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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Tarring with one brush

I frequently visit the r/atheism subreddit as a way of keeping abreast of current happenings in the world of the irreligious.  Although I find a good many of the articles linked on the site to be interesting, there's one frequent type of post that drives me crazy.

Almost every time I visit the site, there is at least one article that has to do with some religious person doing a bad thing.  Today when I checked, there was an article about a teacher at a Baptist religious school who is accused of raping one of his (male) students, and an article about the leader of an evangelical Christian megachurch in Nigeria who is being divorced by his wife for "adultery and unreasonable behavior."

And every time these sorts of stories are posted, there are numerous comments to the effect that this sort of behavior shows that the religious worldview is wrong.

Can we be clear on something, here?  Finding people who do bad things has no bearing on whether their views on god's existence are correct or not.  People who preach holiness and then victimize their fellow humans are hypocrites.  Depending on what kind of victimization they perpetrated, they may also be evil.

But neither of those has any relevance to the correctness of their philosophy.

It's not, of course, only something atheists do.  This kind of illogic is no respecter of worldview. This is, in part, why we atheists hate it when one of our number says something outrageous.  (Richard Dawkins' recent statements regarding Down syndrome and abortion are a good case in point.)  It raises the unfortunate tendency for people to tar all atheists with the same brush -- as if either (1) my agreement with Dawkins about god's existence means I agree with him on everything, or (2) Dawkins' views on the ethics of carrying a Down syndrome fetus to term is an inescapable conclusion of not believing in a higher power.

Neither one of these statements is logically correct.

You can be an atheist and be an utter asshole.  You can be an atheist and be wrong about damn near everything else.  Conversely, you can be a kind, compassionate, moral atheist whose other views are brilliantly well thought-out and rational.

And anyone who agrees with the above statement -- which, I hope, includes virtually all of the people reading this -- then the implication is that we shouldn't do the same thing to the religious.

Cherry-picking a few hypocritical nasties who are Christian leaders does not bolster the atheist viewpoint, any more than pointing out that Stalin was an atheist bolsters the Christian one.  Now mind you, I don't think there's anything wrong with calling out a hypocrite on his hypocrisy; we gain nothing by covering up the truth, as (it is to be hoped) the Vatican is finally learning with respect to pedophile priests.

But we have to be careful to separate the logical arguments for and against a particular philosophical view with our pointing fingers at the moral lapses of the people who hold those views.  The two are not the same, and neither side does itself any favors by blurring those boundaries.

Don't get me wrong.  I still think the support for the religious worldview is thin at best.  I'd much rather trust the evidence to lead me where logic and rationality demand, and thus far, that's very much in the direction of there not being some sort of divine Prime Mover.

But that says nothing about whether or not I am a moral person.  And this is why using the transgressions of Christians as an argument for atheism doesn't gain us anything.  All it means is that some of us don't understand the rules of logic ourselves.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Apocalyptic performance art

I try not to devote too much time to claims that are simply crazy.  After all, wacko claims are a dime a dozen, and some of the delusional folks who make them are more to be pitied than censured.

But every once in a while, along will come a claim that is so bizarre, so inspired, that it rises above the background noise to the point that it almost seems like a work of performance art.  And thus, I think, is the mélange of mishegoss that calls itself Unveiling Them.

At first glance, it seems to be nothing more than an End Times/Book of Revelation site, but it's much more than that.  They only start there, and afterwards, go off into reaches of weirdness the likes of which I haven't seen in a long time.

The Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse [image courtesy of Sweet Media and the Wikimedia Commons]

Besides the usual Number Of The Beast stuff, we find out that:

  • Iron is a nutritional toxin; we need copper instead.
  • AB negative is the original human blood type; all of the others arose from mutations within the past five hundred years.
  • The Ebola virus only affects people who are suffering from iron poisoning.
  • Contrary to what the census bureau would have you believe, the population of the United States peaked in 1980 and is currently decreasing.
  • There are 14,270,410 Evil Satanic Operatives in the United States right now.  Why is this number relevant?  It's 6.66% of the whole population.  Get it?  666?  (Okay, I know it's only 6.66% if you think the population is way smaller than it actually is.  Just play along, all right?)
  • Baby Boomers are being exterminated in Secret Death Camps.
  • What Jesus actually meant to say was "Do unto others before they have a chance to do unto you."
  • Radiation, including wi-fi, "vibrates your blood proteins" and accelerates aging.
  • Barack Obama lied about his birth certificate, but not in the way the "Truthers" claim.  He wasn't born in Hawaii, but neither was he born in Kenya.  He was born in Alabama in 1916.  So he's 98 years old.
  • Because he's smart enough to consume copper instead of iron, and stays away from wi-fi.
See?  I told you this'd be fun.

Of course, there's the warning posted on the website, threatening supernatural vengeance against scoffers like myself, which I reproduce here in toto:
Any attack on the words of these pages (and links) herein, whether it be directly or indirectly, by those whom these words speak of or by their agents or any instrument of theirs, will receive a thousand times what they gave to others, and the plagues and miseries they unleashed upon others, will abound in them.
So I consider myself forewarned.  Of course, given that the author of this website has a serious grudge against... well, pretty much everyone, it remains to be seen who would be left un-plagued after all was said and done.  He says that the bad guys who are doomed to destruction include anyone involved in "universities, colleges, foundations, research, corporations, legal system, intelligence organizations/contractors, the churches, media, medicine, police departments, military, all government agencies, school districts, water departments, energy & communications, financial institutions, music/movie industries, sports/entertainment, television/radio, funeral homes/cemeteries, insurance and real estate."  If you exclude all of the aforementioned, who do you have left to Inherit The Kingdom Of God?

The author of the website.  And maybe a handful of scattered peasant-sheepherder types in random locations.  The Lord Of Hosts will more be The Lord Of A Few Guys Who Wonder Where Everyone Else Went.

And there's lots more, which I invite you to peruse.  We apparently will know who the Elect are by their DNA, which is the same as Christ's DNA, which was secretly isolated from the Shroud of Turin.   We are told that the main goal is to "Put an end to violence and bloodshed," but that we are to accomplish this by "Rounding up every man, woman, and child for the abyss prepared for them," which seems a little counterproductive to me if ending violence is your goal.  (I suppose, of course, that if by the end of all of this, there's only seventeen people left on Earth, then it's gonna be de facto a more peaceful planet than it has been for a very long time.)

Anyhow, I'm about done with this, so I'll just leave you to cogitate on all of it.  Me, I'm going off to prepare myself to be Smitten A Thousandfold By Plagues And Miseries.  You'd think one plague would do it, wouldn't you?  A thousand seems a little wasteful.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sticker shock

New from the "Wow, You People Really Get Upset About Everything, Don't You?" department, we have a conspiracy theorist who thinks that the Evil Government Agents are marking our mailboxes with color-coded dots for some ominous purpose.

The dots, which are about three inches across, are either bright red, blue, or yellow.  And according to the aforementioned wackmobile, the whole idea is so that they can keep track of who is headed for termination:
More and more people are reporting their mail box or their house has been marked with color stickers or marks. Are these the FEMA death camp markings for foreign troops to gather us when the government declares martial law? In some area, even the local police & utility companies don’t even know why they are there.
He then follows it up with a couple of videos, showing his mailbox and a neighbor's mailbox that have stickers.  And lo, one of them was red and one of them was blue, as was foretold by the prophecy.  Worse still, one of the mailboxes had the lock forced.  He talked to a guy at the post office, who said that the blue sticker meant that there was a forwarding order on that address.  The guy who made the video, who calls himself "Master Paul," draws from this the following breathtaking conclusion:
If blue means "forward," why is (the neighbor's) red?  There are a lot of conspiracy theories on YouTube.  This is not a conspiracy theory.  You're seeing it.  Red and blue!
Yup.  We saw it.  Red and blue.  And therefore FEMA death camps and martial law and public floggings of American citizens, or something.

