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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The haunted forest

Thanks to a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I now have a new travel destination to add to my list.

Like I need one.  I'm always saying things to my wife like, "Honey, can we set aside a little money from each paycheck?  I'd like to go to Madagascar."  Fortunately, having a wife who is amazingly tolerant of my various eccentricities, I've gotten to fulfill a lot of this wanderlust, and have been to places as exotic as Iceland, Malaysia, Trinidad, Ecuador, and Estonia.

But not Madagascar yet.  I'm working on it.

And neither have I visited Romania, home to the vacation site suggestion I received a couple of days ago.  Romania is, of course, the site of Transylvania, of Dracula fame, but is also where you can visit a place called the Hoia-Baciu Forest, which sounds like a must-see.

It's in northwest-central Romania, and was set aside some years ago for recreation and outdoor activities.  There are biking and hiking trails, a rugged and beautiful valley called Cheile Baciului where there are picturesque rock formations and a lake for swimming and canoeing, and tracts set aside for paintball games and archery.  The whole thing sounds awesome, and even more so when you find out that Hoia Baciu Forest is...

... haunted.

And not just by ghosts.  This place is home to every paranormal phenomenon you can think of.  There have been UFO sightings, mysterious disappearances, orb-like apparitions, disembodied voices, visitors experiencing time slips... you name it.  It sounds like your one-stop shop for woo-woo-ism of all brands.

Hoia-Baciu Forest and the town of Grigorescu, Romania [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

According to the tourism promotional site I linked above:
The Hoia-Baciu Forest (World’s Most Haunted Forest) is situated near Cluj-Napoca, Romania covers an area of ​​over 250 hectares and is often referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of the country.  Hoia-Baciu Forest (World's Most Haunted Forest) has a reputation for intense paranormal activity and unexplained events.  Reports have included, ghost sightings, unexplained apparitions, faces appearing in photographs that were not visible with the naked eye, and in the 1970s, UFO sightings were reported. 
Visitors to the forest often report intense feelings of anxiety and the feeling of being constantly watched.  Moreover, the local vegetation is somehow bizarre in appearance, like something out of a make-believe story with strangely shaped trees, and unexplained charring on tree stumps and branches...  Many of the locals who have been brave enough to venture into the forest complained of physical harm, including rashes, nausea, vomiting, migraines, burns, scratches, anxiety, and other unusual sensations. 
Yes!  Unexplained intense anxiety, vomiting, and migraines!  That's what I want in a vacation spot.

But the weirdness doesn't end there:
Some people believe that the forest is a gateway to another dimension. Within the dark interior of Hoia-Baciu Forest (World’s Most Haunted Forest), people have been known to disappear, strange lights have been seen, the wind seems to speak.  Several stories tell of people entering the forest and experiencing missing time.  Some have known to be missing for quite some time with no recollection of how they had spent that time.  One such story focuses on a 5-year-old girl who wandered into the woods and got lost.  The story goes that she emerged from the forest 5 years later, wearing the same untarnished clothes that she wore on the day she disappeared with no memory of where had happened in that interval of time.
And worse still, through all of this you might get laughed at by invisible women:
People also report hearing disembodied female voices breaking the heavy silence, giggling and even apparitions,  There are many cases of people reportedly being scratched.  All these things happen with no reasonable explanation.
Well, all I can say is these people really need some advice about how to write a travel website.  For one thing, you don't need to tell us every single time that it's "The World's Most Haunted Forest."  We remember, okay?  Also, you might dream up a better sales pitch than, "Please come visit us!  We have archery, paintball, hiking, and disembodied female voices!  Spend your days swimming and cycling, when you're not puking!  Try not to disappear for five years!"

Of course, maybe they have the right idea.  Paranormal travel is becoming quite a thing, and I'll bet people go there solely to experience all of the aforementioned attractions.  I have to admit that if I go to Romania, I'm going to make a point of visiting Hoia-Baciu Forest (World's Most Haunted Forest), if for no other reason, to see what all the buzz is about.  I'm still struggling with my disappointment over not getting to visit Borley Rectory when I was in England this summer, so I wouldn't want to miss this one.  I'll just make sure to bring along my migraine meds.

So, many thanks to the loyal reader who sent me the link about Hoia-Baciu Forest (World's Most Haunted Forest).  It's now on my list.  Right behind Madagascar.  I'll see what Carol has to say about setting aside a little more money in our travel fund.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A visit to the PARCC

The PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test scores are coming in, and it ain't pretty.

PARCC is part of the whole Common Core, Test-Students-Till-They-Drop system that upper level educational administration seems so fond of lately.  I'll admit that the basic idea -- to provide all children with a common set of educational standards, and assess them all the same way -- sounds good.  Few could argue with a drive to raise standards, improve literacy, increase deep understanding of math.  In fact, part of its mission statement is, "PARCC helps ensure that all students, regardless of income, family background or geography, have equal access to a world-class education that will prepare them for success after high school in college and/or careers...  set(s) consistent expectations in English and mathematics for every student, and... provides a valid and reliable evaluation of each student’s progress toward them."

Sounds awesome, doesn't it?

But for an educational movement that comes out of a drive for equity and accountability, the implementation of these high-flying goals has been haphazard, and the assessments themselves are riddled with flaws.  The roll-out of new standards was rushed, leaving many teachers without adequate training and materials to deliver a completely new curriculum, and the end-of-year exams have been poorly aligned with curriculum expectations and, in some cases, at difficulty levels that are completely grade-level inappropriate.

This hasn't stopped the anti-public-school movement from treating those scores as if they were actually reliable.  The PARCC data for the state of Illinois were just released last week, and showed a considerable drop in average scores from previous assessments, prompting claims of incompetence against teachers and local administrators, withering criticisms of unions for protecting inadequate faculty members, and calls for defunding public schools and replacing them with charter schools and voucher systems.  It also prompted one Illinois teacher to write a concise list of the flaws in PARCC exams, which include the following:
  • giving children exams on computers in schools that don't have functional computer labs for kids to practice on
  • requiring all students to type their answers, thus adding "typing speed" as an unspoken parameter for success on the test
  • vague standards that are assessed by highly specific exam questions, leaving teachers uncertain about the depth to which they are supposed to address concepts
  • a "formative evaluation" on 75% of the standards, given 3/4 of the way through the school year -- but no information about which 75% of the standards would be tested
  • no scores released on the formative evaluation until after the school year ended and students had taken the final ("summative") assessment, leaving one wondering who the scores were supposed to be "formative" for
And need I add that the scores on these flawed exams are being used not only to evaluate children, but to evaluate teachers, administrators, schools, and entire districts?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You know who stands to gain here?  Pearson Education, who holds the extremely lucrative contract for designing all the exams, pre-tests, practice tests, review materials, and curriculum guides.  States are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to purchase a framework for assessment that, to put it bluntly, does not work, and then using that framework as a weapon with which to destroy public schools.

It's not just the teachers who are beginning to realize this.  Some institutions are recognizing the inherent flaws in the design and administration of standardized tests -- and are rebelling against the stranglehold they have over the educational system.  Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, chose last year to stop accepting SAT and ACT scores from applicants; its president, Jonathan Lash, stated outright that "standardized test scores do not predict... student success" and that "multiple-choice tests don't reveal much about a student."

US News & World Report, which each year releases its rankings of US colleges and universities, retaliated by deleting Hampshire from its rankings.  Lash reacted with a shoulder shrug: "We surveyed our students and learned not one of them had considered rankings when choosing to apply to colleges," Lash said.  "Instead they most cared about a college’s mission... At college fairs and information sessions, we don’t spend time answering high school families’ questions about our ranking and test score 'cut-offs.'  Instead we have conversations about the things that matter: What does our unique academic program look like, and what qualities does a student need to be successful at it?"

