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, December 31, 2014

2014 retrospective

2014 was a thrilling year, here at Skeptophilia headquarters (a.k.a. my office).  In fact, my able assistants, my dogs Lena ("Her Royal Derpitude") and Grendel ("Frankendog"), found it so thrilling that they're all pooped out and have decided to take a nap.

I thought it might be fun, on New Year's Eve, to take a look at the top stories from Skeptophilia, month-by-month.  Just in case anyone needed reminding about what a weird world we live in.

In January, we were visited repeatedly by the dreaded "Polar Vortex," dropping not only temperatures but a crapload of snow on the eastern half of the United States.  And of course, what is a weather phenomenon without a crazy conspiracy theory as an explanation?  The Polar Vortex, it was claimed, (1) was not a natural occurrence, and (2) therefore didn't produce real snow.  Who was responsible, you might ask?  Well, the Large Hadron Collider, of course.  And what was the white stuff, if not snow?  Well, non-melting chemtrail residue, of course.  Which made it a bit awkward when temperatures warmed up, and the non-melting chemtrail-residue snow melted, forming water, exactly as regular snow does, leaving the aforementioned conspiracy theorists to go back to their previous occupation, which was picking at their straitjacket straps with their teeth.

In February, we revisited conspiracies with a claim that the game app "Flappy Bird," which features a deformed-looking bird that the player has to maneuver around a series of pipes, contained a coded message from the Illuminati.  And was trying to steal your personal information, your mind, and your soul, not necessarily in that order.  And that its creator, Dong Nguyen, was murdered by the Illuminati for revealing the secret.  Which made it a bit awkward when Nguyen proved himself to be unmurdered by releasing a revised version of "Flappy Bird" called "Flappy Bird's Family" in August, or right around the time the snow from the Polar Vortex finished melting here in Upstate New York.

In March, we said goodbye to a long-time target of disgust for the secular humanist community, the Extremely Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church.  Who, unlike Dong Nguyen, actually did die.  There were calls for picketing his funeral, but most of us atheists chose the wiser course, which was to let Phelps pass silently into obscurity.  Unfortunately, his followers have been reluctant to do the same thing, and they are still plaguing us, lo unto this very day.

April saw a wacko claim making the rounds of social media, namely, that Easter has its origins in the worship of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and that by hoppin' down the bunny trail and participating in Easter egg hunts and so on, you are actually worshiping Satan and promising to sacrifice your children to Moloch.  This roused my linguistics-geek ire, and resulted in a rant wherein I concluded that if you are going to make insane claims, at least get the details right.

And speaking of Satan, in May we found out that not only can your child fall under His Evil Influence by receiving an Easter basket, (s)he can be damned eternally by watching My Little Pony.  Which, contrary to popular opinion, does not feature animated characters who speak in nasal, grating whines, and for whom any resemblance to an actual horse is purely accidental.  The Ponies are actually stand-ins for evil spirits, and are rife with demonic symbolism, which explains the phenomenon of "Bronies," wherein otherwise normal adult males become obsessed with characters like "Pinkie Pie," even to the extent of dressing up in bizarre costumes and attending conventions.

In June we turned to a new development in "alternative medicine," because apparently practices like homeopathy aren't ridiculous enough.  In China, it is becoming all the rage for guys to boost their sex drive and their performance in the sack by setting their junk on fire.  This post was accompanied by an actual photograph of a guy lying there on his back, a blissful expression on his face, while flames erupt from his reproductive area.  A photograph, I might add, that even now makes me go into a protective crouch every time I look at it.

July took us to Florida, and a cryptozoological report from near the city of Tampa.  A man walking his dog at night, the story went, saw a floating naked ghoul that smelled really bad.  Confronted with such an apparition, the man came to the conclusion that most of us would, provided we had recently been squirting controlled substances down our throats using a turkey baster: it must be a teenage mime.  Which apparently are common in that area of Florida.

August brought us back to conspiracy theories, specifically, to a claim that many prominent people have cloned doubles.  Or are cloned doubles themselves.  You can see how it would be hard to tell which.  Some of the individuals who are actually not individuals include Brad Pitt, Jimmy Carter, Beyoncé, and David Icke.  Including the last-mentioned is a little on the ironic side, since Icke has made a career out of convincing people that the powers-that-be are Evil Reptilian Illuminati, so I suppose it's strangely fitting now that he's being included in the fun.

By September, the election was fast approaching, meaning that the politicians were warming up their dodge-and-weave to avoid answering hard questions.  This year, it took the form of damn near all of them prefacing comments about climate change and/or evolution with the phrase, "Well, I'm not a scientist."  Which made the people who actually know something about science shout at them, "Yes, we know you're not.  You're a politician.  And this is why you should listen to the fucking scientists, instead of discounting everything they say on the basis of political expediency, you moron."  But given the fact that political expediency is how you get elected, the not-a-scientist cadre experienced resounding success in the polls two months later, which means we're in for another long period of people saying "la-la-la-la-la, not listening" to the facts.

In October we found out that all sorts of world events were revealed, in coded form, well ahead of time in movies featuring none other than Adam "Nostradamus" Sandler.  These events include the Waco Siege, Princess Diana's death, the BP Gulf oil spill, and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. This at least gives some reason that Adam Sandler keeps making movies, given that any justification for his output based on claims of quality entertainment has long ago gone by the wayside.

November brought us a claim from Pastor James David Manning, of the Atlah World Missionary Church of Harlem, New York, to wit:  Starbucks is adding semen from gay guys to their lattés.  This prompted me to try to figure out how many guys Starbucks would have to pay simply to sit around in the back room masturbating, given the current demand for lattés, which might be the most mentally disturbing thing I've ever done for a Skeptophilia post.

Speaking of LGBT issues, in December, a group promoting such completely discredited ideas as "ex-gay therapy" put up a billboard in Virginia claiming that there were cases of identical twins, one of whom was straight and the other gay, demonstrating that homosexuality couldn't be genetic.  And they showed a photograph of two guys, who were such a pair of identical twins, as advertised.  The billboard turned out to be 100% correct except for two small details: the guys pictured were actually not identical twins, but two different shots of the same guy; and that particular guy is, in fact, gay.  Oh, and he had no idea that his photograph(s) were being used on an anti-gay billboard.  Proving, once again, that being a righteous über-Christian doesn't mean you necessarily have to follow the Ninth Commandment.

Which brings us to today, the last day of December, 2014.  New Year's Eve, the threshold of a whole new year.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And I will end with a deep and heartfelt "Thank you" to my Loyal Readers, and my hope that you will be guided in the coming year by rationality and logic, but will also have ample opportunity for such completely illogical activities as love, fun, play, and general unbridled happiness.

May 2015 be a good year for us all.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dream weavers

Hard-nosed science types like myself are often criticized by the paranormal enthusiasts for setting too high a bar for what we'll accept as evidence.  The supernatural world, they say, doesn't come when called, is highly sensitive to the mental states of people who are nearby, and isn't necessarily going to be detectable to scientific measurement devices.  Also, since a lot of the skeptics come into the discussion with a bias toward disbelief, they'll be likely to discount any hard evidence that does arise as a hoax or misinterpretation of natural phenomena.

Which, as I've mentioned before, is mighty convenient.  It seems to boil down to, "It exists, and you have to believe because I know it exists."  And I'm sorry, this simply isn't good enough.  If there are real paranormal phenomena out there, they should be accessible to the scientific method.  Such claims should stand or fall on the basis of evidence, just like any other proposed model of how things work.

The problem becomes more difficult with the specific claim of precognition/clairvoyance -- the idea that some of us (perhaps all of us) are capable of predicting the future, either through visions or dreams.  The special difficulty with this realm of the paranormal world is that a dream can't be proven to be precognitive until after the event it predicts actually happens; before that, it's just a weird dream, and you would have no particular reason to record it for posterity.  And given the human propensity for hoaxing, not to mention the general plasticity of memory, a claim that a specific dream was precognitive is inadmissible as evidence after the event in question has occurred.  It always reminds me of the quote from the 19th century Danish philosopher and writer, Søren Kierkegaard: "The tragedy of life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards."

This double-bind has foiled any attempts to study precognition... until now.  According to an article in Vice, a man named Hunter Lee Soik is attempting to create the world's largest database of dreams, in the hopes that the evidence from it will establish once and for all that clairvoyance exists.

