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.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lord Dufferin and the man in the garden

For better or worse, being a skeptic doesn't mean that you don't find stories of the paranormal interesting -- nor that you can't react to them on an emotional level.

I mean, I'm the guy who thinks that television programming went into a nosedive the day The X Files was cancelled.  I am also the guy who would love to spend a night in a haunted house, but would be likely to piss my pants and then have a stroke if anything untoward happened.  So while I'd be a good guy to have on a team of ghost hunters, from a scientific and rational perspective, I'd be a bad choice from the standpoint of practical application and laundromat charges.

I still recall many of the ghost stories of my childhood.  My uncle was a grand storyteller, and had lots of tales (usually told in French) of the scary creatures of the Louisiana bayou, including the Loup-Garou (the Cajun answer to a werewolf) and Feu Follet (the "spirit fire," or will-of-the-wisp, which would steal your soul if you saw it -- unless you could cross running water before it caught you).  Later, I voraciously read Poe and Lovecraft, and dozens of books with names like True Tales of the Supernatural.

It was in one of the latter that I ran into the story of Lord Dufferin, a 19th century British statesman who spent most of his career shuttling all over the world -- from Canada to Syria to Russia to India to Burma.  His actual name was Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin, and his life coincided almost perfectly with Queen Victoria's -- she lived from 1819 to 1901, Dufferin from 1826 to 1902.

Dufferin was, by all accounts, well known in the social circuits of high society.  His biographer calls him "imaginative, sympathetic, warm-hearted, and gloriously versatile."  He also was an excellent storyteller, and there was one story he became famous for -- mostly because to his dying day, he swore that it was true.

One night, Dufferin said, he was visiting a friend who owned an estate in Ireland.  For some reason, he was unable to sleep, and after tossing and turning for a while, he finally got up and went out through a door and onto the balcony overlooking the estate gardens.

He became aware that there was a figure moving down in the garden, and as he watched, the figure got closer.  It was a man, carrying something on his back, but he was in shadow and it was impossible to tell anything about the man or his burden.  But after a moment, the man stepped out into a patch of moonlight, and looked up at Dufferin.

Dufferin recoiled.  The man was the most hideously ugly individual Dufferin had ever seen -- and the object on the man's back could be clearly seen to be a coffin.

Terrified, Dufferin retreated to his room.  The next morning, he told his host about what he'd seen, and Dufferin's friend brushed him off -- there was no one in the garden the previous evening, the friend said.  It must have been a nightmare.

Dufferin more or less forgot about the incident.  But many years later, when he was British Ambassador to France in the early 1890s, he was in Paris for a diplomatic meeting and was about to step onto an elevator when he glanced at the elevator operator, and saw that it was the same memorably ugly face as the man he remembered from his vision in the garden.  Alarmed, he backed away, and the door closed.  He was standing there, trying to make sense of what he had just seen, when there was a tremendous crash -- the elevator cable had broken, sending the elevator compartment hurtling down the shaft.  Everyone inside, including the operator, was killed.

Dufferin sought out hotel officials to ask about the elevator operator -- but the officials said that the man had just been hired that day, and no one knew anything about him.

Dufferin lived for another ten years, and enjoyed many a glass of brandy over the telling of this tale.  And you can see why; it's got all of the elements -- a terrifying vision that turns out to be a warning of danger, a scary-looking guy carrying a coffin across a garden at night, a near brush with death.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I doubt very much if the supernatural aspects of this story are true.  Human memory is a remarkably plastic thing, and I strongly suspect that most stories of precognition rely on imperfect recollection of the original premonition, be it a dream or (as in this case) a vision.  That Dufferin saw something in the garden that night is possible; that he had a nightmare is also possible.  That it was true precognition, I seriously doubt.  It is far more likely that, years later, a shock like seeing an ugly guy in an elevator, and narrowly escaping being killed when the elevator cable broke, would have conflated in his mind the incident with the earlier nightmare (or whatever it was).

But you have to admit that despite all of that, it makes a hell of a good story -- even one that a diehard skeptic might read with a cold shudder twanging up the spine.

And with that, I'll wish you all a very spooky and fun-filled Halloween.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The great Louisiana gunboat conspiracy

There are two reasons that conspiracy theorists drive me crazy.

One is that they consistently accept weird, convoluted explanations for events just because those explanations favor their twisted notions about the way the world works, simultaneously ignoring a simple, rational explanation that fits all of the available evidence.  This anti-Ockham's-razor approach runs counter to any reasonable logic, but they embrace it with a vehemence that is often scary.

The second is that they're damn near impossible to argue with.  Present a counterargument to their favored theory, and you're deluded.  Laugh at them, and you're a "sheeple."  (Wait, isn't "sheeple" plural?  What's the singular, then?  "Sheeplum?")

Come up with a really good counterargument, and you must be one of... Them.

Take, for example, the article that hit the conspiracy site Liberty Federation this week about some military boats that were seen in a river near Slidell, Louisiana.  There's a video, with the tagline, "Is this part of some kind of drill or is it just normal now in the new Amerika to see armed troops patrolling public canals?"

Right.  "Amerika."  *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*  Of course it's the military wing of the New World Order, practicing their takeover maneuvers.  Merely requiring that you ignore the fact that the Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School, which has been operating there for decades, is only five miles away.

So yeah, this really was just a drill, and the guys really were just ordinary military guys, which one of the commenters on the post pointed out:
We have a unit down there, been training in that area for close to 20 years. Not sure how that guy has never seen them before, we run all over the rivers and marshes (and Lake Pontchartrain) constantly. Completely normal training, guys are preparing for overseas deployment, has nothing to do with the conspiracy BS being spouted below. Not sure why they are transiting through such a populated area, we normally stay farther away from areas like that for various reasons. 
Well, one reason is probably that when they don't, the conspiracy theorists start honking like mad.  To wit, the following response:
so what is next
-shoot shoot You Americans , b.o."s agenda – to a " T " , e. holder is doing flips inside of the west/wing knowing that he is get’’n closer to controlling the whole kitten-ka-bouttle then any A.G. ever – even though it is so Un-American that it is sickening to the stomach – this is this administrations agenda , People wake the " F " UP ^ , this is Your Nation dying at a tic-toc and a tic-toc , Yes , What can We do – Do You not see that every time this administration wins in court or by a legislative mark of the pen , It is always very controversial and they will win it by – chicago bullitics – each and every time – what is it that they (this administration) could/and/would hold against You or Your’s , People it is get"n to be to that close of lose for Us Americans that Yes it could come down to You and what You had said and/or done and You may or/may not feel it was wrong , they (this administration) will find the wrongs and put the blame on You or one of Your loved One’s , People We have the devil in Our House and they know what You have forgotten , As little or as simple it was or is to You , They will see to it that it can make the difference of being a representative of the People ’ or NOT being a representative of the People , This administration is so damn evil that the devil HimSelf has to step-back and try to figure out where the evilness comes from – Since this devil himself knows what is in the winners package – There is Not enough wrapping paper and/or ribbon to put this in a package and say (F^ck You say’s Da devil) wel-come to da jungle where obama loves to be , he feels so much at home that he sends the tranny away – why would you need another pointer when ya have the likes of me – and this is coming from the one that has the wife of an tranny – oh baby it is the stiffy that gets me (says b.o.) fur — sure
I feel like this should come with some sort of Rosetta-Stone-like translation, don't you?  We need someone like the little old lady from the movie Airplane:

So, I feel duty-bound to do my best, here, although my Dumbassian is kind of rusty.  But here's my best shot at a translation of the above:
I dislike President Obama because I think that his agenda is to target American citizens, and perhaps kill them.  Attorney General Eric Holder is certainly part of this, and is so excited by the prospect that he is engaging in gymnastics.  Gosh, this sure makes me nauseated!  I wish that more Americans would be aware of their surroundings.  Every time this administration wins a court case, it angers me.  It is like what happens in Chicago.  President Obama knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake!  He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good or his thugs will murder you and your entire family!  Even Satan is appalled by how evil this administration is.  Satan would like to wrap this administration up with wrapping paper and give it as a gift.  Also, I believe that because President Obama is an African American, he would prefer to live in a tropical rain forest biome.  And his wife is a hermaphrodite.  Oh, my, yes.
So okay, maybe it doesn't make any more sense when you put it in standard English.

