Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Spirals and ice ages

New from the One Thing Leads To Another department, a loyal reader of Skeptophilia was spurred by yesterday's post to send me a link that spells out why we're headed to another ice age.

Yesterday, you may recall, we learned that the sun is going to go out because solar panels actively suck energy from the sun, in the fashion of giant photonic vacuum cleaners.  Today, we're going to take a look at another problem, which is that we're headed for an ice age regardless, because the current model of the Solar System is "not only boring, but incorrect."

This startling revelation came from a post on the r/Conspiracy subreddit that could be used as an advertisement about why it's critical to take high school physics.  It starts with a video on YouTube called "The Helical Model: Our Solar System is a Vortex," wherein we find out that because the sun is traveling in a (more-or-less) circular path around the center of the galaxy, the planets aren't traveling in circles, they travel instead in a "vortex."  "The Sun is like a comet," the video tells us, "dragging planets in its wake."

Because, apparently, comets do that.  Who knew?

"Rotational motion" and "vortex motion" are, we are told, "completely different things."  Then we're shown all sorts of pretty pictures of spiral stuff like ammonite shells and fern fiddleheads.

But so far, what we've been shown is hardly startling, if you know any physics at all.  Of course the motion of the planets looks different if you're viewing it from a different perspective.  Physicists call this a reference frame, and they know all about them -- the idea of reference frames is what gave Einstein the idea for the Theories of Relativity.  So it's not some kind of earthshattering idea to point out that if you're traveling with the sun, the planets move in ellipses, and if you're not -- if you're at a fixed point above the center of the Milky Way, watching the stars zoom around in circles -- the planets will travel in a spiral-ish fashion.  The motion isn't different; what has changed is your reference frame.

But that's only the beginning.  We're then shown two drawings of "energy fields," one around a human and one around... um, something.  I'm not sure what.  The first one is marked "copyrighted," so out of respect for intellectual property rights (although this may be stretching the definition of the word "intellectual"), I'll just post a link to it.  The second, though, I'll reproduce here:

The original poster on r/Conspiracy called these "Taurus fields."  And I sat there for some time, wondering, "Why Taurus?  Why not Scorpio or Aquarius, or, for that matter, Camelopardalis?"  And then it came to me:  he means "torus."  As in, a donut-shaped thing.  Although I do think that "Taurus" is correct in one sense, in that this seems to me to be a lot of bull.

In any case, this sets us up for the punch line, which I present here in toto:
...we are just on the outside of the Iron Age (the shaded in cone), and entering the Bronze Age. Being we are still in the cone, this is causing us to travel in a spiral, but the spiral is widening. This is causing us to gain speed, like a sling. 
This gain in speed is causing our sun to produce longer solar flares. This will cause our planet to rise in temperature, causing our polar caps to melt. This, of course, will cause major flooding. We've yet to see the worst, and the worst will last about a month to a month and a half. This will flood most of the world. 
And the sun progresses to increase, the planets will pull away (think of gravity like a bungee cord), and this will then cause global cooling, which will introduce us into a new ice age. 
The ice age will take about 300 years to fully manifest, but it will last between 12,000 - 16,000 years. 
This explains all the black projects costing trillions of dollars. This explains all the underground bunkers being built. This explains all the camps, all the militarization of police, all the crack down on rights. This explains why people that seem to have all the money they need seem to need more money.
Wowza.  This may be one of the most concentrated samples of bullshit I've ever seen.  We have: a total lack of understanding of basic physics, apocalyptic stuff, "global cooling," government conspiracy theories, and underground bunkers, all in the space of just five short paragraphs.

We are then directed to two websites for further information.  The first is Half Past Human, which seems to be some kind of conspiracy site (although I did see references to "swirlies in the sky" and "spacegoat farts" on the top couple of entries, both of which I would prefer not to investigate).  The second is, which is a blog with lots of videos and articles about how everything we know about physics is wrong.  Oh, and chemtrails and Cliven Bundy and pyramids.

It's a general rule of thumb that whenever some n00b comes down the pike, without any scientific training whatsoever, and claims to have discovered a Grand Theory of Life, the Universe, and Everything, (s)he is (1) probably insane, and (2) definitely wrong.  Scientists do make mistakes; as British science historian James Burke put it, in the episode "Worlds Without End" from his amazing series The Day the Universe Changed, "The so-called voyage of discovery has, as often as not, made landfall for reasons little to do with the search for knowledge."  Science sometimes backtracks, makes missteps, pursues what ultimately turn out to be dead ends.

But scientists do understand the method by which you achieve understanding, and because of that, the overall body of science becomes better refined, and closer to grasping the actual truth, as time goes on.  The bottom line: we may not understand everything, but we have a pretty good idea of how to explain a lot of what we see.  The likelihood of anyone finding anything that completely overturns our understanding of any branch of science is slim indeed.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The solar vacuum cleaner

Poe's Law has claimed another victim.

Well, more than one.  Lots more than one, to judge by Facebook and Twitter over the last couple of days.  This particular iteration of the rule that any sufficiently well-done satire is indistinguishable from the real thing comes at the hands of The National Report, which shares the stage with The Onion as a hysterically funny source for completely fake news.

This time, The National Report has taken aim at the solar power industry with a stunning exposé called "Solar Panels Drain the Sun's Energy, Experts Say."  In the article, we find out about a study done at the Wyoming Institute of Technology that showed that solar panels suck energy from the sun in the fashion of giant leeches:
Scientists at the Wyoming Institute of Technology, a privately-owned think tank located in Cheyenne, Wyoming, discovered that energy radiated from the sun isn’t merely captured in solar panels, but that energy is directly physically drawn from the sun by those panels, in a process they refer to as "forced photovoltaic drainage." 
"Put into laymen’s terms, the solar panels capture the sun’s energy, but pull on the sun over time, forcing more energy to be released than the sun is actually producing," WIT claims in a scientific white paper published on Wednesday.  "Imagine a waterfall, dumping water.  But you aren’t catching the water in buckets, but rather sucking it in with a vacuum cleaner.  Eventually, you’re going to suck in so much water that you drain the river above that waterfall completely."

WIT is adamant that there’s no immediate danger, however.  "Currently, solar panels are an energy niche, and do not pose a serious risk to the sun.  But if we converted our grids to solar energy in a big way, with panels on domestic homes and commercial businesses, and paving our parking lots with panels, we’d start seeing very serious problems over time.  If every home in the world had solar panels on their roofs, global temperatures would drop by as much as thirty degrees over twenty years, and the sun could die out within three hundred to four hundred years."
And to make the article even funnier, the study was supposedly commissioned by none other than Halliburton:
"Solar panels destroying the sun could potentially be the worst man-made climate disaster in the history of the world, and Halliburton will not be taking part in that," the company stated in a press release issued Friday morning.  "It’s obvious, based on the findings of this neutral scientific research group, that humans needs to become more dependent on fossil fuels like oil and coal, not less."
My mirth over this story dwindled, however, when I noticed that almost every person who posted this story had done so because... they thought it was true.

[image courtesy of photographer M. O. Stevens and the Wikimedia Commons]

I wish I were making this up.  Here's a selection of the comments that I saw appended to the link.  You may want to put a pillow on your desk for the inevitable faceplant:
Green technology my ass.  The liberal pseudo-environmentalists are selling us out as usual. 
Pass this link along!  Don't let this get swept under the rug! 
Just another way they're going to make money off the fake climate change agenda. 
Alot [sic] more believable than what you hear about the "greenhouse effect" bullshit. 
I wonder how long it will take for the warmists to suppress this.
*sits, hands over face, sobbing softly*

I don't know, folks.  I think that this one may have pushed me over the edge.  "Warmists?"  "Liberal pseudo-environmentalists?"

What, because we have the brainpower to recognize that you can't suck up sunlight with a fucking vacuum cleaner?

