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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Secrets of the pyramids

Hi, y'all...

Just to let you know that I'm taking a couple of days off for Thanksgiving.  So there won't be any posts for the rest of the week, as I'll be in a turkey-induced coma.  Don't worry, though... I'll be back in the saddle on Monday, December 1, so keep those cards & letters coming.

And for my American readers, enjoy your holiday!


What is it with people thinking that pyramids are magical?

I knew a woman a long time ago who was so convinced that there was something special about a square and four equilateral triangles that she built one by hot-gluing together some dowels.  Then she'd store her apples and bananas under it, and told everyone how much longer they stayed unspoiled than if the fruit was just sitting on her counter.

And lo, over at the Self Empowerment and Development Centre, we find out why this is:
Pyramids don't kill bacteria. However the bacteria feed by absorbing nutrients as entropy breaks the tissues down. In a pyramid there is so little entropy that the bacteria barely survive and don't multiply prolifically. Food therefore stays fresher longer and has a chance to dehydrate before it goes bad.
So these people not only don't understand physics, they don't understand microbiology.  Epic fails in two completely disparate fields.  Quite an accomplishment.

Other claims include the idea that pyramids act as a giant "cosmic battery," that sleeping underneath a pyramid can cure illness (or at least alleviate insomnia), and that placing a dull razor blade under a pyramid will re-sharpen it.

The whole thing has gotten so much traction that it actually made Mythbusters.  They tested a bunch of these claims, with a certified pyramid made to the exact proportions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and to no one's particular surprise, none of the claims turned out to be true.

Which makes you wonder why sites like The Secret Power of the Pyramidal Shape still pop up.  This one was sent to me by three different loyal readers of Skeptophilia, and it's quite a read.  The thing I found the most amusing about it was that it had in-source citations, so it looks a little like an academic paper, but when you check the "Sources Cited" you find out that three of them come from the aforementioned Self Empowerment and Development Centre; one comes from a man named David Wilcock, who claims to be the reincarnation of Edgar Cayce; and one of them comes from Above Top Secret.

Not exactly a bibliography that would inspire confidence.

The site itself is worth reading, though, because it has some fairly surreal passages.  Take, for example, this:
The best passive torsion generators are formed by cones or pyramidal shapes built according to the “phi” ratio of 1 to 0.618 and it can, therefore, be said the pyramid shape has the power to harness torsional energy because torsion waves are phi-spirals and for this reason a pyramid will hold positive energy and deflects negative energy wavelengths and therefore inhibit natural decay.
Okay!  Right!  What?

I mean, about the only things that was doing spirals were my eyes after reading that passage.  Torsional energy is well understood by physicists, and has nothing to do with "phi."  But it's unsurprising that it comes up, honestly.  "Phi" is, of course, the Golden Section, about which much mystical nonsense has been written.  It's a pretty cool number, no question about it, and crops up with great regularity in nature; but it doesn't repel "negative energy wavelengths."

Whatever those are.

We also have some lunar lunacy added to the mix:
Parr has... found that the width of the energy containment bubble or orb expands and contracts with the phases of the moon. This suggests again that the spherical orb on the outside of the pyramid is a static torsion field that gathers around the pyramid and is strengthened by absorbing other dynamic torsion fields.
It was also, apparently, found that a pyramid's "energy field" oscillates at 500 to 1000 hertz.  Should be easy to measure such a phenomenon, right?  I mean, physicists do this sort of thing.  But then we read, " was found that every now and then Pyramids quit responding to recordings and measurements."

Convenient, that.

Then we get a photograph of a Mayan pyramid shooting a beam of light up into the air.  Proof, right? Here's the photograph:

This struck me as especially amusing, because I did a piece on this photograph back in 2012 when it first started making the rounds of the interwebz, and included an analysis by Jonathon Hill, digital image analyst for the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University.  Hill noticed something odd about the "energy beam" -- that it was perfectly vertical with respect to the image orientation.  Not a single pixel's variation along its entire length on either side, which is pretty odd if it's a natural (or even a supernatural) phenomenon.  (But easily explainable if it's a digital image artifact.)

But maybe pyramids make these sorts of exactly coherent beams of biocosmic resonant wavelength positive energy vibrations.

Oh, and "quantum."  Don't forget "quantum."

So even despite Mythbusters and other round debunkings, and the completely lack of scientifically admissible evidence, "pyramid power" is still out there.  I guess there is something kind of special about these archeological sites; I remember being awed by visiting the Jaguar Temple, a Mayan pyramid in Belize.  My sons and I climbed to the top, and it was pretty cool, although we didn't experience any surge of harmonic energies (mostly what I remember is looking down the stairs and thinking "Good lord that is A LONG WAY DOWN").

So don't waste your time putting your fruit under a pyramid.  There's another magical device that is much better at keeping fruit fresh.

It's called a "refrigerator."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nukes on Mars

If you're near Monmouth, Illinois this weekend, you should see if you can drop by the fall meeting of the American Physical Society, being held in Pattee Auditorium at Monmouth College, at 5 PM on Saturday

Why?  Because a guy is going to give a talk to a bunch of physicists about... well, let me just let you read the abstract:
Analysis of recent Mars isotopic, gamma ray, and imaging data supports the hypothesis that perhaps two immense thermonuclear explosions occurred on Mars in the distant past and these explosions were targeted on sites of previously reported artifacts. Analysis rules out large unstable "natural nuclear reactors'' [1], instead, data is consistent with mixed fusion-fission explosions [2]. Imagery at the radioactive centers of the explosions shows no craters, consistent with "airbursts.'' Explosions appear correlated with the sites of reported artifacts at Cydonia Mensa and Galaxias Chaos [3], Analysis of new images from Odyssey, MRO and Mars Express orbiters now show strong evidence of eroded archeological objects at these sites. Taken together, the data requires that the hypothesis of Mars as the site of an ancient planetary nuclear massacre, must now be considered. Fermi's Paradox, the unexpected silence of the stars, may be solved at Mars. Providentially, we are forewarned of this possible aspect of the cosmos. The author therefore advocates that a human mission to Mars is mounted immediately to maximize knowledge of what occurred.\\[4pt] [1] J. E. Brandenburg ``Evidence for a large Natural, Paleo- Nuclear Reactor on Mars'' 42$^{nd}$ LPSC (2011).\\[0pt] [2] J.E. Brandenburg, "Anomalous Nuclear Events on Mars in the Past'', Mars Society Meeting (2014)\\[0pt] [3] J.E. Brandenburg, Vincent DiPietro, and Gregory Molenaar, (1991) "The Cydonian Hypothesis'' Jou. of Sci. Exp., 5, 1, p1-25.
Yup.  This guy is saying that there used to be civilizations on Mars, but they were wiped out by a nuclear attack.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The speaker, John Brandenburg, isn't just some kind of crank, however his theory might suggest that he has a screw loose.  He is a plasma physicist with a Ph.D. from UC-Davis, and apparently prior to this has had a rather distinguished career in research.  How he got off in this direction is a matter of speculation, but what's clear is that he's entirely serious.

His, um, "research" was the subject of a story in Vice last week, and the author, Jason Koebler, was treated to a preprint version of Brandenburg's paper, which concludes thusly:
It is possible the Fermi Paradox means that our interstellar neighborhood contains forces hostile to young, noisy, civilizations such as ourselves," he added. "Such hostile forces could range from things as alien as AI (Artificial Intelligence) ‘with a grudge’ against flesh and blood, as in the movie Terminator, all the way to things as sadly familiar to us as a mindless humanoid bureaucrat like Governor Tarkin in Star Wars, eager to destroy planet Alderaan as an example to other worlds.
Yes, Brandenburg did just end an academic paper with a conclusion that cited as evidence not one, but two, science fiction movies.

Of course, NASA and associated scientific researchers think this whole thing is nonsense.  The alleged "archaeological objects" are natural geological features, not the ruins of buildings.  There is no evidence whatsoever of intelligent life ever having existed on Mars, as cool as that would be.