Soik is the man behind Shadow, an app for recording your dreams.  You enter them into the app upon waking, and they are timestamped and placed in a worldwide dream database.  The database software is able to identify keywords; what Soik is hoping is that prior to major world events, there will be a spike in keywords relating to those events.  And given that the transcripts are timestamped, such spikes (should they occur) would be incontrovertible evidence that precognition, or at the very least some kind of collective consciousness, is occurring while people are asleep.

[image courtesy of photographer Rachel Calamusa and the Wikimedia Commons]

"(W)hat happens if we can start looking at precognitive dreams, and say, 'Oh, there are actually correlations that are happening in real time?'" Soik asks.  "If we had this data back during 9/11, we could point to a time-stamped audio file describing the dream that predates the actual event. So, how could you then refute that kind of hard data?"

Which certainly is approaching the question the right way.  My only concern is that the keywords would be specific enough, and the spikes analyzed for statistical significance.  Even if you accept particular accounts of dreams as true, the difficulty is that humans have dreams about a rather narrow range of things -- some of the more common ones reported are dreams of being chased, of falling, of death (either our own or of someone we know), of sex, of being naked, of being lost.  To represent an actual signal -- evidence of precognition -- you would have to establish (for example) that a statistically-significant spike in dreams about death had a direct relationship to a particular violent occurrence in the world, and wasn't just representing an upsurge in anxiety over the state of things.

But like I said: Shadow, and its creator Soik, seem to be taking the correct approach.  I do wish, however, that Soik wouldn't sail off into the ether so regularly, because it doesn't do anything for his credibility.  In his Vice interview, he states that precognition is like Schrödinger's Cat (a comparison that escapes me completely) and goes on to say, "Who else is dreaming what you're dreaming, for example?  I really believe a lot in quantum field mechanics.  And I believe that a lot of the science jargon [means] simply: If you're happy, and you hang out with someone, you make them happy, and they make someone else happy."

To which I respond:  (1) No, that is not what the science says.  (2) What the fuck does this even mean?

Be that as it may, I encourage any of my readers who are interested in contributing to get the Shadow app (you can download it from the link I included above).  The bigger the database, the easier it will be to establish whether any data generated is statistically significant.  And it would be nice to have a wide variety of people involved with contributing dream data, not just the woo crowd that usually gravitates toward such endeavors.

I'm thinking of doing it myself.  I could include last night's dream, which was about a state senator from Alaska who accidentally chopped my dog's tail off, and whom I was trying to talk into paying me $10,000 in damages for the mental anguish she was experiencing, because she could no longer wag to express "I'm happy" and "Oh, look, a squirrel," which seem to be the two most sophisticated concepts her lone functioning brain cell is capable of processing.

I wonder what world event that might be predicting?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Single causes and simplistic thinking

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia called me out a couple of days ago for a statement I made in the post "Tribal mentality," regarding the tendency some people have to romanticize (or at least, to avoid criticizing) beliefs of other cultures.  Here's the passage he objected to:
At its extreme, this tendency to take a kid-gloves attitude toward culture is what results in charges of Islamophobia or (worse) racism any time someone criticizes the latest depravity perpetrated by Muslim extremists. Yes, it is their right to adhere to their religion. No, that does not make it right for them to behead non-Muslims, hang gays, subjugate women, and sell children into slavery. And the fact that most of their leaders have refused to take a stand against this horrifying inhumanity makes them, and the ideology they use to justify it, complicit in it.
He responded, in part, as follows:
ISIS is engaged in civil wars, and 99% of their victims are also Muslim.  Surely, Muslims on the whole are not in favor of slaughtering other Muslims...  (P)ointing at Islamic ideology as the culprit, rather than a complex set of political forces, just seems way too "Fox-Newsish" for a sophisticated blog like yours.  If Islam was inherently incompatible with pluralistic democratic values, then countries like Turkey couldn't exist.  The Islamic masses in Egypt rose up in a mass exercise of democratic revolution in 2012... only to be slapped down by a US-backed secular dictatorship.  There's just so much going on, with so many different factors...  I look at the 6 million Muslims living in the US and peacefully contributing... to blame it all on "their ideology," to say their beliefs are to blame for, among other things, the US-backed Saudi regime.... it just seems unfair.
Which certainly made me give some serious thought to what I'd written, and even more so, to what I think about ideology vis-à-vis responsibility for immoral actions.

Of course, in (at the very least) one sense, he is right; by attributing to "Islamic ideology" the atrocities of ISIS, and the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and many other Muslim countries, I avoided one fallacy by leaping headlong into another.  To wit: the single-cause fallacy, which is considering complex events to have a simple cause.  (Commonly-cited examples are "The American Civil War was caused by slavery" and "World War I was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.")

There's a lot more to the chaos in the Middle East than Islamic ideology; there's tribal factionalism, the history of exploitation and colonialism by western Europe and the United States, and the have/have not distribution of oil wealth, to name three.  It is facile to say, simply, "Those evil Muslims!" and be done with it.

The Islamic recitation of faith [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But still, I have to ask the question: to what extent does ideology bear the blame for some of the evil done in its name?  And by extension, do the peaceful adherents of a religion -- for example, the six million Muslims in the United States that my friend referenced -- also share some of the responsibility?

And it's not Islam alone, of course.  Christianity has much to answer for, as well, and I'm not just talking about events in the distant past such as the Inquisition and the Crusades.  The current upsurge of anti-gay legislation in several countries in Africa, some of which calls for the death penalty, is largely the result of American fundamentalists encouraging and financing such measures.  Do the stay-at-home members of the Christian churches from which these "missionaries" come bear some of the blame, if for no other reason because of their silence?

Does Christian ideology as a whole?

Now, I know that because of the huge variety of beliefs within Christianity (and Islam as well), to talk about a "Christian ideology" is a little ridiculous.  You have to wonder whether, for example, a Pentecostal and a Unitarian Universalist would agree on anything beyond "God exists."  But as my friend also pointed out, there are passages in the Christian Bible that are as horrific as anything the Qu'ran has to offer; stoning to death for minor offenses, men being struck dead right and left for damn near every reason you can think of, not to mention a prophet who called in bears to tear apart 42 children who had teased him about being bald and a man who offered his daughters to be raped by a mob rather than inconvenience a couple of angels (who, presumably, could have taken care of themselves).  It's why I find it wryly amusing when I hear people say that they believe that every biblical passage is word-for-word true, and that they live their lives according to a literal interpretation of the biblical commands.  If they did so, they'd be in jail.

But to return to my original question; does an ideology, or its law-abiding followers, bear some of the blame for what the true believers do?  At the very least, for not speaking out more fervently against the deeds done in the name of their religion?

It's not a question that admits of easy answers.  I'm torn between feeling certain that the most basic truth is that you are only responsible for what you yourself do, and having the nagging thought that remaining silent in the face of depravity is itself an immoral act.  After all, one of the criticisms leveled against Americans by many Muslims in the Middle East is that we stand by silently and allow our leaders to continue pursuing exploitative and unjust actions.  How is their holding America, and all Americans, responsible for what some Americans have done in the Middle East any different from our holding Islam, and all Muslims, responsible for the actions of ISIS and the shari'a judges in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere?

I don't know.  But the moral ambiguity inherent in these sorts of situations should push us all to consider not only our acts, but our refusal to act, as carefully as we know how.  And we should all be less hesitant to repudiate the individuals who would use our religions, ethnicities, and nationalities to perpetrate evil in the world.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tribal mentality

There's a difference between respecting a culture and believing every damn thing it comes up with.

At its extreme, this tendency to take a kid-gloves attitude toward culture is what results in charges of Islamophobia or (worse) racism any time someone criticizes the latest depravity perpetrated by Muslim extremists.  Yes, it is their right to adhere to their religion.  No, that does not make it right for them to behead non-Muslims, hang gays, subjugate women, and sell children into slavery.  And the fact that most of their leaders have refused to take a stand against this horrifying inhumanity makes them, and the ideology they use to justify it, complicit in it.

A more benign manifestation of this same tendency is the glorification of indigenous cultures, as if they didn't have their own bad people and commit their own atrocities.  Current favorites are the Native Americans and the Celts, both of whom earned Historical Pathos Points for being overrun respectively by the European settlers, and by the Romans and (later) the English.  The destruction of their cultures gives them a veneer of tragic nobility.

