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, April 22, 2017

Poll avoidance

I'm lucky, being an outspoken atheist, that I live where I do.  The people in my area of upstate New York are generally pretty accepting of folks who are outside of the mainstream (although even we've got significant room for improvement).  The amount of harassment I've gotten over my lack of religion has, really, been pretty minimal, and mostly centered around my teaching of evolution in school and not my unbelief per se.

It's not like that everywhere.  In a lot of parts of the United States, religiosity in general, and Christianity in particular, are so ubiquitous that it's taken for granted.  In my home town of Lafayette, Louisiana, the question never was "do you go to church?", it was "what church go you go to?"  The couple of times I answered that with "I don't," I was met with a combination of bafflement and an immediate distancing, a cooling of the emotional temperature, a sense of "Oh -- you're not one of us."

So no wonder that so many atheists are "still in the closet."  The reactions by friends, family, and community are simply not worth it, even though the other alternative is having a deeply important part of yourself hidden from the people in your life.  As a result, of course, this results in a more general problem -- the consistent undercounting of how many people actually are atheists, and the result that those of us who are feel even more isolated and alone than we did.

[image courtesy of creator Jack Ryan and the Wikimedia Commons]

Current estimates from polls are that 3% of Americans self-identify as atheists, but there's reason to believe that this is a significant underestimate -- in other words, people are being untruthful to the pollsters about their own disbelief.  You might wonder why an anonymous poll conducted by a total stranger would still result in people lying about who they are, but it does.  Jesse Singal, over at The Science of Us, writes:
So if you’re an atheist and don’t live in one of America’s atheist-friendly enclaves, it might not be something you want to talk about — in fact you may have trained yourself to avoid those sorts of conversations altogether.  Now imagine a stranger calls you up out of the blue, says they’re from a polling organization, and asks about your religious beliefs.  Would you tell them you don’t have any?  There’s a lot of research suggesting you might not.  The so-called social-desirability bias, for example, is an idea that suggests that in polling contexts, people might not reveal things — racist beliefs are the one of the more commonly studied examples — that might make them look bad in the eyes of others, even if others refers to only a single random person on the other end of the phone line.
As Singal points out, however, a new study by Will Gervais and Maxine B. Najle of the University of Kentucky might have come up with a way around that.  Gervais and Najle came up with an interesting protocol for estimating the number of atheists without having to ask the specific question directly.  They gave one of two different questionnaires to 2,000 people.  Each had a list of statements that could be answered "true" or "false" -- all the respondents had to do was to tell the researcher how many true statements there were, not which specific ones were true, thus (one would presume) removing a lot of the anxiety over admitting outright something that could be perceived negatively.  The first questionnaire was the control, and had statements like "I own a dog" and "I am a vegetarian."  The second had the same statements, with one additional one: "I believe in God."  Since one would presume that in any sufficiently large random sample of people, the same proportion of people would answer "yes" to any given statement, then any increase in the number of (in this case) "false" replies would have to be due to the additional statement about belief.

And there was a difference.  A significant one.  The authors write:
Widely-cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest USA atheist prevalence of only 3-11%.  In contrast, our most credible indirect estimate is 26% (albeit with considerable estimate and method uncertainty).  Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability, and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability.  Prevalence estimates of 11% were even less credible than estimates of 40%, and all intermediate estimates were more credible.
So it looks like there are a lot more of us out there than anyone would have thought.  I, for one, find that simultaneously comforting and distressing.  Isn't it sad that we still live in a world where belonging to a stigmatized group -- being LGBT, being a minority, being atheist -- is still looked upon so negatively that there are that many people who feel like they need to hide?  I'm not in any way criticizing the decision to stay in the closet; were I still living in the town where I was raised, I might well have made the same choice, and I realize every day how lucky I am to live in a place where people (for the most part) accept who I am.

But perhaps this study will be a first step toward atheists feeling more empowered to speak up.  There's something to the "safety in numbers" principle.  It'd be nice if people would just be kind and non-judgmental regardless, even to people who are different, but when I look at the news I realize how idealistic that is.  Better, I suppose, to convince people of the truth that we're more numerous than you'd think -- and not willing to pretend any more to a belief system we don't share.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Run for your life

Back when I was in my thirties, I got into running in a big way.

I used to do four to five miles a day, pretty much no matter what the weather, all the more impressive because I live in upstate New York, where warm weather is in woefully short supply (this year, summer is scheduled for the second Thursday in July).  But unless we were knee-deep in snow, I was out there.

Then, in my forties, I began to develop some joint problems, which were (and still are) of unknown origin, and those only resolved a couple of years ago.  So I'm back at it, and in fact have my first semi-comptetitive 5K of 2017 three weeks from now.

What's funny is that while I'm running, mostly what I'm thinking about is, "merciful heavens, why do I do this to myself?"  My quads and calves ache, I'm breathing hard, all I want is to see that blessed sight of the Finish Line.  But afterwards... all I can say is that the feeling is euphoric.  Despite being tired and sweaty and having spaghetti legs, my general feeling is "Woo hoo!  Gotta do that again soon!"

So what's going on here?  Am I some kind of masochist who gets his jollies out of being miserable?  Or am I like the guy who pounds his head on the wall because it feels so good when he stops?

If so, I'm not alone -- and neuroscientists have just taken the first steps toward figuring out why.

Me with a medal and some serious post-race euphoria

Apparently, part of what's going on is that vigorous aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of neurons in the brain.  It was long the conventional wisdom that humans couldn't do that; you had a certain number of neurons at adulthood, and afterwards the number would only go one way.  You could only affect the rate at which the neurons declined, based on such things as alcohol and drug use, concussions, and the number of times you listen to Ken Ham trying to defend why Noah's Ark is actually real science.

But according to Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, that may not be true -- and one thing that affects not only preserving the gray matter you have, but increasing it, is exercise.  "If you are exercising so that you sweat — about 30 to 40 minutes — new brain cells are being born," said Postal, who is a runner herself.  "And it just happens to be in that memory area...  That's it.  That's the only trigger that we know about."

Other researchers have gone one step further than that.  Emily E. Bernstein and Richard J. McNally of Harvard University recently published a study called "Acute Aerobic Exercise Helps Overcome Emotion Regulation Deficits," which shows that our ability to modulate our negative emotions -- especially grief, helplessness, and anxiety -- can be improved dramatically by the simply expedient of going for a half-hour's run.  The authors write:
Although colloquial wisdom and some studies suggest an association between regular aerobic exercise and emotional well-being, the nature of this link remains poorly understood.  We hypothesised that aerobic exercise may change the way people respond to their emotions.  Specifically, we tested whether individuals experiencing difficulties with emotion regulation would benefit from a previous session of exercise and show swifter recovery than their counterparts who did not exercise.  Participants completed measures of emotion response tendencies, mood, and anxiety, and were randomly assigned to either stretch or jog for 30 minutes.  All participants then underwent the same negative and positive mood inductions, and reported their emotional responses... Interactions revealed that aerobic exercise attenuated [negative] effects.  Moderate aerobic exercise may help attenuate negative emotions for participants initially experiencing regulatory difficulties.  
This is no surprise to me, nor, I suspect, to anyone else who runs.  The process creates space in your mind, space that can then act as a springboard to creativity.  It's like one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, says in his paean to the sport, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: "I just run.  I run in void.  Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void."

Or as Melissa Dahl said in her piece in The Science of Us called "Why Running Helps to Clear Your Mind," "[T]here’s another big mental benefit to gain from running, one that scientists haven’t quiet yet managed to pin down to poke at and study: the wonderful way your mind drifts here and there as the miles go by.  Mindfulness, or being here now, is a wonderful thing, and there is a seemingly ever-growing stack of scientific evidence showing the good it can bring to your life.  And yet mindlessness — daydreaming, or getting lost in your own weird thoughts — is important, too."

Which is it exactly.  And with that, I think I'll wind up here.  Maybe go for a run.  And after that, who knows what I'll do with all those extra neurons?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Beastly goings-on

Lately, it's seemed like the leaders of the conservative Christian Right have been going out of their way to make patently ridiculous statements.

