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, November 30, 2015

The road to hell

The transition of a culture into fascism is seldom sudden.  It's a slow slide, urged forward by fear and xenophobia, and often catalyzed by the appearance of a charismatic figure who spouts jingoistic talking points, pounding the table and telling everyone that he has the answers, that all will be well if they just vote for him.

And one of the first things that often happens is that his followers, buoyed up by the heady air of finally having a leader who is saying all of the things they've felt for years, begin to shout down the opposition.  Inevitably violence occurs, and a protestor at a rally is beaten up for having the wrong views.  The charismatic leader doesn't chide his followers for their actions; oh, no.   He urges his followers on, suggests that the victim deserved the beating -- which of course fosters further violence and more fear on the part of anyone courageous enough to dissent.

James Luther Adams was one of those victims, and was lucky to get away as more-or-less unscathed as he did:
I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.  Was he going to beat me up because of what I had been saying?...  He shouted at me... "You damn fool, don’t you know that here today you keep your mouth shut or you’ll get your head bashed in... You know what I have done.  I’ve saved you from getting beaten up.  They were not going to continue arguing with you.  You were going to be lying flat on the pavement."
And throughout it all, the moderate rationalists look at each other in amazement, saying, "How can this happen?"  Some deride the leader as a fool, a buffoon with no experience in government and even less credibility.  As if that has any effect on people who are reacting through fear and the sudden thrilling awareness that the leader has just given you carte blanche to beat the shit out of anyone who says the wrong thing.

The fear is fed by a knowledge of there being terrible societal inequities, and the sense that the problems can only be righted by a complete overturning of government.  In the words of an ordinary citizen, "Of course all the little people who had small savings were wiped out.  But the big factories and banking houses and multimillionaires didn’t seem to be affected at all.  They went right on piling up their millions.  Those big holdings were protected somehow from loss.  But the mass of the people were completely broke.  And we asked ourselves, 'How can that happen?'...  But after that, even those people who used to save didn’t trust money anymore, or the government.  We decided to have a high time whenever we had any spare money, which wasn’t often. "

Small wonder that such conditions foster distrust, suspicion, and anger.  And then, along comes someone who says he can fix all that:
We deceive ourselves if we believe that the people want to be governed by majorities.  No, you don't know the people.  This people doesn't want to lose itself in “majorities.”  It doesn't want to be involved in great plans.  It wants a leadership in which it can believe, nothing more.
And still the moderates stand around, shaking their heads in dismay, and doing little else.

Anyone who disagrees is ridiculed or denounced.  Critics are publicly humiliated and made to apologize for their audacity, and sued for defamation if they refuse.

Then the propaganda machine goes into overdrive convincing people that the entire country is going to hell if the election goes the other way:
This man who, because of his extraordinary knowledge and ability in all areas, was able to rise from nothing to his present position as the leader... despite tremendous resistance, is perhaps the only one who has the ability to master the enormous tasks, rescuing the nation at the eleventh hour from its almost hopeless situation.  Led by fate, he followed his path. It would not be the first time in history that [we were] rescued by the right man in our greatest need.
And of course, the final step is turning that anger and fear against a common enemy, someone who can act as a scapegoat.  After all, there has to be a means for directing the rage; the revolution can't be too complete, or it will destroy the very structure to which the leaders are trying to ascend.  So who's to blame?

The poor and powerless, of course.
The more economic difficulties increase, the more immigration will be seen as a burden... In this struggle... there’s only a clear either/or.  Any half measure leads to one’s own destruction.  The world [of these people] must be destroyed if humanity wants to live; there is no other choice than to fight a pitiless battle against [them] in every form.
Amazingly, people fall for it.  Fact-checking, pointing out the lies and half-truths, doesn't alter the trajectory by one millimeter.  In a direct quote that you would think would be enough by itself to wake people up: "Credibility doesn't matter.  The winner will not be asked whether he told the truth."

But still his poll numbers climb, until what looked like a ridiculous bid for attention by a narcissistic troll has become a threat to the founding principles of the entire country.

And at some point, we look around us in horror, and say, "How did we get here?"  There was no single turning point, no sudden overthrow -- just a gentle, smooth slide into being governed by the worst people in the world.

[image courtesy of photograph Robert F. W. Whitlock and the Wikimedia Commons]

Oh, but wait.  All of the quotes and references above were taken directly from primary documents regarding the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in pre-World War II Germany.

Who did you think I was talking about?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Inventing Glastonbury

It must come as a shock to woo-woos to find out that some of their favorite wooful phenomena were actually invented by humans for purely down-to-earth reasons.

Take, for example, the Ouija board.  A lot of paranormal enthusiasts claim that the Ouija board is some kind of portal to the spirit world -- and an equal number of religious types think it's the gateway to hell.  Using it, they say, is just asking to be possessed by an evil demon.  Unfortunately for both contentions, the Ouija board was invented as a parlor game by a toy manufacturer named Elijah Bond in 1890.  Even the name is made up -- Bond stuck together the French and German words for "yes" and decided it would make a catchy name.  Which it is.  Better than the words for "no," anyhow, because "Nonnein" sounds kind of silly.

So finding out that the Ouija board was invented purely to make money is a little deflating to those who think it's some kind of tool for accessing the supernatural.  Which makes me wonder how the woo-woos are going to deal with the recent claim by archaeologists that the hype over Glastonbury is a 12th-century fabrication.

Glastonbury Abbey [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

If you're not up to date with woo-woo mysticism and don't know what the deal is over Glastonbury, it's a town in England that is considered to be one of the most "spiritual" places in the world, right up there with Ayers Rock in Australia, Sedona, Arizona, and Salem, Massachusetts.  Supposedly, Glastonbury is the place where Joseph of Arimathea fled after Jesus's crucifixion, and when he got there he thrust his walking stick into the ground, where it took root and now flowers every Christmas.

The problem is, the Glastonbury Thorn doesn't flower at Christmas, it flowers in the spring, like most hawthorns.  No, the faithful say; that's because the current thorn isn't the real thing, which was cut down as an idolatrous image during the Puritan era following the English Civil War.  Even so, there are people who take the whole thing awfully seriously, which is why the current tree (planted in 1951) has been repeated vandalized.

Then there's the King Arthur connection, because Glastonbury Abbey is supposedly where the Once and Future King was buried after his death at the hands of his cousin Mordred in the Battle of Salisbury Plain.  There's even an inscription on a stone cross in the Abbey that allegedly has an inscription dating back to the fifth century, and which mentions King Arthur by name.

In addition to all this, or perhaps because of it, Glastonbury (or more specifically the hill Glastonbury Tor that stands nearby) has been identified as being the world's most powerful convergence of "ley lines," lines of spiritual force that allegedly encircle the globe. "[T]he landscape as a whole," we're told, "is imbued with a beauty, mystique and numinescence which has made it well loved over many centuries, and the haunt of many advanced souls."

So with all of this romantic folklore surrounding the spot, it's no wonder that people make pilgrimages to Glastonbury every year.  Which makes a recent paper published by a group of archaeologists at the University of Reading all the more devastating.

Because the new study has shown that all of the mystical trappings surrounding the place were the invention of some 12th century monks who were trying to find a way to raise money when their monastery burned down.

Archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist and her team have spent years looking at both the documents and the structures that supposedly play into the legend.  And she has concluded that after the fire, which occurred in 1184, some enterprising monks decided to cash in on the increasing popularity of the Arthurian mythology (Geoffrey of Monmouth's seminal Historia Regum Brittaniae had only been completed some 46 years earlier, and was still immensely influential).  So they started a rumor that Glastonbury was where Arthur was buried, and that he'd been buried there because it was where Joseph of Arimathea planted his walking stick.  "Look!" they said.  "There's a hawthorn tree up on that hill!  That's the ticket!"

And thus the legend of the Holy Thorn was begun.

Gilchrist and her team said that the stone cross was also the product of the same enterprising brothers, and had been fabricated to resemble earlier Anglo-Saxon and Celtic stone crosses, with the clever addition of an inscription mentioning Arthur by name.  And when they rebuilt the monastery, they made sure to make it of materials, and in a style, that made it look far older than it actually was, so the pilgrims (and the profits) kept rolling in.

