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.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Naveena Shine and the revision of worldviews

Being a woo-woo apparently means never having to admit that you're wrong.

Regular readers of Skeptophilia will undoubtedly remember my post last month about "Naveena Shine," a Seattle guru who wanted to demonstrate to the world that it was possible to live on nothing but sunlight and water.  Shine, who is evidently under the impression that she is a house plant, finally discontinued her month-long fast last week after losing 33 pounds.

But did Shine do what any sensible person would do in this situation, namely, to say, "Wow, I guess I was wrong!  Humans do need food after all!  What a goober I was!"?

Of course she didn't.  Oh, she starts out sounding uncertain enough.  Shine wrote on her Facebook page:
After 47 days [actually, the post was written after 44 days] I still feel really good, weight loss is slowing and all seems well.  However, I still have no evidence that I am actually living on light and it could well be slow starvation.  Now that I am ending the experiment I will never know.
But soon afterwards, she turns positively militant:
A doctor can't see living on light because he looks through different lenses...  From the feedback I am getting, it is becoming patently clear that most of the world is by no means ready to receive the information I am attempting to produce.  Even if it were true that a person can 'live on light' and I were successful in demonstrating that, I see that it would be synonymous with putting a non-driver behind the wheel of a huge truck.  It would be an accident in the making.
About her decision to end her fast, she says:
There are many, many complex reasons for ending this experiment...  I received a simple message from the universe that it is time to stop.  Because I'm closing it doesn't mean to say there's any failure here.  I'm looking healthy, I feel healthy, bouncing with energy, none of those dire predictions that people were saying were going to happen happened.
No, obviously everything is completely A-OK with you!  Losing 33 pounds in four weeks is perfectly normal!

So, this ended the way all of us thought it would; she finally realized that she couldn't go through with it.

What always interests me in these sorts of situations whether the person in question actually knows that what (s)he is saying is false -- i.e., whether (s)he is lying or simply delusional.  I wonder the same thing about "Psychic Sally Morgan" who, appallingly, just won a £125,000 libel case in England against The Sun, who had called her out for receiving information at a "psychic reading" through a headset.  "I got lots of loving care from my family and fans and that’s the only thing that got me through," Morgan said in an interview with the very paper she sued, excerpted in an article that was just published two days ago.  "Now, when I look back at how I felt, I think it wasn’t such a bad thing. I have even more empathy for the people I give readings to now. I really feel like I’m one of them."

 There is, apparently, a fairly thin line between belief, self-delusion, and outright charlatanism, and it can be awfully difficult to tell the difference between them.

What bothers me about all of these sorts of beliefs is how difficult they are to challenge.  In science, it's a case of The Best Model Wins; if your theory fits the available evidence better than mine does, mine simply has to be scrapped.  I may not be happy about it, but that's the way it goes. 

Here, though, there's always an argument, always a rationalization, always a way around admitting that you're simply deluding yourself and your followers.  Naveena Shine gets ample evidence that she can't live on light and water?  It's not that she's wrong; the doctors who advised her to give up and have a cheeseburger are "looking through lenses."  It's the fault of the unenlightened masses who aren't "ready to receive the information she is attempting to produce."  Tell Sally Morgan that she is a skilled cold reader who is defrauding her fans?  She sues you for libel.  Anything but revise their worldviews; anything but publicly admit that what they are claiming is simply false.

In the case of Shine, the damage is minimal.  Almost no one took her seriously, even at the beginning.  In the case of other woo-woo claims -- psychics, mediums, homeopaths, astrologers -- the cost, both literally and figuratively, is far higher.  These people take your money and give you nothing in return (especially the homeopaths!).

And if you challenge them, you can be sure of one thing; they will never, ever admit that they were wrong.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Footprints, skulls, real estate, and musical theater

My prognostication earlier this year that Melba Ketchum's failure to demonstrate that she had a sample of Bigfoot DNA would be an end to squatchery was apparently wildly wrong.

Ketchum's embarrassment of a scholarly paper, and her subsequent meltdown, evidently discouraged no one in the cryptozoological world, although it did generate a number of highly witty comments (my two favorites were "I guess she didn't Ketchum" and "Melba is toast").  But judging by four stories this week, the folks who believe that our hairy cousins populate the remote areas of the world are still undaunted.

First, we have a report from Malaysia that a set of 200 footprints belonging to a Southeast Asian Sasquatch were reported from the village of Kampung Kepis Baru.

Now, my first thought was: I was just in Malaysia last August, and the Bigfoot waits until now to show up?  There I was, chasing birds, and I could have been chasing proto-hominins.  Best of all, it would have been chasing proto-hominins in the tropics, which is definitely preferable to freezing my ass off in the Himalayas.  But sometimes you don't get this kind of break, however richly you deserve it.

Be that as it may, the guy who discovered the footprints, a rubber plantation owner named Adnis Pungut, took the following photograph:

So, my next thought was: really?  That's your evidence?  Couple that with the following quote from the article:
The footprints were all the same size and according to reports from Pungut based on the prints it could be assumed the creature who made them had two legs and weighed more then [sic] 100kg or about 220lbs.
220 pounds?  Wow, that is one impressive creature.  I can't think of anything that could be an upright, bipedal creature that weighs 220 pounds except for a Malaysian Bigfoot.  Unless, possibly, it could be an overweight American tourist wearing flip-flops.

Next, we have a real estate company called Estately, Inc., which has compiled a list of the best and worst states for Sasquatch to live.  Unsurprising that Washington comes first, especially given that Olympia Beer Company is offering a million-dollar reward for anyone who captures a Bigfoot alive.  This is followed by Oregon and California, but the fourth state is kind of mystifying.


Apparently, according to the article, Bigfoot has been sighted in Ohio 234 times, making it rank fourth.  Who knew?

If you're interested, Florida came in dead last, probably because of the general "if it moves, shoot it" attitude of a significant percentage of Floridians.

But I do have a question about all of this.  What earthly purpose can a real estate company have for compiling such a list?  Is it trying to attract cryptozoologists?  It seems like kind of a small target audience.  Selling real estate to Sasquatch himself also seems to me to be a losing proposition.  So however you cut it, it's kind of bizarre.

But not nearly as bizarre as our third story, which comes out of Ogden, Utah, where a retired private detective named Todd May claims to have found a fossilized Bigfoot skull.  May apparently has had Bigfoot sightings while hiking many times, according to the article:
May says he found the item about six weeks ago near the mouth of Ogden Canyon while he was on a dig looking for fossils. He said he was sort of drawn to something he could see sticking out of the ground and it seemed like just a rock but he went ahead and began to dig it out. He said at first he couldn’t tell exactly what it was because it was face down but once he got it completely dug out he could see the face perfectly. May believes this 70 lb object that he has recovered is a fossilized Bigfoot skull and says he has also had Bigfoot sightings in the same area on multiple occasions.
So, without further ado, here's a picture of May with his prize:

Um, Mr. May?  I hate to break it to you, but that is not a Bigfoot skull.  That is a rock.  I have to admit that it looks like a very sad rock, but it is a rock nonetheless.  You can now join Melba Ketchum in the "Sorry, I Don't Think So" department.

Our last story, though, is an encouraging one.  Just because the evidence for Bigfoot is pretty much nonexistent doesn't mean that he can't have his very own musical.

Yes, folks, Sasquatched: The Musical opens on July 9 at the New York Musical Theater Festival.  Billed as a heartwarming story about "about a Sasquatch named Arthur who gets lost in Columbia National Park and befriends a young boy named Sam," the play tells the tale of how they "encounter oddball locals, dodge a TV crew on the hunt for Bigfoot, and bust out into songs to help move the story along."

The songs include "Shake the Camera and Run" and "Eight Feet Tall and He Smelled Like a Skunk." And, for the record, I didn't make either of these titles up.   Arthur the Sasquatch does have some solos, but according to playwright Phil Darg, they are "dignified" and "not really show tunes."

I know I'm relieved about that.  This sounds like it's all about dignity.

