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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The skeptic goes on vacation

Well, this will be my last post for a week and a half.  I'm off at way-too-early-o'clock tomorrow morning for the lovely city of Portland, Oregon, for the Cascade Writers' Convention, where I will be participating in workshops focusing on the other kind of writing I do (fiction).  After that, I'm home for only a day or two before going off to Dayton, Ohio for a friend's wedding.  So with all of that to-ing and fro-ing, I'm going to take a wee break from battling the woo-woos.  My next Skeptophilia post will be on Monday, August 5.

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

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

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


If you, too, would like to take a break from thinking about all of the crazy things people believe, there's always fiction to be read.  Mine.  Yes, this is a moment of shameless self-promotion.  Besides the books linked on the sidebar, there are over a dozen other titles to choose from, which you can peruse on my Amazon author's page.  You will note that almost all of them have to do with the paranormal, an irony that my wife thinks is amusing.  Me, I just think that this is why they're filed under the heading "Fiction."  But you should still read them, because they're awesome.

If I do say so myself.

That should be enough to keep you occupied while I'm gone, don't you think?  I encourage you to continue sending me topics -- I'll be ready to sit down and write again when I get back from my travels, and would love to have some ideas of what you'd like me to write about.  Until then, keep hoisting the banner of logic!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The wrath of Herman

We have an interesting story developing in Illinois, where a church pastor has raised some eyebrows by calling down the wrath of god on a federal judge.

Herman Jackson, who is the bishop of the Ark of Safety Apostolic Faith Temple of Cicero (a suburb of Chicago), ran afoul of the law last October when he was arrested on charges of fraud, with allegations that he had been swindling state day care funds.  Jackson was already notorious for a conspicuously flashy lifestyle, with a fleet of luxury vehicles that included a Bentley, a Jaguar, and two Mercedes, and a second home in Georgia, leading non-church-members to suspect that Bishop Jackson may have other priorities than spreading the word of god.


Be that as it may, Jackson was arrested and then freed on bond, but had a directive to live in the bedroom in his church rather than returning to Georgia to be with his family.  Jackson objected to this condition, saying that he needed to drive his 15-year-old son to school, an excuse that in my opinion ranks right up there with "the dog ate my homework" in believability.

So the judge overseeing the case, Sharon Johnson Coleman, refused to let him go.  Jackson blew his stack, and said, "Because of Judge Sharon Coleman’s continual mocking of God’s ecclesiastical order and the sanctity of family and marriage, the wrath of God almighty shall soon visit her home."

One guiding principle of life in the United States is, "Threatening a federal judge is a bad idea."  Speaking with the measured tone that befits her position, she said that she "has concerns about Mr. Jackson’s ability to comply with bond conditions and to appreciate the severity and magnitude of the situation in which he finds himself."

In other words: you can take your wrath of god and stick it where the sun don't shine.

Jackson, however, didn't back down, and continues to claim that the Almighty is on his side.  "I was in prayer.  This is what God told me.  I don’t have the power.  God has the power."

You have to wonder how all of the "America is a Christian Nation" people are going to respond to this.  On the one hand, you have a federal judge, who is clearly carrying out her sworn duty in prosecuting this wingnut.  On the other hand, you have a guy who sincerely believes that he's hearing the voice of god, and that voice is fully in support of everything he does.

Because, of course, "calling down god's wrath" kind of happens all the time in the bible, and when they read these passages, most Christians seem to shrug and say, "Well, you know, god is just like that."  We have, for example, 2 Kings 23-24, where the prophet Elisha is meandering about, and some kids make fun of him:
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!”  He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
Well, that's edifying.   And lest you think that this is the sort of thing that only happened in the Old Testament, that by New Testament times god had upped his dosage of antipsychotic meds, we have the lovely tale of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, which goes as follows:
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold?  And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing?  You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.  Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.  Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?  Listen!  The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.  Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
I'll just bet it did.

So Bishop Jackson does have some basis for his actions.  Not that the wrath of god seems like it's all that easy to call down these days, for some reason.  In spite of the fact that the folks in the bible seemed to be able to get god to smite people left and right, for damn near anything, nowadays it doesn't happen nearly so often.  I know my dad used to regularly request that the wrath of god descend upon tailgaters and telemarketers, and I don't recall that in either case anyone dropped dead or got eaten by a bear.

Which is kind of a shame, now that I come to think of it.

So, I don't think that Judge Coleman has all that much to worry about.  But it'll be interesting to see how this plays out -- if she decides that what Bishop Jackson has said actually constitutes a threat.  If so, I'm guessing that even living in his church will cease to be an option, and he'll find himself being fitted for an orange jumpsuit post-haste.

So, that's our news from the wacky religious fringe.  I live in hope that even the devout Christians who hear about people like Bishop Jackson don't believe his fire-and-brimstone pronouncements, although there are dozens of biblical passages that then require some rather awkward explanation.   So keep your eye on the Chicago area.  Let me know if you hear about bears in the vicinity.  Other than these guys:


Monday, July 22, 2013

Psychic disasters

It's been a month of mixed news in the psychic world.  First, we had news that the Texas psychic who said that there was a mass grave on property belonging to a couple in Liberty County (and "bones in the house and messages written on the wall in blood") had to pay the couple $6.8 million in damages for defamation.  But it doesn't always work out that way; only a few days later, we heard that "Britain's favorite medium," Psychic Sally Morgan, had won a $193,000 award in her lawsuit against The Daily Mail after a reporter claimed that she had tricked an Irish audience by getting information from an accomplice through an earpiece.

But neither of the judgments should have been a surprise to the psychics, right?  Of course right.

Be that as it may, the psychics may be feeling a little beleaguered, of late.  At least, that's the impression I get from Ron Bard, who calls himself "The King of Psychics," who has been trying desperately to save either Japan or his reputation, depending on which version of the story you go for.

Bard, who is US-born but who has lived in Japan for some years, recently made a prediction that the country was going to be struck by a major disaster "some time before the end of 2013."  He had a press conference about it, where he told a reporter that everyone had better listen to him, for death awaits, with big, nasty, pointy teeth.


And the overall reaction he got was:

*silence*

Well, naturally, you don't get to be the King of Psychics if you're willing to take something like that lying down.  So he naturally turned to the most convincing medium for disseminating vital information, used by everyone from the Pope on down: Twitter.

Here is the series of Tweets Bard wrote (translation courtesy of Yoko Fujimoto):
To everyone in Japan, once again, hello. I have some important messages to convey to you today in Japanese. 

Last night, I was able to see into the future of Japan. I’d like to share those visions with you.

In two or three months, Japan is going to experience a natural disaster.

My message is very important. Everyone, please retweet this so that many people in Japan will know. In particular, tell your family, friends and loved ones. Please tell as many people as possible to follow me on Twitter.

This is not a joke. If you are not going to believe this message, please go ahead and stop reading now.

But if you would like to keep your loved ones and many other safe, pass my message on to as many people as possible. Or have them follow me on Twitter.

For the next couple of months, please read my tweets carefully. As the day of the disaster gets closer, I will be able to say which parts of Japan are most at risk.

As you all know, I predicted the March 11 disaster. Around the summer of 2010, it began to become clear to me. That prediction was published in the Tokyo Sports Shimbun, but it appears few people took notice of it. That’s why I want to stress the importance of my message this time.

If you want to protect your family and friends and others around you, please take my tweets seriously. And encourage people to follow me on Twitter. In this way, many people’s lives might be saved.

When it has passed, two or three months feels like a twinkling of an eye, but when there are two or three months to go, it feels like an eternity. But time is of the essence. From this moment on, you must imagine yourself in a state of emergency, and it is important that you prepare yourself mentally, as well as stocking up necessary goods.

I was raised in Christianity and Judaism, but now I believe that Japan is the source of all the world’s religions. Everyone, please pray together with me for the safety of the people of Japan. If you pray with me, perhaps we will be able to save your family, friends and loved ones.
Well, that convinces me.  Especially since if you look carefully at his claim to have "predicted the March 11 disaster" (the day of the horrific earthquake and tsunami in 2011), his actual prediction on March 8 reads, and I quote, "Before Japan reaches a major turning point, it is going to experience a great difficulty."

I'm sorry, Mr. Bard, could you be a little more vague?  Because I almost felt like I had to take action, there.

So it's not like he's exactly known for giving details.  If on March 8, he had said, "The spirits have told me that it's time to shut down the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor, because it's about to be hit by a bigass wave," I might pay a little more attention.

