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, January 31, 2015

Apocalypse ad absurdum

I just love it when woo-woos try to blend ideas together.

After all, reading about the same crazy claims over and over gets to be a bit of a bore.  So it's wonderful when I find a site that is a marvelous mélange of misguided mishegoss.  (Like that?  I spent ten minutes trying to see how I could make that one (1) multilingual, and (2) alliterative.  Oh, the things that make a linguistic nerd happy.)

Yesterday, I stumbled upon such a bubbling bouillabaisse of bollocks (okay, I'll stop now) that I had to tell you about it.  In it, we find out that there's a connection between the Book of Revelation, Bigfoot, UFOs, El Chupacabra, astrology, the Illuminati, and giant bugs.

So strap yourself in.  It's gonna be a bumpy ride.

The author, one Greg May, starts off with bang.  His piece, entitled "Monsters & Armageddon," begins thusly:
Armageddon – or World War III – is just a matter of a few more political pages being turned when the world sees God destroy the nations that have tormented Israel and her people. Armageddon is the battle the Bible describes where the blood rises to the bridles’ of the horses' mouths and one third of the world’s population is destroyed in a single day (Revelation 9:15).
Which I can say with some authority is a crapload of blood.  How will the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons run around killing people, if their horses have to swim?

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But then, instead of launching off into the usual End Times craziness, May speculates that there may be some connection to cryptozoology:
Do these fallen angels include Bigfoot and other monsters? 
The Hebrew word for devil or demon is ‘sayer’ meaning ‘hairy ones’. According to the Book of Enoch, the Nephilim were condemned to be evil spirits of the Earth. In his fascinating book THE NEPHILIM AND THE PYRAMID OF THE APOCALYPSE Patrick Heron writes: “We have no knowledge of what happened to the fallen angels who caused the second contamination of the Earth after the Flood. Perhaps they are still wandering the Earth, hiding out in some dark, evil forest, wary of the advance and onslaught of man.”

Does this not describe Bigfoot and other hairy bipeds?
Yes, I suppose you could say that the Nephilim and Bigfoot are similar, in that both of them are nonexistent.  But otherwise, I'm not sure there's much similarity.  Oh, wait... they're both "big."  So if that's sufficient for you, then I guess we have a match.

After this we hear about El Chupacabra in Assyria, and how lunar eclipses (which May calls "blood moons") means that "god is going to pour his wrath out upon us," because apparently lunar eclipses are a new thing.  But by far the most alarming thing May reveals in his post is that the US has ordered "a shipment of between 30,000 and 60,000 guillotines from China" in order to kill everyone who won't take the Mark of the Beast.

When I read that, I was just horrified.  I mean, how are we supposed to get the American economy back on its feet if we're outsourcing guillotine production to China?  We should have our guillotines manufactured right here in the good old U. S. of A.  We have carpenters who can build the frames, and steel plants to manufacture the blades, here on American soil.  Let's stop buying the weapons that the Antichrist will use to cut all of our heads off from overseas sweatshops!  Can I hear an "America, Fuck Yeah!"?

Um, okay.  So there's that.  Then we hear that when the time of Tribulation is upon us, we're going to be attacked by huge bugs:
The Book of Revelation tells us during the Tribulation the Pit (Abyss) will be opened and locusts will be released to ‘torment men for five months’ (Revelation 9:1-5). Don’t you think it is interesting how some ETs appear in the guise of a praying mantis - which is a type of locust? Remember all those conspiracy stories about government employees working side-by-side with aliens - many of them looking like praying mantis - in the undergound base near Dulce, New Mexico?
Well, first, a praying mantis isn't "a type of locust."  And I went through Dulce, New Mexico a while back, and there wasn't an underground base there, just a lot of sagebrush and rocks.  (Of course, that's what I would be, evil disinformation specialist that I am.  I'm making an Illuminati hand gesture in your direction right now, in case you were wondering.)

And the whole thing ends with some references to the Roswell Incident, Mothman, the Church of Satan, and how a story about fig trees somehow caused the Holocaust.

At that point, however, my eyes were spinning so badly I couldn't read any more.  But the link to the page is up at the top of this post, if you're interested in further delving into this delectable decoction of déliriant dreck.

Sorry, I said I would stop.  I'm really done this time.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Chopra on AIDS

At what point does someone cross the line into giving advice so dangerous that the people involved in promoting him are morally culpable if they participate?

Look, it's not that I'm against free speech.  I also believe strongly in the caveat emptor principle -- that people have a responsibility to be well enough informed on matters of science and medicine that charlatans can gain no traction.  But influential people also have a responsibility, and that is to use that influence with care, to consider the harm their words could do, to make certain that what they're saying is scientifically correct (and making amends when they misspeak).

Of course, the most egregious example of how this can go wrong is the current measles outbreak in California, which has sickened 84 people so far and is still accelerating.  The CDC states that the outbreak is "directly attributable to the anti-vaxxer movement," and notes that even with treatment, measles "is a miserable disease" that can cause serious complications and death.  And we can lay the blame for the resurgence of this disease at the feet of such purveyors of unscientific bullshit as Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy, who despite mountains of verified, reliable research are still claiming that vaccinations are unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst.

But we've talked about the anti-vaxxers before, and they're hardly the only example of this phenomenon.  Just a couple of days ago, for example, we had none other than Deepak Chopra putting his two cents in (although that's vastly overestimating its worth), and he gave his opinion about AIDS...

... and said it wasn't caused by HIV.

The HIV virus [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Chopra was being interviewed by Tony Robbins, and the following exchange took place:
Chopra: HIV may be a precipitating agent in a susceptible host. The material agent is never the cause of the disease. It may be the final factor in inducing the full-blown syndrome in somebody who’s already susceptible. 
Robbins: But what made them susceptible? 
Chopra: Their own interpretations of the whole reality they’re participating in. 
Robbins: Could that be translated into their thoughts, their feelings, their beliefs, their lifestyle? 
Chopra: Absolutely.
He goes on to say, "I have a lot of patients with so-called AIDS... that are healthier than most of the people who live in downtown Boston.  They haven't had a cold in ten years...  Someone's told them they have this disease, and they've bought into it.  The label is not the disease, the test is not the disease."

Robbins responds with a comment about a doctor who has stated that HIV is only capable of killing "one helper-T cell out of ten thousand," and Chopra agrees, saying that to get sick from it, we have to "facilitate the process with our own thoughts and beliefs, convictions, ideas, and interpretations."

Then they have the following discussion:
Robbins: There's a test that doesn't even test for the virus, and when they get a positive test, what happens to them? 
Chopra: Then they make it happen. 
Robbins:  Maybe they take something like AZT, a side effect of which is immune suppression...  What keeps us locked into this trap?  What keeps us locked in this trap where we keep promoting a philosophy of fear where we must depend on someone or something outside of ourselves to keep ourselves healthy? 
Chopra:  It's the collective belief system.  It's the hypnosis of social conditioning.  It's cultural, religious, social indoctrination.  
The way out, Chopra says, is realizing that "you are the field of all unbounded possibilities."

Are you mad yet?  I hope so.  Chopra is using his influence -- which is considerable -- to push people away from conventional treatment into accepting vacuous psychobabble, risking their own lives in the process.

You have to wonder how he explains the millions of deaths from AIDS in central and southern Africa.  Many of those people don't have access to medical tests and treatments; a considerable number of them don't have the scientific background to understand what the virus does to the immune system.

You also have to wonder how he'd explain the deaths of young children who contracted HIV from their mothers.  Was their disease due to their parents' lack of acceptance of "the field of unbounded possibilities?"  Or did the children themselves have problems with their "interpretation of the whole reality they were participating in?"

