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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Boo.

It is not, perhaps, particularly insightful to state that Halloween is a weird holiday.  However, in this case I don't mean "weird" in the sense of "spooky," but in the sense of "why the hell do people actually enjoy this?"

That said, it's not that I don't enjoy participating myself.  Last year, for example, I spent the entire school day wearing a vampire costume, complete with fake blood, a cape, and white stage makeup.  The only downside was that I couldn't wear the plastic teeth during class because they had a regrettable tendency to make me drool, something that I bet never happens to real vampires.

So far today at my school, I've seen a variety of witches, several clowns, a few butterflies, a pink inflatable pig, a Viking, and Barack Obama.  I found Obama the scariest, and I don't mean that as some kind of sly political statement.  It's odd, but I've always found rubber masks of all kinds - even the ones intended to be funny - to be seriously creepy.  I think it's the fact that they look human (the best ones look really human) but even while the person inside the mask talks, the expression never changes.  I, and I suspect a lot of people, react viscerally to facial expressions, or lack thereof; we're wired to pick up cues from people's faces, and when there are none there to pick up, it's disconcerting, even if you know that the mask is just rubber and that there's a real (and friendly) person underneath. It's no coincidence that we describe the affect-less faces of the insane "mask-like."  The whole thing is reminiscent of the concept of the "uncanny valley," about which I wrote last year (you can read the post here if you're interested).

Even so, I should perhaps mention that I collect masks.  I have brought home masks from most of our many overseas travel adventures, and they are hung all over our walls (usually in places that take you by surprise and so elicit a bigger reaction when you come around the corner or close the door).  I also really enjoy costumes, especially well-done or clever ones.  (At a Halloween party years ago, a biology teacher friend of mine and his wife, who was a physician's assistant, came dressed in an odd fashion.  He was wearing the pants from a set of military camouflage, and nothing else.  She was wearing the top half (with very short shorts).  When I asked what they were, he replied, "Guess. We're a human body part."  After some questioning, I discovered that they were the upper and lower G.I.)

But I do love being scared, and also being scary.  My mask collection is one of my most prized possessions, even though -- or perhaps because -- it's kind of creepy.  I thoroughly enjoy a good horror movie, and in my fiction writing I frequently make a valiant attempt to scare the absolute bejeezus out of you.  This tendency, which if not universal, is at least very common, begs an explanation.  Why do we like to be scared?

It probably varies from person to person, but I can say that for myself, it's kind of a reassurance that I'm safe and sound.  I don't gravitate toward slasher films -- to me, those are too close to the kind of thing that actually happens, and I have no real desire to watch people, even if they are actors, getting gruesomely massacred.  But a really atmospheric, spooky film about the supernatural is a wonderful experience, largely because after it's over (whew) I can look around at my comfortable house, and think, "thank god this house isn't haunted by ghouls."  And if, later that night, there are some bumps and creaks, and I get scared again, I still know that when I wake up the next morning the sun will be shining (well, okay, this is upstate New York; at least the sun will be rising) and I will still be safe.  I'm alive and unhaunted, and I can get a cup of coffee and revel in the fact that my disbelief in evil spirits has been once again supported by events.

In my opinion, the best exploration of this need to be absolutely terrified was The X Files.  I'm not referring to the movies, both of which (to me) were disappointing, but the television series.  Like any series, they had a few dogs, but the best of them rank right up there with the scariest things I've ever seen.  If you're an aficionado, you might remember the episode "Patience" -- about the batlike creature who waits for twenty years to avenge its murdered mate, and goes around killing all the people who had anything to do with its death.  At the end - when the only remaining survivor is in his cabin in the woods, and hears a noise in the fireplace, and goes to investigate - there's nothing's there, but then he turns around, and OH MY GOD THE BAT THING IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM.  Quite possibly the single scariest moment in the history of television.  Even if you knew it was going to happen, it was the quintessence of all of those childhood fears of the monster under the bed, or what might be looking in the window if you pulled the curtains apart just a crack in the middle of the night.  I don't know about you, but I had a hard time opening the back door to let my dogs in after watching that.  I love my dogs dearly, but it was a sore temptation to let them fend for themselves outside that night.

Then again, we have the added benefit that watching horror films burns calories.  A study just released by some researchers at the University of Westminster found that you can burn a good 200 calories just sitting there shivering.  The best burn, they found, came from watching The Shining (which I would agree is a damn scary film), followed by Jaws and The Exorcist.  Of course, this is probably offset by the tendency of most movie watchers to nosh on pizza, popcorn, and beer while watching, but still, it bears mention as one benefit of indulging in a scary movie every so often.  And there's also, of course, the fact that if you're watching the movie with your significant other, the inevitable huddling together on the couch that these movies usually cause could result in some further, um, calorie-burning activity after the movie ends.

So you can see that there are a multitude of benefits that come from being frightened.  It's only human -- the evidence is that we've been telling scary stories for a very, very long time, and in virtually every culture studied.  Still, it may be that some of you don't share this need to periodically be scared to the point of pants-wetting.  If so, you may find this post nothing more than mildly mystifying.  To the rest of you, I will only wish you a happy Halloween, and sweet dreams tonight.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Breaking news: Hurricane Sandy caused by the "homosexual agenda"

Well, up here in lovely upstate New York we're about three-quarters of the way through the remnants of Hurricane Sandy, and we only lost power for a short time yesterday afternoon.  Thus far, we've been mighty fortunate -- when I look at the photographs coming in of the devastation along the coast, I'm reminded of hurricanes I lived through as a child in southern Louisiana, of flooded streets, ripped-off roofs, and electricity out for days or weeks.  So all in all, we've been pretty lucky.

Sandy has been a weird storm in a lot of ways.  It's amazingly powerful, for a late-season hurricane; it followed a highly uncharacteristic track; and it merged with an on-land winter storm as it made landfall, causing it to strengthen as it moved over land, not weaken (as most tropical storms do).  All of this, I'm sure, is making you wonder what could be the cause of such a peculiar set of circumstances.  And I'm certain that it will come as no surprise for you to find out that the answer is:

Gays.

Yes, folks, the homosexual contingent are at it again, according to ultra-religious wingnut Reverend John McTernan.  [Source]  "God is systematically destroying America," McTernan said.  "Just look at what has happened this year.  ...Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda.  America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!"  He then goes on to explain that god is creating storms to smite the US because of our increasing acceptance of gays.

All of this makes me pretty angry.  I mean, really: give us atheists a little credit, too!  Every time God Smites The Wicked With His Mighty Hand, all you hear about is how he was aiming for the gays.  Don't you think he'd be even more eager to smite us godless nonbelievers?  After all, a good many of the gays and lesbians I know are Christians, and barely any of the atheists are.  It kind of pisses me off that here I sit, as obvious a target as any I can think of, and all god smote me with was a stiff breeze.  It seems kind of anticlimactic.

There's also the problem with this theory that if god is trying to Smite The Gays using Hurricane Sandy, his aim could use some improvement.  One of the areas that Sandy clobbered was rural West Virginia, which saw blizzard conditions including two to three feet of wet snow, knocking out the power and shutting down roads.  And it's not like Appalachia is exactly a hotbed of homosexuality.  Yeah, okay, New York City got hit pretty hard, as did Atlantic City, and I'd expect the Gay Sex Quotient of both of those places is fairly high.  But you'd think that given the tools god has to work with -- tornadoes and lightning, not to mention your tried-and-true method of just having something heavy drop out of a window -- he could take out the gays with pinpoint precision if that was what he was really trying to do.  A hurricane seems awfully broad-brush.

It does bring up, too, the question of why these preachers are so concerned about who is having sex, and how they're doing it.  Is it just me, or do these guys seem a little bit sex-obsessed?  After all, the bible goes on and on about all sorts of other things that are Naughty In God's Eyes, but you barely hear any preachers saying that god created a hurricane because you collected firewood on the sabbath, or because you ate pork, or because you wore clothing made of two different kinds of thread woven together.  All of these are expressly prohibited in Leviticus -- in fact, a guy got stoned to death for the first one -- but these days, god has apparently forgotten about all of the other rules.  Maybe it's because god finds what goes on in people's bedrooms more interesting to watch, I dunno.

In any case, if you live in the northeastern US, I hope you escaped the worst of the damage from the storm.  And whether it was caused by the gays, or by what anyone with an IQ that exceeds his shoe size thinks -- that it was caused by a confluence of weather phenomena -- let's concentrate on helping the folks who weren't so lucky pick up the pieces and put their lives back together.  Because, after all, that's one of the things that the atheists agree with the Christians on; charity is a virtue.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Storms, earthquakes, and coincidences

Here I sit, having battened down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Sandy (due to arrive in the wee hours tonight), and two things are on my mind.

First, why don't you ever hear the verb "to batten" used for anything other than "hatches?"  No one battens down windows, doors, throw rugs, or anything else.  You never hear of anyone leashing their dog to a post, for example, and then saying, "I have battened down Rex."  It seems like a useful word, and it's a pity it has such a restricted usage.  So I think all of you should make a point, during the next few days, of using the verb "to batten" in unorthodox ways.

