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, February 29, 2016

A life of fear

One of the things that strikes me about religious extremism is the fact that it always seems to be predicated on fear.  The one commonality between all of the various kinds of extremism is a perception that you're constantly at risk.  From the evil members of other religions (not to mention the non-religious, who are evil by default).  From the forces of darkness, Satan and the demons and what-have you.  And not least from god himself, who (in that worldview) is always perceived as a vicious and spiteful micromanager, needing for you to slip only once in order to have a pretext for condemning you for eternity.

When I left religion, thirty-odd years ago, the first thing I noticed (after a brief period of fretting that I'd made a huge mistake) was that I was no longer perpetually terrified of making a mistake.  And far from the perception by many religious -- that once you take the strictures of religion away, you'd become a selfish, willful, amoral jerk -- I found that I was much more aware that I was responsible myself for my own behavior.  So the loss of religion, for me, not only dispelled the irrational fear of retribution by an invisible judge, it made me more aware that we all have to take care of each other, and make this life we're living as good as possible, because we're not going to some kind of eternal reward or punishment after we die.

It's all now.  Waste this, and it's gone.

And the fear that permeates the fringes of religion colors everything.  In that view, there is no action that is unimportant.  Anything you do can leave you open to censure -- or worse, being influenced by the Evil One.

And as an example of this, take this warning from a blogger who calls himself "The Last Hiker" about the dangers of adult coloring books.

Why coloring books, you might ask?  Because many of them contain mandalas, which in the opinion of "The Last Hiker," provide an ingress for Satan:
A mandala is used in tantric Buddhism as an aid to meditation. They meditate on the image until they are saturated by it. They believe that you can merge with the deity by meditating on the mandala... Focusing on mandalas is a spiritual practice where you merge with “deities”–this practice opens the door to demons.

No Christian would put one in their house and sit and stare at it for an hour, chanting the sacred word! 
But if the enemy can get a Christian to stare at a mandala because they are coloring it, he can have them absentmindedly focus their attention on the image and they will unknowingly open up their subconscious to this image in almost the same way.
So in his view, mandalas aren't just attractive geometric designs.  They're portals for evil.  Presumably, even if you just bought the coloring book because you thought it was pretty, it'd still work the same way.  Motivation and foreknowledge doesn't matter.  All that matters is that you're in danger.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

He goes on to lay out the problem clearly, and suggests a solution:
So my question when it comes to the whole adult coloring books is this– 
Is it really about coloring? 
Or is it about spiritual hosts of wickedness sneaking mandalas into our homes and into our subconscious minds? 
Is it really about recreation or is it New Age evangelism? 
I can color all I want. 
But if I do, I am going to get a big fat coloring book of Bible stories.
Well, for me, it would be about coloring and recreation, because I don't believe in New Age occultism any more than I believe in Christianity.   But I wouldn't expect him to see that.

Nor would I expect him to see that considering the bloodthirsty nature of a lot of bible stories, you'd need a great many scarlet crayons to color them accurately.  Personally, I like the mandalas a lot better.  They don't require you to smite unbelievers or stone people to death or believe stories about god sending bears to eat children because they'd teased a prophet about his bald head.

What impresses me most, though, is the deep-seated fear that people like "The Last Hiker" must walk around in.  There's an evil being who is waiting for any opportunity to weasel his way in and steal your soul.  Something as innocent as a coloring book could be enough.  And on the other side -- and it's doubtful whether the other side is any better -- is a deity who has a list of thousands of rules, the breaking of any one of which could doom you for eternity.

It's a wonder these people can face getting out of their beds in the morning.

I made the decision thirty years ago to take a chance on the free air of reason, and the knowledge that there's no Cosmic Good Guy who'll make things right in the end, nor a Cosmic Bad Guy for me to blame my bad behavior on.  We're all responsible, here and now, for what we do.

And I'll take that responsibility in trade for perpetual fear any day.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Aliens in Australia

A few days ago, I lamented that the United States has far more than its fair share of complete lunatics.  This prompted a loyal reader of Skeptophilia to send me a link that indicates that Australia is also in the running.

The Land Down Under's candidate for International Wingnut of the Year is cricketer Shane Warne.  Warne is no slouch as an athlete; he's widely considered to be one of the best bowlers in the history of cricket.  However, as we've seen over and over again, being a brilliant actor or sports figure is no insurance against being a complete loon, and Warne makes this clear in an interview he did for the television show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, in which he tells us about his personal theory of evolution.

It's unorthodox, to say the least.

He starts out with a line that we science-types have heard all too many times before.

"If we’ve evolved from monkeys, then why haven’t those ones evolved?" he asks fellow guest Bonnie Lythgoe.

Lythgoe, taken a little aback, just said, "Yeah ..." in a dubious sort of way, instead of to ask some version of what I always do, which is "My ancestors came from France.  Why are there still French people?"

But Warne wasn't heading where anyone thought he was.  He continued, "I’m saying: Aliens.  We started from aliens."

And why, Mr. Warne, do you think this?

"Look at those pyramids... You couldn’t do ‘em.  You couldn’t pull those huge bits of brick and make it perfectly symmetrical ... couldn’t do it.  So who did it?"

The Egyptians.  With a shitload of slave labor.  Thanks for asking.

What is the most amusing about this is that Lythgoe, rather than saying, "Um, Shane?  You seemed a lot saner before you started talking," decided to take the low road and egg him on.  "Has to be from another world," she said.  "Has to be."

Cheered on by the fact that she wasn't guffawing directly into his face, Warne continued, "Whatever planet they’re on out there, they decided that they were gonna start some more life here on Earth and study us."

Only then did Lythgoe seem to have any reservations.  "Scientifically, we have so many similarities to monkeys," she said.  "So I don’t know ... yeah."

But Warne didn't get where he is by backing down in the face of uncertainty.  His voice full of the enthusiasm that is a characteristic of the cheerfully insane, he said, "Maybe they turned a few monkeys into humans and said 'Yeah, it works'!"

Well, I dunno.  Considering that Shane Warne is one of the outcomes, it didn't work all that well.  Maybe the aliens need to come back and do a little fine-tuning.

What always strikes me about these situations is twofold.  First, why does anyone think that being a good athlete qualifies you to weigh in on anything else?  Take, for example, Manny Pacquaio's comments about gays being "worse than animals."  He lost his Nike sponsorship for this -- entirely deserved, allow me to add.  But why are his comments even relevant beyond that?  He's a boxer, for crying out loud, not an ethicist, or even a politician.  The fact that he doesn't like gays carries as much weight as my opinions would about boxing strategy.

But second, why do we continue to listen to the ravings of people who obviously have a screw loose?  Why is this entertainment?  I have to admit to being in the minority of Americans who have absolutely no comprehension of why anyone would want to watch Duck Dynasty or Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo or Real Housewives of New Jersey.  I am not entertained by random people doing random stuff and then mugging for the camera as if they had just given an Oscar-worthy performance.

But there it is: and the reassuring thing, for me at least, is that the United States doesn't have the market cornered on wackos.  Good thing, because I needed the reassurance.  This year's presidential race is shaping into having to vote for the person who is the least insane, and it's nice to know that we're not the only ones in the world who face this problem.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The literal truth

One of the problems with biblical literalism is that the bible has some pretty awful and bloodthirsty bits.  It's been observed more than once that if anyone ever did try to live biblically, in the sense of following all of the biblical commands to the letter, he'd end up in jail.