And even if light did work this way, we'd have a slightly larger problem than solar panels, you know?  Namely: plants.  As light-suckers go, the plants are a hell of a lot more efficient than solar panels, and there are a great many more of them.  So, what should our slogan be?  "Down with photosynthesis?"  "Pave the forest, save the planet?"

I know all too well, first hand, the state of science education in the United States.  And this is despite teaching in a pretty good school system, where there are a great many opportunities for in-depth study in science.  I know that between school budgets cutting staffing to the bone, and the purely ideological hacking of science education standards to remove controversial topics like climate change and evolution, it's a wonder kids don't graduate thinking that all matter is composed of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.  (And interesting, too, that according to the article I linked, the first state to reject public school science standards explicitly because of the issue of climate change was the state of Wyoming -- a point that no doubt the writers of the satire in The National Report were trying to make by siting the fake "study" in Cheyenne.)

But really, people.  How ignorant about the world around you can you get?  This goes way past "dopeslap" territory, right into "please don't breed."

And to the people over at The National Report:  I'm uncertain whether to applaud, or ask you to publish a retraction.  Poe's Law notwithstanding, we really don't need more people voting against clean energy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The woo-woos go to Wales

Some of you may remember that three years ago, just as the Mayan Apocalypse nonsense was beginning to get some traction, a cadre of nutjobs associated with J. Z. Knight's "Ramtha School of Enlightenment" descended on the little village of Bugarach in the southwest of France because they had somehow become convinced that it was the only place on Earth that wasn't going to be destroyed.  The mayor of Bugarach was understandably dismayed when thousands of dubiously sane apocalyptoids showed up and started camping out all around the village.  They were, they explained, expecting that when the End Times came, the nearby mountain (the Pic de Bugarach) was going to pop open in the fashion of a jack-in-the-box, and an alien spacecraft was going to come out and bring all of the assembled woo-woos to their new home in outer space.

Except, of course, that none of this happened, and the woo-woos eventually gave up and went home.  Same as the Harmonic Convergence people and the Rajneeshees did a generation earlier.  As mystifying as it seems, repeatedly failing in every single prediction they make never discourages the loyal following.  They disperse temporarily, but always resurface later, once again holding hands and chanting while barefoot and wearing daisy chains...

... and this time Wales is the lucky winner.

Our most recent iteration of this story comes to us courtesy of the "Aetherius Society," which hales back to 1958, when London cab driver George King was instructed by an "alien intelligence" to become a religious leader.  "Prepare yourself!" the voice told him.  "You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament."  The alien intelligence said his name was "Aetherius" and that he lived on the planet Venus, despite the fact that Venus is basically a cross between an acid bath and a blast furnace, with a surface hot enough to melt lead.  Be that as it may, Aetherius did a lot of talking to and through King, delivering messages that included a cautionary note that if people didn't listen to the "Cosmic Masters," evil space guys were going to destroy the Earth.  However, with the help of Aetherius and others (including the same Krishna that the Hindus worship, except that the Aetherius people say that Krishna is from Saturn), everything would be just hunky-dory.

Oh, yeah, and Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tse were aliens, too.  Just to be clear on that.

But then, there's also this fixation on mountains, which is how Wales comes into the picture.  George King/Aetherius said that there were nineteen mountains around the world that were "holy places" that were "charged with spiritual energy," and these include Pen-y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons and Carnedd Llewelyn in Snowdonia.  And it is to the latter that the Aetherius Society members are going to be heading in August.

"Carnedd Llewelyn is one of nineteen mountains around the world that the Aetherius Society revere as holy," society member Richard Lawrence said.  "On August 23 we are arranging a pilgrimage...  The purpose of going up is to send out spiritual energy for world peace and to pray for the betterment of humanity.  The climbs are quite demanding, I find, and then at the top we raise our hands and join in prayer.  When I feel a burst of energy it could be strong heat in the palms or a tingling sensation throughout the body."

I don't know about you, but I would not consider a "tingling sensation" an adequate reward for busting my ass climbing a mountain.  But that's just me.  And at least, unlike the Pic de Bugarach, Carnedd Llewelyn isn't all that near any towns whose inhabitants the "pilgrims" will bother.  The nearest good-sized village is Bethesda, fourteen kilometers distant, which is quite a hike.  Plus, Bethesda is said by Wikipedia to be "infamous for its pubs," so maybe our pilgrims might oughta think about other accommodations in any case.

I suppose that the whole thing is harmless enough, but you have to wonder how it keeps happening.  I mean, if I were considering becoming an Aetherian, or whatever the hell they call themselves, I'd do some research first.  I'd start by looking up "alien UFO fringe groups" online, and after the first ten articles about the Heaven's Gate Cult and the Raëlians and (it must be said) the Scientologists, I'd pretty much go, "Well, fuck that."

So I won't be joining them in Wales, much as I think it's a lovely place that I'd like to visit again.  I'm not much for daisy chains and chanting.  Instead, I think I'll see what I can do in the way of achieving "tingling sensations" in the comfort and privacy of my own home.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ebenezer's shame

Coming right on the heels of yesterday's post, wherein I mused over the question of whether the woo-woos are actually just kidding, and are seeing how outlandish their claims can become before we skeptics catch on, we have a story today that makes me ask the same question about the creationists.

It will probably come as no great shock that the latest bizarre salvo from the biblical literalists has come from none other than Ken Ham, whose trouncing by Bill Nye the Science Guy in a debate that brought to mind the phrase "having a battle of wits with an unarmed man" seems not to have dampened his convictions.  Now, according to a story that I first saw in (of all places) the Pakistan Daily Times, Ham is claiming that an extraordinarily well-preserved Allosaurus specimen is concrete proof of the biblical creation story.

Yes, I know that Ham et al. believe that everything is proof of the biblical creation story.  But does it seem to you that deliberately choosing a 150 million year old fossil as proof of their mythology is a little... crazy?  They're on shaky enough ground with all of the "look at the pretty butterflies and fascinating fish, god musta did it" stuff that the Creation Museum excels at; why would they deliberately pick a Jurassic-era dinosaur?

[image courtesy of photographer Andy Tang and the Wikimedia Commons]

And it's not like it came cheap, either.  According to Ham's own site, Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum shelled out $1.5 million for the privilege of displaying something that conclusively disproves their entire raison d'être.  Not that that's the way they put it, of course.  Ham was quoted in the article as saying that the allosaurus skeleton "fulfills a dream I’ve had for quite some time. For decades I’ve walked through many leading secular museums, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and have seen their impressive dinosaur skeletons.  But they were used for evolution.  Now we have one of that class, and it will help us defend the book of Genesis and expose the scientific problems with evolution."

I read that entire passage with the following expression on my face:

But it only got worse from there, because then Michael Peroutka weighed in.  Peroutka is the guy who sold Ham the skeleton, and he said that the allosaurus "is a testimony to the creative power of God in designing dinosaurs, and that it also lends evidence to the truth of a worldwide catastrophic flooding of the earth in Noah’s time."  Dr. Andrew Snelling, the Creation Museum's staff geologist, said that "Ebenezer" (as they're calling the allosaurus) "most likely died in Noah’s Flood, over 4,300 years ago.  In fleeing the rising waters... Ebenezer was swept away in a debris flow and buried rapidly under massive amounts of sediment, preserving many of its bones," adding that the whole story "will be published in AiG’s peer-reviewed Answers Research Journal."

I think that this was the point that I said, "... wait a minute."  "Peer-reviewed?"  By whom?  By other bible-toting, science-ignoring creationists?  I suppose, to be fair, that's what "peer" means in this context, as in telling a kindergartner that he needs to "interact with his peers" even though they are peers mainly in the sense that they aren't reliably avoiding wetting their pants on a daily basis.

Yet the AiG people do have scientists.  There is the aforementioned Andrew Snelling, who has a Ph.D. in applied geology from the University of Sydney.  Even more mystifying is Georgia Purdom, whose Ph.D. in molecular biology has not stopped her from making bafflingly wacky statements like "From the creation perspective, all bacteria were created 'good,'" presumably only becoming evil pathogens after the Fall of Adam.