So, anyway, that's the news from the world of cryptozoology.  And I thought squatching was a dying pastime.  Little I knew.  Apparently there are plenty of Sasquatch enthusiasts out there, still misinterpreting evidence, hyping Bigfoot for publicity, and writing musicals.  And I guess if it keeps you entertained, there's nothing wrong with it, as long as you don't have a Melba-style freakout if people laugh at you.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Water-tight compartments in the brain

Today's topic is compartmentalization, a psychological phenomenon that is defined thus:
Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self states.  [Source]
While I'm sure that we all engage in this defense mechanism to one extent or another, in more extreme cases it does result in stances that (from the outside) look completely ludicrous.  It explains, for example, two of my former students, both brilliantly successful in my AP Biology class, both of whom were Young-Earth Creationists.  One of them, when I asked how she could accept the rest of science and reject evolutionary biology, answered -- without any apparent rancor -- that the rest of science was just fine, and she believed it to be true, but when science and Christianity conflict then the science has to be wrong, because she knew that the bible is true.  The other student seemed more conflicted about the whole thing, but ended up with basically the same solution.

One of these students, by the way, is now a medical doctor, and the other an environmental lawyer.

The whole subject of compartmentalization is on my mind today because of something that President Obama said this week with regard to climate change.  In a speech given at Georgetown University (excerpted and reviewed here), Obama stated that the United States needs to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to manage anthropogenic climate change, and outlined steps that he believes would accomplish what needs to be done.  About climate change deniers, he had the following to say: "I am willing to work with anybody…to combat this threat on behalf of our kids.  But I don't have much patience for anybody who argues the problem is not real.  We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat-Earth Society.  Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm."

Which is a pretty good line... but, unfortunately, generated a response from the Daniel Shenton, president of the Flat-Earth Society, who said that actually, he believes in anthropogenic climate change.

"I accept that climate change is a process which has been ongoing since beginning of detectable history, but there seems to be a definite correlation between the recent increase in world-wide temperatures and man’s entry into the industrial age," Shenton said, in an email to Salon.  "If it’s a coincidence, it’s quite a remarkable one. We may have experienced a temperature increase even without our use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, but I doubt it would be as dramatic as what we’re seeing now."

To which I can only respond: but you think the Earth is flat?  What the hell?

I mean, I've seen compartmentalized brains before, but Shenton may win the prize.

Not only does Shenton believe that the Earth is flat, but he believes that:
1)  Photographs from satellites are "digitally manipulated."  Why scientists are so desperate to convince people that the Earth is a sphere isn't certain, but they sure seem determined.  They're an evil bunch, those scientists.

2) The view of the Earth from space by the astronauts is explained by the fact that the space program is a lie, neatly tying up this nonsense with the Moon-landing-is-faked conspiracy theory nonsense.

3)  The seasons are caused because the Sun moves in circles over the North Pole (the center of the disk) and "shines down like a spotlight."  (Hey, don't yell at me.  I don't believe this stuff, I'm just telling you about it.)

4)  The Earth's gravity is created because the flat disk of the Earth is accelerating upwards at 9.8 m/s^2.  This acceleration, while it would create an apparent gravitational pull (consistent with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity), has as its cause a mysterious "aetheric wind."  Put a different way, they are making shit up.

Oh, but the rest of science is just fine, and we have no problem with accepting anthropogenic climate change.

I wish I was joking, here.  But these people, hard though this may be to believe, are completely serious.

The problem is, once you have your brain this compartmentalized, you become impossible to argue with.  Just like my long-ago student, anything that brings up an internal contradiction or logical flaw is immediately dismissed as simply wrong.  It's like the old joke, strikingly relevant here, about the man who thought that the Earth was a flat disk resting on the back of a giant turtle.

"What is the turtle standing on?" asked a friend.

"Another turtle," the man said.

"But what is that turtle standing on?" the friend persisted.

The man smiled.  "You can't catch me that way," he said.  "It's turtles all the way down."

I live in hope that one day, the water-tight compartments will begin to leak -- and that the resulting cognitive dissonance will require these folks to reevaluate their position.  But unfortunately, rationalism doesn't always win -- not with evolution, not with climate change, and not even with the Earth being an oblate spheroid.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Spinning statues and rational explanations

Sometimes I run into the objection that my acceptance of rationalism is as much of a faith-based statement as anyone's declaration of belief in a religion.

In one sense, this is true.  I have concluded that the world is explainable through rational means not by any rational argument.  The only way that would work is if you've already accepted that rational arguments lead to the truth, tying you up in a neat little bit of circular reasoning.  On the other hand, we rationalists do have one thing going for us; scientific rationalism has a pretty good track record of making accurate predictions about how the world works.  Say whatever else you like about it, science certainly does provide consistent explanations that line up well with whatever evidence we have.  As Tim Minchin put it, "Out of all of the great mysteries ever solved, none of them have ever turned out to be magic."

It's telling, I think, that even the most diehard religious folks accept most of science's conclusions and technology's innovations -- except the specific few that happen to contradict their religious convictions.  Interesting, isn't it, that the scientific method can lead to right answers in the case of airplanes, computers, and modern medicine, and wildly wrong ones when it comes to, for example, evolution?

In any case, my main argument for rationalism is: it seems to work.  This is why, when I am presented with a mystery, I immediately jump to one conclusion -- there has to be a rational explanation.  I may not know what it is; I might never figure it out.  But I am certain that there is a reasonable, scientific explanation for what we're seeing.

Take, for instance, the case of the spinning Egyptian relic.  

Here's how the story was reported in the Manchester Evening News:
An ancient Egyptian statue has spooked museum bosses – after it mysteriously started to spin round in a display case.

The 10-inch tall relic, which dates back to 1800 BC, was found in a mummy’s tomb and has been at the Manchester Museum for 80 years.

But in recent weeks, curators have been left scratching their heads after they kept finding it facing the wrong way.  Experts decided to monitor the room on time-lapse video and were astonished to see it clearly show the statuette spinning 180 degrees – with nobody going near it.

The statue of a man named Neb-Senu is seen to remain still at night but slowly rotate round during the day.

Now scientists are trying to explain the phenomenon, with TV boffin Brian Cox among the experts being consulted.

Scientists who explored the Egyptian tombs in the 1920s were popularly believed to be struck by a ‘curse of the Pharaohs’ – and Campbell Price, a curator at the museum on Oxford Road, said he believes there may be a spiritual explanation to the spinning statue.
Egyptologist Mr Price, 29, said: “I noticed one day that it had turned around. I thought it was strange because it is in a case and I am the only one who has a key.

“I put it back but then the next day it had moved again. We set up a time-lapse video and, although the naked eye can’t see it, you can clearly see it rotate on the film. The statuette is something that used to go in the tomb along with the mummy.

“Mourners would lay offerings at its feet. The hieroglyphics on the back ask for ‘bread, beer and beef’.

“In Ancient Egypt they believed that if the mummy is destroyed then the statuette can act as an alternative vessel for the spirit. Maybe that is what is causing the movement.”
Oh, come on.

First of all, if this is a curse, it's a pretty pathetic one.  Can't you see Neb-Senu, back almost 4,000 years ago, saying as he's on his deathbed, "If my statue ends up on a museum shelf in England, and no one brings me bread, beer, and beef, I hereby pronounce the following curse: my spirit will go there, and make the statue slowly turn round and round!  Ha!  That will sure show them!"

I mean, come on.  If this is some sort of "Mummy's Curse" kind of thing, you'd think he could do better than that.

Second, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the statue's movement, which was outlined in some detail on the site Metabunk.  Here's a brief quote that sums up what's going on:
The statue is hard uneven stone, and the glass shelf is very hard and perfectly flat. When two hard substances are in contact with each other, then there's not much friction because there are limited points of contact. I suspect that the base of the statue is uneven, which allows it to tilt and pivot very slightly from the vertical vibration from people walking by. The shelf is very slightly tilted towards the front, so the statue rotates until the center of gravity is at the lowest point, and then it stops.
This, by the way, also explains why the statue only rotates during the day, and not at night -- when the museum is empty.

Now, am I certain that this is what is going on?  No, but it makes a hell of a lot more sense than Campbell Price's conjecture that Neb-Senu's wandering ghost is slowly turning his statue around.  And the nifty thing about a scientific explanation is that it's testable.  The whole thing could be settled once and for all by putting a rubber mat between the statue and the shelf.  If the vibration theory is correct, the statue should stop moving -- whereas there's no reason to suspect that a rubber mat would foil a sufficiently determined ancient Egyptian ghost.  ("Dammit!  They brought out the rubber mat!  My curse is useless!  Useless, I tell you!  Now what will I do?")

So, my general feeling is: rationalism wins again.  But, of course, you knew I'd say that.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Saunas, health, and half-truths

One of the difficulties in identifying woo-woo claims is that they are seldom pure, unadulterated pseudoscience.

