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.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Starting today, I'm taking a brief vacation from writing on Skeptophilia.  So I'll just take this opportunity to wish you a fun New Year's Eve (along with an exhortation not to drink and drive), and a hope that you have a lovely 2014.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank you.  I truly value all of my readers -- even the ones who disagree with me.  This blog recently passed three quarters of a million lifetime hits, a number that I find very nearly incomprehensible.  But your feedback, support, and suggestions for topics are what keep me writing, and for that I thank all of you.

My next scheduled post will be on Monday, January 6, 2014.

Until then, there are a few things you can do to keep your appetite for critical thinking sated.  First, you can buy my book, if you haven't already done so.  It has the creative title Skeptophilia, is a bargain at only $3.99, and is a collection of 120 of my essays on science, skepticism, critical thinking, and woo-woo-ism.  You can get it for Kindle (here) or Nook (here).   If you do decide to buy it, many thanks -- and please leave a review.

This is also a chance for you to check out some other skeptical blogs and webpages, so here are a few of my favorites:
James Randi Educational Foundation
Doubtful News
The Skeptic's Dictionary
The Call of Troythulu
The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason
Friendly Atheist
Bad Archaeology
Bad Astronomy
Skeptic subreddit
Science, Reason, and Critical Thinking

If you, too, would like to take a break from thinking about all of the crazy things people believe, there's always fiction to be read.  Mine.  Yes, this is a moment of shameless self-promotion.  Besides the books linked on the sidebar, there are over a dozen other titles to choose from, which you can peruse on my Amazon author's page.  You will note that almost all of them have to do with the paranormal, an irony that my wife thinks is amusing.  Me, I just think that this is why they're filed under the heading "Fiction."  But you should still read them, because they're awesome.

If I do say so myself.

That should be enough to keep you occupied while I'm gone, don't you think?  I encourage you to continue sending me topics -- I'll be ready to sit down and write again when I get back from vacation, and would love to have some ideas of what you'd like me to write about.  Until then, keep hoisting the banner of logic!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Look before you leap

A friend and fellow Skeptophile sent a story to my attention on Facebook that seems fitting for the last Skeptophilia post of 2013.  It combines all of the essential elements: a claim that is so ridiculous that it clearly started as a hoax; a bunch of people (including folks in the media) who know so little science that they seem to have taken it seriously; a prediction that will have gullible individuals worldwide making complete fools of themselves next Saturday; and a Facebook back-and-forth that resulted in cheerful contributions from several loyal readers of this blog who were eager to get in on the fun of ripping the whole silly story to shreds.

The (recent) origin of the claim seems to have been this story in News Hound, entitled, "January 4, 2014 - Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity - Float For Five Minutes!"  Here's what they're claiming:
It has been revealed by the British astronomer Patrick Moore that, on the morning of January 4th 2014,  an extraordinary astronomical event will occur. At exactly 9:47 am, the planet Pluto will pass directly behind Jupiter, in relation to the Earth. This rare alignment will mean that the combined gravitational force of the two planets would exert a stronger tidal pull, temporarily counteracting the Earth’s own gravity and making people weigh less. Moore calls this the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect.
And here we run into our first five problems with this claim:

First, 9:47 in which time zone?  You can see how that would make a difference.  I'm assuming that it's 9:47 Greenwich Mean Time, which would certainly be the most logical interpretation, but it'd have been nice if they'd specified.

Second, even if we do assume that it's 9:47 GMT, then only the point on the Earth that is angled away from the Sun, and thus toward Jupiter and Pluto, would experience the effect, given that the Earth is spherical.  The other side of the Earth would actually experience the opposite -- an additional pull of gravity (the Earth's plus Jupiter's plus Pluto's), and people in those regions would feel heavier and fall faster.  People elsewhere on the Earth would experience this as a sideward pull, and would thus be more likely to trip over curbs and fall down.

Third, why would it only last for five minutes?  In terms of apparent angular velocity, neither Jupiter nor Pluto is moving that fast.  You'd think we'd at least have a few weeks' worth of floating about the place until everything drifts out of alignment.

Fourth, we have a problem with magnitudes, here.  Jupiter is a big planet, yes, but at closest approach it is still very far away.  We had a whole kerfuffle over "planetary alignments" amongst the astrology crowd a couple of years ago, which prompted me to calculate the gravitational pull of Jupiter on the Earth, and I came out with one ten-millionth of a Newton, a force a hundred million times smaller than the force the Earth itself is exerting.  So there's no way that the pull of Jupiter will have any significant affect on your hang time, and Pluto would have even less.

Fifth, "British astronomer Patrick Moore" was indeed an authoritative figure in the world of astronomy, and for many years hosted BBC's popular show The Sky at Night.  The problem is, he's been dead for two years, so he's not revealing much of anything at the moment.

Patrick Moore and fellow astronomer Dr. Fiona Vincent [photograph courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But all of this isn't stopping the author of the story on News Hound, who goes on to tell us:
Moore told scientists that they could experience the phenomenon by jumping in the air at the precise moment the alignment occurred. If they do so, he promised, they would experience a strange floating sensation.

Astronomers have long been aware that there would be an alignment of the planets on that date, when Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto would be on the same side of the Sun, within an arc 95 degrees wide. But now the effect could be expected as the gravitational effect of the other planets on the Earth’s crust is maximum even at their closest approach.

If you think you will be able to float around your house then you will be mistaken. BUT if you jump in the air at 9:47AM local time on January 4th 2014, it should take you about 3 seconds to land back on your feet instead of the usual 0.2 seconds.
We are then told to join in on Twitter, using the hashtag #ZeroGDay, which I definitely encourage all of you to do.

Okay, so here's the real scoop -- a discovery for which I thank my friend and loyal reader David Craig, who did some stellar research work on this whole ridiculous story.

Apparently, like so many crazy claims, this one does have a germ of truth to it.  Patrick Moore was a smart, clever, and exceptionally funny man, and on April 1, 1976, he played an April Fool's Day prank on his listeners by claiming that at -- guess when? -- precisely 9:47, Jupiter and Pluto would be in alignment, and if they jumped into the air, they'd feel weightless.  When the clock hit 9:47, Moore said, "Jump now!" -- and the telephone switchboard lit up with calls from listeners who said they'd felt the effect.  (In fact, one listener was furious because he said he'd jumped so high that he'd hit his head on the ceiling.)

So this story is apparently just the whole thing going around again, because, after all, if a practical joke works once, it can always be reused, right?   Evidently Patrick Moore thinks so.  He wasn't content with pranking people while he was alive, he's continuing to do it two years after his death.  Which he'd probably be pretty pleased about, and, honestly, is what I'll do if I have the opportunity.

Of course, I couldn't end this piece without some information on where the relevant planets actually are.  If you'll take a look at the Planetary Orbit Map from, you'll see that the Earth, Jupiter, and Pluto are very far from alignment -- Earth and Jupiter are more-or-less in alignment, but Pluto is clear on the other side of the Sun.

So I encourage you to participate on Twitter in #ZeroGDay, but don't bother jumping up and down unless you are doing so for another reason, in which case you should have at it.

And this seems like a fitting place to end.  I am taking a brief vacation for the remainder of the week, so this will be my last post of 2013.  I will be back at it on Monday, January 6, 2014, however, so keep those suggestions and comments coming.  I wish you all a lovely New Year's Day, and that 2014 is everything you hope for!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Blond aliens, etheric bodies, and sentient spaceships

In the past few posts, we've dealt with issues like Siri predicting the Apocalypse, Noah's Ark has been found but the government is hiding it from us, elves are blocking a highway project in Iceland, and Catholic leaders determining that angels don't have wings.  Today, we look at an even more pressing issue:

Are tall blond aliens invading Australia?