To hammer home the point, we're shown the following map, illustrating where stickered mailboxes have been reported to Master Paul et al.:

So after seeing all of this, I had to go out and check my own mailbox, to see if I'd been color-coded for execution.  I mean, inquiring minds want to know, and all.  My mailbox didn't have a colorful dot, but it did still have the Borg insignia that a student of mine put on it five years ago:

And I guess, all things considered, being assimilated is probably preferable to being beheaded.  But still, it was a little disappointing that the Evil Government Operatives don't even consider me important enough to be color-coded.

There are two things, though, that strike me as funny about all of this.  One is that the conspiracy theorists think that the conspirators are these ultra-intelligent, secretive Men In Black, who despite having access to god-alone-knows-what sorts of sophisticated technology, keep track of their victims via stickers?  All I can say is, if that's the level of finesse these guys are capable of, I'm not very worried:
First conspirator:  Shit!  Mrs. Finkwhistle ripped the sticker off her mailbox again!  Third time this week!  What color was she supposed to be? 
Second conspirator (consulting rolodex file):  Um, I think she was yellow.  No, wait, she's chartreuse. 
First conspirator:  What does chartreuse mean? 
Second conspirator:  It means people who aren't really threats to our Evil Plans, but who do own annoying yappy little dogs named "Foofoo." 
First conspirator:  Oh, right.  Well, I'm all out of chartreuse stickers.  I guess we better go back to Staples.
But it's not only the general incompetence of the Evil Government Operatives that bothers me.  If you looked at the website, you'd see that right in the comments section, someone explains the actual significance of the stickers (other than forwarding orders):
I am a newspaper person and we have different stickers for different houses.  A red one may mean the person is handicapped so take it to their door.  Standard use is blue ones although some freaks use fluorescent ones to see them in the dark so we don’t pass your house.  Sometimes they also use these so they can tell what type of account the person has.  Like Daily, Weekend, Sunday only.  I gotta tell the guys about that one.  Thinking it’s FEMA.  bahahawahhahahahahaha.
Well, I guess he told "Master Paul."  But the thing of it is, the other commenters immediately shot the guy down.  It is too FEMA.  Stop confusing the situation with your silly "facts," dammit.  Stickers!  Death camps!  Martial law!  AAAUUUGGGGHHH!

Righty-o.  So anyway, if you find a sticker in your mailbox, I wouldn't remove it, unless you're really keen on your newspaper being delivered to someone else.  You have nothing to worry about other than that, however, whether you have a sticker or not.  On the other hand, I'd still suggest watching out for the Borg.  Assimilation has got to be uncomfortable, what with all of those implants and everything.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The pink glove agenda

I try not to repeat myself, I honestly do.  Recycling topics -- the way Ann Coulter's column always seems to boil down to liberals being morons who hate America -- is a lazy way to run a blog.

But sometimes the temptation is just too strong.  Such as the topic of my post earlier this month, that the fundamentalist Christians are running out of sane arguments against equal rights for LGBT individuals, so now they're making up stuff that is batshit insane.

In that post, we had A. J. Castellitto claiming that gays were secretly commies, and Rick Santorum opining that if gay marriage becomes legal, there'll be more single moms.  But just in the last couple of days, we have had some further rants from the right that make Castellitto and Santorum sound like the voice of reason.

First, we have a film from Truth In Action Ministries warning Christian parents that public schools are actually being run by people who are determined to lead children astray:
Public schools, and this is right on some level, want to teach kids right and wrong.  But what if their definition of right and wrong says, "Opposing homosexual behavior is wrong, and embracing homosexuality is right"?  Then of course you're going to start seeing that in the public schools.  I've noticed that in textbooks the words "husband," "wife," "family," "worship," "pray" have been taken out...  I know there is a controversy in California right now about teaching gay history in the public schools.  Many Christians and others are concerned about this agenda being foisted upon children who are being required to attend public schools.  I know a girl in my home town who was flunked because she refused to write a paper about gays having the right to adopt kids.  So they actually flunked her from the school.  When that happens, Christians need to speak up and say, "Wait a minute.  What about my constitutional rights?  I'm being denied my right of free exercise of religion."    If my state denies me the right to refuse to participate in a classroom project I disagree with, then I should have the right to refrain from doing it.  So, mom and dad, if you have a school district where in fact they are introducing pernicious ideas that are antithetical to the word of God, then you are going to ask yourself who you are going to serve: Mammon or God.
Yuppers.  I'll just leave that right there.  Because that's bush-league crazy compared to Flip Benham, of Operation: Save America, who claims that the whole thing boils down to Satan wearing gay gloves:
Ours is a gospel battle.  We see the gospel battle.  Homosexuality is the same fist with a different colored glove...  Homosexuality is a pink-colored glove covering the same fist, the fist of the devil...   (Islam, abortion, and homosexuality) are three of the greatest physical manifestations between the two seeds -- the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman.  It’s the same battle, it’s the same fist, we’re fighting the Devil and his lies in the world and the flesh, and moving it to a thing called the homosexual agenda – and it’s the Devil’s agenda.  But now, we're not allowed to speak against it.
I'm thinking that pink is really not Satan's color.  The overall Infernal Theme seems to be red, you know?  Pink would clash terribly.

Satan and Job by William Blake (1826) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Maybe some nice elbow-length gray suede gloves would be less gauche.  Fashion is everything, especially when you're trying to seduce souls into an Evil Agenda.

Then we had Gordon Klingenschmitt, Republican nominee for congress in Colorado, who in an email to supporters warned that the presence of an openly gay man in congress would lead to Christians being beheaded:
The openly homosexual Congressman Jared Polis introduced a revised bill to force Christian employers and business owners to hire and promote homosexuals with ZERO RELIGIOUS EXEMPTIONS for Christians who want to opt out. 
Polis ‘wants sexual orientation and gender identity treated the same way as race, religion, sex, and national origin, when it comes to employment protections,’ claims the Advocate, under the headline ‘Polis trims ENDA’s religious exemption’... 
The open persecution of Christians is underway.  Democrats like Polis want to bankrupt Christians who refuse to worship and endorse his sodomy.  Next he’ll join ISIS in beheading Christians, but not just in Syria, right here in America.
Man, that's one hell of a slippery slope. Klingenschmitt later posted -- well, not a retraction, exactly, but a snarky followup that claimed he was "joking" and that the Democrats "don't recognize hyperbole."  Unsurprisingly, no one except his ultra-religious followers were much impressed by this, and the general consensus is that he may just have torpedoed whatever chance he had at his party's nomination.

And I'll only give the briefest of mentions to Pat Robertson's claim that homosexual male teenagers will turn straight if they have male companionship, and a post on the website of the Louisiana Tea Party claiming that the Common Core was designed to turn children gay, and that the "first wave" had  already been converted.

What always strikes me about this is to wonder why god, not to mention his various mouthpieces, are so damn worried about what consenting adults do in their bedrooms.  It's just one more aspect of God-As-Micromanager, but while most of the devout have jettisoned all of the picayune rules from Leviticus about what you can eat, and touch, and do on Sundays, they still have this bizarre hangup about how people get off.

Worse yet, there's the fact that these people's prejudices are denying loving couples the right to have that love recognized and protected under the law.   You'd think that devout Christians would have the attitude that the statement from 1 Corinthians -- "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" -- kind of outweighs the verse from Leviticus that says, "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination."  It's pretty clear that most of the religious ignore most of Leviticus -- except, apparently, the parts governing behavior they find icky.  I mean, there's the line from Leviticus 11 about the devout being prohibited from touching pig skin, and that hasn't stopped Tim Tebow.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I find the whole thing baffling.  I've come to expect that these people will be Johnny One-Note on their favorite bible verse, even though it does call into question why they think about that one so often.  But the fear mongering, not to mention babbling about pink gloves and gay agendas running public schools and gay congressmen supervising the beheading of American citizens, is simply bizarre.  I surmised in my previous post that this wacko behavior was a sign that they were running out of ideas, and I fervently hope this is true.  But whatever is driving it, I wish they'd stop.  They're turning me into a Johnny One-Note myself, and I'd rather avoid that if I can.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gnome-man's land

Yesterday, I thought we had reached some pinnacle of cryptozoological silliness with "Batsquatch," the denizen of the forested Pacific Northwest that looks like you put a chihuahua's head on Arnold Schwarzenegger's body, and added humongous bat wings.