The problem is, there are a lot of people who think this way.  If you go over to the Conspiracy subreddit -- which I wouldn't suggest if you want to maintain your sense that humans represent intelligent life -- you will find posts even stupider than this one.  You will find posts that will make this one seem like a doctoral dissertation.  You will find posts that will make you wonder how the people who wrote them have enough brain cells to operate a computer successfully.

I live in hope, however, that the sensible people outnumber the conspiracy theorists, a hope that is bolstered by sites such as the Conspiratard subreddit, which exists solely to ridicule the ideas of people like our above marginally-coherent friend.  I also hope that the majority of the 191,000 who have subscribed to Conspiracy are only amused bystanders, much the way I listen to Alex Jones or read the columns written by Ann Coulter.

So, yeah, I'm an optimist.  It's a dicey proposition, sometimes, but still better than the alternative.

Even here in "Amerika."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Captain Odin of the spaceship Valhalla

Last night, I was working out at the gym, and one of the televisions was showing a program about a subject I know and love: Vikings.

My MA is in Scandinavian historical linguistics (yes, I know I teach biology.  It's a long story).  As part of my thesis research I read a good many of the sagas, some in the original Old Norse, the culmination of a passion for the subject I've had since I first found D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths when I was in elementary school.

"Odhin," by Johannes Gehrts (1901) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I was tickled when I saw the program being aired, even though I had a chill run up my spine when I noticed that it was on the History channel.  Given the name, you'd think that the History channel would show programs related to history.  You'd be wrong, although I guess the more accurate name of The Woo-Woo Bullshit channel wouldn't attract sponsors very well.

So I watched the program for a while.  And it turned out to be an episode of...

... Ancient Aliens.

I'm not making this up.  My first thought was that the contention of the show was that the Vikings were aliens, but it turns out that no, they're not saying that.  That would be ridiculous.

They're saying that the Vikings were helped by aliens.

The show featured a couple of legitimate scholars, Kirsten Wolf of the University of Wisconsin - Madison's Department of Scandinavian Studies (which, coincidentally, is where I took my courses in the Old Norse language) and Timothy Tangherlini of UCLA.  Both made coherent and academically relevant statements regarding the history and culture of the ancient Norse, which were (of course) immediately misinterpreted by the wackos who wrote the narrator's script.

"The Vikings were enormously sophisticated in terms of technology: ship-building, bridge-building, fortress-building," Wolf said, which is true, but then the narrator jumped in with, "But many researchers remain baffled at how the Vikings became so socially, politically and technologically advanced, especially while living in the cold, harsh environment of the North...  Just how were the Norse Vikings able to manage such technological and geographical feats?  Are their fortresses and journeys to unknown continents evidence that the Vikings had access to extraterrestrial knowledge?  Ancient astronaut theorists say yes, and believe the proof can be found by examining the religious beliefs of this mysterious people."

Yup.  Those poor ol' scholars, always "baffled" at how "mysterious" everything is.  Good thing we have raving wingnuts like Phillip Coppens and David Hatcher Childress to weigh in on the situation and rescue us from our ignorance with conclusions such as Thor's hammer being a "kinetic weapon," Odin's ravens Huginn and Muninn being "spy drones," and Odin's seat up on Hlidskjalf being "the captain's seat on a spacecraft."

I wonder if it's aerobic exercise to pound your head repeatedly into the wall, because that's what I ended up doing, watching this show.

At least that's better than what Drs. Wolf and Tangherlini most likely felt like doing.  After realizing what idiocy their names had been associated with, publicly, I'm guessing they probably both wanted to commit seppuku.

I kept watching, though, in the fashion of a person witnessing a slow-motion train wreck.  A couple of times, I actually laughed out loud, so it's probably a good thing that the gym was otherwise empty.  One of the best points came when Phillip Coppens explained that the dwarves, mentioned many times in myth collections like the Eddas, were actually...

... the "Grays."  Yup, the same alien creatures we see in such historical documentaries as The X Files and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Here's what he said, verbatim, or near as I can recall:
Are they real dwarfs, or somehow more mythical, or whether the label “dwarf” actually stuck to them because they were somehow smaller?  And of course today, we often describe the gray alien archetype as dwarfish as well, simply because they are smaller.
Of course, Philip.  Whatever that means.  And along the same lines, I'm guessing that the trolls were the Vikings' way of describing the "Rancor" from Star Wars, and the elves were invented because J. R. R. Tolkien was a time traveling ultra-intelligent extraterrestrial being who went back to the 9th century and told the ancient Norse about Legolas et al.

But watching this show wouldn't have been the complete experience it was without a commentary from Giorgio Tsoukalos, he of the amazing hair, so I was positively tickled when he showed up.  Tsoukalos had this to say about Valhalla:
Valhalla was not a figment of our ancestors’ imaginations, but it might have been some type of an orbiting space station.  The reason why I’m saying this is because we have a description of Valhalla: it is an incredible description of a place that has weird attributes.
Which is such an amazing feat of logical deduction that I can hardly think of a response, other than to say that my classroom has some "weird attributes" and it is not, so far as I can tell, an "orbiting space station."

At that point, I kind of gave up, stopped staring at the television with my mouth hanging open, and went over to use the weight machines, figuring that even if my brain had been turned to cream-of-wheat, at least I could work on my biceps.

So this, my dear readers, is why I don't watch television, except for when I'm at the gym.  I should have changed the channel, really.  Next time I will -- I'll try to find something more sensible and intellectually stimulating than what the History channel has to offer.

Reruns of Gilligan's Island should fit the bill.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Next rest stop, 5.9 parsecs

New from the Hope Springs Eternal department, we have a guy from Georgia who wants to build an cultural information welcome center for aliens.

Called the Extraterrestrial Culture Center, Ed Komarek's brainchild is ambitious to say the least.  Here's what he has to say about it:
The purpose of Extraterrestrial  Cultural Centers International (ECCI) is to facilitate the integration of earth humanity into the greater extraterrestrial domain of universal stellar civilizations.  Our mission is to create an organization and facilities to accomplish this purpose.  We intend to fulfill that mission through the creation of a network of extraterrestrial cultural centers and facilities around the globe.   The emphasis will be on peaceful, mutually beneficial interrelationships sharing knowledge, understanding and love amongst all.
Which, honestly, I can't argue with, even the "stellar civilizations" part, given that I'm pretty certain that there must be alien life out there elsewhere in the cosmos.  (Whether it's intelligent life remains to be seen; and given the way humans act, sometimes, I've occasionally wondered if we might be flattering ourselves by calling our own behavior intelligent.)

Be that as it may, Komarek's grandiose plans are nothing if not well thought out.  In a piece in UFO Digest, Komarek describes his two-pronged approach to building the Culture Center:
With the publication of the Center Webpage, The First Conceptualization Phase of the Extraterrestrial Cultural Center is now almost complete and we begin to move forward on to the Second Phase; that of actualizing the Concept.   Most of us doing the conceptual work have little experience with organization and management.  We hope, now that the Conceptual Phase is ending, that a much more experienced and capable management team will join with us, to bring this Concept to reality in Phase Two. 
Phase Two will require high caliber business people coming on board who are capable of running a large organization and who also have the fundraising capabilities necessary to raise millions of dollars to build the Centers.   The initial task for the advanced management team is to make the Extraterrestrial Cultural Centers International a legal non-profit entity and to begin fundraising for a modest operating budget the first year.
So "Phase Two" seems like it has some inherent stumbling blocks, namely: (1) millions of dollars to build the Center; (2) millions more dollars to run and staff it; and (3) smart business people to run the whole thing.  I'm not sure that (3) isn't the biggest problem, honestly.  As we've seen many times, there is no short supply of people willing to donate large amounts of money to oddball causes, but getting your average MBA to turn down a lucrative job in Los Angeles to run a UFO welcome center seems like a losing proposition.

Komarek is making use of all of the resources at his disposal, however, including social media.  He has a Facebook page, but when I looked at it I was a little put off by the fact that it seems to be heavily populated by people who probably should not be allowed outside unsupervised.  Here's a sampling from the first few posts on his page:
Alien Invasion Now Taken Very Seriously: Our Government Prepared For the Worst! “They May Not Come In Peace!” (Videos Include Mainstream News Footage)

Reminder * Lightship System White Ibis: What are disclosure and ET contact about? To really understand you have to go beyond the phenomenon of space and time. Higher your frequency, and meet us half way!
Jesus led the resistence [sic] to Enlil - Yahweh, the genocidal Commander of the goldmining expedition from the planet Nibiru to Earth. Jesus, from his home in France and in North America, defied Yahweh and taught 'Help the poor. Sustain the feeble. Do evil to no one. Do not covet what you do not possess. Reverence Woman, the foundation of all that is good and beautiful.'".
So. Yeah. However well-meaning Komarek is, some of his followers seem to be a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

Or maybe that's just my narrow understanding because I haven't "highered my frequency" yet.

