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.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pride in place

Although it's pretty obvious that patriotism can be taken too far, I'm all for making the country you live in the best it can be, and then expressing your pride in it.  There are a lot of things I like about being American, for example; and although there are times I wish I lived elsewhere (mostly after listening to Ann Coulter), all in all I'm pretty happy about being a citizen of the United States.

Of course, there's a couple of ways this perfectly natural predilection for your own culture can go wrong.  One is that it can blind you to its faults.  Consider the column this week from Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow, who said that what the world needs is an American jihad:
An American jihad would turn back and topple the terrible self-loathing in our citizens set in motion by President Obama, beginning with his ‘apology tour’ — a psychological plague... We would not only allow, but teach, Americans — including American children — to internalize and project their justifiable feelings of pride in our democracy as superior to all other forms of government. In grade schools we would teach the truth that the founding of our nation and its survival in the face of communism and fascism weren’t just good luck or good planning, but preordained by our commitment to the truth about the essential nature of man. And we would embrace the certain knowledge that history will eventually spread our values all over the globe. 
We the People of the United States are good and we are right. And we need the spirit of an American jihad to properly invite, intensify and focus our intentions to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution here at home, and to seek to spread its principles abroad.
So yeah.  I can see no way that that could go wrong.

But there's a second, and more insidious, way that unbridled patriotism can go awry, and that's when you come to the conclusion that anything that's good must have come from your culture.  And as if to bookend Dr. Ablow's jingoistic screed, this week we had some baffling observations from the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi.

Modi addressed a gathering of doctors and other professionals in Mumbai last Saturday, and presented his opinion that advances in our understanding of genetics and medicine were not due to research done primarily in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe; the West was merely rediscovering what the Indians have known all along:
We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time.  We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb.  This means that genetic science was present at that time.  That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.
But that is far and away not the most bizarre thing that Modi said.  As regards to astronomy, Modi made the following observation:
There must be many areas in which our ancestors made big contributions.  Some of these are well recognized.  If we talk about space science, our ancestors had, at some point, displayed great strengths in space science.  What people like Aryabhata had said centuries ago is being recognized by science today.  What I mean to say is that we are a country which had these capabilities.  We need to regain these.
And lest you think he was just talking about astronomical observations, you should be aware that Modi believes that airplanes were invented by the god Rama.

My favorite comment, though, was about a different god:
We worship Lord Ganesha.  There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.
That's right, folks; the leader of one of the most populous nations on Earth thinks that an elephant-headed mythological figure is evidence that his distant ancestors had discovered how to do plastic surgery.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

It's all very well to be proud of your culture, nation, religion, ethnicity, or whatever.  But being willfully blind to the accomplishments of others is hardly a virtue.  "I'm happy I'm an American" can all too easily morph into "I'm happy I'm not from Ruritania," and that into "If anything great is out there, it must be from the United States and not from Ruritania."

Which is not only bigoted, it's also demonstrably false.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Secession talk

I mentioned yesterday that the tactics being employed by the ultra-religious faction in the United States were seeming increasingly desperate.  And in a rather troubling example of synchronicity, just after publishing yesterday's post, I ran across an article in the Washington Times wherein we read that Douglas MacKinnon, a conservative columnist, author, and former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Bush I, is recommending that the southern states secede.

My first thought was, "Didn't they try this once?  And it didn't end so well?"

Sure, says MacKinnon.  The Confederacy had seceded "peacefully" and "legally," and then "President Lincoln waged an illegal war."

Makes you wonder about the whole Fort Sumter thing, doesn't it?  Never mind, MacKinnon probably would say that the North should have abandoned the place and given up.  It was their fault they fought back, ya know?

His argument only gets more bizarre from there, though.  The reason MacKinnon wants the South to re-secede is mostly religion.  Oh, yeah, and guns and evil environmentalists:
A growing number of our leaders seem determined to erase our borders... [to] do away with the rule-of-law, expand the nanny state into a theology, bankrupt or punish American companies in the name of fighting climate change, do away with the Second Amendment, censor or demonize the history of western civilization and replace it with multiculturalism, give every kid a trophy and turn them into wimps… and attack all faith in God with a particular and unhinged bias against the Christian faith.
Righty-o.  And what would he call this new god-fearing, gun-loving, zero-tree-hugger nation?

"Reagan."  I'm not making this up.  At least, MacKinnon said, until they could come up with a better name.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

"I simply want those who believe the downward spiral of our country is irreversible, to know that an option to preserve their values does exist," MacKinnon said.

It's all too easy to laugh at the likes of MacKinnon.  After all, his decrying of the United States as becoming a "nanny state," and then saying that the South should rise up and be a pinnacle of economic rectitude, ignores the fact that three of the top four states that rely most heavily on federal assistance are Mississippi (#1), Alabama (#3), and Louisiana (#4).  And despite the ongoing fear-talk that President Obama is COMING FOR OUR GUNS, he's nearing the end of his second term, and guess what?  Guns still abound.  If he's after the guns, dude better get his ass in gear, because he's wasted six years not confiscating guns and destroying the Second Amendment.  If he procrastinates further, he'll only have himself to blame when we remain as heavily armed as ever.

But if MacKinnon thinks that even in the South there's uniformity of belief, he's delusional.  Okay, a lot of the Southeast is heavily conservative and majority Christian, but "majority" doesn't mean "unanimity."  What are the southern atheists, liberals, and environmentalists to do?

Leave, is my guess.  I've heard it before, but usually referring to the United States as a whole; "America is a Christian nation.  If you don't like it, get out."

So there's our wacko screed of the day.  I live in hope that people like MacKinnon are a dying breed, but even if I'm right, they don't seem to be ready to Go Gentle Into That Good Night.  They're apparently more about the "rage, rage" part.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Creationist street theater

Is it just me, or are others noticing that the creationists seem to be getting a bit... desperate?

I ask the question because this Saturday (November 1) they're holding a conference at Michigan State University called the "Origin Summit."  This strikes me as a little like a guy tiptoeing up to a sleeping grizzly bear to boop him on the nose.  MSU is a highly regarded research institution, and in fact is the home of both Richard Lenski, whose decades-long study of evolution in bacteria is considered one of the best right-in-front-of-your-face examples of natural selection in action, and Robert Pennock, who testified as an expert witness in the landmark Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District court case, which found that teaching intelligent design in public schools was against the law.

So the whole thing is a good example of chutzpah, if nothing else.  But that hasn't stopped the creationists.  Amongst the topics in the conference will be the role of evolution in the philosophy of Adolf Hitler, "why the Big Bang is fake," a talk called "Natural Selection is NOT Evolution," and a "critique of Lenski's research."

It's hard to see what exactly they hope to accomplish, here, and even its organizers seem a little shaky on what they're doing.  "The Origin Summit is not overtly evangelistic," wrote Mike Smith, executive director of the group who is sponsoring the event.  "We hope to pave the way for evangelism (for the other campus ministries) by presenting the scientific evidence for intelligent design.  Once students realize they're created beings, and not the product of natural selection, they're much more open to the Gospel, to the message of God's love and forgiveness."

[image courtesy of photographer Amy Watts and the Wikimedia Commons]

The whole thing sounds more like street theater than a serious academic conference, though, given that there is no scientific evidence for intelligent design, much less young-earth creationism.  Lenski himself was asked to comment on the summit, and he responded, "In my opinion, this event will be just another forgettable blip in the long history of antiscience, antievolution screeds.  I suppose the speakers chose to target our research… because their event is being held here, and maybe because they find it confusing to their worldview that evolution isn’t supposed to happen."

"Confusing" is an understatement.  The amount of science that you have to ignore outright in order to accept creationism is staggering.  The summit has, of course, left some legitimate scientists a little uneasy; is having this kind of foolishness hosted at a university sending the wrong message?

"Free speech is at the heart of academic freedom and is something we take very seriously," wrote Kent Cassella, MSU’s associate vice president for communications.  "Any group, regardless of viewpoint, has the right to assemble in public areas of campus or petition for space to host an event so long as it does not engage in disorderly conduct or violate rules.  While MSU is not a sponsor of the creation summit, MSU is a marketplace of free ideas."