The result, of course, is that people cherry-pick.  If you're up front about this -- if you admit that a lot of the biblical precepts were commands for another time and culture, and are irrelevant today -- I've got no quarrel with you whatsoever.  (Some people even go so far as to say that some of the rules in the early books of the bible, such as the penalty of death by stoning for collecting firewood on the Sabbath, were wrong even back then.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Most alleged literalists, however, solve the problem by obeying to the letter the rules they like (such as the prohibitions against premarital sex and gay marriage), believing word-for-word the stories they like (such as the six-day creation of the universe and the story of the flood and Noah's ark), and pretty much ignoring everything else.  But every once in a while you run into someone who has decided that being a biblical literalist means that you really have to buy the whole thing, in toto, and that when the bible conflicts with one of the rules of civilized society, society is wrong.

Which brings me to Reverend Steven Anderson.

Anderson is the pastor of the Faithful Word Baptist Church, and has been in the news before for his vitriolic anti-gay message.  (He's the guy who said if his brother was gay, he'd support his execution.)  But now, he's been called upon to defend one of the most horrific practices condoned in the bible -- slavery.

This is one that makes even the anti-gay cohort squirm a little.  Not Anderson, though.  This is a direct quote from his sermon -- which, if you don't believe me, you can listen to here, if you can stomach it:
People will try to come at us — usually atheists or people like that — they’ll come at us and say, “Well, the Bible is wrong because the Bible condones of slavery.”  We’ve all heard that before, right? 
But here’s the thing about that, is that if the Bible condones slavery, then I condone slavery.  Because the Bible’s always right about every subject… and keep in mind that locking someone in prison is more inhumane than slavery.  Prison destroys people’s lives.
And, in Anderson's fantasy world, slavery apparently didn't.  The families torn apart when slaves were kidnapped from their homes, the brutal beatings and horrific living conditions, the attitude by the slave-owners that their slaves were worthy of no better because they weren't quite human -- all of that is evidently just fine in god's eyes, and therefore in Anderson's.
Is the Bible just pro-slavery?  No.  But are there certain situations where God did indicate slavery or for people to beat their servants?  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Of course!  But you know what?  It’s all right.  And I agree with all of it.  Why?  Because the Bible is God’s Word.  That’s why.
So that settles that, at least for Anderson.

Another awkward point for many Christians is the bible's recommendations for the treatment of women.  Dozens of bible verses mandate that women be treated like objects to be given away or sold, and once married, subjugated to their husbands.  In 1 Corinthians 14, we read the following:
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.  If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
Which makes you wonder how outspoken evangelical women justify being in leadership roles.

Here too, most Christians just breeze past the dodgy bits.  But not all.  Over at the site Biblical Gender Roles, we find out in an article with the lovely title "How To Help Women Learn Their Place" that there are people who are determined to have this followed to the letter, too:
We have women saying things in the wrong place or in the wrong way.  Women showing no deference or respect toward men.  Daughters showing little to no respect for their fathers and wives showing little to no respect for their husbands.  Wives routinely shame their husbands in public not to mention in private.  Daughters disobey their fathers and wives routinely disobey their husbands with impunity.  Many women pursue selfish career ambitions instead of being ambitious for marriage, child bearing and homemaking.
If you can imagine.

Further along in the article -- once again, if you can stand to read it -- we find out that women should be cooks and house-cleaners and child-bearers, defer to their husbands in all matters, be ready for sex whenever the man wants it, be submissive, and dress modestly.  We then hear all about how the writer is training his own daughter in these ways, to be the "wife and mother that God wants her to be."

Is it just me, or is this close to emotional and psychological abuse?

You know, you have to admire these people for one thing; they aren't hypocrites.  They have decided on their precepts, and live them down to the last syllable.  The horrific part is that their precepts are entirely repugnant, and are based on the savage customs of Bronze-Age sheepherders that for some reason they still think are relevant and humane.

So however annoying the cherry-pickers are, at least they're not really trying to follow the bible to the letter, however much they claim that they are.  Which, after hearing about Reverend Anderson and the owner of Biblical Gender Roles, most of us will probably consider a fortunate thing.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Canine crystals

Given the upsurge of woo-woo alternative medicine in the last thirty years or so, I suppose it was only a matter of time before people begin recommending this nonsense for pets.

This comes up because of an article a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a couple of days ago.  It's from the website Dogs Naturally, and it's called "5 Healing Crystals to Help Your Dog."  Right in the opening paragraph, we hear about how important it is to keep your mind open about such things:
Shifting your thinking from conventional to natural can be freeing but at the same time overwhelming.  You’re opening up a whole new world of possibilities to wellness and healing.  Many healing modalities are pushed aside as being unscientific, unreliable, or ineffective, primarily because they are not embraced by conventional medicine or don’t have a long history of clinical trials.
Of course!  Who needs things like clinical trials?  Silly, silly medical researchers.

The thing is, it's not that I'm averse to suggestions with regards to pet care.  I have two dogs who certainly could use some help.  First, there's Grendel, who looks like a canine genetics experiment gone horribly wrong.  He appears to be the result of an unholy union between a pug and a German shepherd, with possibly a little bit of pit bull thrown in just to make things more interesting.

The guy who came up with the term "hang-dog expression" had Grendel in mind.  Grendel always has this forlorn look on his face, like he's in the depths of depression, or possibly simply wants more doggy kibble than we gave him and therefore has no option other than to ponder how unfair the universe is.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there's Lena.

Lena is eternally cheerful, never stops wagging her tail, and has the IQ of a prune.  This is the dog who stared at our Christmas tree for hours on end, over a period of about three weeks, because we'd put a stuffed toy at the top as a tree-topper, and her lone functioning brain cell decided it was a squirrel who was going to Do Something Interesting.  The fact that it never moved did not dissuade her in the least.  She was, I believe, absolutely convinced that she had to remain vigilant, because if her attention wavered for one second the stuffed toy was going to scamper down the tree and get away.

So you have to wonder what kind of crystals I could use for these two.  The article is clear that I should give it a try, though:
Crystals, just like herbs, flower essences, and essential oils have incredible effects on healing in the body.  Often not understood by conventional medicine practitioners, crystals are helpful tools to bring about balance and wellness, without concern of causing harm.
So that sounds promising.  But how will I know if I'm choosing the right crystal?  The author, Brenda Utzerath, has some concrete suggestions:
Introduce the crystal to your dog by holding it in your hand or placing it in front of him letting him smell and investigate.  Be careful he doesn’t take it in his mouth and try to eat it.
This would certainly be a possibility with Grendel, who is prone to eating anything that is even vaguely food-like.
Give him plenty of time to check out this new thing.  Watch for indications of interest like softening eyes that look as if he is in a daze or ready to fall asleep, moving a paw or rolling onto the crystal, drooling or dripping from the nose, and an overall sense of delight.  If he shows interest, set this crystal aside as a “yes.”  If he seems to be more interested in playing with the crystal or shows no interest at all set it aside as a “no” – at least for now.
The problem is, Grendel looks sleepy and sad pretty much all the time, and Lena expresses exuberant delight even when she's in the vet's office getting her rabies vaccination.  So I'm not sure that their reaction to a crystal would tell me all that much.

Be that as it may, we're then told that when the dog has selected the correct crystal, the best thing to do is to put it under his bed, or into a little pouch to hang from his collar.

As far as some good ones to try, Utzerath suggests clear quartz, amethyst, amber, black tourmaline, and selenite.  Selenite, for example, has "a very fine vibration" which means that it can be used to "clear confusion."  So that's probably the best one for Lena, for whom confusion is pretty much a state of being.  I'm thinking of amber for Grendel, because it's "calming and energizing," and brings "a sense of calm and positivity," which is certainly preferable to the existential angst he seems to suffer from most of the time.  We're also told that amber is good for "detoxifying your dog," a topic that is dealt with on a whole different webpage, wherein we find out about how Chemicals Are Bad.  We're told, for example, that vaccines contain mercury and aluminum that are "like a nuclear bomb hitting the nervous system."  We also learn that GMOs "damage virtually every organ," that all prescription drugs and agricultural chemicals are fat-soluble, and that everything from hypothyroidism to inflammation is caused by "toxins."

So all in all, I'd honestly prefer the crystals.  At least there's no mistaking the fact that crystal energies are unscientific bullshit.

My general reaction is that all things considered, my dogs are doing well enough.  They're both nine years old, and their last checkups resulted in a clean bill of health for both of them.  (Although Grendel could stand to lose some weight, which would be easier if he'd stop sneaking into the laundry room and snarfing up the cat's food.)  I'm guessing that any changes I'd see in their overall demeanor from waving amethyst crystals around would come from the fact that they'd think I was playing some weird new game with them, which would elicit enthusiastic and joyful tail-wagging from Lena, and Grendel's mood improving from "dejected" to "glum."

So I probably won't even run the experiment.  I'll wait until they come up with a modality for treating cats, because my 18-year-old decrepit cat Geronimo has a personality imported directly from the Ninth Circle of Hell, and it'd be interesting to see if there's anything we could do about that other than an exorcism.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


New from the "You Really Think The World Works That Way?" department, we have the edifying story of the guy who was in a fiery car crash, in which both he and his bible survived more or less unscathed.

The unnamed driver had his Jeep sideswiped while driving down the highway in Tennessee, veered off the road, and ran into a telephone pole.  The car burst into flames.

According to witness Anita Irby:
I just saw GOD on 385.  I'm always in awh [sic] of his wonders but today just blew my mind.  This car ran off the road and hit a metal post and burst into flames not to mention the passenger was trapped inside as the car was filled with smoke the flames began to fill the inside.  THE ENTIRE EXPRESSWAY STOPPED and people ran from their cars trying to break the windows and open the doors of this mans [sic] car to free him, as they were the others went up in prayer for God to deliver this man from the paws of the devil....  Now it appeared our prayers was in vain because he couldn't move and the flames had reach the inside of the truck.  But God!!!!!! .....the flames were on the inside but the way my God is set up The Way It Look Like and what it is, None of the flames touched him and even after the car exploded once All these God blessed people ran back up ... Now the passenger even begged them to just let him die .  End of Story he's Alive and well. ......  Jesus thats my Goddd
When the scene was investigated, they found something else -- that a bible on the front seat of the car had also escaped damage.  Another witness, Eugene McNeil, said, "That is God.  If you don’t believe it, I don’t know what to say."

Here's a photograph of the car, mid-explosion:

So that's pretty terrible, and I'm really glad the guy made it out alive.  What I'm going to say in addition should not be construed as minimizing the fact that there was a catastrophic accident in which no one was hurt.

But really -- attributing the whole thing to god?  How about the people who pulled him from the car?  How about the paramedics who helped him and made sure he wasn't badly injured?

And the whole bible thing... the cynic in me thinks that it was a deliberate plant by one of the witnesses or rescue crew.  I mean, bibles are made of paper, which last I checked was highly flammable.  Take a look at the photograph; the entire passenger compartment of the car was engulfed in flames.  The likelihood of a bible surviving unburned is awfully slim.

But even if it did -- you really think an all-powerful, all-compassionate deity would work that way?  If god really did want to protect the guy, how about keeping him from getting in the accident in the first place?  And the dude's car burned up.  Cars, you may have observed, are a hell of a lot more expensive to replace than bibles.

Yes, yes, I know, money's not the point, the love of money is the root of all evil, and so on.  But seriously.  People are absolutely convinced that god intervenes in football game outcomes, helps people find their lost car keys, and makes sure they find exactly the pair of shoes they were looking for in Walmart.  Don't you think that on the whole, there are more pressing things he should be attending to?

Evidently, the answer is "no."  Here are a few of the responses to the article about god making sure the bible didn't get burned:
"Behold, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt, and the form of the fourth is like unto the Son of God...."   If Nebuchadnezzar could say such things, then I think we can safely assume that they have happened, and continue to happen...  Only believe. 
Sometimes God make [sic] it as a lesson for the people who have a faith in him to make their faith even stronger.  And those who don't believe in God.  If you warn them or you don't do in either way they won't believe.  As they have locks on their hearts. 
Adonai, the Living God.  Glory is yours Father. 
God saved a man and proved that his word fireproof! 
Liberals must really hate it when God does things like this.  Oh make no mistake about it God is real.  The fact that the bible wasn't touched and the man got out on time like that is proof.  There is no scientific explanation.
Well, maybe this is because of my locked heart, but even if you start from the assumption that god exists, it doesn't make sense that he'd run the universe this way.  On the one hand, he answers prayers to eliminate minor inconveniences, and allows major suffering of innocent people without doing a thing?

Oh, but "God Works In Mysterious Ways."  I suppose that explains everything.

I'm not setting out to be obnoxious, here.  I just don't get this worldview.  It seems to be telling us that there's a deity who is super-concerned about trivial stuff -- not to mention disapproving heartily every time people masturbate -- but stands back and does nothing during famines, wars, and even the Holocaust.

Which is a way of thinking I simply don't get.  Probably explaining why for me, it seems far more probable that there's no deity up there in the first place.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Idaho creation bill

Coming hard on the heels of yesterday's post about Ken Ham making himself look like an absolute buffoon to anyone who has decent training in science, today we have a bill in the Idaho State Senate that would allow the bible "to be used in Idaho public schools for reference purposes to further the study of literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, astronomy, biology, geology, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology, and other topics of study."

Did you catch that, hidden in the last third of the list?  Astronomy, biology, and geology.  Teachers in Idaho will be "allowed" to use the bible to teach astronomy, biology, and geology.

Yes, the bible, the document that says that there's a vault in the sky to keep the water up there separate from the water down here on Earth.  The document that says that the Sun and the Moon stopped moving for a bit so that Joshua could finish smiting the shit out of the Amorites.  The document that says that bats are birds.

Please note that I have no particular problem with the bible being used as a reference in other sorts of classes.  It is interesting as a historical document, and certainly has a place in any class about ethics, philosophy, law history, and sociology.  Further, the bible's influence on world history is such that all student historians should have a working knowledge of its contents.  And it's also important to recognize that as part of our cultural milieu, knowing the bible simply to understand references in literature is pretty important.

But in science classes?  C'mon.  This isn't about being even-handed and open-minded; this is about turning science classes into venues for religious indoctrination.  It is not, as Idaho Republican Party Executive Director David Johnston said, to allow teachers to "have that tool in their tool box."  This is simply one more in the long, long line of bills introduced by evangelical policymakers to shoehorn young-earth creationism into public school classrooms.

Car spotted in Athens, Georgia [image courtesy of photographer Amy Watts and the Wikimedia Commons]

And don't be fooled by the friendly word "allow."  What this means, if the bill passes, is that the teacher would be allowed to introduce the bible into his/her class.  It doesn't mean that the students would be free to ignore it.  There's a clause at the end of the bill that says that "No student will be required to use any religious texts for reference purposes if the student or parents of the student object," but that's misleading, too.  What if the student chooses not to use the biblical material in his Earth Science class, and then on the test there's a question about how old the Earth is?  What if the biology teacher puts in questions about what day god created animals?  If it's part of the curriculum, it's hard to see how any of it's going to be optional from the students' point of view.

I'm happy to say that the National Center for Science Education is already aware of the situation, and is taking steps to make sure that the bill is defeated.  But the fact that we're still fighting this battle, for what is this?  The thousandth time?  It's a little demoralizing.

Look, if you think this is just about me being hostile, allow me to point out that I have a bible on the bookshelf in my classroom.  Any student is welcome to use it or borrow it at any time.  But what I teach is science, not folklore, mythology, or comparative religion.  If I were not to give my biology students a good grounding in the evolutionary model, I would be failing to do my job.  As biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

And even more pertinent is another quote from Dobzhansky -- who was, by the way, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian -- and which seems a fitting way to end this post.
Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith?  It does not.  It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology.  Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts.... the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Ham salad

When I was young and foolish, I went through a period of messing around with Tarot cards.  They were cool-looking, and the book I got that explained their meanings was steeped with arcane and mystical terminology.  The whole thing seemed ancient and magical and terribly attractive.  The fact that I was still living at home, in a staunchly religious Roman Catholic family which disapproved of anything smacking of witchcraft, only gave it that much more of a frisson.

So yes, True Confessions time:  At one point in my life, I experimented with woo-woo-ism.  But don't worry, I didn't inhale.

What eventually pulled the plug on all of it was that when I talked about it with my friends, I started sounding ridiculous to myself.  I had to explain (when I was doing a Tarot reading for someone) that I was selecting a card to represent them based on their gender and appearance, and that this would establish a psychic connection between them and 78 pieces of glossy card stock with weird designs that I'd bought for ten bucks in a local bookstore.  And in the back of my mind was this constant mantra of, "How the fuck could that actually work?"  I was able to shout the voice down for a while, but sooner or later, I had to admit that Tarot cards were nothing more than a pretty fiction, and any accurate readings I did could be attributed to a combination of chance, my prior knowledge of the person being "read," and dart-thrower's bias.

The reason this all comes up is that the experience of having a sense that what you're saying is ridiculous is, apparently, not universal.  Some folks are able to spout utter bullshit and never flinch, never question it, never bat an eye at saying things that are so off the rails that you'd think it'd be immediately apparent.

Which brings us, as you might predict, to Ken Ham.

Those of us who expected Ken Ham to fade into well-deserved obscurity after basically having his ass handed to him in the debate with Bill Nye were fated to be disappointed.  He's still in full swing, still overseeing the building of the Ark Encounter Project, using a team of thousands of builders, architects, electricians, and plumbers in order to convince all of us that a 600-year-old man and his three sons did the same thing in a few weeks using only hand tools.

But of course, the evolutionary biologists aren't sitting still, either, and a lot of the creationists seem to sense that they're losing ground.  Recent polls have established conclusively that both church attendance and overall religiosity in the United States are on the decline.  As you might expect, this puts people like Ken Ham on the defensive, and when a couple of weeks ago there was a lot of publicity surrounding Darwin's birthday, he went on a word-salad rant.

He was interviewed on the radio show "Crosstalk," hosted by Jim Schneider, on VCY America radio ("VCY" stands for "Voice of Christian Youth.)  He had a lot to say, and he was not pulling any punches:
There is no such thing as separation of church and state.  The First Amendment doesn’t even have that first terminology in it, you know.  The Establishment Clause is about the state not establishing a church, but the state has established a church, it’s the Church of Evolution with Darwin as the high priest, if you like, and a lot of these teachers and professors as priests in this religion of evolution that they’re imposing through the schools.
Except for the following problem, of course.

But Ken never lets a little thing like evidence get in his way:
What we’ve got to understand is molecules-to-man evolution, that’s not observational science, that’s a belief, that’s a story that people made up to try to explain how life arose.  Christians have an account of origins in the Bible that God has given us.
Because that, apparently, is observational science.  Thus the extensive use of the bible in college chemistry and physics classes.

Ham continues:
The study of genetics, geology and biology confirms the Bible’s account of creation and the flood and the Tower of Babel, it does not confirm molecules-to-man evolution.  Molecules-to-man evolution is a fairy tale.
So let's see; you believe that after the kangaroos left the Ark, they hopped all the way back to Australia (presumably hitching a ride on the back of a friendly whale to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria), and you call evolutionary biology a fairy tale?

But he's not done yet:
There’s no evidence for evolution, so it’s not even a theory, it’s actually a belief, it’s someone’s belief, it’s a blind faith belief and there is no evidence for evolution. 
You don’t observe evolution.  When you look in the glass cases in museums, you don’t see evolution, you see fossils, you see creatures that live on the earth.  Evolution is pasted on the glass case, not in the glass case.  It’s man’s interpretation, man’s belief, man’s religion.
Which brings me back to an observation by Richard Dawkins, that you could get rid of every fossil ever discovered on the Earth, and the evidence for evolution would still be overwhelming.  So Ken Ham is half right; evolution isn't a theory any more.

It's a fact.

The truth is, evolution has been observed over and over again -- not just its results (genetic and morphological changes in populations), but the process of change itself.  (I wrote a post a while back on some observed examples of evolution, if you're curious about finding out more.)  But the problem is, none of that matters.  Ken has decided what he wants to be true, and after that, all he does is stick his fingers in his ears and go, "la la la la la la la, not listening."

But it does bring up the question of why it never seems to occur to him that what he's saying is nonsense.  He's articulate enough that I would imagine he has a decent IQ; so it's not that we're talking about someone who is simply incapable of understanding.  Yet he goes on and on, spouting complete bullshit, and that little switch never seems to flip -- the one that for most of us triggers the thought, "Wait a second.  That can't be right."

So I simply don't get it.  I can comprehend the desire a person might have for the universe to work a particular way.  I've been there.  In a minor way with my aforementioned dalliance with Tarot cards; in a much deeper and more devastating way when I was battling with myself over the truth of Christianity.  But in the end, I was forced where logic and evidence led me, whether I wanted to be or not.

For Ken, though, this never seems to happen.  However, I have to wonder if occasionally, in the wee hours, he wakes up and thinks, "Genesis says that night and day happened before the Sun was created.  How's that possible?"  But I guess he just takes a deep breath, remembers the White Queen's dictum of believing six impossible things before breakfast, rolls over, and goes back to sleep.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Weighty matters

Yesterday, we looked at how apparently it's impossible for some people to believe that a 79-year-old man in poor health could die in his sleep without there being a sophisticated Black Ops conspiracy to take him out.  Today, we find out that gravitational waves, the recent discovery that vindicated Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, are a sophisticated hoax.

Why would scientists do this, you might ask?  Is it so they can fool us into giving them more grant money?  Is it to put them in contention for a Nobel Prize?  Is it just so they can sit in their labs, surrounded by flasks of brightly-colored liquids, rubbing their hands together and cackling in maniacal glee?

Well, sure.  Of course it's all that.  But there's more.  There's always more, where these people are concerned.

First, we have the claim that the gravitational wave hoax is a clever scheme to convince the gullible public that the Earth is a sphere.  You think I'm making this up?  Watch this video by someone who goes by the handle "Stinky Cash," and which lays the whole thing out plainly.  Or, if you'd prefer not to waste five minutes and thousands of innocent brain cells in your prefrontal cortex, just read the following excerpt:
Unless you were in a coma, or living under a rock, you have heard that scientists have detected gravitational waves, and have proven Einstein right once and for all.  Every single science outlet and news outlet has reported this bullshit throughout the day.  The propaganda machine is working overtime right now.  First you have Reuters and the Associated Press, they wouldn't stop reporting this during the last twenty-four hours, then you had the Washington Post, you got The Wall Street Journal, you got CNN, you got BBC News, you got Fox News, you got MSNBC.  MSNBC and Fox News, reporting the same propaganda!  It's because they're owned and operated by the same people, with the same agendas.  Don't get fooled by that whole conservative/liberal crap.  NBC News, The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, CBS News, ABC News, Discovery News, Newsweek, Gawker, Futurism, even Neil deGrasse Tyson got in on the action today!
Yes, and that's undoubtedly because Tyson is actually an astrophysicist, and knows what he's talking about.  But do go on.
The propaganda machine was in full force today, and this was solely as a reaction to the Flat Earth Movement.  It was a reaction to all of the videos up on YouTube explaining how gravity doesn't exist.
Of course it is.  Because all of the scientists I know decide what to research by looking at YouTube videos uploaded by lunatics, and designing experiments to prove them wrong.
Gravity is a theory, an unproven theory thought up by an occultist to explain away everything that doesn't make sense about living on a spinning ball.  Why you're sticking to the bottom of it and still feel upright.  Why you don't feel the spin, and why you don't fall off this magical ball.  Gravity was invented to explain away all common sense...  Even Einstein knew this relativity thing was a bunch of bullshit.
We then see a quote with Einstein's picture, and attributed to him, saying, "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts," which apparently there's reason to believe that either was (1) Einstein being sarcastic about scientific fraudsters, or (2) something he never said in the first place.  But you know how that goes.

But Stinky Cash is far from done yet:
These people are in serious damage control mode.  Let's look at this quote from Stephen Hawking about why gravity is so important to them.  Because every lie in the scientific community -- or I should say, the pseudoscientific community -- every lie in the community has one agenda, and this is what it comes down to:  "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."  Is the agenda becoming more clear?  All of the lies coming out of the scientific community have one agenda, and that's removing god from creation.  Gravity is the false god of this false science.
Righty-o.  Let's move on, shall we?  Because if you thought that the Flat Earthers are the only ones who have a problem with gravitational waves, you are sorely mistaken.

Next, we'll turn our attention to the folks who think that the gravitational waves announcement was a false flag, to turn our attention away from... um... wait, I'm sure it will come to me.  Um.  Something. Something big:
LIGO Detects Gravitational Waves using blind injection simulation which means it is basically a hoax or false flag...  People need to understand if they cannot make it they fake it. 100 years the best research labs could not confirm the assumption so they just fake it. 
There was a massive preparation for this with Hawkins [sic] doing special lectures and hinting he is going to get a Noble [sic] Prize (you see the narrative), its [sic] all showbiz. 
Astrophysics needs to be rescued. (I have never seen so much inferences made from so little data!) 

Then, we had the scientists themselves positing that the whole thing might be the work of an evil genius.  UCLA physicist and LIGO collaborator Alain Weinstein said the following in an interview with Gizmodo
An evil genius is, by definition, smarter than we are.  We cannot rule out the evil genius hypothesis because we’re not smart enough. 
We thought very hard about this, and concluded that we didn’t know how to do it.  So anyone who did do it had to be smarter than us.
Can't argue with that kind of logic.  And although I'll point out that Weinstein was making a joke, the conspiracy theorists -- who are kind of notorious for not getting humor -- will immediately go, "AHA!  The scientists have let the truth slip!  We're on to them now!"

So there you have it.  The thrilling announcement about gravitational waves a couple of weeks ago is just another in a long series of scientific hoaxes, conspiracies, and general screw-ups.  I'm disappointed, honestly.  Not in the scientists, who are doing phenomenal work, and richly deserve either a Nobel or a Noble Prize, whichever they end up winning.  I'm disappointed in the conspiracy theorists, who really need to come up with some new tropes.  Because everything can't be a false flag, you know?  Eventually something has to be the truth.  Even if it's the idea that gravity is real, and is what is holding us down to the surface of the Earth right now.  It'd have to be a pretty fucking huge false flag to distract us from that.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Justice denied

Because we clearly needed something to make American politics even weirder and more contentious, five days ago Antonin Scalia decided to die suddenly on the day of a Republican presidential debate.

Of course, it wasn't only the candidates who responded with pithy, and at times completely inexplicable, commentary on the legacy of Justice Scalia and the future of the Supreme Court.  But Ted Cruz was certainly one of the first, wasting no time in urging his colleagues in the Senate to block any nominee President Obama brings forward to replace Scalia.  This move set off shrill commentary from both sides of the political spectrum, often from people who apparently consider themselves constitutional law scholars even though they have never read anything longer than the message inside a fortune cookie, and all of which ended up bouncing around on Facebook and Twitter for days.

Then things got crazier still.  Despite the fact that Scalia was 79, overweight, had high blood pressure and a history of heart problems, and had recently been told that he was too weak to undergo rotator cuff surgery, many people decided that there was no way a man that healthy could die suddenly of natural causes.  The conspiracy theories began to multiply like mushrooms after a rainstorm, particularly when it was announced that Scalia would not be autopsied given that his doctor was comfortable signing a death certificate citing natural causes without it.

And of course, leading the way was none other than Donald Trump, who claimed that Scalia was smothered in his sleep.

"They say they found a pillow on his face," Trump said, on Michael Savage's radio show Savage Nation, "which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow."  Because any Black Ops hit man who was trying to murder a public official and make it look like death from natural causes would clearly be so stupid that he would leave the murder weapon sitting right on the victim's face.

John Poindexter, owner of the Cibolo Creek Ranch in Shafter, Texas, where Scalia died, tried to clarify.  "I think enough disclosures were made and what I said precisely was accurate.  He had a pillow over his head, not over his face as some have been saying.  The pillow was against the headboard and over his head when he was discovered.  He looked like someone who had had a restful night's sleep.  There was no evidence of anything else."

Of course, that only made things look more suspicious.  Alex Jones had an "emergency transmission" on his Facebook site, asking whether Scalia was murdered, but apparently not knowing enough about the situation to realize that the Justice's first name was "Antonin," not "Anthony."  Despite this, he said that Scalia wasn't going to be the last murder of a prominent conservative, and suggested that Texas Governor Greg Abbott might be next:
Scalia walked into the perfect bear trap...  Maybe they’ll find the governor with a pillow over his face, maybe that’s the new thing.  All of these conservatives that are fighting back that are real conservatives, they are all being found with pillows over their faces...  This is it.  This is the final assault.  This is the beginning of the final war.
Then, because apparently Alex Jones was lonely being the only clinically insane person commenting on the situation, we had this:

Can I get some agreement here, from both my conservative and liberal readers, that Michele Bachmann really needs to get back on her meds?

But if you think that's as weird as it gets, you really don't get how deeply crazy some Americans are.  Extremely evangelical pastor Rick Wiles decided to weigh in, and he said that Scalia was clearly murdered by President Obama, possibly with his bare hands.  How did he reach this conclusion?

Numerology, of course.
The 13th was the 44th day of 2016.  Obama is the 44th president of the United States, so you have this numerology thing taking place. 
The man who killed Justice Scalia deliberately left the pillow on his face as a message to everybody else: 'Don’t mess with us, we can murder a justice and get away with it...'  Officials in Washington are all terrified.  Deep down they know, the regime murdered a justice…  This is the way a dictatorial, fascist, police state regime takes control of a nation.  Barack Obama is the most lawless president we have ever had in the history of this great country, but his lawlessness is a catalyst to wake up the sleeping giant.
But no episode of Insanity On Parade would be complete without a contribution from Glenn Beck, and I'm happy to say that he doesn't disappoint.  Beck lays the death of Justice Scalia at the feet of god himself, and said that god had a purpose in offing Scalia when he did: to incite Americans to vote for Ted Cruz.

On Beck's weekly radio show, his co-host Pat Gray lamented the Justice's untimely death.  "I couldn't help but wonder, why?" Gray said.  "Why now?  Why did you have to take Antonin now?"  And Beck, as always, was ready to address the question with his usual realistic approach.
Pat, I think I have an answer for you on that. 
The lord is saying, I just woke the American people up.  I took them out of the game show moment and woke enough of them up to say, 'Look how close your liberty is to being lost.'  The Constitution is hanging by a thread.  That thread has just been cut.  And the only way that we survive now is if we have a true constitutionalist as president.
Beck was immediately taken to task by Christians who questioned his view that god would knock off someone merely to make a point with the survivors, even though in the bible god does that sort of thing every other page.  But Beck shares with Donald Trump the personal motto, "Death Before Backing Down," and responded thusly:
(P)erhaps God allowed Scalia to die at this time to wake America up to how close we are to the loss of our freedom.  I happen to believe in divine providence.  Americans historically have.  Maybe you do not.  That is your choice and I do not mock you for not.  Why mock me for believing in a traditional view of God? 
Fall to your knees and pray to God to reveal to you what the hour is.  This is your last call, America!  Stand with the man I believe was raised for this hour, Ted Cruz!
So anyway.  I don't think we've nearly seen the last of the wild theories surrounding Scalia's death.  After all, it's over fifty years since Kennedy was killed, and people are still arguing about that one -- and in that case, there was no doubt that it was a murder.  The whole thing makes me vaguely embarrassed to admit that I'm an American when I go overseas, you know?  Not that I'm not proud of my country or unpatriotic or any of that sort of thing, but because we do seem to have way more than our fair share of extremely loud lunatics.  I'd rather not have to spend my time convincing the people I meet while traveling that no, I don't support Donald Trump, that yes, I do think the world is more than 6,000 years old, and that no, I have no idea why the Kardashians are still in the news.  And the fact that we apparently can't accept that a 79 year old man with a weak heart couldn't die of natural causes in his sleep without some kind of evil conspiracy being involved makes me want to polish up my Norwegian so I can claim I'm only visiting the United States on a work visa.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The haunted sentry box

The reason for my recent absence from Skeptophilia is that my lovely wife surprised me on Valentine's Day with plane tickets and a hotel reservation for a quick trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  This would be a wonderful gift at any time, but was especially magnificent considering the time of year.  Being a southerner, the winters in upstate New York make me want to crawl under my down comforter in November and stay there until May.  And her timing was impeccable; we've had a mild winter, but were gone for one of the nastiest spells of weather we've had thus far.  (In fact, the trip almost didn't happen when the jet engine wouldn't start in Rochester the day we left, because at seven below zero Fahrenheit it was simply too cold.)

But the engines finally started, and we were up in the air and winging our way toward Puerto Rico.  On the way there, Carol asked me what I wanted to do while we were in San Juan.  I thought about all the possibilities -- lounging on the beach, swimming, snorkeling, hiking, seeing the sights -- so of course what I said was, "I want to see the Haunted Sentry Box."

I first ran into the tale of the Haunted Sentry Box of Old San Juan when I was perhaps twelve years old, and happened upon a copy of C. B. Colby's book Strangely Enough.  This book is a whimsical, often scary, sometimes hilarious account of "true tales of the supernatural," each only a page or two long.  It was one of my first encounters with someone who claimed that ghosts, UFOs, and monsters could be real, and is one of the things that started me down the long and twisty road that led to Skeptophilia.

The Tale of the Haunted Sentry Box is chilling in its simplicity.  In it, we hear about a sentry "many years ago" in the fortress of San Cristobal in the oldest part of San Juan, who was assigned duty in one of the stone sentry boxes that jut out from the main wall.  He was reluctant, we're told, because it was a lonely post, and he had a "feeling of foreboding."  And sure enough, when another soldier went to relieve him some hours later, the sentry box was empty.  His superiors were certain the man had deserted.

One of the sentry boxes on the wall of San Cristobal.  I have to admit, it wouldn't be a job for the claustrophobic.

So the second soldier was assigned to take the missing man's place, and a watch was set on the wall overlooking the sentry box.  Only shortly afterwards, a searing light blazed from inside the sentry box, shining out through the slit-like windows, and a "piercing scream" split the night.  The watchman roused his superiors from sleep, and they ran to investigate.  The second soldier was now missing as well -- and the inside walls were "black with soot" and there was a strong smell of sulfur.

The sentry box was, understandably, never used again.

See why I wanted to go there?  So we hiked on over to San Cristobal, paid our five bucks' admission fee, and explored the ancient walls and rooms of the fortress.  But although "La Garita del Diablo" was marked on maps -- proving that Colby hadn't, at least, made the story up himself -- we couldn't find the actual item.

Me, exploring one of the non-haunted sentry boxes of San Cristobal.  I detected no soot, sulfur, or traces of missing soldiers.

Finally, after perhaps an hour of wandering around, I decided to ask in the souvenir shop (of course there's a souvenir shop) about the Haunted Sentry Box.  Could I have directions for how to get there?

The young woman behind the counter looked alarmed.  "Oh, no, no," she said, her eyes wide.  "We do not allow anyone to go there, sir."

"Really?" I asked.  "Why?  I was hoping to see it for myself."

"It is not allowed," she said firmly.  From her expression, she looked torn between crossing herself and forking the sign of the evil eye in my direction.

She added reluctantly that there was, however, a point on the exterior wall where one can peer down toward La Garita del Diablo, if I was so determined to blight the memory of my visit with such a place.  Eager to so blight myself, I followed her directions to the wall's edge, and leaned over.  And here it is:

Not impressive at this distance, perhaps.  And I wasn't able to pick up any presentiments of evil through my binoculars when I scanned the place.  No black smoke curling up from the windows, no leering face in the shadows of the door.  It looked just like all of the other sentry boxes we saw, both in San Cristobal and in the big fortress of El Morro only a mile westward along the coast of San Juan Harbor.

So the whole thing was a little anticlimactic.  Here I hoped to give Satan a good shot at me, and I was prevented from doing so by some silly regulation about protecting the tourists from being vaporized.  

I'm happy to say that the remainder of the trip was wonderful, and I did get to spend a lot of time lounging on the beach in swim trunks, drinking coconut rum, and trying unsuccessfully to get rid of all the sand stuck to my legs.  We also spent a happy half-day hiking in the El Yunque Rain Forest, only an hour's drive to San Juan, which is a must-see for birders and other nature lovers.

But I have to confess to some disappointment about the Haunted Sentry Box.  So near, and yet so far. Not only did I not have my soul stolen, our airplane crossed the Bermuda Triangle (twice) and we didn't disappear.  You know, if the world of the paranormal is so eager to interact with us living humans, they really aren't taking these opportunities very seriously.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Music on the brain

Dear Readers:

I will be taking a short (three day) break from Skeptophilia -- but please keep those comments and suggestions coming!  I'll be back on Thursday, February 18.  Cheers!


It is a source of tremendous curiosity to me why music is as powerful an influence as it is.  Music has been hugely important in my own life, and remains so to this day.  I remember my parents telling me stories about my early childhood, including tales of when I couldn't have been more than about four years old and I clamored to be allowed to use the record player myself.  At first they were reluctant, but my insistence finally won the day.  They showed me how to handle the records carefully, operate the buttons to drop the needle onto the record, and put everything away when I was done.  There were records I played over and over again (that I wasn't discouraged is a testimony to my parents' patience and forbearance) -- and I never damaged a single one.  They were simply too important to me to handle roughly.

The transformative experience of music is universal to the human species.  A 43,000 year old carved bone was found in Slovenia that many think was one of the earliest musical instruments -- if this contention is correct, our drive to make music must be very old indeed.

The neurological underpinning of our musical experience, however, has not been easy to elucidate.  Until recently, there was speculation that our affinity for music had something to do with the tonal-based expression of emotion in language, but that is still speculative.  And recently, three scientists in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that we have a dedicated module in our brains for experiencing and responding to music.

Sam Norman-Haignere, Nancy G. Kanwisher, and Josh H. McDermott did fMRIs of individuals who were listening to music, and others listening to a variety of other familiar sounds (including human speech).  They then compared the type of sound to the three-dimensional neural response pattern -- what the scientists called a voxel -- to see if they could find correlations between them.

The relationship turned out to be unmistakable.  They found that there were distinct firing patterns in regions of the brain that occurred only when the subject was listening to music -- and that it didn't matter what the style of music was.  Norman-Haignere said, "The sound of a solo drummer, whistling, pop songs, rap, almost everything that had a musical quality to it, melodic or rhythmic, would activate it.  That's one reason the results surprised us."

The research team writes:
The organization of human auditory cortex remains unresolved, due in part to the small stimulus sets common to fMRI studies and the overlap of neural populations within voxels.  To address these challenges, we measured fMRI responses to 165 natural sounds and inferred canonical response profiles ("components") whose weighted combinations explained voxel responses throughout auditory cortex...  Anatomically, music and speech selectivity concentrated in distinct regions of non-primary auditory cortex...  [This research] identifies primary dimensions of response variation across natural sounds, revealing distinct cortical pathways for music and speech.
This study opens up a whole new approach to understanding why our auditory centers are structured the way they are, although it does still leave open the question of why music is so tremendously important across cultures.  "Why do we have music?" Kanwisher said in an interview.  "Why do we enjoy it so much and want to dance when we hear it?  How early in development can we see this sensitivity to music, and is it tunable with experience?  These are the really cool first-order questions we can begin to address."

What I find the most curious about this is that the same region of the brain is firing in response to incredibly dissimilar inputs.  Consider, for example, the differences between a sitar solo, a Rossini aria, a Greydon Square rap, and a Bach harpsichord sonata.  Isn't it fascinating that we all have a part of the auditory cortex that responds to all of those -- regardless of our cultural background or musical preferences?

I find the whole thing tremendously interesting, and can only hope that the MIT team will continue their investigations.  I'm fascinated not only with the universality of musical appreciation, but the peculiar differences -- why, for example, I love Bach, Haydn, and Vaughan Williams, but Chopin and Schumann leave me completely cold.  Must be something about my voxels, I suppose -- but wouldn't it be cool to find out what it is?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Trump of Finland

So you know about the ongoing nonsense regarding whether Barack Obama was born on American soil?  The "Birther Truther" foolishness still plagues us here in the United States, even though Obama only has a little less than a year left of his presidency, and amazingly enough hasn't turned the White House into a mosque or ceded the country to Kenya or any of the hundreds of other silly things these people claimed.

And of course, being a fact-free conspiracy, when the Show Us The Birth Certificate cadre were actually shown the birth certificate, they responded by claiming that it was a forgery.  Other "evidence" began to be trotted out, such as an alleged 1981 Columbia University identification card under the name "Barry Soetoro" with Obama's photograph, which says, in large unfriendly letters, "FOREIGN STUDENT."

This claim has been roundly debunked, of course.  The bar-coded ID card format wasn't even adopted by Columbia until 1996.  The individual who was issued the ID number shown turns out to be one Thomas Lugert, a Columbia student in 1998 who is white and looks nothing like President Obama.  But as I've said before: facts don't matter to these people.  If they have a claim they can shriek about, they'll shriek even louder if you show them why it can't possibly be true.

And you may recall that one of the leaders of the Barack-Born-In-Kenya model of reality was none other than Donald Trump.  As recently as July of last year, Trump was asked for his opinion on whether Obama was born in the United States, and he replied, "I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  I don’t know why he wouldn’t release his records."  Except, of course, for the fact that Obama did release his records.  It's just that conspiracy wackos don't become conspiracy wackos by falling for little tricks like hard evidence, and also that being Donald Trump means never having to admit you were wrong about anything.

The reason this all comes up, and what makes it kind of hilarious in a twisted way, is that there is a guy who is mounting a one-person campaign...

According to this guy, Donald Trump was born "Rögnvaldr Trømp," a name that immediately reminded me of the bit in the opening credits of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail that had lines like, "Mööse chöreögraphed by Hörst Pröt III."  And being something of a language geek, I was also struck by the fact that "Rögnvaldr Trømp" doesn't look like a Finnish name at all, but more like a bizarre hybrid of Norwegian and Icelandic.

But the lunacy doesn't end there.  According to the blogger in question -- whose name I wasn't able to find anywhere on the site, presumably because he's afraid that if he is ever identified, black-clad Finnish operatives are going to take him out for blowing the whistle -- the whole thing came from "sources close to the Clintons."  These "sources," he says, are certain that if Trump gets elected, he's going to sell us out to the "Euroleftists."  But best of all was a paragraph a little further down that I have to quote in toto, because just describing it would not give you the full impact of how truly wonderful it is:
According to Eurotech magnate Linus Torvalds, on whose Lapland estate Tromp and Princess Ivana are reported to own a summer home, the Congressman takes "an active hand" in the governance of his native Finland. Torvalds, head of pro-piracy tech firm Lindex, says that he "sees [Tromp] as a brother--no, a hellittelysana (Here he used a Finnish term of endearment which translates roughtly [sic] to 'solstice-father-brother') who has done more for Finlandia than any other man could dream."
Okay.  So it's "Linux," not "Lindex."  "Lindex" sounds like a spray cleaner you'd use for getting the dust off of computer monitor screens.  And hellittelysana isn't a Finnish term of endearment, it's the word that means "term of endearment."  So it'd be a little odd if someone called Trump that.  It'd be as if I said to Ted Cruz, "You are a complete and total epithet!"

So the whole thing is kind of ridiculous, although I have to admit that it's wonderful for the humorous irony value.  I doubt anyone will take it as seriously as the Obama birther thing was -- showing, perhaps, that Trump's opponents have a lot better critical thinking skills than his followers do.  But even if it never gains traction, I thought it merited a shout-out as being one of the most purely weird conspiracy theories I've ever run across.

And given how many conspiracy theories I've run through here in Skeptophilia, that by itself is worthy of note.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Anxiety shrinkage

I think one of the reasons I'm so interested in neuroscience is because there is still so much to be explored.  In my Intro Neuroscience class, I frequently have to answer questions students ask with the frustrating statement "That's unknown at this time."  Even such simple things as how memories are stored and recalled are poorly understood, although we are making significant progress in finding out how they work.

My friend and mentor Rita Calvo, Professor Emeritus of Human Genetics at Cornell University, once told me that we are currently at the point in understanding the brain that we were in understanding genetics in 1915.  We have some knowledge of what's happening, a lot of descriptive information, and little in the way of comprehension of the underlying mechanisms.  I still recall her telling me that if she were a college student in biology now, she'd go into neuroscience.

"The 20th century was the century of the gene," she said.  "The 21st will be the century of the brain."

So any time there's an advance, I'm pretty keen on finding out about it.  Which is why the article my wife sent me yesterday was such an eye-opener.  Entitled "Neuroplasticity in Response to Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder," this study (published this week in Translational Psychiatry) has found that social anxiety might be due to a hyperactive part of the brain called the amygdala, which has been known to be involved in fear, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response.  More interesting still, they found that cognitive behavioral therapy can literally cause this hyperactive bit to shrink.

K. N. T. Månsson of Linköping University in Sweden, who led the group that did the study, writes:
[W]e demonstrate interrelated structural plasticity and altered neural responsivity, within the amygdala, after CBT for social anxiety.  Both GM volume and neural responsivity in the bilateral amygdala diminished after effective treatment.  Left amygdala GM volume was positively associated with symptom severity before treatment, and amygdala volume decreased significantly with CBT, correlating positively with symptom improvement in both hemispheres...  [O]ur results reinforce the notion that structural neuroplasticity in the amygdala is an important target for psychosocial treatments of anxiety, as previously suggested for pharmacological treatments of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Did you get that?  Cognitive behavioral therapy -- essentially, a kind of talk therapy -- actually had an equivalent result to anti-anxiety medication, and caused the part of the brain that was hyperactive to become physically smaller.

Are you amazed as I was at this result?  Because I read this with my mouth hanging agape.  The idea that cognitive behavioral therapy actually has a measurable result in the form of an anatomical change is absolutely mind-blowing.

Pun (lame though it is) intended.

I have another reason to find this result fascinating.  I have suffered for years from serious social anxiety, starting when I was in my mid-twenties and becoming progressively worse for the following thirty years.  Those of you who read Skeptophilia but don't know me personally might have a hard time picturing someone who is as verbose as I am being a social-phobe, but you'll have to take my word for it; in most social situations, I get myself a glass of wine and then hope like hell that the hosts have a dog I can interact with.  I have gone entire evenings at friends' houses, listening politely, laughing at the right times, and not saying a word.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgment (1541) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I've also been in cognitive behavioral therapy for about a year to try and deal with some of this, with guardedly positive results.  I'm not expecting such a deep-seated and pervasive problem to go away quickly; Rome, as they say, wasn't built in a day.  But the idea that by participating in CBT I am not only working toward alleviating my anxiety, but am causing long-lasting anatomical alterations in my brain -- that is amazing.

Because I have to say that living with an anxiety disorder is not particularly enjoyable.  Anything I can do to shrink that overactive left amygdala is fine by me.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Changing the river's course

In talking to friends and family members, I've found that a common experience we have is in there being a small number of people who have radically altered our lives in a positive direction.  Sometimes a single gesture, smile, or well-placed word can shift our pathway profoundly, and the sad truth of it is that we seldom ever get around to telling those people how much they have changed us.

This comes up because a few days ago I found out that my high school French teacher, Shirley Taylor, died last summer.  I remember Mrs. Taylor well -- I had her class for four years running -- and she stands out in my memory as everything a teacher should be.  Firm but not harsh; high standards, and with a determination that every student can meet them; and a subtle and wry sense of humor.  But the one thing she did that I remember best is something she probably didn't even recall herself afterwards.

I was a fairly good French student but lackadaisical in most other classes, content to get by on a minimum of work, rarely pushing myself to do any better than I had to in order to stay out of trouble when I brought my report card home.  But Mrs. Taylor saw in me an ability to learn languages, and pushed me more than once to spend a year in France after I graduated.  I'd excel, she said, and I'd come back completely fluent.  It surprised me that she singled me out; like I said, I was no great shakes as a student.  The funny part of it all in retrospect is that I didn't take her advice about spending a year in France.  I didn't travel until much later -- to Mrs. Taylor's intense disappointment -- but when I first went to a non-English speaking country, years afterwards, I still remembered Mrs. Taylor's confidence in me.

"You're a natural," I recalled her saying.  "Someone like you needs to see the world."

I haven't stopped traveling since.

My French teacher, Mrs. Shirley Taylor (1936-2015)

The strangest thing about those moments is that we ourselves sometimes don't recognize them as the earthquakes they are while they're happening.  My entire life jumped to a different set of tracks when my high school counselor, Mr. Grace, grabbed my arm as I was walking down the hall in my senior year, and told me I needed to take a scholarship test that was being offered at the University of Louisiana.  I wasn't planning on going to college -- what I really wanted to do was to join the Park Service and move to Arizona -- but he said, and I quote, "You're taking that test if I have to go to your house on Saturday and drag your lazy ass out of bed."

So I did.  And I was one of the scholarship winners.  Automatic admission and full tuition to the University of Louisiana.  He turned my life a different way by that one action -- who knows where, or who, I would be now if it hadn't been for that one thing?

I remember with great fondness three other teachers who shaped my world -- Ms. Jane Miller, my high school biology teacher, whose passion for her subject and deep enthusiasm were absolutely contagious, and whose style I still model in my own classroom after nearly thirty years of being a teacher myself.  Dr. Harvey Pousson, my college calculus teacher, whose gentle, soft-spoken wit and brilliant way of explaining abstruse concepts made calculus one of my favorite subjects (and how many people do you hear that from?).  Ms. Beverly Authement, my high school creative writing teacher -- who I can say, without hesitation, turned me into the writer of fiction I am today, and without whose cheerful encouragement I would never have had the confidence to tell stories to the world.  (And who is, by the way, still a teacher today!)

I've been able to thank a few of these and other folks who have sculpted my life's path, and who have forever enriched my world.  Even though they may think they're forgotten -- that what they did was insignificant -- they remain the people whose influence has lasted.  And it makes me more determined not only to give gratitude to the ones whose lives so inspired my own, but to have more awareness myself about what I say and do.  Will anyone look back, forty years from now, and remember me as one of the pivotal connections in their lives?  And, most importantly, will that memory be a positive one?

I may never know the answer to that -- and that's okay.  Maybe the force that diverts the river doesn't recognize the effect it has, then or perhaps ever.  But it does highlight something I've known for a while: that we all need to be a great deal more cognizant of how we interact with the people around us, because we may be having a much larger effect than we will ever realize.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Political astrology

There is one word that makes me see red, skepticism-wise, and that word is "clickbait."

Clickbait articles, sensationalized bullshit that has as its only point inducing gullible people to click on links and therefore generate advertising revenue, are bad enough from an ethical standpoint.  But what really torques me about this sort of thing is the fact that many of the clickers end up believing what they read, regardless of the reliability of the source.  The strategy started with such dubious sites as The Weekly World News and Above Top Secret, but has moved its way into more mainstream media (The Daily Mail has adopted this approach to the extent that most of us refer to it as The Daily Fail).  And now, it has moved all the way up to the media source on which I found a clickbait article yesterday...

... none other than CNN.

The article in question, which required the collaboration of no less than three authors -- Pamela Boykoff, Alexandra Field, and Jason Kwok -- is entitled, "2016 Election: Which Candidate Will Triumph in the Year of the Monkey?"  And it is about -- yes -- using feng shui and Chinese astrology to predict who's going to win in November.

[image courtesy of photographer Jakub Hałun and the Wikimedia Commons]

The worst part about this is that it's not even in some kind of "Weird Stuff" category of CNN's webpage.  It's filed squarely under CNN Politics.  Let me be clear about this: this is not politics.  This is pseudoscientific nonsense.  Let me give you a taste of what's on it, so you don't have to click on the link and give them ad money yourself:
With the Year of the Monkey and the New Hampshire primary upon us, CNN asked Hong Kong fortune teller Priscilla Lam to divine the fates of the candidates battling it out for the U.S. presidency. 
A practitioner of feng shui, the ancient Chinese system of summoning good luck, she combined the art of face reading with analysis of the candidates' birthdays and current life cycles according to the Chinese Zodiac. 
She says the new lunar year will fuel good fortune for "earth dog" Donald Trump, while also lighting a fire under Hillary Clinton. 
Bernie Sanders' missing metal is a problem with older voters and the fighting elements of fire, and water might just leave Marco Rubio all wet.  And don't ask about Ted Cruz's face reading. 
Lam says she is "about 80%" confident in her predictions for the 2016 election. Those sound like pretty good odds.
So, yeah.  That's the level of political reporting we're seeing.  Trump's going to do well because he's an "earth dog."  Hillary Clinton's on fire.

And trust me, I don't even want to think about Ted Cruz's face, much less read it.

If we further peruse the article, we find out that Donald Trump has "a lot of sunshine in his favor."  that Hillary Clinton "has flexible lips," that Marco Rubio's "nose is okay -- it means management skill or power," and that Ted Cruz is in trouble because "in his birthday there is no wood... if you burn the wood, the fire can come up."

Whatever the fuck that means.

And the whole time I'm looking at this, I'm thinking, "how the hell is this news?"

The answer, of course, is that it isn't.  This is clickbait.  But the problem is, seeing such nonsense on a an internationally-known news media source gives it a veneer of authority, and reinforces the belief people have in such pseudoscientific claptrap.

So I'm really not able to laugh this sort of thing off.  I spend enough time, as a high school science teacher, trying to instill in students a good understanding of how the universe works, along with some skills regarding telling truth from falsehood.  Having something like this in mainstream media just makes my job that much harder, something I very much don't need.  Fighting the creationists and the climate-change deniers is bad enough; I really don't want to have to do battle with the Chinese astrologers as well.