The question comes up because of a post on the amazingly wacky site Pararational called, and I am not making this title up, "Albino Extraterrestrials in Australia."  In it, we hear about an encounter between a man in an undisclosed location in Australia and some aliens who were, to say the least, peculiar:
A few nights ago I was standing on my balcony at around 2:30 to 3 in the morning.  I usually go out there around that time each night just to look at the stars for a few minutes before going to bed.  That night however, out over the neighbourhood on a foresty mountain just a couple blocks away, I saw this light in the trees.  It was a very bright white sort of pulsing glow, not bright in that it was blinding but bright in that it seemed to light the trees like daylight but pulsing really slowly...  after a couple of minutes or so a glowing white ball looking thing started to slowly rise above the trees. it was very bright but not blinding like the sun or anything...

I got in my car and drove around the block down to where the forest starts and I got out and walked into the forest.  I couldn’t hear anything but I could see the general direction which the light was coming from.

I followed it until another of those balls came into view. I was probably about 30m away when I could suddenly see silhouettes walking around past the ball up ahead. I tried to get closer but I couldn’t will myself to move. A really kind sounding voice from behind me said “do not be afraid” and then suddenly I was able to move again which caused me to fall face first into the ground.

I rolled over and standing over me was a very tall man with long white blond hair and very pale skin wearing what looked like a white onesey, all fluffy looking...  He leaned over and helped me up and that’s when I noticed something really freaky. on either side of his neck was a small but long slit that moved when he breathed.  It kinda looked like gills on a fish but it was just one slit on each side. this man helped me up off the ground and lead me over to where this floating ball was.
So, let's see... thus far, we've got a tall albino alien, with gills, wearing what amounts to fluffy footed pajamas.  It couldn't get any weirder, right?
…around this ball were several smallish people wearing black hooded robes and holding long metal rods, sort of like a staff or walking stick. They sort of reminded me of grim reapers with a walking stick instead of a scythe.
The man was calming yet he looked really freaky, especially the gill things he had. The hooded people never showed their faces which was pretty scary looking. Made me think it was some sort of satanic cult or something but the tall man was able to paralyze me without touching me at all and I don’t know how he did that.
And the tall albino in pajamas was surrounded by midgets dressed up like the Grim Reaper.  Got it.

After receiving this report, the people over at Pararational decided to do what any sane individual would do, on reading a story like this; they immediately tried to figure out which race of aliens these assorted weirdos represent:
So the question now is what exactly what race of extraterrestrials did this man encounter in Australia?  What race was this alien, and what is up with the shorter minions?   Sounds reminiscent of the Grey Aliens and their taller and shorter members...  (A) “Very tall man with long white blond hair and very pale skin.”  This sounds very much like some descriptions of the Annunaki.  Are they back to check up on us?
If you're curious, the dude on the right is what the Mesopotamians meant by "Annunaki."  No gills, no long blond hair, and no (thank heaven) footed pajamas.  [image courtesy of George Lazenby and the Wikimedia Commons]

Which leads us to another story, this time from UFO Digest, called "Zeta Craft and Their Propulsion System," which tells us about contact with aliens called the "Zeta Race" that has resulted in a guy named Paul Hamden finding out all about their super-advanced technology.  We are told, in the opening paragraphs, that the authors are going to give us details about Zeta science and technology, but when you read further, you find out that the details aren't very... detailed:
The Zetas are physical beings who live in physical environments, but they also have the ability to extend their activities to a non-physical, energetic environment where different laws of nature apply.  The energetic realm holds templates, also known as etheric bodies, that define the properties of associated forms in the physical universe.  In these non-physical realms, consciousness has the ability to create with thoughts...

Our craft are of a nature that are able to support our biological framework.  These craft are living entities...  The craft behaves like a single-celled organism so that it is without doors or windows. 
I'm with you, so far.  I've never seen a cell with windows.  But do go on:
They (the craft) are grown from what was initially a hybrid framework designed by our best technical and scientific beings, so this explains why we have craft who can also "self-heal". The craft are generic, genetically modified structures. Not all craft have individual operators, but as there are certain parts of our DNA replicated, there is one standard craft for beings to use. There are specific craft for specific beings. These beings are utilized to move in different dimensional aspects of the non-physicality of this physical universe. 
Okay, non-physicality of the physical universe means... um... that some things are physical, and then other things aren't?  How can you have a non-physical thing?  I thought the word "thing," by definition, meant "physical."
This statement says that the craft are designed to respond to operators with Zeta DNA. There is a standard craft that can be used by any Zeta because the craft responds to certain segments of DNA shared by all Zetas. There are also specific craft that respond to unique sequences of DNA possessed by particular Zetas. The latter craft and operators are used to move to and from non-physical dimensions of the universe. 
So the spaceship recognizes your DNA, and then just makes the ship go where your DNA tells it to?
The Zeta adds that the craft, like all living things, needs sustenance or a source of energy to survive. He says, “There is a basic life force woven into the fabric of the universe. This energetic form, waveform, feeds and nourishes these cellular craft.” For the Zeta, the basic life force of the universe is the energy of consciousness. Everything that is and can be experienced is constructed from this fundamental substrate.
I... um...  "life force of the fabric of the universe..."  But...
The process of wave shifting involves interaction with the field that 'is and always is'; that is, the energy of source consciousness. So the craft's intention to move invokes the creative process at a particular level of this consciousness field to relocate its etheric body in the matrix. 
DANGER!  DANGER!  Sensors indicate that bullshit readings are reaching maximum allowable limits!  Shield breach imminent!

*Engaging warp drive*

Whew.  That was close.

Anyway.  I'm thinking that what we have, here, is just two cases of rampant hallucinogen use.  There's no reason to believe that there are Zetas, or Annunaki, or midgets in Grim Reaper suits, or tall pajama-clad gilled albino aliens hanging around the Earth.  And I think now I'm going to wrap this up, and then relocate my etheric body to the kitchen, where I can gain some sustenance from the life force of a second cup of coffee.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dogma vs. science vs. history

I don't, for the most part, frequent religious blogs and websites.  As I've mentioned before, the majority of religious writers are starting from a stance so completely opposite from mine that there is barely any common ground on which even to have a productive argument.  So I generally only address religious issues when they either stray into the realm of science (as with the conflict over evolution), or when they begin to intrude on social or political realms (such as Dana Perino's claim earlier this year that atheists should leave the United States).  Otherwise, the religious folks can entertain themselves all they like about the meaning of scripture and the nature of god, and I'll happily entertain myself with the equally reality-based discussions about Bigfoot and aliens.

But just a couple of days ago, Catholic blogger Stacy Trascanos came out with a claim that is so bizarre that I felt like I had to respond to it.  In her piece entitled, "Without Dogma, Science is Lost," Trascanos makes the rather mindboggling claim that not only does science owe its origins to religion, science needs religion today -- as a fact-checker:
People also wrongly assume that dogma restricts science too much.  On the contrary, divine revelation nurtured and guarded a realistic outlook in Old Testament cultures, in early Christianity, and in the Middle Ages.  This Trinitarian and Incarnational worldview was, and still is, different from any pantheism or other monotheism, and it provided the “cultural womb” needed to nurture the “birth” of science...

To do science well, a working knowledge of Catholic dogma is necessary.  To know what directly contradicts the dogmas of revealed religion and to make such distinctions guides the scientist.  The accomplishments of the medieval Catholic scholars demonstrate this abundantly. You’ve heard the axiom, “Truth cannot contradict truth.” The Scientific Revolution is evidence of it...  (S)cience needs to be guided by faith, and that the Catholic Church has a legitimate right and authority to veto scientific conclusions that directly contradict her dogma.  This is not about the Church being against science, but about the Church being a guardian of truth.
I probably wouldn't have been as shocked as I was by all of this if I hadn't read Trascanos's bio at the bottom of the page, in which she says she has a Ph.D. in chemistry.  So these aren't the rantings of someone who has never studied science; Trascanos herself is a trained scientist, who gave up a career as a research chemist to pursue an M.A. in theology.