Second, I've already begun facepalming over the eruption of woo-woo conspiracy theories claiming that Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Son-Tinh (which just slammed into the Philippines and Vietnam this weekend), and the 7.7 magnitude Canadian earthquake that caused tsunami warnings to be issued in Hawaii (there were high waves, but no serious damage) are all due to President Obama using HAARP to monkey around with things.  Or possibly chemtrails.  Or both.  They don't seem to have any clear idea of how any of this actually could be manmade, but that still hasn't stopped them from claiming that it is, that President Obama is sitting in his underground bunker, an insane smile on his face, and pressing buttons and pulling levers, and saying, "Now they'll be sorry!  I've caused a massive hurricane that will hit Washington, DC, causing widespread flooding and destruction!  Despite the fact that I live there!  That's how evil I am!  Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

You think I'm joking.  Already websites like the rather ironically-named "Aircrap" are buzzing with statements such as, "You can't be expecting me to believe that all three of those events, occurring so close together, is just a coincidence?"

Actually, yes, that is exactly what I'm expecting you to believe.  When events coincide, this is called "a coincidence."  Given that the Earth experiences storms and earthquakes virtually on a daily basis, there will be times when several of these events happen in close succession because of no other factor than random chance.  We don't have to posit such absurdities as President Obama activating tractor beams from space via HAARP, or jets out of Newark spraying aerosols via their contrails to lay down a pathway for the storm, to account for this.  Both of which were, in all apparent seriousness, claimed by people on these sites.  And all of which shows that people who don't understand (1) the laws of statistics, (2) atmospheric science, and (3) geology, and who also (4) have spent too much time watching bad disaster movies on the Syfy channel, should really just keep their mouths shut.

So, anyway, that's our dip in the deep end of the pool for today.  Me, I'm not worried about HAARP or chemtrails, but I am a little worried that we'll lose power for a while, because we're supposed to get some serious wind here.  So if I am incommunicado for a few days, that's why, and I offer my apologies in advance, and a promise to write again as soon as I can.  I'll sign off here with my hopes that if you are in the path of the storm, you and your loved ones are safe and sound, and your homes undamaged.  As for me, I'm off to school to batten down the students.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The LHC, lawsuits, and the time-traveling seagull of doom

Sometimes I feel like all I do in this blog is to deliver bad news.  Gullibility and credulousness are rampant, not to mention hoaxers and charlatans who are eager to turn a quick buck by ripping off the less rational segment of society.  All around us we see examples of absurd, counterfactual nonsense, and evidence that a regrettably small number of laypeople have any idea of how science actually works.

It thrills me no end that today I have a cheering story, a story of the triumph of critical thinking over fearful, superstitious woo-woo.  The gist: German courts have ruled, once and for all, that the Large Hadron Collider is what physicists say it is -- a scientific device designed to investigate the subatomic world -- and that it most definitively is not going to destroy the entire universe, or even just the Earth.  [Source]

Claims that the LHC is going to kill us all have been going around for some time.  I suppose that it was inevitable that people would be afraid of the device, given the fact that subatomic physics is a fairly esoteric area of study, poorly understood by anyone who doesn't have a master's degree or better in physics.  For another thing, it's hard not to be awestruck simply by how amazingly big it is.  The tube down which particles are accelerated to near-light speed, and then smashed into targets, is 27 kilometers in circumference.  The magnets in the device alone weigh over 27 tons, and require 96 tons of liquid helium to keep them at the right (extremely cold) temperature.

So it shouldn't be surprising that the woo-woos got freaked out by the thing.  Here are a few cheery suggestions they made about what was going to happen when the LHC was activated:
  • It would produce a mini black hole that would devour the Earth.
  • It would produce a Higgs boson that would then generate a new universe inside ours, ripping apart our universe from the inside out.
  • It would create a particle called a "strangelet" that then would convert everything it touched into "strangelets," and the whole world would explode in a burst of, um, strangeness.
  • The beam would break loose from containment and vaporize France.  Some American conservatives, of the sort who still eat "Freedom Fries" with their cheeseburgers, thought this was a good idea.
Of course, it didn't help that the first year that the LHC was up and running, it was plagued with problems.  There were funding shortfalls, technical difficulties, and even a shutdown caused by a seagull dropping a piece of a baguette on the power lines near the facility, causing an electrical short.  All of this, the alarmists said, couldn't be a coincidence.  There were religious folks that claimed that god himself was sabotaging the LHC to stop it from destroying everything.  My favorite version of this theory was dreamed up by, of all people, two physicists -- Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya -- who wrote a paper suggesting that scientists in the future were reaching back in time and stopping the LHC from operating because they (the future scientists) know that the LHC will cause widespread destruction, havoc, and chaos.  The seagull, presumably, was one of their minions, sent here from the future with a Death Baguette to short-circuit the place.

Well, of course, now that the LHC has been running off and on since 2009, and we haven't died, a lot of the furor has died down.  There have been no black holes, new universes, or strangelets, France remains unvaporized, and there have been no further visits from the Time-Traveling Seagull of Doom.  But not all of the craziness has ceased, of course.  Whatever else you might say about woo-woos, they're tenacious.  Just because the destruction of The Universe As We Know It hasn't happened yet, they claim, doesn't mean that it won't ever.

So there have been lawsuits to try to stop the research.  The most recent was launched by a German woo-woo who filed suit in both Germany and Switzerland to halt operations, because, after all, you never know when we might all be swallowed by a black hole, and when that happens it will be too late.

And unlike the court case earlier this week in Italy, where unscientific foolishness won the day, here the courts ruled in favor of science.  There is no evidence, the judge ruled, that anything being done at the LHC is dangerous in the global sense.  Physicists are quite certain that any claims of black holes and new universes are impossible, and that was good enough for the court.  The suit was thrown out, and (it is to be hoped) the plaintiff was instructed to become better educated in science before wasting the legal system's time further.

So, it might be rare, but we should cheer it when it happens: sometimes the rationalists win.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Playing with a full deck

So, today is my 52nd birthday, so Happy Birthday To Me, and all that sorta stuff.  52 seems like an interesting number -- not only is it hard for me to believe that I'm this old, it's the number of weeks in a year, the number of white keys on a piano, and the number of cards in a standard deck.  (I mentioned this last one to a friend of mine, and said that as of today, I'd finally be playing with a full deck.  She looked at me, raised one eyebrow, and said, "I think it's gonna take more than that.")

So I thought I'd step aside from my usual fare for a day, and present a list of 52 things I've learned in the last 52 years.  I hope that you'll find some of them worthwhile. 

1) Make a habit of being genuine. Deception, even of yourself, can't be maintained forever.

2) If you want to find out whether someone is actually nice or not, watch how they treat dogs, cats, children, restaurant wait staff, and salespeople.

3) Live life with passion.

4) Don't take everything so damned seriously. Most of the things that happen are, in the long run, irrelevant.

5) Don't overeat, but eat food you like. Vegan raw-food enthusiasts who drink only wheat grass juice will still eventually die.

6) Being a loner isn't noble. Being a loner is cowardly.

7) Complaining a lot pisses people off and solves essentially nothing.

8) Don't be ashamed of your tastes in art, music, books, and so on. Anyone who ridicules you because of something that is a simple matter of opinion is an asshole.

9) There is nothing shameful about crying in public.

10) Relaxing and wasting time are not the same thing.

11) There are some people in this world who will be determined to see you as a different person than who you really are. Fighting this is probably a waste of time.

12) Changing things from the top down seldom works. The only real way to change things is from the bottom up.

13) People are always in love with their own delusions, and we all have them.

14) Spending more time outside is usually a good thing.

15) You can't be depressed if you are speaking what is truly in your heart.

16) Don't be afraid to take off your clothes in a gym locker room. Most of the people who would care what you look like naked are in the other locker room.

17) In general, you will have more regrets about what you didn't do than what you did do. (Unless what you're planning on doing is killing someone.)

18) Find some way to be creative. Everyone is creative if they allow themselves to be.

19) You can't be unhappy for long if you have a snoring dog at your feet.

20) If you can, travel. It is the most mind-expanding thing you can do.

21) Most of us could do with having fewer opinions and asking more questions.

22) If you put only half of yourself into an endeavor, it will be a waste of time for everyone involved.

23) There is very little that you will not be able to deal with better after a good night's sleep.

24) No matter how good you are at something, there will always be people who are better and worse than you are. Be happy for the ones who are better and be courteous to the ones who are worse.

25) Don't be afraid to say no to people.

26) Don't be afraid to say yes to people.

27) Get out on the dance floor. You're more conspicuous just standing there than you would be if you were out dancing with the rest of us.

28) If life hands you lemons, the hell with lemonade. Make lemon meringue pie.

29) If you go to another country, eat what they eat. You can get Big Macs at home.

30) Cultivate tolerance.

31) Be willing to laugh at your own quirks.

32) One of the best tests for whether or not you should do something is to ask, "Will I be glad I did this ten years from now?"

33) Be willing to lose an argument once in a while.

34) Cruelty is never justified.

35) Be unpredictable sometimes.

36) Don't talk once the movie has started.

37) Always keep in mind that much of what is on the internet is complete bullshit.

38) Pay attention when children talk to you. It may not be interesting to listen to, but it's still important.

39) Exercise more.

40) You are not in competition with everyone. All conversations aren't battles for superiority.

41) Sarcasm can be funny, but use it with caution.

42) Life is too short to drink bad beer.

