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.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The flammable chemtrail snow vortex of doom

Those of us in the northern slice of the United States have had to contend with unusually cold weather over the past few weeks, coupled with snow and ice that have reached even the usually mild southeast.  My original hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana actually got snow two days ago, and Lafayette is the place that my dad described as being so Deep South that if it were any deeper, we'd have been floating.

And almost everyone has heard about the snow storm that paralyzed the city of Atlanta, leaving highways gridlocked, thousands of car accidents from minor to horrifying, and hundreds of students who were stranded at their schools overnight.

What many of you may not know, though, is that the white flakes you saw falling from the sky over the last few days...

... may not have been snow.

*cue scary music*

At least, that's the contention of a variety of conspiracy theorist types who evidently have three scoops of rocky road with extra nuts where the rest of us have brains.  Take a look, for instance, over at The Resistance Journals, where a post hit yesterday called "What is With the Snow From the Recent Storm -- Solar Vortex?"  Notwithstanding that I think he means "polar" vortex, in that post we find out that (1) there is no doubt that the government is now controlling the weather, (2) the snow that has fallen doesn't seem to be melting, and (3) people have reported that this snow is flammable.

Now, I'm not buying the "flammable" part.  Snow is made of frozen water, which is notoriously non-flammable, explaining why water is commonly used to put out fires.  And as far as the snow not melting, that may have something to do with the fact that it's cold.  Snow does that when it's below 32 F, you know.

Then we have this lunatic, over at YouTube, who believes that chemtrails are being used to generate snow to combat global warming, and this has created special snow.  He then does an experiment, which you must watch for the humor value alone, wherein he tries to set some snow on fire first with a butane lighter, and then with what appears to be a propane torch.  When faced with the blue-hot flame of the propane torch, the snow basically evaporates instantaneously, and the guy is mystified by its disappearance.  "Where is the water?" he asks, evidently having forgotten that in third grade we all learned that there is a third state of water besides liquid and solid.

"What is this?" he asks.  "This ain't snow.  This is crazy."

Yes, sir, it is that.

So the wingnuts are really having a field day with the recent weather.  But of course, being a skeptic, I had to run an experiment of my own.  You can't just discount something because you're biased to think it is ridiculous; that wouldn't be proper skepticism, right?  Fortunately, here in upstate New York we are liberally endowed with snow at the moment, so I got a beaker and went out into my front yard and collected some, and brought it inside and put it on my kitchen counter.

Fig. 1.  Some snow in a beaker.  Yes, I have beakers at home.  Don't judge.

I attempted to light it with a match, with no success.  The match made a sizzling noise and went out, which I believe is the expected behavior.

So then, I let the beaker of snow sit on my counter for about an hour.  After an hour, this is what it looked like:

Fig. 2.  The same snow after one hour had passed.

Note how much less volume the water takes up than the snow did.  This, of course, is part of the explanation for why the aforementioned lunatic didn't notice much in the way of water coming from his chunk of snow after it was hit with a blowtorch; snow has lots of air space.  (And it's relevant that the snow from my front yard was old snow that had had several days to pack down.  Even so, it lost about 80% of its volume when it melted, give or take.)

The whole time I was running this experiment, my dog was staring at me in hope, because when I'm rummaging around in the kitchen it usually means food is being prepared, and if food is being prepared, it means he might get some.  He did not really understand why I was messing about with beakers and snow and cameras in the kitchen, and no ribeye steaks were being cooked.  His general philosophy is, "Why be in the kitchen if no ribeye steaks are involved?"

Fig. 3.  Grendel looking perplexed.  This is a common look for him.

So, after running my highly scientific experiment, I have come to the conclusion that (1) the recently fallen snow is not flammable, (2) when it melts, you get plain old water, and (3) none of this has anything to do with "chemtrails." 

Oh, and (4); if I don't cook ribeye steaks soon, my dog is going to be really disappointed in me.

And I'm not even going to address something I saw on Reddit a couple of days ago, which is that the recent snowstorm is all part of a big experiment being run at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  How on earth an underground particle accelerator could be used to influence the weather on the other side of the freakin' world, I have no idea.  So I'll end here, with a wish that wherever you are, you are experiencing clement weather.  I don't know about you, but I've had about enough of this polar vortex crapola, even if it isn't being artificially created by the government.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Eat like a werewolf

I'm sure that by now all of you have heard of the "Paleo Diet," that claims that the path to better health comes from eating like a cave man (or woman, as the case may be) -- consuming only foods that would have been eaten by our distant ancestors living on the African savanna.  The "Paleo Diet," therefore, includes grass-fed meat (cow is okay if you can't find gazelle), eggs, fish, root vegetables, fruits, nuts, and mushrooms.  Not included are dairy products (being that domestication of cattle and goats was post-cave-man), potatoes, salt, sugar, and refined oils.

Despite gaining some traction, especially amongst athletes and bodybuilders, the "Paleo Diet" has been looked upon with a wry eye by actual dieticians.  A survey of experts in the field, sponsored by CNN, placed the "Paleo Diet" as dead last in terms of support from peer-reviewed research and efficacy at promoting healthy weight loss.

But the "Paleo Diet" will sound like quantum physics, technical-science-wise, as compared to the latest diet to take the world of poorly-educated woo-woos by storm:

The "Werewolf Diet."

I wish I were making this up.  I also wish, for different reasons, that it was what it sounded like -- that people who sign up find themselves, once a month, sprouting fur and fangs and running around naked and eating unsuspecting hikers.  That, at least, would be entertaining.

[image courtesy of Rodrigo Ferrarezi and the Wikimedia Commons]

But no such luck.  The Werewolf Diet, however, does resemble being an actual werewolf in that (1) what you get to eat is tied to the phases of the moon, (2) it more or less ruins your health, and (3) it completely fucks up any chance at a normal social life.

The site "Moon Connection" describes the whole thing in great detail, but they make a big point of their stuff being copyrighted material, so I'll just summarize so that you get the gist:

You have two choices, the "basic plan" or the "extended plan."  On the "basic plan," you fast for 24 hours, either on the full moon or the new moon.  You can, they say, "lose up to six pounds of water weight" by doing this, but why this is a good thing isn't clear.

The "extended plan," though, is more interesting.  With the "extended plan," you fast during the full moon, then eat a fairly normal diet during the waning part of the moon cycle (with the addition of drinking eight glasses of water a day to "flush out toxins").  On the new moon, you should fast again, only consuming dandelion tea or green tea (more toxin flushing).  During the waxing part of the moon cycle, you must be "disciplined" to fight your "food cravings," and avoid overeating.  "Thickeners," such as sugar and fats, should be avoided completely, and you can't eat anything after 6 PM because that's when the moon's light "becomes more visible."

Then you hit the full moon and it all starts over again.

Well, let me just say that this ranks right up there with "downloadable medicines" as one of the dumbest things I have ever read.  We have the whole "flushing toxins" bullshit -- as if your kidneys and liver aren't capable of dealing with endogenous toxic compounds, having evolved for millions of years to do just that.  We're told, as if it's some sort of revelation, that our "food cravings will increase" after we've been consuming nothing but green tea for 24 hours.  Then we are informed that the moon's gravitational pull has an effect on us, because we're 60% water -- implying that your bloodstream experiences high tide, or something.  But contrary to anything Newton would have had to say about the matter, the gravitational pull the moon exerts upon you somehow depends on the phase it's in, because, apparently, the amount of light reflecting from the moon's surface mysteriously alters its mass.

I mean, I'm not a dietician, but really.  And fortunately, there are dieticians who agree.  Keri Gans, a professional dietician and author of The Small Change Diet, said in an interview, "This diet makes me laugh. I don’t know if it’s the name or that people will actually believe it.  Either way, it is nothing but another fad diet encouraging restriction.  Restriction of food will of course lead to weight loss, but at what cost to the rest of your body?  If only celebrities, once and for all, would start touting a diet plan that makes sense and is based on science."

Yes.  If only.  But unfortunately, fewer people have heard of Gans, and (evidently) the scientific method, than have heard of Madonna and Demi Moore, who swear by the Werewolf Diet.  Not that Moore, especially, is some kind of pinnacle of rationality; she is a devotee of Philip Berg's "Kabbalah Centre," which preaches that "99% of reality cannot be accessed by the senses."