But of course, the conspiracy theorists beg to differ.  They just love the fact that an actual scientist is proposing all of this.  Partly it's because they automatically approve of anyone who is seen as an iconoclast; and partly it's because before you can get your Conspiracy Theorists' Society membership card, you have to sign a pledge to disbelieve everything that NASA says.  So Brandenburg has scored a twofer, here, and it's no wonder that he's the new hero of the conspiracy world.  You should go to Koebler's article (linked above), because he has actual excerpts from various conspiracy websites that have to be read to be believed, and about which I will only say the following: 1) NASA has, as its primary function, protecting us from alien nuclear bombs from space; and 2) the movie Stargate was not fiction.

So there you have it.  A man who is apparently a loon giving a talk at an actual convention of scientists.  I would love to be there to see their reaction.  I wonder if it's considered impolite to burst into guffaws at an academic talk?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Healing the ocean with syphilis

I think the homeopaths have reached some kind of Derp-vana this week with the announcement by British practitioner Grace DaSilva-Hill that we need to administer homeopathic preparations...

... to the ocean.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'm not making this up.  In a story broken by Andy Lewis on Quackometer, we find out that DaSilva-Hill is lamenting the state of the world's oceans, a sentiment with which I have to agree.  But what she proposes to do about it is to treat it with homeopathic "remedies:"
Thanks in advance to all of you who have already agreed to participate in this initiative of sending a homeopathic remedy to heal the oceans. 
The remedy that has been selected is Leuticum (Syph) in the CM potency. 
Just mix one or two drops in some water and offer it to the ocean wherever you happen to be, on 21 November, with pure love and intention...  If you live close to a river that can be done, too, or even just send the remedy down the toilet wherever you happen to be.
Well, I can't argue with the value of flushing homeopathic "remedies" down the toilet.  In my opinion, that should be done right at the factory where they're manufactured.

And what is "Leuticum," you may be wondering?  According to a homeopathy website, Leuticum is a "nosode" -- a "remedy" made from diluted bodily discharges.  And if you're not sufficiently disgusted yet, the bodily discharge involved in Leuticum is infected material from someone with syphilis.

Oh, but wait!  Leuticum is good stuff!  According to the site, it's useful for treating people who:
  • are afraid of the dark
  • are in chronic pain
  • suffer from hair loss
  • smell bad
In addition, we find out that you can use it to treat "persons with pale, fine textured skin, who are slender, having graceful movements," and also people with oral cancer.

What this has to do with the ocean is beyond me.

Of course, since the whole idea of homeopathy is that the more dilute the stuff gets, the more powerful it is, dumping it in the ocean is sort of the right approach, isn't it?  You might want to know what we're starting with, though.  What is a "CM potency" -- the strength of the original remedy?  Well, I looked it up on the Wikipedia page on homeopathic dilutions, and therein I found that a CM dilution represents a dilution of 1 part of the original substance in 10 to the 200,000th power parts of water.  If that's a little hard for you to visualize, it amounts to taking a milliliter of the original substance, and diluting it in a sphere of water about 100 light years in diameter, then taking a drop of that and diluting it again by the same amount, and repeating the process 4,000 times.

So what she's saying is to take a drop of that, and throw it in the ocean.

Or in a river.  Or down the toilet.  Or, she says, if you can't even manage that, just take some regular old water and think happy thoughts at it:
Even if you do not have the remedy in a physical form, you can still speak the name of the remedy to a glass of water, and the water will memorise the energy of the remedy (Dr. Masaru Emoto's work).
Dr. Emoto, you may remember, is the Japanese nutjob who thought that if you swear at water and then freeze it, it will form ugly crystals.

But like I said, maybe this is a good thing.  Keeping the homeopaths busy chucking their "remedies" in the ocean is better than what they have been doing lately, like going over to West Africa to try to treat Ebola with water and sugar pills.  I guess if it keeps them busy and out of harm's way, it's all good.

Especially since they can't be accused of putting something that has any side effects into the ocean.  Or, actually, something with any effects at all.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A prehistoric hoax

One of the hazards of becoming more aware of how biased and (sometimes) duplicitous popular media can be is that you finally, de facto, stop believing everything you read and hear.

It's called, of course, being a "cynic," and it's just as lazy as being gullible.  However, because the credulous are often derided as silly or ignorant, cynics sometimes feel that they must therefore be highly intelligent, and that disbelieving everything means that you're too smart to be "taken in."

In reality, cynicism is an excuse, a justification for having stopped thinking.  "The media always lies" isn't any closer to the truth than "everything you eat causes cancer" or "all of the science we're being told now could be wrong."  It give you an automatic reason not to read (or not to watch your diet or not to learn science), and in the end, is simply a statement of willful ignorance.

Take, for example, the site Clues Forum, which has as its tagline, "Exposing Media Fakery."  In particular, consider the thread that was started a little over a year ago, but which continues to circulate, lo up unto this very day... entitled "The (Non-religious) Dinosaur Hoax Question."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And yes, it means what you think it means.  And yes, the "Question" should simply be answered "No."  But let's look a little more deeply at what they're saying... because I think it reveals something rather insidious.

Take a look at how it starts:
Dinosaurs have, in recent years, become a media subject rivaling the space program in popularity and eliciting similar levels of public adoration towards its researchers and scientists.  The science of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life is also directly linked to other controversial scientific topics such as evolution, fuel production, climate and even the space program (i.e., what allegedly killed them).
So right from the outset, we've jumped straight into the Motive Fallacy -- the idea that a particular individual's motive for saying something has any bearing on that statement's truth value.  Those scientists, the author says, have a motive for our believing in dinosaurs.  Supporting controversial ideas for their own nefarious reasons.  Getting us worried about the climate and the potential for cataclysmic asteroid strikes.  Therefore: they must be lying.  We're never told, outright, why the scientists would lie about such things, but the seed is planted, right there in the first paragraph.

Then, we're thrown more reason for doubt our way, when we're told that (*gasp*) scientists make mistakes.  A dinosaur skeleton found in New Jersey, and now on display at the New Jersey State Museum, was reconstructed with a skull based on an iguana, since the actual skull could not be found.  The article, though, uses the word "fake" -- as if the museum owners, and the scientists, were deliberately trying to pull the wool over people's eyes, instead of interpolating the missing pieces -- something that is routinely done by paleontologists.  And those wily characters even gave away the game by admitting what they were up to, right beneath a photograph of the skeleton:
Above is the full-size Hadrosaurus mount currently on display at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.  The posture is now recognized as incorrect.  At the same time the skeleton is fitted with the wrong skull of another type of duck-bill dinosaur.  Signs at the exhibit acknowledge that both the mounted skeleton as well as nearby illustrated depictions of what the living animal looked like are both wrong.  Both are slated for correction at some unspecified future date.
So yet another hole punched in our confidence, with the revelation that (*horrors*) there are things scientists don't know.  Instead of looking at that as a future line of inquiry, this article gives you the impression that such holes in our knowledge are an indication that everything is suspect.

Last, we're told that it's likely that the paleontologists are creating the fossils themselves, because fossils are just "rock in rock," leaving it a complete guessing game as to where the matrix rock ends and the fossil begins.  So for their own secret, evil reasons, paleontologists spend days and weeks out in the field, living in primitive and inhospitable conditions, grinding rocks into the shape of bones so as to hoodwink us all:
But, in our hoax-filled world of fake science, doesn't this rock-in-rock situation make it rather easy for creative interpretations of what the animal really looked like? And, once a particular animal is “approved” by the gods of the scientific community, wouldn't all subsequent representations of that same animal have to conform with that standard?
By the time you've read this far, you're so far sunk in the mire of paranoia that you would probably begin to doubt that gravity exists.  Those Evil, Evil Scientists!  They're lying to us about everything!

Of course, what we're seeing here is the phenomenon I started with; substituting lazy gullibility with lazy disbelief.  All the writer would have to do is sign up for a paleontology class, or (better yet) go on a fossil dig, to find out how the science is really done.

But I've found that people like this will seldom take any of those steps.  Once you suspect everyone, there's no one to lean on but yourself -- and (by extension) on your own ignorance.  At that point, you're stuck.  So there is a difference between gullibility and cynicism.