What's funniest about all of this is his last tweet, about how if we all pray together maybe the disaster won't happen after all.  So this makes his message sum up as follows:
1)  Please follow me on Twitter.

2)  A horrifying disaster will hit Japan in the next few months, so you need to be prepared.

3)  And follow me on Twitter.

4)  Except maybe the disaster won't happen if you pray a lot.

5)  And follow me on Twitter.

6)  So don't blame me if you don't listen and end up getting yourself killed.

7)  Which is what will happen if you don't follow me on Twitter.
Myself, I find the increasing desperation of the psychics, mediums, and other woo-woo con artists to be a good thing.  Maybe it means that finally, finally people aren't listening to them any more, and have realized that what they really excel at are two things: (1) on-stage drama; and (2) making shit up.  And I don't know about you, but I'm not paying good money for that kind of thing.  If I had my way, they'd be playing to empty rooms.

Nor will I even follow them on Twitter.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Teacher scores and error bars

One of the first rules of handling data that students learn in science classes is the concept of "significant figures."  Although the rules for determining whether a particular digit in a measurement or calculation is significant (i.e. reliably accurate) are a little complicated, the whole idea boils down to a simplistic concept:

When you do a calculation that combines various pieces of measured data, the result cannot be any more accurate than the least accurate piece of data that went into the calculation.

It's why you see "error bars" around data points in scientific papers.  You have to keep in mind how precise the data is, so that when you combine different measurements, you know how accurate the result is.  And the difficulty is that error is cumulative; the more pieces of data you combine, the greater the cumulative error becomes, and the lower the confidence that the outcome is actually right.


Which brings me to how teachers' grades are being calculated in New York state.

Our grades this year are a composite of three measures.  60% of our grade comes from numerical scores assigned by our principal from classroom observations; 40% comes from the outcome of our students' performance on tests (20% each from two different sets of tests).  This year, my two blocks of twenty percentage points each came from my AP Biology exam results, and the total of my student's results on my in-class final exams.  So, here are my results:

I got 60/60 on classroom observations.  I got 20/20 on my AP Biology exam results, which is mystifying for two reasons: (1) the exam itself was a poorly-designed exercise in frustration, as I described in a previous blog post; and (2) three of my 27 students got a 2 on the exam, which is below the benchmark, so my score should have been knocked down a peg because of that.

I got a 10/20 on my in-class final exam results.

Why?  A combination of reasons.  The state, in their desperation to pretend that all outcomes are quantifiable, required that for the purposes of calculating our "teacher grade," the exit exam score had to be compared to a "pre-test."  My pre-test, in AP Biology, was the combination of the students' Regents (Introductory) Biology and Regents Chemistry final exams -- both markedly easier tests.  Every student in my class scored below their pre-test score on my rigorous, college-level final, so in the state's eyes it looks like the year they spent in my class actively made them stupider.

I also got graded down because of the three students in my elective who chose not to take the final exam.  You might ask yourself why the teacher should be blamed for a student's choice to skip the day of the final.  The state has a ready answer: "It is the teacher's responsibility to make certain that all students complete the requirements of the course."  (That's a direct quote, folks.)

So, my overall grade this year is a 90, which you'd think I'd be pretty pleased with.  Actually, I'm not, because my grade -- supposedly, a measure of my effectiveness as a teacher -- isn't a 90 at all.  What should it be, then?  Damned if I know.  We've combined three measurements to get that score that were all measuring different things, at different accuracies.

Remember error bars?

Were my classroom observation scores accurate?  I'd say so, and I'm not just saying that because I scored well.  The principal I work for is outstanding, and has a real sense of what good classroom teaching is.  Of the three measures, I'd say that this is the one I'm the most confident of.

How about the 40% that came from test scores?  Honestly, I'd say that number has a wobble factor of at least ten points either way.  In part, the test score outcomes are due to my effectiveness as a teacher; it'd be a sad state of affairs if how my students performed had nothing to do with me at all.  But are there other factors involved?

Of course.  On the plus side, there's the hard work the students put in.  Dedication to a class they've enjoyed.  Good study skills.  Raw intelligence.

On the minus side, there's poverty.  Cognitive disabilities.  Lack of parental support.  Bad attitude.  Frustration.  Laziness. 

To name a few.

So, really, how confident are you that my grade of 90 is actually a reflection of my effectiveness as a teacher?  Because that confidence can't be any higher than the least accurate measure that went into calculating it.

The funny thing is, this statistical concept is one that is taught in every Educational Statistics class in the world, and yet the powers-that-be in the State Department of Education have been completely unresponsive to claims that the way they're handling numbers is spurious.  Of course, I don't know why we should expect any different; the way they handle scaling final exams in New York state is also spurious, and they have feigned deafness to objections from teachers on that count, too.

As an example, on the state biology final, students have consistently needed to get 46% of the answers correct to score a scaled score of 65 [passing], while on the physics exam, the fraction of correct answers students need to score a 65 has varied from 59% to 67%.  Yes, that's correct; there have been years where exam scores in physics have been scaled downward.  When questioned about how this can possibly be fair, Carl Preske, Education Specialist at the New York State Department of Education, responded (this is a direct quote):
I promised myself that I would not join in any discussion of negative curve and the quality of the questions.  So much for promises, unless you personally have a degree in tests and measurements  I doubt that you have the expertise that the twenty teachers who have worked on each question.  Secondly if you lack a degree in psychometrics than [sic] comments on negative curves are useless. That being said,  each subject area established their own cut points for 65 and 85 more than 10 years ago: we (those constructing the physics exam) have the advantage of having a much larger number of difficult questions to place on each exam than does Chemistry  and with that greater number of difficult questions we are able to avoid what you prefer to call a negative.  Since we have about 20-25 questions above the 65 cut point we are able to stretch out the top 35 scaled credits,  Chemistry has between12 and 18 questions above the cut point over which they may scale the 35 credits.   If you wish to remove the "negative curve" than [sic] please find a way to generate 20 difficult questions to give to the test writing group each year.
Well, that was lucid.

So, we're basing teachers' scores on a combination of metrics based on the scaled scores of flawed tests.

Remember the idea of error being cumulative?  ("Your score is a 90!  ± 50 points!")

Now, you may be thinking, what real difference does a teacher's score make?  How can it be used against them?  My own opinion is that we are, country-wide, moving toward using teachers' end-of-the year scores for purposes of awarding (or revoking) tenure, job retention, and (ultimately) raises and salary.  None of that has happened yet.  But already, these scores are being considered reliable enough that they are being used as a criterion for the awarding grant money.  I just saw last week an offer of research grant money that was open to teachers -- but only if you were considered "Highly Effective," that is, you scored a 91 or higher for the year.

That's right, folks.  If I'd gotten one point higher, I would be able to apply for a four-year research grant worth $15,000/year.  But I'm only "Effective," not "Highly Effective," so there you are.

The whole thing is intensely frustrating, because it seems like all of the rank-and-file teachers grasp the problem with this immediately, and none of the higher-ups in the State Department of Education are even willing to admit that what they're doing is statistically invalid.  Their attitude seems to be that if it can be converted to numbers, it's real.  And if it's real, it can be converted to numbers.

Oh, and if it can be converted to numbers, it's valid.  Right?

Of course right.

Me, I'm just going to keep loping along doing what I've always done, teacher score be damned.  I told a colleague this year that I didn't care what I got as long as it was above a 65, because if I "failed" I'd have to do more paperwork, which makes me sound like one of my less-motivated students.  But I know that what I do in the classroom works; I know I'm effective.  Whether I got a 90, or a 100, or a 72, means absolutely nothing, neither in the statistical sense nor in any other sense.  What we do as teachers has an inherently unquantifiable aspect to it.  How can you measure students' excitement?  Or creativity?  Or the sense of wonder they get at learning about the world?  Or the moment that a kid decides, "I love this subject.  I want to spend the rest of my life doing this?"

But the b-b stackers in the state capitol don't, apparently, recognize any of that as valuable.  It's a good thing that most of us teachers still do.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Funeral march for HAARP and orchestra

In fiction, when an evil villain against whom you have fought long and hard is finally vanquished, you are generally depicted as being pretty happy about it.  When the Ring was destroyed and Sauron defeated, there was, as I remember, a great big ol' party afterwards.  The slaying of the Emperor, and the Death Star being blown to smithereens, was followed by a feast, complete with dancing Ewoks.  Even Jean-Luc Picard, not known for his effusive outbursts of emotion, stopped for celebratory cup of Earl Grey tea after the Borg cube self-destructed.