Which is, of course, exactly the right approach.  The creationists should be given every opportunity to publicly embarrass themselves.  I was initially against Bill Nye debating Ken Ham, for example, but in the end Ham showed so abysmally that even Pat Robertson said, "The dating of Bishop Ussher just doesn't comport with anything that is found in science and you can't just totally deny the geological formations that are out there...  (W)e have skeletons of dinosaurs that go back like 65 million years.  And to say that it all came around six thousand years ago is nonsense...  I don't believe in so-called evolution as non-theistic.  I believe that God started it all and he's in charge of all of it.  The fact that you have progressive evolution under his control.  That doesn't hurt my faith at all."

"I think it's time we come off of that stuff and say this isn't possible," he added.  "Let's be real, let's not make a joke of ourselves."

Wise words, albeit from a guy who usually gives every evidence of having a screw loose.

So about the Origin Summit: my thought is, let 'em have their fun.  If they want to go over to the Big Kids' Yard and put on a play, they can knock themselves out.  It's not going to slow down the real research for a moment, and may actually highlight how devoid of reason their stance is, which is all to the good.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Intransigence

If there's one thing I find discouraging, it's how resistant crazy beliefs are to eradication.

You'd think that as we know more about how the universe actually works through science, the remaining spaces would become smaller and smaller, forcing woo-woos to cede ever greater amount of territory to the rationalists.  The parts we can't explain would be all they'd have left to fill up with wacky claims.

"Crap of the gaps," is kind of how I think of it.

In practice, of course, this isn't true.  Crazy ideas like astrology are as popular as ever.  And if we needed further evidence of this rather dismal tendency, we got it this week with the release of the Chapman University Survey of American Fears.

In this survey, they looked at a representative sampling of 2,500 Americans, and asked them whether they believed in a variety of claims.  You want to feel depressed?  Consider the following:

  • The percentage of Americans who believe in Atlantis (63%) exceeds the percentage who think that vaccines are safe and effective (53%).
  • The belief that "Satan causes most of the evil in the world" is held by a greater number of people (46%) than is belief in anthropogenic climate change (33%).
  • More people believe that UFOs are alien spaceships (41%) than believe that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old (27%).
  • People are far more likely to believe in ghosts and hauntings (54%) than evolution (31%).
  • Almost exactly the same percentage of people believe in Bigfoot as believe in the Big Bang (21%).


There are a lot of reasons for this, of course.  One has only to turn on the This Really Isn't History Channel or Imaginary Animal Planet or the Discovery of Things That Don't Exist Channel to see one of them.  When shows like Ancient Aliens get a longer run than shows like Cosmos, we have a problem as a culture.

Glitzy, hyped woo-woo -- Monster Quest and Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot and The Unexplained -- has soared in popularity.  To be fair, it's not that I don't see the draw; I love a good scary story, myself, and still consider The X Files to be the pinnacle of television to date.

But The X Files was marketed as fiction, for fuck's sake.  This stuff is being broadcast with the premise that it's true.  And because we don't really put a premium on critical thinking, in public schools or pretty much anywhere else, lots of people are just swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.

Of course, that's not all.  There's also some more insidious forces at work, ones that really aren't about the profit motive.  You only have to consider the influence of evangelical religion to understand why evolution and the antiquity of the Earth and the Big Bang scored so low.  And for the vaccines thing, look at Jenny McCarthy (Not Directly!  Always Use Eye Protection!)  Why so many people consider an actress a more credible source of information on medical science than an actual medical researcher is a minor mystery.  We still tend, as a society, to buy into the whole "cult of ignorance" -- that the scientists are out-of-touch ivory tower intellectuals, who could just as well be evil as be good, and that we're better off trusting good ol' boys who talk plain English.

Or, as the case may be, Playboy models who are college dropouts.

I live in hope that we're still making progress, even despite Chapman University's rather discouraging findings.  After all, if I didn't think humans were educable, my raison d'être for being both a science writer and a science teacher would be gone.  And as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "Science literacy is a vaccine against the charlatans of the world who would exploit your ignorance."

But the poll results indicate that we still have a long, long way to go in fighting intransigence.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween 2.0

Well, Halloween is this Friday, and you might want to be aware that if you're planning on going trick-or-treating, there are some folks who won't be playing along.

And I don't just mean leaving their lights off and their front doors locked, something that I have to admit I occasionally do.  Dealing with kids in school all day leaves me unenthusiastic about their coming to my house at night.  Call me selfish, but there you are.

But this year, it may go further than that, if folks listen to the urgings of actor Kirk Cameron.

Cameron, you're probably aware, has brought his sort-of-high profile to the Christian apologetics scene, and has partnered with evangelical wingnut Ray Comfort (he of the "bananas therefore god" argument) in a ministry called The Way of the Master.  He has been vocal in his disbelief in evolution, and his attitude that homosexuality is "unnatural, detrimental, and ultimately destructive to the foundations of civilization."

And now he's decided that he needs us to retool Halloween.

[image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

He's not the first, of course; Pat Robertson has for years claimed that Halloween is evil, and in fact went on record as saying that candy companies were hiring witches to curse Halloween candy, and that if children ate it, "the curse would enter them."  But this hasn't slowed the sale of candy and costumes, nor put a significant dent in the number of kids participating in trick-or-treat, so I guess it's only natural that the next option is to turn the day into something more in line with Christian beliefs.

Christians, he said, have to take back the holiday, because it was originally intended as a day to show that Christianity had defeated Satan.  "Early on, Christians would dress up in costumes as the devil, ghosts, goblins and witches precisely to make the point that those things were defeated and overthrown by the resurrected Jesus Christ," Cameron says.  "The costumes poke fun at the fact that the devil and other evils were publicly humiliated by Christ at His resurrection."

Well, not exactly.  Halloween traces back to the Celtic celebration of Samhain.  The Celts divided the calendar into twelve months of thirty days each, which left five days at the end that didn't belong to any month.  During those five days, the ordinary laws of nature were suspended -- the dead could rise, ghosts came back to haunt places or people, monsters walked the roads.  On the night of the last of the five days, the priests and their followers would drive the evil spirits back where they belonged, bringing right order back into the world.  And food was left out as both propitiation for the spirits (in hopes that they'd leave households alone) and for the priests and their helpers, so the tradition of going from place to place to get free food was worked into the whole thing.  Once the beliefs in the actual spirits began to wane, and especially when Christianity was introduced and the celebration had to be sanctified, it slowly morphed into the harmless kids-running-around-in-costume that we have today.  (Followed, it must be noted, by "All Saints' Day" -- the day in which holiness is restored and the good guys are back in charge.)

So Cameron is wrong.  Unsurprising, honestly.  But then he goes on to urge his fellow Christians not to buy into the dark side of Halloween, but to throw "the biggest party on the block" to reclaim the holiday.  Part of this involves not handing out candy, but handing out religious literature.  "Halloween gives you a great opportunity to show how Christians celebrate the day that death was defeated, and you can give them Gospel tracts and tell the story of how every ghost, goblin, witch and demon was trounced the day Jesus rose from the grave," Cameron says.  "Clearly no Christians ought to be glorifying death, because death was defeated, and that was the point of All Hallows Eve."

Whoo-wee.  The kids will just be lining up to get to your door, Mr. Cameron.  What first grader wouldn't pass up mini-Snickers bars and Reese's Pieces in order to get a gospel tract or a flier from a local church?  Hallelujah to that, right?

Of course right.

But Cameron never lets a little thing like "reality" intrude on his vision.  In fact, he's already got his next salvo planned.  In November, he's releasing a film called "Saving Christmas," presumably all about how we atheists are determined to undermine everything that's holy about the season by wishing people "Happy holidays."

So anyhow.  I doubt Cameron's ideas for reworking Halloween are going to catch on, frankly.  Too many people enjoy it like it already is, and every year it happens and almost never do you see some kid in an Incredible Hulk costume become possessed by Satan.  Bellyaches abound the next day, to be sure, but I doubt that any of them are due to demons.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The tree planter

Yesterday I was thinking about issues of empowerment versus despair.

I get asked questions along this line frequently.  Being an atheist, how can I not let my perception that the world is without final purpose drive me downward emotionally?  And linked to this is the similar question of how, as someone who is very aware of human failings (both in the intellectual and social realms), I don't give up on our species entirely.