Chopra once was simply a laughable purveyor of woo-woo pseudoscience, of the kind that he evidenced by a statement made earlier in the interview: "You go beyond the molecules, and you find atoms.  You go beyond the atoms, and you find particles.  You go beyond the particles, and you find nothing.  You go beyond the nothing, and you find absolutely nothing."  But now he's crossed the line into endangering people's lives with his claptrap.

I'd much prefer it if people would come to recognizing how dangerous this man is through a greater understanding of science; but the unfortunate truth is that there will always be gullible, credulous, and poorly-educated people out there, and it is immoral to allow people like Chopra to prey on their lack of understanding.  I wish fervently that radio and television stations who are giving this man air time, and book publishers who are promoting his views in print, would say, "I'm sorry, sir, but you are a quack, and you're hurting people, and we're not participating."

But the sad truth is that even if what he's saying is garbage, it's lucrative garbage.  Given the profit motive that drives most of our society, I suspect that Deepak Chopra is going to continue to get richer at the expense of people who are ignorant enough or desperate enough to buy the nonsense he's selling.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The shadow knows

I'm getting a little fed up with the continual stream of aberrant stuff that the Mars Rover keeps finding on the Martian surface.

So far, we've had:
  • a coffin
  • a fossilized groundhog
  • a flip-flop
  • a skull
  • a hammer
  • a thigh bone
  • a rare Martian bunny
With all of this, you'd think that NASA would be all over the news with stories like, "Mars Rover Finds Proof of Life on Mars!"  But no.  Somehow, they're content to cover the stories up, and let Congress slash their budget over and over.  Because that's how scientists roll.  Coverups have a much higher priority than grants and funding, if you're a scientist.

Or, perhaps, the people who are proposing these "finds" don't understand the concepts of "digital artifact" and "chance resemblance" and "pareidolia."  This last one is the reason behind the latest claim -- that the Rover caught a photograph of the shadow of a human (or other bipedal species) in a space suit, reaching out to make an adjustment of something.

[image courtesy of NASA and JPL]

See it, there, on the left-hand side?  Clearly a guy, doing something.  At least that's the claim of Scott Waring, whose name has appeared here before, and always in connection to the aforementioned Martian stuff.  Waring is always finding things on Mars.  You have to wonder if he has a day job, or anything, or if he spends his every waking moment poring over NASA photographs looking for Martian bunnies.

"Someone who wants to remain nameless has found a shadow of a human-like being messing with the Mars Curiosity rover," Waring writes, on his blog UFO Sightings Daily.  "The person has no helmet and their short hair is visible and in high detail.  The person has on air tanks on their back and a suit that covers most of the body except the hair."

This brings up two questions:
  1. A human on Mars who leaves his scalp exposed?  Mars is a little cold for that, don't you think?  At least he should be wearing a wool hat.  Someone should probably tell his mom.
  2. A vague shadow constitutes "high detail?"
Waring thinks that there's only one solution to all of this, which is that there is a secret base on Mars, and this was one of the guys who lives there, making some kind of repair.  Others, though, have suggested more ominously that this is evidence that the Mars Rover isn't on Mars, but is in some kind of studio on Earth where fake Martian photographs are taken, and the camera accidentally snapped a photo of one of the studio staff who didn't move away fast enough, and the people at NASA are so unobservant that they didn't notice and accidentally put it online for Scott Waring to find.

What's interesting, of course, is that if you look at subsequent photographs, like the one below, you find that the "person" hasn't moved.  At all.

[image courtesy of NASA and JPL]

So the resident of the Mars base or the worker in the earthly film studio (whichever version you went for earlier) must have realized that he had been captured in a photograph, and so he stood there perfectly still so that more photos would be taken and he wouldn't be found out.

Or maybe, just maybe, this is the shadow of part of the Rover itself.

As I've said before, no one would be more delighted than me if we found evidence of extraterrestrial life, whether on Mars or anywhere else.  I would just think that was the coolest thing ever.  But people who are actually using scientific methods to look for such evidence -- like SETI -- are not being helped by wingnuts like Scott Waring claiming that NASA is covering up evidence that socks that have gone missing in your dryer end up on Mars.

So unfortunately, as we might have guessed from the outset, the human shadow claim turns out to be a non-starter.  As have all of the other claims, which mostly have turned out to be weird-shaped rocks.  (Except for the bunny, which was a piece of the Rover's landing parachute.)  So the science-minded amongst us will keep waiting for good evidence, and everyone else will just wait until the day after tomorrow, when Waring et al. will be claiming that the Rover has photographed a giant Martian weasel.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Aftermath of the storm

The biggest winter storm yet this season has spun its way out into the north Atlantic, after burying parts of the northeast under as much as four feet of snow, and this has activated two groups of people.

The first is the cadre of folks who don't understand meteorology, and think that multi-variable analysis of winds, surface and upper atmosphere temperatures, air moisture content, and pressure gradients should give you predictions of snowfall totals accurate to five significant figures.  You have your people who got more snow than they thought they were going to, inconveniencing their lives (clearly the weather forecasters' fault), and the ones who got less than they feared, causing them to batten down the hatches unnecessarily (again, blame the forecasters).

"I want that job!" one person commented.  "Half right half the time, no better than guessing, and they still get paid."

I dunno.  Considering that Long Island, most of Boston and Providence, and coastal Maine are still digging themselves out, the forecasters did pretty damn well.  We'd have experienced a tad more inconvenience, don't you think, if we hadn't had any warning that the storm was coming?

Aftermath of Winter Storm Juno in New York [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But worse than the scoffers is the group of people who think that "it gets cold in winter" is equivalent to "climate change isn't real."  These include Donald Trump:
This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.  Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.
Amazing that someone could pack so much nonsense into two sentences.  First of all, "global warming" hasn't been "very expensive" yet, because we haven't done a fucking thing about it, mostly because our leaders are still arguing over whether it exists.  The planet's not freezing, nor are we experiencing "record low temps;" in fact, 2014 was the hottest year on record.  And you'd think Trump himself would be nice and warm, considering the dead possum he wears on his head.

Then there's's Erick Erickson, who added a religious filagree to the whole thing with the following baffling statement:
The difference between people who believe in the 2nd coming of Jesus and those who believe in global warming is that Jesus will return.
Maybe if Jesus does return, he could explain to these mental midgets the difference between "weather" and "climate."

Then there's Fox Business's Stuart Varney, who apparently not only doesn't know the difference between weather and climate, but doesn't understand the Law of Conservation of Mass.  A recent study found that Antarctic sea ice was increasing in volume, and Varney says that because of this, we should be "looking at global cooling, not global warming" -- neglecting the fact that Antarctica is losing continental ice faster than it's gaining sea ice, meaning that there's a net loss.  (And even the gain in sea ice was predicted by climate change models; it's due to warmer air temperatures, higher humidity, and higher precipitation in the form of snowfall.)

But no such spew of foolishness would be complete without Rush Limbaugh weighing in.  Every time his name comes up, I marvel that anyone is still listening to this bloviating gas bag, but apparently enough people are that he's still on the air.  And here's his take on the weather:
I can't tell you the number of times a record or major snow storm has been forecast -- this year alone -- I was just trying to think last night, trying to recall a couple of instances where they forecast something that is going to be really, really bad, and it hasn't even come close to being, not even close to bad, much less really, really bad. And not just in New York but elsewhere around the country. It's been a horrible, horrible year for forecasts. And the reason is, if i can cut to the quick, the left has corrupted everything. Just like the left has corrupted the professoriate, the faculty at major institutions of higher learning, the left has populated all of these bureaucracies. The Department of Commerce runs the National Weather Service, and do not believe that they're not politicized.
So now the weather has a liberal bias?