Lash said that the experiment thus far has been an unqualified success:
Without the scores, every other detail of the student’s application became more vivid. Their academic record over four years, letters of recommendation, essays, in-person interviews, and the optional creative supplements gave us a more complete portrait than we had seen before. Applicants gave more attention to their applications, including the optional components, putting us in a much better position to predict their likelihood of success here.
I have some hope that these sorts of decisions are indicators of a coming sea change in our attitudes towards paper-and-pencil exams.  But we have a long way to go.  PARCC and the Common Core aren't going anywhere soon; Pearson Education, and people like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who famously stated that the only people critical of Common Core exams were "white suburban moms who are upset because they have discovered that their kids aren't as brilliant as they thought") are still pushing flawed assessments down our throats, along with all of the other outcomes -- loss of diversity in curriculum, loss of teacher autonomy in curriculum design and implementation, and a drastic increase in anxiety over testing in the children themselves.

So the fight's not over, not by a longshot.  I can guarantee that the failing scores on PARCC assessments in Illinois are not going to lead any of the powers-that-be to come to the conclusion that it's the assessment itself that is at fault.  They have too much at stake, both philosophically and financially, to reverse course that easily.  

So the power is in the hands of the parents, which is why it is so critical that the opt-out movement not lose its momentum.

I'll end with a repeated call for action: opt your children right the hell out of all of the state-mandated standardized grade-level exams -- at least the ones that have no impact on your child's passing a course (which, honestly, is most of them).  Keep them home.  Give Pearson no data to work with.  State departments of education have made unilateral bad decisions about how to assess your children, and it's time to take the control of education back to the local level -- where it should be.

Time to vote with your feet.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The least among us

In Ava Norwood's gripping novel If I Make My Bed in Hell, we read about the ordeal of Annabeth Showers, who has spent her seventeen years on Earth under the control of parents who belong to a cult called the Tabernacle of the Living Word.  She is forbidden to cut her hair, read any outside literature, listen to music.  Transgressions are punished by beatings and public humiliation.  Annabeth's journey from repression and fear to peace, freedom, and the right to self-determination is impossible to put down -- and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the role of religion in the oppression of women and children.

It is also a true story.

I don't mean in the details; there is no such person as Annabeth Showers.  The other characters in the story are equally fictional.  But for those who get to the last page of Norwood's book and heave a sigh, and say, "Well, at least none of this is real," I have news for you.

There are people now, in our modern society, who use the threats of god and hell and sin, and sometimes physical punishment as well, to control children through fear.

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Hell (ca. 1301) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Let's start with the Fort Wayne, Indiana elementary school teacher who shamed a seven-year-old boy and gave him three days' worth of detention for telling another child he didn't believe in god.

Second-grade teacher Michelle Meyer found out that the boy -- who is referred to only as "A.B." -- was asked by another child if he went to church.  He said no, and allegedly, the other child "started to cry."  This brought the situation to Meyer's attention, who instead of using it as a teachable moment about tolerance of differences, proceeded to tell A.B.  that she was "very concerned" about his disbelief in god and about "what he'd done," and that she was going to call his mom.

She never did.  Probably realized that if A.B. doesn't go to church, neither does mom, and so a call home would be a losing proposition.  So Meyer came up with her own way of dealing with the situation.  According to the news story:
Ms. Meyer required that A.B. sit by himself during lunch and told him he should not talk to the other students and stated that this was because he had offended them.  This served to reinforce A.B.’s feeling that he had committed some transgression that justified his exclusion.
And to make matters worse, Meyer had A.B. and the girl whose religious sensibilities he'd offended talk to another adult, who also apparently believes in the Bring Children To God Through Humiliation approach:
Upon hearing [the story], the adult employee looked at A.B.’s classmate and stated that she should not be worried and should be happy she has faith and that she should not listen to A.B.’s bad ideas. She then patted the little girl’s hand.
A.B., who used to love school, is now afraid to go there because "everyone hates him," and frequently comes home crying.

Praise Jesus and hallelujah.

Of course, this is mild.  There's only so much you can get away with in a public school.  But take away the protection conferred upon children by the eyes of outsiders, and you end up with the Twelve Tribes -- a group that sounds so much like Norwood's Tabernacle of the Living Word that the phrase "art imitates life" barely suffices.

In an exposé of this repressive cult by The Pacific Standard, I read with an increasing sense of horror about what these people do to their children out of a false belief based in fear -- the beatings, the terror talk about hell and the fiery furnace, the prohibition against play, the compulsory work starting as early as age five.  Like the Tabernacle, the Twelve Tribes is good at putting on a pleasant public face, running places such as the Blue Blinds Bakery in Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Maté Factor Restaurant in Ithaca, New York.  Their shops have a cool, back-to-the-earth vibe, and their food is high quality.

But you don't see what's behind the scenes.  Children being whipped with bamboo canes on their naked posteriors for minor offenses.  The oppression of women, who are forbidden to use painkillers during childbirth to "atone for Eve's sin."  The message that any doubt, any questioning, any hesitation is of Satan, and will result in eternal damnation.

The article I linked -- which is as hard to read, but as necessary, as Norwood's If I Make My Bed in Hell -- tells about a few children who successfully escaped from the cult's grip.  One girl was so perpetually terrified of punishment that her jaw would lock shut, preventing her from talking or eating, for hours or days at a time.

"If one is overly concerned about his son receiving blue marks," wrote cult founder Gene Spriggs in 1973, "you know that he hates his son and hates the word of God."

"Blue marks," by the way, are bruises.

Freedom of religion, like any freedom, has its limits; when you use your freedom of belief to oppress others, there is something seriously wrong.  As my mother put it, "My rights end where your nose begins."  And the situation stands out in even starker relief when the exercise of freedom of religion involves putting the powerless in a situation that amounts to physical and psychological torture.

It makes you wonder why the ultra-religious are so focused on the reality of hell in the afterlife, doesn't it?  They've already created something very like hell, here on Earth, for their own children.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Hearing voices

I'm a little concerned that the next president of the United States might be either delusional or else an outright liar.

I know this statement probably has a lot of people shrugging.  We here in the United States have a long history of electing a colorful combination of the insane and the dishonest to public office.  But this is the first time in my memory that we have so many people seeking the highest office in the land who are proud to announce that they hear voices.

Let's start with Ben Carson, who last November told Christian Broadcast Network's David Brody that he felt the "fingers of god" pushing him to run for president.  He's been up front ever since that he's running because god has told him that's what he wants.  "I serve God, and my purpose is to please Him, and if God be for you, who can be against you?...  I am running for president because God grabbed me by the collar and asked me to run."

Pat Robertson concurred, and said that god sent him a personal message that Carson's the real deal:
God came to me in a dream. He had a white robe and a white beard, and told me our next president would be another colored man.  I’m interpreting that to be Dr. Ben Carson. Unless Barack Obama seeks a third term.
I wouldn't expect the Lord of Hosts to use verbiage that makes him sound like a bigoted white dude, but what do I know?

Then there's Mike Huckabee, who attributes his political support to... Jesus Christ:
There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people.  That’s the only way that our campaign can be doing what it’s doing.  And I’m not being facetious nor am I trying to be trite.  There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has.  And it defies all explanation, it has confounded the pundits.  And I’m enjoying every minute of them trying to figure it out, and until they look at it, from a, just experience beyond human, they’ll never figure it out. And it’s probably just as well.  That’s honestly why it’s happening.
Rick Perry also received a message from god that he should run for president:
And it has been an incredible outpouring and I can tell you that has given me the calmness in my soul that, you know, God sends messages through a lot of ways and through a lot of messengers... You may not see that burning bush, but there are people seeing that burning bush for you. I’m getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do.
Burning bushes notwithstanding, Perry decided on September 11 to throw in the towel.  Maybe it's just as well, given the mixed messages god's sending to everyone.

But no one sounded as sure that he has a direct phone line to to the almighty as Scott Walker, who went on record as saying:
My relationship with God drives every major decision in my life.  Each day I pray and then take time to read from the Bible and from a devotional named Jesus Calling.  As you can imagine, the months leading up to my announcement that I would run for President of the United States were filled with a lot of prayer and soul searching.  Here’s why: I needed to be certain that running was God’s calling — not just man’s calling. I am certain: This is God’s plan for me and I am humbled to be a candidate for President of the United States.
But in another startling change in the divine plan, Walker also called it quits, just four days ago.  I guess maybe god's calling of Scott Walker was a misdial.

