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.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ecological micro-management

Even if I sometimes present a rather cynical front, I really have a deep belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature.  Most of us, most of the time, mean well.  All we want is to have our basic needs met; food, shelter, companionship, security.  Despite what you see on the nightly news -- news that has been selected deliberately to be eye-catching, i.e., usually violent or upsetting -- the vast majority of the human race is peaceful, caring, and kind.

That said, we do have a regrettable tendency to suffer from hubris, mainly with respect to the rest of the inhabitants on Earth.  We often feel like we have the right to twist the environment and its non-human inhabitants to our own desires, and expect that because of our big brains we should be able to predict all outcomes (and avoid any negative ones).  Burn fossil fuels, increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?  Pshaw, how could that cause a problem?  Overhunt, overfish, feed the world with big industrial farms that require millions of tons of fertilizer each year just to remain productive?  No problem.  We have to eat, right?

Of course, right.

Few people think all that deeply about how interlocked the ecosystem is, and how complex.  You cannot affect one piece of it without affecting them all, often in unpredictable ways.  We are dealing with multi-variable analysis of a system we only partly understand, and acting as though we should be able to control it, acting as though we are somehow outside the system ourselves.

A vivid demonstration of this came in the early 1990s with the inauguration of Biosphere 2, the fascinating (and forward-thinking) ecology project in the Arizona desert, which consisted of a huge dome housing a variety of ecosystems.  It was constructed, and populated with plants and animals, so as to be self-sustaining, just as the Earth's system ("Biosphere 1") is.  Chemists, biologists, and ecologists combined their knowledge in the planning process, trying to get the initial balance exactly correct.  Then, in 1991, eight human scientists agreed to be locked inside the dome for two years, with no access to anything that wasn't locked in there with them.

Biosphere 2 experienced problems right from the get-go, and eventually the mission had to be cancelled:
Biosphere 2 suffered from CO2 levels that "fluctuated wildly" and most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died.  Insect pests, like cockroaches, boomed.  In practice, ants, a companion to one of the tree species (Cecropia) in the Rain Forest, had been introduced.  By 1993 the tramp ant species Paratrechina longicornis, local to the area, had been unintentionally sealed in and had come to dominate...  [A] number of pollinating insects were lost to ant predation and several bird species were lost.

The oxygen inside the facility, which began at 20.9%, fell at a steady pace and after 16 months was down to 14.5%.  This is equivalent to the oxygen availability at an elevation of 4,080 meters (13,400 ft)...  A mystery accompanied the oxygen decline: the corresponding increase in carbon dioxide did not appear. This concealed the underlying process until an investigation by Jeff Severinghaus and Wallace Broecker of Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory using isotopic analysis showed that carbon dioxide was reacting with exposed concrete inside Biosphere 2 to form calcium carbonate, thereby sequestering both carbon and oxygen.
Now, I'm not criticizing the experiment, mind you; we learned a tremendous amount from it.  It's just that I think it serves primarily as an illustration that we don't know nearly enough to undertake ecomanagement on a large scale.

All of this is simply a preamble to my thoughts about an article sent to me by a friend, called "The Radical Plan to Eliminate Earth's Predatory Species."  In it, we hear the proposal by a British philosopher, David Pearce, who believes that because predation of all sorts causes suffering to sentient beings, we have a moral obligation to eliminate predators if we can.

[image courtesy of photographer Colin M. L. Burnett and the Wikimedia Commons]

Pretty radical.  Pearce says:
Sentient beings shouldn't harm each other.  This utopian-sounding vision is ancient.  Gautama Buddha said "May all that have life be delivered from suffering".  The Bible prophesies that the wolf and the lion shall lie down with the lamb.  Today, Jains sweep the ground in front of their feet rather than unwittingly tread on an insect. 
My own conceptual framework and ethics are secular — more Bentham than Buddha.  I think we should use biotechnology to rewrite our genetic source code; recalibrate the hedonic treadmill; shut down factory farms and slaughterhouses; and systematically help sentient beings rather than harm them... 
Humans already massively "interfere" with Nature in countless ways ranging from uncontrolled habitat-destruction to captive breeding programs for big cats to "rewilding".  Within the next few decades, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control.  On current trends, large nonhuman terrestrial vertebrates will be extinct outside our wildlife parks by mid-century.  So the question arises.  What principle(s) should govern our stewardship of the rest of the living world?  How many of the traditional horrors of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" should we promote and perpetuate?  Alternatively, insofar we want to preserve traditional forms of Darwinian life, should we aim for an ethic of compassionate stewardship instead.  Cognitively, nonhuman animals are akin to small children.  They need caring for as such.
In answer to the inevitable charge of hubris, Pearce responds:
Inevitably, critics talk of "hubris".  Humans shouldn't "play God."  What right have humans to impose our values on members of another race or species?  The charge is seductive but misplaced.  There is no anthropomorphism here, no imposition of human values on alien minds.  Human and nonhuman animals are alike in an ethically critical respect.  The pleasure-pain axis is universal to sentient life.  No sentient being wants to be harmed — to be asphyxiated, dismembered, or eaten alive.  The wishes of a terrified toddler or a fleeing zebra to flourish unmolested are not open to doubt even in the absence of the verbal capacity to say so.
My criticism of Pearce's proposal -- which, he says, should be accomplished by genetic manipulation, selective breeding, and monitoring of animal populations with microchips -- does not rest on any high-flown philosophy.  It has, in fact, little to do with morals or values.  He is correct that we are already "playing god," and have been for millennia, with our selective breeding and large-scale ecological manipulation for food production and living space.  What I question is purely pragmatic; if we don't know enough to manage even a three-acre simulated biosphere, using the skills, insight, and planning of the world's best ecologists, how in the hell do we think we're smart enough to micromanage the entire globe?

Pearce's motivation, and ultimate goal -- eliminating pain and suffering, even from less-cognitively-developed animals like insects -- is, on one level, laudable.  I've been a biologist long enough that I can consider an incident like a cheetah killing an antelope as positive in the larger sense of keeping the eco-community in balance.  At the same time, I'm compassionate enough that I feel sorry for the antelope, and pity the victim for the fear and pain that it experienced as its life ended.  That emotional reaction is not sufficient, however, to fool me into thinking that we as a species know enough to overturn the predator-prey interaction, evolved for billions of years, in some sort of misguided attempt to make things better.

Pearce says, "A few centuries from now, if involuntary suffering still exists in the world, the explanation for its persistence won't be that we've run out of computational resources to phase out its biological signature, but rather that rational agents — for reasons unknown — will have chosen to preserve it.
"  I think this is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong.  The hubris of his position is not that presumes human moral superiority; it is that it presumes a far greater comprehension of this planet's systems than we have, or are likely to have in the foreseeable future, even considering the expansion of our scientific understanding over the last couple of centuries.

Our ecological management of the world is rife with examples of actions undertaken with the best of intentions, and which had drastic and unexpected consequences.  Pearce might well label me as immoral for accepting the inevitability of predation, and therefore suffering, in the world; but his position -- that we could use our scientific and technological capacities to eliminate it -- isn't just the words of an optimist who makes Pollyanna look like a cynic.  It exemplifies the attitude that got us to the disastrous place where we currently are -- in the beginning of the Sixth Great Extinction, facing radical climate change, facing the collapse of the ocean's fisheries -- all resulting from the stance that "we know what we're doing."

Only Pearce's vision, of micromanagement of the whole world, goes one step beyond blind eco-optimism; it puts us in the position of pulling all of the Earth's strings.  And, I believe, it opens up the possibility of fucking things up on a scale the likes of which we've never seen before.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Floating naked ghoul alert

It's been a long while since we've had a good report of cryptid activity, so I'm pleased to bring you a doozy today.  This one comes from the town of Lithia (near Tampa), Florida, so if you come from near there, you might want to be on the lookout.

