this would seem to be well in line with what these sellers are doing.  All they were selling was a prayer or a hex or whatever; there's no guarantee it would work, just as there's no guarantee that if you ask your religious friend to pray for you (or your wizard friend to cast a spell for you) that it'll produce results.  The only difference is that here, you're being asked to pay for it.

Now, the hopeful side of my personality is speculating that eBay is pulling these offers because they know them to be inherently fraudulent, and they don't want to have any part in ripping off the credulous.  But my second reason for calling this change "puzzling" is that if this is the reason, it's hard to explain some of their other listings, such as:
So you can see that even though they are eliminating services having to do with woo-woo bullshit, they are still fine with selling stuff that has to do with woo-woo bullshit.  My only conclusion is that they don't want to have to mediate between buyers who purchased a magic spell that (amazingly enough) didn't work, and the seller who sold it to them.  But since, other than the policy that (1) the purchased item be delivered promptly, and (2) that the delivered item is as described on the eBay site, there seems to be no basis for a complaint, you have to wonder why they are backing off from what surely is a hell of a deal both for eBay and the sellers.

In any case, that's today's lesson in critical thinking and the principle of caveat emptor.  Me, I wonder if I missed my calling.  If I could make $550 (or more) handwriting a book of spells, and selling it on eBay, and have people trampling each other to buy it, I could retire from teaching and move somewhere warmer.  Spend a couple of hours a day writing out spells, have my wife do the illustrations (because my drawing skills maxed out somewhere in third grade), and spend the rest of the day on the beach soaking up the sun and drinking mojitos.  There's the inevitable downside of knowing that I was taking money from people who possess the critical thinking skills of road salt, but hey, if eBay isn't going to worry about that, why should I?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bigfoot sightings, ghillie suits, and the Darwin Awards

I try to be compassionate, I really do.  I mean, schadenfreude only gets you so far in life.  So when I read the news story a couple of years ago about the health food enthusiast who was giving a lecture on the dangers of high-carb diets in a local library, and while leaving her talk was hit and killed by a bakery truck, my laughter was tempered with a dose of sympathy for the victim and her family.

Sometimes, however, it's hard not to dissolve into guffaws at the misfortunes of others, particularly when they brought said ill luck on themselves.  And this brings us to today's story, from Kalispell, Montana, where a guy was killed while trying to create a fake Bigfoot sighting.  (Source)

The man, who has been identified as Randy Lee Tenley, 44, of Kalispell, was wearing a military-style ghillie suit.  What is a ghillie suit, you might ask?  I know I had to ask, because I didn't know.  It's a camouflage suit worn by snipers and other people involved in covert military operations.  But it's not your typical patterns-of-leaves type camouflage, the kind worn by hunters; it's covered with ropy fake vegetation.  Here's a picture of a ghillie suit from (I am not making this up)

Which brings up two points: (1) this would only count as camouflage if your area has many human-sized furry lumps with arms, which would seem to limit its usefulness, and (2) there are enough civilians who actually want ghillie suits that there's a website that sells them?  I'm not sure that this last-mentioned isn't the scariest thing about this whole story.

Be that as it may, Tenley obtained a ghillie suit, and decided (possibly under the influence of alcohol, which seems likely) to stage a Sasquatch sighting alongside Highway 93.  So he donned his suit, and proceeded to run about along, and eventually on, the highway.  But evidently the ghillie suit's capacity for camouflage exceeded my expectations mentioned in the preceding paragraph, and Tenley was struck by a car.  He was thrown into the middle of the road, where he was struck by a second car, killing him.

I've always claimed that woo-woo beliefs were potentially dangerous, and by that I have usually been thinking about quack medical practices like homeopathy, which are sometimes sought out by people who are ill in place of treatments or remedies that actually work.  But here we see a case where a man was actually killed not because of his own woo-woo beliefs, but because he was trying to encourage others in their woo-woo beliefs.  All of which is rather ironic.

The upside, of course, not that Tenley will be around to celebrate the fact, is that this should be a clear contender for the 2012 Darwin Awards, a yearly contest whose prizes go out to the people who have taken themselves out in the stupidest possible fashion, thus improving the gene pool for the rest of us.  If Tenley isn't an odds-on favorite, I don't know who would be.

So, anyhow, that's today's story, the object lessons of which include the following: (1) running around in camouflage makes you hard to see, (2) if you jump into a highway, you're likely to get hit by a car, (3) staging Bigfoot sightings can be dangerous, and of course, (4) alcohol does not lead to clear decision-making processes.  So I think we can all thank Tenley for his bad example, and if this post has dissuaded one person from donning a ghillie suit and dancing on the highway, I think we can consider our time here well spent.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A study in tropical colors

As my regular readers know, I just got back a couple of days ago from a two-and-a-half week trip to Malaysia.  I thought it might be interesting to step aside for a day from my usual agenda of lobbing verbal bombs at the woo-woos, and give a few of my impressions of this country.

