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.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The year in review

Well, 2012 was an exciting year here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, which of course was exactly what we expected given all the hoopla surrounding the catastrophic End of the World that didn't occur right on schedule at its end.  So I thought, as a way of ringing out the old and ringing in the new, it might be fun to look back at the top story for each month from the World of Woo-Woo.  A way of celebrating, if you will, what irrational, counterfactual nonsense we had to endure to get to the end of the year.  Each one comes with a link to the story, so that (if you'd like) you can go back and read the top stories of the past year at Skeptophilia.

In January, we had the announcement by the leaders of Iran that they had downed a US drone aircraft doing unauthorized surveillance of Iranian territory.  Never content to let stories remain within the realm of what is, technically, real, Iranian engineer Mehran Tavakoli Keshe crowed proudly that the Iranian actions had been accomplished using spaceships powered by "field forces [sic]... generated by dark matter, regular matter, and antimatter."

In February, we were informed by Google Earth that they had not, in fact, found Atlantis off the coast of Africa.  They offered explanations of why the Google Earth topographic seafloor maps seemed to show huge gridlines that looked like the remains of streets, city squares, and so on.  This denial convinced everyone except the conspiracy theorists who made the claim in the first place.

March produced a story that generated the third-highest number of hits for Skeptophilia to date; the claim that NASA had discovered an alien-constructed monolith on Phobos, confirming the claims made in the famous historical documentary 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to discover that the person who came up with this idea was our favorite frequent flyer of all: Richard C. Hoagland.

Another popular story cropped up in April, centering around the contention that "an oceanographer named Dr. Verlag Meyer" had found giant glass pyramids on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.  The story began to unravel when it was discovered that "Verlag" is not a name, but is the German word for "publishing house," and that the original story had come from none other than the Weekly World News.

In May, we had a claim by Seattle lawyer Andrew Basiago that the US government had developed, and was hiding evidence of, time travel.  Basiago said he had been one of the test subjects, and was ready to blow the story wide open.  Of course, Basiago is the same guy who said last year that he had once run into President Obama on Mars, so his credibility might not be all that great to start with.

June saw the release of a new biology textbook by a group called Accelerated Christian Education, and its adoption by government-funded charter schools in Louisiana.  It was no surprise, given its origins, that the biology textbook claimed that evolution is a big fat lie made up by Satan-influenced evolutionary biologists like myself to doom your children to eternal hellfire.  What was a bit of a surprise is that the textbook cites the existence of the Loch Ness Monster as evidence that evolution is false.

In July, the scientific world was rocked by the announcement from physicists at CERN that the long-sought Higgs boson -- the particle that confers the property of mass on ordinary matter -- was a reality.  It didn't take long for the woo-woos to get on board, with such luminaries of the scientific world as Diane Tessman proclaiming that the Higgs proved the existence of truth, god, collective consciousness, and the "time of celestial ascension."

For much of August, I was on hiatus in the beautiful country of Malaysia for birdwatching, curry, and some much-needed R & R, but even so, there were several stories that we followed closely, here at Worldwide Wacko Watch.  It is always to be hoped for that our reports will encourage people to behave in a more rational fashion, and the top story from August had a pretty important moral: don't dance on the side of a highway in a ghillie suit attempting to convince people they're seeing Bigfoot.

In September, NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity began to send back photographs from the Red Planet, exciting science buffs the world over.  And it didn't take long for woo-woos with magnifying glasses and overactive imaginations to find all sorts of anomalous objects in those photographs, including a grinning alien woodchuck, a flip-flop, various UFOs, and a fossilized human finger.

October was a busy month, and it ended on a tragic note, with the late season "superstorm" Sandy striking the eastern coast of the United States, creating devastating damage from wind and flooding.  And despite what you may have learned in your high school Earth Science class, this time it was not such phenomena as low-pressure systems, frontal boundaries, and steering currents that led to the formation of the storm; this one was caused by the most powerful meteorological force known to man -- gays.

In November, we had noted shrieking wingnut Paul Begley claiming that Obamacare should be repealed.  The reason, Begley said, was not that it was too expensive, nor that it would harm the quality of American medical care; no, the reason was that there was a provision in the bill to microchip everyone in the US, and whichever one of us got the microchip with the number "666" would become the Antichrist.

No story during the year got more press coverage than the End of the World, scheduled to occur on December 21, 2012, and which was variously thought to be caused by the Mayans, zombies, the arrival of the Borg, the arrival of friendly aliens, a collision with the planet Nibiru, and an attack by Giant Space Bunnies from the Andromeda Galaxy.  Okay, I made the last one up, but it hardly matters, because December 22 arrived with all of us still here, not that this will discourage the next End Times prediction from happening.

So, that's the year in stories.  I hope you had a wonderful 2012, despite all of them, and from all of us here at Worldwide Wacko Watch, I wish you the happiest of New Years.  Let's renew our dedication to science, skepticism, and critical thinking in the coming year, in the hopes that progress toward a rational world -- however incremental it may seem at times -- continues to happen.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true...

The cryptozoological world has been buzzing the last few days over the alleged capture of a Bigfoot by a Sasquatch research group called "Quantra."

The whole thing started with a press release from Ed Smith, Quantra's spokesperson, who had remarkably sketchy information on the whole thing.  Here's a part of Smith's press release (you can read the whole thing here):
It appears that an unprecedented event is in motion, having been on the inside of this operation and now observing from the outside is a defiant [sic] change.

So here is what I know: "Daisy" has been moved to a examination area about 12 miles from the capture site at 3:17 this morning after being properly sedated. The capture site and examination area are on private property leased and or owned in order to conduct research and operations of this type.

This was confirmed by a source in the Quantra Group.

Here is what I don't know: The weight height hair color gender or location of capture. Or the health of the specimen.

Nor the actions leading up to the capture of the specimen.

Here is what I'm speculating: the examination team is continuing to assemble, examination should take 72 hours.
So, just about every woo-woo blog, website, Facebook group, and Twitter feed was hopping.  Would this be what everyone's been waiting for... a real, live Bigfoot, available for scientists and interested laypeople to study?  Would the world finally have an answer regarding the existence of sub-human proto-hominids on the North American continent, other than the members of the Westboro Baptist Church?

Then came the announcement yesterday that "Daisy" had been released.  [Source]

Tim Fasano, whose specialty within cryptozoology is the Florida Skunk Ape (yes, of course they have specialties.  With so many different kinds of creatures that don't exist, you can't study them all), made the following bizarre, rambling announcement, that he released on YouTube:
My phone has been ringing a lot.  One of the unique positions I've been in, being a cab driver in Tampa, Florida, is that I go onto MacDill Air Force Base to pick up people at Central Command Headquarters.  There's some high ranking officers that call me on my cell phone to pick them up when they need to go to the airport.  I've got a close buddy who is a retired lieutenant general.  That's three stars.  This guy was up there.  When I first met him, I asked him two questions: did we really land on the moon in 1969, and are there UFOs?  And he laughed, and come to find out, he had more than a passing interest in paranormal activities, and this type of stuff.  Anyway, let me cut to the chase.  My contacts know at least two operators in Quantra, and here's what's happened within the last hour.  Daisy has been released.  Understand that.  Daisy has been released.  Upon conferring, they released that based upon the tenets of the Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war cannot be held when there is no war.  This is akin to kidnapping.  And based upon the specifics of how they understand the nature of the creature they had in their possession, not to face criminal charges, Daisy as we speak right now is being released at the point of capture.  This was all a mistake...  Most of the information that revolves around this, that they have gathered, will be destroyed.  And like they say in Mission Impossible, "the secretary will disavow all knowledge."
After cleaning up the coffee that I spit all over my computer when he mentioned the "Geneva Convention," I sat back, and thought, "Well, how else did you expect this to end?"  Of course the Bigfoot had to disappear -- whether it was that it overpowered its guards and got away; somehow unlocked its cage; was rescued by its parents, Mr. and Mrs. Squatch; or... was released by the people who captured it.

Because of the Geneva Convention.

I have to admit that, much though I would love it if Bigfoot turned out to be real (if for no other reason, for the jolt it would give to the anti-evolutionists), I was suspicious of this one right from the get-go.  Why, if you were a Bigfoot researcher, wouldn't you get the media and reputable scientists in there immediately?  It would, I would think, be a case for verifying the veracity of the claim right out of the starting gate, rather than pussyfooting around with "Daisy is being taken to an undisclosed location for examination."

At least, that's how I would handle it.  I would be on the horn to vertebrate zoologists, primatologists, and the press before you could say "Return to Boggy Creek."

So, now, we are once again left with just a bunch of random claims from random people, with no hard evidence to back it up.  As usual.  And the cryptid hunters wonder why we skeptics scoff whenever they trot out new "evidence."

Friday, December 28, 2012

Viking dinosaurs

One of the main differences between skeptics and woo-woos is what we each think to be "sufficient evidence."