What earthly reason would liberals (or anyone else, for that matter) have for exaggerating storm impacts?  Oh, wait, I forgot; the left wants to destroy America.  Because, um, bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, that's why.  So they bring major cities along the East Coast to their knees with warnings about a nonexistent winter storm, so as to accomplish their evil goals.  And then... the storm shows up, pretty much right on target, bringing the cities even more to their knees.  Faked 'em out, didn't they!  Ha!

That's how evil those liberals are.

Maybe the liberals even created the storm, you think?  Using their commie pinko leftist snow-making machines, imported directly from the Soviet Union.  (Yes, I know the Soviet Union doesn't exist any more.  Shush, I'm on a roll.)  Who knows what they'll do next?  Maybe this year they'll use their Tornado-making Machine to send tornadoes to Kansas, and their Hurricane-making Machine to launch hurricanes at the Gulf Coast, thereby sending these areas exactly the kind of weather they usually get.

Now that's some first-class evil.

Look, as I've mentioned before, I'm really not very political myself.  I'm a science nerd, not a political science wonk.  I'm much happier wearing my lab coat and my black plastic-framed glasses with electrical tape around the middle than I am discussing policy.  So although I don't much care what you believe in terms of politics, I can say with some authority that we all need to stop believing the talking heads like Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson and Donald "Scalp Possum" Trump, and start listening to the scientists.  They may not be 100% accurate, but their models and predictions are a damn sight better than they were even ten years ago.

On the other hand, maybe it's just easier to wait until a really hot day this summer, and point out that if a snowy day in winter disproves climate change, then a hot day in summer proves it.  If that's the kind of logic that works with these people, it's worth trying.

It's a little like the guy who is asked by his friend to go behind his car and see if the turn signal is working, and yells back, "Yes.  No.  Yes.  No.  Yes.  No."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Fighting visual malware with water

One of the things that baffles me about woo-woos is how they never, ever give up.

When I'm proven wrong, I usually (1) feel pretty embarrassed about it, and (2) retreat in disarray.  Oh, and (3) make sure not to make the same error the next time.  I mean, everyone makes mistakes, so I probably shouldn't overreact to it the way I do; but I like to think that as a writer on science and skepticism, I'm conscientious enough to check my facts and sources.  Otherwise, I'm really no better than the people I rail against on a daily basis.

So getting caught out hits me where it hurts, you know?

Not so, apparently, in the woo-woo world.  You can be laughed into oblivion, and you just keep on moseying on ahead as if nothing was wrong.

As an especially good example of this, remember Dr. Charlene Werner?  She was the star of a viral YouTube video called "Crazy Homeopathy Lady," the title of which you'd think would be devastating enough.  In this video, she attempts to explain homeopathy thusly:

  • The mass in the universe is "infinitesimal."  Since mass is the "m" in E = mc2 , she says that this crosses the "m" out, which means that "energy = light."  (The whole effect is accentuated by the fact that she pronounces the word "infant-esimal," which sounds like a descriptor for a really little baby.)
  • Something about "Stephen Hawkings" and vibrations and quantum.
  • A bizarre analogy wherein she compares homeopathy's effects to a neighbor's dog pooping on your lawn, causing you to throw a bomb at your neighbor's house.
If you've never seen this video, I highly recommend it.  I can say from experience that it's even more fun to watch while drunk, although I won't be held responsible if you laugh so hard you fall out of your chair and spill beer all over your carpet.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So anyhow.  This video has received millions of views, and tens of thousands of comments, most of which were of the "Holy shit, this lady is insane" variety.  So you'd think that any normal human being who got this kind of feedback would sort of vanish from the public eye.  Most of us, in fact, would probably want to crawl under a rock.

Not so Charlene Werner.  She's baaaaaack, on a website called "Simply Healthy Self," wherein she makes statements that very nearly exceed the wackiness of the ones she made in the video.  Here's a sampler:
Imagine your vision system has qualities similar to a computer. The photoreceptors are like your keys on your keyboard. There are approximately 1.2 million of them in each eye. When clicked or activated with light, the data from your 'visual keyboard' relays to your brain. Your brain has characteristics similar to a hard drive with an operating system that runs all the 'software programs' or functions in your body, such as moving your eye muscles, tracking, focusing, and visual memory. Even your heart, kidney, lungs, and all your bodily functions depend on accurate key strokes from your photoreceptors and other sensory input, access to your brain (hard drive), a powerful operating system, and efficient use of software programs.
Yup.  Your kidneys depend on information from your eyes.  Which explains why blind people never have to pee.
Homeopathy then scans your system to eliminate 'viruses' or 'malware', which are often belief systems or programmed patterns that interrupt your system's smooth functioning.
So a bottle of water with no active ingredients is the medical equivalent of Norton AntiVirus?
When we consider the whole of man we can even make a further leap……that mass in the universe by definition is matter, matter is substance, the substance of man is cells, and cells can be broken down into compounds, compounds into elements, and elements into tiny particles of energy called electrons, protons, neutrons, and sub-atomic particles held together by an “invisible” force such that what may look like a physical body is merely energy.
An explanation which is to physics what "The foot-bone's connected to the shin-bone, the shin-bone's connected to the knee-bone" is to medical science.

Then we get bunches of testimonials about how Dr. Werner's treatments have cured everything from rheumatoid arthritis to bad eyesight to being lousy at sports.

Which is pretty impressive, because homeopathy has failed to show measurable results in every controlled study ever done.  Ever.  Clear enough?  What she's proposing is unscientific horse waste, and her "success stories" are the result of the placebo effect at best.

None of which, of course, is going to change a thing.  If the reception her bizarre YouTube video received didn't make her reconsider her position, nothing will.  Unfortunately, there are still people who buy what she's selling (literally and figuratively), although it's to be hoped that the support for such completely disproven modalities as homeopathy is decreasing.

The chance of convincing Dr. Werner, however, is "infant-esimal."

Monday, January 26, 2015

A risk too far

Assessing risk is a complicated thing.  The technical definition of risk -- that it is equal to the statistical probability of exposure multiplied by the statistical probability of harm -- seems simple enough.  But in practice, calculating those probabilities is far from straightforward.  And when you throw in questions like, "Are the people exposed to the risk the same ones as the ones who are benefiting from it?" and "What if the people involved in the risk assessment are very likely to be lying to you?", it becomes damn near impossible to determine.

Such is the situation we find ourselves in, here in upstate New York.  The current controversy that is polarizing the region surrounds the benefits and risks of hydrofracking and storage of natural gas and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) in salt caverns underneath Seneca and Cayuga Lake.  You see signs in front of houses saying "Ban Fracking!" and "Friends of New York State Natural Gas" in almost equal numbers.

So let's roll out some facts, here, and see what you think.

Hydrofracking well in the Barnett Shale, near Alvarado, Texas [image courtesy of photographer David R. Tribble and the Wikimedia Commons]

Hydrofracking involves the use of sand, salt, and surfactant-laden water to blow open shale formations to release trapped natural gas.  The gas is pumped back up, along with a toxic slurry of "fracking fluid" that then has to be disposed of.  The gas itself is transported down a spider's web of pipelines, some of which pump the pressurized gas down into the abandoned salt mines that honeycomb our area.

In upstate New York, the permission to build the infrastructure for this massive project was granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year, in a move that brushed aside objections from geologists and ecologists, and which appears to many of us to be a rubber-stamp approval of corporate interests over safety and clean drinking water.  Now, Crestwood Midstream, a Texas-based energy company, wants to expand the current salt-cavern storage to include LPG.

So let's see what we can do to consider the risks involved in this project.

The first piece, the risk of exposure, involves looking at the history of fracking and gas storage, to see if comparable facilities have experienced problems.  So here are a few accidents that have occurred in such sites:
What I haven't told you, however, is the time scale involved with these events.

All of them occurred within the past twelve months.