I was drawn to Malaysia by the birds.  I am a fanatical birdwatcher, an avocation that I am more and more beginning to think of as being some kind of benign mental disorder.  The trip was an organized excursion put together by Birdquest International, a UK-based company that specializes in taking people to where the birds are.  So everyone on the trip shared my obsession -- all seven participants, and the two guides.  We shuffled along the trails in a tight, silent little pack, binoculars in hand, scanning trees and underbrush, listening for unusual calls or songs -- and then launching into action like a SWAT team when one was seen:  "Bulbul!  Olive-winged!  Large tree with round leaves, in foreground, nine o'clock, moving left!"  And everyone would swivel around to find the bird, and one by one you'd hear, "Got it, thanks!" and every once in a while a "Dammit!  It flew!"

But the birds were spectacular.  The grounds of the lodge where we stayed in Taman Negara National Park were frequently graced by four or five Crested Firebacks, a pheasant species that looks like it's ready for a fancy costume ball.  Not all of them were that easy; it took us several hours of work to locate the elusive Garnet Pitta, a bird that has been called the Jewel of the Rain Forest (photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons):

We never, ever were without our binoculars, except when we were sleeping.  We wore them at meals, during rides in the van from one locale to another, and when we were hauling our luggage around.  And all it took was the cry of "Bird!" to stop us from all other pursuits and hoist the lenses into the air to see what might have flown in.

Of course, it's not that that was the only attraction to Malaysia.  It's a stunningly beautiful country, with huge stands of pristine rain forest, enormous trees draped with lianas and ferns.  A botanist would go mad here from the diversity of plant life.  I pride myself on my knowledge of plants, and I only recognized perhaps 10% of what I was seeing.  Take this strangely-shaped leaf for example:

No idea what it is, other than "cool."  Because of the thin soils, most of the trees have these sculpted buttress-roots, that never failed to remind me of Old Man Willow from The Lord of the Rings:

Besides the biology of the place, there's the culture.  The food was always interesting, and often delicious.  We had a hundred different takes on curry, most with coconut, a food I heartily approve of.  I finally got to try durian, the famous spiky (and smelly) fruit of Southeast Asia.  Durian has such a pungent smell that it is illegal to open one on public transport or in a hotel room, and I found first-hand that the smell clings to your skin and clothing for hours.  What does it smell like?  Let me quote food writer Richard Sterling: "Its odor is best described as pig shit, turpentine, and onions, garnished with a gym sock."  Anthony Bourdain, even though he likes the stuff, says that after eating it "your breath smells like you've been French-kissing your dead grandmother."  So, of course, I had to try it.  And... I thought it was delicious.  The flavor is kind of indescribable -- musky, sweet, creamy, a little oily.  But definitely wonderful, and like nothing else I've ever tasted.

I also ran face-first into sambal ulek, which I have renamed "Malaysian Death Sauce" because I had no idea how freakin' hot it was until I had slathered it all over my breakfast.  Now, I'm from southern Louisiana, and have a very high (probably genetic) tolerance for pepper, and this was hotter than anything I've ever eaten.  It was only my hatred of losing face amongst comparative strangers that kept me from dumping my plate and taking a second serving with three drops (rather than three heaping spoonfuls) of the stuff.

And speaking of hot: Malaysia is also the other kind of hot.  The temperature varies from blazing hot, all the way up through sauna and right into the realm of pressure cooker.  I was constantly wringing wet with sweat, and I usually have a high tolerance for hot weather.  In the highlands (we spent four days at Fraser's Hill in the Cameron Highlands of central Malaysia) it was a bit cooler, but that's like saying that "compared to a blast furnace, a bread oven is comfortable."  It was still near 100% humidity, and I think the temperature only dropped below 80 F for a brief time at night.

The heat and humidity also encourage a variety of animal life, and not all of it is of the oh-look-at-the-cute-little-monkey type.  Malaysia has leeches.  Terrestrial leeches.  These live in the leaf-litter of the forest floor, attach themselves to your shoes, and then crawl up your pant leg in search of dinner.  Most of our party got bitten at least once -- I was one of the only exceptions, probably because I daily doused my boots in high-strength insect repellent, to the point that by the end of my trip my boots were composed of 5% shoe leather and 95% DEET.  If I ever get rid of those boots, I will probably have to file an Environmental Impact Statement.  But I didn't get bitten, unlike poor Linda, a retired nurse from Oakland who got bitten about a dozen times and constantly had large bloodstains on her socks, pants, and shirt.

One of the most curious things about Malaysia was the pervasive role of religion.  61% of Malaysians are Muslim; we saw many veiled women, and daily heard the chanted call to prayer broadcast over speakers.  But 61%, although a majority, means that there are plenty of other beliefs; there are substantial numbers of Hindus (whose brilliantly-colored temples were often seen on our van trips), Buddhists, and even a few animists amongst the Orang Asli, or aboriginal settlers of the peninsula.  But the Malaysians are, by and large, a people amongst whom the adherence to some religion is taken as given, and who have a big focus on decorum and morality.  I saw a few tourists who were showing more skin than was considered proper -- women in short-shorts, men who were shirtless -- and saw more than one skew glance being given to them.  I wore shorts on occasion (while not actively birding in the forest; wearing shorts in the Malaysian forest is like waving a sign in front of the leeches that you're open for dinner) and wondered if the tattoo on my leg would attract any negative attention.  I didn't notice any, but you have to wonder what the more conservative citizens think of some of the foreigners they see.