As I commented a couple of weeks ago, we've had such pinnacles of clear thought as Pat Robertson babbling about how he hates being dominated by homosexuals, and Mary Colbert telling us that if we don't support Donald Trump, god will curse our grandchildren.  Even British Prime Minister Theresa May got in on the action, saying that Cadbury's decision to call this year's big event "The Great British Egg Hunt" is a deliberate slap in the face to Christians everywhere, because it didn't mention Easter, and we all know how central chocolate eggs are to the story of Jesus's resurrection.

Not to be outdone, today we have another luminary in the fundamentalist world, rabidly anti-gay Pastor Kevin Swanson, ranting on his radio show about the new live-action movie Beauty and the Beast.  But it's probably not about what you're thinking -- that the movie features a gay character.

No, that's small potatoes, and has been the subject of horrified diatribes from damn near every spokesperson for the Religious Right.  Swanson obviously disapproves of the gay character; but even more than that, he hates Beauty and the Beast...

... because it promotes inter-species mating.

Sadly, I'm not making this up.  Here's the direct quote:
Liberals [seem] to be okay with this inter-species breeding, and have been ever since Star Trek was on the air...  Christians, I don’t believe, can allow for this.  Humans are made in the image of God.  Humans are assigned a spouse which happens to be a member of the opposite sex.  Friends, God’s law forbids it…  Christians should not allow for this, man.  We cannot allow for humans to interbreed with other species. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.  It’s confusion, it’s unnatural...  We are in some of the most radical, most anti-biblical, the most immoral, the most unethical, the most wicked sexual environment that the world has ever known, right now.
Okay, can we just establish a few facts, here?
  1. Beauty and the Beast is fiction.
  2. So is Star Trek, although the way things are going down here on Earth, I'm ready for Zefram Cochrane to invent the warp drive so I can warp right the fuck out of here.
  3. Inter-species matings on Star Trek produced, to name three, Deanna Troi, Mr. Spock, and B'elanna Torres.  I'd take any of the three over Kevin Swanson in a heartbeat. 
  4. The character of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast is human.  In fact, that is sort of the whole point of the movie.  He's under a curse to look beastly, but the idea is that underneath, he's still human.
  5. Belle and the Beast don't actually have sex until the curse is broken and they're married, so even if we're accepting Swanson's message at face value, I'm not sure what there is to complain about.  There was beast/human dancing and beast/human singing and lots of beast/human talking in the movie, but no beast/human nookie. 
  6. As far as I can see, here in the real world things have not gotten a lot more wicked and immoral in the sex department lately.  People have always enjoyed Doing It, and what kind of Doing It they enjoy has always had substantial variation.  What we're moving towards -- not nearly fast enough, in my opinion -- is a place where no one can tell you how you should Do It, nor with whom, nor what your rights should be based around any such matters.
  7. In general, there's very little inter-species breeding in the natural world anyhow, because it doesn't produce offspring.  Actually, that's sort of the biological definition of "species."  A few closely-related species can manage -- horses and donkeys producing mules, for example -- but in general, it just doesn't work, and even in the case of mules, they're usually sterile.  But I wouldn't expect that kind of understanding of biology from a guy who thinks that Noah toddled off to Australia to pick up a pair of wombats while he was taking a break from building an enormous boat in the deserts of the Middle East by hand, then toddled back over to Australia to drop them off when the flood waters magically receded down a big drain in the ocean floor or something.
Of course, I always get a little suspicious when these ministerial types start railing against specific behaviors over and over.  The way things have been going, I wouldn't be surprised if Swanson's demented rant about bestiality in a Disney movie means he'll get arrested next month for having sex with an aardvark or something.

Anyhow, that's our latest salvo from the ultra-Christian wacko fringe.  I probably should simply stop commenting on these people, because they seem to be in some sort of bizarre contest to see which one can make the most completely idiotic statement.

On the other hand, the fact is that a significant fraction of Americans still listen to them.  So maybe it's worthwhile after all.  Although I doubt seriously whether the kind of people who are willing to boycott Beauty and the Beast because of Kevin Swanson are the same ones who'll make their way over here to Skeptophilia.  But you never know.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Alex Jones vs. the chickens

Every so often, there is justice in the world.

This time, the fabled chickens coming home to roost are casting their beady eyes on none other than Alex Jones, that purveyor of wacko fringe conspiracy theories about everything from the New World Order to "Pizzagate."  His wife, Kelly Jones, filed for divorce in 2015, and they are now in a custody battle over their three children.  Understandably, the fact that Alex Jones gives every evidence of being a raving maniac came up more than once.

"He’s not a stable person," Kelly Jones said in court.  "He says he wants to break Alec Baldwin’s neck.  He wants J Lo to get raped...  He broadcasts from home.  The children are there, watching him broadcast."

Which would certainly be enough for me, were I in her shoes.

Alex Jones's lawyer, Randall Wilhite, responded with an approach that strikes me as risky; he claims that Jones doesn't actually believe what he's saying.  "He's playing a character," Wilhite said. "He's a performance artist...  Using his on-air Infowars persona to evaluate him as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in Batman."

Yes, well, no one is claiming that what the Joker says has any connection to reality, whereas there are lots of people who believe everything Alex Jones says, not least the President of the United States.  In fact, Donald Trump appeared on Infowars last year, and told Jones, "Your reputation is amazing.  I will not let you down."

That connection has only grown stronger since Trump won the election.  Two weeks ago, Jones said on air that Trump had invited him to Mar-a-Lago, but Jones had to respectfully decline "due to family obligations."

"I'm still in regular telephone contact with the president," Jones said.  "But I must apologize, because I can't always answer the phone when he calls."

Trump's not the only one who takes Jones seriously.  Just last week, Lucy Richards of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was arrested after she missed her court date stemming from charges of making death threats to Leonard Pozner, whose six-year-old son Noah died in the Sandy Hook massacre.  Guess why Richards threatened Pozner?

She believed that the Sandy Hook killings were a government-staged "false flag," that no children were killed, and that the grieving parents were "crisis actors" who had been hired to play the parts of bereaved family members of the supposed murdered children.  She wanted Pozner to confess that he was a government plant, and 'fess up that he didn't actually have a son named Noah.

All of which she found out by listening to Infowars and other alt-right conspiracy sites.

Pozner himself said he'd like to be at Jones's trial.  "I wish I could be there in the courtroom to stare him down to remind him of how he’s throwing salt on a wound," Pozner said, "and so he can remember how he handed out salt for other people to throw on mine."

As for Jones, you'd think the threat of losing custody of his children would be sufficient to get him to reconsider his loony on-air persona, whether or not he actually believes what he's saying.  But no: just last Friday, Jones had as a guest alt-right spokesperson Mike Cernovich (himself the focus of some scrutiny because of some horrific statements he made to the effect that most cases of rape are false accusations).  On this show, Jones and Cernovich discussed why the Obamas were in French Polynesia, and came to the conclusion that it's not because it's a nice place for a vacation, it's because French Polynesia doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States.  "Notice he’s staying out of the U.S. right as they move to try to overthrow Trump," Jones said.  About the Obamas' daughters, Sasha and Malia, Jones said, "The word is those are not even his kids."

"The word is."  Meaning "a goofy idea that Alex Jones just pulled out of his ass."

So apparently Jones doesn't think he's got anything to worry about regarding the upcoming custody case, even though if he wins it, he'll be effectively saying under oath "Your Honor, I am a big fat liar."  It's to be hoped that the judge won't buy this, and will slap him down hard, as he's richly deserved for some time now.  But the sad truth is that even if he does win -- in fact, even if he stood in the middle of Times Square and yelled, "Nothing I have ever said on air is the truth!  I lie every time I open my mouth!", it wouldn't diminish his popularity or trust amongst his listeners one bit.  Look at Trump's supporters; the man seems genetically incapable of uttering a true statement or living up to any of his campaign promises, but the diehards still consider him the next best thing to the Second Coming of Christ.  