43) Fundamentally, gullibility and cynicism come from the same place; an unwillingness to commit oneself to the hard work of thinking.

44) Every once in a while, go out at night and spend some time looking up at the stars. It’s worthwhile being reminded how small we are.

45) A sincere apology goes a long, long way.

46) Don't trust anyone who comes to your door trying to sell you a political ideology or a religious belief system.

47) Play more.

48) Waste less.

49) Remember that most of the things we worry about won't come to pass.

50) There are times when things look hopeless, and the world seems bleak. Hope anyway.

51) You will sometimes fail at things you desperately want to succeed at. Try anyway.

52) You will sometimes get your heart broken. Love anyway.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mechanisms, cognitive bias, premonitions, and telepathy

I have a cognitive bias.  When I come across a new phenomenon, and am trying to wrap my brain around it, I need to understand the mechanism by which it works.  If no mechanism is forthcoming, this raises (considerably) the level of evidence I demand before I'll accept that what I'm seeing is real.

I realize that this is, in many ways, getting the cart before the horse.  Rarely in science do researchers discover something, and understand the mechanism by which it works, simultaneously.  Almost always we start out by making some sort of observation that requires explaining, and describe the what of the phenomenon long before anyone is able to give a good explanation of its how.

The problem is that given this bias, this automatically makes me doubt studies that show results that don't seem to have any reasonable mechanism by which they could have occurred.  I'm aware that this could be potentially preventing me from accepting evidence that would be convincing in any other realm, a position hardly befitting a skeptic -- but in my own defense, at least I'm aware of it.

This brings us to today's bit of possibly scientific weirdness -- two studies, just released in the past week, that allege a factual basis for ESP.

The first one, done by a team led by Julia Mossbridge, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, apparently gives support to the contention that some people experience premonitions.  Mossbridge and her associates analyzed the results of 26 psychological studies, some dating back as far as 1978, looking for evidence that people were experiencing emotional reactions to information they hadn't seen yet.  Subjects were shown photographs that varied in content -- some neutral, some pleasant, some disturbing, some sexually arousing -- and they experienced physiological changes (alterations in electroconductivity of the skin, blood vessel dilation, pupil dilation, EEG readings, and so on) two to ten seconds prior to being shown the relevant photograph.  Mossbridge claims that she has controlled for factors such as the Clever Hans Effect, and has stated, "These results could not be explained by experimenter bias in the normal sense."  Her statistical analysis has placed the odds of the results being due to chance or coincidence at 400 billion to one.

My problem, predictably, is that I don't see how this could possibly work.  I don't see a mechanism.  If you're asking me to believe Mossbridge's results come from some sort of real phenomenon at work, it seems to reverse the temporal order of causality -- placing the effect before the cause.  Causality seems to me to be one of those rock-solid ideas, about which there can't be any reasonable doubt.  But then, that's just all part of my bias, isn't it?

The second study is even sketchier.  In it, a group of neuroscientists from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences went to Bangalore, India, to do an fMRI on a gentleman who claimed to be telepathic.  In the study, one of the experimenters drew a picture, and simultaneously a control subject and the alleged telepath tried to reconstruct the drawing while inside the fMRI machine.  The telepath created a drawing that had a "striking similarity to the original drawn by the experimenter;" the non-telepathic control's drawing had no resemblance at all.  More interestingly, the fMRI results showed increased activity in the alleged telepath's right parahippocampal gyrus, and no such increase occurred in the control.

This one activates my skepti-senses not only because of my bias against anything for which I can't see a possible mechanism; I also wonder why such a stunning result wasn't published anywhere but the International Journal of Yoga.  But let's pass over that, and attribute that to the known biases that grant funding agencies and peer-reviewed science journals have against anything that smacks of woo-woo.  So even assuming that the study was valid, how on earth could such a thing as telepathy work?  What you're telling me is that somehow, as I draw a picture, my thoughts are creating a change in the electromagnetic field surrounding my head, and you (ten feet away) experience that through the neural connections in your right parahippocampal gyrus, and this makes your visual cortex fire, making you suddenly realize that I'd just drawn a picture of a kitty cat?

I'm just not seeing how this could possibly work.  You'd think that any changes in the electromagnetic field in my vicinity caused by my brain activity would be so weak as to be undetectable at that distance -- especially given that the test subject was inside the giant electromagnets of an fMRI machine at the time!

Of course, many believers in telepathy don't think it's communicated electromagnetically, that there is some sort of "psi field" by which it is transmitted -- but to me, this doesn't explain anything, it just adds one more item to the list of ESP-related phenomena that no one has ever proven to exist.

In any case, the problem is that Mossbridge et al., and the unnamed scientists who fMRI'd the telepath in Bangalore, may well have stumbled upon something that needs explaining.  (Assuming that neither group are hoaxers; I mean no slight to their reputations, but that possibility can never be discounted without consideration.)  If either or both of these results is real, and not a fluke, a hoax, or a statistical artifact, then despite my objection that there seems to be no possible mechanism by which either one could work, we have some serious explaining to do.

But my bias won't be silenced quite so easily.  Despite Mossbridge's claims of a 400 billion to one likelihood against her results being due to chance, and the hard evidence of the fMRI photographs, I just can't bring myself to overturn everything we currently understand about neuroscience, physics, and causality, and throw myself into the Believers' Camp.  I hope, just for the sake of balance, that some scientist or another takes on the challenge of sifting through these studies -- but if I were a betting man, I'd be wagering that neither one will stand up to any kind of rigorous analysis. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Induction, inference, and the fate of six Italian seismologists

There are two basic kinds of reasoning; deduction and induction.  Deduction consists of putting together statements about generalizations, or categories, and then drawing a specific conclusion from those statements.  Induction is, in a way, the opposite; analyzing specific instances of phenomena, and then inferring a general, overarching pattern from them.

Neither is infallible.  Deductive logic, for example, is only as good as the premises.  The argument, "All dogs have tails; boxers do not have tails; therefore boxers are not dogs" is a perfectly valid piece of deduction (it follows the pattern called modus tollens), but it leads to a wrong conclusion because it started out with a false premise (that all dogs have tails).  In induction, it is the process of inference that can lead you astray; there might be instances you haven't considered, causalities about which you were unaware.  No one was more aware of this than Einstein -- when congratulated on experimental data having proven his Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein soberly replied, "A thousand experiments could not prove me right, but one could prove me wrong."

However, there is a vast public misperception that both of these methods of reasoning are (or should be) infallible.  Logic, of either flavor, should always lead you to correct answers.  More to the point, if scientists know what they are doing, they should be able to get it right every single time.  If they don't get it right, something serious is amiss -- perhaps they have a political agenda that they are trying to foist.  Maybe they fudged their data to get grant money.

Or maybe they're just criminally malfeasant.

That last one is the chilling conclusion reached in Italy Monday regarding six geologists, who the courts declared guilty of manslaughter because of their failure to predict the earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009 that killed over 300 people.  The judge sentenced each of them to six years in prison, and the government agency for which they worked (the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology) to pay 7.8 million euros ($10 million) in damages.  [Source]

This is such a bizarre miscarriage of justice that I barely know where to begin.

Saying "scientists are human, and therefore fallible" is only the shallowest layer of why this verdict is absurd.  It's more than just six fallible individuals who made a regrettable mistake; it's a complete misunderstanding of what science and inductive reasoning does, and in fact what it is capable of doing.  Scientific inference is never going to give you certainty; even in fields about which a great deal is known, and about which the mechanisms are generally understood (let's say, biological evolution), there will always be pieces of the puzzle that don't seem to fit.  There are still species (plenty of them) whose position on the Grand Tree of Life is poorly understood, and therefore subject to revision; there will always be features, adaptations, and structures still to explain.  If they weren't, well, we biologists would be out of a job, wouldn't we?  There'd be nothing left to research.

The necessity of maintaining an awareness of uncertainty, of living on the edge of what is known, is even more pronounced when you are in a realm of science about which the mechanisms are only partly understood.  Climatology falls into this category -- and so does seismology.  While we understand a great deal more about these subjects than we did fifty, or even twenty, years ago, they are not yet at the point of being models that can predict with anything near 100% accuracy.  (And as I pointed out above, 100% isn't reachable no matter what.)

The fact that scientists in general, and especially ones in fields that are perched on the edge of what is explainable, get it wrong sometimes is inevitable.  More importantly, these missteps aren't indicators of some hidden agenda, or of outright malfeasance; they are indicators that we don't fully understand the system being studied.  Which we already knew, right?  The fact that climatologists are nearly unanimous in attributing the climate changes we've seen in the past century to anthropogenic carbon dioxide doesn't mean that they can yet tell you how those changes will manifest in weather events day after tomorrow, or how far those trends will continue, or what the ultimate result will be for the Earth's climate.  The fact that seismologists understand a great deal about plate tectonics doesn't mean that they can tell you when and where the next major earthquake will strike.  We simply don't have enough information yet to make those kinds of pinpoint-accuracy predictions.

