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, December 30, 2017

Clean sweep

It will hardly merit mention to regular readers of this blog that, given an odd circumstance, I will look first for a rational, scientific explanation.  Although my field is biology, I know enough of the basics of the other sciences to have a good shot at coming up with a plausible explanation for most of what I see -- or, failing that, at least to recognize when a proposed explanation doesn't make sense.

Which brings me to the strange case of the standing brooms.

Apparently over the last few months, there have been multiple reports of brooms staying standing up after being set on end, sometimes for hours.  People report that they were resistant to falling over even if bumped or pushed, and several folks stated that it felt like a "strange force" was keeping the brooms upright.


Naturally, once this sort of thing starts to be reported, we have a veritable explosion of silly explanations. Here is a sampling of ones I saw on various websites:
  • planetary alignment creating a change in the gravitational pull
  • solar flares
  • static electricity
  • Mercury going into retrograde motion
  • ghosts
  • the position of the Moon
  • the position of the broom relative to "ley lines"
  • tapping into "psychic energy currents"
Reading the impassioned exponents of each of those so-called explanations made me want to weep softly and bang my head on my computer keyboard, but I decided to gird my loins and see if I could find anyone who had a more sensible approach.  I found a wonderful and clear explanation on the site ThoughtCo, written only a couple of months ago, which attributes the phenomenon to simple physics -- almost any object will stand upright if it has a flat surface of some kind, and you can get the object's center of gravity to stay over its base of support.  Voilà -- a standing broom!

Of course, woo-woos never give up that easily.  Or sometimes at all.  The "comments" section was filled with rants about how no, it wasn't simple physics, because the broom would only stand up on second Tuesdays when the Moon was full and the appropriate words were chanted.  It can't just be a simple explanation!  It can't!

It is a mystery to me why so many people don't find the world as it is sufficiently wonderful and weird -- they feel like they have to make stuff up, push natural phenomena into supernatural molds, turn everything into some kind of paranormal mystery.  Isn't what actual, reputable scientists are currently discovering -- especially in fields like quantum mechanics, cosmology, neurology, and nanotechnology -- awe-inspiring enough?  Why do you need to muddy the whole situation by making stuff up, or coming up with loony explanations for what you see?

Now, mind you, I'm not saying that there aren't things that haven't been explained yet.  There are plenty, and good science is always pushing the envelope of what's known.  But I am confident that any real phenomenon is ultimately going to be explainable by science, because that's what science does.  It may seem supernatural now, but that's just because we don't yet comprehend what's going on.  As Robert Heinlein said, "Magic is science we don't understand yet."

But the brooms, alas, aren't even that; it's just simple mechanics at work.  No need to invoke solar flares or planets in retrograde.   I'm glad, actually; the whole thing brought up memories of Fantasia, which I'd really rather not think about.  That movie scared the hell out of me when I was a kid.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Unalloyed truth

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had an article about claims of a decades-long investigation by the Pentagon of the UFO phenomenon.  While I don't doubt that such a program exists, the article claims that there are warehouses full of "alien alloys" that have been declared unanalyzable.

The conclusion, of course, can only be that they came from outer space.

The article's authors, Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, and Leslie Kean, write:
Under [NASA employee Robert] Bigelow’s direction, [Bigelow Aerospace Company] modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that [military intelligence expert Luis] Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena.  Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes...  
“We’re sort of in the position of what would happen if you gave Leonardo da Vinci a garage-door opener,” said Harold E. Puthoff, an engineer who has conducted research on extrasensory perception for the C.I.A. and later worked as a contractor for the program.  “First of all, he’d try to figure out what is this plastic stuff.  He wouldn’t know anything about the electromagnetic signals involved or its function.”
I have two responses to this.

First, we are way beyond da Vinci in our understanding of the universe and in the development of technology to study it; this is a serious false analogy.  Second, once you claim that there are actual artifacts to study, you've moved beyond the realm of anecdote into something that's scientifically verifiable.  At that point, you better have the goods -- and be willing to admit it if it turns out that the answer isn't what you hoped it would be.

The week after the article went public, Scientific American's Rafi Letzter wrote a response to it, saying much the same thing (although in far greater detail).  Letzter writes:
"I don't think it's plausible that there's any alloys that we can't identify," Richard Sachleben, a retired chemist and member of the American Chemical Society's panel of experts, told Live Science.  "My opinion? That's quite impossible." 
Alloys are mixtures of different kinds of elemental metals.  They're very common - in fact, Sachleben said, they're more common on Earth than pure elemental metals are - and very well understood.  Brass is an alloy.  So is steel.  Even most naturally occurring gold on Earth is an alloy made up of elemental gold mixed with other metals, like silver or copper... 
"There are databases of all known phases [of metal], including alloys," May Nyman, a professor in the Oregon State University Department of Chemistry, told Live Science.  Those databases include straightforward techniques for identifying metal alloys.
If an unknown alloy appeared, Nyman said it would be relatively simple to figure out what it was made of.
Well, as we've seen over and over, the woo-woos are nothing if not persistent.  Just a couple of days ago, a response to the response appeared over at Mysterious Universe.  The gist of the article is "there are too alien artifacts and UFOs," but there was one bit of it that stood out from the rest.  The author of the article, Brett Tingley, writes:
While I’m sure that's true enough of everything we’ve found on our planet, I just have to wonder: given the vastness of the universe, is it actually impossible for unknown elements or alloys to exist?  Seven new elements have been discovered here on Earth in the last thirty years, while the majority have been discovered in the last four hundred.  On a long enough timeline, who knows what tomorrow’s science will uncover?
This is a roundabout example of the Argument from Ignorance: we don't know, so the explanation must be _________ (fill in the blank with your favorite loopy claim, paranormal phenomenon, or deity).  Normally, the Argument from Ignorance is hard to counter except to point out that our ignorance of something isn't indicative of anything but our ignorance; you can't use it to prove anything.  But wound up in here is an interesting bit that we can analyze from a scientific perspective; the claim that there could be undiscovered elements in "the vastness of the universe."

Here's the problem.  Mendeleev constructed the first periodic table of the elements by noticing some odd patterns -- that there were groups of elements that had similar chemical properties.  After some years of messing about to figure out what was going on, he was able to construct a grid that placed these elements into columns and rows.  And, most interestingly, there were holes -- places in the grid that there should be an element, but none had thus far been discovered.

And one by one, those holes were filled.  Then advances in nuclear physics allowed the creation of the transuranic elements -- the ones beyond uranium, atomic number 92, which are short-lived radioactive substances that do not occur naturally (any of them created by the supernovae that gave rise to the elements in the Solar System would long ago have decayed away).  We're now up to element 118, oganesson.


So Tingley is right that there have been new elements discovered in the last thirty years.  The problem is that most of them have extremely short half-lives and are highly radioactive, so the idea that UFO debris could be made of any of these newly discovered (newly created, really) elements is ridiculous.  But how about the other piece of his claim, that there could be other stable elements we haven't discovered yet?

Sorry, but that doesn't work, either; the periodic table has no holes left to fill, as you can see on the above illustration.  We can be extremely confident that we've got 'em all, and the only additions will be at the unstable and short-lived upper end.  So despite Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation constantly blathering on about how the phaser beams can't damage the alien ship because it's made out of an alloy of the elements gorblimeyum and gobsmackite, this isn't really possible.

Thus our labeling of Star Trek as "fiction."

I'm pretty certain that if the metallurgists and chemists were to examine the warehouse full of debris, they'd find any metal fragments to be composed of plain old ordinary metallic elements.  Now, there could be some piece of alien technology in there -- Puthoff's "garage door opener" -- but my guess is that if there was such incontrovertible evidence of alien visitations, the scientists would know about it.