But a deeper problem with all of this is that she's simply factually incorrect.  Rationalism, and the scientific method it gave birth to, started with people like Anaxagoras and Democritus and Thales, long before Christianity began.  The idea that we could find out about the laws of nature by studying lowly matter was profoundly repulsive to early church fathers, who by and large took the mystical approach -- also, interestingly, launched prior to Christianity, by people like Pythagoras -- that the road to knowledge came from simply thinking, not experimentation.  (The desperation of medieval astronomers to make planetary orbits conform to perfect circles and the "five Platonic solids" comes largely from this approach.)

And as far as Christianity's acceptance of, and nurturing of, science, you only have to look at the story of Hypatia to realize what a crock that is.  Hypatia was a philosopher, teacher, mathematician, and astronomer in 4th century Egypt, who ran afoul of Bishop Cyril of Alexandria for her "ungodly teachings."  On his orders, she was kidnapped on the way home from the Library of Alexandria, and was cut to pieces with sharpened roof tiles.  Her body was burned.

Cyril went on to be canonized.

The problem, of course, is one we've encountered before; science and religion approach knowledge two completely incompatible ways.  Science bases its understanding on evidence; if new evidence arises, the understanding must change.  Religion, by and large (although there are some exceptions), bases its knowledge on revelation and inward reflection, not to mention authority.  Change in scientific understand can occur at lightning speed; change in religious understanding is slow, and frequently met with much resistance from adherents.  As Trascanos said, "...divine revelation nurtured and guarded a realistic outlook in Old Testament cultures, in early Christianity, and in the Middle Ages."  I would argue that because of this, self-correction seldom occurs in religion, because any alteration in belief is much more likely to be looked upon by the powers-that-be as an error of faith.

But the bottom line is, Trascanos is right about one thing; if science and religion come into conflict, there is no reconciliation possible.  You have to choose one or the other, because their decision-making protocols are inherently incompatible.  Trascanos, despite her scientific training, has chosen religion -- a decision I find frankly baffling, given the fact that science's track record in uncovering the truth is pretty unbeatable.

Still, I'm left with feeling like I still don't quite get how an obviously well-educated person as Trascanos can make claims that are so clearly counterfactual.  The thesis she so passionately defends is contradicted not only by history, but by science itself -- given the number of unscientific stances that were once considered "revealed truth" by the church, and which have since been abandoned.  (The whole heliocentric/geocentric argument is so well-known as to be a cliché; but check out this article, which attributes much of Galileo's troubles with the Vatican as coming from his stance on the existence of atoms [they exist] and his explanation of why things float in water [low density].) 

But all other considerations aside, we're back to the condition of agree-to-disagree.  However Trascanos wants to try to reconcile science with religion, she has arrived at the appropriate conclusion of falling on one side of the fence or the other.  It's just that she's chosen a different side than I have (actually, I tend to think that the other side of the fence doesn't exist, but that's an argument for a different day).  And now, I really will leave behind the shaky ground of religion and philosophy, and return to my happy place, populated by Bigfoot and aliens.

To each his own, I suppose.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

We found Noah's... no, listen! Wait! Where's everybody going?

Have you noticed that every few months, someone else finds Noah's Ark?

Just since I've begun this blog, I've written about four attempts, one of them "successful" (at least in the sense that the people running the expedition found some random rotting pieces of wood and declared victory).

Well, here we go again.  We now have another "successful Ark discovery," with the added filigree that there's a government coverup designed to prevent our finding out about it.  This should be fun, yes?  Religious whackjobbery + conspiracy theories = WHEEEEEEE!!!!!

This story, which has been making the rounds of social media, is described in some detail in the article by Mark Martineau entitled, "Noah's Ark Has Been Found.  Why Are They Keeping Us In the Dark?"  Here's a quote from the article that explains the gist:
In 1959, Turkish army captain Llhan Durupinar discovered an unusual shape while examining aerial photographs of his country. The smooth shape, larger than a football field, stood out from the rough and rocky terrain at an altitude of 6,300 feet near the Turkish border with Iran...  Capt. Durupinar was familiar with the biblical accounts of the Ark and its association with Mount Ararat in Turkey, but he was reluctant to jump to any conclusions. The region was very remote, yet it was inhabited with small villages. No previous reports of an object this odd had been made before. So he forwarded the photographic negative to a famous aerial photography expert named Dr. Brandenburger, at Ohio State University.

Brandenburger was responsible for discovering the Cuban missile bases during the Kennedy era from reconnaissance photos, and after carefully studying the photo, he concluded: "I have no doubt at all, that this object is a ship. In my entire career, I have never seen an object like this on a stereo photo."
We are then told that some folks investigated, but found nothing too spectacular.  Then a guy named Ron Wyatt decided to take a more thorough look at the site, and after his study, "The evidence was conclusive.  This is the Ark of Noah."

What evidence, you might ask?  Well, we have "traces... of wooden ribs":

We have "high-tech metal rivets":

We have "stone anchors":

Not to mention a plethora of other goodies, such as cat hair and fossilized animal poo.

But then Snopes got involved, predictably debunking the entire thing.   Most of the claims were outright false; there were no petrified wooden ribs, no exotic metal rivets, no subsurface features that look even remotely ship-like.  The animal poo is hardly unusual, given that animals do that.  And even a guy from Answers in Genesis, one Andrew Snelling, concluded that the site is natural geological feature caused by faulting, albeit a kind of peculiar-looking one.  (You should read the entire Snopes article for a piece-by-piece takedown of the claim.)

But so far, there's nothing much to separate this from all of the other times people have found Noah's Ark.  That's because you haven't heard about the conspiracy theory aspect.  "Ordinary people are hungry for this information, yet the organizations responsible to disseminate these facts seem to have an agenda to keep us in the dark," Martineau writes.  "This is especially true when it comes to our ancient human history."

Yup, I'm sure that the powers-that-be spend all of their time trying to figure out how to keep the average citizen from finding out about the Code of Hammurabi.  Makes total sense.

But apparently, that's not all that the powers-that-be are trying to do.  If you take a look at the comments on the original site (Not directly!  Always use eye protection!), you'll see that apparently everyone is lying to us, especially Snopes.  Here are a few examples, as many as I was able to copy before the neurons in my cerebrum started whimpering for mercy:
After [Snopes] said that Obamas Birth Certificate was real...All their credibility was out the window

it a proven fact science does not have all the answers.

I don't use MY real name and I have a picture of Obozo getting ready to masturbate (what he always does right after burning the Constitution that he was HIRED TO PROTECT!). My reasoning is this... if Obozo's Mooselick Booboohood retards saw my REAL face, I would have to spend all my time killing the punk ass wannabe ragheads they send to behead me for being a TRUE AMERICAN PATRIOT... killing them in self-defense, of course. Not EVERYONE is stupid enough to put their real face out there where Satan's Minions (spelled MUSLIMS) can lock in on them. Enjoy your eternity in Hell that you will deserve for following Satan's Spawn Osama Obama!

Snopes is a propaganda tool of the far left!

Snopes has been discredited for producing any truth. Wake up and smell the Communism.

Yes, it IS good that previous commentor wasn't born in the islamic world of murdered and taken-over populations and destroyed cultures. That is why islam has spread all over the world, as it is spreading more by murdering Christian populations that have lived in the middle east for hundreds or thousands of years. Thanks all to OUR islamic communist puppet regime's support of money and weapons. But don't worry, it isn't only Christians being murdered, but those of the far east too.
So, I only have two questions about all of this: (1) what the fuck is a "Mooselick Booboohood?" and (2) do the people who comment on sites like this talk this way in real life?