Kind of puts a new spin on the gas industry's claim that fracking is safe for humans and for the environment, doesn't it?

What seals the deal is the question of what happens after these accidents occur.  The answer is: not much.  The question is, honestly, not so much "what is done?" but "what could be done?"  And the answer is still: not much.  Such accidents are nearly impossible to remediate completely, and leave behind fouled ecosystems and contaminated drinking water that won't be useable for generations.

So as you can see from the above list, accidents really are more of a matter of "when," not "if."  This leaves it to the local residents to consider what the response would be if the unthinkable happens.  The result would be the salinization of a huge amount of water in the south end of Seneca Lake, which would likely be permanent as far as human lifetimes are concerned, given Seneca Lake's depth and slow rate of flushing.  Aquifers would become too saline to use for drinking water or agriculture, which would destroy not only local farms but the multi-million-dollar winery industry that has become a mainstay of the economy.

And whose responsibility would it be if a problem did occur?  The answer is, "Not Crestwood's."  They are not insured against accidents of this scale.  To quote directly from their own 10K report:
These risks could result in substantial losses due to breaches of contractual commitments, personal injury and/or loss of life, damage to and destruction of
property and equipment and pollution or other environmental damage. These risks may also result in curtailment or suspension of our operations. A natural
disaster or other hazard affecting the areas in which we operate could have a material adverse effect on our operations. We are not fully insured against all risks inherent in our business. In addition, we are not insured against all environmental accidents that might occur, some of which may result in toxic tort claims.
If there was a salt cavern collapse similar to one that happened in the 1960s, the result would be nothing short of a catastrophe for the local residents, because there would be no compensation forthcoming in the way of insurance money.  The only recourse would be a "toxic tort claim" against Crestwood, which would result in costly litigation that would be far too expensive for an average resident to pursue.

And Crestwood is planning on taking the same cavern that experienced a 400,000 ton roof collapse fifty years ago, and filling it with pressurized natural gas.

So if the whole thing blows up in our faces, literally and figuratively, Crestwood can cut their losses and go home to Texas.  We don't have that option.

This hasn't stopped the pro-gas voices from characterizing the risk as minimal, and the people who are speaking out against Crestwood as crazy tree-huggers who have "drunk the Kool-Aid" and who are the victims of "imaginary delusions."  These last phrases are direct quotes from one David Crea, an engineer for U.S. Salt, a company that is now owned by Crestwood.  Responsible, intelligent people, say Crea, couldn't possibly be against gas storage in salt caverns; and he points out that a lot of the people who have been protesting the Crestwood Expansion are from the eastern half of Schuyler County, not the western half, where the facility is located.

Because, apparently, you have to live right on top of a disaster before you're allowed to have an opinion about it.  This kind of illogic would claim that the objections of a woman in Oregon to the siting of a pesticide factory 400 yards away from an elementary school in Middleport, New York are irrelevant because "she doesn't live there."  (I didn't make that up; read about the situation here, which resulted in dozens of children suffering from permanent lung damage.)

So sorry, Mr. Crea; it's not the concerned locals who have "drunk the Kool-Aid."  There's not that much Kool-Aid in the world.  It's the citizens you and your ilk have hoodwinked, and who now sit on top of a site that has a ridiculously high likelihood of catastrophic failure.  And if you multiply all of those risk factors together, you come up with a figure so large that you would have to be on Crestwood's payroll to consider it acceptable.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


There's a fundamental distrust of science and scientists on the part of a large number of Americans.  I think it's probably a left-over trope from the depiction of scientists as crazy sociopaths in a lot of science fiction movies; or, perhaps, the trope itself comes from a deeper and older mistrust, generated by watching the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and wondering what other awful weapons the researchers might be working on next.

Of course, the paranoia can be blown away by a little bit of effective science education.  But as we've seen over and over again, effective science education isn't really all that common.

So instead, we end up with people like the prolific YouTube contributor "BPEarthWatch," who is "Dedicated to Watching the End Time Events that Lead to the Return of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Comets, Asteroids, Earth Quakes, Solar Flares and The End Time Powers."

I ran into this fellow because of my son, Nathan, who sent me a link to the following video:

In it, BPEarthWatch informs us that the research out at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) is going to screw up the magnetic field of the Earth and kill us all.

We're put on notice that the narrator may be a little shaky in his understanding of physics when he informs us that (1) it's a problem that the Earth's magnetic field lines are squiggly "like spaghetti," and that (2) Mars "lost its magnetic field and its atmosphere because of a close pass with a comet."  I realize that understanding planetary magnetic fields as generated by the rotation of a solid magnetic inner core within a fluid outer core is kind of complicated, but when I run into something that is complicated, I take some time to figure it out instead of just blathering on as if I knew what I was talking about.

Not so our friend BPEarthWatch.  Armed with his squiggly spaghetti and his scary talk about Mars, he goes on to tell us that the scientists at CERN are going to fire up the Large Hadron Collider, and it will "open up a stargate" and "destroy the magnetic field of the Earth" which will cause us to be bombarded by "ultraviolet x-ray radiation and other type [sic] of solar and galactic proton burst."

Part of the detector array for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

You have to wonder why he doesn't consider the fact that scientists, when they're not cackling wildly over their bubbling flasks and lightning-producing wires, have families and lives and hobbies and homes and so forth, and would not really have all that much incentive to do something that would leave the Earth without a magnetic field (or atmosphere).  He makes it clear that this isn't just scientific overreach and an ignorance of the consequences; he states outright that the CERN scientists know perfectly well what they're doing, and don't care that they're going to make the planet uninhabitable in the process.

Of course, his delivery style doesn't help matters.  It was also Nathan who pointed out that BPEarthWatch sounds exactly like the character Harlan Pepper in Best in Show:

Be that as it may, BPEarthWatch is still better than the guy who wrote a piece because he was freaked out by the potential of the Large Hadron Collider to create a black hole, and throughout the whole thing called it the "Large Hardon Collider."

It's really not that difficult, folks.  Learn some science.  Find out what the scientists at CERN are actually doing.  (It's cool stuff, I promise.)  Just because science can be a little complicated at times doesn't mean that scientists are "out of control... like mad scientists in an ol' Frankenstein movie."

On the other hand, I wouldn't object if the scientists could come up with a stargate.  Getting from one planet to another in seconds would be awesome.  I'd definitely volunteer to go through it, even if it means hanging around with Kurt Russell and meeting the Egyptian god Ra, who turns out to be a creepy shirtless teenage boy with glowing eyes.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A bear of a question

What never ceases to astound me is the way woo-woos use minuscule amounts of evidence to support claims that under most circumstances would qualify a person for serious medical supervision.

It's a combination of confirmation bias (accepting slim support for beliefs you already accepted) and completely ignoring the ECREE principle (Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence).  And it never fails to baffle me, however often I run across it.

I ran into an especially good example of this maddening tendency just yesterday, with a claim that humanity is currently in an alternate time line.  And the evidence that we live in a bizarro world comes from...

The Berenstain Bears.

Yes, the annoying, moralistic cartoon bears, intended to entertain kids with their antics and simultaneously hammer into their brains important lessons such as Be Nice To Your Siblings and Your Parents Are Always Right and Strangers Are Scary and Pay Attention In School Or You Are Bad.

And how, you are probably asking, do said Bears show that we have side-slipped into an alternate universe?

It's because recently, people have been spelling their name "Berenstein" instead of the correct spelling,"Berenstain."

