Posts Tagged ‘skepticism’

Fetal Ghost Busters

December 4, 2011

Haunted Abortion Cemetery? The BEAST Investigates

There are lots of stories of haunted places here in Western New York. Surprisingly, most of them are places with prices of admission: haunted theaters, haunted hotels, haunted gift shops, haunted pet stores, haunted haunted houses, haunted toll booths, and that sort of thing.

Being the poverty-stricken proletariat that we are, we decided to investigate a supposedly haunted place which is open to the public. So we went to Goodleberg Cemetery in Wales, NY, to investigate the local legend of fetal ghosts terrifying the populace by leaving tiny handprints on the windows of cars.

Here are the results of our investigation. Enjoy and Happy Halloween.


REPOST: Martian Jesus

January 13, 2011

A recently released picture of the Martian surface has ignited some controversy in the most widely circulated newspaper in the UK (“Has Jesus Christ Been Spotted On Mars?”). The question mark in the headline apparently means they’re not quite sure if there was an alteration of the Martian surface in order to make it sort of kind of look like Jesus:

Jesus had 3 visible boobs.

Jesus had 3 visible boobs.

Some possible explanations:

  1. After his resurrection, Jesus flew around the solar system to preach at organisms on other worlds. He couldn’t find any, so he decided to make a self-portrait on the surface of the planet to which humans would probably first travel. It was too much work, and Jesus gave up after a few years.
  2. Jesus was really a giant Martian buried underground, and when he punched his way out of his burial-place (like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill 2), he left behind an outline of a vaguely human-ish figure on the Martian surface.
  3. Intelligent life on Mars which has since gone extinct heard about Jesus on Earth by being very quiet and listening in on the Middle East region 2000 years ago and then just decided to alter the surface of their planet to make it look kind of like a human, just for the fuck of it.
  4. Mars is a big planet on which erosion happens. There are no oceans on the surface, so that leaves a lot of possibilities for geological features which might kind of sort of look like a human. Since we’ve evolved in a way to recognize faces, it is not surprising that we would sometimes mistakenly perceive a face. There’s even a name for this phenomenon.

I wonder which is the most likely.

If it really were a face, then it should look that way from all angles. For example, here is a rotated picture of a human face which is still easy to identify as a human face:

Even though this is not how we normally see other humans, it is still easily recognizable as a face. And here’s a rotated shot of the same photo of the Martian surface:

Unless you’re already looking for Jesus here, you won’t see it. You have to want to see it. That should have given pause to whichever Daily Telegraph editor OK’d this story. On the other hand, ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue…

Please buy our useless junk so you can find nothing

October 26, 2010

Last year around this time of year I made fun of a Sun article which was essentially an advertisement for a theme park which was allegedly “haunted” by the “spirit world.” Since I am apparently very un-creative, I am going to do pretty much the same thing again this year.

But there’s a twist! This year’s Advertisement For Ghost-Related Business Disguised As A News Article (AFGRBDAANA) is from what’s supposed to be a more reputable newspaper, the Boston Globe.  The first problem here is with the headline:

So the obvious question here is this: Why do these gadgets only seem to work for those who already believe in wandering spirits? If they really did reveal evidence of ghosts, then they should help both believers and skeptics alike to find them. The fact that the headline needed to be qualified to apply only to believers implies that these gadgets only provide rationalizations for what the ghost hunters already decided to believe instead of real evidence which would then inform a belief one way or the other.

In the evolution-creationism “debate,” no scientist offers evidence for evolution on the condition that the audience already believe in evolution. The same is true for any other similar controversy. The evidence is supposed to be the basis for belief, not something you search for only after founding an opinion based on emotional whims.

Amateur ghost hunters hope these gadgets, which typically cost less than $100 each, will help them spot ghosts in haunted houses.

Gosh, they’re “typically” less than $100? What a bargain!

That quote above is factually accurate. People who call themselves amateur ghost hunters (as opposed to the really seriously professional ones) really do hope that the equipment will help them spot ghosts. But it’s still another example of a journalist not investigating far enough for fear of appearing “biased.” The job of an actual reporter assigned to a story like this should be to actually find out whether or not the products do as they claim. When Mark Baard puts that question aside, as he does in this article, he steps outside of journalism and into the field of advertising.

“I don’t believe that they detect ghosts, per se,”’ said Belanger… “But they might detect something that’s happened before, during or after a paranormal event.”

