Archive for November, 2009

This is my Skeptictionary entry on the whole Mayan calendar 2012 apocalypse idea.

So, according to some, the Mayans believed that…

Actually, you know what? I’m just going to wait this one out. In just over three years, the point’ll be moot, and I think I’ll save myself the effort. It’s not going to happen, people.


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Just a quick review before I go and do stuff. Spoilerific bits have been rot13‘d.

So it was a fun movie. It’s a fairly heavily fictionalised account of recent paranormal research conducted by the US military, as documented by Jon Ronson in his book of the same name. I enjoyed it, though I did wonder how much some bits of it would work if you’re not already familiar with the story, and following the bits you remember from the book.

Some of the bits they did keep faithful to may have suffered in the transition. For some reason, I didn’t find the whole routine about cebivqvat n “fgebat cflpuvp qvfvapragvir” gb nggnpx (ol fgnoovat fbzrbar va gur arpx) as funny when George Clooney’s character is being all intense and sincere about it, as when Jon’s talked about that himself, either in person or in print.

And the ending sort of seemed inexpertly tacked on for little more reason than that they needed a grand finale, a big happy Hollywood ending conclusion scene, which supposedly resolves things and brings everything to a head and such. (Chggvat gur YFQ va gur jngre ng gur pnzc, V zrna, abg gur npghny svany fubg jurer ur ehaf guebhtu gur jnyy. V jnf jvyyvat gb tvir gurz gung nf n engure avpr ivfhny zbzrag.) I can see why they needed to end the main narrative somehow, as I don’t remember the book having anything similar, but I didn’t particularly buy it.

And this really is going to be brief, because now I have to go do sport.

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Carl Sagan was completely awesome.

There’s a lot of people talking all over the internet today about how they wouldn’t be a part of the skeptical movement if it weren’t for him. There might not even be a skeptical movement comparable to what exists today if not for Sagan’s influence.

I imagine he’s a big part of the reason I’m so involved in it too, but only indirectly. Aside from being fairly indifferent to the film based on his book Contact, I was fairly late to the party on this front. I think it was only last year I read The Demon-Haunted World, after being told so often what a vital part of the skeptics’ library it was by so many scientists and critical thinkers I’d come to admire. I’ve still only seen a few brief clips of Cosmos online.

But goddamn, that guy was awesome.

Today would have been his 75th birthday. He died in 1996. In his absence, we’re calling it Carl Sagan Day. Phil Plait’s been talking about how that’s going here.

He was a great writer, a wonderful speaker, and an insurpassably inspirational presence. Watching him talk is like drinking a liquified warm fuzzy. I don’t even know what that means, but listen to him explaining the universe for a while and maybe you’ll get some idea what I’m on about.

Pale blue dot.

The 4th dimension.

A glorious dawn.

And because I’m not good at straightforward, non-ironic sincerity, here’s a funny video about a pigeon.

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(Which you know means I’ve been lazy today and am struggling to get something done before bed.)

I can’t find the letter of October 19th referred to in this post, perhaps because I don’t care and I haven’t really tried. But I’ve never heard anyone in the anti-theistic or irreligious crowd saying that religion is “learned only from parents” (emphasis mine). Most of us are paying enough attention to the world, I think, to have noticed that not every single individual slavishly follows the dogma of their immediate biological predecessors. Many people do indeed make leaps of faith in one direction or another, having been influenced by a variety of factors.

But come on. The culture in which a person grows up, and in particular the people who raise them, are more influential than anything else in determining what religion someone will be. If this wasn’t the case, it couldn’t be true that predominantly Christian or Muslim areas of the world even exist – at least, not for more than a generation or so. If it were a total crapshoot, or if people’s religious views were based entirely on independent thinking and grounded in the same assumptions, there wouldn’t be such obvious geographical distributions.

“If people needed evidence to believe in God, we would all be atheist” is a significantly less ridiculous statement than “there is tremendous evidence for miracles”. Anyway, isn’t the notion that evidence is antithetical to belief in God pretty much the whole point of having faith?

To say God is not real is like saying atoms are not real because early scientists who sought them couldn’t see them.

If early scientists had a notion of something called “atoms”, and expected to see them under certain conditions, but didn’t observe anything where their theoretical model predicted they should, then the correct conclusion for them to draw would be that such atoms did not exist. If we now know that atoms do exist, because of repeated experimental results in which they turn up exactly where we expect them to, then maybe our concept of “atoms” has changed since the time when they didn’t seem to be there. God is still in the former state of not seeming to be observable where it’s predicted he should be. Either that or no predictions that might test his presence are even possible.

Several sources of “evidence” are cited, and it’s promised that they’re really, really good, no honestly they’re great, he just didn’t feel like outlining any of the really, really good arguments in them here. Oh well.

I’m too busy rolling my eyes at this one to really go through it in depth. Most of it’s the usual inane bullshit – tediously misunderstanding the burden of proof, I’ll provide my evidence that God doesn’t exist when you provide concrete proof there isn’t a unicorn in your kitchen, blah blah blah – but I do want to pick up on one thing in particular:

Here we have a lowly man demanding that almighty God prove himself scientifically.