Sorry for raining on your parade, if you're a UFO enthusiast.  I get your angst.  I would like nothing better than to have proof of extraterrestrial intelligence (or, even better, extraterrestrial visits, because that would mean that the aliens had figured out how to manage travel across interstellar space).  But until we have more than talk about "mysterious alien alloys," I think we need to once again table this entire discussion.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Daubenmire, pants afire

Things have come to a sorry state when it's the strict Christians who are advocating lying.

I wish I was making this up.  Look, I know I'm not religious myself, but if someone subscribes to a belief system that encourages them to be more honest, to treat their fellow humans with greater respect, to be more generous and compassionate, I've got no quarrel with it whatsoever.  But it's shocking how often it goes the other way -- religion being used as an excuse to exercise some of our worst instincts, including prejudice, insularity, bigotry, and suspicion.

And, apparently, dishonesty.  Evangelist and Christian activist "Coach" Dave Daubenmire, on his radio program Pass the Salt, was ranting against the people who voted against Roy Moore in the Alabama State Senate election, and said something that was more than a little troubling:
When I hear people say, "Well, Judge Moore is not worthy of the office if he’s lying about what he did," I want to grab them and I want to slap them upside the stinking head.  Judge Moore is trying to infiltrate an ungodly system and the stakes in this campaign are so great for the cause of Christ and Judge Moore is being lambasted by the holier-than-thou Christians who think [the Bible] says we can never lie. 
It’s best to lie if it advances the kingdom of God.  There, I said it.
Well, first; "think" the bible says you're not supposed to lie?  I mean, there's an entire freakin' commandment about not bearing false witness.  And I found the following without even trying hard:
  • There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19)
  • You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. (Leviticus 19:11)
  • The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death. (Proverbs 21:6)
  • Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Ephesians 4:25)
  • No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes. (Psalm 101:7)
  • But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish. (Proverbs 19:9)
Which sounds pretty unequivocal, even to a godless heathen like myself.


Also, consider what it is that Daubenmire is excusing Moore from lying about.  Moore has steadfastly denied allegations of sexual harassment against girls as young as fourteen.  So it's not like he lied about how much beer he drank last night.  These lies are about hurting children, for fuck's sake.

Okay, yeah, I know at this point they're only allegations.  But what's interesting is that Daubenmire never argues that Moore didn't do these things.  He's saying that even if he did, and lied about it, he still deserves to be in the Senate because he will "advance the kingdom of God."

All I can say is, if the kingdom of God has Moore and Daubenmire as spokesmen, maybe the "ungodly system" would be a step up.

Oh, and before I get off the topic; there's another quote from the bible that doesn't so much apply to lying in general as it does to people like Daubenmire and Moore.  It's 1 John 4:1, do you know it?
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Religious mutants

A couple of days ago, a reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link along with an email, the gist of which was, "Ha ha, how are you gonna argue your way out of this one, Mr. Smarty-Pants Atheist?"

The link was to a recent article in Newsweek entitled, "Religious People Live Healthier, Longer Lives -- While Atheists Collect Mutant Genes."  Notwithstanding the mental image this created -- of us atheists having stamp-collection-like binders of mutant genes on bookshelves in our studies -- the whole premise sounded idiotic.  The article quotes study co-author Edward Dutton as saying:
Maybe the positive relationship between religiousness and health is not causal—it's not that being religious makes you less stressed so less ill.  Rather, religious people are a genetically normal remnant population from preindustrial times, and the rest of us are mutants who'd have died as children back then...  [The Industrial Revolution caused us to develop] better and better medical care, easier access to healthy food and better living conditions.  Child mortality collapsed down to a tiny level and more and more people with more and more mutant genes have survived into adulthood and had children...  Religiousness makes you more pro-social, and you become more religious when you're stressed.  Religious people would have been sexually selected for because their pro-social, moral, unstressed nature would be attractive.
Well, my background is in evolutionary genetics, so I thought, "Here's a claim I'm qualified to evaluate."

Let's look first at his contention that religious people are healthier.  Turns out that there's some weak correlation there, but only if you look at First-World countries.  In the United States, for example, comparing religious people and non-religious people of similar socioeconomic status, there's a small improvement in health and longevity in the religious people over the non-religious ones.  (It very much remains to be seen that there's any kind of causal relationship there, however.)  But if you look at the human race as a whole -- comparing largely non-religious countries (Sweden, Finland, Iceland) with largely religious ones (Bangladesh, Malaysia, Egypt) gives you exactly the opposite pattern.  There's as much evidence that ill people in questionable living conditions seek out religion as solace as there is that religion itself makes you healthier.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The last part of the claim, that religion is due to some kind of sexual selection, moves us into even muddier waters.  If this claim is true, people would be eliminating potential mates on the basis of being non-religious, something I see no evidence of whatsoever.  Also, there's the problem of people like me -- the child of a dad who was a Pascal's-wager kind of guy and a mom who was more or less the Cajun Mother Teresa.  So I almost certainly inherited "religiosity genes" (whatever those are).  My first wife, and the mother of my children, was an agnostic who didn't really care about the question of god one way or the other, and at the time our two sons were born, I was still trying like hell to find a reason to believe, a battle I gave up when my youngest son was about five.

So how do you classify me, on the Religious Mutant Gene scale?

Anyhow, as befits a good skeptic, I decided to go to the source, and went to the paper by Dutton et al. in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science that makes the original claim.  The paper has the rather histrionic title, "The Mutant Says in His Heart, 'There Is No God': the Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centred Around the Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load," and although the entire paper is behind a paywall, the abstract reads as follows:
Industrialisation leads to relaxed selection and thus the accumulation of fitness-damaging genetic mutations.  We argue that religion is a selected trait that would be highly sensitive to mutational load.  We further argue that a specific form of religiousness was selected for in complex societies up until industrialisation based around the collective worship of moral gods.  With the relaxation of selection, we predict the degeneration of this form of religion and diverse deviations from it.  These deviations, however, would correlate with the same indicators because they would all be underpinned by mutational load.  We test this hypothesis using two very different deviations: atheism and paranormal belief.  We examine associations between these deviations and four indicators of mutational load: (1) poor general health, (2) autism, (3) fluctuating asymmetry, and (4) left-handedness.  A systematic literature review combined with primary research on handedness demonstrates that atheism and/or paranormal belief is associated with all of these indicators of high mutational load.
Mutational load is a real thing -- it's the number of lethal (or at least significantly deleterious) genes we carry around, the effects of which we are usually protected from by our diploidy (we've got two copies of every gene, and if one doesn't work, chances are the other one does).  But there is no indication that high mutational load is connected with autism (jury's still out on what exactly causes autism) or left-handedness, and "poor general health" is such a mushy term that if you select your data set carefully enough you could probably correlate it with anything you like, up to and including astrological sign.  (There is some indication that left-handedness correlates with some medical conditions, such as migraine, autoimmune disorders, and learning disability; but the heritability of left-handedness even when both parents are left-handed is only 29% anyhow, and what exactly causes it is still unknown.)

But then I did what (again) all skeptics should do, namely take a look at the paper's sources.  I noticed two things right away -- first, that the sources from highly-respected journals like Nature were only tangentially connected to Dutton et al.'s claim (such as an article on the heritability of longevity in Nature Genetics), and second, that the authors are really good at citing their own work.   No fewer than ten of the sources were authored or co-authored by Dutton or the other two authors of the Evolutionary Psychological Science paper, Curtis Dunkel and Guy Madison.

Then I scrolled a little further, and found these listed as sources:
So you're writing a serious paper in a (presumably) serious journal, and you want us to accept your claim, and you cite Yelp, Yahoo Answers, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail Fail, and -- for fuck's sake -- The Jesus Tribune?