I ran into a great example of this yesterday, on S8intCom Blogger, which bills itself as "A Biblical View On Science."  (You are told on the homepage that "s8int" is pronounced "saint;" but by my linguistic analysis, "s8int" would be pronounced "satan-t," which is probably why they felt that the reader should be advised on how to pronounce it.)  In any case, most of the site is devoted to "proving" that the Great Flood of Noah happened, as per the Book of Genesis, that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that evolution is a big fat lie, and so on.  But one page struck me as especially interesting.  It was entitled "Ancient Viking Brachiosaurus," and makes the claim that the early inhabitants of Scandinavia depicted dinosaurs on their art -- because, well, real dinosaurs existed during the Viking age.

As evidence, they produce photographs of artifacts like this one, next to which they have helpfully superimposed a photograph of a brachiosaur skull and an artist's rendition of a brachiosaur, to make sure that you don't miss the similarity:

They also bring up the mention in Norse myth of giant serpents, like Ni∂hogg, the dragon who spent his time gnawing on the "World-Tree" Yggdrasil, and Jörmungandr, or "Midgard's serpent," the giant serpent that lay underwater, coiled around Midgard ("Middle-Earth," or the home of humans).  And this, we are told, is sufficient evidence to buy that dinosaurs were contemporaneous with humanity.

Okay, where do I start?

Let's begin with the artifact itself.  Even the S8intCom people admit that it hasn't been authenticated as being of genuine Viking make; in fact, they got the photograph of it from eBay, where it is being sold for $140 by some guy from Latvia.  Now, understand, it might be authentic; I'm not saying I have any reason to believe it isn't.  And questioning the artifact's provenance is only the beginning of the problems here.

A more serious problem is that dinosaurs of the genus Brachiosaurus are only known to come from the Morrison Formation, which is a Jurassic Age sedimentary rock formation... from western North America.  There were related forms, including Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Camarosaurus, and others --  but the various long-necked sauropods seem to have been largely a group confined to what is now the western United States.  (There is some evidence from the fossil record that similar species may have occurred in North Africa, but that is uncertain.)  In any case, what's pretty clear is that at no time in the past did Brachiosaurus and his cousins stomp their way around Scandinavia.

Well, the Vikings were great travelers, right?  Maybe they saw live brachiosaurs on their travels, and were impressed (who wouldn't be?), and depicted them in their art.  Okay, but the problem is, they also depicted other things, like trolls, multi-headed giants, flying horses with eight legs, guys with magic hammers, hundred-foot-tall wolves, and boars made of gold that can run through the air.  And as far as I can see, S8intCom isn't claiming any of that is true.  They pick the one thing from Norse myth and art that supports their claim -- that dinosaurs coexisted with humans -- and conveniently ignore the rest.

We also have the additional problem that the two actual examples of dinosaur-like creatures mentioned in Norse myth -- Ni∂hogg and Jörmungandr -- aren't, really, all that dinosaur-like.  Ni∂hogg, in fact, lived underground, but liked visitors -- and he could talk, spending his time in riddles and abstruse arguments with any who would listen.  (Tolkien's talking dragons Smaug and Glaurung were almost certainly inspired by Ni∂hogg.)  As for Jörmungandr, he was thousands of miles long, and lived underwater, and was the offspring of the god Loki and the giantess Angrbo∂a.  Neither one of these sounds like any dinosaur I've ever heard of.

Last, if the dinosaurs were contemporaneous with the Vikings, why haven't we found any bones?  Or teeth?  Or anything?  There are animal remains that date from that age -- some that have been mummified, or partially fossilized (full fossilization usually takes longer than 1,000 years), and others that have had their bones or teeth fashioned into things like knife handles, jewelry, and the like.  Why no 1,000 year old dinosaur parts?

What I find most maddening about this whole thing is that the writers at S8intCom want to take a tiny part of scientific research -- the actual dinosaur bones themselves -- and an equally tiny part of antiquarian research into the art and myth of ancient Scandinavia, and effectively jettison the rest in favor of their own favorite Bronze Age mythological explanation of the world.  The rest of science -- that the Earth is a billion years old, that the dinosaurs (with the exception of the lineage that led to birds) died out during the Cretaceous Extinction 65 million years ago, that evolution is correct as per the evidence -- they ignore or argue away.  The depiction of things like flying horses and hundred-headed frost giants is considered the fanciful ravings of ignorant pagans, but a piece of dinosaur-like Norse jewelry is a valuable find that could overturn everything we understand about paleontology.  They're perfectly willing to take 1% of the evidence, and use it to support the ridiculous ideas they already had, and ignore the other 99% as misleading or downright wrong.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'd just love it if the Norse myths were true.  They've always been my favorites, even if they take kind of a harsh view of the universe, what with the man-eating wolves and evil jotuns and fierce Valkyries, and the world getting destroyed at Ragnarokk, and all.  But at least they're better than the biblical myths, with an all-powerful, but petulant and capricious, god basically smiting the crap out of everyone for such egregious offenses as collecting firewood on the sabbath or eating shrimp or wearing clothes made of two different kinds of thread.  Given the choice, I'd take my chances with Odin and Loki and Thor.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The shrieking skulls of Calgarth

A couple of days ago, I was doing some genealogical research on the family of my Scottish grandmother, whose roots hail mostly from Maryland and Pennsylvania, and I ran across records of an early Maryland settler (not a direct ancestor) named Matthew Howard.

The Howards intermarried with various members of the Iams family, which is a direct line of mine (yes, I'm a cousin of the pet food people), so I spent a few minutes glancing through what was known of Matthew Howard.  And I found that his grandfather was an English landholder named Miles Phillipson, of Calgarth, Westmoreland, England.

Something about those names rung a bell.  Being that at the time I was puttering about with genealogy, my mind was occupied with family history, so at first I thought I must have seen the name in some old record or another.  But something about that didn't ring right, and I kept thinking about it.  I had seen "Miles Phillipson of Calgarth" before, somewhere unrelated to genealogy, but I couldn't place where.  Finally, I googled it.

The first page of hits consisted of retelling after retelling of a famous story -- the tale of the screaming skulls of Calgarth.  That's where I'd seen the name before; decades ago, in a book with a title like Strange True Tales of the Supernatural (yes, my obsession with the paranormal goes back a ways).

The story goes something like this.  [Source]  Miles Phillipson was a wealthy landowner in 16th century England, and his property abutted a tract of land with a hill overlooking Lake Windermere.  This adjacent land belonged to a middle-aged couple named Kraster and Dorothy Cook, who (according to most versions of the legend) were simple, kind people.  Phillipson, however, was a mean, grasping so-and-so, and he wanted the Cooks' property, but they refused to sell at any price.  Finally, he appeared to give up, and as a gesture of goodwill and no-hard-feelings, he invited the Cooks to dinner.  While there, Phillipson had one of his servants hide in Kraster Cook's satchel a valuable cup that Cook had admired earlier in the evening.  When the Cooks left, Phillipson "noticed" that the cup was gone, gave the alarm, and before the Cooks knew what was happening, they'd been arrested for theft of the cup (which, of course, was found in Kraster Cook's possession).

In due time, the Cooks were put on trial for theft, and found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Oh, did I mention that Miles Phillipson was the county magistrate?

On the day of the execution, as Kraster and Dorothy were readied to be hanged, they were asked if they had any last words before the sentence was carried out.  Kraster shook his head, but Dorothy said, "Look out for yourself, Miles Phillipson.  You think you have done a fine thing.  But the tiny lump of land you lust for is the dearest a Phillipson has ever bought or stolen.  You will never prosper, nor any of your breed.  Whatever scheme you undertake will wither in your hand.  Whatever cause you support will always lose.  The time will come when no Phillipson will own an inch of land and while Calgarth walls shall stand, we will haunt it night and day.  You will never be rid of us!"

It is not recorded how Phillipson reacted to this, but given the rampant superstition of the time, I can only imagine that he wasn't particularly thrilled.  That didn't stop him, however, from seeing the Cooks both hanged, and taking their property, tearing down their cottage, and building himself a sumptuous manor house, which he named Calgarth Hall.

Of course, it wouldn't be a tale worth the telling if it stopped there.  Shortly after the completion of the manor, the members of the household were awakened one night by a horrifying shrieking.  Coming down into the great hall, from which the noise seemed to be coming, Phillipson and his family and servants saw two grinning skulls on the mantelpiece, screaming in an earsplitting fashion.  (Mrs. Phillipson, being an Elizabethan lady, of course "fainted dead away.")  The next day, Miles Phillipson, figuring he knew what was going on, had the coffins of Kraster and Dorothy Cook exhumed -- and unsurprisingly, found the skulls missing.  He replaced the skulls, and reburied the coffins, only to have the same thing occur the following week.

Well, things went from bad to worse.  The skulls wouldn't stay buried, but reappeared in the great hall with terrible regularity.  All the servants quit.  Mrs. Phillipson and their only son took sick and died.  Miles Phillipson's reputation sank so fast there weren't even any bubbles, and he was forced to sell off his land a piece at a time until he had nothing left, and finally died in abject poverty.  Of later generations the legend doesn't speak, but Calgarth is said to still be standing, and although an exorcism was pronounced there in the 19th century, it is still subject to "strange sights and sounds."