Really? How do you distinguish between the two, Mr. Salesman? Baard fails to follow up on this distinction. He just uncritically accepts it at face value. But seriously, why hold back here? Is he seriously trying to inject nuances into his ghost hunting business? I mean, come one, let’s not be ridiculous and claim that we’re detecting ghosts here. That would be nuts! But yeah, sure, events leave paranormal evidence behind which my products can detect. Everyone knows that, right?

Astrology-based politics

October 19, 2010

The 2010 mid-term elections has been a massive coming-out party for all kinds of crackpots. HIV deniers, creationists, anti-condom activists, and every other brand of conspiracy theorist have been nominated by their party to run for alarmingly high public offices. Journalists usually try to use reasonable methods to understand this unreasonable trend. At the very least, they try to make it sound like that’s what they’re doing.

But the innovative folks at AOLNews are taking a different path in their political reporting today. A guy who works there (I’m deliberately not calling him a reporter) talked to an astrologer named Shelley Ackerman about the elections and called it an article. Here’s how it begins:

Some swear by astrology. Others scoff at it.

That’s the beginning and end of Barry Weintraub’s investigation into the validity of astrology. It’s not like it’s his job to find out whether or not astrology actually works. That would be biased.

But here’s what’s not biased, for some reason: Pretending that an astrologer’s opinion of US politics is newsworthy.

Traditionally astrologers look to the lunation just before we go to the polls on Nov. 2 (in this case, the Oct. 22 full moon) to determine which party will fare better. And it’s no surprise that the elevation of Jupiter in the chart cast for Washington at 9:37 p.m. favors gains for the GOP, but how many?

Who among us didn’t know that the elevation of Jupiter means a Republican-controlled House? If you raised your hand just now, stop reading this now – for you are ignorant in the ways of astrology. It’s like the first rule: Most gas giants are very conservative. Those of us who were following this last election cycle may recall Saturn’s 2008 racist gaffe on CNN with Wolf Blitzer which many expert astrologers say cost John McCain the presidential election.

Ackerman later turns her focus to the Connecticut Senate race:

I’m having second thoughts about this one. Blumenthal (b. Feb. 13, 1946) was practically a shoo-in before he fibbed about serving in Vietnam. Bad move.

But why didn’t the stars tell her that this was going to happen? I thought this was the whole point of having professional astrologers in the first place. I am shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU that this astrologer only discovered this by reading it in the news instead of reading it from Neptune’s magical aura.

Will Neptune give Blumenthal the same magical aura that it provided for Palin in 2008, or will Saturn in Libra deliver the victory that McMahon has earned (and/or paid for)? It’s Blumenthal’s to lose: One false move and he will.

Come on, Ackerman! Don’t keep us in suspense! I really want to know about that magical aura’s political leanings. Maybe the entry on Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin will provide better information:

Astrologically aligned with the United States’ Aquarian moon, and buoyed by Neptune’s transit in Aquarius since 1998, will their popularity wane when Neptune enters Pisces for the first time (since 1860) in April 2011, or will their influence hold through the presidential election of 2012?

That’s where that entry ends. And then she goes on to another issue. She wouldn’t risk all of her well-deserved credibility on the election. But what else can you expect from a Libra?

REPOST: Epistemology

September 15, 2010

Orac at Respectful Insolence had a great post a month or so ago which really nailed some basic problems with accepting pseudoscience. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Of course, even within New Age, skepticism seems to be without a basis. After all, if you accept astrology and fairies, really, on what possible basis can you reject channeling the dead?… Unfortunately, this is a completely predictable result. When one leaves science, rationality, and reason behind, there is no reliable way to differentiate one woo from another, one pseudoscience from another, one faith-based belief from another. When anything goes, nothing goes, and nothing can be included or excluded based on evidence. Everything is fair game.

This is something that inevitably comes up pretty much every time I try to talk to one of these believer people. It just seems obvious to them that their own beliefs – say, that homeopathy works – are somehow beyond testing and experimentation, or that there’s a massive conspiracy to cover up all the successful tests, or some other lame excuse. But when others use the exact same arguments to support beliefs which are even crazier – like that reptilian aliens have infiltrated human society up to the highest levels of government – somehow to them it is just as obvious that they are suddenly the crazy ones. But that’s hypocritical since they’ve already abandoned the idea of ruling out beliefs altogether in order to support their own.

It reminds me a lot of how some fundamentalist Christians will say that it’s crazy for Muslims to believe that Mohammed flew up into the sky on a horse, but it’s perfectly reasonable for them to assume that Jesus rose from the dead, hung out for 40 days, and then flew up into the sky without a horse. Or you can reverse that if you like, it’s all the same absurd double standard.