What this makes me wonder -- besides the obvious question of how Dutton et al. pull this stuff out of their asses without cracking up -- is about the reliability of the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science itself.  I wasn't able to find any meta-analysis of EPS's reliability online; that sort of self-policing by academia is sorely lacking.  But this paper has all the hallmarks of a pay-to-play publication in a journal that honestly doesn't give a flying fuck about the study's quality.  It's hard to imagine any study that cites The Jesus Tribune making it into Science, for example.

So predictably, I'm unimpressed.  Nothing in my understanding of population genetics lends the slimmest credence to this claim.  It's unsurprising that Newsweek picked up the story, although one would hope that even popular media publications would be a little more careful what they print.  In any case, we atheists don't have to worry about our being poorly-fit unhealthy left-handed autistic mutants.  We're no more likely to be any of the above than the rest of the general population is.  Although, I have to say that while we're talking fiction, if mutations could work like they do in The X-Men, I'd be all for 'em.  I want a mutation that gives me wings.  Big, feathery hawk wings arising from my shoulders.  It'd make fitting into a shirt difficult, but that's a price I'm willing to pay.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Time lapse

Well, the first thing I need to do in today's post is to figure out if I can correct the timestamp, which is clearly wrong.  Hmmm... let's see... no, it won't let me do it. Okay, then, I'll just have to state for the record that today you should date all of your checks, documents, and correspondence with "December 26, 1718."

What?  How can that be true, you ask?  1718... so, J. S. Bach would still be alive, King George I would just have been crowned king of England, and the USA wouldn't exist for another sixty-odd years?  To which I chuckle gently, and explain: of course that's not what I mean.  You can't just jump backwards in time, that would be ridiculous.  What I'm saying is that the calendar is wrong, not because we've leapt back to the 18th century, but because...

... the years between 614 and 911 C.E. did not exist.

Yes, according to the Phantom Time Hypothesis, devised by Hans-Ulrich Niemitz and Heribert Illig, time actually went from the year 613 directly to the year 912.  Any events that occurred during those years, or people who are alleged to have lived then are:
  1. legends being misunderstood as reality;
  2. misinterpretations of documents that refer to events or people from other time periods; or
  3. deliberate fabrications by a bunch of calendar conspirators.
Some of the people who therefore didn't exist are King Harald I Fairhair of Norway, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, the writers Alcuin, Caedmon, Li Po, and Bede... and Charlemagne.

Why, you might ask, do Niemitz and Illig believe this?  Apparently it's based on hiatuses in historical records (the Early Middle Ages in Europe was a chaotic time, and most of the few records that were written during that time have been lost), coupled with perceived gaps in building in Constantinople.   Niemitz and Illig also believe that the development of religious doctrine in Europe goes into a stall between the 7th and 10th centuries, as does the progress of art, language, and science.  All of these gaps, they say, can be explained if those three centuries didn't exist -- they were inventions of a conspiracy of church fathers in the 11th and 12th centuries, that originated with Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II, and has continued lo unto this very day.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, let me see here.  Where do I start?

Interesting, if three centuries fell out of historians' pockets somewhere along the way, that astronomical records (especially records of comets and solar eclipses kept by the Chinese) agree precisely with back-calculations done by present day astronomers.  The Tang Dynasty -- which coincides almost perfectly with Niemitz and Illig's lost centuries, and which they consider a "Golden Age Myth" -- not only produced art and artifacts, but kept intricate records of observations of events in the sky.  It's a little hard to explain the solar eclipses that occurred during that time, and which line up perfectly with when astronomers know they occurred, if (1) those three centuries never happened, and (2) the Tang Dynasty astronomers were themselves later fabrications.

We also have the problem that this is the period during which Islam spread across the Middle East -- so we're supposed to believe that we jump right from 614 (Muhammad is still alive, but has yet to make his pilgrimage to Mecca) to 911 (the Muslims are in control of territory from southern Spain to Arabia and beyond)?  And I guess they should revoke my master's degree, because the subject of my thesis (the Viking conquest of England and Scotland) occurred during those years... and so is an elaborate fiction, as is the linguistic and archaeological evidence.

Or, maybe I'm one of the conspirators.  I've been accused of that before.

Anyway, this whole hypothesis seems to be a lot of nonsense, and is yet another good example of Ockham's Razor, not to mention the ECREE Principle.  So, you can relax, and cancel any plans to go back and yell at your high school history teachers -- Charlemagne was almost certainly a real person.   As were Alfred the Great and the rest.  Me, I'm glad.  I'm going to have a hard enough time next week remembering to write the correct year on my checks; I don't know what I'd do if I had to remember that it was a whole different century.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Happy Xmas (War is Over)

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate from here at Skeptophilia headquarters.  As for my household, we're mostly just taking it easy.  Working in a school means the lead-up to Christmas can be kind of chaotic, and I have to say that I'm enjoying being able to sit here drinking a cup of coffee without people yelling my name at me every three seconds.  Plus, we're having a winter storm that's supposed to dump five inches of snow on us today, and comes with forty mile an hour winds (already there's a gale howling out there).  So I doubt seriously if I'll put my nose outside today.

Some of you might wonder why I, an atheist, am wishing a Merry Christmas to people.  The reason is: I am not an asshole.  I am honestly happy for people who enjoy the Christmas season, and that does not mean I'm somehow discriminating against those who don't.  Mostly, I want everyone to be happy and enjoy life, and am of the opinion that my being of the non-religious persuasion doesn't imply that I'm ill-wishing people who are believers.

This, of course, won't convince the perpetually-disgruntled types who think that someone saying "Happy holidays" is the moral equivalent of strafing Whoville.  And in fact these people have now started an ad campaign that has as its main message thanking Donald Trump for allowing us to say "Merry Christmas" again.

What I want to know is, what pretend world are these people living in?  Because, apparently, they honestly believe that President Obama outlawed saying "Merry Christmas."  My guess is that they believe he substituted a mandate that we all say "Allahu akbar" instead.  This is despite the existence of this video montage of Obama saying "Merry Christmas" over and over and over, with apparent enthusiasm and enjoyment.

But as has been demonstrated time and again, facts don't matter with these people.  Or, more to the point, you're allowed to make up the facts as you go.  Trump (and his eternally-angry pals Joe Walsh and Bill O'Reilly) have claimed for years that Obama and his family were not Christian and had general disdain for Christmas, despite the fact that the tradition of the White House Christmas Tree, the annual Christmas message, and Christmas cards went on during the eight years of Obama's presidency just as it did before and after.


And, astonishingly, their followers believe them.  Instead of watching the video of Obama saying "Merry Christmas," and concluding they were wrong, they ignore the evidence that's right before their eyes so they don't have to change their preconceived opinions.  Instead, they accept statements like that made last week by Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas about the horrorshow that would have occurred had Hillary Clinton won:
If Hillary were elected and then she replaces [Antonin] Scalia with someone who has contempt for the God we know rules the universe, and our freedom of religion would have been gone.  They consider Christians a hate group, even though it’s the one true religion based on ‘God so loved the world he gave his son.  His son so loved the world he gave his life,’ and they have turned that upside down.  They were going to be coming after Christians with the help of then a 5-4 Supreme Court. 
So on election night I said, ‘But if on the off-chance Hillary wins, sweetheart, you need to be ready.  They’ll probably have me in jail within four years,’ and I wasn’t kidding.  I really believed that if she had won, my freedom was at stake because of my Christian beliefs.
Okay, I know that Gohmert has the IQ of leftover mashed potatoes, but still.  On what basis could he possibly conclude that if Clinton had won, she would have had Christians jailed?  Because -- and it pains me to have to point this out -- Hillary Clinton is also a Christian.  Her membership in the Methodist church is well established.  Why on earth would she try to create a policy of oppressing a group that she herself belongs to?