I'm not making this up.  In a post called "The Berenst#in Bears Problem," writer Rob Schwartz tells us why this constitutes proof:
…somehow, at some time in the last 10 years or so, reality has been tampered with and history has been retroactively changed. The bears really were called the ‘BerenstEin Bears’ when we were growing up, but now reality has been altered such that the name of the bears has been changed post hoc…In 1992 they were “stEin” in 1992, but in 2012 they were “stAin” in 1992... we moved to the stAin hexadectant, while our counterparts moved to our hexadectant (stEin). They are standing around expressing their confusion about the ‘Berenstein Bears’ and how they all remember “Berenstain Bears” on the covers growing up.
 So my first question about this, besides the obvious question of "What the fuck?", was, "what is a 'hexadectant?'"  When I looked it up, I found this:
The "universes" of my theory are region of a 4D complex manifold that split along lines of real/imaginary. They're really more like "pockets" than universes, or as I call them... "hexadectants." Obviously we don't observe complex spatial dimensions. The most obvious explanation is simply that spacetime isn't complex. Yet if (if) spacetime is complex, then why don't we? Well, maybe it's due to splitting along real/imaginary components to the dimensions. So, in our pocket things are (1,1,1,i), but in another they might be (1,i,1,1) or (i,i,i,1). But then what's going on in the other pockets? Well, maybe there's people there, just like us, experiencing the exact same special relativity but with a different sign convention. And then what if somehow our Euler-phase changed and we wound up in one of the other pockets? 
I don't think it's a crazy proposal.
Righty-o.  The Berensta/e/in Bears prove that we're in the universe's alternate pocket, or something.  Not crazy at all.  As a science-type, though, I object to his calling this a "theory;" a theory makes predictions that are testable, and this one says that somewhere else in an alternate universe there's another Gordon who is British and calls this blog Sceptophilia, but you can't visit that universe because it's in a different pocket, and therefore, somehow, q.e.d.

Because the whole Bear issue couldn't have been caused by people misspelling their name, or anything.  It's not because virtually every Germanic name with an ending pronounced that way spells it "-stein," so a lot of people get confused and remember the "-stain" wrong.

No.  If there's a common spelling error, it has to be evidence of an alternate universe.

So anyway.  I wonder if the alternate me has a headache right now?  Because I certainly do, given the number of faceplants I've done while researching and writing this.  I think I'll sign off here, to see if I can find some ibuprofin or asperin or tylanol.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cats from space

One of the students in my Critical Thinking class said yesterday, "Did you know that there is a claim out there that cats are actually aliens?"

My response was that it didn't surprise me.  Pretty much any crazy statement you can make will turn out to have at least a few people who fervently believe it's true.  Here at Skeptophilia we've run into people who think that The Lord of the Rings is factual history, that three hundred years of the Middle Ages never happened, and that Keanu Reeves is an undead vampire.  So color me unsurprised that there are people who think that cats come from another planet.

Also, there's the issue that I own a cat.  Well, "own" is the wrong word.  The cat in question, Geronimo, condescends to sharing a roof with me.  Personally, I would not be shocked to find out that Geronimo was actually an alien, if the alien planet he came from was hostile and evil.  Here's a photograph of Geronimo and my son, Nathan:

Geronimo communicating the alien message, "PUT ME DOWN."

Geronimo meows constantly, and it's not one of those adorable little kittenish mews you sometimes hear from cats.  This is a nasal, deep throated "MRRRROOOW."  We have decoded this much of his alien language; it means "Fuck you."  So conversations between ourselves and Geronimo go like this:

"Hey, Geronimo, do you want some food?"

"Fuck you."

"Come up in my lap and I'll skritch your ears!"

"Fuck you."

"Who's a pretty kitty?"

"Fuck you."

So my general feeling is that if Geronimo is an alien, he got sent here as a punishment for some wrongdoing on his home planet and is decidedly unhappy about the whole thing.  And the situation isn't helped by the fact that my dog, Grendel, thinks that Kitties Taste Yummy and so every time Geronimo comes to a full stop, Grendel trots over and licks him in the face.

But there are people, apparently, who seriously believe that it isn't just Geronimo; all cats are aliens.  More specifically, they're alien spies, sent to gather information about us humans and relay it back to the home world.  We get "evidence" for this "theory" that includes the tried-and-true "Egyptians worshipped cats as gods" thing, conveniently ignoring that 90% of the Egyptian gods had heads of various animals, and no one is suggesting that cows, for example, are engaging in extraterrestrial espionage.

We're also told that there is no record of the existence of cats on earth prior to 4,500 years ago, that they are capable of disappearing at will, and that if you pull a cat's ears back, it looks "exactly like a Grey."

All I can say is, I'd like to invite any conspiracy theorists to come to my house and try that last-mentioned move with Geronimo.  We'll see how well they can participate in their loony internet forums after their eyes are clawed out.

Oh, and there's also a thing about how cats will go from a relaxed state to jumping up and running out of the room in a matter of seconds.  According to the "theory," this is because the cat got an urgent message from the mothership and has to dash off to somewhere that there's good reception, or something.

As far as I can tell, though, there's not much else going for this claim.  Apparently someone even asked a paleontologist at the University of Wyoming, Ryan Haupt, about the statement that there were no cats on Earth prior to the Egyptians, and he said that it was bogus.  But you know those scientists.  Always engaging in disinformation campaigns.  My guess is this guy knows the truth perfectly well but has cats of his own, and he's afraid that if he rats them out, Mrs. Fluffums and Tigger will disembowel him one night in his sleep.

So there you have it.  Feline extraterrestrial spies, in your own home.  I decided to risk my own safety in the name of journalism, so I went and confronted Geronimo about the matter.  "Okay, bud," I said in a stern tone, "it's time for the truth to come out.  Are you, or are you not, an alien espionage agent, relaying information about us back to your evil overlords on another planet?"

Geronimo thought about it for a moment, and then replied, "Fuck you."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The naked and the dead

There's a general rule that there is no belief so bizarre that people can't alter it to make it even weirder.  And a corollary of that is that when they do, it's often motivated by profit.

You're probably aware of all of the various ghost-hunting "reality" shows that have cropped up in the last few years.  I use the word "reality" advisedly, and only in the sense that the people doing the ghost hunting actually exist.  But given that these shows are now becoming a little clichéd, producers are casting around to try to find a concept to spice up the old chasing-after-troubled-spirits trope.

And they found one.  There's going to be a series wherein the ghost hunters pursue their quarry...

... while naked.

I'm not making this up.  It's called Naked and Afraid, and the idea is that somehow spirits will be more likely to show up if the people hunting them are "vulnerable."  Says casting agent Chrissy Glickman:
This show is not about putting a bad light, causing drama or making fun of the paranormal.  This idea was brought to our company after research on paranormal investigation teams in history doing it in the nude and we want to see if their reasoning for doing it in the nude really does get spirits to communicate easier.
Righty-o.  There's no part of this that has anything to do with attracting viewers because the people on the screen aren't wearing clothes, and because (face it) most folks like looking at naked people.  This is all about scientifically-sound research about the paranormal.

What if the ghost is clothed, and the investigators aren't?  How awkward would that be?  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And don't worry, she says.  All of the people on the show will have their "private parts blurred out."  Which is a relief.  I mean, if ghosts are attracted to naked people, it could cause trouble when you watched the show.  We wouldn't want poor Jeb Hickenlooper, of East Bucksnort, Tennessee, sitting there watching television, and an episode of Naked and Afraid comes on, and there is no blurring of the actors' naughty bits, and suddenly he finds his living room filled with the horny spirits of the dead.

Adding another amusing filigree to all of this is the response from the community of paranormal investigators.  They object to the whole idea, they say.  It's exploitative, salacious, and only about making money.  Which objections, of course, could be applied to 80% of the content currently on television.