Hell, they said Bill Clinton was slick.  I recall one comedian saying that Clinton could stand right in front of you and say, "I am not here," and everyone would look shocked and say, "Where'd he go?"  But Clinton was bush league with compared to either Trump or Jones.  The fact that Trump has a significant fraction of American voters convinced he's the Anointed One of God, despite the fact of being the only person I've ever seen who embodies all Seven Deadly Sins at the same time, is evidence of how fact-proof people have become.

And as for Jones, I am certain that however the custody trial comes out, he won't lose a single listener, and he'll be right there to launch the next round of horrible rumors and conspiracy theories.  Even if the chickens come home to roost, Jones probably won't have any difficulty converting most of them to fricassée.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The disappearance of Bruno

UFO enthusiasts are currently in a tizzy over the disappearance last week of a university student from Rio Branco, Brazil, who left behind a bizarre video about 16th century philosopher, scientist, and theologian Giordano Bruno and a room whose walls are covered with esoteric symbols.

The student's name is Bruno Borges (I wondered if his first name was in honor of Giordano, or whether it was a coincidence; of course, in the minds of the UFO conspiracy theorists, nothing is a coincidence).  He apparently had a reputation as being a bit of an odd duck even prior to his disappearance.  He was obsessed with aliens, and his fascination with the earlier Bruno came from the fact that the Italian philosopher/scientist was one of the first to speculate that other planets -- even planets around other stars -- might harbor life.  Borges hinted that Bruno's execution at the hands of the Inquisition was to keep him silent about the reality of aliens, when in reality it was just your average charges of heresy.  The church made eight accusations, claiming that Bruno was guilty of:
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ, and Incarnation
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes
  • dealing in magics and divination
Given the intolerance of the time, any one of these would be sufficient, but the Catholic Church is nothing if not thorough.  Bruno was sentenced to be burned at the stake, and supposedly upon hearing his fate made a rude gesture at the judges and said, "Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam" ("Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it"), which ranks right up there with Galileo's "Eppur si muove" as one of the most elegant "fuck you" statements ever delivered.

I suppose it's understandable that Borges thought Bruno was a pretty cool guy.  A lot of us science types do, although that admiration might be misplaced.  Hank Campbell writes over at The Federalist:
Bruno only agreed with Copernicus because he worshiped the Egyptian God Thoth and believed in Hermetism and its adoration of the sun as the center of the universe.  Both Hermes and Thoth were gods of…magic. 
The church and science did not agree with Bruno that pygmies came from a “second Adam” or that Native Americans had no souls, but they were also not going to kill him over it.  There is no evidence his “science” came up at any time.  He was imprisoned for a decade because the church wanted him to just recant his claims that Hermetism was the one true religion and then they could send him on his way.  When he spent a decade insisting it was fact, he was convicted of Arianism and occult practices, not advocating science.
So right off, we're on shaky ground, not that this was ever in doubt.  In any case, between Borges's devotion to Bruno and his fascination with aliens, he apparently went a little off the deep end.  He left behind over a dozen bound books, mostly written in code, and only a few of which have been deciphered.  Here's a sample passage from one of the ones that has been decrypted:
It is easy to accept what you have been taught since childhood and what is wrong.  It is difficult, as an adult, to understand that you were wrongly taught what you suspected was correct since you were a child.  In other words, if you fit into the system, your behaviour will be determined, making you at the mercy of beliefs already provided and well established in dogmas and rituals, with the masses.
Which is standard conspiracy theory fare.  He wouldn't tell his parents or his sister what he was up to, only that he was working on fourteen books that would "change mankind in a good way."  Besides the symbols painted on his walls, he also had a portrait of himself next to an alien:

Borges's apartment wall, showing the symbols, writing, and the portrait of him with a friend

Borges has now been missing for over a week, and his family is understandably frantic.  The UFO/conspiracy world is also freaking out, but for a different reason; they think that Borges knew too much (in this view of the world, people are always "finding out too much" and having to be dealt with), and either the people who don't want us to know about aliens, or else the aliens themselves, have kidnapped him.

But the whole thing sounds to me like the story of a delusional young man whose disappearance is a matter for the police, not for Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.  It's sad, but I'm guessing that aliens had nothing to do with it.  Of course, try to tell that to the folks over at the r/conspiracy subreddit, where such a statement simply confirms that I'm one of "the two s's" -- sheeple (dupe) or shill (complicit).  I'll leave it to wiser heads than mine to determine which is most likely in my case.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Tall tales of Don Juan

When I was in eleventh grade, I took a semester-long class called Introduction to Psychology.  The teacher was Dr. Loren Farmer -- I never found out if he actually had a Ph.D., or if people simple called him "Dr." Farmer because of the air of erudition he had.

The class was taught in an unorthodox fashion, to say the least.  Dr. Farmer was pretty counterculture, especially considering that this was Louisiana in the 1970s.  He stood on no ceremony at all; we were allowed to sit wherever we liked (my favorite perch was on a wide bookcase by the window), and class was more of a free-roaming discussion than it was the usual chalk/talk typical of high school back then.  Even his tests were odd; we had a choice on his final exam of ten or so short-answer/essay questions from which we were to answer seven, and I recall that one of them was "Draw and interpret three mandalas."  (I elected not to do this one.  My ability to sling the arcane-sounding bullshit was and is highly developed, but my artistic ability pretty much stalled out in third grade, and I didn't think I could pull that one off.)

Some time around the middle of the semester, he instructed us to go buy a copy of a book that would be assigned reading over the following few weeks.  The book was The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, by Carlos Castaneda.  I had never heard of it, but I dutifully purchased the book.

I was nothing short of astonished when it turned out to be about the use of hallucinogenic drugs.  Castaneda tells the story of his apprenticeship to Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui native from Mexico, wherein he was given peyote, Psilocybe mushrooms, and Datura (Jimson weed), inducing wild visions that Don Juan said weren't hallucinations; they were glimpses of an "alternate reality" that sorcerers could use to gain power and knowledge.  Castaneda starts out doubtful, but eventually goes all-in -- and in fact, wrote one sequel after another describing his journey deeper and deeper into the world of the brujo.

I was captivated by Castaneda's story.  I read the sequel to Teachings, A Separate Reality.  The third one, Journey to Ixtlan, was even better.  Then I got to the fourth one, Tales of Power, and I began to go, "Hmmm."  Something about the story seemed off to me, as if he'd gone from recounting his real experiences to simply making shit up.  I made it through book five, The Second Ring of Power, and the feeling intensified.  About two chapters into book six, The Eagle's Gift, I gave the whole thing up as a bad job.

But something about the stories continued to fascinate me.  The best parts -- especially his terrifying vision of a bridge to another world in the fog at night in A Separate Reality, and his witnessing a battle of power in Journey to Ixtlan -- have a mythic quality that is compelling.  But the sense that even apart from any supernatural aspects, which I predictably don't buy, the books were the product of a guy trying to pull a fast one on his readers left me simultaneously angry and disgusted.

I discovered that I'm not alone in that reaction.  Richard de Mille (son of Cecil), an anthropologist and writer, wrote a pair of analyses of Castaneda's books, Castaneda's Journey and The Don Juan Papersthat I just finished reading a few days ago, explaining my resurgence of interest in the subject.  De Mille pounced on something that had been in the back of my mind ever since reading Journey to Ixtlan -- that it would be instructive to compare the timeline of the first three books, as Ixtlan overlaps the years covered by the first two, Teachings and A Separate Reality.

And what de Mille found is that the books are full of subtle internal contradictions that one would never discover without doing what he did, which is to lay out all of the carefully-dated supposed journal entries Castaneda gives us in the first three books.  Among the more glaring errors is that Castaneda is introduced for the first time to a major character, the brujo Don Genaro, twice -- over five years apart.   Also separated by years are events in which Castaneda saw (the word in italics is used by Castaneda to describe a mystical sort of vision in which everything looks different -- humans, for instance, look like bundles of fibers made of light) and in which Don Juan tells his apprentice "you still have never seen."