Because if they do, I'm surprised that their loved ones don't stage an intervention involving the administration of horse tranquilizers.

The whole thing is profoundly unsettling, especially given that Snopes has a pretty good track record of establishing fact from fiction, and that there are people who think that the logical next step after "science doesn't have all the answers" is "so the bible must be literally true."  The problem, of course, is one we've seen before; if you can be duped into thinking that the facts are spin, and that the scientific method itself is invalid, you can be convinced of anything.

In any case, it seems pretty unlikely that this rock formation in Turkey has anything to do with either Noah's Ark or government coverups.  Which is a relief, frankly.  Because we've got to get this one debunked in order to make way for the next one.  Only one Noah's Ark allowed at a time, you know.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Siri, conspiracy theories, and the Gates of Hell

It doesn't take much, unfortunately, to get the conspiracy theorists all shook up.

Take the discovery a couple of weeks ago that for certain Siri users, the question "What is July 27, 2014?" elicits a response of, "It's Sunday, July 27, 2014.  Opening the Gates of Hades."

William Blake, Dante's Gates of Hell (1826) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, I can see how this could be a little startling.  The last thing you want is to be checking your calendar and find out you'd scheduled a date on the day that the Beast With Seven Heads is supposed to eat one-third of humanity.

You can see how that could make dinner conversation a little awkward.

The reason for the weird response hasn't, as far as I've found, been explained yet.  Some have said it's a joke planted there by a waggish programmer; others that it's some kind of weird glitch, similar to the one last year that directed users to Ron Paul's website if they asked questions about politics.  The most popular explanation, however, seems to be that it has something to do with the first day of "Ghost Month" in certain traditional Chinese beliefs, on which (similar to Halloween) the gates of heaven and hell are said to open.

But of course, you can't have something like this occurring without the conspiracy theorists getting their knickers in a twist.  Take a look at this YouTube video, courtesy of Alex Jones' nutty site InfoWars, where we are shown the Siri response and then told, "Let us know what you think in the comments section."

Here are a few selected samples of the result of that request:
Could they be thinking about opening portals in the the spiritual world to bring the devil into this world in another form through manifestation using technology?
the abyss or the bottomless pit is opened by an angel, thats after alot [sic] of other things have happened. If so, the next 6 months gonna be a rough ride.
Apple obviously know something that the masses do not and this can be said about all individuals in power.the government are nothing put [sic] puppets and all these big organisations are the exact same.they all serve satan and are trying to exexute [sic] that one goal
what is troubling is the tunnel they are carving through under the ground in seattle-something has stopped it in its tracks-they want to open the seattle underground tunnel in 2014 and something big is stopping there progress from going any further with it-they are sending men inside this thing to take a look and they are saying that something demonic is down there.
well, no [sic] much surprise here, since many things are already programmed to be done.  To my point of view, and according to some prophecies summer 2014 seems to be doomed.  Actually i believe that things will turn bad much earlier. 2014 will be the year of WW3, i am pretty sure about it (again, according to my sources)
Okay, can all of you people just calm down for a minute?

What comes to mind about all of this nonsense is that the conspiracy theorists aren't seeing the fundamental underlying contradiction in their stance.  They believe that the Illuminati are ultra-powerful, ultra-intelligent guys, with super technology, maybe even in cahoots with evil aliens, and yet are simultaneously so stupid that they would leave clues on Siri so easy to find that anyone checking their online calendars would ultimately stumble upon them.

I mean, you can't have it both ways.  Either the Illuminati are intelligent, or they're not.  If they're intelligent, they're not going to be found out by some clown who thinks that Alex Jones is the reincarnation of Einstein.

So, bottom line: could there be some kind of ultimate evil super-top-secret conspiracy?

Yes, I guess there could be.  But then we wouldn't know about it.  Because that's what "super top-secret" means.

Of course, this isn't about logic, is it?  Rationality is the last thing these people are interested in; most conspiracy theorists take the religious paradigm ("believe this even though there's no evidence") and walk it one step further ("believe this because there's no evidence").  And once you're there, there's no arguing with you, is there?

My general take on this is that you shouldn't worry.  If you are planning on a vacation to Costa Rica next summer, and will be leaving on July 27, don't apply for a refund quite yet.  Whatever this Siri glitch is, I'll bet you cold hard cash that it has nothing to do with the End of the World.

And second, if I'm wrong, and the Gates of Hell open, might as well be in Costa Rica, right?  I hear Costa Rica is really nice.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Elf highway blockade

One thing I would love to know is how groups of people end up being superstitious.  Not individuals; you can see how specific individuals could become superstitious about odd things, through a combination of classical conditioning and confirmation bias (you wear a specific t-shirt to a football game, and your team wins; you link the t-shirt to the win, and every time something good happens while you're wearing that shirt, it reinforces the belief.  Voilà -- "lucky t-shirt").

But how do specific counterfactual beliefs become so entrenched, despite a complete lack of evidence, that entire cultures begin to buy in?  I know that this is skating onto some seriously thin ice for some people, and I've no intention to skate any closer.  In any case, as you'll soon see, I'm not talking about what you probably think I'm talking about.

The reason this question comes up is because of a link sent to me by a frequent contributor to Skeptophilia, regarding a highway project in Iceland that has been blocked -- because the project will upset the elves.

Meadow Elves (Ängsälvor) by Nils Blommén (1850) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The project was designed to create a direct route from the Álftanes peninsula to the Gar∂abær suburb of Reykjavík.  But the highway was supposed to cut across a lava field inhabited by huldufólk, the Icelandic version of the Little People, and this got some people seriously up in arms.  A group calling themselves the "Friends of Lava" banded together with the intent of stopping the project, citing "detrimental effect on elf culture" -- and amazingly enough, it worked.

"(The highway project) would be a terrible loss and damaging both for the elf world and for us humans," said Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, a folklorist and seer from Reykjavík who was instrumental in halting the project.  "If you ask an Icelander about elves, they might say they don't believe.  But we always have stories of them, if not from ourselves then from someone close like a family member. Of course, not everyone believes in the stories, but the stories and the elves are still there and being told."

So the project appears to have been scrapped.  "Some feel that the elf thing is a bit annoying," said Andri Snær Magnason, a prominent Icelandic environmentalist.  "However, I got married in a church with a god just as invisible as the elves, so what might seem irrational is actually quite common [with Icelanders]."

What I find interesting about these beliefs is that they run counter to the usual perception of superstition being more common amongst the poorly-educated.  Iceland has an amazing educational system, resulting in a citizenry with a near 100% adult literacy rate.  They have the world's highest percentage of their GNP (8%) used for supporting education.

So the whole idea of education and superstition being inversely correlated apparently isn't true -- if we can draw such a conclusion from a sample size of one.  You would think that as the population becomes better educated, the amount of adherence to odd cultural beliefs would diminish, but despite the dramatic advances in education in Iceland in the past century, the belief in the huldufólk remains strong enough in Iceland to generate a legal block to a highway project.

I still think that learning critical thinking is the best way to counter non-evidence-based ways of thinking, so it appears that something else must be going on here.  One thing that comes to mind is that Icelanders are, as a group, extremely proud of their heritage, language, and history, and this is bound to make them more culturally conservative.  Beliefs and practices can be powerful indicators of cultural identity -- witness the members of my wife's family, who are descended from Lithuanian Jews, and who still celebrate a lot of the Jewish holidays and rituals -- although they have, by and large, abandoned the religious underpinnings. 