Damn fucking right he is.

The not-so-lowly men claiming to speak for your almighty God are making some pretty grand claims about him. They tell us things like, we know the blessed truth of the all-powerful creator of the universe, and seek to spread the word of a being who has the power and the judgement to condemn you to eternal, infinite suffering if you don’t follow his rules for your entire life, yes, these rules here that we’ll tell you all about.

To be that kind of god is to demand everything from us, to take ownership of our humanity. Do you think that you get to impose that kind of rule on my species? Do you call impudent and arrogant anyone who asks why this god is worthy of our utter and complete self-sacrifice?

Then listen carefully: fuck right off, you evil tyrant.

And stop mischaracterising Einstein while you’re at it.

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There are two methods you can use to bend spoons. (They both work just as well on forks, keys, and a variety of other objects, usually small and metallic. Spoons are traditional.)

The first one is to be psychic and use your magic psychic powers. Much distorted cutlery has been presented as the result of claimed paranormal abilities. Uri Geller, for example, has made a decades-long career out of doing almost literally nothing else. You can just tap into some strange cosmic energy, and alter the state of matter through the sheer force of your will, according to your desires. You can harness this inexplicable artefact of nature, a phenomenon as yet unexplained by science, the potential of which has ramifications beyond imagining for the socio-economic development of our species, and use it to make your kitchenware go a bit wonky.

That’s one way.

The other way is to just hold a spoon and bend it. Using your hands.

The second way is much easier.

But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, simply using obvious brute force renders the whole activity rather pointless. Because this method is so easy, it’s also deeply unimpressive. Anyone can bend a spoon, after all – but it takes someone quite special to be able to bend a spoon with only the power of their mind.

Which leads us to a question brimming with potential and overflowing with possibilities. Suppose you used the second method of bending a spoon, and just brought your arm muscles into play to give it a bit of a twist, but then – and this is the clever bit – you use some cunning misdirection of some sort, and dress it up as an example of the first method, to make it look like you’re demonstrating psychic powers.

Now wouldn’t that just be a thing.

I’d be surprised if nobody’s thought of this before.

Now, don’t get flustered before I’ve even said anything controversial. All I’m asking you to accept at this point is the simple fact that bending a small metal spoon with your hands is entirely possible, and so is inaccurately claiming that you were using psychic powers to do it. Look, here’s Hugh Laurie doing exactly that:

I’m pretty sure I could do that too, by just bending some spoons and going “Ta-da!” But that doesn’t really prove anything. The above demonstration is, obviously, part of a comedy sketch, and it’s funny because it would only bamboozle a stupid person. It seems fair to ask: could a better version of a similar trick be performed, so that non-idiots would be taken in by it?

Well, I’m going to suggest that it could. And I don’t think this is very controversial, either. If you’re going to disagree at this stage, and argue that nobody possessing the wherewithal not to drool all over themselves could ever possibly be fooled by some sort of trick, and persuaded that a bent spoon hadn’t simply been bent by physical force alone… well, good luck with that in a world where people who still think wrestling is real manage to get dressed in the mornings without help. People are always getting taken in by fake stuff, even intelligent people. If you’re a trusting person, and inclined to believe in psychic powers already, then it doesn’t seem implausible that someone might, in theory, be able to trick you.

For instance, take a look at this guy bending spoons:

That’s Michael Shermer, and he’s definitely using the second method to do it. He’s a skeptic, and he openly admits that he’s doing tricks. But he makes it look pretty good, doesn’t he? If he were to tell you he was using psychic powers, you wouldn’t have to be a complete idiot to believe him. It certainly doesn’t look like he’s just bending things with his hands, at any rate. It looks a lot like things look when people claim to be using the first method, and demonstrating real paranormal abilities.

Even if you think that Shermer’s demonstration isn’t quite as convincing as someone you’ve seen who claims to be genuinely using the first method (the fork thing isn’t all that subtle, for instance), it still seems possible that someone with their mental faculties grossly intact could still be fooled. If Shermer were unscrupulous enough to attach grandiose claims of psychic mastery to his techniques, and maybe hammed up the performance a bit, it could be moderately persuasive. The kind of people who might find it plausible wouldn’t have to be stupid or clueless at all, just like Uri Geller’s millions of fans aren’t all dribbling idiots. A lot of them are adequately functioning members of society.

A number of tricksters like Shermer are out there, bending spoons through non-magical means, and can be found all over YouTube. Many of them take the approach of confessedly bending spoons by the second method alone, and inviting us to marvel at how this can be made to look like the first method. Others will also show us the secrets behind the tricks they’re using, and give an even greater insight into how the effects of the first method can be simulated.

In short, if you put on an act just like these guys show you, you can make it look a lot like you have psychic powers. And not just to stupid people.