I find that in real life people don't react that way.

Last week it was announced that the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, HAARP for short, was closing due to lack of funding.  HAARP, which journalist Sharon Weinberger calls "the Moby Dick of conspiracy theories," has been accused of almost everything evil you can imagine -- creating hurricanes, generating earthquakes, spawning tornadoes, triggering droughts (and floods), and even exerting direct-into-your-skull mind control over the innocent citizens of the U. S. of A.  So when Deborah Byrd, of EarthSky Science News, announced that HAARP was shutting down, you'd think there would be Great Rejoicing, right?

Here's a direct quote from Byrd's article:
The 35-acre ionospheric research facility in remote Gakona, Alaska – 200 miles north of Anchorage – shut down in early May 2013. HAARP has an antenna array used by scientists to study the outer atmosphere by zapping it with radio waves generated by 3,600 kilowatts of electricity. Not sure how, but HAARP became infamous among conspiracy theorists and some environmental activists, who believed it was responsible for intentional weather modification. Dire events – such as Hurricane Sandy in late 2012 – have been blamed on HAARP by people called “uninformed” by scientists and other commentators. But no more. HAARP’s program manager, Dr James Keeney, said in a July 15, 2013 press release: "Currently the site is abandoned. It comes down to money. We don’t have any...  If I actually could affect the weather, I'd keep it open."
"Ha!" you would think the conspiracy theorists would shout.  "The American people have finally triumphed!  HAARP is no more!"


Nope.  You should read the comments on Byrd's article.  The conspiracy theorists are pissed.  They also don't believe she's telling the truth, so they're really pissed.  Here's a sampler, in case you don't want to risk valuable cells in your prefrontal cortex reading through them all.  You'll just have to believe me that spelling and grammar have been left as-written, because I didn't want to write "sic" 548 times.
This is the facility for the public to see. The real HAARP culprit is in Gakona, Alaska. Does anybody know if that facility is shut down. I don't think so. It's like we have two space program. NASA and the military. The military is functioning real well unlike NASA which is a shell of its former self.

READ: According to Keeney’s press release, the only bright spot on HAARP’s  horizon right now is that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is expected on site as a client to finish up some research in fall 2013 and winter 2014. DARPA has nearly $8.8 million in its FY 14 budget plan to research:

there are MULTIPLE facilities, not just Alaska!! Stationed GLOBALLY.

most scientists deny obvious Facts all the time.
most scientists are afraid to "loose credibility" if they dont repeat the nonsense they had to learn to graduate...
most scientists forget to try to disprove their own Thesis.

There is no right or wrong, just people who want to believe it's all A OK and those who suspect that it's not.

the moon is waxing to waning in a single night,doubt it,look at 3 hour intervals top lit at rise bottom lit at set,this isnt caused by cow farts .stop being stupid for a minute and think about it,,why is the moon flipping a 180 each night,it is the earth tilting on axis nightly,,face N mark spot u stand.then find earth bound 2nd optic reference and then the big dipper,,dipper N. of Polaris"N star as earth rotates always to the left big dipper north of N star should be moving W-E,,as the stars S of Polaris move E-W,,the big dipper and Polaris and the rest of the star field clearly dip ofer 70 degrees west moving against the normal ball like star pattern,our axis is being pulled 70 degrees a night or more,this is easily seen with your own eyes,,why dont you wake up and see the signs in the sun the moon and the stars
I speculate that the reason for all of this angst over HAARP's imminent demise is partly because in order to believe that HAARP is being shut down from lack of funding, you have to accept that it must not have been that important to the government in the first place.  If they really had developed the ability to create earthquakes, hurricanes, et al., do you think that the powers-that-be would have just... given up?  To accept this press release as true, the conspiracy theorists would have to do something unimaginable:

Admit that they have been wrong all along.

No way can they do that.  It's too big a revision of their worldview.  So the press release is an outright lie.  Or the facility is being relocated elsewhere, because too many non-sheeple figured out what they were up to.  Or the government has moved on to even more evil things, like making the moon flip over once a night.  (Can anyone tell me what the hell that guy was actually trying to say?)

So, they'd much rather believe that the Enemy is still out there, and still ultra-powerful, rather than settle in and enjoy their victory.  It reminds me of the line from C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, in which Lord Feverstone implies that the college bureaucrat Curry actually likes having obstructionists to complain about: "'Damn it all,' continued Feverstone, 'no man likes to have his stock-in-trade taken away. What would poor Curry do if the Die-hards one day all refused to do any die-harding?'"

In any case, I don't think there is going to be any celebrating tonight.  No party, no Ewoks, not even a nice cup of Earl Grey tea.  Because, you know... you can never let down your guard.  Not even for a moment.

It will be interesting, though, to see what they turn their attention to next.  It's probably too much to hope for that it will be something that actually has a basis in fact.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

It's in the palm of your hand

Amongst the downsides of being superstitious is that sometimes, you find out you're in for some bad luck.

A girl I went to college with had a real thing for Tarot cards.  And even considering the generally vague, this-could-apply-to-anyone interpretations of most Tarot card spreads, there are a couple of cards that are unequivocally bad.  The Nine of Swords, for example, isn't good news, which you could probably tell just by looking at it:


So, just by the laws of chance (not that true believers think that's what's going on here, but still) -- every once in a while, you're going to get a bad spread of cards laid out in front of you by your friendly neighborhood fortuneteller.  And what did my college friend do, when it happened to her?

She picked up all of the cards, shuffled them, and laid them out again, until she got one she liked.

It's a more common response than you'd think.  Numerologists -- people who believe that everything can be converted to numbers, and those numbers control your future -- have been known to go through a legal name change if their names don't add up to a "good number."

Something similar is going on right now in Japan, where palmistry is all the rage.  You know: the idea that the lines on your palm somehow tell you how long you'll live, whether you'll become wealthy, whether you'll fall in love, and so on.  Now, palm lines aren't going to be so simple to change -- it's not as easy as changing your name, or picking up the cards if you don't like what you see.  So, what do you do if your life-line is short, if your heart line says you'll never find a nice person of whatever gender you favor, and so on?

You have them surgically altered.

I'm not making this up.  Surgeons in Japan are now being asked, with increasing frequency, to use an electric scalpel to burn lines in patients' palms to engrave a pattern that is thought to be lucky.  The surgery costs about a thousand bucks, which of course isn't covered by insurance.

Small price to pay, say true believers, if the outcome will bring money, love, long life, or whatever it is you're after.

"If you try to create a palm line with a laser, it heals, and it won’t leave a clear mark," said Dr. Takaaki Matsuoka, who has already performed five of these surgeries this year, and has another three scheduled soon.  "You have to use the electric scalpel and make a shaky incision on purpose, because palm lines are never completely straight.  If you don’t burn the skin and just use a plain scalpel, the lines don’t form.  It’s not a difficult surgery, but it has to be done right."

 Before and after.  Can't you just feel the luck radiating from the right-hand photograph?


Matsuoka seems like a believer himself, and not just an opportunist making a quick bunch of yen from the gullible.

"Well, if you’re a single guy trying to pick up a date, knowing palm reading is probably good. It’s a great excuse to hold a lovely woman’s hands," he said, in an interview.  "Men usually wish to change their business related success lines, such as the fate line, the money-luck line, and the financial line.  The money-luck line is for making profits. And the financial line is the one that allows you to save what you make.  It’s good to have both.  Because sometimes people make a lot of money, but they quickly lose it as well.  A strong fate line helps ensure you make money and keep it.  These three lines, when they come together just right, create the emperor’s line.  Most men want this."

As for women, Matsuoka says they mostly want to change the lines related to romance and marriage.

How could all of this work?  Matsuoka hedges a little on this question:

"If people think they’ll be lucky, sometimes they become lucky," he said, which makes him sound a little like the Japanese answer to Norman Vincent Peale.  "And it’s not like the palm lines are really written in stone—they’re basically wrinkles.  They do change with time.  Even the way you use your hands can change the lines.  Some palmisters will even suggest that their clients draw the lines on their hands to change their luck.  And this was before palm plastic surgery existed. However, anecdotally I’ve had some success."