I don't know about you, but why are so many people accepting of the fact that we have multiple candidates who will state outright that they hear voices?  It doesn't take a Ph.D. to recognize that if more than one person is claiming that god said they'd be the next president, they can't all be right.  In fact, the great likelihood is that all of them are either (1) lying, or else (2) insane.

It is a sorry state of affairs that we have come to a place where to succeed in politics, you have to pander to the ultra religious -- or else be one of them yourself.  I'm willing to believe that Walker and Perry might have just been saying what they thought their constituency wanted to hear; but there's no doubt about Huckabee and Carson, both of whom are avowed young-earth creationists.  In fact, just a couple of days ago, Carson proved that to be a brain surgeon, you don't necessarily have to be rational on any other topic:
I do believe in the six-day creation.  It says in the beginning God created the heaven and Earth.  It doesn’t say when he created them, except for in the beginning.  So the Earth could have been here for a long time before he started creating things on it.  But when he did start doing that, he made it very specifically clear to us the evening and the morning were the next day because he knew that people would come along and try to say that, ‘Oh, it was millions and millions of years.’  And then what else did he say in the very first chapter?  That each thing brought forth after its own kind.  Because he knew that people would come along and say, you know, this changed into that and this changed into that and this changed into that.  So at the very beginning of the Bible, he puts that to rest.
The power of the Religious Right is even affecting Donald Trump, who recently said that the bible is his favorite book.  Pressed for details, though, he began to waffle a little.  "The bible means a lot to me," he said.  "but I don't want to get into specifics."

He later did say that his favorite bible verse was the part in Proverbs where god commands us "never to bend to envy," a passage that is laudable but unfortunately doesn't exist.  Maybe he was confusing the bible with his other favorite book, The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump.

I find myself watching this race with an increasing sense of horror.  How did we get to a place where a group of people who are, honestly, a minority of practicing Christians can wield such political clout?  I am a little aghast that to maintain credibility amongst the Republican powers-that-be, you have to state outright that you are experiencing what amounts to a psychotic break.

Oh, but these are the same people who claim that Christians in America are an embattled and persecuted minority.  So we're not talking about having a serious grasp on reality right from the get-go.

I live in hope that rationality will prevail, and whoever ends up left in the race by the time the serious campaigning starts will at least be sane.  Because what we're looking at right now is more akin to being forced to choose between the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.  And if that's what we end up with, I'm thinking of moving to Costa Rica.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The return of the faith healer

Following hard on the heels of my post suggesting that caveat emptor is all well and good, but there should be a way to stop swindlers from rooking gullible people, I ran across a story that pushes me squarely in the opposite direction.

There are people who are so gullible that no amount of rationality will persuade them, and honestly, these people probably deserve everything they get.

The story came to my attention via Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News, and concerns veteran snake oil salesman and purported faith healer Peter Popoff.  Popoff goes back a long way; over thirty years ago, he had a nationally-broadcast faith healing show, during which he would call up audience members for a "laying on of hands" and would scream, "I heal you by the power of Jesus!"  He claimed to make paralyzed people walk, cured sufferers of cancer and chronic pain, and attracted standing-room-only crowds, many of whom paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket to attend.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The whole house of cards came crashing down around Popoff after an investigation by James Randi and his associate Steve Shaw.  Some of the dreadfully ill audience members that Popoff healed, it was found, were perfectly healthy people that Popoff and his crew had planted in the audience to give the appearance of miracles.  His knowledge of people's medical conditions ahead of time turned out to be messages delivered not by the voice of god, as Popoff claimed, but by the voice of his wife Elizabeth, who was scanning audience information cards submitted upon arrival and sending the details to Popoff via a wireless earpiece.  (Amongst the not-so-divine messages Popoff got caught receiving was a reference to an African American audience member by a racial slur, followed by the warning, "keep your hands off her tits... I'm watching you.")

After these revelations, the donations dried up, the audiences stopped showing up, and in 1987 Popoff declared bankruptcy, leaving over 790 creditors unpaid.

And that, you would think, would be that.

But no.  After a humiliating takedown that would leave most of us unwilling to go outside ever again without wearing a paper bag over our heads, Popoff has restarted his "healing ministries," this time in the UK.  According to a piece over at the site Good Thinking, we find out that he's once again raking in the cash:
Over the last six months, we have been investigating ‘faith healer’ Peter Popoff and his highly-lucrative current business of promising to heal sickness and cancel debts in exchange for ‘seed faith’, in other words: cash donations.  In May of this year we attended Popoff’s event at The Troxy Theatre, London, to covertly record his miraculous claims and supposed acts of faith healing, and to witness thousands of people donating large amounts of cash to his ministry.
The Daily Mirror did a story a couple of days ago about the investigation, and called it correctly:
Is the old charlatan “Reverend” Peter Popoff returning to his wicked ways? 
The American snake oil salesman has been in the UK, churning out begging letters and holding a rally to heal the sick. 
Among those “cured” at the latest London gathering was a woman who said her body was wracked with pain. 
Popoff laid his hands on her and yelled “Back to the pits of hell,” apparently with remarkable results. But was it all it seemed? 
Among the audience members was Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society, a charity that promotes rational debate. 
“The woman he ‘healed’ had a convulsive fit when he touched her on the head,” said Michael. 
“But she seemed to be part of his team, she was handing out pens and a questionnaire at the start, which leads us to believe that it is possible she was a plant. 
“If she was part of their team, they should have been open about this, but just before the ‘healing’ she came out of a row of seats in the auditorium as if she was just another member of the audience, and left soon afterwards.”
In other words: Popoff is once again rooking audiences, using exactly the same techniques as he did before.

I find it hard to believe that anyone could fall for his schtick, after the events of thirty years ago.  Did god forgive him for his earlier transgressions, and now he's actually healing people through divine power?  Or was James Randi persecuting an innocent man, leading us to the uncomfortable conclusion that god told Popoff "keep your hands off her tits?"

Or is he a cheater and a fraud who was so successful the first time that he is banking on people having short memories and more money than sense?

I'm pretty much certain it's the latter.

So we're looking at a situation where a proven swindler has returned to swindling, and people are once again falling for it.  Which returns me to my original point; if you are taken in by people like Popoff, as harsh as it sounds, you are so foolish that you deserve everything you get.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

I'm so blue

There comes a point when caveat emptor just isn't enough.

I know that my general take on spurious claims has been that if people can't be bothered to learn a little science, then they deserve to be hoodwinked by the unscrupulous.  Heartless as it may seem, we all have a responsibility to exercise caution and rationality with respect to our own decisions.

But dammit, when a doctor gets on the public airwaves, and recommends all kinds of sketchy shit, there should be a way to stop him.

And for once, I'm not talking about Dr. Oz.  This time the Very Alternative Medicine Award goes to Dr. Joel Wallach, who basically thinks every human disorder is caused by a mineral deficiency.

The topic comes up because I was listening to the phenomenally wacky radio broadcast Coast to Coast AM, hosted by George Noory, and Dr. Wallach was a guest.  Mostly it was the usual fare, with Noory asking questions about how unhealthy Americans are and about cancer rates and the incidence of heart disease, and Dr. Wallach responding with bogus-sounding stuff about mineral deficiencies.  And then Noory started taking callers, and a woman called in and asked for Dr. Wallach's advice about how to treat what sounded like a genital yeast infection.

And Dr. Wallach recommended soaking a tampon in colloidal silver, and inserting it into her vagina.

Well, that got my attention.  And I'm thinking, "Wasn't there that guy who took so much colloidal silver that he turned his skin blue?"  So I looked it up, and I found out that yes, there was a man named Paul Karason who became convinced that colloidal silver was the answer to all of life's ills, and took so much that he developed argyria, a permanent discoloration of the skin.

To put it more succinctly if less scientifically: he went from a basically normal human being to looking like the love child of Papa Smurf and a zombie.

Now, to be fair, it's unlikely that one application of colloidal silver would result in problems, even if it is applied to your tender bits.  But I myself wouldn't do anything of the kind, even if I had the tender bits in question, which I don't.  Because to say that Dr. Wallach's claims are suspect turns out to be a mammoth understatement.