Celtic knot from the Lindisfarne Gospels, 8th century [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, don't mistake me; the destruction of Native American tribes by the Europeans, and the crushing of Celtic society first by Rome and then by England, is an atrocity bordering on genocide.  But just because they had some cool aspects to their beliefs, and were ultimately destroyed, doesn't mean that they were somehow above reproach.  Indigenous people, just like us upstart Westerners, are people -- some good, some bad, some wise, some petty.  Some of their beliefs, just like some of ours, are worthy of emulation, and some are very much better off forgotten.

This blind admiration for All Things Indigenous reaches its pinnacle in the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network, which claims that modern science has gone off the rails -- and what we need is a return to "indigenous science."  Which, according to the site, is defined thusly:
Indigenous science is a way of knowing and a way of life. The power of indigenous science lies in its ability to make connections and perceive patterns across vast cycles of space and time. This "Great Memory" belongs to the entire human species, but it is most fully active in cultural healers who develop heightened levels of consciousness. The Great Memory may also be realized more universally when the interspecies bond is honored.
Which sounds lovely, doesn't it?  You might at this point be asking, "but how do we know that any of this is real?"  You're asking the wrong question, they say:
Indigenous science is holistic, drawing on all the Sense [sic], including the spiritual and psychic...  The end point of an indigenous scientific process is a known and recognized place.  This point of balance, referred to by my own tribe as the Great Peace, is both peaceful and electrifyingly alive.  In the joy of exact balance, creativity occurs, which is why we can think of our way of knowing as a life science.
In other words, another call to abandon the modern scientific insistence on data, controls, and analysis.  Just get to the "point of balance" (whatever the hell that is) and you'll know the answer without all of the messy experimentation.

Now, lest you think that with all of their talk about peace and balance that they are working in harmony with actual scientists, all you have to do is look at their "Research Page" to put that to rest.  Some of it seems to be anthropological research, which is fine and dandy, but then they jump into serious woo-woo land with their project to help "Western man (to) remember who he is."  This, apparently, involves finding out about tribal Anglo-Saxon practices, under the guidance of an "Anglo-Saxon wizard," Brian Bates, and a "Siberian shaman," Dora Kobyakova.  The latter is going to lead tours to museums to "help identify artifacts which science has not been able to."

Worse still is their involvement in HIV/AIDS in Africa, where they are spearheading an effort to incorporate "traditional medicine and alternative therapies" into the "treatment and prevention of AIDS."  My charitable side wants to believe that this is about finding medically efficacious native plants -- research that has turned up useful chemicals for the treatment of many diseases -- but after the involvement of shamans and wizards in their anthropological studies, I'm pretty sure this isn't so.  And this crosses yet another line, which is taking woo-woo beliefs into a realm where they're suggesting that people abandon tested and effective medical treatment in favor of magical thinking.  Thus, for all of their flowery verbiage, they are jeopardizing human lives.

Look, it's not as if I don't think ancient beliefs are fascinating.  I'm an amateur student of anthropology myself, and love learning about other cultures, traditions, and languages.  I celebrate my own ancestry, for all that I keep in mind that some of them were probably not nice people.  I'm glad that I still speak French, given that three-quarters of my ancestors did as well; and I proudly wear a Celtic knot tattoo on my leg in honor of my Scottish forebears (which account for much of the remaining quarter).

But the ancients weren't right about everything.  They did bad things, held counterfactual beliefs, and participated in gruesome rituals.  I'm happy to live in the modern world, for all of its faults; and should I become ill, I still will seek out the assistance of modern medicine, not a shaman.

Simply put: there's a reason we are the healthiest, longest-lived society humanity has ever seen.

There's some truth in the claim that we could learn something from some of the indigenous cultures -- most clearly in their understanding that we are all part of nature.  (Nota bene: yes, I know that not even all of them believed that.  The Yanomami of Brazil, for example, consider themselves so separate that they don't even classify members of other tribes as human.  But many indigenous peoples understand that we are fundamentally connected to nature in a way we westerners have long ago lost.)

We won't learn from other cultures, however, by romanticizing them, by unquestioningly accepting everything they did as praiseworthy (and simultaneously condemning our own culture in toto).  Leaping into "other ways of knowing" just because our distant ancestors didn't have access to modern science and medicine is foolhardy at best.  Ethnocentrism, whether lauding a culture or denigrating it, is never going to be a valid way to understanding.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Life at the center

Appeal to Authority is simultaneously one of the simplest, and one of the trickiest, of the fallacies.

The simple part is that one shouldn't rely on someone else's word for a claim, without some demonstration of evidence in support.  Just saying "Stephen Hawking said so" isn't sufficient proof for a conjecture.

On the other hand, there are times when relying on authority makes sense.  If I claimed that Stephen Hawking was wrong in the realm of abstruse quantum phenomena, the likelihood of my being wrong myself is nearly 100%.  Expertise is worth something, and Stephen Hawking's Ph.D. in physics certainly gives his statements in that field considerable gravitas.

The problem is that when confronted with a confident-sounding authority, people turn their own brains off.  And the situation becomes even murkier when experts in one field start making pronouncements in a different one.

Take, for example, Robert Lanza, a medical researcher whose work in stem cells and regenerative medicine has led to groundbreaking advances in the treatment of hitherto incurable diseases.  His contributions to medical science are undeniably profound, and I would consider his opinion in the field of stem cell research about as close to unimpeachable as you could get.  But Lanza hasn't been content to stay within his area of specialization, and has ventured forth into the fringe areas of metaphysics -- joining people like Fritjof Capra in their quest to show that quantum physics has something to say about consciousness, souls, and life after death.

Let's start with Lanza's idea of a "biocentric universe," which is defined thusly:
Biocentrism states that life and biology are central to being, reality, and the cosmos— life creates the universe rather than the other way around. It asserts that current theories of the physical world do not work, and can never be made to work, until they fully account for life and consciousness. While physics is considered fundamental to the study of the universe, and chemistry fundamental to the study of life, biocentrism claims that scientists will need to place biology before the other sciences to produce a theory of everything.
Which puts me in mind of Wolfgang Pauli's famous quote, "This isn't right.  This isn't even wrong."  Biocentrism isn't really a scientific theory, in that it makes no predictions, and therefore de facto isn't falsifiable.  And Lanza's reception on this topic has been chilly at best.  Physicist Lawrence Krauss said, "It may represent interesting philosophy, but it doesn't look, at first glance, as if it will change anything about science."  Physicist and science writer David Lindley agrees, calling biocentrism "a vague, inarticulate metaphor."

And if you needed further evidence of its lack of scientific rigor, I must also point out that Deepak Chopra loves biocentrism.  "(Lanza's) theory of biocentrism is consistent with the most ancient wisdom traditions of the world which says that consciousness conceives, governs, and becomes a physical world," Chopra writes.  "It is the ground of our Being in which both subjective and objective reality come into existence."

As a scientist, you know you're in trouble if you get support from Chopra.

And there's a further problem with venturing outside of your field of expertise.  If you make unsupported claims, then others will take your claims (with your name appended to them, of course) and send them even further out into the ether.  Which is what happened recently over at the site Learning Mind, where Lanza's ideas were said to prove that the soul exists, and death is an illusion:
(Lanza's) theory implies that death simply does not exist.  It is an illusion which arises in the minds of people.  It exists because people identify themselves with their body.  They believe that the body is going to perish, sooner or later, thinking their consciousness will disappear too.   
In fact, consciousness exists outside of constraints of time and space.  It is able to be anywhere: in the human body and outside of it.  That fits well with the basic postulates of quantum mechanics science, according to which a certain particle can be present anywhere and an event can happen according to several, sometimes countless, ways. 
Lanza believes that multiple universes can exist simultaneously.  These universes contain multiple ways for possible scenarios to occur.  In one universe, the body can be dead.  And in another it continues to exist, absorbing consciousness which migrated into this universe.  This means that a dead person while traveling through the same tunnel ends up not in hell or in heaven, but in a similar world he or she once inhabited, but this time alive.  And so on, infinitely.
Which amounts to taking an untestable claim, whose merits are best left to the philosophers to discuss, and running right off a cliff with it.