What I find fascinating about all of this is not that an ancient manor house in England is the focal point of a wild tale of terror; heaven knows that it is not unique in that regard.  It is the intersection between legend and fact that interests me.  When I first read the tale of the screaming skulls of Calgarth, when I was perhaps 15 years old, I figured that (like most of those sorts of legends) the men and women who peopled it were fictional, even if the places weren't.  I never dreamed that Miles Phillipson had actually lived and died in Calgarth, as per the legend, had had a surviving daughter (Anne Phillipson) whose son, Matthew Howard, emigrated to the United States in the mid-1600s and was the founder of a large and prosperous family in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.  (Why the curse didn't affect him, I'm not sure -- maybe it only applied to people who had the last name of Phillipson.)

What is interesting about this, too, is that for the most part, one side doesn't know what the other knows.  The genealogists have all of the dates and places; Miles Phillipson was born about 1540 in Westmoreland, married a woman named Barbara Sandys, had one surviving child (Anne) born in Calgarth in about 1575 or so.  None of the databases on the Howard family mention the (literal) skeletons in the family closet.  And I don't think it's because as genealogists, they'd be hesitant to include a wild legend; genealogists, I've found, absolutely love weird legends about their relatives, even if most of them are careful to include a disclaimer that "this is only a story."  But apparently almost none of the Howard family descendants are aware of the screaming skulls that supposedly haunted their distant ancestor.

Likewise, none of the recountings of the Calgarth story mention that the real Phillipson had one surviving child, and his grandson ended up being a wealthy planter in Maryland.  I guess I can understand why they'd be reluctant to include that; it makes Dorothy Cook's curse from the gallows have a little less punch, to know that the hex only lasted one generation.  But still -- you'd think that it would show up somewhere, but I couldn't find any reference to it at all.

The whole thing is kind of curious, especially given that the other two examples of ancestral hauntings I've come across seem to be well known both to the genealogical researchers and to the haunted house aficionados.  On my side of the family, we have Alexander Lindsay, the notorious "Earl Beardie," who supposedly lost his soul to the devil in a dice game and now haunts Glamis Castle in Scotland, swearing, drinking, and rolling dice (my dad's comment on finding out that this was one of our ancestors was, "Yeah, sounds like my family, all right.").  On my wife's side, we have the Frys, who owned Morants Court in Kent, the site of the creepy story that became Alfred Noyes' poem "The Highwayman."

I suppose that every family has legends, but not many can beat the Shrieking Skulls of Calgarth for having all of the classic elements -- a false accusation, a grasping miser who gets his due, a curse delivered from the gallows, skulls, unearthly screams at night.  Seems like a good tale for a dark midwinter day, doesn't it?

Yeah, I thought so.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Space cubes

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that we survived (1) the Rapture, (2) the Mayan apocalypse, and (3) the 2012 Christmas shopping season.  The bad news is that the Borg are on their way.  [Source]

At least, that is the claim of such pinnacles of rationality as David Icke and Alex Collier, both of whose names you may have seen once or twice in Skeptophilia before.  Icke, you may recall, is the one who believes that American public schools are being run by aliens; Collier, on the other hand, claims that there was a giant alien/human war back in the 1930s, which none of us have heard about because the war propelled us through a rip in the space-time continuum into an alternate timeline, and now we have to try to get back into our correct timeline, without even being able to consult Geordi LaForge for advice.

Now, because two minds of this caliber are clearly better than one, Icke and Collier have teamed up to analyze the data coming in from NASA's SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), and have come to the terrifying conclusion that the Borg cube has arrived, and is hovering menacingly just inside the corona of the sun.

So, let's just take a look at some of the photographs in question, whatchasay?

Spokespeople for NASA say that these images aren't of a giant cubical spacecraft; they're basically just blank spots where there's missing data.  Icke and Collier aren't convinced, however.  They take the evidence from the photograph, which consists solely of a couple of blank squares, and come to the only conclusion you could draw from this:

The cube is a "GOD" (Galactic Obliteration Device) launched by an evil alien race, which is coming to Earth to destroy it as per the Book of Revelation Chapter 21, wherein we find out that the "City of God" that is supposed to descend during the End Times is square in shape, and since squares are kind of like cubes, this thing is going to come to Earth and the Borg are then going to annihilate the human race in the Battle of Armageddon, which fulfills the scriptural prophecy even though I've read the Book of Revelation and I don't remember any mention of the Second Coming of Locutus.

Apparently, this idea didn't originate with Icke and Collier, but was the brainchild of the LLF (Luciferian Liberation Front).  Which gives it ever so much more credibility, given that this is the same group of wingnuts who believe that the biblical story is literally true, except that Jesus was actually a superpowerful cyborg from another planet.

Of course, Icke, Collier, and the LLF aren't the only ones who have weighed in on the anomalous squares in the SOHO photographs.  Scott Waring, of UFO Sightings Daily, thinks that the cube is a giant spacecraft, but that it doesn't have anything to do with either the Borg or the Book of Revelation.  No, Waring said, don't be a loon.  There are two other, much more likely, possibilities: "Such huge objects are present either because the sun is hollow or because energy is being harvested from the sun."

Oh.  Okay.  That makes all kinds of sense.

My own personal opinion is that NASA should hire someone whose sole job is to scan their photographs, looking for ones with glitches, dead pixels, missing data, and so on, and make sure that those flawed photographs never make it online.  We rationalist skeptics have enough trouble keeping everyone's eye on the ball without goofed-up pics from NASA making it worse.

Of course, if NASA did hire someone to do this, Icke, Collier et al. would eventually find out about it, and then there's be allegations of a conspiracy and coverup designed to keep all of us from finding out about the impending alien invasion.  Accusations would be leveled.  The word "sheeple" would be used.

You can't win.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Santa Claus is comin' to town

Well, a very happy Christmas Eve to all of you who celebrate it.  I'm sure that many of my readers are eagerly awaiting tomorrow morning, for the joy of seeing what Santa brought for yourself and your loved ones.

I mention St. Nick deliberately, because, you know, I can never be certain if someone who's reading this blog believes in Santa Claus or not, and far be it from me to burst anyone's bubble.  And I'm not just talking about little kids, here.

A recent piece in the Boston Globe (read it here) describes "paranormal expert" Stephen Wagner's fascination with "Santa sightings."  Yes, folks, I'm talking about presumably sane, intelligent adults who have seen the Big Guy for real on Christmas Eve.  For many of these people, it was a life-changing experience.  I know it would be for me; my life would change from "living at home" to "living in a psychiatric ward."

But that's not how most of the people who got to see the Jolly Old Elf in person feel.  Sarah, a 41 year old Californian who saw Santa Claus back in 1975, said the experience was transcendent.  "Seeing Santa changed my outlook forever," she told Wagner, "to the point that I am comfortable with tattooing ol’ Big Red onto my body.  It means that much to me."

Others report confirmation of many items from Santa's familiar accoutrement.  "We [were] driving by a lonely McDonald’s and we [saw] something dashing through the clouds," said one of Wagner's respondents.  "We could all make out Santa’s sleigh and nine reindeer including Rudolph’s nose."  "He was in full Santa attire," Sandra, a 51-year-old Missourian, told Wagner, recounting a sighting from the 1960s.  "He was bent over, then he stood up and took a puff from a pipe." 

It may be uncharitable of me, but in this last case I suspect that Santa might not have been been the one smoking the pipe, if you get my drift.

Wagner, for his part, seems simply to recount the experiences without trying to interpret them or weigh in on their veracity.  Not so Loyd Auerbach, who teaches a parapsychology course at Atlantic University.  "I've never even heard of people seeing Santa," Auerbach scoffs.  "The Grim Reaper, yes, but not Santa."

Because, after all, the Grim Reaper is orders of magnitude more real than Santa Claus, for heaven's sake.  Everyone knows that.

Auerbach goes on to state that these Santa sightings might have a common origin, though.  "The only reason this could be real," he states, "is if it's an alien or a ghost pretending to be Santa."

This is why I could never be an investigative reporter.  I would, on occasion, guffaw directly into people's faces while interviewing them.  I suspect that this would put people off, somehow.

 So given that I'm not especially taken with Auerbach's explanation of Ghost Santa or Alien Santa, I think I'm going with "suggestible people with overactive imaginations."  This is the position of Rebecca Knibb, a reader in psychology at the UK's University of Derby.  Knibb attributes St. Nick sightings to people who are "fantasy-prone," and whose daydreams were already colored by the imagery and mythology of the Christmas season.  At another time or place, Knibb suggests, these same people would be seeing ghosts.