Worse still is the fact that Ixtlan recounts a dozen or so mind-blowing experiences that allegedly occurred during the same time period as Teachings -- and yet which Castaneda didn't think were important enough to include in his first account.  Add to that the point de Mille makes in The Don Juan Papers that not only do the Yaqui not make use of hallucinogens in their rituals, Don Juan himself never tells Castaneda a single Yaqui name -- not one -- for any plant, animal, place, or thing they see.  Then there's the difficulty pointed out by anthropologist Hans Sebald, of Arizona State University, that Castaneda claims that he and Don Juan went blithely wandering around in the Sonoran desert in midsummer, often with little in the way of food or water, never once making mention any discomfort from temperatures that would have hovered around 110 F at midday.

The conclusion of de Mille and others is that Castaneda made the whole thing up from start to finish, and the books are the combination of scraps of esoteric lore he'd picked up in the library at UCLA and his own imagination.  There was no Don Juan, no Don Genaro, no glow-in-the-dark coyote that spoke to the author at the end of Ixtlan.  Distressing, then, that de Mille's rebuttals -- which were published in 1976 and 1980, respectively -- didn't stop Castaneda from amassing a huge, and devoted, following.  He founded a cult called "Tensegrity" which alleged to teach the acolyte the secrets of how to see Don Juan's alternate reality.  He surrounded himself with a group of women called "the nagual women" (unkinder observers called them the "five witches") who did his bidding -- Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar, Patricia Partin,  Amalia Marquez, and Kylie Lundahl -- all of whom vanished shortly after Castaneda died of liver cancer in 1998.  There's been no trace discovered of any of them except for Partin, whose skeleton was discovered in Death Valley in 2006, but it's thought that all five committed suicide after their leader died.

So what began as a hoax ended up as a dangerous cult.  Castaneda seems to have started the story as a way of pulling the wool over the eyes of his advisers in the anthropology department at UCLA (it worked, given that Journey to Ixtlan is essentially identical to his doctoral dissertation), but as so often happens, fame went to his head and he moved from telling tall tales about an alleged Yaqui shaman to using the people who bought into his philosophy as a way to get money, sex, and power.

And it can be imagined how pissed off this makes actual Native Americans.  Castaneda hijacked and mangled their beliefs into something unrecognizable -- placing his books in with Seven Arrows as yet another way that non-Natives have appropriated and misrepresented Native culture.  (If you've not heard about Seven Arrows, by Hyemeyohsts Storm, it's a mystical mishmash containing about 10% actual facts about the Cheyenne, and 90% made-up gobbledygook.  Storm himself -- his actual name is Arthur -- claims to be half Cheyenne and to have grown up on the reservation, but the Cheyenne tribal authorities say they've never heard of him.)

What's saddest about all of this is that Castaneda could have simply written "fiction" after the title of his books, and they'd have lost nothing in impact.  It's not that fiction has nothing to teach us, gives us no inspiration, doesn't consider the profound.  In fact, I would argue that some of the most poignant lessons we learn come from the subtexts of the fiction we read.  (I have tried to weave that into my own writing, especially my novel Sephirot, which is about one man's Hero's Journey placed in the context of Jewish mystical lore.)

But instead Castaneda lied to his readers.  There's no kinder way to put it.  He told us that it was all real.  Not content with writing an excellent work of inspirational fiction, he instead is relegated to the ignominious ranks of clever hoaxers.  (Or at least should be; de Mille says there are still lots of college classes in which Castaneda's books are required reading, and not as an example of an anthropological hoax, but as real field work in ethnology and belief.)

So however entertaining, and even inspiring, his books are, the whole thing leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.  In short, truth matters.  And the fact is, Carlos Castaneda was nothing more than a sly and charismatic liar.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

If the spirit is willing

Turns out, you have to be careful what you label "non-fiction."

Warner Brothers Studios is currently embroiled in a lawsuit that falls under what lawyers technically call "being between a rock and a hard place."  It all started when they released their horror film The Conjuring in 2013, which is all about fun and entertaining things like demons and curses and exorcisms and parents attempting to kill their children.  The Conjuring was based on the book The Demonologist, by Gerald Brittle, which told the story of two demon hunters named Ed and Lorraine Warren, who go from town to town rousting out evil spirits, which is apparently lucrative work these days.

Brittle had an exclusive contract to tell the Warrens' story, and when he found out that Warner Brothers had made a movie based on it, he told them they'd violated that agreement and (in essence) made a movie based on his book without permission or compensation.  Warner Brothers fired back that Brittle's book is labeled "non-fiction" -- meaning that he was claiming the events were true, and therefore part of the "historical record."  As such, they're open for anyone to exploit, and such accounts would come under fair use law.

This is where it gets interesting.  Brittle's attorney, Patrick C. Henry, says that Brittle now knows that the Warrens' account is "a pack of lies."  Further, Henry says that it was impossible for Warner Brothers to make the movie they did without basing it almost entirely on Brittle's book.  "It is very hard to believe that a large conglomerate such as Warner Brothers, with their army of lawyers and who specializes in intellectual property rights deals, would not have found The Demonologist book or the deals related to it, or Brittle for that matter," Henry says.  "The only logical conclusion is that the studio knew about the Warren's agreement with Brittle but just assumed they would never get caught."

So Henry filed a lawsuit on Brittle's behalf, to the tune of $900 million.  To Warner Brothers' defense that you can't invoke intellectual property rights law over events that actually occurred, Henry had an interesting response.

If Warner Brothers is claiming that The Demonologist (and therefore the events in The Conjuring) are real, then Brittle will drop the lawsuit -- if Warner Brothers can offer up concrete proof of ghosts.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This puts the film giant in a rather awkward position.  If they can prove ghosts are real, then the claim that story in The Conjuring is non-fiction has at least some merit.  If they can't, it's fiction, and the studio is guilty of ripping off Brittle's work as the basis of their movie.

Sort of reminds me of the old method of determining whether someone is a witch.  They tie the accused hand and foot, and throw them in a pond.  If they drown, they're innocent.  If they survive, Satan was protecting them, and they're a witch, so you burn them at the stake.

Of course, the difference here is that Brittle is just one guy, and Warner Brothers is a multi-million dollar corporation that can afford huge legal expenses without any particular problem.  Although Brittle's defense is clever, I'd be willing to put money that the lawsuit is going to get settled out of court -- whether or not Warner Brothers can produce a ghost.

On the other hand, maybe they will find a spirit that's willing.  Then not only will Brittle have no choice but to drop his lawsuit, Warner Brothers will be in good shape to win the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.  So stay tuned.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Bleach supplement

New from the A Little Bit of Knowledge Is Dangerous department, we have a guy in the UK who is selling a health supplement that contains "stabilized negative ions of oxygen."

The product is named, with no apparent irony intended, "Aerobic Oxygen."  Presumably to distinguish it from all of that anaerobic oxygen floating around out there.  The company that produces it, Vitalox, says that their product is "the foundation of good health," and that sixty drops of their product consumed per day, "in any cold drink," plus another few added to your toothpaste and mouthwash, will bring you to the peak of health.  "Cellulite," we're told, is what happens "when fat cells are starved of oxygen."  (Never mind that "cellulite" is simply fat in which the connective tissue surrounding it has developed minor hernias, but otherwise is indistinguishable from regular old fat.  But why start trying to be scientifically accurate now?)

Oh, and consuming "Aerobic Oxygen" will reduce your likelihood of developing cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

You might be wondering what's in this miracle drug.  I know I was.  The ingredients list reads as follows: "Contains purified ionised water, sodium chloride 1.6 micrograms per serving, Stabilised Oxygen molecules."  Which doesn't tell us much beyond what their sales pitch said.  What sort of additive would provide "stabilized oxygen?"  It's not simply dissolved oxygen; that would diffuse out as soon as you opened the bottle, and in any case the solubility of oxygen in water is low enough that you can't dissolve enough in it to make a difference to anyone but a fish.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So a chemist named Dan Cornwell, from Kings College - London, decided to test "Aerobic Oxygen" to see what was really there.  And what he found was that the "stabilized oxygen" in the solution is coming from a significant quantity of either sodium chlorite or sodium hypochlorite.

For the benefit of any non-chemistry types, sodium chlorite is not the same as sodium chloride.  Sodium chloride is table salt.  Sodium chlorite (and sodium hypochlorite as well) are highly alkaline, reactive compounds whose main use in industry is as a bleach.  Cornwell found that not only is "Aerobic Oxygen" a bleach solution, it has the same pH as Drano.