As I've said more than once: quantum mechanics isn't some kind of fluffy, hand-waving speculation.  It is hard, evidence-based science.  The mathematical model that is the underpinning of this description of the universe is complex and difficult for the layperson to understand, but it is highly specific.  It describes the behavior of particles and waves, on the submicroscopic scale, making predictions that have been experimentally supported time after time.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And that's all it does.  Quantum effects such as superposition, indeterminacy, and entanglement have extremely limited effects on the macroscopic world.  Particle physics has nothing to say about the existence of the soul, the afterlife, or any other religious or philosophical claim.  And even the "Many Worlds" hypothesis, which was seriously put forth as a way to explain the collapse of the wave function, has largely been shelved by everyone but the science fiction writers because its claims are completely untestable.

To return to my original point, Appeal to Authority is one of those fallacies that seem simpler than they actually turn out to be.  I have no doubt that Robert Lanza is a genius in the field of regenerative medicine, and I wouldn't hesitate to trust what he says in that realm.  But his pronouncements in the field of physics appear to me to be unfalsifiable speculation -- i.e., not scientific statements.  As such, biocentrism is no better than "intelligent design."  What Adam Lee, of Daylight Atheism, said about intelligent design could be applied equally well to biocentrism:
(A) hypothesis must make predictions that can be compared to the real world and determined to be either true or false, and there must be some imaginable evidence that could disprove it.  If an idea makes no predictions, makes predictions that cannot be unambiguously interpreted as either success or failure, or makes predictions that cannot be checked out even in principle, then it is not science.
But as such, I'm sure biocentrism is going to be as popular amongst the woo-woos as ID is amongst the fervently religious.  For them, "unfalsifiable" means "you can't prove we're wrong."

"Therefore we're right.  q.e.d. and ha ha ha."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hack attack payback

In the past couple of weeks, the media has been buzzing about the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, in which a great deal of information that the corporation would consider sensitive -- executive salaries, emails between high-ranking employees, and copies of unreleased films -- were released online.  The hackers call themselves "the Guardians of Peace," but no one seems to know who they are.

And of course, there's nothing like a complete lack of information to make everyone start to claim that they know the whole story.

The most popular theory is that the Guardians of Peace are operatives from North Korea, who did this as revenge for the planned release of Sony's bromance film The Interview, which is about a couple of guys who are hired to assassinate Kim Jong-Un.  North Korea, for its part, has disavowed all responsibility for the hack, with Kim Jong-Un adding, "And if you don't act more respectfully, we'll do it again."

In all seriousness, though, it struck me as odd that the North Koreans could pull this off.  They're not exactly a technological powerhouse.  Just a couple of days ago the entire country lost its internet connectivity, possibly because a squirrel farted in Pyongyang and damaged their only working router.  The United States, for its part, has disavowed all responsibility for the act, with a CIA spokesperson adding, "And if you don't act more respectfully, we'll do it again."

The speculation doesn't end there, of course.  It's now being theorized that Sony hacked themselves as a PR move.  After the alleged North Korean connection, Sony pulled The Interview, but has decided that it will re-release it to various independent theaters.  This has elevated the movie from what would probably have been a fairly forgettable film into something that suddenly everyone wants to see, fueling accusations that Sony engineered the hack to boost the movie's ticket sales.

Myself, I think this is ridiculous.  Why would Sony release sensitive information just to push one bad movie to make more money?  Security is a huge deal in the movie industry, and it seems ludicrous to think that they'd jeopardize their reputation for protecting their employees and investments for the sake of one silly movie.  The limited release is unlikely to make much money as compared to showings in major theater chains, although it does afford me the opportunity to reaffirm my own decision not to see the movie.

Then, of course, we have the "Thanks, Obama" crew, who is claiming that Obama engineered the hack himself, with the assistance of the NSA, to make North Korea look bad.  Because apparently the North Koreans weren't doing a stellar enough job of that all by themselves.

The upshot of it all is that we still have no idea who the Guardians of Peace are.  They may have had something to do with North Korea; they may be some kind of independent troublemakers, on the lines of Anonymous; or they may be something else entirely.  At the moment, we have no real data to go on, so that's the best that we can say.

The lack of hard information won't silence the speculation, of course.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  These people love it when they have no evidence, because that leaves them free to attribute events to whatever their favorite bête noire is.  On the plus side, though, it has prompted people to start a campaign to make Kim Jong-Un look ridiculous:

So whatever else you say about the hack, it did have at least one positive outcome.  Not that anyone in North Korea will be likely to see it, unless they do something about those flatulent squirrels.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Spear-Danes, in days gone by...

Sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake, I'll admit.

I think reasonably well, but I'm not quick.  Still, the other shoe does drop eventually, which is fortunate.  In the case of the article I ran across yesterday, it'd be especially embarrassing if I hadn't figured it out, as you'll see momentarily.

It began when a friend of mine sent me a link to a post on Latest UFO News entitled "UFOs, Vikings, and Bigfoot?"  Given my interest in all three -- my master's thesis was about the contributions of the Vikings to the Old English and Old Gaelic languages -- my friend thought I'd be tickled.  Which I was.  Apparently medieval Scandinavia was rife with paranormal goings-on, something I never realized when doing my thesis research.

At first it just seemed to be the same-ol'-same-ol' -- Thor et al. were ancient aliens, trolls were Bigfoot, and so forth.  But then the author, "Doc Vega," launches into a story about an Arab traveler, Ibn Fadian, who chronicled the doings of the Vikings back in the tenth century.

Vega is correct that Ibn Fadian was a real person.  His full name was Ahmad Ibn Fadian, and his first-hand account of not only the Vikings, but the Bulgars and the Turks, is nothing short of fascinating.  He states that Ibn Fadian's manuscript was the basis of Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, which he calls "a very real account of events that are nothing short of remarkable."

So anyhow, Ibn Fadian, who Vega refers to over and over as "Ibn" even though "Ibn" isn't his first name (it means "son of" in Arabic), recounts the adventures of a Viking named Buliwyf who lived in a village in Scandinavia called Wyglif.  But he doesn't get to Buliwyf's story right away.  He first tells us about the depravity at a Viking funeral, which included lots of eating, drinking, sex, and human sacrifice.  Which, of course, is interesting enough, given the subject.  But then Vega's account (and supposedly Ibn Fadian's) takes an interesting turn.

The village of Wyglif, and the whole kingdom ("Rothgar"), were apparently under some kind of serious threat, and Buliwyf was the only one who was brave enough to face it.  In fact, Buliwyf took Ibn Fadian to see what the threat was about, and Ibn Fadian was appalled when he arrived at a farm house and saw that the family who had dwelled there had been brutally murdered, and their corpses partly eaten.  The villains who had done this, Buliwyf said, were monsters who lived in the woods called "Wendol."

The Wendol, Vega said, were clearly Sasquatches.  Because (1) ancient legends are admissible as scientific evidence, and (2) there are so many other verified accounts of Bigfoots eating people.

But this wasn't what bothered me most about this.  There was something indefinably... familiar about what Vega was telling us.  And I hadn't read Crichton's novel, so I knew it wasn't that.

So I kept reading.

Vega goes on to tell us that Lloyd Pye (he of the "Starchild Skull" nonsense) thought that the Wendol were probably Neanderthals, or perhaps Gigantopithecus.  Mostly based on the fact that both Sasquatch and the Wendol are described as "big," which I think we can all agree is sufficient to determine taxonomic status.

Anyhow, Buliwyf goes and kills one of the Wendol, and has an encounter with a giant sea serpent (further reinforcing his claim that this manuscript is 100% true).  But we then hear the bad news that Buliwyf had to face yet another challenge, which was...

... the Mother of the Wendol.

This was the moment that the light bulb went on.  You probably figured it out in the first paragraph, but cut me some slack, here; I seriously was not expecting this.  In fact, I said aloud to my computer, "What the fuck?  He thinks that Beowulf is a true story?"

The answer is: yes, he does.  Buliwyf is Beowulf.  Rothgar is Hrothgar.  (That one should have been a dead giveaway.)  Wendol is Grendel.

Besides how long it took me to figure it out, there are various things that are amusing about all of this.

The first is that the best guess of the origins of the Beowulf legend lie in the late 5th century, a good 400 years before Ahmad Ibn Fadian took his amazing voyage with the Vikings.  So while Ibn Fadian may have recounted Beowulf's exploits as a legend he'd heard, he was four centuries too late to have participated in them (or anything related to them).  And that's assuming that they have any basis in reality at all.

