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.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Knockin' on heaven's door

Because yesterday's post -- which was about a bunch of sinkholes in the Siberian tundra being evidence of aerial dogfights between rival alien space fleets -- wasn't ridiculous enough, today I bring you:

NASA space telescopes have photographed the Celestial City of New Jerusalem, as hath been prophesied in the scriptures.

I wish I was making this up.  The claim appeared on the ultra-fundamentalist site Heaven & Hell, and the post, written by one Samuel M. Wanginjogu, reads like some kind of apocalyptic wet dream.

It opens with a bang.  "Despite new repairs to the Hubble Telescope," Wanginjogu writes, "NASA refuses to release old photos or take new ones of Heaven!"

Imagine that.

He goes on to explain further:
Just days after space shuttle astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Telescope in mid December, the giant lens focused on a star cluster at the edge of the universe – and photographed heaven! 
That’s the word from author and researcher Marcia Masson, who quoted highly placed NASA insiders as having said that the telescope beamed hundreds of photos back to the command center at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on December 26. 
The pictures clearly show a vast white city floating eerily in the blackness of space. 
And the expert quoted NASA sources as saying that the city is definitely Heaven “because life as we know it couldn’t possibly exist in icy, airless space. 
“This is it – this is the proof we’ve been waiting for,” Dr. Masson told reporters. 
“Through an enormous stroke of luck, NASA aimed the Hubble Telescope at precisely the right place at precisely the right time to capture these images on film. I’m not particularly religious, but I don’t doubt that somebody or something influenced the decision to aim the telescope at that particular area of space. 
“Was that someone or something God himself? Given the vastness of the universe, and all the places NASA could have targeted for study, that would certainly appear to be the case.”
Unsurprisingly, NASA researchers have "declined to comment."

Then we get to see the photograph in question:

After I stopped guffawing, I read further, and I was heartened to see that Wanginjogu is all about thinking critically regarding such claims:
I am not an expert in photography, but if you scrutinize the photo carefully, you find that the city is surrounded by stars if at all it was taken in space...  If the photo is really a space photo, then it could most likely be the Celestial city of God because it is clear that what is in the photograph is not a star, a planet or any other known heavenly body.
Yes!  Surrounded by stars, and not a planet!  The only other possibility, I think you will agree, is that it is the Celestial City of God.

Wanginjogu then goes through some calculations to estimate the size of New Jerusalem:
If an aero plane [sic] passes overhead at night, you are able to see the light emitted by it. If that aero plane [sic] was to go higher up from the surface of the earth, eventually you won’t be able to see any light from it and that is only after moving a few kilometers up.  This is because of its small size. Yet our eyes are able to see, without any aid, stars that are millions of light years away. This is because of their large size. 
The further away an object is from the surface of the earth, then the bigger it needs to be and the more the light it needs to emit for it to be seen from earth. 
The city of New Jerusalem is much smaller than most of the stars that you see on the sky. To be more precise, it is much smaller than our planet earth.  Remember that here we are not talking of the entire heaven where God lives but of the City of New Jerusalem. The city of New Jerusalem is currently located in heaven.  Of course, heaven is much larger that the city itself. The photo seems to be of the city itself rather than the entire heaven.
Some solid astrophysics, right there.  He then goes on to use the Book of Revelation to figure out how big the city prophesied therein must be, and from all of this he deduces that the Celestial City must be somewhere within our Solar System for Hubble to have captured the photograph.  He also uses the testimony of one Seneca Sodi, who apparently saw an angel and asked him how far away heaven was, and the angel said, "Not far."

So there you have it.

The best part, though, was when I got about halfway through, and I found out where Wanginjogu got the photograph from.  (Hint: not NASA.)  The photograph, and in fact the entire claim, originated in...

... wait for it...

... The Weekly World News.

Yes, that hallowed purveyor of stories about Elvis sightings, alien abductions, and Kim Kardashian being pregnant with Bigfoot's baby.  Even Wanginjogu seems to realize he's on shaky ground, here, and writes:
This magazine is known to exaggerate stories and to publish some really controversial articles.  However, it also publishes some true stories.  So we cannot trash this story just because it first appeared in The Weekly World News magazine. It is worthwhile to consider other aspects of the story.
So this pretty much amounts to something my dad used to say, to wit, "Even stopped clocks are right twice a day."  But suffices to say that we have considered other aspects of the story, and it is our firmly-held opinion that to believe this requires that you have a single scoop of butter-brickle ice cream where the rest of us have a brain.

Anyway, there you are.  NASA photographing heaven.  Me, I'm waiting for them to turn the Hubble the other direction, and photograph hell.  Since that's where I'm headed anyway, might as well take a look at the real estate ahead of time.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Death cauldrons and aerial dogfights

There are certain pieces of terrain that are just peculiar.  We tend to give them evocative names, because they are evocative; and this often leads people to attribute their formation to some seriously crazy causes.

Take the Mima Mounds, in Thurston County, Washington.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

They're a little creepy-looking, no?  The mounds average about twenty to thirty feet across, and are roughly circular -- and there are hundreds of them.  It's a seriously atmospheric place, conducive to all sorts of woo-woo explanations -- particularly since the geologists themselves aren't certain how they were formed.  And there's nothing like the lack of a scientific explanation to give people license to come up with all sorts of loony claims.  For example, that the Mima Prairie, where the mounds are located, is haunted, presumably by the ghosts of obsessive-compulsive groundhogs.

There are other features which seem too regular to be natural -- take the glacial feature called a cirque, which takes the form of an often perfectly-circular lake:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Cirques form because they are at the origins of glaciers, so experience pressure and consequent erosive forces radiating out from a central point - if the contour of the land will allow it, it results in a nearly perfectly circular depression.

Arches, pinnacles, balancing rocks, channeled scablands... natural forces can result in some amazingly cool, and sometimes bafflingly symmetrical, structures.  No need to conjure up any kind of woo-woo explanation.

Of course, this doesn't mean that humans can't be involved, too.  When I was in Iceland, I visited a place called "Viti."  Viti is a beautiful, circular blue lake, which would have been peaceful had it not been for the jet-engine roar of a steam vent nearby.  The vent was surrounded by a high fence, and had a sign on it, in various languages, which said (as near as I can recall the wording):
Get the hell away from this vent, you stupid tourist.  This vent produces superheated steam, and if for some reason the machinery controlling its release were to fail, you would be cooked by a jet of steam before you could even turn to your wife and say, "Hey, Blanche, come take a picture of me next to this sign!"
The reason for all the caution was, I discovered, because the machinery had failed, about ten years before we went there, and the resulting explosion had thrown a piece of the rigging with such force that it landed a kilometer away.  Apparently the crater left behind by the explosion of the vent machinery was a circular hole in the ground, out of which came water vapor at about 3,000 C.  At that point, Icelandic geologists decided to leave well enough alone, and simply put a diverter over the hole, so that the steam is vented high enough in the air that it won't cook the tourists.

I bring all this up because of an article I ran into recently about the Siberian "death cauldrons."  Speaking of evocative names.  It turns out that there are circular depressions in the ground in many places in Siberia, and legends about those places being "evil," and various stories about people going there and dying horrible deaths.  There is talk of metal debris and mysterious underground bunkers.

What, pray tell, is the cause of all of this mayhem?  We have the following proposals:

1)  It was an area used for nuclear testing during the Soviet era.

2)  They are sinkholes in the tundra, resulting from purely natural phenomena, and all of the associated scary stuff is made up.

3)  It is the pock-marked battlefield left behind when two hostile alien species had an aerial battle in spaceships.

