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, August 19, 2017

Shiny happy energy

Long-time readers of Skeptophilia may recall that a while back, I dealt with a type of energy called orgone.  Orgone, said psychologist Wilhelm Reich back in the 1930s, is a mysterious "life force energy" that causes the galaxies to turn, triggers weather phenomenon, maintains your health, and is the "psychosexual energy release" that occurs during orgasm.

Bet you didn't think all that stuff was happening when you have an orgasm.  I didn't, either.  I just thought it was kinda fun.

Be that as it may, there's only one problem with "orgone," and that's that it doesn't exist.  But as we've seen with countless other things -- homeopathy, Tarot cards, numerology, astrology, President Trump's moral compass -- zero evidence that the thing you're studying actually exists is not near enough to discourage some people.

Now, the problem with orgone is that being an invisible, unmeasurable, undetectable (yet universal) energy, it's also inherently unmarketable.  I mean, what are you gonna do?  Tell someone if they pay you $100, you'll go home an have an orgasm, and then funnel the "psychosexual energy" in their direction?  I'd like to think that there's no one who's that gullible, although the fact that there are people who were willing to pay hundreds of bucks for "medicines" that you download directly from your computer into your body, I'm not going to rule anything out.

But at least the people who are orgone-proponents have recognized the difficulty of trying to sell something like that, because they've come up with a new twist, which (not coincidentally) they can sell:

"Orgonite."

"Orgonite," allow me to explain, is solid orgone.  Or a solid that's been infused with orgone.  Or something.  It's kind of hard to tell, frankly, because most of the websites hawking the stuff sound like this:
Dr Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychiatrist, researched orgone energy (also known as chi or prana) in the earlier half of the 20th century, and today’s orgonite devices are built on his findings.  While conducting his research, Dr. Reich found that organic materials attract and hold orgone energy, while non-organic metals simultaneously attract and repel the energy. 
Orgonite is based on these two principles.  It is a 50-50 mix of resin (organic, due to the fact that it is based on petrochemicals), and metal shavings (inorganic).  A quartz crystal is also added to the orgonite mix.  This is because of its piezoelectric properties, which means that it gives off a charge when it is put under pressure (resin shrinks when it is cured, so constant pressure is put on the quartz crystal). 
Due to the fact that the elements contained in orgonite are constantly attracting and repelling energy, a “scrubbing” action takes place, and along with the charge that the crystal gives off, this cleans stagnant and negative energy, and brings it back to a healthy, vibrant state.
Right!  Piezoelectric effect + orgone + chi = shiny happy energy!

"Orgonite" pyramid [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, needless to say the fact that this makes zero sense will not stop people from buying stuff like the "Fluorite and Onyx Orgone Cone" ($79.80), the "Crown Chakra Balance Orgone Pendant" ($46.55),  the "Balancing Lightworker Amethyst Orgone Pendant" ($35.90), and the "Boho Crystal Healing Festival Gypsy Orgone Spirit Jewel" ($99.75), the last-mentioned of which is clearly the most expensive because its name has more words.

Sad to say, all of this nonsense isn't going to do anything for you but lighten your pocketbook, and there's also the fact that a lot of what they're selling looks like the jewelry equivalent of Soap-on-a-Rope.  But maybe it's just that my chi is not balanced enough to appreciate how beautiful it is, I dunno.

Worst of all, this foolishness is now being peddled in other countries.  In fact, how I found out about it is that there is now an "orgonite network" in southern Africa, whereby lots of people are being told that in order to fix their health, all they have to do is buy colorful but expensive crap that comes along with a bunch of pseudoscientific babble.  Which, if you discount the placebo effect, is completely worthless.