I trust science.  I trust the majority of scientists.  At the same time, I am always aware of its limitations and boundaries, and the fact that by nature, inductive reasoning gives you a tentative, incomplete picture of the world.  "Scientists are always at the drawing board," astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson said.  "If they're not at the drawing board, they're not doing science.  They're doing something else."  The six scientists who are facing prison terms in Italy are where they are because inevitably, the scientific process generates partial solutions and uncertain predictions.  That's simply how science works.  Progress is made in science not by someone having a flash of insight and figuring out the "right answer," but by slow, painstaking motion toward a model that seems to be consistent with everything that is observed, the majority of the time.

To put it bluntly, the judge who ruled them guilty of manslaughter apparently has no understanding whatsoever of science as a process.  My fear is that this verdict will place a further chill on scientific research -- a scary thought, in a time when accusations of political bias, and claims that pure research is a waste of money, are already chipping away at the public's perception of science as a worthy endeavor.  Who will want to publish a supported, but controversial, result if now you not only can be accused of having a secret agenda, or wasting money, but be found criminally responsible if your model turns out to be wrong, if your predicted results don't come to pass?  In one way, saying "scientists are only human" is relevant -- scientists have lives, and families, and value their freedom, and if they think that some idiot judge is going to imprison them for manslaughter because they failed to predict an earthquake, they are likely to leave the field altogether.  Which, incidentally, two other Italian seismologists, Mauro Dolce and Luciano Maiani, did on Tuesday after hearing about the verdicts.

The whole thing is a travesty of justice.  I don't know enough about the Italian judicial system to know with any certainty how likely it is that an appeal will be successful, but it is to be hoped that these men will ultimately be freed and their names cleared of these charges.  If not, I fear for the future of science, which remains our best and most reliable method for finding out about the world we live in.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Potions 101

One of the coolest things about writing Skeptophilia has been the connections I've made with other skeptics.  The friendly comments, and (even better) the suggestions for topics, have been a continual source of cheer for me, far outweighing the outraged rantings of various woo-woos I've offended, not to mention the occasional death threat.

I've recently (and more or less by accident) achieved quite a following amongst some of my current and former students.  I certainly don't believe in proselytizing during class; not only would this be unprofessional and ethically questionable, given that they are a captive audience, I have always preferred keeping my own views about most things out of the scope of my lectures.  It's far better, I've found, to present the facts of the matter, and give students the tools to think critically, and allow them to make up their own minds.  But it was inevitable that a few of them would discover Skeptophilia, and once that happened, the news spread, leading to the formation of what I think of as a sort of junior branch of Worldwide Wacko Watch.

One particularly enthusiastic young man that I only met this year has taken it upon himself to become something of a research assistant, ferreting out crazy stories and loopy websites in his spare time, and sending them to me.  And just yesterday, he found a real winner, that has all of the hallmarks of a truly inspired woo-woo website: (1) a bizarre worldview, (2) no evidence whatsoever, and despite (1) and (2), (3) complete certainty.

So allow me to present for your consideration the Lucky Mojo Free Spells Archive.

The first fun bit about this site is that it's run and maintained by someone named "Cat Yronwode."  Having a background in linguistics, I have deduced that the latter combination of letters is an attempt to spell "Ironwood" in a vaguely medieval fashion, but who the hell knows for sure?  In any case, Ms. Yronwode has requested that the spells contained therein not be copied, because some of them are copyrighted material, and I have honored this, so if you want more details about exactly how to concoct the magic potions described below, you'll have to take a look at the site yourself.  (Who knew that pagans could be so legalistic?  I didn't.  But better to play along with her request than to find myself hexed with, for example, "Confusion Oil #3."  Heaven knows I'm confused enough, most days.)

In any case, what the "Lucky Mojo Free Spells Archive" turns out to be is a set of recipes for magic potions, and instructions in their use.  Thus we have the following:
  • "Seven Holy Waters" -- allegedly invented by Marie Laveau, the "Witch Queen of New Orleans."  Contains whiskey, which I've never found to be especially water-like, but given that the word "whiskey" comes from the Irish "uisge beatha," meaning "water of life," we'll just let it slide, because arguing with both the Witch Queen of New Orleans and the entire nation of Ireland seems like a losing proposition.  In any case, it's supposed to bring you peace, and is "very old-fashioned and Catholic."
  • Three different recipes for "Money-drawing Oil."
  • Two recipes for "Love Bath," one of which is called "Courtesan's Pleasure," and about which I will not say anything further in the interest of keeping this blog PG-13 rated.
  • Something called "John the Conqueror Oil."  Made, predictably enough, with "John the Conqueror root."  We are warned to "beware commercial John the Conqueror and High Conquering Oil" because they "rarely have the root in them," especially if it was made in a factory.  This made me ask, in some astonishment, "There are factories for making this stuff?"  Notwithstanding that I'm supportive of anything it takes to keep Detroit solvent, you have to wonder how you could mechanize making magic spells.  Don't you have to be all pagan and ritualistic and druidic and so forth while you're making up potions?  I just can't imagine that you'd get the same results from cooking up your potions in a cauldron in the woods as you would if you made them using electric blenders, pressure cookers, conveyor belts, and so on.  At least one has to hope that the machinery is operated by certified witches.
  • "Haitian Lover Oil," "for men only," about which we are told that it is "not to be used as a genital dressing oil."  Okay, we consider ourselves duly warned.
  • "Damnation Powder."  Used to hex someone you don't like.  "To be used with extreme caution."   Don't damn anyone lightly, is the general advice, which seems prudent to me.
  • And the best one:  "Harvey's Necromantic Floorwash #1."  Just the name of this one almost made me spit coffee all over my computer.  But hey, I guess even necromancers need to scrub the linoleum in their kitchens every once in a while, right?
So anyway, there you have it, a concise formulary for concocting magic spells and potions.  All of which puts me in mind of one of my heroes, depicted below:


If you are, like me, a Looney Tunes fan, you might remember that he got out of this particular fix by chanting such powerful spells as "Abraca-pocus" and "Hocus-cadabra."  It worked, but I bet he'd have defeated his vampire captor even more quickly had he had access to some "Damnation Oil," or even better, "John the Conqueror Root."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Homeopathy goes to Haiti

Well, in today's contribution from the I Despair For Humanity Department, we have a report in courtesy of Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News that a group called "Homeopaths Without Borders" is going to Haiti.

At first, I thought that (despite Hill's outstanding reputation for veracity) this couldn't possibly be real.  But no, sad to say, Homeopaths Without Borders does exist, and on their website (here) they describe their most recent project:
Homeopaths Without Borders (HWB) staff and volunteers are busy preparing for the organization’s final trip in 2012 to Haiti. Leaving on November 4, this team will fulfill two missions during a two-week stay. HWB Education Director, Karen Allen and Executive Director Holly Manoogian will be joined by Marina Braun, CCH and Mikael Manoogian.

First, the team will be in Port-au-Prince to complete the final session of the Fundamentals Program—a foundational curriculum in homeopathic therapeutics incorporating theoretical and clinical training. Fifteen students are preparing to complete their requirements for graduation at the end of the week.

The second part of the mission brings the team to Belle Anse for the first of four week-long trainings in the Fundamentals Program. In Belle Anse, they will join Bekert Descollines of Belle Anse Timoun Family School, who has convened the 30 students for the course.
Words cannot convey how outraged I am about this.

Homeopathy is, pure and simple, quackery.  When you take a homeopathic "remedy" you are consuming either a sugar pill or else pure water, depending on whether it's in solid or liquid form.  The process of serial dilution used in creating these "remedies" removes every last potentially bioactive molecule, and there is nothing left but the carrier -- generally either lactose or water.  (For a wonderful summary of the scientific impossibility of homeopathic claims, go here.)

Unconvinced?  Here's a list of people who have died while under the care of homeopaths, most from disorders that would have been treatable had they been given standard medical care.   Note that they include a number of children.  Pets aren't immune to this kind of neglect, either; just last week, a woman in Britain was fined £1000 and banned from keeping animals for three years after courts heard how she refused to give anything but homeopathic "remedies" to two dogs with advanced mange.  (One of the dogs was ill enough that it had to be euthanized.)  [Source]

And now, these people are going to spread their foolish, counterfactual nonsense to Haiti.  And train others in how to use their useless "remedies."  Bad enough that they push these "remedies" on people in places like the USA, the UK, and Australia; given our access to information, and good public education systems, there is an argument to be made that it's our fault if we fall prey to these snake oil salesmen.

But don't places like Haiti have enough problems, what with natural disasters, some of the highest poverty levels in the world, lack of access to clean food and water, and lack of access to standard medical care?  Now, what we have on top of that is people from "Homeopaths Without Borders" coming in, and convincing sick Haitians that all they need to do is to take "potentiated remedies imprinted with the vibrations of the biological molecules that were present" (if you don't believe that this is what they're claiming, check out this article from Natural News).  And talking Haitian doctors and nurses into doing the same thing for their patients.  If this doesn't constitute the encouragement of medical neglect, I don't know what does.

It may well be that the "Homeopaths Without Borders" sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing.  So did the parents of Gloria Thomas, age 9 months, whose father gave her homeopathic remedies instead of an antibiotic when she contracted a skin infection.  She died.  So did the homeopath who told 55-year-old Jacqueline Alderslade that her asthma medication was contributing to her asthma, to stop taking her medication and to take a "remedy" instead.  She died after an asthma attack that almost certainly would have responded to conventional treatment.  So did the homeopath who told 52-year-old diabetic Russell Jenkins to treat a cut on his foot with honey instead of an antibiotic salve.  The wound became gangrenous, his foot had to be amputated, and he died shortly thereafter of blood sepsis.