Of course, we're not talking about logic, here.  But it still amazes me that anyone can listen to Louie Gohmert (or, frankly, Donald Trump) and just sit there nodding and saying, "Yeah, right on, that makes sense."  How do people's bullshitometers not peg?  When the little girl on the commercial says, "Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to say, 'Merry Christmas" again," how do people not say, "What kind of horseshit is this?  The phrase 'Merry Christmas' starts appearing in stores in September.  What makes you think it was ever forbidden?"

But amazingly, they don't.

Anyhow.  Sorry for getting off on a rant, when probably what you want to be doing is opening presents and drinking eggnog and socializing with your family.  Didn't mean to put a damper on things.  And, honestly, I've found that people who continually take things the wrong way and seem to enjoy being outraged are the minority.  So to everyone else I'll say: Enjoy the day, whether you celebrate Christmas or not.  Even if you're not religious, "peace on Earth and good will toward everyone" is still a pretty good rule to live by, as is "don't be an asshole."

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The naughty naughty Nephilim

In further exploration of beliefs for which there is no evidence whatsoever, today we consider: the Nephilim.

What are the Nephilim, you might ask?  Well, amongst other things, they are the subject of Scott Alan Roberts' book, The Rise and Fall of the Nephilim: The Untold Story of Fallen Angels, Giants on the Earth, and Their Extraterrestrial Origins.  In order to save you the money of buying this book (even the Kindle edition costs $9.34), allow me to explain that the Nephilim are apparently the result of angels having sex with human women, which resulted in a race of giants.  The whole thing seems to have come out of a couple of lines in the bible, especially Genesis 6:4, "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days--and also afterward -- when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.  They were the heroes of old, men of renown."  They're mentioned in Numbers 13:33 as well: "We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim).  We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them."

So, the Nephilim were big dudes, evidently.  Exactly how big is uncertain.  Be that as it may, Scott Alan Roberts has examined the evidence (two passages from the bible) and come to the only possible conclusion: the "angels" mentioned in Genesis 6:4 as the fathers of the Nephilim were outer space aliens, and the Great Flood happened to destroy these "demonic hybrids" and remove all traces of alien DNA from the human gene pool.

Oh, okay.  I mean, my only question would be: seriously?  You can tell all that from two bible passages? And I thought that angels didn't have sex, given that they don't have the required, um, equipment? I distinctly remember in a highly scientific documentary I saw, the movie Dogma, the angel Metatron drops his drawers and lo, it was revealed unto me that although he hath wings, he hath no wang.

But I digress.

Marcantonio Franceschini, The Guardian Angel (1716) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

A complete lack of evidence, as I've stated before, never seems to discourage some people, and this hasn't stopped various folks from yammering on at length about the Nephilim, not to mention the sex lives of aliens and/or angels.  Take a look, for example, at this passage from the site Return of the Nephilim, which not only claims that the aliens had their way with human women back in the Bronze Age, but omigod it's still happening today:
Dr. John E. Mack, who needs no introduction to UFOlogists, has stated that the alien abduction scenario seems to be a program for the development of a hybrid race.  This very fact lends support to the theory that the abduction scenario is the modern resurgence of the Nephilim breeding program.  Pregnant women are abducted only to find the foetus has been removed from their womb.  In some cases they are reunited with their hybrid child in future abductions.  Men are forced to engage in sexual activity with hybrid females, or have their sperm removed from their bodies.  If there is any truth to theses alien abduction claims of literally thousands of people across the world the demonic plan of creating yet another hybrid race is already in action...  It seems pretty clear we may have entered “the Days of Noah”.
Okay, you biblical scholars correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought Noah lived a while back.  So whatever we're entering now, it's not so much the "Days of Noah" as it is the "Days of a Helluva Long Time After Noah Bought the Farm."  And I don't know about you, but this is the first I've heard of guys being forced to have sex with "hybrid females;" and you'd think that if pregnant women suddenly woke up to find their babies had vanished, it would kind of make headlines, you know?  So once again, we run headlong into the speed bump of "no evidence."

Anyway, that's today's post about the naughty Nephilim, sneaking into your house to steal your sperm and/or your hybrid children, lo unto this very day.  The whole thing leaves me wondering if today's Nephilim are as big as the ones in the bible.  I'm thinking in particular of my younger son, who is 6' 7", and next to whom I verily seemeth as a grasshopper.  On the other hand, the hypothesis that he is a human/alien hybrid is confounded by the fact that he looks a lot like me, so the likelihood of his being anyone else's son is pretty slim.  And I can vouch for the fact that his mother is who she claims to be, i.e., not an alien.

At least, as far as I know.  Those aliens are pretty tricky.  Maybe my ex-wife is really from another planet.  Maybe I was abducted in 1982, and was held on board a UFO for sixteen years, and used as part of a captive breeding program.  It's as good an explanation for my first marriage as any other I can think of.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Tater treatment

One of the posts here at Skeptophilia that has garnered the most consistent attention is a piece I did back in 2013 about the catastrophically silly practice of putting onions in your socks when you're ill in order to "draw fever to your feet" (or "purify the blood" or "get rid of toxins" or a variety of other unsubstantiated magical-thinking type claims).

On the one hand, I'm a little distressed that this assertion is still out there, when anyone who has beyond a 9th grade science education should be able to recognize it as bullshit.  But on the other hand, at least some of the people who are doing a Google search for "onions socks fever" land on my website, and hopefully don't spend the next few days with their feet smelling even worse than usual.

So I was a little shocked to find out that the onion/socks claim has been superseded.  No, the alt-med crowd are now saying, you shouldn't put onions in your socks to get rid of your cold.  That would be silly.

What you should do is put potatoes in your socks.

Here's an example of this claim:
Growing up, my parents always used potatoes in our socks for fevers. This past year, I had a fever of 102 that wouldn't drop after 2 days. I put potatoes in the fridge for 30 minutes, then sliced them, put them in my socks and started a movie. By the end of the movie my temperature had dropped to 99.9 and the potatoes were baked! After this treatment, the fever did not rise again. Cheap and healthy cure.
Okay, if you had already had the fever for two days, chances are you were probably getting well in any case. This is a fine example of the Post Hoc Fallacy -- from the Latin "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" ("After this, therefore because of this"). Just because two things happened one after the other doesn't mean that the first one caused the second one.

Oh, and you can bake a potato by keeping it at 102 degrees for an hour and a half?  Hell, I wish I'd known that years ago.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But this loopy claim isn't even the weirdest iteration of the potatoes-in-socks thing.  I found a bunch of sites that said you're supposed to put not sliced potatoes, but grated potatoes into your socks.

Here are some variants on that theme:
  • Wash one or two potatoes and grate them, without peeling. Apply this paste on the soles of your feet, and then put your socks on. The potato will absorb the temperature and improve your condition.
  • Potatoes contain natural anti-inflammatory properties and enzymes that can help reduce a fever. To benefit from potatoes you need to mash or grate them and mix in some cold water before applying them to the forehead for about 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Potatoes are a great ally when it comes to lowering fever. You can use them grated or sliced. One solution is to grate a potato and to fill with it the inside of a pair of socks.  You are advised to use cotton socks because a synthetic textile fibre may cause heating and you don’t want this in the case of fever. After you filled the socks with the grated potato, put your child’s socks on. 
Let me just clarify something. Even if potatoes did have magical anti-inflammatory enzymes, you would not gain anything by smooshing them all over your feet, for the very good reason that that's not how humans absorb nutrients. If you doubt this, the next time you have lasagna for dinner, instead of putting forkfuls into your mouth, put the lasagna dish on the floor and stick both feet into it.

Wait for a half-hour. My guess is after that time, you will notice two things:
  1. You will still be hungry. 
  2. Your family will be seriously pissed at you for sticking your feet into the dinner. 
So there's nothing to this claim, and it's a little disheartening that I even have to point this out. Just to forestall further idiocy, let me just preemptively state that you also can't treat arthritis by smearing peanut butter on your ass, or any other weird food + random body part = health claim you might see.