Gullibility is curable.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Foxes in the henhouse

So that escalated quickly.

I commented just a couple of weeks ago on the fact that more and more science policy leadership positions in Congress are being filled by people who evidently have no regard whatsoever for science.  Further, with the recent elections, two more important positions seem likely to go that way -- the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to notoriously anti-science Senator James Inhofe, and the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space to the equally objectionable Senator Ted Cruz.

So it appears that both the House and the Senate are going to be looking at a long spell in which the advice of actual scientists is going to be roundly ignored.

What I didn't expect, however, is how quickly these clowns were going to act on their newfound majority.  "Strike while the iron is hot" appears to be advice they have taken to heart.  Which explains why House Resolution 1422 passed handily, 229-191.

Never heard of H.R. 1422?  This piece of legislation accomplishes two things: (1) it allows corporate interests to act as direct advisors on the Environmental Protection Agency's advisory board; and (2) it prevents scientists from participating in "advisory activities" regarding their own research, calling those activities "a conflict of interest."

Yes, you got it right.  Allowing corporations access to influencing policy so they can turn a profit is not a conflict of interest.  Allowing actual working scientists that same access, with respect to research on which they are the experts, is a conflict of interest.

Now, couple that with a second House bill that is currently in committee -- the "Secret Science Reform Act" -- which would "prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible."

In other words: scientific research has to pass the evaluation of non-scientists in order to be considered valid.  Otherwise, it's "secret science."  None of them complicated climate models or fancy-pants math that us reg'lar folks can't understand.  Keep it nice and simple and obvious, like, "It's cold outside today, so global warming ain't real."

These two bills amount to a two-pronged end run that could hamstring sensible environmental policy for decades. But it's not like the move isn't completely transparent; the whole thing is about further discrediting climate change research, and (ultimately) dismantling the EPA.  Both of which are explicit goals of the current policymakers in Congress.

At least one Representative called it correctly -- Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said, upon the passage of H.R. 1422, "I get it, you don’t like science. And you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients.  But we need science to protect public health and the environment."  His views, however, appear to represent a minority of our current elected officials.

The whole thing is really the culmination of a leadership, and a citizenry, that is increasingly suspicious of science as a pursuit.  Anti-science media has characterized scientists as evil money-grubbers, supporting the party line so they can get lucrative grants, and thus bolstering the interests of "environmental extremists" or "godless anti-religion evolutionists" or "Big Pharma."  Research, therefore, is cast in the light of spin, and hard data as fundamentally biased (or outright falsehood).

And as we've seen before, when you can get people to distrust the facts, you can get them to believe anything.

So the situation is: we have foxes running the henhouse, a public that has been largely trained to distrust the scientific method, and corporate interests who are determined to become the drivers of science policy and science research in the United States.

Heaven help us all.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The gospel according to J. R. R. Tolkien

Markus Davidsen, a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, thought he'd write his dissertation about people who believe that the Jedi religion, made famous by Star Wars, is real.  But after he began his research, he seems to have decided that that was just too silly a topic to research, so he changed his mind.

And decided to research people who believe that the religious schema from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is real, instead.

Yes, we're talking Elves, and the whole Valar and Maiar thing from The Silmarillion.  And that there have been a series of massive cataclysms, including the one caused by Fëanor forging the Silmarils (a battle which "reshaped Middle-Earth"), and one that sank the continent of Númenor, not to mention the more famous Battle of Five Armies (from The Hobbit) and Battle of the Pelennor Fields (from The Return of the King).  All of which, mysteriously, have left no archaeological traces whatsoever.

But that's not all.  Many of these people think that they are Elves.  Or descended from the Valar.  And there are enough such folks that Davidsen was inundated with requests to participate in his research.  When asked how he found Latter-Day Elves, Davidsen responded, "Actually, they found me.  My graduation thesis on Jedis won a prize and that generated lots of publicity, in Mare [the official newspaper of Leiden University] too.  As a result, those people got in touch with me: one group of Tolkien followers would put me in touch with another and it snowballed from there.  The groups turned out to be quite diverse too, so I could compare them to each other."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Allow me to emphasize; these were not some folks playing role-playing games, a sort of Middle-Earth version of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  These people are serious.

And of course, what would a religion be without schisms and squabbling?  "There are those who swear that they themselves are descended from Elves and accordingly have Elvish genes," Davidsen says.  "That’s some claim, and taking it too far for the people who only claim to have Elvish souls and who dissociate themselves from that group."

Others, Davidsen says, go right to the top, worship-wise.  "Yet another group say they not remotely related to Elves, but that there is another world in which the Valar exist," he said.  "They use rituals to try and contact the Valar.  Some draw a circle on the ground, spiritually cleanse it and then evoke the Valar while others go on a kind of shamanic journey with their spirits travelling to another world."

Right.  Okay.  Because it's not like Tolkien didn't make the whole thing up, or anything.

Davidsen, fortunately, agrees.  On the other hand, he says, "This kind of religion isn’t any dafter than other faiths, we’re just used to that particular madness.  We think it’s normal for Catholics to consume the flesh and blood of their God, but when the modern vampire movement says they draw powers from blood, we think they’re loonies.  It’s not really fair.  Buddhism dictates that some people have a Buddha nature, which is not essentially different from the Tolkien-esque idea of having an Elvish nature."

Which is spot-on, even if predictably I think it's all a lot of lunacy.  I tend to agree with Stephen F. Roberts:  "I contend we are both atheists.  I just believe in one fewer god than you do.  When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Now, understand, as religions go, Tolkienism (or whatever it's called) at least has one selling point; it's got a beautiful narrative.  If I was forced to choose a fictional world to live in, Middle-Earth would come near the top.  It's got a grandeur, a breadth of scope, like no other fantasy world I've ever read about, and (best of all) the good guys win.

Which is more than you can say for the world of, say, the Lovecraftian mythos.  There, you do everything you can to worship Yog-Sothoth, or whoever, and for your devotion you get your arms ripped off and your face melted.  That's one fictional religion I'm glad isn't real.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Runes in Maine

Ready for a convoluted story?

Today's journey is about the twistiest trip through mythology, fakery, and pseudohistory I have ever seen, linking the Vikings, the Templars, 1st century Judea, and a farm in Maine.  It's the story of the Spirit Pond runestones, an alleged pre-Columbian runic inscription that one guy thinks proves that the Native Americans of the northeastern United States are direct descendants of Jesus Christ.

So pop yourself some popcorn, sit back, and let me tell you a tall tale.

In 1971, Walter Elliott, a carpenter from Phippsburg, Maine, claimed that he had found a stone with some odd inscriptions near a place called Spirit Pond.  The inscriptions, he said, looked like Norse runes, so could this possibly be proof that the Norse explorers of the 11th century, especially Leif Eriksson and Thorfinn Karlsefni, had made their way to New England?

Part of the inscription on the Spirit Pond runestone [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The claim came to the attention of Einar Haugen, Harvard University professor of linguistics, and one of the world's experts on Norse runes.  Haugen pronounced the inscription a fake, claiming that the inscription has "a few Norse words in a sea of gibberish."  Specifically, he said that the use of the "hooked X" or "stung A" character (it can be seen in the top right word above, the second character from the right) was inconsistent with verified 11th century Norse inscriptions, and in fact was eerily similar to the inscription on the Kensington runestone, found in Minnesota in 1898, which is universally considered to be a modern fake.

Pretty decisive, no?  But as we've seen over and over, a silly old Ph.D. and professorship in a subject doesn't mean that amateurs can't know more.  So the Spirit Pond stone has gained quite a following amongst the Vikings-in-the-Americas crowd.

And as we've also seen, there is no wild theory that can't be made even more bizarre.

Enter geologist Scott Wolter.  Wolter thinks that the Spirit Pond runestone is a genuine archaeological find, but it doesn't mean what its finder claimed -- that it was proof that Eriksson, Karlsefni, et al. had made it to North America in the 11th century.  He claims that it was brought to what is now Maine in the 14th century...