Nor, apparently, by logic and reason.

Interestingly enough, today is a new moon, meaning that today we're all supposed to be subsisting on dandelion tea.  To which I answer: the hell you say.  I'm off to get some bacon and eggs.  Detoxify that, buddy.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Asteroid astrology

I've written more than once about astrology, a slice of woo-woo that has never failed to impress me as the most completely ridiculous model on the market for explaining how the world works.  I mean, really.  Try to state the definition of astrology in one sentence, and you come up with something like the following:
The idea that your personal fate, and the course of global events, are controlled by the apparent movement of the Sun and planets relative to bunches of stars that are at varying (but extreme) distances from the Earth, patterns which some highly nearsighted ancient Greeks thought looked vaguely like scorpions and rams and lions and weird mythical creatures like "sea-goats."
It definitely falls into the "how could that possibly work?" department, a question that is usually answered with vague verbiage about vibrations and energies and cosmic resonances.

But like I said, all of that is old territory, here at Skeptophilia.  But yesterday, thanks to a loyal reader and frequent contributor, I found out something that I didn't know about astrology; lately, astrologers have been including the asteroids in their chart-drawing and fortune-telling.

Don't believe me?  Listen to this lady, Kim Falconer,  who tells us that we should consider the asteroids in our astrological calculations -- but only use the ones we want.  There are too many asteroids, she said, to track them all; "Use the asteroids that have personal meaning to you."

Falconer is right about one thing; there are a great many asteroids out there.  Astronomers currently think there are between 1.1 and 1.9 million asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter alone, and that's not counting the ones in erratic or elliptical orbits.  So it would be a lot to track, but it would have the advantage of keeping the astrologers busy for a long time.

As far as which ones to track, though -- this is where Falconer's recommendations get even funnier,  because she says we should pay attention to the names of the asteroids.  Concerned about money?  Check out where the asteroids "Abundantia" and "Fortuna" are.  Concerned about love?  Find "Eros" and "Aphrodite."  And I'm thinking; where does she think these names come from?  All of them were named by earthly astronomers, more or less at random.  I mean, it's not like the names have anything to do with the actual objects.  For example, here's a photograph of Eros:

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Anything less sexy-looking is hard to imagine, especially given all of the craters and pits and warts on its surface.

But that's missing the point, from Falconer's view, and I realize that.  She and her cohort believe that when Auguste Charlois and Gustav Witt discovered the thing way back in 1898 and gave it its name, they somehow were tapping into a Mystical Reservoir of Connectedness and linked it to Quantum Energies of Love.  Or something like that.

But even so, the "choose the asteroids you like" thing seems very much like just drawing up the astrological chart you want.  Because, after all, if there are over a million to choose from, there are bound to be some that have names and positions that are favorable to whatever direction you'd like your life to take.  It's a little like drawing up your Tarot card hand by going through the deck and pulling out the cards you like, and arranging them however you want, and claiming that's your reading.

Yes, I know that the actual way Tarot cards are read is equally ridiculous.  It was just an analogy, okay?

Anyhow, that's the latest from the world of horoscopes.  But I better wrap this up, because the asteroid Hygiea is currently crossing into the constellation Horologium the Clock, which means it's time for me to go take a shower so I can get ready for work.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Skype exorcisms

Some of my regular readers may remember that a few months ago, I posted about a trio of young and extremely Christian ladies who were invading Britain to rid the country of demons that had been brought there because so many British children read Harry Potter.

One of them is named Brynne Larson.  It will come as no surprise that Ms. Larson is from an fundamentalist household; hard to imagine your believing anything that ridiculous if you didn't learn it as a very young child.  Be that as it may, Ms. Larson's father is Bob Larson, an evangelical preacher, talk radio host, and general wingnut.  Larson has been doing his dog-and-pony show for a while; I remember listening to him back in the 80s when I lived in Seattle.  I'd turn the show on when I got stuck in traffic, which was often, because I figured that the best thing to keep you from experiencing road rage is to listen to a radio show that distracts you by making you even madder at something else.

Well, Larson is still around, and just this week announced that he's out there fighting the Evil One just as hard today as he was thirty years ago.  He has, he claims, performed over 20,000 exorcisms in his life.  Doesn't that seem like a lot, to you?  It would imply that a good many of the people we meet on a daily basis are possessed, which I kind of doubt.  I don't think I've seen anyone lately who was guided by a demon, with the exception of the woman who ran a stop sign and cut me off in a Syracuse mall parking lot last weekend during a snowstorm, and I don't think she was possessed by anything but the evil spirit Dumbassimus.

But Larson begs to differ.  The demons are out there, he says; "there'll never be a shortage."  There are so many, in fact, that Larson can't keep up with the requests.  He receives so many that now he has to do his exorcisms...

... via Skype.

I don't know about you, but my first thought upon reading that was, "How could that work?"  Here you have a wicked, dangerous minion of Satan, who has latched on to some poor unfortunate soul in Hogfoot Junction, West Virginia.  And a guy shows up on Skype and says, "Get thee gone, evil spirit!" from 2,000 miles away via an internet connection, and the demon has no choice but to retreat in disarray?  If I was a demon, and Larson showed up babbling at me to Return to Hell From Whence I Came, the least I would do is to flip him off and then cause his computer to experience the Blue Screen of Death.

I mean, it can't be that hard.  My computer does that often enough without any demons being involved.

And it has to make you wonder what's next.  Will he start distributing general exorcisms through Twitter?
Get thee behind me Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord Amen #ChalkAnotherOneUpForMe #IGuessThatShowedYou
What if he doesn't finish his magical incantation before he runs into the 140-character limit?

My overall impression is that he's fighting a losing battle, trying to use the internet to fight Satan.  Just considering the volume of pornography alone, out there on the 'net, I think that so far it's Larson 0, Satan 1,489,352.

Larson, of course, doesn't see it that way.  When asked in an interview with ABC15 if his Skype-your-way-out-of-hell method was nothing more than a fire-and-brimstone circus act, he said, "It’s real.  There would be no reason to theatrically stage this for any reason.  Why would anybody do that?  I have no idea."

I'll pass over the fact that he used the word "reason" twice, and that his worldview isn't exactly one in which reason, in its literal sense, is the driver.  But really, Reverend Larson?  You can't think of any other incentives for doing what you're doing, other than the need to fight the Evil One?  How about money?  Notoriety?  Being interviewed by a major news outlet?

But other than those, nothing, right?

Of course, right.

So that's the latest from the world of religious wingnuttery.  I live in hope that most Christians recognize whackjobs like Bob Larson for what they are, but the sad fact is that there are enough people still listening to Larson that his show, Talk Back, is still being aired, and his ministry still gets followers.

And he still gets people, over Skype, who are eager for him to free them of demons -- for just a small donation to support the ministry, of course.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Unreal estate

I've always wanted to spend a night in an (allegedly) haunted house.

Not alone, preferably.  It'd be nice to have someone's sleeve to clutch whenever a branch creaks against the roof.  But still.  There's nothing like direct experience.  Even though I tend to cast a wry eye at eyewitness testimony, the human memory and perceptual apparatus being what they are, having a personal encounter with the spirit of a dead guy would go a long way toward convincing me that this stuff is real.

Apparently, I'm not alone.  Not only do we have the whole ghost-hunting industry (and the television shows it's spawned), we now have people who seem to consider a resident ghost to be a selling point in real estate deals.

Just in the last week, I've seen four advertisements for houses in which hauntings were mentioned -- and none of them seemed to be the sort of mandatory disclosure statement you'd make about, for example, leaky plumbing.  All of them had the air of a brag -- "You definitely want to buy our house.  It comes with a pre-installed ghost."

First, in the UK, we have Sawston Hall, a grand Tudor manor house in Cambridgeshire.  It comes with a hundred-foot-long "great hall," a moat, an arboretum... and a disembodied spirit of a dead queen.

 The house was a favorite hideout of Queen Mary I, better known to history as "Bloody Mary" Tudor -- and it's said that she still haunts the place.  Stephen and Claire Coates, the current owners, say they've never seen her.  Still, having a royal ghost is quite a selling point, and they'd like a cool £4.75 million for the place.

