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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Jesus wept

A report is in from Bolivia that there is a statue of Jesus in a church that is "weeping real tears."

Of course, the devout are now flocking to the church, and church officials are declaring that it's a miracle.  Parishioners have spent hours kneeling and praying before the statue.  People are collecting the "tears" in vials, and claiming that they have magical powers of healing.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Such stories are not uncommon.  There have been enough claims of this type that "Weeping Statues" has its own Wikipedia page.  Weeping statues, usually of Jesus or Mary, have been reported in hundreds of locations.  Sometimes these statues are weeping what appear to be tears; others weep scented oil, or (in a number of cases) blood.  

The problem is, of course, that when the church has allowed skeptics to investigate the phenomenon, all of them have turned out to be frauds.

One of the easiest ways to fake a crying statue was explained, and later demonstrated, by Italian skeptic Luigi Garlaschelli.  If the statue is glazed hollow ceramic or plaster (which many of them are), all you have to do is to fill the internal cavity of the statue with water or oil, usually through a small hole drilled through the back of the head.  Then, you take a sharp knife and you nick the glaze at the corner of each eye.  The porous ceramic or plaster will absorb the liquid, which will then leak out at the only point it can -- the unglazed bit near the eyes.  When Garlaschelli demonstrated this, it created absolutely convincing tears.

What about the blood?  Well, in the cases where the statues have wept blood, some of them have been kept from the prying eyes of skeptics.  The church, however, is becoming a little more careful, ever since the case in 2008 in which a statue of Mary in Italy seemed to weep blood, and a bit of the blood was taken and DNA tested, and was found to match the blood of the church's custodian.  Public prosecutor Alessandro Mancini said the man was going to be tried for "high sacrilege" -- an interesting charge, and one which the custodian heatedly denies.  (I was unable to find out what the outcome of the trial was, if there was one.)

Besides the likelihood of fakery, there remains the simple question of why a deity (or saint) who is presumably capable of doing anything (s)he wants to do, would choose this method to communicate with us.  It's the same objection I have to the people who claim that crop circles are Mother Earth attempting to talk to us; it's a mighty obscure communiqué.  Even if you buy that it's a message from heaven, what does the message mean?   If a statue of Jesus cries, is he crying because we're sinful?   Because attendance at church is down?  Because we're destroying the environment?  (Pope Francis might actually subscribe to this view.)  Because the Saints didn't make it to the Superbowl this year?  Oh, for the days when god spoke to you, out loud, directly, and unequivocally, from a burning bush...

In any case, I'm skeptical, which I'm sure doesn't surprise anyone.  I suppose as religious experiences go, it's pretty harmless, and if it makes you happy to believe that Christ's tears will bring you good luck, then that's okay with me.  If you go to Bolivia, however, take a close look and see if there's a tiny hole drilled in the back of the statue's head -- which still seems to me to be the likeliest explanation.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Spaceships on ice

I love science, and am delighted with the progress we've made in understanding the universe.  This has come along with a lightning-fast improvement in the quality of our technology, and although most of my friends consider me a Luddite, I'm actually in favor of that, too.

However, there are times when our technology gets ahead of our good sense.  When, in fact, it becomes apparent that in some ways, our devices are smarter than we are.  And one of those instances has to do with the geographical close-mapping project, Google Earth.

As our ability to create detailed aerial photographic maps of our planet has improved, so has our knowledge about places that are inaccessible to conventional human exploration.  But the problem is, the photographs are becoming detailed enough that we're falling prey to our perceptual biases, and coming up with some pretty wacky explanations for what we're seeing.  Here are a few examples:
  • The discovery of a peculiar pattern of lines in the deserts of western China, that some people believed were mimicking the streets around the White House, in preparation for an attack.
  • A digital artifact that made it look like there was a grid of giant squares on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, leading to claims that the Google Earth people had discovered, and then covered up, evidence of the Lost Civilization of Atlantis.
  • A five-pointed star in Russia that was variously described as a training camp for children of the Illuminati, a refuge for Satanists, an alien landing site, or a sign from Mother Earth that she's not happy with us, and actually turned out to be the remnants of a Soviet-era lakeside campground.
So you can see that we don't have a very good track record of interpreting what Google Earth is finding.  Add to that all of the misidentifications made by people pawing through NASA photographs from Mars (where various wingnuts have found "evidence" of a thigh bone, a flip-flop, a skull, a fossilized gopher, and a vicious-looking Martian bunny), and it's understandable that I'm not ready to lend much credence to the latest "discovery"...

... which is a crashed spaceship in Antarctica.

The UFO enthusiasts are leaping about making excited little squeaking noises over an image from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, more specifically from 80°34’08.4″S 30°05’19.3″W, which showed the following:

See that diagonal mark in the middle of the image?  That, we find out, is no geographic feature.

What evidence do they have?  Well, you're looking at it.  Everything else is just taking the above image, magnifying it until it gets really blurry, and finding bits of that blurred image that look like metallic reflections or spacecraft windows or hatches or whatever.  Next thing you know, they'll be claiming that this is rising up out of the snow:

As long as no one expects me to get on my Tauntaun and ride out to investigate.  I'm not taking a chance of freezing my ass off and then having to get shoved inside some smelly animal's abdominal cavity just in order to survive, all in the name of exploration.

But the guy who discovered the image, Russian UFO hunter Valentin Degterev, is adamant that we doubters are wrong. "I think there is very large disc-shaped flying machine amongst the frozen ice," Degterev said.  "It is definitely not a polar station, nor a plane (as there aren’t any airplanes or helicopters this big in the world).  There also aren’t any ships lost in Antarctica. It seems this is an artificial object from the distant cosmos."

Because, apparently, that's the only other option.  British UFO hunter Nigel Watson thought Degterev was spot-on, however. "It’s hard to tell if this ‘classic’ saucer sticking out of the ice, or whether it is a break in the ice," Watson said.  "Antarctica has a long tradition of being the resting place of crashed saucers or a base for their operations."

How convenient, given that Antarctica is so inaccessible to conventional exploration -- and verification of your claims. 

Pretty sneaky guys, those aliens.  Never crash-landing their saucers in places that are thickly inhabited.  Can't you see the discussion, as the ship is going down?
Alien 1:  "Our guidance system is failing!  The inertial dampers are offline!  We're going to crash!" 
Alien 2:  "No!  We can't crash here!  We're over Newark, New Jersey!  If we crashed here, then everyone would find out about our existence!  We can't have that!" 
Alien 1:  "I have it!  We'll stay aloft for another ten thousand kilometers, and then dive headfirst into an ice sheet in Antarctica." 
Alien 2:  "Brilliant!"
So if the mark on the ground in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet isn't an alien spaceship, nor an Imperial Probe Droid, what is it?

Easy.  It's a crevasse.

The movement of glaciers frequently opens up cracks, and the overlying snow cover collapses inwards, forming a slot-like hole.  (Sometimes it takes a while for the snow cover to fall, which is why hiking over glaciers is so dangerous -- what looks like solid ice can be a thin crust of snow over a hundred-foot-deep plunge.)

So sorry to burst your bubble, UFOlogists, but if you're looking for the smoking gun, alien-wise, this isn't it.  Just as the Chinese lines weren't a mock-up of Washington, DC, the seafloor anomaly wasn't Atlantis, and the star wasn't an Illuminati summer camp, this isn't a downed spaceship.  You'll just have to keep looking.

Back to scanning Google Earth images.  Make sure to tell us what you find.  As long as it isn't vicious alien bunnies.  If you find one of those, I'd rather not know.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Love wins

I'm sure that most of you know by now that in a landmark 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the nation.

When I got up this morning, I noticed a few things that bear mention.
  • The world still exists.
  • God did not smite America.  No meteorites, no volcanic eruptions, no earthquakes.  Nothing.
  • My marriage to Carol has continued, unaltered, since yesterday.
  • Texas pastor Rick Scarborough has yet to set himself on fire.
  • The bible-thumpers who threatened to move to Canada are still here.
I find the last-mentioned especially amusing, given that Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005.  If you people are looking for a place to move, a country where religion trumps the rule of law, homosexuality is a punishable offense, and everyone is expected to run their lives by the precepts of a holy book, I think Syria or Iraq might fit the bill better than Canada.