As they still do, lo unto this very day.

It's kind of unfortunate, really.  I've always loved the Arthurian legends -- I grew up with tales of Merlin and Gawain and Morgan le Fay and the rest of them, not to mention my discovery during my teen years of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.  The idea that the whole thing might be some 12th century hoax is kind of sad.

You have to wonder how all the woo-woos will respond.  My guess is, they won't.  They'll ignore the current study just like they've avoided anything remotely factual in the past, and keep on claiming that ley lines and the rest are real.  They haven't based anything on evidence yet, so why start now?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Getting into the spirit

So it's Black Friday, in which we Americans follow up a day set aside to give thanks for everything we have, with a day set aside to trample each other to death trying to save money on overhyped garbage we really don't need.

Me, I stay right the hell away from stores on Black Friday.  I hate shopping in any case, and the rabid crowds only make it worse.  Plus, today marks the first day of the Little Drummer Boy Challenge, a yearly contest in which participants see how long they can make it into the Christmas season without hearing "The Little Drummer Boy," which ranks right up there with "Frosty the Snowman" as the most annoying Christmas carol ever written.   I've participated in this contest for three years, and haven't made it to Christmas Day undefeated yet.  Last year, I was taken out of the competition by a clerk in a hardware store who didn't even know all of the freakin' words, and kept having to la-la bits of it:
Come they LA LA pah-rum-puh-pum-pum
A newborn LA LA LA pah-rum-puh-pum-pum
Our LA LA gifts we bring pah-rum-puh-pum-pum
LA LA before the king pah-rum-puh-pum-pum, rum-puh-pum-pum, rum-puh-pum-pum
And so on and so forth.  He was singing it with hearty good cheer, so I felt kind of guilty when I realized that he'd knocked me out of the game and blurted out, "Are you fucking kidding me?" a little louder than I intended, eliciting a shocked look from the clerk and a significant diminishment in the general Christmas spirit amongst those around me.

Thomas Couture, The Drummer Boy (1857) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And of course, the Christmas season wouldn't be complete without the hyperreligious types ramping up the whole imaginary War on Christmas thing.  We atheists have allegedly been waging this war for what, now... six years?  Seven?  And yet if you'll look around you, just like the Grinch's attempt at banishing Christmas from Whoville, the holiday season still goes right on, pretty much exactly as it did before.

Oops!  Shouldn't say "holiday," because that's part of the War on Christmas, too, even though the word "holiday" comes from "holy day" and therefore is also religious.  Some people feel really strongly about this even so, including Harris County (Georgia) Sheriff Mike Jolley, who is so determined to bash everyone over the head with Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men that he posted a sign at the border of Harris County that says:
Welcome to Harris County, Georgia!  WARNING: Harris County is politically incorrect.  We say: Merry Christmas, God Bless America and In God We Trust; we salute our troops and our flag.  If this offends you…LEAVE!
Because nothing communicates god's love like telling everyone who is different than you are to bugger off.

What is wryly amusing about all of this, at least in my local community, is that I'm known to be one of the more outspoken atheists in the area, and in December I tell people "Merry Christmas" at least as often as I say "Happy Holidays."  Basically, if someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, I say it back to them; if they say, "Happy Holidays," I say that.  Likewise "Happy Hanukkah," "Blessed Solstice," "Merry Festivus," or "Have A Nice Day."

You know why?  If people speak kindly to me, I reciprocate, because I may be an atheist, but I am not an asshole.  So I guess that's three ways in which I am different from Sheriff Mike Jolley of Harris County, Georgia.

Basically, be nice to me, I'll be nice to you.  Unless you're singing "The Little Drummer Boy."  I'm sorry, but my tolerance does have its limits.

In any case, mostly what I plan to do today is to sit around home, recovering from the food-and-wine-induced coma in which I spent most of yesterday evening.  So however you choose to observe the day and the season, I hope you enjoy it, whether you get into the spirit of it or pretty much ignore the whole thing.

Pah-rum-puh-pum-pum.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The inner voice

Like most of us, I have a constant narrator in my head.

My narrator isn't nearly as sensible and coherent as the one Will Ferrell's character heard in the wonderful movie Stranger than Fiction; he heard someone describing his actions, in detail, as he performed them.  (I won't give away any more of the plot than that; you really should watch the movie, which is brilliant, and has killer performances not only by Ferrell, but by Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, and Queen Latifah.)

My internal monologue sounds more like a three-year-old with serious ADHD and the vocabulary of a sailor.  Here's a small sample of my brain chatter from this morning:  "I'm hungry... I've got to write my Skepto post first... wow!  Full moon! Cool!  Let the dogs out first...  I'm still tired... Fuck, now the dogs want back in!... Better get writing...  I'm hungry..."  And so on, and so forth, every waking hour of the day.

No wonder I'm an insomniac, with that nitwit babbling in my skull nonstop.

I've wondered at times if there was a way to get the internal voice to quiet down.  Or at least slow down.  In my several relatively unsuccessful attempts to learn to meditate, I found that if anything, my mental monologue gets louder and more insistent the quieter my surroundings are.  A Buddhist friend who is an advanced student of meditation has said to me, "When you have thoughts, let them flow through your brain and out, without judging.  Just watch them go by."

The problem is, there's always one more frenetic utterance following, and then another, and another.  This flow isn't a murmuring brook, it's Niagara Falls.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So it was with some astonishment that I read that our internal monologues might be part of how our brains shape our sense of self.  Recent research seems to indicate that without it, we are completely severed from our personhood, left unmoored, without a way to anchor our consciousness to our surroundings.

The whole thing is the subject of a 2015 film by Guillermo F. Flórez called Speechless, which investigates the lives of three stroke victims who have developed some form of aphasia, a loss of the ability to speak coherently.  One of them, Tinna Phillips, was fluent in six languages -- but suffered a stroke in her 30s that left her with Broca's aphasia, the inability to string words together into sensible sentences.    Even now, almost twenty years later, she still has trouble expressing herself.  "I cried inside, because I cannot communicate," Phillips said.  "My mom, others, Chinese!  I don’t know.  Is not communicate, nothing.  I, six languages, gone!"

What is even more remarkable about Phillips's case, however, is that the stroke completely stopped her internal monologue.  Where once she had the random thought patterns we all have, now she has... silence.  And that silence has in a deep fashion divided her from the context in which she lives her life.

We talk to ourselves, American philosopher Jerry Fodor says, to create an internal representation of our world, and without that, it's difficult to function.  "There is a gap between the mind and the world, " he writes, "and (as far as anybody knows) you need to posit internal representations if you are to have a hope of getting across it.  Mind the gap.  You’ll regret it if you don't."

Psychologist Alain Morin goes even further.  He writes, [I]nner speech is the main cognitive process leading to self-awareness.  That is, self-talk allows us to verbally identify and process information about our current mental experiences (e.g., emotions, thoughts, attitudes, goals, motives, sensations) and other personal characteristics such as personality traits, behavior, and appearance.  At an even higher level, I suggest that our internal dialogue is also what makes us aware of our own existence: 'I’m alive and well; I’m a unique person with an identity; I have goals, aspirations, and values.'"

As far as what its ultimate purpose is, Morin speculates that it has something to do with recognizing our own personhood and continually evaluating and reevaluating our own place in the social milieu.  Inner speech makes it possible to communicate and develop a relationship with ourselves.  "We can talk to ourselves as if we were speaking to someone else," he writes.  "In this process we can reproduce for ourselves appraisals we get from others.  For example, we can say to ourselves 'You’re very strong,'emotional, lazy,' etc., 'Why did you do this?  Because…', 'You take yourself way too seriously!', 'I feel anxious', and so on.  Talking to ourselves that way most certainly makes us self-aware and helps us identify self-information."

Which is fascinating.  I wonder how animals without spoken language see the world, and their place within it.  Do dogs have a sense of self?  Do dolphins?  How can you encode your world without language?  Our understanding of ourselves and our context is so tightly tied up in language, both internal and external, that it's hard to imagine even having thoughts without their being embedded in words.

So as annoying as my inner voice is, I suppose it's better to have it than not.  I just hope that my monologue's neurotic nature isn't equally evident in my external personality, although that would explain why I so seldom get invited to parties.