If you'd like the UK but are looking for something a little more... "atmospheric"... then consider Dornoch Castle, which is a bargain at less than half of what Sawston Hall is going for -- only £2.25 million.

Consider the selling points -- an already-outfitted restaurant that seats ninety, a bar with an open fireplace, proximity to prominent whisky distilleries and golf courses, and a dead Sutherland sheep rustler.

The ghost at Dornoch is apparently one Andrew McCornish, who was hanged there in the 19th century for stealing livestock.  Which opens up an interesting question; why would ghosts linger around the place they were executed?  If I were hanged, and found myself a ghost, I would get the hell out of there.  Bad memories, you know?  But to each his own, I suppose, and I'm sure that Dornoch is charming in many other respects.

If that's still too rich for your tastes, or if you'd like something a little more subtropical, there's this lovely historic home in Punta Gorda, Florida, on the market for $1,590,000:

Vander and Natalie Wynn have this house for sale, and proudly include a 14-year-old dead girl as one of the house's selling points.

"It's a great view so it's a great place to be. And if you have a perpetual 14-year-old teenage girl playing tricks on you, kinda fun," said Wynn.  "I hear my wife walk down the stairs, and I call out her name and she says yes from a different part of the house.  There's some weird things like that you really can't explain."

"She's really not scary, she just makes noise.  Sometimes I've told her you need to be quiet," his wife, Natalie, added.

Apparently the ghost belongs to a girl who died in an unfortunate accident involving kerosene and a match back in the early 20th century, once again raising the "painful memories" question.  But you can't argue with the location.  Given that we're currently in the dead of winter in upstate New York, I'd happily move to Punta Gorda even if I had to content with a perpetual noisy adolescent.

Last, we have this lovely 19th century house in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, which is a steal at only $144,000, probably because its owners say it is only "slightly haunted:"

It does, however, make me wonder how a place can be "slightly haunted."  Either it has a ghost, or it doesn't, right?  "Slightly haunted" is like "a little bit pregnant."  And from the description, it's sounds like it's more "pretty freakin' haunted," if the owners are being straight with us:
Slightly haunted.  Nothing serious, though, e.g. the sound of phantom footsteps.  A strange knocking sound followed by a very quiet (hardly noticeable, even) scream at 3:13 AM, maybe once a week.  Twice a week, tops.  And the occasional ghastly visage lurking behind you in the bathroom mirror.  Even still, this occurs very rarely and only in the second-floor bathroom.
It also has a "study/library that has a secret door behind a moving bookcase leading into a small office," and a "large unfinished crawlspace behind a concealed door hidden in a bedroom closet."  All of which sounds like horror movie material, to me.

Oh, but the house has "tons of charm."  So there's that.

Anyhow, if you're in the market for some unreal estate, there you have it.  And I'm sure that's just scratching the surface.  A Google search for "haunted house for sale" got over 100,000 hits, so there has to be one in your area.  Make sure to find out the particulars about the ghost before you put in a purchase offer.  Caveat emptor, you know.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Diseased cannibal rat ship

In the last few days we have a new story circulating in the media, and this has led to considerable buzz on Facebook and Twitter.  Comments I've seen have included, "Yuk," "This is horrible," "Terrifying!," and "The government better do something about this, soon!"

Not once have I seen anyone post my immediate reaction, which was, "Okay, really?"

The story has appeared on various woo-woo websites, but has also made it onto Fox News and The Independent.  Here are excerpts from the version that appeared on Stranger Dimensions, entitled, "Is a Russian Ship Filled With Diseased Cannibal Rats Heading Toward the UK?"
Experts believe a derelict cruise ship that’s been missing for a year may be en route to the U.K. The problem? It’s filled with disease-ridden cannibal rats.

Built in Yugoslavia in 1976, the Lyubov Orlova was a cruise liner that had for many years transported passengers to destinations around the world. Unfortunately, in 2010, the ship was impounded in Newfoundland, Canada and deserted by her crew. Two years later, while being towed to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped, a heavy storm caused the tow-line to break, sending the Lyubov Orlova out to aimlessly wander the North Atlantic Ocean...

Now, a year later, new concerns are being raised that the ship is heading for the U.K.

It’s completely empty, save for the potentially hundreds of diseased rats aboard the ship that have most likely been forced to eat one another to survive.
Diseased cannibal rats!  By the millions!  Waiting for their chance to get onto land, and rush around swarming over and eating innocent British citizens, like a scene from the movie Willard!

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But then we hear what data these "experts" are currently going on:
Over the following months, the Lyubov Orlova was spotted at various locations in the North Atlantic. In one instance last year, satellites found an object near Scotland that may have been the ship, but subsequent searches in the area found nothing...

Discerning readers may point out that the ship’s emergency position-indicating radio beacon had activated off the Kerry coast on March 1, 2013 after presumably being submerged in water, implying that the ship had, indeed, sunk. However, authorities say some of the life-boat emergency signals have yet to activate, and the ship may still be out there, diseased cannibal rats and all.

The ship’s current position is unknown, but due to recent high winds, experts fear the ghost ship may be on a crash course for the British coastline. If they’re right, the Lyubov Orlova is likely to wind up on the west coast of Ireland, Scotland, or southern England. What happens if/when it gets there? I don’t know, but…diseased rats. Can’t be good.  
That's right; there was a beacon signal detected in March of 2013, and it was "maybe" spotted by a satellite later that year -- and no one has had a glimpse of it since then.  The ship's current position is unknown.

Remember a couple of days ago, our discussion of what the word "unknown" means?

But then what went through my mind was: even considering that the ship may be out there, how do they know about the rats?  Were they detected on the satellite, baring their decay-ridden fangs defiantly at the sky?  Okay, presupposing that any ship is gonna have rats, still... how would anyone know that they're diseased cannibal rats?  When the beacon went off, did the people who picked it up hear, in the background, the sound of hoarse, coughing squeaks, as if a diseased rat were being savagely dismembered and eaten by its pack mates?

I know that the whole thing was written for no other reason than to get people stirred up, but what bugs me is that hardly anyone seems to be questioning how the writer of the article knows all of this stuff.

Oh, but to hell with the facts; the diseased cannibal rat ship may still be out there.  And if it may still be out there, then it might be headed for England.

Even the Wikipedia article on the Lyubov Orlova has been contaminated by this silliness; the last paragraph of the article is, "Certain independent researchers and amateur salvage hunters have also stated that a population of rats are on board the vessel, and that in the absence of edible food, the rat population have turned cannibalistic.  The opportunity to study the cannibalistic rats has been welcomed by researchers."  (Although I will say that at least someone appended "citation needed" after this paragraph.)

Well, I think we can do better than this, can't we?  Let's see... back in 1950, a ship called the Phoenix went missing off the coast of Australia.  It was last seen near Darwin, but no word of it was heard from thereafter.  But it could still be out there.  Carrying a load of... cannibalistic kangaroos and feral wombats.  Experts can't be certain that this is wrong.  And maybe by now, it's drifted across the Pacific, and is on a collision course with San Francisco.  What would happen if it ran aground near the Embarcadero, depositing its cargo of hopping, waddling death into the waterfront cafés and shops filled with unsuspecting tourists?

I don't know, but it can't be good.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Laser therapy redux and retraction

About a year and a half ago, I stumbled upon a veterinary therapy that I immediately put in the "woo-woo" column; the idea of using laser light to stimulate wound healing.  It seemed completely counterintuitive, given what I know about biology.  How could the stimulation of animal cells by low-level polarized light have any demonstrable effect?

The site where I found out about this -- Dr. Kathryn Okawa's website, Healing Arts Mobile Laser Therapy -- described the benefits without explaining how it worked (although there were plenty of testimonials that it did work).  I was reminded of other times I'd come across "alternative medical" therapies that are also lauded by testimonials -- and so I went no further.  I assumed that this was in the same category as homeopathy, i.e., scientifically unsupported.

I was wrong.