"The two main conclusions I can draw is that the Vitalox solution has a pH of about 13, putting it in the same region as concentrated household bleach – which contains sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide – or an oven cleaner," Cornwell said.  "And when it combined with the potassium iodide it produced iodine, which shows that there’s a strong oxidizing reaction.  I’m not 100% sure of the nature of the oxidizing agent, but since it has a basic pH and gave a positive result with the iodine test it’s reasonable to say it’s probably sodium chlorite or something similar."

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College - London, was even more unequivocal. "You don’t absorb oxygen through your stomach," Colquhoun said.  "There’s not the slightest reason to think it works for anything...  A few drops in a glass of water probably won't actually kill you, but that's a slim marketing claim."

But don't worry if the "Aerobic Oxygen" doesn't quite live up to its claims; Vitalox also has a "Spirituality Page," wherein we find out that "Our spirit is real and we all have one, like it or not.  Recognise it or not.  It needs feeding too or it will get sick and may even die."  One of the features of the "Spirituality Page" is a "A Radio Stream to Wet [sic] Your Appetite," which is an odds-on contender for the funniest misspelling I've seen in ages.

So the whole "Aerobic Oxygen" thing is not only bullshit, it's potentially dangerous bullshit.  The site boils down to "drink our expensive bleach solution, and even if it doesn't kill you, your spirit won't be sick."  The take-home message here is, don't be taken in by fancy-sounding sort-of-sciencey-or-something verbiage and fatuous promises.  Do your research, and find out what you're thinking of ingesting before you buy it.  And that goes double when someone tells you they're selling you "aerobic oxygen."

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Far beyond tone-deaf

Is it just me, or do the members of the Trump administration have a really poor sense of timing?

At a gathering to launch Black History Month, Trump caused some serious head-scratching with his comment that Frederick Douglass "is doing an amazing job," which is doubly impressive given that Douglass died 122 years ago.  He declared April "Sexual Assault Awareness Month," and on April 4 said that conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly "should not have settled" five cases in which he was accused of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior.  (In fact, he said, "I don't think Bill did anything wrong" -- which, considering that he's said that you have to "treat women like shit" and that it's okay to "grab them by the pussy," might not be the most weighty endorsement O'Reilly could have hoped for.)

Then, the White House released an official statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day -- and never once mentioned the Jews.  This was followed up by Sean Spicer's bizarre comment two days ago that "even Hitler didn't sink to the level of using chemical weapons," ignoring the fact that chemical weapons were used to gas six million Jews.

Which statement he made in the middle of Passover.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Look, this goes way beyond tone-deafness.  This is beginning to look like a deliberate campaign to minimize the suffering of anyone who doesn't directly contribute to the Republican party.  These aren't "gaffes;" a "gaffe" is John Kerry describing his nuanced approach to support for the Iraq War as "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."  Okay, that was stupid and inarticulate, and he was the recipient of well-deserved ridicule for saying it.

But this?  This goes way beyond stupid and inarticulate.  In fact, even "insensitive and insulting" don't begin to cover it.

Fortunately -- if there is a "fortunately" in this situation -- the backlash against the latest crazy comment was immediate and blistering.  Here is a sampling of responses to Spicer's Hitler comment from Twitter:
This doesn't really answer the question about why doing it from a plane is worse than building gas chambers in death camps, of course. 
Sean Spicer just called concentration camps "Holocaust centers" and said Hitler didn't use chemical weapons despite Zyklon B.  Happy Passover, guys. 
A list of things that come to mind when you think of Hitler: (1) mustache; (2) gassed people. 
Hey, Sean?  "Clarify" doesn't mean "make way worse." 
Being Press Secretary for Donald Trump is hard.  But it's not as hard as he makes it look.
Then, there's my favorite one:
PEPSI: Check out this PR disaster.
UNITED: That's amateur hour.  Watch this!
SEAN SPICER: Hold my beer.
The most trenchant comment of all, however, was from Spencer Ackerman, blogger, writer, and editor of The Guardian.  Ackerman wrote: "Hitler was not 'using the gas on his own people,' says Sean Spicer, writing German Jews out of history."

Which appears to be what this is about -- marginalizing people who don't fit in with the Trumpian version of Volksgemeinschaft, or worse, pretending that they simply don't exist.  You make a statement like that once, you can pass it off as shooting from the hip, bobbling an opportunity to make an inclusive, insightful statement, having a brain fart.  Maybe even twice.

But four times?  This is beginning to look deliberate.

I don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist, here.  But this administration is establishing an appalling pattern of cultural and racial insensitivity.  If you needed further evidence, Trump himself went on record as saying, regarding the threats against Jewish schools, Nazi graffiti defacing Jewish community centers, and desecration of Jewish graveyards -- all of which have increased drastically since Trump's win last November -- that it might be the Jews themselves perpetrating the attacks.  It's not always anti-Semites doing these things, Trump said.  "Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad."

So tell me again how all of the other things that have come out of the mouths of Trump and his spokespeople have been simple "gaffes."

I've been trying to hold my outrage in abeyance.  I understand that it's hard to think on your feet every time you're on the spot.  People in the public eye are scrutinized, they inevitably make mistakes, and their missteps are played and replayed and analyzed and reanalyzed.  But if this administration wants to regain its credibility, it needs to give more than lip service to stopping this kind of shit.  We need more than Trump's statement that "Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person you've ever seen in your entire life.  Number two, the least racist."  These last few months have left me feeling a little dubious on that point.  I think a fitting place to end is with a quote from Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who said: "President Trump has been inexcusably silent as this trend of anti-Semitism has continued and arguably accelerated.  The president of the United States must always be a voice against hate and for the values of religious freedom and inclusion that are the nation’s highest ideals."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

You are a magnet, and I am steel

Yesterday one of my Critical Thinking students brought to my attention one Miroslaw Magola, the Polish man who claims that metal objects spontaneously stick to his body.

Magola attributes this phenomenon to psychokinesis and his ability to "load his body with energy;" others have tried to explain it by saying that he is able to "concentrate and focus a magnetic field."

Upon doing a bit of research, I found that Magola is not alone in making such claims.  There's also Liew Thow Lin of Malaysia, who not only says that metal objects stick to his body (and there are photos on the website showing him, lo, with metal objects stuck to his body) but that it's evidently genetic, because his son has the same ability.

All of this makes me wonder how these men would manage to walk through, for example, the kitchenware section of an Ikea.  You'd think that they would become the center of a whirlwind of flying kitchen implements, rather like when Wile E. Coyote tried to catch the Road Runner with an Acme Giant Magnet, and would end up with paring knives and cheese graters and vegetable peelers protruding from their bodies.

James Randi, the venerable debunker of all things psychic, has investigated Magola, and apparently put paid to his animal magnetism by the simple expedient of sprinkling talcum powder on the metal object he was trying to adhere himself to.   After such a treatment, his power mysteriously vanished. Randi has stated that his conclusion is that Magola either is making use of the natural stickiness of skin oils, or (more likely) has coated his skin with a thin layer of adhesive.

You'd think that'd be case closed, but some people are not to be discouraged by a simple thing like a controlled experiment.  Magola, apparently undaunted by his failure, responded by making a YouTube video "debunking Randi," in which he is shown, sitting in front of a variety of metal objects, and he sprinkles talcum powder on one, and proceeds to make it stick to his hand.

Well, that's all well and good, but I find myself highly suspicious when an alleged psychic can't demonstrate his/her powers under controlled conditions -- it fails in Randi's lab, but when he's by himself, his ability miraculously reappears.  I'm reminded of the dreadfully uncomfortable experience of watching Uri Geller having his clocks cleaned on the Johnny Carson Show -- Geller, the Israeli psychic spoon-bender, couldn't so much as bend a piece of Reynolds Wrap when he wasn't allowed to provide his own props.  He attributed his failure to "the atmosphere of suspicion and pressure" that Carson had created, and followed it up by saying that he "wasn't feeling strong tonight."  That didn't wash with Carson (who had spent time as a professional magician, and knew how easy it was to bamboozle people), and it doesn't wash with me, either -- not in Geller's case, and not in Magola's.  I don't know about you, but I think it's a little puzzling that Magola can only do his funny stuff on his own terms.