But no.  Today we do even better, with a report from north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of a man who saw...

... a gnome.

Yes, a gnome, complete with pot belly and little conical cap.  And no, he says, it was not a garden statue.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Over at the site EarthFiles, we hear the account of one Keith Sniadach, who owns a cabin in western Pennsylvania.  He set up a game camera, but instead of the usual deer and raccoons, he captured something different -- a moving figure with a "pink, pig-like face, bulbous black eyes, and a coned head (that) seems to be a hat with a white ball on top."  The figure also has "skinny legs" and "seems to be wearing leather."

You'll have to go over to the link provided to read Sniadach's entire account and to see the photographs, because the EarthFiles site has a big warning at the bottom that everything on their site is copyright-protected, and I'd rather avoid legal entanglements.  But when I read this story, three things jumped out at me:

  1. The camera, which Sniadach pronounces an "awesome camera," gave photographs of this thing that are blurred enough that you can turn them into just about anything you want.
  2. A gnome?  Really?
  3. Sniadach is the author of Relics of God: A Supernatural Guide to Religious Artifacts, Sacred Locations and Holy Souls.
Okay, I know #3 may be a little unfair, but it does occur to me how infrequently gnomes appear to skeptics like myself.  So I thought: all right, Sniadach has his own set of biases, as does Linda Moulton Howe, owner of EarthFiles.  But don't we all?  Couldn't Sniadach still be a reliable witness?

Then I scrolled down on the above Amazon link, to read his reviews, and found the following one-star review:
I reviewed this book before and the Author had posted vitriolic and obnoxious comments regarding my view on his work.  This prompted me to read the book for the second time and my stand on this opus remains the same. 
Relics of God is an attempt to compile objects associated with the superphysical realm and other stories about Christianity...  (Yet) eighty-nine percent of the information were taken from internet sites and the only primary source consulted was the bible.
Which, of course, also doesn't mean that he made up the gnome story, but it does call into question his scientific credibility.  Which is not helped by the fact that in his account, he says that there has also been a lot of Bigfoot activity near his cabin, and he and his father have heard and recorded "Bigfoot screams."

He says he's also really interested in The Winged Humanoid of Butler County.

On the other hand, Howe contacted Daniel Drasin, "professional digital image analyzer," who pronounces that on examining the gnome photographs, he sees "no obvious evidence of Photoshop manipulation."

Not, of course, that that's the only way to create a fake paranormal photograph.  My younger son took the following just a couple of days ago, using his old digital camera:

The ghost in the photograph is me, walking across my rec room.  I guess I'm like those creepy guys in The Sixth Sense who are ghosts and don't know they're dead.

In any case, I'm doubtful about the whole Pennsylvania gnome thing, Sniadach's claims to the contrary notwithstanding.  Being a biologist, no one would be more tickled than me if there was some previously-undocumented species of sentient creature moseying around in the woods of my neighbor state.

But I don't think this is it.  I'm placing the gnome in with Batsquatch, squarely in the "nope" file.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bats in the belfry

Over at the site Pararational a couple of days ago an article appeared describing a cryptid I'd never heard of.  Huge, brawny, with pointed ears and enormous, leathery wings, this character haunts the forests of the Pacific Northwest.  As if they didn't already have enough problems with their Sasquatch infestation.

And despite living for ten years in Seattle, I'd never heard of him.  So, dear readers, meet...

... Batsquatch.

The first thing I notice, being a biologist, is that Batsquatch seems to have no... equipment.  If you get my drift.  Above the waist, he's built like a bodybuilder, and below the waist he's built like a Ken doll.  So you have to wonder how there'd be more than one of them.   Maybe they reproduce from spores, or something.

The other thing is that he's got kind of a small head in comparison to his body, and a rather derpish expression.  Low cranial capacity, you know?  A knuckle-dragger type.  The overall impression is of a demon from the redneck part of hell, where instead of stealing your soul, they just down a six-pack of Miller Lite and then take a baseball bat to your mailbox.

Beelzebubba, is kind of how I think of him.

Be that as it may, Batsquatch has apparently been seen a number of times, starting back in 1980, and has generated reports with some regularity since then.  Here's one from 2009:
Me and my friend were hiking around Mt. Shasta and out of one of the crevices, flew out this big creature.  I mean this thing was huge. It was as tall as a man, as stocky as Hulk Hogan and had leathery wings.  I believe the wing span was at least 50 feet from one end to the other.  I was holding up my camera, but was paralyzed with fear as this thing flew by.  I didn’t get a picture, sorry.  What do you think this might be?  Could it have been a pterodactyl?  It was flying or gliding fast, it seemed to have a head of a bat.  Thinking about it, it doesn’t have the head of a pterodactyl, I just saw a picture of a pterodactyl and the heads are not similar.  I would think it had the head of a bat or maybe more like a fox.  The damn thing finally flew into a clump of trees and vanished.  I heard you guys might be going back to Mt. Shasta, if you do, please look out for this thing.  If you see it, you will piss all over yourself, I kid you not.
Well, yeah, I guess that'd be a natural enough reaction to seeing Hulk Hogan with fifty-foot wings.

Then, we're told of several "fake" reports of Batsquatch.  I'm not entirely sure how one vague story with no proof differs from another vague story with no proof, but the author of the website says that some of the accounts are real and some are not, so there you are.

Because the fact remains that there isn't a scrap of hard evidence that Batsquatch exists, just a lot of anecdotal reports and a sketch of a sketch.  That didn't stop the folks over at Pararational from coming up with what may be the all-time silliest explanation for a cryptid sighting that I've ever read:
(Perhaps) Batsquatch is an extra-dimensional creature that dropped through a rift and got stuck here.  If the first sighting really was in close proximity to the Mt. St. Helens eruption, it seems probably that the force of the blast may have ruptured time/space allowing something to get sucked through.  In that case, it may have flown around for a while and died in some remote location, or else found a way home.
Because, of course, "rupturing space-time" is what happens when a volcano erupts.  Probably also happens during earthquakes, thunderstorms, and early cold snaps.  You know how fragile space-time is, at least if Star Trek: The Next Generation is to be believed.

So anyway.  If you're in the Northwest, look out for Batsquatch.  Given how big he supposedly is, I don't see how you could miss him, frankly.  If you see him, maybe he won't hurt you if you offer him a Miller Lite.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

James Foley, and the moral bankruptcy of the conspiracy theorists

Every time I think the conspiracy theorists can sink no lower, they outdo themselves.

Not that it's easy.  These are the people who think that everything from the Sandy Hook massacre to the Boston Marathon bombing were "false flags" to distract us from what the Evil Government is doing, or else outright hoaxes staged by "crisis actors."  They've dogged the footsteps of bereaved parents who have lost children to school shooters, desperate to prove that their child never existed, thereby ranking even lower on the Great Chain of Being than the members of the Westboro Baptist Church (who fall somewhere below slime molds themselves).  They spread their fear messages amongst the gullible, turning jet contrails into toxic "chemtrails," fluoridation of water into a campaign by the government to convert us all into mindless drones, and vaccination programs into a plan by "Big Pharma" to give our children autism, ALS, and lord alone knows what else.

And now they have latched onto the brutal beheading of James Foley by the butchers of ISIS as the latest target of their poisonous nonsense.

The flag of jihad [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

We have the conversation over at the r/conspiracy subreddit claiming that ISIS is an arm of the CIA.  Worse still, from the site Epoch Times comes a claim that the execution video itself is a fake, and that the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is actually an Israeli Jew named Elliott Shimon who is on the payroll of Mossad.  Other claims are floating around various social media, suggesting that Obama operatives staged the execution (or possibly carried it out for real) to distract us from the riots in Ferguson or the illegal alien crisis or the ongoing non-scandal surrounding Benghazi.