The reason for this is that most people have at least a rudimentary background in science.  A purely woo-woo claim -- for example, that a mystic can look in her crystal ball and see the future -- inevitably generates the question, "how on earth can you do that?"  Falling back on the old answer of "because I am a psychic who is in touch with the unseen world" will only convince people who already think psychic claims are valid.  You will convince more people, and therefore sell more of what you're peddling, if you can mix in some science-y words and half-truths, leaving people to have to tease apart the claim and figure out what is real and what is bogus.

All too often, it takes more scientific training than the average person has in order to do that.  Which, of course, is what the purveyor of said woo-woo claim is hoping.

I ran into an especially good example of that just yesterday, with this website advertising the "Photon Genius Energy Infrared Sauna."  Here's the pitch:
The Photon-Genius is a dynamic energy sauna that provides more direct and targeted harmonic energy infrared (including full spectrum) than any infrared sauna in the world.
This combination importantly helps the body produce more nitric oxide (NO), the "miracle molecule" which helps preserve the elasticity of all the vessels in the body, because it is a "signaling molecule" that tells the blood vessels to increase in width or dilate. This has significant implications, because optimal blood circulation is a key factor in virtually all health issues, including Heart Disease, Alzheimers, Diabetes, Cancer, Obesity, Arthritis, Anti-Aging, ect. [sic]
For many, the biggest news about the Photon-Genius is its application in the evolving science of detoxification. At home and in clinics, the Photon-Genius infrared sauna is said to yield many benefits--including relief from different kinds of pain; stimulation of immune response; improvement in skin tone and conditions such as burns, eczema and acne; and the accelerated burning calories. But the detox application is health news that can benefit everyone. 
The Photon-Genius promotes energetic balance and coherence. Fully functional coherence of the biofield is the new and most comprehensive definition of anti-aging therapy, born out of quantum physics. When quantum coherence is restored to the biofield, the healing power of the body is now known to be literally limitless, dwarfing the benefits of any mere biochemical manipulation.
Which seems like a good place to start.

First of all, all saunas are "infrared saunas."  Infrared radiation is given off by any hot object, and when absorbed, is converted into heat.  So adding the word "infrared" is kind of like calling a light bulb an "electromagnetic-radiation-producing incandescent light bulb."  It's true, but redundant.

In the trade, though, there is a distinction.  What differs between an "infrared sauna" and an ordinary one is that infrared saunas use some sort of infrared emitter, and an ordinary one uses heated stones to warm the air -- but the result is the same.  You get hot, and sweat a lot.

So, what about the claims that saunas are beneficial to health?

According to an article by Dr. Brent Bauer of the Mayo Clinic, the answer is yes, maybe:
Several studies have looked at using infrared saunas in the treatment of chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and rheumatoid arthritis, and found some evidence of benefit. However, larger and more-rigorous studies are needed to confirm these results.
On the other hand, no adverse effects have been reported with infrared saunas.
So that sounds good.

How about the whole nitric oxide thing?  The answer here appears to be that it's a half-truth:
In mammals including humans, NO is an important cellular signaling molecule involved in many physiological and pathological processes. It is a powerful vasodilator with a short half-life of a few seconds in the blood. Long-known pharmaceuticals such as nitroglycerine and amyl nitrite were discovered, more than a century after their first use in medicine, to be active through the mechanism of being precursors to nitric oxide.

Low levels of nitric oxide production are important in protecting organs such as the liver from ischemic damage.
So nitric oxide is a critical intercellular signal, and is an intermediary in a great many biological reaction mechanisms.  One interesting one is that being a vasodilator, if you get a boost of nitric oxide in the right place at the right time, it can trigger an erection -- this, in fact, is how Viagra works.

Whether that qualifies it as a "miracle molecule" is, I suppose, a matter of perspective.

As far as the connection between saunas, nitric oxide, and health, the answer (once again) is... maybe.  A study at Kagoshima University in Japan looked at the vasodilation effects of saunas in hamsters with cardiomyopathy, and found some positive effects.  Here's their conclusion:
Repeated sauna therapy increases eNOS [endothelial nitric oxide synthase] expression and NO production in cardiomyopathic hamsters with heart failure.
So if you have heart failure, a sauna might be helpful, especially if you're a hamster.  Virtually all of the other sources I found linking saunas, health, and nitric oxide were websites that were trying to sell saunas.

What about the claims that saunas aid in "detoxification?"  You hear that word a lot, especially on alt-med websites.  Particular herbs, foods, exercises, colon cleansing, or other practices help to "rid your body of toxins," as if your liver and kidneys aren't perfectly capable of dealing with whatever toxic metabolic byproducts your body creates.  Here's what the Skeptic's Dictionary has to say about detoxification:
Outside of being treated for poisoning or certain kinds of addiction, the word 'detox' has no meaning, according to a pamphlet published by a group of thirty-six people calling itself Sense About Science (SAS). (A summary of the group's findings may be found on their website.) There are thousands of products that use the claim of detoxification as their main selling point. SAS investigated 15 representative products and found that none of the products identified a single toxic substance as one their product removed, none of the manufacturers of the products could provide compelling scientific evidence that the product removes toxic substances, none of the sellers had a clue what the products actually do, and nobody involved in making or selling these detox products could provide a comprehensive definition of 'detox.'
So that one, predictably, is a bust.

Then, at the end, the claim rushes headlong into pure woo-woo nonsense.  "Restoring quantum coherence to the biofield," my ass.  I would like to sit down with whoever wrote this and ask if (s)he can define the term "quantum coherence" in a rigorous way, and to have him/her provide me with some evidence of the existence of a "biofield."

I'm guessing it would be a really short conversation.

Anyway, you get the idea.  In order to pull apart the strands of the sales pitch here would take hours of research -- it took me over an hour just to do the digging for the admittedly shallow analysis I've done here.   Some truth; some half-truth; some misleading facts; some complete, unadulterated bullshit.  Most people, frankly, don't have the time, energy, or training to evaluate critically a claim such as this one -- and when you couple that with a promise that the product is going to alleviate all manner of chronic health problems (this site claims that the "Photon Genius Energy Infrared Sauna" can help with everything from Alzheimer's to HIV), you have a recipe for people spending a lot of money for something with benefits that are, at best, unproven.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I like saunas, and find them relaxing.  A nice sit in a sauna after a hard workout is one of the most pleasant things I can think of, especially if it's the middle of winter.  And the positive health effects of relaxation are pretty clear.  (Although I draw the line at the behavior of a friend of mine, who likes to alternate baking in the sauna with rolling around naked in the snow.  "Let's make anatomically correct snow angels!", I remember him suggesting one time.  To which I responded: there are parts of my body I would rather not freeze off, thank you very much.)

But using bogus claims and half-truths to sell a product is unethical at best -- especially when it's framed in such a way as to make the layperson unable to tell if what they're reading is scientifically sound or not.

Monday, June 24, 2013

All hail Zeus

Richard Dawkins writes, "I have found an amusing strategy when asked whether I am an atheist is to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon-Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  I just go one god further."

I suspect he chose that particular list because it is composed of gods that no one currently believes in.  Even the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a modern creation, isn't (I hope) worshiped anywhere as an actual god.  Most people consider him more of a statement of rebellion, I would say.

I bring all this up because it appears that Dawkins may have to revise his strategy some.  Because a piece on NPR recently describes a movement gaining strength in Greece...

... to reinstitute worship of the Greek pantheon.

Yup, that's who I'm talking about -- Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, and the rest.  And by "the rest," I'm talking about a crapload of gods.  The ancient Greeks had gods for just about everything.  There was Adephagia, the god of gluttony.  There was Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft.  There was Ceto, the goddess of sea monsters.  There was Mnemosyne, who was the goddess of memory who evidently doubled as the deity of unpronounceable letter combinations.  There was Lorna, the goddess in charge of making scrambled eggs for breakfast on Mount Olympus.

Okay, I made the last one up.

But don't think that I would have fooled Tryphon Olympios for a second.  Olympios, whose actual last name is Kostopoulos, is pretty serious about the whole Greek-god thing.  He is the founder of a movement called Ellinon Epistrofi (Return of the Hellenes), which has as its goal the abandonment of what he calls "Helleno-Christianity."  The Greek Orthodox Church, Olympios claims, has gained a stranglehold on Greek culture, and to be truly Greek you need to return to your roots.