All of this brings up one of my biggest criticisms of psychics of all stripes; the fact that they explain away their failures by blaming the skeptics.  "Your disbelief is interfering with the phenomenon," is something you hear all too often from Camp Woo-Woo.  My question is, "why would it?"  If whatever psychic phenomenon you pick -- let's say, telekinesis, since that's what Magola, Lin, and Geller all claimed they could do -- only works when no one suspicious is present, then all I can say is, that's mighty convenient.   It reminds me of the character of Invisible Boy on the movie Mystery Men who is capable of becoming invisible, but only when no one is looking.

And, of course, I always am looking for a mechanism.  If you think you're magnetic, I want you to explain to me how it works without resorting to jargon-laden bullshit like "focusing the frequency of psychic energy fields."  If you say you can move objects with your mind, I want you to do it while undergoing a brain scan, and see what's happening in your brain that the rest of us slobs don't seem to be able to manage to get ours to do.

I find myself in complete agreement with a character from a book by, of all people, C. S. Lewis.  His skeptical scientist MacPhee, in That Hideous Strength, says, "If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I'll be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer."

To which I can only say; amen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Aliens, belief, and magical thinking

Following hard on the heels of yesterday's post, which was about the weird, counterfactual things people believe, we have a study in the journal Motivation and Emotion looking at the psychology of belief -- in particular, whether there is any correlation between belief in the paranormal and religious belief.

The study, by Clay Routledge, Andrew Abeyta, and Christina Roylance of the University of North Dakota's Department of Psychology, was titled "We Are Not Alone: The Meaning Motive, Religiosity, and Belief in Extraterrestrial Intelligence." The authors write:
We tested the proposals that paranormal beliefs about extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) are motivated, in part, by the need for meaning and that this existential motive helps explain the inverse relationship between religiosity and ETI beliefs...  [We] found support for a model linking low religiosity to low presence of meaning, high search for meaning, and greater ETI beliefs.  In all, our findings offer a motivational account of why people endorse paranormal beliefs about intelligent alien beings observing and influencing the lives of humans.
Routledge was interviewed by Eric W. Dolan of PsyPost and had some interesting insights into his team's results, which showed that the non-religious actually have a higher likelihood of believing in extraterrestrials: 
Research using traditional measures of religiosity such as religious affiliation, church attendance, and even belief in God suggests that the US and the Western world more broadly are becoming less religious, more secular.  However, there are good reasons to doubt that this is entirely true.  Sure, fewer people go to church or think of themselves as religious, but this does not necessarily mean they are any less engaged in religious-like spiritual activities or any less in need of the psychological benefits these activities provide.  For instance, there is reason to believe that certain non-religious magical beliefs such as belief in supernatural energy, agents, and forces are actually increasing as is general interest in the paranormal.  So one possibility is that it is not that people leaving traditional religion are becoming more secular but instead that are switching to other types of religious-like beliefs and interests to pursue spiritual needs.
Which I find particularly interesting, given that my experience with my fellow atheists seems to indicate that most of us ended up where we are because of rejecting non-evidence-based frameworks of belief -- so that would include belief in extraterrestrial visitation, which at present has little in the way of hard data in support.  However, as a student of mine used to say, "the plural of anecdote is not data."  Routledge says:
If atheists reject a belief in God, why would they, or at least some of them, believe that there are intelligent alien beings monitoring the lives of humans (these are the types of paranormal ETI beliefs we measured)?  In this research we looked at the motive to perceive life as meaningful.  We found support for a model in which low religiosity (and atheism) were associated with low perceptions of meaning and a high desire to find meaning (what is called search for meaning), and this desire for meaning in turn predicted ETI belief.  In other words, people who were not getting meaning from religion were vulnerable to deficits in meaning and these deficits inclined them to search for non-traditional sources of meaning.  Why ETI beliefs in particular?  Part of the reason religion gives life meaning is it helps us feel connected to something bigger and more enduring, that we are not here by chance.  ETI beliefs do not typically contain a traditional belief in a creator, but they do suggest that we are not alone in the universe.  And intelligent aliens are often construed as agents watching over us.  A lot of specific ETI beliefs involve being part of a cosmic brotherhood.  And ETI beliefs seem, on the surface, more scientific as they do not typically invoke the supernatural.  This makes them more palatable to atheists.
Which is pretty fascinating, and also explains why I have a poster in my classroom with a picture of a UFO and the caption "I Want To Believe."  While I certainly think that the evidence thus far brought to light about the possibility of aliens visiting the Earth is below the standard I'm willing to accept, I have to admit that the thought that aliens are not only intelligent, they're here -- well, it's tremendously exciting.  I would love nothing more to have unequivocal proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, up to and including having a giant UFO land in my back yard.

Of course, if they act like most of the aliens in movies, the next thing they'd do is start vaporizing my pets, and I wouldn't be so thrilled about that.  But on balance, it would still be up there amongst the peak experiences of my life.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Routledge recognizes the existence of people like myself, and in fact draws an interesting distinction:
Some hardcore skeptics might point out that they do not believe in any of this stuff, that they are completely guided by reason and empirical data.  It is true that being a hardcore skeptic tends to make one an atheist.  However, this does not mean being an atheist makes one a hardcore skeptic... There are atheists who reject belief in God but, as I documented in my work, still hold other paranormal and supernatural beliefs...   In other words, even atheists are a diverse group.
Which stands to reason.  One of the most common errors in thought is the package-deal fallacy --  assuming that groups are homogeneous, and that the beliefs or characteristics of one member is indicative of the beliefs and characteristics of everyone else in the group.  It's to be expected that we atheists have just as many approaches and nuances to our unbelief as religious folks have to their belief.

Myself, I find this reassuring.  I wouldn't want everyone to think alike, even if it meant that they by some fluke all ended up agreeing with me.  As I've pointed out many times before, a willingness to consider the flaws in our own understanding is absolutely essential to a rational and accurate view of the universe.  That goes double for those of us who already are under the impression that we're the pinnacles of logic and reason -- there's nothing like a bit of conceit to blind us to our own misapprehensions.

Monday, April 10, 2017

We have nothing to fear but...

It's become increasingly apparent to me, over the seven years I've written here at Skeptophilia, that most of the time people think with their guts and not with their brains.

Even the most cerebral folks can find themselves swayed by their emotions.  I like to think of myself as logical and rational, but many's the time I've had to stop, and turn slowly and deliberately away from my instinctive, knee-jerk reaction, and say, "Okay, wait.  Think about this for a minute."

Which is why I found the results of a survey done by Chapman University, released last month, so simultaneously fascinating and alarming.  The survey asked the question "what are you most afraid of?", and asked respondents to elaborate on that fear -- the specifics, causes, and any subcategories that might be applicable.  It also asked what things they believed in for which they had no concrete evidence.

Here are a few of the most interesting results:
46.6% believe places can be haunted by spirits
39.6% believe that Atlantis, or something like it, once existed
27% believe that extraterrestrials have visited Earth in our ancient past
24.7% say aliens have come to Earth in modern times
13.5% believe that Bigfoot is real
But it's when you get to the conspiracy theories that things get really strange. Here are the percentages of people who believe the government is covering up information about...
9/11 (54.3%)
the assassination of JFK (49.6%)
aliens (42.6%)
global warming (42.1%)
plans for a one-world government (32.9%)
President Obama's birth certificate (30.2%)
the origin of HIV (30.2%)
Antonin Scalia's death (27.8%)
the moon landing (24.2%)
I suppose I should find it heartening that at least 4 in 10 Americans think the government is covering up the evidence for global warming, because at the moment, they kind of are.  But that optimism is tempered by the fact that 5 in 10 still have their knickers in a twist about JFK, and 3 in 10 think that HIV is some kind of government plot.

For fuck's sake.

