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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Fiddling while the education system burns

It's late February, and if you're a teacher, you know what that means:

Time to start worrying if you'll have a job next year.

In my own school district, we're just starting to see the proposed cuts being announced.  And while out of respect to my friends and colleagues whose jobs are on the line I won't give any details about what's come out thus far, I will say: it ain't gonna be pretty.

The problem is, it hasn't been pretty for years.  This is the seventh year in a row that my little upstate New York school district has had major staffing cuts.  We've seen classes dropped, curriculum lost.  Veteran teachers are being reduced to half-time, are teaching in two different buildings, are teaching four and five different subjects, are teaching classrooms in which every available seat is occupied.  Other, less fortunate individuals have simply been axed.  And every year we're told that the administration is really, really sorry about all of this, that they and the School Board and the Board of Regents and the State Department of Education have the students' interest in mind and are doing their level best to Keep Excellence in Education.

When are we, as a nation, going to wake up and point this out as the falsehood it is?

Oh, it's not that any of them are setting out to harm children; but if that's the ultimate outcome, does that really matter?  Shouldn't someone who is responsible for the oversight of education recognize this, and have the balls to point it out?  And, perhaps, do something about it?  But no; we're stuck with the same antiquated system of school funding, that places a stranglehold on poor and rural schools, that puts local school boards in the Hobson's choice of either raising property taxes or else cutting school staffing to the bone.

And school boards are elected positions, and the votes come from residents, who pay property taxes.  Guess how the decision almost always plays out?

The problem is that this kind of thinking -- today's dollar, today's tax increase, today's elementary school student -- ignores the fact that schools represent an investment in the future.  We don't know yet which third-grader is going to be the next Krishna Shenoy, finding a way to give quadriplegics the ability to walk again.  Which will be a Jocelyn Brown, who developed a device to help infants with compromised respiratory systems to breathe.  Who could be a Paige Cramer, who discovered that an old cancer drug could be used to ameliorate the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's.

And we're going to need the Shenoys, the Browns, the Cramers.  As a society -- and, perhaps, as a species -- we will face in the next couple of decades some of the most significant challenges we have ever seen.  Type-2 diabetes is rising so fast worldwide that doctors are calling it an "epidemic."  The effects of anthropogenic climate change are being felt across the globe.  (And sorry, deniers; it is happening, and it is anthropogenic.  The US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society issued a joint paper just yesterday that was unequivocal.  Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said, "We have enough evidence to warrant action being taken on climate change; it is now time for the public debate to move forward to discuss what we can do to limit the impact on our lives and those of future generations.")  Supplies of fresh water and clean air are imperiled; we are using fossil fuels and other resources at a rate that is unsustainable.

And what are our politicians focusing on?  Here in the US, state legislators are monkeying around with bills in twelve states that are versions of the "Turn Away the Gays" bill that was just vetoed in Arizona.  Think about it; our elected officials think that reenacting the Jim Crow laws is a higher priority than assuring that our children receive a solid education. 

This is worse than fiddling while Rome burns.  This is having a Ku Klux Klan meeting while Rome burns.

The problem is, much of the benefit from education is (1) unquantifiable, and (2) realized only in the future.  So, to our legislators, and (unfortunately) to many voters, it doesn't exist.  If you can't show that the damage being done here and now by funding cuts to schools is causing a drop in the Almighty Standardized Test Scores, then we must be doing just fine.  Never mind the larger class sizes; never mind the loss of electives, music, and the arts.  Never mind the demoralized teachers who are right now reconsidering their choice of a career.  Never mind the students who, if you don't afford them the opportunity for learning and expanding their horizons, will never accomplish what they could have accomplished, for their own good and for the good of humanity.

[image from a ca. 1899 postcard, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

For some, that's not an immediate enough problem to warrant doing anything about it.  Easier to keep doing what we've always done, figuring that we'll find our way forward somehow.  But remember; like canoes, societies have tipping points.  They don't often flip as spectacularly as canoes do, which means that we can pass the point of no return without being aware of it.  The signs of an incipient crash are already here; failing inner-city schools, poor rural school districts that are merging in order to survive or else going bankrupt, overcrowded classrooms with nothing to offer but the bare-bones graduation requirements.  We have to ask, as a society, if we are willing to accept this -- seeing a whole generation growing up without the skills, knowledge, enrichment, creativity, and critical thinking ability that will be needed to lead us forward.

If the answer is no, and yet we fail to act, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How to get disinvited

Okay, I'm perfectly willing to admit that I am (1) not particularly knowledgeable about politics, and (2) kind of clueless about human social behavior.

The first one you're just going to have to take my word for.  The second, though, has as hard evidence the fact that more than one of my students has nicknamed me "Sheldon."  And while I'm not, I hope, quite as awkward as my (nick)namesake, I have to admit that I am often baffled by what makes people act the way they do.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So what follows may be an analysis that someone who is more politically or socially adept could tear to smithereens without even breaking a sweat.  Just to be up front about it.

I am referring to the apparent conflation, in many people's minds, of the topics of politics, religion, and the degree to which an adherent to some version of one or both of the above is an asshole.  Am I wrong that there really should be no logical connection between the three?

I mean, at its simplest, the liberal vs. conservative split is about (on the one hand) being inclined to welcome change, broad tolerance for many views, and a strong belief that government should have a hand in social welfare, and (on the other) being inclined to prefer consistency and stability, a preference for traditional views of what America is and should be, and a strong belief that government should be limited to absolutely necessary functions like national defense.  I realize that there are gradations within those views -- I have one friend who calls herself a "social liberal and an economic conservative," for example -- but I think that this characterizes the divide with reasonable accuracy.

Religion is basically a decision about the existence of god, and if a god exists, the nature thereof, and some set of behaviors that this god or gods expects of you.  It's not a political statement at all.  Nowhere, at least in the holy texts I've read, is there anything that says something like, "And then the Lord saideth unto Moses, 'Thou shalt see to it that any illegal immigrants be deported back to the country of their origin, especially if they speakest not English.'"

Then, there's the third thing, which is behavior.  I've known liberals and conservatives who are kind, caring, gentle, friendly people.  Same with people of a variety of religions, and those of no religion at all.  On the other hand, I've known complete humorless pricks who identify as belonging to each of the above.  Once again: no relationship.

This makes it a little hard for me to understand why yesterday it was announced the the Conservative Political Action Conference has disinvited the American Atheists Organization, who had spent $3,000 to have a booth there.  (Their money was refunded, however, if you're curious.)

The disinvitation seems to have been issued largely because David Silverman, the American Atheists' president, said, in an interview with CNN, "I am not worried about making the Christian right angry.  The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives.  The Christian right should be threatened by us."

Now, Silverman is, in my opinion, kind of a jerk.  He is one of those people with whom I agree on religion, but who I think is not a very nice person.  (Remember: the two aren't related.  cf. What I wrote three paragraphs ago.)  I am in complete agreement that he could have put it in a more diplomatic fashion, since presumably one of the goals of being at the conference was to show scared conservatives that we atheists aren't baby-eating monsters.  Or, failing that, he could have just shut the hell up entirely.

Well.  The response from the conservatives, especially the religious ones, was loud and clear.  Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, was especially incensed, and not just at the atheists:
The invitation extended by the ACU, Al Cardenas and CPAC to American Atheists to have a booth is more than an attack on conservative principles.  It is an attack on God Himself.  American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God.  How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity?
It makes absolutely no difference to me that CPAC and ACU have backed down and removed the booth.  I am sick and tired of these games.  
I will continue to denounce CPAC, ACU and Cardenas.  No conservative should have anything to do with this conference. If you do, you are giving oxygen to an organization destroying the conservative movement.
Well, just to correct a misapprehension; atheists don't hate god, they don't believe he exists.  Which isn't the same thing.  I don't think Aphrodite exists, either, so hating her on top of that would be a little pointless.

And like I said earlier; what, exactly, does being a political conservative have to do with being religious?  Really?  Okay, I'm willing to accept that by the numbers, a lot of devout Christians are Republicans.  But how do the two ideologies have the least thing to do with one another?