What gets me most about all of these people is that they're not just content to live their lives by their own religious precepts; they expect everyone else to follow those precepts, too.  Not satisfied with simply practicing their own religion to the best of their ability, they demand that the entire country has to do so as well.

It's not that hard.  If you want to marry someone of the same gender, do so.  If you don't, then don't.  

End of story.

Or would be, except for the likes of Glenn Beck, who thinks that giving people rights they've been denied amounts to persecuting everyone else.  Beck, who really needs to up the dosage on his anti-psychotic meds, had the following to say:
Persecution is coming. If this goes through, persecution is coming.  I mean serious prosecution.  Mark my words. …  If gay marriage goes through the Supreme Court and gay marriage becomes fine and they can put teeth in it, so now they can go after the churches, 50 percent of our churches will fall away, meaning the congregations.  Within five years, the congregations, 50 percent of the congregants will fall away from their church because they won’t be able to take the persecution.
Further, he says that there are tens of thousands of ministers who are going to face martyrdom because of the decision:
The number in the Black Robe Regiment [a group of conservative Christians Beck likes to talk about] is about 70,000 now.  The number that I think will walk through a wall of fire, you know, and possible death, is anywhere between 17,000 and 10,000.  That is an extraordinary number of people that are willing to lay it all down on the table and willing to go to jail or go to death because they serve God and not man.
Because that's likely.  I think the Black Robe Regiment is going to be pretty frustrated over the next few months, wandering around looking in vain for someone to kill them:
[member of the Black Robe Regiment shows up at a gay couple's wedding reception] 
Black Robe dude:  "Aha!  Here we go!"  (throws his arms open)  "Go ahead!  Oppress me, torture me, and kill me!  I'm ready to die!" 
Guy at wedding reception (puzzled):  "Why would I do that?  This is a celebration.  Here, have some cake." 
Black Robe dude (triumphantly):  "I thought so.  This cake is poisoned, isn't it?" 
Guy at wedding reception:  "No, sorry.  It's lemon cake with rainbow frosting."  (takes a bite)  "See? Delicious."
Black Robe dude:  "So you're not going to murder me for my beliefs?" 
Guy at wedding reception:  "Nope." 
Black Robe dude:  "Rats."  (slinks off, looking for persecution elsewhere)
Beck, of course, wasn't the only one.  Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's less compassionate son, was grim yesterday evening.  "I pray God will spare America from His judgment," Graham said.  "Though, by our actions as a nation, we give Him less and less reason to do so."

Mike Huckabee, of course, was considerably more verbose in his reaction, not to mention considerably less coherent:
The Supreme Court has spoken with a very divided voice on something only the Supreme Being can do-redefine marriage.  I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat. 
This ruling is not about marriage equality, it's about marriage redefinition.  This irrational, unconstitutional rejection of the expressed will of the people in over 30 states will prove to be one of the court's most disastrous decisions, and they have had many.  The only outcome worse than this flawed, failed decision would be for the President and Congress, two co-equal branches of government, to surrender in the face of this out-of-control act of unconstitutional, judicial tyranny. 
The Supreme Court can no more repeal the laws of nature and nature's God on marriage than it can the law of gravity.  Under our Constitution, the court cannot write a law, even though some cowardly politicians will wave the white flag and accept it without realizing that they are failing their sworn duty to reject abuses from the court.  If accepted by Congress and this President, this decision will be a serious blow to religious liberty, which is the heart of the First Amendment.
Right.  Because that's what the Supreme Court is supposed to be doing; passing "god's law."

But no one was more butthurt than Justice Antonin Scalia, who said in his dissent, "Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms?" he wrote.  "And if intimacy is, one would think that Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage.  Ask the nearest hippie."

And the result was not what Scalia hoped, which was for people to sit up and amazement and say, "Good heavens, you're right!"  Instead, #AskTheNearestHippie has become a trending hashtag on Twitter, along with a brilliant new Twitter account to follow... @TheNearestHippie.

Because, Justice Scalia, mocking a ridiculous statement is a freedom.  It's called freedom of speech.

But despite all of this, the lion's share of the responses I saw yesterday were positive.  Facebook positively erupted in rainbows.  Even a conservative buddy of mine posted, "Let gays get married.  Let the rednecks have their guns.  Let atheists be atheists, and let Christians be Christians.  Because America is about freedom.  Freedom to live how you please, and be happy with your life.  So smoke a bowl, shoot your guns, cuss a lot, praise Jesus, and wish those two fellas next door a happy honeymoon."

To which I responded, "Amen, brother."

So there you are.  The law of the land.  And to my LGBT friends and their allies who have fought this battle for decades, I can only say:

Congratulations.  Love won.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Plan of attack

The time has come to ask what exactly the people in charge of overseeing public education are trying to accomplish.

And I'm sorry, "Improving public education" isn't a good enough answer.  Nor is "making sure we have teacher accountability."  I want to know, specifically, why our elected officials and educational leaders are moving in the direction they are, along with evidence of how their decisions will work to accomplish their goals.

Because at the moment, a lot of it looks like a carefully-designed program to tear down the entire edifice.

[image courtesy of photographer Svetlana Miljkovic and the Wikimedia Commons]

Here are a couple of the latest salvos.  So let me tell you about those, and see if you agree with me.

Let's start, as so many attacks on education do, in the state of Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott has appointed Donna Bahorich as the chairperson of the State Board of Education.

Bahorich is an ultraconservative who backed last year's decision to approve history texts that claimed that the United States Constitution is based on the bible, and that the American system of democracy was inspired by Moses.  She is strongly in favor of using money from taxpayers to support private religious schools.  Her qualifications?  She was a manager of a telephone company, campaign treasurer for Senator Dan Patrick (who himself has gone on record as stating that creationism should be taught in public schools), and a member of the pastor's council at Houston's Vineyard Church.  Her M.A. is in counseling from Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist bastion, Liberty University.

She chose to homeschool her own children.

So to summarize: Texas now has a woman in charge of their educational system who has never taught, did not send her own children to public school, seems to have no qualifications for the position whatsoever, and has shown herself to be an ideologue who would love to see free secular public education replaced by publicly-funded religious schools.

Even some of Abbott's Republican supporters think this is a misstep.  State Board member Thomas Ratliff said, "Public school isn’t for everybody, but when 94 percent of our students in Texas attend public schools I think it ought to be a baseline requirement that the chair of the State Board of Education have at least some experience in that realm, as a parent, teacher, something."

Yeah.  You'd think so.  But Texas isn't the only one.  Right here in my home state of New York, we have Merryl Tisch as chancellor of the State Department of Education, a woman whose sole experience with teaching was seven years in two wealthy private Jewish schools.

Is it becoming a requirement that in order to lead public education, you need to have no experience with public education?

Then, we have the ongoing attacks on teachers via the reliance on standardized tests to measure not only student progress, but teacher competence.  So given how much is resting on the outcome of those tests, you'd think that there'd be a great deal of emphasis on having qualified scorers, right?

But according to an exposé in The New York Times, the high-stakes exams from Pearson Education and other testing-for-profit corporations are being graded by people who not only have no teaching experience, but no background in pedagogy whatsoever:
There was a onetime wedding planner, a retired medical technologist and a former Pearson saleswoman with a master’s degree in marital counseling.  To get the job, like other scorers nationwide, they needed a four-year college degree with relevant coursework, but no teaching experience.  They earned $12 to $14 an hour, with the possibility of small bonuses if they hit daily quality and volume targets.
Bob Sanders, vice president for Content and Scoring Management at Pearson, said that none of that mattered.  "From the standpoint of comparing us to a Starbucks or McDonald’s, where you go into those places you know exactly what you’re going to get.  McDonald’s has a process in place to make sure they put two patties on that Big Mac.  We do that exact same thing. We have processes to oversee our processes, and to make sure they are being followed."

You know, Mr. Sanders, if you're trying to make an argument that you're dedicated to quality, comparing yourself to McDonalds might not be your best choice.

And then, we've got the more fundamental problem that the evaluation system itself is faulty.  Let's take my own situation as a case-in-point, because I just got my "final grade" for this school year yesterday.  The numerical grading system in New York has been in place for three years.  Two years ago, I scored a 92.  Last year, I scored a 91, missing the "highly effective" designation by one point.