Anyhow, I'm not sure how I feel about all of this.  I mean, Komarek's certainly to be encouraged to do whatever floats his boat, and the whole thing seems harmless enough.  As hobbies go, spending your time drawing up plans for building roadside stops for aliens isn't really any crazier than having a fantasy football team.

It's just that the whole thing seems a little premature.  I mean, we don't even have incontrovertible evidence that extraterrestrial life exists, much less that they've ever come here; so having a massive complex designed to make them feel welcome seems kind of like an exercise in futility.

There is, of course, the possibility that it could become a tourist attraction for plain old humans, similar to the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico.  If Komarek succeeds in his alien version of "If you build it, they will come," I know I, for one, would plan a visit there.

Of course, he still has his millions of dollars to raise, and his MBAs to find, and when I checked, his Facebook page only had 592 followers, including the three people quoted above, who hardly count.  So I'm not sure how likely it is to be realized, at least in my lifetime.

It's sad, honestly, because other humorously ironic projects have actually succeeded.

I mean, they succeeded in building the George W. Bush Presidential Library, after all.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cures for vaccination

It's with a strange twinge of conscience that I'm writing today about an alt-med woo-woo claim that I don't think we should challenge.

It popped up on the website BabyCenter Community a couple of weeks ago, but apparently has been gaining ground since then, showing up on Facebook, Twitter, and websites devoted to anti-vaxx and holistic medicine.

The claim: putting a clay plaster on a vaccination after you get back from the doctor's office will "draw out the vaccine."

The first place I saw this -- the website linked above -- posed it as a question, where it received the following answers:
It helps to pull some of the toxins back out.  Not all though.
apparently it is possible to remove all vaccines, infiremiere [sic] should be a day in their vaccines in order to work in a hospital, she made all her vaccination and immediately after the injection, she had everything prepare in advance, she it [sic] absorb the vaccine in his car

with a homeopath here in France It can remove inject vaccine long ago, as soon as I have more information I will send you
One person did say that it wouldn't work, that vaccines are irreversible; but another, much more authoritative respondent came back with the following:

For mandatory vaccines that nobody escapes, there is indeed the clay poultice can reabsorb the "poison" from his injection. The method is as follows:

You buy a clay tube (health food stores) and you present to vaccination equipped with this tube, gauze and tape. Once the vaccine was injected, you go to the toilet and you put a thick layer of clay on the vaccine + gauze + tape. Keep this poultice for 2 hours and the vaccine will be almost completely absorbed by the clay.

Upon returning home, you take the natural vitamin C (Acerola C, for example) or magnesium chloride (pharmacy: A bag of 20 grams dissolved in one liter of water and take 1 glass morning, afternoon and evening up. 'to exhaustion of a liter).
So I was reading this, and I was thinking... maybe it's better we let them think this is true.

After all, then the kids will be vaccinated and protected from disease, decreasing the likelihood of outbreaks of preventable diseases; and the adults will conclude that they've won, that they fooled us silly ol' skeptics and scientists, and in consequence, they'll shut up about it and stop trying to fight mandatory vaccination laws.

So, maybe there is a time that it's better to let the woo-woos continue in their beliefs, especially when one particular woo-woo belief cancels out the ill effects of another one.

But I do say this with some degree of guilty feelings.  Because, after all, the whole approach of a skeptic should be to follow wherever the evidence leads, to try to promote clear thinking and the scientific approach for one and all, and in any situation where the scientific approach applies.

Here, though... maybe we should let them have their clay poultices and acerola detox cleanses and homeopathic anti-vaccine remedies.  Let 'em think they've beaten the system.

And hope like hell that their children grow up to understand science better than the parents did.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A matter of trust

I had something of an epiphany yesterday regarding what's wrong with American public schools.

This light-bulb-moment occurred because of two unrelated incidents, one of them banal to the point of almost being funny, the other considerably more serious.

The first occurred because there is something wrong with the "heater" in my classroom.  I use the quotation marks because despite the fact that this is upstate New York and we've been having cooler weather for almost a month now, this machine has been pumping out continuously cold air into my room.  Yesterday morning it was quite chilly outside, and my room was almost at the seeing-your-own-breath stage.  So I took my digital thermometer, and first wandered around my classroom (getting an average temperature of around 61 F, warmest near the exit into the hallway); the air coming from the "heater" registered 58 F.

So I let the fellow who is the head of buildings, grounds, and maintenance know.  In short order I got back a curt note that my room was actually between 70 and 75 F, and the air coming out of the "heater" was at a comfortable 68.  "No, you're wrong," was the gist of the email.  "You're actually warm."

Or perhaps this is part of the new "Common Core" math, that 61 = 72 and 58 = 68.  I dunno.

Much more troubling was an exchange I had last week with an administrator regarding the implementation of "scripted modules," a new-and-improved way of micromanaging classroom teachers by giving them day-by-day lesson plans with pre-prepared problem sets and assignments, and scripts that are to be read to the students verbatim (some of them even tell the teacher what to answer if students ask particular questions).  Apparently, this administrator has gotten a good deal of flak over these modules, with complaints that they are rigid, lock teachers into going at a particular speed regardless of whether that speed is appropriate for their classes, and rob teachers of the creative parts of their job.  So the administrator sent a broadside email to the entire staff -- not only to the teachers affected, or the ones who had complained -- telling us that the modules were fine, that any frustration we felt was just that we were clinging to old ways of doing things and didn't like change, and that the new modular approach didn't take away any creativity from the act of teaching.

Well, I wasn't going to let that pass, so I answered as follows:
Dear _________,

I considered not responding to this, as the whole “module” thing has yet to affect me directly, but after some thought I decided that I could not let it go.

The whole idea of handing a professional educator a script is profoundly insulting.  The implication, despite your statement that it is not meant to replace the art of creative teaching, is that the policymakers and educational researchers know better how to instruct children than the people who have devoted their lives to the profession, who know the children in their classes personally and their curricula thoroughly.  This DOES take the creativity out of teaching, and that fact is not changed by your simply stating that it doesn’t.

More and more, we are being mandated to approach educating children by the factory model – everything done lockstep, everything converted to numbers and trends and statistics.  If it can be quantified, it exists; if it can’t, it doesn’t.  The mechanization of education robs it of its joy for teachers, and more importantly, for students.  All of the pretests and post-tests and standardized exams are simply providing a bunch of specious, meaningless numbers so that the policy wonks in Albany (and elsewhere) can pat themselves on the back and tell themselves that they’ve accomplished something.  I have yet to see any of these “value-added models” provide anything but percentage values whose error bars approach 100%.

And, on a personal note: you can consider this my official refusal to teach from a module, should one come down the line for any of the courses that I teach.  And the day that I am mandated, by you or by any other administrator, to read from a script in my classes will be my last day on the job.


I have yet to receive any response to this email.

Well, the whole thing has been weighing considerably on my mind in the last few days, and yesterday -- in between rubbing my hands together to restore blood flow to my fingers -- I realized that the two incidents really came from the same fundamental source.

A lack of trust.

No, we're told; what you're experiencing, what you're thinking, what you're feeling, isn't real.  Your perspective is skewed.  We know better than you do.  Despite the fact that you were hired for your professional expertise, and know how to run a classroom (and, presumably, read a thermometer), your viewpoint is invalid.

Here, let me tell you what reality is.

A study conducted cooperatively by Working Families and Unum Insurance Group of worker satisfaction and productivity found that trust was the single most important factor in both employee well-being and the performance of the organization as a whole.  Susanne Jacobs, consultant and lead researcher on the study, said:
Truly understanding how individuals are motivated at work provides not just the gateway to optimal performance, something sought by every organization, but also an environment where every person can flourish.

Trust and psychological well-being are the answer; the equation to reach that answer starts with individual and team resilience, plus the eight drivers of trust (belonging, recognition, significance, fairness, challenge, autonomy, security, and purpose), together with a workplace that is built to support every human being within it. We know the solution and we know the tools, so let’s put it into practice.
A 2011 study by D. Keith Denton of Missouri State University's Department of Management supports that view.  Trust, clarity, and openness are critical, Denton concluded, after evaluating productivity and worker satisfaction at a variety of different businesses.  Denton said:
Companies with high-trust levels give employees unvarnished information about company's performance and explain the rationale behind management decisions. They are also unafraid of sharing bad news and admitting mistakes.  Lack of good communication leads to distrust, dissatisfaction, cynicism and turnover.