If you are one of the people who have seen Santa Claus -- or any other weird, unexplainable occurrence, for that matter -- you should report it on Stephen Wagner's site, Paranormal Phenomena, wherein you will find a link to the original Santa Sightings report, as well as sightings of Christmas Angels, Christmas Ghosts, and a paranormal explanation for the Star of Bethlehem.  As for me, I'm just going to go wrap a few last presents, because I think the likelihood of Santa showing up in the flesh for someone like me is slim to none.  He knows if you've been bad or good, after all, and I suspect that frank disbelief would fall clearly into the "bad" column.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Thermal undies

New from the "How Can Anyone Actually Fall For That?" department, we have a story today from Australia that an entrepreneur with more creativity than ethics is getting rich selling "fat-burning underwear."  [Source]

Brazcom Imports, a company based in South Australia, has sold over 500,000 pairs of "Scala Shapewear" undergarments, which (according to their website) contain "Active BioCrystals" that emit "far infrared" rays.  This "kick starts something called the BioPromise effect," and "melts fat away."  And they seem to mean melt in the literal sense; the "Active BioCrystals" supposedly liquify fat cells, in the fashion of bacon grease melting in a frying pan on your stove, and then the body... I dunno, does something with it, I guess.  They never mention where the melted fat goes, so I suppose it just goes "away."

I should mention at this point that Brazcom's managing director, Tim Nielsen, is apparently a Ph.D. in biochemistry.  I'm not surprised, frankly; it would take someone with a considerable background in science to invent pseudoscience this idiotic.  I mean, if you didn't have a thorough understanding of how the natural world really works, you might include something in your advertisements that was true by accident.  To successfully avoid all of the facts requires that you know what the facts actually are.

Brazcom and Nielsen came under fire recently from Dr. Ken Harvey, associate professor of public health at LaTrobe University, who wrote an exposé of the product (and their sales pitch), identifying the claims as pseudoscience.  "It's classic pseudoscience, with words that look like they might mean something," Dr. Harvey said, in an interview with News.Com.Au.  "It's ludicrous."  He goes on to explain what I would have thought anyone with an IQ of at least double digits would realize; that if your underwear were emitting enough heat to melt subcutaneous fat, they would leave significant burns on parts of your body that most of us would prefer to remain unscorched.  Oh, yeah; and there's no such thing as the "BioPromise effect" or "Active BioCrystals."

Brazcom, of course, heatedly denies that they're hoodwinking their customers.  It's all science, Nielsen claims, and has been "clinically proven."  (Their use of this phrase will be a central piece of Dr. Harvey's case against Brazcom, which is due to be heart by the Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaints Resolution Panel next month.)  Nielsen's defense of the company took an unintentionally humorous turn, however, when he stated that the fat-melting underwear's amazing sales was a "testament to its effectiveness."

Because, of course, you know that overweight people never purchase fad diet stuff unless it's been proven to work by reputable scientists.

It will be interesting to see how Australian officials handle the whole thing.  Here in the United States, the oversight of "nutritional supplements" and other such products of dubious effectiveness -- including all sorts of nutty ways to lose weight -- are barely regulated at all, as long as (1) no one dies from using them, and (2) the words "Not intended to treat or cure any medical condition" appear somewhere on the product, usually in a font so small you would need a scanning electron microscope to read it.  You have to wonder how many millions of dollars are wasted each year on bogus diet pills, fad weight loss programs, and bizarre procedures like "colon cleansing."

In any case, it's to be hoped that the case of the magic thermal fat-melting undies will be resolved in favor of rationality and science.  And that all of the people who were hoping literally to melt off a few pounds will return to doing the only thing that has been shown to take weight off and keep it off; eating less and exercising more.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse not

Well, here we are, the day you've all been eagerly awaiting; December 21, 2012.  So far, nothing very apocalyptic has happened, as far as I can see from my limited perspective here in upstate New York.  Everything is pretty much cornfields and cow pastures, like it always has been.  The only thing of note is that my dog started barking at 2:30 AM, and when I got up to see what was bugging him it turned out that the emergency was that he had had a sudden uncontrollable urge to play tug-of-war with someone.  After I told him to put the damn rope toy down and go back to bed, he did, although he gave me a rather reproachful look as he did so.  I'm thinking that if the zombies come for me today, he's not going to intervene.

On the other hand, my lack of sleep means that we're going to have some serious Armageddon happening in my classroom today, if any of my students give me a hard time.

What's funny about all of this doomsaying is that the whole idea of the world ending (or being transformed, or whatever) didn't originate with the Mayans.  They Mayans knew the Long Count had cycles, and like every cycle, it started anew when the old one was done, like any good calendar does.  So the fact that the "13th b'ak'tun" supposedly ends today -- which the most skilled experts in Mayan language and culture don't even agree on -- doesn't mean we're about to be devoured by a black hole, or anything.  In fact, the first clue should be that the Mayans thought we'd already had twelve of the things, so you'd think someone would have said, "Hey, you know, if the world didn't end the first twelve times, it probably won't end this time."

But that's not how these people think, unfortunately.  The origins of the 2012 phenomena can be traced back to a few books and a lot of hallucinogenic drugs that were widely shared about in the 1970s.  José Argüelles' The Transformative Vision mentions 2012 as a "year of transformation," although it never mentions a date; the same is true of The Invisible Landscape, by noted wingnut and psychotropic drug enthusiast Terrence McKenna, who is living proof that when you screw around with your neurotransmitters, what you observe might be entertaining but it isn't necessarily real.

But in the 1980s, research by Robert J. Sharer and others into the Mayan language and calendar provided Argüelles and McKenna a finer brush with which to apply woo-woo principles to actual legitimate archaeology and linguistics, and they became convinced that December 21, 2012 was the day of days.  But it seemed a long time to wait, so they decided to arrange for an earlier transformative event to occur.  A sort of pre-apocalypse, as it were.  It was called the "Harmonic Convergence," and was scheduled for August 16, 1987.  A whole bunch of woo-woos showed up at Mount Shasta on August 16, and chanted and waved crystals about and did all sorts of other mystical stuff, but they all went home on the 17th when no converging, harmonic or otherwise, happened.

None of this discouraged Argüelles and McKenna, however, and they said that the really big stuff was going to happen... Today.  As in, right now.  Because the Mayans said so.  Never mind that when people talked to some actual, real Mayans, and asked them if the world was going to end because their calendar was going to run out, the Mayans said, "What do we look like, morons?  That's not how calendars work."

None of that has stopped the woo-woos from believing, nor has it stopped entrepreneurs from cashing in on their gullibility.  Tour companies sold out on excursions to Central America for the Fatal Week two years ago, just proving that there's no belief so ridiculous that some clever person can't exploit it to turn a quick buck.

Anyhow, it looks like December 21, 2012 will come and go without anything like what was predicted in the phenomenally bad movie 2012.  The Himalayan Mountains have not, last I heard, been washed away, and there have been no giant earthquakes, volcanoes, or other such cataclysms.  I'm guessing that we'll all wake up tomorrow and pretty much go about our business as usual.

Until, that is, the next forecast of doom, gloom, and/or global spiritual transformation.  You know there'll be another one.  Woo-woos just don't give up that easily.  It takes more than a 0% success record to discourage them.  It's a pity they can't turn this kind of persistence and dogged determination onto something that needs solving, like world hunger.  Because man, with that kind of single-mindedness, we'd have food to every starving child on the planet in no time flat.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The fire-breathing vegetarian velociraptor of doom

I am frequently impressed by the tortuous, knotted rationalizations some people will invoke in order to explain their favorite weird, counterfactual idea.  The funny thing is, they often couple this with a sneering derision of people who disagree with them -- and in fact, frequently accuse their detractors of engaging in rationalization themselves, of accepting ideas without evidence, of believing in "fairy tales."

You have to be impressed with a blind spot that huge.

I ran into a stunning example of this just yesterday, when a student said to me, "Did you know that some biblical literalists believe that dinosaurs could breathe fire, and that's why fire-breathing dragons are part of mythology?"  I scoffed at first, but he directed me to this site, a page from the Creation Worldview Ministries website.

If you are understandably reluctant to go there and read it for yourself, allow me to summarize their argument here.  I am not, for the record, making any of this up.

1)  Evolution is a big fat fairy tale, for which there is no evidence.  Evolutionary biologists like myself are being deluded by Satan and are lying to you, with the goal of stealing your children from the church.

2)  Fire-breathing dragons were mentioned in the bible, so they must have been real.  They cite Job 41:15, 18-21:  "His strong scales are his pride, shut up as with a tight seal... His sneezes flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.  Out of his mouth go burning torches; sparks of fire leap forth.  Out of his nostrils smoke goes forth, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.  His breath kindles coals, and a flame goes forth from his mouth."

3)  Okay, now that we've established that fire-breathing dragons are real, what are they?  Well, we have dinosaur bones, which are kinda dragon-like, so those must be our Smaug wannabees.  Especially, the site says, the duckbilled dinosaurs, which had "very large nasal cavities, much larger than needed for smell."  Obviously, big noses = breathing fire, which is going to make me a hell of a lot more careful the next time I sneeze.

4)  All animals, including dinosaurs, were originally vegetarians.  Animals only started to eat each other after the Fall.   The big, nasty, pointy teeth of the Velociraptor, for example, were used for munching on especially tough carrots.

5)  Many herbivores have fermentation chambers in their digestive tracts, and fermentation of plant materials can produce methane.  This is why, for example, cow farts are flammable.  You are cautioned on the website that it isn't nice to light cow farts "because it will scare the poor cow half to death."

6)  Along the way, the website points out as an aside that global warming is a myth, and that anyone who believes in it is an "environmental terrorist."