Last: Malaysia is far away.  It took over 24 hours in the air to get me there, and it is exactly half a day off from my home time zone; when I Skyped with my wife, in the places where wifi was available, I was always had the vertigo-inducing awareness of being on the opposite side of a giant spinning ball.  When it was day in New York, it was night in Malaysia, and we had to plan to meet -- as she was getting ready to head to work, I was getting ready to head to bed.  On the way back, I took the longest nonstop flight in the world -- Hong Kong to New York City/JFK.  Sixteen hours in the air.  And although I had no travel mishaps whatsoever -- not so much as a five-minute departure delay -- I do wish I had not been on the special Screaming Toddler Flight.  I've never been so glad to get off a plane.

So, anyway, those are a few impressions of my first visit to the continent of Asia.  I came away with an impression of a friendly people, a commitment to protecting their beautiful environment, and 199 "life birds" -- species I'd never seen before.  I survived sambal ulek and durian, and all in all, had a wonderful time.  Still, it's nice to be home, where the temperature is mild, breakfast sauces don't burn your face off, and you can walk in the woods without being bitten by leeches.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Guest post from skeptic Tyler Tork: The Psychic's Psychic

Hi Skeptophiles,

I'm back from Malaysia, and tomorrow will be back in the saddle again, fueled in my vocation of neatly poniarding woo-woos by such powerfully magical substances as Malaysian Death Curry and Durian, The Fruit From Hell.  To gear you back up, today I present a guest post from my friend and fellow skeptic Tyler Tork.  You should all check out his website (link posted at the end), and I hope you enjoy his post as much as I did!


The Psychics' Psychic

 - by guest blogger Tyler Tork

"SuperPsychic Wendy!"[1] is on your side, O Consumer of Psychic Services. She wants to prevent bogus psychics from cheating you, so she's written a book, The Naked Quack! [2]. It explains how people get fooled by charlatans. Why waste your money on a fake medium when you can instead pay $400/hr for the real thing – her?

She also wants to license psychics, a proposal that many of the readers of this blog can probably get behind. I, for one, would be glad to issue a professional psychic license to anyone who can prove their powers in a controlled test (and who swears to use them for good). The many genuine psychics in this country, concerned about fakers who give their profession a bad name, surely must regard Wendy! as a heroine.

The James Randi Foundation could create a testing regimen for licensing. I'm sure a psychic as gifted as Wendy! must know about the million dollars they offer anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities, so I'm not sure why she hasn't applied. Odd. It's not about the money, of course; she could give that to a charity. It's about credibility.

Lacking such a test, we must evaluate psychics as best we can by other means. Fortunately, a rare few are bold enough to go on record with predictions for the coming year. As we know, the reading public always clip or bookmark such articles, and at the end of the year they go back to check whether the predictions were accurate. So this is a gutsy thing for a psychic to do.

Never let it be said that Wendy! is timid. Witness her predictions for 2011. Now we can see how good she really is.

Alas, as I peruse the article, I see that out of seven predictions, none of them are entirely correct. Now, nobody claims that precognition is an exact science, so perhaps it's unfair to take a paragraph of  prediction and count it wrong if not every statement is 100% accurate. So I broke the predictions into independent statements to see to what extent they might be at least a near miss. Here they are (paraphrased to avoid any copyright concerns):
  •     Tom Cruise breaks his arm doing a stunt. Wrong.
  •     There are a lot of photos of Tom and Katie arguing. Hard to evaluate since "a lot" is vague, but since I searched a bit and couldn't find a single such photo from 2011, I'm saying wrong on this one.
  •     Tom and Katie are rumored to divorce. A search turned up nothing. There are always rumors of all kinds about celebrity couples, so I wouldn't be surprised if somebody said this. But did she mean one rumor, or a lot? I rule this one too vague to evaluate.
  •     Tom and Katie run an ad to show that their marriage isn't in trouble. Wrong.
  •     The stock market makes major swings at the start of the year. Wrong, basically flat.
  •     The U.S. sends troops to Nicaragua. Wrong. (Huh?)
  •     The stock market rises by April. Wrong; market flat thru April.
  •     The stock market drops by early summer because of "some news". Wrong. Nothing notable before July.
  •     Obama's increasing unpopularity makes markets nervous (unclear whether this is the news referred to above, but it precedes a prediction about August so I assume it means sometime during the summer, anyway).Wrong. Obama's ratings are flat, actually reaching a year high by July.
  •     The stock market has another "shaky" period in late August. "Another" implies there's a non-shaky time preceding it, which was not the case. Wrong.
  •     The stock market stabilizes by the end of the year. Wrong.
  •     Arnold Schwarzenegger runs for President. Since he's ineligible, no surprise: wrong.
  •     Arnold's daughter, Christina, goes into acting. Wrong.
  •     Michael Douglas (already known to have cancer at the time) gets stronger as he battles cancer.  Wrong. He gets weaker, losing 32 pounds that he didn't need to shed. Unless she means strength of character, in which case see below.
  •     Douglas wins an Oscar. Wrong.
  •     Douglas does TV commercials against smoking. Wrong. In fact, he's sighted smoking, which seems to show that his cancer hasn't taught him much (see above).
  •     Major floods in the Midwest in March or April. For a change, this one is close enough to count as correct. The floods were a little later than predicted, but I don't want to be too much of a hard-ass. Of course, NOAA, presumably without psychic assistance, was already predicting heavy snowfall, so spring flooding might not be much of a stretch.
  •     Texas will have major floods in March or April. Wrong.
  •     [The floods will cause] serious crop damage "everywhere". I assume everywhere means everywhere there was flooding. Since floods always cause crop damage, I don't consider this a separate prediction.
  •     Accusations of tax evasion, and a scandal involving an anonymous informant, will make Sarah Palin drop out of the Presidential race. It came as a surprise to nobody that Sarah Palin dropped out, since she's a lunatic whom only a handful of people would consider voting for. However, it had nothing to do with taxes or mysterious scandals, so, wrong.
  •     Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel get engaged. This one is correct. Wendy! successfully predicted the engagement of a couple who'd been dating for years and had talked about getting engaged on national TV.
  •     Justin and Jessica have a baby girl. Wrong.
  •     Justin writes and produces an autobiographical film. Wrong. I feel like I'm shooting fish in a barrel here. I don't want to be mean, but really?
  •     Jessica is nominated for a 2012 Oscar.  Wrong.