And now I need to go eat something, because I'm tired of hearing "I'm hungry" over and over.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Children's Guide to Nonsense

Two weeks ago I wrote a post suggesting that people who have any concern for the promotion of quality information about how the world works should boycott The History Channel until it stops claiming that shows like MonsterQuest have the least thing to do with reality.

This post prompted a number of emails and comments, which can be distilled down to (1) there's nothing wrong with entertainment, (2) THC is not trying to convince anyone who isn't already convinced, and (3) lighten the hell up.  The number of responses I got along those lines made me wonder for a while if maybe I was taking the whole thing a little too seriously.

Until I read a post a couple of days ago on Jason Colavito's wonderful blog, entitled "History Channel Official 'Ancient Aliens' Guide for Children, Teaches Kids Aliens Are Behind Everything."


I don't want to steal Colavito's thunder, and all of you should check out his post, which is spot-on.  But the gist is that THC has released a book called The Young Investigator’s Guide to Ancient Aliens: Based on the Hit Television Series.  The Amazon page for the book describes it thusly:
As a tie-in to the wildly successful History Channel show, perfect for young readers, here's a book filled with fascinating tales, ancient folklore, and compelling evidence of the role extraterrestrials may have played in human history. 
What really happened to the dinosaurs? Who actually built the ancient pyramids in Egypt? Are airplanes really as modern as we think they are? This book takes a close look at landmark events throughout history and asks the question: What if aliens were involved? 
Spanning history, from the earliest of human civilizations to the modern period, this book exposes evidence of the presence of extraterrestrials in some of our most triumphant and devastating moments.
Entertainment, my ass.  This is a calculated effort to catch children while they're young and naïve, and convince them that a zero-evidence pile of horse waste actually has legitimate standing in the world of science.

I was heartened, however, to see that The Young Investigator's Guide has thus far received five reviews, all one-star.  Here's a sampling of the comments from the reviews:
Keep this toxic claptrap away from children. 
The War On Science is fought on several fronts, from the schools of red state America to our television screens.  'The History Channel' is contributing to this as it debases the meaning of the word 'History' into anything it thinks will sell no matter what the consequences. 
This has to be considered an extension of the mind-numbing influence of ratings-driven TV.  Ratings-driven TV exists as a money sucking virus seeking viewers at all cost.  It doesn't exist to educate or enlighten, to make things better or to warn us about shams and fiction posing as fact.  It exists only to promote an uncritical passive hoard of watchers who predictably consume what is offered in the commercials.  It dumbs us down to serve corporate agendas. 
Will we soon be selling electronic editions of "The Little Holocaust Deniers' Guide to the Early 1940s"?
To which I can only add: Huzzah.

Lest you feel too optimistic, however, Colavito points out that the Toronto Public Library System purchased 31 copies of the book, to make sure that several of the 23 libraries in the system had more than one copy.  Not to mention the fact that it's shelved under "nonfiction."

The whole problem here, of course, is that this sort of thing is like a gateway drug to woo-woo.  You hear the "what's the harm?" argument come up, over and over again, with respect to ideas like Ancient Aliens, Astrology, the Tarot, and so on.  And the direct harm is certainly to nothing more than your pocketbook.  But there's a more subtle reason to fight pseudoscience; accepting an idea on anything other than the standards of scientific evidence establishes a habit of uncritical thinking.  If you're willing to buy into nonsense like this based on an I Want To Believe attitude and very little else, what's to stop you from accepting other unscientific ideas that do cause direct harm -- homeopathy, anti-vaxx, climate change denial, and so on?

In any case, check out Colavito's take on the whole thing, which is well worth reading.  And to the "it's just entertainment" crowd; maybe you should give some second thoughts to how insidious a non-scientific approach to the world can be.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tinfoil hat upgrade

Are you concerned about being abducted by aliens, especially considering the inevitable result of being strapped down naked to an examining table and probed in ways you'd prefer not to think about?

You, apparently, are not alone.  And a fellow named Michael Menkin has done something about it.

He has invented a hat that stops the aliens from being able to get in touch with your brain.

So what we have here is a higher-tech version of taking a couple of sheets of Reynolds Wrap and smooshing it over your head.  It's a tight-fitting cap made of Velostat, which I had never heard of before, but which Wikipedia explained was "a packaging material made of a polymeric foil (polyolefines) impregnated with carbon black to make it electrically conductive."  The stuff looks, from the photographs, a little like Naugahyde.

Which means that the photographs of people wearing the things look like they're wearing a beanie made from a 1970s loveseat.  (I'd include some photographs here, except for the fact that there's a big "COPYRIGHTED ALL RIGHTS RESERVED" caption attached to them.  However, don't miss out -- you must go to the website and look at the pictures, but I'll warn you not to attempt to drink anything while doing so.  I will not be held responsible for damage to your computer that occurs if you do not follow this advice.)

Laugh all you want, Menkin tells us, there are more important things to worry about than looking silly:
The "thought screen helmet" is our only defense in a "telepathic war."  I call this device a "thought screen helmet" because it prevents aliens from performing any kind of mental control over us.  It blocks out all alien thought so humans can no longer be manipulated or controlled, and it prevents aliens from completing mental communication with us so people cannot be abducted.
So let me get this straight.  Aliens come across the galaxy, in faster-than-light spacecrafts powered by unimaginably complicated technology, intent on kidnapping a few humans, and they're defeated by... a hat?

And apparently hats aren't the only things the aliens can't figure out:
Aliens have taken ten helmets from abductees and several Velostat lined baseball caps.  If you are not wearing a hat they will go through your entire house looking for them. They will not, however, go into a locked cabinet.  Before you make a helmet have some kind of cabinet or trunk that you can lock. That way they won’t take it. 
All thought is open and controlled in a telepathic society therefore locks are unnecessary.   Aliens are unfamiliar with locks and the concept of a lock.
So, let's see... aliens can be defeated by hats, locks, and... string:
Almost any kind of tape or string wrapped around the helmet several times will prevent aliens from removing the helmet if they manage to get close to you.
And if the hats, locks, and string aren't enough, you'll have to resort to harsher measures -- like Axe Body Spray:
Several abductees report that aliens do not like perfume.  One abductee claims that they stopped an abduction by exposing strong cheap perfume to aliens.
I dunno.  These are beginning to sound like some pretty inept aliens.  These sound like somehow the cast of Gilligan's Island learned how to drive a spaceship, and are now bumbling around like buffoons, running into each other and dropping coconuts on the Skipper's toes.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I went through this website for nearly an hour, looking for any sign that these people are joking.  Tragically, it appears that they're are completely serious.  There's even a testimonials page, wherein we hear glowing reviews like the following:
“I am happy to report that the Thought Screen Helmet has been performing beautifully!   It’s been over six months now and NOT ONE INCIDENT! Aside from some of the naive neighborhood kids and their taunting it’s been a blissful period.”

"The hat and helmet work very well and I have experience much relief wearing them.  I am however, surprised that the aliens have not found a way to thwart this simple but effective technology.  At any rate I am very happy with mine and thank you again for your work." 
“Still nothing new to report here...so it must work!”
Yup!  The only possible explanation for nothing happening is that the hat you're wearing is blocking alien telepathic signals.

Anyhow.  I might make myself a hat at some point, because the website gives step-by-step instructions, and supposedly the whole thing costs less than $45.  On the other hand, I doubt that the hat will block sarcastic comments from my wife, which is honestly much more of a concern to me than being abducted by aliens.  So maybe I'm just as well off going back to tinfoil.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Doomed to repeat

This weekend, I inadvertently started an online argument about the Syrian refugees.

I rarely get involved in political discussions online (or anywhere else) because of this very thing.  It's the most fruitless of pursuits, really; it usually accomplishes nothing but eliciting shouts of acclamation from the people who already agree with you, and snorts of derision from the people who don't.

In other words, nothing.

I got the ball rolling by comparing the plight of the refugees, and the reluctance of the United States government to give them asylum, to the attitudes of the majority of English policymakers during the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, and the blocking of Jews before World War II trying to flee Germany into the Netherlands (and from the Netherlands and elsewhere into the United States).  Some of you may not know that Anne Frank and her family applied for, and were denied, passage into the United States in 1940 -- a move that would have saved their lives.