The second is that I should have caught on right away, because Beowulf is far and away my favorite ancient legend.  I've read it many times (I especially love Seamus Heaney's wonderful translation).  It's a story that is capable of transporting me effortlessly back into a different millennium.

But the funniest thing about all of this is that I like Beowulf so much that I named my dog Grendel.  I chose this name because Grendel-the-Dog looks like he's made of spare parts; he seems to be the result of putting about six different incompatible breeds of dog into a genetic blender.  Similarly, Grendel-the-Monster is the tragic figure he is because he was a composite being -- not quite human, not quite beast, caught in the undefined middle.

Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, Grendel (1908) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And for comparison purposes:

Grendel the Dog, a.k.a. "Cream Puff" or "Mr. Snuggles"

So okay, the name "Grendel" wasn't such a good fit, personality-wise.

Anyhow.  We apparently have yet another person who thinks that a wild legend was a historically-accurate retelling of actual events, and then got the chronology wrong by 400 years.  And who didn't even catch on that Michael Crichton's story was a novelization of a myth, which thus added a second layer of fiction on top of the first.

I mean, I can be slow sometimes, but I'm not that obtuse.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Bibbity bobbity baloney

This weekend, I stumbled upon one of those websites that is such a distilled bottle of crazy that I just have to tell you about it.  It involves the BBC, Walt Disney, Satan, Madonna, the Illuminati, the Jews,  J. Edgar Hoover, the Hapsburg dynasty, O. J. Simpson, Donny Osmond, and the Mouseketeers.

Among other things.  If I listed everything these people tried to connect, that'd be my whole post.  The site, called This Present Crisis, brings not only "wingnuttery" but "wall of text" to new heights.  So let me see if I can summarize, here:

First, let's start by saying that Walt Disney was a bad, bad man.  This is in part because his family name really shouldn't be Disney, but d'Isgny, which is what it was when the first Disney came over from Normandy in 1066 with William the Conqueror.  The name was anglicized to "Disney" and the family has been traveling under an assumed name ever since, which is evil since apparently they're the only ones that ever did this.  As evidence, we're told that Walt's cousin, Wesley Ernest Disney, was a lawyer in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, a county which is controlled by Satan.  Wesley was also a Freemason, and later lived in Tulsa, which is "a powerful city of the Illuminati hierarchy."  And I think we can all agree that being an evil Illuminati mind-control agent is the only possible explanation for someone choosing to live in both Muskogee and Tulsa.

Yes.  Apparently, they is.

But back to Cousin Walt.  Walt Disney, the site says, started off bad and got worse.  He was an "occult sadistic porn king," evidently, and if that wasn't bad enough, he went on to make the movie Bambi:
The Hapsburgs of the 13th Illuminati bloodline had a sex salon in Vienna where a porn photographer named Felix Salten worked.  Felix… wrote a book Bambi which was then translated into English by the infamous communist Whittaker Chambers.  The elite were just beginning to form the roots for today’s environmental movement.  The book appealed to Disney because Disney liked animals better than people.  In the book, tame animals view humans as gods; while the wild and free animals see humans as demons…  The book begins with both free and tame animals viewing humans as rightly having dominion over them.  In the end, the animals view all humans as simply being on the same level as animals, a vicious animal only fit to be killed…
Well, I'm not sure that's exactly the message of the movie, frankly.  I will admit that I was amongst the children traumatized by the death of Bambi's mommy, but now with the wisdom of age and the experience of having collided with four deer in one six-month period, resulting in a total of $20,000 of damage to our various cars, I'm finding myself siding with the hunter.  The hunter probably would have been doing humanity a service by offing Bambi as well, and maybe Thumper, too.

But anyway.  Disney somehow connects to the BBC, which was also inspired by Satan, because if you take a BBC jingle from the 1930s and play it backwards, it says, "Live in sin.  Lucifer is nice.  Lucifer exploit them."  The BBC is controlled by Freemasons, who were also influencing Disney to do more bad stuff, like putting subliminal sexual messages in movies like The Little Mermaid.

So finally things got so bad that J. Edgar Hoover got involved.  (Yes, I know that Hoover died seventeen years before The Little Mermaid was released.  Just bear with me, here.)  Hoover found out that Disney had no birth certificate, and apparently, didn't know who his parents were.  So he provided Disney with a fake birth certificate, which Disney then showed to his parents (yes, I know that one sentence ago I said that he didn't have parents.  I'm as confused as you are).  His father committed suicide and his mother lived the rest of her life as his maid.  Hoover did all of this so he could blackmail Disney.

Anyhow, Disney was in trouble after all of that, so he appealed to the Rothschild family, which is bankrolled by Jews and (more) Freemasons.  The Rothschilds were the ones who helped lawyer Johnnie Cochran to win his case and free O. J. Simpson, which somehow connects to Disney.  Don't ask me how.  By this time, Disney was a multimillionaire, and had mind-control child slaves called Mouseketeers to do his every bidding.

Then Donny and Marie Osmond get involved.  The Osmonds are actually "programmed multiples," meaning that there are dozens of identical Donnies and Maries, as if one of each wasn't enough, because this is the only way that they could do two hundred shows a year without dropping dead of exhaustion.  Because their dad is a member of the Mormon Illuminati, or something, although the site isn't clear on this point.

The author also ties in Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Lucas, and the Mafia.  (Of course the Mafia are involved.  Being bad guys, they'd have to be.)  But by this time, my eyes were beginning to spin, so I'm just going to leave you to take a look at the site yourself, if you dare.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm no great fan of Disney myself.  I think their movies are largely stereotypical schlock, and their "planned community" of Celebration, Florida, where everything is owned by Disney, is downright creepy.  Hating crowds and noise the way I do, if I was offered the choice of a visit to Disneyland or a root canal, I'd have to think about it.  And whenever I hear the song "It's a Small World After All" I want to stick any available objects in my ears, even if those objects are fondue forks.

But I'm doubtful that any of the Illuminati conspiracy stuff is real.  If it were, don't you think more Americans would be brainless zombies?  I'm sorry, but "bibbity bobbity boo" is not some kind of coded message from the Freemasons.  Most of us have seen many Disney movies, and come out none the worse for wear.  Even I sat through The Little Mermaid, under some conditions of duress, and I wasn't aware of any subtle sexual messages, although as a biologist it did bother me that the character "Flounder" was clearly not a flounder.

So this entire website strikes me as lunacy.  Entertaining, in a bizarre sort of way, but lunacy.

Except for the the thing about the Mouseketeers.  Anyone who is willing to dance around while wearing those ear-hats is clearly being controlled by an evil power of some kind.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lying to our faces

Why are humans so prone to falling for complete bunk?

I ask this question because of two rather distressing studies that were released recently.  Both of them should make all of us sit up and take notice.

In the first, a group of medical researchers led by Christina Korownyk of the University of Alberta studied over 400 recommendations (each) made on The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors, medical talk shows in which advice is liberally dispensed to listeners on various health issues.  The recommendations came from forty episodes from each show, and both the episodes and the recommendations were chosen at random.

The recommendations were then evaluated by a team of medical scientists, who looked at the quality of actual research evidence that supported each.  It was found that under half of Dr. Oz's claims had evidential support -- and 15% were contradicted outright by the research.  The Doctors did a little better, but still only had a 63% support from the available evidence.

In the second study, an independent non-partisan group called PunditFact evaluated statements on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN for veracity, placing them in the categories of "True," "Mostly True," "Half True," "Mostly False," "False," and "Pants On Fire."  The latter category was reserved for statements that were so completely out of skew with the facts that they would have put Pinocchio to shame.

Fox News scored the worst, with only 18% of statements in the "True" or "Mostly True" categories.  60% of the statements on Fox were in the lowest three categories.  But before my readers who are liberals start crowing with delight, allow me to point out that MSNBC doesn't win any awards for truth-telling, either.  They scored only 31% in the top two categories, and 48% in the lowest three.

Even CNN, which had the best scores, still only had 60% of their statements in the "True" or "Mostly True" categories!

Pretty discouraging stuff.  Because far too many people take as gospel the statements heard on these sad examples of media, unquestioningly accepting what they hear as fact.

I think the reason is that so many of us are uncomfortable questioning our baseline assumptions.  If we already believe that liberals are going to lead the United States into ruination, then (1) we'll naturally gravitate toward Fox News, and (2) we'll hear lots of what we already thought was true, and have the lovely experience of feeling like we're right about everything.  Likewise the liberals who think that the Republicans are evil incarnate, and who therefore land right in happy MSNBC fantasy land.