Tallying that up, there were 22 predictions specific enough to evaluate, of which 2 were correct. That's an accuracy rate of 9%, and the ones that were correct weren't the ones I would've given long odds. If Arnold Schwarzenegger were somehow on the ballot, or if we'd invaded Nicaragua, I'd be a little more impressed. As it is, I don't know about you, but I like my psychics to be correct at least 15% of the time, to justify charging $400/hr ($600 if you just count face time).
Tyler Tork, occasional contributor of derisive comments here, writes speculative fiction and answers reader questions online. Every question deserves a silly answer.

[1] The exclamation point is apparently part of her name.
[2] Some might suspect that she only knows one punctuation symbol, but she deserves some credit for correct use of apostrophe when she bills herself as "The Psychics' Psychic."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The skeptic goes to Malaysia

My dear Skeptophiles,

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks... by this time tomorrow morning, I will be on my way to the lovely country of Malaysia for a hiking and birdwatching trip that I've been planning for months.  Some things I will be experiencing:
  • amazing natural beauty, including six days in Taman Negara, one of the largest pristine stands of rain forest in Southeast Asia
  • an opportunity to see over 300 species of birds, almost all of which will be new to me, and including one called the "Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler," which I swear I'm not making up
  • fantastic local cuisine, including several different kind of curries and a fruit called a "durian" that allegedly smells like a combination of garlic, wet dog, skunk, and sweat socks
  • the experience of having my biological clock try to keep track of being twelve hours different from my home time zone
I will be largely incommunicado while I'm there -- although I've been told that a couple of the places I'll be will have WiFi, I'm not counting on having anything like frequent access to the internet.  So I will bid you a fond farewell for a couple of weeks, with the solemn promise that when I get back I will resume my battle with the woo-woos.  Look for the next Skeptophilia post on Monday, August 27.

Until then, there are a few things you can do to keep your appetite for critical thinking sated.  First, you can buy my book, if you haven't already done so.  It has the creative title Skeptophilia, is a bargain at only $3.99, and is a collection of 120 of my essays on science, skepticism, critical thinking, and woo-woo-ism.  You can get it for Kindle (here) or Nook (here).   If you do decide to buy it, many thanks -- and please leave a review.

This is also a chance for you to check out some other skeptical blogs and webpages, so here are a few of my favorites:

Science, Reason, and Critical Thinking
James Randi Educational Foundation
The Skeptic's Dictionary
The Call of Troythulu
The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason
Friendly Atheist
Bad Archaeology
Bad Astronomy

That should be enough to keep you occupied while I'm gone, don't you think?

In any case, I should return refreshed and re-energized, and hopefully without any loathsome tropical diseases, the last week of August.  Until then, keep hoisting the banner of logic!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Amber teething beads and alternative quackery

Every once in a while, I'll happen across a story that outright makes me angry.  Usually this has to do with a woo-woo claim that doesn't just put the believer at risk, but others as well.

And it's worse when the ones whose health and safety are being put in danger are children.  Children depend on adults to make good decisions, and when hype, credulity, and commercialism team up to sell parents a bill of goods, it is placing an innocent individual in harm's way -- and one who is not capable of standing up for him/herself, or necessarily even recognizing the danger.