The wonderful site Quackwatch did a stinging exposé of Wallach a couple of years ago, especially apropos of his stance that "Americans are slowly starving to death" and the way to reverse the problem is by taking lots of colloidal mineral supplements (which, to no one's particular surprise, you can purchase from Dr. Wallach's company Youngevity).

Here are a few of his specious claims (there is more information on each in the Quackwatch article linked above):

  • He backed the useless apricot-pit derivative laetrile for treating cancer.  
  • Hydrogen peroxide can be used to treat coronary artery disease.
  • Cystic fibrosis is "100% curable in its early stages."
  • Multiple sclerosis is caused by mercury poisoning from dental amalgam.
  • There are cultures where people routinely live (in good health) to 140 years, and they do so because they drink glacial creek water saturated with pulverized minerals.
  • Alzheimer's disease is preventable (guess how?) and that 50% of American 70-year-olds have it.
  • Both gray hair and aneurysms are caused by a copper deficiency.
  • Male pattern baldness is caused by a tin deficiency.
  • Diabetes is caused by a vanadium deficiency.
Getting the picture here?  Add to this the fact that he has claimed to be the author of a medical textbook and over 70 peer-reviewed papers in medical journals (he isn't), and that in his training he did 20,500 human and animal autopsies (he didn't), and his veracity is definitely suspect.  (James Pontolillo, author of the Quackwatch piece, calculated that in order to perform that many autopsies, Wallach would have had to perform six a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, for twelve years.)

So I think you can see that we're dealing with someone here whose recommendations are pretty much uniformly unsupported by the evidence.  Personally, I think that Wallach's level of reliability is such that if he said the sky was blue and the grass was green, I'd want to go outside to check for myself.

And lest you think that Pontolillo just has some kind of axe to grind, Wallach has also been excoriated in The Skeptic's Dictionary, received withering and exhaustive rebukes from nutritionists Stuart Adams and Stephen Cherniske, and was outright called a "liar" both at the skeptical site The Millennium Project and in a publication by the National Council Against Health Fraud.  

But the guy still has followers who revere him with near fanatical devotion.  Adams in particular has been attacked for his criticisms of Wallach -- he has stated that he is still getting hate mail for his exposé, which was released over ten years ago.

Which just goes to show how persuasive bullshit can be.  And it makes me wish there was some way to save people from their own gullibility.  I know you can't legislate against ignorance; but the fact that there are snake-oil salesmen out there who are taking advantage of people's fear about their health to rook them for millions of dollars is just not nice.  

I suppose I should draw some solace from the fact that Wallach's credibility is now so low that he's appearing on Coast to Coast AM.  It's not like most of the stuff on that show is the pinnacle of rationality, after all.  I mean, the piece after Wallach's spot had to do with the "akashic record" -- the idea that every person who has ever lived, and every event that has ever happened, is still accessible through a universal quantum energy frequency vibrational field, or something.  So it's to be hoped that any listeners who were still on the fence were left chortling and saying "Yeah, right" after the show was over.

And that few of them were tempted to insert mineral-soaked tampons into their naughty parts.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The end of the world as we know it

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we're all gonna die.

Sorry if that's kind of a downer of a way to start your morning.  But it's best to face facts, you know?

Some time in the next week, according to multiple sources, god is going to play a game of cosmic Whack-a-Mole with the Earth.  Never mind that none of those sources have any apparent understanding of astronomy, nor necessarily even contact with reality.  Just believe 'em anyway, because what do those cocky fancy-pants scientists know, anyway?

First we have Pastor John Hagee, whose motto is "Jesus accepts MasterCard."  This guy has made a career out of passing along the cheerful message that god thinks we're all sinners and we're doomed to the fiery furnace and the only way to escape our (well deserved) fate is if we make a generous donation to John Hagee Ministries so that John Hagee can purchase another Yacht for Christ.  (Why Christ needs a yacht remains to be seen.  Didn't the dude walk on water?)

This time, though, god is serious, and he's going to show us how pissed he is at our iniquity through an unequivocal sign: a lunar eclipse this Sunday.  Or, as Hagee likes to put it, a "blood moon."  Because the moon turns kind of red during an eclipse, which means blood.  And god and prophecy and hell and all the rest, so you damn well better give generously, or else.

Is it just me, or does Pastor Hagee look really... happy about the whole thing?  You get the impression that here's a guy who is just thrilled that Rivers Will Run Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers.  After all, the unbelievers don't donate to John Hagee Ministries, so fuck 'em, right?

But it isn't just Hagee saying that we're in trouble.  A lot of folks down in Costa Rica are up in arms over the appearance a couple of days ago of a weird cloud, because there's obviously no other explanation for this other than the imminent end of the world.

Eladio Solano, meteorologist at Costa Rica's National Meteorological Institute, said the phenomenon is rare but perfectly natural.  The iridescence, he says, is caused by the refraction of light through high ice crystals in the atmosphere, and has happened before without the world ending.  But what does he know?  He's just a scientist.  We all know it's better to get your information from superstition based on a Bronze-Age understanding of the universe.

Then we have the fact that the physicists over at CERN are firing up the Large Hadron Collider today, and the rumor has started that they're trying to "recreate the Big Bang."  The result will be that the new Bang will rip the current universe apart from the inside out.  And/or create a black hole.  Either way, we're pretty much fucked.

Because that's what all scientists are after, right?  When they're not busy distracting you from the actual meaning of weird clouds over Costa Rica, they're plotting to destroy the world.  Why else would they have gone into science?

And if that wasn't enough to ruin your morning, add to that the fact that Mercury goes into retrograde starting on Thursday.  And this means that all hell is going to break loose on Earth, even though (1) it's only an apparent backwards movement because of the relative motion of Mercury as seen from Earth, (2) the movement of a planet against a backdrop of impossibly distant stars has zero to do with anything happening down here, and (3) Mercury goes into retrograde three times every year, and the world hasn't ended any of those times.

But never mind all that logic and rationality stuff.  This time it's gonna happen.  Blood moons + weird clouds + LHC + Mercury retrograde = really bad shit.  You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that.

In fact, it's better if you're not a scientist at all.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Stop asking questions

I had a conversation with a student yesterday that illustrated all that is wrong-headed about public education.

Our school is fortunate enough to have an awesome selection of science electives, thanks to a forward-thinking principal we had ten years ago.  I teach an introductory neuroscience class, which is a great deal of fun for me and (I hope) the students -- we get to spend a semester looking at the intricacies and peculiarities of our brain and sensory processing systems.  The subject is one that seems to have a lot of intrinsic interest for high schoolers, and it's often the genesis of some pretty cool class discussions.

Last week I assigned them to read an article called "The Future of Brain-controlled Devices," about the possibility of brain-machine interfaces, and we discussed it in class yesterday.  What I had anticipated would be a ten-minute discussion of the scientific and ethical questions raised in the article turned into a whole period's worth.  The topics jumped, free-association-style, away from the subject at hand -- sensory enhancement, brain-to-brain connections ("machine-mediated telepathy"), virtual reality interfaces, restoration of sensorimotor abilities in the disabled -- and soon we found ourselves discussing the nature of seizure disorders, the role of sleep in memory consolidation, how the pleasure-reward circuit in the brain works, what happens when someone has a migraine, how visual pattern recognition works.

When the bell rang, one of my students chuckled, and said, in an amiable sort of fashion, "Wow.  We really got nothing accomplished this period."

I asked her what she meant.

She indicated the blank page in her science notebook.  "We didn't even write down any notes.  After we turned in the responses to the article, we just spent the rest of the period talking about random stuff."

I smiled and shrugged -- as I said, she's a nice kid and a good student, and didn't mean it as any kind of serious criticism -- but inwardly, I was a little appalled.  Here we have a senior in high school who has been taught, in her thirteen years in public schools, that a wide-ranging class discussion driven by the students' own curiosity, which never leaves the purview of the class's curriculum, somehow doesn't count unless they are made to write down lists of vocabulary words so they can study it later for the test.

These kids were focused and engaged, actively pursuing questions that they were interested in, driving their own learning and using me as a resource and a facilitator.  Not a single one tried to derail the conversation into other subjects; no one said, "So Mr. Bonnet, how do you think the New Orleans Saints are gonna do this year?"  We may have wandered off of the topic of brain-machine interfaces -- but would I really have been doing a better job as a teacher had I halted the discussion, and said, "Okay, stop asking questions.  On to the next topic, which is neurological disorders.  Get your notebooks out...."?