... by the Knights Templar.

Yes, the Knights Templar, that fertile source of speculation for aficionados of secret societies, which was forcefully disbanded in 1314 and has spawned wacky conspiracy theories ever since.  The Templars ran afoul of the powers-that-be, especially Pope Clement V and King Philip IV of France, mostly because of their money, power, and influence, and Clement and Philip had the leaders arrested on trumped-up charges of sorcery.  (To be fair, some of their rituals were pretty bizarre.)  Templars who weren't willing to confess -- and this included their head, Jacques de Molay -- were burned at the stake.

So, so much for the Templars.  Except for the aforementioned conspiracy theories, of course, which suggest that the main body of the Templars escaped, letting de Molay take the fall (some say de Molay willingly sacrificed himself to let the others get away).  But the question remained; get away to where?

Scott Wolter has the answer.

To Maine, of course.

So they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Maine, bringing along Cistercian monks who (for some reason) wrote in Norse runes, and the monks inscribed the Spirit Pond stone.  And Wolter says he knows what the runic inscription means.  Haugen, and other so-called experts, are wrong to say it's gibberish.  The Spirit Pond stone is an incredibly important artifact because it tells how the Templars came to North America, bringing with them the Holy Grail.

And you thought that its final resting place was the "Castle Arrrrggggghhh."

But that's another mistake people make, Wolter said.  The "San Greal" -- Holy Grail -- is actually a mistranscription of "Sang Real" -- meaning "royal blood."  In other words, the bloodline of Jesus.  Which means that the Templars were Jesus's direct descendants.  So they arrived in Maine, carrying the Sang Real, and proceeded to have lots of sex with Native women, meaning that the Native inhabitants of eastern North America are descended from Jesus Christ.

All of this is just jolly news for me, because I am descended through my mom from various members of the Micmac and Maliseet tribes of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  So here's yet another branch I can add to my family tree.

Of course, the linguistic world isn't paying this much attention, which pisses Wolter right off.  "These archaeologists have all been programmed [to believe the stones are fakes] and they can’t think outside the box," he said.

Well, sorry, Mr. Wolter.  "Decades of scholarly study" does not equal being "programmed," it equals "knowing what you're talking about."  Haugen's work in the field of Norse linguistics is the epitome of careful research and thorough study.  So I'm not ready to jettison his expertise because you'd like the northeastern Natives to be Jesus's great-great-great (etc.) grandchildren.

In any case, I hope you've enjoyed today's journey through time.  It's not bad as fiction; kind of the bastard child of The DaVinci Code and Foucault's Pendulum.  But as a real historical claim, it's a bit of a non-starter.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tetanus, hCG, and the danger of rumors

There's harmless woo-woo, and then there's woo-woo where people die.

It's all too easy to write off a lot of weird, counterfactual beliefs as harmless.  Certainly, some of them are; astrology, for example, is dangerous only to your pocketbook, at least overtly.  I've made the point, though, that engaging in such nonsense dulls you to the necessity that claims be established on the basis of evidence and some kind of scientific rigor.

But the potentially deadly variants of this particular sort of worldview do exist.  And we've just seen an example, in the claim that Kenya's tetanus vaccination program is part of a secret mass-sterilization effort designed to reduce the human population in east Africa.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Let's start out with some facts.  Tetanus is caused by a bacteria, and vaccination has a near 100% success rate of preventing the illness.  Unvaccinated, 50% or more victims die, and that's even if they seek medical treatment after symptoms start.  61,000 people died last year from it, which (to put it in perspective) is a little under ten times the number of documented deaths from Ebola ever.

So it's a serious health issue, and the last thing we need is someone putting the vaccination program on the skids.  Which is exactly what the Catholic Church in Kenya has done, by claiming that the vaccine is laced with hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), which in sufficient quantities can cause lower fertility and/or miscarriages.

The fact is, the vaccines were not laced with hCG, and scientists even know how the claim started.  Back in the 1990s, there were allegations launched by the Catholic Church that there was something suspicious about the vaccination program, and some Kenyan labs tested the vaccine using an ordinary pregnancy test kit to see if it showed a positive result (and thus could contain the hormone).  They claim that there were some positive results, but the procedure was faulty, as was described in detail over at the science blog Respectful Insolence:
After these rumours were spread, attempts were made to analyse TT vaccines for the presence of hCG.  The vaccines were sent to hospital laboratories and tested using pregnancy test kits which are developed for use on serum and urine specimens and are not appropriate for use on a vaccine such as TT, which contains a special preservative (merthiolate) and an adjuvant (aluminum salt).  As a result of using these inappropriate tests, low levels of hCG-like activity were found in some samples of TT vaccine.  The laboratories themselves recognised the significance of these results, which were below the reliable detection capabilities of the adjuvant or other substances in the the vaccine and the test kit.  However, these results were misrepresented by ‘pro-life groups with the resulting disruption of immunisation programmes. 
When the vaccines were tested in laboratories which used properly validated test systems, the results showed that the vaccines clearly did not contain hCG.
In other words: the vaccines were safe, and not some part of a secret conspiracy to sterilize women in Kenya.  And, in fact, even if it were true, it's not working; the current birth rate in Kenya is 28.27 live births per 1,000 population -- or roughly twice the birth rate in the United States.

Oh, wait, we've all been vaccinated, too.  Q.e.d., I guess.

But the allegations became strident enough that responsible medical researchers launched their own investigation, and found (surprise!) no problems:
(T)he findings of the laboratory tests... all come out with normal values from the reference values assuming that the woman is not pregnant.  The highest level of the β-HCG hormone was found to be 1.12 mIU/ml (and 1.2 mIU/ml for S-Quantitative β-HCG).  There was no control used (or presented) and it would have been interesting to see what the result will be with tap water.  There is a situation where ant- β-HCG antibodies can be produced by the body and that can act as a contraceptive, however, this requires the administration of at-least 100 to 500 micrograms of HCG bound to tetanus vaccine (about 11,904,000 to 59,520,000 mIU/ml of the same hormone where currently less than 1 mIU-ml has been reported from the lab results.
The fact that there's absolutely no truth to this rumor has not stopped the Catholic Church from persisting with the allegations, nor people circulating this story around as if it has the slightest basis in reality.  Just last week, two Kenyan bishops and a prominent Catholic doctor made public their claim that the WHO vaccination program was, in reality, a forced sterilization program.  Dr. Muhame Ngare, of Mercy Medical Centre in Nairobi, said in a press release:
We sent six samples from around Kenya to laboratories in South Africa.  They tested positive for the HCG antigen.  They were all laced with HCG...  This proved right our worst fears; that this WHO campaign is not about eradicating neonatal tetanus but a well-coordinated forceful population control mass sterilization exercise using a proven fertility regulating vaccine.  This evidence was presented to the Ministry of Health before the third round of immunization but was ignored.
The problem is, they used the same test as the one performed back in the 1990s, which already has been shown to give false positives.  Which once again proves that if you don't know how to do science correctly, you shouldn't be making scientific press releases.

So this hasn't stopped the rumor mill, nor the anti-vaxx outrage here in the United States.  I've already seen the story (without, of course, the round debunking over at Respectful Insolence) at least six times on social media, usually with some sort of commentary like, "Isn't this horrible?" or "Think twice before you let them stick needles in your children!"

The whole thing is maddening, especially given the fact that this vaccine could prevent the deaths, in horrible agony, of 60,000 people this year.  If, of course, the anti-scientific rumor mill would get the fuck out of the way.  And if the Catholic Church would, for once, support science rather than impeding it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Comet tales

So most of you have probably been following the amazing landing of Philae, from the Rosetta comet study mission, on the comet 67-P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  It was a triumph of technology -- hitting a four-kilometer-wide target traveling at over 100,000 km/hr from 500,000,000 kilometers away.  Unfortunately, the landing site proved problematic; Philae is apparently in shadow, and its solar cells have been unable to charge the batteries, resulting in a loss of transmission.  There's still hope that as the comet approaches its perihelion, the lander may be exposed to enough light to start functioning again; but at the moment, it's out of commission.