This is the case with the latest fad in "holistic baby care" -- amber teething beads.  I was first alerted to this oddball idea by a regular reader of Skeptophilia, who asked me if I'd ever heard of such a thing.  I hadn't.  But a little bit of research brought me here, where we are given the following combination of half-truths and outright falsehoods:
  • Amber releases "healing oils," which are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream.  (It doesn't.)
  • Amber is "electromagnetically alive" and "produces significant amount of organic, purely natural energy."  (Well, it can be electrically charged if you rub it with a silk cloth -- but then, so can a balloon, and I've never seen "holistic medicine" sites recommending wearing necklaces made of balloons.)
  • Amber contains succinic acid, which is good for you because it is an amino acid.  (Succinic acid is not an amino acid.)
  • Succinic acid is a therapeutically proven analgesic.  (This is true, but you can suck on a blob of amber all day and not absorb enough succinic acid to reduce any pain you might be experiencing.)
  • Wearing amber protects you against "the negative effects of electrical equipment such as computers, televisions, mobile phones, and microwave ovens."  (Controlled studies of exposure to electromagnetic fields from commonly-used equipment showed no health effects whatsoever, so there's nothing much to protect you from.)
  • Amber is good for you because tree resin has anti-microbial properties.  (A good antiseptic works much better.)
Then, at the bottom of the page, they write, "Please note: Amber Artisans does not dispense medical advice."

Oh, no?  Then what were the preceding paragraphs of hogwash?  These people -- who are only one of dozens of sites I found that are now hawking amber for teething babies -- are clearly dispensing medical advice.  Erroneous advice, but medical advice nonetheless.

I'm wondering how long it'll be before the first baby chokes to death on an amber necklace.  These things have screw clasps, and the silk cord that the beads are strung on is supposed to break if sufficient tension is given -- reducing the strangulation risk -- but what if a bead pops off the necklace and is inhaled?  And then, we have the problem of sites such as this one -- that claim that amber can be used for other purposes than soothing teething pain, such as treating rashes and fevers.  So, compound the (1) pseudoscientific claims, with (2) the choking and strangulation risk, and finally (3) the fact that gullible parents are being convinced that children with treatable illnesses will be cured by wearing a necklace, and potentially delay seeking good medical care, and perhaps now you'll see why the whole thing made me furious.

We have lots of ways of giving our children their best shot at healthy lives.  Good diet, exercise, and the usual suite of childhood vaccinations (sorry, anti-vaxers, you're simply wrong) are still the best bets for avoiding the illnesses that used to kill tens of thousands of children annually (and still do, in some countries where medical care is poor or nonexistent).  We now have an excellent understanding of how immunity works, and can use that knowledge to benefit those who depend on us.  And if we take the time to learn a little bit of genuine science, it can immunize us adults as well -- against the false claims of hucksters who are trying to sell us medically worthless items as cure-alls.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Life in the danger zone

Well, it's hurricane season, and we have a tropical storm and a tropical depression currently setting their sights on the Gulf of Mexico.  Couple this with the fact that the surface water temperature in the Gulf -- the driver for storm size -- is in some places at a record high, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  The whole thing has me feeling distinctly twitchy.

I'm a southern Louisianian born and bred.  My father was from Lafayette, my mother from Raceland.  Despite spending the past thirty years in the frozen North, a large part of my heart is still in the swamps where I was raised.  Southern Louisiana is a place of amazing natural beauty, and I still miss the wonderful Cajun food and music on which I was raised.

It's hard to know what to say as I watch these storms bearing down on the unprotected lowlands of the Gulf Coast.  From 2000 miles away, I can do little but check in on the NOAA's hurricane site several times a day, and watch as the forecast track gets shorter and shorter.   For my family and friends who still live there, I can only hope that as the storm progresses and its point of landfall becomes more certain, that you will evacuate to safer places if you need to.  After that, all I can do is what I did with Katrina, Rita, and Wilma; sit and wait.  And watch.

This brings up, as reluctant as I am to say it, the question of whether there are places in the world where people just shouldn't live.  New Orleans, much as I love the place (I have many fond memories of strong coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde), tops the list.  Hit by another major hurricane, the levees will eventually fail again.  Half of the city is below sea level.  How can it be sensible to gamble with your life, family, and property in such a place?

The fault-zone area in Marin County, California.  The Sea Islands off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.  The foothills of Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, and Mount Lassen, all of which are still active volcanoes.  The canyon country of south central California, with its wildfires and mudslides.  Countless volcanic islands in the Indonesian archipelago.  The Stromboli region of Italy, which is a ticking bomb for a Pompeii-style pyroclastic eruption.  All of these places are prone to natural disasters of terrible magnitude.  Ironically, all are places of incredible beauty.  Many are thickly populated; the volcanic ones are often important farming regions because of the fertile soils. 

I'm not foolish enough to propose that all of these areas should be evacuated permanently because of the risk.  Besides the complete impracticality of this, the sorry truth is that no place is truly safe.  Even in the geologically and meteorologically quiet area I currently live in -- the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York -- we occasionally have major storms.  The first winter I lived here, 1992-1993, was the winter of the never-to-be-forgotten "hundred-year storm," the Blizzard of '93, which dropped 54 inches of snow on my little town in one weekend.  (You can imagine how traumatic that was for a transplanted Louisianian, for whom "snow" was "that white stuff that's pictured on Christmas cards for some reason.")