This year, I scored an 80.

So according to New York State, I became 11% worse at teaching between last year and this one.  Good thing I didn't drop more than that; another 5% downward, and I'll be classified as "Developing," which is kind of funny given that I've taught for 28 years.  If I haven't "Developed" by now, I don't think it's gonna happen.

And the tailspin in my score is, of course, being laid at my feet, because there can't be any other contributing causes, right?  It couldn't be because of things like differences in student effort and work ethic from year to year, changes in the exam scaling, or the fact that 50% of one of the classes I was evaluated on this year were special needs students, including two tenth-graders who read at a fourth-grade level.

Nope, the drop in scores was clearly my fault.

What the hell is going on here?

Elected officials are appointing people to leadership roles in education who have little to no experience in public education.  A teacher evaluation system has been put in place that is not only so faulty that a student in a freshman statistics class could see the flaws, but has been handed over to for-profit corporations who farm out the actual scoring to people who have never spent a day working in a classroom.

You know, I don't tend to buy into conspiracy theories, but this is more and more looking like a well thought out strategy to destroy public education from the ground up.

I hope I'm wrong.  Incompetence and mismanagement are easier to forgive than deliberate, calculated malfeasance.  But as the problems pile up, and the solutions appear designed to make things worse, and the people appointed to be in charge continue to be selected from the ranks of anti-education demagoguery, my confidence that we're not seeing some kind of coordinated attack is becoming weaker and weaker.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Alien spiritual copyright infringement

"Channeling" is a practice that goes back millennia.  The idea that a powerful being could take over a human's body, use it as a vehicle, and thereby dispense wisdom upon the rest of us slobs has a history that extends from the Oracle of Delphi and the Witch of Endor, through the divine visions of Hildegard von Bingen and Joan of Arc, to the spiritualist mediums of the 19th century and more recent New Age channels like Jane Roberts and J. Z. Knight.

A curious current case is that of Darryl Anka, who claims to channel an alien being named "Bashar" from the planet "Essassani."  Anka goes into a trance, and then speaks in a peculiar, stilted voice (evidently that's the accent people have, over on Essassani), and gives us enlightened messages such as the following:
There is only the understanding of the thing that needs to be taught to every child on the planet, and that is the knowledge that every single individual on this planet is already powerful as he or she needs to be to create any reality desired, without having to hurt yourself, or anyone else, to get it.  That’s how powerful you are.
Whoo.  That's one deep message, right there.  Which, of course, is my problem with all of these people; you never really get any specifics.  The ones who claim to channel people from the past (like J. Z. Knight) dodge any questions about the culture and languages spoken by the people from 25,000 years ago, labeling these things as "unimportant."  People like Anka/Bashar can't give us any information about the technology on this purportedly advanced planet, only tell us useful things like "you're already as powerful as you need to be."

Me, I'd rather blueprints for a working warp drive, holodeck, tricorder, replicator, and phaser than I would vacuous messages about how much inner power I have at my disposal.  But maybe I'm just too shallow for enlightened beings like "Bashar."

[image courtesy of NASA]

Add that to the fact that Bashar claims to come from "300 light years in the future," thereby demonstrating that a super-advanced alien doesn't know the difference between a measure of distance and a measure of time, and I think we have a pretty good case that Anka's pulling a fast one on us.

Fortunately, there are a lot of people who agree with me.  Skeptoid did a piece on him that's nothing short of scathing.  Here's what they have to say about him over at Generally Thinking, along with a video clip so you can see for yourself what a middle-aged bald guy looks like when he's channeling an alien from the future.  Hell, they even shot him down over at Above Top Secret, and that takes some doing.  Bashar, however, was undaunted, and fired back with a video series called "Debunking the Debunkers."

So he sure showed us.

But now Anka/Bashar has taken it one step further.  He's filed a bunch of grievances against users of Tumblr under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law that protects the intellectual property of individuals distributed electronically, claiming that hundreds of images and gifs are actually Bashar's...

... or will be in the future.

The evidence provided was as follows:
Description: Copyrighted Work: Bashar channeled by Darryl Anka. Copyright 1984-2015. All Rights Reserved. From multiple event productions presented by Darryl Anka on dates ranging from 1984-2014. The copyrighted works can be found at [sic]
One furious blogger responded:
The claim is that my work is in fact copyrighted by “Bashar channeled by Darryl Anka.”  What?  I looked it up.  Darryl Anka believes that he is channeling information from a space alien from the future named Bashar that lives on a planet called Essassani via telepathy.  
Cool story bro.

What exactly is the legal basis for their claim? Maybe it has something to do with “ ” ?  Is that some kind of alien code?  Or did Tumblr just auto copy and paste the email they got including stray HTML garbage characters?
Now, are you ready for the punchline of all of this?

Tumblr complied with Bashar's request and took down the images and gifs.

Yes, you got it; a man who many believe to be either a swindler or a lunatic, who channels a platitude-spewing alien spirit from "300 light years in the future," is successfully launching a copyright infringement claim against people who have posted their own work, stating that it actually belongs to "Bashar."

I'm trying to think of something to say other than "What the actual fuck?", and failing entirely.

On the other hand, maybe Anka is on to something.  So allow me to make an announcement:

I am channeling an alien spirit, too.  His name is Gleebnorg, and he comes from the planet Thwonk in the third spiral arm of the Andromeda Galaxy.  And Gleebnorg is here to say that he gave Bill Gates the idea for Microsoft back in 1975, and is coming back to demand halvsies.  I mean, fair is fair.

Oh, and Gleebnorg says to tell you all that you're beautiful spirits, and have everything you need in your life to be happy.  More than you need, in fact, so you can unload some of the excess in his direction.

He takes cash, check, or electronic transfer.  Have a nice day.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The rising stars of American politics

I'm sure that many of you are wondering what's going to happen in the 2016 presidential election, likely to be a race between either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders (for the Democrats) and whichever of the 2,781 people who have declared they're seeking the Republican nomination manages to come out ahead.  I can't get all that worked up about it, myself.  I've been through this process enough times that to me, most politics seems to boil down to "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."  And every time someone is elected and there are dire predictions by the opposition about what's going to result, what ends up happening is...

... pretty much what always happens in government.  Namely, bureaucratic gridlock.  For example, take all the hoopla about how Obama is going to repeal the Second Amendment and steal everyone's guns.  This has been a running theme of the anti-Obama cadre for what, seven years now?  And if you look around you, you'll find that everyone is as heavily armed as ever, and the Second Amendment is still firmly in place.

If Obama wants our guns, dude better get his ass in gear.  He's only got a little over a year left.

Now, I won't say that politics doesn't matter.  You can definitely see the situation in the Middle East having gone a different direction had the Bush administration not launched a war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, for example.  Whether it would have been better or worse is a matter of contention, but I don't think anyone can argue that it made a difference.

But that's the thing, isn't it?  Whoever gets elected, we still have the chaotic nature of world events to deal with, and the inherent unpredictability of how everyone's going to respond.  Add that to the treacle-like speed of progress in the halls of government, and it's no wonder that politics, when viewed from above, looks like a giant, extremely slow-moving pinball game.

[image courtesy of photographer Tom Arthur and the Wikimedia Commons]

Of course, that doesn't stop people from being curious about where things are going.  And I'm here to tell you today that you can relax.  It's all settled.  We know who's going to win in 2016.

Because the psychics have weighed in.

Three psychics were interviewed in The Washington Post, and gave their prognostications about the outcome of the election.  And because at this point they've got as much chance of being right as anyone else, I present to you: the results of the 2016 American presidential election.

First, we have the wisdom of "Angel Eyedealism," who has pink hair and says that astrology is "pseudoscience based upon two exact sciences."  Which should give you confidence right there that she knows what she's talking about.  And Ms. Eyedealism says that she drew up "natal charts" for Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump, and in her opinion, Clinton is a shoo-in.

"Hillary has Jupiter in the ninth house, the house of politics, now, and it is heading to conjunct her M.C. [medium coeli, or "middle of the sky"]," Eyedealism said. "I'm getting goosebumps."