And this, I have to admit, is the point when I am overtaken by incredulity.  How could people become sufficiently knowledgeable in geology and molecular biology (respectively) to receive doctorates, and simultaneously hold the belief that the entire universe is 6,000 years old?  And, furthermore, the belief that the science itself supports that view?  The whole thing is a little like my pursuing a medical degree while claiming that diagnosis and treatment should be based on the "Four Humors" model of human health. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Finkwhistle, but your stomach pains are clearly caused by an imbalance between your phlegm and black bile.  We're going to fix it by cutting your arm to let some blood out."

The sad fact, of course, is that like our crop circle "astronomologer" in yesterday's post, these people are serious.  So as much as I'd like to think that Ham and Co. are playing some kind of elaborate prank, not only on us skeptics but upon their tens of thousands of followers in the United States and elsewhere, it appears that they're sincere.  Hard though it is to fathom, they will now have a $1.5 million allosaurus skeleton with which to make their point to the gullible public.  And I can't help but think that Ebenezer the allosaurus would be ashamed if he knew his bones were being used for such a purpose.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fooling the astronomologers

There are times that I think the woo-woos are engaging in an elaborate game of self-parody, just to see how far they can push us skeptics before we realize that it's all a huge joke.

Or at least, I live in that hope, because it's better than the alternative, which is that these people are serious whackjobs.  Take, for example, the case of the astrologer who recently commented on a crop circle that occurred in 2011 near Stonehenge.

Those of you are are aficionados of punk rock may recognize this as the logo of Crass, a punk rock band formed in the 1970s that was involved in the anarchic/political end of the punk spectrum, and which produced several albums, including the memorable Penis Envy.  For reference, here's their actual logo, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Not much doubt, is there?  Some wag with a taste for punk and way too much free time decided to make a crop circle as an homage to his (or her) favorite band.  As we've seen before, crop circles can be generated in short order as long as you have some kind of device to orient yourself and a piece of plywood with which to flatten the crops.  No other explanation necessary, not that we'd be likely to look for one given that it'd be an odd alien race that would come all the light years to Earth and leave behind a punk rock logo as their only communiqué.

That point, however, apparently flew past astrologer Donna Provancher so quickly that it didn't even ruffle her hair.  Excuse me, though; Provancher isn't an astrologer, she says she's an "astronomologer."  What, exactly, is an "astronomologer," you may be asking?  In her words, "astronomology is the practice of astrology using astronomy to build the chart and supply new insights."

Which doesn't sound that different from astrology, frankly.  It's as if I decided to open a practice doing Tarot card readings and started calling it "Tarothematics" because the Tarot cards have numbers on them, and expected that people should take me more seriously than the ordinary Tarot card readers because of it.

Be that as it may, Provancher was just enthralled by the crop circle, and had a wonderful explanation of what it meant.  None of which, I hasten to say, had anything to do with punk rock.  Here's Provancher's explanation, courtesy of the wonderful site Dangerous Minds:
You know those pictures of the Gods and Goddesses with eight or eighteen or a thousand arms? That’s what we are when we work together. You can tack thousands of pairs of eyes and ears to that image while you’re at it. Nothing escapes our notice. 
Roving Astronomologer eyes and ears (thanks again Solar Ophiuchus Raya King—that makes two Gold Stars for you) directed my attention early this morning to a crop circle reported June 20, 2011 near Stonehenge.Crop Circle Connector is calling this area “Stonehenge (1)” whatever that means. I have a Facebook Wall ping out to Philip Peake (visit his blog my longtime Friend (with a capital F), Web Host and Webmaster who is from the U.K. Maybe he can tell me where this is in relation to the megaliths. The map wasn’t revealing of that little detail...
She then goes on to explain what the crop circle means, as follows:
—As Above, So Below (opening greeting) 
—An equal-armed or Tau-Cross (the balancing of Earth’s energies) 
—A double-headed serpent wrapped around one of the axial poles of the planet — we’ll have to assume it’s the poles of the planet since East-West doesn’t have an axial pole. The piece on top (the double-headed serpent) is bolted to the Tau-Cross, so at this point, Raya’s vision of the Staff of Asclepius is partially correct; she just didn’t finish it. 
The 2-headed King-snakes I used to see at the San Diego zoo had tails. This one isn’t like that. But then it’s not imitating a snake, it’s picturing a new concept. The new Planetary Caduceus. It needs to be finished. This is something else I haven’t discussed yet but it looks like this is one more Agenda Item on the Table I’ll put this on my To-Do list to discuss.
Well, I don't know about you, but my little heart is just going thumpety-thump in anticipation of more discussion of the "planetary caduceus."  Whatever that is.

All the while I was reading this, I kept thinking... "come on.  When is the other shoe going to drop?  Surely she doesn't think this is really some kind of mystical symbol... like, aliens?  Or Gaea communicating with us?  Or... or...  No, merciful heavens above, she really doesn't realize it's a prank."

Anyhow, I'd like to thank Dangerous Minds for the best laugh I've had in days, and Donna Provancher for inadvertently being the cause.  I guess she's really not engaging in self-parody, as comforting an answer as that would be -- she really does believe what she's saying.  And now, I need to wrap this up -- I need to go study.  Pretty soon I'll be taking my licensing exam, after which I'll be a certified homeopathophysiolomedicopsychic-ologist.

Beat that.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Crystals, children, and exploitation

In the latest from the You Don't Even Know What Those Terms Mean, Do You? department, we have a video on the site Spirit Science called "This 8 Year Old Kid Uses Crystal Grids to Transmute Negative Energy."

I know that taking anything from Spirit Science is kind of a cheap way to get a Skeptophilia post at this point.  This site first gained attention from a video that was narrated by an animated character whose voice sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk on quaaludes, and that basically told us that Everything Is Connected and Energy Flows Through Us and other vapid New Age platitudes, every once in a while throwing in a nice science-y word to keep us thinking that what they were saying actually meant something.

But so far, all we have is a flashy woo-woo take on Science, The Universe, and Everything, very much in the tradition of What the Bleep Do We Know? (the latter produced by none other than the infamous J. Z. Knight, of Ramtha fame).  Spirit Science, therefore, is kind of low-hanging fruit, and I've never felt all that inclined to address their claims.  If you can even call them "claims."  (For a funny response to the video link I posted, take a look at this one.)

Of course, the fact that Spirit Science is 100% USDA Grade A Bullshit hasn't dissuaded people from watching the Spirit Science channel on YouTube in huge numbers, and as a result, there are now 26 (or more) videos narrated by Alvin.  All of which seemed more depressing than interesting, until the article about the eight-year-old started showing up all over Facebook and other social media sites.

What bothers me about this one is not, strictly speaking, the woo-woo aspect of it.  The idea of "crystal energies" has been around for a long time.  I remember a woman coming over to my house in response to For-Sale ad I'd placed in the newspaper, and her picking up one of the quartz crystals that had been collected years earlier by my dad on one of his rockhounding trips.  "Ooh," the woman said, caressing the crystal.  "This one is lovely!  I can feel it focusing my energy in such a positive way!"

It was an effort not to guffaw directly into her face.

So what bothers me about this story isn't the bullshit aspect of it, but the exploitation aspect -- given that it must be the kid's parents who (1) taught him all of this nonsense, and (2) set up this "interview."  At the end, too, the kid says that he'll be happy to set up a "crystal grid appointment" for anyone interested, hinting at a monetary side of the whole thing that I'm sure will come as no great shock to anyone reading this.

And yet the people interviewing him never mention anything about exploitation.  They treat his fancies as if they were entirely real, starting with the guy who introduces the segment saying, "What you're about to see is a perfect example of the consciousness of today's children."  Then we're shown the kid and his crystal arrangement, and the interviewer treats him with great seriousness, asking him how it works.