(And just for the record: though I provided links to the r/conspiracy thread and the Epoch Times article, I am actively recommending that you don't click them, unless you really enjoy experiencing outrage at near-aneurysm levels.)

But to the people promoting these ridiculous claims, I have only the following to say:

Have you no shame at all?

A man died, for fuck's sake, slaughtered in the desert with less dignity than we accord cattle in an abattoir.  His executioner's blank eyes are the face of true human evil, and the cause he belongs to is representative of the worst human nature can do.  I am by nature and philosophy a pacifist, but reading about Foley's horrifying last moments (I refuse to watch the video, and so should you) makes me roundly in favor of tactical strikes to wipe every last member of ISIS off the face of the earth.  These subhumans deserve no better.

And you dare to bend this story to fit your twisted little view of humanity?  You have only proven your own moral bankruptcy, if there was any doubt of that left.  Your lies are nearly as sickening as the brutal jihadist message of ISIS itself, because you, like they, have no apparent regard for the life and dignity of a human being who (by all accounts) was a kind, courageous, intelligent man whose death should be mourned in peace by his family and friends, not used as a means for bolstering a warped worldview.

It shouldn't surprise me by now.  You people are willing to lie about damn near everything else, why wouldn't I expect you to lie about this?

But it always does, somehow.  I always think, "This, at least, is beneath even the conspiracy theorists."

And I'm always wrong.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Alien rock mania

In the last week or so, there's been a sudden rash of claims of discovering alien artifacts on the Moon and Mars.

To which I respond: will you people please get a grip?

It's often hard enough, here on Earth, with the actual item in your hand, to tell the difference between a human-created artifact and an object with entirely non-human origins.  Chance resemblances and oddball natural processes sometimes result in rocks (for example) with strikingly organic-looking appearance.  For example, what do you make of this?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Looks like coral, right?  Or maybe some sort of fossilized plant?  Nope, it's a fulgurite -- a rock that forms when lightning strikes sand.

So chance appearances don't tell you much.  Especially when you are looking at a grainy photograph of the object in question.  And especially when you want very much for there to be something impressive there.

For example, we had a claim a couple of days ago over at the International Business Times that the Mars rover Curiosity had photographed what appears to be a thigh bone.  "None of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration scientists have spoken about it," the article states, with some asperity, "but the news has been going viral."

Well, when you look at the photograph, you'll see why NASA really didn't want to spend their time debunking it:

[image courtesy of NASA]

It's a rock, folks.  Being a biology teacher, I know what a thigh bone looks like, and this ain't one.  It's a rock.

Oh, and to the folks over at the IBT: you do not improve your credibility by following up the story on the Martian thigh bone with the statement, "In the past, there have been claims of noticing objects on the surface of Mars like a dinosaur spine, dinosaurs, mysterious light, a toy boat, an iguana, a cat and a half-human and half-goat face."  Just to point that out.

Then, over at The UFO Chronicles, we had Skeptophilia frequent flier Scott Waring claiming that what is almost certainly a digital imaging glitch was "clearly an alien base on the Moon."    Here's the image:

According to Waring, you can see all sorts of things in this, like a wall and the entrance to an underground facility.  Me, all I see is a black blob.  Not the first time that imaging glitches have caused a furor; remember when a glitch in a NASA photograph of the Sun caused all the conspiracy-types to claim that the Earth was about to be attacked by the Borg cube?

Then just this morning, we had another report from Mars over at UFO Sightings Daily that there's an outline of a wolf on the Martian surface.  Here's that one, which made me choke-snort a mouthful of coffee:

Helpfully colored in so that you can see it.  Sad for Mr. Wolf, however -- he seems to be missing one of his hind legs.  Maybe with the lower gravity, you can get by with three.

So anyway.  I really wish people would stop leaping about making little squeaking noises every time one of the lunar or planetary explorers stumbles on something that has a vague similarity to a familiar object.  Aren't there enough cool real things out there in space to think about?  You have to invent Moon bases, thigh bones, and three-legged Martian wolves?

I'm sticking with the science.  That's always been plenty awesome enough, as far as I'm concerned.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The creation of Zozo

We like to think of urban legends as a modern phenomenon.  As author Jan Harold Brunvand discusses in his wonderful book The Choking Doberman, word-of-mouth transmission of stories heard "from a friend of a friend" is a powerful way to spread memes; and of course, the internet has made it even easier.  Some of these stories are of modern provenance, given their mention of cars and other contemporary props.  But only for a few -- "Slender Man" being an example -- do we know exactly when and where the story started.

I ran into an urban legend of sorts that I'd never heard of just yesterday, and this is apparently one of those rare ones for which the origin is actually known.  The story is about the evil demon named...

... "Zozo."

Notwithstanding that "Zozo" sounds like something a rich old lady would name her toy poodle, Zozo is apparently a demon of incredible evil, according to the story on the subject over at Stranger Dimensions.  Apparently the first mention of the evil Zozo was in Jacques Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal, wherein we find that an unnamed girl from Picardy, France was possessed by Zozo back in 1816.

Inferno by Gustave Doré (1863) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But it wasn't until the invention of the Ouija board that stories of Zozo really took off.  Yes, I know it was invented by some entrepreneurial game-designers in 1890, and any positive results -- if you can call them that -- almost certainly arise from the ideomotor effect.  This hasn't stopped the Ouija board from becoming one of the most feared occult devices (hated especially by devout Christians).  Hollywood, never shy of capitalizing on hype, even has a movie called Ouija due out this Halloween, about some teenagers "awakening evil forces" using an "ancient spirit board."

But back to Zozo.  Once this method of "communicating with spirits" was invented, it wasn't long before the Zozo phenomenon really took off.  He (or it) was an evil spirit, claims said, that was always hanging around looking for a means of ingress.  The Ouija board acted to allow access, and once that avenue was open, Zozo wouldn't let go, but would torment the individual forever.

The whole thing has gained so much traction that there's a paranormal researcher, Darren Evans, who has a blog called The Zozo Phenomenon in which he documents hundreds of encounters with the evil spirit.  He calls himself a "Zozologist."  Here's one example of a story from his site:
Hello, I purchased a ouija board at a garage sale from an elderly couple.  I have always had an interested in the spirit world and had a great interest in trying to make contact.  I did not dare to play the ouija by myself so I just left it packed away until I had a friend convinced me to use it last night.  For an hour we spoke to this woman spirit and as we went on with the session the word "zozo" kept being spelled out.  As a newbie at this I had no clue what it meant until I looked it up and found it on your website.  The energy on the oracle was wild and i am certain if we had removed our hands it would have flew off the board. several times it tried to spell out the alphabet.  It was scary as heck and was terrified to see that it was evil… do I still need to cleanse the house even if we went to “goodbye”?  I have children and am scared for them.
Predictably, I still think the whole thing is nothing more than superstition and the aforementioned ideomotor effect, but of course, once this sort of thing catches on, it snowballs, just as Slender Man and Spring-Heeled Jack and El Chupacabra have.  Even Rob Schwartz, in the article at Stranger Dimensions I linked earlier, said:
But what is Zozo, and why has it terrorized thousands of people around the world? This, I’m afraid, is not an easy question to answer.  It’s difficult to tell which stories about Zozo are authentic and which are nothing more than urban legends.  Some tell of murders and suicides, while others involve possession, physical ailments, abuse, curses, and other phenomena commonly associated with demonic forces...  Could Zozo be a tulpa, a shared experience?  Like the Philip Experiment on a much grander scale, or the countless stories (and real life delusions) shared about the Slender Man, Zozo could be our own creation.
Well, yeah, I think that last bit is probably true, but not in the sense that he means.  A "tulpa" is a created experience come to life -- i.e. real -- and I doubt seriously whether that is possible.  As far as the "Philip experiment," I dealt with that in a post earlier this year, and I was (and am) of the opinion that even the people who participated knew it was a bunch of nonsense right from the beginning.