Or with whether an atheist organization should be allowed to voice their opinion at a conservative conference?  What, do you only support the free speech you agree with?

The CPAC leadership, of course, was cornered, and they did what you'd expect; they caved.  Meghan Snyder, spokesperson for CPAC, said, “American Atheists misrepresented itself about their willingness to engage in positive dialogue and work together to promote limited government.  People of any faith tradition should not be attacked for their beliefs, especially at our conference.  He has left us with no choice but to return his money."

So I have the rather sick feeling that all David Silverman did was reinforce people's opinions that atheists are sneakily trying to infiltrate the enemy camp and steal souls.  They've lost the valuable possibility of showing at least some conservatives that we're capable of espousing conservative political ideals without simultaneously participating in a religion.

It's unfortunate all around, and the inflammatory language of people like Brent Bozell doesn't help matters.  However, Silverman's comments, and Bozell's response, does support my third contention, to wit: there are assholes on both sides of the religious and political divide.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Academic gibberish

About three years ago, I wrote a post on the problem with scientific jargon.  The gist of my argument was that while specialist vocabulary is critical in the sciences, its purpose should be to enhance clarity of speech and writing, and if it does not accomplish that, it is pointless.  Much of woo-wooism, in fact, comes about because of mushy definitions of words like "energy" and "field" and "frequency;" the best scientific communication uses language precisely, leaving little room for ambiguity and misunderstanding.

That doesn't mean that learning scientific language isn't difficult, of course.  I've made the point more than once that the woo-woo misuse of terminology springs from basic intellectual laziness.  The problem is, though, that because the language itself requires hard work to learn, the use of scientific vocabulary and academic syntax can cross the line from being precise and clear into deliberate obscurantism, a Freemason-like Guarding of the Secret Rituals.  There is a significant incentive, it seems, to use scientific jargon as obfuscation, to prevent the uninitiated from understanding what is going on.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The scientific world just got a demonstration of that unfortunate tendency with the announcement yesterday that 120 academic papers have been withdrawn by publishers, after computer scientist Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University (Grenoble, France) demonstrated that they hadn't, in fact, been written by the people listed on the author line...

... they were, in fact, computer-generated gibberish.

Labbé developed software that was specifically written to detect papers produced by SciGen, a random academic paper generator produced by some waggish types at MIT.  The creators of SciGen set out to prove that meaningless jargon strings would still make it into publication -- and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  “I wasn’t aware of the scale of the problem, but I knew it definitely happens.  We do get occasional emails from good citizens letting us know where SciGen papers show up,” says Jeremy Stribling, who co-wrote SciGen when he was at MIT.

The result has left a lot of folks in the academic world red-faced.  Monika Stickel, director of corporate communications at IEEE, a major publisher of academic papers, said that the publisher "took immediate action to remove the papers" and has "refined our processes to prevent papers not meeting our standards from being published in the future."

More troubling, of course, is how they got past the publishers in the first place, because I think this goes deeper than substandard (worthless, actually) papers slipping by careless readers.  Myself, I have to wonder if anyone can actually read some of the technical papers that are currently out there, and understand them well enough to determine if they make sense or not.  Now, up front I have to say that despite my scientific background, I am a generalist through and through (some would say "dilettante," to which I say: guilty as charged, your honor).  I can usually read papers on population genetics and cladistics with a decent level of understanding; but even papers in the seemingly-related field of molecular genetics zoom past me so fast they barely ruffle my hair.

Are we approaching an era when scientists are becoming so specialized, and so sunk in jargon, that their likelihood of reaching anyone who is not a specialist in exactly the same field is nearly zero?

It would be sad if this were so, but I fear that it is.  Take a look, for example, at the following little quiz I've put together for your enjoyment.  Below are eight quotes, of which some are from legitimate academic journals, and some were generated using SciGen.  See if you can determine which are which.
  1. On the other hand, DNS might not be the panacea that cyberinformaticians expected. Though conventional wisdom states that this quandary is mostly surmounted by the construction of the Turing machine that would allow for further study into the location-identity split, we believe that a different solution is necessary.
  2. Based on ISD empirical literature, is suggested that structures like ISDM might be invoked in the ISD context by stakeholders in learning or knowledge acquisition, conflict, negotiation, communication, influence, control, coordination, and persuasion. Although the structuration perspective does not insist on the content or properties of ISDM like the previous strand of research, it provides the view of ISDM as a means of change.
  3. McKeown uses intersecting multiple hierarchies in the domain knowledge base to represent the different perspectives a user might have. This partitioning of the knowledge base allows the system to distinguish between different types of information that support a particular fact. When selecting what to say the system can choose information that supports the point the system is trying to make, and that agrees with the perspective of the user.
  4. For starters, we use pervasive epistemologies to verify that consistent hashing and RAID can interfere to realize this objective. On a similar note, we argue that though linked lists and XML are often incompatible, the acclaimed relational algorithm for the visualization of the Internet by Kristen Nygaard et al. follows a Zipf-like distribution.
  5. Interaction machines are models of computation that extend TMs with interaction to capture the behavior of concurrent systems, promising to bridge the fields of computation theory and concurrency theory.
  6. Unlike previous published work that covered each area individually (antenna-array design, signal processing, and communications algorithms and network throughput) for smart antennas, this paper presents a comprehensive effort on smart antennas that examines and integrates antenna-array design, the development of signal processing algorithms (for angle of arrival estimation and adaptive beamforming), strategies for combating fading, and the impact on the network throughput.
  7. The roadmap of the paper is as follows. We motivate the need for the location-identity split. Continuing with this rationale, we place our work in context with the existing work in this area. Third, to address this obstacle, we confirm that despite the fact that architecture can be made interposable, stable, and autonomous, symmetric encryption and access points are continuously incompatible.
  8. Lastly, we discuss experiments (1) and (4) enumerated above. Error bars have been elided, since most of our data points fell outside of 36 standard deviations from observed means. On a similar note, note that active networks have more jagged seek time curves than do autogenerated neural networks.
Ready for the answers?

#1:  SciGen.
#2:  Daniela Mihailescu and Marius Mihailescu, "Exploring the Nature of Information Systems Development Methodology: A Synthesized View Based on a Literature Review," Journal of Service Science and Management, June 2010.
#3:  Robert Kass and Tom Finin, "Modeling the User in Natural Language Systems," Computational Linguistics, September 1988.
 #4:  SciGen.
#5:  Dina Goldin and Peter Wegner, "The Interactive Nature of Computing: Refuting the Strong Church-Turing Thesis," Kluvier Academic Publications, May 2007.
#6:  Salvatore Bellofiore et al., "Smart Antenna System Analysis, Integration, and Performance on Mobile Ad-Hoc Networks (MANETs)," IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, May 2002.
#7:  SciGen.
 #8:  SciGen.

How'd you do?  If you're like most of us, I suspect that telling them apart was guesswork at best.

Now, to reiterate; it's not that I'm saying that scientific terminology per se is detrimental to understanding.  As I say to my students, having a uniform, standard, and precise vocabulary is critical.  Put a different way, we all have to speak the same language.  But this doesn't excuse murky writing and convoluted syntax, which often seem to me to be there as much to keep non-scientists from figuring out what the hell the author is trying to say as it is to provide rigor.

And the Labbé study illustrates pretty clearly that it is not just a stumbling block for relative laypeople like myself.  That 120 computer-generated SciGen papers slipped past the eyes of the scientists themselves points to a more pervasive, and troubling, problem.

Maybe it's time to revisit the topic of academic writing, from the standpoint of seeing that it accomplishes what it originally was intended to accomplish; informing, teaching, enhancing knowledge and understanding.  Not, as it seems to have become these days, simply being a means of creating a coded message that is so well encrypted that sometimes not even the members of the Inner Circle can elucidate its meaning.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On the universal genetic code, glow kitties, and human/alien hybrids

One of the most powerful pieces of evidence of our common ancestry with every other life form on Earth is that we all read the genetic code the same way.  The RNA codon chart, the work of such giants in the field of genetics as Marshall Nierenberg, Francis Crick, and James Watson, works equally well for every species from bacterium to petunia to wolf spider to human.  It's the basis of genetic engineering; you can take an embryo of a cat, and insert a gene from a jellyfish that in the jellyfish produces a phosphorescent protein, and with luck and skill you will end up with...