I can't help but think that if any of these superstitious beliefs actually worked, they wouldn't work this way.  If Tarot cards, numbers, or lines on your palm -- or any of the other wacky suggestions you might have heard -- really do control our destiny, then just changing them to a pattern you like is kind of... cheating, isn't it?  You'd think that the mystical powers-that-be wouldn't let that happen.  If I were one of the mystical powers-that-be, I'd be pissed.  I'd probably trip you while you were carrying a full cup of hot coffee.

That'd sure show you.

Of course, a simpler explanation is that all of this is really just unscientific bullshit.  To test that conjecture, I may just break a mirror on purpose today, and cross the path of a black cat (easy for me because I own two).  Go ahead, Gods of Bad Luck, do your worst.  I'm guessing that I'll still make it all the way through the day without having a brain aneurysm.

And in any case, no one is getting close to my hands with an electric scalpel.  That has gotta hurt.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tweet your way to heaven

Today I learned that the Catholic church still engages in a practice that I thought it had abandoned years ago.

I refer to the granting of "indulgences" -- the guarantee of less time in purgatory for sins you've committed (and confessed to, and done penance for, and been granted absolution) because you have done some special action in addition to all that.

Time off for good behavior, is how I see it.

I remember running into this idea when I was in high school world history class, a time when I was still a practicing (albeit rather dubious) Roman Catholic.  Our teacher, Ms. Syrie, described in some detail the abuses of the granting of indulgences during the Middle Ages -- people being granted indulgences for monetary contributions to the church (the bigger the donation, the more time off you got); noblemen getting them for visiting abbeys and monasteries, where they were feasted like kings; and some folks even gaming the system by purchasing indulgences ahead of time for sins they hadn't committed yet, but intended to.  ("Yes, Father, I would like some indulgences, because I'm planning on cheating my business partner next week, I'm going to lie on my tax return, and I'd like to commit fornication at least eight or nine times this month.  How much do I owe you?"  "That will be $8,000, my son, taking into account the coupons you brought in from Catholic Digest.")


To be fair, there was some effort to rein in the practice, especially after Martin Luther had the guts to point out how far the abuses had gone.  I kind of thought that the whole thing had faded away, but it turns out that as recently as Pope Paul VI there was reconsideration of this doctrine.  Apparently now, there are only a few things that can get you paroled from purgatory early:
  1. Raising the mind to God with humble trust while performing one's duties and bearing life's difficulties, and adding, at least mentally, some pious invocation.
  2. Devoting oneself or one's goods compassionately in a spirit of faith to the service of one's brothers and sisters in need.
  3. Freely abstaining in a spirit of penance from something licit and pleasant.
  4. Freely giving open witness to one's faith before others in particular circumstances of everyday life.
  5. Piously reading or listening to Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour.
  6. Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist for at least half an hour.
  7. The pious exercise of the Stations of the Cross.
  8. Recitation of the Rosary or in a church or oratory, or in a family, a religious community, an association of the faithful and, in general, when several people come together for an honorable purpose.
There is apparently still some argument, though.  Lots of people still believe, for example, that if you walk up the Sacred Steps in Rome, praying the whole way, you get nine years off of your sentence for each step.  It has always struck me as weird how the people in charge seem to know how much time off you get for particular actions, when (1) as far as I know, no one has ever reported back from purgatory, and (2) god hasn't publicly said anything about it himself.  I know, as an atheist, that I couldn't reasonably be expected to have any other reaction, but it still strikes me as, even by religious standards, making shit up because it sounds good.

Anyhow, the point of all this is that it's still going on today.  Just a couple of days ago, Pope Francis announced that he's offering time off from purgatory if you follow him on Twitter.  No, I'm not joking -- I'm not nearly creative enough to come up with something this strange.

The pope is going to be in Brazil next Monday as part of Catholic Youth Day, and the Vatican has announced that the powers-that-be are mindful that not everyone can afford to hop on a plane and go see him.  So anyone who follows the "rites and pious exercises" that are being conducted there by reading the pope's tweets will be granted an indulgence.  "But you must be following the events live," a Vatican spokesperson said.  "It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet."

You also have to be "truly penitent and contrite" for whatever sin it is you're trying to get out of paying for.

"You can't obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine," Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.   "What really counts is that the tweets the Pope sends from Brazil or the photos of the Catholic World Youth Day that go up on Pinterest produce authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of everyone."

So anyway, that's our weird news from the world of religion.  I have to wonder how long it'll be before they start giving time off from purgatory for clicking on those "like if you <heart> Jesus" things you see all the time on Facebook, or offering forgiveness of sins via infomercial.  "Call now!  Hell lasts forever but THIS DEAL WON'T!  Operators are standing by!" 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The hair apparent

Just recently, there's been a claim making the rounds of social media sites by virtue of the "Forward," "Repost," and "Share" functions.  The original seems to have been written about a year and a half ago, but for some reason it's really been circulating in the last few weeks, which is odd given that it is composed of pure, unadulterated, USDA-Grade-A bullshit.

The claim?  That you shouldn't cut your hair (that includes facial hair, guys), because it's an "extension of your nervous system."

Naturally, we have to begin the whole thing with allegations that this critical information has been covered up by the government, because nothing is complete without a hint of conspiracy:
Our culture leads people to believe that hair style is a matter of personal preference, that hair style is a matter of fashion and/or convenience, and that how people wear their hair is simply a cosmetic issue. Back in the Viet Nam war however, an entirely different picture emerged, one that has been carefully covered up and hidden from public view. 
We then hear from "Sally" [name changed to protect privacy] whose [unnamed] husband worked as a psychologist for a VA hospital.  He uncovered something really strange in some reports of mysterious "government studies:"
Sally said, “I remember clearly an evening when my husband came back to our apartment on Doctor’s Circle carrying a thick official looking folder in his hands. Inside were hundreds of pages of certain studies commissioned by the government. He was in shock from the contents. What he read in those documents completely changed his life. From that moment on my conservative middle of the road husband grew his hair and beard and never cut them again. What is more, the VA Medical center let him do it, and other very conservative men in the staff followed his example. As I read the documents, I learned why.

It seems that during the Viet Nam War special forces in the war department had sent undercover experts to comb American Indian Reservations looking for talented scouts, for tough young men trained to move stealthily through rough terrain. They were especially looking for men with outstanding, almost supernatural, tracking abilities. Before being approached, these carefully selected men were extensively documented as experts in tracking and survival.

With the usual enticements, the well proven smooth phrases used to enroll new recruits, some of these Indian trackers were then enlisted. Once enlisted, an amazing thing happened. Whatever talents and skills they had possessed on the reservation seemed to mysteriously disappear, as recruit after recruit failed to perform as expected in the field.

Serious casualities [sic] and failures of performance led the government to contract expensive testing of these recruits, and this is what was found.

When questioned about their failure to perform as expected, the older recruits replied consistently that when they received their required military haircuts, they could no longer ‘sense’ the enemy, they could no longer access a ‘sixth sense’ , their ‘intuition’ no longer was reliable, they couldn’t ‘read’ subtle signs as well or access subtle extrasensory information.
This, we are told, is why "Indians keep their hair long."

But what is the science behind all of this?  Simple, they say; hair is actually a bunch of... nerves:
Each part of the body has highly sensitive work to perform for the survival and well being of the body as a whole. The body has a reason for every part of itself.

Hair is an extension of the nervous system, it can be correctly seen as exteriorized nerves, a type of highly-evolved ‘feelers’ or ‘antennae’ that transmit vast amounts of important information to the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex.

Not only does hair in people, including facial hair in men, provide an information highway reaching the brain, hair also emits energy, the electromagnetic energy emitted by the brain into the outer environment. This has been seen in Kirlian photography when a person is photographed with long hair and then rephotographed after the hair is cut.

When hair is cut, receiving and sending transmissions to and from the environment are greatly hampered. This results in ‘numbing-out’.
Right!  Because highly complex cells, with nuclei and other organelles, and an intricate set of transport proteins, that are capable of sending and receiving electrical signals, are exactly the same thing as a bunch of dead strands of keratin.

In one sense -- one very limited sense -- they are correct.  Hairs on the skin do increase its sensitivity, and some animals (cats are an excellent example) use whiskers as tactile sensors.  But the idea that hair is acting as some kind of conduit for psychic energy is ridiculous.

And as for Kirlian photography, of course you get a different image if you remove someone's hair.  Kirlian photography is just a method for photographing the static electrical discharge from something (or someone) when you subject it (or him) to a high voltage at low current (the equivalent of a bad carpet shock).  Have you ever seen photographs of people who are holding on to a Van de Graaff generator?

