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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Boldly going where no one has gone before

One of the best things about science is that it is just so freakin' cool.  I think that's why I have never really understood aficionados of woo-woo; why do you need all the magic and quantum consciousness and chakras and ley lines and so on, when the real, verified science is so mind-blowingly amazing?

If you needed proof of that, consider the Alcubierre warp drive.  Yes, you read that right; warp drive, as in Star Trek.  Turns out that a Mexican physicist named Miguel Alcubierre proposed way back in 1994 that there might be a way to achieve faster-than-light travel by warping space-time behind, and in front of, a spaceship, and then riding the wave of that warped space-time in the fashion of a surfer being pushed much faster than the individual water molecules in a wave are traveling.

For those of you who know your physics, you're probably saying, "But wait... what about general relativity?"  Apparently, since within the (warped) space-time of the region around the spacecraft itself, no one is exceeding the cosmic speed limit of 300 million meters/sec (the speed of light in a vacuum), this does not break the rules -- even though Alcubierre thought that it might be possible to travel at speeds which, when viewed from the point of view of someone not on the spaceship, might allow Our Intrepid Crew to reach Alpha Centauri in a few weeks.  (Voyager, one of the fastest manmade vehicles ever constructed, would take 12,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, if it were heading that direction, which it's not.)

The catch, however (and it's a big one), is that in order to warp space-time to this extent, Alcubierre found that it would take the mass-energy of Jupiter.  Yup -- to do this, you would need half a Jupiter's size chunk of ordinary matter, and an equal-sized chunk of antimatter, and allow them to mutually annihilate.  If you could do that in the right way, you could warp space in this fashion.

That's one hell of a big warp core.  I don't think even Scotty or Geordi LaForge could make that work.

But this hasn't discouraged scientists.  Recently, Harold White of NASA announced that if you took the warp bubble, and made it toroidal instead of flat, and oscillated it, you could achieve the same effect -- and reduce the mass-energy needed to less than 800 kilograms!  [Source]

Right as we speak, White and his team are trying to accomplish the same thing on a tiny scale -- seeing if they can distort space-time in the way Alcubierre predicted, using lasers.  They're looking for a one-part-in-ten-million disturbance.  But if they find it -- it confirms Alcubierre's predictions, and at that point the problem changes from being a theoretical one to being a technological one.

And, if history is any indicator, after that, it will only be a matter of time.

Or space-time, actually.

I think this is about the most exciting thing I've read in ages.  Despite the fact that I was a physics major in college, I don't pretend to understand the details of the theory; I very quickly got lost in the abstruse mathematics when I took a look at Alcubierre's paper.  But all I know is, if I could get to the nearest star system  in only a few weeks, I would be elbowing people out of my way to get to the front of the line.  Can you even imagine, landing on a planet orbiting another star?  For real?

Man, I think I just had a nerdgasm, there.

So, if White et al. end up with results, I think we know who our answer to Zefram Cochrane will be.  His name is Miguel Alcubierre, and I think we should make sure that he's the one who gets to shake the Vulcan's hand when they land on the Earth.

Make it so!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Faith, exorcism, and fraud

Following right on the heels of yesterday's post about sex with demons, today we have a story out of Ontario that a man has been charged with "pretending to practice witchcraft."  [Source]

The online Globe and Mail tells the story of a Mississauga man, Gustavo Valencia Gomez,  who self-publishes a Spanish language newspaper called El Negocia Redondo, wherein he advertised his services as a "healer."  He claimed to have three offices (in Toronto, London [Ontario], and Montreal) where he practiced his healing arts, and he would be happy to help you out... for a fee, of course.

Apparently, one woman came in complaining of various illnesses, and Gomez told her that she and her family were "cursed" and that he would perform rituals that would lift the curse if she would pay him $14,000.  Which she did.

But then the Canadian law enforcement got involved, and the next thing you know, Gomez was under arrest for fraud, false pretenses, and "pretending to practice witchcraft."

All right, so far, so good.  But my question is: what is the difference in the eyes of the law between "pretending" to practice a belief, and actually practicing a belief?

So, here we have Gomez, saying he'll perform rituals for you if you'll pay him.  The rituals are almost certainly useless, and have no basis in fact.  Gomez is arrested for fraud.  On the other hand, check your pharmacy shelves for homeopathic remedies, which are also useless and have no basis in fact.  On yet another hand (I have three hands), consider churches who claim that "god requires you to tithe" and strongly hints that you will be Naughty In God's Sight, and that god might well Smite You With His Mighty Fist, if you don't, yet another nonsensical claim that has no basis in fact.

Consider also sites like this one, wherein Reverend Cotton Marcus of the Church of St. Mark's has provided a handy questionnaire which will tell you what (if any demon) is possessing you.  Naturally, I had to take the test, and I know you will be as eager to find out my results as I was, so here they are:
You may be afflicted with a demon known as MIITAKK.
Miitakk is the demon of complacence and slothfulness – many initially afflicted with this demon stop making an effort in any aspect of their lives. Without exorcism or care of any kind those possessed by Miitakk will suffer from bedsores, atrophy of the limbs and other ailments of the immobile. Signs: often those possessed by Miitakk take on a nearly catatonic state, and it is difficult to get them to respond. However, if the afflicted is prodded too much, they can suddenly become violent. Touching cool water causes those possessed by this demon to feel a burning sensation.
I do get fairly annoyed when I'm prodded, and although I love to swim I hate cold water, which is why I don't tend to go swimming except during summer (next year summer in upstate New York is scheduled from July 21 through August 3, in case you want to plan ahead).  So that much is accurate.  However, I don't have bedsores, my limbs are not atrophied, I have never been catatonic, and I'm actually quite an active person.  So apparently "Miitakk" isn't doing his job very well, and should probably go back to hell and leave me in the hands of a different demon, preferably one that I could sell my soul to in exchange for perpetual youth, good looks, lots of money, and a Jaguar.

This questionnaire also brings up another important question, namely: who the hell names their son "Cotton?"  Did Mr. and Mrs. Marcus look at their newborn baby boy, and say, "I know!  Let's name him after the guy who was responsible for hanging the witches in Salem, Massachusetts!  That'd be an awesome name!"

However, all of that is not why I included the Church of St. Mark's website in this post.  The reason that I bring up this site is that alongside the questionnaire, there are other links you can follow, including "How to avoid demon possession," "A brief history of exorcism," and "Exorcism application form" -- and there is also one called, "Exorcism supplies: BUY NOW.  PROTECT YOURSELF and others from demons."  So, naturally, I had to click it, and I found that the "exorcism supplies" were mainly crucifixes in various sizes and materials, and ran from the economy model ($24) to the deluxe, all the bells-and-whistles model ($106).  So, here's my question:

How is this any different from what Gustavo Gomez was doing?  How can poor Gomez be guilty of fraud, and Reverend Cotton Marcus isn't?  Nor, apparently, are the homeopaths, or mediums, or astrologers, or crystal-energy-chakra people, or any of a hundred other practitioners of woo-woo who make goofy claims, legally.  What, pray, distinguishes between them?  Because of course, all of these people, just like Gomez, swear that their cures will work, if only you'll open your heart and your pocketbook simultaneously -- and none of them have the least basis in fact.

Now, don't misunderstand me; I'm quite sure that the Canadian police are correct, and that Gomez is a fraud.  But once you start calling faith-based, evidence-free claims "fraud," where do you stop? 

Well, I know where I stop, or more accurately, where I don't stop.  But I just wonder if the Canadian law enforcement realizes what a can of worms it's opened.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poe's law, absurd beliefs, and demon sex

There's this idea called "Poe's Law."  Named after Nathan Poe, the first person to set it down as a rule of thumb (although certainly not the first person to notice the phenomenon), Poe's Law states that a sufficiently well-done parody of a ridiculous or extreme belief is indistinguishable from the belief it is parodying.

Poe's Law, coupled with a lack of rigorous research, almost certainly explains how comedian Stephen Colbert got invited to be the keynote speaker at the Presidential Press Dinner during George W. Bush's presidency, probably selected by a staffer who was fired one microsecond into Colbert's speech, and whose job is now giving rectal exams to walruses in Barrow, Alaska.  The speech was a combination of funny and excruciating, as he stayed in his ultraconservative persona for a full twelve minutes while slyly lambasting the president, vice president, Chief Justice Scalia, and just about every Republican politician in office at the time -- right in front of their faces.  Poe's Law also explains how stories on the political parody site The Onion have suckered real, legitimate news reporters from Pravda and Xinhua, and have more than once spawned outrage (remember the firestorm that occurred when a story on The Onion claimed that the last Harry Potter movie was being split into seven separate films?).

So, parody, when done well, can fool you.  But that is part of what parody's function is, isn't it?  It's to take every flaw, every foible, every odd claim, every trope of what's being parodied, and exaggerate it just enough to make it look ridiculous.  And done well, it can be a powerful force for showing crazy beliefs for what they are.