... The GlowCats from Hell.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The cats' genetic decoding mechanisms read the DNA in exactly the same way as the jellyfish did, and therefore assemble the glow-in-the-dark protein in precisely the same way.  Put simply, every organism on Earth speaks the same genetic language.

It's why, as I was discussing with some students just yesterday, Mr. Spock is vastly improbable.  That a DNA-based life form could arise on another planet is entirely plausible; the building blocks of DNA, called nucleotides, are apparently rather easy to produce abiotically.  But the likelihood that the decoding protocol would have evolved precisely the same way on Vulcan as it did on Earth, and therefore result in two species that can interbreed, is about as close to impossible as anything I can think of.  So however tantalizing a plot element it was to have the tortured, half-emotional and half-stoic First Officer struggling to control his human side with logic, it's much more likely to be a simple biological impossibility.

If the extraterrestrials even turn out to be humanoid, and have the right... um... equipment to engage in some hot alien/human bow-chicka-bow-wow in the first place.

Interestingly enough, given the morning's rather odd topic of conversation, that yesterday afternoon I ran into a website that claims that not only are human and alien DNA compatible, but that we are hybrids already.  Well, at least some of us are.  Frankly,  it's a little hard to tell what exactly the writer is claiming:
Civilizations from parallel realities and parallel dimensions similar to our own reality have been manipulating human DNA from the beginning of our recorded history and it is highly likely that all of this activity over the decades is the visually elusive air traffic of beings involved in one singularly focused mission involving humans.  This genetic program is a part of our human history,  it is here with you and I now and will continue flowing down line into humanities future.  It is time to accept the fact that we are hybridized humanoid beings with alien DNA.
The problem is, human DNA is pretty much like the DNA of any other terrestrial species, as I mentioned earlier.  There's nothing alien about it.  But this doesn't stop the owner of the website, The Hybrids Project, from claiming that we're somehow... different.  And getting more different all the time:
Hybridization of a conscious humanoid appears to be quite complex. Evolution is not ruled out, but there is a point at which highly advanced humanoids begin to upgrade other humanoids. The benefits of this process would, at its simplest, be the perpetuation of life, intelligence and consciousness. This is a logical expectation within an infinite multiverse and likely a process that spans countless worlds and vast expanses of time as we know it. Earth is but a part of the process and not the process itself. We will come to realize that we are part of a larger galactic family and the relatives are coming to introduce themselves.
I have to admit that we certainly could use an upgrade, given some of the behavior we like to engage in.  But the kind of thing that this website goes on to describe isn't, as far as I can tell, much of an improvement.  The alien species he describes are all a little... sketchy.  We have the Tall Grays and the Short Grays, who differ only in size and otherwise are your typical bald, skinny gray aliens with enormous black eyes.  Then there are the Tall Whites, which are bald, skinny white aliens with enormous blue eyes.  None of these, frankly, are my type.  I'll stick with plain old Earth women, thanks.

At least a bit more appealing are the Tall Blonds, the male version of which looks a little like Orlando Bloom.  But then, finally, we have the Mantid Beings, which are just horrifying.  The idea of a human/mantid hybrid would imply that there was some way for a human to have sex with what amounts to a giant grasshopper, a mental image which I really didn't need to have bouncing around in my skull.  (And about my decision to pass it along to you: "You're welcome.")

By the way, if you're curious to see what any of these things look like, I encourage you to peruse the website, which is chock-full of artists' depictions and is really highly entertaining.

Also on the website are all sorts of descriptions of abduction experiences, in which Earthlings were captured and brought on board ship and examined, probed, and worse by various members of these alien species.  The hybrid children thus produced, the website tells us, "are quite different and far more advanced than you and I and thus are currently living off world out of harm's way."  Which is pretty convenient.  All of the kids I see on a day-to-day basis seem like regular old people to me.  None of them have gray skin or black eyes or look like Orlando Bloom or a giant praying mantis.


So, anyway.  As much as I love the idea of extraterrestrial life, the tales of abduction and hybridization and so on seem to me to be not only delusional, but biological impossibilities.  Much as some people don't like the idea, Homo sapiens forms nothing more than a tiny little blip in a continuum with other terrestrial life forms -- any interesting features we have, like our (relatively) large brains, are perfectly well explained by the evolution and genetics we already understand.

Which, in some ways, is too bad.  Mr. Spock was kind of cool.  And if I'm wrong, let me just mention to any alien life forms who might be looking in my direction; I'm already spoken for.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Islam and the fatwa against Mars One

Sometimes I run into a story that infuriates the absolute hell out of me.

Most of the time, I can maintain a sense of perspective about things, even if they frustrate me.  Despite my often strongly-worded missives here on Skeptophilia about the illogic of certain claims, very little of it gets me truly angry.

Yesterday, though, I ran into a story at The Register that raised my blood pressure into the "incipient aneurysm" zone.  The subject of it was a fatwa issued by group of Muslim clerics -- preventing observant Muslims from participating in the Mars One mission.

[image of the Martian surface courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, on first glance, this isn't surprising.  Traditional Islam isn't known for its progressive stance with respect to science.  (Contrast that to Islam in the Middle Ages -- when they were the shining lights of reason and rationalism and experimental inquiry.)  But it becomes more interesting -- and infinitely more absurd -- when you find out why the fatwa was issued.

"Such a one-way journey poses a real risk to life, and that can never be justified in Islam," read part of a statement from a committee appointed by the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowment, as reported in The Khaleej Times.  "There is a possibility that an individual who travels to planet Mars may not be able to remain alive there, and is more vulnerable to death."

Dr. Farooq Hamada, president of the GAIAE, went on to say, "Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Qu'ran: Do not kill yourselves or one another."

Now wait just a second, here.  Seriously?  You're concerned about observant Muslims joining what could turn out to be a suicide mission, and so your response is to issue a fatwa against the Mars One mission?

How about issuing a fatwa against suicide bombers?  Or the Muslims who are right now slaughtering each other in Syria?  Or "honor killings?"  What about the fact that seven of the top ten countries, in terms of numbers of executions, are Yemen, Iran, Syria, Libya, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, and in those countries the execution methods include public hanging, beheading, and stoning?  The Muslim world has a few bigger problems at the moment than the chance that some observant Muslim might end up on a mission that could end with the deaths of the participants.

Oh, but wait!  Coming together, as a unified voice, against any of that other stuff would be controversial.  That would require the hidebound, patriarchal, tribal-minded leadership to reconsider some of what their devout adherents are actually doing.  It might even require them to say, "You know that violent, brutal, inhumane shit that we've accepted for all of these years?  That stuff is wrong.  It's always been wrong, but we've been too cowardly to say it.  So you people need to knock it off."

To be fair, there was a fatwa issued against terrorism, back in 2010.  It was hailed as a landmark by press in the west -- and then promptly forgotten.  Ever heard a leader of any Muslim country mention it?  Have you noticed a decrease in violence in the Middle East in the last four years?

Didn't think so.

It's possible that if the leaders of all of the Muslim countries -- and that includes the religious leaders, since politics and religion in most Muslim countries are so entangled as to be inseparable -- said, with one voice, that killing others would condemn the killer to hell, that some of it would stop.  At least, perhaps, it might slow down the killings that are motivated by Islam itself, the ones that are acts of violence committed in the name of some twisted notion of sanctity and purity and holiness, where all too often the victims are random strangers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that's not going to happen.  It's much easier to go around issuing fatwas against distant eventualities (Mars One, even if it succeeds, isn't going to depart for the Red Planet until 2023) than it is to change present evils that have been accepted without question by the leadership up to this point.  It's much easier to give lip service to "protecting life against all dangers" than it is to demand that the people here and now who are raping and murdering cease and desist.

You have to wonder, don't you, what would happen if all the religious leaders of the world finally stood up for human rights?  I'm no apologist for the Catholic Church, but I have to admit that Pope Francis has made some real strides in that direction.  But the others?  Not so much.  Most of them are too busy worrying about who is having sex with whom to deal with the issues of how their followers are infringing on the basic rights of their fellow humans.  And I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the Muslim leaders are about the worst offenders in this regard.