This photograph would look completely different if she was bald.

And I suspect that the Dalai Lama might disagree with the statement that guys who are bald are "numbed out."

As for me, I have had long hair.  Really long, at one point in my life, like down to the middle of my back.  I also, at one point, had facial hair.  I did not notice a bit of difference in my Sensitivity To External Stimuli the day I simultaneously had my pony tail cut off, (and in fact, got what was damn near to a buzz cut) and shaved off all of my facial hair.  Mostly what I noticed is that getting ready for work in the morning took drastically less time, my head was cooler when the weather was hot, and I didn't have to deal with unmanageable snarls on windy days.  But I was no more in tune with "the Sixth Sense" when I had long hair than I am now (i.e. not at all), despite what all of the vague, uncited "government studies" allegedly show.

So that's our dose of pseudoscience for this morning.  Leaving your hair long so you can pick up, and broadcast, psychic signals.  I'd like to say that this will be the end of the discussion, but that may be a forlorn hope given that this article seems to be making the rounds (one Facebook link to it I saw had been "liked" over 5,000 times, and had hundreds of comments).  Be that as it may, I'm done discussing it, because I need to go take a shower and wash my nerve endings.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Shields up, captain!

Well, it was only a matter of time, wasn't it?

In the last few years, we've seen a surge in the number of claims that the government is engaging in clandestine high-tech mind control (and also weather modification, generation of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and an X-Files-style collaboration with aliens to gain access to their evil technology).  With all of that nastiness happening, it's understandable that your average conspiracy theorist feels like a lamb amongst the wolves.

But not any more.  Now, if you are a TI ("Targeted Individual"), someone the government is harassing using HAARP and chemtrails and direct "voice to skull" experiments, there is help available.

Meet the QuWave Defender -- the first device ever invented specifically to protect you from all of this bad stuff.  Here's the sales pitch:
ARE YOU CONSTANTLY BEING:
  • Treated like a Targeted Individual ?
  • Attacked by Psychotronic Weapons ?
  • Subjected to Psychic Attacks ?
  • Subject to Remote Brain Manipulation ?
  • Have you been chipped or implanted ?
  • Subjected to Electronic Harassment ?
  • Exposed to HAARP, ELF, Microwave beams ?
  • Subject of Voice to Skull experiments ?
  • Subjected to Remote Viewing & Visions ?
  • Are you on a TI list being Monitored ?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then you might be a Targeted Individual, and you might need the QuWave Defender. It can improve your life and make daily living bearable.
The QuWave Defender, the site says, uses "Scalar Waves and Solfeggio Energies to protect Targeted Individuals from Electronic Harassment & Psychotronic Attacks."

Whatever the hell that means.

Do you need a QuWave Defender?
Electronic Harassment and other forms of control are designed to leave targets feeling stressed out, disoriented, drowsy, helpless, and paranoid. Targets are left with no one to trust and no one to turn to. This form of harassment uses electronic weapons of various types to remotely torture, control, and physically harm Targeted Individuals over time.

There are a variety of means that are used remotely to harm and control the targeted individuals. Some of these techniques are: Microwave, Ultrasonic, Laser, and Acoustic weapons such as Voice to Skul [sic] (v2k, v-2-k), which are used remotely to cause a variety of effects on Targeted Individuals. Many victims find themselves implanted with microchips which have become too small for the human eye to see.
So, if you can't see a microchip, it means there's one there.

How does it work, though? I'm sure that's the question all of you are asking. Simple, the site says:
The QuWave "Defender" produces a Scalar Field specially tuned to protect your body & brain from “Psychotronic Attacks“ and Electronic Harassment from ELF, HAARP, Implants, Microwaves, etc. Also effective defense from Psychic Attacks, Remote Viewing/Manipulation, V2K, Mind Control, etc.

The Scalar Field interferes with external & internal negative harmful signals.

The Solfeggio Waves convert electronic and psychic attacks to positive energy and strengthen the human Bio-field.

By directly modulating a Scalar Wave with Solfeggio Frequencies, we are able to beam them directly to your sub-consciousness. Directly into your body/brain to restore natural balance, protection, and improve brain waves.
It works because it works! Science-y words! Scalar frequency waves! Psychotronic attacks! Stop asking questions!

I have to say, though, that every time they mention "solfeggio frequencies" I keep picturing the kids from The Sound of Music singing, "Do, a deer, a female deer, Re, a drop of golden sun..."

Oh, and I should mention at this juncture that they also claim that the QuWave Defender uses orgone energy, which (as far as I understand it) is some kind of universal life force that we all share, and that is released suddenly during orgasm.  And one of the benefits reported by "a certain percentage of QuWave Defender users (results may vary)" is "improved loving."  So there you are, then.

I picture what these machines supposedly do as being a little like the "shields" in Star Trek.  You can't see 'em, and but they're there, protecting you from all sorts of new and unusual threats.  Scotty can explain how they work, but his explanations don't mean anything, because three-quarters of the words he uses sound like they were made up on the spot.  ("Aye, captain, we've got the alpha subspace polarity oscillators runnin' at maximum gain, but the warp antimatter quantum fields are creatin' pulses of verdion rays, which is gonna make the x-5 Fleegman junctions blow out before the next commercial break if we don't do somethin'...")

Because, after all, ye canna change the laws o' physics.

If you're wondering, by now, how much these things cost, the answer is: a lot.  The "Personal Defender," which is small enough to put in your pocket or purse so you can carry it around with you, and even "wear it as a pendant," is $297.  The "Tabletop Defender," which looks a little like an iPad and is for protecting your home, is $499.  Plus, in both cases, shipping and handling.

You know, I have to admit some grudging admiration for these people.  You take an imaginary threat, but one that a lot of people have become convinced of, and then sell them a useless device to protect them from the imaginary threat.  It's brilliant, really.  And given how well the placebo effect works, I have no doubt that people will report positive results.  There is a whole page full of video testimonials, my favorite of which I quote in its entirety below:
Hi, I'm Chris McKim, and I recently purchased a Tabletop QuWave Defender from QuWave.  I have the Defender, the Personal Defender, and it worked pretty well, so I decided I was gonna try the Tabletop Defender.  And for the last two days, I have not heard a damn voice in my head.  It's the first time in about eight years, so that's a nice change of pace.  I'm actually thinking about cleaning my house for the first time in quite a while, I know that sounds kinda sketchy, but you know, when your life is shit, you don't give a fuck about where you're living.  Excuse my language.  But now I do, and I'm gonna clean my house.  I think I like it a lot.  The lights are on, and that tells me it's working.  See?  [holds up the device]  The lights are on, and that tells me it's working.  And best of all, the signs inside me are telling me it's working.  So, I highly recommend it.  You can return it if it doesn't work.  I hope you'll give it a try, because if it makes your life better, it's well worth it.  Especially if you buy both of them together, you get a good deal.  So, thanks for listening to me.  Bye-bye.
Well, with a scientifically-controlled study like that, who can argue?

Anyhow, that's our bit of woo-woo weirdness for today.  For the record, I'm not going to buy one.  I'm not feeling any particular need for protection from the voices in my head, and as far as I can tell I'm not being harassed by HAARP, psychotronic attack, microwave beams, or microchips.  Right now, the only one who is harassing me is my dog, who wants his breakfast, and I doubt that the "QuWave Defender" would do a damn thing to help me in that regard.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Saturday shorts

Well, it's Saturday, the beginning of the weekend, and here at Skeptophilia we're hard at work following three stories for your facepalming enjoyment.

First, we have an update from the bible-is-literally-true crowd.  Long-time readers of this blog may remember that back in 2011 we had an announcement from Donna D'Errico, former star of Baywatch, that she was going to be spearheading an expedition to Mount Ararat in Turkey to try to find Noah's Ark.  D'Errico's qualifications for leading the mission seem to be twofold: (1) she has dreamed of finding Noah's Ark since she was ten; and (2) she likes people to take videos of her.  The climb went off without a hitch, unless you count the fact that they didn't find Noah's Ark because it basically doesn't exist.

Of course, you shouldn't let a little thing like reality stand in the way of pursuing your dream, so D'Errico and her team are trying to launch another expedition, this time using a Kickstarter project to fund it.

Even if she gets the money -- and when I looked, she'd raised $2,900 of the $10,000 she's asking for -- she'll still have a rough time ahead, she says.