Ooh, me too!  I always feel that way when I get conjuncted by Jupiter!

Clinton's looking good in other respects, too.  "Jupiter has already conjuncted Pluto, so she has luck and power behind her, and it will conjunct Saturn, so she's serious...  She has luck and a motherfucking plan."

So that's pretty unequivocal.

Bush, on the other hand, doesn't have much going for him except that he got conjuncted by an asteroid, or something, which sounds kind of painful.  And Uranus is in his Eighth House, which apparently means people will be giving him money.  But otherwise, he's not showing up very well, astrologically.  Trump, on the other hand has a "trine," which means three planets making an equilateral triangle.  This is good, for some reason, but she still thinks he won't win.

And what about all of the other people who were born in New York City on the same day as Trump? the interviewer asked.  Why aren't they all filthy rich, running for president, and sporting a hairstyle that looks like they're wearing a roadkill possum on their heads?

"Remember, not everyone lives out the potential of their chart," Eyedealism said.  "We have choices.  Some people who could have been Donald Trump made choices not to be."

Which certainly seems like a good choice to me.

Then, we turn to Angelia Johnson, a numerologist.  "I have been a psychic professional healer and adviser for over 25 years," Johnson told the reporter, "and have now graduated to psychic matchmaking."

So you can see right away that she's completely qualified to select the next president of the United States.

And Johnson's also going for Clinton, even though Jeb Bush's "number is a three."  "Because he's a three, he's connecting with people mind, body and spirit," Johnson said.  "His heart chakra is viving."

Which sounds like maybe he should see a doctor.  

Chris Christie, on the other hand, has a third-eye chakra, and his number is a four.  Don't ask me why that's important, but Johnson would like to see a Clinton/Christie combo, not that that's likely.

Last, the reporter spoke with a Tarot card reader, Angela Lucy, who not only reads cards but is guided by the Archangel Michael.  "He's a big truth-sayer," Lucy says.  "No B.S. from Archangel Michael."

So right away, we're off to an authoritative start.  She did the Republican hopefuls first, or at least the top few, and found out that Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Donald Trump were "contenders," that Ben Carson was going to do "okay," and that there's something going on with Scott Walker's wife.  She didn't say what.  As far as the Democrats, she said that Clinton was in for some kind of emotional upset, and Sanders doesn't have the cojones (direct quote) to win.

So let's cut to the chase... who will win?  Lucy drew the "Wheel of Fortune" card, upside down.  Which means, "I get only a 10 percent chance and this card came upside down ... it means turning in reverse."

Whatever the fuck that means.

So in the end, we had two votes for Clinton, and one for things being up in the air.  I think we can all agree that this is a pretty definitive result, especially given that we cross-checked our results using not just one but two other methodologies.  That's how the scientific method works, right?

Me, I'm longing for the days when Pat Paulsen used to run for president.  Anyone my age will probably remember Paulsen, a comedian who threw his hat into the ring every presidential election between 1968 and 1996, and actually got votes every time from people whose attitude was "I'll vote for anyone but the clowns who are actually running."  We need someone with Paulsen's commitment to the process.  Someone with cojones.  Someone whose heart chakra is viving.  Someone who has trines in all of their asteroid conjunctions.

Someone who has a vision, who is clear-minded, and who knows exactly how to give us four more years of the same bureaucratic gridlock that has made America great since its founding.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Magical amulets vs. prayer beads

Back in 2012, the spells-and-charms crowd got their knickers in a twist over a decision by eBay to discontinue the selling of "paranormal services."

Even skeptics gave the policy change a wry eye, because although they prohibited the sale of spell-casting, they continued to allow the sale of spell books, crystal balls, amulets, and so on.  So the whole thing had more to do with potential wrangling over the return policy than it did with critical thinking, or frankly, with reality.

And just this week, another company has followed suit, putting in place a different curious double standard.  Etsy has declared a change in policy that prohibits the sale of items with purported magical powers.  The policy states:
In general, services are not allowed to be listed or sold on Etsy. There are a few exceptions noted below that are allowed as they produce a new, tangible, physical item.... Any metaphysical service that promises or suggests it will effect a physical change (e.g., weight loss) or other outcome (e.g., love, revenge) is not allowed, even if it delivers a tangible item.
Already, purveyors of crystals and candles for spells have been told that they can't sell their magical wares.  And vendors of such stuff are pretty pissed off.  One wrote:
The entire point of buying stones/herbs/oils is for their metaphysical effects in my community!  If I can't list these correspondences, then why would any witch/pagan buy them from my shop?  Witches and Pagans want to buy stones from people with knowledge about their magickal properties.
Righty-o.  Magick.  Which is, of course, different from magic.  I'm sure you can hear the significance of that final "k."

[image courtesy of photographer Thierry Baubet and the Wikimedia Commons]

Now, you may be wondering why a rationalist like myself isn't fist-pumping and saying "right on, Etsy!"  Seems like I'd be behind this 100%, doesn't it?  But I have to admit to some hesitation, because the new policy disallows goods that claim to have magical powers...

... while continuing to allow goods that claim to have Christian magical powers.

For example, take a look at the page for this St. Christopher medal, that can be yours for only $10, and which states the following:
This is a beautiful St. Christopher pendant that will look wonderful on your favorite necklace and will comfort you knowing that the Patron Saint of Safe Travels is taking care of your safety.  The medal measures 1" x 1" and reads "Saint Christopher Protect Us".  Backside is blank.  Chain is not included.
Okay, can someone explain to me how this is any different than selling an amethyst crystal whose quantum vibrational frequencies are supposed to bring you success in the romance department?  And making it clear that this wasn't just an oversight, consider what happened to one vendor of magic... um, magick:
I give the example of the seller who just this week was told to change the title of her listing from "Archangel Protection Spell Kit" to "Archangel Protection PRAYER Kit" by an Etsy rep.  A spell and a prayer are basically the same thing, putting an intention out into the Universe.
They're also basically the same thing in the sense that neither one works.  But of course, adding that to the policy would put Etsy directly in the firing line of Fox News, who are always casting about for more ammunition for their "war on Christianity" trope that they flog every single night.  So you can understand why the Etsy Board of Directors are taking a pass on this one.

But even so, I'm finding myself in the awkward position of siding with the witches.  Until someone can show me how a rosary is any different from a magic wand, I find it hard to defend selling one and prohibiting the other on the basis of its being a "tangible object... suggest(ing) a physical change or other outcome."

Anyhow, if you're selling your mystical charms and potions via Etsy, you might want to think about moving to a different outlet.  Or, conversely, you could simply cast a spell on the Board of Directors and get them to change their policy.  That'd sure show them.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The extraterrestrial pantheon

One of the things that perplexes me about woo-woo beliefs is how specific they can get.

You don't just think there's an afterlife, you have intricate details about what heaven and hell are like.  You're not just superstitious, you think putting an acorn in your window will keep your house from getting struck by lightning. You don't just have a belief that the positions of the stars and planets control your life, you believe that people who were born when Mars is in Aquarius tend to like phone sex.  (I'm not making this up.)

So I'm left thinking, "How do they know all of this?"  I can understand being generally prone to goofy beliefs; it's amazing what a combination of confirmation bias and wishful thinking will do.  What I don't understand is how you get from generalized woo-woo to having access to minuscule details.

Take, for example, the website that I was sent a couple of days ago by a reader of Skeptophilia.  Accompanied by a note that said, "Bet you thought there was just one!", I was given a link to site called "The Six Alien Species Currently Fighting for Control Over Earth," in which we find out that Earth is apparently the prize in a six-way extraterrestrial game of "Risk."

First, we have the Sirians, who supposedly helped the Egyptians and Mayans build the pyramids, and were also in contact with the "Atlanteans."  Because, you know, there's nothing like bringing in a fictional civilization to beef up your claims that Earth has been visited by aliens.  The Sirians, we hear, are a highly technological civilization that comes from "the Sirius B star system."

You'd think the "highly technological" part would be obvious, right?  I mean, if they've come here from Sirius, 8.6 light years away, they're not traveling in a horse-and-buggy.  But there's a problem with a civilization coming from Sirius B; Sirius B is a white dwarf, meaning that it is a stellar remnant left behind after the calamitous death of a red giant star.  Any planets that orbited Sirius B were fried long ago, and the tiny star left behind is of low enough luminosity that there's no way it would warm a planet's surface enough to sustain life, even if any life survived the initial cataclysm.