I don't know how much this blog gets read in Muslim countries.  Not much, is my guess.  But you never know.  And so I'll issue this challenge: if you really claim to follow the Qu'ran, then the verse that Dr. Hamada quoted should be taken at its face value.  Your leaders need to demand, now, that all of the murders and suicide bombings and honor killings and public executions stop.  All along, they have tacitly supported a worldview that allows people to claim that they are observant Muslims, approved by Allah, and are headed to heaven, while simultaneously hurting or killing others (and sometimes themselves).

Maybe you could change that.  Turn your religion into a force for good.  Leave aside useless gestures like objecting to missions to Mars, and deal with the problems that some of your followers are causing here and now.

To do any less is pure hypocrisy.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The water turned to blood

One of the things that bugs me the most about attributing supernatural causes to natural events is that it is, fundamentally, a lazy stance.

Something odd happens, something for which there is no ready explanation.  It amazes me how quickly people jump to "it's a miracle of god" or "an angel did it" if it was good, and "it was Satan" or "a demon did it" if it was bad.  Conspiracy-based explanations are the same; how much simpler it is to say, "a secret evil government cadre is responsible" than it is to look carefully into the phenomenon and really find out what's going on.

I bring this up because of a pond in Wichita, Kansas, which just a couple of days ago turned blood-red.

The owner of the pond, Freddy Fernandez, is pretty sure there's a rational explanation, and when he posted the photos on Facebook, he was adamant that he didn't think it was anything but some peculiar but completely natural phenomenon.  "I just don't want people showing up, thinking this is some Biblical phenomenon or something like that," Fernandez said.

Well, a lot of people beg to differ.

Within hours the photos had been shared thousands of times, and the explanations -- if I can dignify them with that term -- began to fly.  Now, remember; none of these people had actually seen the pond personally, or done any tests of the water.  All they'd seen were a couple of photographs.  But still, here are a few of the thousands of suggestions Fernandez received:
  • The water was poisoned by the government as part of a FEMA-based plan to kill everyone in the Midwest.
  • The pond water was contaminated by chemicals rained out from "chemtrails."
  • The blood-red color is a new life form, a highly pathogenic bacteria that was seeded there by bioterrorists.
  • Because it's "water turned to blood," this is a sign of the ascendancy of the Evil One, and we should all be on the lookout for the Antichrist.
It was the last one that seemed to be the most popular.  Amongst the missives Fernandez received was one from a gentleman named Edward Cantu that read, "These things happen at the time of the End when Jesus Returns.  Prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus by repenting of all sin and recieving [sic] Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Ask Him to fill you with His Holy Spirit. God Bless you."

Of course, the more likely explanation is that we're looking at some sort of algal bloom, similar to what happens during a marine "red tide."   But remember:  I haven't been there, either.  I also have run no tests, sampled no water.  The difference is that I used the words "more likely."  I don't know what the blood-red water is, and I'm perfectly content to wait until scientists run some tests (presuming any do) before I settle on an explanation I believe.

That's the thing about being a skeptic; you don't have to have answers immediately.  Or, perhaps, ever.  If there's something you can't explain, you say, "I can't explain that."  Then you look for a rational explanation, using the known facts, and whatever scientific techniques are at your disposal.  You don't immediately jump to saying "it must be the government" or "it must be chemtrails" or "it must be the Antichrist." 

It all reminds me of a former student who couldn't stand not understanding things, not even for a moment.  Her anxiety levels when confronted with having to suspend patiently a state of ignorance were off the charts.  (As you might imagine, science was problematic for her, as in learning science you so often have to keep slogging your way forward, hoping the water will clear eventually.)  One day, I was showing my class how to do a rather difficult numerical analysis technique, and I had a set of data we were going to be working with.  So I put the data on the board, and said, "Copy the data, and after everyone's done I'll tell you what to do next."

So my anxious student copies furiously, finishes first, and then starts to babble.  "What do we do now?  Do you want us to graph it?  Will we need a calculator?  Should I get out graph paper?  What do you want me to do with the numbers?"

And one of her classmates turned to her and said, "Kate, just let the damn data sit there and relax for a moment, okay?"

To which I say: amen.  Just let the damn pond be.  Someone in Wichita who has a background in experimental science will undoubtedly figure out what is going on, and then we'll have an answer.  Until then, it's perfectly okay for the skeptics to wait.  Settling on an answer, based on essentially no hard evidence, is the lazy way out.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Science vs. indoctrination

Indoctrinate (v.) -- to teach someone to accept fully the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group, in an uncritical fashion; to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle.

Objective (adj.) -- based on facts rather than on feelings or opinions.

There.  I thought I'd get a couple of definitions out of the way right at the outset.  It's not that I think my readers are in any particular need of refreshing their memories on the meanings; it's more that I want to be completely clear about how asinine Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin is being.

My reason for saying this is that, yet again, we are seeing an attack on the teaching of evolution in science classrooms, this time by a lawmaker who not only has no apparent understanding of science, but could use a refresher on how to use the Concise Oxford.  He has introduced a bill into the Missouri House of Representatives that would mandate that schools notify parents if evolution is being taught in biology classrooms -- and allow parents to take their children out of those classes while the topic is being covered, with no grade penalty or loss of credit.

"Our schools basically mandate that we teach one side," Brattin said, in an interview with Kansas City's KCTV News.  "It is an indoctrination because it is not an objective approach.  It’s an absolute infringement on people’s beliefs.  What’s being taught is just as much faith and, you know, just as much pulled out of the air as, say, any religion."

Okay, let me get this straight, Rep. Brattin.  We have, on the one hand, teachers using a curriculum that is based on the work of countless scientists, is supported by every scrap of hard evidence that there is, and has the support of damn near 100% of working biologists.  On the other hand, we have the creation myth of a bunch of illiterate Bronze-Age sheepherders, who also thought that bats were birds (Leviticus 11:19) and that god created day and night before he created the sun (Genesis 1:5-14), and teaches a worldview that is only still around because it's hammered into children's heads incessantly along with the message that questioning the logic of the whole thing is equivalent to listening to Satan.

And the biologists are the ones who are guilty of indoctrination, and of not being objective?

Predictably, scientists are outraged at Brattin's bill.  Glenn Branch, of the National Center for Science Education, said, "The bill would eviscerate the teaching of biology in Missouri.  Evolution inextricably pervades the biological sciences; it therefore pervades, or at any rate ought to pervade, biology education at the K–12 level.  There simply is no alternative to learning about it; there is no substitute activity."

No.  No, there isn't.  Evolution is the founding principle of biology, the idea by which (along with genetics) all of the rest of the science is understood.  Just as chemistry is not comprehensible without atomic theory, and physics is not comprehensible without the concept of forces and energy, biology becomes a meaningless jumble of vocabulary and terminology without the unifying model of evolution through natural selection.  Allowing students to "opt out" of learning about evolution is denying them the opportunity to find out how science actually works -- in essence, allowing them to remain ignorant.  That Brattin thinks the evolutionary model is "faith" and "pulled out of the air" shows that he has no real understanding of the science of biology.

Nor, apparently, does he have all that solid a grasp of the English language.  Religion relies on indoctrination, and a faith-based, subjective approach; science is the opposite.  Scientific principles stand or fall solely on the evidence supporting them.  Calling science indoctrination is as ridiculous as... as...

... as thinking that the sky was solid and made of glass (Job 37:18).

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The music of the spheres

It probably sounds uncharitable of me, but I wish that all of the people who can't be bothered to exert the time and effort to learn a little bit of science would stop pretending that they know what they're talking about.

We saw it last week with Ken Ham, blathering on for two hours about "historical science" while Bill Nye stood there staring at him with a "what the fuck are you talking about, dude?" expression that has got to become the basis of a meme somehow.

Of course, it's not just the creationists who babble about scientific concepts like the Second Law of Thermodynamics as if they actually understood them.  The New Age types do the same thing, usually venturing off instead into such esoteric fields as quantum mechanics, evidently mistaking "I don't understand quantum physics" as being the same as "quantum physics means whatever I decide it means."