The (unnamed) source of this peculiar story, which appeared yesterday on the phenomenally wacky site Phantoms and Monsters, says he was out walking his dog late one night last week, when he saw (and smelled) something pretty peculiar:
I was walking late one night with my German Shepherd, when I smelled an overwhelming stench of road kill.  I looked over into the woods near my home and saw a naked pale white man-like thing crawling in the woods.  It was on its hands, feet and knees about 3 inches above the ground.
So, we're already put on notice that this is going to be a pretty bizarre story.  I mean, look at the features of this thing we've already had thrown at us, in the first three sentences:

  • naked
  • pale
  • crawling on all fours
  • floating three inches off the ground
  • smells like roadkill
Let's do a little thought experiment here.  Picture yourself walking a backroad in Florida late one summer night.  Heavy, humid, still air, thick underbrush on both sides of the road.  Crickets singing, a stray mosquito whining in your ear.  The only other sound is your footsteps, and your dog's panting.  You see a naked white ghoulish creature floating in the woods, and it smells like decomposing flesh.

What do you do?

I'll bet you my next month's salary it's not what this guy did.  To wit:
I changed hands with my flashlight which my dog's leash prevented me from immediately shining it in that direction.  In the 2 seconds it took to change hands and shine the light on this thing, it had moved 20 feet to near a tree it was trying to hide behind.  It saw my light as it was swinging towards it and quickly crunched into a cannon ball like posture, and balanced on its toes & balls of its feet, hiding its face and held perfectly still.
So, let's add two more charming characteristics to our cryptic-of-the-week:

  • can move twenty feet in under two seconds
  • freezes and hides its face whenever you look at it
What we have here sounds like the love child of a zombie and a Weeping Angel.  If you needed something else to populate your nightmares.

But to me, the most amazing thing isn't what the guy reports he saw, but what he thought upon seeing it.  Not only did he not do what I would have done when he first spotted the thing, namely, piss his pants and then have a stroke, he calmly aimed his flashlight at it, and decided... that it must be a mime:
I got a overwhelming feeling that if I kept shining the light on it, that it would look up at me with glowing eyes and a weird face. So I continued on with my walk. I thought maybe it was a teenager doing a mime, but there was no one taking a picture and this thing had a oddly pronounced spine and was absolutely hairless.
Again, "Oh, hey, I bet that's a naked teenage mime" would have to be the very last thing I'd think of, in his situation.  Be that as it may, he thought that was a serious enough possibility that he calmly finished his walk with his dog (both of them got home unscathed), and proceeded to do an internet search:
I went home and looked on the internet to see if this is something kids are doing now (painting themselves white, shaving all hair off, rolling around in road kill and crawling around late at night in woods).
I teach teenagers, and I can say with some authority that no, this is not something that teenagers do.

But he did find a photograph from a cryptid report in Louisiana three years ago that looked like what he'd seen:

Then he asks if this may have been a cryptid called a "Rake," and if anyone knows more about it.

I didn't, so I did a bit of searching, and in short order, I found out that the Rake is yet another fictional entity of the same origin as Slender Man -- the site Creepypasta (here's their page on the Rake).  So whatever the guy saw, I can say with some authority that it wasn't the Rake, given that the Rake doesn't exist.

Of course, my suspicion is that the Lithia Floating Naked Ghoul probably doesn't, either.  Starting with the guy's bizarre reaction to an apparition that would have most of us screaming like a little girl and running for home so fast you couldn't see our feet, in the fashion of a Looney Tunes character.  Also, what about his dog?  I don't know about your dog, but if my dog scented a creature that smelled like roadkill, he'd be frantic to go make friends, because roadkill is basically doggie cologne.

So I sort of doubt the entire account.  But I would, of course.  Actually, I'm strongly suspecting that there were some mind-altering chemicals involved.  But if I'm wrong, and you're down near Tampa, keep your eyes peeled.  If you see any stinking naked ghoul mimes, be sure to let me know.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Demonic texting

It's an increasingly technological world out there, and it's to be expected that computers and all of their associated trappings are even infiltrating the world of wacko superstition.

About a year ago, we had a new iPhone app for hunting ghosts, called the "Spirit Story Box."  Early this year, there was even a report of a fundamentalist preacher who was doing exorcisms... via Skype.  So I suppose it's not surprising that if humans now can use technology to contact supernatural entities of various sorts, the supernatural entities can turn the tables and use our technology against us.

At least, that's the claim of a Roman Catholic priest from Jaroslaw, Poland, named Father Marian Rajchel.  According to a story in Metro, Rajchel is a trained exorcist, whatever that means.  Which brings up a question: how do you train an exorcist?  It's not like there's any way to practice your skills, sort of like working on the dummy dude when you're learning to perform CPR.  Do they show instructional videos, using simulations with actors?  Do they start the exorcist with something easier, like expelling the forces of evil from, say, a stuffed toy, and then they gradually work their way up to pets and finally to humans?  (If exorcists work on pets, I have a cat that one of those guys should really take a look at.  Being around this cat, whose name is Geronimo, is almost enough to make me believe in Satan Incarnate.  Sometimes Geronimo will sit there for no obvious reason, staring at me with his big yellow eyes, all the while wearing an expression that says, "I will disembowel you while you sleep, puny mortal.")

But I digress.

Father Rajchel was called a while back to perform an exorcism on a young girl, and the exorcism was successful (at least according to him).  The girl, understandably, is much better for having her soul freed from a Minion of the Lord of Evil.  But the Minion itself apparently was pissed at Rajchel for prying it away from its host, and has turned its attention not on its former victim, but on the unfortunate priest himself.

Apparently such a thing is not unprecedented.  According to an article about exorcism over at Ghost Village, being an exorcist is not without its risks:
[John] Zaffis [founder of the Paranormal and Demonology Research Society of New England] said, "You don't know what the outcome of the exorcism is going to be - it's very strong, it's very powerful. You don't know if that person's going to gain an enormous amount of strength, what is going to come through that individual, and being involved, you will also end up paying a price." 
Many times the demon will try to attack and attach itself to the priest or minister administering the exorcism. According to Father Martin's book, the exorcist may get physically hurt by an out-of-control victim, could literally lose his sanity, and even death is possible.
So there you are, then.  Rajchel, hopefully, knew what he was getting into.  But I haven't yet told you how the demon is getting even with Father Rajchel:

It's sending him evil text messages on his cellphone.

According to Rajchel, ever since the exorcism, the demon has been texting him regularly sending him messages like, "Shut up, preacher.  You cannot save yourself.  Idiot.  You pathetic old preacher."  On another occasion, he got the message, "She will not come out of this hell.  She’s mine.  Anyone who prays for her will die."

Which of course brings up the question of how a demon got a cellphone.  Did it just walk into the Verizon store and purchase one?  You'd think the clerk would have noticed, what with the horns and tail and all.  Probably, all things considered, more likely that the demon stole someone's cellphone, although it still does raise the question of how it's paying to keep the cell service going.

It also raises the much more pragmatic question of why Rajchel doesn't just see what number the texts are coming from, and report it to the police.  Odds are it's the girl that he exorcised, and she's not possessed with anything but being a kid and enjoying pranking a gullible old man.

Of course, that's not how the true believers see it, and once you believe in demons and the rest it's a short step to deciding that they can just magically manipulate your machinery.  So I doubt that all of my practical objections would call any of those beliefs into question.

But it does bring up a different issue, which is, if demons can infest cellphones, can they infest other sorts of equipment, too?  Because if so, I strongly suspect that my lawnmower is possessed.  It seems to realize just when my lawn needs to be mowed, and chooses that time to suffer some kind of mysterious breakdown that necessitates my calling Brian the Lawn Mower Repair Guy.  Given how often this happens, maybe Brian is in cahoots with the demon.  Something in the way of a business partnership.  Although you do have to wonder what the demon gets out of it, other than the pure joy of listening to me swear.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The enemy of my enemy is... wait.

I'm sure that most of you have heard of Boko Haram, the group of Nigerian extremist Muslim nutjobs who hate the secular west's culture so much that they have started preying on their own people.  These are the loons who have, according to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, killed over 12,000 people, and who were responsible for the kidnapping earlier this year of 234 girls who were students at a government-run girls' school.  As of the writing of this post, the girls have not been returned to their families; Boko Haram leaders promised that they would be married off to devout Muslims.  The "Save Our Girls" campaign, which attracted international attention, accomplished (unfortunately) nothing but allowing Boko Haram to gain a spot on the world stage.

Even the name "Boko Haram" means "Western education is a sin."

So these people are, by any conventional definition of the word, evil.  And anyone who opposes them, by whatever means, is to be lauded.

Even if it's...

The Association of Nigerian Witches and Wizards.