So I still find the Icelandic elves a peculiar thing, but I'll have to leave it to someone with a better background in folklore and anthropology to answer the question in a more rigorous fashion.  I guess it's to be expected that certain vestiges of old beliefs persist, even if the rest of the system has gone by the wayside.  Now, y'all will have to excuse me, because I need to finish this up.  I've got Christmas presents to wrap.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Rapture letters and wingless angels

And the Entrepreneur of the Year Award for 2013 goes to:

The guy who came up with the concept of "Rapture Letters."

You probably all know about the Rapture, the future event in which all of the True Believers are assumed bodily into heaven, leaving behind the rest of us to deal with the Antichrist, the Beast With Seven Heads, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, and other special offers dreamed up by the God of Mercy to keep us unbelievers entertained until Satan turns up to make us into giant shish-kebobs.  Well, I don't know if it's ever occurred to you that given that the ones who are left behind are going to be those who don't believe in all of this stuff, there will be a rather awkward period after the Rapture (but before the Antichrist et al. show up) where we'll be wandering around, thinking, "Where did Phil go?  He was right next to me in the duck blind just a minute ago."

So to explain to your Godless Heathen friends where you went, given that you won't be around to do it, you can sign up for the "Rapture Letter" service.  For only seven dollars, you can add your name to a registry, and after your sudden disappearance an email will be sent to your loved ones that says:
Dear Friend;

This message has been sent to you by a friend or a relative who has recently disappeared along with millions and millions of people around the world.

The reason they chose to send you this letter is because they cared about you and would like you to know the truth about where they went.

This may come as a shock to you, but the one who sent you this has been taken up to heaven.

If you read a Bible, you will see that after chapter three in the book of Revelation, the church is no longer mentioned as being on earth. (The church are [sic] the believers in Jesus Christ, not the buildings in which people meet.)

In the Bible, 1 Thessalonians Chapter 4 verses 16 and 17 tell how Jesus came to take away His church. But, you have to believe the Bible is the Word of God in order to believe this.

I am sure that there will be a lot of speculation as to what happened to all these people. The theories of some scientists and world leaders will have so much credibility that most of the world will believe them.

It will sound like the truth!

But, there is only one truth. And, that truth is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came back to earth and took with Him to Heaven all who believed in Him and made Him their Lord.

If you would like to give your life to Jesus Christ and be born again, it is not too late. First you must pray to God saying "Father I admit I am a sinner, and I will turn from my sin and do good. I believe that Jesus was your son and that He came here to die for me so that my sins would be forgiven. I ask you to forgive me and I will repent of my sins. In Jesus name I pray."

If you just prayed that prayer and meant it with all your heart, then God will know you as one of His own. You should now seek out others who have also given their lives to Christ, read a Bible daily, and do your best to bring others to Christ.

God bless you.
We're also told that the letter will also serve the purpose of saving our friends' immortal souls -- apparently the logic being that if you miss the first bus to heaven, there will be others, even though you will have to wait for a while at the bus stop with a lot of sketchy characters.  "This service will cost you seven dollars," the home page says, "and will hopefully gain the person you send it to an eternity in heaven."

Well, all I can say is: well done.  You've devised a way for gullible people to send you seven dollars for doing precisely nothing.  And given the number of devout gullible people in the world, I'm guessing the money is going to be rolling in for quite some time.

I guess the upside is that if it keeps the nutcases busy, then it's all good.  I feel the same way about the recent news that after a great deal of research, and contrary to the highly accurate art work posted above, Catholic church fathers have determined that angels don't have wings.  The unfortunately-named Father Renzo Lavatori, who calls himself an "angelologist," said in an interview, "(Y)ou have to understand that these are not real representations.  Angels do not have wings or look like cherubs...  You do not see angels so much as feel their presence - they are a bit like sunlight that refracts on you through a crystal vase."

So I'm glad we've got that settled, although it does make me wonder whether, since Father Lavatori calls himself an "angelologist," if I could declare myself to be a "dragonologist."  I've always rather liked dragons, which is why I have one tattooed on my leg, despite the fact that Leviticus 19:28 expressly says I can't do that, a defiance that probably disqualifies me for the Rapture right from the get-go.  So if you want to include me on your email list of people to be notified when you're Raptured, I'd appreciate it greatly.  May as well get the most for your seven dollars.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Duck amuck

I told myself that I wasn't going to write about Phil Robertson, the guy from Duck Dynasty who has become the darling of the Religious Right for saying that he has a hard time understanding gays.  I kept seeing article after article and tweet after tweet on the topic, and sat there going, "Uh-uh.  Nope.  Not doin' it.  Nope."

I think it may have been Sarah Palin's tweet that tipped the balance.
Free speech is endangered species; those "intolerants" hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all
At that point, I said, "Screw it."  Just about everything I'd read about the situation from both sides was pissing me off, so I decided to write about it, because my cure for being pissed off is to write a post here on Skeptophilia and thus piss everyone else off.  So here we go; the 1,283,298th person to opine about the brilliance, ethics, and philosophy of Duck Dynasty.

Since I mentioned Sarah Palin, let's begin there, okay?  Starting with the fact that this is not about free speech.  Not one person I saw who objected to Robertson's pronouncement (which I shall quote momentarily) said anything about how he didn't have the right to say what he said.  They did, however, say he was bigoted and homophobic, and called him a variety of other epithets that I will refrain from mentioning, which is not the same thingA&E, the network that runs Duck Dynasty, suspended him because he'd crossed the line from homey and redneck and quaint into being offensive, a decision that the network executives have every right to make.  Free speech means that you have the right to state your opinion, but it doesn't protect you from the repercussions thereof with respect to keeping your job.

Of course, that didn't stop other political pundits from jumping on the bandwagon.  Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who is considered a front runner for the Republican nomination in 2016, showed that his understanding of constitutional rights was a little sketchy for someone considering a run for the White House when he weighed in with, "I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.  It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended."

Much as it pains me to admit that I agree with Jindal about anything, I have to say that in my opinion, the video of Miley Cyrus "twerking" was about as sexy as a dog humping someone's leg.  But that's as far as I'll go, and Jindal's claim that this has anything to do with the First Amendment is patently ridiculous.

So anyway, now it's time to throw out there what exactly Robertson said.  So here goes:
It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical...  Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong.  Sin becomes fine...  If somebody asks, I tell ’em what the Bible says.  All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.
So, yeah.  I just have three things to say about all of this.

First of all, sexual attraction has very little to do with logic, so saying that it's logical for a guy to prefer a woman's naughty bits over a man's isn't so much bigoted as it is idiotic.  It's not like straight people sit around when they hit puberty thinking, "Hmmm, which set of parts do I find attractive?  Let's see, I dunno... but I'm sure I can use logic to figure this one out!"

Secondly, I'm calling bullshit on Robertson's claim of living biblically.  Let's start with all of the kosher laws in Leviticus, which I highly doubt that the squirrel-eating chaps on Duck Dynasty have even read, much less follow.  Also, it bears mention that anyone who lived by all of the precepts of the bible would be in jail, given that the bible has verses that explicitly command you to stone disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), allow you to own slaves as long as they come from another country (Leviticus 25:44-46), and order you to burn to death members of other religions, along with all of their livestock (Deuteronomy 13:13-19).  To name just a few.  So the whole idea of living your life by the bible's commands is ridiculous.  Folks who claim to be fundamentalists are automatically cherry-picking the stuff they like, especially from the Old Testament, which means that the people who are using biblical justification to hate on gays are actually just bigoted assholes who are afraid to come right out and admit it.