Well.  I know it's hard for me to decide, given the fact that all of these theories are pretty darned persuasive.  The proponents of the alien theory have going for them that the natives of the area claim that they've seen powerful, fire-wielding beings coming from the sky for centuries, and as I was mentioning to Thor just yesterday, you know how accurate the such myths and legends tend to be.  The other thing they point out is that it has to be aliens, because it was right next door in the province of Krasnoyarsk Krai that they had the Tunguska Event, where an alien spacecraft blew up in 1908 and flattened trees radially for miles around.

Well, okay, technically it's only "right next door" if by that phrase you mean "1,500 km away," and almost everyone who's studied the Tunguska Event thinks that it was a small fragment of a comet that hit the Earth.  But still!  Alien spacecraft!  Aerial dogfights!  Crash landings, leaving circular depressions in the ground, and scattered radioactive debris that poisons the landscape and anyone foolish enough to visit!  C'mon, don't you think so?  Don't you?

Okay, maybe not.  But you have to admit that as an explanation, it does have more panache than either "the Soviets blew up some nuclear bombs there, and never cleaned up their mess or even admitted that they'd done it" or "sinkholes sometimes form, and people make shit up."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Secrecy failure equation

Every once in a while a piece of scientific research comes along that is so clever and elegant that I read the entire paper with a smile on my face.

This is what happened today when I bumped into the study by David Robert Grimes (of the University of Oxford) just published two days ago in PLoS ONE entitled, "On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs."  What Grimes did, in essence, was to come up with an equation that models the likelihood of a conspiracy staying secret.  And what he found was that most conspiracies tend to reveal themselves in short order from sheer bungling and ineptitude.  In Grimes's words:
The model is also used to estimate the likelihood of claims from some commonly-held conspiratorial beliefs; these are namely that the moon-landings were faked, climate-change is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous and that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests.  Simulations of these claims predict that intrinsic failure would be imminent even with the most generous estimates for the secret-keeping ability of active participants—the results of this model suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure.
Grimes wasn't just engaging in idle speculation.  He took various examples of conspiracies that did last for a while (for example, the NSA Prism Project that was exposed by Edward Snowden) and others that imploded almost immediately (for example, the Watergate coverup) and derived a formula that expressed the likelihood of failure as a function of the number of participants and the time the conspiracy has been in action.  When considering claims of large-scale coverups -- e.g., chemtrails, the faking of the Moon landing, the idea that climatologists are participating in a climate change hoax -- he found the following:
The analysis here predicts that even with parameter estimates favourable to conspiratorial leanings that the conspiracies analysed tend rapidly towards collapse.  Even if there was a concerted effort, the sheer number of people required for the sheer scale of hypothetical scientific deceptions would inextricably undermine these nascent conspiracies.  For a conspiracy of even only a few thousand actors, intrinsic failure would arise within decades.  For hundreds of thousands, such failure would be assured within less than half a decade.  It’s also important to note that this analysis deals solely with intrinsic failure, or the odds of a conspiracy being exposed intentionally or accidentally by actors involved—extrinsic analysis by non-participants would also increase the odds of detection, rendering such Byzantine cover-ups far more likely to fail.
Which is something I've suspected for years.  Whenever someone comes up with a loopy claim of a major conspiracy -- such as the bizarre one I wrote about a few days ago, that the Freemasons collaborated in faking the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman -- my first thought (after "Are you fucking kidding me?") is, "How on earth could you keep something like that hushed up?"  People are, sad to say, born gossips, and there is no way that the number of people that would be required to remain silent about such a thing -- not to mention the number required for faking the Moon landing or creating a climate change hoax -- would make it nearly certain that the whole thing would blow up in short order.

[image courtesy of photographer Michael Coghlan and the Wikimedia Commmons]

It's nice, though, that I now have some mathematical support, instead of doing what I'd done before, which was flailing my hands around and shouting "It's obvious."  Grimes's elegant paper gives some serious ammunition against the proponents of conspiracy theories, and that's all to the good.  Anything we can do in that direction is helpful.

The problem is, Grimes's study isn't likely to convince anyone who isn't already convinced.  The conspiracy theorists will probably just think that Grimes is one of the Illumanti, trying to confound everyone with his evil mathe-magic.  Grimes alluded to this, in his rather somber closing paragraphs:
While challenging anti-science is important, it is important to note the limitations of this approach.  Explaining misconceptions and analysis such as this one might be useful to a reasonable core, but this might not be the case if a person is sufficiently convinced of a narrative.  Recent work has illustrated that conspiracy theories can spread rapidly online in polarized echo-chambers, which may be deeply invested in a particular narrative and closed off to other sources of information.  In a recent Californian study on parents, it was found that countering anti-vaccination misconceptions related to autism was possible with clear explanation, but that for parents resolutely opposed to vaccination attempts to use rational approach further entrenched them in their ill-founded views.  The grim reality is that there appears to be a cohort so ideologically invested in a belief that for whom no reasoning will shift, their convictions impervious to the intrusions of reality.  In these cases, it is highly unlikely that a simple mathematical demonstration of the untenability of their belief will change their view-point.
And there's also the problem that the conspiracy theorists think that they are the ones who are blowing the whistle on the Bad Guys.  My guess is that most of the adherents to conspiracy theories would read Grimes's paper, and assume that the equation is correct, and they're the heroes who are exposing the conspiracy and causing it to fail.  You really can't win with these people.

Be that as it may, it's heartening to know that we now have some theoretical support for the idea that most conspiracy theories are bullshit.  Even if it doesn't change anyone's mind, it cheered me up considerably, and I'm thankful for that much.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Defining marriage for everyone else

My mom was a devoutly Christian woman, a staunch Roman Catholic whose go-to strategy for difficult times was "Ask the Holy Spirit for help."  She rarely missed church, read the bible avidly, and taught Wednesday afternoon sixth grade catechism classes for years.

Despite her deeply-held religious beliefs, she had one other strong belief that stands out in my memory.  She used to phrase it as, "My rights end where your nose begins."  When someone she knew did something that was against the moral code by which she lived, she would shrug and say, "That's between them and the lord."  And for her, that ended it, unless it was to add, "None of my business."

Which is an attitude I would love to see in more religious folks these days.  Live according to your own morals; don't expect anyone else to conform to them.  What others do is none of your business.

And that especially extends to what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

The desperation of highly religious people to control who has sex, how, and with whom reached some kind of apogee a couple of days ago when David Fowler of the Family Action Council of Tennessee filed a lawsuit that would stop the state from issuing all marriage licenses until the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, is overturned.

Yes, you read that right.  Fowler would prefer to have every couple who would like to get married in the state of Tennessee denied a marriage license than to see a single LGBT couple granted one.

Astonishingly, state lawmakers are already lining up behind Fowler's suit.  Representative Susan Lynn has sponsored a resolution in support of what Fowler and FACT are trying to do.  "I have dozens of sponsors, and the message of my resolution is clear,” she claimed.  "We as a state have been violated, and we expect the doctrine of separation of powers and the principles of federalism reflected in our Constitution to be upheld."

Can we be clear on something, here?  This is not about federalism and the Constitution.  This is about sledgehammering religious views on what is an acceptable marriage into law, effectively abrogating the separation of church and state in the process.

And at its base, it's all about the fact that these people think that gay sex is icky.  What other possible justification can there be?  How does the fact of two gay men getting a marriage license have any effect at all on my (heterosexual) marriage?  It doesn't change the definition of my marriage.  It merely allows them to decide on the definition of theirs.

And it's not like the biblical definition of marriage is all that clear in any case.

