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

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Red Menace of "Les Schtroumpfs"

(One of a series of reposts, for your enjoyment while I'm on vacation.  First posted in June 2011.)


It's been a rough year for cartoon characters.

First, we had a Muslim cleric ranting about how Mickey Mouse was an Unclean Agent of Satan.  Then, the Seal-the-Borders cadre began to howl that Dora the Explorer was an illegal alien.  Not to be outdone, the Catholic church contributed their own little piece of surrealism with the claim that the Simpsons were clearly Roman Catholics.

And now, Antoine Buéno, a university lecturer in Paris, is claiming that the Smurfs are communists.

His treatise, entitled "Le Petit Livre Bleu: Analyse critique et politique de la société des Schtroumpfs," brings up two immediate questions:

1)  Did you know that the French for "Smurfs" was "les Schtroumpfs?"  I didn't.  I also defy you to say "les Schtroumpfs" without laughing.  It makes it even better if you say it with a fruity, Pépé le Pew accent.

2)  Is this guy kidding?  Or what?

In answer to the second question, let's look at his evidence:
  • Smurfs take their meals in a communal dining hall.
  • They have a single leader, who is a father-figure that they never refer to by name.
  • Every effort is done collectively; they rarely strike out on their own, or show private initiative.
  • Papa Smurf looks like Stalin.
  • "Smurf" could be an acronym for "Small Men Under Red Force."
Well, I think we all have to admit that as evidence goes, that's pretty freakin' persuasive.  When you add the fact that Brainy Smurf looks a little like Leon Trotsky, I think we have what detective agencies call "an airtight case."

Thierry Culliford, son of the late Pierre Culliford, creator of the Smurfs, is outraged, and referred to Buéno's thesis as "grotesque."  Pierre Culliford, who went under the pen name "Peyo," was "not political," his son told reporters.  "When there were elections, he would ask my mother, 'What should I vote?'"

Buéno, of course, dismissed that, saying that Peyo was expressing communist themes in The Smurfs "unconsciously."  Because all cartoonists do that, you know.  Even comic strips are not free from it.  For example, don't you think that "Nancy" in the comic strip of the same name looks like Kim Jong Il?  Let's compare:

So, I think we can safely assume that cartoonists are unconsciously channeling all sorts of scary political themes in their work, and that from now on you should read the funny pages with that in mind.  Who knows what kind of dreadful political ideologies could be creeping into your subconscious while you're looking at "Marmaduke," "Blondie," or, god forbid, "Garfield?"

Buéno, for his part, is not backing down.  He says that his paper is "rigorous and thorough and documented."  About his claim of The Smurfs as having communist overtones, he told reporters, "It's so obvious I didn't think I'd have to spell it out."

So, anyway, there you have it.  Another tour de force from the halls of academia.  And we wonder why people think the members of the intelligentsia are a little bit cracked.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What IS it, my Preciousssss???

Dear loyal readers,

This will be my last new post for a couple of weeks, as I'll be on vacation through July 12.  But fear not -- to keep your appetite for woo-woo silliness and skepticism sated, I've lined up a series of reposts of some of the most popular articles from Skeptophilia in the past four years.  I hope you enjoy them... and be ready for some new posts on Monday, July 14!  Keep sending your comments and suggestions -- they are most appreciated.


Sometimes, I marvel at how little it takes to get the woo-woos going.

Take, for example, the article that appeared a few days ago in The Telegraph, that told the story of an "unnamed holiday maker" who was hiking in the hills of Huairou, north of Beijing.  He had gone off, he said, in search of a place to take a piss, and happened upon the following menacing-looking creature:

Well, the first thing I thought was that if I had been the one to run into this thing, that would have taken care of my need to pee right there.  Be that as it may, he evidently retained some of his presence of mind, at least at the time.  He said that he took out his cellphone and "took a few pictures of it," but that "now I am terrified."

What, he wasn't terrified at the time?  You just happen to run into a mostly-naked evil-looking humanoid with huge floppy ears, and calmly whip out your cellphone and snap a few shots -- and then days later, you look at them, and you scream, "Dear god, what is THAT?"

Well, despite the rock-bottom reliability of the story -- from the way it was reported, to the lack of names, to the fact that neither Gollum nor Dobby the House-Elf has ever been known to visit China -- this story's path through the interwebz resembles a giant pinball game.  I've seen it three times on Facebook, at least ten times on Twitter, and it's made four appearances on the various sites catalogued on

But the story didn't end there, as most of them do -- with a weird, blurry photograph and some unsubstantiated claims.  Because shortly after the original story began to make the rounds, someone stepped in and said, "Hey, y'all, calm down, this isn't real!" (as if that was in any doubt).  An "online commentator" (also unnamed) said that he and some buddies had been up in the hills making "a mini sci-fi film" and that this was just him in costume.  He also had gone off to pee, and got caught.

"And when I was having a pee," he wrote, "a person popped up and took pictures of me and shot away."

So one guy taking a piss came upon a guy in a monster suit taking a piss, and hilarity ensued.

Maybe.  Who knows?  Given that the debunker also didn't leave his name, or any real proof that what he was saying was true, he could be lying, too.

So all we really have is the photograph, which is hardly convincing, in these days of Photoshop and other digital editing software.  I'm morally certain that this isn't an alien, or a cryptid, or any of the other possible non-solutions people have been suggesting.  It's either a hoax or an accident (if we're to buy the actor-having-a-pee answer).  As for any other possibilities -- we're not buying them, Precioussss... no, not at all.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Spam, spam, spam, eggs, and spam

Yesterday I got a spam reply on one of my old Skeptophilia posts.

It happens pretty often, and I usually just ignore them, being that (1) I'm not stupid enough to reply, and (2) I have no particular interest in black-market anabolic steroids, penis growth pills, or helping out exiled Nigerian princes.  But this one was so funny that I read it aloud to a student of mine who happened to be hanging around, and we both had a good enough laugh that I thought I should share it here.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So here it is, along with some interspersed editorial comments from yours truly.
Not just me, eh?  You want the whole world's attention?  That's pretty ambitious.
Hello and blessed are you who found me.
Well, you found me, technically.  But hello back atcha.
My name is DR SHAKES SPEAR, and am here to help you change and transform your life in the most positive way possible.
Is that William Shakes Spear?  Huh.  I thought you had Shuffled Off This Mortal Coil four centuries ago.  Shows you what I know.
I use the power of white, black craft and Wicca and voodoo spell casting to help people just like you they get the love they want and the money they deserve.
Did you even read my blog, dude?  You are seriously barking up the wrong tree.
My love spell offer amazing and quick results. Do you want to find your soulmate?
Already have, thanks.
Do you want to reunite with a past lover and make him or her love you again?
Merciful heavens above, no.  My past lovers are past for a reason.
Do you need to bind a troublemaker from causing problems in your relationship?
Unless you count the fact that my dog takes up way more than his fair share of the bed, I think I'm fine in that regard.
With my spell casting service, I can cast a love spell on your behalf that will help all of your wishes and dreams come true. I also do other custom spells, such as money spells, job spells, friendship spells, and good luck spells.
Versatile, that's you!  But you have to wonder why, if you can just cast money spells, you are trying to bilk money from a poor struggling writer.
You may have already tried the power of spells and prayers to get what you want.
No, "hard work" and "a reasonable supply of brainpower" have always worked for me.
Although it is true that everyone has the ability to cast spells and perform magic, spell casting is like a muscle.  Everyone has this 'muscle' but the more you use it, the stronger it gets, and the more things you are able to do with it.
Well, that's a mighty fine sales pitch.  However, the muscle it mostly made me think of was the gluteus maximus, because you seem to be talking out of your ass.
If you are not an experienced spell caster, your spell may not be as strong, and the results not as quick as you may desire. GET YOUR PROBLEMS SOLVE HERE AND BE FREE!!
Ooh, I can't wait for my problems to be solve!
Hello to people that want to be Great,
Hi there.
Note: This Spell casting do not have any effect on any one, But just to get your problem solve ok.
Ok.  But if it do not have any effect on any one, how the hell do it get my problem solve?
Get your problem solve in master...You can get the bellow problems solve here.
Yes, those bellow problems can be a bitch, it's true.
1. Bring back lost lover, even if lost for a long time
Cf. my previous comment about lost lovers.  They can stay lost, thanks.
2. Remove bad spells from homes, business & customer attraction etc.
Now you're talking.  If you could cast a spell that would make 9th graders less annoying, I'd be much obliged.
3. Get promotion you have desired for a long time at work or in your career.
Promotion?  To what, administrator?  That'd be a big "nope."  For me, being an administrator falls into the "just shoot me now" category.
4. Remove the black pot that keeps on taking your money away
So that's where it's going!
5. Find out why you are not progressing in life and the solution
If you could progress one of my novels to "bestseller" status, I'd take back everything I said about you.
6.  Ensure excellent school grades even for children with mental disabilities
Who needs the Common Core, when you have Dr. Shakes Spear?
7. I destroy and can send back the Nikolos if requested
I'm not going to request, because I have no idea what the fuck that even means.
8. We heal barrenness in women and bad issue and disturbing menstruation
I'm disturbed just thinking about this one.
9. Get you marriage to the lover of your choice
Too late, because I took care of that one myself.  But it's a nice offer.
10. Guarantee you win the troubling court cases & divorce no matter how what stage
Shouldn't #10 come before #9?  Just saying, you know, as a pitch.  As is it seems like getting the cart before the horse.
11. Mental illness & bewitched
What about them?  
12. Extreme protection for those doing dangerous jobs like security guards, Bank manager, cash transporters, etc
Not teachers, eh?  No "extreme protection" for us?  Just your ordinary, garden-variety protection?
Maybe you should work on a spell for getting your caps lock unstuck.