If there is a high level of engagement, the leader can expect that members of the group will express their feelings, concerns, opinions and thoughts more openly.  Conversely, if trust is low, members are more likely to be evasive, competitive, devious, defensive or uncertain in their actions with one another.
Contrast that with the current atmosphere in public schools, where teachers are trusted so little that we are now being micromanaged on the moment-by-moment level -- told, in effect, what to say and how long a time we have in which to say it.  Students are subjected, over and over, to high-stakes examinations to make certain they are reaching some preset, externally-determined bar.  We are trusted so little that at the end of the year, we are not allowed to grade our own final exams for fear that we'll alter student papers to boost their scores and make ourselves look more effective.

The contention by the anti-public-school cadre has been, all along, that teachers aren't professionals, that (in Bill Gates' words) "the educational system is broken."  I think that's absolute rubbish.  The teachers I know, with very few exceptions, are competent, caring, and intelligent, know their subjects deeply, and understand how to communicate their knowledge to students.  In an ironic twist that seems lost on most of the people in charge, we are instituting a model for education that doesn't work and evaluating the old model on its failure -- in effect, breaking the system to show how broken it was.

My own tolerance for this nonsense is, quite frankly, nearing its limit.  I am honestly not sure I can do this job much longer.  I am still passionate about the subject I teach; I still enjoy my students, and the daily act of teaching them about science.  Watching the light bulbs go on, when kids suddenly comprehend an especially difficult concept that they have struggled to master, is still one of the most rewarding things I know of.

But it is honestly hard to go to work, on a daily basis, knowing that in the most fundamental way, I am not trusted to do competently the job I have been tasked with.  The optimist in me keeps hoping that the establishment will begin to listen to the people who are speaking out against the current trends -- most notably Diane Ravitch, whose lucid and articulate indictment of such legislation as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top leaves little room for argument.

But the pessimist in me has, at the moment, a far louder voice.  I fear that things will get a great deal worse before they get better.  And if they do, they will do so without my participation.  I always thought that I would be one of those teachers that would have to be pushed out of the door at age 70, still eager to meet the new crowd of kids in September; the last few days, I'm wondering how I can make it to Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Calling all angels

If there's one thing we've learned, over the years, it's that you can never go wrong with a business plan that involves combining lots of different crazy ideas in new ways.

That must be the principle guiding one Doreen Virtue, who has pioneered a technique she calls "Angel Therapy."

"Angel Therapy" combines New-Age woo-woo wackiness with religious woo-woo wackiness, and adds a touch of divination wackiness to boot, and comes up with something stunningly loony.

The idea is that all we have to do to heal ourselves from our various ills is to listen to the angels who are trying to get in touch with us, and who are being blocked by our disbelief.  Apparently, like Peter Pan, all you have to do in order to fly is to believe hard enough.

Here's how Virtue herself explains it:
Angel Therapy is a non-denominational spiritual healing method that involves working with a person's guardian angels and archangels, to heal and harmonize every aspect of life. Angel Therapy also helps you to more clearly receive Divine Guidance from the Creator and angels.

Everyone has guardian angels, and these angels perform God's will of peace for us all. When we open ourselves to hear our angels' messages, every aspect of our lives become more peaceful. Many of Doreen’s resources will provide you with more information on this subject, including her books Angel Therapy and Angel Medicine, and the Connecting with Your Angels Kit.
Naturally, I was curious as to what a "kit" would look like that would allow you to Connect With Angels.  Would it contain a pair of walkie-talkies?  A celestial cellphone?  Maybe just a pair of tin cans with a string attached?  But no, all the kits I saw on her website mostly contained things like "Indigo Angel Oracle Cards,"  which is a Tarot-card-style divination deck intended for "indigo people," whom the sales pitch describes as "strong-willed, intuitive leaders with innate spiritual skills."

Who also have indigo-colored auras.  If you were looking for a diagnostic to determine if this was you.

Predictably, this all sounds like a lot of nonsense to me, but there are testimonials out the wazoo singing Virtue's praises up to the heavens (presumably giving her own collection of angels something to cheer about).  For example, Susan Stevenson, a hypnotherapist who specializes in past-life regression (thus adding yet another wacko belief to the list), has this to say:
My life seems to be teeming with angelic connections, and the momentum is building. Have you noticed this in your own life? Angelic reminders that they are with us- 'whispers' in our ear, 'taps' on the shoulder, brushes of air across your skin or changes in air pressure, 'flutters' from deep inside, glints of light and color- all these gentle hints to pay closer attention to their presence. Think back- have you been paying attention, listening, responding? I know I certainly have been. Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., in her newest book "Angel Therapy", says that this increased activity is directly related to the approaching millennium.
Isn't it already the new millennium?  Or do we have to wait until the year 3,000 to see what the angels are all in a tizzy about?

And of course, Stevenson's description of how the angels are communicating -- "flutters from inside," and so on -- could be damn near anything.  A "flutter from inside" could mean that you just saw a cute individual of your preferred gender.  It could mean you just realized that you left for work without your wallet.

It could mean that you're coming down with stomach flu.

So how you react to said "flutter" is pretty much random, isn't it?  If you decide that it's an angel talking to you (or maybe a demon, in the latter-mentioned instance), and your life is being supernaturally guided, all you're doing is putting a wishful-thinking twist on an event that is wildly open to interpretation and almost certainly has nothing to do with anyone trying to communicate with you.

It's a common drive, though, isn't it?  All around us we see chaos, random stuff happening to folks for no apparent reason.  Some good, some bad -- some really bad.  No apparent pattern to any of it.

And people don't like that.

I was just discussing with a student of mine yesterday how much woo-woo-ism comes out of a rejection of this notion of chaos.  A child is diagnosed as autistic -- the anti-vaxxers want there to be a reason, and settle on the measles vaccination as the culprit.  A loved one develops Parkinson's disease, and you look up into the sky -- and see chemtrails.  A person has severe, life-threatening allergies -- and lays the blame on GMOs.

We don't like it that there are limits to our understanding, that there are aspects of life that we can't control, can't explain.  Chaos, to put it bluntly, is freakin' scary.  How comforting, then, to think that there are angels there beside us -- and that if we just learn to listen hard enough, and want it bad enough, that they can heal us, comfort us, take away our anxieties.

But how callous of people like Doreen Virtue to turn a profit from that desire.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Curtain call for Harry Houdini

One thing you have to admire about woo-woos is their persistence.

The "spirit mediums," especially.  They just never seem to give up.  Now, of course, the ones who have the profit motive in mind have a good reason for keeping up the game; it's no wonder that people like Sylvia Browne, Theresa Caputo, and "Psychic Sally" Morgan still insist that their alleged powers are real.  Any sign of hesitancy about whether they really are getting in touch with dear departed Aunt Bertha, even in the face of accusations of fraud, would stop the paychecks from rolling in post-haste.

Still, that doesn't explain a good many of the others, who are really, earnestly trying to contact the other side, for no great gains financially, and despite failure after failure to do so.  To some extent, they're probably powered by wishful thinking, of course.  Who amongst us hasn't wanted to hear from some long-lost loved one, or just to obtain evidence that life goes on after death?

You'd think that year after year, decade after decade, of flimsy evidence at best, would convince even those die-hards.

But no.  Which probably explains why a group in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is meeting again this year on Halloween to try to summon the dead spirit of Harry Houdini.

Houdini died on Halloween 87 years ago, in 1926, and (according to the article) a séance has been held every year on the anniversary of his death to see if the famous magician will come back to have a few words with the living.  Leading this year's attempt is Alan Hatfield, a spirit medium from Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia.  "My specialty is EVP electronic voice phenomena," Hatfield said.  "I've been to the Titanic site twice and recorded voices there and at Deadman's Island and other places through the years."

What is ironic about all of this is that Houdini himself was something of a skeptic.  He started out believing in the afterlife -- according to his biography, William Kalush and Larry Sloman's The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, Houdini first launched into a quest for communication with the dead after he lost his mother, and (perhaps not coincidentally) shortly thereafter entered a correspondence with Arthur Conan Doyle.  Despite Conan Doyle's celebration of the power of logic and rationalism in the person of his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, he was something of a nut about spiritualism himself, and toward the end of his life got involved in a great deal of woo-woo silliness, most famously the Cottingley Fairies hoax.