Which, apparently, includes being rebaptized on Mount Olympus with an ancient-Greek-sounding name, and giving up Christianity for worshiping Zeus et al.

Now, to be fair, not all of the people who belong to Return of the Hellenes take it that literally.  Marina Tontis, a computer programmer who founded a philosophical group to discuss the new old religion, said in the NPR piece, "The difference between philosophy and religion is that philosophy is open to all ideas, and religion is based on dogma.  We support the investigation of our cultural background to find messages, good messages, to bring to today's world."

Which is pretty open-minded, I guess.

Still, there are people who are taking this pretty seriously.  The site Dodecatheon, which promotes a return to "the religion of the Twelve Gods," seems to consider the Greek pantheon to be real entities, a possibility that I'm not sure humans should be all that happy about.  For one thing, I've read a good bit of Greek mythology, and mostly what the gods seemed to do was either to have sex with mortals or else to smite them, or occasionally to have sex with them and then smite them.  So however much fun this must have been for the gods, their interaction with humanity didn't seem to work out in favor of humanity all that often.

So I'm not really in favor of the whole let's-worship-Zeus movement.  Despite my approval of these folks being proud of their heritage, the whole thing strikes me as a little... silly.  It's all well and good to revere an ideal, in the way that Americans tend to revere the concept of liberty; but when you start sacrificing sheep to Matton, the god of bread dough, you've gone too far.

And, for the record, I did not make that one up.

So, anyway, I'm not going to go to Mount Olympus and change my name to Hermes Apollyon any time soon.  Actually, if I was going to choose a pagan mythology, I'd go with the Norse gods over the Greek ones any day.  I was always particularly fond of Loki, who was a trickster god who was (to be honest) kind of a sonofabitch, but usually good for a laugh.  And you can't possibly find a cooler god than Odin, who had only one eye because he traded his other eye for wisdom, and who rode on an eight-legged horse with a raven on his shoulder.

Now that is badass.

Anyhow, that's the latest from the wacky side of religion.  I have to say that, as religions go, this one is pretty benign.  For one thing, Tryphon Olympios and his neo-Hellenist pals haven't said anything about going abroad to bring their Good News About Zeus to the unbelievers, which I think is a good move, and one that the Jehovah's Witnesses should take to heart.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Buddhist jihad

I probably come across as hostile to religion, sometimes, and at the risk of being accused of he-doth-protest-too-much, it really isn't true.  In matters of belief, I am a strong advocate for following wherever your heart and mind leads, and far be it from me to try to push anyone in a direction they don't want to go -- provided they accord me the same right.

Still, I'm an atheist for a reason, and I must state for the record that mostly what I feel toward a lot of religious ideologies is incomprehension.  When I read about various gods and angels and demons and spirits and so on, mostly what my reaction is can be summed up as, "Why on earth do you think that's true?"  But again, if it floats your boat, and you don't feel the need to have congress pass laws mandating that everyone treat it as scientific fact, you certainly are free to believe what you like.  (I might, however, write a sardonic post about it, every so often.  Tolerance and ecumenism only gets you so far.)

In fact, I find it unendingly interesting what sorts of beliefs people gravitate towards.  With the exception of people whose beliefs are what they are simply because they were raised that way and have never considered anything else, I have noticed a general pattern; nice people tend to envision nice deities, and mean, narrow-minded people envision harsh, judgmental ones.  We tend to populate the spiritual world with beings that match our temperaments, all the way from Borne Up On the Wings of Angels to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

All of which is a rather verbose way to introduce today's news story, which comes all the way from Myanmar.

Meet the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu.  You probably already have a picture in your mind, just from my identification of him as a "Buddhist monk" -- and likely that picture involves someone whose foremost characteristics are a love of peace, love, understanding, and detachment from the world.  Given that most of us have people like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh as our models, it's no wonder that we have this as our mental image of what the term means.

This image, however, is very far from the truth.  Wirathu is currently traveling around Myanmar, trying to stir up violent ethnic cleansing against the country's Muslim minority.  [Source]

"Muslims are like the African carp," Wirathu said, in an interview with reporters from Global Post.  "They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.  Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us...  Because the Burmese people and the Buddhists are devoured every day, the national religion needs to be protected."

His rhetoric may sound familiar, especially if you have read any of the speeches of Adolf Hitler.

He refers to Muslims as "mad dogs" and "cannibals," and advocates driving out of the country those Muslims who will not convert to Buddhism.  He has been a strong advocate of a "National Identity Law," which would mandate Buddhism as the official state religion for all citizens of Myanmar.  He has started a campaign called "969" (after the number of virtues of the Buddha) that encourages Buddhists only to do business with other Buddhists.

Now, let me say first that I am no apologist for Islam.  Muslims in the Middle East, Africa, and (increasingly) in Europe and North America have a lot to answer for, given the silence of their leaders in the face of terrorism, intolerance, and subjugation of women, minorities, and those who dissent.  But in Myanmar, Muslims only make up 4% of the population [Source] -- so this has much more of a flavor of oppressing a vilified minority than it does striking out against a group that has created legitimate problems.

Be that as it may, Wirathu's fire-and-brimstone speeches have stirred up the populace in a way that is all too familiar to students of history.  Recent riots have, according to estimates in Global Post, caused the deaths of 200 Muslim citizens of Myanmar, and displaced from their homes 150,000 others.

The irony of what amounts to a jihad against Muslims leaves me shaking my head in dismay.

It is appalling that Wirathu has corrupted the message of Buddhism in this way -- Buddhism has, for the most part, been the most tolerant and peace-loving of the world's major religions.  But it is, perhaps, unsurprising.  The fact that kind people spin religion in a kind fashion, and violent ones in a violent fashion, is universal -- and further evidence (in my opinion) that all of religion is a human invention.  We live in the world we create, and Wirathu and his followers are determined to create a world out of hatred, intolerance, violence, and demonization of people who are different.

As author Ken Keyes put it: "A loving person lives in a loving world.  A hostile person lives in a hostile world.  Everyone you meet is your mirror."

Friday, June 21, 2013

Cosmic infidelity

Here in the United States, we are all too aware that politicians can sometimes act in an erratic fashion.

Just recently, we had the candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia claim that you shouldn't do yoga, because you'll end up possessed by Satan; a state senator from Louisiana who asked in a public hearing why, if evolution is true, you don't see bacteria turning into humans; and a state representative from Iowa who claimed, in print, that we should follow the biblical rule that allows parents to execute rebellious children (although, in his defense, he did say that he thought that the instances where it was carried out should be "rare").  Just last year, the Republican candidates for Congress seemed to be in a heated competition to see who could make the most bizarre, offensive statement about women, with the odds-on favorite being Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who said that if a woman was raped and got pregnant, that was "something that God intended."  (Mourdock ended up losing to Joe Donnelly, who was able to keep his foot out of his mouth and won the general election to the Senate.)

So, we're no strangers to politicians who make fools of themselves, sometimes in very weird ways.  After all, Dan Quayle's vice presidency was one long derpfest, to the point that comedians and cartoonists went into a protracted period of mourning once he was no longer in office.  But no one here in the US, I think, can beat a British politician who has been in the news recently...

... for claiming that he had sex with an alien and fathered a hybrid child.

The Northern Echo has reported more than once on Simon Parkes of Stakesby, who serves on the Whitby Town Council, and who seems to have a screw loose even if you judge him by American standards.  Beginning with the fact that he claims to have been abducted by aliens, not once, but many times.

"The only thing I can remember after that is it saying to me you will never be hurt, your will never be harmed," Parkes claimed in an interview for an upcoming documentary called Confessions of an Alien Abductee.  "I think I am fairly clear in my head that I am being monitored [by aliens] very closely and if there is anything that’s seriously about to happen or does happen then I am fairly confident in my own mind that they will intervene, they have in the past."

Simon Parkes of Stakesby, communicating with the Mother Ship via interpretive dance

But it gets even more interesting, because Parkes doesn't just get to chat with the aliens, he gets to mate with them.

No, I am not making this up.  Apparently Parkes' interactions with extraterrestrials includes four-times-a-year jaunts up to a waiting Spacecraft of Love, where Parkes gets to engage in some serious bow-chicka-bow-wow with an alien woman named "the Cat Queen."

"My wife found out about it and was very unhappy, clearly," Parkes said.  "That caused a few problems, but it is not on a human level, so I don’t see it as wrong."