But third -- and this is directed at all of the people who are outraged by what Robertson said -- what exactly did you expect him to say?  Did you not know he was a bible-thumper?  This guy thumps the bible so damn hard it's surprising he doesn't dent the cover.  Was it really such a surprise that he doesn't like homosexuals?  And for cryin' in the sink, this is a "reality show," which means that the whole thing -- including the article in GQ that started this tempest in a teapot -- was engineered for one reason, and one reason alone, and that is publicity.  If they can rile people up, even offend the hell out them, that's okay, as long as their audience keeps watching.  This is why I'm guessing that the executives at A&E will very quickly step down from their high horses and reinstate Robertson.  This is too good a money-making opportunity to pass up, especially given that #PhilRobertsonForPresident is now trending on Twitter.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not defending Robertson.  It's just that the last thing anyone should expect from a reality show is reality.

So the whole thing is just annoying, and I am seriously looking forward to it all dying down, which considering the attention span of the average American, should take about three days.  The bloviators over at Fox News will probably try to string it all out for longer than that, but chances are, we'll be on to the next celebrity gossip really soon, and I'll be able to move on to more important topics myself, like the fact that Spike is going to be airing a show called 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty starting January 10.

Now there's a show that isn't afraid to look reality in the face.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Climate change, sea ice, and regression to the mean

One of the least-recognized statistical phenomena, at least by your average layperson, is called regression to the mean.

Let me give you two examples.  Let's say that I gave some American, English-speaking students a true-or false test in Swahili, and told them to fill it in.  Their results, in other words, would be random, and you would expect (with a large enough sample size) that the average score would be right around 50%.

That doesn't mean, of course, that everyone got 50%.  Again, with a large enough population of test-takers, the scores would very likely fall on a normal distribution (also known as a "bell curve").  So far, nothing surprising here.

But suppose you took the top 5% of the test-takers -- the ones who scored well above the mean score of 50% -- and asked them to take a second test, this one written in Latvian.  What would happen to their scores?

The answer, of course, is that virtually all of them would fall -- not because they suddenly got stupider, but because their first scores were so far outside the norm that their second is extremely likely not to be.  If you gave all of the original students the test in Latvian, there would once again be that 5% who got anomalously high scores -- but it almost certainly wouldn't be the same students.

It doesn't need to be a random process to generate a regression to the mean.  I see this happening all the time with my students, who (I hope) aren't simply guessing answers randomly.  As a second example, let's say we have a kid who usually scores around 85%, and then she scores a 65% on a twenty-point quiz.  Her next score is pretty likely to rise -- even assuming that she studied the same amount on both of them.  The 65% was simply an anomalous low score.  Bouncing back up to 85% could just be a regression to the mean, especially given (1) how many factors can be involved in missing questions on quizzes, and (2) the fact that the difference between a 65% and an 85% on a twenty-point quiz is only four additional questions correct.

It's the reason why so many people expect "lucky streaks" (or unlucky ones) to keep going -- and they almost never do.  You're much more likely to see a regression to the mean sooner rather than later (or a "correction," as they call it in the stock market.)

So, the question I'm sure you're all asking by this point is: how does this relate to climate change?

Some of you may have seen recent articles, mostly in conservative media outlets, that have headlines like this one from The Daily Caller:  "Global Warming? Satellite Data Shows Arctic Sea Ice Coverage Up 50%!"  The author, Michael Bastasch, writes:
The North Pole is still there, and growing.  BBC News reports that data from Europe’s Cryosat spacecraft shows that Arctic sea ice coverage was nearly 9,000 cubic kilometers (2,100 cubic miles) by the end of this year’s melting season, up from about 6,000 cubic kilometers (1,400 cubic miles) during the same time last year... 

This is good news for the Arctic, but presents somewhat of a tough problem for environmentalists and some climate scientists who have been pummeled with evidence this year contradicting the theory of man-made global warming.

Scientists have been struggling to explain away the 15-year pause in rising global temperatures. Some have turned to solar activity or natural climate cycles to explain the hiatus in warming.
Oh, those poor scientists, always "struggling to explain away" stuff.  Well, sorry, Mr. Bastasch, but no climate scientist I've ever heard of has trouble understanding regression to the mean -- which is what you and your climate-denier friends, in your apparent ignorance, are referring to as a "pause."

Amusing, too, that The Daily Caller chose to illustrate their article on Arctic sea ice with a photograph of ice... that includes a penguin:

Be that as it may, let's see what an actual climate scientist has to say about this year's miraculous rebound, okay?  Here's what Andrew Shepherd, climatologist at University College London, has to say about the situation (quoted in an article in The Independent):
"The 9,000 cubic kilometres we measured in October is still very much smaller than the 20,000 cubic kilometres we estimate for the same time in the early 1980s. So today's minimum still ranks among the lowest for the past 30 years," Professor Shepherd said.  "The October figure is still a significant result and it's not to be underestimated, but it's not an unexpected result. We do see year-to-year variations in the sea ice due to changes in weather patterns."
Oh, and then there's this quote, from David Kennedy, deputy undersecretary for operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:  "The Arctic caught a bit of break in 2013 from the recent string of record-breaking warmth and ice melts of the last decade. But the relatively cool year in some parts of the Arctic does little to offset the long-term trend of the last 30 years: the Arctic is warming rapidly."

In other words: the previous years' ice coverage was so low that sooner or later, there was bound to be a cooler year.  It's just regression to the mean, even if the overall trend is still obvious to anyone who is not willfully blind.

Scientists look at patterns, not at cherry-picked data points that happen to support their favorite biases -- unlike the agenda-driven climate deniers who are (with luck) decreasing in number as the data piles up.  And the data is piling up.  NOAA's National Climatic Data Center just released November's Global Climate Report, and reported that the globally-averaged sea and land temperatures for November were the highest for that month since record keeping began in 1880.  "Aha," the deniers might say.  "Couldn't this just be an anomalously high number, just like our kid who got a 90% on a Swahili test that he couldn't read?  Aren't you committing just what you said was a statistical fallacy, in your opening paragraphs?"

Sure, could be.  Until you add the second thing that this month's report announced; that this is the 37th consecutive November, and 345th consecutive month, with an average temperature higher than the 20th century mean.

That, my friend, is a trend.  Show me a kid who can score higher than the mean on a test in Swahili 345 times in a row, and I'll show you a kid who is lying about the fact that he can actually read Swahili.

So, yeah.  Slam dunk.  Not that I expect that this will change the minds of the climate change deniers, any more than the retraction of the Seralini study will change the minds of the anti-GMO crowd, or the retraction of the Wakefield study will change the minds of the anti-vaxxers.  But it is becoming clearer and clearer that the people who are denying the existence of anthropogenic climate change are deliberately misinterpreting the data, or else ignoring it entirely.  The scientists, however they are portrayed as "struggling," seem to have a pretty good consensus about what is happening.

But unfortunately, nobody much seems to be explaining all of this to the layperson, leading lots of them to believe what the media is claiming -- that the climate is yo-yoing all over the place, and no one knows why, not even the scientists.  But what started out as legitimate questioning, back in the 1980s when the alarm bells on climate change first began to sound, has now turned into nothing more than "la-la-la-la-la-la-la, not listening."  Agenda-driven political organizations like the Heartland Institute are, at this point, no longer simply pointing out uncertainties in the data and analysis; they are lying outright.

To buy that this regression to the mean in the Arctic pack ice coverage is significant, and means that climate change isn't happening, requires you simultaneously to ignore a mountain of other data.  Meaning that you are coming to that conclusion for some other reason than science.  But the deniers don't want you to know that -- because a confused populace, who thinks that no one can know what's causing climate shifts and that (anyway) we couldn't do anything about it even if we did, is much more likely to vote to keep doing what we've always done.

Convenient for the powers-that-be, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Searching the fringes

I have a guilty pleasure, and that is that I am absolutely fascinated with the possibility of alien intelligence.