Getting the picture?

It doesn't matter whether they think they're doing the right thing.  It doesn't matter that they claim that science is blind, that we skeptics are ignoring all of the vibrations and potentiations and whatnot because we're closed-minded.  It doesn't matter if they claim that controlled studies show that homeopathy works.  The fact is, there has not been a single reputable controlled study that has shown homeopathic "remedies" to have any effect at all beyond one: the placebo effect.  And the people who are spreading this nonsense to Haiti should be turned away at the borders.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Final exams for the psychics

Regular readers of Skeptophilia may remember my writing a few months ago about a challenge issued a while back by the Merseyside Skeptics Society to "Britain's Favorite Medium," Psychic Sally Morgan, to prove her alleged abilities under controlled conditions.  The whole thing happened because Psychic Sally had been accused of hoodwinking her audiences; the claim was that she was not picking up communiqu├ęs from the Other World, she was receiving information about her subjects from assistants via wireless earphones.  Psychic Sally, of course, heatedly denied the allegations, and in fact sued the reporter who broke the story for libel.  (The outcome of this case is yet to be decided.)

Psychic Sally and the others of her profession recently received a second chance to prove that they're telling the truth.  The MSS has just announced that they have arranged for a controlled test of two supposed psychics who have volunteered to have their abilities examined by skeptical scientists, including psychologist Chris French and noted skeptic and atheist writer Simon Singh.  They have issued invitations to Britains top five psychics -- Sally Morgan, Colin Fry, Gordon Smith, Derek Acorah, and T. J. Higgs -- to participate, or at least to attend.  Thus far, all five have refused.  However, two unnamed psychics have agreed to participate, and the results of the test -- scheduled to be performed tomorrow -- will be released on Halloween.

I find two things interesting about this.  First, I am rather impressed that they found any psychics who were willing to undergo rigorous testing.  Every time there's been a close look taken at psychics by people who understand how easy it is to dupe the layperson with sleight-of-hand and misdirection, the psychics have turned out to be cheating.  (Consider, for example, the remarkable failure of famed spoon-bender Uri Geller to bend so much as a paperclip on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson, and James Randi's public exposure of James Hydrick as a fraud.  Note that both Carson and Randi were professional magicians, and knew how to fool an audience -- so they were quick to figure out how Geller and Hydrick were cheating.  And if you haven't seen these clips, they're well worth watching.)

So anyway, it's fascinating that there are people out there who are either (1) so cocky that they think they'll be able to game French & Singh, or (2) are really convinced that they are, in fact, psychic.  Either way, it should be interesting to see what happens.

Equally interesting -- or damning, depending on how you look at it -- is the failure of any of the top-grossing psychics in the UK to agree to participate in the study.  The first time Psychic Sally was asked, she responded, "I have better things to do with my time."  You'd think -- if she really does believe she's psychic -- that there would be no better thing to do with her time than to prove, under controlled conditions, that she really can do what she says she can.  I can only imagine the boost in attendance at her shows if two respected scientists publicly stated, "Yup.  Psychic Sally is the real deal.  She really can get in touch with the spirit of Grandma Betty."  Hell, I'd attend in a heartbeat.  I'd love to talk my Aunt Florence again, for example, if for no other reason to get her chocolate-almond fudge recipe, which I have tried repeatedly to replicate without success.

Of course, the most likely reason that Psychic Sally et al. are refusing to attend is that they know that they won't be able to perform.  And that, of course, would be another nail in the coffin for their reputations, which have already come under enough fire lately.  So I suppose a refusal is less of a blow to her business than an outright failure would be.

But of course, as Michael Marshall, vice-president of the MSS states, there is always the chance that some people really do have psychic abilities.  As skeptics, we are required to keep our minds open to that possibility.  And if so -- if such things do exist -- there is no reason why they should not be accessible to, and analyzable by, the methods of science.  So whatever the outcome tomorrow, it's gonna be interesting.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Charlie Fuqua and the implications of biblical literalism

I wonder how many folks outside of the state of Arkansas have heard of Charlie Fuqua.  Fuqua is a former state representative, and is seeking reelection to that position this year.  He is also, much to the chagrin of some of his supporters, the author of a book released this year called God's Law.

The reason that Fuqua's book has provoked such a fury of facepalming amongst his fellow Republicans is not, technically, that they don't agree with his views, which basically follow the conservative Christian, fundamentalist, biblical literalist pattern that so many of them espouse.  It's more that Fuqua did what you should never, ever, ever do  as a politician:

He told the truth regarding what those views imply.

Fuqua first landed himself in Huffington Post last week, when writer John Celock gave national exposure to a story from the Arkansas Times that had quoted Fuqua's book.  Fuqua wrote a nice long passage in his book that suggests creating laws in the US based on Deuteronomy 21:18-21:  "If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear."

Yes, people, you are understanding correctly: Fuqua wrote in his book that the USA should have laws that provide for the execution of rebellious children.

Now, wait, Fuqua says: it's not that I think it should happen all the time, fer Pete's sake:
This passage does not give parents blanket authority to kill their children. They must follow the proper procedure in order to have the death penalty executed against their children. I cannot think of one instance in the Scripture where parents had their child put to death. Why is this so? Other than the love Christ has for us, there is no greater love then [sic] that of a parent for their child. The last people who would want to see a child put to death would be the parents of the child. Even so, the Scrpture [sic] provides a safe guard to protect children from parents who would wrongly exercise the death penalty against them. Parents are required to bring their children to the gate of the city. The gate of the city was the place where the elders of the city met and made judicial pronouncements. In other words, the parents were required to take their children to a court of law and lay out their case before the proper judicial authority, and let the judicial authority determine if the child should be put to death. I know of many cases of rebellious children, however, I cannot think of one case where I believe that a parent had given up on their child to the point that they would have taken their child to a court of law and asked the court to rule that the child be put to death. Even though this procedure would rarely be used, if it were the law of land, it would give parents authority. Children would know that their parents had authority and it would be a tremendous incentive for children to give proper respect to their parents. 
Yup, Rep. Fuqua, that it would.  Respect through fear.  That's just the kind of relationship a parent should shoot for.  No wonder he won a "Friend of the Family" award from the Arkansas Christian Coalition, is it?

Of course, that's not the only repellent thing Fuqua said in his book.  Here are a few other gems:
  • American citizens who are Muslims should all be deported.  To where isn't specified.
  • Liberals are trying to overthrow the US government via "bloody revolution."
  • Anyone who cannot support their children should be surgically sterilized.
  • Anyone in the US who is not a Christian is, by definition, against the government, and they should be considered "conspirators" and "traitors" and dealt with accordingly.
What I find most interesting about this is not that Fuqua believes this (and has stated, for the record, "I think my views are fairly well-accepted by most people.").  It's that more people don't see that his views are simply the logical end result of biblical literalism.  Biblical literalists are usually quite good at cherry-picking a few of their favorite passages to support whatever cause they happen to be in the mood to rant about -- prohibitions on homosexuality, and the young-earth, anti-evolution stuff being two favorites.  They conveniently gloss over more dicey passages, such as the ones prohibiting anyone from eating shrimp or pork, the ones forbidding you to wear clothes made of cloth woven from two different kinds of thread, the ones expressly permitting slavery (as long as the slaves come from another country, which makes me wonder if I can own a Canadian), the one requiring that rape victims marry the rapist -- and the one mandating the stoning of rebellious children.  Fuqua isn't being crazy, as some people have said about him; he's merely being consistent.

It is mighty convenient, the way the vast majority of people who claim that the bible is the 100% true, literal word and law of god just ignore the passages that are unpleasant or troubling.  If anyone needed further proof that literalist Christianity demands an ethical code that is repulsive, bizarre, and inherently immoral, Fuqua and his ilk are it.  And as for the supposed fundamentalists who are squirming in their seats as they read the bits of Fuqua's book that aren't nice... well, I think you're the ones who have a bit of explaining to do.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Public schools, boring classes, and science as a verb

A couple of days ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by David Bernstein entitled, "Why Are You Forcing My Son to Take Chemistry?"  In it, he points an accusing finger at the Maryland public school system for mandating that students take technical classes that they will, in all likelihood, never use again.  "It doesn’t take a chemist to know that my son is not going to be a chemist," Bernstein writes, in response to the objection that all students should be exposed to a variety of subjects, so they can make informed decisions on which career to pursue.  "He’s 15, not 7.  It’s really that obvious.  You took chemistry... What do you remember from that year?  Nada, I bet.  Next time a school official preens about the importance of chemistry, I’m going to ask him or her how many elements there are in the periodic table."

He goes on to rail against the system for making his son sit through a class where "It's all about memorization anyway."  "He will forget everything he 'learned' a week after the class is over," Bernstein writes.  "I can’t remember a thing, and I was a pretty good chemistry student."

He ends by pointing out (correctly) that choices like this one have opportunity costs -- by taking chemistry, the cost is that his son was deprived of the opportunity to take other classes that he would have enjoyed, and profited from, more.  More flexibility in what students study, Bernstein contends, would benefit everyone.