So, there you have it.  A tasty meal of spam, courtesy of Dr. Shakes Spear.  I strongly recommend against sending anything to the email addresses, because of course that only would alert Dr. Spear that (s)he has a fish on the line, and pretty likely result in your being inundated by further offers.  So unless you have a particular need for steroids or penis growth pills, or are feeling a sudden desire to help down-on-their-luck Nigerian princes, it's probably best just to press "delete" and forget about it.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ouija wackiness south of the border

Ouija boards have been around for a long time -- since 1890, in fact -- but they've only really hit an upswing in popularity (and a commensurate downward spiral amongst the highly religious) in the last couple of decades.  In fact, I've dealt with them before, and wouldn't be back on this topic again if it weren't for our dear friends at The Daily Fail.

Mail.  The Daily Mail, is of course what I meant.  They've once again reinforced their reputation for high-quality, groundbreaking journalism with their story entitled, "Three Americans Hospitalized After Becoming 'Possessed' Following Ouija Board Game in Mexican Village."

In this story, we hear about twenty-something siblings Alexandra and Sergio Huerta, and their cousin Fernando Cuevas, who were visiting relatives in the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, Mexico, when they decided to whip out the ol' Ouija board and see what the spirits had to say.  And of course, as with most cases of the ideomotor effect, the spirits very likely didn't have much of interest to say other than what the participants already knew -- until Alexandra Huerta went into a "trance-like state" and started growling.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then the two boys began to "show signs of possession, including feelings of blindness, deafness, and hallucinations."  So all three were taken to a nearby hospital, where all three were given "painkillers, anti-stress medications, and eye drops."

Because you know how susceptible demons are to eye drops.  Whip out the Visine, and Satan is screwed.

Interestingly, Alexandra's parents called a local Catholic priest for an exorcism, who refused because the three were "not regular churchgoers."  I guess as a priest, your job fighting the Evil One is contingent on the possessed individual belonging to the church Social Committee, or something.

But so far, all we have is the usual ridiculous fare that The Daily Mail has become notorious for -- a non-story about three young adults who either were faking the whole thing for attention or else had suffered panic attacks and some sort of contagious hysteria.  Worthy of little attention and even less serious consideration, right?

Wrong.  You should read the comments, although you may need some fortification before doing so, because I thought that the comments on CNN Online and the Yahoo! News were bad until I started reading this bunch.  These people bring superstitious credulity to new levels.  Here's a sampling, representing the number I was able to read until my pre-frontal cortex was begging for mercy:
I've had plenty of experience.  Like us, there is both positive and negative charges amongst, let's call it, the spiritual realm.  The most common cause of error is to act like it is an actual game with no consequences.  I assure you they are quite real.  I assure you that regardless of positive or negative matter (let's call "spirits" ), they can do some mind boggling things i.e. dimming candles, creating areas or pools of water in places that couldn't possibly form etc.  AND yes, if you blatantly agree to invite them in with you it could potentially shock you into a "possessed" state.  LIKELY, it was the shock of being witness to paranormal activity as nothing can really prepare you for it.  Rule #1: Be of the most steadfast, clear and pure mind and you will have an opportunity to experience something you would never be able to otherwise.  Rule #2 ALWAYS be respectful (which also may explain this possession scenario) to them!  Most are quite nice and knowledgeable! 
Only a true exorcist Catholist [sic] priest can really rid someone of a possession.  Not all Catholic priests have this special "training" if that is even the right word to use (probably not).  It's serious stuff and the Catholic Church takes it seriously.  Perhaps we're not getting the full story on that priest's decision.  If the 3 young people were indeed "possessed," they likely still sedatives won't fix that.  They need to try the C.C. again.  There is a procedure to be followed. 
We just bought a house and there was a board in the closet.  I threw it out instantly and prayed for the Lord to protect the house, I asked Jesus to bless all who enter.  My mother played with one as a teen and it answered many questions correctly, she and her friend asking the other one's question to prevent guiding of the piece.  My God-fearing farm-raised Epispocal [sic] grandma walked by and the piece stopped abruptly-all I need to know. 
Oh, so NOW you WANT a priest.  This is so sad you blame a priest, for not responding to what could be a physically (or life-) threatening situation, at night, brought on by the free will of consenting adults.  Out of many possible suggestions for this sad state of affairs, as a remedy, I can suggest daily praying the Rosary of our Blessed Mother.  Because, "when you fill your mind with Holy thoughts, the demons will flee upon approaching you as they see that you are not fertile ground for them." 
This is NOT fake!  I know this for a fact.  After dealing w/ one, there were spirits and slamming doors in my house.
Good grief, people, will you just calm down?

It's a toy.  The thing was invented back in the 19th century as a kids' game.  There are no demons to call up, and even if there were, I doubt that a little piece of plywood with some poorly-stenciled letters would be sufficient to get them to pay a visit.  There have been tests run on people trying to mess with a Ouija board while blindfolded -- you'd think that demons wouldn't care, right? -- and it turns out that the only satanic messages these subjects spell out are things like, "kdolwicmsalpomng," which may mean something in the Language of Hell, but doesn't really mean much to the rest of us.

So the whole thing is kind of idiotic, which is what the original click-bait story on The Daily Mail intended.  They don't really care if what they say is well-written, or informative, or even true, as long as people give them hits.  (And for those of you who would like to read the original without contributing to TDM's share on search engines, the link I provided goes through the wonderful service, which allows you to see content without adding to their hit profile.)

Anyhow, that's our dip in the deep end for today.  My advice: don't go out of your way to throw out your Ouija board if you have one, but also don't expect it to tell you anything but random nonsense.  In that way, it's a little like The Daily Mail itself, isn't it?  Mildly entertaining, but mostly garbage, and gets boring pretty quickly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The writing brain

As a writer of fiction, I have wondered for years where creative ideas come from.  Certainly a great many of the plots I've written have seemed to spring fully-wrought from my brain (although as any writer will tell you, generating an idea is one thing, and seeing it to fruition quite another).

What has always struck me as odd about all of this is how... unconscious it all feels.  Oh, there's a good bit of front-of-the-brain cognition that goes into it -- background knowledge, visualization of setting, and sequencing, not to mention the good old-fashioned ability to construct solid prose.  But at its base, there's always seemed to me something mysterious about creativity, something ineffable and (dare I say it?) spiritual.  It is no surprise, even to me, that many have ascribed the source of creativity to divine inspiration or, at least, to a collective unconscious.