"It captures the dark energy in these three webs," the kid tells her, "and then disposes of it using this (crystal) turning it into my energy... it goes all the way around the world.  And the universe."

Mmm-hmm.  Sounds completely plausible.  We hear a lot more about crystals focusing energy (never, of course, defining the terms "focus" or "energy"), and light and dark energies shooting around, and so on.  Eventually, the interviewer gets to what really was the only germane question she asked:  "How did you know how to make this web design?"

The kid's response:  "I knew... because the rocks know exactly how to dispose of dark energy...  they told me.  I go up to one rock, and find the key, put my finger on it, and then I put it up to my ear and hear what it's saying...  a key is a part of the rock, every rock has it, that is the energy key point of it."

Now, I raised two boys, who were both imaginative and creative youngsters, always making up games and let's-pretend worlds.  My older son, especially, always has had a wildly creative mind, and we still have stories he wrote and board games he dreamed up, the latter of which had rules so abstruse that they make Magic: The Gathering look like a tic-tac-toe game.

Here, though, we have parents (never seen on the interview, but you know they're there) who are feeding this young person with the impression that his fantasy world is real -- as if I had told Lucas when he was little that the plastic dinosaurs he loved to play with actually were alive and aware, because he had somehow made them so.  This is, put simply, exploiting a child's imagination for fame and (probably) money, all the while leading him to believe that his naturally blurred boundary between reality and fantasy isn't just hard to delineate, it doesn't exist.

And they're doing so with the complicity of the people who interviewed him, and with the encouragement of thousands of people who commented and have now passed this story all over the place.  While it's heartening that the first comment was appropriately snide...  "a kid arranges his parent's mineral collection and repeats a bunch of nonsense and now he is a guru.  namaste" -- note that this commenter was immediately shot down with responses like "Get a brain."  And most of the other comments were wildly positive:
We are in the Age of Aquarius now....for those of you that don't get this...why are you even watching it if it isn't your "thing"? ...this kid is truly gifted...and if you don't understand might wanna wake up to the New Age....Just saying! 
Too bad for all of those brothers and sisters who speak ill of what they do not know. It is understandable though. Not every being on this earth is connected to the great planet. 
Children like this that can see through the illusions of what we believe to be true give me hope that we just might not end up destroying the Earth.
This kid is, on the surface, doing what kids do; playing with stuff and making up stories.  But the adults who are currently turning him into a mini-celebrity amongst the woo-woo crowd are doing him no favors.  It's to be hoped that he'll eventually figure out that what he's saying is nonsense.  I just hope that by that time, he hasn't been so suckered in by the lucrative side of woo-woo that he becomes the next J. Z. Knight, channeling 20,000-year-old guru spirits from Atlantis in front of adoring crowds, and becoming filthy rich in the process.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Dark shadows

I find myself wondering, sometimes, how the fans of television shows like Monster Quest don't get frustrated and stop watching after a while.

I mean, you have these guys running around, week after week, shouting about footprints and eyewitness accounts and blurry photographs, and in the end they always catch exactly zero monsters.  But somehow, this lack of success never discourages the monster hunters, nor their fans, nor (apparently) the sponsors, because cryptozoological television series are multiplying like bunnies.

Which, unlike the cryptids, are actually real.

Take, for example, the latest trailer from Mountain Monsters, which you can watch over at Cryptomundo.  The trailer tells us about a "Shadow Creature," a "massive beast" who is actively hunting humans, which sounds terrifying.  But then, when you watch the video, it turns out to be a bunch of bearded guys wearing plaid running around at night, and making noises that sounded to me like "HURR A DURR HERPLE!  HURK A DURK DURK SNURFLE DURR!" as some unidentified snarling noises sound in the background.  I don't know about you, but I couldn't understand a single thing these people were saying.  I'm assuming it was English, since it was filmed in West Virginia, but it could equally well have been in Lithuanian or Swahili.  And I'm from the Deep South, so I'd think I'd be able to decipher an accent from that part of the world, however much of a twang it had.

But no such luck.

And of course, we never get to see the monster.  As far as hard evidence -- if I can call it that -- all you get is a single footprint in the snow, and some broken ice that the creature allegedly stepped in.  Other than that, all we see is a lot of growling, intermingled with excited cries of "DERP DERP FNURR" as they run about carrying flashlights.

But naturally, I had to find out more about what they were chasing, so I did a Google search for "shadow monster Braxton West Virginia," and found out that what they're after is most likely the "Flatwoods Monster."  The Flatwoods Monster has antecedents that go back at least fifty years, back to a sighting in Braxton County in 1952.

According to an article in The Skeptical Inquirer, here's what happened:
About 7:15 p.m. on that day, at Flatwoods, a little village in the hills of West Virginia, some youngsters were playing football on the school playground. Suddenly they saw a fiery UFO streak across the sky and, apparently, land on a hilltop of the nearby Bailey Fisher farm. The youths ran to the home of Mrs. Kathleen May, who provided a flashlight and accompanied them up the hill. In addition to Mrs. May, a local beautician, the group included her two sons, Eddie 13, and Freddie 14, Neil Nunley 14, Gene Lemon 17, and Tommy Hyer and Ronnie Shaver, both 10, along with Lemon’s dog. 
There are myriad, often contradictory versions of what happened next, but UFO writer Gray Barker was soon on the scene and wrote an account for Fate magazine based on tape-recorded interviews. He found that the least emotional account was provided by Neil Nunley, one of two youths who were in the lead as the group hastened to the crest of the hill. Some distance ahead was a pulsing red light. Then, suddenly, Gene Lemon saw a pair of shining, animal-like eyes, and aimed the flashlight in their direction. 
The light revealed a towering "man-like" figure with a round, red "face" surrounded by a "pointed, hood-like shape." The body was dark and seemingly colorless, but some would later say it was green, and Mrs. May reported drape-like folds. The monster was observed only momentarily, as suddenly it emitted a hissing sound and glided toward the group. Lemon responded by screaming and dropping his flashlight, whereupon everyone fled.
Most skeptics think that what the group saw was a Barn Owl, which has reflective eyes and makes weird hissing noises when disturbed, but of course, the True Believers doubt that.  Here's a depiction of the Monster, drawn by a professional artist from descriptions by the people who allegedly saw it:

Which is certainly pretty creepy.  But people's imaginations being what they are -- especially when those imaginations are being fueled by generous doses of adrenaline -- I'm a little doubtful.  And I'm still doubtful even after reading about the aftermath of the incident, in which several of the witnesses, especially Gene Lemon (pictured on the left above), had physical symptoms after the sighting, including throat soreness, nausea, and vomiting.

To me, Lemon's symptoms could easily be explained by a bout of stomach flu, and/or simple hysteria over a bad fright.  No monster necessary.

But that didn't stop the Mountain Monsters people from running about, shouting incomprehensibly, and pointing off into the darkness.  Whatever floats their boat, I suppose.

You know, I wonder what will happen if ever they do catch a monster?  What will they do?  Will they be so surprised that they finally succeeded that they'll end up getting eaten?  Will the show be over, in the fashion of a miniseries that reaches its conclusion and resolution?  "Yup!  We finally got the monster!  Now we can all go home to our families and regular jobs!"

Or I wonder if it'll be like the old television series The Incredible Hulk, you know?  The Bad Guys always got really close to capturing David Banner, or at least proving that he was the Hulk, but they never quite did.  He always got away at the last possible minute.  I think that's what they'd do here.  They'd stage it so that they nearly catch the monster, but then... improbably... it gets away.  "Dammit!" the Intrepid Monster Hunters will say.  "Maybe next week!"

And people will keep tuning in, week after week, in hope.  Me, I'll just watch Gilligan's Island.  At least there, you knew they'd never succeed.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Heavy weather

I find it puzzling how few people actually understand weather.

Partly, this puzzlement is because I've always found it completely fascinating.  I spend a lot of time on Weather Underground and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) sites, with the result that I frequently update my wife on the status of weather systems in Nebraska.  (Her stock response: "That's nice, dear.")