As far as Zozo, it seems to one of a growing number of paranormal phenomena that aren't misinterpreted natural phenomena, nor deliberate hoaxes, but purely human inventions that rely on credulity and a blurred understanding of the line between fact and fiction.  But it does make me want to go out and get a Ouija board and try to summon him up.  If Zozo is that easy to get a rise out of, it should be easy to settle the question of the existence of the paranormal once and for all, not to mention putting me in contention for winning the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Creationist lab research

Following hard on the heels of yesterday's post, wherein we looked at a creationist website and its unfortunate collection of misinterpreted and cherry-picked quotes in support, today we're going to examine the latest hijinks of the Adam-rode-a-dinosaur crowd.  Namely, a group of Dallas researchers who want to set out to prove "scientifically" that the biblical account is literally true.

The effort is headed up by Henry Morris III, who has 49 people on his payroll and an annual budget of seven million dollars and who is affiliated with the Institution for Creation Research.  And he apparently is earnest.  "Our attempt is to demonstrate that the Bible is accurate, not just religiously authoritative," Morris told reporters for the Dallas News.  "The rationale behind it is this: If God really does exist, he shouldn’t be lying to us.  And if he’s lying to us right off the bat in the book of Genesis, we’ve got some real problems."

Well, yeah, I can't argue with that.

But his staff members, of course, don't take that statement the same way as I do.  One of them, astrophysicist Jason Lisle, said, "I think everyone here is doing it because we believe in the message and we ultimately want people to be saved.  We want people to realize the Bible is trustworthy in matters of history and when it touches science.  And because you can trust it in those areas, you can trust it when it comes to how to inherit eternal life."

Which makes me scratch my head in puzzlement, mostly because I cannot conceive how you could be an astrophysicist and a biblical literalist at the same time.  Astrophysicists study objects that are unimaginably distant, some of them millions of light years away.  And if you believe that the universe and everything in it is only six thousand or so years old, then six thousand light years should be the furthest we can see -- because if there was anything more distant, its light wouldn't have reached us yet.

For reference, the Andromeda Galaxy, which you can easily see with binoculars on a clear night, is a bit over 2.5 million light years away.

Oh, wait, the speed of light might not be constant.  Or time might not be constant.  Or maybe god created the starlight already in transit.  Never mind.  (For a facepalm-worthy explanation of why stellar distances don't bother the creationists, go here.  Don't say I didn't warn you.)

So anyway, you have to wonder what these "scientists" -- and I use the word with some hesitation -- will come up with.  As I have commented before, when you assume your conclusion, magic happens.

But what places all of this nonsense in the realm of inadvertent comedy is a revelation broken over at the wonderful blog Why Evolution Is True, wherein we find out that an interview with the aforementioned Jason Lisle on the Dallas Morning News was green-screened in front of a fake lab and a whiteboard with a bunch of meaningless scribbles, including a bulleted list that says, and I quote, "Dino's, Ice, Rocket Man."  (Click the link to see the shot of the whiteboard; it's a hoot, and the site deserves your visit.)

So right from the get-go they're not exactly being honest about their "research," which should surprise no one.  There's no way you actually could do honest scientific research and come to these conclusions.  The evidence that the universe was created six thousand years ago is nonexistent -- making me curious about what they're doing with their seven million bucks annual budget other than paying their "scientists" to scribble random shit on the lab whiteboard.

Anyway, that's our news from the Genesis crowd.  I'm expecting the whole thing to fizzle, given the fact that there's pretty much nothing there to be studied.  On the other hand, expect a glowing report of success on the ICR's website to appear forthwith.  Given their history, they won't let a little thing like abject failure stop them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What the fruit flies actually say

It's common practice to use quotes from experts to support an argument.  I do it, in nearly every post. But the problem is that if you are only looking at a clipped quote from a larger piece, you may not be getting the whole story.

And sometimes the person using the quote intends exactly that.

I ran into an especially good example of that yesterday, in the goofy creationist website Pathlights -- more specifically, on the page entitled "Fruit Flies Speak Up!"  In this bizarre little piece, the author claims that fruit fly research conclusively disproves evolution, because "After decades of study, without immediately killing or sterilizing them, 400 different mutational features have been identified in fruit flies.  But none of these changes the fruit fly to a different species."

Drosophila melanogaster [image courtesy of photographer André Karwath and the Wikimedia Commons]

Notwithstanding that the author evidently doesn't understand even the rudiments of evolutionary biology, what interested me more was the collection of quotes he used to support his point.  Some of them, for obvious reasons, came from creationist writings:
  • Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried (1971)
  • Francis Hitching, The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went Wrong (1982)
  • Gordon R. Taylor, The Great Evolution Mystery (1983)
  • Michael Pitman, Adam and Evolution (1984)
  • "Evolutionists Still Looking for a `Good Accident,'" Battle Cry, July-August, 1990
So far, nothing too surprising here.  Of the other quotes, the first thing that jumped out at me was that the ones from scientists and thinkers of high repute were all old.  Like, really old.  There was a quote from Richard Goldschmidt from 1952, ones from Maurice Caullery and Theodosius Dobzhansky from 1964.  What, you can't find any quotes under fifty years old from reputable scientists to support your contention?

I wonder why that is.

And even those old quotes are misinterpreted or taken out of context.  For example, let's look at the Dobzhansky quotes.  If Theodosius Dobzhansky actually said something that shot down evolution, it would be astonishing; he was one of the founders of the modern evolutionary model, and in fact his most famous quote is, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."  So let's see what quotes the author did choose.  Here's the first one:
The clear-cut mutants of Drosophila, with which so much of the classical research in genetics were done, are almost without exception inferior to wild-type flies in viability, fertility, longevity.  (Theodosius Dobzhansky, Heredity and the Nature of Man (1964))  
Well, duh.  The scientists who conducted the experiments were doing artificial selection -- i.e., selecting the mutant strains because they were interested in the phenotypic expression of the mutation.  Put a different way, they were not selecting the flies for fitness, which is what happens in natural settings.  Just as artificial selection in dogs has resulted in breeds with poorer fitness than "wild-type" dogs -- predisposition to diseases like hip dysplasia being a well-studied example -- there is no evolutionary biologist in the world who would expect that what is being done in labs that study Drosophila is going to produce populations with higher fitness than the wild-type flies that have been naturally selected for survival for millennia.

Here's the second quote:
Most mutants which arise in any organism are more or less disadvantageous to their possessors. The classical mutants obtained in Drosophila usually show deterioration, breakdown, or disappearance of some organs.  Mutants are known which diminish the quantity or destroy the pigment in the eyes, and in the body reduce the wings, eyes, bristles, legs.  Many mutants are, in fact lethal to their possessors.  Mutants which equal the normal fly in vigor are a minority, and mutants that would make a major improvement of the normal organization in the normal environments are unknown.  (Theodosius Dobzhansky, Evolution, Genetics, and Man (1955))
The author of the site is using this to claim that mutations are always bad, but read Dobzhansky's quote and you will find him using words like most, more or less, usually, many, a minority.  Read critically, you will see that Dobzhansky clearly knew about neutral variation, which are traits that confer neither an advantage nor a disadvantage to the individual.

In fact, let's look at a different Dobzhansky quote, that demonstrates the point rather clearly:
The data reported in the present article have a bearing on the problem of selection, even though they involve no selection experiments in the usual sense of the term.  Some of the chromosomes obtained through crossing over between the three ancestral wild chromosomes have properties very dif- ferent from the latter.  It is, therefore, possible to “select” products of recombination of the gene complexes that deviate greatly from the ancestral types, being completely outside the limits of variability of these ancestors.  (from "The Genetics of Natural Populations," Genetics, May 1946)
Dobzhansky was no doubter of evolutionary theory.  He simply knew enough about genetics to understand that artificially-induced, artificially-selected mutations were unlikely to improve fitness, and that much of the variation you see in nature is due to recombination.