So Houdini asked Conan Doyle for some recommendations for good mediums.  Conan Doyle, delighted, obliged.  But after visiting them -- giving them, in my view, their best shot at convincing him -- Houdini was unimpressed.  One of them, Mrs. Annie Brittain -- whom Conan Doyle considered the best of the lot -- was especially disappointing.  "Mrs. Brittain was not convincing," Houdini later wrote.  "Simply kept talking in general.  'Saw' things she heard about.  One spirit was supposed to bring me flowers on stage.  All this is ridiculous stuff."

In the end, Houdini had no honest choice but to become a debunker.  It's the fate of a lot of stage magicians; they know how easy it is to fool people, and are quick to catch charlatans at their game.  The New York Times later spoke about Houdini's "merciless exposure of miracle-mongers who claim to be endowed with mysterious powers," and nominated him for the Seybert Commission, an academic group who studied claims of the paranormal with a skeptical attitude.  He intended to coauthor a book called The Cancer of Superstition with none other than H. P. Lovecraft -- a project that had to be altered because of Houdini's death, with C. M. Eddy taking Houdini's place.

Interestingly, Houdini himself proposed a test of the claim that there was an afterlife.  He proposed to his wife that after his death, if he was able, he would transmit a message to her in code that said "Rosabelle, believe."  The code was known only to Houdini and his wife.  In 1936 -- ten years after his death -- his wife finally gave up, and put out the candle she'd kept burning next to his photograph.  "Ten years is enough for any man," she is reported to have said on the occasion.

Odd, then, that the spiritualists are still at it, 77 years later.  Like I said, they never give up.

Now, understand that I don't know there isn't an afterlife, and there are some claims of hauntings that I find interesting, at the very least.  And no one would be happier than me to find out that death wasn't the end.  (Depending, of course, on which version of the afterlife you go for.  My vote would be for Valhalla, which sounds awesome.)  But it does very much seem like however you look at it, 87 years with no results is a long time to wait before deciding that there's nothing there to see.

So thanks to my friend and fellow blogger, Andrew Butters of Potato Chip Math, for the lead on this story.  And if you're in Halifax on Halloween, see if you can get tickets to the live performance that evening.  I'd love to hear about it.  And who knows?  Maybe this will be the year something will happen.  Hope springs eternal, apparently, especially if you're a woo-woo.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Naked dead guy money pants

Writing a blog like this one, the usual gist of which is that people believe bizarre things, means that I get the oddest emails sometimes.

Like yesterday, when I got a one-line email, to wit:
Once worn, the scrotum of the necropants would never empty of coins so long as the original coin remains.
That was it.  No explanation.  So I responded, understandably:
... what?
And in short order received the response:
You heard me.
So I was mystified.  Was this some kind of code?  If I responded, "The doberman barks at midnight," would I be allowed into the Sanctum Sanctorum of some secret society?  Or was the person who sent the email simply loony?  I finally decided on the direct approach, and responded:
Yes, I did, and am no closer to having the slightest idea of what you are talking about.
At this point, the emailer decided to stop playing coy, and sent me a link to a page of the website The Cult of Weird called "Macabre Icelandic Traditions: Necropants."  On the website we are told that "necropants" are a bizarre, and probably illegal, way to make money through black magic:
The Strandagaldur Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Holmavik tells the story of seventeen people burned at the stake in the 17th century for occult practices. The museum’s claim to fame is an exhibit showcasing the macabre legend of Necropants, or nábrók... 

According to legend, necropants could produce an endless flow of coins if done correctly.

To begin with, one would need to get permission from a living man to use his skin upon his death. After burial, the sorcerer would then have to dig up the body and skin it in one piece from the waist down. A coin stolen from a poor widow must then be placed in the scrotum, along with a magic sign called nábrókarstafur scrawled on paper.

Once worn, the scrotum of the necropants would never empty of coins so long as the original coin remains.
The website has a photograph of some (presumably real) necropants, or at least a fairly convincing facsimile thereof, which I would have posted here except for the fact that it looks basically like the lower half of a naked guy and I don't want to offend anyone.  So if you want to see it for some reason (and I may need several months of therapy after having looked at it myself), you can just go to the original website and take a look.

Of course, what this makes me wonder is two things: (1) how did anyone ever come up with this idea?  (2) And once they tried it, and it didn't work, how on earth did the tradition continue?  You'd think that once you'd gone to all of that trouble, and no gold coins dropped from the dead guy's naughty bits, you'd sort of go, "Well, there's another great idea that didn't work.  What a bunch of goobers we are," and go back to herding sheep, or whatever the hell they did for a living in 17th century Iceland.

But no.  Apparently enough people thought that this was a good idea that it somehow became a common practice, or at least sufficiently widespread to merit a bunch of people getting burned at the stake, and later, a display in a museum.  The whole thing leaves me a little flabbergasted, frankly.

But the person who originally emailed me actually had an interesting point (other than grossing me out completely) -- which was that a lot of these magic spells and so on have similar characteristics to the claims people now circulate on the internet.  "But before we had the internet you had to come up with something that people would actually repeat, for it to get around," he said, with regard to the Naked Dead Guy Money Pants.  "So it had to be something either too vague in its effects to be sure whether it was working, or too much trouble for people to actually do, as in this case."

Which explains it, I guess.  Me, I'm still a little perplexed at how someone could come up with the idea in the first place.  But when you think about it, it's not really that much weirder than (for example) Scientology.

Maybe back in 17th century Iceland, some guy made a bet with another guy in a bar that he could convince people that they could make money skinning corpses.  It's as good an explanation as any, and hey -- it worked for L. Ron Hubbard.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Obi-wan... has taught you well.

Try and guess what the seventh-largest claimed religion in England is.

Go ahead, try.  I bet you'll be wrong.

Ready for the answer?  It's "Jediism."

Yes, you read that right.  Jedi.  As in Star Wars.  People around the world are, in increasing numbers, claiming to be Jedi Knights.

(photograph courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

According to a recent investigation by Details' Benjamin Svetkey, there are now Jedi training camps springing up around the world.  He knows because he visited one, in Norris, Texas, where he witnessed a "knighting" of a former "padawon" named Ally Thompson.  Thompson, a 28-year-old Iraqi war veteran, has been studying for years to achieve her knighthood.

"No, we don't worship Yoda," she told Svetkey.  "And telekinesis is not something that we necessarily do - at least not like in the movies.  But I won't deny that the Force is very present in our teachings. Some people call it magic.  Some call it Ashe.  The scientific community calls it energy.  But it's everywhere.  You can find it in the Bible.  When Moses parted the Red Sea - how did he do that?  With energy.  With the Force."

According to Svetkey, there are 175,000 self-proclaimed Jedi in England, making it the seventh-largest religion in the country.  There are 15,000 Jedi in the Czech Republic, 9,000 in Canada, and 65,000 in Australia.

Oddly, given our penchant for embracing bizarre belief systems, there are only 5,000 Jedi in the United States.  I'm not sure if I should be happy or upset about that.  But I will say that one of the most popular training programs for Jedi, The Temple of the Jedi Order, is located in Beaumont, Texas.

If you visit their website (which I highly recommend), you can learn what they're about.  Their mission statement (as it were) runs as follows:
Jedi Believe:
In the Force, and in the inherent worth of all life within it.
In the sanctity of the human person. We oppose the use of torture and cruel or unusual punishment, including the death penalty.
In a society governed by laws grounded in reason and compassion, not in fear or prejudice.
In a society that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or circumstances of birth such as gender, ethnicity and national origin.
In the ethic of reciprocity, and how moral concepts are not absolute but vary by culture, religion, and over time.
In the positive influence of spiritual growth and awareness on society.
In the importance of freedom of conscience and self-determination within religious, political and other structures.
In the separation of religion and government and the freedoms of speech, association, and expression.
And I can't honestly argue with any of that.  Frankly, I'd be willing to accept a belief in the Force in exchange for everybody in the world abiding by those rules.

Still, I can't help but find the whole thing a little... silly.  It's kind of like what happens when Civil War reenactors and members of the Society for Creative Anachronism let their fantasy life take over.  I mean, the people who created Star Wars were up front that it was fiction -- not just the story, but the Jedi Order and the religious trappings and all.  So sorry, but I don't think I'll be donning brown robes and trying to learn how to handle a light saber any time soon.