But now, Martin Lotze, a neuroscientist at the University of Griefswald (Germany), has taken the first steps toward understanding what is happening in the brains of creative writers -- and the results that he and his team have uncovered are fascinating.

One of the difficulties in studying the creative process is that during any exercise of creativity, the individual generally has to be free to move around.  Writing, especially, would be hard to do in a fMRI machine, where your head has to be perfectly still, and your typical writing device, a laptop, would be first wiped clean and then flung across the room by the electromagnets.  But Lotze and his team rigged up a setup wherein subjects could lie flat, with their heads encased in the fMRI tube, and have their arms supported so that they could write with the tried-and-true paper-and-pencil method, using a set of mirrors to see what they were doing.

[image courtesy of Martin Lotze and the University of Griefswald]

Each subject was given a minute to brainstorm, and then two minutes to write.  While all of the subjects activated their visual centers and hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation) during the process, there was a striking difference between veteran and novice writers.  Novice writers tended to activate their visual centers first; brainstorming, for them, started with thinking of images.  Veteran writers, on the other hand, started with their speech production centers.

"I think both groups are using different strategies,” Lotze said.  "It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice."

The other contrast between veterans and novices was in the level of activity of the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain involved in the coordination of activities as we become more skilled.  The higher the level of activity in the caudate nucleus, the more fluent we have become at it, and the less conscious effort it takes -- leading to the conclusion (no surprise to anyone who is a serious writer) that writing, just like anything, becomes better and easier the more you do it.  Becoming an excellent writer, like becoming a concert pianist or a star athlete, requires practice.

All of this is also interesting from the standpoint of artificial intelligence -- because if you don't buy the Divine Inspiration or Collective Unconscious Models, or something like them (which I don't), then any kind of creative activity is simply the result of patterns of neural firings -- and therefore theoretically should be able to be emulated by a computer.  I say "theoretically," because our current knowledge of AI is in its most rudimentary stages.  But just knowing what is happening in the brains of writers is the first step toward both understanding it, and (possibly) generating a machine that is capable of true creativity.

All of that, of course is far in the future, and Lotze himself is well aware that this is hardly the end of the story.  As for me, I find the whole thing fascinating, and a little humbling -- that something so sophisticated is going on in my skull when I think up a scene in a story.  It brings to mind something one of my neurology students once said, after a lecture on the workings of the brain:  "My brain is so much smarter than me, I don't know how I manage to think at all!"


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

There's a word for that

I've always had a fascination for words, ever since I was little.  My becoming a writer was hardly in question from the start.  And when I found out that because of the rather byzantine rules governing teacher certification at the time, I could earn my permanent certification in biology with a master's degree in linguistics, I jumped into it with wild abandon.  (Okay, I know that's kind of strange; and for those of you who are therefore worried about my qualifications to teach science classes, allow me to point out that I also have enough graduate credit hours to equal a master's degree in biology, although I never went through the degree program itself.)

In any case, I've been a logophile for as long as I can remember, and as a result, my kids grew up in a household where incessant wordplay was the order of the day.  Witness the version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" I used to sing to my boys when they were little:
The minuscule arachnid, a spigot he traversed
Precipitation fell, the arachnid was immersed
Solar radiation
Caused evaporation
So the minuscule arachnid recommenced perambulation.
Okay, not only do I love words, I might be a little odd.  My kids developed a good vocabulary probably as much as a defense mechanism as for any other reason.

All of this is just by way of saying that I am always interested in research regarding how words are used.  And just yesterday, I ran across a set of data collected by some Dutch linguists regarding word recognition in several languages (including English) -- and when they looked at gender differences, an interesting pattern emerged.

What they did was to give a test to see if the correct definitions were known for various unfamiliar words, and then sorted them by gender.  It's a huge sample size -- there were over 500,000 respondents to the online quiz.  And they found that which words the respondents got wrong was more interesting than the ones they got right.

From the data, they compiled a list of the twelve words that men got wrong more frequently than women.  They were:
  • taffeta
  • tresses
  • bottlebrush (the plant, not the kitchen implement, which is kind of self-explanatory)
  • flouncy
  • mascarpone
  • decoupage
  • progesterone
  • wisteria
  • taupe
  • flouncing
  • peony
  • bodice
Then, there were the ones women got wrong more frequently than men:
  • codec
  • solenoid
  • golem
  • mach
  • humvee
  • claymore
  • scimitar
  • kevlar
  • paladin
  • bolshevism
  • biped
  • dreadnought
There are a lot of things that are fascinating about these lists.  The female-skewed words are largely about clothes, flowers, and cooking; the male-skewed words about machines and weapons.  (Although I have to say that I have a hard time imagining that anyone wouldn't recognize the definition of "tresses" and "scimitar.")

It's easy to read too much into this, of course; even the two words with the biggest gender-based differences (taffeta and codec) were still correctly identified by 43 and 48% of the male and female respondents, respectively.  (Although I will admit that one of the "male" words -- codec -- is the only one on either list that I wouldn't have been able to make a decent guess at.  It means "a device that compresses data to allow faster transmission," and I honestly don't think I've ever heard it used.)

It does point out, however, that however much progress we have made as a society in creating equal opportunities for the sexes, we still have a significant skew in how we teach and use language, and in the emphasis we place on different sorts of knowledge.

I was also interested in another bit of this study, which is the words that almost no one knew.  Their surveys found that the least-known nouns in the study were the following twenty words.  See how many of these you know:
  • genipap
  • futhorc
  • witenagemot
  • gossypol
  • chaulmoogra
  • brummagem
  • alsike
  • chersonese
  • cacomistle
  • yogh
  • smaragd
  • duvetyn
  • pyknic
  • fylfot
  • yataghan
  • dasyure
  • simoom
  • stibnite
  • kalian
  • didapper
As you might expect, I didn't do so well with these.  There are three I knew because they are biology-related (chaulmoogra, cacomistle, and dasyure); one I got because of my weather-obsession (simoom); one I got because my dad was a rockhound (stibnite); and one I got because of my degree in linguistics (futhorc -- and see, the MA did come in handy!).  The rest I didn't even have a guess about.  (I did look up "genipap" because it sounds like some kind of STD, and it turns out to be "a tropical American tree with edible orange fruit and useful timber.")

I'm not entirely sure what all this tells us, other than what we started with, which is that words are interesting.  At least I think so, and I'm pleased to say that my kids still do, too.  My younger, who is now 23, was home for a visit recently and wanted to know if we'd gotten any movies from the popular DVD-rental company.  He phrased it, "Do we have any Netflixen right now?"

Only someone in my family would think "ox-oxen, Netflix-Netflixen."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Your days are numbered

Most people have heard of the placebo effect.  The name comes from the Latin word meaning "I will please," and refers to the phenomenon that people who are given an ineffective medication after being told that it will ameliorate their symptoms often find that the symptoms do, indeed, abate.  The mechanism is still not well elucidated -- it has been suggested that some of the effect might be caused by the brain producing "endogenous opioids" when a placebo is administered, causing decreased sensations of pain, feelings of well-being, and sounder sleep.  But the fact is, we still don't fully understand it.

Less well-known, but equally well-documented, is the nocebo effect.  "Nocebo" means "I will harm" in Latin, and it is more or less the placebo effect turned on its head.  If a person is told that something will cause pain, or bring him/her to harm, it sometimes does -- even if there's no rational reason why it would.  Individuals who believe in voodoo curses, for example, sometimes show actual medically detectable symptoms, even though such curses are merely empty superstition.  Nevertheless, if you believe in them, you might feel their effects.

Naturally, this further bolsters the superstition itself, which ramps up the anxiety and fear, which makes the nocebo more likely to happen the next time, and so round and round it goes.  And this seems to be what is happening right now in Uganda -- a bizarre phenomenon called "numbers disease."