In a quote I swear I am not making up, D'Errico wrote on her Kickstarter page, "To get to the area where we believe the ark is located, we will have to climb using ropes, traverse cliffs, circumvent rock slides, avoid mountain rebels, survive blinding blizzards, and fend off vicious sheepdogs."


As far as objections to the entire Great Flood story, and how anyone could believe it was true unless they had the IQ of a grapefruit, D'Errico says that it's completely logical.

"If you do the math, the total cubic volume inside the ark would have been roughly 1.5 million cubic feet," she told The Huffington Post by email. "That’s the equivalent of 569 modern railroad stock cars. The average stock car can accommodate 240 sheep, which would have been the average size animal on the ark.  Keep in mind that the Bible did not say two of every species, but rather two of every kind. That means that one feline kind, rather than every species of feline, would have been taken aboard the ark.  Smaller animals would have been kept in cages that could stack on top of each other. As few as 2,000 animal kinds could have been taken aboard the ark, which would have resulted in all of the species we have today."

Right.  2,000 "animal kinds" resulting in 15 million species in 5,000 years (give or take).  Not to mention the fact that the entire Earth being covered in salt water would have killed all of the plants.  Not to mention the wee problem of bringing, for example, the wombats back to Australia after the waters receded.  Nor the problem of where exactly the waters receded to.

But other than that, it's completely logical.


Speaking of not being in touch with reality, we have a story in from Poland that there is going to be a meeting of exorcists soon.  On the agenda: discussing the threat of Madonna.

You would think that, given that these people apparently believe that the world is being besieged by evil supernatural emissaries of Satan who are trying to destroy our souls, they would have more pressing issues to discuss than a 54-year-old has-been pop star.

You would be wrong.

"Part of the conference is dedicated to the hidden subliminal message in communication, and the choice of this subject was inspired by the woman who dares to call herself Madonna," said Father Andrzej Grefkowic, a trained exorcist who is one of the organisers of the conference.  "We've been worried about her concerts."

Well, one of the reasons that Madonna dares to call herself that is that it's her actual name.  And I don't know how "subliminal" you can call her message, given that she once staged a mock crucifixion at one of her shows.  But okay, I can grant them that she pisses off Catholics with great regularity.

Other things that Grefkowic et al. will be discussing are how the increasing popularity of tattoos and body piercings represent a means of ingress for the devil into people's lives.  But as I've discussed before, this is rather thin ice for me personally, so perhaps I'd better just move on.


If you're not in the mood for discussing the evils of pop stars, but you'd still like to find out about the bizarre side of religion, perhaps you should sign up for the "Defending the Faith" cruise sponsored by Catholic Answers.  This holy voyage will be from November 2 - November 9 of this year, and besides some of the usual shipboard activities (a pool, a rock-climbing wall, an ice skating rink, a spa, a nightclub, and several bars) there will be talks, lectures, and panel discussions on Catholic apologetics, not to mention daily Mass.

In particular -- and they must feel it's important because it was quoted on the front page -- Catholic Answers Director of Development Christopher Check will be giving an interesting talk.  "On the cruise, I’ll be defending the Church against the charges that the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are events for which we Catholics need to apologize," Check writes.

Now, I'm a staunch believer in the idea that no one is responsible for bad things his or her ancestors did (or should bask in the glory of good things they did, either, for that matter).  But the Catholic Church, which just recently issued a 400-year-too-late apology for placing Galileo under house arrest for the remainder of his life for publicly stating that the Earth went around the Sun, really does have a lot to answer for as an institution.  And it's reprehensible that Check and his comrades seem to be claiming that the Catholic Church at the time was acting within its rights to launch people off to "reclaim the Holy Land" from innocent people who had lived there for generations, and to torture and execute thousands for heresy and witchcraft.

But if that sort of thing is your cup of tea, have at it.  Failing that, you can go to Poland and discuss the most recent depredations of Madonna.  Or go to Turkey and join Donna D'Errico in an expedition to once again not find Noah's Ark.  If you believe this stuff, there are thousands of pointless activities you can participate in!  Me, I think I'll stay home and weed the garden.  And frankly, it seems like in doing so I'll accomplish a great deal more toward improving the world.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Poe's Law, chemtrails, and dying angels

Yesterday I ran into a site that is either the most extreme example of conspiracy theory insanity I've seen, or else one of the best examples of Poe's Law ever created.  I'm leaning toward the latter, especially given that the site's name is Hard Dawn (say it fast and you'll get it; a hint is that one of their links is titled, "How Should I Punish My Son for Masturbating?").

But an even better story is one titled "Are Militant Atheists Using Chemtrails to Poison the Angels in Heaven?"

In it, readers find out that we militant atheists have another agenda, besides seducing your women and bewitching your children (those are givens, after all):
Yet another theory that has been gaining traction and deserves serious consideration is that America’s massive science-industrial complex is attempting a most dangerous experiment. Since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, we have seen a grave movement towards science-based strategic thinking in all forms of national policy. Whole swathes of government have been taken over by academic PhDs with an intense obsession with scientism. From the National Science Board to the Department of Education, from NASA to the National Institute of Standards, a powerful cadre of elite intellectuals is seizing control. A common thread amongst these activist bureaucrats is a love of science over God...

So what is at the heart of this secret society of globalist atheism? One of their most significant concerns is the power of Faith. They despise the Glory of Jesus and the hope that He brings to countless Americans. The atheists are so insanely dedicated to their obscene cult they will try just about anything to destroy every remnant of Christian Love on this earth. As this sickening obsession was wed to advances in aerial spraying technology in the last century, one can surmise the evil compound that resulted. In this formula, it seems quite logical that the atheist’s next step would be to attempt the widespread murder of Jesus’s very Heavenly Agents of Love.

Angels. They are much more than a Christian bedtime story. They are much more than the sweet flutterings in the ears of believers. Angels are quite literally the factory workers of faith. They are tireless and everywhere. They accomplish innumerable feats, from minor pangs of guilt to the throbbing passions of love. The angels are there to guide us, to inspire us and, ultimately, to remind us of our obligation to Jesus. The fly through the air at His beckoning. They are gentle and ever willing. We would be far less human and humane were it not for the angels. And that is exactly why atheists fear the power of angels.

Atheists shake with contempt at the thought of love and decency. Their whole lives are dedicated to nothingness, to the gaping void of pain that nihilism defines. Indeed, atheists love pain. They love pain in their sexual rituals, in their drug addictions and in their secret globalist power schemes. Why do we have war? It’s the atheists who spread contempt of God and invite such reckless notions of communism and Islam.

Will Atheistic Science Annihilate Love and Prayer?

As secret atheist scientists in government pursue their goals of undermining Jesus in America, it only stands to reason that they would take their battle to the skies. The aerial dogfight is likely a vicious one. Who knows what advances they have made since the days of DDT and Agent Orange. Yet fight on they do, every single day! Our heavens are coated in a thick aerosol haze of spiritual hate and this nation’s faith is sinking.
 I have only one thing to add to all of this:

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

Now, let me be up front that I think this is satire.  It's damn good satire, but still.  However, what makes my laughter ring a little hollow is the fact that this post had, when I looked at it, over three hundred comments... and most of those strike me as serious.

Really serious.  Like they believe this article.  Like they believe it vehemently enough to take action.  Here's a sampler, or at least as many as I could copy before I felt my IQ dropping down toward a level more commonly associated with shoe sizes.  Spelling and grammar are as written:
It would be just like Obama and his Nazi Muslim agenda to try to do soemthing like this.  When they elected him all thereal Americans with any sense knew what he was.  Now we're seeing the results.

Its going to be war in Heaven and war on earth.  Gods time is at hand.  Trust your soul to Jesus or die in agony!

Weather modification has been practiced for decades.  How do you think Katrina came about?  And Sandy?  You think those are NATURAL EVENTS?  Wake up!

The whole government is in secret run by the Illuminati with their atheist agenda to replace worshiping GOD with worshiping a manmade institution.  This is the Beast that was fortold in the Book of Revelation.  We have created the Beast.  It runs on money and spews out poison.  Is it any wonder that their trying to take away our guns?  The first step is disarm the citizens.  After that you can do anything you want and no one can stop you.

You will know them by their works.  Jesus weeps to see what you have done!
I... um... yeah.  Please reassure me that none of these people know where I live?