I cannot, for example, fathom how people wouldn't be intensely curious about videos like the recent time-lapse series taken of a supercell system in Wyoming, which all of you should watch right now:

What surprises me is how few people get beyond the "Oh, wow," stage with all of this.  I know that the first time I saw a photograph of a supercell -- which ranks right up there with a dry microburst as the most bizarre weather phenomenon I've ever heard of -- I immediately thought, "What could cause something like that?"  And asking this question led me to all sorts of cool places, like atmospheric convection and adiabatic cooling and evaporative cooling and wind shear.

Now I realize that this stuff gets complex fast.  To quote Garrison Keillor, "Intelligence is like four-wheel drive.  It enables you to get stuck in even more remote places."

But it's still awesome.  And weather is, after all, ubiquitous.  How you could be immersed in something all the time, and not want to know how it works, is mystifying to me.

All of this comes up because of two stories this week, both of which never would have been more than meteorological curiosities if it weren't for the fact that people tend not to know much about the weather phenomena that surround them all day, every day.  The first, which involves an admittedly odd cloud pattern called a "hole-punch cloud," or "fallstreak hole," had people speculating that the seeming "hole in the sky" (check the link for photographs) was one of the following:

  1. A wormhole.
  2. A flaw in the Matrix.
  3. A sign that we're all living inside some kind of self-contained dome, à la The Truman Show, and the hole was sort of like the can light that fell out of the sky at the beginning of the movie.
  4. A gap through which an angel was about to arrive.  Why an angel couldn't just come through the clouds without there being a hole, given that clouds are basically big blobs of fog, I don't know.
  5. A portal to a different dimension.
Of course, all of the furor was founded on the fact that hole-punch clouds have a perfectly natural explanation, usually that an airplane (or, much less commonly, a meteor) disrupted what was uniform cloud cover, leaving a temporary hole through the clouds.

No Matrix, wormhole, or angels required.

Second, we had a story from the wonderful site Doubtful News that blamed the unusual (and destructive) rains that have hit Serbia in the past week on none other than...

... HAARP.

Yes, we have not seen the last of the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, that favorite bête noire of conspiracy theorists -- despite the fact that HAARP closed last year and is currently being dismantled.  It's been blamed for everything from tsunamis to earthquakes to tornadoes to hurricanes, and now... floods:
Many of my contacts in Serbia have spoken of whispered accusations that the unprecedented flooding and unusual weather patterns in the last few years have something to do with the US’s HAARP system. According to one website: “A Serbian journalist was advised not to write about a HAARP installation near Belgrade. After series of texts regarding HAARP antenna system near Barajevo (Belgrade municipality) and application of this ELF system in Serbia the journalist of newspaper Pravda has received a phone call on Monday evening around 10PM from unlisted phone number. The voice on other side of the line gave the journalist a “friendly advice” to stop writing on HAARP...” 
Would it be surprising if the US, after unleashing neo-Nazis in Ukraine, unleashed flooding in Serbia? Those in the know would probably say no.
 And there's a reason for that, you know?  Like the fact that HAARP couldn't even cause floods when it was running, much less now, when it isn't?

Of course, every time there's a catastrophe, people want an Explanation, not just an explanation.  It's not enough just to talk about weather systems and frontal boundaries and atmospheric moisture; there's got to be more.

But dammit, it'd be nice if people would start with the weather systems and frontal boundaries, rather than starting from ignorance and going downhill from there.  If you want to comment intelligently on anything, it helps to know some of the science behind it first.

Okay, I'll calm down, now.  Back to my happy place.  NOAA.  I see that there's a low-pressure center over Manitoba at the moment.  Isn't that cool?  Isn't it?

That's nice, dear.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Common Core Gay Agenda Standards

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no apologist for the Common Core.  I've seen its implementation in my own school district, and heard all too much about how it is affecting other ones.  While the heart of the "new standards" is well-meant, its reliance on numerical metrics and high-stakes standardized tests has been nothing short of devastating.

But little did I know that there is another reason to despise the Common Core, one that I would never have thought of in my entire life, despite the fact that I spend my days steeped in wacko woo-woo bullshit.  If you had told me, "Dream up the most ridiculous argument against the Common Core you can think of.  C'mon, pull out all the stops.  It should make 'Ancient Aliens Built Stonehenge' look like rocket science," I don't think I'd have thought of this.


A Florida state representative is claiming that we shouldn't implement the Common Core, because it will turn your kids gay.

I'm not making this up, although I wish like hell that I was.  Representative Charles Van Zant, speaking at something called "Operation Education Conference" in Orlando, had this to say, and if you don't believe me, you can watch the video on the link I provided:
Our new Secretary of Education recently appointed AIR [American Institutes for Research] to receive a 220 million dollar contract for end-of-course exam testing, to prepare those tests.  Please, go on their website.  Click the link to what they're doing with youth, and you will see what their agenda really is.  They are promoting, as hard as they can, any youth that is interested in the LGBT agenda, and even name it two-hyphen-S, which they define as 'having two spirits.'  The bible says a lot about being double-minded.  These people, that will now receive 220 million dollars from the state of Florida unless this is stopped, will promote double-mindedness in state education, and attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.   
I'm sorry to report that to you...  I really hate to bring you that news, but you need to know.
*brief pause to clean up coffee splatters from computer monitor*

I think my favorite part of this was when Representative Van Zant said that the test developers want children "to become as homosexual as they possibly can."  What does this even mean?  Is there some kind of gradation of homosexuality, from, say, Neil Patrick Harris all the way up through Dr. Frank N. Furter?

And how, exactly, are standardized tests supposed to accomplish this?  Will there be some kind of subliminal message in reading passages, such that, if you take the first letter of each word, it spells out, "I EMBRACE THE GAY AGENDA?"  Will there be a cryptic code on the bubble sheets, that if you decode it, reads, "I solemnly swear to abandon heterosexuality from here on, so help me Freddie Mercury?"

Or is it just that somewhere on the exam, there will be some kind of portrayal of a gay person in other than a negative light?

Can't have that, after all.

I keep thinking that sooner or later, our elected officials will run out of completely boneheaded statements to make.  I keep hoping that they will exhaust their reserves of idiocy on topics such as climate change and evolution, and stay away from other subjects.  Most fervently, I keep espousing the optimistic position that we will eventually start electing people who have IQs higher than their pants size.

To judge by Representative Van Zant, however, it appears that my hopes may be ill-founded.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Half-baked lunacy

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the fact that Cliven Bundy and his Gang o' Morons out in Nevada were a gauge of something more than just stupidity -- that it was a symptom of the galloping paranoia that has been fostered by alarmist pundits on the extreme right fringe shrieking about how America As We Know It is threatened.  Bundy, and the abortive "ten million strong protest" that conspicuously failed to materialize in Washington D. C. last week, are the leading edge of a worldview that is based in fear.

I had hoped that the collapse of Operation American Spring Epic Fail was due to the fact that most people are sensible, and realized that the self-styled "Patriots" who were organizing the thing are insane.  That, and the fact that the leaders were overestimating their support by 9,999,900 or so, an error that would be analogous to my telling a student that he had a perfect 100 in my class when in fact he had an overall average of 0.0001 percent.

You can see how that kind of glitch could happen.

But it appears that my Panglossian optimism might have been premature.  Chez Pazienza, over at The Daily Banter, has done a little digging on conspiracy websites, and has found that there's another reason that pretty much no one showed up, and it can be summed up in a famous line from The Return of the Jedi:

Yup, that's right; these people think that they're so important, so absolutely Public Enemy Number One, that they were walking into a trap -- that in Pazienza's words (which I could not possibly improve on) the powers-that be were planning on "unleashing Obama's jackbooted thugs" who were going to sweep down and arrest all ten million of them while they were together in one place.