According to an article on the site Bella Naija, the Association (called, from its name in Yoruba, "WITZAN") has issued an ultimatum to Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau; knock it off or face the magical consequences.

"Witches and wizards in Nigeria are deeply worried by what is going on in the country, especially Boko Haram insurgency," said WITZAN spokesperson Dr. Okhue Iboi.  "As stakeholders in the Nigerian project, we can no longer afford to fold our hands while the nation burns.  Enough is enough."  He added that "our fellow brothers and sisters from the three northeastern states pleaded for the emergency meeting, to help cage Shekau and his blood-thirsty lieutenants."

And now that the magicians have gotten involved, Shekau's days are numbered.  He will be captured before December, Iboi said, and will be "paraded on the streets of Abuja and Maiduguri for the world to see."  As for the missing girls, their parents should smile, because "those girls are coming back home.  They will be rescued."

So... yeah.  This puts me in the odd position of being in support of a wizard and his woo-woo pals.  I mean, the WITZAN folks clearly aren't in very solid touch with reality themselves, but for pete's sake, they're preferable to Boko Haram.

On the other hand, maybe this is the right way to go about it.  The Boko Haram folks are themselves deeply superstitious.  The Nigerian government has been fighting these lunatics since at least 2002, using conventional tactics, without much success.  If anything, the radicals have gained strength and confidence; there have been 43 deadly attacks in 2014 alone, and over 2,000 dead.  Maybe if WITZAN can convince the members of Boko Haram that they're being ritually cursed, enough of them will get spooked that they'll desert.

Fight fire with fire, you know?  Maybe they should give it a try.  Nothing else has seemed to work.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Arguing by agreement

My job would be easier, as a skeptic, if humans were basically rational beings.

The fact is, though, we're not controlled solely by the higher-cognitive parts of our brains.  We are also at the mercy of our emotions and biases, not to mention a set of perceptual apparati that work well enough most of the time, but are hardly without their own faults and (sometimes literal) blind spots.

This is why the backfire effect occurs.  A pair of psychologists, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, found that most people, after being confronted with evidence against their prior beliefs, will espouse those beliefs more strongly:
Nyhan and Reifler found a backfire effect in a study of conservatives. The Bush administration claimed that tax cuts would increase federal revenue (the cuts didn't have the promised effect). One group was offered a refutation of this claim by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it. The percentage of believers jumped to 67 when the conservatives were provided with the refutation of the idea that tax cuts increase revenue.  (from The Skeptic's Dictionary)
As a blogger, this makes it hard to know how to approach controversial topics.  By calmly and dispassionately citing evidence against silly claims, am I having the effect of making the True Believers double down on their position?  If so, how could I approach things differently?

A study published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides the answer.  To convince people of the error of their ways, agree with them, strenuously, following their beliefs to whatever absurd end they drive you, and without once uttering a contrary word.

Psychologists Eran Halperin, Boaz Hameiri, and Roni Porat of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel were looking at a way to alter attitudes between Israelis and Palestinians -- a goal as monumental as it is laudable.  Given the decades that have been spent in futile negotiations between these two groups, always approached from a standpoint of logic, rationality, and compromise, Halperin, Hameiri, and Porat decided to try a different tack.

150 Israeli volunteers were split into two groups -- one was shown video clips of neutral commercials, the other video clips that related the Israeli/Palestinian conflict back to the values that form the foundation of the Israeli self-identity.  In particular, the clips were based on the idea that Israel has a god-given right to exist, and is the most deeply moral society in the world.  But instead of taking the obvious approach that attacks against Palestinians (including innocent civilians) called into question the morality of the Israeli stance, the videos followed these concepts to their logical conclusion -- that the conflict should continue, even if innocent Palestinians died, because of Israel's inherent moral rectitude.

And attitudes changed.  The authors of the study report that members of the experimental group showed a 30% higher willingness to reevaluate their positions on the issue, as compared to the control group.  They showed a greater openness to discussion of the opposing side's narrative, and a greater likelihood of voting for moderate political candidates.  And the attitude change didn't wear off -- the subjects still showed the same alteration in their beliefs a year later.  Hameiri writes:
The premise of most interventions that aim to promote peacemaking is that information that is inconsistent with held beliefs causes tension, which may motivate alternative information seeking.  However, individuals—especially during conflict—use different defenses to preserve their societal beliefs.  Therefore, we developed a new paradoxical thinking intervention that provides consistent—though extreme—information, with the intention of raising a sense of absurdity but not defenses.
So apparently, Stephen Colbert is on the right track.

I find the whole thing fascinating, if a little frustrating.   Being a science-geek-type, I have always lived in hope that rational argument and hard data would eventually win.

It appears, however, that it doesn't, always.  It may be that for the deepest, most lasting changes in attitude, we have to take those beliefs we are trying to change, and force them to their logical ends, and hope that after that, the absurdity will speak for itself.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The firestarter

It is the nature of the world that sometimes we have to look at all of the available evidence, and not come to a conclusion.

It's tempting to think that science, and the skeptical approach, will always result in answers, but the sad fact is that sometimes we have to admit that (barring the uncovering of further data) we will never have an explanation.  This is something that often doesn't sit well with people, however.  We like understanding, we like everything to be tidy and clear, without loose ends, and the result is that we will sometimes settle for a bogus explanation simply because it feels better than saying, "We don't know."

Such, I believe, is the strange case of Carole Compton, the Scottish nanny who almost ended up spending decades in jail because of an accusation of attempted murder by pyrokinesis (starting fires with your mind) and witchcraft -- but only forty years ago.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Compton is from Ayr, Scotland, but had fallen in love with an Italian man she'd met there and followed him back home.  While waiting for him to complete his military service, she took on a job as a nanny for a wealthy family near Rome.  The Riccis welcomed Carole into their home to look after their children, and all went well until a small religious picture fell off the wall as Carole walked by, prompting a maid to make the sign of the cross and raise her eyebrows about what it could mean.

That event was recalled several weeks later when Carole accompanied the Riccis on their annual vacation in the Alps, and a fire broke out in their vacation home, destroying the second floor completely.  Firemen said that the house had a history of electrical problems, and that was undoubtedly the cause.  But the Riccis began to question that explanation when two subsequent fires began in Carole's presence -- one in a trash can and the other in the bedroom of the Ricci's two-year-old son.

Shortly afterwards, the Riccis fired Carole.

Carole was rehired by another family, the Tontis, once again as a nanny.  The grandmother of the family, however, took an instant dislike to Carole, which was intensified to hatred and fear when once again Carole seemed to be the epicenter of bizarre occurrences -- a fire in a mattress, a vase falling from a table and breaking while no one was near it, and objects (including a religious figurine) flying off shelves and walls.  At this point, the word strega (witch) was used, and the talk started in earnest.

But it was all talk until a fire started in another mattress, this time in the room of three-year-old Agnese, the child Carole had been hired to care for.  The grandmother demanded that it be stopped, and the authorities intervened, and arrested Carole for attempted murder.

The media went wild about "the nanny they call a witch."  Some people claimed she was psychotic, and had engineered the incidents; others that there was a poltergeist following her around.  The consensus, though, was that she was possessed, and the demon was visiting its evil on the people she lived with.  It took over a year for her to come to trial (in December 1983), and she was found innocent of the attempted murder charge, but guilty on two counts of arson.  She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but was released on time served and immediately left Italy to return to her native Scotland.

What really happened in the Compton case?  It hardly bears mention that I'm doubtful about the "poltergeist" and "demonic possession" explanations, not to mention the phenomena of telekinesis and pyrokinesis in general.  According to an article about Compton and other similar cases in The Scotsman, Compton now is living quietly with her husband, Zaroof Fazal, in a town in Yorkshire, and they have three school-age children.  Nothing further in the way of quasi-supernatural events have happened to her.  "What happened to me is something that never goes away," she told reporters.  "It was a dreadful ordeal...  I have a happy life now.  I try not to think about the past."

Not the sort of thing you'd expect if she suffered from Münchausen's-by-proxy, which is another explanation that has been put forward -- that she deliberately attempted to injure her young charges in order to garner attention and/or care.  Compton seemed horrified at the attention she was getting right from the beginning, and even she denied that anything supernatural was going on, although she didn't have an alternate explanation.  During her trial, noted supernatural investigator Guy Lyon Playfair (the man who did the study of the Enfield poltergeist) offered to look into the case, but Compton didn't want him to get involved, claiming that there must be a rational explanation and surely the Italian legal system would realize that.