Dr. Okawa contacted me yesterday, and courteously (although firmly) encouraged me to do some research and reconsider my statement.  I did so.  As a result, I have taken down my original post, and would like to apologize to Dr. Okawa and others who use this modality -- I fell prey to the cardinal sin of skepticism, which is to keep one's feet planted firmly on one's own biases.  As I've said repeatedly to my Critical Thinking students, "That sounds right" and "That sounds wrong" are really dreadful guides to what is true and false, and despite knowing this (and teaching it every year, for cryin' in the sink) I leapt right from "I don't see how that could possibly work" to "That doesn't work."

As suggested by Dr. Okawa, I did some research, and found that low-level laser therapy has been found to be effective in controlled, double-blind experiments.  (Next time, it'd be better to do the research before writing the damn post...)  If you'd like to check out the sources, here are a few I came across:

Hopkins, McLoda, Seegmiller, and Baxter, "Low-Level Laser Therapy Facilitates Superficial Wound Healing in Humans: A Triple-Blind, Sham-Controlled Study," Journal of Athletic Training, July 2004

Demir, Balay,and Kirmap, "A Comparative Study of the Effects of Electrical Stimulation and Laser Treatment on Experimental Wound Healing in Rats," Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, March 2004

Bolton, "Lasers in Wound Healing," Wounds, April 2004

Posten, Wrone, Dover, Arndt, Silapunt, and Aram, "Low-level Laser Therapy for Wound Healing: Mechanism and Efficacy," Journal of Dermatologic Surgery, March 2005

All of which is just a nice kick-in-the-pants reminder for me to be more careful, and practice what I preach re: being aware of one's own biases.

Thanks to Dr. Kathryn Okawa for setting me straight!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Retroactive prayer pay

Yesterday there was a story in News24, a media outlet in South Africa, that a Lichtenburg man, Nelson Thabo Modupe, has submitted a bill to Eskom, the South African electric company, for 250,000 Rand (about $23,000).

The reason?  There were storms during the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals, which were held in Johannesburg.  When the weather turned bad, Mr. Modupe prayed to god that there wouldn't be a power outage, and there wasn't, because by his prayers he "saved the power utility the burden and humiliation" that would have ensued had there been a loss of electricity during the game.  So he figures that Eskom owes him some big bucks for having had the foresight to pray.

[Spain vs. Portugal at the 2010 World Cup.  Image courtesy of photographer Andrew Deacon and the Wikimedia Commons]

Predictably, there has been a significant hue and cry against Mr. Modupe's case.  "I think he misunderstands the power of prayer," one person wrote, in the comments section of the News24 article. 

"(I)t seems like it's only Christianity, people use to make a quick buck," said another.  "I can give you a few quick quotes from the bible, but that won't be enough, you must know the Author, and the Author I know is not an Author of confusion."

"For money?" said a third.  "Imagine Moses charging admission fees for anyone wanting to cross the Red Sea."

Now, wait just a moment.  I can see your criticizing him for wanting to profit out of the whole thing; after all, Jesus himself had a few things to say about money, and none of them were good.  But I get the impression that most of the folks who wrote to respond to the story were religious themselves, and they were virtually unanimous in ridiculing Mr. Modupe and his FIFA World Cup Miracle.  And I was reading the comments, and thinking, "Aren't you people the ones who supposedly think that prayer works?"

I mean, I could understand it if one of us atheists made fun of the whole thing.  Whenever I hear of someone claiming, after the fact, that something happened because (s)he prayed for it, I always kind of roll my eyes a little, because it's pretty convenient to attribute to god's divine grace something that has already happened.

But why aren't the Christians cheering Mr. Modupe along?

I've thought about this before.  Back in biblical days, all sorts of weird shit happened -- donkeys talked (Numbers 22:21-39), the Earth stopped turning so that Joshua could finish fighting a battle (Joshua 10:12), and god told a man to slit his son's throat, only saying at the last moment that he was just kidding (Genesis 22).  These days, you have to wonder what would happen if someone claimed any of this stuff.  My general feeling is if someone killed a bunch of members of another religion, and then said that god had commanded him to do so (1 Kings 18:36-40), the judge -- Christian or not -- would throw the guy in jail, or worse.

So you have to wonder if the self-proclaimed bible-believing, god-obeying Christians really believe what they're saying.  If god told one of you to kill your own child, would you do it?  If he told you that you should jump off a cliff, because he would catch you with his Mighty Hand and Outstretched Arm and lower you gently to the ground, would you do it?  Why did such miracles happen every second Thursday, back in biblical times, but now people who believe such things are considered to be crazy -- even by the Christians themselves?

Kind of strange, isn't it?  Being an evidence-based kind of guy, myself, all it would take is one or two such miraculous occurrences to turn me into a True Believer, so you'd think it'd be in god's best interest to exert himself a little.  But there have been no talking donkeys, no times the Earth has stopped turning, nothing but things like "no power outages at the World Cup."

Oh, but wait.  "Thou shall not put the Lord thy God to the test."  (Matthew 4:7)  Mighty convenient, that.

In any case, I expect that Mr. Modupe will lose his lawsuit.  I mean, the power of prayer is one thing, but the power of the almighty dollar (or South African Rand, as the case may be) is another thing entirely.  But it does open up some pretty major philosophical questions, which I don't begin to know how to answer.

After all, I'm not the one who's claiming that all of this stuff works.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Lunar triangle anomaly

The UFO-and-aliens crowd (and also the conspiracy theorists) currently have their knickers in a twist over an object that showed up on a photograph of the surface of the Moon on Google Moon.  The object certainly is interesting; it shows seven evenly-spaced dots arranged along two lines at what appears to be a perfect right angle.

Certainly not something that looks... natural.

Speculation about what the object could be is running rampant.  So far, I've seen the following ideas:
  • the leading edge of a crashed, and partly buried, alien spacecraft;
  • a portal to another dimension;
  • a secret NASA lunar base (the spots are streetlights);
  • a secret alien lunar base;
  • a remote signaling device of extraterrestrial origin, à la 2001: A Space Odyssey;
  • or one corner of a gigantic lunar pasta strainer.
Okay, I made the last one up.  But c'mon, people; it behooves us to remember that all we really have is a photograph with an odd image on it.  At the moment, we don't know what it is.  So endless speculation about what it is is kind of pointless, because we have exactly one (1) piece of data.

Things like this always remind me of what Neil deGrasse Tyson said, when asked in a talk if he "believed in UFOs:"
Remember what the "U" in "UFO" stands for.  There's a fascinating frailty of the human mind, that psychologists know all about; and it's called "Argument from Ignorance."  And this is how it goes, you ready?  Somebody sees lights flashing in the sky.  They've never seen it before.  They don't understand what it is.  They say, "A UFO!"  The "U" stands for "unidentified."  So they say, "I don't know what it is... it must be aliens from outer space, visiting from another planet."  Well... if you don't know what it is, that's where your conversation should stop.  You don't then say it must be anything.  
Now, I know that it's only human to speculate, but what's really important is that we keep in mind that it is speculation... and that of all of the speculation we engage in, we need to be most wary of answers that seem appealing to us.  The answer that seems appealing -- that it's a downed spaceship, if you're an aficionado of UFO lore -- is going to be the one you're the most likely to accept without question, that you're likely to overlook evidence and logic against

As a philosophy teacher of mine once said, "Beware of your pet theories.  They'll turn on you when you least expect it."

And of course, in this case, we do have a rational (non-alien-based) explanation for the image.  Ross Davidson, a digital image specialist at the Newcastle-upon-Tyne based web development firm OrangeBus, gives the following analysis of the strange image:
Basically it's similar to the thing you get in all those 'UFO videos' you see these days from people with digital cameras - when they use digital zoom too much, you get 'artifacts' as the missing data is recreated using an algorithm which create regular shapes simply because of the nature of digital.

As such a simple point of light becomes something like this.

If he rotated the camera the shape would rotate with it...

You can get similar things with still photos when you blow them up - the moon pic shows a 'triangle' because it's digital - made up of pixels.

If you look at the dark lines in the pic they all align in the same way - it's just a shadow which pretty much aligns with the pixels and when compressed/zoomed looks perfectly triangular.
So there's that.