Then, it got even weirder.  David Chase Taylor, who's so fucking crazy that even Alex Jones thinks he's nuts, stated that he had word that there'd been a security lockdown because a car was trailing a motorcade carrying President Obama's daughters.  Seems reasonable enough, right?  Well, let's see if you can do a little multiple-choice to guess why Taylor said they ramped up security when that happened:

  1. Because it is important to protect the president's family, and anything unusual has to be taken seriously.
  2. Because any kind of a security threat could have wider implications to the stability of the government.
  3. Because during the lockdown, no one would see that the CIA was planting explosives in the White House so that it could be blown up on May 16, so that President Obama could implicate the "Patriots" in the attack.
The answer is (3), of course.  Taylor, who apparently has a single Froot Loop where most of us have a brain, is convinced that True Patriots should protest the fact that it's too dangerous to protest because the government was going to blow itself up to prove how ultra-sneaky and powerful they are, and blame the explosion on people who weren't technically there.

Or something like that.  It's hard to tell, actually.  I read enough of this stuff that I live in fear of the day when eventually some of it starts making sense.  At that point, I should probably just pack it in.  But the upshot of it is, the government is run by brilliant evil Illuminati geniuses who are simultaneously bumbling lunatics who are so stupid that a wingnut like Taylor could see right through them, post about it on the internet, and get away with it.  "Dammit," I can hear President Obama saying.  "Foiled again!  I'd have succeeded this time, if it hadn't been for YouTube!"

It's like a giant layer cake of crazy, sprinkled with nuts.  And only half-baked.

As I mentioned in Monday's post, I'm still uncertain about what the government should do in response to all of this.  On the one hand, we have armed wackos threatening violent revolution, who will admit up front that they're not afraid to shed innocent blood to accomplish their goals.  But on the other hand, to round them up just because they are blustering on YouTube and the r/conspiracy subreddit would probably be challenged on the grounds of free speech.  In the US, it's not a crime to be crazy, fortunately for David Chase Taylor and Alex Jones.  Jones himself has predicted more than once that he'd be arrested or secretly done away with, and yet there he is, still yammering on, week after week -- a better counterargument for his screeching paranoia than any I could come up with.

Anyhow, it'll be interesting to see how all of this unfolds.  My guess is that the "Patriots" who have made actual threats, including the moron who allowed himself to be photographed aiming a gun through two barriers on a highway, will very likely find law enforcement knocking on their doors sooner or later.  As for the rest, they'll probably still keep bleating about Obama and his thugs trying to take away their guns, despite that Obama has been in office for six years now and has yet to try to repeal the Second Amendment.

All I can say is, Mr. President, if you're planning on some kind of Nazi-style socialist power grab, you'd better get a move-on.  Time's a-wastin'.

(Hat tip to Chez Pazienza for today's story -- here's the link again to his piece, which you should all read, because it's awesome.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Well, shucks.

Well, The Daily Mail Fail is at it again.

Today's headline, which in a contest would win in both the "Most Idiotic" and "Longest" categories, reads, "Is This the Skeleton of Legendary Devil Dog 'Black Shuck," Who Terrorized 16th Century East Anglia?  Folklore Tells of a SEVEN FOOT Hell Hound With Flaming Eyes."

Once you read the article that follows, though, you find out pretty quickly that it could have run just as well under a much shorter headline, such as, "Skeleton of Dog Found."  We get to the central point of the story pretty quickly, which is that some archaeologists found the bones of a largish dog in the ruins of Leiston Abbey.  But this bit -- which turns out to be the sole factual content of the article -- is buried amongst turgid prose like the following:
It roamed the countryside spreading death and terror – a giant, ferocious hell-hound with flaming eyes and savage claws. 
For centuries, the beast that came to be known as Black Shuck struck fear into the hearts of all who crossed its path. 
Just a single glimpse was enough to impart a fatal curse; the briefest encounter sufficient to suck the life from any hapless victim... 
The beast’s most celebrated attack began at Holy Trinity church, Blythburgh. A clap of thunder burst open the church doors and a hairy black ‘devil dog’ came snarling in. 
It ran through the congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to fall through the roof.  Scorch marks still visible on the church doors are purported to have come from Shuck’s claws as it fled. 
Local verse records the event thus: ‘All down the church in the midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire [sic], he many people slew.’ 
Next stop was 12 miles away in Bungay, where two worshippers were killed at St Mary’s church. One was left shrivelled ‘like a drawn purse’ as he prayed.
Which is all pretty scary-sounding.  And for fans of paranormal stories, the tale of "Black Shuck" is a creepy one; a hound from hell, bursting into the holy precinct of the church and killing people as they pray.

[image courtesy of the Creative Commons]

The problem is, it seems to have no more basis in the truth than Spring-heeled Jack and the ghost dogs of Ballechin House and the tumbling coffins of Barbados -- i.e., none.  It's a folk legend, a good tale to tell on a stormy night, but not much more than that.

Yes, I know that there are historical records of the thing.  In fact, in the interest of fairness, I'll present one here myself:

For those of you who don't want to strain your eyes reading old typography, it says, "A straunge, and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish church of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in ye yeere of our Lord 1577,  in a great tempest of violent raine, lightning and thunder, the like whereof hath been seldome seene.  With the appearance of an horrible shaped thing, sensibly perceived of the people then and there assembled.  Drawen into a plain method according to the written copye.  By Abraham Fleming."

Which is all well and good.  Far be it from me to contradict Mr. Fleming's opinion that the raine was straunge, but I think it's a reach to conclude that what probably was only an unusual weather event was contrived by a giant black dog from hell.  He goes on, though, to say that there was too a big dog, and he was too black, and he didn't stop at just causing a thunderstorm:
This black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse (God hee knoweth all who worketh all), running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, insomuch that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangely dyed.
So there's that.  Of course, if you are a student of history you know that old records are rife with claims of crazy stuff that was "sensibly perceived of the people then and there assembled" and which are nevertheless almost certainly spun out of whole cloth.  And more germane to Black Shuck, given that there are similar legends from all over Europe, and even further afield, I think what we have here is the original Shaggy Dog Story.

The Isle of Man has the Moddey Dhoo, Wales has the Cŵn Annwn, and Scotland the Cù Sìth, just to name three.  You can go here and read about sightings of Black Dogs all over the world, which makes me think that if this thing really exists, it must have a hell of a time keeping its appointment calendar straight.  "You want me to show up for a church service in Glasgow on the 14th?"  *sound of pages flipping*  "I'm sorry, I'm scheduled for a séance in Liverpool that night.  I can possibly work you in on the 17th, but we'd have to do it before 6 PM, because I've got a crossroads to haunt that evening, and I'm expecting the Archbishop of Canterbury to come by.  Opportunities like that don't happen every day.  I hope you understand."

But back to The Daily Mail... they seem to be basing their story on two things: (1) the dog skeleton found in Leiston is big; and (2) Leiston is in East Anglia.  Because, obviously, there couldn't be an ordinary big dog in East Anglia, so any large dog skeleton would have to be Black Shuck.  It couldn't, for example, be an Irish Wolfhound, a breed owned for centuries by British nobility, and which gets... pretty freakin' huge:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You also have to wonder, given that Black Shuck was supposedly a canine stand-in for Satan, how his skeleton would end up buried in an abbey.  You'd think that after he finished wringing the necks of honest churchgoers, he'd just vanish in a flash of sulfurous smoke, never to be seen again.

But no.  Now we have The Daily Mail further sinking their credibility (a feat I'd have thought was impossible) by asking us to believe that some random big dog skeleton proves the East Anglian legend was all true.  And I'm sure there will be people who will believe it.  Making me wish that The Daily Mail would go back to what they do best, which is writing stories on who the various royals and celebrities are sleeping with.  It may be dull as hell, but at least it has some basis in reality.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Cliven Bundy and the rule of law

A couple of days ago, we considered the conspiracy theorists phenomenon as a gauge of the "dumbing down" of America.  So many of the things they believe -- from chemtrails to the various anti-vaxx claims to FEMA stockpiling guillotines for use on American citizens -- require a dazzling array of ignorance and specious thinking.  To buy what the conspiracy theorists are peddling, not only do you have to ignore what we know about science, you pretty much have to jettison hard evidence and inductive reasoning as a means for understanding.