No such rational explanation has ever been found.

Of the non-paranormal solutions to the case that have been proposed -- Compton being psychotic or suffering from Münchausen-by-proxy, the fires having a natural cause (nearby electrical shorts, for example), and the falling objects being due to the fact that objects fall down sometimes -- none of them explain the entire story, nor why those events seemed to follow Compton around.  Even the people who accused Compton -- the Tonti grandmother, for example -- steadfastly claimed that the fires erupted and objects fell and broke without Compton touching them.  No one in the Tonti household said that Compton had gone around breaking things and setting fires deliberately; it was only after it got into the courts that this explanation was settled on, because no 20th century European judge would be willing to risk his or her reputation by seriously considering a charge of witchcraft.

So we're left where we started; some weird things happened in Carole Compton's presence in Italy in the 1980s, and no one knows why.

Not a satisfying explanation, by a longshot.  But as skeptics, we have to go as far as the evidence pushes us, and no further.

And in the Compton case, as far as we can get is "we don't know."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Irrationality, insanity, and the teachings of J. Z. Knight

One of the problems I face in selecting stories to highlight in Skeptophilia is that it is often difficult to tell the difference between a crazy idea that merits ridicule, and claims coming from a person who is mentally ill, and therefore deserves sympathy (and help).

Put another way, when does espousing an essentially irrational worldview cross the line into an actual psychosis?  There are millions of people who subscribe to belief systems that are profoundly irrational, and yet the people themselves are otherwise sane (although how a sane person could adopt an insane model for how the universe works is itself a question worth asking).  But there are clearly times where you've gone beyond that, and crossed into more pathetic territory.

As an example of the latter, consider the ravings of YouTuber Dave Johnson, who contends that the Civil War, World War II, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq never happened.  All of them were "media events" with manufactured battles and casualties, designed by political leaders to achieve various goals.  I'm not sure I can really describe the content of the videos -- and I'm also not sure I can, in good conscience, recommend that you watch them -- but he seems to be enamored of symbolism and numerology (he calls the attack on Fort Sumter "a 9/11-style attack on a pentagon") and then just denies everything else without stating any evidence.  "They went on to tell you that over 600,000 people died in (the Civil) War," he says.  "Untrue.  There's zero evidence of any battlefield footage of any death that I can find."

Well, the absence of "footage" may be because the Civil War happened before the invention of motion pictures.  But even forgiving that as a slip of the tongue, is he really discounting all of the photography by Mathew Brady?

Aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, by Mathew Brady

I'm sure he'd call them all modern fakes.  He seems to have a profoundly paranoid worldview, which (by the way) includes believing that the Moon is a hologram.

The whole question comes up because of a much more public figure than Dave Johnson -- J. Z. Knight, better known as "Ramtha."  Knight has run her "Ramtha School of Enlightenment" since 1988, wherein she and her followers share the teachings of "Ramtha," a 35,000-year-old being from "Lemuria" who claims to be the "enlightened one."  Knight "channels" Ramtha, and then offers his pronouncements to the masses.

Up until recently, the whole thing has seemed to me to be an enormous scam -- a way to bilk the gullible out of their hard-earned money.  But just in the last couple of years, Knight/Ramtha has left behind her bland, "find-the-god-within" message, and has apparently gone off the deep end.

According to a story this week at AlterNet, Knight is no longer promoting "enlightenment" in Ramtha's voice; she is going off on drunken homophobic and racist rants.  Video and audio recordings of Knight that have been made covertly and then smuggled out of her compound in Yelm, Washington have revealed that the cult has moved into decidedly scarier territory of late.  The article states:
During the 16 or so hours... Knight will disparage Catholics, gay people, Mexicans, organic farmers, and Jews. 
“Fuck God’s chosen people! I think they have earned enough cash to have paid their way out of the goddamned gas chambers by now,” she says as members of the audience snicker. There are also titters when she declares Mexicans “breed like rabbits” and are “poison,” that all gay men were once Catholic priests, and that organic farmers have questionable hygiene.
Add to this the fact that this ritual involves the drinking of huge amounts of alcohol -- they're called "wine ceremonies," and audience members are supposed to take a drink of wine every time Knight does -- and this begins to take on some of the characteristics of a meeting of the Aryan Nations instead of some quasi-religious ceremony.

And, of course, this is fuel to the fire to the neo-Nazis.  Knight/Ramtha is quoted at length on the race hate forum Stormfront, for example.  The two cults, different as they appear at first, both espouse a lot of the same ideology -- survivalism, an "elect" who will be protected when civilization falls, and a sacred message that needs to get out to the people -- at least the right people.

But she also likes to take pot shots at the Christians, and one of the recordings that has come to light begins with, "Fuck Jehovah!" and goes on to state that Jesus is "just another alien" who is on equal footing with Ramtha, and who came to the Earth to teach the same things that Ramtha did, but failed when power went to his head.

Knight, for her part, refuses to issue a retraction for any of her drunken screeds, claiming that all of the ugliness on the recordings is just a matter of Ramtha's words "being taken out of context."  She also accuses two ex-followers, Virginia Coverdale and David McCarthy, of spearheading a smear campaign started because of a love triangle involving Coverdale, Knight, and Knight's significant other.

But back to our original question; is Knight still, on some level, rational, or has she simply become psychotic?  Certainly her message now clearly qualifies the Ramtha School of Enlightenment as a hate group; but I'm more curious about Knight herself.  Before, she has just been classified as a religious version of P. T. Barnum, a huckster, suckering in the gullible and relieving them of their cash in exchange for a more-or-less harmless message.  Now?  She shows every evidence of insane paranoia.  So personally, she's more to be pitied than censured.

The difference, though, between a J. Z. Knight and a Dave Johnson -- the war-denier we started this post with -- is their relative reach and influence.  Johnson's YouTube videos, when I watched them, had on the order of a thousand views each.  Knight's message has reached millions -- her followers include some famous names like Salma Hayek, Linda Evans, and Mike Farrell.  Her New Age nonsense wrapped up as an educational video on quantum physics, What the Bleep Do We Know?, grossed ten million dollars and was in movie theaters for a year.  Knight herself lives in a 12,800 square foot French-style-chateau next to her school, can earn up to $200,000 for every speaking engagement, and has a net worth estimated in the tens of millions.

Which means that regardless of the cause of her crazy rantings, the damage she can do is very real.  Her home town of Yelm is full of her followers -- non-Ramtha-ites call them "Ramsters" -- and the Ramtha symbol appears on many businesses in town, telling RSE members that it's okay to do business there.  Local churches have started anti-RSE campaigns.  Ordinary citizens, caught in the middle, are scared.

For good reason.  Whatever Knight is now, her teachings are now no longer merely New Age pablum, but ugly, racist, homophobic invective.  And you have to wonder when she'll cross another line -- into saying something that induces the authorities to intervene.

Considering her followers, we could have another Waco on our hands.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Damned aliens!

I wonder sometimes how outrageous public figures have to become before people will stop following them.

Just last week, we had Rush Limbaugh claiming that the media coverage of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was a deliberate attempt to distract us from the problem of how President Obama is handling illegal immigrants.  "I don't want appear to be callous here, folks, but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border?" Limbaugh said, in his radio show last Thursday. "And, no, I'm not suggesting anything other than how the media operates."

To which I have two responses:  (1) Trying to do anything at this point about your "appearing callous" is a bit of a lost cause.  (2)  Why haven't you lost your entire audience yet, you bloviating blob of blubber?

I had a similar reaction when I read yesterday about the latest pronouncement from Ken Ham.  Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, is best known for having his ass handed to him in a debate with Bill Nye last year.  But that didn't stop him from moving forward with his project called "Ark Encounter" wherein he intends to build a life-sized model of Noah's Ark and demonstrate once and for all that there's no way it could have held pairs of every species on Earth.

Just a couple of days ago, however, Ham showed that he had not yet reached the nadir of his credibility, by offering up the opinion that we should give up the search for extraterrestrial life because any alien life out there is going to hell regardless.