I think if I told my wife that I wouldn't be home for dinner because I was heading up to the spaceship to have sex with "the Cat Queen," she would react in a way that was significantly past "very unhappy."  I think she would call the men in the white lab jackets to come pick me up.

"Make sure you bring along your tranquilizer rifle," I can hear her say.  "I think you're gonna need it."

But of course, a general rule from biology is that sex leads to babies, and Parkes' liaison with "the Cat Queen" was no exception.  They have a hybrid child, Parkes said, whose name is "Zarka."

Oh, yeah, and Parkes' actual mother is a nine-foot-tall alien with green skin and eight fingers per hand.

Parkes as a child, interacting with Mom

What is astonishing about all of this is that nobody much seems to mind.  "Ha ha," they all seem to say, over there in Whitby.  "That Simon Parkes, he certainly is a character."  He apparently has been babbling about aliens for years, long before his election to the Town Council in 2012, and everyone pretty much shrugs it off.

So, anyhow, that's the news from the UK.  I must say, for the record, that I rather prefer their variety of wacko to ours.  Parkes seems harmless enough, and one article about him states that he is the "most active member of the Town Council," which is (after all) what he was elected for.  All in all, if you  have to choose between politicians who are crazy, dumb, or bigoted, go with crazy every time.

At least the crazy ones are kind of fun to watch, which is more than I can say for the dumb and bigoted types we seem to be dealing with over here on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The highway to theocracy

Two stories popped up just in the last couple of days that have me shaking my head.

First, we have a story out of New York City, where the local Satanic Temple is trying to crowdsource a project to acquire funding that would allow them to be part of the state's Adopt-a-Highway program.  [Source]

The Church of Satan, whose actions in this regard are being chronicled by Spectacle Films, Inc. for a possible documentary, is soliciting donations through the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo.  (Here's a link to the donation site.)  According to the article linked above, written by Sarah Wilson of Illuminati conspiracy theory fame, the church claims to have innocent motives:

Why would the Satanic Temple wish to join the adopt-a-highway program? The group says that they would like to use the opportunity to enhance the public's understanding of Satanism, and hopefully gain a bit more acceptance within the community. The Satanic Temple would uphold the voluntary upkeep (including ridding the area of garbage) of a stretch of public highway for at least two years. They also plan to do a little landscaping as well.

In order to adopt their own piece of highway and maintain clean-up duties for the two years, the Temple must pay an estimated $10,000, which is why they are accepting donations by using the crowd-source funding option of
Of course, Wilson isn't buying that they're really just trying to do their part to care for the community:
If the group gains approval, the New York Department of Transportation will post the all-too-known blue-and-white sign acknowledging the adopting party (in which case, it would say Satanic Temple), and in the end, gain promotion for a group that is not readily embraced by the general public. Why? Because although the Satanic Temple hopes to use this action to spread their message of "Satanic civic pride and social responsibility," those associated with the Temple still believe in and worship Satan.
You should keep in mind, however, that Wilson is the same person who thought that BeyoncĂ© made magical Illuminati signs at the Superbowl this year and that's why they had a power failure, so anything she claims should be taken with a grain of salt.  Be that as it may, she is undoubtedly correct that having signs that say "This section of highway has been adopted by THE CHURCH OF SATAN" isn't going to go down well with a good many people.  In fact, I can say with some certainty that 34% of Americans are going to take serious issue with it, which brings me to our second story.

A story in Huffington Post yesterday describes a YouGov Omnibus poll taken this spring in which a random sampling of Americans were asked two questions:
1) Would you support a measure that would make Christianity the official religion of your state?

2) Would you support a constitutional amendment that would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?
34% of the Americans polled answered yes to the first one, and 32% to the second.

"This was a national poll," writes the author of the article, Fred Rich.  "Imagine what the numbers must have been in Alabama, Kansas, and Oklahoma."

So, once again we have the mystifying desire on the part of one third of Americans to turn the United States into a theocracy.  Which, of course, makes it abundantly clear why this group is consistently the same bunch that howls about claims that Sharia law will be instituted in the United States, and are certainly the ones who would flip out if "Adopt-a-Highway: Satanic Temple of New York" signs appeared by the roadside.  The problem is not (in the first case) that people are using an antiquated book of bizarre, arbitrary, and inhumane rules to govern their behavior, nor (in the second) that some group of people who worship an almost certainly nonexistent being want a chance to throw that fact in the public's face.  No, the motivation is just fine with them.

The problem is that it isn't the right book of bizarre, arbitrary, and inhumane rules, and the right almost certainly nonexistent being.

Now, I'm not going to debate the second part; I've gone into the reasons for my atheism in enough detail here that anyone who is a regular reader will not need to be reminded in that regard.  But if you objected to the first statement -- that the Christian Bible is just as weird and bloodthirsty as the worst sections of the Qu'ran -- I would suggest that you that you haven't read it very carefully.  People like to quote the happy parts of the Bible, such as Matthew 19:14: "Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'"  They conveniently forget Psalm 137:9:  "Blessed shall he be who takes your babies and dashes them against the rock!"  People who call the Muslims barbarians for stoning people for having sex outside of marriage forget how many offenses in the Bible called for stoning to death, including teenagers being rebellious (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and gathering firewood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36).

Even people who are fond of using the bible to justify their hatred of gays and lesbians, who cite Leviticus 20:13 as their support -- "You shall not lie with a man as one does with a woman" -- conveniently don't mention that the next bit goes, "They are both to be put to death, and let their blood be on their own heads."

So, tell me honestly, those of you who would love to see the United States become a Christian theocracy; are you really eager to institute biblical rules for governing life?  I doubt seriously whether even the most devout Christians are "living biblically" right now.  If they were, they'd be in jail.

As far as I'm concerned, I have no problem with the Church of Satan adopting a highway in New York.  We've got too much damn litter and too few people who are willing to pick it up, and I don't see how it matters if it's picked up by someone who thinks it makes sense to worship a guy with horns and goats' feet.  If you think that the biblical God is somehow better than Satan, I suggest you go through your bible and do a body count -- count up the number of people killed by Satan and the number killed by God directly, or on his command.  One writer, with far more patience and time than I have, has combed the bible, and found that the count puts God in the lead, at God's 2,476,633 people murdered as compared to Satan's 10.  So if Satan wants to catch up, in the evil department, he'd best get busy.

Of course, in my opinion, they're both imaginary friends, but I suspect you knew I'd say that.  I guess the bottom line is that you need to be picking up trash for the right imaginary friend to get any kind of approval.

And to those of you who really think that a theocracy is the way to go, I suggest you look, honestly and impartially, at how such a method of governance has worked in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Then go, and read your bible, and consider carefully what life would really be like if those rules were instituted, not just for true believers, but for everyone.  Consider what life was like when the religious leaders did run the government and the justice system, and created such wonderful institutions as the Inquisition and the Crusades.

If at that point you still tell me that we'd be better off having Christianity as the state religion, then I suspect that either (1) you're lying, or (2) you're batshit crazy.  And in neither case should we take what you say seriously.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The interstellar lighthouse

I must admit to having a fascination with aliens.

I recall being the tender age of five years old and sitting spellbound watching the impossibly ridiculous aliens on the television show Lost in Space -- and being only a couple of years older and being positively captivated by the marginally-less-ridiculous aliens on the original Star Trek.  Even now I still have a soft spot in my heart for bug-eyed little gray guys, and I have the posters on my classroom wall to prove it (including a replica of Fox Mulder's famous UFO poster with the caption "I Want To Believe").  I also once paid a visit to the International UFO Museum of Roswell, New Mexico, with interesting results:

So I suppose it's to be expected that I was pretty excited about a new project called "Lone Signal" that aims to transmit messages to nearby star systems with habitable planets.

Lone Signal says, on its home page, "At Lone Signal, we believe that crowdsourcing messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) is the ideal approach to establishing a stable, cohesive, and well-resourced interstellar beacon on Earth.  We invite you to join us in the first collective and continuous METI experiment in human history. Lone Signal allows anyone with Internet access to compose and transmit messages to strategically selected stellar systems."

You can send one Twitter-style 140-character message for free, and four additional ones for 99 cents.  The idea is then to use satellite equipment in Carmel Valley, California that Lone Signal's CEO, Jamie King, purchased, to send these messages to the star Gliese 526, which is 17 light years away and has a planet in the so-called "Goldilocks Zone" where the temperature is right to have water in its liquid form.