I guess that's the danger with satire, as I've pointed out before.  Even broad-brush satire, from a source that is well known to be satirical (such as The Onion), has fooled people (Xinhua and Pravda have both been bitten on the ass by Poe's Law, not once but several times).

But what's frightening is to think that there are people who are so angry, fearful, and indoctrinated that they would read an article like this, and think it was true.  Makes you wonder what else they're capable of, doesn't it?  It's a dangerous combination: a belief that the word of god is being subverted, a feeling of being in mortal danger, and a target group whom they have been brainwashed into thinking is responsible.  Not so far off from what the Nazis convinced people of, is it?

So, that's our dip in the deep end of the pool for this morning, which started out being funny and ended up being not so funny after all.  As for me, I'm going to get myself together and go canoeing.  I am not, for the record, going to attend any Secret Atheist Global Domination Meetings or engage in any Depraved Sexual Pain Rituals.  Canoeing, frankly, sounds more fun than either one of these.

UPDATE:  Apparently since last night, the Hard Dawn site has changed to being password-protected.  The site had been linked on the r/atheism subreddit, and perhaps the traffic was becoming too high.  But isn't that a little odd, if it is satire?  Wouldn't the writers of a satirical website be thrilled to have a sudden jump in their hit rate?  Hmmm.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  The site not only made r/atheism, it also made P. Z. Myers' wonderful blog Pharyngula.  Check out Myers' take on the website here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The crypto zoo

This morning I was perusing my usual round of woo-woo websites when I came across a story called "Is this the Ohio Grassman?"  It featured the following photograph:


Turns out some guys from The Appalachian Investigators of Mysterious Sightings recently caught the image on a game camera, and it became the subject of an episode of Destination America: Mountain Monsters.

Well, first, I'd never heard of the television series, which isn't all that odd, because (1) I don't watch television, and (2) new series about paranormal stuff crop up every week, sort of like crabgrass in my garden only less appealing.  But more surprising was that I hadn't heard of the Grassman either, despite my rather guilty fascination with cryptozoology since I was a teenager.

So I decided to do some research on the Grassman, which led me to his Wikipedia page, wherein I learned that the Grassman is basically a shaggy subspecies of Bigfoot that lives near Akron, Ohio, and whose "main food source is wheat grass" but who "also enjoys eating small dogs such as poodles."

I guess you have to get your protein somewhere.

So while I was on the Grassman's Wikipedia page, I scrolled down, and found a link that said "List of Cryptids."   Naturally, I had to go there, figuring that if I'd missed the Ohio Grassman I might have missed others.

Boy, did that turn out to be an understatement.

Turns out there's a whole petting zoo's worth of cryptids that I didn't know about.  Here's a sampler:
  • The Adjule of North Africa, a giant type of wild dog
  • The Agogwe of East Africa, a small bipedal forest hominin
  • The Ahool of Indonesia, a giant flying pterodactyloid cryptid
  • The Akkorokamul of Thailand, a giant squidlike thing (sort of a Southeast Asian Cthulhu clone)
  • The Almas of the Caucasus Mountains, a Sasquatch sort
  • The Altamahaha of Georgia (the American Georgia), an enormous river monster
  • The Amomongo of the Philippines, a huge forest ape
  • The Aswang of the Philippines, a vampiric shape-shifting beast
  • The Arica Monster of Chile, a velociraptor
  • The Ayia Napa Sea Monster of Cyprus, a sea serpent
I hadn't heard of any of those, and those are just the A's.  And each one has its own Wikipedia page, wherein you can find out about its habits, range, behavior, and natural history.  (I found it amusing that the "status" for each of these was listed as "unconfirmed."  Well, duh.  Once it's confirmed, it's no longer a "cryptid," just an "animal.")

All of this just highlights some things that I've noted before: 
(1) Humans have excellent imaginations. 

(2) It's easy to mistake one thing for another -- for example, a bat for a pterodactyl.  Especially at night, and especially when you've been drinking. 

(3) There are some odd critters out there, and it is possible that some of these things are real.  But to accept that, I would need better evidence than a blurry photograph.  I know how to take blurry photographs myself, and I know how easily they can be digitally manipulated -- i.e., faked.  However, it must be said that the sheer number of different cryptid claims is so high that it seems unlikely in the extreme that all, or even most, of them are true.
So, anyway, that's our cryptozoological report for the day, along with a suggestion of further reading.  If you go through all the Wikipedia links for all of the cryptids, it'll take you a while, so I suggest you get yourself a nice big cup of coffee and get right on that.   Let me know which ones strike your fancy -- there are some real contenders, here, such as the "Flatwoods Monster" of Braxton County, West Virginia, which is described as follows:
Most agree that it was at least 10 feet tall and that it had a red face which appeared to glow from within, and a green body. Witnesses described the creature's head as having bulging, non-human eyes and as either being shaped like a heart, or as having a large heart shaped cowling behind it. The creature's body was described as being man-shaped and clad in a dark pleated skirt; later described as being green. Some accounts record that the creature had no visible arms, while others describe it as having short, stubby arms; ending in long, claw-like fingers, which protruded from the front of its body.
I don't know how you can beat a ten-foot-tall red-faced bulgy-eyed monster with claws, wearing a pleated skirt.  But that's just me.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

See the violence inherent in the system!

Yesterday I ran across an article on the bizarre website The Mind Unleashed that is mostly interesting for what it says about scientists.

Called "Suppressed Scientific Evidence Proves Free Energy Source Dating Back 25,000 Years," the majority of the article is just the usual tired old claptrap about pyramids concentrating Quantum Wave Frequency Vibration Oscillation Resonance Energies, or something like that.  As usual, it's hard to tell exactly what they are saying, because rigorous analysis is something woo-woos avoid like the plague.  We're not given any actual evidence, of course; we're just treated to passages like this one:
[Author Phillip Coppens said,] “The pyramids are proof that our ancestors knew and worked with an energy technology that we are now finally able to measure, but are still short of fully understanding.” Coppens along with Klaus Dona of Austria and dozens of speakers attended the International Conference Bosnia Pyramid in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina which is held annually to release findings to the public.

[Archaeologist Dr. Sam] Osmanagich has had a host of experts in various fields come to see his Bosnian pyramids, and measure anomalies associated with them. They have included the noted British scientist and inventor Harry Oldfield, who used a special camera system to photograph alleged electromagnetic (EM) waves in the vicinity of Visocica Hill.
So there's nothing really new here in terms of actual data.  But what caught my attention was the way the author claimed that scientists are suppressing this information, out of some sort of misplaced loyalty to the status quo:
Overwhelming evidence, supported by scientific research from all over the archaeological community proves that our recorded history is wrong concerning turn changes [sic] religion, science and academics... Prominent archaeologists have attempted smear campaigns on Dr. Osmanagich’s work out of fear of how the impact of his discoveries will make on their own work...

Is it possible that the fossil fuel based energy system we now rely on could have been prevented if inventor Nikola Tesla’s work on free energy hadn’t been suppressed? Why did the FBI seize his papers upon his death? Tesla’s (1856-1943) patented free energy methods were rejected due to their inability to be metered and monetized. “We urgently need to change our mistaken point of view that our ancestors were stupid and accept that they had an advanced understanding of the fabric of nature and the universe, just like Nikola Tesla, whose ideas were suppressed as they did not and do not fit in the reigning model,” states Phillip Coppens, author and investigative journalist.
My first thought upon reading this was: do you know any actual scientists?  Because it sure as hell sounds like you've never met one.

Let's consider the following scenario.  A physicist, working in a lab, runs an experiment and finds that her data seems to indicate that there are exceptions to the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics -- that you can, in fact, create energy from nothing.  Such a finding, if verified, would overturn all of physics as we know it.  So said physicist shows a few of her colleagues, the experiment is repeated, and lo and behold, it seems to be true.  What does she do?
1)  She writes a paper on it, urging other physicists to test her results and see if it can be explained.

2)  She doesn't tell anyone, because the Laws of Thermodynamics are laws, dammit.  You get in serious trouble for breaking laws.  Besides, we can't have any challenges to the pre-existing paradigm!  This is science!
I hope the answer is obvious.  If there really was evidence that any of the hitherto-accepted laws of physics were wrong, scientists would be trampling each other to death trying to get to the grant money first.  Doing groundbreaking research is how careers are made.  It's how Nobel Prizes are won.  The idea that scientists would avoid doing something edgy because they love the theories they already have is ridiculous.