The problem is, of course, that Poe's Law also works the other way.  A sufficiently crazy (but seriously held) belief can be so out there, so bizarre, that it looks like a parody.  We read about it, and stop, smile a little, and say, "No... really?  No, come on, no one can possibly believe that."

The problem is yes, often, someone -- and a lot of someones -- do believe that.   Fervently.

I ran into a perfect example of this yesterday, in the online magazine Charisma.  Far from being what it sounds like -- a magazine about romance, makeup, clothing, or something of the sort -- Charisma is a magazine featuring stories by, and about, devout Christians.  From their "About" page:
To passionate, Spirit-filled Christians, Charisma is the leading charismatic media source that inspires them to radically change their world. Since 1975, Charisma magazine has been a trusted source of news, teaching and inspiration to help spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As the voice of the charismatic movement, Charisma has steadily combined award-winning news coverage of what the Holy Spirit is doing around the world with relevant, timely messages from leaders in the Spirit-empowered community. Yet even from its earliest days, Charisma has always been about more than what's on the pages of a monthly magazine.
All of which sounds like pretty standard Christian fare -- until you start looking at specific articles, many of which fall into the "Backing away slowly, keeping my eyes on you the entire time" category.  In fact, the article that I came across yesterday on their website is entitled, "Can You Be Raped By The Devil?"

Well, I'm sure you've already guessed that just by having this question as the title of the article, the author, Cedric Harmon, thinks the answer is "yes, of course."  It is, he says, "more common than you think."  (Well, given that I think the number of times it has happened is zero...)  To research this phenomenon, Harmon interviewed Contessa Adams, a stripper turned devout Christian who thinks she had sex with a demon not just once, but many times.  "Unless you're strong enough to rebuke it, they'll keep coming back," she says.  "You must speak the Word of God, knowing you have power in the name of Jesus."

So, what is the consequence of all of this satanic bow-chicka-bow-wow?  Harmon says that when people are tricked into having demon sex, it can change them in a variety of ways:
  • It can make you not want to have sex with an actual human.  Demons, apparently, are that good.
  • It can lead you to practicing voodoo or Santería.
  • It can make you a homosexual.
Yes, dear readers, you read that right; Harmon believes that one way a person becomes gay is by fornicating with a demon.

I think this was the point that I did the "No... really?" thing.  Was this a parody, slipped into Charisma magazine by a parodist to see how absurd a belief they'd actually print?  The answer, apparently, is "No."  It appears that however absurd it sounds, Harmon seriously believes this stuff -- and so do many (although, thankfully, not all) of the people who left comments on the story.  As frightening as this is to me, there are people who read this sort of thing, and basically say, "Oh, of course.  That makes complete sense."

The eminent evolutionary biologist and science writer P. Z. Myers, in his awesome blog Pharyngula, recently wrote a piece called "No More Poes" in which he says:
I heard several announce “He’s a poe” or “he must be a poe”. Dear god, but I’m sick of that stupid word. It’s become a standard response to batty stupidity — lately, it doesn’t matter how ordinary a comment is or who said it or how well verified it is — there’s always someone in the crowd who has to show off how insightful or cynical they are by declaring that it must be a pretense.

Look, people, we live in a country with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Joseph Farah as prominent media sources; where Akin and Broun and Jindal get elected to high office; where every newspaper is full of common folk writing in to complain about those gays or those socialist commies or those egghead liberals. There is nothing unlikely or unbelievable about a down-home ministry that announces you’ll go to hell for believing in science. Bat-buggering bullshit is routine.
If you needed a good example of exactly that, look no further than Charisma magazine.  Parody, after all, is hardly needed when the people in question have descended so far into absurdity that they seem to be engaged in self-parody.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Beast of Tunbridge Wells

Following on the heels of yesterday's post about Dr. Melba Ketchum and the maybe-perhaps-sort-of confirmation of Sasquatch DNA from a hair sample, we now have a story wherein the Brits (not to be outdone by a bunch of upstart Americans) are claiming their own Bigfoot-clone.  [Source]

Nicknamed "The Beast of Tunbridge Wells," this cryptid is described as an eight-foot-tall beast, human-shaped but covered with hair, with "long arms" and "demonic red eyes."  Some locals are afraid to go outside at night because there have been so many sightings in the past six months; but the story claims that the thing has been seen for seventy or more years, and describe a sighting that occurred in 1942 and was told to a "man named Graham S."

Well, far be it from me to doubt any anecdotal reports from "a man named Graham S.," but let me just interject a bit of a science lesson that may raise some questions in your mind.

There's a concept in ecology called "minimum viable population."  This is the number of organisms needed in a population to assure that (assuming nothing changes) the birth rate equals or exceeds the death rate.  It is quite difficult to estimate, and depends on a great many factors, including the number of offspring per mating, mortality in the young, dependency on available resources, size of the territory, and so on.  To give two extreme examples that will illustrate this:  the MVP for mosquitoes is probably pretty damn close to two, as long as one was male and one was female, and they were near enough to find each other and had a source of food and water.  Mosquitoes can produce so many young from one mating that it's likely you could rebuild a sizable population in short order from those two survivors.  Elephants, on the other hand, reproduce very slowly, and the young are slow to reach sexual maturity; in order to have a population large enough for the birth rate to equal or exceed the death rate (from natural causes, predators, poaching, and so on), you would need hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals in the population.

Get it?  Now, let's consider how many Britsquatches we'd need to have a viable, sustainable population.

To get a handle on this, I referred to the paper "Estimates of Minimum Viable Population Sizes for Vertebrates and Factors Influencing Those Estimates," by David Reed, Julian O'Grady, Barry Brook, Jonathan Ballou, and Richard Frankham, which appeared in the Journal of Biological Conservation in 2003.  The paper is lucidly written but relies on some rather specialized models and technical mathematics; if you want to give it a go, you can access it here.  The main thing of interest for our purposes is in the Appendix, wherein Reed et al. use their techniques to make an upper and lower bound estimate for MVP; the lower bound is just using raw birth and death rates, the upper bound generated from a mathematical formula that estimates the number of individuals required to give a 99% likelihood of the population sustaining for forty generations.  Interestingly, there is a large primate species listed -- the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei).  And Reed et al. place the lower bound for MVP for the Mountain Gorilla at 849, and the upper bound at somewhat over 11,000 individuals.

So assuming the Tunbridge Britsquatch (Sasquatchius anglicus kentei) has a similar MVP, and has been wandering about the highways and byways of southeastern England since time immemorial (or at least since 1942), you can't just claim that there are two, or four, or even a dozen of them... you have to believe that there are thousands.

Maybe some of my readers live in southeastern England, and might be able to explain how there could be a thousand (or more) eight-foot-tall hairy hominids hiding out down there, doing all the things animals do -- feeding (and an animal that size would need a lot of food), making noise, sleeping, mating, dying, and so on -- and they've only been seen a handful of times near Tunbridge Wells.  That such a thing could happen in the trackless woods of the Pacific Northwest, or the icy reaches of the Himalayas, I might be able to believe.

But Kent?  Really?

I'm sorry, but this just sounds preposterous to me.  As much as I'd love to see some cryptid discovered, and confirmed by science, I'm betting this won't be the one.  In fact, I think what we should be doing is looking for some prankster in Tunbridge Wells with a gorilla suit.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bigfoot exists!... or, how science is not done

Well, the cryptozoological world has been buzzing the last few days about a press release from (in)famous Dr. Melba Ketchum, who has announced that her team has proven that DNA from a hair sample is from a non-human hominin species:
Our study has sequenced 20 whole mitochondrial genomes and utilized next generation sequencing to obtain 3 whole nuclear genomes from purported Sasquatch samples. The genome sequencing shows that Sasquatch mtDNA is identical to modern Homo sapiens, but Sasquatch nuDNA is a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species. Our data indicate that the North American Sasquatch is a hybrid species, the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.

Hominins are members of the taxonomic grouping Hominini, which includes all members of the genus Homo. Genetic testing has already ruled out Homo neanderthalis and the Denisova hominin as contributors to Sasquatch mtDNA or nuDNA. The male progenitor that contributed the unknown sequence to this hybrid is unique as its DNA is more distantly removed from humans than other recently discovered hominins like the Denisovan individual.

Sasquatch nuclear DNA is incredibly novel and not at all what we had expected. While it has human nuclear DNA within its genome, there are also distinctly non-human, non-archaic hominin, and non-ape sequences. We describe it as a mosaic of human and novel non-human sequence. Further study is needed and is ongoing to better characterize and understand Sasquatch nuclear DNA.
Well, that's just fine and dandy, but it's not really going to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced.  Because this, unfortunately, is not how good science is published.