7)  So anyway, dinosaurs may have burped methane gas.  If you couple this with a mechanism for igniting the gas, you get an instant T-Rex flamethrower.

8)  But what could ignite the gas?  There are three ways:  the dinosaurs' teeth could have clicked together and created a spark, "like a flintlock rifle;" they could have had an electrical ignition system in their throats; or they could have a chemical ignition process, similar to the one that "makes fireflies light up the night skies."

Ergo: fire-breathing dragons are real.  This, in fact, explains the story of St. George and the Dragon, wherein a Christian man (emphasis theirs) rescues a fair maiden from one.  "What better way," the writers of the website ask, "to impress a woman of your courage and strength than to slay a fierce dragon on her behalf?"  They then go on to say that the dinosaurs may have become extinct because of overhunting, possibly by desperate men trying to impress their girlfriends, a motivation that continues lo unto this very day.

Well.  First of all, I have to say that my overall reaction to this is:

BA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA *falls off chair*

I can't get out of my mind the strangely compelling mental image of Bessie the Dairy Cow clicking her teeth together, and suddenly spouting flame from her mouth and nose.  Being that I live across the road from a farm, I must say that if this were true, I would be very much in favor of it just from the entertainment value alone.

But anyway, let me get this straight.  You say that (1) evolution is a "fairy tale," and (2) global warming is a "myth," but you do believe in fire-breathing dragons?  Really?  Really?

I have to admire these people, in one sense; at least they play fair.  They're starting from the standpoint that every last word in the bible is the literal truth, even the bizarre, self-contradictory, or inconvenient bits (of which there are lots).  They don't shy away from the wacky parts, like some biblical apologists do.  But if you're going to do that, you have to come up with some twisted logic to get it all to work out, don't you?

Flammable vegetarian dinosaur burps.  I mean.

In any case, I would like to thank Creation Worldview Ministries for starting out my day with a good belly laugh.  I guess it's only fair to admit that they'd probably find my views equally ridiculous, although they're unlikely ever to come across them (I'm doubtful that these people frequent skeptic websites).  In any case, let's end with a photograph of how one of my personal heroes dealt with a fire-breathing dragon, when he ran into one:

So, there you are.  Source corroboration.  The Book of Job, and Bugs Bunny.  Independent sources, and of equal credibility.  I believe this is what we in the scientific world call "an airtight case."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Round-footed Sea Serpent of Koh Mai Pai

Seems like it's been a while since we've had a good cryptozoological report, so it's with great pleasure that I bring you news of a sea serpent invading Thailand.  [Source]

At least that's what they're claiming.  On the morning of December 15, workers at the school on Koh Mai Pai (Bamboo Island), near Phuket, arrived to find what appeared to be a line of tracks that came from the direction of the ocean, meandered its way through the school grounds, and then returned from whence it came.  The "tracks" were circles, twenty centimeters in diameter, leading one school official to speculate that they were made by a "sea serpent fifteen meters in length."

Koh Mai Pai village chief Anan Sansamuth stated that at 11 PM the previous evening, he had heard some "ducks quacking frantically," but had thought nothing of it until he saw the tracks.  He is now recommending that the village's electricity generator be run all night, and that villagers "prepare implements to catch the creature."

What implements might be handy to catch a fifteen-meter-long sea serpent were not specified.

Of course, there's no weird story that can't be made even crazier, and it was Koh Mai Pai teacher Mrs. Pannee Atwaree who added that extra-special nutty sauce to this seafood dish.  "The islanders’ fear is ratcheted up by theories that the appearance of the tracks might be an omen of a great disaster," Mrs. Atwaree said.  "Perhaps the one some have been predicting for next Friday (December 21) when the Mayan calendar – and possibly the world – comes to an end."

Because, after all, that's what the Mayan calendar predicts, right?  When the Great Cycle ends, sea serpents will visit schools in Thailand and do nothing except scare a bunch of ducks.  That's how awful this apocalypse will be.  What will it be next time?  Alarming some goats?  You can see how quickly this sort of thing could escalate.

In any case, there are several problems with this story.  The first is that I've never seen any animal tracks that look even remotely like the alleged Thai sea serpent tracks.  They're far too regular, too clear in outline, and show no signs of the blurring you'd expect if a fifteen-meter-long (and presumably extremely heavy) animal were dragging itself across the sand.  Plus, they're kind of closely spaced, don't you think?  I'm trying to picture a gigantic sea serpent, sort of mincing delicately along on its perfectly circular feet, and the image is strangely hilarious.

So, unfortunately, this whole thing just screams "hoax."  What I think is that some prankster made these tracks, using something circular to press into the sand (the bottom of a large bucket looks just about the right size).  Along the way, he freaked out some ducks.  And there you are.  No need to get out your sea-serpent-catching implements, no need to run the generator all night, and especially no need to invoke the Mayan calendar.  What with the various groups of apocalyptoids descending on mountains in France, Serbia, and (most recently) Argentina, each hoping to be the lucky ones that the returning aliens decide to save, the last thing we need is folks rushing off to some beautiful island off the coast of Thailand trying to catch the Stumpy-Legged Sea Serpent of Doom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The University of Iowa underwear-snitching ghost

I think one of the hardest things for me to understand about the woo-woo mindset is how quickly they're willing to jump to a supernatural explanation.

It's not that I don't have the impulse myself sometimes, mind you.  When I hear a bump in my attic, when I see something out of the corner of my eye, I (like most people) get a shiver up my spine.  But I don't follow that up by saying "Oh, it must be that pesky ghost again."  The first thing I look for is a natural explanation.  And you know what?  When I look for a natural explanation, I generally find it.  The bump in the attic was my cat knocking something off a bookshelf; the motion I saw was leaves being blown past the window.  In my 52 years, the number of things I've been left with that I haven't been able to satisfactorily explain from a completely ordinary perspective is exactly zero.

Apparently, though, I'm in the minority.  Consider the case of the University of Iowa baseball team, who have made some strange enough claims that their story was written up on the New England Sports Network.  (Read the story here.)  Members of the team have contacted ghost hunters after several of their number reported seeing apparitions, and having a variety of other strange experiences in their living quarters.

"We've lived here over the past two years," pitcher Aaron Smit told reporters.  "But over the past few months, we've noticed things getting a little bit weird.  We had a kid in here who thought he saw a ghost -- a shadow in the form of a human."

Others have reported "poltergeist-like" phenomena, with objects moving around, doors being slammed, and television channels spontaneously changing.  One player said he saw a "little girl in his bedroom."  Another, first baseman Brian Niedbalski, says there's an old man ghost living in the house as well, and the team has nicknamed him "Tim."  (The ghost, not the first baseman.)  "I'm on Tim's good side," Niedbalski said.  "I want to leave it that way."

Then, there's the incident in which two of the players' girlfriends, who were spending the night, woke up to find their underwear had been removed, and was elsewhere in the room -- although they were still wearing pants at the time.

Oooookay.  So, what do we have here?

First, of course, we have the complete lack of actual hard evidence.  Doors can slam because of drafts -- I lived in a house in Seattle where that used to happen regularly -- and the "corner of the eye" phenomenon is something that happens to everyone, whether there's a ghost there or not.  I see nothing here that can't be explained through a combination of suggestibility, natural phenomena, and ordinary human perceptual errors, with possibly the contribution of alcohol in the case of the teleporting panties.  None of this seems to me to be especially convincing, and you have to wonder if this may not be a few superstitious guys who convinced the whole team that something ghostly was going on, following which every additional stray noise just added to the team's conviction that they were living in a haunted house.

Of course, I have to admit that I'm drawing all of these conclusions long-distance.  I've never been to the team's living quarters to check out the claims for myself.  Spending a night in a haunted house is one of my bucket-list items -- and who knows, maybe if I get my wish I'll be convinced.  But at the moment, all of the natural explanations for the University of Iowa underwear-stealing ghost just seem to me to be much more plausible.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"Big Pharma" and the package-deal fallacy

My post from a couple of days ago about the fraudulent psychic who convinced Latina singer Jenni Rivera's family that she had survived a plane crash (she didn't) elicited a curious comment from a reader.

I had prefaced my comments about Rivera and the psychic with a statement that woo-woo beliefs cause a lot of harm -- and I cited homeopathy as one example.  The commenter ignored the main gist of my post, and leaped upon the homeopathy comment, responding, "Does this (harm) include fraudulent behaviour by clinical scientists who are paid by the big pharmaceutical companies to fudge their data?  Typical double standards by pseudosceptics!"

Well.  I could call "red herring" on this and be done with it, but I thought it might be more interesting to look at the question a little more closely.

First, let me say at the outset that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in corporate law.  I am, however, trained to do biology, and I understand anatomy and physiology pretty well.  And whatever else you might say about most medications, they do, for the most part, what they're intended to do, and we understand how they do it.  To take two examples from my own health: (1) I am currently recovering from a sinus infection, and have been taking amoxicillin; and (2) I have moderate chronic high blood pressure, and am on two medications (nifedipine and hydrochlorothiazide), and I am pleased to report that at my last checkup my blood pressure was a healthy 118/80.  And all three of those drugs have mechanisms of action that are thoroughly researched and well understood.