All of which has the conspiracy theorists in a lather.

I should have been expecting this.  They've always had a bee in their bonnet about NASA, whom they suspect of being in collusion with aliens and the Illuminati and heaven knows who (or what) else.  Never mind that Rosetta was a mission from the European Space Agency, not NASA; facts have never mattered much to these folks.

But now we have allegations that the ESA (working with evil, evil NASA) is hiding the mission's true purpose.  In an email, allegedly from an ESA whistleblower, we read:
Do not think for one moment that a space agency would suddenly decide to spend billions of dollars to build and send a spacecraft on a 12-year journey to simply take some close-up images of a randomly picked out comet floating in space.  Comet 67P is not a comet…  Some 20 years ago NASA began detecting radio bursts from an unknown origin out in space…  It would later be known that these had likely come from the direction of the now named comet 67P.
Mmm-hmm.  I've looked at the photographs that came in before the lander died, and they look pretty much like random dirty ice to me.  Which, coincidentally enough, is what comets are made of.

[image courtesy of the European Space Agency]

The whole thing reached another level of silliness when it was announced that the comet was "singing."  The scientists, who would probably be happier not to have their research characterized this way in the media, found that the comet's magnetic field was oscillating at about 40 millihertz, and  after speeding it up by a factor of 10,000, it can be turned into a sound audible to human ears.  The oscillation is still unexplained, but is thought to be an effect caused by ionized particles interacting with the solar wind.

Hoo boy.  An unexplained "song," plus a mission to a comet, plus a good imagination, and you have the makings of a great conspiracy theory.  Scott Waring, who has made Skeptophilia before for his claims that there are alien bases on the Moon and that a digital photographic glitch from a NASA photograph of the Sun proved that a huge cubical alien spaceship was harvesting the Sun's energy, has weighed in thusly:
In my opinion, this is not a code. It is how a species of aliens communicate to one another without speaking — [something like a] form of telepathy put into primitive radio signals … It's the only way this species can communicate to us.  This is their thoughts [because] they don’t talk.  Is it a message of greetings, or is it a warning of what’s to come?  We, the people of the world, need to find out.
Well, if it's a message, the aliens need to work on their language skills.  You can listen to the "song" here.  Remember: this is sped up by a factor of 10,000, so whatever this bit of the "alien communication" is, it would take ten thousand times longer to listen to if you played it at its actual speed.

And, of course, the failure of the lander's batteries has added a whole extra layer of suspicion.  No way would scientists design a multi-million-dollar probe that could so easily lose contact.  It's still transmitting, say the conspiracy theorists; but what it's sending back is so shocking that the scientists don't want us to know about it.  You know, aliens and spaceships and whatnot.

The usual stuff.

What's funny about all of this is that if there really is this great big conspiracy, covering up First Contact with an alien race, the head honchos at NASA and the ESA are being pretty sloppy about it.  First they make the mission public, with thousands of press releases and so on; they post photographs of the comet all over the place.  Then they make the unfortunate announcement of the lander's radio silence.

Why go through all of these gyrations, when they could just have launched the thing in secret in the first place, and not told us anything about it?  It's not like some amateur astronomer is going to look through his backyard telescope and see Philae sitting on the surface of the comet, or anything.

So if these people are in a conspiracy, they should resign and let someone take over who actually knows how to run one.  Because they're kind of an embarrassment.  Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones did a much better job in Men in Black, with their little memory-wipe devices.  Also, those were some cool alien languages.  I'd learn to speak those, if I could make noises like that.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Inconvenient science

There is a frightening tendency for policymakers to request advice from scientists, and then ignore it if said advice doesn't agree with the party line.

Give us advice, in other words, unless it's inconvenient.

The perception of science as dangerous to political expediency has resulted in a number of troubling moves in the last few years.  Here in the United States, the general approach has been to put the wolves in charge of the sheep, explaining why the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is populated at least in part by creationist climate change deniers.  It's why the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is soon to be led by Senator James Inhofe, who once compared the EPA to the Gestapo, and the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space by notoriously anti-science Senator Ted Cruz.  It's also why Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has forbidden scientists to speak to the media without rigorous prior approval, and has cut the position of National Science Advisor.

Toe the line, in other words.  You can play around in your labs and wear your white lab jackets and so on.  But if you make a discovery, you damn well better make sure that you're discovering something that supports our political stance.

It's not just the right wing that does this, of course.  The left has its own bêtes noires, and one of the main ones is genetic modification.  GMOs are evil, goes the party line.  The big genetic research companies are trying to profit at the expense of human health, and all GMOs should be banned.  Further, they claim, the research facilities are suppressing any information that might get out showing the dangers of genetic modification, because that could hurt their bottom line.

It's this kind of categorical, zero-sum thinking that led to the axing this week of the position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the Juncker Commission, the executive body of the European Union.

Why?  Largely because of pressure from Greenpeace and other virulently anti-GMO groups.  Outgoing CSA Anne Glover was perceived as too pro-GMO, even though her position was supported by a vast consensus of scientific researchers and oversight organizations -- including the World Health Organization.

This is just as anti-science, and irrational, as the right's insistence that climate change isn't happening.  There are rigorous testing protocols for establishing the safety of GMOs, and when health problems are found, the crops are pulled from production.  Just this week, in fact, a genetically modified pea was scrapped after it was established that consuming it caused allergic lung damage in mice... after it had been in testing for ten years.

Not exactly the heartless behavior the anti-GMOers would have you believe, is it?  But even this gets spun the other way; I've already seen the above-linked article posted several times, with messages that amount to, "See?  We TOLD you that GMOs were dangerous and cause allergies!"

So even when the scientists publicly announce that they have cancelled an expensive program because of human health concerns, they're cast in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, trying to unleash their monster on the unwitting public.  You can't win.

Unless, of course, you just crowbar your political stance into place by ignoring the scientists altogether, or duct-taping their mouths.

Facts are facts, folks, and scientific consensus is what it is.  And when political or philosophical dogmatism blinds you to what the science actually says, you do so at your own risk.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tweets of fury

Every once in a while, someone will get a comeuppance so elegant, so beautiful, that it's almost like a work of performance art.

This happened to two of woo medicine's superstars this past week.  One of them, "Food Babe" (a.k.a. The Nitwit Formerly Known As Vani Hari), is a blogger whose criticisms of the food and pharmaceuticals industry are an amalgam of half-truth, fear-mongering, and outright quackery.  And this past week she posted a blog that was so outrageously absurd that it's to be hoped even her followers got a wake-up call.

I'd post actual excerpts, but she was ridiculed so roundly after this that she removed the post and all links and comments connected to it.  (It survived a while on Google's cache, but even that's expired at this point.)  But here are some bits from it that I recall:

  • You shouldn't ride on jets.  Because jets contain compressed air, which will compress your organs.
  • The aforementioned compressed air is bad for you because it's not 100% oxygen.  It is, if you can believe this, up to 50% nitrogen.
  • Not only that, but because the air is pumped in from right outside the plane, it contains evil jet chemtrail exhaust.
  • If you have to fly, you should choose a seat near the front, because pilots get the best air, and it gets progressively worse as you go back toward the tail section of the plane.
  • If you're on a plane, you can get dehydrated, and this can give you headaches.  But you shouldn't take aspirin, you should take powdered willow bark instead.
  • Once you land, you should make sure to ground yourself by standing barefoot on the grass. 
Well, you can imagine what the blogosphere and the Twitterverse did with all that.  And being the courageous, cutting-edge investigator she is, she retreated in disarray, but not before deleting every mention of the post she could find.