But that's not going to stop people from asserting it, and it will probably continue to generate hits on my blog, lo until the end of time. So thanks for that, anyhow.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

By the pricking of my thumbs...

I tend to have a caveat emptor attitude toward a lot of things.

If you're considering something new -- whether to trust a claim about a medication or therapy, for example -- it's not like information isn't available.  You can always track down reliable data if you work at it.  Sometimes it's hard to sift the good information from the bullshit, but it's a skill that anyone can learn.

That's what critical thinking is all about.

So when people fall for claptrap, I can be a little unsympathetic at times.  If you've been hoodwinked by the latest scam psychic, well, maybe you shoulda known better.

Some claims, however, cross the line.  And I ran into one of those yesterday, a claim so catastrophically idiotic that it's hard to see how anyone could fall for it -- but which, if they do, could easily cost a loved one their life.

The claim is that you can treat (or at least minimize the damage from) a stroke by pricking a person's fingers.

The claim appeared at the site Health Freedoms Alliance, and if you don't believe me, you can check out the link provided.  On the other hand, if you are reluctant to add another count to the site's hit tracker, here's a direct quote about the seven steps you should follow if someone near you has a stroke:
  1. Keep the needle — over the fire, a lighter or candle to sterilize it and then use it to prick the tips of all 10 fingers.
  2. There is no specific acupuncture, it should only be a few millimeters from the nail.
  3. Prick in a way that the blood can flow.
  4. If blood does not start to drip, tighten and start squeezing in order to make the blood flow.
  5. When all 10 fingers begin to bleed, wait a few minutes — you will see that the victim will come back to life!
  6. If the victim’s mouth is distorted, massage his ears until they become red – which means blood has reached there.
  7. Then prick the needle in the soft part of each ear, to fall two drops of blood from each ear. A few minutes later, the mouth would no longer be distorted.
Wait until the victim comes to normal, without any unusual symptoms, and then send him/ her to the hospital. 
This method of bloodshed to save the life is part of the traditional Chinese medicine, and the practical application of this method has proven it to be 100% efficient, since it helps people survive strokes.
Okay, yeah, you'd think people would know better.  Any one of my tenth grade intro biology students should know better.  Pricking a person's fingers has absolutely zero effect on a blood clot or aneurysm in the brain, which are the two most common causes of stroke.  It has been shown over and over that any delay in getting a stroke victim competent medical help increases the likelihood of irreversible brain damage.

And that delay would include messing around pricking a person's fingers and earlobes with a needle.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm stepping away from my usual caveat emptor stance, and will state for the record: any public media that makes claims like this is acting in a fashion that the word "irresponsible" doesn't even begin to cover.  You're free to dose yourself up with the latest homeopathic sugar pills, have your practitioner balance your chakras, and slather essential oils all over your body.  Have at it, you know?

But when you state a claim that might well cause some poor gullible soul to make a decision that could lead to a loved one's death, you've lost the right to a public forum.  I know it's probably impossible to do, but Health Freedoms Alliance, and any other sites that publish this foolishness, should be shut down permanently.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The final word on Zika

One of the posts that earned me the most hate mail was one I did a while back on the Zika virus, wherein I suggested that what the scientists were telling us -- namely, that the Zika virus was the cause of the recent upsurge in microcephaly in infants -- was the truth.

The alternate hypotheses -- that the birth defect was due to exposure to the insecticide pyriproxyfen, widely used to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito (which is the vector not only for Zika, but for chikungunya, yellow fever, and dengue fever), or even more outlandish, that the condition was caused by being bitten by genetically-modified Aedes mosquitoes -- I suggested were scientifically unsound and extremely unlikely borderline conspiracy theories.  The genetically-modified Aedes, in fact, were released as a method for reducing mosquito populations and therefore the spread of the diseases they carry, but that carried little weight with the people for whom "GMO" means "tool of the evil scientific establishment and Big Pharma for killing people and/or turning them into mindless automata."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well.  You'd have thought I was suggesting carpet bombing Fern Gully or something.  I was called credulous and brainwashed, and those were the generous responses.  Others suggested I was a stooge of the scientific establishment or a shill for Big Pharma, and was deliberately spreading misinformation to fool the general public into thinking that the scientists actually care about humanity.  As such, I was complicit in any damage they did, which according to some people who wrote to me, might include the extinction of the human race.

I didn't bother trying to disabuse my detractors of these opinions.  For one thing, I've found that people who believe something that fervently are seldom convinced by rational discourse.  All my objections would have done is convince them that they were onto something, despite the fact that recent trips to my mailbox have turned up zero Shill Payments to me from Big Pharma.

But time passed and the furor died down, and the more rabid of my readers went on to find other things about me to criticize.  But I just stumbled a couple of days ago across an article in the online science magazine Stat to the effect that, lo and behold...

... a recent exhaustive study has shown that microcephaly is due not to insecticides or GMO mosquitoes, but to the Zika virus itself.

Look, it's not like I wouldn't admit it if I was wrong.  It's been known to happen, and as much as it isn't exactly pleasant, I'll be up front about it and eat crow if necessary.  But here, the new study, conducted by a team of fourteen Brazilian doctors and scientists and published in the highly respected British medical journal The Lancet, is unequivocal.  The authors write:
We screened neonates born between Jan 15 and Nov 30, 2016, and prospectively recruited 91 cases and 173 controls.  In 32 (35%) cases, congenital Zika virus infection was confirmed by laboratory tests and no controls had confirmed Zika virus infections.  69 (83%) of 83 cases with known birthweight were small for gestational age, compared with eight (5%) of 173 controls.  The overall matched odds ratio was 73·1 (95% CI 13·0–∞) for microcephaly and Zika virus infection after adjustments.  Neither vaccination during pregnancy or use of the larvicide pyriproxyfen was associated with microcephaly.  Results of laboratory tests for Zika virus and brain imaging results were available for 79 (87%) cases; within these cases, ten were positive for Zika virus and had cerebral abnormalities, 13 were positive for Zika infection but had no cerebral abnormalities, and 11 were negative for Zika virus but had cerebral abnormalities...  We provide evidence of the absence of an effect of other potential factors, such as exposure to pyriproxyfen or vaccines (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis, measles and rubella, or measles, mumps, and rubella) during pregnancy, confirming the findings of an ecological study of pyriproxyfen in Pernambuco and previous studies on the safety of Tdap vaccine administration during pregnancy.
"Importantly, this article provides the first evidence that exposure to the insecticide pyriproxyfen and vaccines administered during pregnancy were not associated with an increased risk of microcephaly," wrote Federico Costa and Albert Ko (of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute and Yale University School of Public Health, respectively) about the recent study.  "The biological plausibility of these two rumored causes was always weak in any case."

So that should be that, but of course you know it won't be.  Studies like this one don't convince the naysayers and conspiracy theorists; all they do is move the scientists who conducted it into the "evil and untrustworthy" column.  You have to wonder what would convince these people.  My guess is nothing.  As I've so often commented, you can't logic your way out of a position you didn't logic your way into.

I'm already bracing myself for another tsunami of hate mail, but hell, that's why I do what I do, right?  As punk rocker John Lydon put it, "If you're pissing people off, you know you're doing something right."

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The return of "Dear David"

Regular readers of Skeptophilia might recall that a few months ago I did a piece on "Dear David," a highly creepy child ghost that was allegedly haunting a cartoonist and Twitterverse frequent flyer Adam Ellis.  "Dear David" was, Ellis discovered, the ghost of a child who had died when a shelf tipped over and crushed his skull, which evidently pissed him off but good.