Here's the direct quote, from an article he wrote over at AiG's website on Sunday:
I’m shocked at the countless hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent over the years in the desperate and fruitless search for extraterrestrial life.  Life did not evolve but was specially created by God, as Genesis clearly teaches...   
Christians certainly shouldn’t expect alien life to be cropping up across the universe.  Now the Bible doesn’t say whether there is or is not animal or plant life in outer space. I certainly suspect not.  You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe.  This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation.  Jesus did not become the ‘GodKlingon’ or the ‘GodMartian’!  Only descendants of Adam can be saved.  God’s Son remains the ‘Godman’ as our Savior.
Once again, I have two responses:

(1)  You're spending millions of dollars to build a replica of Noah's Ark, and you have the balls to criticize NASA for wasting money?

(2)  So in your view, a loving and all-powerful god might have created intelligent extraterrestrial life, but in his infinite mercy, he's making certain that they are all tortured forever in the Lake of Fire for something some dude and his wife did here on Earth?

I don't know about you, but this makes his pronouncements on why we should all abandon science and become young-earth creationists seem lucid and rational.

So, my advice: shut up, Ken.  If your ignominious thrashing at the hands of Bill Nye wasn't humiliating enough, you're now becoming a laughingstock.  I'll end with a quote that has been variously attributed to Will Rogers and British politician Dennis Healey:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

God in the driver's seat

I'm firmly of the opinion that you are free to believe anything you want, religious or otherwise.  People come to their understanding of how the universe works in their own fashion, and I really don't object if someone has come to a different understanding than I have, unless (s)he tries to force that understanding on everyone else.

That said, I am also of the opinion that religion makes people do some really bizarre things, sometimes.  Take Prionda Hill, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who just last week ran into a motorcyclist with her car because she had decided that it was time for Jesus to take a turn driving.

Hill was driving down the road, and all of a sudden her car swerved, and ran straight into motorcyclist Anthony Oliveri.  Hill kept on driving, despite the fact that she had damn near killed Oliveri.  According to the police report, Hill said that "she was driving and out of nowhere God told her that he would take it from here, and she let go of the wheel and let him take it."

Well, that didn't turn out to work so well.  God, who (at least in Hill's worldview) created the laws of physics, has also seen to it that they're strictly enforced, and her car went where not where god took it but where momentum took it, which was right into Oliveri's motorcycle.

But what makes this even crazier is that Oliveri, whose injuries include breaks in all of the ribs on his left side, a damaged spleen, and a bruised kidney, is attributing his survival to divine intervention.

"I remember it happened and I didn’t quite know what was going on for a split second," Oliveri later told reporters.  "As I grabbed the handle bars as the bike was losing control and I looked back around my left shoulder, all I see is her tire and the left bumper getting ready to run my face over.  Literally I was inches from that bumper and I just said to myself today is the day I die.  I just shut my eyes and said if this is the way that God wants to do it then I guess that this is the way we’re going to do it.  But I guess God has other plans for me, and I survived."

I... what?

A woman hands the steering wheel over to god because she trusts that god will take charge of things, and runs over a motorcyclist, who thinks he survived because god takes charge of things?

I don't know about you, but I feel like I just got an irony overdose.

Of course, this sort of thing is what devout Christians really profess to believe, isn't it?  I mean, few of them take it to these sorts of extremes, but still.  When something good happens, it's because god has showered them with his blessings.  When something bad happens, "it's all in god's plan."  I don't know about you, but I think a lot of stuff just kind of happens because it happens, and the laws of physics really don't give a damn what your religious beliefs are.  If you let go of your steering wheel, your divine buddy is not going to take a turn driving.

So anyway, another hat tip to loyal reader Tyler Tork for this story.  His comment, which seems a fitting way to close:  "I expect that SCOTUS would rule that she was within her rights."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Flight of the dead

If there's a group of people that I enjoy arguing with even less than I enjoy arguing with young-earth creationists, it's conspiracy theorists.

At least the young-earth creationists admit that there's evidence out there that needs an explanation.  Fossils?  Left behind by the Great Flood.  Genetic and morphological homology between related species?  Coincidence.  Light from stars further away than 6,000 light years?  The speed of light changes as it goes.  Or light stretches.  Or weakens.  Or something.

So, okay, they're wrong, about nearly everything scientific that you could be wrong about.  But at least they don't come up with batshit crazy nonsense for which there is no evidence, and then argue that your evidence doesn't exist.

Which is, by and large, the conspiracy theorist's favorite modus operandi.  Take, for example, the latest wacko explanation (if I can dignify it by that name) of the recent tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 by Ukrainian separatists: the whole thing was staged in order to force a confrontation between the United States and Russia, and the plane itself was being flown remotely and was peopled entirely by corpses.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

My first thought upon reading this was that the originator of this "theory" must have believed that the Sherlock Holmes episode "A Scandal in Belgravia" was a historical documentary.  What evidence, you might rightly ask, does anyone have that this conjecture is true, other than that provided by Mr. Freeman and Mr. Cumberbatch?

A statement that rebel leader Igor Girkin made that a number of the bodies at the crash site did not appear to be "fresh."

Well, if the plane I'm on gets blown out of the sky, and I fall 30,000 feet, I'm guessing I won't be looking my "freshest" at that point, either.  And afterwards, Girkin reportedly said that he could "neither confirm or deny" the claim.

But that was all it took.  The plane was full of corpses.  The whole thing was a setup.  This, despite the fact that one of the passengers on the doomed plane, Mohammed Ali Mohammed Salim of Kuala Lumpur, took a video of himself and other passengers getting settled right before the plane was preparing to take off, and uploaded it to Instagram along with the message that he was "a little nervous."

For good reason, as it turned out.

But no, say the conspiracy theorists, Salim's video itself is a fake, made hurriedly by the Evil Conspirators once Pillars of Sanity and Rationalism like Alex Jones and Jeff Rense began to figure the whole thing out.

Then, of course, we had the people who said that it couldn't be a coincidence that disaster has struck Malaysia Airlines twice within just a few months.  Maybe... maybe it wasn't a coincidence.  In fact, maybe MH 17 and MH 370, the flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean this past March were...

... the same plane.

At least, I think that's what is being claimed on this site, wherein we are treated to the following brain-boggling chain of thought:
How brain dead do they think we are??? 
Our previous articles have covered the MH370 who, when, where and why but not the WHAT. What happened to MH370 after they whisked it into the airport hangar at Diego Garcia? 
The WHAT question has now been answered. MH370 was remarked and became Malaysian flight MH17. It was flown to Amsterdam where it picked up passengers and flew over the western allied Ukraine where it "disappeared from radar" and was shot down and destroyed. The Russian government was blamed in order to alienate and inflame existing Ukraine tensions with Russia. Now who would want to do that exactly???? Duh... 
In view of the unlikely coincidence of two Malaysian Boing 777's being downed within 3 months of each other, there's undoubtedly a connection
Over 500 passengers have been murdered on board two "downed" Malaysian Boeing 777's within 3 months of each other. This is NOT a coincidence. 
Well, yes, actually it is.  That's what you call it when two events coincide.

Oh, and from March to July isn't three months.  But maybe I'm splitting hairs, here.

What gets me about this, and (in fact) what gets me about all conspiracy theories, is how the proponents of these nutty ideas think that an absence of evidence is actually a point in their favor.  No conclusive proof that the dead bodies at the MH 17 crash site were already badly decomposed?  Well, it must be true, then.  No trace whatsoever of missing flight MH 370?  It must have landed on Diego Garcia.

Which, of course, makes them impossible to counter.  Any evidence you can produce against their argument has been manufactured; any lack of evidence on their part is just proof of how sneaky these false-flag-loving illuminati are.

All of which kind of makes me pine for a nice rip-roaring argument with a young-earth creationist.  Ken Ham?  Kent Hovind?  Andrew Snelling?  Anyone?


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Magic eggs and faith healers

It's a question I've asked before: how do "alternative medicine" and "faith healing" therapies that don't work get started, and then continue to sucker people?  You'd think that if you're told that "pressing a quartz crystal to your forehead will cure your headache," the first time you got a headache that didn't go away after the application of a crystal, you'd say, "Okay, this doesn't work," and go take an aspirin (i.e., medicine that is actually effective) instead.

Oh, I know about the placebo effect, and the possibility of spontaneous remission of symptoms.  But still.  That only takes you so far, especially given the crazy, non-scientific basis of some of these so-called remedies.

