Extraordinary Claims

Extraordinary claimsAs the poster for the Centre for Inquiry notes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a popular catchphrase for the skeptical movement, but should be an intellectual policy for everyone.

Regardless of what is being claimed, it requires evidence at the same level of the claim.

Anecdote is not evidence, please note, especially personal anecdote even with the corroboration of other witnesses. People often “see” what they choose to see, and interpret events and objects according to preconceived ideas. Seeing UFOs instead of ordinary aircraft, or chemtrails instead of mundane contrails are examples of this. Evidence is something concrete; a body of facts, not simply interpretation or disingenuous claim.

The Centre lists many claims as the poster indicates – a list that continues to grow – along with a brief introduction to each: claims, evidence and conclusion. Some like leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, dragons and Xenu seem pretty obviously mythological or (like Xenu) totally fabricated. Others will certainly raise an argument among some religious believers  or the superstitious – angels, magic, Heaven, hell, the afterlife and similar religious topics included (it does not yet list Santa Claus, but I expect it will come)..

As RationalWiki puts it,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. It is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.

The actual phrase was coined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, but it has been around in other forms for several centuries. In his 1748 work, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (chap. 10.4.), David Hume wrote:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Simply because a lot of people believe in something, or accept it as factual doesn’t mean it is true. In a letter to Adam Smith, Hume wrote:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude…

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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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Comets, Aliens and Conspiracy Wingnuts

Image from RosettaThe European Space Agency has accomplished one of the greatest engineering and scientific achievements in human history this past week. Not only did it get a space vehicle into orbit around a comet travelling at more than 55,000 km/hr (34,000 mph), it landed a probe on the very rough surface of that comet. Outstanding, brilliant, superb… the superlatives fail me when trying to describe this event.

The Rosetta spacecraft chased Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for ten years (since March, 2004) travelling almost four billion miles (6.4 b km) to rendezvous with the small chunk of icy rock, currently about 510 million kilometres away from Earth.

The rubber-duck-shaped comet is about 2.5 miles across at its widest: a tiny body compared to even a  mid-sized asteroid, and it’s blacker than coal. Even finding it in the emptiness of space is a remarkable feat, let alone establishing an orbit around it and sending back stunning photographs. But if that isn’t incredible enough, yesterday Rosetta deployed Philae, a tiny lander, to settle on the rapidly rotating comet, to take photos and conduct experiments – a feat so remarkable it defies description.

This is the sort of scientific effort we should be celebrating worldwide, shouting about it from the rooftops. But apparently the wingnut crowd has a different view. They think it’s an alien spacecraft the ESA is secretly monitoring (with the nefarious military and secret government agencies, of course).

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theorists “identified” UFOs, towers and alien monuments, faces, radio towers and even a pyramid in the photos broadcast from the comet. The internet is polluted with this kind of nonsense.

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The Ebola Panic

Jenny McCarthyEbola has gripped the imagination of North American media and been spun into a terrifying spectre looming like a horseman of the apocalypse over us. So widespread has it become that Jenny McCarthy, one of the top wingnuts of quackery and pseudomedicine, and poster girl for the pro-measles-pro-mumps parents, felt compelled to pipe up with her own “cure,” should it spread to the USA:

Lemon juice.

Yep. Wonder how the scientists missed that one. A quick trip to the grocery store and you’re immune. Safe easy and natural!

Well, okay, she didn’t really say that. It was from a story posted on The Daily Currant, a satirical website and shared on social media as if it was a real story. Not even McCarthy is that moronic. I hope (it’s hard to tell…).

The same site also had stories titled, Sarah Palin: ‘Can Obama Stop The Ebola Zombies?’ and “Justin Bieber Hospitalized With Ebola” and Ann Coulter: ‘Give Ebola to Migrant Children’.