Well, that was apparently pasting a bullseye on my chest.  How dare I compare the Syrian refugees to the Jews?  The situation is completely different.  Plus, you know, those people want to kill us.  They are uniformly hostile to the United States and everything we stand for, so we're right to deny them entry.

So I thought it was time to set aside my reluctance to discuss political matters, and offer a little history lesson.  I have pulled some quotes, all from primary sources, that refer either to the Irish during the Potato Famine, the Jews prior to World War II, or the Syrian refugees now.  See if you can tell them apart.  (The only editing I did was to remove obvious giveaway references.)
  1. The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach [them] a lesson, and that calamity must not be too much mitigated. … The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil... but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of those people.
  2. [They are] more like squalid apes than human beings... Only efficient military despotism [can succeed in this situation], because [they] understand only force.
  3. It is probably unwise to say this loudly... but [this situation] is and has been since its beginning guided and controlled by [people] of the greasiest type, who have... absorbed every one of the worst phases of our civilization without having the least understanding of what we really mean by liberty.
  4. Two things made this country great: White men & Christianity.  Every problem that has arisen can be traced back to our departure from God’s Law and the disenfranchisement of White men.  And our current actions serve no purpose but to depart even further from those.
  5. [They] can go [back home] and stew in their own juice.  The rest had better stop being what they are, and start being human beings.
  6. It looks like to me if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a [solution] to our... problem.
  7. I see no solution to the... problem short of expelling all followers of the religion from the United States.
  8. [They] could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of.  As commonly encountered they lack any of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence.
  9. A policy that will not kill more than one million [of them]... will scarcely be enough to do any good.
  10. [They] are a cancer that must be cut out of our society, whose goal is the destruction of civilization from within.
  11. [They] hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion.  This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with [our] character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry.  Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.
  12. When neighborhoods are occupied by [these people], they establish their own laws and don't respect our own. 
Ready for the answers?
  1. The Irish.  Charles Trevelyan, head of the English Administration for Famine Relief, 1845.
  2. The Irish.  James Anthony Froude, professor of history, Oxford University, 1860.
  3. The Jews.  General Montgomery Schuyler, 1919.
  4. Syrian refugees.  Representative Don Davis of North Carolina.
  5. The Jews.  George Bernard Shaw, 1932.
  6. Syrian refugees.  Representative Virgil Peck of Kansas.
  7. Syrian refugees.  Representative Charlie Fuqua of Arkansas.
  8. The Jews.  H. L. Mencken, 1930.
  9. The Irish.  Nassau Senior, chief economist to Queen Victoria.
  10. Syrian refugees.  Representative John Bennett of Oklahoma.
  11. The Irish.  Benjamin Disraeli, 1878.
  12. Syrian refugees.  Representative Carl Gatto of Alaska.

Only the details change.  The hate speech, the fear and loathing of the "other," the wild claims that those people are trying to destroy our society, all stay the same.

It doesn't even seem to do any good to point out how many of the refugees are children or the elderly.  It doesn't help if you tell people that none of the Paris attackers were Syrian -- every last one of them was a citizen of the E.U.  Nor were any of the 9/11 bombers Syrian.

None of that matters.  They may look like starving, homeless refugees, but they're still implacably hostile to us.  You know how They are.

It's just that every generation has a different They.

I will end with a quote from the great Elie Wiesel.  As a survivor of the concentration camps during World War II, he has as good a reason as any to give in to hate, fear, and intolerance.  Instead, here are his words on the subject.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Opening the door to the Chinese Room

The idea of artificial intelligence terrifies a lot of people.

The reasons for this fear vary.  Some are repelled by the thought that our mental processes could be emulated in a machine. Others worry that if we do develop AI, it will rise up and overthrow us, à la The Matrix.  Still others are convinced that humans have something that is inherently unrepresentable -- a heart, a soul, perhaps even simply consciousness -- so any machine that appeared to be intelligent and human-like would only be a clever replica.

The people who believe that human intelligence will never be emulated in a machine usually fall back on something like the John Searle's "Chinese Room Analogy" as an argument.  Searle, an American philosopher, has said that computers are simply string-conversion devices; they take an input string, manipulate it in some completely predictable way, and then create an output string which they then give you.  What they do is analogous to someone sitting in a locked room with a Chinese-English dictionary who is given a string of Chinese text, and uses the dictionary to convert it to English.  There is no true understanding; it's mere symbol manipulation.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

There are two significant problems with Searle's Chinese Room.  One is the question of whether our brains themselves aren't simply string-conversion devices.  Vastly more sophisticated ones, of course; but given our brain chemistry and wiring at a given moment, it's far from a settled question whether our neural networks aren't reacting in a completely deterministic fashion.

The second, of course, is the problem that even though the woman in the Chinese Room starts out being a simple string-converter, if she keeps doing it long enough, eventually she will learn Chinese.  At that point there will be understanding going on.

Yes, says Searle, but that's because she has a human brain, which can do more than a computer can.  A machine could never abstract a language, or anything of the sort, without having explicit programming -- lists of vocabulary, syntax rules, morphological structure -- to go by.  Humans learn language starting with a highly receptive tabula rasa that is unlike anything that could be emulated in a computer.

Which was true, until this month.

A team of researchers at the University of Sassari (Italy) and the University of Plymouth (UK) have devised a network of two million interconnected artificial neurons that is capable of learning language "organically" -- starting with nothing, and using only communication with a human interlocutor as input.  Called ANNABELL (Artificial Neural Network with Adaptive Behavior Exploited for Language Learning), this network is capable of doing what AI people call "bootstrapping" or "recursive self-improvement" -- it begins with only a capacity for plasticity and improves its understanding as it goes, a feature that up till now has been considered by some to be impossible to achieve.

Bruno Golosio, head of the team that created ANNABELL, writes:
ANNABELL does not have pre-coded language knowledge; it learns only through communication with a human interlocutor, thanks to two fundamental mechanisms, which are also present in the biological brain: synaptic plasticity and neural gating.  Synaptic plasticity is the ability of the connection between two neurons to increase its efficiency when the two neurons are often active simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously.  This mechanism is essential for learning and for long-term memory.  Neural gating mechanisms are based on the properties of certain neurons (called bistable neurons) to behave as switches that can be turned "on" or "off" by a control signal coming from other neurons.  When turned on, the bistable neurons transmit the signal from a part of the brain to another, otherwise they block it.  The model is able to learn, due to synaptic plasticity, to control the signals that open and close the neural gates, so as to control the flow of information among different areas.
Which in my mind blows a neat hole in the contention that the human mind has some je ne sais quoi that will never be copied in a mechanical device.  This simple model (and compared to an actual brain, it is rudimentary, however impressive Golosio's team's achievement is) is doing precisely what an infant's brain does when it learns language -- taking in input, abstracting rules, and adjusting as it goes so that it improves over time.

Myself, I think this is awesome.  I'm not particularly concerned about machines taking over the world -- for one thing, a typical human brain has about 100 billion neurons, so to have something that really could emulate anything a human could do would take scaling up ANNABELL by a factor of 50,000.  (That's assuming that an intelligent mind couldn't operate out of a brain that was more compact and efficient, which is certainly a possibility.)  I also don't think it's demeaning to humans that we may be "nothing more than meat machines," as one biologist put it.  This doesn't diminish our own personal capacity for experience, it just means that we're built from the same stuff as the rest of the universe.

Which is sort of cool.

Anyhow, what Golosio et al. have done is only the beginning of what appears to be a quantum leap in AI research.  As I've said many times, and about many things; I can't imagine what wonders await in the future.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Food fight

There's a logical fallacy I've seen a lot lately.  It's called argumentum ad Monsantum (also known as argumentum ad Hitlerum).  The idea is that you can immediately cast doubt on the motives of a person or organization if you compare them to, or (worse) claim they got their ideas from, a stand-in for The Boogeyman.  Monsanto, Hitler, communists, Muslims, whatever one seems apt at the time.

Of course, this boils down to lazy thinking, which most of the fallacies do.