I think it has to do with my attitude that even if all I make are small steps, it is still better to make those steps than to give up and stand still.  It is my motivation for writing this blog.  Perhaps a lot of what I do here at Skeptophilia is preaching to the choir; I suspect that most of my readership comes from people who, like myself, are questioners and skeptics and rationalists.  But if by what I write I can prod even one person to take a closer look at his or her basic assumptions about how the universe works, then what I am doing is worth it.

The same impetus keeps me teaching.  I know that most of my students won't become scientists, and I am absolutely fine with that.  I also know I won't be able to reach them all, a truth which is discouraging but perhaps inevitable.  But if I can open up the eyes of some of the people in my classes -- show them a bit of the world they hadn't ever thought about, make them go, "Wow, this universe is a strange and cool and wondrous place!" -- then I will have succeeded.

Which brings me to Wangari Maathai.

In this disillusioned and jaded world, Maathai was a true hero.  She was born in Kenya in 1940, and grew up in traditional Kikuyu culture -- strict gender roles, and an attitude toward the land that it was meant to be used, not protected.  Her shattering of the terribly low glass ceiling for women in east Africa started early, though.  She graduated with a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine 1971, becoming the first east African woman to earn a doctorate, and shortly afterwards was hired to teach veterinary science at the University of Nairobi.

Wangari Maathai [image courtesy of photographer Martin Rowe and the Wikimedia Commons]

But Maathai was not content with being a college lecturer, as groundbreaking as that was for a woman of her culture.  She looked around her at the environmental devastation in her beloved country, and the lack of empowerment many women felt, and decided that there was no reason she had to accept either of those things.

So she changed the world.

She started the Green Belt Movement, a campaign for tree replanting.  "When resources are degraded, we start competing for them," Maathai wrote, "whether it is at the local level in Kenya, where we had tribal clashes over land and water, or at the global level, where we are fighting over water, oil, and minerals.  So one way to promote peace is to promote sustainable management and equitable distribution of resources."

She fought for the rights of women, successfully instituting a small business loan program in rural Kenya with the hopes of making villages self-sufficient, and making women no longer dependent on men for income.  She fostered tree replanting and environmental protection programs all over east Africa, while simultaneously encouraging sustainable farming practices that did not rely on cutting down forests and exhausting farmland.

And it worked, but it was not without cost.  Her husband divorced her in 1977, claiming that she was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he was "unable to control her."  The government, then a one-party dictatorship, tried to silence her, first with a disinformation program (they called her women's rights group "a bunch of divorcees controlled by a crazy woman").  She was attacked and beaten by policemen, arrested more than once, and was on a list of people targeted by President Daniel arap Moi for assassination.

It didn't stop her.  "In order to accomplish anything," Maathai said, "we must keep our feelings of empowerment ahead of our feelings of despair.  We cannot do everything, but still there are many things we can do."

Many things.  Yes, she did indeed.  She was instrumental in Kenya's return to a multi-party democracy.  She singlehandedly drove the regreening of Kenya's rural areas.  In 2002, she was elected to Kenya's parliament.

In 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

All this from a woman who would not accept the role she'd been cast in, would not simply sit back and weep over the way things are.  Maathai never gave up on her vision, and because of that, she overturned generations of repression and sexism and environmental degradation.

No, she didn't eradicate those things entirely.  Kenya, and the rest of the world, still has a long way to go.  Yet Maathai never let the pitfalls and backslides get in the way of her belief that humans are fundamentally good, and the world is worth saving.  When she died in 2011 at the age of 71, she had accomplished more than most of us would in ten lifetimes -- all through being steadfast and brave and, most importantly, not accepting that the status quo was inevitable.

She remained, to the end, modest about what she'd done.  Any of us, Maathai said, could do the same; all it takes is a vision and sufficient courage.  "I don't really know why I care so much," Maathai said.  "I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it...  It's the little things citizens do.  That's what will make the difference."

She smiled, and added, "My little thing is planting trees."

Friday, October 24, 2014

Local squatch alert

The unfortunate part of what I do here at Skeptophilia is that I so seldom get to participate in any first-hand active research.  I have a day job, and limited time and finances to fly to Nepal to investigate claims of Yeti sightings, much as I would love to do so.

So it's with great joy that I announce that there are cryptids in upstate New York, within reasonable driving distance from where I live.

First, we have the Connecticut Hill Monster, which is veritably in my back yard.  Connecticut Hill, says enthusiast Tim Holmes, is home to a "migratory pod of Sasquatch."

This raises two questions:  (1) Sasquatch migrate?  I mean, I can hardly blame them if they do, considering the winters we have up here, but still.  (2) The collective noun for Bigfoots is "pod?"  I thought that was whales.  I think they deserve a more creative collective noun, don't you?  Maybe a "lope of Sasquatch."

Be that as it may, I've spent many hours tromping around Connecticut Hill and the Finger Lakes National Forest with my valiant Bigfoot-tracking dog, Grendel, and we've seen nary a trace of squatches.  Disappointing, that.

But there may be another spot to search, at least if you believe Peter Wiemer, who just last week petitioned legislators from Chautauqua County to have Bigfoot declared as an endangered species.

Wiemer, who is a Bigfoot tracker, is also the owner of the "We Wan Chu Cottages" on Chautauqua Lake, which should win some sort of prize in the Inadvertently Creepy Motel Name Contest.  But he certainly feels passionate about his cryptozoological avocation.  "Bigfoots are not a paranormal, not scary or troublesome and are living among us in peace and harmony in Chautauqua County," he said, resulting in a number of near-fatal choke-snorts from legislators.  "You should err on the side of caution."

He also added, "You're not going to be looked at as being crazy," which is debatable.

There is a problem with all of this, though, and it goes beyond being thought crazy.  According to the National Wildlife Federation, to be listed as endangered, a species has to meet the following criteria:
  • Has a large percentage of the species vital habitat been degraded or destroyed?
  • Has the species been over-consumed by commercial, recreational, scientific or educational uses? 
  • Is the species threatened by disease or predation? 
  • Do current regulations or legislations inadequately protect the species? 
  • Are there other manmade factors that threaten the long-term survival of the species?
Given that the amount of scientifically admissible evidence for Bigfoot is zero, how do you determine whether any of these criteria are met?  Add that to the fact that current estimates of the Sasquatch population also stand at "zero," and trying to determine whether the population is declining becomes kind of a moot point.

Of course, I might be speaking too hastily, here.  A couple of days ago, a coworker and friend of mine sent me an alarming photograph that was taken on her husband's trail-cam.  She gave me permission to use the image, so take a look at this:


Well, if that's not convincing, I don't know what is.

So there you have it.  Claims of a lope of Bigfoot, and near enough for me to go do some first-hand research.  I'll get right on that.  I better, because it's soon going to be winter, and as devoted as I am to the cause, I am not going to risk freezing off important body parts hiking around in four feet of snow in some godforsaken corner of Chautauqua County.  Call me a wimp, but there you go.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Playing cards with ghosts

So there's the story of the little kid who starts a snowball rolling at the top of a hill, and as it rolls it accumulates more snow, getting bigger and bigger, until finally it reaches the bottom and crushes a car or something.  Thus the coining of the term snowball effect and a cautionary lesson about getting things started that might eventually get away from you.

I feel a little like that kid this week.  Tuesday I posted about the fact that I loved it when woo-woos conducted hybridization experiments on disparate bizarre claims, and as an example talked about a guy who said he could summon UFOs by telepathy.  This generated an email from a reader, who said that if I liked that one, I'd love the guy who said, basically, that Bigfoot was elusive because quantum.  I ended that piece saying that if anyone had any further weird combos up their sleeve, for example, a recommendation that we choose our homeopathic remedies using Tarot cards, I didn't want to know about it.

This prompted a different loyal reader of Skeptophilia to send me an email that said, "I tried to find one combining Tarot cards and homeopathy, but I found this one instead.  Do I win?"

Despite my feeling of foreboding, I clicked the link.  And found myself reading about "Using Tarot Cards to Communicate With Ghosts."