So, here's the deal.  While "Big Pharma" is composed of a group of huge corporations, which (like all corporations) exist to make money for stockholders, they do have one thing going for them; the drugs they make seem to work pretty well.  It's kind of funny, don't you think?  All the fraudulent, on-the-take clinical scientists fudge their data, and evil old "Big Pharma" continues to churn out medications that have made us one of the overall healthiest societies ever.  We have virtually eradicated childhood infectious diseases because of vaccination; we have nearly eliminated deaths from bacterial infections because of antibiotics; cancer survival rates have improved significantly because of chemotherapy.  I know personally at least a dozen people who owe their lives to "Big Pharma."

Now, of course, the commenter was right in one sense; when corporate interests and the profit motive get mixed up in anything, there is always going to be some degree of corruption.  Human greed is as insidious, and harder to cure, than human disease.  And while the survival rate from most of the ills that have plagued humanity from the get-go has increased, there are a few conditions that have become more common since the advent of modern medicine, for reasons unknown (allergies, asthma, and autism come to mind).  But the idea that because we haven't cured everything, and because there have been some examples of bad science, fudged data, and coverups, all pharmaceuticals should be avoided, is blatant foolishness.  This is the "package-deal fallacy" in a particularly dangerous guise.

Because, after all, what does the alternative medicine crowd propose as a replacement?  Homeopathy (which I beat on frequently enough that the phrase "'nuff said" comes to mind).  "Colorpuncture," about which I wrote last week.  Crystals, smudging, aromatherapy, flower essences, chakra manipulation.  Oh, yeah, and one other one, that I just found out about last week because of a student in my Critical Thinking class: "Auto-Urine Therapy."  Yes, folks, this is exactly what it sounds like; improve your health and cure disease by drinking your own urine.  What's it supposed to do, you might ask?  I know that's what I asked, after I finished gagging.  "This diet minimises toxins and further enhances the power of the immune system. Ojas [the essential energy of the body] is increased and thus the urine contains more valuable biochemicals," the website says.  "Urine can also be used to cleanse the stomach, lungs, sinuses and nasal passages in the Yoga practices of Neti and Kunjal Kriyas."

Apparently it can also be used as a "skin tonic."   Um, yeah.  I'll just stick with lotion, okay?

Now, don't get me wrong; there are some "natural medicines" that have shown efficacy in treating human diseases.  Digitalis, aspirin, atropine, vincristine, the opiates, and a variety of other medically-useful compounds, now found routinely in standard medicine, are plant compounds.  Others are still being investigated -- the jury is still out on echinacea and turmeric, for example.  Others still (such as ginkgo biloba, supposed to be useful to improve memory) have been shown in controlled studies to be useless.

The point is, doctors and medical researchers are constantly looking for new ways to approach treatment, and they have nothing against herbals as a source of new, more effective drugs.  But, as Tim Minchin said, in his wonderful piece "Storm" (you should all watch it, but be forewarned -- there's some inappropriate language, should you be sensitive to such things), "There's a name for alternative medicine that's been proved to work.  It's called... medicine."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Huckabee, Fischer, and the politicization of tragedy

I, like many others, have spent the last twelve hours trying to figure out how to wrap my mind around what happened yesterday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  A 20 year old man, almost certainly mentally ill, took the lives of 26 people, including his mother (one of the teachers at the school), the principal, the school psychologist, and twenty children between the ages of 5 and 10.  A tragedy of this magnitude is hard to comprehend; when I watched some of the video clips coming in from Newtown, when I listened to an emotional President Obama's voice cracking as he delivered his response to the nation, I could do nothing but sit there and cry helplessly myself.

Each of us deals with tragedy in our own way.  My (many) Christian friends on Facebook have posted comments that they are comforted by the thought that Jesus has gathered these children in.  My (also many) secular/non-religious friends have offered their thoughts and condolences to the bereaved family members of those innocent victims.  Members of both groups have voiced their renewed commitment to creating a loving, compassionate world, a world in which things like this don't happen ever again.  And at times like this, we are forced to revisit and question our laws regarding access to mental health care and gun control, which is right and proper.  We respond by comforting the grieving, giving solace to our own shock, and considering how to prevent such horrors in the future.

Well, at least most of us do.  Some of us respond by using the deaths of 26 innocent people to score political points. Consider former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's response: "We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools," Huckabee said in an interview on Fox News yesterday.  "Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"

I watched the clip of Huckabee's interview with my mouth hanging open a little.  And at first, I thought, "Why bother writing about this?  Huckabee is a sanctimonious twit.  You already knew that."  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn't just keep silent.

Do you really believe that, Mr. Huckabee?  Your god is that petty, that heartless, that bloodthirsty?  Your concept of the Lord of Lords is that he is sitting there on his throne in heaven, and he's thinking, "I'm just fed up with America's commitment to the separation of church and state.  Ever since they eliminated prayer in schools, I've been getting more and more pissed off.  Hey, I know!  I'll send a crazed gunman to shoot a bunch of kids!  Yeah, that's the ticket!"?

And I realized: no, of course he doesn't think that.  He's a shill.  He is shamelessly using the grief and outrage of others to gain political capital.  He's not alone; every time something like this happens, you hear others of his cloth -- people like Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh -- do precisely the same thing.  They don't even stop for a second to say, "Let's take a break from the politically-motivated finger-pointing.  Let's use this horror to incite us to do good.  Hug your kids, help the people around you, do what you can to make your own community a safe place.  There will be other times to push politics; now is a time to come together, put aside our differences, and remember our common commitment to a better world."  No.  Before the gunshots have even stopped, they've already started manipulating the situation to further their own ends.

If you think this sort of thing is unique to Huckabee, who had already established his reputation as a heartless asshole by responding the same way to the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado earlier this year, think again.  Take a look at this video if you can stand to,  in which American Family Association spokesperson Bryan Fischer states that god could have stopped the shooter, but didn't because "god is not going to go where he's not wanted."  If kids were allowed to pray every day in schools, Fischer claims, the whole thing never would have happened.  I'm sickened by someone who would stoop this low, who would callously think, "Wow, now people will really see that I was right about religion in public schools!" and give a speech like this on the same damned day that the murders occurred.

The word "reprehensible" doesn't even begin to cover this sort of behavior.  I can only hope that the people who hear these men talking, religious and non-religious alike, will be repulsed by the cold, calculated politicization of what should be a cause for national mourning.  And I hope that enough of them -- and especially of the Christians to whom Huckabee and Fischer are attempting to pander -- will tell them to sit down and shut the hell up, and that they will get the message that anyone with an ounce of compassion would react to their shilling with nausea.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jenni Rivera and false hope from psychics

A question I'm frequently asked is why I'm so vehemently against woo-woo beliefs.  What harm does it do if someone believes in astrology or the Psychic Hot Line?  And even if it's a belief that impels someone to spend their hard-earned cash -- like the millions of dollars wasted annually on homeopathic "remedies" -- well, it's their choice, right?  Really, how much harm does it do?

The answer is: a lot.  Belief in irrational bullshit can do a lot of harm.

I ran into an example of this just yesterday.  [Source]  Most of you by now have probably heard of the death of Jenni Rivera, the Latina "Diva de la Banda" whose music is immensely popular amongst Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike.  Rivera was killed in a plane crash on Sunday near the town of Iturbide, Mexico, while on the way to a planned concert in Mexico City.  Officials in Iturbide confirmed the crash of the plane, saying that there were no survivors; radar tracking of the aircraft indicates that it lost 28,000 feet of altitude in the last 30 seconds before it struck a mountainside.  One person who visited the site said that the plane struck so violently that what's left of it is "scattered like a wash of pebbles."

A horrible tragedy for Rivera's family, friends, and fans.  But things suddenly got worse on Monday, when a "psychic" named Gilbert Salas posted on his Facebook that he was certain that Rivera and her makeup artist, Jacob Yebale, who was traveling with her, were still alive.

"Yes it is correct that Jenni Rivera is still alive," Salas wrote.  "I believe Jenni and her makeup artists survived, they are located 12 miles west from where they believe the wreckage occurred.  It is located behind the mountain on theunderbelly [sic] side near a canyon.  It is not visible from an aerial view because it is in a covered area.  She is near a stream and she is able to hear the search teams fly overhead that's how close they are to her."

The result is that the family members have launched a campaign to rescue the injured singer and her companion -- and no one has been more insistent about this than Rivera's eleven-year-old son, Johnny Lopez Rivera.  "My mama is alive," the boy tweeted on Monday, after reading Salas' post.  "I lost hope but I got it back.  She is not dead."  Lopez Rivera and other members of Jenni Rivera's family have become so insistent that the singer survived that the hashtag #SaveJenni has trended on Twitter.

Of course, no one who has actual information about the crash thinks there is the remotest likelihood that anyone survived.  It's not like there haven't been people at the crash site; eyewitnesses to the wreckage say that the plane was so thoroughly destroyed that there's barely anything recognizable, only twisted bits of scrap metal, cloth, and body parts.  But facts barely matter when hope and tragedy meet -- especially when that hope is buoyed by someone who claims miraculous, supernatural knowledge of the situation.