But they're not going to take this lying down.  A group called "Professional Paranormal Investigators" has started an online petition to stop Naked and Afraid from airing.  The petition, which I post here with spelling and grammar verbatim, states:
Please help us to put a Stop to a new Paranormal Series that is set to be aired on a Major Cable Network by a LA based Production Company called Matador. The cast members would be doing the show in the Nude! There theory behind this is to see if a person would be more vulnerable to the spirit world if they are not wearing any clothing at all. All serious Paranormal Investigators know that regardless if you are wearing clothing or not the spirits will still communicate with you if they should decide to do so and it does not make you any more vulnerable than you already are if you are not wearing clothing. This production company is making a Mockery of Ghost Hunting! This in no way will benefit the paranormal community and it will not change peoples views of the seriousness and dedication that is put into this field by Professional Paranormal Investigators. Please help us to stop this from being aired by signing this petition and circulating this to as many people as possible the more signatures we get The Louder and Stronger Our Voices Will Become!!
So there you are, then.

I'm not sure how I feel about all of this, frankly.  My general opinion is that ghost hunting is pointless, given that there's been zero success thus far (in terms of scientifically admissible evidence, in any case; there are lots of anecdotal reports of communication).  I'm perfectly okay with someone having a pointless hobby, however, even if it's also a little odd; and in that regards, ghost hunting has an advantage over (for example) stamp collecting in that it at least gets you out of the house.  I also have no issues with people running around naked, although it's inadvisable at the moment where I live.  Running around naked in upstate New York in January is just asking to freeze off body parts that most of us are fairly attached to.

In any case, Naked and Afraid will almost certainly turn out to be one of those short-lived series that everyone has forgotten about in six months.  Because once you see episode one, what more can happen?  "Episode twelve: more naked people, and still no ghosts."

So my guess is that the whole thing, even if the petition fails, will turn out to be an, um, flash in the pan.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Warning: DNA is everywhere!

In yesterday's post, I stated that I hated hoaxes worse than I hate outright scientific ignorance.  In response, a loyal reader sent me an article referencing a survey in which 80% of respondents said they favored mandatory labeling of foods that contain DNA.

[image courtesy of the National Institute of Health and the Wikimedia Commons]

I kept looking, in vain, for a sign that this was a joke.  Sadly, this is real.  It came from a study done last month by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics.  And what it shows, in my opinion, is that there are people out there who vote and make important decisions and (apparently) walk upright without dragging their knuckles on the ground, and yet who do not know that DNA is found in every living organism.

Or maybe, they don't know that most of what we eat is made of cells.  I dunno.  Whatever.  Because if you aren't currently on the Salt, Baking Soda, and Scotch Diet, you consume the DNA of plants and/or animals every time you eat.

Lettuce contains lettuce DNA.  Potatoes contain potato DNA.  Beef contains cow DNA.  "Slim Jims" contain -- well, they contain the DNA of whatever the hell Slim Jims are made from.  I don't want to know.  But get the picture?  If you put a label on foods with DNA, the label goes on everything.

Ilya Somin, of the Washington Post, even made a suggestion of what such a food-warning label might look like:
WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.
Despite the scary sound of Somin's tongue-in-cheek proposed label, there's nothing dangerous about eating DNA.  Enzymes in our small intestines break down the DNA we consume into individual building blocks (nucleotides), and we then use those building blocks to produce our own DNA every time we make new cells.  Which is all the time.  Eating pig DNA will not, as one of my students asked me a few weeks ago, "make us oink."

But this highlights something rather terrifying, doesn't it?  Every other day we're told things like "30% of Americans Are Against GMOs" and "40% of Americans Disbelieve in Anthropogenic Climate Change" and "32% of Americans Believe the Earth is 6,000 Years Old."  (If you're curious, I made those percentages up, because I really don't want to know what the actual numbers are, I'm depressed enough already.)  What the Oklahoma State University study shows is:  none of that is relevant.  If 80% of Americans don't know what DNA is, why the fuck should I trust what they say on anything else even remotely scientific?

But it's the voting part that scares me, because as we've seen over and over again, dumb people vote for dumb people.  I'm not sure why this is, either, because you'd think that there'd be a sense that even if a lot of voters are dumb themselves, they'd want smart people running the country.  But maybe that'd make all the dumb people feel inferior.  Or maybe it's because the dumb people want to be reassured that they, too, could one day hold public office.

Either way, it's why we end up with public office being held by people like:
Mitt Romney:  "I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love." 
Louie Gohmert:  "We give the military money, it ought to be to kick rears, break things, and come home." 
Rick Perry:  "The reason that we fought the [American] Revolution in the 16th century — was to get away from that kind of onerous crown, if you will." 
Hank Johnson:  "Guam is an island that is, what, twelve miles from shore to shore?  And on its smallest level, uh, smallest, uh, uh, location, it's uh, seven miles, uh, between one shore and the other...  My fear is that (if US Marines are sent there) the whole island will become so populated that it will tip over and capsize." 
Diana DeGette: "These are ammunition, they’re bullets, so the people who have those now, they’re going to shoot them, so if you ban them in the future, the number of these high-capacity magazines is going to decrease dramatically over time because the bullets will have been shot and there won’t be any more available." 
James Inhofe: "Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,’ my point is, God’s still up there.  The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous."
Henry Waxman:  "We're seeing the reality of a lot of the North Pole starting to evaporate, and we could get to a tipping point.  Because if it evaporates to a certain point - they have lanes now where ships can go that couldn't ever sail through before.  And if it gets to a point where it evaporates too much, there's a lot of tundra that's being held down by that ice cap."
The whole thing is profoundly distressing, and brings to mind the quote from Joseph de Maistre:  "Democracy is the form of government in which everyone has a voice, and therefore in which the people get exactly the government they deserve."

And as far as my claim yesterday that deliberate hoaxes are worse than outright ignorance, I respectfully withdraw my statement.  Ignorance is worse.  Especially when ignorance has crossed the line into outright stupidity.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The problem with hoaxes

If I had to pick the one thing that makes my job as a skeptic the most difficult, I wouldn't pick credulity, or ignorance of science, or even our tendency toward confirmation bias.

I would pick hoaxers.

I detest hoaxers.  The problem with a lie (which, let's be clear, is what a hoax is) is that once told, you've already accomplished three things:
  1. You've damaged your own credibility;
  2. You've suckered some people who probably will never find out the truth;
  3. You've made it that much harder for the people who are actually interested in studying what you lied about to do research.
Take, for example, two hoaxes I ran across just in the last week, one (in my opinion) far more terrible than the other.

The less damaging one is a video, allegedly out of Blackburn, England, of a creepy "apparition" chasing a car.  Here's the YouTube video:

The video is admittedly creepy, with the slouching, white-clad figure shuffling along, its long hair swinging as it moves.  And it has all of the hallmarks of the "ghost encounter," the panicked chatter of the people in the car, the "ghost" coming toward them as if it wanted to steal their souls, and a scary backstory about an executed monk in nearby Turton Tower.

The problem is, of course, that it's a fake.  It's already been identified as part of a student film, clipped so as to make it look like a real encounter.  But this hasn't stopped the video from gaining over half a million views, most from people (to judge by the comments) who thought it was 100% real.

Far worse, in my opinion, is the hoax perpetrated by a boy and his family, just uncovered last week.  A boy named (I swear I'm not making this up) Alex Malarkey was seriously injured at age six in an automobile accident.  Upon waking from a coma, he told his father, Kevin Malarkey, a Christian therapist from Ohio, that he'd gone to heaven, where he'd met with and talked to Jesus Christ, as well as having a scary encounter with the devil.  Alex's story was turned into a bestselling book, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, and it buoyed up the faith and hopes of countless people who wanted desperately to think that there is an afterlife.

The bubble burst a few days ago.  Alex, now 16, released a letter, which (in part) reads as follows:
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. 
I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to.
He goes on to say that he's still a staunch Christian, and that he thinks everyone else should be, too; but the damage is done, I think.  Bookstores have, by and large, pulled The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven from the shelves.  Understandably.  The only other option would have been to shelve it under "Fiction."