What's rather maddening about this is that the opposite can happen, too.  Give something an association with a name that's considered positive, and you automatically reap the benefits of a reflected glow of goodness, whether or not it's deserved.

You could call this the Compare-Yourelf-To-Mother-Teresa-And-Declare-Victory ploy.

The argumentum ad Monsantum strategy has been much used in the fight against GMOs, since Monsanto has been heavily involved in developing genetically modified crops for years.  How anyone who has even a smidgen of a background in science can fall for this is beyond me; comparing RoundUp-Ready Wheat with late blight-resistant potatoes makes no sense from any standpoint, from effects on human health to ecological impact.  (Consider that the former results in an increase in the use of chemical pesticides, and the latter decreases it.)

Saying that all GMOs are bad is, in fact, precisely equivalent to claiming that all genes do the same thing.

[image courtesy of photographer Elina Mark and the Wikimedia Commons]

What's wryly amusing about this is that the opposite side of the same coin -- the word organic -- is maybe not as squeaky-clean as it's been billed.  The reputation of organic produce for containing less in the way of Nasty Chemicals is apparently ill-deserved, considering a story by David Zaruk over at The Risk-Monger that revealed a startling fact -- that organic farmers in the United States are certified to use three thousand substances that are designated as toxic, and that are considered acceptable purely because they're "natural."

Copper sulfate, used as a fungicide, is highly toxic to fish, and is completely non-biodegradable.  Pyrethrin and azadirachtin (neem oil), insecticides that come from plants and therefore are somehow thought to be better than synthetics, are lethal to honeybees and carcinogenic in humans.  Rotenone, from the leafy parts of the jicama plant, kills damn near everything you put it on.

Also on the list is nicotine.  Made, presumably, from all-natural, organic, health-supporting tobacco plants.

Worse still, once produce is certified organic, it bypasses any kind of requirement for pesticide residue testing.  Because organic produce isn't supposed to have any pesticides on it, right?

Of course right.

Monsanto = bad.  GMO = bad.  Organic = good.  All a way to give yourself a nice warm feeling of being socially and environmentally responsible, not to mention healthy, and then to stop thinking.  Myself, I would rather the responsible use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which comes along with mountains of information on hazards and requirements for residue testing, than giving free rein to people who believe that Natural Must Mean Good For You.

Now, don't get me wrong; I think that a lot of the organic food movement is driven by the right motives.  Creating our food with as little negative environmental impact as possible, and producing food that is healthy and nutritious, are certainly goals to be lauded.  What is unclear is whether the rules governing organic food production as they now exist are meeting those goals.

But the beat goes on, which is why there was an apparently serious article over at The Organic Authority wherein we learn that artist and practitioner of magic Steven Leyba is mounting a one-man campaign against Monsanto, spurred by his own personal health experiences:
In 2010 I had been overweight and decided to get healthy.  I started eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables from my local grocery store.  I got sick and that was the time I found out about GMOs.  I was appalled.  I couldn’t understand why I would get so sick by eating what I thought was so healthy.  When I switched to organic food I got healthy again.
And since anecdote with a sample size of one is apparently data, Leyba decided to take matters into his own hands, and is launching a magic spell against Monsanto:
Death curses work like any manifestation of will like Gestalt psychology; you visualize and act in accordance and at some point what you can conceive and believe you can achieve.  Medicine men practice this and even medical doctors to some extent practice this.  They plant suggestions in people’s minds for healing and those people start to do things that promote their own healing.  For me I see a great need to identify the cancer (Monsanto and Nestlé) and attack with full force and mirror back this so-called Black Magic they are doing to all of us.
So he made a book full of disturbing imagery that includes demented portraits of executives who work for Monsanto, and also Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who worked as an attorney for Monsanto in the 1970s.  

"I encourage everyone to Death Curse Monsanto and Nestlé," Leyba says.  "Justifiable Death Curses are effective on many levels, fun, cathartic... and completely legal."

Article author Jill Ettinger, far from casting a wry eye at Leyba's Eye Of Newt approach to taking down Monsanto, seems to think it's a great idea.  And given the recent push in the United States for mandatory labeling of GMOs, "it may just be working," she says.

No harm, I suppose, if it amuses him.  But wouldn't it be better to learn some actual science, rather than giving in to fear talk and ignorance?  Not to mention (literal) magical thinking?

The world is complex, and when the motives of people and corporations get involved, it becomes even worse.  It'd be nice if categorical thinking really worked.  The difficult truth is, if you want to give yourself the best shot at making smart choices for yourself, both with respect to your personal health and the environmental impact, there's no substitute for bypassing the hype on both sides and understanding the reality beneath it all.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A war over textbooks

Yesterday a cousin of mine sent me a link wherein I learned that this week the Texas State Board of Education voted down a resolution that would allow academics to fact-check public school textbooks.

Yes, you read that right.  (1) It was a debate in the first place, and (2) they voted it down.  The vote was 8-7, I'll admit; but why it wasn't passed 15-0, with a corollary of "Duh" added to it, is absolutely mind boggling.

Board member Thomas Ratliff was one of the ones who voted for it.  "I know people are concerned about pointy-headed liberals in the ivory tower making our process different or worse," Ratliff said.  "But I hold our institutions of higher education in fairly high regard."

Whoo!  That's some serious high praise for academics, right there, and that was from a guy who supported the resolution.  "Them goddamn pointy-headed ivory-tower liberals in them thar colleges, they's maybe not so bad.  I s'pose."

This throws textbook review back on "citizen review panels" made up of teachers, parents, and business leaders to fact-check the books that are being used to educate our children.  The same system, allow me to point out, that approved a history text that called African slaves "workers," as if recruiters had gone over to West Africa in the 1700s with fliers that said, "Great job opportunities in the New World!  Get in on the ground floor of a booming agricultural industry!  Awesome fringe benefits!  Flexible hours!"

As a nod to getting people on the panels that actually know what the fuck they're talking about, the Board unanimously approved a measure to make sure that "at least a majority of the members have sufficient content expertise and experience."

Like that is an innovative approach.

Board member Marty Rowley said, "I think we're making it stronger and better and more expert than in the past."

This is the same Board of Education who made education "more expert" last year by including a statement in the standard for American history that required students to "identify the individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents, including those of Moses," and mandated that they learn "the role of Biblical law in the writing of the Constitution."

No wonder they don't want any academics in there messin' with the textbooks.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Roy White, chairman of a group called "Truth in Texas Textbooks," was delighted with the outcome of the vote.  The review panels don't need a bunch of university professors stepping in and taking over, and the issue with the African "workers" was an honest oversight.  "You got humans involved, there are going to be some errors," White said.

I'm sorry, that's not an error.  This is not a misspelled word.  Whoever wrote that passage knew precisely what (s)he was doing.  This was a deliberate attempt to introduce political spin into public school history textbooks, and more specifically to de-emphasize the role that white slave owners in the pre-Civil War South had in one of the biggest, most systematic state-sponsored human rights abuses the world has ever seen.

Nope.  Can't have that ol' Confederate flag get any bad press, even if it means weaving an implicit lie into the books used in history classrooms.

Kathy Miller, of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network, was less sanguine.  "With all the controversies that have made textbook adoptions in Texas look like a clown show, it's mindboggling and downright embarrassing that the board voted this down," Miller said.  She also pointed out that of the hundred people who were appointed to review history texts in Texas last year, only three were actual historians -- and one was a retired used car salesman who was running for political office.

The scariest thing is that because of Texas's large population and policy of state-wide textbook adoption, their standards for textbook content tend to drive the nation.  Publishers understandably don't want to have to print up a Texas edition of a book and an Everybody Else in the US edition, so the Texas edition often ends up being the one that is available nationwide.  The "workers" issue, and flak over science textbooks that gave short shrift to climate change and evolution (and gave students the incorrect impression that there's any significant questioning among scientists over either one), has put pressure on the publishing companies -- who are therefore caught right in the middle of the controversy.