Other fringe science, even if it were proven true, wouldn't excite me nearly so much.  But I live in hope that in my lifetime, there will be a moment like the one in the movie Contact (not coincidentally, one of my favorite movies ever) -- incontrovertible evidence of intelligent life in another star system.  I have posters of UFOs and bug-eyed gray guys on my classroom wall.  My screensaver is SETI@home, which devotes a little bit of my computer's CPU time to searching radio telescope data for meaningful signals when I'm not using it for more important things, like looking at funny pictures of cats.  (And all of you should download the screensaver immediately -- it's way cool.)

And this is why it pisses me off so much when people muck up the whole endeavor by making crazy claims regarding alien life.

Of course, it happens all the time; the number of bogus claims on sites like Supernatural UFO, UFO Digest, UFO Casebook, and The UFO Bureau run to dozens a day, 365 days a year.  Most have as "proof" eyewitness testimony ("and I'm not lying, I swear!") or blurry photographs that could mean anything.  Worse, the majority of the writers for these sites seem to resent skeptics like myself who are genuinely interested in the topic but want some minimal piece of hard evidence before saying, "Okay, this is it, ETI exists."

But it doesn't end there, unfortunately.  Because UFOlogy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence still fall somewhere on the boundaries of science, they attract more than their fair share of kooks and wackos.  And I ran into two excellent examples of this just yesterday.

In the first, we have a guy on UFO Sightings Daily who is claiming that there's a NASA photograph of the Sun's surface, that when you look at it just right, has the picture of an alien saying hello.

Of course, it's always easier to see something when someone points it out, and tells you what it is, isn't it?  Here's the original photo -- which even has the relevant place circled:

A little trickier here, no?  And yet the author of the post says that this is clear evidence of the existence of Michio Kaku's "Type 3 Civilization," that is able to harness the power of an entire star, and that they used this awesome technological power to send us a blurry, warped image of one of their species. "Why display an image if you control the sun?" he writes.  "To commemorate an important person in your species...showing their pride about who they are."

But even this is minor-league crazy with respect to a post by Sean Casteel over on UFO Digest.  Casteel has made appearances on Skeptophilia before, usually for nutty stuff about aliens and time travel and government coverups, but this time he has a doozy, because he's added some wacko Christian mythology to the mix.  UFOs, Casteel tells us, are (1) proof that the bible is literally true, and (2) signs of the Second Coming.  In the article, he interviews one Reverend Barry Downing, who (not to put too fine a point on it) seems to have a screw loose.  Lest you think I'm being too harsh, here is an excerpt:
"One of the possibilities,” (Downing) continued, "is that one of the tasks of UFOs, or the angels, is to collect the souls of people when they die and take them off to another world where they begin the next life that they have. This is not the Second Coming as we usually think of it. But Jesus says in John 14, ‘I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place, I will come again and take you to be where I am.’ For this to be true, I think it has to be true when someone dies. That’s probably how it works.  I think one of the roles of UFOs would be to move us to the point where the Biblical faith is more scientifically plausible. You’ve got a huge split in American culture right now between fundamentalists who believe the Bible just because God inspired the Bible, and therefore it must be true. Then you have university types who don’t see the Bible as different from any other book and pretty much don’t believe that God is any part of the universe. They believe the universe was in some sense ‘self-created’ by ways we don’t yet understand therefore there’s no divine force behind anything that we see.

"So the question is," Downing went on, "how do you get faith back in play? Not based on the Bible alone, but based on modern evidence that says, ‘Hey, the angels may still be here.’ To me, that’s where the UFOs come into the scene. Fundamentalist Christians, of course, tend to see UFOs as demonic. The assumption of fundamentalists is that if UFOs were really the angels of God, they’d show themselves openly. Yet, obviously, the angels of God do not show themselves openly to us. Otherwise, we’d all see them. There’s some part of God that holds God’s self back, that doesn’t reveal God directly to us.

"It’s a choice you can make," he said. "I think that God is more likely to use the UFO force to get faith back in business in what you’d call the intellectual side of our culture now, which is very atheistic. In any case, if it should be true that UFOs carry the angels of God as we understand them Biblically, then that would certainly seem to be the way in which the Second Coming would happen. If Jesus was taken up into the sky at his Ascension in a UFO, which is what seems to be said in the Book of Acts, Chapter One, then the other thing that’s said in that same chapter is this: ‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’"
Well, I think the Christian orthodoxy might have a thing or two to say about that, especially the part about Jesus at the Ascension riding up into the sky in a spaceship. 

All of this might seem like harmless noodling around, but my whole problem about this kind of thing is that it muddies the water.  Just like Ellie Arroway, the astronomer in Contact, I fret over the fact that legitimate scientific research into alien life on other planets (like SETI) won't get funded because the public has become so convinced by wingnuts like Casteel that it's all nonsense that they can't see any value in any of it.  I'd like to say to the UFO website people, who feel obliged to post every single poorly-Photoshopped hoax pic showing a flying saucer, "You are not doing this field of study any favors by approaching the topic this way."

But it's not going to happen any time soon, I'm afraid.  Fringy areas of science attract nuts, and nuts are not well-known for their judicious application of Ockham's Razor.

I just hope that by the time we do get good evidence, we haven't all just given it up as a bad job.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


I don't know about you, but for me Comet ISON was a great big disappointment.  I know that predicting the brightness of these infrequent visitors to the Solar System is an inexact science at best, but all of the "Comet of the Century" hype really had me looking forward to ISON putting on a significant end-of-the-year light show.

Comet ISON (image courtesy of the European Southern Observatory and the Wikimedia Commons)

Then, of course, we had the added filigree that ISON was supposed to be an alien spaceship.  Or the planet Nibiru.  Or the Star Wormwood from the Book of Revelation, heralding the start of the End Times, when Satan comes down and turns all of us unbelievers into Heathen McNuggets.  Or, possibly, all of the above.  In any case, it was supposed to be big, the kind of woo-woo event that will never be forgotten, at least until none of the predictions come true, and the next comet comes along, and this time it'll be the real thing, cross our heart and hope to die.

But ISON failed even to show up.  Some time during perihelion, enough of the comet's icy core melted that it fell apart, leaving nothing but a rapidly-dimming cloud of poorly consolidated dust that never was visible to the naked eye.

Or at least that's the official story.  *cue scary music*

Because, you know, that's the kind of thing they'd tell us, to dupe the unwary.  They want to distract us from the real reason that ISON disintegrated:

It was vaporized by a NASA death ray.

Yup.  A YouTube video by a guy who calls himself DarkSkyWatcher74 tells us that ISON was spinning along, all innocent and unsuspecting, and then a NASA-launched satellite shot some kind of Star-Trek-style photon torpedo at ISON and blew it to smithereens.   As proof he has some videos and still photos of fuzzy, streaky lights which, if you squinch your eyes up and look at them just right, look suspiciously like a bunch of fuzzy, streaky lights.  (A particularly wonderful moment occurs around one minute into the video, where he tells us that he should be able to see the comet from where he's standing, but it's being "blocked by a chemtrail.")

Damning evidence, DarkSkyWatcher74 says.  Smoking gun.  The people at NASA (or "NAS-holes," as he calls them) shot down ISON.  Why would they do such a thing?  Well, he seems kind of sketchy on that point.  NASA is a government agency, he says, and "when has the government done you any favors?"  Well, he's got me there, as long as you don't count the police and the fire department and road maintenance and public schools and so on.  But other than that, nothing, right?

Of course right.