I ran into an especially good example of this a couple of days ago, over at the loony website Spirit Science and Metaphysics.  And one of their posts, "Here's Why You Should Convert Your Music to 432 Hz," should probably be up for some kind of woo-woo wingnut award.

If there is such a thing.  Which there should be.

In this article, we find out that we are jeopardizing our health, all because we've been tuning our musical instruments wrong:
Most music worldwide has been tuned to A=440 Hz since the International Standards Organization (ISO) promoted it in 1953. However, studies regarding the vibratory nature of the universe indicate that this pitch is disharmonious with the natural resonance of nature and may generate negative effects on human behaviour and consciousness. Certain theories even suggest that the nazi [sic] regime has been in favor of adopting this pitch as standard after conducting scientific researches to determine which range of frequencies best induce fear and aggression. Whether or not the conspiracy is factual, interesting studies and observations have pointed towards the benefits of tuning music to A=432 Hz instead.

432 Hz is said to be mathematically consistent with the patterns of the universe. Studies reveal that 432 hz tuning vibrates with the universe’s golden mean PHI and unifies the properties of light, time, space, matter, gravity and magnetism with biology, the DNA code and consciousness. When our atoms and DNA start to resonate in harmony with the spiraling pattern of nature, our sense of connection to nature is said to be magnified. The number 432 is also reflected in ratios of the Sun, Earth, and the moon as well as the precession of the equinoxes, the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Stonehenge, the Sri Yantra among many other sacred sites.
Count 'em up, folks.  We have:
  • vibrational frequency
  • resonance
  • Nazis
  • the "Golden Mean"
  • the pyramids
  • conspiracies
  • a "grand unified theory"
  • DNA
  • spirals
  • Stonehenge
  • some vague shit about astronomy
  • "sacred sites"
  • light, time, space, matter, gravity, and magnetism
That's it, folks.  I think we can pack it in; we have reached Bullshit Nirvana, here.

Oh, yeah, and it wouldn't be complete without a quote from Nikola Tesla:
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” – Nikola Tesla
Presupposing, of course, that you have taken a physics course and understand what anything that Nikola Tesla said actually means.

We're then shown a bunch of photographs that are supposed to be relevant, including ones that look like this:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

These images are the patterns that emerge from standing waves in a metal plate (either free or forced vibrations); there's nothing mysterious about them.  (Although the theory behind the patterns is wildly complex.  I have a bachelor's degree in physics, and the math is way beyond anything I am capable of comprehending.)  Once you know what the images are, it's hardly a surprise that using a different frequency (432 Hertz rather than 440) will produce a different pattern.  But what they're telling us boils down to the 432 Hertz pattern somehow being "prettier..." which translates, apparently, to its having beneficial health effects.

Or something.  It's kind of hard to tell, frankly, what they do mean.  If you thought the preceding quoted paragraphs were bad, take a gander at this one:
All of the frequencies in the spectrum are related in octaves, from gamma rays to subharmonics. These colors and notes are also related to our Chakras and other important energy centers. If we are to understand that (…) Chakras are connected to the Seven Rays of the Solar Spectrum, then the notes and frequencies we use for the same should be the same. A432 Hz is the tuning of the Cosmic Keyboard or Cosmic Pitchfork, as opposed to the A440 Hz modern ‘standard.’ It places C# at 136.10 Hz ‘Om,’ which is the main note of the Sitar in classical Indian music and the pitch of the chants of the Tibetan monks, who tell us ‘It comes from nature.’
Oh.  The "Cosmic Pitchfork."  That makes total sense.  And I'm sure that the Tibetan monks are perfectly nice people, but the fact is, I wouldn't go to them for instruction on physics, any more than I'd go to Stephen Hawking to receive the teachings of the Buddha.  And talking about "octaves of gamma rays" makes about as much sense as talking about "photons of musical pitch."

But that doesn't matter.  You must immediately retune your guitar and fiddle and other musical instruments, because otherwise your pitch will clash with the Cosmic Keyboard.  And heaven knows we wouldn't want that to happen.

What bothers me about all of this is not that some woo-woo has a weird idea; having weird ideas is kind of the woo-woo raison d'être, after all.  What bothers me is that because the writer of this article is able to throw around some fancy-sounding scientific jargon, coupled with jargon from New Age metaphysics, there is this veneer of sensibility to it -- if you don't know a lot of science yourself, you might be fooled into thinking that what is on this webpage actually says something.  And a lot of people apparently have been fooled.  All you have to do is do a Google search for "432 Hertz tuning" and you will find, literally, hundreds of sites like this one that claim that if you don't retune your music, you are risking remaining unenlightened forever.

I have known more than one person who has regularly been suckered by this kind of stuff.  One of them, a long-ago acquaintance in Seattle who seemed to fall for every piece of freshly-minted New Age nonsense that came down the pike, would have panicked upon reading this, and not only would have immediately paid to have her piano retuned, but she would have done whatever she could to make sure that her CD player was outputting sounds tuned to a scale based on A = 432 Hertz, not the standard 440.  (And she would have attributed every joint pain, headache, and queasy stomach she'd had in the past three years to listening to music at the wrong pitch.)

So just to be clear; there is no health (or emotional, or spiritual) benefit from tuning to 432 Hertz.  It's even been the subject of an experiment, by Trevor Cox, professor of acoustical engineering at the University of Salford, a study that (surprise!) blew down the claim completely.  Put simply, this contention is 100% pure, grade-A, unadulterated pseudoscientific garbage.

And I think to round things out, I'm going to listen to one of my all-time favorite pieces of music -- Domenico Scarlatti's sparkling Sonata in D Major, K. 96, "La Chasse" -- as played by the brilliant Stephen Malinowski (and accompanied by a cool graphic of the musical score).

On a harpsichord tuned to A = 440 Hertz.  Take that, woo-woos.  And tell me if, after listening to this, you felt "aggressive and disharmonious."  Because if so, I think there's something more wrong with you than the way your music is tuned.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The legend of 50 Berkeley Square

Sometimes, with folk tales, you can pinpoint exactly when a legend entered the public awareness.  Someone writes and publishes a story in one of those "True Weird Tales" books or magazines; a report of a haunting makes the local news or newspaper; or, more recently, someone makes a claim in a blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Such, for example, is the famous story of the tumbling coffins of Barbados, about which there seems to be zero hard documentary evidence -- but which first appeared (as a true tale) in James Alexander's Transatlantic Sketches, and which has been a standard in the ghost story repertoire ever since.  Likewise, the story of Lord Dufferin and the doomed elevator operator has a very certain provenance -- Lord Dufferin himself, who enjoyed nothing more than terrifying the absolute shit out of his house guests by telling the story over glasses of cognac late at night.

One of the scariest ghost stories, though, seems to have been built by accretion, and has no certain date of origin.  It's the tale of the "most haunted house in London" -- Number 50 Berkeley Square.

[image courtesy of photographer Sophie Ryder and the Wikimedia Commons]

The house itself is a four-story structure, built in the late 18th century, that looks innocent enough from the outside.  Until 1827 it was the home of British Prime Minister George Canning, which certainly gives it some historical gravitas right from the outset.  But gradually the ownership descended down the socioeconomic scale, and in the late 1800s it had fallen into disrepair.

At some point during that interval, it got the reputation for being haunted.  Apparently, it's the upper floor that is said to be the worst; some say it's occupied by the spirit of a young woman who committed suicide by throwing herself from one of the upper windows, others that it's haunted by the ghost of a young man whose family had locked him in the attic by himself, feeding him through a slot in the door until he went mad and finally died.  Whatever the truth of the non-paranormal aspects -- the suicide of the young woman, or the madness and death of the unfortunate young man -- it's clear that neighbors viewed the house askance during the last two decades of the 19th century.  And that's when the legends really took off.

The earliest definite account of haunting comes from George, Baron Lyttleton, who spent the night in the attic in 1872 after being dared to do so by a friend.  He saw (he said) an apparition, that appeared to him as a brown mist, and that terrified him -- he shot at it, to no apparent effect, and the next morning found the shotgun shell but no other trace of what he'd fired at.  Lyttleton himself committed suicide four years later by throwing himself down the stairs of his London home -- some say, because he never recovered from the fright he'd received that night.