Like the other two, I kept looking for some sign that this was satire, but sadly, I don't think it was.  "Tarot cards are a great way to communicate with spirits," we're told in the introduction.  "It’s because they open up your intuition, so you become receptive to the ghost’s or spirit’s message."

But then we're immediately told to be cautious.  Ghosts and spirits, apparently, can do bad stuff, so we have to speak to them sternly right from the get-go.  There are four rules one must follow:
  1. Never allow the spirit to enter your mind
  2. Tell the spirit it may only guide your hand to the right card
  3. Tell the spirits that you have the power to end the session when you want
  4. Tell it exactly how you want it to communicate or confirm a card
There are even concrete hints on how to accomplish all of this.  These include using "protective charms and stones" such as tiger's eye and hematite to keep those spirits where they belong.

Oh, and we're told that we have to do our research about what the cards mean, and be reasonable about what we ask, because "spirit communication tires out ghosts."  I'm not all that sympathetic about this, because honestly, what else do ghosts have to do?  It's not like they have day jobs, or anything.  They can nap pretty much whenever they want to.  So if I want to talk to a ghost, I'm expecting it to get up off its ectoplasmic ass and talk back.  I don't want to hear any pathetic excuses like "I'm just too sleepy tonight," or to pull out my Ouija board and have it spell out "zzzzzzzzzzzzz."

Then we're told that we should also research what ghosts might be present, and that if (for example) we suspect that there's a female ghost haunting the place, we can expect lots of feminine imagery in the cards we draw.  But then there's the caveat that we might accidentally attract a different spirit, so we might not get the cards we expect.  Which seems about right.  We will either get cards we expect, or not, every time, which certainly sounds like hard evidence of ghostly communication to me.

Then there's a bunch of stuff about thanking the ghost and making sure he's sent back to the ghost realm and cleansing the cards with spiritual detergent or something.  By this time, my eyes had kind of glazed over.  I'm thinking I may need to read a chapter or two of this book, just to recover:


Not that it'll help.  If you're looking for me, I'll be in the corner of my office, sitting on the floor, rocking and quietly sobbing.  So thanks for the cards and letters and all.  I hope you're happy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Quantumsquatch

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that I really enjoyed claims that came from an intersection of two disparate areas of woo-woo.  Specifically, we looked at the idea that it would be convenient for UFOlogists to be able to have access to the subject of their field of study whenever they want, so rather than standing in the cold and dark waiting for UFO to show up, they should simply summon one telepathically.

Then I received an email from a loyal reader of Skeptophilia informing me that hybridizing UFO research and telepathy was hardly the most unlikely pairing one could come up with.  And as proof, he sent me a link he'd run into over at Cryptomundo called...

... "The Quantum Bigfoot Theory."

I wish I were making this up.  Yes, folks, we have a second contender for the weirdest combination of two wacko ideas.  One Ron Morehead, "an accomplished author with much field experience with the Bigfoot phenomenon," has taken cryptozoology and the whole quantum-vibration nonsense and put it in a blender, and poured out something truly breathtaking.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

He starts out by suggesting that the way us regular old biologists study living creatures may not be the way to approach Bigfoot:
Researchers knock on trees, sound-blast screams and yells, or whoop all over the hillside trying to get the attention of a Bigfoot.  Professional trackers experience track-ways left by these creatures that abruptly end, highly trained dogs will not pick up the scent, or if they do they usually don’t come back.  If what you’re doing doesn’t get the results you want, change what you’re doing…it’s that simple.  Folks who claim to be researchers discount those surreal accounts that don’t fall into their preset paradigm.  Is it time to reach beyond Newtonian rules of classical mechanics, and delve into a science that was established almost 100 years ago by Einstein, Born, Heisenberg and Schrödinger?
Well, there's a reason not to, and that's that the subject of study is Bigfoot, and not Submicroscopicfoot.  Quantum theory explains phenomena that generally are relevant in the world of the very (very) small.  Quantum probabilistic effects get "washed out" on ordinary scales of time and size, just as you can discuss the air pressure inside a balloon without worrying very much about the motion of one specific gas molecule.

So right off, he illustrates that he hasn't the vaguest clue what quantum physics actually is.  But he doesn't let that stop him:
(T)  he world of quantum physics has been locked in mathematics.  It’s accepted worldwide by physicists. We don’t see it, but it’s ever present in our lives.  We get that feeling that something is wrong, the phone rings and Aunt Marybell Sue was in a car wreck.  You have a déjà vu …this has happened before.  Without knowing it, could psychics actually be relating to folks from a quantum level?
Quantum physics is a little weird, but that does not mean "if it's weird, it must be because of quantum physics."  And if Aunt Marybell Sue gets in car wrecks often enough that people are experiencing déjà vu about it, maybe it's time to take away her driver's license.

The real coup de grâce, though, comes at the end of the article.  Morehead states:
Is there a race of giants that have inherited the ability to move into the macro-world with quantum physics?...  The remains of giants have been found on earth before.  Most of us know about Greek mythology regarding aliens copulating with human women who then gave birth to a half god-half human, e.g., Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Hercules, and so on.  They supposedly had great powers and supernatural abilities.  And most of us know of the biblical accounts of the same type of cross-breeding.  If we are to believe there is a core of truth to these stories, could Bigfoot be a diluted remnant of these and have inherited some of their quantum abilities?
It's funny, I've read a great deal of mythology, and I don't recall anything about Zeus being the product of an alien having sex with a human.  You'd think that'd kind of stand out in my memory.  But if we're making shit up, may as well go big or go home, right?

The most inadvertently funny thing about the whole article, though, is when Morehead states that there is no need to defer to posers like Stephen Hawking on matters of physics:
You don’t have to be a physicist to understand enough about quantum physics to realize it could very well be our answer to the understanding of how Bigfoot might operate.
Which, in one sentence, sums up the entire woo-woo worldview.  "Don't expect us even to expend the effort of reading the fucking Wikipedia page on quantum physics.  We'll just throw around some terms that are sort of science-y or something, and call it good."

And we won't even go into Morehead's further speculations that Bigfoot might be the descendant of Lucifer and the Nephilim.

So there you have it.  An even weirder amalgam than summoning UFOs using telepathy.  If there's any crazier woo-woo crossbreeding experiment out there, for example using Tarot card readings to determine which homeopathic remedy to use, I don't want to know about it.  There's only so much facepalming one person can endure.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Here, alien! Come here, boy!

Let me just say that I love it when the woo-woos team up.

It gets a little old, sifting through the blurry Bigfoot photos, sketchy claims of ghost sightings, and anecdotal evidence for spirit communication day after day.  Much as I'm committed to keeping abreast of what's happening in the world of woo, it does seem a little like a compilation of twice-told tales after a while.

So it always brightens my day to see a new approach.  Such as the story that appeared on PRLog yesterday that claims that the best way to study UFOs scientifically is to start out by summoning them using telepathy.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Hans Boysen, who wrote the press release, seems awfully excited about the whole thing.  He starts out with a bang:
Some of the most fascinating UFO footage is now being successfully captured daily by those who are prepared with photographic and video equipment. Many are finding that opportunity meets preparation for those that call out or “summon” UFOs.
I can see how that would make it more convenient.  It must be disappointing for your aspiring UFOlogist to go out, night after night, and see zero UFOs.

Boysen quotes Robert Bingham, a "summoning expert from Los Angeles," on the subject.  "It's like prayer," Bingham said, which is true insofar as neither one actually works.  But then Bingham goes on to explain further:
Many people do not realize how powerful telepathic communication is.  If anyone has ever prayed and received an answer to prayer, they know that our thoughts can escape the confines of our minds.  We are discovering our consciousness is unbounded.  Our brain waves sound like static AM radio, but our thoughts can be interpreted and converted into electrical and mechanical energy as proven by Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center.  They were able to prove that a monkey could control a robot with its thoughts.  Telepathic communication is the reason why prayer works.
Except that what Nicolelis did had zero to do with telepathy or UFOs.  Here's an excerpt from Nicolelis's own website about his research:
In particular, about 12 years ago we created a preparation that we named brain-machine interfaces.  And you have a scheme here that describes how it works.  The idea is, let's have some sensors that listen to these storms, this electrical firing, and see if you can, in the same time that it takes for this storm to leave the brain and reach the legs or the arms of an animal -- about half a second -- let's see if we can read these signals, extract the motor messages that are embedded in it, translate it into digital commands and send it to an artificial device that will reproduce the voluntary motor wheel of that brain in real time.  And see if we can measure how well we can translate that message when we compare to the way the body does that.
So we have the usual thing, which is a woo-woo completely misrepresenting science.  Because what Nicolelis and his team accomplished (and which I am in no way trying to diminish; it's amazing research) was using brain implants and a digital interface to allow a monkey to control a robotic arm. The only way that would tell us anything about telepathic communication, aliens, or prayer is if you thought that everyone who claims to be telepathic, and the aliens, and god, were all equipped with computerized implants.