Today I want to consider a darker side to the whole thing -- that conspiracy theories are an indicator of something far deeper, and far worse, than simple stupidity.  Conspiracy theories come about not only from ignorance, but from fear, paranoia, and a deep-seated rage.

Consider Cliven Bundy.

Bundy, as most you probably already know, is the Nevada cattle rancher who fell afoul of the Bureau of Land Management when it came out that he'd been grazing his cattle on public land for decades without paying the requisite lease fees.  When the BLM came after him, Bundy turned it into a David-vs.-Goliath struggle, with the BLM and the federal government cast as the giant who was gonna end up with a rock to the head if they didn't watch their step.  Right wingers, especially the Tea Party, took up his anti-government cry -- despite the fact that these same politicians shriek on nearly a daily basis about "welfare cheats," who (like Bundy) are stealing from the federal coffers.

Oh, wait.  Bundy is old, white, male, wears a cowboy hat, and votes Republican.  There's your difference, then.

Be that as it may, Bundy proceeded to assemble a ragtag band of defenders, including the far-right nutjobs who call themselves the "Oath Keepers," some members of the Sovereign Citizens Movement, and various other self-styled "Patriots."  The whole thing began to shake itself apart when internal dissent in the ranks nearly had Bundy's defenders at each other's throats, not to mention when Bundy revealed himself as a racist (in an interview, he said outright that African Americans had been better off as slaves) and a liar (he claimed to have "ancestral rights" to the land dating back to the 1870s, and it turned out that land records proved that his family bought the ranch he lives on in 1948).

Bundy's reach was more pervasive than the battle over grazing rights, however.  His defiance seems to have given some inspiration to like-minded types, to judge by "Operation American Spring," a group of Bundy-clones who planned to descend upon Washington D.C. "ten million strong," intending to stay there until President Obama resigns or is overthrown.  The problem is, the estimate turned out to be off by 9,999,850 or so, because the Mall (where they had intended to stage their massive protest) was empty except for a few placard-carrying protestors who were mostly ignored by passersby.

It's easy to laugh at this -- one wag on Twitter quipped, "Drone hustling, shape-shifting Socialist/Kenyan dictators don't scare me...but that clammy drizzle was too much!"  The hashtag #AmericanSpringExcuses quickly trended, generating tweets like, "Put hood on backwards, ran into a tree which was put there by liberal fascist socialist dictators. #AmericanSpringExcuses."   And I certainly was laughing along with them.

But to laugh and then dismiss the more serious aspect of this is, I think, a terrible mistake.  Take what was said by one of the nutcases who showed up in D. C. for what turned into Operation Epic Fail: "This is the America that you all live in today, and it has to end.  I’m telling you right now, it’s going to take — in my view — a little blood, it’s going to happen, this day is coming and you better be willing to pay for it."

How is it that our leaders don't see people like Bundy and the nameless protestor in Washington for what they are -- domestic terrorists?  Look, it's not that I think the government is perfect; it can be inept, wasteful, bumbling, and occasionally cross the line into evil.  But do you really want to jettison it entirely?  Anarchy isn't pretty; ask anyone who has lived in Sudan, Ethiopia, or Somalia.  When people become "sovereign citizens" they usually respond by victimizing each other, and the strongest victimizer becomes the leader -- and you're right back to having a government, although one I doubt any of us would want to live in.  Notwithstanding its faults, our federal and state governments provide us with education, infrastructure, commerce, and security.

Could the government be better?  Of course.  Do I think things would improve in the United States if the government collapsed?

Not just no, but hell no.

By ignoring Bundy and his ilk, or just considering them inept clowns who can't even run a demonstration right, we are potentially overlooking the next David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh.  I know that officials have to act carefully, because these people don't mind spilling blood; their attitude is that if innocent people die in their attempt to achieve their goals, that is simply too bad.  And the likelihood of any misstep turning into further fuel for the fire (and any deaths amongst the militiamen being seen as martyrdom) is high.

But why is law enforcement in Nevada turning a blind eye to what these folks are doing -- acts that now include armed militia members setting up checkpoints along roads in Clark County and demanding identification from drivers proving that they live in the area?  Hotel owners in the nearby town of Mesquite received credible bomb threats when it was discovered that they had rented rooms to BLM employees during the standoff.  A federal livestock wrangler was menaced on Interstate 15, in broad daylight, by men wearing hoods and brandishing a Glock -- along with a handwritten sign saying, "You need to die."

I recognize the danger, here.  Officials in Nevada and Utah are dealing with violent lunatics who are heavily armed and unafraid to use deadly force.  They are also propelled by an ideology that is, at its basis, steeped in counterfactual paranoia, in part fostered by the divisive "America is being murdered!" rhetoric you hear from pundits on the far right.

But you reap what you sow, a lesson that the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks and Sean Hannitys and Pat Buchanans have yet to learn.  If you create a climate in which patriotic Americans feel threatened and besieged, some of them will respond with a preemptive strike.  If you continually portray the government as evil and dangerous, you will spawn individuals who consider it virtuous to overthrow it.

Order, justice, democracy, and the rule of law may not always work.  They fail, they falter, just like any other human-made institution.  But they're the best thing we have for protecting us against the baser instincts of our neighbors.  And I'll take that over the morals and ethics of the likes of Cliven Bundy any day.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reality vs. allegory

When I was about twenty, I stumbled upon the book The Dancing Wu-Li Masters by Gary Zukav.  The book provides a non-mathematical introduction to the concepts of quantum mechanics, which is good, I suppose; but then it attempts to tie it to Eastern mysticism, which is troubling to anyone who actually understands the science.

But as a twenty-year-old -- even a twenty-year-old physics major -- I was captivated.  I went from there to Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics, which pushes further into the alleged link between modern physics and the wisdom of the ancients.  In an editorial review of the book, we read:
First published in 1975, The Tao of Physics rode the wave of fascination in exotic East Asian philosophies. Decades later, it still stands up to scrutiny, explicating not only Eastern philosophies but also how modern physics forces us into conceptions that have remarkable parallels...  (T)he big picture is enough to see the value in them of experiential knowledge, the limits of objectivity, the absence of foundational matter, the interrelation of all things and events, and the fact that process is primary, not things.  Capra finds the same notions in modern physics.
In part, I'm sure my positive reaction to these books was because I was in the middle of actually taking a class in quantum mechanics, and it was, to put not too fine a point on it, freakin' hard.  I had thought of myself all along as quick at math, but the math required for this class was brain-bendingly difficult.  It was a relief to escape into the less rigorous world of Capra and Zukav.

Read a quote from an article on quantum electrodynamics, chosen because it was one of the easier ones to understand:
(B)eing closed loops, (they) imply the presence of diverging integrals having no mathematical meaning.  To overcome this difficulty, a technique called renormalization has been devised, producing finite results in very close agreement with experiments. It is important to note that a criterion for theory being meaningful after renormalization is that the number of diverging diagrams is finite.  In this case the theory is said to be renormalizable.  The reason for this is that to get observables renormalized one needs a finite number of constants to maintain the predictive value of the theory untouched.  This is exactly the case of quantum electrodynamics displaying just three diverging diagrams.  This procedure gives observables in very close agreement with experiment as seen, e.g. for electron gyromagnetic ratio.
Compare that to Capra's take on things, in a quote from The Tao of Physics:
Modern physics has thus revealed that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction.  The dance of Shiva is the dancing universe, the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another.  For the modern physicists, then Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.  As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomenon.  Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes.  In our times, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance.
[image courtesy of photographer Arvad Horpath and the Wikimedia Commons]

It all sounds nice, doesn't it?  No need for hard words like "renormalization" and "gyromagnetic ratio," no messy mathematics.  Just imagining particles dancing, waving around their four little quantum arms, just like Shiva.