You have to wonder what Kevin Malarkey will do with his ill-gotten gains.  It's probably too much to hope for that he'll give it all to charity, but that's certainly what he should do, given the circumstances.

I get asked frequently, as an atheist, if I think it's possible that there's life after death.  My answer usually is, "I'll find out eventually."  I'm not just being flippant; it's the only possible answer when there's no hard evidence one way or the other.  Of the claims I've seen, there certainly haven't been any that have convinced me.  But falsehoods like the ones told by the Malarkey family muddy the water further, making all of us more likely to look at any claims of an afterlife with a wry eye.  Maybe some tales of ghosts and spirit survival and near-death experiences are true; but given the human propensity to lie, I'm perhaps to be excused if I don't give any of them much credit.

So to the Blackburn ghost people, and to the entire Malarkey family, and to anyone else who has created a hoax, and made it more difficult for truth-seekers to find what they're looking for, I have only one thing to say:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The twisted history of religious conspiracy theorists

Following hard on the heels of yesterday's post, about some Muslims in Algeria who claim that attacks by purported Islamic terrorists are actually being carried about by magical shape-shifting Jews, we have a second, competing claim, from over at the site Bibliotecapleyades:

Islam itself is a hoax, and Muhammad and the Qu'ran and the rest of it were inventions of some evil Jesuits in the Vatican.

I would like to tell you that this is a spoof site, but I'm 99% sure it isn't.  Here's how they begin their argument, if I can dignify it by that name:
A Jesuit cardinal named Augustine Bea showed [Alberto Rivera, a Jesuit priest working in the Vatican] how desperately the Roman Catholics wanted Jerusalem at the end of the third century. Because of its religious history and its strategic location, the Holy City was considered a priceless treasure.

A scheme had to be developed to make Jerusalem a Roman Catholic city. The great untapped source of manpower that could do this job was the children of Ishmael.

The poor Arabs fell victim to one of the most clever plans ever devised by the Powers of Darkness.
Augustine Bea, by the way, is quite real, and was a scholar in biblical archaeology as well as being a powerful Vatican insider (he was, for a time, confessor to Pope Pius XII).  But his biographical details mention nothing about his being part of a grand Muslim hoax conspiracy.  Not that they would, of course.  Because these things have to be kept top-secret, you know, so secret that no one would ever find out about them unless they Googled "Cardinal Bea Muslim hoax."

Bad Bad Cardinal Bea [image from one of the inimitable "Chick Tracts"]

They go on to say:
Early Christians went everywhere with the gospel, setting up small churches, but they met heavy opposition.

Both the Jews and the Roman government persecuted the believers in Christ to stop their spread.

But the Jews rebelled against Rome, and in 70 A.D. Roman armies under General Titus smashed Jerusalem and destroyed the great Jewish temple which was the heart of Jewish worship - in fulfillment of Christ's prophecy in Matthew 24:2.

On this holy place, where the temple once stood, the Dome of the Rock Mosque stands today as Islam's second most holy place.

Sweeping changes were in the wind. Corruption, apathy, greed, cruelty, perversion, and rebellion were eating at the Roman Empire, and it was ready to collapse. The persecution against Christians was useless, as they continued to lay down their lives for the gospel of Christ.

The only way Satan could stop this thrust was to create a counterfeit "Christian" religion to destroy the work of God.
If this is true, Satan sure is a procrastinator, because between the destruction of the Temple and the founding of Islam was a little over 500 years.  You'd think that being the Prince of Darkness and Super-Evil Bad Guy and all, he'd have gotten right on that.

So anyhow, there are all sorts of writings, the author says, that show that Muhammad was basically a no-count Arab trader, and that the Muslim conquest of the Middle East was encouraged by the pope.  Why?  Who knows?
When Cardinal Bea shared this information with us in the Vatican, he said: "These writings are guarded because they contain information that links the Vatican to the creation of Islam."

Both sides have so much information on each other that, if exposed, it could create such a scandal that it would be a disaster for both religions.

In their "holy" book, the Koran, Christ is regarded as only a prophet. If the pope was his representative on Earth, then he also must be a prophet of God. This caused the followers of Muhammad to fear and respect the pope as another "holy man".

The pope moved quickly and issued bulls granting the Arab generals permission to invade and conquer the nations of North Africa.
From what I've read, the Arab generals didn't give a rat's ass what the pope did.  The pope granting them permission to conquer North Africa would be a little like a guy whose house is burning down saying, "Okay, okay, if you insist.  Go ahead, I give you permission to burn."

Anyhow, what earthly purpose would the Catholics have to conspire with the Muslims?  Apparently, it was to stop the missionary work of true Christians:
As a result, the Muslims were allowed to occupy Turkey in a "Christian" world, and the Catholics were allowed to occupy Lebanon in the Arab world. It was also agreed that the Muslims could build mosques in Catholic countries without interference, as long as Roman Catholicism could flourish in Arab countries.

Cardinal Bea told us in Vatican briefings that both the Muslims and Roman Catholics agreed to block and destroy the efforts of their common enemy: Bible-believing Christian missionaries.
My question, non-historian that I am, is: what Christian missionaries were around back then besides the Catholics?  Okay, there were various weird sects, Arians, Monophysites, Docetists, Ebionites, and a whole bunch of others whose names escape me at the moment.  But they were mostly small and not very influential, and got the crap smote out of them at every turn by the Catholics for being heretics.  The point of this article, honestly, seems to be that American bible-toting Christian fundamentalist missionaries were being persecuted in the 7th century.

If you thought that a jump of 500 years between cause and effect was a lot, now we jump 1,300 years, all the way to the early 20th century.   Apparently, during the intervening years, Satan and the Vatican et al. must have been taking a long siesta.  But once the year 1910 rolled around, they were mad as hell and weren't gonna sit around and take it any more:
The next plan was to control Islam. In 1910, Portugal was going Socialistic. Red flags were appearing and the Catholic Church was facing a major problem. Increasing numbers were against the Church.

The Jesuits wanted Russia involved, and the location of this vision at Fatima could play a key part in pulling Islam to the Mother Church. In 1917, the Virgin appeared in Fatima. "The Mother of God" was a smashing success, playing to overflow crowds. As a result, the Socialists of Portugal suffered a major defeat.

Roman Catholics worldwide began praying for the conversion of Russia, and the Jesuits invented the novenas to Fatima, which they could perform throughout North Africa, spreading good public relations to the Muslim world.

The Arabs thought they were honoring the daughter of Muhammad, which is what the Jesuits wanted them to believe.

As a result of the vision of Fatima, Pope Pius XII ordered his Nazi army to crush Russia and the Orthodox religion, and make Russia Roman Catholic. A few years after he lost World War II, Pope Pius XII startled the world with his phony "dancing Sun" vision to keep Fatima in the news. It was great religious show biz and the world swallowed it.

Not surprisingly, Pope Pius was the only one to see this vision.
Because isn't that the way visions work?  If lots of people see something, it's not called a "vision," it's called "reality."

So anyway, there you have it.  The Vatican of the 7th century didn't like the depravity in Rome in the 1st century, so they invented Islam so as to stop Portugal from becoming socialist in the 20th century, resulting in Pope Pius XII sending the Nazis to conquer Russia.

Makes perfect sense.  All we need is to add some magical shape-shifting Jews, and we'll have all of the batshit insane bases covered.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The right to criticize lunacy

At what point are you allowed to say, "That may be your religion, but it's completely insane," without being accused of crossing the lines of propriety?

I ask the question because of a comment made by Pope Francis that many are interpreting as implying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists brought their deaths upon themselves. "You cannot provoke," the Pope said.  "You cannot insult the faith of others.  You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

Okay, I admit that it's not nice to do something deliberately that upsets people, but other than that, why should we place religious faith outside of the reach of criticism?  What if the "faith of others" is completely absurd?