And whenever I talk to these people, I always think that if I can only show them how they can rule out pseudoscientific ideas which are just a little bit too crazy for them, they will have some “A-ha!” moment and realize how skeptics come to reject their ideas and the attempted justifications. And that they in fact use the pretty much the same methodology we are using when they dismiss ideas that seem too crazy, even to them. But that rarely happens.

People who are into woo generally just don’t like the idea of having some kind of epistemological foundation for belief, and they like even less that it is science that has proven to get us closer to the truth than any other proposed foundation so far. It would be pretty amazing if we as a civilization had reduced disease, extended life expectancy and increased quality of life by proposing that ideas be tested on the basis of whoever simply says “That’s what I believe,” but strangely enough that didn’t happen. And it probably won’t work in the future, either.

Random notes on Lily Dale

August 30, 2010

There were a lot of details left out of my recent article on Lilydale which didn’t really fit into the story that well. We wanted to get to the punchline of having the medium identify Taibbi and Randi as spirits around me before boring people with too much of the minutiae, even if some of it was kind of funny/interesting.

Before we even got into Lily Dale, we stopped at the National Spiritualist Association, which was a small one-story building overlooking the Cassadaga Lakes. It was all very scenic. If I were setting up some kind of pyramid scheme targeting gullible hippies, that’s the kind of place I would pick for a headquarters.

We were only inside for a moment before being escorted out by a nice woman named Paula, but that was just because there was some kind of private class going on and not because we stormed in wearing orange jumpsuits while waving dowsing rods around and yelling about how we were picking up very powerful energy vibes of gullibility in this location. That was something we’d talked about doing but laziness and a lack of funding made that impossible.

This is totally a cliché, but every group setting in Lily Dale just reeked of Patchouli. We’ve all known people who might go overboard with that stuff even as potent as it is, but imagine that times a hundred.

The woman doing the warm-up act said that Lily Dale was on one of the only old growth forests in the Northeast, even though there are 210,000 acres of old growth forests in NY state alone.

Just before I got my reading, two young African-American women raised their hands to get a reading by request from a medium. I was under the impression that doing readings “don’t work that way” and that the spirits are very mysterious about how they go about communicating. But the medium complied and told them that they were being visited by their grandmother, who was – GASP – from the South! And what’s even more surprising is that she was very spiritual and liked to sing a lot. Another Indian woman was told that she was visited by relatives from another country who wanted her to hold on to her cultural heritage.

In other words, anything that distinguished someone from the crowd at all was the basis for their reading. Guys, including myself, were told that it was time to advance their career. Younger people were contacted by the old, and vice versa. If the mark looked confused by a medium’s use of a stereotype, then the medium would tell her that this was a long-forgotten ancestor from several generations back. The rest was just random guesses, which is where confirmation bias did its thing.

I had kind of guessed beforehand that the crowd would be mostly female based on footage I’d seen of similar events, but I had really underestimated the proportion – at least on the day we went. It was at least a 95% female audience. And yet still my smoothest “Lllladies” yielded no positive results.

So lastly we were pretty lucky I guess to get a public reading for a couple reasons. One is that there were tons of witnesses – not that we know any of them and could get them to verify what happened, but still. The other is that according to the official Lily Dale website, the cost of a private reading starts at $40. Maybe that would’ve yielded a lot more funny material, but I’ll have to leave that to other skeptics with bigger bank accounts.

Hungarian Jesus

April 25, 2010

So Jesus is still making the paredolia rounds. To briefly recap, lately we’ve seen Jesus in a frying pan, a ceiling, a toiletIndian food, a moth, a cloudnaan bread, a hospital, a coconutcat’s furgum, a barbecue cover, a banana, a curtain, and the surface of Mars. Now he’s showing up on Google Earth which proves that Google really is supernatural. Here’s a screen shot:

That settles it. Jesus is Hungarian and owned by Google.

Baba Brinkman

April 8, 2010

He has a new single which you can download here. Here is a video:


Simon Singh wins appeal

April 1, 2010

After almost two years of legal action, Simon Singh won the libel case against him by the British Chiropractic Association on appeal (full text of ruling). The case was over an article called “Beware the Spinal Trap” which appeared in the Guardian in 2008, specifically over where Singh wrote that the BCA “happily promoted bogus treatments,” because they do.

Originally, the courts ruled that happily promoting bogus treatments implied that the BCA would have to be promoting treatments which they knew didn’t work. This is exact opposite of how we have libel in America, where the prosecution has to prove that the defendant knowingly misinformed the public. In British law, such as it is, being right isn’t good enough of a defense against libel.