The whole thing is, bottom to top, appalling.  The idea that a majority of the board that oversees education for an entire state thinks that a "citizen review panel" is going to be better at fact-checking biology textbooks than someone with a Ph.D. in biology.  The generalized distrust these people evidently have for anyone who actually knows what they're talking about.  The patently obvious ideological motivation for the whole thing, which is to push a conservative, nationalist, Christian agenda into public schools.

And with this week's vote, they're apparently going to get away with it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I was a stranger, and you took me in

In troubled times, people forget that one of our core values is compassion.

Despite what you might have heard, it's not unique to Western society, nor to Christianity.  Christianity has its version, yes, but it shows up over and over, in every culture, every religion:
  • From the Gospel According to Matthew: Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
  • From Confucius's Doctrine of the Mean:  Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?'  Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity.  Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.
  • From Islam's Forty Hadiths:  None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.
  • From Shayast-Na-Shayast, one of the holy books of Zoroastrianism:  Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.
  • From the Tao te Ching: To those who are good to me, I am good; to those who are not good to me, I am also good. Thus I act rightly, and all receive good.
  • From the Talmud: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.  This is the law: all the rest is commentary.
  • From the Mahabharata: This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.
You will notice that nowhere does it say, "This above all: make sure that you keep your own ass safe, warm, and well-fed, and to hell with everyone else, especially if they don't look like you."

A child in a Syrian refugee camp [image courtesy of photographer Mstyslav Chernov and the Wikimedia Commons]

It's why I find myself reluctant to go on social media in the last few days.  The posture that I see taken by some people I consider friends, and by many of our elected leaders, is so profoundly repulsive that I leave every single time feeling nauseated.  Contrast the above lines with some of the things I've seen posted lately:
  • Taking in Syrian refugees is welcoming terrorist attacks into the heartland of the USA.
  • Any government leader who lets these people into our country is guilty of treason.  Send the fucking politicians to Syria, along with the refugees!
  • We put French flags all over Facebook, then turn around and invite the terrorists in.  I don't know what the hell is wrong with this country.
  • Until every homeless veteran and hungry child is housed and fed, we should not allow one Syrian refugee into the US.  Not ONE.
I think it's this last one that makes me the most angry, because the person who posted this is a staunch Republican, and has more than once screamed bloody murder about the "welfare state" and "government giveaways," and supports a party that has in the past five years been responsible for killing five separate bills that would have provided aid to veterans.  What's the logic?  "We need to help veterans, before we help anyone else!  So let's not help anyone!"

So we sit here, smug in our comfortable houses and eating three meals a day, and turn away thousands of people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  People who are fleeing ISIS, the extremist sect we ourselves are fighting against.  People who have nowhere to go home to.

These are not terrorists.  These are the victims of terrorists.

Governor Chris Christie said that he wouldn't allow Syrian refugees into New Jersey, "not even orphans under the age of five."  Apparently his conservative family values include the idea that a human being's rights begin at conception and end at birth.

And if you're not swayed by compassion, there's a purely pragmatic reason to take in the refugees.  The way to combat extremism is to put a human face on the target.  The terrorists who are responsible for the Paris and Beirut attacks and other atrocities have their followers brainwashed to think of their victims as evil, barely human, deserving of death.  It's far harder for that message to sell if those same people welcomed you into their homes, fed you and clothed you when you had nothing.  If we send these people back, the ones who are lucky enough to survive the ordeal will have every reason to hate us.

Our actions might just as well be a recruitment drive for ISIS.

Some of you might be saying, "But it's not safe!"   No, it's not.  It's possible that there might be ISIS members embedded in the ranks of the refugees.  Welcoming in the refugees might result in danger to ourselves; it certainly would result in inconvenience, difficulty, hard work.  But wherever did you come up with the idea that the prime goal of life is to be safe?  We just celebrated a federal holiday -- Veteran's Day -- wherein we laud the people who put themselves in harm's way to help others.  I would think that the hypocrisy of following that up with an outcry against putting ourselves in harm's way to help others would be obvious, but apparently it isn't.

And speaking of holidays, we've got two others coming up, remember?  One celebrates a legend in which the natives of a land welcomed settlers in and fed them, even though they looked different, had a different language, and practiced a different religion.  The other is about an event in which a poor Middle Eastern couple was turned away from shelter over and over again, until the woman was forced to give birth in a stable for animals.

Even the parallels there seem to escape people.

We have an opportunity.  We can give into fear, nationalism, and hatred, or we can show the world that the values we brag about and claim are so powerful actually mean something, and are not just a lot of empty, self-congratulatory talk.

It's been a temptation to unfriend or unfollow the people I'm connected to who post repugnant things. If I haven't, it's because that tendency turns social media into even more of an echo chamber, where we're surrounded only by people who shout the same empty slogans as we do, and never are challenged to think differently.  So as much as I would like to disconnect myself from the fear and rage talk I'm seeing, I won't do that.  

If I can get one person to reconsider the duty of compassion that comes along with the privileges we enjoy, it will be worth it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The walls come tumblin' down

If you needed any further evidence that homeopathy is complete lunacy, take a look at this page wherein we find the description of a homeopathic "remedy" made from chunks of the Berlin Wall.

At first, I thought this was a spoof.  Tragically, it isn't.  But if you would rather not (1) give these people further hits on their hit tracker, and (2) subject your delicate brain cells to truly devastating amounts of derp, allow me to give you a brief summary.

Kees Dam, the person who wrote the piece, states that he (at least I think this is a male name; my apologies if I'm incorrect) was at a homeopathy conference and heard a homeopath named George Vithoulkas say that "the sake and credibility of homeopathy was not served by using remedies like Berlin Wall."  And initially, Dam agreed.  It seemed ridiculous that taking a chunk of concrete, grinding it up in water, and diluting it until there was none of the original concrete left would result in a remedy that was good for curing anything except thirst.

[image courtesy of photographer Jorge Royan and the Wikimedia Commons]

But despite his doubts, Dam decided to "prove" it for himself.  In homeopathy, a "proving" is where you give volunteers undiluted materials (here, swallowing pieces of the Berlin Wall) and seeing what symptoms they develop.  Those symptoms then are what highly-diluted "remedy" (a.k.a. "water") is useful for treating.

It is why, for example, the homeopathic "remedy" used for insomnia is made from diluted caffeine.  I'm not making this up.

Anyhow, after eating powdered concrete, there were a bunch of emotional symptoms -- depression, hopelessness, feelings of being trapped -- and a variety of physical symptoms as well.  These included both narcolepsy and insomnia.

Which induced me to shout at my computer, "Okay, which is it?  It can't be both."

So will powdered and diluted Wall keep you awake, or put you to sleep?  The website was unclear on that point (one of many that it was unclear on).  Maybe it will put you into that obnoxious half-awake state where you can't really fall deeply asleep, but you're too tired to get up.

If that's what it does, keep it right the hell away from me.  I hate that.

Anyhow, we then move on to a long list of quotes from volunteers who participated in "provings" and tests of the "remedy" itself.  Many of them are what you'd expect from people who believe this stuff -- claims that taking homeopathic dilutions of the Berlin Wall helped you with metaphorical walls in your life ("Sensation as if there is a wall, an incredible distance between the people I really love and me. I cannot go to the people I really want to be with. It is a big suffering.").  Another person said that taking it made her very suspicious of men ("Absolutely no sex," she says.)

The most bizarre one is someone who got symptoms simply by holding the "remedy" in her hand: "Holding the remedy for a while gives a tremendous rise of grief and sadness, so huge you would drown in it."

So what does this mean, now you don't even have to swallow the stuff, it's equally effective to absorb the curative powers directly through your skin?  I suppose that's true, actually, given the fact that 0 = 0.