Most interesting is a quote from Jeremy Rifkin's book Algeny.  Rifkin himself is an economist and social activist, so right away you have to wonder why his word on evolutionary genetics should be authoritative.  But here it is:
Even with this tremendous speedup of mutations, scientists have not been able to come up with anything other than another fruit fly.  Most important, what all these experiments demonstrate is that the fruit fly can vary within certain upper and lower limits but will never go beyond them.  For example, Ernst Mayr reported on two experiments performed on the fruit fly back in 1948. 
In the first experiment, the fly was selected for a decrease in bristles and, in the second experiment, for an increase in bristles.  Starting with a parent stock averaging 36 bristles, it is possible after thirty generations to lower the average to 25 bristles, "but then the line became sterile and died out."  In the second experiment, the average number of bristles were increased from 36 to 56; then sterility set in.  Mayr concluded with the following observation: Obviously any drastic improvement under selection must seriously deplete the store of genetic variability...  The most frequent correlated response of one-sided selection is a drop in general fitness.  This plagues virtually every breeding experiment.  (Jeremy Rifkin, Algeny (1983))
Once again, we have the same three problems; confusing artificial with natural selection, ignoring the effects of recombination on variation, and using words like "most frequent."  And it must be said that when Algeny was published, it was roundly trashed by the scientific community.  Stephen Jay Gould reviewed it thusly:
I regard Algeny as a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don't think I have ever read a shoddier work.  Damned shame, too, because the deep issue is troubling and I do not disagree with Rifkin's basic pleas for respecting the integrity of evolutionary lineages.  But devious means compromise good ends, and we shall have to save Rifkin's humane conclusion from his own lamentable tactics.  (Discover, January 1985)
Ouch.  Given Gould's stature in the scientific community, I think that puts Rifkin and Algeny into perspective.

So the original post on Pathlights was disingenuous at best.  Illustrating the unsurprising point that if you cherry-pick your quotes, you can support damn near anything.  Which, ironically, is exactly what the fundamentalists do with their own favorite source, the bible -- insisting that we interpret literally the creation story and Noah's ark and prohibitions against homosexuality, while simultaneously ignoring things like the kosher laws and rules spelling out how you can beat your slaves and mandates to stone disobedient children.

No particular shock, I suppose, that they do the same thing to other sources.  But it does call into serious question their intellectual honesty, doesn't it?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Be vewwwy quiet. I'm hunting Neanderthals.

Sometimes it seems to me that a significant fraction of the media is not even trying to be accurate any more.

Oh, I know there are responsible reporters.  But ye gods and little fishes, some of them are awful.

Take, for example, Mike Hallowell's piece last week in the Shields Gazette, a newspaper out of Sunderland, England.  The article's title was -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- "Was Neanderthal Shot by a Time Traveler?"

In this bizarre little piece, we find out that in 1922, some archaeologists found a Neanderthal skull in Broken Hill, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  This put me on alert right away; Neanderthals didn't live in Africa, they were a species confined entirely to Europe (if they constitute a distinct species at all, a point still being debated).

But that was only the beginning of the lunacy in Hallowell's article.  Because he claimed that this "Neanderthal skull" had a bullet hole in it.  Here's a direct quote:
On the left side of the cranium was a small, perfectly round hole. At first it was assumed that it had been made by a spear, or other sharp implement, but further investigation proved that this had not been the case. 
When a skull is struck by a relatively low-velocity projectile – such as an arrow, or spear – it produces what are known as radial cracks or striations; that is, minute hairline fractures running away from the place of impact. 
As there were no radial fractures on the Neanderthal skull, it was unanimously concluded that the projectile must have had a far, far greater velocity than an arrow or spear. But what? 
Another mystery was that the right side of the cranium had, in the words of one anthropologist, “been blown away”. Further research also proved that that the right side of the cranium had been “blown away” from the inside out. 
In short, whatever had hit the Broken Hill Neanderthal on the left side of his head had passed through it with such force that it had caused the right side to explode.
He then quotes René Noorbergen, author of Secrets of the Lost Races, who said, "This same feature is seen in modern victims of head wounds received from shots from a high-powered rifle.  The cranial damage to Rhodesian Man’s skull could not have been caused by anything but a bullet."

The skull of "Rhodesian Man," showing the alleged entry wound [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So, Hallowell concludes, the bullet came from the gun of a time traveler who had gone on a "trans-temporal hunting expedition."

Righty-o.  Because that makes sense.  It took me all of five minutes on Google to find out that this claim is Grade-A Unadulterated Bullshit.  Over at the wonderful blog Bad Thinking, we find out that everything about Hallowell's article is... wrong.

Rhodesian Man was discovered in 1921, not 1922.  The skull, as I realized right from the outset, wasn't a Neanderthal, it was Homo rhodesiensis, a species that is thought to be the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans.  The "bullet hole" actually shows signs of partial healing, and therefore the skull's owner survived whatever caused it.  Scientists (who, unlike Hallowell, actually know what they're talking about) suspect it was caused by a bacterial infection.

Worst of all, the opposite side of the skull is intact.  There's no exit wound, no part of the skull that's "blown away."  The unnamed archaeologist quoted in Hallowell's article either never actually looked at the right side of the skull, or more likely, he is as nonexistent as the rest of the evidence in this claim.

I suppose there's always been lousy, low-standards journalism, but because of the internet such foolishness now can travel much further than ever before.  This means it's even more important to insist on accuracy in reporting, and being willing to accept nothing but excellence in every media source.

I know that media also exists to entertain, and there's nothing wrong with amusing speculation, whose aim is only to make us scratch our heads a little.  But before Hallowell even got to the speculation part of the article, he misled the reader with outright falsehoods multiple times, and that is inexcusable.

As I've said more than once, I am all for keeping in mind our biases and assumptions.  I have a bias always to look for the natural explanation that is consistent with what we currently know of the laws of science.  People who accept the existence of the paranormal have a different set of biases.

But neither viewpoint benefits from liars and hoaxers, who serve no other purpose than to muddy the waters, making actual understanding less likely for everyone.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Note:  because this post is about swearing, it contains some swear words.  Be thou forewarned.


I sometimes use some "strong language" in this blog, and every once in a while someone will comment on it.  I try not to make it gratuitous, but there are times when the only intensifier that seems appropriate is one that is... inappropriate.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

For example, I ended my post on the people using Robin Williams's suicide to score philosophical points with the phrase "shut the fuck up."  Could I have phrased it another way?  Sure.  But my opinion (and opinion it is) is that writing is an art form, for which language is the tool.  A writer uses his/her words to effect a response in the reader -- curiosity, anger, understanding, sadness, laughter, or any of a thousand other possibilities.  A careful writer therefore has to choose words that have punch and clarity.  And I would argue that there is no phrase that could be substituted for "shut the fuck up" that has the same dagger-like stab at the heartless individuals who were the subject of that post.

It's a fine line, though.  Swearing can become a habit.  When I was at the University of Washington, I fell in amongst a group of graduate students for whom swearing and obscenity peppered every conversation.  Simple statements were laden with all manner of bad language; you didn't "have to go to class," you "fuckin' had to go to class."  It was all too easy to fall in with that habit to fit in, and for a time I hardly uttered a phrase that didn't have some kind of inappropriate word in it.

And in this context, the word "inappropriate" is exactly the right descriptor.  It was gratuitous, unnecessary, used only to show how Tough and Modern and Rebellious the speaker was.  It added nothing, gave no emotional zing to the language.  It was a filler, no more laden with meaning than "uh" and "um" and "know what I mean?"

It's significant, of course, that so many swear words have sexual connotations, because let's face it: Americans have a hangup about sex.  But I think that labeling of words as "appropriate" or "inappropriate," "clean" or "obscene" goes far deeper than that.

The reality is, whether any language use is appropriate or inappropriate is contextual.  I discuss this at length in my Critical Thinking classes, starting with an example a little like my use of the f-bomb in my post two days ago.  I play for the class the song "Some Nights" by the band Fun, in which there is no "bad language" until the very end:
Five minutes in and I'm bored again
Ten years of this, I'm not sure if anybody understands
This one is not for the folks at home;
Sorry to leave, mom, I had to go,
Who the fuck wants to die alone all dried up in the desert sun?
The song is about war -- something that is not completely apparent unless you watch the music video.  But I would argue that that single use of a swear word turns that last line into a sucker punch, and the lyrics would have less emotional impact by the use of any other word.