The president of the BCA said he is considering appealing the appeal (YO DAWG I HERD U LIKE APPEALS). Singh says that so far the lawsuit has cost him £200,000.

Hopefully this can be used as a precedent to reform the UK’s primitive libel laws. From the BBC:

Coalition for Libel Reform spokeswoman Tracey Brown said: “This case has brought out of the woodwork the fact that so many other discussions are being killed, from discussions of cardiology to human rights to medicines.
“We’re now pushing ahead for bigger changes to the law so that we have the kind of public interest defence that means it wouldn’t have taken two years and £200,000 to find out whether Simon can defend himself.”

You can learn more about British libel reform here.

You can also read more info on the case from the Index on CensorshipSteven Novella, Rebecca Watson, and Jack of Kent.

Books that influenced me the most

March 30, 2010

Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars is where I picked up this blog meme, and so I’m gonna go ahead and join in as well. Here are some books I’d call influential in no particular order.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Even though I was young still when I got to this, reading it made me suddenly realize that my whole idea of literature, journalism, and what they could be had become pretty uptight. My parents encouraged me to read and I enjoyed it a lot. But most of the stuff I went through before Fear and Loathing seemed almost bland and tedious when I was re-reading it after Fear and Loathing. It gave me this way of being critical of the stuffiness in language which I barely even notice beforehand.

Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

I read the shit out of this book. I even took it to a photocopier to copy the whole damn thing and then do that cut-up thing he described in other works, except of course it wasn’t completely random like he claimed. Burroughs was definitely into some weird shit, but it was usually in the context of fiction so there’s no real problem with that seeping out into the real world (aside from his personal life). He always had this reckless approach to writing I admired and the result was that he could create these alternate realities which were both terrible and beautiful, nightmarish and utopian, and disgusting and amazing all at the same time. All of that is best conveyed in Naked Lunch. The film adaptation though, eh, it probably should never have even been attempted in the first place.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

This one is a little dated in some ways. It’s from the 80s, so this is all way before the internet made it easy to spread unpopular ideas and opinions. In order to hear those, you had to know who to look for and where to go to buy their books or magazines or whatever else. So to the extent that this was more all-encompassing this book is less relevant than it used to be. But where it’s still relevant is in how we can self-censor, and how much easier it is to err on the side of conservatism. I also loved how the approach to the study of the media is more scientific than rhetorical, which was refreshing. Of course it can’t be completely 100% scientific since you can’t really have a control group with historical events. For now at least, that would be considered “unethical.”

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

This is probably the best current book advocating science and skepticism out there. There are many layers here. So for instance you might open it at random and get to a page detailing an account of an alien abduction. If you keep reading, you’ll get to a larger context of the infallibility of eyewitness testimonies. An even larger context would be revealed if you keep reading and see how this connects to mistakes people made in the past about “witches” and “demons” – as well as the social problems caused by those mistakes. And in the context of the book as a whole you get back to the straightforward advocacy of science as the best tool we have in order to make sense of the world around us.

Einstein on Astrology

March 9, 2010

Letters of Note has another great letter where a great thinker demonstrates skepticism towards nonsense. This one is from Albert Einstein:

January 7, 1943

Mr. Eugene Simon
c.o. Rabbi Herman Simon
184 East Willmore Ave.
St.Paul, Minn.

Dear Sir:

I fully agree with you concerning the pseudo-science of astrology. The interesting point is that this kind of superstition is so tenacious that it could persist through so many centuries.

Very truly yours,

(Signed, ‘A. Einstein’)

Professor Albert Einstein.

Fuck Louis Farrakhan

March 2, 2010

If you want to take the title as endorsement of the violent rape of the Nation of Islam leader, I can’t stop you from interpreting that way. From the Associated Press:

“The word ‘prophet’ is too cheap a word. I am a light in the midst of darkness,” Farrakhan said at the annual convention of the movement that embraces black nationalism. “It ain’t ego, it’s my love for you.”

Get that? He’s not egotistical at all. Farrakhan being a “light in the midst of darkness” is really just about his love for others, and not about his ego. Because his love for you is just that special, which itself is also not egotistical. How dare you suggest such a thing?

Farrakhan spent most of the fiery nearly four-hour speech recounting a 1985 vision he had in Mexico. Farrakhan has often described how he believes he was invited aboard an unidentified flying object he calls “the wheel” where he said he heard the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad speak to him.

Putting the UFO aside for a minute, a four hour speech? Really? Is that necessary? Hasn’t this deity punished people enough? I’m no big fan of the soundbite culture but sitting around listening to this nonsense for four fucking hours has got to qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. Concision can be a good thing sometimes.