But even that's small potatoes compared to what happened to Dr. Oz this week.  Most of you probably know about this guy, who has become notorious for peddling every sort of alt-med woo out there, but who nonetheless has a bazillion loyal followers who will defend him tooth and nail if anyone criticizes him.  (In fact, I'm already girding my loins against the hate mail I will surely receive over this post.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Oz is a master of self-marketing, but this week he made a major "oops" move.  Not having learned from Bill Cosby's recent wince-inducing request that people make memes using his photograph, Dr. Oz posted a request of his own on Twitter... "What's your biggest question for me?  Reply with #OzsInbox and I'll reply to my favorites at"

Welp.  You can't just expect Twitter aficionados not to rise to that challenge.  Here is a selection of responses, none of which, I suspect, will be amongst Dr. Oz's "favorites:"
  • Did you get all of your medical advice from a medieval alchemy book?  #OzsInbox
  • When you were a boy, did you always want to be a snake-oil salesman, or did you have other ambitions too?  #OzsInbox
  • #OzsInbox I've been vaccinated with raspberry ketones.  Am I going to get sick, or will I be immune to everything?
  • Can you tell me the chemical name of one toxin my body produces that my liver and kidneys are incapable of handling?  #OzsInbox
  • What kind of fruit juice do you recommend as an alternative to chemotherapy?  #OzsInbox
  • So what is the BEST way to melt fat?  Stovetop?  Convection?  Microwave?  Or a good old-fashioned campfire?  #OzsInbox
  • #OzsInbox Which Starbucks roast should I use for the most effective coffee enema?  I was thinking Sumatra, but Verona is so smooth.
  • #OzsInbox Can transcendental meditation cure lying?
  • I hear you wear silk scrubs.  If so, how do they feel, gently caressing your engorged ego?  #OzsInbox
  • If I get cancer, how much baking soda should I use?  The whole box, or should I just keep going until I feel the cancer die?  #OzsInbox
  • What has been your most profitable lie for money so far?  #OzsInbox
  • I just read that my detox regimen may be toxic.  Can you recommend a way to detox my detoxification toxins? #OzsInbox
  • I just got a flu shot.  When can I be expected to develop autism?  #OzsInbox
Yeah.  So that didn't work out so well.  Responses with that hashtag, most of them hostile, number in the hundreds of thousands and are still rising.

All of which I find heartening.  The fact that people recognize these self-made celebrities as the woo-peddlers they are is cause for optimism.  I can only hope though, that this makes at least a few of the true believers sit up at take notice.

And, perhaps, ask a few pointed questions of their own.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dowsing for dead people

Suppose you were walking in the woods, and suddenly, you stumbled on a root, and fell flat on your face.  And while you were lying on your belly, trying to regain your breath and your dignity, you noticed that right in front of your eyes was a twenty-dollar bill that someone had dropped.

You might decide that your bad luck in tripping over a tree root had been cancelled out by the good luck of now being twenty dollars richer.  You might, on the other hand, attribute it to complete chance and the chaotic nature of the universe, where sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and the whole thing appears to be a big zero-sum game.

What I can almost guarantee you wouldn't do is decide that the money had exerted a magical gravitational attraction toward your face, and had caused you to fall.

I bring this up because of a maddening article in the Kent and Sussex Courier that tells of a fortuitous archaeological discovery in the town of Tunbridge Wells.  Some "scientists," we are told, were poking around Calverley Grounds, a local park, and found a mass burial site (probably a "plague pit" from the bubonic plague epidemic of 1660), and also the site of a skirmish between the Normans and the Saxons.

Cool stuff.  But I haven't told you yet how they found it.

By "dowsing."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Yes, dowsing, that time-honored tradition of holding metal rods or tree branches in your hands, and imagining that aquifers (or mineral deposits or burial sites or damn near anything) could somehow pull on them and alert you to their presence.  How on earth could that work, you might ask?  Well, an article by Stephen Wagner gives us the following definitive answer:
The quick answer is that no one really knows - not even experienced dowsers. Some theorize there is a psychic connection established between the dowser and the sought object. All things, living and inanimate, the theory suggests, possess an energy force. The dowser, by concentrating on the hidden object, is somehow able to tune in to the energy force or "vibration" of the object which, in turn, forces the dowsing rod or stick to move. The dowsing tool may act as a kind of amplifier or antenna for tuning into the energy.
Righty-o.  An "energy force."  That, strangely, is completely undetectable except to a dude holding a tree branch.

Be that as it may, there is both an American and a British Dowsing Society.  People take this stuff seriously.  I find that when I mention dowsing in my Critical Thinking classes -- in the context of its being pseudoscience, and a fine example of the ideomotor effect -- I find that it arouses hostility on almost the level of evolution and climate change.

"My dad hired a dowser when we were trying to find a place to dig our well," I'll be told, "and when we dug where the dowser told us to, we hit water!"

It's anecdote vs. data again, because however fortunate you were to find water, repeated controlled studies of people who self-identify as being highly successful dowsers have generated results consistent with random chance.

But back to our intrepid British skeleton-finders.  They have no doubt that their discovery was made because of their little magic rods.  One of the "scientists," Don Hocking, said:
The body is sensitive to magnetic fields and the kinds we respond to in this regard are called diamagnetic fields and paramagnetic fields and the body responds autonomously to the presence of these fields and particularly to discontinuities in fields where you get a step or a change in direction or change in magnitude.  We are the equipment.  The human body is the equipment and it responds and we use something to indicate that the body has responded and in our case we tend to use rods which swing when the body responds to the fields.  Then we mark what we have found and go through the whole process, marking everything as we go and build up a picture of what there may be underneath.
Which might win some kind of award for pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo.  And if you're curious about what the terms he's using actually mean, check out the Wikipedia article about diamagnetism and paramagnetism, wherein we learn that (1) all materials are diamagnetic, and that it's only a significant force in superconductors, and (2) paramagnetism is so weak that it can "only be measured by a sensitive analytical balance."

But enough with the science-y vocabulary, let's think about the results.  Even Hocking admitted that he was messing about in a part of the world where you pretty much can't stick a shovel in the ground without hitting a medieval grave site:
We found lots of grave sites and we found one mass grave or ‘plague pit’.  This is a place where the bodies of those who died of the plague were dumped.  I am not sure what plague it was but the main plague was about 1660.  It’s not very surprising.  There must have been a lot around.  The plague took out half the population.
Uh-huh.  So anywhere I dig, I might hit a burial site.  No magic rods required.

I think what bothers me most about this is not that some credulous amateur archaeologists think they're getting mystical information from the Earth, it's that the whole thing was treated seriously by a news outlet.  Woo-woos, after all, will be woo-woos, and they'll continue to play with their Tarot cards and crystal pendulums and metal rods.

But that doesn't mean that we need to give them undeserved credibility by acting if their fantasies are real.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Because the universe has a peculiar sense of humor sometimes, my post considering the misapplication of the scientific term "dimension" was followed up nearly instantaneously by my stumbling upon an article called "The Dimenionality [sic] of Cthulhu."

Yes, Cthulhu, as in the octopoid monster-god in the mythos of H. P. Lovecraft.  The article was posted a couple of days ago on a blog entitled "Lovecraftian Science: Scientific Investigations Into the Cthulhu Mythos."  When I happened upon it, I thought at first that this was just an example of a scientist having a little bit of fun, much the way legitimate historians will play around with analysis of the timeline and backstory of The Lord of the Rings.  But upon reading the entire entry, and several other posts besides, at the cost of countless brain cells in my pre-frontal cortex which cried out piteously as they dissolved into the amorphous, bubbling nether-slime of the darkest eldritch reaches of time and space, I have come to the conclusion that this dude is actually serious.

[image courtesy of artist Dominique Signoret and the Wikimedia Commons]

Consider, for example, the following passage:
Based on... references made by HPL, Cthulhu and its spawn are not from our space-time continuum. This explains how these entities can function beyond the confines of our physical laws, such as its fluid movement and apparent plasma-like structure. Indeed, further study of Cthulhu and its spawn may provide the evidence needed to support the M-theory.
Yes, M-theory, that impossibly abstruse mathematical construct that attempts to unify all consistent string theoretical models of quantum gravity.  The introduction to the Wikipedia article on the topic, which despite my bachelor's degree in physics represents the limit of my understanding of the subject, says the following:
Investigations of the mathematical structure of M-theory have spawned a number of important theoretical results in physics and mathematics. More speculatively, M-theory may provide a framework for developing a unified theory of all of the fundamental forces of nature.
"Spawned."  Sounds like a Cthulhu reference already.  So there you are, then.