I think public schools, despite amazing obstacles, do a pretty damn good job of educating children.  But we do teach them an unintended lesson, one which some of them never unlearn.  It's the lesson that education is a passive enterprise, with the teacher as the knowledge donor and the student as recipient.  We tacitly pass along the message that if the information isn't on the test, they don't have to think about it, that it isn't worth knowing.  That we'll tell them what to write down, we'll decide for them what counts, that learning consists only of copying everything we write on our white boards into their notebooks.

And it's a notion that is fostered at every level.  If it's not a Quantifiable Outcome, if you can't measure it on a standardized test, to the federal and state departments of education, it does not exist.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And just last week, the New York State Board of Regents voted to increase the impact of standardized tests by raising to 50% the contribution of exam scores to a teacher's end-of-year evaluation.  But we're apparently not supposed to ask questions about that, either.

You have to wonder why the powers-that-be in education seem so dead set against fostering creative, out-of-the-box thinking in children... or in the teachers themselves.

What does it mean to be truly educated?  It means having some kind of knowledge base, some fundamental set of facts at your disposal, sure.  But it's far more than that.  Education should foster creativity, drive, the ability to make new connections, the confidence and skill to be the author of your own understanding.  The If-It's-Not-On-The-Test-Don't-Waste-Your-Time mentality has warped what should be the true mission of schools -- to give children not only a set of tools, but a passion that will push them never to stop questioning, never to stop learning about the world around them.

And that memorize-and-test attitude has poisoned the children themselves.  I see it especially amongst the best and brightest, in the anxiety over scores, the fretting over learning every last definition, date, and detail.  Synthesis and questioning become a distraction.  They've learned their lessons well, and come away with the impression that minutiae are more important than curiosity.

We've come a long way from the original meaning of the word "education," which comes from a Latin verb meaning "to draw out of."  We've come to think of it as stuffing facts into children's minds, and after that, more facts still, and judge our success by how many of those facts they can successfully regurgitate on the end of the year tests.  How many opportunities for questioning, how many "teachable moments," are lost because we are chained to Student Learning Objectives and Measurable Outcomes?

I'll end with a quote from Socrates which I think sums the whole thing up:  "Education is not the filling of a vessel, it is the kindling of a flame."

Monday, September 21, 2015

The holy book deal

UPDATE:  I'm deleting this post.  Turns out, I (and millions of others, including the editorial staff of USA Today) were the victims of a hoax.  Kim Davis did not receive a book deal -- for which I am, honestly, very grateful.

The origin of the story was The National Report, a satire site.  To my credit, if the source had been The National Report, I would have realized it -- TNR is sort of a less clever version of The Onion, and I've seen their stuff before.  But such is the way of things that bullshit stories sometimes gain unmerited credence by working their way up the media ladder, and this one duped the people at USA Today and other more reputable media outlets -- and thus, yours truly here at Skeptophilia.

All of which reinforces that we all need to check sources carefully.  Thanks to the folks who let me know that I'd fallen prey to Poe's Law.

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled (and, with luck, more reliable) programming tomorrow.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The cult of personality

The cult of personality is a dangerous thing.  Whenever a person's brand becomes more important than what (s)he is claiming, there's the chance that herd mentality will take over -- and you'll follow the leader without question.

Dr. Oz.  Oprah.  "Food Babe."  And, most spectacularly, Deepak Chopra, who regularly publishes something called -- and I am not making this up -- the "Chopra-centered Lifestyle Newsletter," which should win some kind of Narcissistic Title Award.  Because I regularly check out the publications and claims of these people -- risking the loss of countless innocent brain cells -- I have more than once seen comments like, "We love you, Dr. Oz!" and "Go Food Babe Army!" appended to articles that would leave any sensible, scientifically-literate person doing repeated facepalms.  I'm left with the unsettling impression that these people could claim that you can prevent cancer by eating red onions, and their audience would simply sit there nodding and smiling.

Oh, wait, Dr. Oz did claim exactly that.  My bad.

But Chopra is in another league.  This guy has made millions writing book after book of quasi-mystical, pseudoscientific bullshit, and he's as popular as ever.  His followers have a devotion to him that borders on fanaticism.  He still does the lecture circuit to sold-out auditoriums.  And this despite the fact that what he says is so vague and fact-free that someone made a Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator that produces convincing-sounding Chopra-isms on demand.  (Here's the one I got:  "The invisible is the womb of visible choices."  I feel myself becoming wiser already.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As an example of the bizarre, fact-free clickbait that Chopra dishes out, consider the recent article on his website called "What is Primordial Sound Meditation?" in which we find out that we each have a personal "mantra or sound" that if we chant it, will bring us "profound peace and expanded awareness."

How do we find out what our personal mantra is?  Well, the implication is that such information isn't available to most of us unenlightened slobs, so we have to sign up for "Chopra's Primordial Sound Meditation Workshop" at the "Chopra Center."  Once we do, they'll tell us what to chant.

Money first, enlightenment next, that's the motto over at the "Chopra Center."

And it's not just some random noise, they tell us:
A mantra is a specific sound or vibration—which when repeated silently—helps you to enter deeper levels of awareness...   The mantra you will receive is the vibration the universe was creating at the time and place of your birth, and it is calculated following Vedic mathematic formulas.
So what he's done is taken three pieces of mystical nonsense -- astrology, numerology, and New Age woo -- and combined them to make an all-new Bullshit Mélange.  We also have one of our favorite words, "vibration," which of course makes it even more scientific.  All we need is "quantum" and "frequency" and we'd be all set.  (They didn't show up in the article, but I'd be willing to bet you my next month's salary that they're used in the workshop.)

And what will happen if you use your magic personal mantra?  All sorts of good stuff:
When you silently repeat your mantra in meditation, it creates a vibration that helps you slip into the space between your thoughts, into the complete silence that is sometimes referred to as "the gap."  Your mind is no longer caught up in its noisy internal chatter and is instead exposed to its own deepest nature: pure awareness.
Now, don't get me wrong; I'm completely in favor of meditation.  It is great for relaxation and reducing stress.  And there's no doubt any more that stress is contributory to poor health, so anything you can do in the way of decreasing it is probably going to do you nothing but good.

But saying "you'd probably feel better if you did some meditation" is different than making bogus claims about universal vibrations at the moment of your birth creating a Special Sound Just For You, and then telling you that you can only find out what it is if you sign up for an expensive workshop.  What Chopra et al. are doing is nothing more than a calculated, callous campaign of using people's ignorance about science, and anxiety over their health, to make money hand over fist.

And it works.  Chopra, Oz, Food Babe, and the rest are as popular as ever, despite study after study debunking their wild claims.  "Food Babe" was roundly ridiculed a few months ago for her claim that airlines were trying to kill us by pumping "impure air" into airplanes that "was not pure oxygen."  Dr. Oz, especially, has come under significant fire, receiving a harsh rebuke last year from the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection for his support of sketchy diet recommendations.  And earlier this year, a group of prominent doctors sent a scalding letter to Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons demanding that Oz be fired from his faculty position there, citing "an egregious lack of integrity."

But none of that seems to make much of a dent in their popularity.  They're still out there, still making ridiculous claims lo unto this very day, still bringing in money hand over fist.

Leading me to the troubling conclusion that however persuasive science is, it will never wield the power that the cult of personality does.

Friday, September 18, 2015

No science, no vote.

As a nation, we need to stand up and say that we are sick of political candidates who espouse ignorant, anti-science views.

No, let me amend that; we don't need to say it.  We need to shout it.

The topic comes up because of  the Republican primary debate night before last.  All eyes, of course, were on Donald Trump; with the lead he's got, he's going to be hard to beat for the nomination unless he makes a serious misstep.

He made one two nights ago.  But the bizarre thing is that damn near no one is talking about it.