So anyhow, there you have it: yet another way to bilk money from the gullible.  There's no such thing as orgone, and therefore (by extension) "orgonite" is a bunch of bullshit, too.  My suggestion is not to worry about the whole negative energy scrubbing business.  I recommend actual orgasms over orgone any day of the week, even if the former doesn't realign your chakras.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Perchance to dream

Insomnia sucks, something I am frequently heard to mutter under my breath at 3:30 AM.  I've been a bad sleeper for decades, and have not been able to figure out any particular pattern to it -- I have sleepless nights on days I've gotten lots of exercise and days I haven't, after spending several hours of staring into the computer screen and not, after drinking alcohol and not.  Nothing has really worked to alleviate it, although when I am desperate I take a Benadryl tablet, which works well even though it's something I don't like to do often.  (In fact, taking Benadryl works so well that after taking one, it's a miracle I make it back to bed before I pass out, to be found the next morning on the floor in the hallway in a puddle of drool.)

Sleep is critical to health, both mental and physical, but scientists have been working for ages to try and elucidate why.  It's known that when deprived of sleep short-term, people are groggy, irritable, and perform more poorly on every cognitive assessment there is; long-term sleep deprivation causes hallucinations, paranoia, and (ultimately) death.  Further, sleep is not the same as simple bodily relaxation; in some phases of sleep, the brain is as active as it is during wakefulness.

[image courtesy of photograph Evgeniy Isaev and the Wikimedia Commons]

It's been suggested -- and there is some experimental evidence to support it -- that sleep has something to do with memory consolidation.  It's been shown pretty conclusively that if you want to improve cognitive performance on a test, studying the night before and getting a good night's sleep works far better than spending an equal amount of time studying the day of the test.  I wish I'd known this back in college, where I was known to do things like doing my first and only studying for my 8 AM sociology midterm on the bus en route to school.

This doesn't, however, explain sleep's function in other animals, as few fluffy bunnies are known to take sociology classes.  But a study published last week in Nature: Communications has shown that sleep definitely influences memory -- even to the extent of fostering the formation of new memories while we're asleep.

The paper, "Formation and Suppression of Acoustic Memories During Human Sleep," by Thomas Andrillon, Daniel Pressnitzer, Damien Léger, and Sid Kouider of the École Normale Supérieure/PSL Research University of Paris, France, found that people form memories during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep -- but stimuli given during deep non-REM sleep actually suppress memory.  The authors write:
Sleep and memory are deeply related, but the nature of the neuroplastic processes induced by sleep remains unclear.  Here, we report that memory traces can be both formed or suppressed during sleep, depending on sleep phase.  We played samples of acoustic noise to sleeping human listeners.  Repeated exposure to a novel noise during Rapid Eye Movements (REM) or light non-REM (NREM) sleep leads to improvements in behavioral performance upon awakening.  Strikingly, the same exposure during deep NREM sleep leads to impaired performance upon awakening.  Electroencephalographic markers of learning extracted during sleep confirm a dissociation between sleep facilitating memory formation (light NREM and REM sleep) and sleep suppressing learning (deep NREM sleep).  We can trace these neural changes back to transient sleep events, such as spindles for memory facilitation and slow waves for suppression.  Thus, highly selective memory processes are active during human sleep, with intertwined episodes of facilitative and suppressive plasticity.
It's important to add, however, that experiments involving attempts to learn something complex -- such as a foreign language -- while you're asleep have all been abject failures.  The (alleged) phenomenon, called hypnopaedia, was all the rage back in the 1920s and 1930s, when people not only used it to try to learn, they used it to modify how they were perceived by others.  One such program, developed by hypnopaedia's main proponent, New York psychologist A. B. Saliger, was designed to help people get laid.  It involved listening while asleep to the following message played over and over:  "I desire a mate.  I radiate love...  My conversation is interesting.  My company is delightful. I have a strong sex appeal."

Unfortunately, all that this accomplished was making the test subjects wake up even hornier than they were before.

Study author Thomas Andrillon is cautious about applications of his work to the practical world.  "The sleeping brain is including a lot of information that is happening outside, and processing it to quite an impressive degree of complexity," Andrillon said.  But as far as using this research to facilitate the development of methods to influence memory in a bigger way, he added, "We are in the big unknown...  Keep in mind that sleep is not just about memory.  Trying to hijack the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep could disrupt normal brain function."