This isn't the first time psychics have given the victims of tragedies false hope, only to be dashed when the real circumstances are confirmed.  But somehow, these consistent failures never seem to keep the psychics from doing the same thing again -- or keep next bunch of bereaved loved ones from believing them.  And of course, there's nothing illegal about what these charlatans are doing.  Convincing someone that a lie is the truth isn't a crime, more's the pity.

But I do have to agree with the commentator quoted in Sharon Hill's wonderful blog Doubtful News, in response to the Rivera story: "If there is a hell, there is a special circle reserved for psychics who pull this crap."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ballard, the Black Sea, and the bible

Biblical literalists are crowing with delight over a recent news story that is being widely reported (and subsequently linked and circulated all over the place).  Most iterations of this piece have titles like the version I found on ABC News Online: "New Evidence Suggests Biblical Flood Happened, Says Robert Ballard."

The upshot of the story is that Ballard, a prominent archaeologist (and the man whose team located the Titanic), believes that the Black Sea may have once been the site of a catastrophic flood.  What is now a deep, salty body of water was once a freshwater lake whose surface was far below sea level -- the seawater being held back from filling it by an ice dam across what is now the Straits of Bosporus.  As the weather warmed up following the last ice age, the ice dam receded and finally collapsed, allowing for a sudden, huge inrush of water from the Mediterranean, filling the Black Sea to its current level and drowning anyone who was in the way.

Such events are thought to have occurred elsewhere.  A flood of that sort seems to have happened in the current St. Lawrence Seaway (dumping enough fresh water into the North Atlantic to stop the Atlantic Conveyor for a time and causing a second, shorter ice age), and the Columbia River Valley (creating the "Channeled Scablands" of eastern Washington and Oregon).  So Ballard's idea is fascinating, and quite in line with our current understanding of glacial geology.  Further, it's not unprecedented to have a real event recalled, and mythologized, often many centuries after it happened; so it's entirely possible that this event was the origin of the biblical flood story, and also similar accounts in other traditions (such as the flood mentioned in Gilgamesh).

But of course, this is not how it was reported.  The story strongly implies that Ballard is saying that his evidence indicates that the "Great Flood of Noah" actually occurred, as described in the bible -- which is an outright misrepresentation of Ballard's position.

Don't believe me?  Here are actual quotes from the ABC News Online article:
The story of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood is one of the most famous from the Bible, and now an acclaimed underwater archaeologist thinks he has found proof that the biblical flood was actually based on real events.

Now Ballard is using even more advanced robotic technology to travel farther back in time. He is on a marine archeological mission that might support the story of Noah.

By carbon dating shells found along the shoreline, Ballard said he believes they have established a timeline for that catastrophic event, which he estimates happened around 5,000 BC. Some experts believe this was around the time when Noah's flood could have occurred. 

Noah is described in the Bible as a family man, a father of three, who is about to celebrate his 600th birthday.

Regardless of whether the details of the Noah story are historically accurate, Armstrong (author of A History of God) believes this story and all the Biblical stories are telling us "about our predicament in the world now." 

Ballard does not think he will ever find Noah's Ark, but he does think he may find evidence of a people whose entire world was washed away about 7,000 years ago.
Buried in the center of the article is a bit that says, "The theory goes on to suggest that the story of this traumatic event, seared into the collective memory of the survivors, was passed down from generation to generation and eventually inspired the biblical account of Noah," but this is so colossally outweighed by all of the biblical references that Ballard is made to look like some kind of literalist wacko out there diving into the Black Sea looking for evidence of a flood whose only survivors were the family of a 600 year old man.

If I were Ballard, I'd be pissed.

So, let's just get a few things straight, here.  Saying that a bunch of Bronze-Age sheepherders tried to rationalize a cataclysmic flood that washed away bunches of their ancestors by making up a story about god smiting the world for its wickedness is not the same thing as saying that the flood, as per the Book of Genesis, actually occurred.  The breaking of an ice dam is not the same thing as it "raining for forty days and forty nights."  If an ice dam near your house broke, releasing millions of tons of seawater, you would not have time to build an ark, you would only have time to put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.  You would also not have time to run really quickly and get a pair of wombats from Australia and a pair of three-toed sloths from Brazil, and so on.  And while the amount of water in the Black Sea is what is known in scientific circles as "a crapload of water," it does not amount to the entire Earth being covered with water.

The idea of a global flood is, to put not too fine a point on it, unscientific, unsupported, zero-evidence horse waste.  The fact that ABC News Online, and many other media outlets, reported Ballard's fascinating work as supporting the literal account of the bible is crummy journalism, and the reporters who produced this hack job of a story should be ashamed of themselves.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gangnam Style, Nostradamus, and the end of the world

This morning I have a poem for you, Dear Readers.  See what you make of it.
From the calm morning,
the end will come;
when of the dancing horse,
the number of circles will be nine.
Well, what do you think?  Most especially, do you know where it's from, and what it means?

If you think you know the answer to the first half of the question, it's probably because of two things: (1) its characteristic style, laid out in four short phrases, with no obvious rhyme or rhythmic structure; and (2) its wacky, opaque imagery.  This by itself is probably enough for you to conclude that it must be one of the famous "quatrains of Nostradamus," the writings of renowned 16th century wingnut Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), who, depending upon whom you believe, either was a prescient seer who has correctly predicted everything from the assassination of JFK to Hurricane Sandy, or a wacko crank who wrote down predictions that are so vague that they could be interpreted any way you want.

Guess which I believe.

Of course, probably most of you knew about Nostradamus already, and in any case the subject of his overall veracity has been beaten unto death in other venues.  Why, then, did I begin this post with one of his quatrains?

Two reasons, actually.  The first is that there is currently a claim zinging its way around the internet to the effect that this quatrain was referring to Psy's viral hit "Gangnam Style" (the "dancing horse"), which came out of Korea (the "land of the calm morning"), recently topped one billion hits (nine zeroes -- "nine circles"), and that this means that the world will end, undoubtedly a week from Friday, As Spoken In The Prophecy.

Add this to the fact that Nostradamus himself was born (according to his Wikipedia entry) either on December 14 or December 21, 1503, and I think we have here what the lawyers like to call "an airtight case."

Well, except for the second reason I posted all of this, which is: this isn't actually one of Nostradamus' quatrains.

The origin of the claim was someone who posted it on the phenomenally wacky site Godlike Productions (see the original post here), and interestingly, it almost instantly got called out as bullshit by people who (like I did) took the extra two minutes to see if the quote was actually from Nostradamus.  (If you want to spend a few hours turning your brain into cream of mushroom soup, all of Nostradamus' predictions are available here.  You won't, if you're wondering, find any mention of a "dancing horse" in any of them.)  Eventually the original poster admitted that he'd made it all up, but even with all of the screams of "Lies!  It's all lies!" and the original poster's confession, this still made it out into the web as a valid claim.  After that, it spiraled out of control, even making it onto mainstream media (I ran into it on The Examiner). 

So, what we have here is a repeat of the ridiculous "Rebecca Black's 'Friday' is about the JFK assassination" incident, but with the added twist that even the guy who made it up admits that it was a hoax.

And yet, still people believe it.  I have, to date, been asked three times by students if I'd "heard that Nostradamus said that 'Gangnam Style' was going to cause the Mayan apocalypse."

Now, don't get me wrong; it wouldn't surprise me if "Gangnam Style" triggered the End of the World.  In fact, I thought Rebecca Black's "Friday" was going to do the same thing, and for the same reason; both songs are so bad that when people hear them, they suddenly feel an urge to stick objects into their ears, even if those objects happen to be screwdrivers.  So I can see how either song, or (heaven forfend) both of them played one after the other, would cause massive mortality.

But as far as "Gangnam Style" having anything to do with Nostradamus, or the Mayan apocalypse, I'm afraid that the answer is "no."  The only people who believe it are those who don't know how to do a source search.  And the guy who originated the claim made the whole thing up.  Which, now that I come to think of it, is all Nostradamus himself did, so I suppose it's fitting, somehow.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lights out

So apparently we don't already have enough nonsense being thrown about online regarding the End of the World, now the Tibetans have gotten involved.  [Source]

I find it interesting how many folks here in the Western World automatically give more credence to a story if it comes from somewhere mystical-sounding.  Look at how many "alternative medicine" treatments come from places like Peru, India, or the American Southwest (adding "Hopi" to a product's name is a sure-fire winner, which makes me wonder how the actual Hopi feel about all of this).  Of course, being from one of those places is no guarantee of not being a complete raving wackmobile, as was evidenced just yesterday in a pronouncement by Gyandrek, a Tibetan lama, who sent the following highly illuminating message to NASA, which I present here verbatim:
In late December, the Solar system planets line up in a row, which is a unique case.

Fall and winter will be warm, and from 12/21/2012 Earth will begin to pass through the galactic zero band.  This is a special state space where the blanked and not be subject to any energy.

Was complete darkness and silence. The electricity and communications. Darkness will be accompanied by flashes of light, as well as the play of light and shadow.