King is currently trying to raise enough money to buy additional satellite equipment -- and we're not just talking about a couple of dishes, here.  He wants to generate enough interest in his project to raise $100 million -- sufficient to turn the Earth into a "transmitting beacon," sending continuous signals to nearby stars that seem like good candidates for hosting intelligent life.  Creating an interstellar lighthouse, is what it amounts to.

I'm not entirely sure what I think about this.

First, on the positive side, there's the coolness factor.  The idea that we might be capable of sending a coordinated message to intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy is nothing short of thrilling.  Ever since watching Captain Kirk interact with Balok and the Andorians and the Salt Vampire, I've lived in hope of one day finding out that we really aren't alone in the universe.  To me, finding unequivocal evidence of life on another planet would be just about the most exciting thing I can imagine, even if they don't turn out to have blue skin and antennae.

The problem, though, is that this message is going to be composed by... random humans.  And I hate to point it out, and I say this with all due affection (being a random human myself), but when you put something like this in the hands of average people, the results can be kind of... dumb.  For example, take a look at the next three messages queued up on Lone Signal's site:
"A dog can't get struck by lightning. you know why? 'Cause he's too close to the ground. See, lightning strikes tall things. Now if they were giraffes out there in the field, now then..."
"I'm not all bad but I'm a faithful sinner, might get lost but I'll be home for dinner."

Okay, right.  What?

I mean, come on, people.  Do you really want humanity to be the subject of a documentary on an alien world called The Derpinoids of Dumbass-3?

And of course, this opens up another, darker possibility, which is that if we do succeed in contacting extraterrestrial life, the results might be unfortunate for us.  No less a scientific luminary than Stephen Hawking weighed in on the possibilities three years ago.

"To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," Hawking said, in an interview with The Sunday Times in 2010"The real challenge is working out what aliens might actually be like.  We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet.  I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.  If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians."

So, that's a little off-putting.

The other inevitable downside is the time it's going to take.  Even if Gliese 526 has intelligent life, that are capable of receiving and interpreting Lone Signal's message, and are already able to send a response more or less immediately, it will take 34 years before we get it.  By that time I'll be... well, I'll be old.  Let's leave it at that.  A conversation that has a 34-year lag time between messages would be kind of... difficult:
Us:  "Hi Aliens."

<34 years elapse>

Them:  "Hi, how are you today?"

<another 34 years elapse>

Us:  "Oh, we're fine, how are you?  How's the weather where you are?"

<34 more years>

Them:  "Can't complain.  Sunny and warm here, just took the kids to the beach.  Little Billy got sand in all six of his eyes, can you imagine?  Kids, right?"
And so on.

Now, it's not that I'm actually against what Lone Signal is trying to accomplish, but it does seem like it has some pretty significant pitfalls.  Be that as it may, I hope Jamie King succeeds in his wild scheme.  It would be cool if we humans would finally do something with our money other than designing bigger and better ways of torturing and killing each other.

So I encourage you to donate to Lone Signal, and also to log in and post a message.  It's nice to see that there are still a few people who have their hearts and minds turned toward the stars.

But if you do decide to send a message to the aliens of Gliese 526, try to come up with something better than "EELRIJUE," okay?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

News from the squatching world

I have two pieces of good news and one piece of bad news for any readers who are Bigfoot hunters.

Now, mind you, it's a job I wouldn't mind having myself, notwithstanding that to steal a line from Monty Python's Camel Spotters, we so far have acceptable hard evidence of nearly one Bigfoot.  But to a guy who almost didn't go to college because he wanted to go into the National Park Service training program, living your life outdoors with a backpack on doesn't seem like such a bad way to go.

So let's start with one piece of good news, which is that we have a new set of audio recordings to listen to.

Craig Woolheater, of Cryptomundo, posted yesterday a report and some audio clips from "Sasquatch Ontario."  The clips are well worth listening to, although they are a little creepy, what with the sound of rain falling in the background, and no video to go with it other than what your imagination comes up with.  "This is what you get with 8 months of habituation with a sasquatch," the text from Sasquatch Ontario reads.  "This is the result of dedication, perseverance and consistency.  As the PGF [the "Patterson-Gimlin film," one of the most famous video clips of a Bigfoot] has stood the test of time, so will this audio.  If there are any audio analysts who work with law enforcement whose word is relied upon for convictions, please contact us through our channel if interested in pursuing the truth of this matter.  Your cooperation is greatly appreciated."

Now, despite the fact that this audio is of a scariness level such that, if I were out in a tent alone in the wilderness and heard these noises, I would piss myself and then have an aneurysm, I must say that I'm not completely convinced that we're hearing Bigfoot.  To my ears, this could be Bigfoot, or it could equally easily be a guy out there saying "YARP" and "GRRROP" and sometimes "WOOOOO."  So as convincing evidence goes, I'm not sold, although (as always) I am happy to defer to anyone who can prove otherwise.

Now for the bad news.  One of the standard claims in the analysis of alleged Bigfootprints is that they show an apelike "midtarsal break" -- that the flexibility in the ligaments in ape feet cause the depression of the middle part of the foot, so that footprints show a ridge left behind where the foot flexed.  This, Sasquatch researchers claim, shows that the prints could not have been made by a human.

Unfortunately for this conjecture, some anthropologists checked out the feet of 398 visitors to the Boston Museum of Science, and found that 13% of them had the midtarsal break -- i.e., flexible, apelike feet.  This neatly punches a hole in the Sasquatch footprints theory and the creationist claim that we're not apes simultaneously, although it must be said that I'm a helluva lot happier about the second one than I am about the first.

So it's a bit of a rough go for the serious squatchers, such as Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, who made a lot out of this piece of evidence.  As Sharon Hill, over at the excellent site Doubtful News, put it, "[T]his puts Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, Idaho State University professor and Bigfoot expert, in an interesting position.  He has stated, and published that Sasquatch/Bigfoot prints frequently show a mid-tarsal break and this is indicative of the prints NOT being human...  Meldrum has to revise his ideas now. This is how science works. What does this mean for Bigfoot evidence? Well, it weakens it just a bit more. After all these years, in normal science progress, the support for a theory should be getting better. We do not see that in Bigfoot research. The cards just continue to fall."

So that kind of sucks, for the squatching world.   But to end on a high note, figuratively if not literally, just last Friday we had news of a new squatching tool that all of you should purchase as soon as it's available.  Called SquatchIt, it is a "Sasquatch sound simulator" about which the press release boasts as follows:
SquatchIt has been scientifically designed to be the most accurate, powerful and loud Sasquatch call for use by Bigfoot finders, to scare friends on a camping trip, to heckle politicians and raise a ruckus in general.  It is loud and scary sounding and is sure to soil many pair of underwear on camping trips...  There are so many uses for SquatchIt from using it to round up the kids for dinner to scaring your friends to attracting the ultimate big game, Sasquatch himself!...  The SquatchIt call is a beautifully crafted piece made out of wood and plastic. The nose of the call is a plastic ribbed accordion like piece we refer to as a “gender bender” that allows the user to change the call pitch between higher tone feminine and low tone masculine mode allowing users to make the screaming sounds that many believe a Sasquatch would make if Bigfoot were proven to exist.
Well, I think this is just splendid, and I certainly will certainly buy one as soon as they're available.  After all, the alternative is to stand in the rain saying "YARP," and that doesn't sound like nearly as much fun.

Monday, June 17, 2013


I usually try not to spend much time on stories from people who are simply delusional, but this one was too good to pass up.

Paul Schroeder is a frequent writer for UFO Digest, which should put you on notice right from the get-go.  He made a brief appearance in Skeptophilia a couple of years ago, with a claim that a Reptilian had visited him in his shower, causing "unprovoked sexual urges and negative ideations."  But Schroeder hasn't made the pages of this blog with near the regularity of, say, Diane Tessman or Dirk VanderPloeg.

This time, though, Schroeder seems to have a winner, with a piece called "Self-help Against Demons."  In it, we learn how to detect a demonic presence (I wouldn't have thought it'd be that hard, what with the sulfur and brimstone smell, not to mention the appearance of a giant half-naked guy with wings), and also how to get rid of said demon once he shows up.

He starts off with a bang -- literally:
Lightning flashes in a thunderstorm, which hit trees and go into the ground, act as a food media, a power grid for demonics to utilize and to manifest.  When kaleidoscopic colors and animated figures storm your mind's eye, when you close your eyes to retire to sleep, you are with a demonic, standing gauntly by your bedside.

