02/11/14

Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day


Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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02/1/14

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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01/10/14

2014 predictions always good for a giggle


Psychic con artistI had barely finished writing my post on the failed 2013 predictions of the self-described “psychics” and “clairvoyants” who are the media darlings du jour, when the sorry lot of charlatans published their latest lot of flim-flammery and codswallop: predictions for 2014.

These will, of course, prove as wrong as the predictions for 2013. And 2012. And 2011, And 2010, And 2009. And on and on and on.

As usual, the list of “predictions” contains a lot of vague or general statements in which an unidentified “someone” is involved – you’d think that a real clairvoyant would be able to see the name of the person, and provide a location and a date.

But that would spoil the effect – afterwards they can claim they predicted the event rather than made a vague and irrelevant statement.

It’s a con game as old as history. And some of it is just plain silly.

Like this: “Garlic is in the news.” Huh? How in the “news?” In the food section of the Star? On a supermarket tabloid page? On sale in the local grocery store flyer? When will it be “in the news”? What sort of “psychic” predicts vegetables?

Remember, these are the same folks who failed to predict the former pope resigning and the election of Pope Francis. And Lou Reed’s death. Nelson Mandela’s death. James Gandolfini’s Jean Stapleton’s and Margaret Thatcher’s death. The meteor exploding over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. Typhoon Haiyan “Yolanda”, one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record.Lac Megantic train derailment. Anything about Rob Ford.

Well, some of them now claim they predicted some and even all of these, but their predictions are curiously absent in the roundup of 2013 predictions from so-called “psychics”…

But what are minor events of this stature, anyway when we had these headline-stealing predictions happen in 2013:

  • Congress will deal with gun control: Automatic weapons and high-powered rifles, semi-automatics that belong in war zones will be removed, and only used in situations where they are absolutely necessary.
  • The spirits don’t see newly engaged Kelly Clarkson living happily ever after, but they see Justin Bieber making movies.
  • Tom Cruise will leave the church of Scientology.
  • Nuclear attack on New York.
  • Cuba and Puerto Rico becoming part of the USA.
  • A weather satellite will come crashing into a building.
  • Experimental monkeys escape from a lab causing a pandemic.
  • Giant prehistoric sea monsters under the sea.
  • A possible landing of a spaceship.
  • An attack on the Vatican and Pope.
  • An earthquake of great magnitude wiping out Mexico City.
  • A new, odd, unexpected source of fuel for cars, trucks and/or machinery is announced.
  • While I truly hope this does not occur, I foresee a medical condition that sidelines Vice President Joe Biden.
  • A plague-like pandemic affects populations in Europe and to some extent in the USA. Much of it ironically occurs in hospitals.
  • Apple announces and releases a “mini iPhone” geared toward children and also under-served populations around the world. Apple finally launches a “smart TV.”
  • Meditation proves to be the gateway to contact loved ones on the other side.
  • It will be revealed that Vice President Joe Biden has been under medical care for senile dementia. I predicted his ailment back in 2012.
  • Worldwide, we will see more mysterious mass bird deaths and tens of thousands of fish washing up on shore throughout the year. Conspiracy theories will abound.
  • The next doomsday “fad” will be solar flares.
  • Fashion tragedy: I predict the return of mesh shirts for men.
  • Israel with strike Iran with a full on attack at its nuclear programme but fail to destroy some of the more heavily entrenched facilities leaving quantities of uranium available for dirty bombs.
  • In Europe I see the start of an advertising-free search engine funded by the EU on a similar model to the BBC.
  • I see a major landslide on the English Coastline. I believe that this will be at Black Gang Chine in the Isle of Wight.
  • Families will rediscover the family dinner table.

The SnarkOkay, so none of them happened. Some of which we can be thankful for: Justin Bieber in movies and mesh shirts, for two.

But solar flares as a “fad”? Like tattoos? You have your very own? or maybe get one named after you? Hey, did you hear? Solar Flare Ian just blasted towards the Earth and is gonna disrupt all telecommunications for the next 48 hours… and by the way, Mexico City is still standing. So is New York.