On one level, Bernstein is correct.  I have long been a supporter of more choice in paths for students, especially once they reach high school.  Forcing every student to sit through every general-ed class the school offers, just because "it's a graduation requirement," is wrong-headed.  Our own school system took a step away from that mentality a few years ago, and instituted a highly successful electives program -- there now are, in each subject, multiple tracks students can take to arrive at graduation, and the choices are largely driven by what topics students find intriguing.  (We do still have a great many basic survey courses that are graduation requirements, however.)

I think, though, that Bernstein misses one major point -- a question that is uncomfortable, perhaps, but it should be at the heart of any discussion of why public schools don't, by and large, turn children into competent life-long learners.  That larger question is (apropos of Bernstein's own experience) not why his son is being required to take a tedious class like chemistry, but why his son's chemistry teacher is teaching so as to make chemistry appear tedious.

After all, that's why some people go into chemistry, isn't it?  They find it fascinating.  And think about it... good heavens, chemistry is about stuff reacting.  If anything should be inherently interesting, it should be chemistry.  Why does dynamite explode?  How do chemical hand-warmers work?  Why does Drano clear clogged plumbing?  Why don't the oil and water in Italian salad dressing stay mixed?  Why does salt dissolve in water, but plastic doesn't?  All of these are questions you can only answer if you know some chemistry.

Yes, I know, you have to do some applied math to understand fully what's happening in chemical systems, and the math is what gets a lot of kids stuck.  But the math should be secondary to an understanding of the processes.  Because that's what science is -- a process, a way of knowing.  To quote the eminent astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson:  "Science is a verb."  The fact that Bernstein misses this point illustrates that it isn't just his son's generation that got shortchanged this way.  Note that to illustrate how irrelevant chemistry is to most people's lives, the question he wants to ask a school official is, "How many elements are in the periodic table?"  As if a factlet like that somehow is what scientists are concerned with, as if a collection of such trivia is what science is.

And of course, the problem isn't confined to chemistry.  My own field, biology, is often taught as if it were nothing but a long list of vocabulary words, as if somehow being able to name the parts of the cell or correctly spell "photophosphorylation" means that you understand how cells work, or how plants capture and store light energy.  Once again, there is no way around the fact that you have to know some terminology; we have to be speaking the same language so that we have some common ground upon which to discuss how living systems work.  But too many science teachers teach science as if it were some kind of static body of knowledge, as if the best scientists are the ones who remember the most abstruse words.

No field is immune to this characterization of learning as dry-as-dust memorization.  I had history teachers who taught us that history was just a list of dates, names, and treaties, not what it really is -- a complex interplay of personalities and motives, driven by circumstance, context, culture, and ambition.  It took me five years after graduation from college before I realized that history was interesting.  One of my English teachers in high school once told me, in a superior fashion, "It's low-minded to think that all literature is meant to be enjoyed."  Oh, really?  I wonder if the author would have agreed.  I doubt seriously that (s)he wrote a novel, all the while thinking, "Wow, I bet it will be really difficult for those idiot 11th graders to find the symbolism in this chapter!"

Now, I've been a high school teacher for 26 years, and I know that just as students often have little choice over what classes they have to take, teachers often have little choice over what, and in some cases how, they teach in those classes.  But we can as educators make our classes interesting, relevant, and exciting.  That much freedom we all have.  I have no qualms when I hear a student say about my class, "That was difficult," or "That lesson was a challenge to understand."  I do have serious qualms when I hear a student say, "Biology is boring."  If students, on a regular basis, find your class boring, make no mistake about it: you are failing as an educator, whatever their scores are on the standardized tests that educational policy writers are so enamored of.  Because the bottom line is, there is no subject that is inherently boring.  Taught properly, the universe, and its components and systems and interactions and history, are pretty damn fascinating, and our primary job as educators is to shine some light on a bit of it, and say, "Hey, look!  Look at this!  Isn't this cool?" 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sketchy science and magic rocks

A recurring problem with trying to sift through and evaluate claims, and sort the science from the pseudoscience, is the tendency of people to use scientific terms loosely (or incorrectly).  Throwing around fancy-sounding terminology gives an argument an unwarranted veneer of credibility, especially given that many of the people targeted in these claims lack the scientific background to discern when technical vocabulary is being used in a specious fashion.

The problem becomes even worse when the profit motive is involved, because the stakes become higher.  There often seems to be a deliberate intent on the part of the seller not to clarify matters, but to obfuscate further.  A confused buyer, apparently, is a confident buyer.

I was sent an especially good example of this yesterday, when a friend emailed me a link with the message, "Could there be any truth to any of this?"  On clicking the link, I was brought to the site "Shungite in a Nutshell," which explains the amazing properties of a rock found in Russia.

Shungite, we are told, is a carbonaceous deposit found near the village of Shung'a in the province of Karelia.  It contains large quantities of fullerenes, molecules made up of latticelike arrays of carbon atoms (buckyballs and carbon nanotubes are two types of fullerenes you might be familiar with).  Because of its high concentration of fullerenes, shungite has (according to the authors of the website) a variety of amazing properties:
  • it can purify water and air
  • it is a natural antioxidant
  • it is an antibacterial
  • it speeds up healing
  • it stimulates the immune system
  • it suppresses allergies
  • it can act as a carrier for biologically-active molecules
  • it can neutralize the negative effects of electromagnetic fields, including "anthropogenic high-frequency, solar, geopathogenic, (and) biofields"
Sounds like pretty amazing stuff, no?  Well, alarm bells went off immediately for me; any time someone says that one substance can cure all ills, it sets off my skepti-senses.  But here's where it gets interesting, because to support his/her claims, the writer starts throwing around some scientific terminology -- and gets a bunch of it wrong:
  • "Shungite contains almost the entire periodic table" -- actually, if their first claim (that it's composed of fullerenes) is correct, this is about as wrong as you can get, because fullerenes are pure carbon, and therefore are made of only one element on the periodic table.  So the only way you could have less of the periodic table is if shungite was imaginary.  On the other hand, it's not necessarily a good thing to have lots of elements -- I'm rather happy, for example, that the vitamin tablets I take in the morning contain no arsenic or plutonium.
  • Shungite is "a catalyst, which ensures decomposition of organic substances sorbed and restoration of the sorption properties" -- honestly, I'm not even sure what this is supposed to mean.  Catalysts are chemicals that alter the rates of chemical reactions, usually by changing the activation energy; and if shungite really does trigger the decomposition of organic substances, it would be a little on the dangerous side to consume, because our bodies are basically big blobs of organic substances.
  • Shungite is an "electroconductive rock."  Well, lots of stuff is electroconductive, including the wiring in my house.  I'm not sure why this is relevant, but the writer sure seems to be impressed by it.
  • The "presence of shungite materials close to the source of cellular frequency radiation significantly weakens their effect on the human body."  Once again, what the hell is this supposed to mean?  What is "cellular frequency radiation?"  I dunno, but it sure sounds bad, doesn't it?
And so on.  I tried to substantiate a few of these claims -- a couple of articles I found about shungite that seem reliable (if you're curious, here and here) support its use in water purification, but neither of them say the least thing about taking the stuff internally.  This article describes research into a novel cancer therapy using fullerenes and light to trigger cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction), but as far as I can find the effect has only been observed in cell cultures, not in living organisms.  Otherwise, the best I could find regarding the biological effects of fullerenes is that the Wikipedia article says that they are "found in soot" and are "essentially non-toxic" -- not exactly a ringing endorsement of their health benefits.

So it sounds like what we have here is another example of someone trying to sell something useless to the credulous, and throwing around science-y terms to convince the layperson that what they have will cure damn near everything.  Once again, the best way to insulate yourself, and your pocketbook, against spurious claims is to learn a little science and apply the tools of critical thinking.  So, sad to say, but magic rocks that heal every illness known to man remain exactly what they sound like -- fiction.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Alpacas, flying humanoids, and bi-locating nuns

Here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, we're keeping our eyes on two breaking cryptozoological stories.

First, we have a report in from West Berkshire in the UK, where a resident has called in a sighting of a mysterious creature that's been nicknamed "the Creature from Curridge."  [Source]

Spotted on October 3 by a businessman named Don Prater, Curry (you just know eventually that's what they'll call it, might as well start now) was described as being a gray, oddly-proportioned quadruped that was unlike anything Prater had ever seen.

Prater was out for an early-evening walk with his border collie, Bozzy, when he saw the bizarre creature.

"After the footpath bends left, about 25 yards ahead of us were two animals," Prater told reporters for Newbury Today.  "One of the animals looked like a domestic cat but the other one stunned me.  It was a dark or grey color.  The height of its head was about two foot but it had the head of a deer.  The neck was about eight to ten inches long and thin like a swan’s neck.  The body was a cross between a cat and a dog.  It had a bushy tail.  Everything about it was wrong."

"I hadn't been drinking," Prater helpfully added.

Prater went around the neighborhood, asking if anyone else had seen anything like it, but all he got were negatives.  He did provide reporters with a sketch of what he'd spotted:


 For comparison purposes, here's a photograph of an alpaca:





So I think we can all agree that we've got a pretty good match, here.