They use this animated psychic fascination to keep children awake all night, night after night, to weaken them towards jumping onto and then into, children's energies field.  Demons and other nasty spirits, often visit, but don't normally reside for long in our 3-D physical dimensional plane of existence.  Since demons do not have a corporeal, earthly form, it is very energy costly and quite difficult for them to wander freely, or to have their full destructive force, in our physical dimensional world.  But they CAN and DO hitchhike around, bound to human- others' energies.
So that's why horror movies usually seem to involve thunderstorms.  I'd wondered why, for example, evil ghosts always waited until night fell, and the storm started up, before appearing.  If what they're trying to do is terrify people, I've always thought it would be far more effective for a spirit to appear in broad daylight, right in the middle of a tenth-grade biology class, for example.

I know that's what I'm going to do, if I ever get to be a ghost.

Be that as it may, Schroeder tells us that it's easy to get rid of a demon, once it appears:
It is remarkably true, as is much, in wrongly scorned and forgotten legends, that ghosts and demons cannot cross a running stream.  Running water creates a subtle yet powerful electrical current, that will easily de-manifest them.  One beset with demons can easily surround one's feet with a running garden hose to break connections.  Underground streams, sewers, water mains, and below pavement conduits exist, and in much the same fashion, function as major obstacles to demonic motility and mobility.
Man, I bet Faust wishes he'd known that!  Of course, he lived in the days before garden hoses, so that might have been a problem.  But if running water is all it takes, I wonder if you could just pee on a demon?  If I were a demon, I'd find that highly discouraging.

In other good news, Schroeder tells us that demons can't stick around for long unless we let them:
(D)emons are vested with temporary powers to be used here - unless and until they can find a way to gather more energy.  For them, it is much as swimming is, for us; one can dive down deeply into the water and hold one's breath for some time...  After a short while, out of oxygen, we need to come back to "our world" breaking the water's surface.

It's the same for demons.

Demons "hold their breath"to come into our world for a time, but can't stay for long.  A major exception is similar to swimming.  Just as longer dives are enabled with breathing apparatus, a demonic can have longer stays in our existence if they have energy.
Given that there's not much we can do about lightning storms, we have to be careful about our own "negative energy," Schroeder says:
To keep demons from affecting you, control your energy.

Visualize that you have large extension (imagined) arms, that lightly brush your body's skin, from top to bottom and back again; this astral exercise changes the magnetic field of your body and affects a demon like a magnet affects iron filings on a sheet of paper, dislodging EMF connections.

Avoid anger and unlearn fear and remain calm as a heavy stone dropped into a deep lake; abandon resentments and grudges; let absolutely nothing ruffle your feathers.

Evil spirits need negative energy, so starve a demon of all negative energy, effectively suffocate it from this world, a diver with no oxygen.

Negative energy is the engine that makes it work.
Well, that seems like good advice for a variety of reasons, even if you don't weigh in "suffocating demons" with the rest.

So, anyhow, that's our self-help advice for the day.  Stay away from lightning strikes, always have your garden hose handy, and accentuate the positive.  Sure seems like an easier solution than the Catholic Church's answer, with all of the exorcism rituals, and having to remember to say "Vade retro Satana," and all that.

On the other hand, I think if a demon ever shows up in my house, I'm gonna just try peeing on him.  So be forewarned, Beelzebub.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Suing psychics for slander

Regular readers of Skeptophilia may recall that in June of last year, I wrote about an alleged psychic (at that time identified only by her nickname of "Angel") who had called the police in Liberty County, Texas, claiming that some folks living nearby had a mass grave on their property.  The police, instead of doing what I would have done (which is to hang up on her), went in to check the story out.

"Checking it out" turned out to be digging up the entire yard of the two who were accused, Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton.  After excavating their property with a backhoe, the police basically said, "Oh, all right, I guess there isn't a mass grave here after all," and left -- not, of course, repairing the damage.  By this time, the story had gotten out to the media, and Bankson and Charlton were subjected to taunts, scorn, and threats over their alleged role in the imaginary murders.

Well, Bankson and Charlton sued the county, several media outlets, and "Angel," and (although their suits against the county and the media were dismissed) just last week won an award from "Angel" -- whose real name is Presley Rhonda Gridley -- of nearly seven million dollars.

I don't know why the suits against the county and media were dismissed.  I can speculate that the reason may be that both the police, and the television stations and newspapers that covered the story, were "acting in good faith," pursuing a lead that seemed to have merit at the time.  I find this unfortunate, for two reasons.  First, there is a history of police turning to psychics to solve crimes -- most famously, in the case of Holly Bobo, a Tennessee woman who was abducted in 2011 and who is still missing.  I can say with some authority that there has never been a case where evidence gained through "psychic abilities" has turned out to be accurate or helpful.  It is reprehensible that the state of Texas is not holding the police department responsible for damaging two law-abiding citizens' reputations by acting on a "lead" that was obviously bogus.

Second, I doubt that Bankson and Charlton will ever see much of their seven million dollar award.  Presley Gridley is no Sylvia Browne, with deep pockets and a large bank account.  While it must be validating finally to have their defamation claims supported in a court of law, it would be nice if they were able to come out with something to show for the ordeal they've been through.  The situation might be different if the suits against the county and the media had been upheld -- Bankson and Charlton would have undoubtedly been more successful at collecting at least part of the award from them.

Still, it's to be hoped that this sends a message, both to "psychics" and to anyone in the media or in law enforcement who is inclined to take their ridiculous pronouncements as fact.  If you want to rip off the public by claiming you can read palms or divine with Tarot cards, or simply (as Gridley did) say you're receiving information from god and the angels, go ahead.  But be careful what you say to your clients, especially when it includes accusations that could be construed as slander.

And for cryin' in the sink, police agencies, let's be clear on what the word "evidence" means.  From Webster's: "evidence (n.) -- The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid."  Note the word "facts" in there -- i.e., not the delusional ravings of someone who thinks (s)he's getting information from the spirit world.  Hope that clarifies things for you.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Getting to the point

There is one alternative medicine modality that I've always been hesitant to criticize.  That hesitancy has come from the fact that it is widespread, so widespread that I know a dozen people who have used it and reported positive results.  Even though I could see no biologically sound reason why it would work the way its practitioners claimed, it's always seemed to me to fall into that gray area of "things that may work for some as-yet unknown reason."

That modality is acupuncture.  I get asked about it regularly, both in my Biology classes and in my Critical Thinking classes, and I've usually shrugged, and said, "Well, I don't believe in prana and chakras and the rest of it, but could acupuncture be triggering some positive response, in some way we have yet to elucidate?  Sure.  People used medicinal plants long before they understood pharmacology, and the fact that they attributed the plants' success at treating disease to good magic or benevolent spirits doesn't mean that the plants didn't work.  It could be the same here."

Well, I can't make that claim any more.

Just last week, David Colquhoun (University College of London) and Steven Novella (Yale School of Medicine) published a paper in Anesthesia & Analgesia (available here) that evaluates the results of every controlled study of acupuncture in the past ten years, and reaches the following conclusion:
The outcome of this research, we propose, is that the benefits of acupuncture, if any, are too small and too transient to be of any clinical significance.  It seems that acupuncture is little or no more than a theatrical placebo... 

The best controlled studies show a clear pattern – with acupuncture the outcome does not depend on needle location or even needle insertion. Since these variables are what define "acupuncture" the only sensible conclusion is that acupuncture does not work. Everything else is the expected noise of clinical trials, and this noise seems particularly high with acupuncture research. The most parsimonious conclusion is that with acupuncture there is no signal, only noise.

The interests of medicine would be best-served if we emulated the Chinese Emperor Dao Guang and issued an edict stating that acupuncture and moxibustion should no longer be used in clinical practice. 
I have to admit that when I read this paper, my first reaction was to wince.  Part of me, I suppose, really wanted acupuncture to work -- even if we had no idea how it worked, the idea that you could alleviate pain (or anxiety, or insomnia, or depression) simply by sticking someone with little needles seemed preferable to telling people that they simply had to live with chronic conditions if standard medical treatment failed.  But one of the harsher sides of the rationalist view is that you go wherever the evidence drives you, even if you don't want to.  And after reading the paper by Colquhoun and Novella, and taking a look at their sources, I am brought to the inescapable conclusion that they are correct.