That doesn't stop Boysen, though, who plows right on ahead as if what he was saying made a shred of sense:
More Ufologists are beginning to understand this powerful technique because the results can be astounding.  Summoning is a singularity and clarity of thought with intention and direction.  Some achieve this by meditation and others, like Robert Bingham, simply convey his telepathic messages.  Both are an effective way of transmitting thought, but "alien trust" and experience seem to be a predominant factor of proficiency.
Kind of like training a skittish dog, is how I see it.  Maybe you just go out in your back yard at night and send soothing telepathic messages like "It's okay" and "I'm not gonna hurtcha" and "whoozagoodboy?"  And the aliens slowly, cautiously skootch their spaceship toward you.  And then you give them a treat.

So there you have it.  Our latest team effort, this one bringing the UFO silliness together with the psychic silliness.  Unfortunately for Boysen et al., though, a goofy idea does not become less goofy by hybridizing it with another goofy idea.  Then you have (goofy)2, and that's just kind of pathetic.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Don't trust everyone

There's an odd tendency of conspiracy theorists to eat their young.

Not literally, of course.  I wouldn't want that to get out as some kind of meta-conspiracy-theory.  But I've noticed that although the conspiracy theories themselves never seem to die, the conspiracy theorists seem to have a relatively short half-life before they implode.

Again, not literally.  Don't get your hopes up.

I think the reason for this is that once you abandon logic and evidence as the sine qua non of understanding, you are out in some kind of netherworld of lies, suppositions, and paranoia, and it's only a matter of time before you become victim to the same foolishness you were perpetrating.  You give people the impression that no one is to be trusted, that anyone and everyone could be part of the conspiracy, and before you know it, your followers have decided that you're right... and include you in the assessment.

So it's with some degree of amusement that I report to you that it's finally happened to the archduke and court jester of the conspiracy theory world -- David Icke and Alex Jones.

Icke was outed, fittingly enough, in a YouTube video in which he is caught "shape-shifting into a Reptilian."  Odd, isn't it, that these Reptilian overlords of ours are brilliant enough to infiltrate themselves into every level of government, break into the sanctum sanctorum of military intelligence, and then can't remember to keep their costumes in place when they're on the air?  But yes, you heard it here first: Icke, who said that Reptilians are in control of everything from the CIA to the U.S. public education system, is himself a Reptilian.

Even more wryly amusing is the fact that Alex Jones had the whistle blown on the site Before It's News, because they're about the only website that is even more bizarrely paranoid than Jones's own site InfoWars.  Here's the exposé about Jones:
Skeptics at first, may think that the vertical slits in Alex Jones’ pupils, are caused by a blurring effect, when the video frame is frozen.  But the unedited video footage – that can easily be verified through the original InfoWars video that is posted on YouTube, reveals that THE VERTICAL SLITS IN ALEX JONES’ EYES ARE MOVING SIDE TO SIDE – AND SO WHY, WHY, WHY DO HORIZONTAL SLITS NEVER APPEAR?  It is also noteworthy when the reptilian eyes manifest through Jones, that the iris narrows significantly, and is then bordered on each side, with black lines.  This cannot be a blurring effect, as there is not enough black on the borders of his iris to do so.  And the “reptilian iris” effect also manifests when his eyes are moving side to side – and so, should the slits not be HORIZONTAL when this happens?  And so the blurring argument – the argument that the serpentine slits in Alex Jones’ eyes are caused by eye movement, is pure fantasy.  But the reality remains, Alex Jones is now manifesting, on multiple occasions, REPTILIAN SHAPESHIFTING EYES.
What's funnier than the article itself, though, is that they illustrate their contention with a picture of the "Gorn" from the Star Trek original series episode "Arena."


You may remember this episode because it contained the most ridiculous fight scene ever filmed, featuring Captain Kirk fighting a guy wearing a huge plastic dinosaur head.  But evidently the dinosaur head prevented the actor playing the Gorn from seeing very well, so he would lunge at Kirk, and miss him by about ten feet.  Kirk, of course, being Kirk, would pretend that he was in extreme danger, and he would immediately drop and roll, giving him ample opportunity to tear his shirt, because no episode of the original series was complete if you didn't get a chance to see at least one of William Shatner's nipples.  The Gorn, however, would go staggering off in some random direction until he happened by pure chance to locate Kirk again, and the whole scenario would replay.

It was a little like an extremely slow-moving two-person game of "Marco Polo."

But I digress.

Anyhow, there you have it.   Two alien infiltrators exposed, by people who evidently don't understand the concept of "video compression artifact."  But even stranger is that the conspiracy theorists themselves don't realize how they are setting themselves up to be knocked down.  David Icke and Alex Jones have been preaching to people for ages not to trust... well, everyone.

They, of all people, should be entirely unsurprised to find that some people are now beginning to realize that everyone includes them.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dangerous umbrellas

Humans are born categorizers, and we are often uncomfortable when those categories don't turn out to be water-tight.  As they seldom are.  We want life to be neat, to fit in orderly little boxes with labels, and then not to have to rethink it.

But as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "No generalization is worth a damn, including this one."  We have to be extraordinarily careful with how we fit a messy reality into artificial pigeonholes.

I frequently run into this with the attitudes many atheists have towards Christians as a whole, as if the label "Christian" adequately encompassed the enormous range of beliefs and attitudes of the people who call themselves by that name.  I'm sorry, you can't make a blanket statement about worldviews and expect that statement to reflect much of anything accurately.  "Christian" means one thing; someone who accepts the divinity of Jesus.  Beyond that, any expectation that you can make a further judgment is pretty much doomed to failure.  An umbrella that covers such disparate individuals as a liberal Episcopalian and a fundamentalist Pentecostal is bound to be fairly useless for telling you anything other than what the term literally means.

The reverse happens too, though.  As an atheist, I sometimes get some wry comments when people find out that I love Baroque and Renaissance religious choral music.  The Bach Mass in B Minor and Magnificat in D, in fact, are two of my all-time favorite works.  I posted a YouTube video to my Facebook page a while back of a chorus performing Thomas Tallis's gorgeous Spem in Alium, prompting a friend to comment, "I thought you didn't believe in any of this stuff."

Well, I don't.  Being labeled "atheist" doesn't mean I have to hate everything religious.  When I went to England fifteen years ago, the focus of my trip was visiting abbeys and cathedrals, and I did so with great appreciation of the beauty and solemnity of those spaces that many consider sacred.  And to the friend who questioned my love of religious music, I merely quoted Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself?  Very well, I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes."

Of course, we all do this sort of thing.  Religious folks do it about other religious folks, and atheists do it about each other.  Take, for example, the little screed that P. Z. Myers posted yesterday on his blog Pharyngula.

P. Z. Myers [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, I have a great deal of admiration for Myers for his staunch support of the teaching of evolution in public schools, and also for his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude with regards to our government's tendency to handle religion with kid gloves.  But I think he's gone seriously off the beam here, falling into the kind of categorical thinking that I describe above.

The whole thing began with a comment Anita Sarkeesian made regarding her receipt of death threats over a speaking engagement at Utah State University.  Sarkeesian is a prominent feminist, and evidently her views ticked someone off enough that she was told she'd be killed because her "feminist viewpoints made her worthy of death."  Sarkeesian was interviewed about this issue, and there was an insinuation that the originator of the threat must be religious.  Sarkeesian disagreed, and in fact posted on her Twitter feed the statement, "I find it ironic that self-described 'atheist' men are far more hateful and awful towards me online than conservative Christians are."