Consider what happened when the scientists at CERN found what appeared to be a neutrino traveling faster than the speed of light.  Did they suppress the evidence, because (after all) you can't challenge Einstein?  Of course not.  They wrote a paper, issued a press release, and asked all of the qualified physicists in the world to try to explain the data.  As it turned out, the analysis seems to support a flaw in the data.  Einstein was vindicated again, not because anyone was engaged in a repressive campaign of Silence the Dissenters, but because the original analysis was wrong.


That's the problem here, isn't it?  There's no actual evidence that "Free Energy" exists (at least not in the sense that these people mean; "free energy," lower case, is a real scientific term, but it doesn't mean the something-for-nothing nonsense that the woo-woos are so fond of).  Throwing around Nikola Tesla's name isn't going to make these claims correct.  It's much easier to rant about a hidebound and oppressive scientific establishment than it is to do any actual science.  And as for the scientists who are criticizing the work of people like Sam Osmanagich as unscientific, hand-waving, poorly-executed rubbish, I'm sorry -- they're simply right.

Having your ideas criticized does not mean you're being repressed.  That's how science works.  And as for the researchers mentioned in this article, who claim that no one believes them -- if you can't deal with being challenged, with being asked for hard evidence for your claims, you're probably in the wrong field.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Evil spirits and evil scams

Sometimes I'm asked why I care so much if people believe weird stuff.  Isn't most of it harmless?  What does it really matter if people believe in astrology or Tarot card divination?

In one sense, the answer is "it doesn't make much of a difference."  Other than cases where the harm is direct and immediate -- such as taking homeopathic "remedies" instead of seeking out medical care when you or a loved one is ill -- there doesn't seem to be much real damage done by falling for woo-woo fads or being superstitious.

The problem, though, is that there's a less obvious downside to cultivating a habit of credulity.  Once you accept that the touchstone of reality is something other than hard evidence, you put yourself at risk of falling prey to scam artists.  You have let something other than logic and rationality direct your view of the world, and you can all too easily become a victim, not to other credulous true believers, but to callous and calculating charlatans.

Take what has become all too common amongst recent immigrants from Asia to New York City.  Swindlers have begun to approach individuals who are relatively recent arrivals, and who are more likely to subscribe to superstitious beliefs, and have scared them into forking over money that most of them can ill afford by convincing them that they've been cursed by evil spirits.  One 65-year-old was told, "Your son is going to die."  The poor woman, horrified at the prediction, was then told that the man who had made the statement was a "spiritual healer" and that he would avert the ill fortune on her behalf if she would bundle up her money and jewelry, and "lend" it to him to be blessed.  Terrified of losing her son, she did as she was told, and the "spiritual healer" took it away for a while, and returned the bundle a few hours later.  Upon receipt of the "blessed" bundle, she was instructed not to open it for several days to give the magic time to take effect.

When she did, of course she found that the money and jewelry was gone, replaced by a lumpy assortment of water bottles, beans, and cough drops.  The scam artist by that time was long gone.

In less than a year, these swindlers have taken two dozen victims for amounts up to $13,000 -- in some cases, these people's life savings.  Fortunately, police have caught five of the perpetrators and charged them with grand larceny, but by this time the likelihood of the victims recovering their money is probably slim.

What it boils down to is that superstition is pretty unequivocally a bad thing.  It engenders a worldview where magical forces can alter reality, leaving you wide open to being taken advantage of by people who know how use that belief to attract, encourage, or frighten you.  Other scams have involved love potions, good luck charms, and (in some cases) black magic -- but in every case, the victim was cheated out of his or her money, and given nothing in exchange but a worthless bill of goods.

In the New York City case, posters have been put up in English and Mandarin warning people to be cautious.  "It has to do with the idea of not necessarily adopting Western belief systems about magic and incantation systems, but staying with some of their traditional spiritual beliefs," said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at the Maimonides Medical Center.  "And, in many cases they're so lost and desperate in a foreign culture they will turn to anyone who offers them something in a language they can understand."

I think that Hilfer is right, but I would go further than that.  It is far more than just poor Asian immigrants who subscribe to these sorts of beliefs.  Look at how popular astrology is; look at how many street-corner palm-readers there are; look at the packed houses "psychic mediums" get for their dog-and-pony shows.  It is critical to eradicate superstition wherever possible, and not to pussyfoot around the issue in the interest of being "sensitive."  In the case of recent immigrants, it may not be compassionate, or even possible, to do so; but it is possible in schools.  We can raise a generation of children who are far better insulated against scams than their parents were.  But this is only possible if we are willing to address directly the credulous, irrational belief in superstition, belief that largely goes unmentioned in public schools for fear of treading on toes.

There are two equal and opposite errors we can fall into, with respect to belief.  One is credulity -- believing anything, as long as it is appealing, or frightens you into acting out of fear.  The other is cynicism -- disbelieving everything, because you've decided that everyone is lying to you, and that there's no way to tell what's true.

Both of these, I think, are simply lazy.  Both absolve you of the difficult work of thinking.  It's harder to be skeptical -- to learn some logic and science, and then to rely on your own brain to discern what's real and what's not.  But that's the only way to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of credulity and cynicism, and the only way to avoid falling prey to people who will be happy to do the thinking for you... for a price.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The grave's a fine and private place...

This morning we have a story in from the lovely country of Thailand, where a woman from Phuket wants someone to get rid of ghosts who insist on having sex in her house.

46-year-old Onanong Waltham made a public appeal for help at the Phuket Press Club last week.  Accompanied by her housemate, Sujitraporn Tephabutra, Ms. Waltham told the story of what she's been enduring from her horny spectral neighbors.

"I keep hearing moaning sounds in my house.  It sounds like people making love," she said.  "Also, late at night, my phone rings and I answer it, but all I hear is a man’s voice saying he wants to make love to me. When I call back the number, I get some guy in Rayong province."

Understandably perturbed by all of this, Ms. Waltham filed a complaint with the Chalong Police.  "They came to my house and even heard the same noises, but they couldn’t find where the sounds were coming from.  I don't know what to do."

Not knowing what to do didn't stop her from seeking out help from local woo-woos, however.  "I have even seen a mor doo [a local soothsayer] and a spirit medium for advice, but nothing seems to have helped. I now think that someone is using black magic on me," she said.  "If anyone thinks they can make the noises stop, please contact the Press Club at 076-244 047 or email phuketreporter@gmail.com."

Well, I must say that I've heard a lot of weird stories, but this is a new one.  While I've heard many claims of ghostly voices, and even listened to a few recordings alleged to be spectral speech (for the record, none of which convinced me), I've never heard of anyone complaining of ghosts making sex noises.  So I decided to Google "ghosts having sex" to see if I could find any other instances of phantoms fooling around.

This may have been a mistake.

Of course there are other instances of this.  Lots of them.  You'd think, after years of writing this blog, that I'd have figured out that if you come up with a ridiculous idea, so ridiculous that you think, "No one could possibly believe this," there will not only be people who believe it fervently, there will be a Facebook page devoted to it.  There will be a Wikipedia page on the topic.  There will be an entirely serious article by a "spiritual intuitive" that explores the question of why ghosts still, apparently, need to get off every once in a while.  There will be an interview with an Ohio woman who claims that not only has she seen ghosts having sex, she has the photographs to prove it.  There will be a pop star who will one-up that by saying that she has actually had sex with a ghost herself.  ("I don't know his name," she said.)  There will be a how-to page if you'd like to find out how to summon a ghost to have sex with.

All of this leaves me wanting to weep softly and bang my head on my desk.

I mean, really.  There's nothing whatsoever wrong with enjoying a nice roll in the hay.  I'm hardly a prude, or anything.  And if you believe in the afterlife, well, I guess there's also nothing wrong with some speculation regarding whether that particular part of life will continue once you've shuffled off this mortal coil.  But I have the feeling that for some of these folks, this speculation has crossed the line from idle curiosity to a mild mental illness.

The 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell wrote a lovely poem called "To His Coy Mistress," which was summed up by a friend of mine as (pardon the obscenity) "Life's short, let's fuck."  (It really is a beautiful poem, despite its being one long plea for a hot hook-up.)  In it, he penned the lines, "The grave's a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace."  I guess Marvell might have reconsidered his position had he met some of the people involved in the links I posted above.  If you're horny, maybe there's no rush.

Maybe there's a lot of time.  Maybe an eternity.

Or maybe these people are just loons.  I know that's my vote.