Which I can certainly attest to, as I rarely if ever get seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, and I don't think I've ever had the word "normal" applied to my behavior.  I have to admit that the Andrillon et al. research is fascinating, however, not least because it gives us another piece of the puzzle of why all higher animals sleep.

Now you'll have to excuse me, because I got about three hours of sleep last night, and I think I'm gonna go take a nap.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

*ding* You've got mail!

There's a quote from Winston Churchill that goes, "You have enemies?  Good.  That means you've stood up for something, some time in your life."

By that standard, I'd have gotten some serious props from Mr. Churchill for yesterday's post, which generated quite the deluge of hate mail.  I don't know where my link got posted, nor by whom, but evidently it was in a place where there are a significant proportion of people who took umbrage at my identification of Donald Trump as a liar, a racist, and a misogynist.

The responses varied from the banal to the highly creative.  Several of them invited me to do things that even thirty years ago I didn't have the flexibility to accomplish.  But I thought it'd be fun to respond to a few of them, even though all I'll probably do is generate more hate mail.

Oh, well.  I'm all about throwing caution to the wind.

[image courtesy of photographer Jessica Flavin and the Wikimedia Commons]

Here's one that I thought was kind of interesting:
You really don't get it, do you?  From your picture you're as white as I am, and you're gonna stand there and tell me that you have no problem being overrun by people who have different customs and don't speak English?  Let's see how you feel when your kid's teacher requires them to learn Arabic.
Well, my kids are 26 and 29, so unless they decide to enroll in college, they're unlikely to face this particular issue.  But ignoring that for a moment -- I would have been elated if my kids had had the opportunity to learn Arabic in school.  They each took three years of French, but to say they weren't enthusiastic about it is something of an understatement.  I would welcome any opportunity my kids, or kids in general, had to learn about other cultures.  In fact, I think a lot of the hatred and ugliness we're seeing right now is largely generated by the fact that the people who are the most racist don't know even a single person who is of a different race.

Once you get to know someone, realize that they have the same dreams, needs, and desires as you do, it becomes a hell of a lot harder to hate them.

Then there was this one:
Fuck you, you left wing libtard.  We finally have a president who speaks his mind, and you can't handle it.  Well, sorry, jerkoff, but this is America, and we're taking it back whether you like it or not.
"Taking it back?"  From whom?  Or do you mean taking it back in time?  Because that's a hell of a lot more accurate.  To the 30s, when racism and sexism was institutionalized, when there were still lynchings of African Americans, when being Jewish or Italian or Hispanic or Chinese meant that you were automatically disqualified from most high-paying jobs, and when you didn't even mention it if you were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

I can only hope we aren't going back there, and as a nation that we've learned the lesson that you don't gain more rights for yourself by denying others theirs, but in the last few days I've begun to wonder.

I also got an email sending me a link to a news article about the Justice Department demanding names of 1.3 million people who visited an anti-Trump website.  It was accompanied by the following cheery message:
Watch your back.  We know who you are.  There's a list of treasonous assholes like yourself, and you better be careful, because this shit is not going to be tolerated any more.
I have two things to say about this one:
  1. The "we know who you are" thing cuts both ways, to judge by the number of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were at the Charlottesville protest, who were identified from photographs, and who are now losing their jobs, facing censure from families and friends, and having their websites shut down.  Apparently a good many of them are boo-hooing the backlash, but don't do the crime if you can't do the time.
  2. For the record, I've never tried to hide.  Not my political beliefs, nor my religious ones, nor much of anything else.  So if you want to put my name on your list, knock yourself out.  Write it in capital letters and underline it three times.  Bring it on.
Last, we have this one:
You alt-left pussies make me want to puke.  I bet if you were in any real danger, you'd run home to mama.  You're pretty tough when you're sitting there on your computer, aren't you, big man?
To be honest, I don't think I'm all that tough.  I'm a wuss about pain, frankly.  But I am willing to take significant risks to stand up for what I believe in, to follow Roy T. Bennett's exhortation to "Stop doing what is easy.  Start doing what is right."