In "numbers disease," an affected individual suddenly notices a raised pattern on his/her skin that looks like a number.  The number that appears, it is said, represents the number of days the person has left.  Once the number shows up, the individual begins to sicken, and when the allotted time is up, the person dies.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Thomas Lutalo, of the Ugandan Ministry of Health, says that he is seeing a rapid increase in the incidence of the "disease," and has suggested that much of the hysteria might be due to relatively harmless skin infections like ringworm that worsen because of improper skin care.  Ringworm rashes are often irregular, meaning that if you're looking for a pattern (e.g. a number) you're likely to find one, especially given that any number will do.  Then, the superstition that gave rise to the "disease" lends itself to superstitious "cures" that often make some easily-treatable disease become more serious.

The worst part is that this one-superstition-leads-to-another thing is generating an upswing in the belief in witchcraft, and is giving local religious leaders another tool for converting the fearful.  "Unfortunately, some Pentecostal pastors are already using the fear of the strange disease as a beacon for luring more followers to their worship centres with promises of a 'cure,'" said Dr. Harriet Birabwa, a psychiatrist at a hospital in the city of Butabika.  "It is a myth that needs to be dispelled immediately as very many people are dying because of harboring such baseless beliefs."

Which is all well and good to say, but as we've seen over and over, superstitions are awfully difficult to combat.  In my Critical Thinking class, I ask, "How many are you are superstitious?", and usually about half the class will cheerfully raise their hands -- despite the fact that it's hard to see how self-identifying as "superstitious" could be a good thing.  This generates a discussion about what they're superstitious about and why, and how we come to such conclusions despite there being little evidence for their veracity.  Fortunately, most of the superstitions I hear about in class are minor silliness -- on the level of a lucky keychain, a special pen to take tests with, or making sure that they put their left shoe on first because otherwise it'd be "bad luck."

But the whole superstitious mindset is counterfactual and irrational, and that in and of itself makes it worth fighting.  Why subscribe to a worldview within which sinister forces, over which you have no control, are capriciously doling out good and bad fortune, and for which (more importantly) there is no evidence whatsoever?  As we're seeing in Uganda, superstition is sometimes not as harmless as it seems, and can lead to fear, anxiety, physical harm, and allowing yourself to be manipulated by the unscrupulous.

So call to mind any superstitions you might fall prey to, and think about whether it might not be time to reconsider them.  Maybe it's time that irrationality's days are numbered... not yours.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Seeds of doubt

C'mon, people, it's time to grow up a little.

When we're toddlers, we accept things without question.  If our parents say something, we pretty much believe that it must be true.  (Whether we do what they tell us afterwards, though, is another issue.)  After a time, we start experimenting, and testing the world -- sometimes with unfortunate results, such as when we decide to find out why Mommy says that Mr. Finger and Mr. LightSocket can't be friends.

But this highlights an important principle, which is that our first and best way to find out about things is by finding evidence.  "Show me why" is a pretty important first step to knowledge.

It's not the last step, though.  After the "show me why" stage we should move on to "but how do you know it's true?", which is a deeper and more sophisticated question.  Okay, from the evidence of my eyes, it looks like the Sun is moving across the sky.  In order to move past that to the correct explanation, we have to ask the question, "What if there is a better explanation that still accounts for all of the evidence?"

And in this case, of course, it turns out that there is.

There are other facets to this mode of inquiry.  What confounding factors could there be?  What if there are uncontrolled variables?  What if the person who made the original claim was lying?  What if my preconceived biases made me misjudge the evidence, or (perhaps) ignore some of the evidence entirely?  What if there is correlation between A and B, but instead of A causing B, B causes A -- or, perhaps, some third factor caused them both?

This whole process is what is collectively known as "Critical Thinking."  What is unfortunate, though, is that a lot of people seem to be stuck at the "I see evidence, so it must be true" stage, which is probably why the whole WiFi-kills-plants thing is making the rounds of social media... again.  Just a couple of days ago, a friend of mine ran across it, and asked the right question: "can this actually be true?"

The claim is that five ninth-graders from Denmark had noticed that if they slept near their WiFi routers, they "had trouble concentrating in school the next day."  Because clearly, if ninth graders are distracted, it must be because of WiFi.  So the kids allegedly set up an experiment with cress seeds, placed some near a router, and had others in a "room without radiation," and had the results pictured above.

Well.  The whole thing is suspect from the get-go, because we're told nothing about other conditions the seeds were experiencing -- light, humidity, temperature, air flow, and so forth.  Was the "room without radiation" well-lit?  Were the seeds near the router warmer than the supposed control group?  There are a hundred things about this so-called experiment that we're not being told, and yet we're supposed to buy the results -- in spite of the fact that "control all variables but one, or the results are suspect" is the first thing taught in high school science classes.  (For a nice take-apart of this "experiment," take a look here -- and note, especially, that attempts to replicate the girls' experiment have not produced any results.)

What else?  First, it's from Spirit Science, a notorious peddler of woo.  Second, unless they were in a lead-lined vault, I doubt whether the control seeds were actually in a "room without radiation."  Even if you're some distance from the nearest router, you (and your room) are constantly being pierced by radio waves, which pass easily through most solid objects (if they didn't, old-fashioned (i.e. pre-cable) televisions and almost all modern radios would not work inside houses or cars).  Then there's the issue of how many thousands of WiFi routers in the world are sitting near perfectly healthy house plants -- for years, not just for thirteen days.  And even if WiFi did kill cress seeds, there's no guarantee that it would have the same (or any) effect on humans.  Don't believe me?  Go for a nice swim in the ocean, and then pour a cup of seawater on your marigolds, and see if the results are the same.  (In all seriousness, researchers face this all the time when developing medications -- therapies that work well in vitro or on lab animals might have different effects on human subjects.)

So to the people who are unquestioningly passing this around, just stop.  Exercise something past the You-Showed-Me-A-Picture-So-It's-True level of critical thinking.  If you see something that seems suspect, ask someone who might know the answer (as my friend did with this claim).  Or, in this day of information accessibility, you could simply Google "cress seeds WiFi experiment debunked" and you'll find everything you needed to know.

We all were toddlers once, and no harm done, unless you count unfortunate encounters with light sockets.  But let's exercise a little higher-level thinking, here, and not just accept whatever comes down the pike.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Holes in the truth

I know I have a lot of faults.  I can be prickly and snarky sometimes, I'm easily frustrated, and I have a broad streak of impatience.  Sometimes I swear too much.  (Okay, I often swear too much.)  I'm too hard on people when I feel like they're making excuses or are devolving responsibility that should rightfully be theirs onto someone else's shoulders.  Sometimes I'm not a team player when it would be easier (and kinder) just to cooperate and be pleasant.

But one fault I can say I do not fall prey to, and in fact cannot really understand; and that is being sneaky and dishonest.

If I tell you something, you can pretty much rely on its being the truth.  I've said it to my students, I've said it to my own children: you'll make mistakes, but when you do, own up.  Don't compound your mistakes by lying to me about them.  You get into a habit of lying, and you'll find it comes more and more easily -- and you become more and more facile at justifying your lies to yourself and others.  One lie, I've found, so often leads to another.

And another.

It's why I had a reaction of complete revulsion to the news yesterday that Rickey Wagoner, the driver for the Dayton (Ohio) Regional Transportation Authority who claimed that he'd been shot and stabbed by three black teenagers, seems to have made the whole thing up, including the claim that gunshots aimed at his chest had been stopped by a bible that he carried in his shirt pocket.  As Exhibit A, he had a small paper-bound bible with not one, but two bullets lodged in it.

A miracle, he claimed.

[image courtesy of Open Clip Art Library]

And so did a lot of his fellow Christians.  God had his hand over Wagoner, had shielded him from harm through an attack that could well have killed him.  A lot of non-theists were less impressed -- I was reminded of the wonderful quote from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Jingo:
"This belonged to my great-granddad," [the sergeant] said.  "He was in the scrap we had against Pseudopolis and my great-gran gave him this book of prayer for soldiers, ‘cos you need all the prayers you can get, believe you me, and he stuck it in the top pocket of his jerkin, ‘cos he couldn’t afford armour, and next day in battle - whoosh, this arrow came out of nowhere, wham, straight into this book and it went all the way through to the last page before stopping, look, you can see the hole." 
"Pretty miraculous," Carrot agreed. 
"Yeah, it was, I s’pose," said the sergeant.  He looked ruefully at the battered volume.  "Shame about the other seventeen arrows, really."
But even so, even the atheists did admit that Wagoner had been (if nothing more) damned lucky.