The stance of "I believe this, so you have to act in accordance to those beliefs whether you accept them or not" is the hallmark of extremism.  Interesting, isn't it, that the same Religious Right who would love nothing more than to halt same-sex marriage and mandate that creationism is taught in public schools are the same ones who rail against the extremist Muslims for basically doing the same sort of thing.  In Saudi Arabia, you can be flogged and imprisoned for drinking alcohol -- whether you're Muslim or not.

Explain to me how this is different from what David Fowler and his cronies in Tennessee are doing.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

Fowler et al. are perfectly within their rights to disapprove of homosexuality.  They can believe that the bible is 100% literally true, internal contradictions and all.  They can cherry-pick the prohibitions from Leviticus they like, and ignore the ones they don't (such as all of the dietary restrictions).  No one, honestly, cares what they believe.  It's a free country, and you're allowed to practice whatever religion you choose, or (fortunately for me) none at all.

But when you start demanding that the terms of that religion become the law of the land, you are automatically in the wrong.

Sorry, Mr. Fowler.  Your rights end where my nose begins.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Memory boost

There's one incorrect claim I find coming up in my classes more than any other, and that's the old idea that "humans only use 10% of their brain."  Or 5%.  Or 2%.  Often bolstered by the additional claim that Einstein is the one who said it.  Or Stephen Hawking.  Or Nikola Tesla.

Or maybe all three of 'em at once, I dunno.

The problem is, there's no truth to any of it, and no evidence that the claim originated with anyone remotely famous.  That at present we understand only 10% of the brain is doing -- that I can believe.  That we're using less than 100% of our brain at any given time -- of course.

But the idea that evolution has provided us with these gigantic processing units, which (according to a 2002 study by Marcus Raichle and Debra Gusnard) consume 20% of our oxygen and caloric intake, and then we only ever access 10% of its power -- nope, not buying that.  Such a waste of resources would be a significant evolutionary disadvantage, and would have weeded out the low-brain-use individuals long ago.  (Which gives me hope that we might actually escape ending up with a human population straight out of the movie Idiocracy.)

And speaking of movies, the 2014 cinematic flop Lucy didn't help matters, as it features a woman who gets poisoned with a synthetic drug that ramps up her brain from its former 10% usage rate to... *gasp*... 100%.  Leading to her becoming able to do telekinesis and the ability to "disappear within the space/time continuum."

Whatever the fuck that means.

All urban legends and goofy movies aside, the actual memory capacity of the brain is still the subject of contention in the field of neuroscience.  And for us dilettante science geeks, it's a matter of considerable curiosity.  I know I have often wondered how I can manage to remember the scientific names of obscure plants, the names of distant ancestors, and melodies I heard fifteen years ago, but I routinely have to return to rooms two or three times because I keep forgetting what I went there for.

So I found it exciting to read about a study published last week in eLife, by Terry Sejnowski (of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies), Kristen Harris (of the University of Texas/Austin), et al., entitled "Nanoconnectomic Upper Bound on the Variability of Synaptic Plasticity."  Put more simply, what the team found was that human memory capacity is ten times greater than previously estimated.

In computer terms, our storage ability amounts to one petabyte.  And put even more simply for non-computer types, this translates roughly into "a shitload of storage."

"This is a real bombshell in the field of neuroscience," Sejnowski said. "We discovered the key to unlocking the design principle for how hippocampal neurons function with low energy but high computation power.  Our new measurements of the brain's memory capacity increase conservative estimates by a factor of 10 to at least a petabyte, in the same ballpark as the World Wide Web."

The discovery hinges on the fact that there is a hierarchy of size in our synapses.  The brain ramps up or down the size scale as needed, resulting in a dramatic increase in our neuroplasticity -- our ability to learn.

"We had often wondered how the remarkable precision of the brain can come out of such unreliable synapses," said team member Tom Bartol.  "One answer is in the constant adjustment of synapses, averaging out their success and failure rates over time... For the smallest synapses, about 1,500 events cause a change in their size/ability and for the largest synapses, only a couple hundred signaling events cause a change.  This means that every 2 or 20 minutes, your synapses are going up or down to the next size.  The synapses are adjusting themselves according to the signals they receive."

"The implications of what we found are far-reaching," Sejnowski added. "Hidden under the apparent chaos and messiness of the brain is an underlying precision to the size and shapes of synapses that was hidden from us."

And the most mind-blowing thing of all is that all of this precision and storage capacity runs on a power of about 20 watts -- less than most light bulbs.

Consider the possibility of applying what scientists have learned about the brain to modeling neural nets in computers.  It brings us one step closer to something neuroscientists have speculated about for years -- the possibility of emulating the human mind in a machine.

"This trick of the brain absolutely points to a way to design better computers," Sejnowski said.  "Using probabilistic transmission turns out to be as accurate and require much less energy for both computers and brains."

Which is thrilling and a little scary, considering what happened when HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey basically went batshit crazy halfway through the movie.

That's a risk that I, for one, am willing to take, even if it means that I might end up getting turned into a Giant Space Baby.

But I digress.

In any case, the whole thing is pretty exciting, and it's reassuring to know that the memory capacity of my brain is way bigger than I thought it was.  Although it still leaves open the question of why, with a petabyte of storage, I still can't remember where I put my cellphone.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Waiting out the whiners

So now the members of Yokel Haram currently occupying the headquarters building of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon have decided to further erode any support they may have had by rifling through 4,000 irreplaceable artifacts of the Paiute Tribe, and bulldozing a line around the refuge building's property without any consideration of archaeologically sensitive sites.

"I’ve gotten calls from ranching families who support the tribe," tribe chairperson Charlotte Roderique said.  "They’ve seen the [Paiute] campsites out there.  They’ve been in that area and they know where things are.  You can’t go and bulldoze things.  I don’t know what these people are doing, if they are doing things to just get a rise or to be martyr—all they are doing is making enemies out of the people they professed to support."

One of the occupiers, LaVoy Finicum, posted a video of himself pawing through the artifacts, and tried to cast it as concern over how the artifacts were being stored.  "We want to make sure these things are returned to their rightful owners and that they’re taken care of,” Finicum said.  "This is how Native Americans’ heritage is being treated.  To me, I don’t think it’s acceptable."

The Natives themselves don't seem to have that attitude.  "I got a question for the world," said Jarvis Kennedy, Burns Paiute Tribal Council member.  "What would happen if it was Natives out there taking over the building?  Or any federal land?  What would the outcome be?  Think about it.  What would happen?  Would they let us come into town to get supplies?  We as Harney County residents can stand on our own feet.  We don’t need some clown to come in here and stand up for us.  We survived without them before, we'll survive without them when they're gone.  So they just need to get the hell out.  We didn't ask for them here, we don't want them here.  They say they don't want to bother the community, but our kids are sitting at home right now when they should be at school.  They're scaring our people.  They need to go home.  We don't need them."

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

Kind of unequivocal, isn't it?  Of course, statements from Paiute leaders are likely to have no effect, given the fact that Ammon Bundy and his crew seem to have the idea that laws are more like strongly-worded suggestions, and any time someone says "You can't do that," it directly contravenes the Constitution, and probably the Word of God as well.  

The thing is, their whole stance is a sham right from the outset.  Their claims that they're doing what they do because they're concerned about the rights of citizens to their own property are shown as the lies they are by their actions.  Jacqueline Keeler, over at Indian Country Today Media Network, told us how much concern these people have for others' property:
Carla Burnside, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's archaeologist at the refuge, has told the tribe that she has seen pictures in news reports of militants sitting in her office, even at her desk with files open that contain sensitive information about archaeological sites belonging to the tribe.
And as far as their claims of respecting Native lands and artifacts, that's bullshit, too.  Keeler writes:
Bundy supporters have damaged Native American archaeological sites before, most notably, when they drove ATVs through a canyon trail in Utah in protest of protected federal lands trampling the ruins of homes belonging to the ancient Puebloans.  Also, the Southern Paiute tribes in Nevada have accused the Bundy family of defacing ancient Paiute petroglyphs in Gold Butte.
These are the kind of people who should have access to archaeological sites and a vital wildlife refuge in the name of protecting private interests?