And it's interesting that I'm already a member of the "alt-left," a group that President Trump invented two days ago.  I suppose I should be honored, really.  I was expecting it to take at least a few weeks just to have my application processed.  I hope this means that my official alt-left badge, commemorative t-shirt, and decoder ring will be in my mailbox soon!

Anyhow, that's a sampler of what was in yesterday's mailbag.  For damn near all of them, I pretty much just read the first line or two and deleted them, because there's only so many times you can read "go fuck yourself."

So I guess I struck a nerve, which is to me a good thing.  At least it means people are reading what I write, and (on some level) thinking about what I'm saying.  And with this crowd, any inroads I can make in the "reconsider your beliefs" department is movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A line in the sand

Richard Dawkins wrote, "I think it's important to realize that when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them.  It is possible for one side to be simply wrong."

After yesterday's unhinged press conference, this is the situation we are in with respect to Donald Trump and his supporters.

The subject of his speech was the violence between white supremacists and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was killed when an angry young man with neo-Nazi leanings drove his car into the crowd.  The violence, Trump said, was the fault of both sides:
What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right,' do they have any semblance of guilt?  What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem?  I think they do...  You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now.
The "club in hands" reference is to a photograph of an Antifa member allegedly striking a police officer with a club -- a photograph that has since been shown to be digitally altered.

That is, a fake.

What is grimly ironic about this is that Trump defended the two-day delay in condemning the white supremacists and neo-Nazis by saying that he wasn't sure of his facts:
I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement... What I said was a fine statement.  I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.
Besides the fact that even after the delay, he still got the facts wrong, it bears mention that it took him only an hour to respond when Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned in protest from the President's Manufacturing Council.  Trump's ego was stung by the resignation -- something which evidently moves him more than seeing people marching in Nazi regalia does.  "Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council," Trump sneered via Twitter (of course),  "he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

But apparently it takes way more time to decide whether to condemn white supremacists who had not only killed a young woman for protesting, but who had said, on a website affiliated with their cause, "Despite feigned outrage by the media, most people are glad [Heather Heyer] is dead, as she is the definition of uselessness.  A 32-year-old woman without children is a burden on society and has no value."

This is the ideology that our president thinks is so morally ambiguous that it took him 48 hours to decide whether it was worth condemning, and then afterwards claimed was actually no worse than the beliefs of the anti-Nazi protesters.

Most media were quick to condemn Trump's speech, but as soon as it hit the news, the apologists started in with equal speed.  Within a half-hour of the story breaking, I saw the following comments posted:
  • All he's saying is that white people shouldn't be ashamed of being white.
  • I'd take the people in the march before I would the leftist whiners who are trying to tear America down.
  • The people in the march aren't responsible for what one crazy man in a car did.
  • For crying out loud, shut up and give the President a chance!
This last one is, of all of them, the one that galled me the most.  You know what?  Trump has had seven months of chances.  He has shown himself to be a dishonest, racist, misogynistic prick over and over.  The most surprising thing, in fact, is how unsurprising this last speech was.  It was totally in keeping with his prior words and actions.  All he did here is clarify his own ideology in such a way that there is no doubt any more where his loyalties lie.

So the chances are over, not only for Trump but for his followers.  It's no longer conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican.  This is about deciding whether you side with a man who has allied himself with people who wear swastikas on armbands and chant, "The Jew will never replace us!"  There is no moral ambiguity here.  If you don't repudiate him, now, you are complicit in his actions and those of his followers.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I try my hardest to listen to the people I disagree with, but at some point, there is no compromise, no way to find common ground.  After that, there is no choice but to commit to every effort necessary to stop people who are violent, amoral, and so convinced they are in the right that there is no possibility of discussion.