A little harder to fathom is a story that came to my attention through reports from several of my students.  "Have you heard about the Colorado... um, Mosquito Men?" one asked, and when I said, in some incredulity, "Mosquito Men?", he replied, "Well, not Mosquito Men.  But I'm pretty sure they fly."  So I did some searching for "Colorado Flying Men," and lo and behold, there have been a number of reports lately from the San Luis Valley of flying creatures that look like "a cross between Mothman and Dracula."  [Source]

Notwithstanding the fact that Mothman and Dracula share the characteristic of both being fictional, I began to do a bit of digging, and I found that the San Luis Valley is a hotspot of all sorts of weird stuff -- it has some of the USA's highest numbers of UFO sightings, reports of cattle mutilations, reports of cryptids, and reports of various other odd goings-on.  Besides the flying humanoids, there have been sightings of thunderbirds, and no, I'm not talking about the car:


In fact, so much bizarre stuff happens in the San Luis Valley that it's beginning to get a reputation as a magnet for wackos.  "When the going gets weird, the weird end up in Colorado's San Luis Valley," writes Christopher Weir in Metroactive.  "Hometowns are like families.  You always think yours is more bizarre or dysfunctional than the next.  Not so, of course...  As for hometowns, yours has nothing on Crestone and the surrounding San Luis Valley.  Wondrously depicted by self-appointed paranormal investigator and Crestone resident Christopher O'Brien, the San Luis Valley -- a breathtaking expanse that straddles southern Colorado and northern New Mexico -- is plagued by flying saucers, cow vandals, space guns, serial killers, spook lights, ghost trains, coma healers, prairie dragons and even something called a 'bi-locating nun.'"

So this led me to wonder what a "prairie dragon" was (I found out that they are semi-transparent reptiles that appear in groups and try to get into your home), and of course, any mention of a "bi-locating nun" was bound to stir my curiosity (turns out that this refers to a 17th century Spanish woman, Sister Marie de Jesus Agreda, who visited the San Luis Valley in spirit form, successfully converted some natives, and because of the claim narrowly escaped being executed by the Inquisition).

So, anyway, about the Flying Men.  Apparently, they've been seen by several people over the past two years, flapping along with huge membranous wings, and making "high-pitched hissing or screeching sounds."  Of course, no one has any hard evidence of this, or even any photographs, not that this would exactly count for evidence in these days of PhotoShop.  But the reports continue, and cryptozoologists worldwide are now excitedly turning their eyes toward the Rocky Mountains.

As usual, I wish them all luck.  Being a biologist, no one would be more thrilled than me if some of these reports of bizarre creatures, unknown to science, turned out to be true.  And if I were a betting man, I'd say that they'll have a greater chance of success searching around in the high deserts of Colorado than they would looking for Curry, the Wild Alpaca of West Berkshire.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Smell-o-therapy

I'd always wondered how "aromatherapy" was supposed to work.  I mean, I like nice-smelling things as much as the next guy, but treating diseases by having you smell something just always seemed a little weird to me.  But I'd never really looked into it.

And then a friend sent me this page, wherein we find that it all has to do with "frequencies."

I shoulda known.

Frequency is one of the most misused words in all of woo-woo.  So let's get the definition straight right from the get-go, okay?  Frequency is a measurement of the rate of vibration of anything that is exhibiting rotation, oscillation, vibration, or simple harmonic motion, and is measured by counting the number of cycles completed per second.  A hertz is the standard unit of frequency, and is equal to one cycle per second -- so in a pendulum clock that is keeping good time, the pendulum is swinging at exactly one hertz.  The frequency of sound waves audible to the human ear runs from about 20 hertz to about 18,000 hertz (18 kilohertz).  The electromagnetic spectrum has a much wider range, with the "low" end (radio waves) running all the way down to one hertz or lower, and the "high" end (gamma rays) up into the range of 1024 hertz.  The bit of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes are sensitive to -- the familiar rainbow of visible light -- runs in the vicinity of 1014 hertz, with red having the lowest frequency (around 4 x 1014 hertz) and violet the highest (around 8 x 1014 hertz).

All right, thus endeth the science lesson for today.  Let's look at aromatherapy oils, okay?  Hold onto your hats, because we won't be re-entering the realm of science for a while.

The site I linked above begins thusly:
The effectiveness of aromatherapy essential oils cannot be fully understood without some discussion of their frequency or vibration. Frequency is a measurable rate of electrical energy that is constant between any two points. Every living thing has an electrical frequency. Robert O. Becker, M.D., documents the electrical frequency of the human body in his book, The Body Electric. A "frequency generator" was developed in the early 1020's [sic] by Royal Raymond Rife, M.D. He found that by using certain frequencies, he could destroy a cancer cell or virus. He found that these frequencies could prevent the development of disease, and others would destroy disease. Substances with higher frequency will destroy diseases of a lower frequency.
So, we already have:  (1) a typo that makes it sound like someone was developing electronic devices before the Norman Conquest of England; (2) a guy named "Royal Raymond Rife;" and (3) enough bullshit to fertilize a 50-acre cornfield.  Pretty good start for only one paragraph, don't you think?  But it gets better:
In one test, the frequency of two individuals – the first a 26 year old male and the second a 24 year old male – was measured at 66 MHz each. The first individual held a cup of coffee (without drinking any), and his frequency dropped to 58 MHz in 3 seconds. He put the coffee down and inhaled an aroma of essential oils. Within 21 seconds, his frequency had returned to 66 MHz. The second individual took a sip of coffee and his frequency dropped to 52 MHz in the same 3 seconds. However, no essential oils were used during the recovery time, and it took 3 days for his frequency to return to its initial 66 MHz. One surprising aspect of this study measured the influence that thoughts have on the body's electrical frequency.
Me, I usually vibrate faster after drinking coffee, especially given that I'm from Louisiana, where they don't consider it real coffee unless it's so strong you can stand a spoon upright in it.  I periodically have to replace my coffee mug because the coffee I make has eaten through the ceramic.

But I digress.

So what, then, is the "bioelectric frequency" of various familiar items?  I'm sure you wanted to know, and lo, they provide you with a handy chart:
Fundamental Frequencies of People and Things
(frequencies given in Megahertz)
  • Healthy Human Brain...........................................................71-90
  • Healthy Human Body (overall).............................................62-68
    • When you have cold symptoms........................................58
    • When you have flu symptoms...........................................57
    • When you have candida infection.....................................55
    • When you have Epstein Barr Syndrome...........................52
    • When you have cancer......................................................42
    • When one begins to die.....................................................25
  • Processed or Canned Foods...........................................................0
  • Fresh Produce (depending on how fresh)................................10-15
  • Dry Herbs................................................................................12-22
  • Fresh Herbs.............................................................................20-27
  • Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils......................................52-320

So let's see -- canned tuna isn't vibrating at all, and infections of various sorts make you vibrate slower until finally you die when you reach 25 megahertz.  Presumably after you die you continue to decrease in vibration until you reach the canned-tuna stage.

And last, we find out two important things: (1) if you pray over your aromatherapy oils, they vibrate faster; and (2) exposing the body to the highest frequencies causes "spiritual changes."  Thus, I suppose irradiating yourself with gamma rays would just make you experience all sorts of spiritual growth, or possibly just turn you into The Incredible Hulk.  Which, now that I come to think of it, is a spiritual change of a rather impressive magnitude.

So once again, we have some people making unsubstantiated health claims that could potentially convince someone with a life-threatening disease to abandon conventional therapy for sitting around inhaling rose oil.  And despite the disclaimer at the bottom of the page -- "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease," it sounds like that is exactly what they are suggesting.  And when you read the bit that comes immediately before the disclaimer, it becomes even clearer:
The penetrating characteristic of essential oils greatly enhances their ability to be effective. Essential oils will penetrate into the body when applied to the skin. Placed on the foot they will be distributed to every cell in the body in 21 minutes. They will even penetrate a finger or toe nail to treat fungus underneath.
Essential oils stay in the body about 20 minutes to 2 hours and leave no residuals. The effects and frequency are accumulative when the mental attitude changes. We must have a desire to change and work on it or the old programming will keep coming back. Oils are a precursor to set up stage for action and a catalyst to do the work (the blood stream). Oils go where the need is present and are activated in that area. Testing on the thyroid, heart and pancreas showed that the oils reached these organs in 3 seconds! When layered, one oil applied over another, it is faster. The body absorbs the oils fastest by inhalation and second fastest by applying to the feet or ears. The oils also cross the blood brain barrier; they piggy-back the energy waves to get into the cells.

All the essential oils deliver cell wall penetrating oxygen, and it is the unhealthy cells that need the oxygen for the road back to health. When the cell wall thickens, oxygen can’t get in – life expectancy of a cell is 120 days to 4 months). Cells divide making 2 duplicate cells, and if it is diseased, it will make 2 new diseased cells. When we stop the mutation of the cells and create healthy cells, we stop the disease. Therapeutic grade essential oils can restore cells to normal in 7 seconds.

Do not wait until you have the “right” essential oil before administering to a symptom. You cannot be doing it wrong if you use any of the oils for any symptom! When an oil causes discomfort, it is because it is pulling toxins, chemical, heavy metals, poisons, parasites and mucus from the system. Either stop taking the oils for a short time to make sure your body isn’t eliminating too fast or dilute the oils with V-6 Mixing Oil until the body catches up with the releasing. These toxins go back into the system if they cannot be released. If a person does not like the smell of an oil, it is usually because of an acidic condition.
How is this not a claim to "diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease?"