But we won't let little things like facts interfere.  Let's find out about the five other alien species, shall we?

Next we have the "Short Grays," made famous in the historical documentary Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and which are also known as "Zeta Reticulums."  Evidently because that's the star system they come from.  They are "the authors of most alien abductions" and have "telepathic abilities (that) allow them to constitute a type of hive mind consciousness."

Then we have the "Tall Grays," who of course are more powerful than the "Short Grays," presumably because they're taller.  They are "the ambassadors of most meetings between human and alien forces" and "are keen on developing a stable human-gray hybrid race," which I'm hoping that they're doing by genetic manipulation, because otherwise we're talking hot human/Tall Gray sex, and as open-minded as I like to think I am, that's just creepy.

Next, there's the Reptilians, who come from Alpha Draconis, in the constellation of Draco the Dragon.  Of course.  Because what a group of stars looked like to a bunch of ancient Greeks who had been hitting the ouzo clearly would affect the kinds of life that would evolve on the planets orbiting those stars.  Be that as it may, the Alpha Draconians are "14 to 22 feet tall... (w)eighing an estimated 1,800 pounds."  Which is pretty badass.  Also, they have "tails, or even wings," which makes me wonder if the author has actually seen one.  Because you'd think you would be clear on that point, right?

Then there are the "Native Reptilians."  Here's where things get even more confusing, because apparently these are shape-shifting scaly dudes who "have infiltrated almost all aspects of human life and hold positions of power," and "built the financial system and influence all religions."  But if they're natives to Earth, then they're not aliens, right?

Cf. what I said earlier about not letting facts get in the way.

Lastly, we have the Annunaki, who come from a galaxy they call "Illyuwn."  They're the ones who created us, apparently; "through genetic manipulation and in vitro fertilization," we're told, "they upgraded the genus Homo to sapiens quality."

Well, all I can say is, they did a pretty piss-poor job.  If a super-powerful alien species altered our DNA to become a superior race, and as a result we still have Donald Trump running for president, I think the Annunaki should go back to Illyuwn and let someone more capable take over.

So there you have it.  Our alien overlords.  And if you were laughing while reading this, and thinking, "How does this person know all of this?", well, so was I.  But maybe your laugh will sound a little hollow when you ask the same question about how people know that god wants guys to grow beards and have sideburns (Leviticus 19:27).  Because a lot of the bible seems to me to be extremely detailed information about what's going on in the mind of a deity that no one has ever seen.

But that's religion, and that's different than believing in super-powerful beings who live in the sky and control our destiny, right?

Of course, right.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The young and the relentless

My mom was a deeply devout Roman Catholic and was politically a staunch conservative.  She had a strong sense of propriety (veering off into prudishness on occasion), and thought that etiquette and manners were a critical glue for social interactions.

But for all of her characteristics that would seem to many to be old-fashioned, she had one opinion that I can recall her voicing many times:  "My rights end where your nose begins."

In other words, I can disapprove of what you do, how you live your life, how you vote, what you believe, but I have no right to stop you from doing any of those things.

This is a point that a lot of folks seem to miss.  Such as person in Baltimore who objected to a neighbor's yard decoration of a rainbow-colored array of solar lamps.

Pretty, aren't they?  So what's to dislike?

They are, the "Concerned Home Owner" said, "relentlessly gay."  Here's the note that Julie Baker, the owner of the house with the lights, received:
Your yard is becoming Relentlessly Gay! Myself and Others in the neighborhood ask that you Tone It Down. This is a Christian area and there are Children. Keep it up and I will be Forced to call the Police on You. Your kind need to have Respect for GOD. 
A Concerned Home Owner.
This brings prudishness to a whole new level.  Now, we have to worry about offensively-colored solar lamps?

Myself, I think this phrase should become part of common parlance.  Consider how useful it could be:
  • "I'm thinking of wearing this pink shirt.  Does it make me look too #RelentlesslyGay?"
  • "I was in my car listening to the Oldies station on the radio, and ABBA came on.  I had my window rolled down, and now I'm afraid everyone in the neighborhood thinks I'm #RelentlesslyGay."
  • "I decided not to hire an interior decorator to redo my living room, because you never know if you might get one who is #RelentlesslyGay."
Julie Baker, to her credit, is not fazed by her neighbor's disapproval.  She is leaving her #RelentlesslyGay solar lamps up, and in fact, is not #ToningItDown, she is #RampingItUp.  She has started a GoFundMe campaign to make her yard and house even gayer and more relentless:
Needless to say... I need more rainbows... Many, many more rainbows….

So, I am starting this fundraiser so I can work to make my Home even More "relentlessly gay" If we go high enough, I will see if I can get a Rainbow Roof!

Because my invisible relentlessly gay rainbow dragon should live up there in style! 
Put simply, I am a widow and the mother of four children, my youngest in high school and I WILL NOT Relent to Hatred. Instead, I will battle it with whimsy and beauty and laughter and love, wrapped around my home, yard and family!!!
So far, she's raised $37,500.  That should pay for a lot of #RelentlesslyGay decorations.

And perhaps you have noticed by now the craziest thing about all of this:

Baker herself is straight.

Not, of course, that it should matter, but that was the little filigree that just sent me over the edge.  There are people who are so determined to use their own belief systems as a cudgel that they see everyone as the enemy.

The other thing that occurred to me is to wonder if Concerned Home Owner has actually read the bible, because there's this whole thing in Genesis 9... about rainbows:
And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.  And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.  And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.  And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.
So after the good and all-loving god drowned damn near every living thing on Earth, he said, "Oh, but hey, look!  Rainbows!  Meaning I won't ever do that again, I promise!  Still friends?"

All things considered, I'd rather have a rainbow be a symbol of being #RelentlesslyGay than a symbol of #DivineGenocide.  But that's just me.

So I'm off to eat some breakfast.  Black coffee, eggs, and bacon.  You know, food that's #RelentlesslyStraight.  Can't be too careful.  You never know who might be watching.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Scoring points from tragedy

There's a time for politicizing, for spin, and for debate.  There might even be a time for grandstanding.

But sometimes, all a moral and compassionate person needs to do is stand in solidarity with people who have experienced a great loss.  And that is where we should be, as a nation, with respect to the senseless tragedy that happened two days ago in Charleston, South Carolina, where a 21-year-old man murdered nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, apparently motivated by racism, hate, and the ideology of white supremacy.  "I'm here to shoot black people," the killer allegedly said.  "You've raped our women, and you are taking over the country...  I have to do what I have to do."

The Emanuel AME Church [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Horrific, and hard to imagine that in the 21st century, we're still seeing such crimes occur, that racism is still an entrenched part of our society.  Those are the discussions we should be having today.

But not, apparently, if you work for Fox News.

The pundits over at Fox wasted no time in trotting out their "War on Christians" trope that they've been flogging for years, every time anything happens that threatens the unchallenged hegemony that Christianity has had in the United States ever since its founding.  And instead of treating the Charleston killings as what they are -- racially-motivated hate crimes -- Fox is spinning this as an attack motivated by hatred for Christianity.

They invited Earl Walker Jackson, a minister and unsuccessful candidate for both Senate and Lieutenant Governor in the state of Virginia, to give his opinion.  Jackson is an interesting choice, given that he has made statements in the past that call his sanity into serious question -- such as his claim that doing yoga will lead your to being possessed by Satan.  But apparently Fox, and Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, thought that Jackson would be the perfect person to comment.

And Jackson fell right in with the Fox party line.  In a segment entitled "Attack on Faith," Jackson said:
Wait for the facts, don't jump to conclusions, but I am deeply concerned that this gunman chose to go into a church.  There does seem to be a rising hostility against Christians in this country because of our biblical views.  It is something we have to be aware of.  We have to create an atmosphere where people don't take out their violent intentions against Christians.  I urge pastors and men in these churches to prepare to defend themselves, at least have some people in there that are prepared to defend themselves when women and children are attacked.
Doocy concurred:
Extraordinarily, they called it a ‘hate crime,’ and some look at it as, ‘Well, because it was a white guy and a black church,’ but you made a great point earlier about the hostility towards Christians.  And it was a church.  So maybe that’s what they were talking about.  They haven’t explained it to us.
So, "I'm here to shoot black people" wasn't enough for you?  You have to jump on this as a chance to prop up your ridiculous persecution complex, trying to convince Christians -- who, allow me to point out, make up 74% of the citizens of the United States -- that they're some kind of embattled minority?