This prompted a number of prominent atheists to point out that the word "atheist" means nothing more than "disbelieves in a deity;" it doesn't mean "nice person."  Myers took serious exception to this, and shot back:
Right.  ‘The dictionary doesn’t say atheists have to be decent human beings, therefore I’m going to be more annoyed that you have this expectation than at the fact that some atheists are hateful numpties.’ 
Whatever happened to the rational idea that we should look at our failings honestly and strive to correct them?  You know, when Francis Bacon set out to tell the world about how science should be done, he didn’t just pull a sentence out of a dictionary and be done with it.  “Inductive reasoning is best, rah rah rah!” No — he wrote at length about the pitfalls, and spelled out the preconceptions to which we are prone.
Well, on the one hand, he's right that rationality requires us to be thoughtfully self-aware, and to correct our failings.  But the fact remains that the word "atheist" does mean simply a lack of belief in god.  It might be reassuring for us atheists to pat ourselves on the back and think that along with that belief will come all sorts of other good things -- being logical, compassionate, reasonable, and accepting.  But humanity (like everything) is messy.  Just as the word "Christian" encompasses a huge range of beliefs and attitudes, so does "atheist."  The latter word, recall, could apply not only to myself and Myers, Stephen Hawking, Eugenie Scott, and Tim Minchin -- but also to Stalin and Pol Pot.

Myers finishes up by saying:
But I guess atheists have moved so far beyond mere scientists that self-awareness and recognition of their own errors of perception no longer matter — “There is no god!” is the great All of their philosophy, and no other consideration need be made. 
Well, at least we’re better than the theists in one thing: our dogma is shorter and easier to memorize.
Which is about as accurate as saying "All Christians are illogical and narrow-minded."  I can only hope that he's being deliberately disingenuous here; surely he can't really think that atheists as a group don't care about anything other than saying "there is no god."

Yes, I think it's a shame that there are atheists who are jerks, and who would give Anita Sarkeesian grief about her work to combat misogyny.  I also think it's a shame that there are some Christians, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and so on, who are jerks.  It'd be nice if we could eliminate jerkishness from humanity entirely, and perhaps Myers's prodding atheists by saying, "C'mon, people, we're better than that," isn't entirely a bad thing.

But the fact is, there's no term you can apply to a human group that isn't going to result in the same kind of seeming internal contradiction.  People are complex, enigmatic creatures, surprising you every time you try to figure them out.  Perhaps instead of expecting umbrella terms to tell us very much, we should all try to find the commonalities that unite us -- the desire for love, understanding, kindness, safety, and adequate food, water and shelter.  Beyond that, let's look past the labels, and consider each other as individuals.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Searching for the ultimate

Okay, folks, I understand that the world is a Big Scary Place where Big Scary Things sometimes happen.  It's an inherently chaotic system (at least in my opinion) where there are proximal causes for almost everything that happens and ultimate causes for very little.  Looking for the overarching pattern, the big reasons, is an exercise in futility.

The view of the universe as a giant pinball game doesn't bother me, or at least not very much.  My general attitude is that I don't have to understand everything; understanding the bits of it I can parse through science is enough.  It is, though, what makes religion appealing to a lot of folks, and I can certainly empathize with the draw.  It provides meaning, gives an ultimate context, reassures you that even when things seem awful and random and incomprehensible, there's a pattern there that you're not seeing, that makes it all make sense.

There's a toxic side of all of this, though, and it manifests in the desperation of a lot of people to discern a Big Reason for large-scale devastating events.  It's what drives some of the religious to postulate a devil-figure that does bad things to humans, or (even worse) a retributive god who smites whole cities for the perceived sinful actions of a few.  It's the basis of what creates a lot of conspiracy theories, because better that there be some pattern, even a dreadful one, than no pattern at all.

Take, for example, the current nonsense circulating the internet about Ebola.  On the one hand, I get why people feel like they have to look for a reason; the Ebola virus is one scary mofo, causing horrific symptoms that result in a 60-70% mortality rate.  And honestly, we don't know how fast it's going to spread in the United States.  The epidemic in West Africa is certainly far from over, with one estimate suggesting that the infection rate there could increase by a factor of ten by December.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But the crazy End Times shit and conspiracy theories now popping up on a daily basis are not helping the situation.  We have Ron Baity, a Baptist preacher in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who said that not only is Ebola a punishment from god for the recent push for gay marriage, if we don't reverse course quickly, god has something even worse up his sleeve:
If you think for one skinny minute, God is going to stand idly by and allow this to go forward without repercussions, you better back up and rethink this situation.  I want you to understand, that is raw, pure blasphemy...  My friend, we are meriting, we are bringing the judgment of God on this nation as sure as Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed, don’t be surprised at the plagues.  Don’t be surprised at the judgment of God.  You think Ebola is bad now, just wait.  If it’s not that, it’s going to be something else.  My friends, I want you to understand, you can’t thumb your nose at God, and God turn his head away without God getting your attention.
So yeah.  But that wasn't all.  We have an uncredited article over at UFO Blogger (a site that has become increasingly about conspiracy theories and less and less about extraterrestrials), in which we're told that singer Avicii's recently-released song "The Days" confirms that the Ebola virus is a government-created bioweapon that they're turning against their own people:
Illuminati owned singer and performer Avicii's predict a future event in his latest music video "The Days" which was released on Youtube on 3 October, 2014. 
Which confirms Ebola is Illuminati bio weapon and they don't care if you find out. They have become that bold. 
"Avīci" (from Buddhist origin) means "the lowest from the hell"... As we have seen before the satanic cabal The Illuminati hide their plans in plain sight as a way to brainwash and program the masses!
As evidence, we're presented with the lyrics, which seem to be no more Dark and Evil and Predictive than your average alt-rock.  And given that I regularly listen to Nine Inch Nails, any contention that this represents the most twisted, Satan-inspired message the music industry is capable of makes me laugh.  (You can watch the video here; it's kind of a catchy song, really.)

But then we had the other end of the spectrum; it's neither a case of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God nor the Illuminati Trying To Murder Us All.  A dude named Nana Kwame over in Ghana is claiming to have "rocked the internet" by the revelation that the Ebola epidemic is a big fat hoax.

The revelation appeared on the site Spirit Science and Metaphysics, which is evidently competing with Natural News for first place in the Purveyor of Bullshit Contest.  Kwame, whose ideas are as contemptible and dangerous as they are ludicrous, says that the CDC and WHO have made the whole alleged epidemic up:
People in the Western World need to know what’s happening here in West Africa.  THEY ARE LYING!!!  “Ebola” as a virus does NOT Exist and is NOT “Spread”.  The Red Cross has brought a disease to 4 specific countries for 4 specific reasons and it is only contracted by those who receive treatments and injections from the Red Cross.  That is why Liberians and Nigerians have begun kicking the Red Cross out of their countries and reporting in the news the truth.
Marvelous.  Just what we need.  Some nutjob scaring sick people into avoiding treatment.  It's what we saw when Pakistanis started shooting Red Cross volunteers because they thought the polio vaccine was going to sterilize and/or kill Muslim children.

Kwame goes on to explain that the WHO and associated groups are doing this so as to have an excuse to bring in troops to get a hold of West Africa's mineral wealth and simultaneously reduce the native population.  Because evidently in spite of the fact that Ebola doesn't exist, it can still kill people.  Or something like that.

I dunno.  It's kind of impossible to combat such desperate lunacy.  As I said before, I think it does come out of an understandable human need; the need for meaning.  I do get that.  And Ebola is freakin' scary; I'll admit to a serious sinking feeling when I found out about first one, then two, confirmed cases in the United States.  (I think my exact words were, "Yikes.  Here we go.")  Now, mind you, I still think the likelihood of a major epidemic in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe is slim; but even that slim possibility is terrifying.

But it doesn't push me to need an ultimate explanation for it, nor (worse) to make up one should no convenient explanation be at hand.  I'm okay with living inside a pinball machine, even if it does make life seem rather absurd sometimes.  And as far as the tragedy of the Ebola epidemic; let's concentrate on containing its spread, work on cures, and deal with the proximal causes.