You might be saying, "Well, aren't you equally convinced that you're right?"  Perhaps.  But I'm not the one calling for violence against people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.

This is the point where moral people have to stand up and take a hard look at what is happening here, and realize that neutrality is no longer an option.  We are fast approaching something very like the Weimar Republic of the 1930s -- waiting only for our own Reichstag Fire to plunge the nation into darkness and bloodshed.

So if you're a Trump supporter, I'm sorry if you were misled by his rhetoric.  I understand that it's easy to get swept away by the theatrics of politics, to vote for someone who turned out to be something other than you wanted.  But we've crossed a line, here.  If you still support him, if you are one of the ones crying out "give him a chance," then you and others like you are fully responsible for the horrifying place we seem to be headed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!

Because so much of the world lately seems to be immersed in hatred, violence, and just general suckiness, for today I'm going to retreat to my Happy Place, which is: cool scientific discoveries.

Today's contribution from the Happy Place comes from the fields of paleontology and evolutionary biology, two disciplines that are near and dear to my heart.  While my educational background is kind of all over the map (less charitable sorts have called it "a light year across and an inch deep"), evolutionary biology has been something of a passion of mine for ages.  In getting my teaching certificate, I did as many courses as I could that focused on such things as population genetics, cladistics, and the origins of life, so I have come to think of that as being more or less my specialty within the field.

The discovery that spurred today's post comes from northeastern China, where two new species of mammal were uncovered (literally and figuratively) -- Maiopatagium and Vilevolodon.  These species were probably closely related, and appear to have been small tree-dwellers who had flaps of skin that ran from the outsides of the front legs to the outsides of the hind legs, so that when necessary, they could jump from a tree branch, fling their limbs outward, and glide like a living kite.

[image courtesy of study leader Zhe-Xi Luo of the University of Chicago]

If you're thinking, "Wait a second.  Isn't that just a flying squirrel?", you should know two things: (1) these two species were only very distantly related to flying squirrels and other rodents; and (2) they were alive during the Jurassic Period -- something on the order of 160 million years ago, when the dominant life forms were dinosaurs.  (For comparison purposes, the earliest known rodents didn't show up until 100 million years later.)  They belong to a group called Euharamiyids, one of the four branches of true mammals (the other three are the Multituberculates, which like the Euharamiyids are extinct; the Monotremes, which include egg-laying mammals such as the platypus; and the Therians, which encompass all other mammals, including us).

What I think is coolest about all of this -- besides the fact that ancient animals are simply inherently cool -- is that it's further evidence of the fact that similar selective pressures often result in separate lineages that happen upon the same "solutions" to evolutionary problems.  This is called convergent or parallel evolution, and one of the best examples of this is the evolution of flight and/or gliding.  Taking to the air has apparently evolved over and over again, resulting in the most familiar flying groups -- birds, insects, and bats -- but also in...

Pterodactyloids:

Colugos:


Flying fish:


Sugar gliders:


and the aforementioned flying squirrels:


... the latter of which were studied extensively by noted scientists Boris Badinov and Natasha Fatale.

And now, we can add two more to the list, a pair which (like all the rest) evolved aerobatics completely independently of all the others.

Anyhow, the whole thing illustrates a fundamental rule of biology, which is that there are a limited number of powerful evolutionary drivers (the most important being finding food, not getting turned into food, avoiding the vagaries of the environment you're in, and finding a mate), and a limited number of solutions to those drivers in the real world.  So it's inevitable that the same kinds of structures and behaviors will evolve over and over, even in groups that aren't very closely related.  What is most remarkable about this particular discovery, however, is how early the innovation of gliding in mammals evolved -- back when the whole mammalian clade had barely gotten started, and the dinosaurs still had 95 million years left before a giant meteor strike ended their hegemony.