Nowhere is safe, and everywhere you live is a tradeoff.  You simply pick what natural disasters you're most willing to risk, and choose what benefits you want badly enough to risk them.  And then, of course, there's the part about not blaming others for your choices, or expecting everyone to come rally around you when your house falls down due to a natural event you knew was likely to occur.  Even given that, however, everyone has different standards for acceptable risk, and what they think would be worth the potential danger.  I would, for example, happily live in western California (if I could afford it, which I can't) -- risking the earthquakes and wildfires to have the wonderful climate, natural beauty, accessibility to the ocean, and the ability to grow damn near anything in my garden.  I would not move to the Sea Islands -- beautiful as they are, one major hurricane and the island in the bullseye could well simply cease to exist, along with every structure and living thing on it.

I do, however, wonder how much of that is because I've been through several hurricanes (including Camille, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Gulf Coast), but I've never been in an earthquake.  I know how completely terrifying a hurricane is.  I remember standing at night in my garage during Hurricane Allen, which scored a direct hit on Lafayette, and watching the strobe-light effect of the lightning strikes coming fifteen to twenty seconds apart.  The whole neighborhood would light up, and there'd be a garbage can seemingly suspended in mid-air; then darkness.  Another flash, and you'd get a picture of a huge tree branch standing on end in the middle of the street; then darkness.  The roar is like standing in front of a jet, and it doesn't let up for hours.  With Allen, we passed right through the eye -- all of a sudden, the wind drops, and silence falls, and a spot of blue sky opens up; animals come out, people come out, looking dazed.  The air doesn't feel right; you're at the point of lowest barometric pressure, and human senses have not yet degenerated enough that we can't feel that something's wrong.  There's a breathlessness, a feeling that sound won't carry right.  Then, ten minutes later, maybe fifteen -- there's the first flutter of a breeze, the leaves and branches stir.  Everyone runs for cover.  In twenty minutes, the wind comes screaming back, from the other direction, and it all starts again.

So I don't know how much of my lighthearted willingness to live in an earthquake zone is simple ignorance of what it's really like.  They say (whoever "they" is), "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know," but I've seen the devil I know, and he's a mighty scary guy.  I expect a sufficiently long conversation with a Californian could well change my mind.  After all, my impressions of earthquakes come from my imagination; and in my imagination I can say, "I could deal with that."  It could well be that the first little shake would leave me saying, "screw this, I'm outta here."

So here I sit, in my comfortable house in placid upstate New York, watching the storms ramp up.  I'm not a praying man, so to say "I'm praying for the people along the Gulf Coast" would be an outright lie, however noble the phrase sounds.  All I have to fall back on is the weakness of hope, and the breathless watching and waiting for the inevitable to occur.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Irony, irrationality, and self-contradiction

It is a source of immense frustration to me that people seem to be quite good at accusing those they disagree with of being irrational, while ignoring completely the irrationality of their own arguments.

And I'm not pointing fingers at any particular political or philosophical stance here; liberals and conservatives both seem to do this with equal frequency.  For example, take the recent Chick-fil-A kerfuffle.

Probably all of you know that the controversy started when Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, told the Baptist Press that his company is "very supportive... of the biblical definition of the family unit."  This started a firestorm of reaction, with gay rights advocates clamoring for a boycott (and organizing a "kiss-in," in which same-sex couples would kiss in a Chick-fil-A).  All of the "sanctity of marriage" folks responded by singing Cathy's praises.  Mike Huckabee organized a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," and from the preliminary numbers, it looks like the company may have had its best sales day ever.

Now, I have no intent in this post to address the human rights issue; I've stated my opinion on that subject loud and clear in other posts.  What I'd like to look at here is the fact that Chick-fil-A's supporters characterized this as a free-speech issue -- that Cathy had a perfect right to state his opinion, and those supporting a boycott were advocating a restriction on constitutionally protected free speech.

Interesting that when the tables were turned, exactly the opposite happened.

Remember the "rainbow Oreo?"  Of course, the huge rainbow cookie itself was never manufactured; but a photoshopped image of an Oreo with rainbow layers was widely publicized, and Kraft Foods captioned the image, "Proudly Support Love."  Gay rights supporters gave the advertisements shouts of acclamation, while religious conservatives advocated boycotts, with one outraged customer stating, "I'll never eat an Oreo again" -- and the gay rights supporters objected to the conservatives' proposed boycotts on the basis of free speech!

It puts me in mind of Ted Rall's quote, "Everyone supports the free speech they agree with."

Honestly, my own position is that if you don't like a particular company's political stance, it is entirely your choice not to patronize it.  But in this country, a CEO -- like the rest of us -- has the constitutionally-protected right to state his or her opinion.  And this includes opinions that might not be popular.