As an illustration of how "inappropriateness" is completely contextual, another thing we discuss is the episode from Seinfeld called "The Bet."  In this famous episode, which may be the best-known one in the entire series, Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George make a bet over which of them can go the longest without masturbating.  Throughout the entire show, not once does any character use the word "masturbate" or any of its synonyms.  Although the whole show is about a topic that people like the eminent prude Brent Bozell would find distasteful and obscene, the censors couldn't find any legitimate reason to stop it from airing, or even anything to bleep out.

Was "The Bet," in fact, obscene?  The difficulty of answering that question was summed up in 1964 in the case Jacobellis vs. Ohio, which was about whether the movie The Lovers was obscene and deserved to be banned.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and in the majority opinion, Justice Potter Stewart said:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
We like everything to fit in neat little boxes with labels.  Words are either appropriate, or they're not; movies, television shows, books, and music are either obscene, or they're not.  Predictably, the reality is much more complex than that.  The impact that any media has on the person consuming it is always contextual, depending on the intent and skill of the person who created the media, and the background, attitudes, intelligence, and sensitivity of the person consuming it.  There are people who have been offended by my occasional use of a "bad word" here on Skeptophilia, and others who have applauded it; only to be expected, when every reader brings a different perspective to a piece of writing.

But I'm not going to apologize for occasionally offending.  As a writer both of essays and fiction, I try to use language with what skill I have, and am careful when choosing words that I know carry a lot of weight.  Sometimes what I intend is for the reader to have a visceral reaction -- whether that reaction is outrage, or a belly laugh from surprise.  If I've achieved that end, I've succeeded, even if I sometimes use a word that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap when I was ten years old.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Face value

I find it fascinating, and often a little unsettling, how we fool ourselves into thinking that our responses, reactions, and thoughts are intelligent.

Now, don't get me wrong, here.  Some of them are.  My writing a blog about rationalism would be a little pointless if we were incapable of thinking rationally, after all.

On the other hand, it's worthwhile keeping in mind the awareness of how much of our behavior is on the instinctive level.  So many of our responses are based on misperception, gut reactions, and inaccurate processing that it's a wonder that we function as well as we do.

Yet another blow to our sense that our brains are making decisions based on logic came this week, when a team of psychologists at New York University published research that indicates that our judgments about whether a face is trustworthy happen within a fraction of a second of our seeing it -- far too fast for it to be a conscious decision.

Jonathan Freeman, Ryan Stoller, Zachary Ingbretsen, and Eric Hehman did a fascinating study in which subjects were placed inside a fMRI scanner, and monitored while they were shown images of human faces for only a few milliseconds, too quickly to register in the conscious mind.  The facial images were also "backward masked" -- followed by irrelevant images that had been shown to terminate the activity of the brain's facial processing systems.  Therefore, none of the facial images reached the conscious awareness of the test subjects (something confirmed by questioning after the experiment was concluded).

The researchers then looked at the response of the amygdala, a part of the brain that previous studies had found was active when people make judgments about trustworthiness, safety, and risk.

Earlier research had indicated that faces with high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones are rated as more trustworthy than faces with low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones, so they created artificial images of human faces with a range of differences in these features.

And the flashing images made the activity in the amygdala increase.  The faces designed to be untrustworthy, especially, triggered a response in the fear and anxiety centers of the amygdala.  Freeman writes:
Our findings suggest that the brain automatically responds to a face’s trustworthiness before it is even consciously perceived. The results are consistent with an extensive body of research suggesting that we form spontaneous judgments of other people that can be largely outside awareness... These findings provide evidence that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously understood. The amygdala is able to assess how trustworthy another person’s face appears without it being consciously perceived.
Which is fascinating, and (of course) you can immediately see the evolutionary advantage of these kinds of snap judgments.  The survival cost of misassessing a person's face varies depending on the kind of mistake you make.  If you mistake an trustworthy person for an untrustworthy one, the risk is usually low; the reverse can be costly, even deadly.

Illustration from a 19th century book on physiognomy [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But of course, that means we sometimes do get it wrong.  Our brains, wired through millions of years of natural selection, manage pretty well most of the time, but that doesn't mean that it's always acting on the basis of anything... smart.  "Evolution," as Richard Dawkins put it, "is the law of whatever works."  As long as the end result is protecting us and our progeny, it doesn't really matter if it's operating in a screwy sort of fashion.

So this, of course, blows yet another hole in our sense that our responses are because of some sort of logical thought process.  Oh, no doubt we append all sorts of rationalizations afterwards.  Our immediate impressions, after all, are sometimes right, and if we find out afterwards that the guy we instantly disliked was a nasty bit of work, it reinforces our sense that we're behaving in an intelligent fashion.

But this study should make you question your snap judgments, and apply your logic centers sooner rather than later.  If, as Freeman et al. have shown, the kinds of things we're using to form our impressions of each other include the shapes of peoples eyebrows and cheekbones, it might be time to pay less attention to our "gut instincts."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A journey with the Denisovans

Every once in a while, I'll run across a piece of research that will make me think, "Ha!  How will the creationists explain that?  They'll have to admit that the evolutionary model is correct now!"

I am always wrong.

Assuming your conclusion, apparently, means never having to say you're sorry.

Take, for example, the recent study by Emilia Huerta-Sánchez et al., that showed that altitude adaptation in the Tibetan people was likely to be due to the presence of a specific gene from a group of Siberian proto-hominins called the Denisovans.  The gene, called EPAS1, protects the individuals who have it against hypoxia when the oxygen concentrations are low, is are not found in surrounding groups (the Han Chinese) but is found in the DNA of the now-extinct Denisovans.  Huerta-Sánchez et al. write:
As modern humans migrated out of Africa, they encountered many new environmental conditions, including greater temperature extremes, different pathogens and higher altitudes.  These diverse environments are likely to have acted as agents of natural selection and to have led to local adaptations.  One of the most celebrated examples in humans is the adaptation of Tibetans to the hypoxic environment of the high-altitude Tibetan plateau. A hypoxia pathway gene, EPAS1, was previously identified as having the most extreme signature of positive selection in Tibetans, and was shown to be associated with differences in haemoglobin concentration at high altitude.
Re-sequencing the region around EPAS1... we find that this gene has a highly unusual haplotype structure that can only be convincingly explained by introgression of DNA from Denisovan or Denisovan-related individuals into humans. Scanning a larger set of worldwide populations, we find that the selected haplotype is only found in Denisovans and in Tibetans, and at very low frequency among Han Chinese.  Furthermore, the length of the haplotype, and the fact that it is not found in any other populations, makes it unlikely that the haplotype sharing between Tibetans and Denisovans was caused by incomplete ancestral lineage sorting rather than introgression.
Put more simply, the scientists found that because of the distribution of the gene, the presence of EPAS1 in Tibetans was much more likely to be due to introgression (hybridization between two distinct species followed by repeated backcrossing to one of the parent species) rather than common ancestry followed by strong selection for phenotype.

Given that the Denisovans are otherwise genetically distinct from modern humans -- work by paleontologist Svante Pääbo supports the conclusion that the Denisovans represent a group whose ancestors left Africa, and have been separate from, both Neanderthals and modern humans for half a million years -- you'd think this would lead anyone who thinks that all humans come from a single family who miraculously survived the Great Flood less than 6,000 years ago to have some serious second thoughts.