This is, perhaps, the biggest misunderstanding about science on the part of the general public.  People have this sense that scientists go out and make discoveries, write them up, and the next thing you know, it's all over the "Science" section of Time magazine.  In fact, the first thing that should happen is peer review -- the data, methodology, and conclusions should be spread out for others in the field to take their best shots at.  Were the techniques used appropriate to the study?  Does the data unambiguously support the conclusion, or is there another conclusion (or more than one) that could be drawn?  Were reasonable controls in place to guard against bias, false positives, or sample contamination?

At that point, assuming that all went well with the peer review process, you trumpet your results to the public.  But not before.  In fact, that's been the problem all along with this study; hints and allegations were being made almost a year ago that the team had found something amazing, but the hard facts -- the actual data -- were shrouded in secrecy.  Months went by, and all we got were further teasers.  The whole thing was handled so as to maximize public hype -- rather like the whole kerfuffle over the "Baltic Sea Anomaly" (and notice how we haven't heard anything more about this non-story?).

Now, I'm not saying they haven't discovered anything; Melba Ketchum is a geneticist of excellent credentials, apparently, and it's hard to fathom why a reputable scientist would risk her career if there wasn't something real here.  (Although I am, reluctantly, reminded of the debacle over "cold fusion" that was handled in much the same way -- and the resultant irreparable damage done to the reputations of the two physicists responsible, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann.)  What I am saying is that what has been released thus far isn't going to convince anyone who holds support of scientific discoveries to any usual standard of rigor.  So, predictably, the main ones who are greeting this press release with joyous shouts of acclamation are the ones who already believed Bigfoot was real before the study was even done.  Most of the rest of us are still sitting here, saying, "Okay, Dr. Ketchum, that's nice.  Now show us the goods."

This will, of course, earn more criticism for scientists and skeptics as being "closed-minded."  Actually, closed-minded is exactly what we're not; we haven't made our minds up at all, not until we've seen how the conclusions were reached, and whether the data support them.  It is to be hoped that Dr. Ketchum et al. will release more of their results into the peer-review system soon -- because until then, I'm afraid the response on the part of the rest of the scientific world will be lukewarm at best.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Franklin Graham, Islamic fundamentalists, and acting as God's mouthpiece

One of the (many) things I find mystifying about the very religious is their tendency to think that God agrees with them.

Not, mind you, that they agree with God.  Once you've accepted that some deity's dictum is your ultimate guide to life (whether it be the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or whatever), it isn't strange at all that you would then follow the rules to the best of your ability.  So although I do wonder what could lead anyone to accept that a self-contradictory text that was pretty clearly written by people is the infallible, literal word of God, I see how (once you've done that) it becomes unassailable.

What is more curious is how many of the same people who think that God has spoken to humanity through a revelatory book then make the further leap that any other thing they believe must be God's opinion, too.  I've commented before on the wild meanderings of Pat Robertson, who (for example) decided that the people of Haiti were sent the devastating earthquake of 2010 because of their history of practicing voodoo.  The upshot of most of Reverend Pat's pronouncements is that God has decided opinions on what should be done about the wickedness of the world, and coincidentally, those agree exactly with what Reverend Pat himself would do, if he were God.

The latest in this long line of people who seem to feel like their whims must be God's whims as well is Franklin Graham, son of the iconic evangelical leader Reverend Billy Graham.  Now, while I don't agree much with Billy Graham's philosophical and political positions, I've always thought he was a good man, who tempered his religious fervor with a genuine love for humanity and a sense that he should follow Jesus' command to render unto God what is God's and render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.  Billy's son Franklin, however, doesn't seem to be restrained by any such understanding, as was evidenced by a recent interview he granted to, and which was summarized here.

"In the last four years, we have begun to turn our backs on God," Graham said, in an obvious shot at the Obama adminsitration. "We have taken God out of our education system.  We have taken him out of government.  You have lawyers that sue you every time you mention the name of Jesus Christ in any kind of a public forum."  He went on to say, in a remarkable echo of Reverend Pat, that because of all of this God will visit upon America "a complete economic collapse" in order to bring us back to the "path to godliness."

I very much get the impression here that all of the fire-and-brimstone he's putting into God's mouth, and his prediction that God will smite the American economy with his Mighty Fist to teach us a valuable lesson, is not something he's abstracted from reading the Bible, but is what Franklin Graham would like to see happen because of his own particular bent toward Christian fundamentalism and political conservatism.  It's peculiar to observe someone who has so identified himself with the holy writ that he feels that he has the duty to pronounce God's word to the people -- as if he had become the mouthpiece of the deity, as if every word he said must be God's opinion as well.

This is a completely baffling stance to me, and I say that not only because I'm a secular atheist, but because I know how often I get things wrong.  I am far from infallible -- there are (many) topics about which I am partially or totally ignorant, I think illogically sometimes, I come to false conclusions.  Human minds only take you so far; our task, as far as I can see, is to hone and train our brains insofar as is possible, and always remember that we might not be seeing the picture correctly.  But what if you felt like you had, for one reason or another, a direct pipeline to the mind of God?  You would no longer doubt anything that came into your brain; surely God put it there, right?  You would lose that sense of perspective that keeps us all moving forward in our understanding of how the world actually works; and you would, scarily, have an instant justification for any action you took, any words you uttered.  Franklin Graham, I think, has crossed that line -- and that puts him in the same category as the British Islamists who just yesterday announced a fatwa against Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.  [Source]

I find the whole thing bizarre and frightening.  That anyone can stand up in a public forum, and say, "I know what God wants," without the entire audience simultaneously shouting, "How the hell do you know what God wants?" is deeply puzzling to me.  But, oddly, that does not seem to be a very common reaction.  Many people, for some reason, want a figure to act as God's spokesperson, and the question, "But what if he's got it wrong?" never seems to occur to them.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Neuroimaging the brains of psychics

A fascinating study has just been published by scientists working at the University of Pennsylvania.  The methodology and results are described in this article, released last Friday, entitled "Neuroimaging During Trance State: A Contribution to the Study of Dissociation," but the gist is that that the team involved, headed by Julio Fernando Peres, has done PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans of alleged mediums who claimed to be in touch with the spirits of the dead.

These particular mediums say that they can perform psychography, which is when the spirit of a deceased person is working through the medium's body, controlling his/her hand to produce written text.  Now, neuroscientists understand fairly well what is happening in the brain when a person speaks or writes; in particular, when someone writes complex text, several areas of the brain (including the left culmen, left hippocampus, left inferior occipital gyrus, left anterior cingulate, right superior temporal gyrus and right precentral gyrus) show higher levels of activity.  The researchers compared the mediums' levels of brain activity when producing text in the ordinary fashion (i.e., when they claimed they were not being guided by a spirit, and were fully conscious and fully themselves) and when they were in a trance state.  And when they were in a trance state, all of them showed consistently lowered activity in all of the brain areas that are typically higher during writing.  Peres et al. state, "The fact that subjects produced complex content in a trance dissociative state suggests they were not merely relaxed, and relaxation seems an unlikely explanation for the underactivation of brain areas specifically related to the cognitive processing being carried out.  This finding deserves further investigation both in terms of replication and explanatory hypotheses."

It's an interesting finding.  The response of psychics to this article thus far can be summed up as, "Ha.  We told you."  And indeed, this result is exactly what you'd suspect if what the mediums claim is true -- that their hand was no longer under the sole control of their own brains, that someone else had taken over and was guiding their motions.

I am, however, not convinced that this is the only explanation, and I was glad to see that the authors weren't quite so eager to jump on the bandwagon -- their final statement that "this finding deserves further investigation... in terms of... explanatory hypotheses" is precisely right.  We cannot rule out that there is control by a spirit; that hypothesis is consistent with the results.  But before saying that this constitutes proof of psychic mediumship, other possible explanations must be ruled out.

I have to say, though, that these folks are going about this research in exactly the right way.  If psychic phenomena of any kind exist, they should be testable, verifiable, and replicable under controlled conditions.  The fact that these alleged mediums are showing anomalous brain activity is certainly suggestive that something worth studying is going on here -- and I hope that Peres et al. or other researchers in the field will pick up this study and run with it.  If the results hold, we may be looking at the first step toward hard evidence for the existence of a spiritual realm, which would be an absolutely stunning result (although I have to say that if this proves to be the case, the number of retractions I'd have to write for scoffing statements in previous Skeptophilia posts would be equally stunning).  My overall reaction: while I'm still in the doubters camp regarding what this study means, at least we finally have some folks who are approaching the question scientifically.  And that is a step in the right direction.

Monday, November 19, 2012

France vs. the Mayans

Alarming news is coming out of France, where the true believers are heading to await the Mayan apocalypse that is due to occur in a little more than a month; the only safe spot in the world is being declared off-limits by the government.  [Source]

In a move that is bound to cause consternation amongst that segment of humanity that has pancake batter where the rest of us have brains, local officials in the town of Bugarach, France have made the decision to seal off access to the nearby mountain, the Pic de Bugarach.  Devotees of Mayan prophecy believe that on December 21, the top of the mountain will pop open, in the fashion of a jack-in-the-box, and an alien spaceship will rise out which will then save any people who happen to be in the area at the time.  I hardly need to point out that there are some flaws in this scenario, the main one being that after intensive study, geologists have concluded that the rule "mountains are made of solid rock" is almost never broken.  But true believers never let a little thing like science get in the way.