The acceptance of contradictory stances (often while decrying the contradictory stances in our opponents) doesn't end there, however.  Take a look at this website, entitled "Confuse a Liberal Use Facts and Logic" (lack of punctuation is the author's).  A brief look at the statements there (I hesitate to dignify them with the name "arguments") will suffice, because the majority of them are classic examples of the Straw Man fallacy -- take an example of a view held by the most extreme of your opponents, exaggerate it, and then knock it down, and claim that thereby you have destroyed his/her entire political party's platform.  The most interesting ones, however, are:
  • Ask them why they oppose the death penalty but are okay with killing babies.
  • Ask them why homo****** parades displaying drag, tran******s and bestiality should be protected under the First Amendment, but manger scenes at Christmas should be illegal.
  • Ask them why criticizing a left-wing actor or musician for the things they say or do, and refusing to attend their concerts, buy their albums, or see their movies, amounts to censorship, but boycotting Rush Limbaugh's or Laura Ingraham's advertisers is free speech. 
Okay, fair enough (even though I have to wonder why this guy thinks that "sexual" is a dirty word and needs to be bleeped out; but let's ignore that for the moment).  Does he really not see that the same arguments could be flipped around, and would be equally contradictory?  "Thou shalt not kill" means, so far as I can see, "thou shalt not kill;" if you're using that to argue against abortion, you have a lot of explaining to do if you support the death penalty.  (One commenter said, when confronted with this question, "A fetus never brutally murdered an innocent person," which is true but doesn't answer the question.)  Liberals who support gay-pride parades and the like as free speech, but object to a manger scene at Christmas, are espousing a contradiction, sure; especially if the manger scene is in someone's yard or in a privately-owned business, and the issues of taxpayer money and church/state separation don't enter into it.  But the reverse is an equal contradiction -- as long as the gay paraders follow the law, they are just as covered under free speech as the Christmas crèche creators are.  And conservatives are just as guilty of #3 as the liberals are; ask the Dixie Chicks.

The bottom line is that you have no real right to call out your opponents for holding self-contradictory stances while you're doing the same thing.  Both sides do it, with equal abandon, and neither one seems to notice as long as these crimes against logic are being committed by people whose position on the issues they already agree with.  And if you haven't already had enough irony in your diet from reading this, I'll end with a quote from Jesus (Matthew 7:5):  "Thou hypocrite!  First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Science, credulity, and the "Ark Encounter"

I was just reading an article in the Louisville Eccentric Observer, a weekly online news source that bills itself as an "alternative" news source that tackles issues that the mainstream media won't touch.  The article, entitled "Investors of the Lost Ark," describes the financial troubles that are facing the "Ark Encounter" project, which had as its goal to build a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark by 2014.

The "Ark Encounter" project, which is the brainchild of Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, has the full support of Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, who arranged for $43 million in tax breaks for Ham's projects.  Beshear's budget also included a 6.4% cut to funding for public education.  [Source]  Funny how those two go together, isn't it?

In any case, the LEO article tells of a visit by LEO staffers and a variety of scientists to the Creation Museum, another of Ham's projects.  One of the visitors was Daniel Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, who reports that he had a contact with a 13-year-old "volunteer guide" who informed him that King Arthur's sword was made of iron from a meteorite.  Phelps, who was standing in front of a display of St. George slaying a dragon at the time, asked the boy if King Arthur had killed any dragons with that sword.

"I'm not sure if he did," the boy replied.  "But Beowulf killed three dragons."  The boy went on to describe the third dragon Beowulf killed as being of the flying and fire-breathing type, and told Phelps that "it was probably a pterosaur."

"Aren't those just fictional stories?" Phelps asked the boy.

The boy was vehement.  No, tales of dragons interacting with humans are proof that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, he said.

Okay, now skip downward to the comments section, and you will find two outraged comments directed at Joe Sonka, who wrote the article.  I quote:
Regarding your opening paragraph: I have been to the Creation Museum many times, and I know they don’t have tour guides, much less 13-year-old ones. It’s a self-guided museum. The teen might have been at the museum with a parent to do some volunteer work (like stuffing envelopes) and was taking a break inside the museum. But there are certainly no guides in the museum, and this young man (though obviously a bright kid) was not representing the museum.
And also:
You are to be pitied: taking the words of a 13 year old boy who is not a guide at the museum (and thus does not represent it) and implying that his beliefs are those of the museum (you wrote that ” fantasies” such as his are a part of the museum’s mission) is low journalism. In my academic life, I was told to seek out primary sources when researching and writing an accurate paper about a topic. Oppose the museum’s message if you want, but to quote a teenager barely out of childhood -- and who is not a representative of the museum -- to help make your case is pathetic journalism.

So, let me get this straight: Sonka's calling the boy a "volunteer guide" (which was misleading; I, too, thought the boy was an official volunteer, and in fact thought it was curious they were using guides that young) somehow negates his main point -- than the fact that the museum is so scrambling fact with fiction that it leaves a 13-year-old unable to tell the difference?

And that's the problem, isn't it?  By undermining the gold standard of scientific induction as a way of knowing, the Creation Museum calls all of actual science into question.  Dragons in Beowulf?  Oh, sure, they were dinosaurs.   How did the animals not kill each other on the Ark?  Because god made them all peaceful plant eaters for the duration of the voyage.  What about fossils of animals that don't exist any more?  Those species died in the Great Flood.  What about the light from distant stars showing that the universe has to be older than 6,000 years?  The speed of light isn't constant, and neither is the rate of flow of time, and both have altered by just the amount necessary to reconcile astronomical measurements with Genesis.  (If you don't believe me that this last one is something that creationists actually argue, go here.  Make sure you have a soft pillow on your desk for when you faceplant.)