In 1879, Mayfair ran a story about the place, recounting the then-deceased Baron Lyttleton's encounter, and also describing the experience of a maid who'd been sent up to the attic to clean it, and had gone mad.  She died shortly afterward in an asylum, prompting another skeptic, one Sir Robert Warboys -- a "notorious rake, libertine, and scoffer" -- to spend the night, saying that he could handle anything that cared to show up.  The owner of the house elected to stay downstairs, but they rigged up a bell so that Warboys could summon help if anything happened.  Around midnight, the owner was awakened by the bell ringing furiously, followed by the sound of a pistol shot.  According to one account:
The landlord raced upstairs and found Sir Robert sitting on the floor in the corner of the room with a smoking pistol in his hand. The young man had evidently died from traumatic shock, for his eyes were bulged, and his lips were curled from his clenched teeth. The landlord followed the line of sight from the dead man's terrible gaze and traced it to a single bullet hole in the opposite wall. He quickly deduced that Warboys had fired at the 'Thing', to no avail.
The house was (according to the legend) left unoccupied thereafter, because no one could be found who was willing to rent it.  This is why it was empty when two sailors on shore leave from Portsmouth Harbor, Edward Blunden and Robert Martin, decided to stay there one foggy night when they could find no rooms to rent.  They were awakened in the wee hours by a misty "something" which tried to strangle Martin -- beside himself with fright, he fled, thinking his buddy was right behind him.  He wasn't.  When he went back into the house the following morning, accompanied by police, he found the unfortunate Blunden -- with his neck broken.

What's interesting about all of this is that after the Mayfair story, the whole thing kind of died down.  It's still called "the most haunted house in London," and figures prominently on London ghost tours, but it was purchased in 1937 by Maggs Brothers Antiquarian Book Dealers, and has shown no sign since that time of any paranormal occurrences.  And it's been pointed out that the story The Haunted and the Haunters by Edward Bulwer-Lytton -- published in 1859, right around the time the rumors of the haunting started -- bears an uncanny resemblance to the tale of 50 Berkeley Square, especially the account of the unstable Baron Lyttleton.

In my opinion, the entire thing seems to be spun from whole cloth.  There's no evidence that any of the paranormal stuff ever happened.  In fact, "Sir Robert Warboys" doesn't seem to exist except in connection to the haunted attic; if there is a mention of him anywhere except in accounts of his death at the hands of the misty "Thing," I haven't been able to find it.  As far as "two sailors from Portsmouth," that has about as much factual accuracy as "I heard the story from my aunt who said her best friend in high school's mother's second cousin saw it with her very own eyes."  And Lyttleton, as I've said, doesn't seem like he was exactly the most mentally stable of individuals to start with.

But I have to admit, it's a hell of a scary tale.  Part of what makes it as terrifying as it is is the fact that you never see the phantom's face.  As Stephen King points out, in his outstanding analysis of horror fiction Danse Macabre, there are times when not seeing what's behind the door is way worse than opening the door and finding out what it actually is.  So even though I'm not buying that the place is haunted, it does make for a great story -- and 50 Berkeley Square will definitely be on my itinerary when I have an opportunity to visit London.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Weeping ghosts and hospital demons

It's a phenomenon we've seen here before; the tendency of people to wave photographs around, claiming that they are evidence of the paranormal despite the fact that the image quality is generally lousy (either from magnification and subsequent pixillation, or else from a photograph that wasn't very good to begin with).  Blurry photographs, of course, leave your mind open to interpreting what you're looking at, which is dangerous ground if you're trying to do so skeptically and fairly.  If you add to that a dash of pareidolia, a shot of wishful thinking, and a heaping handful of being told ahead of time what you're seeing, and you've got a nice recipe for proving the existence of ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot, and pretty much whatever else you want.

I ran into two really good examples of that a couple of days ago.  The first one was presented over at The Crypto Crew as being a ghost standing behind a grieving man in a cemetery:

What immediately struck me about this one is that if it hadn't been for the three red arrows, I would never have thought there was anything odd about this photograph in the first place.  Even with the arrows it took me a while to see the "ghost."

A second one has a decidedly darker implication.  I first saw it on Facebook, but have since run into it on Twitter and a couple of the dicier paranormal sites.  It purports to show a dying woman in a hospital bed -- and a demon standing over her, presumably ready to whisk her soul off to hell as soon as she crosses into the netherworld:

Well, even over at they're not buying this one, and heaven knows they've had some pretty sketchy stuff over there and haven't raised an eyebrow.  Here's how they parse the Demon Photograph:

What I find most interesting about this is how our brains force an interpretation -- once we've been told that there's a demon there, we see the demon even if (like me) you don't believe in demons in the first place.  Grainy data can be turned into anything -- even, apparently, by skeptics.

It also strikes me how you never get a clear photograph of any of this stuff.  In these days where the average cellphone shot has better resolution than a photograph taken with an expensive camera did twenty years ago, why hasn't anyone been able to take a photograph that shows any real detail?  (Of course, I have a favored answer to this, but it's not one that's popular amongst the woo-woos.)

So that's the latest from the Creepy Photograph Department.  Myself, I think the guys in Quality Assurance need to have a look over there, because things seem to be slipping a little.  Next thing you know, we'll be seeing the folks over at Phantoms & Monsters giving up on paranormal photographs, and at that point we'll really know we're headed to hell in a handbasket.

Just like the poor lady in the hospital bed.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Biblical corn

One of the things I find amusing about people who argue over the meaning of passages in the bible is that so few of them seem to recognize that they're working from a translation.

A few -- very few, in my experience -- people are true biblical scholars, and have worked with the Aramaic and Greek originals (and I use that word with some hesitation, as even those were copies of earlier documents, copied and perhaps translated themselves with uncertain accuracy).  Most everyone else acts as if their favorite English translation is the literal word of god, as if Jesus Christ himself spoke pure, unadulterated 'Murican.

It does give rise to some funny situations.  We have the argument over whether the forbidden fruit that Eve gave Adam was an apple, a fig, or a pomegranate.  We have the claim (Micah 5:2) that the Messiah would be descended from David, and both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to show that Joseph was a descendant of David (although they disagree on his descent, so they can't both be right) -- and Jesus wasn't Joseph's son in any case.  We have one person who has argued that the creation story was translated wrong, and that god didn't create life, he "separated" humans from everything else, presumably by giving them souls.

We even have some folks who claim -- tongue-in-cheek, of course -- that the line from Leviticus 20 about "if a man lies with another man, they should both be stoned" as biblical support for gay marriage and marijuana legalization simultaneously.

All of which strikes me as funny, because no matter how you slice it, you're still arguing over the meaning of an uncertainly-translated text that has been recopied with uncertain precision an uncertain number of times, and reflects the beliefs of a bunch of Bronze Age sheepherders in any case.  Notwithstanding, you still have people arguing like hell that their translation is the correct, god-approved one, and all of the others are wrong.

And then you have this guy, who takes things a step further, declaring that the translation of one word is correct, and that means that... pretty much everything else we know about the history of the Middle East is wrong.

That word is "corn."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The word occurs 102 times (in the King James Version, at least) -- mostly as a translation of the Semitic root dagan.  The problem, of course, is that corn is a Mesoamerican plant, and did not exist in the Middle East until it was brought over after the exploration of the New World.  It's very easily explained, though; not only did dagan mean "grain" (not, specifically, corn), the word "corn" itself just meant "grain" in early Modern English -- a usage that persists in the word "barleycorn."

But this guy doesn't think so.  He thinks that the use of the word "corn" means... corn.  As in the stuff you eat at picnics in the summer with lots of butter and salt, the stuff cornmeal and popcorn and corn starch and high-fructose corn syrup are made from.  And therefore, he thinks...

... that everything in the bible actually happened here in the Western Hemisphere.