It turns out instead that what he seems to be is a damned liar.

Not only did Wagoner apparently fabricate the whole attack -- the allegation is that he shot himself in the leg and inflicted several shallow cuts on his own body -- he seems to have shot the bible himself.  Forensics tests with an identical book, placed on a gel dummy, showed that at the distance the gunshots were discharged toward Wagoner, the bible couldn't have stopped the bullets -- they'd have gone right through, and traveled another fifteen centimeters into his body.  All of the injuries, investigators say, were consistent with self-inflicted wounds, and the entire story is not just implausible, but impossible.

What, exactly, was he hoping to accomplish by his fabrication?  To create the appearance of a miracle to edify the religious?  To convince the non-religious of the error of their ways?  Or, even worse, to cast aspersions on black teenagers, further ramping up the fear and suspicion of minorities and youth?  Or some combination of the above?

Whatever his motivation was, he's not saying.  He hasn't spoken to police or reporters regarding the allegations, and has refused to make a statement.  DRTA has apparently fired him, though, so the case against his story seems pretty solid.  "After conducting a comprehensive investigation that has spanned nearly four months, the police department has concluded Mr. Wagoner fabricated his statements," DRTA executive director Mark Donaghy said.  "All of us at RTA are angry at the thought that an employee would allegedly mislead the police, the public and us and use ugly racial stereotypes in doing so."

Yup.  And make all of the well-wishers, not to mention his fellow Christians who were duped into thinking they'd been touched by a genuine miracle, look like fools.  The whole thing is just repulsive.

And, for me, kind of incomprehensible.  What could possibly motivate someone to go to these lengths -- cutting himself, and shooting himself in the leg?  Wagoner had been employed by DRTA for ten years and had an "excellent work record" -- an indication, at least, that he wasn't showing any obvious signs of mental illness.  It seems to be a hoax, a fabrication, a lie outright, crafted for his own reasons, with deliberate intent to deceive.

That I cannot understand.  Although I disagreed from the start with the religious folks who praised Wagoner's apparent narrow escape from death as a miracle, I find myself feeling pretty sympathetic toward them at the moment.  It's always hard to have your trust betrayed, which is why dishonesty cuts so deep.

Other than charges of lying to the police, I'm not sure what legal action can be taken against Wagoner, but it certainly seems unjust that he should get off scot free after duping so many people.  I hope that at least, he is made to face the media and the public, and give a statement admitting that he lied.  Because to come back to where I started: dishonesty sucks.  There is no gentler way to put it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A monster of a problem

Apparently, it's easier than I thought to give your soul to Satan.

You don't have to attend a Black Mass, or hold a séance, or even wear an upside-down crucifix.  Nothing that flashy, or even deliberate, is necessary.

All you have to do is drink the wrong energy drink.

I am referring, of course, to "Monster," that whiz-bang combination of sugar, vitamins, caffeine, and various herbal extracts of dubious health effect, which misleadingly does not list "demons" on the ingredient list.

At least that's the contention of the also-misleadingly named site Discerning the World, which would be more accurately called Everything Is Trying To Eat Your Soul.  This site claims that the "Monster" logo, with its familiar trio of green claw marks on a black background, is actually a symbol for "666" because the individual claw marks look a little like the Hebrew symbol for the number six:

Which, of course, is way more plausible than the idea that it's a stylized letter "M."  You know, "M" as in "Monster."

But no.  Every time you consume a Monster energy drink, you are swallowing...

... pure evil.

Now lest you think that these people are just making some kind of metaphorical claim -- that the Monster brand has symbolism that isn't wholesome, and that it might inure the unwary with respect to secular, or even satanic, imagery -- the website itself puts that to rest pretty quickly.  It's a literal threat, they say, ingested with every swallow:
The Energy Drink contains ‘demonic’ energy and if you drink this drink you are drinking a satanic brew that will give you a boost... People who are not saved, who are not covered by the Previous Blood of Jesus Christ are susceptible to their attacks. Witchcraft is being used against the world on a scale so broad that it encompasses everything you see on a daily basis – right down to children’s clothing at your local clothing store.
So that's pretty unequivocal.  Never mind that if you'll consult the Hebrew numeral chart above, the logo looks just as much like "777" as it does like "666."

Or, maybe, just like a capital "M."  Back to the obvious answer.

Unfortunately, though, there are people who think that the threat is real, which is a pretty terrifying worldview to espouse.  Not only did I confirm this by looking at the comments on the website (my favorite one: "It is truly SCARY that all the little kids who play their Pokemon and video games are being GROOMED to enter this gateway to hell.  Satan wants to devour our young and he will do it any way he can."), a guy posted on the r/atheism subreddit just yesterday saying that he'd been enjoying a Monster drink on a train, and some woman came up to him and snarled, "I hope you enjoy your drink IN HELL," and then stalked away.

What, exactly, are you supposed to say to something like that?  "Thank you, I will?"  "Here, would you like a sip?"  "Yes, it fills me with everlasting fire?"  Since quick thinking is not really my forté, I'm guessing that I'd probably just have given her a goggle-eyed stare as she walked off, and thought of many clever retorts afterward.

"It's damned good."  That's what I'd like to say to her.

Not, of course, that it would be the truth, since my opinion is that Monster tastes like someone took the effluent from a nuclear power plant, added about twenty pounds of sugar, and let it ferment in the sun all day long.  But that's just me.

And of course, there's my suspicion that the owner of the Monster trademark is probably thrilled by this notoriety -- they pride themselves on being edgy, and their target advertising demographic is young, athletic, iconoclastic rebel types, or those who fancy themselves as such.  So no doubt this whole demonic-entity thing fits right into Monster's marketing strategy.

Convenient for both sides.  The perennially-fearful hell-avoiders have something else to worry about, and the Monster people have an extra cachet for their product.  One hand washes the other, even if one of them belongs to Satan, who (if he were real) would probably approve wholeheartedly of capitalism and the profit motive. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Unique, just like everyone else

There's this idea that the creationists just love, and it's called the Strong Anthropic Principle.  The idea of the Strong Anthropic Principle is that there are a lot of seemingly arbitrary parameters in the universe, all of which appear to be underivable from other basic principles, and which are uniquely set to generate a universe in which stable matter and life can exist.  The speed of light, the strength of the strong nuclear force, the fine structure constant, the strength of gravity, the strength of the electromagnetic force -- all of them are at values which, if you tweaked them a little bit in either direction, would result in an uninhabitable universe.

The problem is, the Strong Anthropic Principle seems to breeze right past two problems.  The first is that the fundamental constants seem underivable from first principles -- emphasis on the word seem.  In other words, the conjecture that they are arbitrary, and that their value is an example of an intelligent deity's fine tuning, rests on our current state of ignorance about physics.

The second, of course, is that it's a completely untestable proposition.  Unless you're assuming your conclusion (that a creator exists) you can't tell anything from the fundamental physical constants except that they are what they are.  After all, we only have the one universe accessible to study.  It could equally well be that other universes are just as likely as this one, and have other physical constants (and thus are uninhabitable) -- and that we can ask the question only because if the constants in this universe were other than they are, we wouldn't be here to consider it.  (This latter framing of the problem is called the "Weak Anthropic Principle," and is usually the stance taken by non-theists.)