And Tom Cruise? Still mired in the cult.

Families are still hunting the elusive “dinner table.” Like the hunt for El Dorado… hint: look in the dining room or the kitchen for it.

And if you’ve never read the Hunting of the Snark, you really must: it describes all too well the hunt for credible “psychics” … the Snark is a boojum, just like “psychics” are charlatans.

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12/4/13

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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09/28/13

The Unknown Monk Meme


Cisterian monksThis pseudo-poem popped up on Facebook today. It’s been around the Net for a few years, without any source attributed to the quote, but it seems to be making its comeback in the way these falsely-attributed things do:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself,
and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself,
I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and
I could indeed have changed the world.

It’s recently credited to an “unknown monk” from 1100 CE, and sometimes just to “anonymous.” Since the latter can be anyone, any time, anywhere, it’s less than helpful. Citing the source – at the very least where you found it – is helpful. Anonymous could as easily be one of those crank posters who reply to news stories with snippets about the New World Order or conjure up conspiracies about the local rec facilities.

And the monk from 1100 CE? Not likely. It reads to me like New Age piffle, something regurgitated without understanding.

So let’s look at the attribution. First 1100 CE is in the High Middle Ages. It was shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, so if the monk was in England it was a time of chaos, while the Normans dispossessed the English aristocracy (those few left) and took the lands for themselves.

Not as much secular literature survives from that era as religious writing, in large part because the majority of literate people were in the church. Keep in mind that everything was handwritten, mostly on sheepskin: vellum or parchment. Printing was another 450 years away.

The 12th century literature shows nothing like this “poem” anywhere.

Second, a monk would have practiced asceticism, a lifestyle…

…characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.

Celibacy was one of those practices. Hence the monk would not likely have had his own family – wife and children. Parents of course, but likely left behind at an early age to be a novice initiate. How much “impact” – a word that didn’t appear in English until 1601, derived from the Latin impactus: to push against (not the same meaning as today’s usage) – a child could have had on his family is unclear, but I’m guessing little.

We of course don’t know if this alleged monk came from a wealthy or poor family. If the latter, their impact on their town – more likely a village  at that time – would likely have been minimal at best, non-existent at worst. Twelfth century village life isn’t what we think of today. There was no central governing body like a municipal council. All land was owned by the lord, and villagers rented from him. Those who were free and not bound to service:

The 12th Century society and village
What defined your status in medieval England was whether you were free or unfree, and how much land you had.
Some rough proportions: About -
15% of people were free
40% of people were Villani (villeins) – they had substantial land (c. 30 acres) but owed service
35% were cottars or bordars – unfree, less land
10% were slaves or as near as darn it
Not all villages were the nucleated village that we think of today – but it’s far and away the most common model. Each village was composed of a number of tofts (or crofts) – areas of 1/4 – 1 Acre, rented from the lord. each croft held the medieval house – typically 24 x 12 feet, 2 rooms, 5+ people and not a lot else.

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09/21/13

Chemtrails redux: the attack of the tin-foil hat brigade


Normal clouds mis-identified by wingnutsMy earlier post on the nonsensical chemtrail conspiracy has generated quite a lot of activity recently (more than 1,000 views in a few days – thanks!). So much so that I decided to look online again to see why – had this silliness abated? Were people waking up and laughing at their former craziness? Or was it spreading more among the hard-of-thinking and the anti-science crowd?

Sadly, it seems the latter is the case. And after a bit of research, I became deeply distressed that it seems to be spreading rapidly.

Or maybe the overall number of gullibles is simply growing larger. They band together into cult-like groups that reject outsiders; refuse to allow debate or questions; that turn inwardly and reinforce their own beliefs among one another. Dissonance reduction in numbers.

I found a Facebook group page with more than 11,000 chemtrail-believing members (that’s scary enough right there). Imagine 11,000 people dedicated to this silliest and most risible of all the recent conspiracy theories. But they’re hardly alone.