Not, mind you, that I wouldn't love it if it did turn out to be a crashed spaceship.  If I had to pick one thing that I would love to have evidence of in my lifetime, it's extraterrestrial intelligence.  But thus far, I don't think this is it.  Does it deserve further investigation?  Of course.  Do I think it's a spaceship, or a lunar base, or even a giant pasta strainer?

Nope.  Not yet.

Remember what the "U" in "UFO" stands for.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The "flap" comes to upstate New York

An article today in The Examiner has thrilling news for anyone who lives in upstate New York: we are apparently now at the epicenter of an outbreak of woo-wooness.

This is especially exciting for me, because I live in upstate New York, and heaven knows there's little enough else to be thankful for in this part of the country in January.  Tomorrow's high is supposed to be 4 degrees, and for those of you who think in metric, that's Fahrenheit, not Celsius.  If you convert it to Celsius, using the formula that we all learned in 7th grade and then promptly forgot, you get a fairly significant negative number.  And even if you were to measure it in Kelvin, a scale which tries to fool you into thinking that you are warmer than you really are by setting "zero" at "so cold that all molecular motion ceases," I'm guessing that you would not be tricked for a moment.  Regardless of what scale you put it into, 4 F is in that range that is classified by scientists as "really fucking cold."

And I haven't even mentioned the wind chill factor.

So right about now, we upstaters are looking for any possible reason to be optimistic.  And it appears that we have one; according to an article entitled "Yes, New York, You're Seeing Things," this part of the world is currently in the middle of a "flap," which means that all sorts of weird things can be expected to happen.

The term "flap" was coined by author John Keel, whose biggest claim to fame is the truly terrible book The Mothman Prophecies.  I tried to read The Mothman Prophecies once, and got only about halfway through it before I gave up.  And it bears mention that I have a fair tolerance for goofy paranormal writing.  I grew up on books that had titles like Twenty True Tales of Terror, and I still proudly own a copy of Ivan T. Sanderson's Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life.

But Mothman defeated me.  Maybe it was the rambling, incoherent prose; maybe it was the fact that very little of it turned out to have anything to do with the Point Pleasant Mothman.  But I just couldn't do it.

I also found out, when researching Keel, that he wrote several scripts for Lost in Space.  And given that this was one of the most completely abysmal shows ever to hit the airwaves, I suppose it all makes sense.

But I digress.

A "flap," according to Keel, is "any geographical region where a large number of strange sightings and experiences are clustered over a period of time, usually about 12-18 months."  The problem is, Keel said, that investigators in various areas of the paranormal -- UFOs, say, or ghosts, or Bigfoot, or psychic manifestations -- don't usually communicate much with one another.  So a UFO enthusiast might not be aware if there'd been an outbreak of ghosts nearby, for example.

But these flaps are real things, said Keel, and so does Keel's successor (Keel himself died in 2009) Andy Colvin.  Here's how Colvin describes a "flap:"
People who previously had no odd experiences at all will suddenly find themselves deluged...  Similarly, regions that are suddenly awash with UFO reports will also be awash with an increase in reports of hauntings, Bigfoot sightings, even mysterious fires and other odd events.  In correlating reports over a couple of decades from all over the country, Keel was eventually able to determine that these 'waves' of flaps occurred in a broad swath that moved pretty regularly through the same areas of the country every few years.  His clues to whether a true flap was going on include: Are parallel events happening at approximately the same time in different parts of the country? And, are a wide variety of phenomena being reported all at once in the 'target areas?'
And apparently, Colvin thinks that upstate New York is currently flapping like a flag in a hurricane:
(T)here has been a sharp increase in the number of odd nocturnal lights being observed up and down the Hudson Valley, from New York to Albany with some up to Rochester.  These numbers can be found at this national data base which simply collects reports, records them and chooses some of the more complicated ones for further study.  It has always been true that most UFO reports are basically reports of strange lights in the sky.  What's important about this information is the relative increase...  (J)ust in the last six months, there have a sharp increase in the number of people reporting encounters with Cryptids, in this instance, possible Bigfoot type creatures, in the Hudson Valley and Catskills proper.  While many of these reports could also be bear sightings, a number of them are quite interesting and include reports of associated sound and electromagnetic disturbance (cameras and phones suddenly not working, odd electrical outages), the classic terrible stench (which is not associated with bear) and some intriguing thermal imaging.  Many of these reports are collected and posted regularly at this Facebook page.
So there you are, then.  My general attitude is: bring it on.  There's nothing like actual evidence to convince me, and if we're in the middle of a flap, it should mean that someone will be able to get some hard data.  Unless, of course, it's all a bunch of nonsense, which could well be.

There's just one downside to all of this, though, and we're warned about it later in the article:
Finally, and most disturbingly, Keel noted that true flaps are often signaled by the untimely, sudden deaths of individuals who are known to have investigated these phenomena. The deaths often occur at the peak of the flap or right as the flap is beginning a sharp increase to reach its climax. In a number of his writings, Keel lists the individual researchers who passed on during clustered reports of the very things that most interested them. A few of these unusual deaths are recounted at this site, even though it's not as reliable as Keel.
The phrase "not as reliable as Keel" strikes me as strangely hilarious, given that most people tend to think that the stuff he wrote about ranked right up there with Lost in Space in terms of technical accuracy.  So I'm not really worried, despite my (1) having a deep and abiding interest in paranormal phenomena, while (2) not really believing much of any of it, and (3) living more or less in the center of the "flap."  Oh, yeah, and (4) being basically a big coward.  I am not the person you'd want by your side if there were some sort of real paranormal occurrence, because I'd faint and then you'd have to drag me to safety, unless you decided to save yourself and leave me to be eaten by zombies.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]
Logic and reason, not to mention friendship, only get you so far.

But anyway.  I'm happy to hear that for once, I appear to be where the action is.  I'm sick and tired of the Pacific Northwest and the Himalayas getting all of the Bigfoot sightings, and the UFO visitations favoring the American Southwest.  Maybe I'll finally have a shot at seeing something weird happen.  And when I do, trust me -- you'll be the first to know.

As soon as I regain consciousness.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jewish dinosaur evolution hoax!

Yesterday I came across the world's dumbest conspiracy theory.

I know I've said this before.  I said this about the claim that President Obama was selling us out to the Canadians.  I said this about the claim that CERN was designed to reawaken the Egyptian god Osiris.  I said this about the claim that Siri was programmed to open the Gates of Hell this coming July.

Each time, I thought we'd reached some kind of Conspiracy Theory Nirvana, that there was no way anyone could come up with something more completely ridiculous.

I was wrong.

Yesterday, I ran across a conspiracy theory that is so perfect in its absurdity that it almost reads like some kind of bizarre work of art.  You ready?

Dinosaurs never existed.  The whole thing is an elaborate hoax designed to give us the impression that organisms have evolved.  All the fossils ever "found" were either manufactured from plaster ("Is it possible," the author writes, "that dinosaur skeleton replica are secretly assembled or manufactured in private buildings out of public view, with bones artificially constructed or used from a number of different modern-day animals?  Why bother having any authentic original fossils at all if alleged replicas can please the public?") or are assembled from the bones of contemporary animals.

[image of Triceratops skeleton courtesy of photographer Michael Gray and the Wikimedia Commons]

Along the way, we learn that (1) radiometric dating is a method fabricated to give the dinosaur claim credibility, (2) fossilization is impossible, (3) the biblical creation story is true and the Earth is about 6,000 years old, and (4) paleontologists are big fat liars.  All of the evidence, in the form of fossil beds such as the ones at Dinosaur National Monument and the extensive fossil-rich strata in North and South Dakota, were planted there.  "Finds of huge quantities of fossils in one area, or by one or few people, goes against the laws of natural probability," we are told, despite the fact that once something occurs, the probability of its having occurred is 100%.

But so far, there's nothing much to set this apart from your usual run of creationist nonsense.  The pièce de resistance, though, is who they think is behind all of this falsehood, duplicity, and deception.  Who is it that has invented all of these fake "theories" about radioactive decay, geostratigraphy, and evolutionary descent?  Who planted all of these artificial fossils all around the world?

The Jews, of course.

I shoulda known. 

So last night, over dinner, I had a chat with my wife, who is Jewish.  I asked her why she spent her spare time creating a fake Jewrassic Park in Utah.  She already has her art -- isn't one hobby enough?