Let the ultimate causes look after themselves.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Battle of the wingnuts

Today, in the "More the Merrier" department, we have a story that involves Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, Cliven Bundy, Gandhi, Jesse Ventura, President Obama, and tangentially, Natural News.  How can we go wrong?

The whole thing started a year ago, when Beck called Jones out on his media outlet The Blaze for acting like he was batshit crazy, and yet calling himself a "sane conservative."  Beck was especially incensed by liberal commentator Piers Morgan's interviewing Jones on the topic of gun control, and thereby making it look like Jones was the face of conservatism.  "Unsurprisingly, Jones made a fool of himself," Beck wrote, "giving the left the poster boy for their attempts to paint every logical conservative as an extremist nut job."


Well, Jones wasn't going to stand for that kind of talk, and this started a game of loony one-upmanship to see who could launch the wildest attack against the other.  Things really took off with the Cliven Bundy standoff this spring, in which Beck (surprisingly) took a stand against Bundy and his "sovereign citizen" wackos, and Jones blew up.  He called Beck a "Judas goat" (whatever the fuck that is) for not supporting Bundy's fight against the United States government, and later, referred to Beck as a "Benedict Arnold."

This led Beck to state, "I'm not going to respond to Alex Jones any more... he has his platform, and people who listen to him, and that's fine."

But the battle was far from over.  With Jones, the battle is never over.  So dear readers, pop yourself some popcorn, and sit back, cause shit's about to get real.

This week, Jones released what he calls a "huge story."  Not only is Beck a "Judas goat" and a "Benedict Arnold," he's... get ready...

... working for President Obama.

*gasp of horror*

Here's the introduction to the video:
David Knight joins Alex to discuss the accusation Glenn Beck recently made claiming that Alex is dangerous.  Beck claims Alex knowingly edited Cliven Bundy’s statements and wants a violent revolution to occur.  Any occasional listener to the show can testify to, Alex is neither about a violent revolution nor was he covering up Bundy’s remarks. 
After all the attacks that Beck launches towards Alex and Infowars.com its [sic] becoming very obvious that Beck isn’t taking the queues [sic] from the SPLC or other groups like that, He’s writing the talking points.  Evidence thus far is suggesting that Glenn Beck IS a white house [sic] operative!
Right.  Glenn Beck is a White House operative.  The man who, just this summer, said that President Obama was "about to snap and start rounding up conservatives and putting them into death camps."

But the real fun starts in the video itself, which I strongly recommend all of you watch (it's on the link above).  I will warn you against drinking anything while watching it, though, and be forewarned that I will not be held responsible for any damage to your computer that might occur if you fail to heed these words.

In case you don't have the time or inclination to watch what amounts to sixteen minutes of an insane man going "Woogie woogie woogie woogie pfthththptptptptptpt," I present to you some highlights:
"This isn't about Beck, this is about what's going to happen when the globalists blow up another Oklahoma City building and try to start a new war...  I do not want to hear that I want a violent revolution so that when the feds blow up another Oklahoma City, I get the blame." 
"I don't attack Glenn Beck when he says horrible things about me.  I mean, he said I have sex with Charlie Sheen in showers, folks." 
"What'll happen?  Well, Alex Jones has been arrested, and Ron Paul just died of a stroke, wink wink, and I think it's normal that he died of a stroke, he was old, and Rand Paul just was in a car wreck, his back's broken, and Alex Jones was in a shootout with cops, and they took him out." 
"This guy, this guy probably meets with Obama!" 
"We wouldn't cover this if it was just Glenn Beck saying this, but he's saying White House talking points, Media Matters talking points that he originated.  So for anyone who's trained in tracking PsyOps and stuff, now it all clicked for me.  Why he says I want him arrested and put in a camp.  He said that a week and a half ago, we played the bizarre clip.  Why he says I want violence, why he says InfoWars wants violence.  Why we were covering up the racism of Cliven Bundy.  We were there in hours and uncovered it, the way it was spun is terrible.  We're all about fighting racism, here."
But if you like inadvertent humor, the best moment came about twelve minutes in, when Jones and his pal David Knight were discussing a quote that Knight had used:  "First they assassinate your character, and then they assassinate you."  Knight said he thought the quote originated with Jesse Ventura.

"No," Jones said.  "Actually, I think it was Gandhi."

Yup.  Easy to see how you could get Jesse "The Body" Ventura confused with Mohandas Gandhi.  Understandable mistake.

Oh, and for the record, neither Ventura nor Gandhi ever said any such thing, as far as I can find.

So that's the latest salvo between Beck and Jones, each one seeing who can out-wacko whom.

But I haven't shown you the Natural News tie-in, yet!  Just this week, as if on cue, we had a repost over at the wonderful subreddit r/conspiratard of a "Sheeple Quiz" written by Mike Adams, who may be in hot contention with Beck and Jones for who is the biggest nutjob.  You must take a look at it.  (Important warning: every time you answer "B," your name gets boosted higher on the list of people who are being considered for FEMA death camps.)

So there you have it.  Today's dip in the deep end.  Myself, I'm waiting for Beck's rebuttal, which should be epic.  However he says that he's not going to talk about Alex Jones any more, I can't imagine him taking this lying down.  I mean, having sex in the shower with Charlie Sheen is one thing, but insinuations of meeting with President Obama are just crossing the line.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Siege mentality

One of the things that strikes me about the most fervently religious is that they seem to believe in a contradictory set of premises: that (1) god is all-powerful, and the truth of his word is intrinsically obvious; and that simultaneously (2) god's truth is so flimsy that it's threatened by the mere mention of contrary beliefs.

We see this in Islam, where atheism or (worse) apostasy is punishable by death in some countries (Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia come to mind).  What, is the message so weak that one person stating, "No, I don't believe this" is such a devastating threat to the worldview that it warrants a death sentence?

I know, I'm being a little disingenuous, because these same worldviews also often encompass a belief in a devil (or more than one) who is acting to lure the righteous away from belief.  But still, doesn't it strike you as a little odd that the religious aren't more confident?  For people who believe in an almighty deity, they seem a little... besieged.

Take, for example, the biology teacher in Wake County, North Carolina who found himself in hot water last week for referring to the school district where he teaches as "a concentration camp dedicated to the spiritual death of those imprisoned behind these walls."

Ray Fournier, of Fuquay-Varina High School, wrote an article in which he attacked public schools in general, and in particular the subject he'd been hired to teach.  "Evolution based science classes discredit the reliability of the Bible and get rid of God as Creator," Fournier wrote.

Well, yeah, they kind of do.  Notwithstanding my incredulity over how someone who evidently doesn't believe in the fundamental idea of biological science could get enough college credits in the subject to end up teaching it, isn't it a little mean-spirited of him to complain about what he's being paid to teach?  I mean, he shouldn't be surprised at what the curriculum is.  It's a little like someone being hired to teach math and then being surprised that there was algebra involved.

But Fournier didn't stop there.  "History classes,” he wrote, "get rid of God as Sovereign King and demonize Christianity.  English classes reinforce this message through the literature they assign their students to read."

"This deliberate indoctrination encourages students to break each and every one of the Ten Commandments," he continued, "leading countless numbers of our own children down the broad road to spiritual destruction."

He then tells the cautionary tale of a family he spoke to about the danger.  "I warned them about the spiritual dangers of public education, but sadly they ignored my warning," Fournier wrote.  "It was as if their daughters where [sic] placed inside a spiritual gas chamber.  It didn’t take long for the poison to take effect.  Within a year’s time, one of them even became a lesbian."

About his own role in the school, he makes it clear why he pursued a teaching degree, and it wasn't so that he could teach kids science.  Fournier says he is "a missionary masquerading as one of the ‘guards’… an eyewitness to the daily indoctrination and spiritual torture that is inflicted upon those who have been sentenced to come here by their own well meaning parents."

After this kind of tirade -- comparing his workplace to a Nazi concentration camp, stating his determination to subvert the entire educational process, and basically belittling the whole approach of the school -- the Wake County School Board was forced to take action.  Which they did.

By suspending him for five days.