My feeling is that they also are unlikely to let official rules get in their way, and allow me to put any French officials who are reading this on notice: I have been studying woo-woos for some time now, and if there is a group that is less likely to completely ignore such a ban, I don't know what it is.  Come December 20, I think you should prepare yourselves for an onslaught.  These people fully expect the world to end, and there is no way in hell they are going to go back home and die when they could be climbing a mountain in France to wait for a spaceship just because you said "non." 

It all brings up the question, though, of what all of them are going to do on December 22 when it becomes obvious that (1) the world didn't end, and (2) the mountain didn't pop open, and (3) the spaceship never showed.  You'd think that this would induce them to say, "Wow, what goobers we've been," and to settle down and revise their worldviews into something more in line with common sense.  But studies have shown that when nutjobs make prophecies, and those prophecies don't pan out, rather than causing the true believers to give up, it makes them believe even more strongly.  Yes, you read that right; you spend the night huddled together, waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, and midnight arrives and Jesus doesn't, and the next day, you still believe.  It was just that (1) something was amiss with your prediction of the time, or (2) Jesus changed his mind and has now decided on a later date.  It was not that your fundamental premise -- that Jesus was on his way -- was incorrect.

So what is the right approach, then?  It's a tough question.  Every once in a while, I'll have a woo-woo sign up for my Critical Thinking class.  You'd think that given my solid reputation as a skeptic, they either wouldn't sign up for the course, or else would sign up and keep quiet about their beliefs, but I've found that these sorts inevitably want to argue, and they never give up.  (The two most memorable examples were a girl who was an ardent believer in astrology, and a boy who belonged to the aliens-built-the-pyramids set.)  They just can't take my scoffing lying down, and are determined to bring me to my senses.  But given that this is also basically my approach toward them, I suppose it's only fair.

In any case, I hope that the police in Bugarach are ready for a riot, because that's what it's likely to come to.  Myself, I wonder what the next Big Thing is going to be, once they realize that December 21 was a wash.  Will they revise the date, in the fashion of Harold Camping?  Or come up with a whole new prediction?  Either way, it should be interesting, and I suggest you plan on monitoring woo-woo websites the week after the non-apocalypse.  I can barely wait.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

St. Paul's Letter to the Klingons

In an investigation of wasteful government spending, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has publicized the fact that the Pentagon sponsored a seminar (at the cost of $100,000) called "Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too?"

I wish I was making this up, but if you don't believe me, here's the source.  All of this rather undercuts Governor Romney's contention that we can't cut military spending without jeopardizing American national security, doesn't it?  Especially given that the folks at DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) that sponsored the event hired noted astrophysicists LeVar "Geordi LaForge" Burton and Nichelle "Uhura" Nichols as keynote speakers, and had a gala "Come As Your Favorite Alien" dinner party afterwards.  One speaker, an unnamed philosophy professor who was called upon to address the topic brought up in the title of the event, concluded that Jesus only died for humans; the Klingons are on their own, sin-forgiveness-wise, not that they probably care.  I suspect that any priest who was brave enough to tell Gowron he had to say ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers because he'd told a fib last week would soon be missing important body parts, so it's probably just as well.

It is not the overall silliness of the workshop that I want to address here, nor the bloat in the Pentagon's budget.  What I'd like to look at is the central contention of the workshop -- which is what would happen to organized religion if intelligent life were found elsewhere in the universe.

It's probably facile to say, "Nothing.  There being life elsewhere wouldn't change belief in a deity here on Earth."  But think about it; almost every major discovery that science has made in the past thousand years has had the effect of moving humanity further out of the center of the universe.  From Copernicus (the Earth isn't at the center), to Kepler (the planets don't move in idealized perfect circles), to Darwin (humans evolve just like everything else), to Mendeleev (everything is made of the same set of elements), to Watson, Crick et al. (all organisms, including humans, encode genetic material the same way), everything we've found has led to the view that we're not really very special at all.  Humans are just one more animal species, made of the same stuff and behaving the same way as other animals do, on a little spinning ball of rock around a quite ordinary star in a quite ordinary galaxy.  The recent discovery of thousands of extrasolar planets, some of them fairly earthlike in characteristics, makes it seem like even what we have here on Earth may not be all that unusual.

Now, myself, I think all of this is wicked cool.  I love it that our systems work the same way as other animals; not only does it explain so much about our behavior, it also means we're inextricably connected to the natural world.  I think any blow to our species' ego is far outweighed by the fact that these discoveries are just downright fascinating.

But think about how antithetical that view is to the basic view of Christianity and the other major religions.  The mainstream religious view -- and I realize that there are individual people, and probably sects of religions, who do not believe this -- sees humanity as something special, something unique in the history of the universe.  In fact, Christianity's central tenet is that humanity is so special that the all-powerful, omniscient deity incarnated his son as one of us. 

So, what would happen if we were to discover intelligent alien life?  My sense is that a lot of folks with a strictly religious worldview would have a hard time incorporating it.  If you remember the wonderful movie Contact, which looks at just such a situation, recall that the ultrareligious wingnut who had been harassing the main character did have exactly that reaction -- to the point that he sacrificed his own life (taking out a great many other people with him) to protect the purity of the religious message.  While this movie is (of course) fiction, I don't think that such a thing is outside of the realm of possibility.  The discovery of intelligent alien life would be, in a way, the ultimate pulling-out-of-center for the human race, and one that I think some worldviews couldn't handle.

On the whole, I think the question is an interesting one to consider.  So even if DARPA probably shouldn't have spent 100 grand to throw their big Star Trek-themed party, it's an idea worth investigating.  I would, however,  be more interested to hear what Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku have to say on the matter than LeVar Burton and Nichelle Nichols.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Akashic fields forever

Yesterday, a student of mine asked me if I knew what an "Akashic Field" was.

I was tempted to say that it was a field that had no buckwheat in it, but that was a rather abstruse pun at best.  So I told him that I didn't, but my intuition was that a term where the first word sounded vaguely Sanskrit and the second word was "field" was probably referring to something that didn't exist, and then I told him I'd look into it and get back to him.

It's nice when your intuition is correct.

A quick Google search brought me here, to the Linda Howe Center for Akashic Studies, wherein we learn that the "Akashic Field" is an energy matrix that allows you to access the "Akashic Record."  The latter, according to the website, is defined thusly:  "The Akashic Record is a dimension of consciousness that contains a vibrational record of every soul and its journey.  It is completely available everywhere...  The energy present in the Record is a very quick vibration with a great velocity. It is also full-bodied and rich.  When opening the Record, a quickening occurs.  The infusion of light accelerates everything in its path. In the presence of light, all darkness is seen and brightened. Individual conscious minds do not need to direct this light.  Infinite wisdom of light goes where it is needed and received to fulfill its function."

Okay, now that we've successfully disabled any readers who have taken a college-level physics class, I'm sure the next question to ask is: how do I get access to this amazing source of wisdom?

"Working with the sacred prayer provides a reliable, deliberate way to move into and access the consciousness of the Record responsibly." Linda Howe tells us.  We then are directed to take one of her classes ($300-500 for in-person classes if you live in the Chicago area, or happen to be near one of the places she's touring, and $25-40 an hour for online classes where you watch a video recording) so we can learn the "Pathway Prayer Process" to tap into the "Akashic Record" and "receive guidance."

Well, sorry, I'm not going to spend $25, much less $300, to find out more about something that sounds like a slightly reworked version of "The Force" from Star Wars.  (Although other websites I looked at said that your access to the Akashic Record had something to do with the pineal gland, the Egyptian god Osiris, and the Orion Nebula, and that modern Americans were losing this ability because of fluoridation in water.  The Nazis were also briefly mentioned.)

The problem is, the whole "Akashic Record" idea traces its origins not to Ancient Egypt or Ancient Babylon, or in fact Ancient Anywhere, but to the writings of noted early 20th century wingnut Edgar Cayce, whose mystical books are still immensely popular (and his followers say that he didn't write them, but "channeled" them).  So let's see what Cayce himself has to say on the subject -- that's sure to be illuminating, right?  "We have explained before that the intelligent infinity is brought into intelligent energy from eighth density or octave.  The one sound vibratory complex called Edgar used this gateway to view the present, which is not the continuum you experience but the potential social memory complex of this planetary sphere."

Okay.  Right.  What?