For example, consider a story that appeared a couple of days ago in The Times of Israel, which describes a reporter who traveled in Algeria, asking people who they thought were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  And apparently the response she got was:

The attacks were done by shape-shifting Jews.

Illustration from Goethe's Werke (1882) [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

"Many Muslims in north Africa," Dana Kennedy said, "are of the opinion that Jews staged the series of terror incidents to make Muslims look bad... (and) that they weren’t just regular Jews that were doing this, but in fact but a race of magical shape-shifting Jews that were master manipulators that could be everywhere at the same time."

Oh, those wily, wily Jews.  Creating such convincing personae as Cherif and Said Kouachi (the gunmen responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack, who shouted "Muhammad is avenged" after killing the twelve staff members) and Amedy Coulibaly (the self-proclaimed member of Islamic Jihad who killed a policewoman and four civilians in separate attacks, and who deliberately targeted Jews).  

And their response to all of this is that the attacks were by Jews impersonating Muslim terrorists?  What, are the Jews also the ones who are beheading people in Syria right now?  Is it Jews who are responsible for flogging, hanging, or beheading people in public because they've been found guilty by a criminal justice system that would have seemed unfair to Tomás de Torquemada?

I dunno.  It seems to me as if the Muslims are making themselves look bad enough without any outside assistance, from the Jews or anyone else.

And to Pope Francis I would say: if you are not allowed to criticize ideas freely, then how are you supposed to combat ideas that are batshit insane?  Is anyone allowed to claim anything, free of repercussions, because it's under the aegis of faith?  How can he not see that treating "It's my religion" as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card is tantamount to giving license to lunacy of all kinds?

So while Pope Francis has certainly met with my approval over some of his statements, that encourage dialogue and ecumenism rather than rancor and recrimination, I think this one is ridiculous.  We have to be able to point out the absurdity of beliefs.  Without that freedom, there is no filter for telling fact from fiction, reasonable claims from insanity.

Shape-shifting Jews, my ass.

I know I've said it before, but it's important enough that I'll reiterate: I'm all for treating people with compassion.  We all come to understanding by different roads and at different speeds, and most of us are striving to figure things out in whatever way we can.  But there is no such requirement that we treat beliefs as if they could have their feelings hurt by criticism.  Beliefs stand and fall by the same criteria as any other sort of claim; by their agreement with facts and evidence.  Without that standard for acceptance, you are adrift in a sea of wild conjecture, without a touchstone for reality.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Home town ghost-hunting and squatch-seeking

So I'm excited to tell my loyal readers that I have two opportunities for doing some first-hand investigation.

These sorts of things don't come along often, given that I live in a rather remote corner of the universe.  My house gives new meaning to the word "rural setting."  My nearest neighbors are cows.  I live, no lie, near the original "Podunk."  Yes, Podunk, New York is a real place, and it's just down the road.

Which means, of course, that I'm so rural I don't even live in Podunk. I live in the suburbs of Podunk.

So since hands-on inquiry of paranormal claims requires that there be people there to make the claims, it's not going to happen often around here.  And just in the last week, I have two opportunities, which, believe me, I'm gonna jump on.

The first came my way because of the peculiar experiences of a friend, who lives in the neighborhood on the other side of Podunk ("Podunk Heights").  Now, let me assure you right out of the starting gate that she is an eminently sensible person, down-to-earth, not prone to flights of fancy.  She and her husband bought a house a couple of years ago, and moved in with their two children, who are now three and five years of age.  And not long after they moved in, the children started to report strange stuff.

Both kids have said that they've been awakened in the middle of the night by "people."  Sometimes the people stare at them, sometimes they're walking around in or past the kids' bedroom... but sometimes the people actually make physical contact.  Just two nights ago, she tells me, her younger boy woke her up crying, and when she went to investigate, he said that someone had touched his neck and scared him.

Being a skeptic and a rationalist, my friend wondered if it could have been his blanket or pillow, or an edge of his pajama collar, or something like that.  She said to her son, "Was it a light touch, like something brushing your skin?"  And the little boy said, "No, it was a hand holding the back of my neck."

So at this point, my friend understandably freaked out a little.  She told me about it, since I'm sort of the local skeptic, and the suggestion arose that perhaps I could do a little bit of GhostBusting.  There are now apps you can download that do all of the paranormal investigation stuff -- detecting electromagnetic fields, making digital recordings of sounds (so as to pick up EVP -- electronic voice phenomena), and so on.  At first, she said, she was fairly reluctant to try this kind of thing because she was afraid of how she'd react if something showed up.  But given that her kids are having some kind of experience every week or so, she's decided that she may just give it a try.

So I might be called in to do some supernatural sleuthing.  My son, when he found out about this, was psyched, and says he'll be happy to join me.  This is a good thing, because despite being a skeptic, and virtually certain that we won't find anything, I'm also a great big wuss, so if there really was a ghostly manifestation, and I was alone in a dark house, I'd wet my pants and then have a stroke.  Having Nathan around will, one would hope, make this a less likely eventuality.

Now, allow me to reiterate; I have not gone all woo-woo.  One of the reasons my friend wants me to check this out is because we're both rationalists, and are pretty well convinced that the kids' experiences are the results of vivid dreams or night terrors, not hauntings by the Restless Spirits of the Dead.  Whatever happens, it'll be fun, and certainly worth reporting the results back here.

Not quite as close as Podunk is the little village of Newfield.  Newfield is about a half-hour's drive from my house, though, so it's still in the neighborhood, as it were.  And a friend of mine sent me a news story that tells of an encounter a couple of days ago between a Newfield man and Bigfoot.

The story comes from one John Swaney, who was out hiking with a friend in the Connecticut Hill area, west of Newfield, when they heard a terrifying sound.  Here's his account:
It was around 8.30 a.m., about an hour till daylight, an hour or an hour and a half.  We heard a noise... You could hear kind of a woosh!, woosh!, as if you are going through frozen grass.  That’s when we saw it, about 100 yards away, getting off the road and walking under a tree branch toward a thick patch of woods. 
I could see the upper body, and as it was walking, it covered a lot of ground in between, you know, something that you and I would cover in two to three minutes.  This thing was enormous, with solid charcoal-black hair and four-foot-wide shoulders. 
I could see like a shine to it, you could see the muscle mass to it.  Judging by the branches I saw it go under, and going back to that, it was at least 9-feet tall.  It had to duck down a little bit to bet under that branch.  The branch stood at 8 feet and 4 inches.  I never got a good look at the face, which is the most disappointing part of it.  I want to know what the face looks like.  I could see the cheek, the cheek was covered. 
I was so scared that I dropped my hiking equipment, $200 worth, and left it behind.
I was too scared.  I was not about to go to look in the snow.  I just wanted out of there.
This is not the first time that a cryptid has been spotted in the area; the Connecticut Hill Monster has been reported off and on for the past couple of decades.  But this is the first recent sighting I've been aware of.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I've had this story sent my way twice, and one of the people who sent it to me is my pal John Sullivan, who does the wonderful weekly radio program Skeptical Sunday.  John is not only a skeptic, he's also a biologist, which makes him the kind of guy you want by your side in this kind of investigation.  Once again, we have the piss-your-pants-and-have-a-stroke potential of running into Bigfoot in the woods, so I'm hoping John and I can get together soon and have a look around.

So Podunk and environs turns out to be a happenin' place of late, affording me a not-to-be-missed opportunity to prove that I'm more than an Armchair Skeptic.  I'll definitely report here what happens during my ghost-hunting and squatch-seeking adventures.

Unless the results are positive, in which case my next-of-kin can take care of it.