The author of the article apparently agrees.  He goes on to say:
M-theory describes a reality of vibrating strings, point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other multi-dimensional objects we can not perceive (Hawking and Mlodinow; 2010).  In fact, M-theory allows for many different internal spaces – as many as 10500 different universes, each one with their own particular set of laws of nature. Is Cthulhu and its spawn from one of these universes?  Did this entity find a means of exuding itself into our universe, bringing with it R’lyeh, with some of its native laws of nature seeping into our universe?
Yes.  He actually cited Stephen Hawking in order to explain why R'lyeh is such a crazy-ass place.

He concludes with a teaser:
From a theoretical standpoint such inter-dimensional travel to other universes may be feasible but the limitation to this is the amount of energy needed to accomplish this.  While this is a huge obstacle to us, maybe Cthulhu and its spawn can harvest the energy from antimatter and travel to other universes – and one of those universes may be ours.  But such travel to other universes with different physical laws of nature may pose some limitations onto these inter-universal travelers.  It is these potential limitations on entities from outside of our space-time continuum we will be discussing in the next article.
So there may be a way to stop these monsters!  Hallelujah!  Alert Henry Armitage!  Wilbur Whateley is going down!

Ahem.  Yeah.  What's funniest about all of this is that Lovecraft himself was a staunch rationalist.  He used to reply to the fans who wrote to him, asking for directions to Dunwich or Innsmouth, "Those places do not exist.  I know that for certain.  You see, I made them up."  This didn't stop people from looking, of course, and it spawned (there's that word again) theories that he was covering up his knowledge to protect himself from retribution by the Abominable Mi-Go, or whatever.  (In fact, I riffed on that very idea in my short story "She Sells Seashells," which, should you choose to read it, I should point out is fiction as well.)

And apparently there are people who are sold enough on his worldview that they'd like to use it to prove string theory.  Or vice-versa, I'm not sure.  Which is also kind of peculiar, because besides Lovecraft's fictional universe being a pretty bleak place, he was also a raving racist, a feature that pops out with cringe-worthy regularity in his stories.  (So while I count him amongst the inspirations for my own writing, I can't really in good conscience read about half of what he wrote.)

Anyhow.  That's our excursion into the Deep Places for today, and I'm off to get some coffee and then to fight my way through the Insanely Gibbering Hordes that populate the Loathsome Monolith-Crowned Citadel where I shall reside in Nuclear Chaos Until The End Of Time.

Better known as my classroom.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dimensional analysis

Adding to the long list of scientific words that woo-woos misdefine and then misapply, let's consider "dimension."

It's rising in popularity, and may soon outstrip "quantum" and "vibration" and "frequency," hard though that may be to believe.

Its misuse, of course, goes back a long way.  In fact, my wife recently got me the first season of the classic (i.e., terrible) science fiction series Lost In Space for my birthday, a move she has lived to regret, because our son Nathan and I now constantly quote memorable lines from it, such as, "Would you like another serving of Space Pie?" and "Golly!  They've turned him into a Cave Robot!"

But the subject comes up because of an episode we watched just a couple of days ago, called "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension."  In this wonderful piece of sf cinematography, we meet a pair of aliens who look a little like the love children of John Kerry and Karl Rove:

These aliens are ultra-powerful because they come from the fifth dimension, we're told, and have made their spaceship impregnable by using a "fifth-dimensional force field."  Even so, they're no match for Will Robinson, who makes their spaceship blow up by, basically, feeling sad at them.

I'm not making this up.

In any case, this illustrates how the incorrect use of the word "dimension" isn't of recent vintage.  Back then, but lo unto this very day, woo-woos have somehow thought that "dimension" was a fancy way of saying "place," and that therefore a creature could "come from another dimension."

Take, for example, the piece that appeared a while back over at Before It's News called "Inter-Dimensional Invasion Begins," wherein we learn that because "dimension" means "place," creatures can come from "between dimensions," just as you could say, for example, that you lived between Hoboken and Weehawken, even though you might not want to brag about that fact.

In this article, we're told that "when studying for his B.Sc. in physics," the author learned about string theory, which posits up to eleven spatial dimensions.  This, he says, opens the door for all sorts of weird stuff:
All events ever experienced by humans throughout history either from the mundane to the extraordinary have at best been reported or recorded using the language of 4 dimensions. 3 spatial (X,Y,Z) and one temporal (time). 
That leaves at least 7 dimensions that we are only dimly aware of. If at all. Most people intrinsically understand the spatial dimensions (X,Y, and Z) , it is the structure of all our movements , all the things in which we interact with , it is our life’s experiential structure. But Time is also a dimension, albeit times arrow only runs in one direction under normal Newtonian situations. But it is a dimension none-the-less. It is a axis of freedom in which we move, ever trudging forward ceaselessly. To quote William Shakespeare “Time is the fire in which we burn”. What sort of experiences and entities burn in the higher 7 dimensions?
Right!  Whatever the hell that even means.

Later, though, he answers the question, of course.  Those extra dimensions provide a place for Bigfoot to hide:
I believe that all forms of what we call “Paranormal” is normal, maybe just not in our 4 dimensional reality. The “Inter-dimensional Hypothesis” states that UFOs, aliens, shadow people, crop circles, Bigfoot, and ghostly activity are all explained by the passage of beings from another dimension occasionally crossing into our dimension and being witnessed. The method of cross overs are not understood at this time by science.
Okay, can we just hang on a moment, here?

The trouble I have with people like this is not only do they not understand science, they can't, apparently, even read a fucking Wikipedia page.  Because if you go to Wikipedia, and search for "Dimension," you are brought to a page wherein we are given, right in the first paragraph, the following definition:
In physics and mathematics, the dimension of a space or object is informally defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify any point within it.  Thus a line has a dimension of one because only one coordinate is needed to specify a point on it – for example, the point at 5 on a number line.  A surface such as a plane or the surface of a cylinder or sphere has a dimension of two because two coordinates are needed to specify a point on it – for example, both a latitude and longitude is required to locate a point on the surface of a sphere.  The inside of a cube, a cylinder or a sphere is three-dimensional because three coordinates are needed to locate a point within these spaces.
So saying that UFOs come from the seventh dimension is a little like saying that your Uncle Steve comes from "horizontal."

Higher dimensional spaces may exist, of course, although that point is controversial.  The alleged physics student who wrote the article for Before It's News cited string theory and M-theory as support for his position, even though the very same Wikipedia article says the following:
In physics, three dimensions of space and one of time is the accepted norm.  However, there are theories that attempt to unify the four fundamental forces by introducing more dimensions.  Most notably, superstring theory requires 10 spacetime dimensions, and originates from a more fundamental 11-dimensional theory tentatively called M-theory which subsumes five previously distinct superstring theories.  To date, no experimental or observational evidence is available to confirm the existence of these extra dimensions.  If extra dimensions exist, they must be hidden from us by some physical mechanism.  One well-studied possibility is that the extra dimensions may be "curled up" at such tiny scales as to be effectively invisible to current experiments.
So if Bigfoot lives there, he's not so much Bigfoot as he is Submicroscopicfoot.

Anyhow.  I'll just reiterate my wish that people would learn some basic science before they go blathering on, throwing around scientific terminology as if they actually knew what they were talking about.  As for me, I'm off to get a second cup of coffee.  Maybe if I can put some in a four-dimensional Klein bottle, I'll never run out, you think?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Taking a shot at Starbucks

At what point does the leader of a group say something that is so far out on the streets of CrazyTown that his/her followers say, "I'm sorry, but you're a loon," and abandon ship?

The answer is, "apparently, it doesn't happen," given that Reverend James David Manning of the Atlah World Missionary Church of Harlem, New York still has a congregation.

Manning, you may remember, is the raving wingnut whose demand that homosexuals be stoned to death, as per biblical law, caused one brave lesbian to show up at his doorstep saying that she was there for the sentence to be carried out.  Once the guy who answered the door (who was, by the way, not Manning himself) said that he "didn't have any stones," the woman, one Jennifer Louise Lopez, thanked him for not killing her and left.