And plus I love it when these guys use this kind of synergy of woo. It’s not enough for this to just be about talking to dead people, or for it to just be about a UFO abduction, or for it to just be about seeing the future (Farrakhan claims this incident “led him to inklings of future events,” in the language of the article cited above); it has to be about all of them at once. And it’s not even just those things, because he also seems to think that the Chilean earthquake is an indication of future political problems for Obama. Oh yeah, also white people are plotting against him, too. Nice.

UPDATE: The Young Turks reported on this (after me):


Stay Puft Marshmallow Man Did 9/11

February 11, 2010

I’m starting my own 9/11 conspiracy theory.

It all started when I just read about new aerial pictures NIST released of the terrorist attacks. Here is one of them:

Now, look a little closer and you can see some pareidolia:

Now who does that remind you of? Maybe another known attacker of New York City?

I believe that settles it. We must deploy the Ghostbusters to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border immediately.

Mark Twain takes on the snake oil salesmen of his time

January 27, 2010

Mark Twain was awesome. A lot of people date the beginnings of the modern skeptical movement at around the 1970s, when Paul Kurtz was starting CSICOP, Carl Sagan started making counterarguments to the claims of Ufologists, and James Randi started offering money to people who could objectively prove paranormal claims.

But it all goes back further than that and Mark Twain is a great example. He battled the emerging Christian Science school of faith-healing in a largely unknown book, was critical of religion in general in most of his works, and was even critical of belief in free will.

So back in 1905 a patent medicine salesman sent out a leaflet (p1, p2, p3, p4)advertising his “Elixir of Life” which proposed to be able to cure meningitis and diphtheria, among other diseases of “Human, Animal, and Fowl.” I guess today they call this stuff natural supplements which detoxify your body and stimulate the immune system. But they went even further in those days by calling it the “GIVER OF LIFE EVERLASTING.”

The huckster’s problem came when he didn’t notice a prominent name on his list of recipients to his advertisement – Mark Twain’s. Or maybe he was listed under Clemens then. Anyway, Twain decided to have his secretary take dictation on a letter in response. This secretary was apparently not chosen for the job due to her stellar handwriting, so there will be a transcript after the image of the actual letter:

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

“An idiot of the 33rd degree” is one of those phrases that need to live on, so I think I’ll be borrowing that one from time to time. Anyway, Twain was probably a little agitated beyond normal by this particular ad since his daughter and son had both been killed by diseases which this product claimed the ability to cure.

Idiotic quote of the day

January 25, 2010

Usually I post quotes I admire by people I admire. This is the exact opposite. But first I have to give a little context.

This guy called Mike Adams runs this pro-quackery website called Natural News. Mike was in some kind of Twitter contest, which is serious business. PZ Myers noticed that some quacks like Mike were in the lead in the health category and encouraged his horde of followers to pharyngulate the polls in favor of Dr. Rachael Dunlop from Australia.

Well, it turns out that the people running the Twitter contest found that Mike’s votes were from new accounts on Twitter, implying at the least that his voters had signed up for Twitter exclusively in order to vote for Mike, which is against the rules. A less generous interpretation would be that they’re just sock puppet accounts.

So Mike Adams lost his shit over this internet contest and made some really funny/pathetic attempts at analyzing the methods and perspectives of skeptics. He claimed to have researched, but doesn’t cite any sources. Orac had a good way to describe it – he is a “pyromaniac in a field of straw men.” PZ also responded, as did Steven Novella. Everyone’s having fun with this Adams character’s apparent mental breakdown. Good times for all.

Now Mike has a new response to the responses, which is even more hysterical (in more ways than one). And here’s where we get to the idiotic quote of the day:

“One such skeptic accused me of being a quack because he said that I believe “water is magical.” Was that supposed to be an insult? I do think water is magical!

I think pregnancy is magical. Human consciousness is magical. Plant life is magical. And water is at the very top of the list of magical substances with amazing, miraculous properties, many of which have yet to be discovered.”

The thing is that we have a pretty good idea of how pregnancy, human consciousness, plant life, and water work, and none of those things require any magic to be explained. And on the latter “point,” (and I’m using that term in the loosest possible sense) I wonder how Mike here knows that water has these “amazing miraculous properties” if, by his own admission and in his own words, those same properties are “yet to be discovered.”

The problem with hypothetical properties which have yet to be discovered is that they appear in exactly the same way as properties which don’t actually exist, regardless of how magical and miraculous they might or might not be. What a sad and miserable existence this Mike person must have to need to believe in magic to have any meaning in his life at all – which is obvious from reading the rest of his gibberish.