And as the first study shows, this isn't confined to politics.  When Dr. Oz says, "Carb-load your plate at breakfast because it's heart-healthy" (a claim roundly contradicted by the evidence), the listeners who love waffles with lots of maple syrup are likely to say, "Hell yeah!"

What's worse is that when we're shown statements contradictory to our preconceived beliefs, we're likely not even to remember them.  About ten years ago, two of my students did a project in my class where they had subjects self-identify as liberal, conservative, or moderate, and then presented them with an article they'd written containing statistics on the petroleum industry.  The article was carefully written so that half of the data supported a conservative viewpoint (things like "government subsidies for oil companies keep gasoline prices low, encouraging business") and half supported more liberal stances (such as "the increasing reliance on fossil fuels has been shown to be linked with climate change").  After reading the article, each test subject was given a test to see which facts they remembered from it.

Conservatives were more likely to remember the conservative data, liberals the liberal data.  It's almost as if we don't just disagree with the opposite viewpoint; on some level we can't even quite bring ourselves to believe it exists.

It's a troubling finding.  This blind spot seems to be firmly wired into our brain, again bringing up the reluctance that all of us have in considering that we might be wrong about something.

The only way out, of course, is through training our brains to suspend judgment until we've found out the facts.  The rush to come to a conclusion -- especially when the conclusion is in line with what we already believed -- is a dangerous path.  All the more highlighting that we need to be teaching critical thinking and smart media literacy in public schools.

And we need to turn off the mainstream media.  It's not that one side or the other is skewed; it's all bad.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Fracking our way to disaster

Yesterday there was yet another article about an accident at a hydrofracking site.  In this one, an Ohio fracking well sprung a leak, causing a methane cloud that forced 25 families out of their homes for days.  The crew was "unable to stop" the leak, sources with the natural gas company said, followed with the cheery message, "the well is not on fire, but the gas could be explosive."

Merry Christmas, y'all.  I hope you remembered to bring your presents with you before you fled from your houses, so you can celebrate Christmas in whatever shelter you end up in.

[image courtesy of photographer Joshua Doubek and the Wikimedia Commons]

Of course, this isn't an isolated incident.  It's been a bad year for Ohio, in fact.  In May, a fracking well leak spilled 1,600 of oil drilling lubricant into a river.  The following month, a second explosion and spill leaked a stew of toxic chemicals into yet another river, killing an estimated 70,000 fish -- and the company that owned the well refused to release information on which chemicals were involved, calling it a "trade secret."  Then in October, a methane leak drove 400 people from their homes.

It's not limited to Ohio, of course.  Earlier this year, a blowout at a fracking site in North Dakota caused a gusher spraying over ten thousand gallons a day of a mixed slurry of oil and chemical-laced wastewater.  It took almost a week to stop the leak.  In 2013 an accident at a well in Colorado leaked benzene, a known carcinogen, into a stream in Colorado.  More "trade secret" chemicals were dumped into a popular trout-fishing stream when thousands of gallons of highly saline fracking fluid erupted during a well explosion in Pennsylvania in 2011.

Add to that the fact that fracking is a huge draw on water resources, and you have to wonder how it can still be legal in drought-stricken states like Texas and California.  At least here in my home state of New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo sided with the good guys and announced a statewide ban on fracking yesterday, citing health effects as his reason.

Health, and the environment, and, you know, clean drinking water for human consumption and agricultural use.  It's a mystery to me how anyone can still support this crazy idea, given its track record.

But they do.  Fracking still has its champions.  Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, was irate over Governor Cuomo's decision.  "Our citizens in the Southern Tier have had to watch their neighbors and friends across the border in Pennsylvania thriving economically," she said. "It’s like they were a kid in a candy store window, looking through the window, and not able to touch that opportunity."

Not exactly an accurate analogy, Ms. Moreau.  Given that there have been twenty major fracking accidents in Pennsylvania alone, it's more like people looking through a window at a neighbor's house burning down, and weeping because they can't do anything to stop it -- while simultaneously being thankful that their own house isn't on fire.

Some of our legislators are siding with Ms. Moreau and the gas companies, however.  Representative Tom Reed, who represents my local district, said of Cuomo's decision:
I am extremely disappointed in today’s announcement from Governor Cuomo which bans hydraulic fracturing.  This move effectively blocks the development of natural gas and oil resources in New York State.  This is devastating news for the Southern Tier economy and its residents who are struggling every day.  This decision makes it even more difficult to replace the good jobs that have already left due to New York’s unfriendly business climate.  Once again Albany shows that it wants to enact an extreme liberal agenda rather than care about individual property rights and job opportunities.  I care about Southern Tier residents and will fight for them every day.  Simply put this extreme liberal agenda is not right and not fair for our future.
Because, you know, only extreme liberals like to be able to turn on their faucets without risking an explosion.  (Reed's comment caused one of my friends to respond, "Suck it, corporate puppet," which I quote here mainly because I wish I'd thought of it first.)

The fight isn't over in New York State, of course.  Just around the corner from my village we're still struggling to stop the Crestwood Expansion, a plan to double storage of natural gas and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) in salt caverns underneath Seneca Lake, which supplies drinking and agricultural water to tens of thousands of people.  You'd think there'd be enough evidence already that this is a horrible idea, wouldn't you?  To wit:
All of which makes you wonder when we will stop placing expediency and short-term profits above concern for human health and safety.

It's not too late, and it's to be hoped that the drubbing the gas companies got at Governor Cuomo's hands yesterday will start a domino effect.  Locally, you can join or donate to Gas Free Seneca, or join the Crestwood Blockade.  (To find out more, check out the "We Are Seneca Lake" page on Facebook.)  If you're in a state or a province of Canada that allows hydrofracking, put pressure on your legislators to join in a ban.  This has progressed far beyond "Not In My Back Yard;" this kind of technology shouldn't be in anyone's back yard.  And if that means we have to cut back on natural gas production, or maybe even (gasp!) start investing in renewables, then so be it.

Take a stand.  We have allowed corporate interests and "trade secrets" to imperil our water supplies for long enough.  It's time for it to stop.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


I have bad news for you.  I know it's the holiday season, and all, and this could be kind of a buzzkill, but duty is duty.

We're all going to die.

Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration.  Most of us are going to die.  There's going to be an earthquake, followed by an asteroid impact that will kill huge numbers, then floods and pestilence and other fun stuff.  And you'll never guess whose fault it all is.  Never in a million years.

Let me give you a hint:  "Thanks, Obama."

Pastor Efrain Rodriguez, a self-styled Puerto Rican "prophet," has issued dire warnings to the United States.  We need to batten down the hatches, because it's too late to mend our ways, he says.  President Obama has led us too far down the road to perdition:
The President of the U.S. asked Congress for ALL Power.  He plans to have absolute control during this Emergency.  This means NO elections.  He has taken advantage of the imminency of this coming disaster.  This totalitarian power is a terrible danger.  This message should be sent to all Congressmen: you still have time to revoke this power.  Politicians, revoke the power you have given Obama.  You have no idea what you will face.
Sure.  The Republicans now control both houses of Congress.  It's completely plausible that the president would go to Congress and say, "Hey, I'd like to see a bill passed that gives me ALL power." And they would say, "Oh, sure!  Here you go!"

Then we hear about some of the awful things the president has done:
Obama does not love this nation, or Christ.  In his second term, he has shown his true intentions against everything that is Christian.  All the laws that he has signed indicate that he plans to persecute the church...  He signed laws never before signed.
Because signing laws that have already been signed makes sense, somehow?

We do find out some good news, however.  Obama is not the Antichrist:
Many believe he is the Antichrist, but he is not. He is only the antichrist's helper.  He does his dirty work.  Obama is only preparing the way for the Real Antichrist, who will be revealed after the church departs from this earth.
I didn't know the church was scheduled to depart!  Let me know when.  I'll be there to wave goodbye.

But the fact that Obama isn't the Antichrist doesn't mean he isn't a bad guy:
He does not chastise or penalize the homosexuals, or the muslims [sic], no matter what they do, yet he takes every action to penalize and extinguish the church of Christ.  He takes away freedoms from Christians, while at the same time giving freedoms to those who blaspheme God.  Even Putin, the Russian President, rebuked him for this.  Woe to you, poor, poor man!
At last count, Christians made up 74% of the citizens of the United States.  If he was penalizing them and trying to extinguish Christianity, don't you think people might object?  There are four churches within a couple of blocks in my home village, and last Sunday the parking lots were all full.