It only gets weirder from there.  Here are a few more symptoms people developed after swallowing pieces of the Berlin Wall:
  • There is a big heap of sand before my house-door, it is so high that it is on window level. Anybody could walk in by the window. This gives me a very unsafe feeling.
  • Together with my father I am in a barren, flat, empty meadow landscape with as many ditches as land, the water in the ditches is just as high as the land, a very disagreeable landscape. There is no horizon. My father says that he doesn't believe in God or that he thinks he doesn't believe in God.
  • Last night I had the feeling I was blind, I opened the curtains a little and realised/saw I was not.
  • Vision: two astronauts and a UFO with very modern equipment especially in relation to eye-technique (laser/photography).
  • Weepy, with the speed of one tear per hour, but still ameliorating.
  • I am drawn to buy light yellow clothing during this remedy proving. 
  • I desire pepper salami.
Apparently after reading through all of this (for want of a better word) data, Dam didn't have the reaction I did, which is to say "What the fuck?" over and over again.  No, Dam was convinced.  Any of his previous reservations about the usefulness of diluted Berlin Wall were clean gone.  He writes:
I must confess that the same controversial feelings were elicited in me when I heard of Berlin Wall as a homeopathic remedy for the first time.  My "Berlin Wall" was broken down when I trusted and believed my eyes seeing the effects of Berlin Wall as a homeopathic remedy.
So there you have it.  This isn't the stupidest thing I've run across in homeopathic literature; that honor goes to homeopathic water, which is water diluted in water.  (I'm also not making this up; the link is to a previous Skeptophilia post where you can read all about it.)  However, if this isn't the dumbest "remedy" I've ever seen, it is certainly the strangest.

Anyhow, if you have a chunk of the Berlin Wall, you're probably better off hanging onto it and not grinding it up and diluting it a bunch of times.  Since what it apparently cures are things like craving salami and imagining that there are heaps of sand in front of your house, it probably wouldn't that useful in any case.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Reality, nightmares, and the paranormal

I was giving some thought this morning to why I've turned into such a diehard doubter of paranormal occurrences.  And I think one of the main reasons is because I know enough neuroscience to have very little faith in my own brain and sensory organs.

I'm not an expert on the topic, mind you.  I'm a raving generalist, what some people describe as "interested in everything" and more critical sorts label as a dilettante.  But I know enough about the nervous system to teach a semester-long elective in introductory neuroscience, and even without my native curiosity that keeps me reading about new developments.

This is what prompted a former student of mine to hand me Oliver Sacks's book Hallucinations.  I love Sacks's writing -- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia are tours de force -- but this one I hadn't heard of.

And let me tell you, if you are the type who is prone to say, "I know it happened, I saw it with my own eyes!", you might want to give this book a read.

The whole book is a devastating blow to our confidence that what we see,  hear, and remember is reality.  But the especially damning part began with his description of hypnopompic hallucinations -- visions that occur immediately upon waking.  Unlike the more common hypnagogic experiences, which are dreamlike states in light sleep, hypnopompic experiences have the additional characteristic that when you are in one, you are (1) convinced that you are completely awake, and (2) certain that what you're seeing is real.

Sacks describes one of his own patients who suffered from frequent hypnopompic hallucinations.  Amongst the things the man saw were:
  • a huge figure of an angel
  • a rotting corpse lying next to him in bed
  • a dead child on the floor, covered in blood
  • hideous faces laughing at him
  • giant spiders
  • a huge hand suspended over his face
  • an image of himself as an older man, standing by the foot of the bed
  • an ugly-looking primitive man lying on the floor, with tufted orange hair

Fortunately for him, Sacks's patient is a rational man and knows that what he is experiencing is hallucination, i.e., not real.  But you can see how if you were even slightly inclined to believe in the paranormal, this would put you over the edge (possibly in more than one way).

But it gets worse.  There's cataplexy, which is a sudden and  total loss of muscular strength, resulting in the sufferer falling to the ground while remaining completely conscious.  Victims of cataplexy often also experience sleep paralysis, which is another phenomenon that occurs upon waking, and in which the system that is supposed to re-sync the voluntary muscles with the conscious mental faculties fails to occur, resulting in a terrifying inability to move.  As if this weren't bad enough, cataplexy and sleep paralysis are often accompanied by hallucinations -- one woman Sacks worked with experienced an episode of sleep paralysis in which she saw "an abnormally tall man in a black suit... He was greenish-pale, sick looking, with a shock-ridden look in the eyes.  I tried to scream, but was unable to move my lips or make any sounds at all.  He kept staring at me with his eyes almost popping out when all of a sudden he started shouting out random numbers, like FIVE-ELEVEN-EIGHT-ONE-THREE-TWO-FOUR-NINE-TWENTY, then laughed hysterically."

After this the paralysis resolved, and the image of the man "became more and more blurry until he was gone."

Johann Heinrich Füssli, The Nightmare (1790) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Then there are grief-induced hallucinations, an apparently well-documented phenomenon which I had never heard of before.  A doctor in Wales, W. D. Rees, interviewed three hundred people who had recently lost loved ones, and found that nearly half of them had at least fleeting hallucinations of seeing the deceased.  Some of these hallucinations persisted for months or years.

Given all this, is it any wonder that every culture on Earth has legends of ghosts, demons, and spirits?

Of course, the True Believers in the studio audience (hey, there have to be some, right?) are probably saying, "Sacks only calls them hallucinations because that's what he already believed to be true -- he's as guilty of confirmation bias as the people who believe in ghosts."  But the problem with this is, Sacks also tells us that there are certain medications which make such hallucinations dramatically worse, and others that make them diminish or go away entirely.  Hard to explain why, if the ghosts, spirits, et al. have an external reality, taking a drug can make them go away.

But the psychics probably will just respond by saying that the medication is making people "less attuned to the frequencies of the spirit world," or some such.  You can't win.

In any case, I highly recommend Sacks's book.  (The link to the Amazon page is posted above, if you'd like to buy a copy.)  It will, however, have the effect of making you doubt everything you're looking at.  Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; a little less certainty, and a little more acknowledgement of doubt, would certainly make my job a hell of a lot easier.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris attacks redux

There's a fundamental rule I follow: if I make a statement, and people I trust take exception to it, I try to listen.

That happened today.  My earlier post (which I will take down as soon as this is posted) resulted in so many people whose opinions I respect taking exception that I have spent most of the day re-analyzing my thoughts regarding the terrorist attacks on Paris, who is responsible, and what our attitude should be toward Islam, ISIS, and the Middle East.

First:  I was beyond angry this morning.  I don't get that way often.  This is not meant as an excuse, merely a statement of fact.  In the grip of high emotion, it's all too easy to let yourself be carried away, to let logic, rationality, and compassion be swept off in a red haze of rage against people who could perpetrate such acts.

But on reading what people have written, both as comments on my blog, on Facebook, and in personal emails, here are a few things I have gleaned.
  1. Blaming an ideology for the actions of a few is lazy thinking to the point where it is indistinguishable from being wrong.  No adherent to a religion, or any other belief system, follows it 100%.  If there are immoral commands in the ideology, and a person follows them, it is the person who is making the immoral choice, and theirs is the responsibility.
  2. The situation in the Middle East is far too complex to place root causes for ISIS (or anything else) on one thing.  I should know better; I teach the Single-Cause Fallacy in my Critical Thinking classes.  The Middle East wouldn't be the miasma of poverty and oppression it currently is if it weren't for multiple causes -- not only fundamentalist Islam, but western colonialism, greed for oil, greed on the parts of the rich people in the Middle East itself who are desperate to quell dissent and stay in power (yes, I'm referring to the Saudi royal family here).  To lay it all at the feet of Islam is simplistic.  Once again, i.e., wrong.
  3. It is probably impossible to do what I set out to do -- to tease apart the belief system from its adherents.  In leveling blame against Islam, I was coming dangerously close to aiming blame at all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, law-abiding and lawless alike.  I object like hell when someone does that sort of thing to me -- "all liberals believe X, aren't they stupid?" -- and here I was doing it myself.  What's the biblical quote about casting the beam out of your own eye before trying to remove the splinter from someone else's?
  4. Shutting down the rights of Muslims who are already peaceful residents (and/or citizens) of the United States, or any other secular democracy, is the road to becoming the same kind of oppressive dictatorship we rail against.  
  5. I really shouldn't write blog posts when I'm furious.
I'm left with questions.  How do we stop the transmission of the ideology of hatred?  How can we eradicate such blind, senseless violence from the world, without becoming blindly violent ourselves? How can we criticize beliefs and ideas without it sliding into denying the freedom of speech and religious observance to the believers?

I wish I knew the answers.  Hell, if I did, I'd run for president.