And another thing: we need to stop calling these scofflaws a "militia."  Their favorite Constitutional Amendment, the Second, talks about a "well-regulated militia."  But regulated by whom?  Article One, Section 8 of the Constitution says the following about militias:
The Congress shall have Power To... provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;  [and]
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.
Did you catch that bit about a true militia being overseen by Congress?  That's a pretty important bit.

These aren't militiamen.  These are butthurt whiners who resent any legal incursion into their being able graze their cattle wherever they want to for free.  They don't want justice; they want carte blanche to flout whatever laws they find inconvenient, and no costs or consequences.  Furthermore, they're hypocrites.  They rail against the welfare state and "government handouts" while accepting government loan money to the tune of $530,000, and still want to appear to be the wronged party.

But given that they are heavily armed butthurt whiners, the government has (understandably) not been eager to step in and create a bunch of Waco-style martyrs for the cause.  No one doubts that these people would fire if they felt threatened, and more than one of them has stated his willingness to die rather than surrender.  So the authorities are playing a waiting game, while the costs for the extra security and monitoring of the standoff are running into the tens of thousands of dollars a day -- a cost that Harney County judge Steve Grasty has stated is going to be billed to the Bundy family.

So I understand why the feds aren't storming the castle.  But man, it just pisses me off that a bunch of petulant children with big guns can simply waltz in and take over public land (public, you know?  Meaning owned in trust for all of us?), and everyone simply stands around waiting.

My solution would be to block the (government-maintained) roads so they can't get out, stop the (government-provided) mail service, and cut the (government-managed) electricity and water to the refuge headquarters.  See how long they last in an eastern Oregon January with no help from the people they claim are the pinnacles of evil in our society.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Disc world

A couple of days ago I did a post on a climate change denier who attempted to science and failed rather catastrophically by neglecting to consider in his calculations the fact that the Earth is a sphere.  "Flat Earther" has become a synonym for "nut," with good reason, and the climate change denier -- one Ross MacLeod -- let himself in for a good deal of well-deserved ridicule for the error.

The problem is, there are people who seriously believe that the Earth is flat, and they're every bit as fervent about it as Mr. MacLeod is about his denialism.  In fact, as I found out from a piece that appeared two days ago in The Guardian, the Flat Earthers' devotion to their particular brand of wingnuttery has in common with religion not only its zeal, but its fractiousness.  Because I learned from the article, "Flat-Earthers Are Back: 'It’s almost like the beginning of a new religion'" by Beau Dure, that there are almost as many sects of Flat Eartherism as there are of Christianity.

The schismatic nature of Flat Eartherism becomes apparent when you consider the heretical views of YouTuber TigerDan925, who shocked the absolute hell out his followers when he admitted that Antarctica was a continent, and not an ice wall surrounding the Earth's disk.  The backlash was immediate and vitriolic, as if he'd nailed a tract to the cathedral door saying that the Pope wasn't the true leader of the church or something:
You've jumped to an awful lot of conclusions based on very little evidence here, Dan. And now ALL flat earthers are liars?  Really.  You showed us nothing but people on/in ice and snow.  You showed us a red dot where a military base supposedly is. The clip with the people playing instruments is REALLY convincing that All Flat Earthers are liars, for sure!  What the hell are you doing?  I mean, other than cause useless dissension...  Shame on you, dude.  Seriously.
From there, it was only a short walk to his being accused of selling out:
They got to you didn't they bro?  I saw you uncovering truth, interviewing missionaries and I thought you were legit.  It seems like overnight, you changed your position, despite all of the evidence YOU gathered.  Now you're saying there's only one scripture and it's vague so you will leave it out?  If you know it or not, you just lost yourself so much credibility, and you have more thumbs down than up.  I understand changing your position when you find new CREDIBLE evidence, but that's not what you did.  You went from believing the bible to not believing the bible, seems like overnight.  Leads me to believe "SOMEBODY" made you change your stance.
But never mind him, one commenter said, because the Eternal Truth will win out even if one guy is spouting heresy:
Next he says the Antarctica is not governed and protected by the Illuminati, that somehow any group deciding to buy and invest in equipment is free to roam anywhere by plane or on land.  This is absolute rubbish...  2016 is the year it becomes common knowledge the earth is flat, just like 9/11 became common knowledge, no stopping the truth now.
Someone claiming that Antarctica isn't governed by the Illuminati!  If you can imagine.  Next thing you know, he'll be claiming that salvation is through faith and not through actions, or something.

I didn't realize, however, how deep the dissension goes.  According to Dure's article, this is serious stuff, with Flat Earthers like Eric Dubay of the International Flat Earth Research Society keeping "a lengthy Nixon-style enemies list, labeling... many other flat-Earthers 'shills' who deliberately poison the movement with flawed arguments."

You'd think there'd be enough flawed arguments to go around, wouldn't you?  No need to fight over them, really.

The whole thing reminds me of all of the sects and sub-sects and splinter sects in Rosicrucianism, which has led me to suspect that the number of Rosicrucian groups might exceed the number of actual Rosicrucians.  And the Rosicrucians and the Flat Earthers, honestly, have approximately the same grasp on reality, so the analogy is pretty apt.

Anyhow, I had no idea that a woo-woo belief system could have so many internal divisions.  Shouldn't be surprising, I suppose.  It reminds me of a bit of wisdom that a friend of mine picked up while working for the Peace Corps in Senegal: "There are forty different kinds of lunacy, but only one kind of common sense."

Friday, January 22, 2016

The new ninth planet

Sometimes I react differently to scientific discoveries than ordinary people do.

A few days ago, I read a press release from Caltech with some exciting news for astronomy buffs -- the discovery of good evidence of a ninth planet (a real ninth planet, sorry, Pluto) out in the Kuiper Belt, the region in the far reaches of the Solar System that was thought to be populated mostly with comets.

The planet has yet to be sighted, but the two researchers who found evidence of its existence, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, say their argument based in celestial mechanics is sound.  They got the idea when they discovered that six different distant objects with highly elliptical orbits all had their ellipses oriented the same way -- a highly unlikely arrangement to occur by chance, as the alignment of elliptical orbits precesses over time.

"It's almost like having six hands on a clock all moving at different rates, and when you happen to look up, they're all in exactly the same place,"  Brown said.  "The odds of having that happen are something like 1 in 100.  But on top of that, the orbits of the six objects are also all tilted in the same way -- pointing about 30 degrees downward in the same direction relative to the plane of the eight known planets. The probability of that happening is about 0.007 percent.  Basically it shouldn't happen randomly.  So we thought something else must be shaping these orbits."

So basically, they proposed that a new (and as yet, unnamed) ninth planet is locking those objects into their orbits.  Using that as their starting point, they ran a simulation -- and it matched the known objects' orbits perfectly.  "We plotted up the positions of those objects and their orbits, and they matched the simulations exactly," said Brown. "When we found that, my jaw sort of hit the floor."

Artist's conception of the new ninth planet.  The little yellow dot in the lower right is what the Sun would look like from out there.

Cool, no?  Which makes my reaction even weirder, because when I read this, instead of being excited by the new discovery, I did a facepalm and said, "Oh, dear lord, no.  This is going to bring all of the Nibiroonies howling out of their well-deserved obscurity."