I mean, he made a good many other cringe-worthy statements, all delivered with his badda-bing-badda-boom style that for some reason seems to excite people.  Perhaps the most embarrassing moment of all was the exchange with Carly Fiorina over his questioning how anyone "could vote for that face," which ended with a verbal right hook from Fiorina and a babbling you're-beautiful-who-loves-ya-baby backpedal response from Trump.  But despite his gaffes and handwaving and mugging for the camera, and his zero details, we'll-just-fix-it platform, he pretty much stuck with his political script throughout the whole debate.

Until the topic of vaccines came up, and Trump said he thought that vaccination causes autism.

"People that work for me, just the other day," Trump said, "two years old, two and a half years old, their child, their beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very very sick, now is autistic."

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

The moderator asked Ben Carson and Rand Paul to respond to that.  Why did he pick those two, out of the ten other people in the debate?

Because they're doctors, that's why.  They should know the truth, and be unafraid to say it.

And both of them bobbled the question.  

At a moment when the appropriate response would have been, "You, Mr. Trump, are dead wrong, and are apparently incapable of reading peer-reviewed science," both of them gave milquetoast rebuttals that sidestepped the main point -- that what Trump had just said was dangerously incorrect.

There have been numerous studies, and they have not shown any correlation between vaccination and autism.  This was something that was spread widely fifteen or twenty years ago, and has not been adequately, you know, revealed to the public what's actually going on.  Vaccines are very important.  Certain ones; the ones that would prevent death or crippling.  There are others, a multitude of vaccines, that probably don't fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases.  You know, a lot of this is pushed by big government.  And that's one of the things that people so vehemently want to get rid of, big government. 
Trump, whose motto is Death Before Backing Down, responded:
Autism has become an epidemic.  Twenty-five years ago, thirty-five years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close.  It has gotten totally out of control.  I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.  Because you take a baby in, and I've seen it, I've seen it, with my children, you give them over a long period of time the same amount.  You take this beautiful little baby, and you pump... I mean, it looks like it's meant for a horse, not for a child...  Give the same amount, little doses over a long period of time, you'll see a big impact on autism.
And Carson said in response to that:
The fact of the matter is, we have extremely well-documented proof that there is no autism associated with vaccinations.  But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time. 
So Dr. Carson, can you show me your peer-reviewed research that shows a connection between administering vaccines over a short period of time... and anything?

No, I didn't think so.

Then Rand Paul -- did I mention, he's also a doctor? -- was asked to weigh in:
One of the greatest discoveries of all times was vaccines, particularly for smallpox... I'm all for vaccines, but I'm also for freedom.  I'm a little concerned about how they're bunched up.  My kids had all of their vaccines, and even if the science says that bunching up is not a problem, I ought to have the right to spread my vaccines out at the very least.
Did you catch that?  Freedom to do what you want.  Even if the science says you're wrong, and that you are putting your own children, and other people's lives, at risk.

Okay, I know I'm not very political.  I'm up-front about that, and have mentioned it more than once in this blog.  I have neither the knowledge nor the experience to make statements on most political topics with anything close to authority.

But dammit, we can not continue to have leaders who ignore science.  And it doesn't matter why they're doing it -- political expediency, pandering to their voter base, or outright foolishness.  There are too many problems we are facing as a nation and a world that can only be approached from a scientific knowledge base to elect someone who is willfully ignorant (or as my dad used to call it, "stupid") regarding such issues as vaccination, climate, and the environment.

Science is a process.  It is a way of sifting out fact from fiction, good ideas from bad ones, solid theory from folly and superstition.  It is time for voters to treat a baseline knowledge of science, and a respect for scientific research, as a sine qua non for electability.

In which case Trump, Carson, and Paul just catapulted themselves right out of the running.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Prediction failure

I'm going to make a radical suggestion, here.

If you make a prediction, and what you are predicting fails to materialize, there is something fundamentally wrong with your model of how things work.

That's the way it goes in science, you know?  Scientists build theories -- models of how a system operates -- then use those theories to generate predictions.  If experimental data proves to be inconsistent with the theory's predictions, then it's time to revise the theory, or else trash it entirely.

It's a pretty elegant system, and not really that hard to understand.  So why is this so antithetical to the way a great many people think?  Because just recently, there are a group of people who have had their predictions fail, over and over, and all it seems to do is make them louder in defending it the next go-round.

Let's start with the whackjobs who thought that the military exercise Jade Helm 15 was a thinly-veiled cover for a end run by the federal government that would result in a takeover of Texas, the declaration of martial law, the widespread confiscation of guns, and the execution of citizens who objected.  The conspiracy wingnuts who believed this went so far as to hold rallies, demand public meetings in which explanations were demanded from military leaders, and send out armed monitors to keep track of what the troops were doing out there in the desert.

And then... and then... none of that stuff happened.  Jade Helm ended on September 14, Texas is still Texas, no martial law has been declared, Americans are as heavily armed as ever, and the government's stockpile of guillotines is still unused.  I wonder if we can get a refund on them?  I bet they kept the styrofoam packaging.

But are any of the militiamen types who were running about thumping their chests in June standing up, red-faced, and saying, "Wow, I guess we were wrong.  What goobers we are."?  Not that I've heard.

Then we have the ever-entertaining Glenn Beck, who has been claiming for years that the End Times are starting.  Every time something awful happens -- which, admittedly, is pretty much every day, global conditions being what they are -- Beck says, "This is it!  We're in for it now!"  And then... the world doesn't end.

Kind of anticlimactic, that.

About a month ago, Beck said the following on his weekly radio show:
What's coming is God saying, right now, to us, 'Please don't, please stand up, please!  Please stand up and choose me.  Please choose me.  If you don't, I can't protect you anymore.  Don't you see what is happening in the world?  Don't you see what's coming your way?  I want to protect you!  If you don't choose me, I can't!  We've made a deal: I'm your God, you're my people; if you reject me as your God and you pick other gods, I can't take you as my people any more.'
"This is not the run of the mill time anymore.  This is not 'it's coming' anymore.  This is it, gang.  This is it.  This is everything I've warned about, everything that I've worried about and I think it's going to happen so damn fast it'll take your breath away.  When it starts to go, you're just going to be 'what?'  Remember when I said at some point evil will just take off its mask and say, 'Raar'? It's going to happen.  Soon.
And what happened was more or less: nothing.  No calamities, no horrific events taking our breath away, and no evil going "Raar."  Just your ordinary stuff that has happened all along.  But does Beck say, "Hmmmm.... maybe I really don't have a direct pipeline to god?"

Of course not.  He just revises his prediction.  "Okay, maybe not soon soon," he basically said, on his show this week.  "But still soon.  You'll see."  Now he's saying the stuff he has been predicting was imminent for the past five years is all gonna happen in 2016.  "I'm terrible at timing," he said, as if that didn't somehow call into question his entire worldview.

Jeremiah Dictating His Prophecies to Baruch (Gustave Doré, 1866) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Then we had messianic rabbi Jonathan Cahn, who last year predicted that "the Shemitah" -- a cataclysmic event that will usher in the days of the messiah -- would occur on September 13, and would manifest as a massive stock market crash and resultant economic collapse.  But last Sunday came and went with no cataclysm, which was pointed out to Rabbi Cahn by Pat Robertson on The 700 Club.

Man, it's kind of sad when you're so loony that Pat Robertson calls you out.

Cahn immediately went into backpedal mode:
Nothing has to happen.  You can't put god in a box or he'll get out of it.  The stock market wasn't open on Sunday, so you can't have a crash.  But what's happening with the Shemitah is, there are several templates in the book about how the different ones have come in the past forty or fifty years.  This one has... two of them have had a crash on Elul 29 [the Jewish calendar date that corresponded to September 13], but this one has a different pattern, and that's what this has done.  This is called the pattern of this [sic].  When the Shemitah has happened in the last cycles, what has happened is that in the days before the last day, the stock market, which has been ascending, the Shemitah changes that direction, and it starts to descend.  That has happened in this one as well.  It started in the summer...  It has followed the major pattern.  And this time is called the Shemitah's wake, and sometimes you have the worst crashes occur then, so we'll see what happens.  
Bad things will happen!  Maybe on the date I said, but if not then, they'll happen either before or after that!  Like the stock market going up and then going down!  Because that never happens unless it's ordained by god!