Or is it because your ideology won't let you admit that enculturated racism is still part of our society?

No, we can't go there.  Not in a state where the Confederate flag is still flown over the state capitol building.

And Fox wasn't the only one who went in this direction.  Rick Santorum decided to use the murders to score political points in his run for the Republican nomination for president, as usual kowtowing to his supporters on the Religious Right and making not a single mention of race as a motivation for the murders.  In an interview on AM 970, a New York radio station, Santorum said:
All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country.  This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before.  It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation...   You just can’t think that things like this can happen in America.  It’s obviously a crime of hate.  Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be?  You’re sort of lost that somebody could walk into a Bible study in a church and indiscriminately kill people.  It’s something that, again, you think we’re beyond that in America and it’s sad to see.
What other rationale could there be?  What, the apartheid-era South African flag on the killer's shirt in his Facebook photograph wasn't enough of a clue for you?

But I think what gets me most about all of this is the callous lack of compassion and empathy for the victims and their families.  This is beyond being tone-deaf; this is calculated, deliberate pandering.  For Santorum and the pundits on Fox & Friends, it was more important to latch onto this tragedy to advance their warped agendas than it was to step back and say, "The crucial thing right now is to stand together as Americans and repudiate racism and racially-motivated violence."

You have to wonder why that's so hard for them to say.  Afraid to lose some of their supporters, perhaps?

I don't know what else to say.  This repulsive use of a tragedy to gain political ground has left me feeling nauseated.  So I'll just add one more thing.  To Senator Santorum, and your allies over at Fox: if you can't find it in your hearts to offer unqualified support and solidarity with the families of the victims of this horrific attack, then kindly just shut the fuck up.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Borley Rectory, and the problem with anecdote

There's a reason skeptics have a problem with anecdotal evidence and eyewitness testimony.

It's not that that it's impossible that you saw a ghost, or Bigfoot, or an extraterrestrial spacecraft.  What we're saying is that we need more than your assurance that you did.  Not only do we have the potential for outright lies and hoaxes -- some of them very subtle and clever -- we have the fact that the human sensory apparatus more or less sucks.

To put not too fine a point on it.

I mean, it works well enough.  It keeps us sufficiently aware of our surroundings to stay alive.  But we're easily tricked, we miss things, we misinterpret what we see and hear.  As astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "The human perceptual system is rife with all sorts of ways of getting it wrong."

As an illustration, let's consider one of the most famous "haunted house" stories in the world -- the infamous Borley Rectory, of Borley, Essex, England.

Borley Rectory always shows up on those websites with names like, "Ten Most Terrifying Real Ghost Stories!", usually somewhere near the top of the list.  So here are the bare bones of the story, just in case you don't know it.

Borley Rectory was built in 1862 by Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull, Rector of Borley Parish.  He designed the building to replace an earlier rectory that had burned down in 1841, and also to accommodate his wife and family of fourteen children, which indicates that Reverend Bull put a lot of stock in the "be fruitful and multiply" thing from the Book of Genesis.

Be that as it may, the parish was certainly steeped in history.  The parish church is thought to date to the 12th century, and the town was the site of Borley Hall, the ancestral seat of the Waldegrave family.  But here's where truth starts twisting in with fabrication; because the additional claim that the rectory had been built on the site of an old Benedictine monastery appears to have no basis in reality.

Which means that the tale that is the basis of the haunting also is of dubious provenance.  Because the story goes that a monk in the (almost certainly non-existent) monastery was having an affair with a nun from a nearby convent.  They made plans to elope, and had in fact arranged a coach driven by a friend of the monk's in order to get away, but the plan was discovered.

Sexual indiscretion by the clergy was a major no-no back then.  The coachman was beheaded, the monk hanged, and the nun bricked up in a wall inside the convent.

Except... none of them existed, remember?  Because there's no evidence there ever was a monastery on the rectory grounds.

But that didn't stop the tale from growing.  Here's one account of what Reverend Bull et al. saw:
On July 28th, 1900, three Bull daughters reportedly saw a figure on a path, which later became known as the "Nuns Walk", to the rear of the rectory. They were joined by a fourth sister to help greet the stranger, but the apparition disappeared. Harry also told of seeing the nun, together with the phantom coach in which she had eloped. 
She was also seen wandering the grounds around the Rectory, in and out of the bushes, dressed in grey. There are reports of the Monk and Nun passing across the grounds. Several people said they observed "A lady in grey cloak" and "A gentleman with a sort of bald head, dressed in a long black gown."
Once the story of the haunting began to spread, others reported seeing spectral nuns and monks.  But that's not all.  A later rector of the parish, one Lionel Foyster, moved in in 1930 with his wife Marianne, and they began to experience poltergeist activity in addition to the continuing presence of ghostly figures loping about.  Marianne began to receive messages written on walls and scraps of paper, such as the following:

Both of the Foysters reported having peculiar experiences:
During the first year of their tenancy, Lionel described many unexplained happenings including; bell ringing, the appearance of Harry Bull [son of the first rector of Borley], glass objects appearing out of nowhere and being dashed to the floor, books appearing, and many items being thrown, including pebbles and an iron. After an attempt at exorcism, Marianne was thrown out of bed several times.
The Foysters eventually moved out, apparently because of Lionel Foyster's declining health, and afterwards no one could be found who was willing to live in the rectory, almost certainly because of its reputation.

And then Harry Price got involved.

Price was a psychic investigator of significant fame, who had founded the National Laboratory of Psychic Research as a rival to the more reputable Society for Psychical Research.  Price himself was a strange mixture of skeptic and sketchy.  He was instrumental in unmasking outright hoaxers such as Helen Duncan, who used cheesecloth and paper soaked in egg white to simulate "ectoplasm."  But his investigation of Borley Rectory, leading to the publication of a book by Price in 1940, was unequivocally in support of its having been haunted -- despite a stinging critique by researchers for the SPR who said that Price himself was a trained conjuror (which was true), and had "salted the mine" by faking some of the evidence from Borley, in collusion with Marianne Foyster, who "was actively engaged in fraudulently creating [haunted] phenomena."

Price, of course, denied any such thing, but further inquiries by the SPR left his role in the alleged haunting in serious question.  And the matter came to an unexpected close when the rectory burned in 1939 because of an accident with an oil lamp.

The remnants of the building were demolished in 1944.  But people still visit the site, and the adjacent cemetery, and still report ghostly appearances, lo unto this very day.

See what I mean about anecdote?  We have a story that started out with a most-likely-false claim of three executions on the rectory grounds, followed by what many believe was an outright hoax perpetrated by Harry Price and Marianne Foyster.  Blend that together with overactive imaginations, and the rather dubious quality of the human perceptual systems, and you have a mishmash out of which any kernel of truth -- if there is one there -- becomes impossible to discern.

So is Borley haunted?  The most honest answer is "there's no way to know for sure," with a strong corollary of "... but probably not."  There's nothing here that any unbiased individual would consider hard evidence, just tall tale piled upon unsubstantiated claim, mixed with "I heard that people saw ghosts there."

If this is "one of the best-authenticated haunted sites in Britain," as one website claimed, we've got some serious problems.

To return to my initial point, it's not that I'm saying that any of the claims of the paranormal are impossible.  What I'm saying is that thus far, no evidence I've seen has been convincing, at least not to someone who wasn't already convinced.  But despite all that, I'm hoping to visit Borley this summer.  My wife and I are spending two weeks in England in August, and I'm going to try to convince my wife to pop in to say hi to the spectral monks and nuns.  I'll definitely report back with anything we happen to see.

Not that it should make a difference.  Because eyewitness testimony is still subject to all of the caveats I've mentioned -- even if it comes from yours truly.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Group discount on exorcisms

There's no doubt that Mexico has become a pretty rough place to live, in the past couple of decades.