Really?  That's it?  A guy demonstrates every which way from Sunday that he's unfit to teach, and considers himself a spiritual missionary instead of a science teacher, and he's back in the classroom?  Teaching science?  This left some parents and students understandably furious.  Krista Bennett, a senior, was astonished that Fournier was back to teaching.  "In the corporate sector you’d get fired over [what Fournier did]," she said.  "But I guess not in the school board sector."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But back to my original point.  Isn't it funny that Fournier, and the (many) others like him, think that an omnipotent and omniscient and all-loving god needs that kind of defense?  That a three-week unit on the basics of evolution is all it would take to trash fourteen years of religious indoctrination?  That a righteous, god-fearing heterosexual kid would read The Color Purple and think, "cool!  Now I'm gay!"?  That a Christian 11th grader in a world history class would find out that Christians Did Some Bad Things and say, "Oh, crap.  I guess my only option is to become a satanist?"

How fragile do you think the whole thing is?  It's sounding less Onward, Christian Soldiers than it is House of Cards.

Of course, that's hardly the only self-contradictory, counterfactual view people like Fournier hold.  But it does make you kind of wonder where this siege mentality comes from.  If their beliefs are so self-evidently correct as they claim -- to the extent that people like Ken Ham state that nothing, no evidence, no argument, would ever change them -- the fact that the whole edifice could be knocked down by a single high school teacher at least deserves an explanation.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The future according to Adam Sandler

It's not often that you get to witness the birth of a conspiracy theory.

Most of the time, I suspect, they start out with someone speculating about something, finding circumstantial evidence that seems to support the conjecture, and then telling a few friends.  Who tell a few friends, who tell a few friends, and there you are.  Hard to pinpoint, and (therefore) hard to squelch.

But today I'm going to tell you about a conspiracy theory whose provenance we can identify with near exactitude.  And since it involves not only conspiracy theorists, but The Onion, Princess Diana, neo-Nazis, and Adam Sandler, you know it's gonna be a good story.

The whole thing started with a story run in August by Clickhole, a satirical website that is an offshoot of The Onion.  Entitled, "Five Tragedies Weirdly Predicted by Adam Sandler," the article tells about five instances when Sandler gave hints (or outright statements) in his movies or comedy acts about upcoming world events, to wit:
  • The Waco Siege.  Sandler, supposedly, would intersperse his standup act with repeating "for several minutes" the phrase, "Something's coming to Waco.  Something dark."
  • Princess Diana's death.  In the movie Happy Gilmore, Sandler looks directly into the camera and says, "The Queen's eldest, our beautiful flower, will wilt under a Parisian bridge."
  • The 2010 BP Gulf oil spill.  In an interview in 2005 on Conan O'Brien, Sandler was wearing a t-shirt that said, "BP OIL SPILL IN FIVE YEARS."
  • The Haitian earthquake.  Sandler predicted that one on Funny People, but underestimated the death toll at 220,000.  (Guess even a "modern-day Nostradamus" can't get every detail right.)
  • The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  All the way back in 1993, Sandler was in a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he sang, "A missing plane-ah / It’s from Malaysia / Make me insane-ah / This will all make sense in due time."
So there you are, then.  Pretty amazing, yes?

Well, no, and for the very good reason that Sandler didn't say (or do) any of the things that the Clickhole article said.  In other words, the whole thing was made up from top to bottom.  Not surprising; it's satire, remember?

[image courtesy of photographer Franz Richter and the Wikimedia Commons]

But that didn't stop people from falling for it.  Lots of people.  Not only did they miss the "satire" piece, they also never bothered to fact check, even to the extent of watching the damn movies and television shows where all of these shenanigans allegedly happened.  It started popping up all over the online media, making appearances on blogs, Twitter, and conspiracy theory websites like Godlike Productions and Literally Unbelievable.  Then, the neo-Nazis got a hold of it, and it ended up on their site Stormfront, where the link was posted with the following wonderful message: "If any of this is true, it just shows how Jews do make shit happen and probably communicate via movies."

You'd think that communicating via communicating would be easier, wouldn't you?  I mean, why go to all of the trouble of making a movie, including all of the lengthy and costly post-production stuff, marketing, and so on, when you could just pick up a phone and tell your Evil Illuminati Henchmen your future predictions?  After all, in the movies, anyone could be watching.  Even a neo-Nazi could be watching.  And then the secret's out, you know?

I mean, I have some first-hand experience in this regard.  My wife is Jewish, and when she wants to tell me something, she doesn't make a movie about it and wait for me to go to the theater and watch it, she just tells me.  She's kind of direct that way.

But the whole thing blew up so fast that it ended up having its own page on Snopes, wherein we are told in no uncertain terms that Adam Sandler can not actually foretell the future.

I'm not expecting people to believe this, though.  Any time Snopes posts anything, they get accused of being shills or of participating in a coverup.  Which means that I probably will be accused of the same thing, especially now that I've revealed that my wife is Jewish.

As I've observed so many times, with conspiracy theorists, you can't win.  And that goes double for the neo-Nazis.

Monday, October 13, 2014

99 red balloons

In today's episode of "Studies in Confirmation Bias," we have a story in The Examiner claiming that someone captured a UFO refueling in a chemtrail.

What cracked me up about this one is the way the author of the story, Tom Rose, seems to take it as given that (1) chemtrails exist, and (2) UFOs exist, so clearly they must have some connection.  Here's how Rose introduces the topic:
An incredible UFO video was uploaded to YouTube on Oct. 12, showing what appears to be an unidentified flying object "refueling" itself in the chemical contrail of a jet flying high above it.  The strange object, which resembles no known aircraft, and flies in a decidedly non-aerodynamic manner, seems to intentionally head directly into the chemtrail of the passing jet and hovers for a moment before moving on.
The "chemical contrails" of jets are made almost entirely of water vapor and carbon dioxide, so it's a little hard to see how the UFO would be "refueling" itself with them.  Rose is right, however, insofar as water vapor and carbon dioxide are both "chemicals."

He goes on to write:
The nearly two minute video shows the original, unedited footage, without enhancement, in the opening segment, before switching to a magnified and slowed down version, which doesn't help to clear up the mysterious behavior of the unidentified aircraft.  In fact, the closeup reveals that, although there seems to be a flashing, navigational beacon on the UFO, its shape and configuration resembles no known aircraft, such as a helicopter, airplane or even a drone.
True, and there's a reason for that, which I'll get to in a moment.

He finishes up with a bang:
The chemtrail controversy has been raging for a few years now, with conspiracy theorists arguing there must be some secret meaning behind their sudden proliferation.  Could this incident explain the phenomenon?  Is it possible that alien aircraft are using the chemical exhaust fumes of high flying aircraft to refuel spacecraft in Earth's atmosphere?
 The last sentence would be the odds-on favorite in a contest for the statement that caused the fastest simultaneous guffaw and facepalm.  But let's not be hasty, here.  Here's a still from the video, showing the strange, non-aerodynamic craft, of no known configuration, sucking up chemtrail fumes:


But to get the full effect, you should definitely watch the video, which is in the article I linked.  I watched the video twice through, because I was pretty certain I knew what the UFO actually was by twenty seconds in, but I wanted to be certain.  I'm no video analysis expert, mind you, but I'm still pretty sure.  You ready?

It's a red mylar balloon.

The first thing I noticed is that the "UFO" is clearly much lower in altitude than the jet is.  Rose even seems to have noticed that, and let it slip in his first line, in which he states that the jet is "flying high above" the mysterious craft.  So even if Rose is right that chemtrails exist, and UFOs exist, and chemtrails have some sort of mix of chemicals that could be useful to the pilots of UFOs, this particular UFO is probably a couple of miles too low to accomplish its goal in any case.

Second, the "UFO" isn't so much flying as it is drifting.  As balloons do.  The flashes you occasionally see are when bits of it are turned at the right angle toward the sun, and reflect some glare back toward the guy with the videocamera.  They're not "flashing navigational beacons."

So anyway, watch the video yourself, and see if you agree with me.  I'm willing to admit that there may be other explanations, even though I seriously doubt that there's any alien mischief (or, for that matter, evil chemtrail mischief) going on here.

On the other hand, perhaps it's the red mylar balloons we should be watching out for.  Those things are probably up to no good.