People complain when the weather forecasters get it wrong occasionally.  These bozos, on the other hand, can have a zero batting average, and they continue to get television interviews and have weekly radio shows.

I don't get it.  I mean, I know that the folks who made the predictions themselves are interested in face-saving -- but why don't their followers go, "Whoa.  These people are crazy."?  Instead, every time some new apocalyptic nutjob pops up, spouting prognostications of doom, there are large groups who simply follow along, baaing softly, seeming not to notice that such forecasts have been wrong every single time.

It may be the only undertaking in which a zero success rate doesn't have any effect whatsoever.

Okay, maybe I'm being overly optimistic to expect that people would apply the principles of scientific theories to beliefs that are fundamentally unscientific.  But you'd think that human nature -- which, as far as I've observed, carries with it a dislike for being duped -- would kick in at some point, and the conspiracy theories and apocalyptic prophecies would not gain traction any more.

Never seems to happen, though.  

But it'll happen in 2016!  On February 10!  You'll see!  The whole human race will abandon superstition, and the days of goofy counterfactual beliefs will be over!  Thus sayeth the prophecies!

Cross my heart and hope to die.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The perils of indoctrination

Can I clarify something here?

Learning about something is not the same as learning to believe in it.

As an example, in an introductory political science class, I would undoubtedly study communism.  I might even read Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.  This does not mean that I now have no choice but to become a raving communist, ready to leave behind capitalism and go to North Korea to join in the worship of Dear Leader.  In fact, it could well have the opposite effect; my reading of those books might leave me thinking, "This is all bullshit."

Or I might decide that it sounds right.  It could go either way.  The point is, having been exposed to the communist school of thought means I have the choice of making up my own mind -- provided I have been given enough tools of rational evaluation to decide what makes the best sense.

This is a point that has evidently escaped Fox News commentator Todd Starnes and evangelical pastor Greg Locke, both of whom have gone public in the last couple of days with statements that any inclusion of material about Islam in public school curricula amounts to "indoctrination."  Locke went even further, saying that Christian parents need to see to it that their children completely refuse to participate.

"You need to tell your kids, ‘Take an F for the class,’ Locke said.  "Because I’d rather fail in man’s class and get an A+ in God’s class.  And we need to have some kids that have some character, that stand up.  Because we do not serve the god of the nation is Islam [sic].  We do not serve Allah."

Starnes said parents are up in arms, too. 

"'I am not pleased that my 12-year-old was taught the Islamic conversion prayer,' parent Brandee Porterfield told me," Starnes wrote in an op-ed piece.  "Joy Ellis was a bit fired up, too.  She discovered the Islamic lessons after examining her daughter’s class work.  'I was very angry that my child, my Christian child, was made to profess that Allah was the only God,' she told me."

"Could you imagine the outcry from liberal activists if the students had been forced to write 'Jesus is Lord'?" Starnes went on to say.

Starnes gives the impression that the state standards include Islam only, and ignore Christianity completely, a claim that is outright false -- the curriculum guidelines in Tennessee (the state in question) list nearly equal numbers of concepts from Christianity and Islam, and in fact, the sixth grade standards include zero references to Islam, but the following about Christianity:
[Students will be able to ] describe the origins and central features of Christianity... 
  • monotheism 
  • the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s Son 
  • the concept of resurrection 
  • the concept of salvation 
  • belief in the Old and New Testaments 
  • the lives, teachings and contributions of Jesus and Paul 
  • the relationship of early Christians to officials of the Roman Empire 
I wonder what credence these people would give to an Islamic family who complained about the sixth-grade curriculum and claimed it was "Christian indoctrination?"

Locke then followed Starnes into the Unintentional Irony Zone with the following statement:
[Teaching about Islam] is nothing more than absolute brainwashing of religion.  And so, I’m telling our folks, don’t take the test.  Keep your kids home from school...  [T]hey have to learn about Islam and Mohammed and how it all came about and about the Holy Koran and the Five Pillars of Islam and how they pray and when they pray and where they pray and why they pray and about pilgrimages and all of this!  That’s a bunch of bunk, we do not serve the same God.
So not only are Starnes and Locke lying about the facts, what they're saying is untrue on a deeper level.  Learning what the Islamic conversion prayer says is not the same as declaring that it represents the truth.  In a good social studies curriculum, children are taught about a great many political, social, and religious systems, and they grow to see how those institutions have shaped human history.  The point isn't conversion, the point is broadening of the mind.

And really, how likely is it that one unit of a forty minute social studies class in elementary school is going to profoundly alter a child's religious beliefs?  Consider how many students have been exposed to Greek mythology -- Zeus, Hera, Athena, and the rest of the lot -- during their school careers.

How many of these students then went on to spend the rest of their lives sacrificing goats to Apollo in their back yards?

Once again, you have to wonder what they're so afraid of.  Are their children so weak in their beliefs that even learning about Islam is sufficient to make the whole house of cards come crashing down in ruin?  Or do they fear that Islam is, at its heart, more attractive than Christianity?  Or that any opening of the mind provides a gap through which Satan might leap?

Whichever it is, their demands that schoolchildren not be exposed to other cultures and other belief systems comes at a cost.  Deprived of any knowledge of beliefs outside of their own will result in another generation of narrow-minded, paranoid bigots, living in a little circle of their own fearful certainty, not even wanting to admit that any ideas different from their own might be worth knowing.

And that, honestly, might be what Starnes and Locke are really trying to accomplish.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Yes, we have no bananas

Yesterday a student asked me, "Is it true that you can die from eating too many bananas?"

I responded, "You can die from eating too much of anything.  How many bananas are we talking about, here?"

She said, "Seven, is what I've heard."

That sounded pretty unlikely to me, and I said so.  "What about eating seven bananas could be dangerous?"

"You'd die because so much potassium would be toxic," she said. "My brother told me he heard that from a friend."

Sketchier and sketchier.  One of the functions of your kidneys is to keep the levels of sodium and potassium in your blood within an acceptable range, and I couldn't imagine that a few too many pieces of fruit was all it took to overwhelm the system.  So I said I still thought it seemed implausible, but told her I'd look into it.

And lo, it turns out that this claim is making its way around.  In fact, BBC News Online ran a story just a few days ago entitled, "Can Eating More Than Six Bananas at Once Kill You?"  And this once again illustrates the truth of Betteridge's Law, which says that "Any headline that ends with a question mark can be answered by the word no."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The most bizarre part about all of this is that it was stated, right there in the article, that the origin of the urban legend (if I can dignify it even with that name) was British actor and comedian Karl Pilkington, who made the statement in a conversation with fellow comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

"Before when you were talking about bananas," Pilkington said, "I had that fact, about if you eat more than six, it can kill you.  It is a fact.  Potassium levels are dangerously high if you have six bananas...  I saw a bowl of bananas.  There's six bananas there.  You know why there's only six?  Seven would be dangerous."

And for some reason, enough people didn't know he was joking that the whole thing has now gone viral.

Can I remind you once again that Pilkington is a comedian?  I.e. a person who makes a living exaggerating the truth, or simply making shit up, to be funny?

And the BBC News Online is not helping.  Although later in the article they do quote Catherine Collins, a dietician at St. George's Hospital in London, who confirmed that seven bananas isn't going to kill you, there is an unfortunate tendency of people to read only the headline and the first couple of paragraphs of an article and decide that's all they need to know.  And by the fourth paragraph, you're still left thinking that your life is in danger from Toxic Death Bananas.

"It would be impossible to overdose on bananas," Collins said, way down near the end of the article.  "You would probably need around 400 bananas a day to build up the kind of potassium levels that would cause your heart to stop beating."

Well, I'm no dietician, but my general impression if that you eat 400 bananas in a single day, you're going to have way more problems to worry about than potassium toxicity.  And given that she phrased it this way, I'd be willing to bet that even amongst the readers who got this far in the article, there were still some who read Collins's statement and focused only on the words "EAT BANANAS POTASSIUM HEART STOP BEATING" and missed entirely the words "impossible to overdose."