Why this made Dear David determined to harass Ellis is unclear, but that's what happened.  Not only did the creepy kid with the malformed head show up in Ellis's dreams, he called Ellis's cellphone hundreds of times (caller ID couldn't figure out where he was calling from; which makes sense, given that hell has an unlisted number).  He scared the absolute shit out of Ellis's cat on more than one occasion.  Ultimately, Ellis moved to a different apartment, and for a time, things calmed down.

But unfortunately for Ellis, "Dear David" is back.

Ellis, understandably, is freaking out.  Here's his own commentary -- this is strung together from separate tweets, but makes a coherent narrative:
(L)ast week something started to happen.  Late on Wednesday, I woke up with a start and felt something strange, like something had just been watching me.  I turned on the light but I was alone.  Still, there was this a tangible feeling of... badness?  Everything felt wrong, sort of like when you have the flu and you wake up at night and can't really tell where you are for a minute.  It was a feeling I'm used to—it always accompanies David.  People tweet at me a lot saying he might just need help, but I'm certain that's not the case.  Every time he shows up, I feel a palpable sense of malice.  There's what I felt that night.  Malice.  Dread.  But still, I was alone.  And I was so tired, I wound up just going back to sleep.  I've been so exhausted recently I can barely function.
So he slept for a while, but was once again awakened when the feeling came back.  And he had another surprise waiting for him:
Just like before, I jolted awake hours later, feeling the same unease.  I turned on the light and hurried out of bed to get my phone from the bookcase.  There were probably 350 photos to scroll through.
350 photos, I might add, that Ellis claims not to have taken himself.  And he got a serious shock when he found that all of them were photos of Ellis, asleep in his bed.

In more than one of them, there is a small, ghostly figure standing next to his huddled form, or leaning over toward him.  I'll direct you to the website if you want to take a look at them, because I don't want to step on Ellis's right to the images he posted, but I will say that they are, to put it bluntly, really fucking creepy.  Ellis writes:
The vast majority of them were me sleeping in an empty room.  It's sort of dark but you can see me sleeping.  I'd left a couple night lights on just in case anything showed up, but for the first hundred or so photos it was just me in an empty room.  Then, suddenly, he was there.  Standing on the chair at the foot of the bed staring at me.  In the next photo, from a minute later, he seems to be staring straight up at the ceiling?  Just staring.   
Then he appears to collapse on the chair.  The next dozen photos are all the same.  He's completely lifeless.  At first I'd thought he was dead, which obviously doesn't make any sense.  I looked over at the chair half expecting him to still be there but it was empty.  But then, in the next photo, he's gone.  The room it totally empty again.  He's gone in the next several photos, too. 
I figured maybe that was it, but I kept swiping through the photos.  About 15 photos later, he was back, standing next to the bed.  It was just like the last time I saw him.  That's when my heart started to race.  I didn't want to look at the rest of the photos, but I knew I had to.  I swiped to the next photo and my heart sank into my stomach. 
He was on the bed.  Inches from me, staring down at me sleeping.
But that wasn't the worst.  Ellis continued to scroll through the photographs, and then got to the last one...

... which once again shows his sleeping form, but in the lower left hand corner is an extreme close-up of the side of someone's head, showing stringy, tousled hair and a malformed ear.

So yeah.  That falls clearly into the "oh, hell no" department for me.  I realize it's probably a hoax -- as I've pointed out many times, it doesn't take much skill to make some exceedingly creepy pics with Photoshop -- but it's a really well-done hoax.  It's simple, direct, and the images (however they were made) are completely shudder-inducing.

Especially the last one, which I seriously regret looking at.

James McBryde, illustration for the M. R. James short story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come for You, My Lad" (1905) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So once again, we have evidence that being a skeptic does not render you immune from having the piss scared out of you by a good ghost story.  I have to say that whether it's fiction or not -- and acknowledging that it probably is -- Ellis is doing a really good job as a storyteller, getting his readers creeped out, waiting a while, then delivering a sucker punch when no one expects it.  And now, y'all will have to excuse me, because I've got to go get my cellphone...

... and make sure that no wandering evil ghosts with dented skulls have been using it during the night.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Requiem for a heart-stealer

Eight years ago, my younger son and I were sitting on the couch in the living room, laptop between us, looking through photographs on PetFinder.

About a year earlier, we'd lost our venerable old hound Arlo, and our other dog, an eccentric and wound-too-tight hound/border collie cross named Doolin, was clearly lonely.  So we decided to start looking around for dogs at local SPCAs.

Pretty soon, Nathan and I saw one that we both thought was cute, up at the Seneca County SPCA, only about fifteen miles north of us.

We showed the photograph to Carol, who was at first less than sanguine.

"I don't know," she said.  "He's kind of... funny looking."

Nathan and I insisted that he was cute, and that we go up and meet him.  Although, upon consideration, we had to admit that she was right.  He was kind of a funny-looking dog.  Square, stubby muzzle, curly tail, coat like a German shepherd, ears that cocked at a goofy angle when he was interested in something.

Even so, we thought he was worth a visit.  So about a half-hour later, we were in our car driving north, with Doolin riding shotgun.  She, of course, had to get along with whatever dog we got, so she had to have first right of refusal, as it were.

The lady who was staffing the SPCA that day told us this dog's rather horrid backstory.  He'd been badly abused, she said, ending with his owners moving away, leaving him tied to a tree, in an upstate New York November.  Leaving him, in other words, either to starve or freeze, whichever came first.  The neighbors heard him crying and rescued him, but they couldn't have a dog, so they brought him to the SPCA, where he lived for nine long months.

It's kind of understandable that no one took him home.  He was really fearful of anything new, naturally distrustful, and had a serious issue with anyone getting between him and food.  (A leftover, of course, from his being starved as a puppy.)  But the lady brought him out, he went nose to nose with Doolin...

... and both of them started wagging.  In fact, Doolin went into the doggy "play bow" -- something she almost never did.

So we were sold.  Shortly thereafter, he was in our car heading home with us.

I decided to name him Grendel.  I've always loved the tale of Beowulf, and feel a bit sorry for Grendel -- not quite human, not quite animal, sort of an unfortunate combination who doesn't fit in anywhere.  Grendel the dog was a little like a dozen or so breeds put in a blender, so it seemed appropriate.

Grendel on his first day in his forever home

He was kind of skittish at first, but it was amazing how quickly he responded to love and a warm, comfortable home.  He'd obviously never seen stairs before -- the door into our fenced back yard opens off the basement, so he had to go downstairs to go outside.  The first time, he looked terrified, and simply stared down the staircase, frozen to the spot, and barked.  I clipped on his leash, and dragged him down the stairs -- once.  He got to the bottom, and sort of went, "Oh.  That was easier than I thought."  And never had a problem with the stairs again.

It wasn't long before he had stolen our hearts.  Carol's comment: "I swear, this dog keeps getting cuter every day."  His favorite thing was playing with his rope toy:


Tugging on the end of that toy, he made noises that were terrifyingly fierce.  The closest approximation I can come to is that they sounded like the snarling of the Tasmanian Devil on Looney Tunes.  One time we had some friends over, and they were in the kitchen talking to Carol, and I picked up Gren's rope toy.  Seconds later, our friends came running into the room, because it sounded like Gren was tearing my face off.

It was all show, of course.  His personality gave him the nickname "Mr. Cupcake," one of dozens of names he ended up with.  He was totally attached to Carol and me, and when we were home, all he wanted was to be near us.



Not spoiled a bit.  Nope.  Nuh-uh.

One thing that surprised us was his ability to climb chain-link fences.  You'd never guess he was that agile, to look at him; he was -- and I say this with all affection -- the same basic shape and size as a fireplug.  But he got quite adept at scaling the fence and getting out, one time doing so an hour before the one and only tornado warning I've ever experienced in my 25 years in upstate New York.  The storm came roaring through -- no tornadoes near us, fortunately -- but Grendel evidently spooked and took off.  He'd escaped before, and always came back, usually covered with mud and very pleased with himself, but night came -- and no Grendel.