Denisova Cave, southern Siberia [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Nope.  Should have known better.  Turns out the creationists, for some reason, love the Denisovans, although I'm still at a loss for why.  Take, for example, what they have to say about all of this over at
It was easy to compare the [Denisovan DNA] to modern man, but in order to make comparisons to Neanderthal they needed more and better Neanderthal DNA to be sequenced.  The results were startling, for the Neanderthals turned out to be very close relations to each other, and this includes individuals from Spain, Germany, Russia and Croatia.  They were closer as a group than any of the modern populations used in the study.  That is a very large area for a very closely related group of people to cover.  The authors used the phrase “drastic bottleneck” to describe what they believe must have happened in the early years of the Neanderthal family line.  We do not feel it is ‘drastic’ to believe the Neanderthals were one family group who spread out into western Eurasia in the years after the Flood, who intermingled with other people groups as they also spread out, and who eventually died out as many other people groups have done in history... 
As with Neanderthals (from whom these Denisovans probably were a further splitoff), the evidence from hybridization scotches any notion that these were other than post-Babel descendants of Adam.
Or if you've a taste for even more bizarre pretzel logic, there's this, over at New Discoveries & Comments About Creationism:
How could have ancient humans who lived in a Siberian cave who were considered lower than Neanderthals interbreed with modern humans?  Before the sequencing of the genome took place it would have been considered, impossible!  But in human evolution, falsifications are confirmations... 
Rather than admitting their evolutionary story had been wrong with real-time observations, it’s now a race to get to the finish line. Not only that but it is implausible that this bone contained 70% of its original DNA after 82,000 years!  Who would believe such preservation of soft tissue?  It’s a stretch to say the least.  It’s much more likely that this individual lived a few thousand years ago at most... 
While a new sequencing technique now available to researchers that can be used to discern a genome from one DNA strand rather than both is quite remarkable but trying to explain it in historical terms which is forced into a particular framework known as human evolution, is not remarkable, it’s not even science. 
We live in an exciting time, since the earth is actually thousands of years old, we are able to learn more about the past rather than loosing [sic] valuable information which comes from DNA if the earth was older!
So... because the Denisovans interbred with some human populations, they had to be modern humans, and therefore less than 6,000 years old, and therefore god and the bible and the flood and all the rest of it.

Pardon me for a moment while I recover from the headdesk I just did.

I always expect, somehow, that logic and science and rationality will reach people.  Science remains our best tool for understanding the universe, and has a proven track record of uncovering the deepest, subtlest mechanisms of the world around us.

And what's odd is that the creationists pretty much buy all of it except evolution and cosmology.  Anything else is awesome -- chemistry, medical science, atmospheric science, most of physics, much of geology, and damn near all of the technological manifestations of scientific research.  Science and the scientific method, apparently, work just fine in all of those realms.

But not in biology and paleogeology, apparently.  The same scientific method that gives right answers in chemistry gives answers in biology and paleogeology that are off by three to four orders of magnitude (six orders of magnitude if you're talking about cosmology and the Big Bang).

So I'm probably engaging in a forlorn hope to think that the recent work on the Denisovans will have any effect on that.  Call me foolish, but I keep believing that one day, this will change, that the habit of teaching Bronze-Age creation myths to children as if they were fact will be over for good.

But to quote Aragorn, that day is not today.  As I said earlier, if you assume your conclusion, magic happens.  It's just that in this case, the magic has to do with insulating you from reality.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Responses to suicide

There's nothing like the tragic death of a celebrity to bring out the worst in humanity.

I'm talking about the suicide of Robin Williams, of course, and in my first statement I'm guilty of Overgeneralizing Because I'm Pissed Off.  There have been a great many beautiful tributes, both by public figures and by Williams' fans, mourning the loss of a brilliant comic and sympathizing with the heartbreak his family is experiencing.  I have seen many use this as an opportunity to make a statement about the devastating nature of depression, and encouraging those contemplating suicide to consider other options.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But man, does this kind of thing bring out the jerks.

Starting with our friends over at the Westboro Baptist Church, which I thought had more or less fallen apart after the death of Fred Phelps.  But no, they're still going strong, and sending out their edifying messages to all and sundry.  And yesterday they announced that they're planning on picketing Robin Williams' funeral because he was a "fag pimp" for creating positive portrayals of gay men in movies.

We'd expect that kind of thing from them, though.  These people are light years from anything resembling human compassion, so such a move is hardly surprising.  Equally unsurprising is the reaction of conspiracy theorists such as noted wingnut Mark Dice, who claims that Williams didn't commit suicide, but was "sacrificed by the Illuminati."

But none of that really bothers me, other than on a purely superficial level.  Wackos will be wackos, after all.  I'm bothered far more deeply by people who are coldly, callously using Williams' death to make a political or philosophical point.  Let's start with Kevin Burke, over at the anti-abortion site Life News, who is claiming that Williams' depression was caused by the fact that his girlfriend had had an abortion back in the 1970's:
Many are aware that Williams struggled for years with serious addiction issues.  However a lesser known fact is that one of those demons was an abortion that took place in the 1970’s...  Is there a relationship between Robin William’s descent into drug addiction and depression that began in the 1970’s and his past abortion?  Williams said in an interview in The Guardian in 2008, “You know, I was shameful…You do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from.  You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it."  Williams may have been making a thinly veiled reference to what society tells us does not exist…his post abortion trauma and complicated grief.
Then there was P. Z. Myers, whose blog Pharyngula I actually used to like, who decided to use Williams' suicide to make a point about how biased media coverage is:
I’m sorry to report that comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, an event of great import and grief to his family.  But his sacrifice has been a great boon to the the news cycle and the electoral machinery — thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people.  I mean, really: young 18 year old black man gunned down for walking in the street vs. 63 year old white comedian killing himself?  Which of those two stories gives you an excuse to play heart-warming and funny video clips non-stop on your 24 hour news channel?...  Boy, I hate to say it, but it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction.
He's right, of course, about media bias.  But putting it this way, P. Z., doesn't make you acerbic or cutting-edge or clever, it just makes you an insensitive asshole.

But no one pissed me off worse than prominent Christian blogger Matt Walsh.  Not, of course, the first time this has happened.  And actually, he started off well enough:
The death of Robin Williams is significant not because he was famous, but because he was human, and not just because he left this world, but particularly because he apparently chose to leave it. 
A terrible, monstrous atrocity.  It disturbs me in a deep, visceral, indescribable way. Of course it disturbs most people, I would assume.  Indeed, we should fear the day when we wake up and decide we aren’t disturbed by it anymore.
But take a look at how he ended the piece:
(W)e can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression.  No depressed person in the history of the world has ever been in the depths of despair and at the heights of joy at the same time.  The two cannot coexist.  Joy is light, depression is darkness.  When we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it.  I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it.
Seriously?  That's your suggestion to the depressed, that they should just "feel joyful?"  His statement "joy is the only thing that defeats depression" is like saying that "the only thing that defeats cancer is not having cancer."  He says, earlier in his blog, "(B)efore I’m accused of being someone who 'doesn’t understand,' let me assure you that I have struggled with this my entire life."

I don't know about you, but it sure as hell sounds to me like he doesn't understand.  His shallow and thoughtless piece minimizes the anguish suffered by tens of thousands, and once again falls back on the old, horrible trope that people who are depressed "just aren't trying hard enough."

Let me be perfectly open here.  I have suffered from moderate to severe depression my entire adult life.  I have only once been in the depths to the point that I actually had the pile of sleeping pills in my hand, a glass of water on my nightstand.  I didn't follow through with it for one reason only; I was scared.

I'm glad I didn't, of course.  Because you can get through depression, you can deal with it, even though it never really is completely defeated.  Through many long years of therapy and the support of my family and friends, I'm doing okay.  But depression is a murderous bitch, no respecter of fame, fortune, or stature, that robs life of its spark and saps your energy and makes everything look gray.  I wish Robin Williams had found his way out of that dark place; his choice to end his life is especially wrenching considering the joy he gave to millions.

But I do understand it.  I've been there.  And I have nothing but empathy for what he went through, and my heart breaks for what his family is enduring.

So to the people like Matt Walsh, whose ridiculous assessments downplay the real struggles the mentally ill experience; to P. Z. Myers and Kevin Burke, who heartlessly sank their claws into Williams' suicide as a way of scoring a philosophical point; and even to wackos like Mark Dice and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who are using the whole thing to bolster their bizarre worldviews... to them I only have one thing to say.

Shut the fuck up.