On the other hand, it's not the first time that a religion has sprung from science fiction.  I'm lookin' at you, Scientologists.  And I'll take the Jedis over those wackos in a heartbeat, given the latter's history of coercion, secrecy, abuse, and fraud.  (And lest you think I'm overstating my case by the use of the last word, the French government delivered a serious blow to the Church of Scientology just last week, when a court upheld a 2009 fraud conviction for victimizing vulnerable followers.)

And since I'm an atheist, it's no surprise that I pretty much have the attitude that all religions were, originally, human inventions, so honestly, Jediism is no worse than the rest of 'em (and a damn site better than a good many). 

So my general response is: let the Jedis have their fun.  It doesn't seem to be harming anyone.  And who knows?  If a Death Star shows up one day and a deep, booming voice threatens to vaporize planet Earth, the Jedis may well be Our Only Hope.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Publicity stunts and "Aura Babies"

Ordinarily I don't pay any attention to celebrities.

Part of it comes from not having a working television connection.  I live too far out in the middle of nowhere for cable, and I'm too cheap to get a satellite dish.  Besides, if I did have satellite, I'd just spend hours watching The Weather Channel and updating my wife about weather systems in North Dakota, and she has to put up with enough of this kind of thing already, given that my internet browser's homepage is the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So there's the lack of access, but a big part of it also comes from a lack of caring.  My general impression is that a lot of celebrities are talentless hacks who will do anything to remain in the public eye, and I just don't have a lot of patience for that sort of thing.  But when Sharon Hill, over at the wonderful site Doubtful News, posted a story on a couple of "reality" television stars, I thought, "If Hill thinks it's worth paying attention to, I should probably see what it's all about."

Turns out it was worth the effort.  Because that's how I found out that plastic-surgery-queen Heidi Montag and her partner, Spencer Pratt, are trying to conceive...

... an "aura baby."

(photograph courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

I'm not making this up.  And in the time-honored fashion of couples everywhere, she posted details about what she and Pratt were doing, on Twitter.  Here was the first tweet:
1 reason we're trying to get fit is Spencer & I are trying to conceive #speidishow
But she hastily followed it up with additional tweets, that they weren't just trying to have a regular old boring baby, but an "aura baby."  What is an "aura baby," you might ask?  Do you conceive one from having aural sex?  No, but Montag has the answer:
An Aura Baby is a product of the soul born out of the bio-chemistry of the universe! #speidishow
Oh!  Okay!  Because that clears it right up!  But fear not, she went on with a more detailed explanation:
An Aura Baby isn't the child of your fame, not YOUR Aura & NOT Aura like when they say a  painting has an Aura #speidishow
I...  what?
An Aura Baby is born of 1 thing – the love of 2 people channeled & focused to go out to the whole world!  #speidishow
 Just... stop...
Since i beat @spencerpratt in yoga he's carrying our aurababy! #speidishow
And so forth and so on.

Now, I'm aware that this is just a publicity stunt.  A weird publicity stunt, but a publicity stunt.   But apparently some of Montag's fans don't.  I looked at her Twitter feed, and while there were a few people who seemed to react with disdain (including more than one who questioned Montag's sanity), most people who responded seemed ostensibly to think that she was somehow talking about reality.  One woman, in fact, said she was "Soooo excited" about the upcoming happy cosmic event, and hoped that they would "televise the delivery" when Pratt gives birth to his new little astral offspring.

Okay, that could be an example of Poe's Law, but given some of the other insane things people believe, I'm not entirely sure.

So, that's the news from Hollywood these days.  Further reinforcing my determination not to watch television, which in my opinion went into a tailspin, quality-wise, the day The X Files went off the air.  I'll just stick with my online news reports of weather systems in North Dakota, which at least have a basis in reality.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

WiFi woes

A clever, although questionably ethical, marketing technique is to create a problem in people's minds, and then sell them a solution to the (nonexistent) problem.

I first saw this happen with the invention of "cellulite" in the 1970s.  Cellulite, supposedly, was some kind of special, hard-to-get-rid-of fat, predominantly on the upper legs of women, where it manifests as dimples and bumps.  Almost instantaneously that it was named (and identified as "difficult to treat"), various diets, exercises, and supplements appeared that were specifically intended to "flush cellulite from the body."

Sad to say, but cellulite is just plain old fat.  No different than fat anywhere in the body.  It only appears different on the upper legs because of the presence of fibrous connective tissue there.  And you can't get rid of it except the same way you'd get rid of any fat, i.e., to eat less and exercise more -- and because of skin wrinkling with age, older people probably won't ever be able to rid themselves of it entirely.

A similar kind of thing is going on today, in a completely different area -- this one with regards to the safety of WiFi networks.

Somewhere along the line, someone got the idea that the radiation emitted by WiFi networks was dangerous, leading to sites like the EMF Safety Network, which acts as a clearinghouse for all sorts of links on the subject.  On the "Welcome" page, we're given a taste of how seriously they take all of this with a quote from Dr. Robert O. Becker, who was "twice nominated for the Nobel Prize:"
I have no doubt in my mind that at the present time, the greatest polluting element in the earth’s environment is the proliferation of electromagnetic fields. I consider that to be far greater on a global scale than warming, and the increase in chemical elements in the environment.
Well, that's just terrifying, but allow me to point out that (1) anyone can be nominated for a Nobel Prize, (2) Becker's work with the role of electricity in disease and healing has been found to be unsupported, and (3) he thought that telepathy was real and caused by "low-frequency electromagnetic waves."

Be that as it may, there is now all sorts of scare-literature out there about how we should protect our children from the dangers of WiFi.  The general consensus by scientists, of course, is that this is nonsense -- the radiation from WiFi networks is non-ionizing (i.e., sufficiently low in energy that it cannot break chemical bonds) and of very low intensity.  A public statement by Princeton University identifies the dangers of WiFi as what they are (minimal):
(A) newly published paper entitled “Radiofrequency Exposure from Wireless LANS Utilizing Wi-Fi Technology” discusses a study in which measurements were conducted at 55 sites in four countries, and measurements were conducted under conditions that would result in the higher end of exposures from such systems. An excerpt from the abstract states “.…In all cases, the measured Wi-Fi signal levels were very far below international exposure limits (IEEE C95.1-2005 and ICNIRP) and in nearly all cases far below other RF signals in the same environments.”
Dr. Steven Novella, in SkepticBlog, also addresses the claims of certain individuals who believe they are "electromagnetic hypersensitives:"
What about electromagnetic hypersensitivity – the reporting of common non-specific symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, and confusion, while being exposed to EMF? Well, the same review also summarizes this research, which finds that under blinded conditions there is no such hypersensitivity syndrome. Even with people who consistently report symptoms with exposure to EMF, in blinded conditions they cannot reliably tell if they are being exposed to EMF.
This hasn't stopped the claims from flying, and dozens of cases of parents petitioning school boards to have WiFi networks removed from schools to "protect the children" -- in some cases, successfully.  Novella concludes,
What we have here are the seeds of yet another grassroots movement that is disconnected from science and hostile to authority. This is a scenario we have seen played out many times before, and no doubt we will see it many times again.
And, of course, wherever you have panic over risk, you'll have some shrewd marketer who decides to capitalize upon the fear.

Take, for example, EarthCalm, which purports to shield you from the dangers of the nasty WiFi waves.  Here's their sales pitch:
Concerned about WiFi radiation dangers?  You have reason to be.

WiFi uses hazardous radiation to send its signals through walls.  If you have WiFi, you are receiving massive amounts of radiation that may be causing you and your family health problems.

WiFi Health Risks:
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • sleep disorders
  • digestive problems
  • brain fog and memory loss
  • depression and anxiety
  • dizziness
Research on WiFi Radiation Dangers:
There's a great deal of research that's been done on the non-thermal kind of radiation that WiFi emits.

One comprehensive report is the Bioinitiative Report.  Written by 29 scientists, researchers, and health policy professionals from 10 different countries, this report documents clear evidence that numerous health issues, including DNA breakage and risk of cancer, are created by exposure to radiation from cell phones, cell towers, power lines, and WiFi.
They must define "massive amounts" differently than I do, given that the Princeton study (cited above) found that the levels of low-frequency radiation given off by WiFi networks was so small as to be nearly indistinguishable from the background noise.

However, don't let little things like "facts" stand in the way of your sales pitch.  Because the EarthCalm people aren't just saying to give in; no, they're saying that they want you to purchase a "shield" -- the "EarthCalm WiFi Pak" -- that "eliminates WiFi health risks by transforming the hazardous cloud of radiation into a calming field of protection throughout your home."