I'm not making this up.  Here's a direct quote:
The difficult situation with CORN in the BIBLE is that most people, due to the brainwashing that has been handed down through generations, firmly believe that the Biblical events happened in the Middle East.  After much research I can PROVE that the Middle East has absolutely NOTHING to do with the history, geography, and genealogy of the Holy Scriptures.  Nothing!...  CORN is in the Bible because the PEOPLE, PLACES, and EVENTS of the Biblical narratives were in the AMERICAS!
The "true history" of the events of the bible, he says, have been "hidden for over 500 years."  He has proof, which he will tell us when his book is released, and it's gonna overturn everything you think you know about history.

Oh, yeah, and the Crusades happened over here, too.  Apparently the Crusaders didn't trek to Jerusalem, they were trying to retake Peoria or something.

'Murica!  Yeah!

I'm not making this up, and the guy who wrote it seems entirely serious.  But it does highlight what can happen when you decide that any human-created document is the infallible word of a deity, or even (as I've heard) that god guided the translators and copiers so that it still is inerrant even after the inevitable Game of Telephone that translating and copying usually entails.  Not many people go as far as the Corn Dude does -- but it does bring up the question of whether any translation of the bible is good enough that we should even entertain using it as a guide to behavior or (heaven forfend) science.

So that's our exercise in eye-rolling for today.  Me, I'm done with the topic, so I'm going to go get breakfast.

For some reason, I'm in the mood for cornbread.  Funny thing, that.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shrouded in pseudoscience

I hate to break it to you, LiveScience, but in the interest of accuracy, it's probably time to take the word "Science" out of the name of your website.

What you're promoting isn't really science, any more than The History Channel has anything even remotely to do with history.  You're passing along to the public the idea that science is this mushy, hand-waving pursuit, where you can do an "experiment" to support an idea you'd already decided was true, generate essentially nothing in the way of data, and then claim that your results support whatever your original contention was.

I say this in light of a recent story called "Shroud of Turin: Could Ancient Earthquake Explain Face of Jesus?"  If the very title makes you suspicious, then good; you're starting out from the right vantage point.

Let's begin with the facts.  The Shroud of Turin is a piece of linen cloth that has been preserved for centuries as a holy relic -- supposedly the sheet that covered Jesus' body after the crucifixion.  It shows the image of a naked man, with wounds similar to those described in the bible.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is, the linen cloth was carbon-14 dated -- a step that the religious powers-that-be resisted for decades -- and it was conclusively shown to date to around 1350 C.E.  It is, put simply, a fake.  So you'd think that would be that.

As we've seen before, that is never that when religion enters the picture.

The article in LiveScience tells about a study headed by Alberto Carpinteri of the Politecnico di Torino, in Turin, Italy, which discovered that when you crush rocks using a mechanical press, it can cause a brief emission of neutrons.  From that single piece of information, he concludes the following:
  • Earthquakes can therefore be associated with neutron emissions.
  • The neutrons could interact with nitrogen atoms in the linen cloth (or in anything else, presumably), and mess up the carbon-14 dating protocol, causing it to give a wrong answer.
  • The neutrons could also have burned a pattern into the cloth as they passed through it.  Because the cloth was wrapped around a human body, it would have caused an image to appear on it, much like an x-ray.
  • The bible says that there was an earthquake around the time of Jesus' resurrection, and the "stone rolled back from the tomb."  [Matthew 28:1-2]
  • So: the Shroud of Turin is actually the burial cloth of Jesus.  Therefore god and the Catholic Church and all of the rest of it.  q.e.d.
Oh, come on, now.  This qualifies as science?  It's about as bad an example of assuming your conclusion as I've ever seen.  And if earthquakes interfered with carbon-14 and nitrogen-14 levels, then radiocarbon dating would never work, since earthquakes happen basically all the time, all over the Earth.  And yet carbon-14 dating has been shown to be extremely accurate, over and over again.

Funny thing, that.

So you have to wonder why Carpinteri et al. don't just say, "It was magic, and I believe it," and be done with it.  Why all of the scientific trappings?

Well, I know the answer, of course; people these days are getting a little iffy in the firmness of their religious convictions, and science is beginning to hold more sway over people's minds than religious authority does.  If you can convince folks that the science supports religion, you've pulled 'em right back in.

To LiveScience's credit, at least they took the time to talk to an actual scientist, geochemist Gordon Cook of the University of Glasgow.  Cook, unsurprisingly, was dubious.  "It would have to be a really local effect not to be measurable elsewhere," Cook said.  "People have been measuring materials of that age for decades now and nobody has ever encountered this."

However, even though they quoted Cook, the fact that LiveScience chose to publicize this non-science means that they're giving it unwarranted credence, and that's just irresponsible.  A "study" like this wouldn't make it through the first round of peer review.  Carpinteri and his team are relying on press statements -- and sites like LiveScience -- to publicize what is, at its heart, a religious statement of faith.

So the whole thing is a little frustrating.  It won't change anything, probably; the scientists will almost certainly just roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing, and the religious people who want to believe in the Shroud's relic status will continue to believe.

But I maintain: LiveScience, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, and other popularizers of a pseudoscientific worldview are not doing science any favors by convincing the public that this sort of foolishness deserves to be considered seriously.  I'd almost rather that they stick to Bigfoot, UFOs, and pieces about how the Vikings were alien time-travelers.  At least that stuff is mildly entertaining.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Brazilian werewolf alert

Every once in a while, I'll run into a story that just gives me the shudders, despite my generally rationalistic approach.  All this does, of course, is to highlight a truism about the human condition; when it comes to a fight between logic and emotion, emotion usually wins.  We like to flatter ourselves, and think that our highly-developed prefrontal cortices make us smarter than our non-human cousins, but when it comes to a real throw-down match between the parts of the brain, I'm putting my money on the limbic system every time -- the part of the brain that, along with the hypothalamus, governs the "four F's" of behavior: feeding, fighting, flight, and... mating.

A story this week out of Brazil highlights the third "F" -- which stands for the flight response.  It could also stand for "fear," because that's what usually motivates an animal running away.  The story, which comes out of the town of São Gonçalo de Campos, near Feira de Santana, in the state of Bahia, is about a rather terrifying cryptid that has been sighted more than once in local neighborhoods.

Even the government officials are taking it seriously.  Apparently, for the last two weeks there's been a curfew in the town; no one is to be outside after 9 PM.  It started when a man identified only as "Pingo" described seeing a five-foot-tall black monster, which ran at him; Pingo turned and fled, escaping (he said) only by the narrowest of margins.  At first, the other villagers made fun of him -- until others had similar encounters.  Locals are calling it a "werewolf."

All of this would have been nothing more than another tale of "I saw something real, really I did" if it hadn't been for the footage captured on a home security camera.  Watch it for yourself:

Here's a still:

Okay, yes, I know.  There are no such things as werewolves.  There's no reason why this couldn't have been faked.  It probably is a guy in dark clothes jumping around in front of the homeowner's security camera, in order to keep the whole scare going.  Who knows?  Maybe it's even "Pingo," who dreamed the story up to have his fifteen minutes (or in this case, more like two weeks) of fame.

But I have to admit that watching this video gave me some very irrational shudders right up the spine.  There's something about the way the creature moved that just doesn't look... human.  I'm probably being suggestible, I realize that; our fight-or-flight responses have been programmed through millions of years of evolution to shriek at us, whenever we see a shadowy shape in the dark, "DEAR GOD IT'S A PREDATOR RUN FOR YOUR LIFE OR YOU WILL BE MESSILY DEVOURED."  The chances of it being anything other than a hoaxing human are very small.

Even so, if I lived in São Gonçalo de Campos, I would definitely abide by the curfew.  I probably would also deadbolt my doors shut at night.  Maybe it is only Pingo playing a prank; that's what my prefrontal cortex is telling me.  But if I lived anywhere near where this thing had been seen, my limbic system would outshout my prefrontal cortex without even breaking a sweat.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

End of the world, episode #452

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


I mean, what is this?  This 452nd time this has happened, or something?  Between Mayan apocalypses and Christian End Times predictions and the planet Nibiru and plagues and pandemics and the Harmonic Convergence and the Yellowstone Supervolcano (which is still overdue for an eruption!), it's kind of surprise we're all still here.