We searched the neighborhood.  Nothing.  We put up signs, went from door to door down our road.  (One kid looked at the photograph we had of him and said, "Oh, what a pretty dog!"  Carol and I looked at each other and said, "Um... not really.")

Three days went by, and we got a call from the SPCA in Watkins Glen, twenty miles down the road.  Grendel had been found in Burdett, a little village about ten miles away...

... after he climbed in someone's open car window at a mini-mart, and when the car's owner came out, he barked at them and wouldn't let them into their car.  They called Animal Control, who came down and lassoed him, and then looked through reports of missing dogs.  The guy who called us said, "Well, we have this dog, and we're pretty sure there couldn't be two dogs of this description, so we think he's yours."

So we went down and bailed him out.  I've never seen a dog so excited to be back home.

The years went by, and he slowed down some -- stopped climbing fences, spent more time snoozing on the couch, started getting a little gray around the muzzle.  Still kept being the huge presence in our lives, a funny-looking dog with an outsize personality (and who, I swear, did continue to get cuter and cuter).  Our routine revolved around him -- get up in the morning, let him out, put the coffee on, let him back in, let him into the bedroom so he could climb on the bed for snuggles, and so on.  But he always gave us far more than he took from us.  He still wanted little more than a warm bed, a bowl of dog chow, and cuddles.

Then, about two weeks ago, he stopped eating.  He'd always had a bit of a sensitive stomach, so we thought maybe it was the food.  We tried tempting him with canned food, then with cooked chicken and hot dogs.  At first he ate a little, then he pretty much gave up completely.  We brought him to the vet -- always a last resort with us, as the final remnant of the abuse he'd experienced as a puppy was a fear of being restrained.

An ultrasound, blood work, and urinalysis confirmed that he was in the middle of complete kidney failure.

The decision was clear, but it is still one of the hardest things I've ever done, to make that final call to the vet.  They were wonderful, kind, and understanding of the heartbreak we were experiencing.  I held him as he drifted off to sleep one last time, and we both wept as we said goodbye to the best dog I've ever had.


The house sure seems empty without him.  It's amazing how big a spot they hold in our lives.  Our redbone/bluetick coonhound mix, Lena, has been at a loss, wondering where her friend went.  We feel the same way.  I keep expecting to look over at the couch and see his earnest and rather silly face looking at me in perplexity, wondering why I'm not petting him.

That's the thing about pet ownership; the great likelihood is that you'll eventually have to face losing your friend.  It's still worth it, all of it.  I'll never regret rescuing him from the SPCA and helping him work through the fear and trauma he'd experienced, and watching him grow into the sweet, affectionate little guy that was always inside him, and just needed a kind voice and a welcoming home to let out into the open.

But it still hurts like hell.  It's inevitable that it would.  I'll be grieving the loss of my little buddy for a long time.  Right now, I need to wind this up, because I can't see the computer screen any more.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The seven deadly words

George Orwell, in his classic book 1984, writes characters who speak a dialect of English called "Newspeak."

The "Minitrue" (Ministry of Truth) controls the public perception of what is true, perceptions that are enforced by the "Thinkpol" (Thought Police).  The Thinkpol are responsible for stopping "thoughtcrime," including "facecrime" -- forbidden thoughts as revealed in your facial expression.  Toward that end, they "rectify" historical accounts (to conform to the government's agenda regarding what happened), eliminating anything that is "malquoted" or "misprinted."  You're trained to the point of accepting the government's views based on "bellyfeel" -- how they affect you emotionally, not whether they're true.

Intercourse between a man and a woman -- preferably without any pleasure -- is "goodsex."  Anything else is a "sexcrime."  The preference of the government is that babies are conceived by "artsem" -- artificial insemination.

Someone who breaks any of these rules -- or worse, contradicts what Big Brother wants you to do or say -- is not only killed, every trace of them is erased.  They become an "Unperson."

[image courtesy of photographer Todd Page and the Wikimedia Commons]

Orwell was strikingly prescient.  If you doubt that we're heading down that road, consider the story that was broken by the Washington Post yesterday, that employees at the Center for Disease Control have been given a list by the Trump administration of seven words they are not allowed to use in official correspondence or publications.

Those words are:
  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • fetus
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • science-based
  • evidence-based
When I first read this, my initial reaction was, "This can't possibly be true."  The CDC being forbidden from using the word "fetus?"  But after some digging about, all I can say is that it appears at the time of this writing to be true.  The reports have not been corroborated by any official channels -- spokespeople for the CDC itself refused to comment -- but no one involved has stepped forward and said, "Bullshit."

I'm not sure what to be appalled most about this.  That we don't want any group of people identified as "vulnerable," because then we might have to do something about it.  That because of the Trump administration's ongoing war on minorities, we mustn't speak of diversity.  That LGBT individuals, whose rights to fair treatment are being threatened with every new judicial appointment, are guilty of "sexcrime;" and we have to pretend transgender people don't even exist.

And "science-based" and "evidence-based?"  What the fuck is the CDC supposed to base its policy on, then?  Magic?  The bible?  Prophecy?

Or just what its "bellyfeel" is?

I've tried not to engage in hyperbole about what this administration is doing, but every new thing I read drives me further toward the conclusion that they have really only one motive: consolidating power, and toward that end, shutting down resistance, eliminating free speech and the free press, rewriting the truth to conform to whatever Trump's cadre says it should be.  Everything contradictory is "oldspeak" that should be "rectified."

The result should be "doubleplusgood," don't you think?

My hope is the fact of this having been made public will give CDC employees the courage to defy this order.  People have to fight back, tell the 2017 version of the Thinkpol "No way in hell."  We have to spread this story far and wide, because you know the first thing the Trump administration is going to do is claim that this is all "fake news."

"Malquoted" and "misprinted."

I have some slim hope that this report will turn out to be an exaggeration, or perhaps simply untrue.  But given the Trump administration's record for supporting not only the right to dissent but science itself, I'm not holding my breath.  What it's looking more like is that Orwell got the details right -- all he missed was the year it happened.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Time-traveling Martian tourist for president!

I know that a lot of us have been pretty distressed by the people who have successfully been elected or appointed to positions in the federal government.  (Hell, the state governments, too, given that nearly half of voters in Alabama voted for an ultra-right-wing alleged pedophile who was removed as the state's Chief Justice for failing to follow the law, and thinks the bible should replace the Constitution.  Oh, and that only the first ten Amendments should count, thereby legalizing slavery and disenfranchising everyone but white Christian males.  I could go on and on.)

So the situation is discouraging, to say the least.  But I have good news for you, apropos of the 2020 presidential election:

Andrew Basiago has thrown his hat into the ring.

Basiago is one of those people who looks perfectly sane.  I mean, check out his official election campaign photograph:


He looks like the kind of guy you could immediately trust, right?  Basiago is a Seattle lawyer, but if you recognize his name, it's probably not because of his law practice.

If you're a long-time reader of Skeptophilia, the name will ring a bell because he's been something of a frequent flyer here.  Back in 2012, he claimed that he and President Obama had participated in "Mars training classes" in the early 1980s, and that shortly thereafter he ran into Obama on Mars.  Oh, and they got there by teleporting.  Later that year, he informed the public that not only had he teleported, he was able to time travel, and in fact had zoomed back to the 1860s so he could hear President Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address.  He stuck around until 1865 so he could see Lincoln get shot in Ford's Theater, which must have been pretty upsetting.