Of course, it's clear where at least some of this comes from; the This Is No Longer Even Remotely Connected to History Channel is probably responsible for the majority of the Atlantis and extraterrestrial visitation bullshit, and belief in ghosts and spirit survival have been with us for as long as humanity has considered such things.  President Trump certainly bears most of the responsibility for the Obama birth certificate nonsense, and Breitbart is the origin of the claim that there was anything more to Scalia's death than an overweight 79-year-old dying of a heart attack.

Oh, but I forgot to mention: 19.1% of respondents believe in telekinesis, and 14.1% think that astrology and other types of fortune telling are accurate and scientifically supported.  Although now that I come to think about it, if someone had asked me to estimate the last one, I'd probably have guessed that it was higher, so I suppose that's something to be glad about.

The scary part of all of this goes back to what I started with; that people are much more likely to be swayed, even on important topics, by their emotions and not by their brains.  Some of the beliefs that the survey investigated are harmless enough; I doubt anyone ever came to grief by believing in Bigfoot, for example.  But freaking out over a one-world government -- a major concern of a third of the respondents -- could certainly affect the way people vote.

But on a deeper level, it's troubling that so many people admit to deep-seated beliefs that fly in the face of the evidence.  Believing in Atlantis may not be a big deal, in the grand scheme of things.  But the fact that someone -- in fact, 4 out of every 10 someones -- is willing to accept a counterfactual proposal in the complete absence of evidence indicates their susceptibility to falling for other, more insidious ideas.

So we're back to where we often land; it's imperative that we teach children how to evaluate evidence and think critically.  It's also important to ask, "Why do you believe that?"  It's not easy to pry people away from loony claims to which they have subscribed based on emotion and gut reaction -- but it's pretty important, especially considering how many loony claims are out there and how important it is for people to base their conclusions on the facts.

Saturday, April 8, 2017


I was discussing the alleged phenomenon of hauntings with one of my students, and he said, "There's one thing I don't understand.  Some people believe that the souls of humans can survive after death, and become ghosts.  If humans can become ghosts, why can't other animals?"

Well, after pointing out the obvious problem that I'm not really the right person to state with authority what a soul, human or otherwise, could or could not do, I mentioned that there are many cases of supposed hauntings by animals.  The most famous of these is the haunting of Ballechin House in Scotland.

Ballechin House prior to its demolition [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Ballechin House was a beautiful manor house, built in 1806 near Grandtully, Perthshire, Scotland, on a site that had been owned by the Stuart (or Stewart or Steuart or Steward, they seemed to spell it a new way every time the mood took them) family since the 15th century.  The story goes that a scion of this family (sources seem to point to his being the son of the man who had the house built), one Major Robert Steuart, was a bit of a wacko who had more affection for his dogs than he did for his family.  That said, he provided quarters for his sister Isabella, who was a nun -- I'm not sure why she wasn't living with her fellow sisters in a convent, but some claim that it was because she'd had an illegitimate child and gotten herself, um... de-habited?  Anyhow, she lived with them for a time, finally dying and being buried on the property.  As for Major Steuart, he apparently took enough time away from his dogs to marry and have at least one child, John.

As the Major got older, he got more and more peculiar, and finally started claiming that after he died he was going to be reincarnated as a dog.  One runs into these ideas pretty frequently today, but back then, it must have been a sore shock to his nearest and dearest.  So this partly explains why when the Major did go to that Big Dog Kennel In The Sky, his son John rounded up all of the Major's dogs and shot them.

I say "partly" because I fail to understand how, even if you believed that the Major was going to be reincarnated as a dog, killing dogs that were currently alive and therefore presumably none of whom were actually the Major would help.  But that's what he did.

And boy was he sorry.

Almost immediately thereafter, John Steuart and his family and servants began to experience spooky stuff.  They heard doggy noises -- panting, wagging of tails, sniffing, and the really nasty slurping sounds dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene.  (Okay, I'm assuming that they heard that last sound.  I certainly hear it enough from my own dogs.)  Steuart's wife several times felt herself being pushed by a wet doggy nose, and reported being in a room and suddenly being overpowered by a strong doggy smell.

Other apparitions began -- the sighting of a ghostly nun, all dressed in gray, in the garden; doors that would open and close by themselves; and the sound of limping footsteps (the Major apparently walked with a limp).  John Steuart himself was not long to worry about them, because he was killed in an accident, supposedly the day after hearing a knocking sound on the wall.  (Maybe it was a coded message from the Major that meant, "The dogs and I can't wait to see you!")

In the 1890s the hauntings were investigated on the urging of a certain Lord Bute -- I can't figure out whether by that time Bute was the owner of the house, or just a busybody.  Thirty-five psychics descended upon the house, which created such a cosmic convergence of woo-wooness that you just know something was gonna happen.  And it did.  A Ouija board spelled out "Ishbel" (recall that Major Steuart's sister who was a sister was named Isabella, and recall also that this entire family seemed to have difficulty with spelling their own names).  The psychics experienced various doggy phenomena; one of the psychics, who had brought her own dog along, reported that one evening her dog began to whimper, and she looked over, and there were two disembodied dog paws resting on the bedside table.  (I'd whimper, too.)

In the interest of honesty, it must be recorded that the house was let several times during this period, once to a Colonel Taylor who belonged to the Society for Psychical Research. Taylor's diary records, with some disappointment, that he slept in the Major's bedroom on more than one occasion, and experienced nothing out of the ordinary.  The Society itself is dedicated to researching psychic phenomena through a skeptical and scientific lens, so maybe that was enough to frighten all the spirits off.

Be that as it may, Ballechin House acquired the reputation of being "the most haunted house in Scotland," and by the 1920s became impossible to rent.  It fell into increasing disrepair, and finally was torn down in 1963.  I think this is a little sad -- I'd have loved to visit it.  I might even have brought my dogs. Of course, I'm not sure how useful they'd be in the case of a haunting, even if the ghosts were other dogs.  Grendel is, to put not too fine a point on it, a great big wuss, and if disembodied doggy paws ended up on the bedside table in the middle of the night, he'd be under the covers with me in a flash.  My coonhound Lena, on the other hand -- and I mean this with the utmost affection -- has the IQ of a loaf of bread.  By the time her sensory organs sent the message "Ghost!" to her tiny, candy-corn-sized brain via Pony Express, the spirit would probably have given up and found something smarter to haunt, such as a house plant.

In any case, if you are to take the Ballechin House situation as a representative sample, most believers in Survival seem to think that dogs have an eternal soul.  However, this opens up a troubling question.  Why stop there?  If dogs have an eternal soul, do cats?  (Most of the cats I've met seem to be cases more of demonic possession, frankly.)  How about bunnies?  Or weasels?  Or worms?  Or Japanese beetles?  (I'd be willing to believe that if there are gardens in hell, there'll be Japanese beetles there to eat the roses.)  I find this a worrisome slippery slope.  It may be a cheering thought that something of Woofy's nature will survive his demise, even if he terrorizes the guests with "sudden overpowering doggy smell," but I'm not sure I want to be stung by ghostly yellowjackets, or have to spray my plants for ghostly aphids.  The real kind are enough of a problem.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Post-Rapture checklist

For those of you who are, like me, evil, sinful unbelievers who are doomed to the fiery furnace for all eternity, I have some good news:

A Michigan pastor has created a checklist of all the things we should do when we miss the Rapture.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Personally, I think this is pretty considerate of him.  After all, he's going to be long gone, floating up to heaven to sit forever in the Fields of Lilies, which sounds to me like a good way to have a serious attack of pollen allergy.  Be that as it may, Pastor Dave Williams, of Mount Hope Church in Lansing, Michigan, has provided us non-lily-sitters with some guidelines of what we should do when all of the holy people evaporate.