So thanks to an offhand comment from a comedian, we now have another loopy idea to add to the list, joining ones like Daddy Long-Legs Are Deadly Poisonous But Have Weak Fangs, and Don't Throw Rice At Weddings Because Birds Will Eat It And Then Explode.

In short: there is no reason for bananaphobia.  Seven seems excessive, honestly, but if you'd like to pig out and eat the whole bunch, have at it.  And the other takeaway is: don't learn your science from comedians.  They lie sometimes.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Pennsylvania werewolves

Recently, we've looked at such topics as the ascribing of tragic accidents to god's will, the role of social media in spreading misinformation, and the ongoing controversy over Kim Davis's refusal to follow federal law in Rowan County, Kentucky.  But all of this has made it even more imperative that I take a moment to address a much more serious question that I'm sure is at the forefront of everybody's mind:

What's going on with werewolf sightings in Pennsylvania?

The word "werewolf" brings up different associations for different people, and those mental images are usually dependent on their age.  For people in my generation, the usual thought is of the guy in the camp-horror movie An American Werewolf in London:

The creepy realism of this movie -- all in the days before CGI, allow me to add -- made it one of the most memorable scary films of the 1980s.

Younger people, of course, are more likely to think of a different depiction of a werewolf, exemplified by Taylor Lautner in Twilight.  Lautner's acting shows amazing emotional range, running the gamut from "brooding" all the way to "sullen."  He occasionally even manages "morose."  He also bears mention as the only actor in history who is better at finding bogus reasons for taking his shirt off than William Shatner.

Anyhow, you can see that there is a huge variety of mental images that the word "werewolf" evokes.  So let's compare that to some recent sightings of "bipedal wolves" coming from Clearfield and Cambria Counties, in central Pennsylvania, shall we?

According to a report in Phantoms and Monsters, there have been three encounters in the past month with creatures that fall somewhere between American Werewolf and Twilight, placing them squarely in the range of what most of us would consider a werewolf.  The most recent was the most detailed, a report from a 42-year-old woman "of sober mind" who is "not prone to embellishing."  She was out walking her dogs a couple of weeks ago, she says, when the following happened:
I walked the dogs through the park and then decided I wanted to go around the block on the back side of the park.  There is a main road that runs along side of the front of the park and a dirt road that runs along the back side of the park.  The roads meet at a streetlight. I was on the main road and got within about 25 yards of the streetlight and there was a huge figure, about 7 feet tall I estimate.  It was standing just back from the light and I could see just the legs.  They were hair covered and bent backwards like a dog. I could not make out a face or other details as it was standing back...  The first thought I had was "oh shit, that is a big damn dog" and then it dawned on me what I was seeing.  My next thought was "it is a freaking werewolf"!!!  It was rocking side to side like it was waiting for us to get closer.
Her dogs, interestingly, didn't seem to notice the thing, but she yanked on their leashes and hauled ass back home.

Which turns out to be the last sensible thing she did.  Because the next night, she thought the best possible course of action would be to walk her dogs again...

... on the same path.
I got to within 150 feet of where I saw this thing and my chihuahua started growling and all of his hair was standing up.  He started barking and going in circles looking for what ever it was that he sensed. No reaction at all from the pit.  She is feisty and not afraid to fight intruders so that really surprised me.  About the same time the little dog was freaking out there was a HUGE crash in the woods next to us, maybe 10 yards away of so.  This area is very swampy and there are quite a few large bushes and trees.  This crash sounded like a tree falling, but like it fell instantly.  It was lound [sic], fast and instant.  I ran out of there so damn fast.  I did not see anything this time other than my dog freaking out and the large crash.
She then goes on to describe how when she let her dogs out the next morning, they both ran up to a particular spot on the back yard fence, and were acting "very agitated and almost scared," and were "growling, with their hair standing up."  The werewolf, she surmises, followed her home, and is now lurking out there somewhere near her house.

*cue scary music*

All of which brings to mind the fact that I would be a great person to have on your side if there was a real werewolf in the area.  At the first sign of snarling and howling, I'd piss my pants and then have a stroke, giving the werewolf someone to attack who was already incapacitated, and allowing you to escape.

Because I may be a skeptic, but I'm also a great big wuss.

In any case, that's it, evidence-wise, for the Pennsylvania werewolf.  No hair, no tracks, not even a photograph, only a trio of anecdotes.  So as spooky as they admittedly are, I'm not ready to label this one a verified sighting.

On the other hand, if you live in rural central Pennsylvania, you might want to exercise some caution when you're out walking at night.  Safety is the priority, and we don't want anyone getting mauled to death, which seems to be the usual approach werewolves have toward defenseless humans.  Unless it's Taylor Lautner, who would only stare glumly in your general direction, and then take his shirt off.

Which is preferable, but not by much.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Acts of god

On Friday, September 11, an enormous crane collapsed in the Grand Mosque in the city of Mecca, killing 107 people and injuring 87.

The Grand Mosque of Mecca [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The more prosaic amongst us attribute the collapse to the wind from a violent thunderstorm.  Others, however, have called this an "Act of God" in retribution for the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001.

A writer who goes by the handle Dom the Conservative, and bills herself as "a Christian conservative, mother, and wife" whose purpose for writing "is to inform, anger, and unite 'We the People'" had the following to say:
(A) devastating attack of a seemingly supernatural kind has taken place in the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the largest mosque in the world and the same location to which Muslims make their hajj pilgrimage each year...  Whether you believe in God, Allah, or any supernatural force, the symbolism is eerily sinister, especially on the day that true Islam, the Islam of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, reared its ugly head in West.
The people commenting on her post were not nearly so circumspect.  Unsurprisingly, "God works in mysterious ways" was said more than once.  When a commenter suggested that the victims were innocent people, he was immediately mauled by a string of vitriolic comments like "What do you think the people killed in the WTC were guilty of, asshole?" and "No Muslim is innocent.  They all want to kill us" and "If they hadn't been in their mosque worshiping Satan, they wouldn't have died."

None of which is very surprising, honestly.  The attacks of 9/11 are still raw for most Americans.  I know more than one friend who took a few days' vacation from social media so they wouldn't have to be bombarded by reminders of the horrific events of that day and the days following.

But still.  It appalls me that there are people who honestly think that a divine being would work that way.  Do people really believe that the deity that at other times they call "all-loving" and "the prince of peace" would look down at a group of people, none of whom had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks, and say, "Ha!  If I smash a bunch of them, that will teach the rest of 'em a lesson!"

Apparently, the answer is "yes."  But you have to wonder why anyone would think that such a god would be deserving of worship.  If there is justice in the world, it does not come in the form of killing random people to avenge the unjust deaths of a bunch of other random people.

But then I realized; that is exactly how the god of the bible operates.  I recall being vaguely unsettled by this even in my churchgoing days, and actively avoided reading the parts of the bible like the following:
  • God killing 14,700 people in a plague, because there was too much complaining about how many people god had killed (Numbers 16:41-49)
  • God killing 50,070 people for peeking into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 6:19)
  • God sending two bears to maul 42 children to death for teasing the prophet Elisha about his bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24)
  • God sending divine fire to kill 51 men for no particularly obvious reason (2 Kings 1:9-10)
  • God killing a man and his wife for not donating enough money to the church (Acts 5:1-11)
And so forth and so on.  And that's not even counting the most famous instances -- the slaughter of the firstborn children in Exodus, and the horrific drowning of nearly every living thing on Earth in Genesis.

To me, a god like this doesn't sound like anything I'd be even slightly inclined to worship, even if I believed he existed, which I don't.  I'm more inclined to agree with Richard Dawkins:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
So it's not to be wondered at that people who take the bible seriously think that the collapse of the crane in Mecca, and resulting deaths of 107 innocent people, is the hand of god at work.  That's precisely how the god of the bible does work.

Funny, isn't it, how many of these same people question atheists' basis for morality, when their own moral code is based on the behavior of a deity who evidently considers such an action just?  But that, of course, is far from the only morally questionable stance you find in this belief system:

I'm not trying to be offensive, here, it just really strikes me as baffling.  I'll leave you with another quote, this one from the Greek philosopher Epicurus: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then he is not omnipotent.  Is he able, but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing? Then why does evil exist?  Is he neither able nor willing?  Then why call him God?"