This time, the world is going to end because we're going to be destroyed by a rogue planet that is hurtling in toward the inner Solar System at a speed of 200 kilometers per second.  So says a report on Turner Radio Network, which claims that "Dr. Kaplan, a Professor in the Astronomy Department at the University of Texas at Austin" has discovered a large object that is heading toward us -- and that even if it doesn't hit us directly, "the gravity will affect the Earth in terrible ways long before it gets here."

[image courtesy of NASA and the Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Kaplan made a video (linked on the website) wherein he projected the planet's arrival time as August 2014, which is the only thing I find that is cheerful about this prediction.  It gives me the summer to recover from the progressive hypothermia I've experienced this winter, so at least I'll finally be comfortably warm by the time I get vaporized.  And it also means that whatever else happens, I won't have to endure another upstate New York winter, because interaction with the planet will cause "shifting of the tectonic plates on a massive scale."  I can only hope that our tectonic plate will shift toward the equator.  If that's an outcome of a planetary collision, then all I can say is, bring it on, because I have had it with the snow.

Of course, the other predictions are more dire.  "(I)f Kaplan's scenario is true, the problems Earth will experience would begin with weather anomalies and tidal anomalies, will increase to earthquakes then volcanic eruptions as Earth's magma is pulled by the gravity of the approaching planet," the Turner Radio Broadcast report said.  "The experts went on to tell us the troubles would increase further to horrific tsunamis 1000 meters high, moving at 1200 kilometers per hour striking coastal regions around the Earth...  One expert even claimed that depending upon the size and gravity of the planet, and its angle of approach, the gravity of this other planet could actually STOP the Earth from rotating on its axis.  He likened it to a vehicle traveling at 1,000 miles per hour, and having the brakes slammed on; the resulting inertia of all objects on earth would cause them to continue moving while the earth was stopping; sort of like what happens in a car wreck when the car suddenly stops, but the passengers fly forward from their own inertia."

So that kind of sucks.  And after the article goes into all of that, they ask a few pertinent questions, such as "Could a planet be moving this fast?" (Yes), "Can gravity affect things at large distances?" (Yes), and "Isn't all of this pretty damn scary?" (Yes).

But then, after all of this terrifying talk, Turner Radio Network posted an update that suggested that a few teensy details about the foregoing story might be factually inaccurate.  First, (Kyle) Kaplan is a graduate student, not a professor of astronomy.  Second, he posted a second video in which he retracted what he'd said in the first, saying it was "a joke."

The most amazing part of all of this is that Turner Radio Network printed Kaplan's retraction, and posted a link to the video, and then said that they didn't believe his retraction.  Yes, you read that right; given the choice between (1) there being a huge rogue planet heading toward Earth, which was only observed by one graduate student amongst all of the astronomers in the world, and (2) some dumb college guy decided to play a prank and it got out of hand, they decided that scenario #1 was more likely.  "Who would want it retracted and why?" the TRN writer said, his eyebrows wiggling in a significant fashion.  "Well, if people think they're doomed, they may stop paying their taxes and their bills; there may be widespread panic and a breakdown of social order to the point of chaos.  The powers that be can't have any of THAT, can they?"

No.  They can't.  So our only other option is that a giant planet is going to hit the Earth this August.  q.e.d.

They end, though, with asking the right question: "Is this a HOAX?????? That's easy for all of you to verify: Grab a telescope and look at the coordinates yourself.  If there's a planet there, and you see it getting larger (i.e. closer) over a few nights, then this is real and we've got potential problems."  They give the planet's position -- at least as of a couple of days ago -- as Right Ascension: 04 hrs. 08 Min. 08 Sec.; Declination: 60 degrees 56 arc min. 43 arc sec.  So it should be easy enough to check.  It's sort of like the joke:  "I asked myself, 'Why is the baseball getting bigger?'  Then it hit me."

Me, I'm not losing sleep over it.  If there really were a planet heading our way, one or two other astronomers would have had a thing or two to say about it by now.  I'm just adding this as line #452 on the list of End of the World Predictions Wherein the World Did Not End, and sitting back and having a beer and waiting for #453.  I think the next one is gonna be zombies.  We haven't had a good zombie apocalypse lately.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The error of their ways

I recently started teaching the unit on evolution in my introductory biology class, and that always gets me thinking.  The conflict between evolutionary (i.e. scientific) views of the universe and young-earth creationist (i.e. unscientific) models can cause a great deal of stress in students' minds.  Children of evangelical parents are often put in the intensely uncomfortable position of either having to contradict a teacher they may like and respect, or else betray the ideals by which they were raised (and in that view, perhaps jeopardizing their standing with god in the process).

Of course, it's not the only subject I teach that is controversial.  Climate change is at least as hackles-raising as evolution is, these days, and there is a small but highly vocal minority in our community that bristles at any mention of the value of vaccination.  And therein lies the problem; to what extent is it incumbent upon a science teacher to be straightforward about his/her stance with regards to controversial topics about which the scientific world is at consensus?

It's different for teachers of politics and government.  There, the fairest of us strive to keep our own views out of things, because (in the words of a former principal I worked for) we need to remember that children are a captive audience, and the line between teaching and proselytizing can be crossed awfully easily.  I have no difficulty keeping my opinions to myself when I teach the ethics unit in my Critical Thinking class; my stock line is that my views on the questions we discuss are irrelevant.  It is my job instead to needle everyone, and get all the students to consider their stances in a thoughtful manner regardless of whether or not they resemble my own.  "If you are really that interested in what I think," I tell them, "I'll answer any question you like... after you graduate."

The situation is different in science.  Science is, at its basis, not about opinions, it's about facts and inferences.  When an anti-vaxxer says that the MMR shot is linked to autism, (s)he is making a statement that either lines up with the available evidence, or else not.  And in this case, it clearly does not.  So to what extent should I respect a student's right to persist in an erroneous belief out of a desire to keep the peace, and to abide by my long-ago principal's dictum to keep in mind that we are not supposed to proselytize?

As I've grown older, I've become less and less cautious about this -- due, in part, to a feeling of "I've done this job long enough to know what I'm doing," and in part to a sense that to allow false beliefs to go unchallenged is exactly the opposite of what a science teacher should be doing.  I have no doubt that if our chemistry teacher was faced with a student who thought that atoms were made of tiny balls of cream cheese, she would not hesitate to say, "I'm sorry, but you're wrong."  Why are we so afraid to do this in the case of evolution, climate change, and the efficacy of vaccination?

The answer, of course, lies in the deep emotional charge that these topics carry.  There's a feeling that by so doing, we've crossed the line into dictating a student's politics and religion.  And while I do my best to keep my political beliefs to myself -- I steadfastly refuse to get into political discussions with students -- I'm well known in my school and community as being an atheist, and the last thing I want is to be seen as having some kind of axe to grind apropos of tearing down some poor kid's dearly-held religious beliefs.

But still.  The statement "the Earth is 6,000 years old" is simply factually incorrect.  So is "the Earth's climate is not warming up."  Is my reluctance to come out and say that to my students, to leave those erroneous beliefs unchallenged, effectively allowing them to remain willfully ignorant?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Well, yes.  Yes, it is.  There are probably kinder and gentler ways to say it, but in these cases, "I'm sorry, you're wrong," is a literal statement of fact.  We're not doing kids any favors by pretending along with them that they can hold a counterfactual worldview without being challenged.  It does put them in a bind, though; most of the kids I've known who were young-earth creationists, climate change deniers, and anti-vaxxers have learned those beliefs from their parents.  But consider: if these kids can't be steered in the right direction by science teachers -- on topics where scientists have come to near 100% agreement -- haven't we failed to do the job we have been entrusted with?

It is not our responsibility to convince those children who won't be convinced, just as it is not our responsibility to ensure that every child studies and does his/her assignments.  That same principal I mentioned earlier also used to say, "Every kid has the right to fail."  It applies just as well here.  Faced with facts, logic, and rational argument, kids are perfectly within their rights to reject them.  But science teachers have to be brave enough to present those facts, logic and arguments, and weather the backlash that might result.  What I say to my Critical Thinking students could well apply to every student entering every science class we teach: "You may leave this class with your ideas unchanged.  You may not leave this class with your ideas unchallenged.  After that, it's up to you."