The general weakness of the Strong Anthropic Principle hasn't stopped it from being embraced wholeheartedly by people who are trying to bolster the creationist worldview, and it's the essence of the article that appeared on Answers in Genesis a while back called "Not Just Another Star."  The whole thing, really, can be summed up as "Aren't we special?"  Here's a sampling:
While the sun has many characteristics similar to stars, the Bible never refers to it as a star. This suggests that the sun may have some unique characteristics. Could that refer to its composition? The sun’s composition is a bit unusual—it has far less lithium than most stars do. Lithium isn’t very common in stars anyway, but the sun is among the most lithium-poor stars. Though this statistic is interesting, it isn’t clear whether it is significant... 
By God’s gracious design, the earth has a protective magnetic field that prevents the sun’s flares from disrupting life. The particles racing from the sun interact with the magnetic field, which deflects most of the particles. Yet we are periodically reminded about such imminent danger when the flares overload the ability of the earth’s magnetic field to protect us. Astronauts on the Space Station must enter protected sections of the station after a solar flare. 
Not all planets have strong enough magnetic fields to protect living organisms on their surfaces. Even on planets that do, the situation would be dire if the star’s magnetic activity were far higher than the sun’s. The much more frequent and far more powerful flares probably would compromise any reasonable magnetic field that a planet would have. Because this particle radiation would be harmful to living things, even secular astronomers recognize that variable stars probably can’t support living things... 
Our sun is just a tiny yellow star in a vast collection that could support life. You’ll hear this more and more. Don’t believe it. The minimum requirement of a life-supporting star is missing from all the other stars. Our God-given sun appears to be unique.
What makes this wryly amusing that the creationists are choosing this week to post the article all over the place (it was actually written a few months ago, but I've just seen it on evangelical websites in the last week or so) -- because two days ago, a study appeared over at that suggests that not only might the Earth not be unique, we might be one of (get this) 100 million inhabitable planets in the Milky Way alone.

That, friends, is a lot of places to look for alien life.  And a pretty strong blow to anyone's impression that the Earth is The Chosen Place.  Here's what one of the paper's authors, Alberto Farién of Cornell University, had to say:
This study does not indicate that complex life exists on that many planets. We're saying that there are planetary conditions that could support it. Origin of life questions are not addressed – only the conditions to support life.  Complex life doesn't mean intelligent life – though it doesn't rule it out or even animal life – but simply that organisms larger and more complex than microbes could exist in a number of different forms.  For example, organisms that form stable food webs like those found in ecosystems on Earth.
Add that to the fact that as nice as the Earth is, even here we have a great many places that are pretty hostile to human life -- Antarctica, large parts of the Great Rift Valley, Australia's Nullarbor Plain, most of the Sahara -- not to mention 71% of the surface area of the Earth (i.e. the oceans) -- and the Strong Anthropic Principle is looking weaker and weaker.

So, yeah.  Nice try, but not so much.

It's been a continuous move out of the center for us, hasn't it?  First Copernicus knocks down geocentrism; then Kepler says that the planets don't move in perfect circles.  Darwin punches a hole in the uniqueness of Homo sapiens with The Ascent of Man, and various geneticists in the 20th century show that all life, down to the simplest, pretty much encodes information the same way.  Now, we find out that there may be 100 million places kind of like the Earth out there in space.

Some people may find that depressing, but I don't.  I actually think it's awesome.  For one thing, it would mean we're almost certainly not alone in the universe.  For another, I think that a lot of humanity's missteps have come from a false sense of superiority -- over the environment, over other species, even over other human groups.  Maybe this kind of thing is good for us; there's nothing wrong with adopting a little humility as a species, not to mention perspective.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tuesday shorts

So it's summer, at least for us folks here in the Northern Hemisphere.  Living as I do in the Frozen North (better known as upstate New York), summer is a time to celebrate the fact that it is finally warm enough most days to go outside without risking freezing off critical body parts.

And in honor of the better weather, we're gonna have some shorts here on Skeptophilia.

[image courtesy of photographer Tinou Bao and the Wikimedia Commons]

No, not those kind of shorts, not that I don't approve thereof.  I'm talking about a brief survey of wacky stories around the world. 

We'll start in China, whence came yesterday's story about setting your crotch on fire to improve your sex life, so it's not surprising that we can find other loony ideas there.  From a story on the BBC News we find out that a zoo in Chengdu has forbidden its resident panda cubs from predicting the winner of the World Cup.

My first thought was: if you believe not only in psychic stuff, but in non-human animals being able to do psychic stuff, how would you go about forbidding it?  Would you stand in front of the pandas' enclosure, and say in a stern voice, "No clairvoyance allowed!  I mean it!"?  Would you watch for signs of mental telepathy from the pandas, and withhold their bowls of bamboo shoots when they do it, so as to discourage panda ESP?

But it turns out that they're actually not forbidding the pandas from speculating amongst themselves, they're simply forbidding them from cluing their handlers in on what they're picking up from the aether.  You might remember the whole Paul-the-Octopus nonsense a few years ago, wherein an octopus in a sea life center in Oberhausen, Germany gained worldwide notoriety when it would select the winner of various World Cup matches by taking food out of containers labeled with the flags of the competing teams' countries, and seemed to do so with great accuracy.  And people took him seriously.  His prediction that Germany would beat Argentina -- which turned out to be correct -- prompted an Argentine chef to post octopus recipes online.

But of course, the whole thing didn't pan out, either literally or figuratively, and his incorrect prediction that Germany would beat Spain in the final game turned out to be wrong, which kind of ended his popularity in his home country.

So the Chinese basically put the quietus on a plan to have the Chengdu panda cubs predict the match outcomes a similar way, that is, by selecting food from containers with flags.  The Chengdu research facility simply said that the "authorities had stepped in and halted the plans," without further explanation.  Meaning that any conversations, telepathic or otherwise, that the pandas have about sports will have to remain amongst their own kind.

Next, we have a story from Canada that gives us the good news that in the afterlife, everyone gets to be happy and contented and blissful.  Somewhat less good, at least in my mind, is that "everyone" includes "psychotic genocidal dictators."

Canadian psychic Carmel Joy Baird has sparked something of a tempest in a teapot by her claim that even Adolf Hitler has mellowed since his bad old Nazi days.  "He's with great-granny on the other side," Baird said in a television interview, in a quote that I swear I'm not making up.

Well, of course this didn't sit well with most fair-minded folks.  "Ms. Baird is entitled to her opinion about what happened to Hitler in the next world," said Len Rudner, director of community affairs and outreach at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Toronto.  "We are much more concerned with what he did in this world, which was to attempt to annihilate the Jewish people.  This is far more important to remember.  The souls that deserve our attention are the souls of the people that were murdered during Hitler's genocide and the souls of those who grieve them."

Which is certainly fair enough, although no one is addressing the point that Baird herself appears to be a fruitcake.  I mean, do people really think this woman is able to find out about the post-mortem status of major world figures?  If so, we should put it to the test.  For example, it'd be nice to know what actually happened to Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and D. B. Cooper.  I don't care so much if they're happily chatting with their great-grannies, but it'd be kind of cool to know what became of them during their last days on Earth -- a matter that Baird should easily be able to clear up for us.

Finally, we'll head to England, where some Shropshire sheep farmers are claiming that "aliens in UFOS" are "lasering" their sheep.

Apparently, the sheep have been found dead, with "neat holes" in their bodies, and also missing important organs such as brains and eyes.  The deaths came to the attention of Phil Hoyle, who has investigated other cases of strange livestock mutilation, and who came to the farm near Radnor Forest where the sheep were killed.  The area, says Hoyle, is also a hotspot for UFO sightings -- and the two are connected.

"The technology involved in these attacks is frightening," Hoyle said, in an interview with The Sun.  "These lights and spheres are clearly not ours.  They are built by technology and intelligence that's not from here."

About the UFO sightings, Hoyle said, "For a short while it looked more like a Star Wars battle."  He interviewed farmers after the incident, and said that "all but one had some type of unusual disappearance of animals or deaths with strange injuries."

Which of course raises the question of why superpowerful, ultra-intelligent aliens from another planet would use their awesome technology to zip light years across the galaxy, visit Earth, and then come away with nothing but some sheep brains.  Can't you just picture when the captain of the ship returns to his home world?

Captain of alien ship:  "Look, your exalted excellency!  At the cost of millions of bars of Ferengi latinum, we have traveled to the third planet around the star Sol, and we have come back with... this."

*captain holds up three sheep brains and assorted eyes*

Leader of alien planet:  "That's it.  Guards, feed the captain to the Rancor."

(Okay, I know, I mixed my science fiction universes up.  So shoot me.)

So anyway, there we have it:  some summer shorts for your perusal.  Psychic pandas, Adolf in the afterlife, and Shropshire sheep slayings.  I hope you enjoyed them.  As for me, the weather's nice, so I think it's time for a nap in the hammock.  Wearing shorts, of course.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Goodness gracious...