The problem here, though, isn't just laziness; and I've commented on the laziness inherent in the woo-woo movement often enough that I don't need to write about it further.  But there's a second issue, one often overlooked by laypeople, and that is "mistaking analogy for reality."

Okay, I'll go so far as to say that the verbal descriptions of quantum mechanics sound like some of the "everything that happens influences everyone, all the time" stuff from Buddhism and Hinduism -- the interconnectedness of all, a concept that is explained in the beautiful allegory of "Indra's Net:"
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions.  In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number.  There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold.  If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number.  Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.
But does this mean what some have claimed, that the Hindus discovered the underlying tenets of quantum mechanics millennia ago?

Hardly.  Just because two ideas have some similarities doesn't mean that they are, at their basis, saying the same thing.  You could say that Hinduism has some parallels to quantum mechanics -- parallels that I would argue are accidental, and not really all that persuasive when you dig into them more deeply.  But those parallels don't mean that Hinduism as a whole is true, or that the mystics who devised it were somehow prescient.

In a way, we science teachers are at fault for this, because so many of us teach by analogy.  I do it all the time: antibodies are like cellular trash tags; enzyme/substrate interactions are like keys and locks; the Krebs cycle is like a merry-go-round where two kids get on at each turn and two kids get off.  And hopefully, our analogies are transparent enough that no one comes away with the impression that they are describing what is really happening.  I have yet to see a student begin an essay on the Krebs cycle by talking about merry-go-rounds and children.

The line gets blurred, though, when the reality is so odd, and the actual description of it (i.e. the mathematics) so abstruse, that most non-scientists can't really wrap their brain around it.  Then there is a real danger of substituting a metaphor for the truth.  It's not helped by persuasive, charismatic writers like Capra and Zukav, nor the efforts of True Believers to cast the science as supporting their religious ideas, because it helps to prop up their own worldview (you can read an especially egregious example of this here).

After a time in my twenties when I was seduced by pretty allegories, I finally came to the conclusion that the reality was better -- and, in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful.  Take the time to learn what the science actually says, and I think you'll find it a damnsight more interesting and elegant than Shiva and Indra and the rest of 'em.  And best of all: it's actually true.

Friday, May 16, 2014

It was the best of times...

If there is a group of people I hate arguing with even more than I hate arguing with young-earth creationists, it's the conspiracy theorists.

At least the young-earth creationists just think I'm working for Satan, a charge that I can understand, considering their view of things.  Sure, we don't accept the same ground rules for proof (evidence versus revelation); sure, we have different conclusions regarding where you can apply the laws of scientific inference (damn near everywhere versus only places where it doesn't conflict with Holy Writ).

But at least we can talk.  The conspiracy theorists, you can't even have a civil discussion with.  They accuse you of either being stupid or else working for evil humans, both of which are in my opinion worse than working for Satan because stupidity and evil humans actually exist.  The worst part, though, is that they pretend to accept the principles of rational argument, but then when it comes down to the point, they don't, really.  You can bring out the best-researched study about the efficacy and safety of vaccines, the most convincing argument that 9/11 and Sandy Hook were not "inside jobs" or "false flags," the most persuasive evidence out there that HAARP has nothing to do with raising tsunamis or causing earthquakes.

And where does it get you?  They just write you off as a dupe or a shill.  It's the ultimate example of the False Dilemma Fallacy; if you don't agree with us, you're one of.... Them.

The problem in this country has gotten so bad that Kurt Eichenwald did a big piece in Vanity Fair on the topic this week, and you all should read it.  In fact, everyone in the civilized world should read it, because it's brilliant, even though it's depressing.  I'll give you a brief passage from it, but then I want you to go to the link and read the whole thing:
(W)e have become scientific and political illiterates, and no nation can survive on a bedrock of such delusional stupidity.  Of course, the 26 percent (or more) won’t believe me, if they manage to read this.  I’ll just be deemed an “elitist” for daring to suggest that demon science and data, rather than ridiculous conspiracy theories, should be used to judge reality.  So, it may be a losing battle, but we should all try.  I don’t want to be forced, someday, to stand by as the rest of the world renames our nation “America the Ignorant.”
It's a bit of a coincidence that I should come across this when I did, because it came on the heels of another article, one sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, that details one of the most pervasive and bizarre conspiracy theories out there: that the US government in general, and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) in particular, are laying plans to kill us all.

Apparently, the whole thing is supposed to be carried out via guillotine, which is at least creative, if messy.

And here, we find out what they have in store for us:
Code ICD 9 E 978 Makes Execution by Guillotine Legal Under Obamacare.  The specific code sent to me will make any American’s hair stand up on the back of their neck.  The code is ICD 9 E 978.  After reading this code I decided that it was my duty to investigate further and get to the bottom of why we have a medical code in the United States for “Legal Execution.”  The Jesuits are behind most conspiracies and this one is no different...  Execution by Guillotine is painless.
And I'm thinking: what the fuck does Obamacare have to do with this?  Was that just something extra to throw in, along with the Jesuits for some reason, the way that the anti-GMO crowd will throw in the name "Monsanto" as a stand-in for Hitler?

At least they tossed us the cheerful tidbit that getting your head sliced off is painless.  I'm relieved, actually, considering what other methods they could have chosen.

And any good news at all is reassuring, considering what's been going on:
Not too long ago, I received word that the information I received regarding the guillotines was not only accurate, it was actually being lobbied in Washington DC to get them legalized for governmental use!  The states I mentioned on my “current events” page a few years back was [sic] in fact GEORGIA & MONTANA as the recipients of these guillotines.  The information I had received was that 15,000 or 30,000 guillotines had been shipped to Georgia as well as Montana for safe keeping until such a time as they are needed.
Doesn't 30,000 guillotines seem a little like... overkill?  *rimshot*

But yes, they say, FEMA is "stockpiling guillotines," a phrase that I find to be funny in a gruesome sort of fashion.  Why would they need a "stockpile?"  It's not like you can only use them once, or anything.  During the French Revolution, Robespierre and his Band of Merry Men seemed to do quite well with only a few, running pretty much round the clock.

But the level of pretzel logic crosses some kind of line into "really scary" later in the article, wherein we read:
When the Democratic Underground reports that retired FBI agent Ted Gunderson tells a gathering of antigovernment “Patriots” that the federal government has set up 1,000 internment camps across the country and is storing 30,000 guillotines and a half-million caskets in Atlanta.  They’re there for the day the government finally declares martial law and moves in to round up or kill American dissenters, he says. “They’re going to keep track of all of us, folks,” Gunderson warns.
And that plays a nice little glissando on our fear-harp, doesn't it?  "They" will keep track of us.  The "dissenters" will be rounded up and done away with.  Using secret guillotines.  And our bodies will end up in secret caskets.  And worst of all, this will be done by the people who are supposed to be on our side.

Now, I hasten to add that I'm reasonably certain that none of it is true.  I'd be willing to lay money on the fact that there are no guillotines, no caskets, and that FEMA is your usual rather inept, bumbling excuse for a government agency, with no particular ill intent.  But as I said earlier; you can't convince the conspiracy theorists of that.  The fear is too high for them to admit that they could be wrong; it would require such a drastic revision of their entire worldview, their whole raison d'être, that even the thought must be painful.

Better to continue considering me a dupe, or worse, a pawn in the disinformation network.

It's tempting, sometimes, to give up trying to convince them.  The odds of overcoming such galloping paranoia seem slim.  But I agree with Eichenwald; and it seems fitting to end with another quote from him.
So, should you listen to me?  Of course not.  I’m not a scientist either.  But there is plenty of valid research, easily accessible through Google, that lays out the trends and issues surrounding the safety of vaccines and the changes in climate we experience.  But Americans, based on the PPP poll, would rather listen to celebrities.  Bottom line here is that American ignorance isn’t always just funny—it can be downright dangerous.