The problem, of course, is that Cayce et al. seemed to have been really good at making stuff up, and they counted on (and in many cases found) the credulity of the vast majority of the public working in their favor.  For an excellent skeptical look at the ideas of Cayce and other channelers of Mystical Knowledge of the Ages, take a look at this site, which shows that not only is the basic claim nonsense, but the writings that were produced from accessing the "Akashic Records" (such as Levi Dowling's famous The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ) are actually riddled with simple, and easily checked, factual errors.

A little hard to explain if you think, like Linda Howe, that the "Akashic Record" contains accurate information of "every soul and its journey," isn't it?

In any case, the whole thing smacks of wishful thinking to me.  Until someone brings out an Akashic-o-meter and can show that this "Akashic Field" actually exists, and that it's not just someone going into a trance and deciding that she was Cleopatra in a previous life, I'm not buying it.  Me, I'm going back to my previous definition of an "Akashic Field" as a field with no buckwheat, which, you have to admit, is kind of a kick-ass pun.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Correlation, intelligence, and politics

Everyone loves a good correlation.  Our brains are outstanding pattern-finders; we are very good at picking patterns out of the sensory input that bombards us constantly, so good that we sometimes invent patterns where there is nothing there but some random array (numerology and pareidolia are two excellent examples of this).

There's a second problem, though, and that is that although our brains are pretty good at finding patterns, they're not nearly as good at determining what those patterns mean.  Presented with a correlation, we're quick to assume that there's a causation present -- especially if the relationship seems to support something we already thought was true.

Take, for example, the following table, that has been making the rounds of liberal websites this week:

The statistics given -- the percent of adults 25 years or older who have a college degree -- correlates strongly with which of the two presidential candidates the state went for.  The states with the highest percentage of college graduates went for Obama; the ones with the lowest went for Romney.  And of course, the crowing on the liberal websites was loud and long, and mostly to the effect of "Ha!  We're smarter!  We knew it!"

The problem is, is this really what this table shows?  What we have here is a correlation; that Democrats actually are smarter, or that being smarter caused you to vote Democrat, very much remains to be seen.  I can think of three other explanations for the data without even trying hard.  (1) A college education is also correlated to having a higher-paying, more stable job; the message about Obama being weak on jobs resonated more with the people with fewer marketable credentials.  (2)  The lack of diplomas from colleges, and tendency to vote Republican, in the right hand list are both caused by a second factor; a higher adherence to evangelical religion in those states.  (3) Going to college brainwashes you into becoming a Democrat; colleges are frequently accused of being hotbeds of liberalism.

Which is it?  Or is it something different still?  I think you can see that establishing what caused the pattern is a lot harder than seeing the pattern in the first place.  But when someone finds a pattern that seems to suggest something we already believed, it's easier just to jump to a causation when one has yet to be established.  (Especially when the conclusion is, "Boy, aren't we smart?"  Psychological studies have been done that have shown that nearly everyone thinks (s)he is above average in intelligence, something that has been nicknamed the Lake Wobegon Effect.)

Now, to be sure, patterns like this certainly do demand an explanation; saying "correlation does not imply causation" and then forthwith giving up thinking is lazy.  Something is going on here that needs explaining.  And as Daniel Engber, in his wonderful piece "The Internet Blowhard's Favorite Phrase," put it, "Correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint."  Whatever the reason behind the pattern in the table -- whether it is true that Democrats, on average, are smarter than Republicans, or one of my three alternate explanations is correct, or that some combination of those reasons is responsible, or that it is caused by something else entirely -- it certainly is a question that should be of interest to sociologists and political scientists.  What it is not is a reason for the liberals to go "Woo hoo!" and then stop thinking.

Because, of course, that one is not the only correlation that is out there.  How about this one, that made the rounds after the 2008 election:

Yes, the red state/blue state split correlates almost perfectly with another statistic, the number of breweries per capita.  I can see it now -- conservatives claiming that the election was invalid, that people who voted for Obama in the blue states actually meant to vote for Romney but screwed up their ballots because they were drunk.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I have a commitment to the truth, and I try never to let other considerations (money, power, pride, personal gain) trump that commitment.  It's why I have made the statement in Skeptophilia more than once; if you can show me that anything I've written here is demonstrably wrong, and have the facts to back you up, I will happily print a retraction.

That isn't to say that sometimes I'm not sorely tempted to lie.  I'm only human, after all.  In fact, today's post is about a guy whose moneymaking idea is so inspired, so completely brilliant, that I wish I'd thought of it first.  Had I done so... well, let's just leave it at "I hope I'd have done the right thing."

Meet Michael Mohoric, who runs Qigong Energy Healing.  Now, I'm sure you've heard of Qigong before; it's the same old tired "revitalize your aura and realign your chakras" stuff, and his site is full of our favorite words "vibration" and "frequency" and "energy."  But most Qigong practitioners at least make a show of having their clients show up in their offices, and then lie down while the practitioner waves his/her hands around or does whatever it takes to manipulate an essentially nonexistent "energy field."  Mr. Mohoric, on the other hand, has gone the next logical step -- he does the whole thing long-distance.

For a monthly subscription fee of $99, Mr. Mohoric will "send you energy" once a week.  "I feel that this series of energy transmissions can be life transforming for many people," he tells us on his website.  "Although one session can often provide dramatic results, multiple sessions can deepen the energy work and get to deep-seated core issues. By receiving energy for a full month, the energy will continue to work deeper and be able to address long held patterns and anchor the changes. When one has had an energetic pattern for many years, it can take time to release and cancel the pattern and move it out of one’s energy field."

For your $99 a month, he will do a "long-distance healing session" and "energy adjustment" once a week, sending out a "major energy transmission" every Wednesday night.  He suggests meditating at that time so you can pick up his signal, but you don't need to worry if you forget to tune in; he says you'll get the energy anyhow, and there's a testimonial from a guy who forgot and then started feeling really energized on Wednesday night, and suddenly remembered what was happening.  "The energy is intelligent and will work with you individually to give you personalized attention to your specific energetic needs," Mr. Mohoric writes.

Oh, yeah, and for another $39 he'll energize your pets long-distance, too.

Well, let's see; we have confirmation bias, dart-thrower's bias, misuse of scientific terminology, and the placebo effect going on here.  Have I missed any?

That said, don't you think it's a brilliant idea?  What a job!  You maintain a website, get people to subscribe to your services not just one time only, but for a monthly fee, and in return, you work one night a week.  Assuming he really is doing anything on Wednesday nights.  Doesn't this sound like the career of a lifetime?  Even if you really believe that what you are doing is real -- and however outlandish it sounds, he appears to be sincere -- the sum total of your job is to sit there for an hour on Wednesday evening and beam out some "energy" to your customers.  Doesn't matter if it gets there or not; he has the usual disclaimer at the bottom of the page that he is "not making a medical claim" and that "all healing is self-healing" and that "like any modality, it won't work for everyone."  The rest of the week you can sleep in late, go for a run, play with your dog, take a nap in the hammock, whatever floats your boat.

Given that I'm shortly to get myself together and spend the day attempting to educate savage hordes of teenagers, that kind of life sounds pretty awesome.

Of course, there's just this one teensy problem, and that's that commitment-to-the-truth thing I was mentioning earlier.  Given that controlled scientific studies have never found a shred of evidence for the existence of chakras, energy meridians, or the rest of it (for a nice summary of the studies that have been done in this regard, go here), I couldn't in good conscience take your money when I knew that what I was accomplishing was precisely nothing.

Well, okay,  how about this as an idea?  You send me $99 a month ($39 additional if you want me to include your pets), and every Tuesday night I'll think about you in a scientific way.  I'll picture you thinking critically, using scientifically-sound logic, and being rational, and applying those skills to your everyday life.  I'll ponder how much more clearly you'll think if you can accomplish those goals.  Okay, I know that my thinking about you won't make you change, but I promise I'll do it faithfully.  Ready to sign up for my service?


Oh, well, it was worth a shot.  Truth always comes at a cost, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The creationists target Indiana

Well, here we go again.

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, has once again put rationalist Americans on high alert that a state legislator is planning to give a go to at undermining public schools' teaching of biology.

Dennis Kruse (R-Indiana) has announced plans to introduce a bill into legislation drafted by none other than our friends in the Discovery Institute, who have listed amongst their stated goals:
Scientific research and experimentation have produced staggering advances in our knowledge about the natural world, but they have also led to increasing abuse of science as the so-called “new atheists” have enlisted science to promote a materialistic worldview, to deny human freedom and dignity and to smother free inquiry. Our Center for Science and Culture works to defend free inquiry. It also seeks to counter the materialistic interpretation of science by demonstrating that life and the universe are the products of intelligent design and by challenging the materialistic conception of a self-existent, self-organizing universe and the Darwinian view that life developed through a blind and purposeless process.
Lest my more optimistic (and scientific) readers think this won't have a chance, such efforts have already been successful in Louisiana (2008) and Tennessee (2012).  Inevitably it takes the form of some sort of "teach the controversy" argument -- as if instructing students in the findings of valid, peer-reviewed, evidence-supported science represents some kind of satanic indoctrination.  Interesting, too, that no one ever suggests "teaching the controversy" in, for example, chemistry, inducing chemistry teachers to spend a few weeks discussing alchemy -- despite the fact that the findings of evolutionary biologists are no more controversial in scientific circles than those of the chemists.  Oh, and isn't it odd that it seems to be only people who are poorly educated in biological science who think there's a controversy?  (Wait, that's probably just because we biologists were "indoctrinated" ourselves.  Never mind.)