"I'm just that evil," she responded.

I asked her if she had any kind of Official Statement to make, now that her wicked plot has been uncovered.

She thought for a moment, and then said, "I'd have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for you crazy kids and your dumb dog."

So there you have it.

She did ask one question, though, after making her Official Statement:  "Don't these people realize that the creation story is in the Jewish bible, too?  That, in fact, the first five books of the Christian bible are exactly the same, word for word, as the Torah?"

I said I didn't know, but if I had to hazard a guess, that logic had very little to do with any of this.

So that's it, folks: the Jews have gone all over the world, including Antarctica, planting fake fossils so as to fool the true believers.  Then they invented radiometric dating, evolutionary biology, and the entire science of geology.  There it is -- the single dumbest conspiracy theory ever.  If you run across a dumber one, please don't tell me, because then I'll have to post about it, and I feel like my IQ dropped at least 20 points just in doing the research about this one.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Euler's identity, and seeing the divine in mathematics

Yesterday I ran into a "proof of the existence of god" I'd never seen before; the idea that there are mathematical patterns that suggest the hand of a deity.

One of the most popular patterns that religiously-inclined mathematicians point to is "Euler's identity:"

And on the surface of it, it does seem kind of odd.  "e" is the base of the natural logarithms; "i," the square root of -1, and thus the fundamental unit of imaginary numbers; pi, the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter.  That they exist in this relationship is certainly non-intuitive, and the non-intuitive often makes us sit back, and go, "Wow."

Euler's identity isn't the only such set of patterns, though.  A gentleman named Vasilios Gardiakos goes through a good many mathematical gyrations to show that god wrote his signature in number patterns, including the presence of "Pythagorean triplets" in the decimal expansion of pi.  (A "Pythagorean triplet" is a set of three integers that solve the Pythagorean theorem, that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse.  The most famous one is 3, 4, and 5.)

Gardiakos's messing about seems to me to stray a little too close to numerology for my comfort.  If you've already have decided that number patterns Mean Something, and you're willing to use any pattern you find, you're already off to a good start.  Add to that the fact that he was searching for patterns in decimal expansions that are infinite (pi, e, and √2), and it's a sure bet that given enough time, you'll come across whatever you need.

The use of the Euler identity, though, is a little harder to answer.  It certainly seems... well, perfect.  It relates five fundamental constants in mathematics -- e, pi, i, 1 and 0 -- in one simple, elegant equation.  And the mathematicians themselves have waxed rhapsodic over it.  Mathematician and writer Paul Nahin calls it "the gold standard for mathematical beauty."  Mathematician Keith Devlin of Stanford University states, "Like a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep, Euler's equation reaches down into the very depths of existence."

Which is all well and good, but does it prove anything beyond a fascinating and complex mathematical relationship?  First of all, the fact that it's true might be non-intuitive, but it is hardly a coincidence.  For a lucid explanation of why Euler's identity works, you have to go no further than the Wikipedia page on the subject, which leads us step-by-step through a proof of how it was constructed.

And honestly, all of the theologizing over beautiful theorems in mathematics seems to me to turn on one rather awkward question; if you are claiming that Euler's identity, or any other mathematical pattern, proves the existence of god, you are implying that had god wanted, he could have made the math work differently.  God exists -- we get Euler's identity and various patterns of numbers in the decimal expansion of pi.  God doesn't exist -- we don't.

So then, can you conceive of a mathematical system in which Euler's identity is a false statement?  Because if not, then god (should he exist) was apparently constrained to creating a universe where Euler's identity was true, and the god/no god models end up looking exactly the same.

Kind of a poor proof, honestly.

What this sort of thing seems like, to me, is an extension of the Argument from Incredulity: "I don't really understand how this could be true, so it must be god."  Understanding Euler's identity does require that you know a good bit of mathematics; easier, maybe, just to marvel at its beauty, and attribute that beauty to a deity.

For me, I'd rather just try to understand the reality, which is marvelous enough as it is, and worth reveling in a little.  It might be time to break out Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and K. C. Cole's The Universe and the Teacup again.

Friday, January 17, 2014

God, games, and prayers

Many years ago, when I lived in Seattle, I was intermittently part of an amateur theater group.  I had several minor roles, but then finally, in what turned out to be the last play I'd be in, I got a lead role in Paul McCaw's musical comedy The Trumpets of Glory.

The idea of The Trumpets of Glory is that angels are constantly interfering with human affairs, all the way from major world events (wars) down to minutiae (sports).  Angels take sides, and manipulate things so that their side will win, thereby scoring points and moving up in the hierarchy.  I played the villain (which will come as no surprise to former students) -- an archangel named Zagore, who was undefeated in the past 3,000 years, until he meets up with a hapless newbie in a contest over the outcome of a high school football game.

Of course, being musical theater, the underdog wins, and Zagore goes down to ignominious defeat.  Still, it was a fun role, especially since I got to strut around on stage being extremely badass while wearing renaissance garb, including a cloak and a velvet hat with an enormous feather in it.

All of this comes up because of a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, which indicates that half of the Americans polled actually believe that the universe works more or less like McCaw's play -- in spirit if not in exact detail.

"As Americans tune in to the Superbowl this year, fully half of fans — as many as 70 million Americans — believe there may be a twelfth man on the field influencing the outcome," PRRI CEO Robert Jones said.  "Significant numbers of American sports fans believe in invoking assistance from God on behalf of their favorite team, or believe the divine may be playing out its own purpose in the game."

Of the fifty-odd percent of Americans who believe that god cares about the outcome of the Superbowl,  26% reported that they have prayed that their team will win, 19% say that the winner is determined by god, and 25% suspect their team is cursed by the devil (this year, this last group probably includes 100% of the fans of the New Orleans Saints).

Furthermore, 62% of white evangelicals who responded to the poll said they thought that god favored athletes who were Christian themselves.

[photograph courtesy of Ed Clemente Photography and the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, I know that being an atheist, I'm to be expected to view all of this with a wry eye.  But even trying to be open-minded and ecumenical, and putting myself in the shoes of religiously-inclined sports fans, I find myself asking: how could this possibly work?  Does god employ an accountant, who keeps track of the number of prayers offered up on behalf of each team, and then he awards victory to the team that showed the greatest number of prayers?  (If so, the Washington Redskins fans may have some 'splainin' to do.)  Does the fervency of the prayers have an effect?  If so,  how do you measure the intensity of a prayer?  ("O Lord, the Seahawks fans offered up a total of 14,879 prayers, but their average prayer intensity only measured 3.47 tebows.  Do I let them win?")

What if everything comes out about even -- both teams have equal numbers of religious players, and the fans are all praying about the same amount?  Does god then just kind of sit back, crack open a beer, and say, "Heh.  Maybe I'll just wait and see what happens this time."

In all seriousness, I find the whole thing really puzzling.  As I've mentioned before, the concept of petitionary prayer has always struck me as the weirdest idea from conventional Christianity, as it seems to imply that you can change god's mind.  Even C. S. Lewis was uncomfortable with the idea, and in his essay "Does Prayer Work?" said that prayer doesn't exactly change god's mind, but it does influence things in some vague way: "He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to cooperate in the execution of His will."

I dunno, the whole thing sounds kind of peculiar to me.  It boils down to my asking for god to do something, which either he already intended to do ("Yay, god is so awesome!") or else not ("Oh, well, god works in mysterious ways.").   Either way, it's hard to see how my praying (or not) had any influence whatsoever, and honestly, it seems to be more a way for me to feel good about having done something to help the situation without actually doing anything to help the situation.

But in the case of sports, it's even weirder, because then you not only have to believe that god exists, and considers the content of prayers, but cares who wins the Superbowl.  Which is just stretching credulity too far, even considering some of the other things religious people believe.

Of course, I guess it's to be expected that I'd have this response, and I'm writing this more in complete mystification than I am out of disapproval.  If any religious people who read this are so inclined, and want to explain to me how any of this could possibly work, I'd be willing to listen, even though I have to say up front that I doubt it'll convince me.  The suspension of disbelief I'd have to undergo in order to buy into any of this is just too great.