So, anyway, back to the LEO article, which describes the financial troubles that Ham's organization is having, and the gloomy projections of budget shortfalls that will force the opening of "Ark Encounter" back to 2016.  Sonka seems pretty cheered by this.  Myself, I find the whole thing profoundly discouraging -- even if the "Ark Encounter" is delayed, they still seem to be raking in money hand-over-fist.  Mike Zovath, vice president of Answers in Genesis, stated that they already have $100 million of funding committed for the project.  "God's raised up investors," Zovath told an enthusiastic crowd at a Grant County town hall meeting last August.

What bothers me most is that this project, and the Creation Museum as well, are specifically designed to target children.  They're intended to be flashy, eye-catching, and entertaining, with interactive exhibits and displays of biblically-themed stories.  The underlying, and more sinister, message is: don't believe what your public school teachers are telling you.  Don't believe what the scientists are saying.  They're being tempted by Satan to mislead you.  Whenever you have a question, go back to the bible; and if what the bible says is different from what anyone else ever says, about anything, the individual is wrong and the bible is right.  In other words: stop thinking, stop trying to figure things out, just believe.

And that stance is completely antithetical to real science, which takes nothing on authority, and only respects the firm ground of hard evidence.  Groups like Answers in Genesis hate science for this very reason.  But the end product of such bizarre thinking is what Phelps saw in his 13-year-old helper -- a teenager who actually, honestly thought that Beowulf was real and had fought a dinosaur.

If you can be indoctrinated to believe something for which there is no evidence, and then to doubt the principles of scientific induction themselves, there is no end to the foolishness you can be induced to swallow.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A study of life after death

Today we have news that the Templeton Foundation is giving a three-year, five million dollar grant to John Martin Fischer of the University of California-Riverside to conduct an in-depth study of the afterlife.  [Source]

"People have been thinking about immortality throughout history.  We have a deep human need to figure out what happens to us after death," said Fischer, the principal investigator of what is being called the Immortality Project.  "Much of the discussion has been in literature, especially in fantasy and science fiction, and in theology in the context of an afterlife, heaven, hell, purgatory and karma.  No one has taken a comprehensive and sustained look at immortality that brings together the science, theology and philosophy."

The project will involve an in-depth analysis of reports of near-death experiences, spirit survival, and out-of-body experiences.  Fischer is careful to emphasize the rigorous nature of the study his team intends to undertake.

"We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions," Fischer said.  "Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous.  We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports.  We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked.  We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife."

And that's the problem, isn't it?  How can you tell the difference between the two -- a true, scientifically verifiable "glimpse into an afterlife," and a mere collection of stories that tell us "something important about... our values?"  With near-death experiences, and anything else that relies solely on anecdotal reports, it is often impossible to eliminate the effects of the inevitable skewing of memory that occurs because of inherent flaws of our perceptual and integrative neural mechanisms.  If there is a commonality between stories of NDEs, what does that mean?  Are reports of NDEs similar because people are experiencing contact with a consistent, real afterlife, or because we all have basically the same brain wiring and that wiring fails in a consistent way when we are nearing death?

I just don't know how you'd sort the two out, frankly.  Myself, I have no idea if there is an afterlife -- but even if there is, it may well be out of the reach of an acceptable empirical protocol that would convince someone who wasn't already convinced.

And that brings up the second problem.  The Templeton Foundation is a granting agency whose stated purpose is
[to serve] as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.  We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.  We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.  Our vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton's optimism about the possibility of acquiring "new spiritual information" and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship.  The Foundation's motto, "How little we know, how eager to learn," exemplifies our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.
All of which sounds nice, but it does put a rather heavy burden on the researcher receiving their grant money to find a connection between science in spirituality, given that taking five million dollars and turning up empty-handed would be a bit of an anticlimax.

I'm not alone in having some questions about the Templeton Foundation's motives.  Rationalists such as Richard Dawkins, John Horgan, and Peter Woit have all made pointed comments about the Foundation's money biasing any projects that they might support.  Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, said, "the entire purpose of the Templeton Foundation is to blur the line between straightforward science and explicitly religious activity, making it seem like the two enterprises are part of one big undertaking. It's all about appearances."  Carroll did add, however, "I appreciate that the Templeton Foundation is actually, in its own way, quite pro-science, and is not nearly as objectionable as the anti-scientific crackpots at the Discovery Institute."

It's telling if in order to place a funding agency on the side of rigorous research, you have to compare it to the Discovery Institute.

On the other hand, I'm cautiously in favor of such research.  As I've said many times before in this blog, I'm perfectly willing to entertain the possibility of there being many phenomena that fall outside the ken of current understanding -- but if you think such things are real, you damn well better have some hard evidence to support your position.  The "Big Questions" -- and the existence of an afterlife is certainly one of the biggest -- are deserving of research, and if it is done with acceptable scientific rigor, the Immortality Project is a fascinating thing to undertake.  I can only hope that the researchers involved with the project aren't going to end up being corrupted by the inherent bias of their grant foundation.