The conspiracy works like this: every world government, every airline, air force, every pilot, every airline and air force ground and cabin crew, millions of government employees worldwide, engineering firms, chemical manufacturers, scientists, NGOs, meteorologists, NASA, reptilians, and the darkly secretive (and entirely imaginary) “New World Order,” the Illuminati (or the Zionists, Bill Gates or President Obama, since they are implicated – not a little racism runs through these posts) have conspired and are conspiring to secretly spray toxins (or drugs or biochemicals or alien lifeforms) into the atmosphere from stratospheric heights in order to pacify/poison/control (your choice, it seems) the population and/or the weather/crops.

But no matter how you laugh at the gullibility of these folks, no matter how their photographs and wild imagining are easily debunked by science, meteorology, rational thought and common sense, they seem to persist. And grow. (I blame TV, but that’s a digression.)*

More normal sky and cloudsThe conspiracists’ approach to science, natural phenomena, logic and fact is stunningly medieval. Of course, back in the Medieval days the motivating agents were demons, ghosts, imps, sprites and other invisible figments of their imagination. Today, it’s no less superstitious; just the imagined instigators have been given a modern facelift: big government, big pharma and secret societies. They’re still the scary things that go bump in the night, though.

Superstition is still superstition even when wrapped up in technology. The Skeptics’ Dictionary describes superstition as:

…a false belief based on ignorance (e.g., if we don’t beat the drums during an eclipse, the evil demon won’t return the sun to the sky), fear of the unknown (e.g., if we don’t chop up this chicken in just the right way and burn it according to tradition while uttering just the right incantations then the rain won’t come and our crops won’t grow and we’ll starve), trust in magic (e.g., if I put spit or dirt on my beautiful child who has been praised, the effects of the evil eye will be averted), trust in chance (if I open this book randomly and let my finger fall to any word that word will guide my future actions), or some other false conception of causation (e.g.,  homeopathy, therapeutic touch, vitalism, creationism, or that I’ll have good luck if I carry a rabbit’s foot or bad luck if a black cat crosses my path).

The conspiracist view of  government and politics goes beyond superstition, beyond the bizarre and into the pathological.

Some less-than-civil folks online call the chemtrail believers “chemtards.” Others ascribe malicious intent to them:

The Chemtrail looks like a normal contrail in reality. However, there is a conspiracy on the internet that has been passed on for some time and gaining in strength about the Chemtrail. But the truth is that the chemtrails are a hoax and rumour on the internet by people who are looking to create some kind of chaos or just trying to make an impact on others by giving false importance to the chemtrails.

Certainly some chemtrail promotes have engaged in deliberate hoaxes as this news story tells:

The Penticton RCMP is investigating a fraudulent letter that began circulating in the city on Monday.
According to Sgt. Rick Dellebuur, bogus alert notices regarding hazardous chemtrails were put on vehicles at Shoppers Drug Mart.
The letter has city letterhead, but was not issued by the city.
“There is no environmental department in the city and Penticton did not issue this,” he said.
The letter signed by someone named Susan Smith, environmental department manager, states “we are suspecting that unidentified planes are deliberately spraying chemicals over the city of Penticton.”
It further covers how to identify hazardous chemtrails and who to contact if you see them.
Dellebuur said they are investigating to see who is behind this.
“We are following up on leads,” he said. “It’s just one of those things out there in this day and age.”

I have no doubt some of these promoters are the internet versions of televangelists: they prey on the gullible, the hard-of-thinking, the susceptible and the ill-educated, conning them through sales and marketing, through aggressively encouraged “donations.”

One of the most telling indicators of these conspiracy fantasies is that they seem to be held predominantly by those of the libertarian or uber-right-wing political stripe. Blaming Obama for anything spooky, inexplicable, disagreeable or simply misunderstood seems de rigeur among the conspiracists, even if it’s blatantly stupid or illogical to draw even the vaguest of connections between events and the administration. They finally got down to blaming the government for the weather.

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