So I'm left where I started, which is that I really don't understand maybe half of the people who live in this country.  Which, I guess, is not all that shocking, considering the material I write about daily.  And if I'm entirely wrong, and there is a god up there, and he does factor in prayer in determining the outcome of events, allow me to say that had I known, I would have put in a good word for the Saints, because when they lose I kind of stop paying attention.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Many worlds

I've always had a fairly good memory -- for certain things, at least.  I usually lecture my classes without notes, for example.  I find that it keeps my teaching fluid, much more so than it would be if I were just reading from a script.  (Every once in a while, though, the technique fails me, and I have to check something, or simply can't remember a particular term -- an occurrence I'm finding ever more common as I mosey my way through my 50s.)

At the same time, though, I'm constantly aware of how plastic and unreliable human memory is.  We form impressions of events, and sometimes those impressions are actually very far from correct.  The odd thing is that these pseudomemories don't seem inaccurate, or fuzzy.  My personal experience is that memories which are flat wrong seem perfectly solid -- until someone points out that facts demonstrate conclusively that what I'm remembering can't be correct.

It is this seeming certainty that is puzzling, and sometimes alarming.  A study back in 2005 by James Ost, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Portsmouth (England), demonstrated all of this with frightening clarity.  Ost took a group of volunteers in England and in Sweden, and asked them if they'd seen CCTV footage of the 2005 Tavistock Square bombing, when in fact no such footage exists.  50% of the Swedish participants said they had, and a full 84% of the English ones did!  Further, when Ost asked the volunteers who had responded "yes" for details about the video footage, they gave surprising amounts of information.  Ost asked one participant, "Was the bus moving when the bomb went off?" and received the following response: "The bus had just stopped to let two people off, when two women got on, and a man.  He placed the bag by his side, the woman sat down and doors closed.  As the bus left there was an explosion and then everyone started to scream."

So, as unsettling as it seems, a lot of what we remember didn't happen that way, or perhaps didn't happen at all.  Not a pleasant thought, but it seems like it's pretty universal to the way the human mind works.

Ost's study makes what I ran across yesterday all the more bizarre.  On a website called "The Mandela Effect," we are introduced to a woman named Fiona Broome, whose interest lies in exactly the sort of memory side-slips that Ost researched.  Her curiosity about such occurrences started when she realized how many of her acquaintances "remembered" that Nelson Mandela had died in jail -- even recalled details of his funeral from news stories they'd read.  But instead of coming to Ost's conclusion, which is that human memory is simply unreliable, Broome has reached a different explanation.

Broome thinks that these represent memories accessed from alternate realities.

"That’s not a conspiracy theory," Broome writes.  "It’s related to alternate history and parallel realities.  Exploring the quantum / 'Sliders' concept further, I discovered an entire world of shifting realities that people try to reconcile daily...  These aren’t simple errors in memory; they seem to be fully-constructed incidents (or sequential events) from the past.  They exceed the normal range of forgetfulness.  Even stranger, other people seem to have identical memories."

What are these "identical memories" that many people supposedly share?  They include:
  • The deaths of Billy Graham, actors Henry Winkler, Shirley Temple, and David Soul, and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
  • Plots and various other details on Mystery Science Theater and Star Trek: Voyager.
  • Details and release dates of the movies Avatar and Terminator.
  • Various PS1 games that don't exist.
  • The locations of New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
And apparently, Fiona Broome and the others of her mindset actually think that all of this is better explained by their somehow accessing an "alternate universe" than it is by their simply not remembering stuff correctly.

Even if you buy the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics -- a conjecture which is far from settled amongst physicists, however many plots of science fiction movies depend on its being correct -- there's absolutely no reason to believe that we still have access to alternate timelines once splitting has occurred.  If that were true, and people could jump back and forth between universes, it kind of throws the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy right out of the window.  And that law pairs up with the Second Law of Thermodynamics as two of the most fundamental building blocks of our understanding of the universe, and -- more importantly -- they are two laws for which no exception has ever been shown.

[image of "Schrödinger's Cat and Universe Branching" courtesy of Christian Schirm and the Wikimedia Commons]

Even ardent many-worlds supporters like Hugh Everett and John Archibald Wheeler believed that once the timeline has forked, the two universes are permanently sealed off from one another.  No information, much less matter and energy, can get from one to the other, which means that if many-worlds is right, there's no way to prove it (this, in fact, is one of the main objections from detractors).  So even though timeline-jumping is a central trope in my novel Lock & Key, I am very much of the opinion that the entire idea rests on a physical impossibility (which is why the novel is filed in the "fiction" section).

Sadly, this leaves Fiona Broome et al. kind of getting sliced to ribbons by Ockham's Razor.  Bit of a shame, really, because it would be cool if we could get a glimpse of alternate universes.  It brings to mind a quote from C. S. Lewis's novel Prince Caspian:
"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right – somehow?  But how?  Please, Aslan!  Am I not to know?

"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan.  "No. Nobody is ever told that."
It may well be that Broome's conjecture is more appealing than Ost's is; that our memory lapses represent the glittering remains of sideward steps into other worlds instead of simple neural failures.  But unfortunately, Ost's conclusion lines up better with the evidence.  Other studies, showing how easy it is to implant false memories, and how completely convincing those pseudomemories seem, indicate that what's really happening is that we are creating our recollections as we go, and some of them are simply invented from bits and pieces, from suggestions, or out of thin air.

The world, it seems, is far more solid than our memory of it.  So if Sri Lanka appears to have moved to the southeast, as some people apparently believe, then it's much more likely that you simply don't remember your geography very well than it is that you've had a glimpse of an alternate Earth in which the island is anchored elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Psychic alien Nazi spies

Some of my readers may remember that last year, Iranian news agencies announced that they had invented a spaceship that ran on "regular matter, dark matter, and antimatter."  The whole thing came as a bit of a shock to scientists in other parts of the world, given that astrophysicists have been trying for several years even to detect dark matter, and suddenly here's this guy saying he has a whole ship full of the stuff.

A few months later, we had the story of another amazing Iranian invention -- a machine which, at a touch, could correctly identify your age, gender, occupation, number of children, and education.  The English translation of the story, originally in Farsi, called it a "time machine," but that seems to have been a mistake -- not that the actual claim had any better grounding in reality.

So when I saw yesterday that there was a new story from Fars, the semi-official Iranian news agency, and it was making the rounds of conspiracy theory sites, I said (and I quote) "Uh-oh."  And sure enough, we have another winner.  This one beats dark-matter spaceships and psychic machines put together.  Are you ready?

Edward Snowden, of NSA-whistleblower fame, is in cahoots with evil aliens, who are secretly running the NSA and pretty much everything else in the US government.  Back in the 1930s and 1940s the aliens were behind the Nazis, but once the Nazis were defeated the aliens decided to infiltrate the allies, and more or less took over.  These days, Snowden himself is channeling a message from the aliens, which is designed to distract everyone from their real agenda, which is domination of the ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.  *insert evil laugh here*

It does bring up a question, however; isn't just dominating the Earth enough?  There's no one much to dominate on, say, Mercury.  Mercury is so close to the Sun that if the aliens landed there, they would just have time to leap out and say, "Ha ha!  We are dominating Mercury!" before they burst into flame.  And Neptune, as another example, is also a place that would be rather pointless to try to dominate.  Neptune is largely made of extremely cold methane, making it essentially a giant frozen fart.

So as far as I'm concerned, the aliens can go ahead and dominate the majority of the Solar System.  It's pretty inhospitable out there.

Be that as it may, the Iranians seem mighty serious about this accusation.  There's only one problem with it -- and that is that Fars seems to have lifted the story, in toto, from a completely wacko conspiracy website called What Does It Mean?  The people in charge of this site believe, amongst many other things, that the key to enlightenment is carried by a group of esoteric mystics called the "Order of Sorcha Faal," which was founded in County Meath, Ireland in 588 B.C.E. by Tamar Tephi, the daughter of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah.

 Tephi, by John Everett Millais [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

How she got from Palestine to Ireland is a bit of a mystery.