Take the claim that was just covered in The Daily Mirror -- that in order to cure hemorrhoids, all you have to do is to go to a temple in the Kunagami Shrine, north of Tokyo, and aim your butt at a "holy egg" (actually an egg-shaped rock) while a Shinto priest chants a prayer, and lo!  Your hemorrhoids will be cured.

The article explains how the whole thing works:
Temple priest Osamu Hayakawa explained: "We perform a short service and afterwards individuals have to point their rear ends at the holy egg and say a special prayer. 
"The devout will find the trip to the Kunigami Shrine will have the desired effect." 
Sufferers apparently used to wash in a local river and afterwards ate boiled eggs at the temple to cure themselves of the condition, but the ceremony has been modernised. 
Mr Hayakawa said: "In the modern world, it is not acceptable for people to be showing off their rear ends while bathing in public but we believe that it is fine if the essence of the ritual is still maintained."
Right!  Modernized!  Because that's the word I'd use to describe pointing your ass at a magic egg to cure an unpleasant medical condition.

Of course, we once again bump up against the reluctance people have to criticize silly ideas when they come under the aegis of religion, which this one clearly does.  My reaction predictably, is, "Why not?"  Ideas are just ideas; they either reflect reality, or else they don't.  Just because a particular ridiculous claim is a ridiculous religious claim shouldn't make any difference.

And the magic butt-mending egg is such a counterfactual religious claim.  But before we laugh too hard at the Japanese ritual, keep in mind that it's really no different from Christian claims of faith healing except on the level of details. 

Which, unfortunately leads us into a darker side of this topic.  Just last year, Herbert and Cathleen Schaible of Philadelphia were charged with murder when a second child of theirs died from a treatable illness.  Their seven-month-old son Brandon died of bacterial pneumonia after days of prayer; four years earlier, they'd lost their two-year-old son Kent from a similar illness.  In both cases, they were directed by leaders of their church, the First Century Gospel Church, to use "faith healing" rather than conventional medicine.

"The church believe [sic] that people get sick because they’re not doing the right thing," a church member named John told reporters for NBC Philadelphia.  (He refused to give his last name during the interview.)  "God promised us that if we do his will, that there’s no infection; all these diseases that you name, would not come to you."

And, he added, the arrest of the Schaibles and the criticism of the church leaders amounts to "persecution."

My attitude is: if you want to call it persecution, fine.  The authorities should persecute the hell out of them.  If your faith involves letting a seven-month-old baby die because you think god is punishing him for "not doing the right thing," you have abandoned your right to claim "freedom of religion" for your practice.

But back to my original point; at what point do the adherents to such beliefs look at this sort of thing, and revise their worldview?  How long will it take before people stop, look at all of the examples of diseases left uncured by "the power of prayer," and say, "Okay, this doesn't work?"

Evidently, the answer for some people is, "forever."

I try to be understanding of people, I really do.  But this is one case where I just don't get it.  This is so far off in the realm of the completely irrational that I can't find any point of contact from which I could comprehend them.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Farts, craters, Mick Jagger, and the problem with lousy science reporting

One of the reasons that it is critical that we all be science-literate is because it is becoming increasingly apparent that the popular media either (1) hires reporters that aren't, or (2) values getting people to click links over accurate reporting.

I suspect it's (2), honestly.  The most recent examples of this phenomenon smack of "I don't care" far more than they do of "I don't know."  Just in the last week, we've had three examples of truly terrible reporting in media outlets that should have higher standards (i.e., I'm not even considering stuff from The Daily Mail).

And, for the record, this doesn't include the recent hysterical reporting that melting roads in Yellowstone National Park mean that the supervolcano is going to erupt and we're all going to die.

The first one, courtesy of the Australian news outlet News.Com.Au, pisses me off right from the outset, with the title, "A Mysterious Crater in Siberia Has Scientists Seeking Answers."  Because seeking answers isn't what scientists do all the time, or anything.  Then, right in the first line, we find out that they're not up to the task, poor things:  "Scientists baffled by giant crater... over northern Siberia -- a region notorious for devastating events."

"Baffled."  Yup, that's the best they can do, those poor, hapless scientists.  A big hole in the ground appears, and they just throw their hands up in wonderment.

Before we're given any real information, we hear some bizarre theories (if I can dignify them by that name) about what could have caused the hole.  UFOs are connected, or maybe it's the Gates of Hell, or perhaps the entry to "the hollow Earth."  Then they bring up the Tunguska event, a meteor collision that happened in 1908, and suggest that the two might be connected because the impact happened "in the region."

Despite the fact that the new crater is over a thousand miles from the Tunguska site.  This, for reference, is about the distance between New Orleans, Louisiana and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Only after some time are we told that the Siberian crater site is also the site of a natural gas field in which explosions have taken place before.  In fact, the whole place is pocked with circular craters, probably caused by methane explosions from the permafrost -- i.e., it's a completely natural phenomenon that any competent geologist would have been able to explain without even breaking a sweat.

But this is world-class journalism as compared to ABC News Online, which just reported that Brazil got knocked out of the FIFA World Cup because of Mick Jagger's support.

To be fair, ABC News wasn't intending this as science reporting, but from all evidence, they did take it seriously.  Here's an excerpt:
It seems the Rolling Stone frontman has developed a reputation for jinxing whatever team he supports. Some Brazilian fans are even blaming Jagger for their team’s 7-1 thrashing by Germany in Tuesday’s semifinal game. 
The 70-year-old singer turned up at the game with his 15-year-old son by Luciana Giminez, a Brazilian model and celebrity. Though he wore an England cap, his son was clad in Brazil jersey and they were surrounded by Brazil supporters. 
The legend of the “Jagger Curse” dates back to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where he sat next to Bill Clinton for the USA-Ghana match, only to see the U.S. lose 2-1. When he attended the England-Germany game the next day, wearing an England scarf, his home country lost. But it wasn’t until the Dutch defeated Brazil during the quarterfinal round, where Jagger turned up in a Brazil shirt, that the Brazilians first blamed him for the loss.
Seriously?  It couldn't be that the winning team played better, could it?  You know, put the ball into the net more times?

It has to be Mick Jagger's fault?  Because of a magical jinx?

So I'm just going to leave that one sitting there, and move on to the worst example, which has been posted about five million times already on Facebook, to the point that if I see it one more time, I'm going to punch a wall.  I'm referring, of course, to the earthshatteringly abysmal science reporting that was the genesis of The Week's story "Study: Smelling Farts May Be Good For Your Health."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm hoping beyond hope that most of the people who posted this did so not because they believed it, but because most of us still don't mind a good har-de-har over flatulence.  But the story itself is idiotic.  Here's the first paragraph:
The next time someone at your office lets out a "silent but deadly" emission, maybe you should thank them. A new study at the University of Exeter in England suggests that exposure to hydrogen sulfide — a.k.a. what your body produces as bacteria breaks down food, causing gas — could prevent mitochondria damage. Yep, the implication is what you're thinking: People are taking the research to mean that smelling farts could prevent disease and even cancer.
Well, at the risk of sounding snarky, any people who "take this research" this way have the IQ of cheese, because two paragraphs later in the same article the writer says what the research actually showed:
Dr. Matt Whiteman, a University of Exeter professor who worked on the study, said in a statement that researchers are even replicating the natural gas in a new compound, AP39, to reap its health benefits. The scientists are delivering "very small amounts" of AP39 directly into mitochondrial cells to repair damage, which "could hold the key to future therapies," the university's statement reveals.
There is a difference between smelling a fart and having small amounts of dissolved hydrogen sulfide enter the mitochondria of your cells.  It is like saying that because sodium ions are necessary for proper firing of the nerves, that you'll have faster reflexes if you put more salt on your t-bone steak.  Worse than that; it's like saying that you'll have faster reflexes if you snort salt up your nose.

I know that media outlets are in business to make money, and that readers = sponsors = money.  I get that.  But why do we have a culture where people are so much more interested in spurious nonsense (or science that gets reported that way) than they are in the actual science itself?  Has science been portrayed as so unutterably dull that real science stories are skipped in favor of glitzy, sensationalized foolishness?

Or is it that we science teachers are guilty of teaching it that way, and convincing generations of children that science is boring?