Are you feeling like your love life is a little cooler than you'd like?  Are you lacking in the ardor department?  Does it seem like you just don't have the romantic sizzle you once had?

If so, I have the solution.

All you have to be willing to do is to have someone set your crotch on fire.

I'm not making this up, and I wish I was, because after researching this I now feel like I need to spend the rest of the day in a protective crouch.  I picked up this story from Sharon Hill's always-reliable site Doubtful News, wherein we find out that in China, there has been a surge in the popularity of treating waning sex drive by placing towels soaked with alcohol over guys' privates, and then setting them on fire.

If the description wasn't enough, we have photographs:

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine that my reaction to having flames spouting from my reproductive region would be just to lie there, hands behind my head, with a blissful expression on my face.  Now that I come to think of it, I can think of no circumstance in which I'd allow anyone to come near my reproductive region with flames in the first place.  But apparently, the guys in China love this.  The article quotes a 33 year old banker, Ken Cho, who says, "It is all about keeping blood flow moving rapidly.  The warmth from the burning towels speeds the blood through the body and it makes me perform 50% better in bed.  I have tried all sorts of therapies in the past to keep my sexual performance up to speed but this is by far the best."

Which, of course, raises several questions.  With guys, the issue isn't with getting the blood to flow rapidly, it's more with getting the blood to stay put.  If you get my drift.  And the whole "50% better" statistic just makes me think he's making shit up.  50% better for whom?  Did he query his girlfriend one night, asking her to rate his performance, and then he went to get the Great Balls Afire Treatment, and they did the deed again, and she said afterwards, "Yes, dear, that was at least 50% better than last time?"

Somehow I don't think this is the kind of thing that lends itself to a controlled study.

What I really wonder, though, is how anyone thought of this to begin with.  Because, after all, some poor schmuck had to be the first to try it.  Can't you picture it?  Dude goes to his doctor, and says, "Doc, I've been experiencing low sex drive lately," and the doctor says, "Oh, we can treat that.  All we have to do is set your penis on fire."

I don't know about you, but I would run, not walk, out of the office.  Even if many of us would fancy being a Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love, this is not the way to do it.

So what we have here is a combination of the placebo effect, self-delusion, wishful thinking, and high tolerance of risk.  If there was any doubt.

Anyhow, that's our contribution from the Extremely Alternative Medicine department for today.  Bringing up yet again my contention that every time I think I have found the most completely idiotic idea humanity is capable of, someone breaks the previous record.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The war over tenure

I know how to fix the educational system.

It's so simple, I can even put it in a bulleted-list form.  Here's what you do:

  • Shorten the time between teaching the material and giving the test.
  • No make-ups or reteaching allowed.  If the kid doesn't get it the first time, (s)he deserves to fail.
  • A student's progress will be measured by standardized, quantifiable assessments only.
  • If a student fails the test for two units in a row, (s)he will be required to drop the course.
  • The teacher has the last word about whether a student is dropped.
  • Studies show that between 1-3% of students are "grossly stupid."  Because this is clearly the students' fault, and is unremediable, they will be expelled from school.
Pissed off yet?  I hope so.  But you might want to consider that all I did was to take the results of last week's alteration in teacher-tenure law in California, and stepped it down from teachers and administrators to students and teachers.

Okay, I know that I might not have played fair, and that the comparison between teachers and students is a bit of a false analogy.  But consider what the core of the changes have accomplished; shifting the balance of power entirely into the hands of administrators, ramping up the anxiety (especially for new teachers and teachers in poor schools), and gauging effectiveness solely by numerical measures that consider nothing but the all-powerful standardized test.  If we really did do something analogous in our classrooms, parents would rightfully be howling for blood.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But do it to teachers, and a lot of people just nod and smile.  Damn slacker teachers, getting union protection even if they're incompetent, plus two months off in the summer.  'bout time we tighten the screws, hold them accountable for the job they're (not) doing.  Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington D.C. schools, was thrilled by the ruling, and said, "The union's job is to protect the rights, privileges, and pay of their members.  They want their members to be able to keep their jobs regardless, and what this judge is saying is that we have to look out for the interests of children, first and foremost -- that we have to ensure that there's a high quality teacher in front of every child every single day."

Because clearly, teachers themselves have no particular concern about the interests of students.

I've been a teacher for 27 years, and yes, I've met some terrible ones.  But even the judge in the California case, Los Angeles County Judge Rolf Treu, says that "grossly incompetent" teachers account for only 1-3% of the teachers out there.  So how do you fix the problem?  Surely it's not by removing the legal right to due process from all teachers.  Put simply, you do not create good teachers by firing bad ones.

In my own school system, we've had staff cuts, increasing class sizes, and reduced budgets for supplies, equipment, and textbooks for the last ten years in a row.  We've had a steady decrease in instructional time -- this year, we've had once-a-month half-day "staff development days" that have accomplished nothing worth the loss of student contact time, not to mention foolishness like the state-mandated "field tests" that pull kids out of their classes for several periods in a row to take a pilot exam simply because the Department of Education wants more numbers to crunch.  It seems like on the middle and elementary school level, they're having some sort of standardized test every other week.  And now we're basing teachers' end-of-the-year score on these metrics, despite its being demonstrated over and over again that standardized test scores are inaccurate measures of understanding, and that other factors outside of teachers' control can have as big an effect as what happens in the classroom (most importantly, poverty, which no one wants to talk about).

Couple that with the lack of trust that upper administration, and society as a whole, has for teachers.  I know that I've said it before, but it's worth a reminder: did you know that in New York State, teachers are not allowed to grade their own final exams, because the NYSED is so afraid we'll cheat?  In several classes I teach, I've had to go to an all multiple-choice format for the final, because to do otherwise would require my training another teacher in the curriculum I teach so that (s)he could grade the exam fairly.

So: do more with less.  Less money, less supplies, less time.  Increase the penalty for failure to meet the benchmarks, up to and including losing your job.  Remove the protection of due process for all teachers, and simultaneously treat them with distrust and suspicion, so as to create a work environment that has maximal risk and maximal stress.

Yup, that should work just fine.

The cynical side of me is becoming convinced that these people want public schools to fail -- that the biggest social experiment the world has ever seen, that all children can and should receive a broad education in liberal arts and sciences, should be replaced by a merit-based system of charter schools.  It boils down to "break the system to show that it's broken."

Understand me: I'm not in favor of protecting bad teachers.  The whole "rubber room" phenomenon is idiotic.  For the truly incompetent -- and I think that even 1% is a high estimate for that category -- the road to dismissal should be short.  Just as with other professions, there are some people who simply shouldn't be teachers.

But for the rest, and especially for those teachers who are struggling, how about these suggestions, to counterbalance the tongue-in-cheek ones I started with?

  • Increase the support that teachers get, and not just by useless "staff development."  Have young teachers, or those who are struggling, mentored by excellent educators.  And... pay those mentors well for their time and expertise.
  • Use metrics other than standardized tests for measuring teacher effectiveness.  Especially in the upper grades, those should include evaluations by students.  After all, they're the clientele -- they know best of all if a teacher is doing his or her job well.  And in my experience, students are, for the most part, fair and articulate evaluators.
  • Likewise, evaluate students using something other than corporate-developed standardized tests.  Teachers supposed to be the experts in instruction and assessment; let them do their jobs.
  • Revise the current school funding system, that has bled school districts dry, resulting in staff cuts, programatic losses, and bigger class sizes.
  • Trust that, for the most part, teachers know what they're doing.  Let's turn Judge Treu's numbers around; if 3% of teachers are incompetent, then 97% are doing their job in a competent fashion.  Doesn't sound so bad if you put it that way, does it?

I know that the war isn't over yet, not by a longshot.  The unions are already challenging the California ruling, and the battleground is being set in other states.  But we need to think through what we're doing, here, because the stakes we are playing for are the highest of all: the futures of our children.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A confluence of bad luck

I don't know if you are aware of this or not, so let me make sure you know: today we are having a full moon that falls on a Friday the 13th, and you know what that means.