For only $457.

And I'm sure they're selling like hotcakes, given the current scare tactics being used by the anti-WiFi cadre.  Same, actually, as the scare tactics used by the chemtrails people, the anti-GMO folks, and the anti-vaxxers.

Wouldn't surprise me if there was a significant overlap between those four groups, actually, because the conclusions they've reached come from the same source -- fear, distrust, and a poor understanding of the science.

Now, don't misunderstand me; I know there have been times that people have thought something was safe, sometimes for decades, and then it turns out not to be.  It's just that I don't think this is one of those cases.  The science, here, is well understood; the whole thing has been tested to a fare-thee-well; and the claims of the people who disagree virtually entirely rest on anecdote and poorly-controlled "studies" that wouldn't pass peer review even if there were hefty bribes involved.

So, in my mind, it's case closed.  But I'm sure that doesn't mean the controversy will go away, nor the clever salespeople trying to capitalize on it.  Because one thing hasn't changed since P. T. Barnum's time; there's still a sucker born every minute.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mob brain

I told myself that I wouldn't blog about the government shutdown.

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a very political person.  To my untrained ear, most politics seems to fall into one of two categories; (1) arguing about things that are blatantly obvious (such as whether gays should have the same rights that straight people do), and (2) arguing about things that are so impossibly complex that a reasonable solution is probably impossible (such as how to balance the federal budget).  Given that impression, it's no wonder that most political wrangling leaves me a little baffled.

So, any opinion I might have on the government shutdown, or what to do about it, wouldn't be worth much.  But I did hear one commentary on the shutdown, and President Obama's role in it, that left me feeling like I had to respond.  It came from one Larry Klayman, the attorney who founded the right-wing organization Freedom Watch:
I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Qu'ran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.
This unusually stupid statement was made at an event called the "Million Vet March on the Memorials," which was an accurate name only if you believe the mathematical equation 200 = 1,000,000, but which did attract noted wingnuts Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz.  And when Klayman made his wacky pronouncement, the crowd went wild with glee and waved their anti-government flags they'd brought along for the occasion.

My thought was, "Are you serious?  You people still think President Obama is a Muslim?"  I thought that had finally been laid to rest along with the whole birth certificate nonsense and the question of whether Donald Trump is wearing a toupée or if a raccoon had simply crawled on top of his head and died.

But no, the whole thing is still a burning issue with these people.  Klayman apparently arrived at the position using the following logic:
1.  I don't like Barack Obama.
2.  I don't like Muslims.
Therefore:  Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Possibly augmented with a second airtight argument, to wit:
1.  Muslims have funny names.
2.  Barack Obama is a funny name.
Therefore:  Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Logicians describe two basic kinds of one-step reasoning, the modus ponens and the modus tollens.  The first is when you have an implication, and can show that the first part is true, and deduce that the second must be true ("If today is Wednesday, then tomorrow must be Thursday.  I know today is Wednesday.  Therefore I know that tomorrow will be Thursday.")  The second is the converse; if I have an implication, and the second part is false, the first must be false as well ("If it's July, the weather is warm.  It's not warm this morning.  Therefore I know it must not be July.")

Klayman appears to have invented a third mode of reasoning, the modus morons.  I guess I need to revise my notes next time I teach logic in my Critical Thinking classes.

But what gets me most about all of this is how ridiculous it is from another standpoint, which is to consider how President Obama would act if he were a Muslim.  Let's look around us at Muslim-dominated countries in the world, and see if we can see some commonalities.  Here are a few:
  • Religion is overtly present pretty much everywhere you go.
  • Religion drives law, policy, and jurisprudence.
  • School curricula incorporate religious principles, and schools that are predominantly religious in nature are fully supported by the government.
  • The holy book of the dominant religion is to be considered as literal fact.
  • Women are subjected to subordinate roles, and any kind of reproductive rights issues are completely off the table.
  • Homosexuality is condemned; acceptance of homosexuality is considered a sign of moral decay, to be eradicated by any means.
  • Obedience to authority is one of the most fundamental virtues.
  • The death penalty is justified for a variety of crimes.
So, really, folks; who does that sound more like, the Democrats or the Republicans?

I mean, okay.  Even if you think that Klayman and his idiot friends are right, and that President Obama is a Muslim, you have to admit that he's a really lousy Muslim.  I think that if he is a Muslim, he should turn in his membership card, because he's acting like...

... well, like a liberal American.  Go figure.

And even so, when Klayman said his piece about the President "putting down his Qu'ran," the people listening didn't seem to react that way.  They applauded.  They yelled for more.  Instead of doing what I would have done -- which was to laugh directly in Klayman's face and take away his microphone -- they cheered him on.

There's something, I think, that happens to people's brains when they're in mobs.  Somehow, being part of a mob makes you incapable of thinking rationally.  So maybe that's all that happened here -- one fool got up and babbled foolish stuff to the crowd, and the crowd simply agreed, because that's what crowds do.  It's like the inimitable Terry Pratchett said: "The IQ of a mob is equal to the IQ of the stupidest person in the mob, divided by the number of people in the mob."

Considering that this particular mob contained Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and Larry Klayman, I think this formula results in a small number indeed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

COPE, Kansas, and the battle over evolution (again)

It's with a sense of "Oy, here we go again" that I must tell you that a group of parents in Kansas calling themselves COPE (Citizens for Objective Public Education) have sued the Kansas State Board of Education for adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, which explicitly endorse the teaching of evolution.

Here's the gist of the suit:
The Plaintiffs, consisting of students, parents and Kansas resident taxpayers, and a representative organization, complain that the adoption by the Defendant State Board of Education on June 11, 2013 of Next Generation Science Standards, dated April 2013 (the Standards; and the related Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas, (2012;
(, incorporated therein by reference (the "Framework" with the Framework and Standards referred to herein as the “F&S”) will have the effect of causing Kansas public schools to establish and endorse a non-theistic religious worldview (the “Worldview”) in violation of the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, and the Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment.
So it's pretty much same old, same old.  They never get tired of the game, somehow, despite their repeated defeats, most tellingly the stinging slapdown they got in the Kitzmiller vs. the Dover Area School Board decision of 2005, which read, in part:
After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID [Intelligent Design] arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community...  It is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena...  ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.
So, yeah.  Ouchie-wawa.  But if you're on a Holy Crusade, you never accept defeat.  So they're back at it again, with (one hopes) the same results in store for them.

What makes this more interesting, though, is a piece on the subject by the eminent neurologist, writer, and skeptic Steven Novella, in his wonderful blog NeuroLogica.  The post, entitled "Kansas Citizens Vote to Reject Science," is (of course) a thorough rebuke of the motives and rationality of COPE and any members of the judiciary who might agree with them, but it contained a passage that made me frown a little:
Science does not require non-theism. It does not even require naturalism. Science merely proceeds as if the world is naturalistic, that there is cause and effect and nothing magical that violates cause and effect. This is called methodological naturalism – science is a set of methods that work within a naturalistic framework of cause and effect.

Science is officially agnostic, however, toward any deeper philosophical conclusions about whether or not anything supernatural actual exists. It simply relegates such questions outside the sphere of science.

This does not mean that philosophers cannot rely on empirical evidence and scientific notions to argue for a naturalistic universe. That is my personal belief – the simplest explanation for why we cannot know about anything supernatural, and why science works within the assumption of naturalism, is because naturalism is actually true. But science does not require that belief.
While I agree with him insofar as his views speak of religion in general, I disagree entirely when they are applied to specific religions.  And, after all, almost no one belongs to a "religion in general."  There are religions that see no conflict whatsoever between science and a belief in god (the Unitarians, for example).  There are others which very much do.  So it's all very well to say that "science is officially agnostic... about whether or not anything supernatural exists," but when push comes to shove and science runs headlong into religion, a Southern Baptist (for example) is going to have to decide where (s)he stands on the matter.

It's a little disingenuous, I think, for Dr. Novella (however much I respect him and approve of his views) to say that mandating the teaching of evolution in public schools is outside of the purview of religion, just as religion is outside of the purview of science.  But if part of your religious belief is that god created the world in six days, six-thousand-odd years ago, then my saying that the Earth is six or so billion years old, that organisms have evolved into the forms we have today, that there was no Great Flood, and so on, certainly has religious implications.  By stating that the latter are to be taught in science classes -- and I believe, of course, that they should be -- I am stating, not so subtly, that your religion is wrong on those points.

You can surely see how both viewpoints can't be true.