If you are fortunate enough not to know about Nibiru, allow me to inform you that it is the fabled ninth planet that is the home of the Annunaki, better known as our Alien Overlords.  Nibiru supposedly only visits the inner solar system every few thousand years or so, which explains why you see so few Annunaki around these days despite the fact that our distant ancestors apparently knew all about them.

Evidently the "it's a myth" explanation never occurs to these people.

So you can see why I immediately thought, upon reading the Caltech press release, that the wingnuts who believe in Nibiru would latch onto this like a leech on a swimmer's ankle.  And sure enough, over at, we had an article appear yesterday with the headline, "Did Caltech Researchers Just Find Planet X (Nibiru)?

Here's an excerpt:
A giant planet in a highly elongated orbit—that’s exactly what the fabled Planet X was supposed to be. Nibiru, as the ancient Sumerians called it, home of a race of aliens, the Anunnaki, that came here and genetically modified our ancestors. The planet described in these texts is giant, and only comes near Earth about every 3,600 years because of its, well, bizarre, highly elongated orbit... This hidden history, which is explained in detail in the books of Zecharia Sitchin, has been dismissed by skeptics in one simple stroke: where, pray tell, is this giant extra planet? 
It appears as though Caltech has just answered that question... 
Scientists have previously found evidence for a missing planet in the solar system, but this new finding is more substantial—and it’s the first time researchers have suggested that the planet is “giant”, just as foretold thousands of years ago.
Yes, well, that's all very nice, but there are just a few problems with all this.

First, Batygin and Brown's research indicates that the new planet is really far from the Sun.  It appears to have an average orbital distance of 600 AU -- one AU being the distance from the Earth to the Sun.  (By comparison, poor demoted Pluto has an average orbital distance of 39 AU.)  On closest approach, "Nibiru" might come 200 AU from the Sun -- which still puts it five time further out than Pluto is.

Second, the new planet is estimated to have an orbital period of 15,000 years, not 3,600, as the estimable Mr. Sitchin claims.  So even if it did come into the inner Solar System (which it doesn't), it would only be at 15,000 year intervals, which seems kind of inconvenient if you are acting as planetary overlords.  "You guys play nice!  If not, there'll be hell to pay!  We'll be back to check in... um... fifteen millennia."

As if that wasn't enough, we have the fact that third, the planet is estimated to be the size of Neptune, making it a gas giant with no solid surface.  Any Annunaki who were comfortable out there -- on an ice-cold planet, probably made largely of ammonia and methane, in perpetual darkness -- wouldn't do so well here on clement, solid Earth.

Oh, wait!  The Annunaki are super-powerful and magical!  Never mind.

So anyway.  These people never let little things like "facts" stand in their way, so I'm pretty sure that all of this will make exactly zero difference to the Nibiroonies.  Once you've accepted "no evidence except for a lot of self-contradictory ancient texts" as your basis of understanding, you really don't have much in the way of solid ground to stand on.

But at least you might now understand my reaction.  No insult intended to Batygin and Brown, who have done stellar work (*rimshot*), but given the woo-woos I contend with here on Skeptophilia on a daily basis, you can see why I greeted the Caltech press release with less than wild shouts of acclamation.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fading star

Neil deGrasse Tyson, as usual, put it best: "Allow me to remind you what the 'U' in 'UFO' stands for.  It stands for 'unidentified.'  That means we don't know what it is.  Now, if you don't know what it is, that's where the conversation stops.  You don't then say it must be anything."

That's a lesson that could use reinforcement, because there is a regrettable tendency on the part of a lot of folks to jump from "this is strange and we don't understand it" to "this must be evidence of (fill in the blank: aliens, ghosts, telepathy, any of a number of cryptids, any of a number of gods)."  Science, on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable with not knowing the answer.  If you don't know the answer, you continue to look.

And continuing to look, after all, is what science is.

As an excellent example of this -- and an excellent example as well of the right attitude in science -- consider Phil Plait's article over at Slate entitled, "I'm Still Not Sayin' Aliens.  But This Star is Really Weird."  In it, he gives further consideration to the star KIC 8462852, now more euphoniously referred to as "Tabby's Star" after Tabetha Boyajian, the astronomer who led the team that discovered its odd behavior.  Tabby's Star has been in Skeptophilia before, back in October of 2015 when the news of its peculiarities became public.  This star shows dramatic and irregular fluctuations in brightness, which (to date) have not been convincingly explained.  The most popular explanation, at least amongst the astronomers, was that Tabby's Star was surrounded by a huge swarm of comets that periodically blocked the light from it, causing an apparent dimming.

Now, I'm not an astronomer myself, merely a star-watching dilettante, but that never sounded all that plausible to me.  Considering that a transit of Jupiter across the Sun would only cause a 1% dimming in brightness as observed from outside the Solar System, and the brightness fluctuations for Tabby's Star reach a mind-boggling 22%, that would have to be one big-ass comet swarm.  But as the other explanations I heard included aliens building a Dyson sphere around the star, I wasn't gonna call the comet swarm hypothesis far-fetched.

But it gets weirder.  Bradley Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University, has found that not only does the light from Tabby's Star get occluded by something, triggering an irregular rise and fall in brightness in the short term, it has on average dropped in brightness by 20% over the past 120 years!

Graph of the magnitude of KIC 8462852 as a function of time [Schaefer, 2016]

To quote Plait:
That’s … bizarre. Tabby’s Star is, by all appearances, a normal F-type star: hotter, slightly more massive, and bigger than our Sun.  These stars basically just sit there and steadily turn hydrogen into helium.  If they change, it’s usually on a timescale of millions of years, not centuries. Schaefer examined two other similar stars in the survey, and they remained constant in brightness over the same time period. 
The long-term fading isn’t constant, either.  There have been times where the star has dimmed quite a bit, then brightened up again in the following years. On average, the star is fading about 16 percent per century, but that’s hardly steady. 
So it appears Tabby’s Star dims and brightens again on all kinds of timescales: hours, days, weeks, even decades and centuries. 
Again. That’s bizarre. Nothing like this has ever been seen.
Plait emphasizes that he's not saying this is aliens, but adds, a tad reluctantly:
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this general fading is sort of what you’d expect if aliens were building a Dyson swarm.  As they construct more of the panels orbiting the star, they block more of its light bit by bit, so a distant observer sees the star fade over time.
He does, however, add the caveat that if this is an alien civilization building a Dyson sphere, they're working at a breakneck pace.  They'd have to generate and install panels with a total surface area of 750 billion square kilometers -- 1,500 times the surface area of the Earth -- in a little over a hundred years in order to have that effect.

So Tabby's star is a mystery.  Which means it's cool, and there are gonna be lots of astronomers and astrophysicists working to try to figure out what's going on.

And it also means that there is no room for saying "it must be aliens."  The bottom line is that we still don't know.  Which is exactly where you want to be in science.  To once again quote Tyson:  "People are always saying that scientists have to 'go back to the drawing board.'  As if we're just sitting there in our offices with our feet up, everything figured out.  No, in science you are always back at the drawing board.  If you're not back at the drawing board, you're not doing science."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Propping up climate denialism

Sometimes it appears that people only want to learn enough science to (1) sound scientific, and (2) prop up whatever ideas they already believed.

A sterling example came up a couple of days ago, thanks to one Ross MacLeod, who over at the sorely-misnamed Principia Scientific International explains to us why the Stefan-Boltzmann equation proves that there's no such thing as anthropogenic climate change.