Funny thing, that.

But a little thing like reality doesn't stop Pastor Rodriguez.  We're all going to pay for Obama's sins.  It's all going to start with a "12 point earthquake," he says:
Jehovah will have absolute control over the earth that night.  This is what the 12 point earthquake means-The Presence of Jehovah on earth.  The Lord comes with His book to claim many souls before Jehovah, The Father, for His kingdom that night.
No, what an earthquake means is a shift of tectonic plates along a fault line.

You know, science.

But since a "12 point earthquake" clearly isn't enough chastisement, there's going to be an asteroid impact.  Obama will try in his dastardly fashion to make sure that the asteroid hits Pastor Rodriguez, because he's just that important:
Obama, the President of the United States sent approximately 40 missiles to PR, to try to break the asteroid in the sky, so that it would fall on land (in Puerto Rico), and not in the sea.  On a previous message, Efrain warned Obama to not press those buttons.  He told the Army not to do it. He said: "Do not interfere with Jehovah's plans."
This evil plan will fail, however, because god is screwing around with NASA:
NASA keeps giving dates and trying to justify themselves.  The prophetic letters written by Efrain indicate that The Lord would keep NASA in a state of confusion, bewilderment and agitation, since they chose to not consult with The Lord, and chose to not warn the people when they first received Jehova's warning through Efrain.  They even labeled the message as false, in a press conference in Florida.
Fancy that.

After that, there will be a flood that will stop all of the rivers on Earth, and then a pestilence that will "be worse than all of what came before it."  Then the Rapture.  And then things really go to hell.

Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Apocalypse (1831) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons}

So we're really in for it, and it's all Obama's fault.  Myself, I'm rather looking forward to the whole thing.  The Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse seem to me a good bit more interesting than Pastor Rodriguez, and being an atheist I'm pretty much fucked anyway, so I'll take my chances.

But as a funny postscript to all of this, there's no such thing as a wacko without one or more equal and opposite wackos, so it comes as no surprise that there are other preachers out there saying that Pastor Rodriguez is a false prophet, and that they know what's really going to happen.  Rodriguez is called a "deceiver" over at Before It's News, and his message labeled as "religious spam" at Church of God News.  But that doesn't mean that the Tribulation isn't going to happen; it just means that he got some of the details wrong.  So he's not god's spokesperson, I am!

No you're not, I am!

No, me!

No, not you, either, it's me!  Me, I tell you!  Meeeeeeeee!

Frankly, I have no problem with all of this infighting.  I'm just going to pop some popcorn and sit back to watch.  After all, the more time the apocalyptoids spend yelling at each other, the less time they'll have to send hate mail to me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Space suits and straw men

Before you jump to a wild explanation for something, it's a good idea to rule out prosaic explanations first.

Take, for example, the strange deity Bep Kororoti, worshiped by the Kaiapo tribe of Brazil.  Erich von Däniken and his ilk just love this god, and when you see a photograph of someone wearing a Bep Kororoti suit, you'll understand why:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In his book Gold of the Gods, von Däniken says that this is clear evidence of contact with an alien wearing a space suit:
João Americo Peret, one of our outstanding Indian scholars, recently published some photographs of Kaiapo Indians in ritual clothing that he took as long ago as 1952, long before Gagarin's first space flight... ...I feel that it is important to reemphasize that Peret took these photographs in 1952 at a time when the clothing and equipment of astronauts were still not familiar to all us Europeans, let alone thse wild Indians!... Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in his spaceship Vostok I for the first time on April 1961... The Kaiapos in their straw imitation spacesuits need no commentary apart from the remark that these 'ritual garments' have been worn by the Indian men of this tribe on festive occasions since time immemorial, according to Peret...
Nope.  No commentary needed.  No questions, either.  Consider how this shows up on the dubiously credible site Message to Eagle:
The inhabitants of the Amazon jungle, the Indians Kaiapo [sic] settled in the State of Pará in northern Brazil, have detailed legends of sky visitors, who gave their people wisdom and knowledge. 
The Kaiapo Indians worshipped in particular one of these heavenly teachers.  His name was Bep Kororoti, which in Kayapo [sic] language, means "Warrior of the Universe"...  It is said that his weapons were so powerful that they could turn trees and stones into dust. 
Not surprisingly, his aggressive warrior manners terrified the primitive natives, who at the beginning even tried to fight against the alien intruder. 
However, their resistance was useless. 
Every time their weapons touched Bep Kororoti's clothes, the people fell down to the ground.
Eventually Bep calmed down, we find out, and began to teach the Kaiapo all sorts of stuff.  He also had lots of sex with Native women, apparently while still wearing his space suit, and today's Kaiapo claim descent from him.

The whole thing has become part of the "Ancient Aliens" canon, and even was featured on the show of the same name (narrated, of course, by the amazingly-coiffed Giorgio Tsoukalos).

So anyway.  The whole thing boils down to the usual stuff.  You have a god coming down from the sky, dispensing knowledge (and various other special offers) to the Natives, then returning from whence he came.  Evidence, they say, that the Kaiapo were visited by an alien race in ages past.

All of this, however, conveniently omits one little fact.  Probably deliberately, because once you point this out, the whole thing becomes abundantly clear.  Writer and skeptic Jason Colavito found out that not only did Bep Kororoti live in the sky and come visit the Kaiapo...

... he was the protector spirit of beekeepers.

For reference, here's a drawing of some traditional beekeepers, done by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1568:

Notice a similarity?  Yeah, me too.

I know we all have our biases and our favorite explanations for things.  But when you deliberately sidestep a rational, Earth-based explanation for one that claims that damn near every anthropological find is evidence of ancient astronauts, you've abandoned any right to be taken seriously.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Big Brother on the shelf

I'm probably in the minority here, but I think "Elf on the Shelf" is freakin' creepy.

Maybe I'm just not much into whimsy.  Or maybe I've watched too many horror movies.  But I find that little face, with the wide eyes and the fixed grin, a tad... sinister.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Of course, there's more than just the resemblance to Chucky that's a problem, here.  Its creators, mother/daughter team Carol Aebersold and Chandra Bell, thought it up in 2004, and wrote a children's book that rocketed into the number one bestseller spot in 2008.  Since then it has only increased in popularity; in 2012 the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade featured an Elf on the Shelf balloon.  This has led to its face appearing damn near everywhere.  The Atlantic writer Kate Tuttle says that The Elf on the Shelf is "a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition," and that the idea is basically to "bully your child into thinking that good behavior equals gifts."  I think that's pretty accurate.  The whole thing seems more about selling stuff than it is about having fun, but maybe I'm a curmudgeon.

Okay, I'm definitely a curmudgeon.  But still.

However, there are people who go even further than I do.  Just a couple of days ago, an article appeared over at Education Action Group News about Professor Laura Pinto of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who claims that the purpose of The Elf on the Shelf is to get children to "accept the surveillance state."

She calls the Elf "an external form of non-familial surveillance," which I suppose would be correct if the Elf was actually real.  "If you grow up thinking it’s cool for the elves to watch me and report back to Santa," Pinto writes, "well, then it’s cool for the NSA to watch me and report back to the government."

Isn't that a bit of a leap?  This takes the Slippery-Slope Fallacy and elevates it to the level of the Falling-Off-A-Cliff Fallacy.  It takes more than a silly doll to condition children to let themselves be browbeaten by authority.

And of course, it's not like we haven't been doing this sort of thing for years.  Many perfectly rational people were raised on "He knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows when you've been bad or good, so be good, for goodness sake!"

Which, I have to admit, is kind of sketchy in and of itself.  In terms of creepiness, those lines are right up there with "Every Breath You Take" by The Police, in which Sting informs his girlfriend, "Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you," which I hear gets played a lot at weddings, despite sounding more like a reason for a restraining order than a marriage license.

But I digress.

My general opinion is that Elf on a Shelf is just the latest in a long line of marketing ploys designed to make parents completely crazy around the holidays, and that other than that, it's pretty harmless.  I'll be surprised it's turning kids into Sheeple.  But you never know.  Subtexts and subliminal messages are always possible.  Personally, I'm still a little suspicious of My Little Pony, which I'm convinced was created to give kids the impression that talking in a high-pitched grating whine is "cute."