The crime rate is astronomical.  According to the demographics site Nation Master, Mexico ranks in the top five nations in the world for homicides and violence committed by youths.  They are #3 for number of prisoners per capita, and have a wealth gap that staggers the imagination -- 16% of the citizens of Mexico earn less than a dollar a day.  Corruption is rampant, the drug cartels are in charge of many cities, and the air and water pollution, especially in Mexico City, result in thousands of preventable deaths per year.

So all of those problems, what do you do?

You have a mass exorcism, that's what.

Because clearly what's doing all of this awful stuff is... demons.  At least that's what Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Guadalajara, and his sidekick, Spanish priest and exorcist Father José Antonio Fortea, think.

With the permission of the Archbishop of San Luis Potosí, Jesús Carlos Cabrero, the "Grand Exorcism" was held in the Cathedral of San Luis a couple of weeks ago. "This celebration is a sacramental [sic] of the Church,," Cabrero said.  "During the ritual, some priests were present, and Cardinal [Sandoval] did me the favor of accompanying us, in response to an invitation I sent him."  The ceremony was conducted in private, Cabrero added, because otherwise, "morbid interests appear, and misinterpretations."

Hey, you're the one who thinks that demons are running rampant in your country, harming and killing innocent people.  How much more morbid can you get?

Cardinal Sandoval, however, was in full support of the event.  "The Great Exorcism is a prayer asking God to drive away the Enemy, to drive him away from these places.  From San Luis, first of all, and then from all of Mexico.  People should become aware of the very grave situation we are living through in Mexico, whose root is very deep, beyond human malevolence; it is the devil, who is very connected to death.  He is a murderer from the beginning...  Acts of revenge, now occurring between assassins and the government; deaths here, deaths there, and deaths everywhere.  This violence is nothing else but the Devil who is tearing us apart."

As far as how they know all of this, apparently they found out from one of the demons itself.  Roberto O'Farrill, a Catholic journalist and "demon specialist," said that during an exorcism of a devil from a guy named Ángel (I'm not making this up), the demon kind of spilled his guts regarding what is going on.

O'Farrill explained that "the demons possessing Ángel said, 'you are stupid, because She [the Virgin Mary] cast us out of Mexico, and now you with your stupid laws have allowed sacrifices to return to Mexico, human sacrifices. We don't want to say this but She is stepping on our head and forces us to.'"

"During that exorcism," O'Farrill added, "the Virgin Mary forces the demons to say that they have returned to Mexico, that there is once again an infestation, principally in Mexico City and in other parts of the country."

Well, that's proof enough for me.  Time to reboot the Inquisition, sounds like.

So anyhow, Cabrero and Sandoval had their Grand Exorcism on May 20, and in the four weeks since the ceremony, we've seen a miraculous decrease in... um... a heaven-sent... um...

Okay, nothing much has changed.  In fact, just last week, a bunch of "radical teachers" in the town of Tuxtla Gutierrez went on a rampage, and attacked and burned the headquarters of five different political parties, demanding, amongst other things, "100% pay raises."  A few days before that, 42 suspected drug dealers who had taken over a ranch in the state of Michoacán were killed in "sprays of machine gun fire" by police.  Violence has recently spiked in Tijuana during the lead-up to elections on June 7, with gang and drug related killings reaching record numbers, and including such grotesque horrors as "severed heads in an icebox."

So yeah, Cardinal Sandoval really seems to have those demons on the run.

But we can't have reality intruding on the worldview, after all.  Bad for business, in one of the most staunchly Catholic countries in the world.  Gotta keep having meaningless rituals so they can pretend they're actually accomplishing something, rather than throwing their accumulated wealth and resources behind things like remediating the crashing poverty and hiring more law enforcement.

And, of course, dealing with all of the "radical teachers."  Those sonsabitches are mean.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Diagnosis by zodiac

Every once in a while, I see a piece of valid scientific research that makes me cringe, because I know how the woo-woos are going to interpret it.

I know, I probably shouldn't care.  Let 'em think what they'll think (since they're going to anyway), and don't lose any sleep over what the wingnuts believe.  But given that I've been at this blog for five years now, I suppose that's a forlorn hope.

Take, for example, the research published a couple of weeks ago in The Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association by Mary Regina Boland, Zachary Shahn, David Madigan, George Hripcsak, and Nicholas P. Tatonetti, of Columbia University, that shows that for some diseases, susceptibility is correlated with birth month.  They used data on 1,688 medical conditions in over 1.7 million patients, and found that 55 of the disorders were "significantly dependent on birth month."  Boland et al. state:
We present a high-throughput algorithm called SeaWAS that uncovers conditions associated with birth month without relying on a priori hypotheses.  SeaWAS confirms many known connections between birth month and disease including: reproductive performance, ADHD, asthma, colitis, eye conditions, otitis media (ear infection), and respiratory syncytial virus.  We discovered 16 associations with birth month that have never been explicitly studied previously...  Seasonally-dependent early developmental mechanisms might play a role in increasing lifetime disease risk.
So are you seeing where this is going, yet?  Because as soon as I read the abstract, I said, "Uh-oh."

Wait till the astrologers get a hold of this.

To their credit, the researchers anticipated this.  Co-author Nicholas Tatonetti said, in an interview with Time magazine:
Astrology puts a lot of stock on what month you were born in, and that really hurts this type of research, since there isn’t much scientific evidence to support that.  But seasonality is a proxy for variable environmental factors present at the time of your birth, and we are learning more about the very large role that environment, and gene-environment interactions, plays in our development.  This could be one way to start mapping out those gene-environment effects.
Which is right on, except that I'd change "there isn't much scientific evidence" to "there is zero scientific evidence."  But it's clear that the authors realized what was going to happen.

Let's start with The Washington Post, which in their article on the research, included the faceplant-inducing statement, "The scientific community has long since discarded astrology as pseudoscience.  Yet new scientific research suggests your "sign" actually may have more to do with your health than you might think."  Even though they went on to say that the researchers explicitly stated that their results have nothing to do with astrology, you know that zodiac buffs are going to remember this line and virtually nothing else.

Then we head further out into the ozone layer with the always-entertaining Natural News, which had the following to say:
While many people believe astrology is responsible for everything from your choice of spouse to career decisions, others maintain that one's birth month is nothing more than a date on a calendar. The latter group suggests that astrology is essentially hogwash, reserved for those who are so desperate for guidance that they resort to such "entertainment." They don't feel that whether one is a Leo or Capricorn should dictate a person's actions, much less help someone gain insight about their health. 
However, according to a new Columbia University study, these hesitant folks might want to consider changing their mind.
The title of the article?  "A Scientific Basis for Astrology."

Then, there's the inclusion of the study on a site called Interesting Studies in Astrology. which begins with the following:
Many sceptics insist on 'irrefutable scientific proof' before they can entertain the possibility of a connection between the celestial and the terrestrial...
Over the past fifty years, scientists and astrological researchers are discovering a growing body of objective evidence of correlations between celestial positions and terrestrial life. These statistically significant results have been published in peer reviewed journals (including Correlation, a specialist astrological journal). Ironically, some of the strongest evidence has come from experiments backed by sceptical groups.
The Boland et al. study -- i.e., actual science -- is then thrown in amongst horseshit like a "study" that allegedly found that more redheads are born when "Mars is ascending."

So the whole thing is just upsetting.  Here we have a thorough and careful piece of research that gives an interesting lens into how the timing of conception and birth can interact with environmental factors to influence later health issues, and it gets twisted into support for a worldview that claims that the reason I like shrimp curry is because I'm a Scorpio.  (I didn't make this up.)

I know, you can't control what people think, or how they'll interpret things.  But confirmation bias -- the tendency of people to overemphasize minuscule pieces of evidence when they're in favor of a belief they already had -- is crazy-making.

Of course, I probably only think that because on the day I was born, Saturn was in Capricorn.  You know how that goes.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Another dam prophecy

Back in 1956, a trio of social psychologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, wrote a book whose premise still kind of blows my mind, almost sixty years later.