Whatever the answer is to that question, I firmly believe that it's based on a misapprehension.  Properly understood, the science itself is cool, awe-inspiring, and fascinating.  Okay, it takes a little more work to understand mitochondria than it does to fall for "sniffing farts prevents cancer," but once you do understand what's really going on, it's a hell of a lot more interesting.

Oh, and it has one other advantage over all this other stuff: it's true.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The selfie from hell

"Selfies" are all the rage these days.  Heaven knows why, because they're usually poorly composed and not in focus.  They also tend to be taken at inadvisable times, such as when the subject-and-photographer has had one too many strawberry daiquiris, which is almost certainly what resulted in the invention of the truly unfortunate cultural phenomenon of "duck lips."

I won't say that I haven't succumbed to the temptation myself once or twice, although I hasten to add that it was sans daiquiris and "duck lips."  Here's a twofer selfie my wife and I took while we were hiking in the Grand Tetons a couple of weeks ago:

So they don't all turn out terrible, or embarrassing, the kind of thing you look at later and say, "How did this end up on my camera?"

Which was apparently the question that was asked by one Gina Mihai, 34, of an unnamed village in Romania, according to a story in The Daily Mirror (and reported on Sharon Hill's wonderful site Doubtful News, which is where I ran across it).  Mihai says she was looking through the photographs on her cellphone one day recently, and found the following rather horrifying image:

Pretty scary.  Mihai was understandably creeped out, but she had an explanation ready at hand.  She told reporters, "When I switched the phone on I was horrified to see my dead grandmother’s face.  She had what looked like a snake around her neck, and the whole image looked as if it had been taken through a hole, like it was shot through a tear in the fabric that separates the living from the dead."

In other words, poor grandma ended up in hell, and for some reason decided to send her granddaughter what amounts to an infernal selfie.  Here's grandma in real life, just before she died:

I don't really see a lot of resemblance, myself.  But maybe that's because being in hell, not to mention having a snake around your neck, would kind of have a tendency to change your facial expression.

Mihai followed up the experience with a visit to a fortune-teller, because of course that's who you'd want to see if you wanted a touchstone of reality.  And the fortune-teller said that Mihai was right, granny was in hell, and the snake around her neck was because she was "being punished for certain sins."

The trouble is, the article also had a photograph of Mihai herself, which I include below:

And what strikes me is that the "selfie from hell" looks more like Mihai than it does like her grandmother.  My contention (and Sharon Hill's, too) is that Mihai digitally altered a photograph of herself, an easy enough thing to do with any ordinary image modification software, and now is getting her fifteen minutes of fame by disparaging her poor grandma.

But even if her contention is correct, and grandma is in hell, I thought that once you were there, it amounted to solitary confinement in the Lake of Fire?  It's hard to imagine Satan allowing texting: 

Grandma:  Excuse me, Your Infernal Evilness, can you hang on a minute?  I just need to send a message to my granddaughter.  *takes pic of herself with her cellphone*  

Satan:  Well, okay, I'll let it go this time.  Just so long as you don't do "duck lips."  That earns you five more years in the red-hot lava pit.

Grandma:  How about the snake around my neck?  I can show my granddaughter that, right?

Satan:  Sure.

So the whole thing seems pretty improbable to me, just as improbable as the claim we looked at a couple of days ago wherein god was allegedly communicating with a chef via patterns of seeds inside an eggplant.  You'd think that being powerful supernatural beings, they'd pick more direct ways of speaking to us, wouldn't you?  Like gigantic burning bushes or pillars of fire or hosts of heavenly and/or demonic entities rushing about.  But you never see any of that stuff, despite what you hear in all the folklore.

I wonder why that is.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Titanic tale

I didn't realize what a fuss there still was over the sinking of the Titanic.

Okay, I know that it has some cachet as one of the biggest shipping disasters in history.  I know it was made into a movie, with heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.  (What, the movie isn't named Jack Dawson's Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Really Bad Day?)  I know that the theme music, wherein Celine Dion's heart goes on and on and on and on and on and on, was played an average of 1,389,910 times a day for a year after the movie opened.

But really: what's the big deal?  [spoiler alert]  The ship sinks.  Lots of people drown.  End of story.

But no, that's not all there is to it, some folks say -- and by "some folks" I mean "people with the IQ of a bar of soap."  Because we haven't discussed why the Titanic sank.  And it wasn't because it ran into a great big hunk of ice.

Oh, no, that would be way too logical.

The R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912, just prior to its maiden (and only) voyage [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You can forget about all of that.  No iceberg necessary.  According to a new theory, the Titanic sank because a bunch of time travelers from the future went back to witness the Titanic sinking from on board the ship itself, and the extra weight of the passengers is what caused the ship to sink.

Now, wait, you may be saying, at least after you recover from the faceplant you undoubtedly did after reading this novel claim.  "If the time travelers are what caused it to sink, then how did anyone know it had sunk, since the ship had to sink in order for the time travelers to know to come back in time to watch it sink?"

Well, if you asked that question, all I can say is that you need to watch more episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge is always having to deal with paradoxes such as Tasha Yar's evil twin, who also turns out to be her daughter, coming after the Enterprise with revenge on her mind, because Tasha didn't actually get killed by the Sewage Monster, she was caught in an alternate universe time-warp and ended up having sex with a Romulan and giving birth to a daughter who looked exactly like her except for having pointy ears and wearing what looks like a dry-cleaning bag made of Reynolds Wrap.

So the Titanic really could have been sunk by time travelers.  At least if you believe that our world functions on the same level of scientific plausibility as Star Trek.

But that's not all.  (Oh, how I wish it were.)  Because apparently there are people who believe that not only was the Titanic capsized and sent to Davy Jones' Locker by misguided time travelers, that Jack Dawson was one of those time travelers.

Yes, we have people who have so lost touch with reality that they believe not only in ship-sinking time travelers, but that the movie Titanic is some kind of accurate historical documentary.  Why, you might ask, after recovering from a second, and more severe, faceplant?

Because the character of Jack Dawson in the movie has an anachronistic haircut, mode of speech, and attitude, and apparently somewhere in the movie mentions an artificial lake in Wisconsin that wasn't created until 1915.

That couldn't, of course, be because it was a movie.  And that the script-writers modernized the character for contemporary audiences, and got one miserable little detail wrong.

No, that can't be it.  It has to be that Jack Dawson was not only a real person, he was a time-traveler.

I think I'd better stop here, because like Celine Dion's heart, stupidity seems to go on and on and on, but my patience doesn't, and I'm reaching the point where my forehead won't stand much more in the way of impact stress.  So I'll wind up here, with the hope that no one is currently developing a theory that Game of Thrones is real history, because that would mean that Sean Bean actually was publicly executed, and heaven knows that poor man has been through enough.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A trip through the vegetable aisle

Times are tough for psychics.  There have been the legal troubles dogging famous names like "Psychic Sally" Morgan and Theresa Caputo, "The Long Island Medium," not to mention the efforts of people like The Amazing Randi to debunk professional psychics as charlatans and hoaxers.

So with all of this unpredictable bad stuff going on, you can imagine that it's becoming increasingly difficult for your average working psychic to afford crystal balls and magic wands and flowing robes, and all of the other necessities of the job.  That stuff has got to be expensive.  So no wonder that some of them have turned to doing divination using cheaper tools...

... like garden vegetables.

You probably think I'm making this up, but in a link sent to me by the inimitable writer, skeptic, and deep thinker Tyler Tork, we meet one Jemima Packington, a British woman who says that she is the world's only "asparamancer."

Yes, "asparamancer," as in "asparagus."  Because what Packington does is she goes out and buys some asparagus spears at the local grocery store, and then comes home, tosses them in the air, and then from the pattern they make where they fall, she tells us what's going to happen.

In the video in the link, which you all must watch, she does a demonstration of "asparamancy," in which the asparagus spears are supposed to tell us about the weather.  So she chucks her asparagus spears around, and proceeds to tell us that because some "little bits and pieces" fell off, that "this would suggest some rain."

What, the fact that you live in England didn't suggest that to you by itself?  I was in England on holiday for the entire month of July about fifteen years ago, and it rained pretty much continuously.  The locals, of course, didn't seem to be bothered at all.  I walked into a pub, soaked to the skin after a ten-mile hike in the Yorkshire Dales in a chilly downpour, and the owner of the pub looked over at me as I stood there, dripping and shivering, and said, and I quote, "Mistin' a bit thick out there today, ain't it?"