And to judge by the little children I've seen lately, it seems to be working.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Billboard of shame

It is a puzzle to me why some people seem so concerned about what other people are doing in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

My general attitude is that if it's between consenting adults, have fun.  I don't need to have an opinion about it.  Hell, I don't even need to know about it.  It is, to put it bluntly, none of my damn business.

Which brings us to PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays).

Yes, I know that the acronym shouldn't be PFOX, it should be PAFOEGAG.  But I have to admit that "PFOX" is easier to remember.

According to PFOX's homepage, here's what they're about:
PFOX is a national non-profit organization committed to helping ex-gays and parents and friends of gays who want help, hope and community. PFOX exists to educate, support, and advocate for individuals and parents on the issue of same-sex attraction, and increase others’ understanding and acceptance of the ex-gay community.
Of course, my opinion is that you can be an ex-gay person about as easily as you can be an ex-blue-eyed person.  But PFOX begs to differ:
Each year thousands of men and women with unwanted same-sex attractions make the personal decision to leave behind their former gay identity. And through gender affirming programs, including counseling, support groups, faith based ministries, and other non-judgmental environments, they are largely successful. Their decision is one only they can make.
Calling "pray away the gay" programs "non-judgmental" might be a contender for the Chutzpah Hall of Fame, given that at least once a week we hear about another pastor of a "faith-based ministry" who is calling for gays to be killed, as per the bible.  (Here's one of the recent ones.)

So anyway.  PFOX is pretty clearly an anti-LGBT organization, despite the appearance of the word "friends" in their name.  And this became clearer with the appearance along I-95 near Richmond, Virginia of the following billboard:

There are two things that make this billboard simultaneously appalling and hilarious:
  1. The model for both the left-hand and the right-hand photograph is the same person, Kyle Roux of South Africa.  I.e., these aren't twins, it's one guy.
  2. Kyle Roux is an out, and proud, gay man who had no idea that his face was being used (twice) on an anti-gay billboard.
"It just seems like there no place in today’s world for an organization that is promoting this as being some kind of deviant or distasteful lifestyle," Roux told reporters when he found out about the billboard.  "Because I’ve lived my life openly gay and happy for my entire life."

On a more serious note, there aren't just two lies on the billboard, there are three.  The third lie is that twin studies support homosexuality as a choice.  Way back in 1993, Whitam et al. published a study that showed that the concordance between homosexuality in monozygotic (identical) twins was 65% -- far higher than you'd expect by chance.  The authors are unequivocal in their conclusion, although they are clear on the point that the mechanism is not known.  They state in their final paragraph, "We are left then with the conclusion that biological factors are strongly operating in the determination of sexual orientation with the precise nature of these factors yet to be understood."

Which raises the question of why someone would lie outright about the science, not to mention the identity and sexual orientation of a model on their promotional materials.  The answer, of course, is that they have to lie, because scientific research has increasingly supported the conclusion that sexual orientation isn't a choice.  But this runs counter to their basic argument, which is that anything other than straight-up vanilla sexual intercourse within the confines of marriage is a sin.  So it's either change your message -- pretty unlikely -- or lie about the evidence.

So PFOX, or PAFOEGAG, or whatever, have been left pretty red-faced over the whole thing.  Not that it's going to alter their approach.  Which is kind of a shame, because while people are born with their sexual orientation already wired in, no one is born an asshole.  Being gay isn't a choice; harassing gays is.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Subordinate Clauses

Well, it's only a couple of weeks out from Christmas, so I expect a lot of you are excitedly trimming trees and buying presents for friends and family and listening to Christmas music.  Despite being an atheist, I love this holiday.  I think a nicely-decorated Christmas tree is lovely; we'd have a tree this year if I could get out of my own way long enough to go get one (which, with luck, will happen this weekend).  Plus, I really enjoy giving presents to friends, so having an excuse to get stuff for people I care about is awesome.

I even like most Christmas music, especially the older carols.  For example, I grew up singing the lovely French carol "Il Est Né, Le Divine Enfant" and still feel nostalgic every time I hear it, and I think that "O Holy Night" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" are absolutely gorgeous.

Some of the newer ones, on the other hand, bring "annoying" to new heights.  For instance, I doubt there's been a more banal set of lyrics ever written than "Little tin horns and little toy drums, rooty-toot-toot and rummy-tum-tum."  And my considered opinion is that whoever wrote "Let It Snow" should be pitched, bare-ass naked, headfirst into a snow drift.

Still and all, I like this holiday and a lot of its traditions.  Which is why I was alarmed to find out that Santa, the Jolly Old Elf, is actually...

... Satan.

Or at least, so says James L. Melton, of the Bible Baptist Church of Sharon, Tennessee.  Melton is virulently against Santa, and not just because of the usual "put Christ back into Christmas" stuff you hear, exhorting Christians to focus more on the religious traditions than the secular ones.  No, Melton thinks it's worse than that.  He says that Santa is literally Satan, and that you shouldn't put out cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, you should put out devil's-food cake.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What are his arguments, you may ask?  I was thinking of just giving a summarized list, but some of his reasoning (if I can dignify it by that name) needs to be seen in the original.  So here are a few examples.
Tradition holds that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, a place ABOVE the rest of us.  
"Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King." (Psa. 48:2)
I don't think Psalm 48 was referring to the North Pole, but what do I know?  I'm no biblical scholar, of course.  Maybe the bears that god sent to the Prophet Elisha to eat the children who had teased him for being bald were polar bears, I dunno.
Santa wears a red furry suit.  
"And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God." (Rev. 19:13)
Well, there were lots of guys on Star Trek who wore red, and as I recall, they weren't all-powerful.  In fact, nearly every episode, several Red Shirts ended up dying in nasty ways.
Children are taught that Santa "knows when you've been good, and he knows when you've been bad".  
"The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good." (Pro. 15:3) "And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts?" (Mat. 9:4) 
Is it just me, or is the idea of an omniscient being spying on you at all times a little... creepy?  I don't care whether it's Santa or Jesus, I'd rather not have someone watching me in the bathroom.
Santa has the ability to defy the laws of gravity and fly around giving gifts to people.  
"But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men." (Eph. 4:7-8) 
So, what are you saying, Reverend Melton?  That if I'm good this year, Jesus will bring me a Little Tin Horn and a Little Toy Drum?

There are plenty of others, including Santa's elves being evil spirits, and Santa and Jesus both having white hair.

Then he ends by saying that because Santa is sometimes called "Saint Nick," and an old slang for the devil is "Old Nick," that proves it.  And that was when this linguistics geek sat up and said, "Hey now.  You've left the realm of goofy pseudo-theology and started to mess with false etymology. Them's fightin' words."  Because I happen to know that "Old Nick" is the devil because the German word for demon is nickel (yes, it's a cognate to the name of the metal, which was called kupfernickel, or "copper demon," because its ore looked like copper ore but it didn't produce any copper).  "Saint Nick," on the other hand, comes from the name Nicholas, which means "victory of the people" (from the Greek nike, victory + laos, people).

Of course, Reverend Melton would still think the similarity was significant.  He even says that it's no coincidence that "Santa" and "Satan" are spelled from the same letters, something that was pointed out twenty years ago by the "Church Lady" on Saturday Night Live.

So we're not talking about someone who's rational, here. If you look at other things Melton's written about, you find out on his home page that he's also against Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and rednecks, that he's all for capital punishment, and he thinks kids need to be spanked regularly.

He also said that he doesn't believe in evolution, which is no great shocker.  He says that you can't use biochemistry to support evolution, because biochemistry is "where scientists mix genes and chromosomes in their effort to prove relation between man and animal."

So it's not like Melton has that firm a grasp on reality.

And I doubt whether his message is going to have much impact.  Too many people like Christmas and get into the traditions, whether they approach it from a religious or a secular stance.  I'm thinking that very few of us are going to give up giving holiday gifts because "Santa is a COUNTERFEIT GOD" (the stuck caps lock courtesy of Reverend Melton).

As for me, I hope to get my tree up this weekend.  I've also gotta get cracking with getting gifts for people.  I might even play some Christmas music today.  Time to get ready, 'cuz Satan Claus is comin' to town.

Um.  Santa Claus.  My bad.