It's frequently that way, though, isn't it?  I think most of us, even the most hard-nosed skeptics in the world, would be delighted if some of the wild things the woo-woos claim turned out to be true.  Being a biologist, I would be thrilled if there were surviving proto-hominids like Sasquatch or surviving dinosaurs like Nessie, Champ, Mokele-Mbembe, Kelpies, and the Bunyip.  A convincing demonstration of intelligent alien life would be about the coolest thing I can imagine.  Even the existence of an afterlife is something I'd be mighty happy about (as long as it wasn't the being-tortured-by-Satan-for-all-eternity variety).

But, as my grandma used to say, "Wishin' don't make it so."  And it appears that in the case of acupuncture, the Colquhoun/Novella study conclusively demonstrates that there's nothing much there besides the placebo effect -- sorry though I am to have to say so.

Of course, that doesn't mean that acupuncturists are going to go out of business any time soon.  There are still a lot of true believers out there, and they can pull in clients from odd sources, sometimes.  Just last week, the veterinarians at a Tel Aviv zoo decided to call in acupuncturists because their attempts to treat a chronic ear infection in one of the zoo animals had failed.  The patient?

A fourteen-year-old Sumatran tiger.

Now that's some conviction in your beliefs.  You think acupuncture works?  Here, go stick some needles in this live tiger.

Be that as it may, apparently they anesthetized the tiger beforehand (smart move), and the acupuncturists all survived unscathed.  No word yet on whether Kitty's ears have stopped hurting.  My guess, given the Colquhoun/Novella study, is no, since the placebo effect doesn't work too well on cats.

Although to be fair, judging by my success rate at giving pills to my own cats, traditional veterinary medicine generates its own, unique set of problems as well.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We've got your number

Today's question is: how far should you go in accommodating people's irrational superstitions?

The whole question comes up because last week, town councillors in Richmond Hill, Ontario voted to ban the number four from any new street addresses.  "The number 4 in different Chinese cultures," councillor Greg Beros said in an interview, "the Asian culture, in their language it sounds like the word death, and that has a very bad connotation for them."

Notwithstanding that Mr. Beros seems to be confused on the difference between "Chinese" and "Asian," not to mention the fact that "Asian" is not a language, he is correct that in traditional Chinese folklore the number four does have bad associations.  And the town had already set a precedent in this direction by previously outlawing addresses containing the number 13.

My reaction, predictably, is: seriously?

At what point do you just have to say, "I'm sorry, that's ridiculous?"  Now, don't get me wrong; I'm all for treating people with respect, and that includes granting them the right to believe whatever they want to.  But that respect of their right to belief does not extend to a requirement that I respect the belief itself.  You are perfectly free to believe that the letter "S" is unlucky, and to refuse to buy a house with an address containing an "S."  It is also within your rights to refuse even to drive past 767 South Sissinghurst Street.  But it is well within my rights to consider your belief superstitious nonsense, and there is no reason in the world that town governments should feel obliged to act as if your claim has any basis in reality.

Oh, I know a lot of this has to do with money.  Town councillors are concerned with economics, and a lot of economics has to do with selling real estate.  If a significant fraction of the houses aren't going to sell (as would be the case in my "letter S" example, assuming a large number of people believed that), the town governors' actions would be simple pragmatism.  But in Richmond Hill, it's just two numbers -- 4 and 13 -- that are outlawed.  (Councillor Beros emphasized that house numbers containing 4s were okay, such as 14, 24, and so on -- it was only the single-digit number 4 that was verboten.)  So we're not denying the majority of the housing to a substantial proportion of the population, here.  The solution is simple: if you don't want a house with the number 4, then don't buy one.

Of course, I recognize that this is a losing battle.  Because of the weirdness associated with the number 13, many airplanes have no 13th row, and skyscrapers no 13th floor.  (If you're curious, the origin of the "unlucky 13" myth isn't certain, but may have started because there were thirteen people present at the Last Supper, an event that certainly didn't end well.)

Superstition, unfortunately, is still rampant in the world.  As I mentioned in a post last week the list of beliefs in lucky and unlucky actions is long (and bizarre).  But rational people need to be unafraid to identify those beliefs as what they are (i.e. untrue), and there's no reason in the world anyone should have to cater to the silly demands of someone who wants us to treat their mythology as if it were fact.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Onions in your socks

A point I've made before is that if you are trying to convince people about some oddball belief you may subscribe to, your credibility is not helped if you then append to it something even weirder.  For example, if you make a living cleaning up people's auras by waving quartz crystals around their head, I'm not going to be more likely to believe you if you tell me that you had once accomplished the same thing using a Brillo pad.

Unfortunately, this is not advice that homeopath Diane Elms has taken to heart.  Elms is a Canadian homeopath and "specialist in drugless cancer care" who won "Iridologist of the Year" in 2008.  (Iridology, if you've not heard of it, is right up there with homeopathy in the "crazy alt-med" department; it is the contention that you can diagnose any disease by looking at the irises of a patient's eyes.  Here's what the Skeptic's Dictionary has to say about it.)

Elms writes a column called "Healthy Habits" for the Sachem and Glanbrook (Ontario) Gazette, and this week she had a doozy.  The title, "The Use of Onions as a Healthy Habit," doesn't raise any immediate red flags, especially with me.  I grew up in southern Louisiana, where onions are one of the Four Major Food Groups.  (The other three are pepper, garlic, and seafood.)  But it turns out that Elms isn't just talking about eating onions, although she does recommend that, too.

She wants you to put onions in your socks.

I wish I was making this up.  Apparently she is under the impression that onions have the ability to "draw out toxins."  Here's a direct quote:
Recently, one of my patients shared how when she was nine years old and was very sick, the homeopath told her parents to put onions in her socks to draw the fever to the feet. I sat up and listened. I asked her to share more about the onions since I myself have never had the opportunity to use them as of yet.  She explained that she had a high fever. The medical doctor said she contracted pneumonia.  At the time, her family lived in Germany and couldn’t afford to do the medical treatment, so they called the homeopath. The homeopathic doctor gave her a homeopathic remedy and told her parents to put onions in her socks. Her parents were to change her socks every 12 hours and put new onions in them each time. In three days, her fever broke, and she came out of her coma. The homeopath told her parents to burn the onions. They were not to bury them but to burn them because they would be so full of toxins.
Oh, for sure!  I will definitely tell this to my AP Biology students, next time we are studying human physiology and the immune system.  I will, however, add one additional thing, which is:

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

So, homeopathy isn't enough?  It's not sufficiently loony to give a desperately ill person a pill that has nothing in it, you are also going to stuff onions down her socks to "draw the fever to her feet?"  What next?  Are you going to smear CheezWhiz in her hair to magically protect her head from evil spirits?

But Elms isn't done:
Back in flu season, I was speaking at a wellness expo and talked about the benefits of onions. You can eat onions for their anti-toxic benefits as well as their antioxidant, cholesterol lowering, atherosclerosis, blood thinning, asthma and anti-cancer properties. You can also cut an onion in half and place it beside a person who is sick. The onion will draw the toxins from the person into the onion. I know it sounds odd. A few people in the audience had a hard time digesting the new information about onions.
Yes, Ms. Elms, I'll just bet they did.

What gets me here is the whole medieval aspect of this -- because what is this but the "invoking magical plants" thing that they did back in the 14th century, with new terminology?  Because she can throw out words like "antioxidant" she sounds like she knows what she's talking about, and I bet there are lots of folks who read this column and now are walking around with their feet smelling even worse than usual.

I mean, really.  Think about it from an evolutionary perspective.  Here we mammals have evolved an excretory system -- liver and kidneys, especially -- that is excellent at removing toxins from our blood.  How on earth could we have evolved a system that only works if there are onions nearby?

"Hey, Ogg," says one proto-hominid on the African savanna to another, "you no look so good.  Maybe you should stick onion in your socks, yeah?"

"But Thag," Ogg responds, "we live on African savanna.  No onions here.  Besides, you and me both naked.  What are 'socks?'"

"I don't know," Thag says.  "I figured you did.  I guess you screwed, then."

*Ogg dies*

Anyhow, that's our crazy idea of the day.  My recommendation: eat all the onions you want.  They're tasty, although it is true that if you eat too much of them, your sweat starts to smell like onions.  Be that as it may, they're a nice addition to dinner, even if they don't "draw out toxins" any more than garlic repels vampires.