And all of this ties into another field I'm fascinated with, which is exobiology -- the study of alien species.  At the moment, the number of available samples to study is zero, so we're left speculating based on what we have here on our home planet.  But the fact that we see the same sorts of patterns cropping up again and again -- bilateral symmetry, organs for sensing light and sound, defensive and offensive weapons, and adaptations for rapid locomotion -- is a pretty sound argument that when we do come across life on other planets, it will probably have some striking similarities to what we see here on Earth.

So that's our cool scientific discovery of the day, courtesy of a research team working in China.  And unfortunately I need to wrap up this post, which means I have to leave my Scientific Happy Place and return to the real world, at least for a little while.  Maybe I'll luck out and there'll be other fun and fascinating discoveries announced soon so that I can read something other than the news, which is more and more making me wonder if it might not be time for another giant meteor to press "reset" on the whole shebang.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Giving weight to illusion

The idea that our sensory processing apparatus and our brains are unreliable has been something I've come back to again and again here at Skeptophilia.  "I saw it with my own eyes" is simply not enough evidence by which to make any kind of sound scientific judgment.

Not only are we likely to get things wrong just because the equipment is faulty, our prior ideas can predispose us to get things wrong in a particular way.  Think of it as a sort of built-in confirmation bias; our brains are set up in such a fashion that when we've already decided what's going to happen, it's much more likely that's what we'll perceive.

This latter problem was demonstrated in an elegant, if disturbing, fashion in a paper released last week in Science called "Pavlovian Conditioning–Induced Hallucinations Result From Overweighting of Perceptual Priors," by Albert R. Powers, Christoph Mathys, and Philip R. Corlett, of the Yale School of Medicine, the International School for Advanced Studies (Trieste, Italy), and the University of Zurich, respectively.  Their research springboarded from previous studies wherein individuals who had been trained to associate a tone with an image were more likely to continue "hearing" the tone when shown the image with no accompanying tone than were members of a control group.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What Corlett's team did was to divide participants into four groups: normal, healthy individuals; self-described psychics; individuals with psychosis who did not report hearing voices; and individuals with schizophrenia who reported hearing voices.  The researchers trained all test subjects to associate a checkerboard image with a one second long, one kilohertz tone.  They not only recorded data on which participants continued to "hear" an illusory tone when shown the checkerboard in silence, they also used a protocol (how hard they pushed the button when they heard the tone, whether real or imagined) to gauge their confidence in what they were experiencing, and they looked at neuronal activity in the brain using an fMRI machine.

The results were intriguing, to say the least.  Both the schizophrenics and the self-described psychics were five times as likely to report hearing a tone when none existed than either the control group of healthy individuals or the psychotic individuals who did not hear voices.  Not only that, the schizophrenics and the psychics were 28% more confident in their perceptions when they did hear a tone that wasn't there than were the other two groups when they made a similar mistake.

Further, the schizophrenics and psychics showed abnormal neuronal activity in two regions of the brain; the parts of the cerebrum involved in creating our internal representation of reality showed strikingly different firing patterns, and the cerebellum -- the part of the brain involved in planning and coordinating our motor responses to stimuli -- showed much lower than normal neuronal activity.

"The findings confirm that, when it comes to how we perceive the world, our ideas and beliefs can easily overpower our senses," said Albert Powers, one of the paper's authors.  Which is about as succinct a cautionary statement about trusting our judgments as I can imagine.

While the researchers specifically tested the likelihood of experiencing auditory hallucinations, I find myself wondering if this study might not have wider applications.  How do our prior perceptions bias us in general?  I know I have frequently been baffled, especially in these fractious times, how two people can see the same event and come to strikingly opposite conclusions about it.  At times, I have found myself asking, "Are we even talking about the same thing, here?"  But if our preconceived notions about the world can bias us strongly enough to hear sounds that aren't there, why should any other perception be immune to the same effect?

This possibility drives me to a disturbing conclusion.  How do you convince people that what they're perceiving is not real, if that conclusion is contrary to what their senses and their brains are telling them?