Kruse, for his part, is serious about this.  He pledged when elected to remove evolution from state science standards, and publicly stated, "I'd guess that 80% of Indiana would be oriented with the bible and creation."  No equivocation there, is there?  No mealy-mouthed "teach the controversy" nonsense.  Nope,  just good, old-fashioned young-earth literalism, designed to further hack away at the state of science education in the United States.  It's no wonder there are so many international students in US college science programs, given our determination as a nation to destroy the underpinnings of science teaching in American high schools.

It's to be hoped that the legislators will handle this sensibly (well, in my opinion, "sensibly" would include laughing directly in Kruse's face, but I'm not optimistic enough to hope for that).  Kruse has attempted this sort of thing before, and failed, the last time because the legislature refused to vote and the bill died when they adjourned -- a remarkably spineless way to handle things, and one which doesn't bode well for the future.

The whole thing makes me despair a little.  Of course, that's what Kruse et al. want; to wear down the opposition, to make them give up out of sheer exhaustion.  I don't think they reckon with the likes of Dr. Scott, however, who doesn't strike me as the capitulating sort.  I think her attitude can much better be summed up in the immortal words of Captain Mathazar from Galaxy Quest:  "Never give up, never surrender."

Monday, November 12, 2012

News, slant, and the Weeping Jesus of Huntsville

One of the points I make repeatedly in my Critical Thinking classes is that there is no such thing as unbiased media.  Every media has slant.  Even the decision to say "this is news" and "this is not news, don't show/print this" represents a bias -- they are deciding for you what is important for you to hear.  This is not to say that you shouldn't believe anything you read, hear, or see on public media, but it does mean that you can't just watch with your brain shut off.

Of course, not everyone approaches it this way, which is why it really pisses me off when a professional media outlet prints (and televises) stuff like this article, entitled "'Black Jesus' Draws Mystery To Visitors At Historic Cemetery."

In this story, we hear about the early 20th century sculpture "The Comforting Christ," which stands in historic Oakwood Cemetery in Huntsville, Texas.  The statue was commissioned by Judge Benjamin Powell and his wife in honor of their son, who had died young during a botched surgery.  The statue, made of bronze, has darkened to near black by the effects of weathering.  It is clearly an imposing figure in the quiet cemetery.

But the story isn't about a historically interesting piece of art work, nor about a public figure's grief over losing a child, nor even about how the beauty of a local churchyard attracts visitors.  No, this story is about...

... spirits.

And hauntings.  And the fact that the Jesus statue sometimes cries, sometimes its eyes open, and sometimes its hands, which normally face downwards, turn palm up.  And even at this point, the people at KVUE and KHOU who did this story could have to some extent salvaged it, by focusing on how people are sometimes primed by their emotions and fears to believe bizarre, counterfactual stuff.

But no.  The reporters and writers leapt right into this big ol' vat of woo-woo, and called out their own "investigators" who came there, armed with divining rods and a "paranormal activity meter."  The rods and the meter, the "investigators" said, showed clearly that the ghost of Rawley Powell was present.  The "investigators" asked Rawley's ghost if the statue's hands would turn upward that night, and Rawley answered yes.  However, evidently he got his ghostly wires crossed, because the reporters and "investigators" stayed there all evening, and nothing happened... although the "paranormal activity meter registered a spike."

Oooh.  My little heart is just going thumpety-thump.

I'm sorry, folks at KVUE and KHOU, this is not a news story.  It's not even a human interest story.  This is a story about suckering the credulous.  None of the alleged antics of the Jesus statue -- opening and closing eyes, weeping, moving hands -- has the least bit of supporting evidence other than the usual "my aunt's best friend's daughter saw it happen."  (James Patton of the Walker County Historical Commission called the claims "ridiculous.")  Controlled tests of divining rods have repeatedly failed (see an excellent summary of those studies here); evidence of ghosts is sketchy at best, although (as I have said before) there are some suggestive bits of evidence here and there regarding hauntings.  It would certainly take more than someone swinging around some divining rods and claiming that the "paranormal activity meter" pegged the needle to convince me that there was anything going on.

But of course, that's not how the news sources presented it, is it?  A quick mention of Patton's dismissive comment was the only skeptical statement in the entire article; in fact, just the idea that KVUE and KHOU themselves invited "paranormal investigators" out lends an unwarranted credibility to the whole thing.

So, all of this further reinforces my impression that what sells sponsorship to news agencies isn't veracity, or even good reporting; it's "whatever the public will buy."  Meaning that as always, a good skeptic's motto should be caveat emptor.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Source credibility and the legalization of marijuana

A particularly subtle problem in establishing whether a claim is pseudoscience, or at least flawed, has to do with source credibility.  Note that I didn't say credentials; there are plenty of smart, well-read, logical people with no degree in the field in question, and whose arguments I would consider carefully, and I've met more than one Ph.D. who gave every evidence of being a raving wackmobile.

Credibility is a different thing than a piece of paper with some Latin hanging on your wall.  It has to do with establishing that you understand the basics of rational argumentation, that you are familiar with the fundamental principles of science, and that you don't have a particular vested interest or agenda.

A particularly good example of this came my way yesterday, in the form of a New York Times editorial piece written by Dr. Ed Gogek, entitled "A Bad Trip for Democrats."  The gist of the article is that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington last week is a terrible idea.  His arguments:
  • 90-some-odd percent of patients who have been prescribed medical marijuana received it to alleviate pain.  Pain, Gogek says, is "easy to fake and almost impossible to disprove."  Further, chronic pain patients are mostly female, while 74% of marijuana users are male.
  • Medical use of marijuana for glaucoma is no longer recommended.
  • Marijuana is addictive, despite claims that it's not.
  • Use of marijuana lowers cognitive function.
He then ends with an interesting statement:
In effect, America now has two tea parties: on the left they smoke their tea; on the right they throw it in Boston Harbor. Both distrust government, disregard science and make selfish demands that would undermine the public good. 
Now, let me be up front about the fact that I am not a pharmacologist, and am not qualified to evaluate the soundness of clinical studies of the efficacy of THC for treating glaucoma.  I do know enough neuroscience, however, to doubt his claims that marijuana is addictive; most addictive substances create addiction one of two ways, either by activating the brain's dopamine-loop pathway (such as cocaine) or by creating a rebound effect if you stop (such as heroin).  Marijuana does neither, so I have a hard time seeing how it could be addictive in the strict sense of the word.

I'm also skeptical of his suggestion that claims of chronic pain are being used as excuses to obtain marijuana.  While in one sense he is right -- it's impossible to prove, or disprove, that someone is in pain -- the idea that a significant number of patients who claim to be in chronic pain are lying remains very much to be seen.

However, even with all of those questions about Gogek's statements, I would not have been prompted to write about him on Skeptophilia if it hadn't been for one additional thing I discovered about him:

Dr. Gogek is a homeopath.

He doesn't state that anywhere in his piece; at the end, his bio statement says, "Dr. Ed Gogek is an addiction psychiatrist and a board member of Keep AZ Drug Free."  But whenever I have questions about a study -- or even a brief editorial, like this one -- I always want to find out what the writer's background is, to see how credible a source (s)he is.  And lo and behold, a quick search brought me to Dr. Gogek's homepage, wherein he makes the following statement:
Many people think homeopathy refers to all forms of alternative medicine, but it’s actually one specific type of alternative practice, very different from nutrition and herbs. Classical homeopathy works well for most medical and psychiatric problems. For people in psychotherapy or suffering from addictions, it removes roadblocks, and speeds the recovery process. And the right homeopathic remedy will also transform marriages and other significant relationships. Nothing heals and transforms a person’s life like the right homeopathic remedy.

In my experience, homeopathy can help all psychiatric problems except ADHD and schizophrenia. However, it works exceptionally well for anxiety disorders (panic attacks, social anxiety, specific phobias, PTSD and OCD), bulimia, sex and love addiction, and anger. It’s also very helpful for personality disorders and unusual problems that defy easy diagnosis.
My immediate reaction was, "And you're lecturing other people about disregarding science?"

Now, please note that the immediate loss of scientific credibility that this engenders doesn't mean that Dr. Gogek's original argument was entirely wrong (any more than a Ph.D. means a person is always right).  But it does tell me one thing; he has a serious difficulty with looking at a body of evidence, and concluding correctly whether that body of evidence supports a particular conclusion.  There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of controlled, double-blind experiments testing homeopathy, and not one has produced any clinically relevant results.  Not one.  The fact that he is unaware of this, or perhaps ignoring it or rationalizing it away, makes me look at other conclusions he draws with a wry eye.

Now, as far as the legalization of marijuana, please understand; I don't have a dog in this race.  I'm not a user, and have no intent to become one.  I do find it curious that tobacco, which is clearly a more dangerous drug, is not only legal, but federally subsidized, while marijuana possession can land you in jail in most states; but that isn't the only weird internal contradiction in our legal code.  What I do want to make abundantly clear, however, is that when something appears in print -- even in The New York Times -- it is always worthwhile to check source credibility.  Things, as Buttercup points out in H.M.S. Pinafore, are seldom what they seem.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sense, nonsense, and microwaves

One of the difficulties in detecting spurious claims occurs when the writer (or speaker) mixes fact, and real science, in with spurious bits and stirs the resulting hash so thoroughly that it's hard to tell which is which.  When a claim is made of unadulterated bullshit (such as yesterday's post about ley lines), our job is easier.  Mixtures of science and pseudoscience, though, are often hard to tease apart.

I saw a good example of this yesterday, in an article on the website NaturalSociety called "Microwave Dangers - Why You Should Not Use A Microwave."  In this piece, author Mike Barrett describes the terrible things that microwave ovens do to the people who use them and to the food that's cooked in them.  Amongst the claims Barrett makes:
  1. Microwave ovens heat food by making water molecules move "at an incredible speed."  This differs from conventional ovens, which gradually transfer heat into the food "by convection."  Further, this energy transfer into the water molecules results in their being "torn apart and vigorously deformed."
  2. Microwaves are radiation.  This radiation can "cause physical alterations" even though microwaves are classified as "non-ionizing."  This radiation "accumulates over time and never goes away."
  3. Microwave exposure has a greater effect on your brain than on your other body parts, because "microwave frequencies are very similar to the frequencies of your brain," and this causes "resonance."
  4. Exposure to microwaves causes all sorts of problems, from cancer to cataracts and everything in between.
  5. Raw foods have "life energy" in the form of "biophotons," that came directly from the sun.  These "biophotons" contain "bio-information," which is why eating sun-ripened raw fruits makes you feel happy.  Microwaving food destroys the "biophotons" which makes it lose all of its nutritional value.
  6. Microwaving foods causes the conversion of many organic molecules into carcinogens.
  7. Microwave ovens were invented by the Nazis.
Okay, let's look at these claims one at a time.
  1. First, all heating of food makes the molecules move faster.  That's what an increase in temperature means.  A piece of broccoli heated to 60 C in a microwave and a piece of broccoli heated to 60 C in a steamer have equal average molecular speeds.  Ordinary ovens don't heat most foods by convection; convection heating requires bits of the food itself to move -- so, for example, heating a pot of soup on the stove creates convection, where the bottom part of the soup, in contact with the base of the pot, gets heated first, then rises, carrying its heat energy with it.  Foods in conventional ovens are heated by a combination of radiation from the heating coils, and conduction of that heat energy into the food from the outside in.  Further, heating the water molecules doesn't "tear them apart," because then you'd have hydrogen and oxygen gas, not water.
  2. Microwaves are radiation.  So is sunlight.  Sure, microwaves can cause physical alterations, which is why it's inadvisable to climb inside a microwave oven and turn it on.  But not all kinds of radiation accumulate; the microwaves themselves are gone within a millisecond (absorbed and converted into heat) of when the magneto shuts off, otherwise it wouldn't be safe to open the door.  Barrett seems to be making an unfortunately common error, which is to confuse radiation with radioactivity.  Radioactive substances, or at least some of them, do bioaccumulate, which is why strontium-90 showed up in cows' milk following the Chernobyl disaster.  But your microwaved bowl of clam chowder is not radioactive, it's just hot.
  3. When oscillations of one body trigger oscillations of another body at the same frequency, this is called resonance.  However, your brain does not oscillate at the frequency as microwaves -- the frequency he quotes for microwaves inside a microwave oven is 2,450 megahertz (2.45 billion times per second), which is actually correct.  Brains, on the other hand, don't oscillate at all, unless you happen to be at a Metallica concert.
  4. Agreed, exposure to microwaves isn't good for you.  Thus my suggestion in (2) above not to get inside a microwave oven and turn it on.
  5. There is no such thing as a "biophoton."  You do not absorb useful energy in the form of photons in any case, for the very good reason that you are not a plant.  The only "bio-information" we have is our DNA.  Sun-ripened fruit may taste better, as it's ripened more slowly and has a longer time to develop sugars and esters (the compounds that give fruits their characteristic smell and taste), but microwaves don't destroy "life energy."  This bit is complete nonsense.
  6. Microwaving food may cause some small-scale alterations of organic molecules into carcinogens, but so does all cooking.  In fact, the prize for the highest introduction of carcinogens into food has to be awarded to grilling -- the blackened bits on a charcoal-grilled t-bone steak contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are known carcinogens.  The problem is, they're also very tasty carcinogens, which is why I still like grilled steaks.
  7. Microwave ovens weren't invented by the Nazis.  The first microwave oven was built by Percy Spencer, an engineer from Maine, in 1945.  The mention of the Nazis seemed only to be thrown in there to give the argument a nice sauce of evil ("anything the Nazis invented must be bad").  But it's false in any case, so there you are.
So, anyhow, that's my analysis of Barrett's anti-microwave screed.  He's pretty canny, the way he scatters in actual facts and correct science with poorly-understood science, pseudoscience, and outright nonsense; the difficulty is, you have to have a pretty good background in science to tell which is which.  All of which argues for better science education, and better education in critical thinking skills.  But any effort I make in that direction will have to wait, because my coffee's getting cold, and I need to go nuke it for a couple of seconds.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ley lines redux

Last year I wrote a piece about "ley lines," which are supposedly lines of "Earth energy" that run through sacred sites and places where the ancients built settlements.  The whole thing is immensely popular in the UK, where there have been dozens of books written that claim that the siting of towns, cathedrals, monasteries, and stone circles was based (sometimes unconsciously) on the perception of these "energy lines" that channel psychic power beneath the Earth's surface.  (Ley Lines Across the Midlands, Earth Energy: A Dowser's Investigation of Ley Lines,  and Arks Within Grail Lands, not to mention the book that started the whole phenomenon -- The Old Straight Track -- are all available on Amazon, should you have nothing better to do with your money.)

Myself, I just thought that important places were sited along straight lines because Euclid et al. showed that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points.  Going from Stonehenge to Glastonbury via Cambridge doesn't, perhaps, make quite as much sense.

Having the general idea that the whole thing is a lot of woo-woo nonsense, I was pretty psyched when a friend sent me a link to the site "The Magical Mystical Ley Line Locator."  The home page of the site shows a map of England, and has the caption "Ley Lines: mysterious lines of force between ancient monuments.  Are you one of the lucky Britons that lives on a mystical energy highway?"  You are then invited to enter a postal code for your home town, and the site will see if you live on a ley line, or better yet, on an intersection of two or more ley lines, which is supposed to represent some kind of psychic node where the confluence of Earth energy causes all sorts of cool paranormal stuff to happen.

Now, I'm not British and don't know any postal codes -- as far as I can tell, they make even less intuitive sense than the US zip code system -- so I decided to look up a postal code for a town I've been to.  I chose Thirsk, in Yorkshire, because I have fond memories of being there when I was on a walking tour of northern England in the mid-90s.  I found that Thirsk's postal code is YO74LS, so I entered that in the "ley line locator."

And lo, I found that Thirsk is not at the intersection of two, but three, ley lines.  Next to the map showing the ley lines converging on Thirsk was the message: "This is amazing!  We found three ley lines that converge at that location, including one from Stonehenge...  You seem to live at a swirl of ancient energy highways; this may mean that your area is a hotspot for paranormal activity, or even for unidentified flying objects!"

Below this was the statement, "IMPORTANT: to understand these findings and any potential dangers, read this."  So I clicked that link, and the following message came up:

"So here's the truth: ley lines don't exist.  Sorry to disappoint you. The truth is, no matter where in England you are, this site will happily find you three ley lines — including one that goes through Stonehenge!  How?  Simple: there are over 9,000 scheduled monuments in England.  We're running with a smaller database - about 3,000 of the most impressive ones - but that's more than enough to guarantee that hundreds of "ley lines" will pass right through your house.  The site picks a few directions, draws a line, and finds the closest sites of interest. By discarding the misses and showing you only the hits, something that's incredibly common can be made to look spectacular.  That's how ley lines... work -- they take advantage of the fact that the human brain is really bad at statistics."