One thing that bothers me, though, is that the woo-woos went out of their way to get our knickers in a twist over how ISON was some kind of evil omen or spaceship full of extraterrestrials on their way to vaporize Earth.  You'd think that they'd be delighted that it was destroyed.  But no.  You can't please 'em no matter what you do.  NASA uses their ultra-high-tech energy weapons, that they developed somehow despite this year's projected $200 million in budget cuts, to blow up the incoming omen (or spaceship, depending on which version you went for earlier), and the woo-woos are all upset

It's funny how they want to hang onto their worldview, regardless of what happens.  Whatever we see in the sky is evil.  The government is evil.  When the government appears to interfere with what happens in the sky, that's evil too.  It's all evil, with the sole exception of DarkSkyWatcher74, who is the only one enlightened enough to let us know what's going on.

But will we listen?  Nooooooooo.

So, anyhow, that's today's exercise in frustration.  I probably shouldn't expect these people to be logically consistent; after all, they've never done it before, so why start now?  And ISON is gone, however it died, whether just from natural forces at perihelion, or because NASA committed an act of unjustifiable cometcide.  But we should move on, because we've got bigger things to worry about, such as the arrival of Ragnarök on February 22 of next year.  And yes, I mean the whole Norse-god thing, with Frost Giants and Fenrir the Wolf and Midgard's Serpent and Heimdall blowing the Giant Trumpet of Doom.

Should be good times.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cosmic doorways

A question that frequently arises when I am perusing writings from the Wide World of Woo-Woo is, "Do these people recognize it when they're just making shit up?"

You'd think they would, wouldn't you?  I mean, I get how suggestible we humans are, how subject to bias, how susceptible to misinterpreting sensory input.  Not only that, we are perhaps more emotional beings than we are cerebral ones, a fact that was brought home to me rather vividly one evening last week when my wife heard a noise downstairs, meaning the choice was "go down and investigate" or "surrender your Man-Card immediately."  So I went downstairs.  And there was no one down there, but by the time I had figured that out, and that we were not in danger of being knifed to death by a psychopath, I had broken out in a serious cold sweat, despite (1) being armed with a pair of fireplace tongs, and (2) the fact that my wife felt sorry for how obviously terrified I was and went with me.

So like I said: I get that we can let our minds get carried away, in a variety of fashions.  But what I don't get is how it can happen without your being aware of it.  So many woo-woos are doing what clearly appears to me to be crafting highly complex works of fiction, and yet the entire time, they seem to be entirely convinced that what they're saying is true.

This comes up because of a site I stumbled upon called Cosmic Doorways, wherein I found the following image:

We have a few problems here right from the get-go, not least being their representation of Nelson Mandela as a skinny half-naked white guy with blond hair.  And wings.  But the crazy doesn't even end there, more's the pity; they connect Mandela with the Chinese moon lander, and throw in Paul Walker for good measure.  Some time today, they say, Walker and Mandela are going to go through a "cosmic doorway" that will transport them from South Africa to the galactic core.

If I've been wrong all along, and there are immortal souls, I hope like hell this isn't true, because in the middle of the galactic core is a big-ass black hole.  How unfair would that be?  Walker just died in a fiery car crash, and Mandela passed away at age 95 after a long life filled with strife and struggle against oppression.  So they die, and their souls are floating around the place, looking forward to heaven, or at least something better than car crashes and solitary confinement, and WHOOAAAA they both get sucked, feet-first, down a black hole.

I'd like to be able to tell you that there is evidence that the Cosmic Doorways people are joking, but they appear to be entirely serious, despite the fact that damn near everything on the site seems to have been made up.  They show stills from the movie Stargate as if it were some kind of historical documentary.  They have photographs of every last object on the Earth that is shaped like a ring, along with captions indicating that these are secret high-energy portals.  There are lots of images of the Virgin Mary, because "she is a vessel that allows beings to come and go between dimensions."  They say that the "Four Corners" region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona is magical because the "Four Corners" make a cross shape, even though I can't think of another shape that the junction of four more-or-less rectangular states could possibly make.  They have lots of quotes from the songs of The Doors, because, hey, doors, right?  They claim that the way to use these cosmic portals is by sharpening up your pineal gland, and/or taking hallucinogenic drugs, the latter of which may explain a good bit of the content of the site.

But still.  Even considering that the author may well have taken more DMT and ayahuasca than his neurotransmitters could handle, it still strikes me that he must, on some level, be aware that what he's writing can't possibly be true.  For example, he identifies the following as a "stargate:"

[photograph courtesy of photographer Mike Russell and the Wikimedia Commons]

Despite the fact that it is actually not an intergalactic portal at all, but the Michigan Labor Legacy Landmark in Detroit's Hart Plaza, and hundreds of tourists walk through it every day without being transported anywhere much but the other side of the monument.

So.  Yeah.  Anyhow.  I read things like this, and I keep saying to myself, "Is this guy joking?  Or what?"  But in this case the answer, sadly, appears to be "No."  He really does think that Nelson Mandela and Paul Walker are going to be transported to the galactic core today.  And furthermore, he apparently views this as a good thing, as is Mandela's miraculous ethnic transformation.

As for me, I think I'll stick with reality.  It's not nearly as psychedelic, but at least I'm reasonably sure that the doorway of my office won't suddenly send me to the core of a distant star, or anything.  You can see how that'd be unpleasant.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Aliens visit Bulgaria

It's been a while since we've had any interesting reports of UFO or alien sightings, so I was tickled to find a post yesterday on Paranominal that claims that some hikers near Plovdiv, Bulgaria snapped a photograph of an "alien Grey" while walking through a forest.

The photograph is put into a sort of montage format on a video in the post, but I'll post the photograph itself here:

What I find interesting about this photo is that it shows the alien, who appears to be about five meters tall, clearly visible between two trees maybe ten meters further on in the woods, and yet the hikers are still walking toward it in an apparently unconcerned fashion.  I don't know about you, but if I were hiking through the woods and stumbled upon a scary-looking alien creature who was over twice my height, I would not just stroll right on up to it.  At the point this photograph was taken, I would already be running in a comical, Looney Tunes manner in the opposite direction, with my feet only visible as a circular blur.

If I had not immediately died of a brain aneurysm when I spotted the thing.  Which is probably more likely.  I may be a skeptical scientific type, and all, but I am also a great big old coward.  I believe that it is our duty as rationalists to evaluate claims of the paranormal, but I am much more comfortable evaluating them from a safe distance, which in this case would be about fifty miles.

Be that as it may, I'm a little skeptical of this claim.  For one thing, if you watched the video, you'll notice how the alien face becomes way scarier when they isolate and magnify it.  While this may seem like a "duh" statement, part of the reason that alien and ghost photographs become more convincing in close-ups is because they get grainier when you do that -- the image "pixillates."  (For a creepy example of how the brain imposes meaning on grainy data, take a look at this optical illusion.)  Now, as we've seen many times before, humans are great at imposing meaning on patternless images, and we especially like to turn those images into faces (a phenomenon called pareidolia, about which I have written many times before).  But the fact that we become more convinced as the data gets grainy is a little suspicious, and exactly the opposite of what should happen to a scientist.  We should be convinced by precision, not by imprecision.

The last nail in the coffin, for me, came at the end of the video, when I saw who had put it together.  The creator of the video -- and probably the photograph as well -- was one Stephen Hannard, of England, who is also the one who claimed that the Martian probe Curiosity found a fossilized shoe, human finger, and woodchuck on the surface of Mars, and that the International Space Station had captured footage of a giant space slug.  It's not like this guy has any kind of solid track record for veracity.  So I'm perhaps to be forgiven if I find anything coming from Hannard a little suspect from the get go.

So anyhow, I doubt this is really a photograph of an alien, which is kind of a shame.  I'd love it if there was, during my lifetime, incontrovertible evidence of intelligent alien life.  I realize that's easy for me to say sitting here safely in my office thousands of kilometers from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, but I really do mean it.  If an alien spaceship landed in my back yard, I'd even try to overcome my urge to run away or die of fright in order to be the first human to shake their gray, seven-fingered hands upon their arrival on Earth.