For cryin' in the sink, predicting rain in England is a little like predicting that January in upstate New York is going to be "a bit nippy."

She also said that because of the direction of the spears, there was going to be a lot of wind.  Note, in the photograph I posted above, her hair blowing in the wind, which once again you'd think would be sufficient, without the asparagus.  It reminds me of the magical Weather Forecasting Stone, have you seen it?

But Packington doesn't just forecast the weather.  According to the article, she has made a number of other predictions, to wit:
1. There will be sad a loss to the Royal Family.
2. But there will also be a happy addition.
3. A major entertainment mogul will retire.
4. Politics in the Middle East will continue to raise concern.
5. One political party leader will be dogged by turmoil and not recover.
6. A storm this month will bring more misery to Britain.
7. The weather in the Far East will deteriorate as the year progresses.
8. A musical supergroup will split.
9. There will be a string of celebrity divorces.

Whoo!  Trouble in the Middle East and a string of celebrity divorces!  Those are some insightful predictions, there.  It's no wonder that Packington says that her predictions always come true.  That happens when you predict things that everyone already knew were going to happen.

But that doesn't stop her from claiming that she has magic powers that allow her to make accurate predictions about the future.  And you can follow her on Twitter if you want to keep up with them, @Asparamancer.  As for me, I think I'm going to go to the grocery store, but not for asparagus.  I think I should buy some eggplant instead.  Just last week a chef in Baton Rouge, Louisiana found an eggplant slice whose seeds spelled out "GOD," and promptly declared that it was a miraculous message from the Lord.

If I was a deity, I'd find a better way to sign my name than to inscribe it inside an eggplant, but what do I know?  Maybe vegetables do channel magic and/or holy messages, and instead of the bacon and eggs I had planned for breakfast, I should go cook up some brussels sprouts or something.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Wild West travelogue

Well, I'm back, and many thanks to my patient readers for sticking around during my two-week hiatus.  I'd like to launch this week with some observations from my travels, along with a few photographs taken by my wife (who is the amazing artist Carol Bloomgarden) and me.

Our travels this year took us out into the American West, where we spent some time in the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park.  First of all, the natural beauty is stunning; while I like to think that we live in a part of the world that has awesome scenery (upstate New York), the grandeur of scale out there is something few places in the world can match.

The Grand Teton Mountains, from near Jackson Hole, Wyoming

There are a few additional things that have always impressed me about the American West, though.  One of them is that the Yee-Haw Attitude is alive and well, both in its positive and negative senses.  There's a feeling that personal freedom is paramount, as long as what you're doing doesn't impinge upon anyone else's personal freedom.  We did a lot of geocaching out there (and if you don't know about this amazingly weird and fun hobby, check it out here) -- and one of the caches we were seeking took us across a construction site up in Glacier National Park.  We started to cross, and were approached by two construction workers.  I expected that they were going to tell us to bugger off, that we weren't allowed there -- but they said, and I quote, "Do what you like as long as you don't mess with the equipment."

As another example of this, consider speed limits.  Near urban centers, even in the west, it's the usual 55 mph.  But as you get further out into the middle of nowhere, it goes up to 60, then 65, then 75 mph, until (in central Montana) they give up entirely.  "All right, go however the hell fast you want to," they seem to say.  "We know you're going to anyhow."

All of which is kind of funny, because our rental car was a Chevy Spark.  If you are unfamiliar with this car, all I can say is that the Chevy Spark is to cars as a pug is to dogs -- small, stubby, cute in a squashed sort of way, and not really particularly well adapted for any useful purpose.  I think that the Spark got its name from the fact that "spark" represents the energy level of which the engine is capable.  I noted that the speedometer went up to 120 mph, which was grimly amusing, because I don't think the Spark could go 120 mph if you dropped it off a cliff.  It went downhill like a boss, but going up (for example) Logan Pass involved lots of encouraging words from us and lots of nasty looks from the drivers of the cars who were in line behind us going 14 mph and who wanted for some reason to get to their destination that day.

Our Chevy Spark, recovering from a long climb

Of course, I spent a lot of time indulging in my favorite hobby, which is birdwatching.  Much of my behavior illustrated Dave Barry's contention that there is a fine line between a hobby and a mental illness.  For example, we were at the LeHardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River, a site of amazing beauty, and there was also a rainbow trout run going on, which is pretty spectacular to see.  But my wife had spotted a Harlequin Duck, a bird I'd never seen, sitting on a rock in the middle of the stream.   The following conversation ensued:
Other tourist:  Wow!  This place is gorgeous! 
Me:  Look.  There's the duck. 
Other tourist:  That water is so blue!  And the trees!  And look at all of the trout in the river! 
Me:  But there's the duck. 
Other tourist:  Yellowstone is one of the natural wonders of the world! 
Me:  I know.  That's one incredible duck.
The duck in question

Which is not to say that I didn't appreciate other stuff.  In particular, Yellowstone is an astonishing place, to the point of parts of it being kind of surreal.  The hot springs, especially, which look like some amateur artist decided to use up all of their supply of brightly-colored acrylics in painting a nature scene.  If you ever get a chance to go to Yellowstone, the must-see (in my opinion) isn't Old Faithful, but Grand Prismatic Spring, which is colored by minerals and brilliantly pigmented bacteria:

Speaking of Yellowstone, it was in the forefront of my mind to consider the possibility of eruption of the hotspot/supervolcano that lies underneath Yellowstone Caldera, largely because over the last couple of years the woo-woos have been running around making little squeaking noises about how an eruption is imminent and you can tell because the bison and elk are fleeing from the park in terror, and also because the evil US government is evacuating the place and herding everyone into FEMA camps.  Well, we saw lots of people who weren't being held prisoner in FEMA camps, not to mention hundreds of bison, and I can say first-hand that the bison showed no evidence of fleeing in terror.  Most of them were simply moseying about in terror, or even snoozing in terror.

A bison, standing around munching on grass in terror

It did occur to me, though, that these might be suicidal bison, who realized that the volcano was going to blow and decided to stick around because they were depressed and wanted to end it all.  And in fact, "Meh, fuck it" seemed to be a common attitude amongst the wildlife we saw.

Which is a good thing, because otherwise the main cause of death in Yellowstone wouldn't be people getting vaporized by a volcanic eruption, but tourists being killed in messy ways because of sheer stupidity.  I have never seen so many people who evidently do not understand that "hot spring" means "so hot that it will boil your skin off," and "wild animal" means "animal that could easily kill you if it wanted to."  A former student of mine, who has worked in the national parks, told me that just a few weeks ago, a guy tried to put his son on the back of an elk so that his wife could take a photograph, and elk bucked and kicked the father in the head.

And killed him.

We didn't see anyone get killed in Yellowstone, but it wasn't for want of trying.  We saw one woman who was jumping up and down in front of a bison, waving her arms and shouting, "Hello, bison!  Hello, pretty bison!" so that it would turn its head for a picture with her.  When it refused to cooperate, she laughed and said, "Bye-bye, pretty bison!" and scampered off.  But the worst was when we saw a bear by the side of the road...

... a grizzly bear.

Okay, I took a picture of it, but using my zoom, and from the safety of my car.  But there were dozens of people who got out of their cars.  Despite the fact that this is clearly the most dangerous animal in the park, and is unpredictable.  And huge.  Which is why you're supposed to carry a whistle and pepper spray with you whenever you hike in the area.

You do know how to tell the different kinds of bear scat apart, right?  Black bears eat a lot of fruit, so black bear poop contains seeds and stems.  Brown bear poop often contains fish bones.  Grizzly bear poop, on the other hand, contains whistles and smells like pepper.

But that didn't stop people from acting like complete raving morons, running up to the wild animals and stepping on unstable ground over boiling hot lakes, despite the multitude of signs and warnings that were everywhere.  And I'm sure that if something bad had happened, the last thing that would have gone through these tourists' minds before being mauled and/or cooked to death would have been, "Why didn't someone warn me of the danger?"

But despite all that, the trip was amazing, and I highly recommend it to any of you who like to travel.  Traveling is, I think, the most eye-opening experience out there, and the natural world is full of beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring places to visit.

And lots of really incredible ducks.