Sometimes it may seem that roam figures – as if the dead rose from their graves. earth will shake slightly – like a small earthquake. Some buildings can be destroyed.

Animals feel the earth before the coming of the cosmic dark and go to ground. People in cities do not feel so are the victims of insanity. Can be lost 10% of the population.

You need to prepare for this change of cycles to complete all the works in 2012, not to tie new, pay off debts.

20.12.2012 to take their children, all documents, cash and get out of town into the countryside. Prepare a supply of food for two months, as supply will be restored for a long time.

It is necessary to have in the house supply of water, firewood and candles for lighting. You need to have the stove in the house, as the electricity stops flowing from 21.12.2012 on the wire.

Communications and TV are turned off. During the "dark days" hang windows dark, not to look at them, do not believe your eyes and ears, not to go out. If you see the need to go, you cannot go far – you can get lost, as you’ll even his own hands.

After the appearance of the world is not in a hurry to return to the city, it is better to live in the nature of spring.
Well, I think we can all agree that this sounds pretty dire, especially the "darkness accompanied by light" part.  I'm sure that all of the scientists at NASA were tickled that Gyandrek felt obliged to weigh in on the situation, and are sincerely thankful that he warned them that according to his information, the "Solar system planets" are all going to line up in a row, sending us into the "galactic zero band."  Whatever the hell that is.

Now, you're probably thinking, "Why are you even bothering to post this?  How could anyone whose IQ exceeds his shoe size believe any of this?  I mean, really?"

Apparently, tens of thousands of people in China could.  According to a story in The Telegraph, there has been a run on candles and non-perishable food in local markets, because of the predictions of "continuous darkness" and fear that the electrical supply will fail.  A 54-year-old university professor's wife in Nanjing took out a £100,000 mortgage on her £300,000 home and plans to give all of the money to underprivileged children, so that she can "do something meaningful before the world ends."  (Hard to imagine how the underprivileged children are going to spend all of that money in just ten days, but at least the sentiment is nice.)  The Chinese government has tried to counteract all of the silliness, putting out messages directing people to ignore any End-of-the-World nonsense, but apparently it's not having much effect.

For me, the effect is to make me weep softly while banging my forehead on my computer keyboard.

Let's just be clear about this, okay?  The planets are not going to line up a week from Friday.  We are not going to have two months, or even three days, of darkness at the solstice.  There is no such thing as a "galactic zero band."  And while I'm sure the Mayans and the Tibetans are lovely people, their ability to predict stuff kind of sucks.  No one at NASA is taking any of this seriously, although I'm sure that their receptionist is going to be really glad when the 21st has come and gone so that (s)he can stop having to field calls from panicked wingnuts wondering what the scientists recommend doing to maximize your chances of surviving.

Of course, my tendency to scoff doesn't mean I can't have a little fun with the whole idea.  As for me, I'm hosting a party on the 21st.  We'll have plenty of high-fat food, and sugary desserts, because after all, we won't have to face any repercussions with our doctors if we're all dead (or ascended, or in the dark, depending on which version you go for).  There will, of course, be lots of beer and wine.  For the Rapture-minded, we'll have a Confess Your Sins booth, although offhand I can't think of any of our friends who is nearly holy enough to hear confession and grant absolution.  My wife wanted to dress up as either a Mayan princess or like Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, but the costume store was all out of both of those, so she's just going to surprise me.  As for me, I'm coming as a zombie, and just hope that no one thinks to bring a cricket bat.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ketchum study redux, and why peer review isn't a conspiracy

Well, the peer review is complete on Melba Ketchum's paper claiming she had isolated Bigfoot DNA, and the verdict is:

Fail.  [Source]

No details were released on why the paper failed to pass peer review, but almost certainly it is for the same reason that all failed papers are rejected; flaws in the methodology, data, or inferences, or all three.  The peer review process is there to keep scientists honest; all papers have to be evaluated line-by-line by other scientists in the same field, to make certain that everything is what it seems to be.  Now, to be sure there have been times that flawed papers have slipped through.  Scientists, after all, are only human, and can miss things, make assumptions, make outright mistakes.  But as a process, peer review works pretty damn well at winnowing the grain from the chaff.

Of course, that's not how a lot of Bigfoot enthusiasts see it.  The first to respond was Ketchum's ally, Russian cryptozoologist Igor Burtsev (this is long, but worth reading):
We waited a couple of years the scientific publication by Dr. Melba Ketchum. But scientific magazines refuse to publish her manuscript which deserves to be published. And I want to remind some facts of the destiny of scholars in our field.
Before the First World War our zoologist Vitaly Khahlov described the creature, named it Primihomo asiaticus. He send his scientific report very circumstantial, thorough to the Russian Academy of Sciences. And what? The report was put into the box, and had stayed there till 1959, about half of century. Until Dr. Porshnev found it and published…

I don’t want the new discovery (not the first one, but the next one) to wait for another half a century to be recognised by haughty official scientific establishment!

That is why I broke the tradition, did not let this achievement to wait for near half a century to be recognised. No matter of the publication in the scientific magazine, people should know NOW, what bigfoot/sasquatch is...

Yes, the paper of Dr Ketchum is under reviewing. And it is worth to be published. Just the situation now remindes [sic] me the war between North and South in the beginning of USA history… There are a lot of her supporters as well as a lot of her opponents and even some enemies…

The problem is that some people absolutize the science. Unfortunately science now is too conservative. One third of the population of the USA believes in BFs existing, but academic science even does not want to recognize the problem of their existing or not, just rejecting to discuss this question. In such a condition this subject is under discussion of the broad public. We can’t wait decades when scientists start to study this problem, forest people need to be protect now, not after half a century, when science wakes up.

Re the paper: the reviewed journals in the US refused to publish the paper. That is why Dr Ketchum has sent it to me to arrange publishing in any Russian reviewed journal. And I showed to our geneticists and understood that it was a serious work. I gave it up to the journal, now it’s under reviewing.

Anyway, I informed public about the results of the study. The public waited for this info for more than a year, a lot of rumors were spreading around. And the public has the right to know it nevertheless “science” says about it.
And this was mild when compared with the reaction from the cryptozoological wing of the blogosphere.  Science, it's claimed, is one vast conspiracy, where the scientists who are in the Inner Circles suppress good science that is outside of the current paradigm.  "Smash the heretics!" is, apparently, the battle cry of scientists in general, and peer review boards in particular.  Nothing must be allowed to run against the current model -- and the existence of Sasquatch would overturn everything.  So, at all costs, scientists must squelch any paper that tries to claim that Bigfoot exists.

Reading all of this, my reaction is: do you people actually know any working scientists?  Because it sure as hell sounds like you've never met one.

First of all, the claim that the scientists themselves would squash a legitimate claim solely because it runs counter to the current paradigm is absurd.  In fact, the opposite is true -- the scientists I know are actively looking for new, undiscovered features of our universe to explain.  That's how careers are made!  No working scientist I've ever run into does his/her work with the goal of simply reinforcing the preexisting edifice.  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it, "If you're not at the drawing board, you're not doing science.  You're doing something else."  Can you imagine how many papers, grants, and projects would come out of studying a newly-discovered proto-hominid, especially one that in all likelihood would be the nearest living relative of Homo sapiens?  Do you seriously think that the world's evolutionary biologists and primatologists would try to suppress such a discovery just because they're so happy with what they're already doing?

Second, remember where the supposed "scientific edifice" came from.  Virtually all of the pieces of the main scientific model in any field you choose came from someone overturning the previous model.  Consider why names like Darwin, Mendel, Einstein, and Newton are household words.  In each case, it's because they did the scientific version of tearing the house down -- and then rebuilding it from the ground up.  Significantly, though, none of the giants of scientific discovery did so by playing outside the rules.  They used data and the process of scientific induction to show us that the way we were looking at things was wrong (or at least incomplete).  Scientists are not ignorant about their own history -- and the vast majority of them would be delighted to be the next Einstein of their field.

Third, and more specific to the case of Bigfoot; even if there was some sort of grand conspiracy amongst scientists to Protect the Dominant Paradigm, why would Bigfoot represent such a threat?  As I have said more than once in this blog: new species are discovered daily.  There is nothing particularly earthshattering about the idea that one of those as-yet undiscovered species is a near relative of ours.  If such a creature were proven to exist, it would be cool; as I mentioned earlier, my guess is that the zoologists would be elbowing each other out of the way to get dibs on studying it first, not running the other way shouting "la-la-la-la-la, not listening."  But as woo-woo claims go, Bigfoot is the one that would cause the least revision to our current scientific view of the world.  It would add a new branch to the primate tree; it would require some revisiting of humanity's evolutionary descent.  And that's all.  Proof of just about any other claim of this sort -- UFOs, ghosts, telepathy, even the Loch Ness Monster -- would force a far greater revision of our current understanding of natural processes.

Anyhow, I'd like to think that this is the last we'll hear from Ketchum et al.  Whether Bigfoot is out there remains to be seen, but apparently the Ketchum study isn't going to be the one to prove it, so it's to be hoped that they'll just bow out gracefully.  I know, unfortunately, that the conspiracy theorists won't do likewise.  They never run out of energy, more's the pity.