In any case, what we have here is a loony website about Irish Israelite princesses and psychic Nazi alien overlords, which the media over in Iran evidently took as literal fact.  And because the Iranians quoted it in their news, it's gotten into Huffington Post and various other US news sources, meaning that the entire thing has essentially gone viral by jumping halfway around the world.

You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.

So anyway.  Watch out for that Snowden character, he's on the side of the aliens.  As far as the Iranians, it's hard to tell whose side exactly they're on, because when they're not busy blowing the cover of the aliens who are running the United States, they're building dark-matter spaceships and time machines and whatnot.  My general sense is that we here in the North America have nothing to lose by just sitting back and letting the aliens do what they like.  Maybe the "Order of the Sorcha Faal" will get involved, and we'll end up having the Irish run the world, which seems like it would be kind of cool.  I'll take the Irish over either the Nazis or the Iranians, on the basis of having great music and really awesome beer, not to mention being less generally inclined to commit large-scale genocide.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Homeopathy, allopathy, and the right to prescribe drugs

New from the "This Is Seriously Not A Good Idea" department: the Indian Medical Association has just announced a decision to allow homeopathic "doctors" prescribe real medicines, i.e., substances that have actual therapeutically active compounds in them.

Not everyone is thrilled by this idea, fortunately.  Dr. Jayesh Lele, who is the secretary of the IMA's Maharashtra chapter, didn't sound particularly sanguine.  "We have gathered over thirty judgments delivered in various Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, that ruled against practitioners of alternative therapy prescribing allopathic medicines," Dr. Lele told The Times of India.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology, "allopathy" means "real medical science."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You'd think that the homeopaths would be elated to have this kind of Official Seal of Approval.  After all, the fact that they're being allowed to prescribe actual medicines could be construed as some sort of vindication of their skills as healers by the powers-that-be.  But in an odd twist, not all of the homeopaths are happy with the decision.  "Dr." Shreepad Khadekar, a Mumbai homeopath, hinted that the ruling would dilute homeopathic practice, which I find so ironic that it should somehow be added to the Alanis Morissette song.

Khadekar said, "It is definitely the darkest period in a real homeopath's life.  Soon my science will become extinct, thanks to the unfortunate decision."

My response, predictably, is I doubt that we'll be that lucky.   Khadekar's "science" has thus far survived a concerted effort by the folks over at the James Randi Educational Foundation, not to mention a whole list of lawsuits against the manufacturers of homeopathic "remedies" and the charlatans who dispense them.  Of course, the situation in India adds a whole new layer of crazy to the topic; do we really trust people who don't understand the concept of serial dilution, Avogadro's limit, and the placebo effect to dispense real drugs correctly?  Individuals who in order to prop up their bizarre concept of how the body works have to resort to blathering about "energies" and "vibrations" and "quantum imprints?"

I mean, at least before, all they were handing out were vials of water and sugar pills.  Sure, they weren't curing diseases, but at least what they were giving you was harmless.

I have a dear friend whom I watched studying for the board exams to become a nurse practitioner -- the amount of information you have to have at your fingertips in order to decide which drug to prescribe, not to mention correctly calculating dosage, is absolutely immense.  So the folks over in India think it's a good idea to allow people to do that who evidently don't understand the fact that zero atoms of an active ingredient have no effect?

I don't see this ending well.

I find it amazing that this nonsense is still out there, given what we now understand about biochemistry.  Here in the United States homeopathic "remedies" are ubiquitous -- they're on the shelves in our local pharmacy, row upon row of glass vials containing nothing of value (but quite expensive, I feel obliged to point out).  But at least we haven't taken the further step of allowing the homeopaths themselves to have access to real drugs.  That, fortunately, is still the purview of people who have the educational background to know what they're doing.  If you're in India, though, and you fall ill -- well, all I can say is, make sure you ask what your medical service provider's background is before you take his or her advice, and beyond that, caveat emptor.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Thoughts about the Hand of God

I'm going to issue a plea to scientists:

Can you please stop giving scientific stuff suggestive names?

Let me clarify: I am not talking about that kind of suggestive.  That kind of suggestive I couldn't care less about.  You can name the next astronomical feature you discover the Giant Pair of Bazongas Nebula, as far as I'm concerned.

What I am talking about is the use of religious symbolism in names.  First we had poor Leon Lederman, who has lived to regret his choice many times, nicknaming the Higgs boson "the God Particle."  Then we had a bunch of population geneticists, studying human DNA haplogroups, calling the progenitor of the human Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, respectively, "Adam and Eve."

Even Einstein fell prey to it -- when he first heard about the quantum probability theories of Erwin Schrödinger, he quipped, "God does not play dice with the universe."

So it's not like it's without precedent.  I'm just asking for it to stop.

All of this comes up because of the following image of an exploding star, recently released by NASA:

[image courtesy of NASA and JPL]

And what are they calling this?

"The Hand of God."

Now, I'm sure that whatever scientist first called it this had tongue planted firmly in his or her cheek.  But the problem is, that's not the way the average American layperson perceives it.  Given that something around 80% of your average American laypeople subscribe to some form of religion, this sort of thing sounds mighty serious to a significant fraction of the public.  And even amongst those who don't believe that this is literally the hand of a deity, it can give rise to overwrought articles like "Beyond NASA Photo, 'Hand of God' Seen Everywhere," in which we are told that science and religion go, um, hand in hand:
This ubiquitous natural wonderland caused man to acknowledge and honor the Creator of creation, as Copernicus did when he wrote, "[The world] has been built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all."  Or as Galileo wrote, "God is known … by Nature in His works and by doctrine in His revealed word."  Or as Pasteur confessed, "The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator."  Or Isaac Newton: "When I look at the solar system, I see the earth at the right distance from the sun to receive the proper amounts of heat and light. This did not happen by chance."
The author goes on to state that even modern scientists admit that there's room for faith:
"Now,” [astronomer Robert] Jastrow continues, "we would like to pursue that inquiry farther back in time, but the barrier to further progress seems insurmountable.  It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation."
The famed scientist’s ultimate conclusion is astonishingly candid, particularly in light of his own professed agnosticism: "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream.  He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."
Oh, come on.  It's not that I think that religion and science are incompatible, exactly; I know plenty of religious scientists (and quite a few rational, logical religious people).  It's more that all of the historical fuddling about really doesn't mean anything.  Copernicus and Galileo were religious, sure; but Copernicus didn't release the official draft of his manuscript until he was on his deathbed because he was terrified of the Christian powers-that-be (and sure enough, they burned every copy of his book they could get their hands on).  And Galileo had his own struggles with the Vatican, ones that are so well known that they hardly need to be detailed here.  The only reason that Newton and Pasteur didn't run into problems is that by their time, the power of the church had waned some (and what they were proposing didn't bring them into direct conflict with religious dogma in any case).

So the issue isn't that you can't be both religious and scientific; the issue is more that when they come to opposing conclusions, you have to choose one or the other, because they approach knowledge from completely different directions.  I've made the point before, as regular readers undoubtedly know.  So it really isn't relevant that Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Pasteur were religious; what is relevant is that when it came to their science, they didn't get it from the bible, nor even some kind of mystical divine revelation, but from rigorous analysis of the evidence.

And as far as Jastrow; seriously?  We scientists are pictured as pulling ourselves along, stumbling blindly uphill, finally reaching the pinnacle of knowledge, and coming across... theologians?  I'm sorry, Dr. Jastrow, but do you really want to compare the list of discoveries, advances in knowledge, and inventions that have helped the human condition that have been produced by science, and those that have been produced by religion?  I know you were talking about some kind of final, teleological understanding of the Big Picture -- but honestly, given their respective track records, I'm betting that if we ever get to the Cosmic Big Answer, it's going to be the scientists who do it, not the theologians.  The theologians will still be too busy arguing over whether god cares about what consenting adults do in their bedrooms.

So, anyway.  Let me say it again: it's hard enough to keep the terms of the discussion clear without the scientists themselves making it worse by giving stuff religiously suggestive names.  I mean, if you really want to go that direction, at least pick a god nobody much believes in any more.  If you'd wanted to call the exploding star The Mighty Fist of Thor, I doubt anyone would have cared, except people who are passionate about Marvel Comics, and honestly, I think they can manage the cognitive dissonance better than the religious people can.