So, with no further ado:
1. Do not believe the explanations given by the secular media.
Well, most of the people of Pastor Williams's stripe already don't, so this one is a bit of a no-brainer.  The idea, apparently, is not to buy it when the mainstream media says the vanished folks have been "beamed to some interplanetary spaceship to be reprogrammed."  Which doesn't sound like something the mainstream media would claim, although in an extreme case like the Rapture, it's hard to know what they'd say.
2. Get rid of your cell phone.
I guess the government left behind is going to be made up of Not Nice People, and they might use your cell phone to track you.  Why they'd be after you, since you're one of the evil people who didn't get Raptured, I don't know.
3. Do not kill yourself. 
Which is good advice under most circumstances.
4. Repent immediately and make your peace with God.
I guess the message here is that it's not too late to reserve yourself a place amongst the lilies, even if you didn't get Raptured.  I have a hard time imagining myself changing my mind to the extent that I'll make up for all of my years of godlessness, but you never know what someone might do in extremis.  Guess I'll have to wait and see on that one.
5. Make sure you have a printed Bible.
Got that one covered.  Actually I have several -- different translations, mostly.  One of them is a bible given to me by my grandmother at my confirmation into the Catholic church, which I remember mostly because of the horrifying illustrations of the Maccabees getting various body parts lopped off.  The pictures were supposed to be edifying -- I think the message is, "Look how holy these people were, hanging on to their religion even when they were being gruesomely tortured" -- but the message I got from it was, "If anyone ever threatened to cut my hands off and rip my tongue out, I'd drop my religion like a hot potato."  Hell, I figure if under #4 above I can still make up for it, I'll be okay regardless.
6. Leave your home and get away from the cities, especially big cities.
A non-issue for me, since I live so far out in the sticks my nearest neighbors are cows.  I guess this makes sense, though, as based on Stephen King's The Stand, wherein a few survivors of the Superflu got stuck in Manhattan, and ended up having to walk in the dark through the Lincoln Tunnel which at the time was clogged with wrecked cars and decomposing bodies, a scene that still haunts my nightmares.
7. Pray to God to help you and give you strength.
Cf. #4 above.
8. Don't go to church.
The idea apparently is that any church you go to post-Rapture has some problems, given that they didn't get Raptured themselves.  Again, this one isn't a problem in my case.  If a bunch of the people on Earth suddenly vanished, I highly doubt the first thing I'd do is turn to my wife and say, "Hey, I know.  Let's take in a mass."
9. Get a small, self-powered radio.
That way you can keep abreast of further fun developments, such as the appearance of the Beast and the Rivers Running Red With The Blood Of Unbelievers.  Although you'd think you wouldn't need a radio to tell you all that.  It doesn't sound like something that would escape notice, frankly.
10. Keep praying for your loved ones who are unbelievers.
"Your prayers may be the key to seen your loved ones after this period of supreme agony is over," Pastor Williams tells us.  Which sounds good, at least the "seeing your loved ones" part, even though I'm not looking forward to the "supreme agony" part so much.

And last:
11. Leave copies of this list for as many people as you can.
At least by this post I am doing my part in that regard.

So there you have it.  A handy checklist for all of us damned folks to follow.  Me, I'm not losing any sleep over it, because people like Pastor Williams have been predicting the Rapture for decades, and here we all still are.  Also, I figure that since the evangelicals have gone all gaga over Donald Trump, maybe the Antichrist will be more my type in any case.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Egg wars and chosen candidates

Some days I really feel sorry for my Christian friends, who are (one and all), logical, thoughtful, and intelligent.

The reason I say this is that so many of the most visible spokespeople for Christianity appear to be, to put not too fine a point on it, complete loons, and that gives the impression that all Christians think that way.  It's as if you were trying to get a good handle on the stability, temperament, and brainpower of actors, and you were only allowed to look at Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, and Kim Kardashian.

This comes up because of a trio of stories, of increasing wackiness, that I ran into just in the last two days.

Let's start with the outcry by the Church of England and British Prime Minister Theresa May over the fact that a nationwide chocolate egg hunt, sponsored by Cadbury's, has been named the "Great British Egg Hunt" instead of last year's title, the "Easter Egg Trail."

"This marketing campaign … highlights the folly in airbrushing faith from Easter," said an official statement from the Church of England.  May concurred.  "I think what the National Trust is doing is frankly just ridiculous," May said in an interview with ITV News.  "Easter’s very important.  It’s important to me, it’s a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world."

Because Theresa May has nothing more pressing to worry about at the moment, apparently.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Okay, can we get one thing straight right from the get-go, here?  Neither the Easter egg nor the Easter Bunny is mentioned anywhere in the bible.  While the use of the egg as a symbol of rebirth (and thus resurrection) has been part of Christian practice for centuries, it almost certainly is originally of pagan origin.  German folklorist Jacob Grimm writes:
But if we admit, goddesses, then, in addition to Nerthus, Ostara has the strongest claim to consideration...  The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires.  Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate: I allude especially to the custom of Easter eggs, and to the Easter tale which preachers told from the pulpit for the people's amusement, connecting it with Christian reminiscences.
So what we have here is some hypersensitive types overreacting to an attempt to make a national event more inclusive, sort of like the coffee drinkers who got their knickers in a twist last December when Starbucks elected not to write "Jesus Jesus Jesus" all over their holiday-season paper cups.

And they call the liberals sensitive snowflakes.

Then we had conservative activists Don and Mary Colbert on the Jim Bakker Show, and they were asked about their support of Donald Trump.  Mary Colbert responded with a dire warning for all of us who dislike the Donald:
It’s not that Donald Trump is all that perfect of a guy.  We all know he’s not.  And we know that he’s not necessarily perfect in every way that we would like.  That’s not how God works.  He works through the ones he chooses.  We don’t choose them. 
All we have to do is recognize them and when you recognize a chosen one and you have the discernment to know that they’ve been chosen and know that that’s the will of God, then your life will be blessed.  And if you come against the chosen one of God, you are bringing upon you and your children and your children’s children curses like you have never seen.  It puts a holy fear in me.
Okay, just hang on a moment.

"We don't choose them?"  Um, yeah, actually we do.  It's called "having an election."

"Donald Trump is not all that perfect?"  We have a narcissistic, egomaniacal sociopath in the Oval Office, who appears to be very nearly amoral, who lies every damn time he opens his mouth, and who is a serial adulterer and likely sexual predator to boot, and you call that "not all that perfect?"  That's like saying that Joseph Stalin was "a bit of a control freak on occasion."

And last, if we don't support Trump, we are bringing curses on our "children and children's children?"  Look, lady, the closest I have to grandchildren at the moment is that one of my sons owns a pair of ferrets.  You're telling me that my prospective grandchildren, and probably my grandferrets as well, are cursed because I dislike Donald Trump?

Oh, and if that wasn't enough, Bakker himself said that by "blaspheming against Donald Trump," we're hastening the End Times.  Which, honestly, I can't say is a particular deterrent for me at the moment.  Considering the news lately, the Dragon With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns, the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, and the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons sound like a distinct improvement.

Last, no post about religious nutjobs would be complete without a contribution from Pat Robertson, who went on record this week as saying that he's tired of being "dominated by homosexuals."  After laughing for about ten minutes at the mental image this evoked, I went on to read Robertson's explanation of what he meant:
We have given the ground to a small minority.  You figure, lesbians, one percent of the population; homosexuals, two percent of the population.  That’s all.  That’s statistically all.  But they have dominated — dominated the media, they’ve dominated the cultural shift and they have infiltrated the major universities.  It’s just unbelievable what’s being done.  A tiny, tiny minority makes a huge difference.  The majority — it’s time it wakes up.
Oh, you poor, poor majority.  What is it that you're being deprived of?  The right to run Christian candidates for damn near every public office in the land?  The right to have your houses of worship in every village, town, and city?  The right to found your own universities?  The right to have "In God We Trust" on our currency and "One Nation, Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance?

In other words, the right to dominate every fucking sphere of influence in the entire country?

No, what Robertson and his ilk object to is that LGBT individuals are now demanding to be recognized as having rights, including the right to be free from discrimination.  That, apparently, is "domination" in Robertson's mind.

So anyway.  After that last one, I need to go have a cup of coffee and calm down for a while.

I must say, however, that I'm heartened by the fact that there are Christians who speak up about all of this nonsense.  I just wish they were louder, sometimes.  Or at least louder than people like Mary Colbert, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson.  But unfortunately, at the moment the loons are the ones who are getting all the press -- and they're the ones who will continue to be in the limelight until their followers say, "Okay, enough.  You're talking bullshit, and you need to shut up."