But the video of this epic bluff-calling rightly went viral.  And you'd think that'd have been the end of Reverend Manning and his hate-based church.

You'd be wrong.

It was only a matter of time before Reverend Manning topped his own previous attempts at setting a world's record for Bizarre Quasi-Religious Statements.  And last week he did it, by claiming that Starbucks is flavoring its lattés with...

"... the semen of sodomites."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'd like to say I'm making this up, but here's the direct quote.
My suspicion is they’re getting their semen from sodomites. The semen flavors up the latté and makes you think you are having a good time drinking it...  There will not be a public sodomite in Harlem in not too many days.  Starbucks will be found to be perverting its customers and perverting human sexuality, as if drinking Starbucks is some sort of a sacrificial ritual bath where they kill the innocent babies and drink their blood.  And Starbucks will close.
I can't think of much of a response to this other than, "What the actual fuck?"

I mean, consider this from a purely practical standpoint.  Think of the number of lattés sold daily by Starbucks.  Assuming that each one has the ejaculate from one (1) sodomite in it, Starbucks would have to employ tens of thousands of guys, pretty much jacking off round the clock, to keep up with the demand.  And given the way the male reproductive equipment works, it's not like the same guy could keep, um, producing, over and over and over.  It's kind of a direct application of the Law of Diminishing Returns, you know?

So mass-producing wankuccinos turns out not to be that easy to do.  Not that anything like pragmatic logic is driving Reverend Manning, of course.  The man is so clearly batshit insane that it's a wonder he doesn't get sedated with horse tranquilizers by his friends and relatives.

What's even more of a mystery, though, is that he still has a congregation.  Which, apparently, he does.  It's possible that they show up on Sunday mornings just to see what bizarre thing he's going to say next; sort of a once-a-week version of street theater.  But you know, I have the feeling that it isn't that.  I'd be willing to bet, if I were willing to go to one of his services (which I'm not), that people would be sitting there and nodding and saying "Amen" at appropriate times.

Which brings me back to my original question.  Okay, we can make a guess that Reverend Manning himself simply has a screw loose, but why don't his followers see this?  Are they so sunk in the whole be-respectful-to-authority thing that they're unwilling to stand up, laugh directly in his face, and walk out?

Or do they actually believe what he's saying?

If it's the latter, I don't want to know, because it amounts to the hypothesis that insanity is contagious, and that's just terrifying.  And yet another reason to give a wide berth to the Atlah World Missionary Church.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The ghost in the machine

One of my reasons for doubting a lot of reports of the paranormal is because, to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, we are poor data-taking devices.  We have, he says, "all sorts of ways of getting it wrong."

The problem is, of course, that our brain doesn't agree with that, most of the time.  Of course what we're seeing and hearing is real.  Not only is it real, we're seeing and hearing everything there is to see and hear.  We can't possibly be missing something, or sensing something that isn't there.  So if we have an experience outside of the normal realm, it must reflect reality, right?

Of course right.

But now, a study at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland has shown conclusively that it's just not so.  It doesn't take much to fool us, and fool us so convincingly that our brains can't come up with any other explanation but that there's something supernatural happening... even if those brains already knew that they were part of an experiment, and understood how it was being done.

Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at ÉPFL, has led a team to create a ghost illusion so real that several participants asked to quit the study because they were so freaked out.  It was done quite simply -- no electrodes or any sort of elaborate apparatus needed.

[This "ghost photo" was created by one of my Critical Thinking students, Nathan Brewer, as part of a project to illustrate how easy it is to generate a convincingly creepy paranormal photograph using PhotoShop.  Not bad, eh?  (used with permission)]

What they did was to have blindfolded participants move their hands, while a robotic arm behind them touched them on the back, moving the same way at the same time.  No problem there; the brain quickly figured out what was going on.

But then, they introduced a half-second delay into the proceedings -- so that the robotic arm was a little behind the movement of the person's real arm.  And this created a sense of an "unseen presence" behind them that several participants asked the researchers to stop after three minutes because the sensation was "unbearable."  One participant said he was convinced that there was not just one "ghost" behind him, but four!

"Our experiment induced the sensation of a foreign presence in the laboratory for the first time," Blanke said.  "It shows that it can arise under normal conditions, simply through conflicting sensory-motor signals.  The robotic system mimics the sensations of some patients with mental disorders or of healthy individuals under extreme circumstances.  This confirms that it is caused by an altered perception of their own bodies in the brain."

Which is fascinating, even if it punches further holes in our sense of seeing and interpreting everything correctly.

Now, understand, there are two things I am not saying, here:  (1) that all paranormal experiences can be explained from this exact phenomenon; and (2) that it's impossible that ghosts (and other such entities) exist.  What this experiment points out, though, is that anecdote isn't enough.  We're suggestible, easily confused, and bring out own biases into whatever we experience.  If a little touch from a robotic arm, on the backs of people who knew they were part of an experiment on perception, is sufficient to generate an unshakeable sensation of being in the presence of a ghost, how can we trust stories of the "I was in the room, and then I knew there was someone else in there with me" variety?

But admittedly, it could well be that there are ghosts, and an afterlife, and so on.  I've seen no convincing evidence of it, and lots of non-convincing evidence, and all too many out-and-out hoaxes and falsehoods.  But could it be?  Sure.

At the moment, though, I'm going to wait for either scientifically reliable evidence, or else my own death, at which point I'll find out for sure one way or the other.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Falling for fear talk

Ignorance and fear go together.  They grow in the same environments, and feed off each other like some sort of bizarre pair of symbiotic life forms.  The antidote to both is knowledge and understanding.

It's astonishing, though, how resistant some people are to taking that particular medicine.  For example, consider what happened last week in Louisville, Kentucky, where a teacher resigned over parental fears that she was carrying Ebola after a trip to Africa.

Susan Sherman, a religious education teacher at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School, had recently returned from a mission trip to Kenya.  When she got back home, the administration required her to produce a health note from her doctor, and to take a "precautionary 21 day leave."

Parents began to call in with concerns.  Would she be quarantined during that time?  What if this wasn't sufficiently long to cover the incubation period of the disease?  Was it safe to let her come back at all?

So Sherman resigned.

Can we just clarify one thing, here, to you provincial Americans who failed high school geography?  Africa is not one country.  It's lots of countries.

And it's freakin' huge.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The continent of Africa is larger than Europe, China, India, and the United States combined.  The distance between Kenya (where Ms. Sherman was) and Nigeria (the nearest country that had a case of Ebola in the recent outbreak) is about 2000 miles -- about the same as the distance between Washington, D. C. and Phoenix, Arizona.

So if there'd been some cases of Ebola in Arizona, would you force teachers in Washington, D.C. to take 21-day leaves "just in case?"

Look, I understand why people panic about this thing.  Ebola is one terrifying virus.  The end stages of the disease are about as grotesque as anything I can think of.  But the situation isn't going to be helped by succumbing to the media's perpetual fear-talk.

Listen to the scientists.  I know, it's a radical proposal, but still.  And the scientists say:

  1. Ebola is hard to catch.  You have to come into direct contact with the body fluids of a person who has active Ebola symptoms in order to catch the disease.
  2. The disease is not transmissible at all during its incubation period.
  3. This outbreak has been limited to West Africa, in particular the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.  All of the people who have contracted Ebola have had contact with individuals from that region.
  4. The handful of verified cases in the United States have been managed through quarantine and aggressive medical treatment, and all but one of them have survived the disease.
So basically: calm down.  The likelihood of this becoming a global pandemic is slim to none.  

Not that this is going to help Ms. Sherman, who is now out of a job because of the ignorant fears of a few parents, and an administration who didn't have the sense to stand up to them.  Instead of telling those parents, "Read the medical literature.  Also learn some geography," they allowed hype to rule the day, in the name of "precaution."

And in the end, the students and staff of St. Margaret Mary Catholic School were exactly as safe as they were to start with (i.e., very safe), and a teacher who decided to go to Kenya to help people is having to search the employment ads.