The following year, Basiago teamed up with noted wingnut Alfred Lambremont Webre to issue a dire prediction: the planet Nibiru, which makes more unscheduled public appearances than Kim Kardashian, was going to make a near pass of the Earth in the summer of 2013, causing "electrical discharges" which would fry most of humanity.  He knew this, he said, because he'd developed a tool called a "chronovisor" which allowed him to see into the future.

Well, I lived through 2013, and I don't remember any electrical discharges.  Sounds like his "chronovisor" needs recalibration.

So this guy is going to run for president.

Basiago says he's going to run on the platform of putting money into developing better time travel and teleportation technology.  There's already such a program in place (obviously, since he says he's used it), called "Project Pegasus," and he's not only going to fund it, he's going to reveal its marvels and secrets to the general public.

If he's elected, that is.  If not, I guess it'll be "fuck everybody" and he'll be back to his law practice in Seattle and writing articles about Martians for Before It's News.

Me, I'm all for him.  We've proven already that America is resilient enough to survive for a year under the questionable leadership of a man who is either demented or insane, so I'm sure we could make it for four years with a president who claims to have been to Mars.  His press release sounds so... normal:
Today, Andrew D. Basiago is running for President of the United States with a New Agenda for a New America. He has vowed that if elected President, he will lead the American people into a bold, new era of Truth, Reform, and Innovation as great as they are great. Join us in supporting Andy in his quest to establish a Presidency as honest, just, and ingenious as the American people.
Which is easily saner than any of Donald Trump's tweets.

So my general view is: "Basiago 2020!"  At least we could be sure that NASA wouldn't be defunded.  And consider some of the other people who've run for president, and the one who actually won the office.  We could do a hell of a lot worse.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Hum analysis

Some of my readers might know about the strange, mysterious humming noises that have been reported everywhere from Taos, New Mexico to Auckland, New Zealand.  The phenomenon has been reported in so many different locales that there's a Wikipedia page dedicated to it.

Explanations have varied, and to be fair, it's probable that the same cause doesn't account for all of the various hums in the world.  The Kokomo Hum and the West Seattle Hum were both adequately explained as low-frequency sound vibrations from machinery, the one in Kokomo from the Daimler-Chrysler plant, the one in West Seattle from a vacuum pump used by CalPortland to offload cargo from ships.

Some, though, are not so easily explained.  The Auckland Hum, which was pinpointed by people who heard it at 56 Hertz, and the Taos Hum, found to be between 32 and 80 Hertz, have never been adequately explained, leaving skeptics wondering if they might not be a combination of tinnitus and people paying such rapt attention to the silence that they begin to think they're hearing something.  Neither of those has ever been recorded or detected by sound equipment, despite the fact that any sound in that frequency range audible to human ears should be easy to detect.  (Especially given that one guy who has heard the Taos Hum said it was audible from 48 kilometers away.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, however, we have some research indicating that at least some of the world's Hums are due to a fascinating, and little-understood, phenomenon; the movement of deep ocean waves across uneven parts of the abyssal seafloor producing compression waves (better known as "sound") that could, potentially, propagate a great distance relatively unimpeded.  The study, by Fabrice Ardhuin, Lucia Gualtieri, and Eléonore Stutzmann of the Laboratoire d'Océanographie Spatiale, in Brest, France studied short-period interactions between oceanic waves and the terrain across which they were passing.  The vibrations, called "microseismic activity," might generate a sound where the wave fronts meet the boundary between air and water, thus creating a humming noise.  The authors write:
Microseismic activity, recorded everywhere on Earth, is largely due to ocean waves. Recent progress has clearly identified sources of microseisms in the most energetic band, with periods from 3 to 10 s.  In contrast, the generation of longer-period microseisms has been strongly debated.  Two mechanisms have been proposed to explain seismic wave generation: a primary mechanism, by which ocean waves propagating over bottom slopes generate seismic waves, and a secondary mechanism which relies on the nonlinear interaction of ocean waves.  Here we show that the primary mechanism explains the average power, frequency distribution, and most of the variability in signals recorded by vertical seismometers, for seismic periods ranging from 13 to 300 s.  The secondary mechanism only explains seismic motions with periods shorter than 13 s.  Our results build on a quantitative numerical model that gives access to time-varying maps of seismic noise sources.
Whatever the source, the noises are ubiquitous.  As Columbia University seismologist Spahr Webb put it,  "The Earth is ringing like a bell all the time."

What is pretty certain, however, is that these phenomena are not the result of the archangels blowing the trumpets of the Apocalypse, as End Times loons have claimed.  As recently as last month, loud, horn-like sounds reported from Canada and Indonesia have been claimed to be signs of the imminent fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, despite the fact that those prophecies have been imminent for the past two thousand years, and lo, the Antichrist is nowhere to be seen.  (Nor, I might add, are they signs that we're about to collide with the planet Nibiru, which has also been on its way for some time now.)

So it remains a mystery, which a lot of people don't like.  As far as the Taos Hum, it's unlikely to be caused by oceanic waves of any sort, because Taos is not exactly beach-front property.  But I'll bank on there being some kind of rational explanation, even if we don't know what it is.

Until then, you'll either have to ignore it or else hum along.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The imaginary restaurant

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia responded to yesterday's post, about a high school biology teacher who decided to name a chemical reaction after himself with the result that it became semi-official on the internet, with an email that said, "I'd love to talk to you more about this phenomenon.  How 'bout we meet at The Shed at Dulwich for lunch tomorrow?"

Which was a little puzzling, until I clicked the link he sent, which was about how a non-existent restaurant became an internet phenomenon.

It started earlier this year when a freelance writer with the unlikely name of "Oobah Butler" decided to create a TripAdvisor page for a fake restaurant, and gave the address as the location of a garden shed next to his house in the town of Dulwich, England, which is a suburb of London.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Once the page was created, Butler and a few friends lauded The Shed at Dulwich in gushing tones.  They got a burner cellphone to be the restaurant's phone number.  They created a fake menu, each dish based upon a human emotion (my favorite one was "Lust:  Rabbit kidneys on toast seasoned with saffron and an oyster bisque.  Served with a side of pomegranate soufflé.")  They created photographs of entrées out of non-food items such as bleach tablets and shaving cream, which included the following:


Which, honestly, looks a lot like stuff I've eaten at upscale restaurants, although I assume it wouldn't taste like it.

The reviews kept pouring in.  "The best shed-based experience in London!" one of them said, which you would think would have tipped people off.

But no. The positive reviews, combined with the menu and photographs, made The Shed at Dulwich rocket upwards in TripAdvisor.  (Another said, "Spent a weekend in London and heard through the grapevine that this place is a must-visit.  After a few mildly frustrating phone calls I was in.")

The phone began ringing off the hook.  Butler told the callers, "Sorry, we're booked up."  He was sent free samples by restaurant supply companies.  The Dulwich governing council called Butler about relocating the restaurant to a more business-friendly property.  People contacted him looking for employment.

At this point page for The Shed was receiving 89,000 hits a day.  It rose to #1 in the TripAdvisor restaurant category for the Greater London area.

Have I made it clear enough that this place doesn't actually exist?

This is like the Swanson conversion from yesterday's post, only more so.  Like a thousand times more so.  Of course, eventually Butler was found out, and he 'fessed up, and the page was taken down.  But not before he was receiving hundreds of calls daily, from all over the world, asking for reservations -- some of them for months in advance.

So if you needed further indication that you should view anything online with a good dose of skepticism and critical thinking, this is it.  A guy and a few friends, armed with nothing more than a burner cellphone, some photographs of household items dolled up to look like food, and a good imagination, punked TripAdvisor and thousands of eager foodies.  I don't know what would possess someone to do this, other than a warped sense of humor and way too much free time, but it does illustrate the human capacity for hoaxing.

You can't even trust webpages for highly-rated restaurants.  You see why I'm dubious about online claims for ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot?