Ghost Haunts Dumbells, Say Dumbells

September 27, 2008

Little needs to be said about this story, other than to wonder how this stuff manages to percolate up to top news sites like Fox, where a vague blob moving around in some security camera footage of a gym gets dubbed a “possible fitness phantom.”

Look: I know it’s too much to ask the news for “objectivity” or “balance” these days, but you’d think that the one thing news reporters should be good at is investigative skepticism. The FoxNews story says that a security company has ruled “out insects, dust and headlights from the outside” as the cause for the artifact (note that the original story doesn’t say any such thing.) How? It looks exactly like the standard “bug on the lens” effect: so how is that being “ruled out?”


Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

Read the rest of this entry »


I’m NOT looking forward to Bill Maher’s Religulous Film

June 15, 2008

Bill MaherOv vey…

In case you haven’t heard, comedian and Politically Incorrect/Real Time host Bill Maher has a new film headed to theaters: a com-ockumentary of sorts called Religulous, in which he sets out to explore, and generally ridicule, the silliness of religious practice and belief.

Now, it’d be rather silly for me to complain about someone criticizing religious beliefs. Or even poking a bit of admittedly underhanded fun at all things theological. But I still can’t in good conscience look at this film with anything other than apprehension…

Read the rest of this entry »


Possible McCain Veep Pick Struggled With Daemons: Literally

June 11, 2008

We’re talking here about Bobby Jindal, the young Republican governor of Louisiana… and apparently once an amateur exorcist and faith healer. He even, according to an essay he once wrote, may have cured cancer!

In any case, Talking Points Memo has the whole story, complete with Jindal’s bizarre narrative.

Whenever I concentrated long enough to begin prayer, I felt some type of physical force distracting me. It was as if something was pushing down on my chest, making it very hard for me to breathe. . . Though I could find no cause for my chest pains, I was very scared of what was happening to me and Susan. I began to think that the demon would only attack me if I tried to pray or fight back; thus, I resigned myself to leaving it alone in an attempt to find peace for myself.

Hmmm.. not exactly the sort of heroic character we might expect from a future Vice President: quietly hiding in a corner, hoping the demon would concentrate on consuming his friend instead of noticing him.

At least he managed to cure cancer while he was at it:

“When the operation occurred, the surgeons found no traces of cancerous cells. Susan claimed she had felt healed after the group prayer and can remember the sensation of being ‘purified.'”

Anyway, do read the whole thing (or, at least, all the excerpts that TPM supplies).

I very much hope for Jindal’s sake that there’s more, in the complete context of the essay, that moderates some of this extremely silly stuff, or that Jindal has a more adult and lighthearted take on things today. But this is a pretty powerful reminder of the fact that many people sincerely believe that human problems can be due to the influence of invisible spirits who are, for some reason, allergic to the Bible.

Now, you’d think that if anyone would be open to demonic possession and thus allergic to the Bible, it’d be us atheists. And yet, suspiciously, it only seems to be people brought up in vivid and violently obsessive religious traditions that are ever inclined to act out these sorts of exorcism events. Meanwhile, I can touch and read the Bible just fine without breaking out into sweats, hives, or obscenities. Maybe I’m just possessed by an exceptionally polite demon?

Or maybe we non-believers are just so gosh darn bad that demons don’t even waste the effort.


The New Age “Secret” in Hawaii: You Created Your Cancer Circumstance!

June 8, 2008

In my opinion, Hawaii is the best and most beautiful of our 50 states. But while I was down there blissfully schooling with reef fish, I also happened to notice that the local media seemed saturated with the New Age/New Thought nuttery known as “The Secret.” Many of its luminaries were offering talks, conferences, and workshops throughout the summer, with tickets that ran as high as $250 for “V.I.P.” seats.

For those not duly acquainted with this stuff, it’s essentially a self-help/motivational speaking movement that has proudly leaped off the deep-end with mystical pronouncements about the nature of thought and reality. Namely, they claim that the entire universe is shaped by people’s thoughts, and that a “Law of Attraction” allows you to draw the things you want to you just by thinking about them. The whole shebang is, in the end, pretty standard pseudoscience: lots of very vague claims, few falsifiable, coupled with the attitude that any skeptics are party-poopers messing up all the magic with their negative nancyings.

Wishing got me this hatAnyway, one of Hawaii’s local papers featured an interview with one Mike Dooley “former Hawaii Marine brat,” former tax accountant, T-shirt salesman, and now multi-million dollar motivational mufti for the Secret movement. His trademark idea is that “Thoughts Become Things.” He even, without any sense of self-parody, has some sort of super-adventure club called TUT.com to promote it.

How did he come to conclude that he (and maybe you, if you can afford the 130$ workshop) could recreate reality with his mind?

Not finding answers in the mainstream, including the religion I belong to [I was] a good old Catholic boy. I was left to draw conclusions–deductive reasoning. For instance, [that] we’re powerful, loved, eternal, that time space must be illusions. These were my inner suspicions. We are divine creators. What we focus on, we ultimately manifest. Books helped me confirm my inner suspicions about life.”

I’m not sure how or why “deductive reasoning” got downgraded to “inner suspicion” halfway through this paragraph, but the idea that time and space are “illusions” is a pretty darn extravagant claim. And it’s one that I’m not so sure you can use an “inner suspicion” to discern the truth of. Entirely within the confines of your own mind, it’s perfectly possible to think of the universe, and everything that happens in it, as illusion. That’s because it’s the ultimate in unfalsifiable beliefs: any possible evidence to the contrary can simply be classified as part of the illusion.

But what does it really mean to assert that time and space are a mirage… and then try to simply move on from there as a being within that false reality? If everything is fake, what’s real, and how does Dooley know?

Worse still, Dooley promotes his approach by insisting that his method can deliver all sorts of material wants: money, cars, worldly success. But that’s bizarrely out of step with his own philosophical assertions. If reality is a distracting illusion, then all these physical goodies would themselves also be a distracting illusion. What sense does it make to declare reality a complete fantasy and then spend so much time demanding cold hard cash out of it? At least when most Buddhists tell people to let go of any attachment to existence, they mean it whole-heartedly: not merely as a means to a materialist payday.

So, while Dooley calls his insights a philosophy, insisting that what he’s selling is neither religion nor a cult (and thus wonderfully compatible with either), it’s a woefully incomplete and vague sort of philosophy. This is especially so when he runs up against the obvious problem with his few coherent claims: if people create their own reality, then why would anyone choose to suffer? Wouldn’t this mean that individuals are all 100% to blame for any circumstance they find themselves in? When you get sick, is it merely because of a lack of will? Are cancer patients to blame for their colon killing them and their chemo treatments torturing them?

Well, according to Dooley, in addition to the Law of Attraction, there are “other parameters, none of which take away our power, but do explain the disparity we see in the world.” He doesn’t list any, or explain them further. Instead, he sort of slides around the implication without really answering it:

“Fault is not a word that would be used spiritually. We choose our lives, the stage, knowing ahead of time that there could be hardships. Irrelevant of the circumstances, we are creators. Why was such a circumstance created. Every person that has cancer has it with their own intents, rationale, and motivation. To say “Is it their fault?” is taking the whole thing out of context. They are master creators. There are reasons. Whether or not those reasons can be pinpointed doesn’t take away our ability to recognize that we are creators and that things do not happen to us by chance or accident.” (emphasis added)

“There are reasons”? We have cancer with “our own intents”? I’m not sure what the heck that means, but it sure sounds like cancer patients are indeed due little sympathy for their self-inflicted sufferings.

Give me old-time theodicy any day of the week. It doesn’t make any sense either, but at least it isn’t quite as vague and off-the-cuff.

Why isn’t “fault” a word that can be “used spiritually” anyway? We’re back to my usual complaint here: tossing the word “spiritual” or “supernatural” into a concept does not magically alleviate one’s need to explain what the heck you’re claiming is going on. Or, in this case, why a concept like “fault” can’t apply to the idea of people apparently choosing their circumstances. And it doesn’t explain how Dooley can know or “recognize” that nothing happens by “chance or accident.”

Traditional motivational speakers don’t dabble in metaphysics like this: they teach people how to improve on their circumstances, find explanations for things after the fact, repurpose lemons into Fruitopia. They teach positive thinking because it can help lead one to more positive behavior, not because it’s some sort of magic incantation.

I know enough about even the traditional “self-help” methods and movements to be highly skeptical of them, and advise the same skepticism for others. But the kooky claims of this Secret stuff positively scream “scam.”


Real Space Alien To Be Shown On Video Friday! Wooooo!

May 29, 2008

Jeff Peckman is a fan of big government. Last time we heard from him, he was trying to enlist the state in yoga and meditation to reduce stress. But now state meddling in mere human endeavors isn’t enough: he’s petitioning for the creation of an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission to help the city of Denver prepare for alien encounters.

He’s serious. And now he claims that he’ll have video to prove it. The public will have only to wait until next month to see this groundbreaking scientific discovery, supposedly authenticated by a Colorado Film School “instructor.” I’m not sure how even a real expert on film could do anything more than make sure that a video didn’t have any post-processed trickery. But given what Peckman claims the video shows…

“It shows an extraterrestrial’s head popping up outside of a window at night, looking in the window, that’s visible through an infrared camera,” he said. The alien is about 4 feet tall and can be seen blinking, Peckman said earlier this month.

… I’m betting “dude in a costume” and “random animal” are likely possibilities.

I hope the “news media” who will get to see the footage at a special showing tomorrow come to the event with their skepti-senses tingling, or else we’re in for a whole heck of a lot of breathlessly silly “off-beat” news pieces that take the video half-seriously.

Update: Phil Plait dissects the video by pointing out that a known fake video looks far more compelling than the real one.


The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.


Totally Made Up, Unilateral Blog Carnival! (And a Tiny Bit on Expelled!)

March 27, 2008

It’s time for another survey of stuff worth reading on the internet, so let’s pretend that I’m hosting some sort of esoteric Blog Carnival. Topic? ME! (And for those readers who are getting sick of Expelled musings, good news: I’ve exiled them to the end of this post)

Anyway, let’s get this thing started with a review of the home-birth-homage film “The Business of Being Born” from someone who might know a little about the subject: family practice doc Harriet Hall. Personally, I think she’s nuts to worry about all the hospital-hate in the film. Doctors are dangerous! That’s why I’m planning on going for an “all-natural” coronary artery bypass when my time comes.

Next, Ed Darrell over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub points us towards both Cracked list of 11 Movies Saved by Historical Inaccuracy (in which we learn that Mel Gibson’s Patriot hero was, in real life, a notorious slave rapist) and Yahoo’s own similar listing of Greatest Historical Goofups (in which we learn that Mel Gibson’s Braveheart hero would have had to have sex with a three year old to make any sense). Both lists need to apologize for the ridiculousness of calling 2001: A Space Odyssey “historically” inaccurate. It’s called Science-FICTION, guys.

Over at Exploring Our Matrix, religious religion prof James F. McGrath asks “Can (the story of) Noah’s Ark Be Saved?” I’m not sure if his answer is yes or no, exactly but I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s the right answer. The stories of Noah and Job cannot be reconciled any better to modern morals than they can to modern science. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn things from them (whether believers learning about God, or even non-believers learning about believers).

Then we have Hemant at Friendly Atheist who sees Jesus everywhere he looks. Fair warning though: be prepared to squint.

To pad out my fake Carnival, I’ll also note Bug Girl’s submission to the all-too-real 83rd Skeptic’s Circle/Carnival. The title is simply irresistible: Pubic Lice: “Sea monkeys in your pants” Speaks for itself, right?

Finally, if you want to know more about my sense of humor, here’s Exhibit A: new internet sensations FAIL blog and Stuff White People Like.

Oh, and in case you yourself had PHAILed to notice it, that big honking graphic over on the top right goes to Expelled Exposed, the soon-to-be official National Center for Science Education response to that expelled movie thingy everyone has been going on and on about. I highly recommend other bloggers doing something similarly prominent to get the word out: feel free to steal my graphic if you’re lazy.

It’s also worth noting that, for some unknown reason, this teensy blog is actually the or at least amongst the top results when you search for information on the film, which is pretty odd, because I almost never post about the darn thing. While I’m flattered, Internet, I can’t help but think that other science sites should be up there instead.

Finally, as I noted over at Skepchick, what is probably one of the most crucial Google search terms in this little PR war, “expelled movie,” didn’t have a single critical, pro-science site on the all-important first page of results. But then, lo and behold, the very day after I complain about it, Phil Plait and I break into the big time! Somehow, I have gained the power to move digital mountains.

Beware!


Think You Can See the Dead? Skeptics Can’t Wait to Test Your Brain and Find Out

March 12, 2008

One of my favorite articles of blogging past was the piece I did on “Spiritualism Camps” in which I mused over just how it was that a camp counselor medium like Judy Ulch could litterally see “stubble on their faces” of ghosts.  Just today I received the first and only comment on the piece… and was given a terrible review.  “Jean” even said that I looked stupid: trying to apply scientific hypothesizing to spirits, pshaw!  I’m crushed.

Of course, Jean was apparently so outraged by the mere idea of examining spiritual phenomenon that she didn’t bother to read far enough to see all her complaints addressed.  And her post did spark an bright idea of bloggy  back-issue synergism.

You see, just last week I came across a story about some scientists at Berkeley who are working on an MRI technique that could potentially allow scientists to reconstruct the images that a brain is seeing. Now, for mediums like Judy Ulch to be registering anything ghostly as a visual image at all, let alone something detailed enough to have distinct facial features, it almost certainly has to show up in her brain.  And if we can reconstruct that image… well you probably see where I’m going with this.  If we can see what they see, then we can see if they really see what they say they see.  See?

Of course, most mediums will probably balk at the very idea of testing their powers of paranormal perception in such a definitive fashion, and are as unlikely to let scientists strap them into an MRI machine set up in the middle of an Indian burial ground as they were to take James Randi’s million dollar challenge.

Which is a sad thing really.  If spirits really did exist, and mediums really could perceive them, then even a failure in this case could teach us all something.  That is, if a ghostly visage fails to appear on the processed MRI scan at the moment the medium claims to see one, then at the very least we’ve been able to rule out yet another false model of how spirit images work.  We could rule out all sorts of things in fact:

  • The possibility that mediums have special rods and cones in their eyes that allow them to detect spiritual radiation.
  • That any kind of optical image (light waves hit the ghost, bounce off, are captured by human eyes, etc.) is involved at all.
  • That mediums are really “seeing” the ghosts in any meaningful sense, as opposed to the ghostly gaze being somehow superimposed onto the mental results of regular vision.

And of course, there’s always the possibility that spirits would show up on the MRI technique, in which case mediums would be vindicated and heralded as ingenious and overlooked pioneers in a entirely new realm of scientific exploration.

I’m game.  I bet most skeptics would be.  All we have to lose is the money for the use of the machine.  What we have to gain, however, is knowledge, one way or the other.  Sounds good to me.

So how about it, mediums?  Ready to do your part for human knowledge?


Randi’s 1 Million Dollar Skeptical Challenge to End in 2 years: What Will Woo Do?

January 6, 2008

I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true: James Randi’s famous 1 million dollar challenge now has a final deadline, after which it will be discontinued.

When I first heard about this, I was sad and a little disappointed. But on second thought, it’s really a pretty smart move. In theory, the challenge was a brilliant way to tell psychics and other woo-meisters to put up or shut up. But the reality has played out differently:

Our expectations at first were that we’d attract major personalities by this means, but they’ve avoided having to take the test by simply not applying; those who have actually applied are generally honestly self-deluded persons who have difficulty stating what they can do, which can be understood if they really don’t know what they’re experiencing; we at JREF have gone through involved procedures to help them recognize their problems. Usually, they have indicated that they don’t know what real scientific rules are, when it comes down to their actually being properly tested.

Early this year, Randi and the other folks at the JREF decided to face facts: things weren’t working as planned, and something had to be done. Mystics, astrologers, psychics, John Edward, Sylvia Browne, dowsers, and all the rest were basically just getting away with dismissive technicalities and giving implausible excuses and then dropping the subject. Originally, the plan was to change the rules to screen out mentally ill applicants and target celebrity woo-meisters more directly, something that was done last March.

This is really just a more dramatic move in that direction: think of it not as the challenge giving up, but rather as giving paranormalists a hard deadline. Randi will now be able to go on Larry King and put it pretty pointedly: the test is ending and you’d better get in gear and step up to the challenge instead of endlessly putting it off with excuses. It’s now or never: will you step up to the challenge? Or will you continue to run away and make excuses?

Once the prize expires, it will also put a nice solid period on the whole affair. For ten years, a million dollars was held out to paranormalists of all stripes. A million dollars that they could have just won and then given to charity if they had pleased. Or spend on promoting this amazing new insight into reality that had so far eluded all scientists and other natural observers. All they had to do was show their abilities under controlled conditions, where cheating and other non-supernatural forces were controlled for. And no one could do it: no one could even come close.

Or can they? Two years is a long time to prepare. If you can move things with your mind, if you can predict the future, if you can even see an aura: now is the time to prove it. All you need to do is get a local media outlet or other qualifying skeptics group to check out and report on/preliminarily witness a demonstration of your power in action. The rules are simple, sensible, and open to public scrutiny. We’re waiting… but now we won’t be waiting forever…


Skeptic Beats Psychics on Year End Predictions

December 25, 2007

Skeptico has been looking back over the decidedly non-psychic predictions he made on January 1st of last year, and has concluded that with just a little common sense and guesswork, he’s got alleged professional psychics beat.

Now, the cynics among you will probably say I ignored the predictions I got wrong and just concentrated on the hits. Well, I never claimed to be 100% accurate. And as Sylvia Browne said, only God is 100% accurate. Others may say that some of the predictions weren’t really that surprising. Well, at least I didn’t predict that Tiger Woods would win a golf tournament.

Of course, making obvious predictions, and then counting the hits and not the misses, is all that professional psychics do anyway. And I still think I did better than them. Remember that when, this year, we get the same bunch of lame playing the odds guesses, reprinted uncritically by a gullible media. And although these “psychic predictions” might look like just a bit of fun, remember that uncritically reporting this nonsense as if it were real gives cover for vultures like Browne to prey on the recently bereaved. They also waste police time by forcing them to follow up their made-up psychic “impressions”. I did better than any of them by just guessing.

So if you’re wondering what 2008 will bring, the lesson here is to do yourself a favor and just think about it. Or, better yet, go out and make it happen (like whomever got Christina Aguilera pregnant did). And if you positively, absolutely must give someone money to make up amazing “paranormal” predictions off the top of their heads, get a skeptic. We’re much better at it!


Carl Sagan Blog-a-thon Today: Celebrating a Scientist and Inspiration

December 20, 2007

Surf through the scienceblog world, and you might find a number of reflections on a man who is a hero to many: Carl Sagan. Today is the 10th anniversary of his passing, and among other things, a blog-a-thon is being held in his memory.

I touched on Sagan a little bit in my post “Scientists May Have Already Saved the World, Just by Observing It!“… and if you somehow managed to get through life this far without hearing his short “Pale Blue Dot” speech, you owe it to yourself to check that video out (it’s the last video on that page, and you can find many versions of it on youtube.

I’m too young to really remember Sagan as a cultural force, and in some sense it seems like the decade I’ve been most active and aware of science and culture in is a lot poorer after his passing. My take on the man, looking back rather than remembering, is sadness that there has not really been anyone in the popular culture to take his place. There are tons of fantastic science journalists and bloggers and writers and even popularizers like Bill Nye out there today, many of whom owe their careers to the wonder that Sagan sparked in them. But there’s been so far no one to replace him as a singular public figure and advocate.

Some things can’t be replaced.