I think the key, here, is always to keep focused on the statement, "... but I might be wrong."  A lot of our faulty judgments are caused not only by our coming to the wrong conclusion, but our stubborn certainty that we are, in fact, right.  A willingness to revise our beliefs -- failing that, at least to consider the possibility that our beliefs are incorrect -- is absolutely critical.

Otherwise, we're at the mercy of sensory apparatus that are easily fooled, and a brain that bases what it perceives as much on what it already thought to be true as on the actual data it's presented with.

Which seems to me to be awfully shaky ground.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Total eclipse of the brain

In ten days, people in the United States will get the best shot at seeing a total solar eclipse we've had in years.  The path of totality crosses the country diagonally from northwest to southeast, starting near the northern border of Oregon and ending in South Carolina.

[image courtesy of NASA]

Astronomy buffs and people who simply like an unusual spectacle have been excited about this for ages.  Motels in towns within the path of totality sold out months ago, especially in places like the Midwest where you're more likely to have clear skies.

The buzz about the eclipse prompted the eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to make the following observation:


Well, far be it from me to argue with someone of NdGT's stature, but just because people aren't denying the eclipse doesn't mean that they're viewing it with any kind of scientific eye.  We're already having the wingnuts putting their unique spin on the event, and you should watch for this sort of thing to increase exponentially as we approach August 21.

First, we have Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, who claims that the eclipse is a sign of the approach of the End Times.  Have you noticed how every damn time there's some interesting astronomical event, the religious nutjobs claim it's a sign of the End Times, and then the End Times kind of don't happen?

Well, a zero batting average doesn't discourage people like Lotz in the least.  It's interesting that the elder Graham, although we don't agree on much, always impressed me as a thoughtful and deeply compassionate man.  His kids, though... son Franklin is a virulently anti-LGBT firebrand, who has a real talent for ugly invective.  And now, his daughter... well, let me give it to you in her own words:
The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21, nicknamed America's Eclipse. For the first time in almost a hundred years, a total solar eclipse will be seen from coast to coast in our nation.  People are preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites.  The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed...  Therefore, my perspective on the upcoming phenomenon is not celebratory.  While no one can know for sure if judgment is coming on America, it does seem that God is signaling us about something.  Time will tell what that something is.
As far as I can tell, what god seems to be signaling is that if something is in front of the sun, it creates a shadow.  End of story.

But the religious fringe aren't the only ones who are jumping up and down making excited little squeaking noises about August 21.  We also have the crypto-woo-woos, who warn us that the eclipse is going to be noticed by more than just humans:


Long-time readers of Skeptophilia might recall that I warned South Carolina residents about Lizard Man way back in 2011.  As far as Bigfoot, you may be questioning how there could be Bigfoot sightings down there in the Southeast -- after all, the real Sasquatch hotspot is the Pacific Northwest.  But just yesterday, an alert reader sent me an article about a sighting of Bigfoot last week in North Carolina, so it's evident that the cryptids are on the way.  The fact that they're converging on the path of totality is a little peculiar, as solar eclipses have no particular precursors that might warn an animal that one is imminent, and I generally don't think of Bigfoot as being particularly knowledgeable about astronomy.

Unless it's that Bigfoot is psychic, and is sensing oscillations in the quantum frequency dimensions.  You can see how that could happen.

In any case, I'm understandably not inclined to share NdGT's optimistic assessment of Americans' attitude toward the solar eclipse.  As I've observed before, there is no finding so solidly scientific, so evidence-based, that the woo-woos can't woo all over it.

So if you're going to head over to the path of totality in ten days, keep your eyes open, and make sure you drop me a line here at Skeptophilia headquarters if you see any Bigfoots, Lizard Men, or Apocalyptic Horsepersons.  I'll be happy to post an update, especially if you can take photographs.  As is required with such photographs, however, make sure you have your camera's settings on "AutoBlur."