That doesn’t mean the wingnut crowd McCarthy belongs to hasn’t been busy spinning its nonsense. There has been the usual pile of steaming codswallop coming from the conspiracists about ebola as with chemtrails, morgellons and the New World Order. It’s been called a hoax on the loony tune sites. And on one a government population control device:

A buzzword around the internet lately, describes that the US government has either bought or created patents of a virus “called” ebola (not necessarily the same as the original from 1976), and is being used for either population control or as a bio-weapon for use on foreign powers that the government is at war with.

I know, I know: who comes up with this irresponsible, paranoid madness? (Apparently the scare/hoax/conspiracies are fueled by a profit motive… at least in part.)

The point is that ebola – a few years ago barely known outside the virus hunters of the CDC – is now a household word and a hot topic on social media. It scares people (and clearly befuddles the wingnuts). So much so that Ann Coulter, harridan for the Tea Party actually did chime in on it (although she lacks any knowledge about medicine or science to justify her comments), albeit to use it as a platform to launch another anti-Obama-pro-white-racist attack:

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter on Wednesday joined the bandwagon of right-wing critics questioning why President Barack Obama hasn’t instituted a travel ban for the African countries battling the Ebola epidemic — perhaps with the goal of preventing those who are infected from getting “free medical treatment” here in the U.S

Calling Coulter a pundit is obviously sarcasm; Salon more fittingly calls her a “professional troll.”
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Those Crazy Creationists

Alien JesusI know, I know, it’s the proverbial fish in a barrel when you critique creationists. They are just so easy to mock. But how can you help yourself when someone like Ken Ham opens his mouth in public? The media just love to pounce all over him. He must take his lessons in PR from Ann Coulter. And like with Ann, the controversy probably helps sell his books.

(And, from what I see, selling books is really what Ken is all about. But that’s not the point of this post.)*

Ken’s latest foray into looniness – a territory he has already explored well and thoroughly – came in reports of his demand for NASA to end the space program searching for signs of alien life because all aliens are going to Hell.

Well, that’s not exactly what he said. But he implied it when he wrote,

“…any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation… You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation. One day, the whole universe will be judged by fire, and there will be a new heavens and earth… An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam.”

The theological argument might be a tad complex for an audience decreasingly schooled in complex ideas and critical thinking, and increasingly schooled in wardrobe malfunctions and nipple slips as “newsworthy” content, so the media boiled it down to a rather simplistic idea. I mean, after all, if you’re saved, you go to heaven, right? So logically in the Christian cosmos where do you go if you’re not saved? Right: hell.

No, Ham didn’t use those exact words, but it’s not hard to get the inference from what he did say. (and he’s almost mild compared to some of his fellow religionists – some Christians  won’t even admit other Christians into their heaven if they aren’t of the same denomination! I suppose it’s not terribly crowded up there, and the line-up for an espresso will be short…)

Aliens, therefore, are all doomed, just as much as any Earthy sinners (not to mention those of other religions or denominations), because Jesus couldn’t save them. Why not? Because Jesus was the saviour for this world only, not other worlds. So any ETs are doomed. Q.E.D.

Well, that is if there are aliens. Ham doesn’t actually believe in them – in fact he doesn’t believe in ANY sort of life outside this planet – and roundly criticized NASA for, as he sees it, wasting millions of dollars in a futile search for non-existent alien life. According to the HuffPost:

…Ham, president and CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., said we probably are alone. He wrote “earth was specially created,” and the entire hunt for extraterrestrials is “really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!”

Gosh, our desperate attempt to prove a scientific fact. We’re all damned. Just like ET. Well, maybe not Ham and his fellow creationists, I presume.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkEtCunmFeU]

To be fair, Ken made a video after his original post, this time encouraging NASA to continue its search (i.e. continue to waste money) because it would prove creationists right by not finding extraterrestrial life:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ecwQ2UEO3Q]
You have to chuckle over the prop. Looking for aliens in the midday sun using a hobbyist telescope. Cute.

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Chemtrails: yet more conspiracy claptrap

Clueless wingnutsA bit of simple math was used to debunk the chemtrail nonsense conspiracy recently. Over at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s website there’s a great piece explaining why there simply aren’t enough pilots, planes or chemicals for the chemtrail silliness to be true:

A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.

Unless a plane could make multiple runs per day, a true chemtrail conspiracy would need 2,700 times as many 747s as have ever been constructed.

And the article continues deconstructing the numbers and shredding the conspiracy. As have so many clear-headed writers in the recent past, all of whom are ignored by the True Believers in this, the nuttiest of  notions.

I wonder if the woman holding the sign in the photo above realizes her tautology. Yes, anyone who is “aware of” (i.e. believes in) chemtrails will be sickened the same way medieval people were infected with disease by believing in demons and fairies as their cause. Belief doesn’t define truth nor does believing in an untruth make it a truth, no matter how many wingnuts believe it.

Despite all the science and the math, despite the explanations, despite careful and considered debunking by people who have experience, education, doctorates and degrees, and basic common sense, chemtrail conspiracists continue their madcap race to prove facts, science and logic don’t matter on the internet. On the internet what matters is being able to have your say, no matter how stupid, pointless or wrong. And to say it more stridently than the level-headed, reasonable folks.

It’s a race to the bottom. Who will get there first: New World Order conspiractists, 9/11 conspiracists, reptoid consipracists, Bigfoot conspiracists, anti-vaccine conspiracists… and with them run the believers in the Illuminati, angels, ghosts, creationism, flat Earth, geocentric universe, homeopathy, reptilians, Atlantis, Lemuria, UFOs? The Net is laden with such claptrap. The tin-foil-hat brigade on the march, defending people from reason.

Why do people need to believe in this stuff? Superstition and gullibility can’t account for all the believers. Nor all those folk who get hoodwinked into tagging along with the bandwagons. In part it’s because the technology of social media allows those bandwagons to roll easily along without the annoying hindrance of science, common sense or critical thinking.

Eric Hoffer wrote in his book, Reflections on the Human Condition,(1973):

One wonders whether a generation that demands instant satisfaction of all its needs and instant solution of the world’s problems will produce anything of lasting value. Such a generation, even when equipped with the most modern technology, will be essentially primitive – it will stand in awe of nature, and submit to the tutelage of medicine men.

Saner and better-educated people than I have debunked this nonsense many times in the past, and will continue to do so, but unfortunately they are outnumbered by the very vocal, very loud wingnuts who help spread this mind-eating crap. So buckle in and read the rest.

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Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter

Crazy notionsThe headline for this piece comes from a recent article in Time Magazine: “Dear CNN: Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter.” The article isn’t – as you might have thought – about local bloggers. It’s about critical thinking. Or rather, the lack of it, on CNN’s part.The lack of it on the part of local bloggers I’ll save for another day.

CNN has been running almost non-stop coverage of the plane’s disappearance, repeating in endless loops the same, paltry information they have, then trying to spin that into yet another story. It’s obsessed with the disappearance, to the point where CNN has been mocked by other media for its coverage.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krFN7jHKNNo]

CNN ran a poll about the missing Malaysian airliner. Most of which, as the Time article points out, is moot. And one of the questions was whether or not aliens or time travellers hijacked the plane.

So CNN issued the results of a poll today about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Should the search continue? Are the searchers looking in the right area? Oh, and could the plane’s vanishing have been caused by “space aliens, time travelers or beings from another dimension“? (At least “somewhat likely,” said 9%.)

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The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement

Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

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Conspiracy Theories: 2014 Update

Conspiracy theoriesIt’s time to update a piece I wrote in December, 2012, outlining the secret deals, backroom negotiations and “barbecue politics” that our council has been involved in since that date, more than a year ago.

So here comes the update, the emperor without his clothes:

  • Secret meetings: none
  • Backroom negotiations: none
  • Barbecue deals: none

Sorry, I know this is a disappointment to local conspiracy theorists and bloggers, coming hard on the failure of the world to end as per the Mayan Calendar, or the failure of any number of predicted ends of the world, coupled with the lack of any substantial conspiracy proof against council despite dozens (hundreds?) of Freedom of Information Act requests filed (sorry if the clerk didn’t tell you what sort of lubricant one councillor uses on his chair, though…).

Aliens didn’t make contact in 2013. Bigfoot wasn’t found. Tom Cruise is still in Scientology. Stephen Harper didn’t quit politics and join a monastery. Council didn’t hold any secret meetings.

It was a tough year for psychics and conspiracy theorists alike.

Back at the end of 2012, I wrote:

I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s going to happen now. We’re sticking stubbornly to the oath. Not only that, we brought in an Integrity Commissioner to ensure the public knows we stay on the straight and narrow.

I also wrote then:

I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”

Not to mention a rather stern CAO who has little tolerance for inappropriate behaviour by councillors, no matter how well-meaning.

Political conspiracy theories get spun by those who don’t participate in or understand how the process of governance works. And like all conspiracy theories ever coined, despite lack of proof, they keep resurfacing and circulating among people who are sure that their government – any level of government – is up to no good.

Clandestine meetings and secret deals  are more exciting, more titillating to believe in than the rather pedestrian, but convoluted process of governance.

You think the truth is out there? The way to find out is to get involved. Working on a committee or sitting at the council table sure strips you of your illusions about government conspiracies. At the very least, sit down with someone who is involved and ask how things work.
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Debunking the Adam Bridge

 

 

Adam's bridgeA story popped up on the internet in late 2013, recycled in early 2014, claiming “NASA Images Find 1.7 Million Year Old Man-Made Bridge.” Claptrap. It’s not a bridge. It’s simply a natural tombolo: “a deposition landform in which an island is attached to the mainland by a narrow piece of land such as a spit or bar.”

The conspiracy theorists and some religious fundamentalists disagree.

It’s been called the Adam bridge, the Rama, Sethu (also Rama Setu – setu is Sanskrit for bridge), Ramar and the  Hanuman bridge, and Setubandhanam.

According to the legends in the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic poem, it was

…built by the Vanara (ape men) army of Lord Rama in Hindu theology with instructions from Nala, which he used to reach Lanka and rescue his wife Sita from the Rakshasa king, Ravana.

It’s a twisting stretch of shoal  and sandbank in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, about 18 miles (30km) long (depending on where you measure from, it can be reported as long as 35km). At high tide, the water is about 12 feet (4m) deep on average (apparently it ranges from 1m up to 10m deep in some places). The chain of shoals is roughly 300 feet (100m) wide.

It was reportedly passable on foot up to the 15th century until storms deepened the channel: temple records seem to say that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it broke in a cyclone in 1480 CE.

Let’s clear the first fallacy right away: the discovery of the “bridge” isn’t new, nor did NASA recently “discover” it in a photograph. Wikipedia tells us:

The western world first encountered it in “historical works in the 9th century” by Ibn Khordadbeh in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms (c. AD 850), referring to it is Set Bandhai or “Bridge of the Sea”. Later, Alberuni described it. The earliest map that calls this area by the name Adam’s bridge was prepared by a British cartographer in 1804, probably referring to an Abrahamic myth, according to which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain (identified with Adam’s Peak) in Sri Lanka, where he stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint.

The tombolo was photographed by NASA’s Gemini missions back in 1966 (photo here). However, that was before the internet existed to let wild and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories go viral.

Another NASA mission in 2002 produced a second photograph of the region (photo here) which, of course, spun the online conspiracy theorists off on a wild goose chase trying to “prove” it was the remains of a human-made structure connecting Sri Lanka with India.

Well, it isn’t. Wikipedia tells us it’s long been known as a natural formation, but that geologists differ in their views as to how it formed:

In the 19th century, there were two prevalent theories explaining the structure. One considered it to be formed by a process of accretion and rising of the land, while the other surmised that it was formed by the breaking away of Sri Lanka from the Indian mainland. The friable calcerous ridges are broken into large rectangular blocks, which perhaps gave rise to the belief that the causeway is an artificial construction… which essentially consists of a series of parallel ledges of sandstone and conglomerates that are hard at the surface and grows coarse and soft as it descends to sandy banks.
Studies have variously described the structure as a chain of shoals, coral reefs, a ridge formed in the region owing to thinning of the earth’s crust, a double tombolo, a sand spit, or barrier islands. It has been reported that this bridge was formerly the world’s largest tombolo before it was split into a chain of shoals by the rise in mean sea level a few thousand years ago.
Based on satellite remote sensing data, but without actual field verification, the Marine and Water Resources Group of the Space Application Centre (SAC) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) states that Adam’s Bridge comprises 103 small patch reefs lying in a linear pattern with reef crest (flattened, emergent – especially during low tides – or nearly emergent segment of a reef), sand cays (accumulations of loose coral sands and beach rock) and intermittent deep channels…
The geological process that gave rise to this structure has been attributed in one study to crustal downwarping, block faulting, and mantle plume activity while another theory attributes it to continuous sand deposition and the natural process of sedimentation leading to the formation of a chain of barrier islands related to rising sea levels…
Another study explains the origin the structure due to longshore drifting currents which moved in an anticlockwise direction in the north and clockwise direction in the south of Rameswaram and Talaimannar. The sand was supposedly dumped in a linear pattern along the current shadow zone between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar with later accumulation of corals over these linear sand bodies… another group of geologists propose crustal thinning theory, block faulting and a ridge formed in the region owing to thinning and asserts that development of this ridge augmented the coral growth in the region and in turn coral cover acted as a `sand trapper’.

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Pyramids in the Ice: Hoax

Hoax pyramidsWhat is it about pyramids that excites the imagination? Their shape? Their size? Height? Age? The complexities and difficulties in their building? Or the sheer grandeur of them?

And what is it about them that get the cranks and conspiracy theorists so fired up? What is it about these  constructions that convince some folks they’re made by – or for – aliens? Or that there’s some bizarre coverup by governments to keep people from knowing the “truth” about them?

This week I noticed some odd search terms showing up in my stats page: “antarctica”  and “pyramids” in the same line. Not something I’d expect to see in my posts. What silliness is this, I asked myself. That’s gotta be worth exploring. And whoa! I stumbled into a major conspiracy theory I must have missed!

Antarctica, the fifth largest continent, is 98% covered in ice that averages a mile thick. It’s the coldest place on the planet, with temperatures as low as -89C (-128F).  But it wasn’t always so. The continent broke away from the Gondwanaland super-continent starting about 160 million years ago. After that it drifted until it arrived where it is and started gathering ice.

It’s been covered in ice for about 15 million years, although before that it was a fairly temperate region. During the entire, short duration of human existence (historically speaking)*, it has been an inhospitable, ice-covered place. And for most of that, it has also been bereft of human habitation.

Antarctica wasn’t even discovered until the early 19th century,although many speculated that a southern continent had to exist, simply for symmetry’s sake. But the extreme conditions, the treacherous oceans that surround it, the dangers of ice, cold and wind simply made it impossible for humans to get there without a reasonably well-built ocean craft. But we did, even though many died in the process of discovery.

Today, the continent hosts a population that ranges between 1,000 and 5,000, depending on season; mostly scientists. Today, too, you can shell out a healthy piece of cash and take a cruise ship to the Antarctic and spend a day oggling penguins or walk on an ice shelf. But you couldn’t live there easily or for long without significant effort and equipment. The rather limited food sources and complete lack of any vegetation larger than tiny, hardy plants mean you have to ship or fly in most of your food, medicine, clothing, building supplies, fuel and everything else for survival.

You can’t build pyramids there. No one can. There isn’t a lot of ground to build on – although there are small places called the Dry Valleys – and there’s no evidence that anyone dug a quarry in any of them to get the stone necessary to build a pyramid. Besides, the valleys suffer from unfortunate katabatic winds: high speed cold winds that can reach 320 km/hr. Even if you could withstand the winds, dryness and cold, you’d have to dig through a deep layer of gravel to reach bedrock – tough, ancient granite, not the easier-to-cut -and-shape limestone and sandstone used by many cultures for monuments.

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Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism

Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

Continue reading “Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism”

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