The Stefan-Boltzmann equation, named after physicists Josef Stefan and Ludwig Boltzmann, basically says that the power radiated by an object is proportional to the product of its surface area and the fourth power of its temperature in degrees Kelvin.  It's not a hard relationship to comprehend, although it has deep and far-reaching (and difficult) implications for thermodynamics.  In any case, you can see why this equation is of interest to climate scientists, being that the Earth is both absorbing and radiating heat, and the relative rates at which these two happen are responsible for its average temperature.

So anyway, MacLeod quotes a NASA publication on climate, which says the following:
When it comes to climate and climate change, the Earth’s radiation budget is what makes it all happen.  Swathed in its protective blanket of atmospheric gases against the boiling Sun and frigid space, the Earth maintains its life-friendly temperature by reflecting, absorbing, and re-emitting just the right amount of solar radiation. To maintain a certain average global temperature, the Earth must emit as much radiation as it absorbs. If, for example, increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide cause Earth to absorb more than it re-radiates, the planet will warm up.
Not really all that controversial, you'd think.  But no, MacLeod implies that the atmosphere isn't keeping us warm, it's keeping us cool by protecting us from the boiling hot inferno of space:
The Sun has a surface temperature of 5778 Kelvin and emits of the order of 63,290,000 Wm-2 over every square metre of the photosphere.  By the inverse square law this staggering power is reduced to ~1368 Wm-2 at the distance the Earth is from the Sun...  A simple Stefan-Boltzmann calculation establishes this radiation power is capable of easily boiling water at Earth’s orbit – ~120 degrees C.  Even as far away as Mars the solar radiation is capable of inducing a temperature of ~319 Kelvin or ~46 degrees C in any object that absorbs significant quantities of it.
He then sneers, "Are the people who write gobbledygook like [the NASA publication] simply too stupid to describe or are they deliberately practicing misinformation to bolster a hypothesis?"

Which sounds like it could have come directly from the Unintentional Irony Department, because he is bolstering his own hypothesis by applying the Stefan-Boltzmann law incorrectly.

As he could have found out by taking a physics class -- or failing that, with a simple Wikipedia search -- in order to correctly calculate the energy budget of the Earth, you have to take into account that the Earth is a sphere.  He applied the law as if the Earth was a flat disk, and (unsurprisingly) got the wrong answer.  If you apply the law correctly, you come up with an average temperature of 6 °C -- so he was not only wrong, he was wrong by a factor of 20.

And yes, you read that right.  A climate change denier who calls the folks at NASA"simply too stupid to describe" apparently thinks that the Earth is flat.

The sad part is that this kind of specious reasoning (if I can even dignify it with that term) convinces people.  Almost no one has the expertise to recognize his argument as wrong on first reading; regrettably few think to check what he's saying against actual science.  All too many people see science-y words ("Ooh!  Stefan-Boltzmann equation!  That sounds complicated!  He must be right.") and swallow the rest of the claim without question.

So instead, let's look at some real science, shall we?  Because on the same day that Mr. MacLeod wrote his absurd piece on Flat Earth physics, a paper was published in Nature that shows that the amount of anthropogenic heat energy being dumped into the oceans has doubled since 1997.  Study co-author Jane Lubchenco of the Oregon State University Marine Sciences department said, "These findings have potentially serious consequences for life in the oceans as well as for patterns of ocean circulation, storm tracks and storm intensity."

James Severinghaus, of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, was even more unequivocal: "This study provides real, hard evidence that humans are dramatically heating the planet."

So once again, the climate change deniers are throwing around scientific terms in order to prop up a viewpoint that is contradicted by all of the evidence, and flies in the face of the consensus of nearly 100% of the climate scientists themselves.

Further indication that when it's expedient, a confident-sounding fast-talker can induce people to believe damn near anything.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Considering the KoolAid

Nothing brings the critics howling for my immediate incarceration in a FEMA Death Camp like when I make fun of the conspiracy theorists.  It doesn't seem to matter how dumb the conspiracy theory is -- like yesterday's, wherein we heard that David Bowie and Alan Rickman are still alive, apparently because of Chaldean numerology and the fact that Matt Groening is a Freemason -- if I call these people and their claims loons, I end up getting hate mail.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I won't bore and/or offend the studio audience with excerpts from said hate mail, much of which had grammar and vocabulary indicating IQ levels barely making double digits.  But I will point out something that I've noted before -- even if you ignore the asinine "evidence" these people quote to support their ideas, we have the troubling little problem that all of the horrible things they say are on the way never seem to happen.

Let's start with "Rex 84."  Ever heard of it?  Here's a brief summary:
Rex 84... was a secretive “scenario and drill” developed by the United States federal government to suspend the United States Constitution, declare martial law, place military commanders in charge of state and local governments, and detain large numbers of American citizens who are deemed to be “national security threats,” in the event that the President declares a “State of National Emergency.”  The plan states events causing such a declaration would be widespread U.S. opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad, such as if the United States were to directly invade Central America.  To combat what the government perceived as “subversive activities,” the plan also authorized the military to direct ordered movements of civilian populations at state and regional levels...  
 The Rex 84 Program was originally established on the reasoning that if a “mass exodus” of illegal aliens crossed the Mexican/US border, they would be quickly rounded up and detained in detention centers by FEMA... 
These camps are to be operated by FEMA should martial law need to be implemented in the United States and all it would take is a presidential signature on a proclamation and the attorney general’s signature on a warrant to which a list of names is attached.
Sound familiar?  The problem is, "Rex 84" was an idea that cropped up during the Reagan presidency as a "contingency plan for dealing with widespread insurrection," but got spun as the president and his cronies (especially Oliver North) wanting to suspend personal liberties, revoke the constitution, declare martial law, and keep Reagan in office beyond his term limit.

Any of that stuff happen?

I thought so.

How about this one:
A 'national emergency' will provide Bush the raw power he needs to cancel the elections and hold on to even greater executive power.  Over the course of his criminal and illegitimate regime, George W. Bush has assumed powers that in cases of a 'national emergency' make of him an absolute ruler beyond the powers of the Congress or the Courts.  It has all been locked up rather neatly and planned well in advance.  A 'decider' by self-proclamation, Bush conveniently 'decides' what is and what is not a 'national emergency.  He is the sole arbiter. 
The 'mechanism' by which Bush consolidates all his power is called Executive Directive 51...  Signed into law on May 4, 2007, it specifies the 'procedures' to be taken in the wake of a 'catastrophic emergency' -- 'any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions'... 
At hearings of a congressional sub-committee in New Orleans, FEMA official Glenn Cannon acknowledged that it had been considering the use of trains to transport large numbers of people to camps and various locations around the United States.  The revelation was ominous as this use of trains is associated with Adolph Hitler's hellish Third Reich.  The camps and the mass transportation of people to them is a cornerstone in Bush's elaborate and detailed preparations for a declaration of martial law.  To every citizen of the US --whether incarcerated in a hellish concentration camp or not --the declaration of martial means but one thing: an absolute dictatorship!

The various scenarios have main points in common: Bush will, upon any pretext, declare a national emergency, cancel the elections, and impose martial law.  With martial law comes absolute power, a ruthless crack down on dissent, mass arrests and mass incarcerations.  A 'pre-text' is never an obstacle to would-be dictators.
That was a hysterical exposé from a guy who calls himself "The Existentialist Cowboy," written in May of 2008.  And at the risk of being repetitive, did any of that happen, either?

Look, it's not that I don't think evil people exist, that bad stuff can happen, that governments can turn into dictatorships.  Even the shallowest knowledge of history proves otherwise.  And I think awareness, intelligent discussion, and access to information are the surest safeguards against these sorts of things ever happening again.

But fer cryin' in the sink, nothing is accomplished by evidence-free fear talk of conspiracies (Masonic or otherwise), FEMA death camps (complete with guillotines), and top-secret communiqués from super-evil brilliant Illuminati overlords who are so top-secret-super-evil-brilliant that a raving wingnut like Alex Jones can see right through them.

And if that makes me a KoolAid-drinkin'-sheeple, then so be it.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Coincidence theories

The deaths last week of entertainment giants David Bowie and Alan Rickman brought forth a torrent of tributes, thank yous, and reminiscences of their many memorable star turns.  I will never, for example, forget Bowie's wonderfully creepy performance as the Goblin King Jareth in Labyrinth, a movie I have loved since first seeing it as a teenager:

As far as Alan Rickman goes, the choices are a little overwhelming -- Sense and Sensibility, Harry Potter, Love Actually, Die Hard, Sweeney Todd, Dogma, and Blow Dry barely begin to scratch the surface -- but for me, the performance that always comes to mind is his fall-out-of-your-chair-hilarious role as the sour-tempered Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest:

It may be a sign that I've written Skeptophilia for far too long that while everyone else was mourning the passing of two beloved entertainers, I was sitting here thinking, "How long will it be before people start claiming that their deaths were (1) faked, (2) predicted by psychics, or (3) part of a conspiracy?" And it brings me no great joy to find that my grim suspicions were correct.  Two days ago, the YouTube channel "Russianvids" posted a fourteen-minute video entitled, "David Bowie & Alan Rickman Death Hoax 100% Staged."

How do we know this, you might ask?  Well, let's start with the fact that a year to the day before David Bowie's death, there was an episode of The Simpsons wherein we hear about a cat with two different-colored eyes named "Bowie."  Add to that the Freemasons, sinister hand signs, the 911 emergency call number, the fact that the Twin Towers were destroyed thirty-three years after they were built, the fact that Jesus was crucified at age 33, and John Carpenter's movie They Live, and you have what lawyers call "an airtight case."

What about Alan Rickman?  Well, both he and Bowie "allegedly" died of cancer at age 69, and the symbol for the astrological sign of Cancer looks a little like 69:

We also hear that both Rickman and Bowie made their last appearance on December 7, which is somehow significant because of the number 7 and Chaldean numerology.  Don't ask me why.

Then there was a long bit about how pretty much everyone is a Mason, presumably with the exception of the guy who owns "Russianvids."  The Masons, he says, all speak in code; "It's a big club," he says, "and you're not in it."  So I'm beginning to wonder if his obvious pissoff against the Masons might come from sour grapes.  Maybe he applied for membership to the Masons, and was turned down, or something.  He certainly sounds like he has an axe to grind.

Anyhow, at this point, my eyes were starting to glaze over.  He says several times that he's "Just Asking Questions," a ploy for sowing doubt that a friend of mine calls "JAQing off," a phrase that I sorely wish I had come up with.  He also says that people like me, who think that conspiracy theorists in general have a screw loose, are "coincidence theorists."  We think everything is a coincidence, apparently.  And honestly, he's not far wrong; I do think there are dark dealings and evil plots, but much of what happens in the world is chaos -- stuff happening for no particular reason, and some of it occurring at the same time, i.e., coincidence.  Which is, after all, what you call it when two random events coincide.

Then once again I did what I should never do, which is to look at the comments section.  I think I keep doing this because I desperately want to believe that most of my fellow humans are not raving wackmobiles, a desire that gets dashed more often than not.  For your amusement, here are a few of the comments on the video.  As always, grammar and spelling are left as-written, because you can only write [sic] so many times:
  • yo bro keep doin this shyt you killin em with tht knowledge dem fools cant deny all these facts
  • yep, the game is rigged from top to bottom... i'd be willing to bet that most lotto winners are paid actors... hired to pretend the lottery is real. It's a SCAM.
  • wow. EVERYTHING is a lie! Funny how we can over look so easily, but then again, i dont pay attention to msm. Great vid!
  • 18 months with cancer, 6+6+6
  • in an underground city somewhere, where we aren't invited; doesn't matter how devoted a fan you are! If more of them start disappearing like that then we should know that something's up...
  • a big false flag is planned for the USA very soon, maybe in march to counterbalance rising frequencies in the period around the first solstice this year. but could be earlier though.
Yes!  Yes!  I see it all now!  Fake lotteries and 666 and underground cities and rising frequencies in the period of the solstice = David Bowie and Alan Rickman are still alive!  How can I not have seen that?

So yeah.  After I finished facepalming repeatedly over all this, I closed the link and sat for a while, whimpering softly and rocking back and forth.  I mean, no one would be happier than me if Bowie and Rickman were still alive; they were brilliant.  But it's gonna take more than an episode of The Simpsons and some random FrootLoop babbling about Freemasons and numerology to convince me of it.

Anyhow, that's today's dip in the deep end of the pool.  I really wouldn't advise watching the YouTube video; that's why I'm here, to kill off millions of brain cells so you won't have to.  Instead, watch Galaxy Quest and Labyrinth some time soon.  It'd be a much better tribute to the memories of two great men.  I know that's what I'm gonna do.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Possessed poodles

The one thing you should never say is "Now I've heard it all."

Especially if, like me, you are an aficionado of woo-woo. If you are a regular reader of Skeptophilia, you have followed me through investigations of Florida Skunk Apes, the discovery of the Millennium Falcon on the floor of the Baltic Sea, plastic cards that will impart "Scalar Energy Fields" to the water you drink, medicines that you download directly into your body, and countless examples of Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and (in one case) Bob Marley showing up on a variety of food items.  And each time, it's been tempting to say, 'Now I've heard it all."

If you did, in fact, say that, you're gonna regret it.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Because following hard on the heels of yesterday's discovery that your computer can be healed by witchcraft, we now we have a  book, written by New York City artist Olga Horvat, called Paranormal Pooch.  Paranormal Pooch is about her dog, Princess, who was...

... possessed by demons.

I kid you not.  Horvat apparently had a run of devastatingly bad luck a while back, including the following incidents:
  • Her apartment was infested by bedbugs, and it cost $7,000 to get rid of them.
  • Her husband was in an automobile accident, and afterwards came down with a rare autoimmune disease.
  • Her daughter was suspended from second grade for putting on a rubber glove and grabbing a classmate, and then blamed the odd behavior on "hearing voices in her head."
And instead of doing what most of us would do, in such unfortunate situations -- including saying to our kid, "Why the hell did you bring a rubber glove to school?" -- Horvat evaluated the evidence, and came to the inescapable conclusion that the whole thing was due to her poodle being possessed.

Don't be fooled by the goofy haircut and innocent-looking eyes.  This is a demonic entity for sure.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Amongst the claims she makes in Paranormal Pooch -- and believe me, there's enough fodder for skepticism in there that I could go on all day -- my favorite is that dogs with pointy ears are more susceptible to possession than dogs with floppy ears, because "The spirit can get in there easier."

Myself, I would think that if a spirit is capable of causing your spouse to get in an automobile accident, it would be capable of lifting a dog's floppy ear to get inside.  But what do I know?

In any case, Horvat solved the whole thing by inventing, and selling (c'mon, you knew she was selling something) "electromagnetic shield pendants" to protect humans and pets from demonic possession.  They only cost $197, which is a comparative steal considering the cost for exterminating bedbugs.  It's received rave reviews, mostly from other wingnuts, including Joshua Warren, renowned psychic investigator: "A CHILL ran down my spine while reading Olga Horvat’s Paranormal Pooch.   Why?  Because her story is so real and her emotions so palpable."

Well, all I can say is that my definition of "real" and Mr. Warren's seem to differ somewhat.

The sad postscript to the whole thing is that four months after she was successfully cleansed of evil spirits, Princess herself fell down the stairs and died.  Maybe she was grief-stricken after losing her satanic companion, I dunno.

I do know one thing, though; I hope like hell that Horvat is never allowed to own another dog.  Because it sounds, all joking aside, like she is not someone who should be trusted to give appropriate care to a pet.  But I have strong feelings about how animals are treated, and maybe I'm being unfair, here.

Oh, and one other thing: now I've heard it all.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Digital witchcraft

My lack of technological expertise is fairly legendary in the school where I work.  When I moved  this year into a classroom with a "Smart Board," there was general merriment amongst students and staff, along with bets being made on how long it would take me to kill the device out of sheer ineptitude.

It's January, and I'm happy to say that the "Smart Board" and I have reached some level of détente.  Its only major problem is that it periodically decides that it only wants me to write in black, and I solve that problem the way I solve pretty much any computer problem: I turn it off and then I turn it back on.  It's a remarkably streamlined way to fix things, although I have to admit that when it doesn't work I have pretty much exhausted my options for remedying the problem.

Now, however, I've discovered that there's another way I could approach issues with technology: I could hire a witch to clear my device of "dark energy."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I found this out because of an article in Vice wherein they interviewed California witch and ordained minister Joey Talley, who says that she accomplishes debugging computers by "[placing] stones on top of the computer, [clearing] the dark energy by setting an intention with her mind, or [cleansing] the area around the computer by burning sage."

Which is certainly a hell of a lot easier than actually learning how computers work so you can fix them.

"I just go in and work the energy," Talley said.  "And there are different stones that work really well on computers, chloride [sic] is one of them.  Also, some people really like amethyst for computers.  It doesn’t really work for me, but I’m psychic.  So when I go into the room where somebody’s computer is, I go in fresh, I step in like a fresh sheet, and I’m open to feel what’s going on with the computer.  Everything’s unique, which is why my spell work changes, because each project I do is unique...  Sometimes I do a magic spell or tape a magic charm onto the computer somewhere.  Sometimes I have a potion for the worker to spray on the chair before they sit down to work. Jet is a stone I use a lot to protect computers."

So that sounds pretty nifty.  It even works if your computer has a virus:
I got contacted by a small business owner in Marin  County.  She had a couple of different viruses and she called me in.  First, I cast a circle and called in earth, air, fire and water, and then I called in Mercury, the messenger and communicator.  Then I went into a trance state, and all I was doing was feeling.  I literally feel [the virus] in my body. I can feel the smoothness where the energy’s running, and then I feel a snag. That’s where the virus got in...  Then I performed a vanishing ceremony.  I used a black bowl with a magnet and water to draw [the virus] out.  Then I saged the whole computer to chase the negativity back into the bowl, and then I flushed that down the toilet.  After this I did a purification ceremony.  Then I made a protection spell out of chloride [sic], amethyst, and jet.  I left these on the computer at the base where she works.
The virus, apparently, then had no option other than to leave the premises immediately.

We also find out in the article that Talley can cast out demons, who can attach to your computer because it is a "vast store of electromagnetic energy" on which they like to feed, "just like a roach in a kitchen."

The most interesting bit was at the end, where she was asked if she ever got mocked for her practice.  Talley said yes, sure she does, and when it happens, she usually finds that the mockers are "ornery and stupid."  She then tells them to go read The Spiral Dance and come back when they have logical questions.  Which sounds awfully convenient, doesn't it?  I've actually read The Spiral Dance, which its fans call "a brilliant, comprehensive overview of the growth, suppression, and modern-day re-emergence of Wicca," and mostly what struck me is that if you didn't already believe in all of this stuff, the book presented nothing in the way of evidence to convince you that any of it was true.  Put another way, The Spiral Dance seems to be a long-winded tribute to confirmation bias.  So Talley's desire for "logical questions" -- such as "what evidence do you have of any of this?" -- doesn't really generate much in the way of answers that a skeptic from outside the Wiccan worldview could accept.

But hell, given the fact that my other options for dealing with computer problems are severely constrained, maybe the next time my "Smart Board" malfunctions, I'll wave some amethyst crystals around.  Maybe I'll even do a little dance.  (Only when there's no one else in the room; my students and colleagues already think I'm odd enough.)

Then, most likely, I'll turn it off and turn it back on.  Even demons won't be able to stand up to that.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fear, research, and Gardasil

It is a general rule of human behavior that it is way easier to make people afraid of something than it is to convince them that what they fear is harmless.

This principle works on all scales.  The dubiously-ethical "Little Albert experiment," performed back in 1920 by John B. Watson and Rosalie Raynor, showed that you can classically condition humans with no difficulty at all -- the test subject, a nine-month-old nicknamed "Little Albert," was conditioned to fear white rats.  It worked all too well.  The baby developed a fear not only of white rats, but other furry objects (including a teddy bear).

When the test subject was tracked down years later, he was found to have an irrational phobia of dogs.

You can see this same tendency working all the way up to a conditioned fear of "the other" -- other races, ethnic groups, religions, political parties -- a fear that politicians frequently capitalize on to galvanize their supporters, and which once instilled is almost impossible to eradicate.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes some sense.  The evolutionary cost of mistakenly fearing something that's harmless is far lower than the cost of mistakenly not fearing something that's dangerous.  If from a skeptic's standpoint, the tendency is maddening, at least it's understandable.

Even knowing this, I was pretty pissed off by the reactions I saw to a recent study that was highlighted in Phil Plait's wonderful blog Bad Astronomy -- Plait's article was titled, "Gardasil: More Anti-Vax Nonsense Collapses Under the Gaze of Reality."  In it, we hear about a study that did a large-sample-size test of side effects from the anti-HPV vaccine Gardasil, and found...

... nothing.  Nada.  None of the horrible side effects you hear from the anti-vaxxers, which include complex regional pain syndrome and postural orthostatic tachycardia.  Any incidence of disorders following the administration of the vaccine was no higher than the background rate for unvaccinated teens.

Add to that the fact that Gardasil prevents infection by HPV, which is directly linked to cancer of the throat, cervix, penis, and vagina.  Of these, cervical cancer is the most common; of the 12,900 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year, an estimated 4,100 women will die of it within three years of diagnosis.  So, no common adverse side effects from Gardasil, and the benefit of protecting your children from dying of cancers that are largely preventable.  No brainer, right?

Apparently not.  Here's a selection of responses I saw to the Phil Plait article:
  • I don't care what the research says.  I'm not taking that kind of chance with my children.
  • Nothing has no side effects.  The risk still isn't worth it.  The pharmaceutical companies cover up the dangers.
  • Why would we believe this when the medical research changes daily?  Saturated fat is bad for you, then it's not.  Sugar is bad for you, then it's not.  So they tell us this vaccine is safe, tomorrow it won't be, and then it's too late because you already gave your kids the vaccine.
  • Of course they say this.  Gardasil brings in millions of dollars a year.  They have a vested interest in convincing us it's safe.
And so on and so forth.  What, does the research only convince you when something is unsafe?

Let me put this as plainly as I know how.  There is no evidence that vaccinations are dangerous, and that they increase your likelihood of any of the various disorders that anti-vaxxers want you to believe are a result.  There have been repeated large-scale studies by different researchers in different research facilities that have confirmed this result over and over.  Further, do you really want to go back to the day when people died of measles, typhoid, and diphtheria, and those who survived polio were sometimes confined to an iron lung for the rest of their lives?  We now can prevent all of those diseases, and have for the first time come up with a vaccination that prevents cancer.

To refuse to have your children protected against these deadly diseases is tantamount to child endangerment.

And I would like it if, for once, people would overcome their tendency to believe fears more strongly than reassurances, and accept what the scientists have been saying for years.