Once again, I think the thing we need to cure first here is ignorance of biological science.  Given a basic background in biology -- I mean, come on, the sophomores in my Introductory Biology class could debunk this stuff -- anyone would be able to recognize the falsity of these claims.  And we wouldn't have to get the FDA involved, because no one would buy the "essential oils" unless they wanted to use them for the one purpose they have -- to make your house smell better.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Anecdotal evidence and restless coffins

As a kid, I loved scary stories.  Still do, really.  And one of the tales I remember reading in one of those books with names like True Tales of Terror was the famous story of the moving coffins of Barbados.

You might well have heard this one yourself, as it's made the rounds, and is often used to support the contention that Spirits and Mysterious Forces of the Supernatural actually exist.  Here's an abbreviated version; if you'd like to find out more, a little digging will turn up a more detailed, and undoubtedly scarier, description of the alleged facts of the case.

The Chase family of Barbados were wealthy plantation owners, and had a family vault carved out of stone in the churchyard of Christ Church Parish, in the town of Oistins.  The first person whose body was placed in the vault was a Mrs. Thomasina Goddard, in 1807.  Two-year-old Mary Ann Chase was laid to rest there in 1812, and her older sister Dorcas Chase in 1814.  A few weeks later, Dorcas and Mary Ann's father, Thomas Chase, died, and when the vault was opened to receive his coffin, the three coffins that had already been interred there were found moved -- none were in their original places.  The three coffins were put back where they should have been, and the Chase family patriarch's coffin added.  The family suspected that the disarray had been caused by an attempted grave robbery, and to foil further attacks they had a large stone cemented across the opening.

The Chase Vault, Christ Church Parish, Oistins, Barbados

When it was reopened four years later for the burial of eleven-year-old Charles Brewster Ames, the coffins were again found moved, even though the stone and its cement binding were undisturbed.  Even Thomas Chase's heavy, lead-lined coffin was out of place.  Fifty-two days later, it was again reopened for the burial of Samuel Brewster, and once again the coffins were in disarray, including one of them standing against the wall head-downward.

By this time, the story was becoming a well-known mystery across the island, and when it was opened again in 1819, and again found in a state of chaos, the governor of the island, Lord Combermere, ordered an investigation.  A layer of fine sand was spread on the floor of the vault, and the opening was sealed again, an insignia of the governor's pressed into the wet cement to prevent any trickery.  The governor ordered the vault reopened in 1820 -- and again, the same result.  The coffins were moved -- but the sand, and the seal, were undisturbed.

The governor ordered the coffins reburied elsewhere, which was promptly done.  The vault was abandoned, but is still in existence, and many people visit it yearly to see the site of such a chilling legend.

Now, of course, the first question for a skeptic is: what is the quality of the evidence?

The fact is: not very high.  The originator of the tale seems to be Reverend Thomas Orderson, Rector of Christ Church, who claimed to have been there at the various openings of the vault.  The problem is, the sources of the time, based on Orderson's recollections, all vary in their details -- the one I presented above is the one that has appeared in most recent publications.  But the earliest versions, such as the one that appeared in James Edward Alexander's Transatlantic Sketches in 1833, and other recountings of the story that were published in 1844 and 1860, disagree with each other considerably.

Add that to the fact that folklorist Andrew Lang went to Barbados, and combed through the registers of Christ Church Parish for anything that could substantiate the information contained in the story -- and found nothing.  Not even the newspapers of the time, which certainly would have published such a sensational story, had a hint of the wild goings on in the Chase vault.

Much has been said about the possible causes of the "restless coffins" incident -- seepage of water into the vault, earthquakes, and the more outlandish answers of vengeful ghosts, voodoo, or evil curses.  But in order even to have a need for an explanation, we have to establish first that there is something to explain -- and in the case of the Barbados coffins, it seems likely that the whole thing was spun from whole cloth, probably by Reverend Orderson himself.

Psychics and ghost-hunters often get impatient with skeptics for their tendency to turn a wry eye on anecdotal evidence, but the fact is, eyewitness accounts and recollections of events are notoriously unreliable.  Odd, isn't it, that eyewitness testimony is considered the highest level of reliability in a court of law, when in science, it's usually considered one of the lowest?  It is simply too easy to fool the human perceptual apparatus, to twist memory or engender memories that are entirely false, and (not to put too fine a point on it) to lie outright.  It may be that juries take eyewitnesses seriously, but in science, we need more than just someone saying, "I saw it happen myself, I remember it clearly."

Friday, October 12, 2012

A slice of pi

Sometimes you have to admire the woo-woos' dogged determination to fashion the universe into their own bizarre version of reality.

Most of us, I'd like to think, just see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe, and don't make such a big deal out of it.  If we want to believe in a Higher Power That Guides Everything, we do, and don't spend endless hours crafting abstruse proofs of the conjecture.  We're content to have a beer, watch a hockey game, and let god have some much-needed quiet time.

There are a few people, however, who just aren't content if they're not actively beating the matter into submission.  Such a person is Marty Leeds, Wisconsin-born writer, mystic, philosopher, and the origin of dozens of highly entertaining YouTube videos.

Just yesterday, I was sent a link to one of Leeds' creations, entitled, "The Holy Spirit, Pi, and the English Alphabet."  The link was accompanied by a message stating, and I quote: "Words cannot describe the level of derp in this video."  So of course I had to watch it.  And I wasn't disappointed.

If you're unwilling to sacrifice ten minutes of your precious time, and countless innocent cells in your prefrontal cortex that will die in agony, allow me to present to you the main points of Leeds' argument.

1)  There's this thing called gematria that was made up a while back by some Hebrew mystics who had overactive imaginations and too much free time.  The idea behind gematria is that each letter in the alphabet (whether Hebrew, English, or other) is assigned a number, and when you add up the numbers for a word or name, you get a number that "means something."

2)  You get to decide what the numbers mean.

3)  If two words add up to the same thing, they are mystically linked.  Leeds uses a form of gematria which takes the English alphabet, splits it into two lists of thirteen letters each (A-M, and N-Z), and numbers each list from 1 through 7 and then back down to 1.  So my first name, Gordon, would be 7+2+5+4+2+1 = 21.  "Sharp" is 6+6+1+5+3, which also adds up to 21.  So you can see that thus far, we have a pretty persuasive theory here.

4)  Leeds then does a gematria addition for four words or phrases.  We have "man" = 3, "woman" = 9, "Christian" = 39, and "The Holy Spirit" = 61.  Note that he had to add a "the" to the last one to make it work out the way he wanted.

5)  So, let's look at the first thirteen digits of pi.  He picked thirteen because we had split the alphabet into two groups of thirteen letters each, which seems like impeccable logic to me, given the obvious connection between pi and the English alphabet.  So, we have 3.141592653589.  It starts with 3 and ends with 9 -- giving you "39."  So right away, we can see that there's something wonderfully Christian about pi, not to mention having a man on one end and a woman on the other.  Also, 3+9 = 12, and 3x9 = 27, and 12+27 = 39.  So you get your 3 and 9 back, so "man + woman" + "man x woman" = "Christian."  Or something like that.

6)  Take the middle number in the sequence (2) and the two on either side (9 and 6).  Why?  Because tridents, that's why.  Stop asking questions.

7)  If you multiply 9x2x6, you get 108, which is a very holy and important number.  Myself, I just thought it was the most convenient way of getting from 107 to 109, but what do I know?  But the Hindus liked the number 108, and plus, it's the number of stitches on a baseball, so there you are.

8)  Now, take the remaining digits of pi, and basically draw a menorah under them.  You then put them together in pairs, flip 'em around, and add 'em together.  I really don't want to go into all of how he does that, because my cortical neurons are already whimpering for mercy, so you'll just have to either watch the video or else just accept on faith that somehow all of the numbers and flipped numbers and all add up to 352.  Then, you add that to the 2 and 6 from the trident bit, and you get 360, which is the number of degrees in a circle.  Get it?  Circle?  Pi?  Are you blown away?  (Okay, he left out the 9.  But still.)

9)  If you multiply the first through eighth digits of pi, you get 6,480.  If you multiply the eighth through the thirteenth digits, you get 32,400.  Subtract them, and you get 25,920, which he says is the number of years for the precession of the Earth's axis to complete one rotation.  Except that according to the Cornell University Astronomy Department's webpage on the precession of the Earth's axis, the length of the precession of the Earth is said to be "about 26,000 years" -- the imprecision being because a motion that slow is almost impossible to measure accurately.  But I think we call all agree that since we're using gematria as our jumping-off point, being off by eighty years or so is plenty accurate enough.

10)  Of course, like any good performer, he saves his most amazing bit for the end, wherein we find out that the first thirteen digits of pi add up to 61, which you will recall is the number of "The Holy Spirit."  So pi "encodes" (his word) The Holy Spirit and the precession of the equinoxes.

11)  Therefore god.  Q.E.D.


Well, I  hope you've enjoyed our little ramble through woo-woo arithmetic.  Me, I'm planning on watching some of Leeds' other videos when I have the time (two especially fascinating-sounding ones are "The Isis and Osiris Myth" and "The Holy 108").  However, I think next time I won't launch into this without something to insulate my poor brain against further damage.  I'm thinking that a double scotch might do the trick.