Well, all I can say is:  Well played.  Up to that moment, I really thought this was a serious woo-woo website.  My day was much improved by finding out that the designer of this website -- Tom Scott (*doffs hat in Mr. Scott's general direction*) -- has created it not to promote the fuzzy thinking that belief in ley lines represents, but to show it up for the foolishness that it is in a particularly elegant fashion.  (He also includes a link to a bit from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, winning him further points in my book.)

So, sorry to disappoint you, but your house doesn't sit on a confluence of Earth energies, and you'll have to look for another reason to explain why your clocks run fast and you keep losing your car keys.  Oh, well, that's the way it goes.  I'll end with my own favorite quote by Carl Sagan, which seems peculiarly relevant to this discussion:  "It is far better to understand the universe as it is than to persist in delusion, however comforting or reassuring."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Microchips, Obamacare, and the Mark of the Beast

Well, another election season is over, and Barack Obama has been given another four years to enact his vision of where the United States should head.  He won't have much time to rest on his laurels -- he's got a lot of work to do if he's going to achieve his chief goals, including creating one million new manufacturing jobs, recruiting 100,000 new science and math teachers, reducing oil imports by half, reducing the deficit, ending US involvement in Afghanistan, and implanting the Mark of the Beast on every American citizen so that he can initiate the End Times as predicted in biblical prophecy.

Well, okay, the last one isn't one of his stated goals, per se.  But you'd think it was, to listen to Paul Begley, the evangelical preacher who in a video clip entitled "Americans!  Prepare to Be Microchipped!" claims that there is a provision in Obamacare to implant RFID chips in everyone, and that corresponds to the Mark of the Beast described in Revelation 13:16-18: "And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.  Here is wisdom.  Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six."

The fact is, Obamacare contains no such provision; there is a provision to microchip pacemakers and other implantable medical devices, so that a patient's medical information could be quickly accessible via a scan if the device fails.  But Begley says that no, this isn't all, that this is just a smokescreen for the actual intent of the bill, which is to tag everyone in the US, and ultimately, everyone in the world.

The whole "Mark of the Beast" thing is mighty popular with evangelicals.  It's been discussed by biblical literalists for decades, resulting in speculation that it corresponds to credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, GPS tags in cellphones, UPC codes on items in stores, scannable chips in passports, and a variety of other things.  And once they get the wind up about this stuff, they tend to get awfully suspicious.  One guy I know seriously believes that the DMV is using a microchip implanted in your driver's license to follow your every move, as if (1) they had the staff and technology actually to accomplish this for every person in the US who has a driver's license, (2) the workers in the DMV actually cared where you are on a minute-to-minute basis,  and (3) they didn't have better things to do, such as attending surliness training seminars and taking important coffee breaks when the line for license renewal gets too long.

In any case, the key point, to evangelicals, is that some person will end up getting the number "666" as his/her Mark, and that person will be the Antichrist, or the Beast with Seven Horns, or the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, or possibly all three at the same time.  It's hard to be sure, frankly.  I've read the Book of Revelation more than once, and my general impression is that it sounds like the result of a bad acid trip, so I'm not entirely certain I understand the finer details.  Be that as it may, the evangelicals take the whole 666 thing pretty seriously, to the point where a worker in Georgia last year refused to wear a badge for a day that said "666 days without an accident" for fear that he would be nabbed instantaneously by Satan and dragged off to hell.  (He was fired, sued the company, and was then rehired with back pay.)

Paul Begley, though, thinks he has the whole thing figured out, and that the End Times will start in March 2013 with Obamacare mandating chip implantation in everyone.  (If you looked at the link, note the highly alarming picture of someone using a barcode reader on a blank-eyed guy's forehead.  If that doesn't convince you... well, don't make me use the word "sheeple" in your general direction.)

So, anyhow.  I hope all of you people who voted for Obama knew what you were getting into.  If you don't, you'll figure out all too soon -- March 2013 is right around the corner.  That is, of course, provided we survive the Mayan Apocalypse on December 21, 2012, an event I am positively looking forward to.  (I'm thinking of getting a shirt to wear on December 21 that says, "The Mayans Had An Apocalypse, And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.")  So I guess this gives us something to look forward to after the Apocalypse is over -- at least those of us who aren't eaten by zombies, or whatever other special offers the Mayans have in mind.  Me, I'm already considering my strategy, and I think I have a good one, which I have outlined below.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

UFOs, Bigfoot, and celestial teapots

At what point should you give up investigating something for which there are many unsubstantiated claims, but virtually no hard evidence?

It's a difficult question.  As astronomer Martin Rees put it, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  Just because we currently have no evidence for a particular claim doesn't mean we never will, or that such evidence doesn't exist.  In science, our information is necessarily always incomplete, and our explanations evolve as what we know about the world expands.

On the other hand, it's easy for this to slip into the Negative Proof Fallacy -- if you can't prove ghosts don't exist, that's evidence that they do.  As scientists, we need to keep our logical brains engaged, and weigh the likelihood of claims before we throw ourselves too enthusiastically into the latest oddball theory.  As Bertrand Russell famously put it, "If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.  But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."

This week we have two examples of the conflict between the desire to research the unknown, and the question of when to say "Enough is enough."  I'll leave it for you to decide if either, or both, of these constitutes looking for Russell's Celestial Teapot.

In the first, an article in The Telegraph entitled "UFO Enthusiasts Admit the Truth May Not Be Out There After All" describes the frustration some UFOlogists are experiencing from decades of devotion that have, like Monty Python's Camel Spotters, turned up hard evidence of nearly one UFO.  Dave Wood, chairman of the UK-based Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, speculates that serious study of UFO sightings will be a thing of the past by 2022.  "It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he said.  "We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades.  The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there.  I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98% of sightings that happen are very easily explainable.  One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there.  The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over."

Wood states that reports of UFO sightings have dropped by 96% since 1988 -- and that this is especially significant given the improvement in cameras, video equipment, and information technology.  If there really were anything there to study, Wood contends, we should be seeing more and better evidence, not less... and worse.  "When you go to UFO conferences it is mainly people going over these old cases, rather than bringing new ones to the fore,"  Wood said.

Of course, that doesn't mean that UFO enthusiasts are an extinct breed quite yet; to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of their deaths were greatly exaggerated, to judge by my daily excursions to woo-woo websites like AboveTopSecret doing research for this blog.  But it is an interesting question to consider how long they can go on looking, and not finding, evidence of alien visitations without giving up and moving on to another hobby.

The same sort of problem is besetting the cryptozoologists, although they seem to still be going strong, to judge by the popularity of television shows like Bigfoot Hunters.  And just yesterday a second story came to my attention, that there has been a grant-funded project launched that will search for Sasquatch in the mountains of the western United States -- via blimp.

According to Reuters News Service,  "An Idaho scientist shrugging off skeptical fellow scholars in his quest for evidence of Bigfoot has turned his sights skyward, with plans to float a blimp over the U.S. mountain West in search of the mythic, ape-like creature.  Idaho State University has approved the unusual proposal of faculty member Jeffrey Meldrum...  Now Meldrum is seeking to raise $300,000-plus in private donations to build the remote-controlled dirigible, equip it with a thermal-imaging camera and send it aloft in hopes of catching an aerial glimpse of Bigfoot."

What is most remarkable about this is the cooperation of a state university in this research -- universities, and the grant funding agencies that pay for most of their projects, have tended to shy away from anything that smacks of woo-woo.  But the researcher, Jeffrey Meldrum, is a respected (and well-credentialed) professor of anatomy and anthropology, who presumably knows what he's looking for and would recognize credible evidence when he sees it.

"Though some may dismiss the idea of searching for Bigfoot as silly or ridiculous, there's no reason why the topic shouldn't be taken seriously and investigated scientifically," writes noted skeptic and science writer Benjamin Radford about the proposed Meldrum project.  "If Bigfoot exist, it is important to find out what they are, how they may be related to humans, and how exactly tens of thousands of them have managed to exist in North America without leaving any hard evidence.  If Bigfoot don't exist, the question becomes a psychological and social issue: why so many people report and believe in them...  Two things are certain: If Meldrum and the Falcon Project are successful, they could add immensely important information to our scientific knowledge of zoology and anthropology.  On the other hand if they fail to find evidence of Bigfoot, that will not settle the matter; believers will offer excuses and the search will continue, as they have for decades."

You have to wonder, though, whether the same thing will happen to the cryptozoologists that Dave Wood says is happening to the UFOlogists; if all of those folks, with thermal-sensing equipment and night-vision goggles and the latest high-tech video recorders, can't come up with any scientifically credible evidence for Bigfoot (or Nessie, or El Chupacabra, or Mokele-Mbembe, or the Bunyip...), then at what point do we just give it up as a bad job?  Hard to say, given that the claims are still coming in daily (here's one of the latest).  But at some point, unless someone like Jeffrey Meldrum is successful, I think we'll have to say that we've given it our best shot.

Sometimes, sadly, the teapot you're looking for just isn't there.