Well, it doesn't mean anything, really, except that it's Friday the 13th and the moon is full.  And the latter isn't going to matter where I live because we're in the official upstate New York Cloudy Season (scheduled this year from January 1 till December 31), and the weather forecast says we're under a Severe Thunderstorm Watch all day long.  So the full moon will just have to rise without me watching, because I'm going to be safely inside, attempting not to get struck by lightning.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Of course, the coincidence has the woo-woos engaging in a  mini-freak-out, to judge by sites like this one:
Friday the 13th has been a taboo that has been carried for generations.  Usually, Friday the 13th brings many symptoms from fear, anxiety, and panic attacks.  It dates back in Christianity as the 13th guest at the last supper was Judas who betrayed Jesus but also it was also on Friday that Adam and Eve were tempted.  However, identified in a positive sense, is that there are 13 states of the afterlife in the Egyptian philosophies and 13 black cats are a symbolism of femininity. 
But for many 13 has been a very lucky number; people have won lotteries, have had their business change, and even opened businesses during that day.  Therefore, your perception and your thought will drive the root of existence and a full moon always brings endings to prepare for new beginnings.
So, basically, it'll be good if you think it's going to be good, and bad if you think it's going to be bad, bringing the concept of confirmation bias to whole new levels.  "Whatever happens to you that day, you can attribute it to the moon being full on Friday the 13th if you want to!"  Pretty convenient, that.

But add to the mix the fact that Mercury is currently in retrograde, and you have an astrological confluence that might well leave the gullible unwilling to step outside the safety of their houses.

Of course, there's nothing mystical, or even all that interesting, about any of this; whenever you have cyclic occurrences (as all of these are), eventually all of them will line up.  The Mercury-retrograde thing has been going on for twelve weeks, now; it's supposed to end on July 1.  Fridays the 13th occur between one and three times a year, and full moons once a month, so we're bound to see them come together sooner or later.  In fact, the site Universe Today did a piece on how common it was to have a full moon land on Friday the 13th, and it turns out it's way more frequent than you might have guessed.  Counting today, it's happened nine times since 1992, and will happen another six times by 2030, including a highly unusual two full moons on Fridays the 13th in the year 2025.  (I can barely wait to hear what the astrologers have to say about that one.)

So the whole thing is nothing more than an interesting pattern coincidence, and really doesn't tell you anything about what might or might not happen to you today, or whether it will be (for example) a good day to buy a lottery ticket.  (Actually, my considered opinion is that there is no good day to buy a lottery ticket.  I tend to agree with a friend of mine, who says that the lottery is a tax on people who don't understand statistics.)

So anyhow, that's the latest from the astrologers, which turns out to be the usual vague generalities that could apply to anything you want them to.  Myself, I'm not going to worry about it.  On the other hand, if I end up getting struck by lightning today while walking to my car after work, I'll give you my express permission to say "Toldja so" at my funeral.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Curing premature annunciation

As a science teacher, I get kind of annoyed with the media sometimes.

The misleading headlines are bad enough.  I remember seeing headlines when interferon was discovered that said, "Magic Bullet Against Cancer Found!" (it wasn't), and when telomerase was discovered that said, "Eternal Life Enzyme Found!" (it wasn't).  Add that to the sensationalism and the shallow, hand-waving coverage you see all too often in science reporting, and it's no wonder that I shudder whenever I have a student come in and say, "I have a question about a scientific discovery I read about in a magazine..."

But lately, we have had a rash of announcements implying that scientists have overcome heretofore insurmountable obstacles in research or technological development, when in fact they have done no such thing.  Just in the last two weeks, we have three examples that turn out, on examination, to be stories with extraordinarily little content -- and announcements that have come way too early.

The first example of premature annunciation has hit a number of online news sources just in the last few days and has to do with something I wrote about a year and a half ago, the Alcubierre warp drive.  This concept, named after the brilliant Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, theorizes that a sufficiently configured energy source could warp space behind and ahead of a spacecraft, allowing it to "ride the bubble," rather in the fashion of a surfer skimming down a wave face.  This could -- emphasis on the word could, as no one is sure it would work -- allow for travel that would appear from the point of an observer in a stationary frame of reference to be far faster than light speed, without breaking the Laws of Relativity.

So what do we see as our headline last week?  "NASA Unveils Its Futuristic Warp Drive Starship -- Called Enterprise, Of Course."  Despite the fact that the research into the feasibility of the Alcubierre drive is hardly any further along than when I wrote about in in November 2012 (i.e., not even demonstrated as theoretically possible).  They actually tell you that, a ways into the article:
Currently, data is inconclusive — the team notes that while a non-zero effect was observed, it’s possible that the difference was caused by external sources. More data, in other words, is necessary. Failure of the experiment wouldn’t automatically mean that warp bubbles can’t exist — it’s possible that we’re attempting to detect them in an ineffective way.
But you'd never guess that from the headline, which leads you to believe that we'll be announcing the crew roster for the first mission to Alpha Centauri a week from Monday.

An even shorter time till anticlimax occurred in the article "Could the Star Trek Transporter Be Real? Quantum Teleportation Is Possible, Scientists Say," which was Boldly Going All Over The Internet last week, raising our hopes that the aforementioned warp drive ship crew might report for duty via Miles O'Brien's transporter room.  But despite the headline, we find out pretty quickly that all scientists have been able to transport thus far is an electron's quantum state:
Physicists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands were able to move quantum information between two quantum bits separated by about 10 feet without altering the spin state of an electron, reported the New York Times. 
In other words, they were able to teleport data without changing it. Quantum information – physical information in a quantum state used to distinguish one thing from another --was moved from one quantum bit to another without any alterations.
Which is pretty damn cool, but still parsecs from "Beam me up, Scotty," something that the author of the article gets around to telling us eventually, if a little reluctantly.  "Does this mean we’ll soon be able to apparate from place to place, Harry Potter-style?" she asks, and despite basically having told us in the first bit of the article that the answer was yes, follows up with, "Sadly, no."

Our last example of discoverus interruptus comes from the field of artificial intelligence, in which it was announced last week that a computer had finally passed the Turing test -- the criterion of fooling a human judge into thinking the respondent was human.

It would be a landmark achievement.  When British computer scientist Alan Turing proposed the test as a rubric for establishing an artificial intelligence, he turned the question around in a way that no one had considered, implying that what was going on inside the machine wasn't important.  Even with a human intelligence, Turing said, all we have access to is the output, and we're perfectly comfortable using it to judge the mental acuity of our friends and neighbors.  So why not judge computers the same way?

The problem is, it's been a tough benchmark to achieve.  Getting a computer to respond as flexibly and creatively as a person has been far more difficult than it would have appeared at first.  So when it was announced this week that a piece of software developed by programmers Vladimir Veselov and Eugene Demchenko was able to fool judges into thinking it was the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy named Eugene Goostman, it made headlines.

The problem was, it only convinced ten people out of a panel of thirty.  I.e., 2/3 of the people who judged the program knew it was a computer.  The achievement becomes even less impressive when you realize that the test had been set up to portray "Goostman" as a non-native speaker of English, to hide any stilted or awkward syntax under the guise of unfamiliarity.

And it still didn't fool people all that well.  Wired did a good takedown of the claim, quoting MIT computational cognitive scientist Joshua Tenenbaum as saying, "There's nothing in this example to be impressed by... it’s not clear that to meet that criterion you have to produce something better than a good chatbot, and have a little luck or other incidental factors on your side."

And those are just the false-hope stories from the past week or so.  I know that I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon, here, and it's not that I think these stories are uninteresting -- they're merely overhyped. Which, of course, is what media does these days.  But fer cryin' in the sink, aren't there enough real scientific discoveries to report on?  How about the cool stuff astronomers just found out about gamma ray bursts?  Or the progress made in developing a vaccine against strep throat?  Or the recent find of exceptionally well-preserved pterosaur eggs in China?

Okay, maybe not as flashy as warp drives, transporters, and A.I.  But more interesting, especially from the standpoint that they're actually telling us about relevant news that really happened as reported, which is more than I can say for the preceding three stories.