Called When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, the book chronicles the apocalyptic prophecies of one Dorothy Martin (in the book, under the alias of Marian Keech), who claimed that she was in telepathic communication with an alien civilization on the planet Clarion.  Her contact informed her that the Earth was going to be destroyed in a huge flood on December 21, 1954, but that the Clarionites were dispatching a spaceship to rescue Martin/Keech and a small group of true believers.

On the fateful day, Martin/Keech and her followers met in her house to await the cataclysm and subsequent rescue.  As midnight approached, they became more and more fearful -- "sitting in stunned silence," as the book describes it.  An hour before the fatal moment, Martin/Keech informs them that she's had a further communiqué that they can only be rescued if they have no metallic objects on their persons -- so off come jewelry, belts, watches, even bras with metal clasps and pants with metal snaps or zippers.  When 12:05 rolls around, and there has been neither flood nor spaceship, someone decides to check a different clock -- because, of course, the clock that says 12:05 has to be wrong.  They find one that says 11:55... so hallelujah!  The prophecy might still be true!

By 4:00 AM, though, even the most devout believers have to admit that something's wrong.  Martin/Keech is devastated, and begins to cry.  But 45 minutes later, she straightens up, and says, "Wait!  I'm getting another message!"  Using "automatic writing," the contact on the planet Clarion informs the true adherents that because of their devotion, the catastrophe has been cancelled.  In the words of Festinger et al.: "The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction."

So far from losing their faith in Martin/Keech, the failure of the prophecy actually increased her followers' strength of belief.  They were so galvanized that they started a widespread publicity campaign to pass along the message.  In fact, Martin/Keech was apparently so encouraged by the whole thing that she founded the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara, a group devoted to religious and spiritual messages from contact with alien civilizations.  She called herself "Sister Thedra" and managed the Association until her death at the age of 90 in 1992 -- but the Association itself is still in existence, and has hundreds, possibly thousands, of members.

What is apparent from this, and other prophecies like it (think of Harold Camping and his forecasting of the End Times a couple of years ago), is that the self-styled prophets actually believe what they're saying.  In other words, they're not liars or charlatans; they're actually delusional.  And since making wacko claims is de facto what delusional people do, that part is hardly surprising.  What still baffles me, though, is that they convince others -- and that those others continue to believe, even after the prophets of doom are proven wrong, again and again.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Because we have a new date to worry about.  Don't know if you've heard about it yet.  It's September 13, 2015, and we're already seeing the usual gamut of Signs and Portents that always prefaces the end of the world.  According to an anonymous author over at the site WorldTruth, we're in for some seriously bad shit -- starting with the destruction of the Hoover Dam on September 13 in an "Antichrist Birthing Ritual," with the consequent terrible flood and destruction and death.

And that's only for starters.

How do we know this, you might ask?  Well, it has to do with secret messages on the $50 bill, a conspiracy by Mercedes-Benz/Daimler automobile company, the Georgia Guidestones, the "Jubilee Year," drums, The Economist magazine, the movies Cloud Atlas and Evan Almighty, the San Andreas Fault, and confetti.  It's really quite entertaining, and I highly recommend taking a look.

So we have yet another replay on the way of the Harold Camping nonsense, the Martin/Keech episode described in When Prophecy Fails, and countless others.  In fact, Wikipedia lists 164 times that there have been failed prophecies of the end of the world, going back to Jewish zealot Simon bar Giora and the Essenes, a messianic cult in the First Century C.E., who predicted that the messiah was going to arrive, initiate the End Times, and along the way kick the Romans' asses.  The whole thing more or less came to nothing, as one might expect.  Simon bar Giora was captured, brought back to Rome, and executed by being thrown off a cliff.  The Essenes were pretty well wiped out once Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E.

...  although the Rosicrucians claim that their secret society (so secret, in fact, that there's a Wikipedia article on them) claim direct mystical descent from the Essenes.  So I suppose even the earliest apocalyptic prophecies are still with us, lo unto this very day.

Be that as it may, I don't think you have a lot to worry about, come September 13.  I'm planning on business as usual, which is honestly kind of disappointing, because that's the first week of the new school year, and I'm sure we'd all appreciate something to liven things up at that point.  I don't wish catastrophic floods on anyone, but one or two Apocalyptic Horsepersons could be kind of entertaining.  More interesting, at least, than biochemical functional groups, which is what we'll be studying at that point.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Celebrating the small steps

Today I am off to the wedding of one of my oldest and dearest friends (and long-standing partner-in-crime), who is finally able to marry her sweetheart because same-sex marriage recently became legal in the state of Florida.  Their happy day is a tribute to the hard work of people who have worked tirelessly to make sure that love receives official recognition -- regardless of the genders of the people involved.

But of course, such a sea change in attitudes, not to mention laws, is not going to be met with universal support.  Just as alterations in our culture regarding women's rights and racial equality did not occur rapidly (and you might add, with complete accuracy, that they still haven't changed as much as they need to), our stance toward LGBT individuals still has a tremendously long way to go.

And such objections haven't just come from loudmouthed bigots such as Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Mike Huckabee.  Ordinary folks have decided for some reason to make this issue their cause célèbre.  Take, for example, the couple in Australia who are threatening to divorce if same-sex marriage is legalized.

Nick and Sarah Jensen, whose statement got them their fifteen minutes of fame on the cover of the Canberra City News, made a fairly unequivocal statement regarding their beliefs:
My wife and I just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. But later this year, we may be getting a divorce. 
The decision to divorce is not one we’ve taken lightly.  And certainly, it’s not one that many will readily understand.  And that’s because it’s not a traditional divorce. 
Our view is that marriage is a fundamental order of creation.  Part of God’s human history.  Marriage is the union of a man and a woman before a community in the sight of God.  And marriage of any couple is important to God regardless of whether that couple recognises God’s involvement or authority in it.

If our federal parliament votes to change the timeless and organic definition of marriage later on this year, it will have moved against the fundamental and foundational building block of Australian society and, indeed, human culture everywhere. 
Indeed, it raises a red flag when a government decides it is not content only having sovereignty over land, taxes and the military — but ‘words’ themselves. 
This is why we are willing to divorce.  By changing the definition of marriage, ‘marriage’ will, in years to come, have an altogether different sense and purpose.
And if Australia does legalize same-sex marriage, and the Jensens do go through with their divorce, my guess is that the response by the public will be:


Because you know what?  No one gets to step in and tell the Jensens what they are allowed to do regarding their own marriage.  That's not what LGBT people want to do to the Jensens; it's what the Jensens want to do LGBT people.  It is, in fact, kind of the whole point.  If two consenting adults want to marry -- regardless of who they are -- they should be allowed to.  If they want to divorce -- for whatever reason -- they should be allowed to.  No one should have the right to limit two adults' public expression, and recognition, of love, except the two adults themselves.

It's also a little funny that the Jensens are objecting to someone changing the "timeless and organic definition of marriage" as it comes from the bible, when the various biblical laws regarding marriage weren't exactly what most people come up with when they think of "traditional marriage."  To quote an op-ed piece by biblical scholars Robert Cargill, Hector Avalos, and Kenneth Atkinson that appeared in the Altoona Herald:
In fact, there were a variety of unions and family configurations that were permissible in the cultures that produced the Bible, and these ranged from monogamy (Titus 1:6) to those where rape victims were forced to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and to those Levirate marriage commands obligating a man to marry his brother’s widow regardless of the living brother’s marital status(Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38; Ruth 2-4).  Others insisted that celibacy was the preferred option (1 Corinthians 7:8; 28)...  In fact, during a discussion of marriage in Matthew 19:12, Jesus even encourages those who can to castrate themselves “for the kingdom” and live a life of celibacy... [And] Ezra 10:2-11 forbids interracial marriage and orders those people of God who already had foreign wives to divorce them immediately.
So not only are the Jensens objecting on biblical grounds to something that isn't even clearly defined in the bible itself, inadvertently, what the Jensens are doing is highlighting exactly the reason why same-sex marriage needs to be legalized.  The Jensens' choice to divorce only exists because they already have a right that is being denied to others.  And giving LGBT individuals the right to marry no more alters the Jensens' marriage than giving African Americans the right to vote altered the voting rights of privileged whites.

But enough of the negative stuff.  Today is for celebrating the small steps.  And to my two dear friends Wendy and Renee, I wish love, prosperity, and a long and happy marriage.