So, however much we'd like to accept the Stephen Jay Gould idea of non-overlapping magisteria -- that science and religion both have their places, and those places do not intersect -- there is a significant percentage of Americans who don't see it that way.  Young-Earth creationists, in particular, are completely correct in seeing scientific statements as affecting, and in many cases negating, their religious claims.

To them, scientific statements are religious statements.  Not that science and religion have the same methods; in fact, precisely because they don't.  They have accepted the religious way of knowing as the ultimate truth -- anything that comes into conflict with that, then, must be false and evil.

Now don't get me wrong; I think the members of COPE are a bunch of irrational nitwits.  Their stance about evolution is demonstrably incorrect.  However, that doesn't mean that their claim -- that teaching their children evolution is a practice that carries with it an intrinsic statement about their religion -- is false as well.

So as much as I wish we would stop pussyfooting around and playing nice with these people, the Establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  At first glance, this would clearly seem to place religion in the context of a personal practice -- making any public mandate of a religious point of view illegal.  But what if, as in this case, kids are being made to learn, and to treat as truth, a viewpoint that directly contradicts their religious beliefs?

How is that itself not a religious statement?

I dunno.  Makes me glad I'm not a judge.  Despite my inclination to tell the members of COPE, "Hey, y'all just get yourselves back to the 17th century where you belong, I'm sure there are some witches y'all need to take care of back there," I'm not sure it's that easy.  I hope that this latest lawsuit goes the way of Kitzmiller vs. Dover, but however it's decided, I don't think the war is over quite yet.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Peter Gariaev, wave genetics, and the problem of being a dilettante

There's an inherent problem with skepticism, and the heart of it is that you can't be an expert in everything.

There are, in fact, damn few things that I do consider myself an expert in.  Judging by my ability to read technical, peer-reviewed papers, I can handle myself decently in the fields of evolutionary biology and population genetics (which I focused on in college, and which I teach every year) and historical linguistics (the subject of my master's degree).  Outside of that... well, I'm a dilettante.  So despite my B.S. in physics, research papers in Science on just about any topic in physics lose me after the first two sentences.  Even in biology -- a subject I've taught with (I think) at least some degree of competence for 27 years -- I am instantaneously lost in the details in scholarly papers on a variety of topics, including (but not limited to) cellular biology, physiology, ecosystem dynamics, and most of biochemistry.

Now, let me say up front that there's nothing inherently wrong about being a dilettante.  Dilettantes make good high school teachers, and my opinion is that it's more fun to be a generalist than a specialist.  Dilettantism was positively celebrated in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was the sport of gentlemen (and more than a few gentlewomen) -- some of whom have some significant and far-reaching research to their credit.

But being a generalist does bring with it a problem, and that is that it leaves you unqualified to weigh in on topics where specialized knowledge would be required to know if the person in question was even making sense.  And the specialists aren't much better off -- because even they are out of their element in all but their chosen field.

So how, as skeptics, do we make a decision about whether someone is a groundbreaking pioneer or a spouter of bullshit -- when the field in which they are making their pronouncements is less than familiar to you?

I ran into an especially good example of this a couple of days ago, when a friend asked me what I thought about Dr. Peter Gariaev.  I hadn't heard of Dr. Gariaev's research, so I did a little digging.  And what I found left me with the same impression my friend had -- his comment was that it "sounded like a bunch of woo."

But let's face it, relativity sounded like a "bunch of woo" when it was first proposed.  So did quantum mechanics.  So, honestly, did the germ theory of disease.  None of these ideas were particularly intuitive; none gained instant acceptance; all three seemed, for a while, to be blatant nonsense.  So let's look at some of Gariaev's writing, and see if he's an Einstein or a Schrödinger -- or a David Icke or a Richard C. Hoagland.

Here are a few paragraphs from Gariaev's own website about his theory, called "Wave Genetics:"
The quintessence of the wave genome theory may be represented as following: genome of the highest organisms is considered to be a bio-computer which forms the space-time grid framework of a bio-systems.

In that bio-system, as the carriers of a field epi-gene-matrix - wave fronts are being used, which are assigned by gene-holograms and so-called solitons on DNA – distinct type of acoustic and electromagnetic fields, produced by biogenetic apparatus of the organism/bio-system under consideration and being a medium of strategic regulatory data/information exchange between cells, tissues and organs of the bio-system.

It is also vital to note that the holographic grids/frameworks, which are also the elements of fluctuating structures of solitons, are, in fact, discrete simplest cases of code-originated information, anchored in chromosome continuum of an organism...

A group of scientists headed by P P Gariaev and M U Maslov, developed a theory of so called fractal representation of natural (human) and genetical languages. Within the confines of this theory it is said that the quasi-speech of DNA possesses potentially inexhaustible “supply of words” and, moreover, what had been a sentence on the scales of DNA–“texts” “phrases” or a “sentence” becomes/turns into a word or a letter on the other scale. Genetical apparatus can be viewed as the triunity of its structure-functional organization consisting of holographic, soliton and fractal structures.

This theory allows a refined quantitative comparison of symbolic structure of any texts including genetical. Thereby a possibility has been wide open to approach a deciphering of a lexicon of one’s own gene-code, and accordingly, more accurate composition of algorithms of addressing a genome of a human with an aim of potentially any type of programming of one’s vital activity such as treatment, increasing one’s life expectancy and so on and so forth.

Empirical tests of wave genetic theory in the light of “speech” characteristics of DNA demonstrate strategically correct stance and direction of the research.
Made it through all that?  There's lots more, but it all pretty much sounds like what you just read.  Lots of use of words like "holographic" and "fractal" and "soliton;" not much in the way of data.  As far as his qualifications, Gariaev himself apparently has a Ph.D., even though nowhere could I find any mention of where it's from.  To be fair, this may just be that his biographical details aren't widely known outside of his native Russia.  So given that, is there a way we can parse his research, despite not being molecular biologists ourselves?  (Well, maybe some of my readers are, but I'm not.) 

When I run across something like this, the first thing I look for is to see where he's been published.  And when you look at his publications list, an interesting pattern emerges.  Back in the early 1990s, Gariaev was publishing in what seem to be reputable, peer-reviewed journals -- the Journal of the Society of Optical Engineering and Laser Physics, for example.  Even back then, though, you could see what appears to be a trend toward oddball interpretations of science, with his solo paper "DNA as source of new kind of God 'knowledge'" (published in the Act and Facts/Impact series, N12, pp. 7-11).  I'm just going off the title, here -- I wasn't able to find the paper itself -- but unless he was using the term "God knowledge" metaphorically, which doesn't seem very likely in a scholarly paper, I think this one already shows that he'd gone off the beam.

Since then, though, he's not had a single publication in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, with the exception of a 2002 paper in the International Journal of Computing Anticipatory Systems.  His other publications have appeared in places like the Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions (and lest you think that I'm being too harsh, here, a quick survey of other articles they'd published include one having to do with using "Qigong" to treat cancer, one trying to use quantum mechanics to explain telepathy, and one called "A Scientific Validation of Planetary Consciousness"). 

Other papers by Gariaev have appeared in DNA Decipher Journal -- which just this summer published a paper called "Quantum Intelligent Design in Contrast to Mindless Materialists' Evolution."

Mercy me.

So, if Gariaev is the next Einstein, why no papers in Nature or Science?

Why, too, is he cited all over -- but only in places of highly dubious reputation, like Above Top Secret and Godlike Productions?

And don't start with me about how he is a Maverick and a Pioneer and the other scientists hate him and are suppressing his work because it is too revolutionary.  C'mon, now.  How many careers were made based on the ground broken by the likes of Einstein and Schrödinger?  Peter Higgs just won the Nobel Prize, for fuck's sake.

I may not be an expert in biophysics; but I do know that if Gariaev really had shown (as he has claimed) that "genetic traits can be changed, activated and disactivated by use of resonant waves, beamed at the DNA" and that this was going to allow humans "to regrow vital internal organs, in vivo, without the requirement of difficult, dangerous and expensive surgical procedures," then he'd be elbowing Higgs out of the way to get to Stockholm.

So we can, as generalists (or as specialists outside our particular specialty) still use the principles of skepticism to come to some sort of judgment about what we read.  Fortunate for me; a dilettante I always have been, and (I'm afraid) a dilettante I always will be.  If it weren't possible for us to think through such situations, we'd fall prey to just about every crazy claim that came along.

Some of us still do, of course -- which is why it's absolutely critical to train your brain to be, well, absolutely critical.