In any case: thank you to all who took the time to respond thoughtfully, even those who were angered by what I said.  To be a true skeptic means to be willing to admit when you're wrong -- or at least, when you have cause for serious uncertainty.  And about the Paris attacks, at the moment I have no answers, just a deep sense of grief that such things could happen in the world.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The 2.5 gigahamster hard drive

Whenever people call computers "time-saving devices," I always chuckle in a sardonic fashion.

My computer at work could probably qualify as an antique.  It is the single slowest computer in the history of mankind.  When I get to school, the first thing I do is to turn my computer on.  I know that with many computers, you can get yourself a cup of coffee while you're waiting for them to boot up.  With this one, I could fly down to Colombia and harvest the coffee beans myself.  It also makes these peculiar little squeaky grunts as it's starting up; I suspect that this is because, instead of a hard drive, this computer is powered by a single hamster running in a wheel.  Perhaps it's slow in the morning because the hamster needs time to wake up, take a shower, get himself a bowl of hamster chow for breakfast, etc.

The network I work on is also astonishingly slow.  Printing especially seems to take forever, which is kind of ironic, because the printer I use is right down the hall from my classroom. When I send a document to the printer, it sometimes prints right away, and sometimes it apparently routs the job through a network located in Uzbekistan.  One time it took twenty minutes to print a sign for my classroom that had six words on it.  During that time the printer sat there like an obtuse lump, grumbling in an ill-tempered sort of way, its screen saying only the word "Calibrating..."  I yelled at it, "What the hell do you have to calibrate?  It's six words on one 8.5"x11" piece of paper!   There! You're calibrated!"  But it didn't listen, of course.  They never do.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

On the other hand, to be fair, perhaps I don't really merit a fast computer.  I am not, I admit readily, the most technologically adept person in the world.  I can find my way around the internet, and handle a variety of word processing and database software well enough.  That, however, represents the limits of my techspertise.  I periodically have guest speakers in my classroom, who invariably want to do some sort of electronic presentation requiring hardware and/or software that has to be brought in and hooked up to my computer in order to work.  I always handle these requests with phenomenal speed and efficiency.  "Bruce," I say, " can you come set this up for me?"

Bruce is our computer tech guy.  Bruce has forgotten more about computers than I'll ever know.  When something goes wrong with my computer, my usual response is to weep softly while smacking my forehead on the keyboard.  This is seldom helpful.  Bruce, on the other hand, will take one look at my computer, smile in his kindly way, and say something like, "Gordon, you forgot to defragment the RAM on your Z-drive," as if this solution would have been obvious to a five-year-old, or even an unusually intelligent dog.  Bruce is an awfully nice person, however.   He's never obnoxious about it.  I'm sure he knows that I'm a computer nitwit, but really doesn't think less of me for it.

He didn't even give me a hard time when I had him come in and look at my document projector, which I used frequently in my environmental science class.  "The interface seems to be working," I said, pointing to the light on the box that said, "Interface."  (Not that I knew what that meant, but it seemed to be a hopeful sign.)  "It's just that the lights on the projector won't come on.  And I changed the bulbs last month, I don't think it's that."

It took Bruce approximately 2.8 milliseconds to locate a switch on the side of the projector that said "Lights."  It was right next to the power switch, so evidently in my fumbling around for the power switch some time earlier that day, I had accidentally turned off the light switch.  This made the lights not come on. 

 Funny thing, that.

A principal I once worked for used to call me "The Dinosaur."  He made two rather trenchant, and sadly accurate, comments about me; first, that given my teaching style, I would be at home in an 18th century lecture hall; and second, that if I could figure out a way to have my students turn in their homework chiseled on slabs of rock, I probably would.  I still remember being reluctant to switch from old fashioned handwritten gradebooks to computer grade-calculation software, and I recall that I finally made the switch in the year 2000.  The reason I remember is that he quipped that I only entered the 20th century when it was about to end.

The scary part of all of this is that this year, our school district has chosen to trust me with a "Smart Board."  I begged my principal to leave me with my previous lecture tool, a "Dumb Board" (white-board and markers), but he said that I had to face my fears head on.  So far, I've only caused three serious malfunctions in it (one in which I couldn't turn the "erase" function off, as if the "Smart Board" had already decided that what I was about to write wasn't worth reading).  Each time, I solved the problem without calling for Bruce, by unplugging the "Smart Board" and then plugging it back in.

Maybe I'm making progress.

I guess we all have our approaches to learning, and the fact that I'm more comfortable with the old-fashioned, non-technological approach is just something I have to learn to compensate for.  I try to push the envelope and learn about computer-based applications when I can, but the fact remains that I'm probably going to continue to hand-letter most of my documents on rolls of parchment for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, I probably ought to finish up this post and get ready for work.  If I don't go wake the hamster up soon, he'll still be in the shower when my first class starts.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Giving away religion

There's another war brewing over the idea of freedom of religion, this time in the state of Tennessee.

Turns out, Bledsoe County School District has for years been handing out bibles to kids.  It hasn't, fortunately, been mandatory; the bibles are put out on tables in elementary school libraries in the district, and students can take one if they want one.  And recently, a decision was made to discontinue the practice.

Unsurprisingly, everyone is up in arms.

"We simply go in, we lay it on the table, we tell them what it is and who we are and if they want one…they freely take one," said Charlie Queen, Chaplain for Sequatchie Valley Camp of Gideons, who sponsors the giveaway.  "We do not hand it to them, they take it freely and voluntarily...  I look at it more as a loss of a freedom more so than anything else.  We are right here on Veterans Day…. people have fought, sacrificed and died for their country and for these freedoms.  Now another one is trying to be taken away, that’s what breaks my heart."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Predictably, Christians in the area are outraged.  Pastor Bill Wolfe, of Lee Station Baptist Church, said, "My whole congregation is very upset.  We talked about it yesterday morning.  They [the Gideons] come in and they don’t force anything on any child.  It’s an opportunity for them to receive a New Testament Bible.  They can take it if they want one and they don’t have to take it if they don’t want one.  This has been going on…well I’m 51-years-old and I still have mine that I received in the 5th grade, so it’s been going on for years and years."

That it's been going on "for years and years," of course, is not much of an argument.  Slavery, flogging for misdemeanors, and denial of women's right to vote also went on "for years and years," and that didn't make any of that right.  But it does bring up one question, that I think answers both Queen and Wolfe:

Why do you think it is the function of public schools to pass out religious materials?

If Wolfe is so furious that the giveaway has been discontinued, why doesn't he invite the Gideons into his church to give a bible to all the kids there?  There's only one reason to give bibles away in schools instead of in churches -- and that is in the hopes of convincing people who weren't already convinced.

I.e., proselytizing.

And that is not acceptable within a school.  What would Queen and Wolfe say if I, as an atheist, purchased a thousand copies of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and started handing them out free to fifth graders?  Or if Buddhists, Hindus, or (gasp) Muslims started doing the same thing?

I think the only thing that would send them more ballistic than my handing out copies of Dawkins is if some imam went in and started giving out copies of the Qu'ran.  But how is that any different?

The problem, of course, is that these people don't play fair.  They don't want freedom of religion, in the sense that all religions (and the lack thereof) are treated equally in the public arena.  They want exclusive access, which isn't the same thing.

Unsurprising, of course, considering where this all took place.  Hell, this is the same state where two months ago, parents flipped out when their kids were taught about Islam in seventh grade.

You read that right; these are the people who not only don't want their kids becoming Muslims, they don't even want them to know what Islam is.

Teachers, and schools, are here to expand children's worlds.  To make them more aware, to encourage them to question, to teach them how to tell fact from fiction, to give them the tools to be lifelong learners.  They are not here to perform religious or political indoctrination.

I do not bring up my atheism in my classes.  There is no reason to.  Do kids know I'm an atheist?  Probably a lot of them do; it's a small town, and I'm known to be a blogger.  But when I'm asked in class what my religious beliefs are, my stock response is, "Why is that relevant?"  Because it rarely is.  I'm a science teacher, and there should be no Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist science, no Republican or Democratic science.  There is only science, which is what we know to be supported by the evidence.

And I would be no more in the right to proselytize for my own beliefs than the Gideons are -- even if I do try to be cagey about it by saying "take it or leave it."