All the second method boils down to is “bend the spoon with your hands”, but disguising what you’re doing is where the interesting skills lie. For one thing, it’s important that people aren’t watching your hands too closely while you’re just exerting brute force. Cause a distraction, divert people with some attention-grabbing patter, move your hands somewhere out of sight, point at something else – anything that’ll give you a brief moment where you can give the metal a quick twist, so that when onlookers next see it, the bend is there.

Obviously if they look back to find it suddenly sharply bent, though, it might occur to them that they just missed you doing something devious. This can undermine your magical kudos, but luckily there are plenty of optical effects and quirks you can take advantage of too. If you’re moving the spoon around a lot, it’ll be hard for anyone to tell how bent it actually is, and you might be able to make it look like it’s becoming increasingly curved as they watch, even if it’s staying the same. You can see this sort of effect by holding a pencil horizontally in front of you, near one end, and waggling it up and down. The way the other end flops about will look loose and rubbery. (Try it, and you can really see the effect. Remember, we’re still not talking about stupid people. Even intelligent brains get easily confused by things they weren’t designed to be able to cope with.)

Also, a straight line can look either more or less curved depending on the angle at which you’re looking at it. I suspect that Michael Shermer is using this point to good effect in his final demonstration in the video above. The rod is bent from the time he holds it up, but the bend is held horizontally, in line with the plane on which you’re seeing it, so it still looks flat. The bend comes into view as he rotates it, but he’s making other gestures and telling you to see it bending upwards, so the truth might not be obvious.

Now, although this might all be a jolly interesting exercise, I must add that none of this has any direct bearing on anybody who’s actually using the first method – that is, anyone really bending spoons with genuine psychic powers. That’d be like miming to a Mariah Carey track and expecting Simon Cowell to give you a record deal. They’re not affected by the details of how a similar effect can be faked, because they know that they’re doing something completely different.

But we don’t know that. And these details are extremely relevant to our assessment of performers claiming to use the first method. Shermer could have claimed to possess psychic powers, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that many people would have believed him – but, because of his honesty, we know that those people would have been mistaken.

Who else might also be mistaken?

It’s not just the case that the second method can look a lot like the first – on top of that, people who claim to be using psychic powers often really seem like they’re doing tricks. Uri Geller may be a good example of this (depending on whether he’s calling what he does “magic” or “mystificationalism” today). This video seems to show him simply bending a spoon while people are distracted from looking at it directly, as well as providing supportive evidence that his broken spoons look like they’ve been bent repeatedly.

And then there’s his famous appearance on The Tonight Show, where he doesn’t bend any cutlery by any process, paranormal or otherwise. This makes sense if we were to assume he’s using the second method: he can’t just blatantly bend them, because that wouldn’t make for an interesting demonstration, and he can’t work with his own props which are designed for this very purpose, so there’s really nothing he can do. It’s harder to reconcile it with the idea of actual psychic abilities, which inconveniently fail to function every time we try to get a good look at them.

So, we have:

– a claimed paranormal phenomenon which is less than paradigm-shattering in its scope to begin with,
– a simple and naturalistic method by which the same effect of this phenomenon can be achieved,
– a plausible set of reasons why this naturalistic method could be mistaken for something more ground-breaking,
– an example of people demonstrating what a powerful illusion this naturalistic method can provide,
– a number of good reasons why certain individuals might be motivated to disguise this non-event as something more remarkable,
– some evidence that the man most commonly associated with this phenomenon could be using exactly these techniques to do just this,
– and a complete lack of verifiable examples of the phenomenon actually taking place in a way that can’t be easily replicated by conjurers or practised amateurs doing tricks.

Let’s stop being impressed by this now.

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So I’m in the middle of reading Bruce Hood’s Supersense, and so far it’s looking like a really worthwhile read. I’m going to wait till I’ve followed his reasoning through to the end before deciding exactly what I think of it, but it’s prompted me to think (and subsequently rant) about something that’s bugged me sporadically for some time.

The book’s about the natural human tendency to believe in supernatural ideas, seek supernatural explanations for phenomena we don’t immediately understand, and so forth. A big part of his thesis is that everybody, however rational they try to be, has some irrational or supernatural elements to their belief system. The main example he uses is the revulsion most people feel on being asked to don an item of clothing previously worn by a notorious serial killer. There’s no real, physical, material connection to anything negative whatsoever, it’s a completely innocuous item entirely unaltered by some irrelevant piece of information about its past… and yet most people would still feel icky about putting on Fred West’s sweater.

Our emotions – obviously a significant part of what it means to be human, and a part famously not over-burdened by rationality – are what he’s starting to talk about at the point of the book I’ve reached. As I say, I’m going to let him finish before passing judgement, but there’s an annoyingly prevalent assumption elsewhere in a lot of our culture that deserves a tirade.

Emotional != Irrational.

(That’s a makeshift “does not equal” sign, for anyone who was wondering.)

Films and TV like this one a lot. Whenever anyone in any kind of dramatisation does anything out of love, for instance, they’re generally seen as acting against logic. It’s a totally irrational act, they’re told, to have given up the chance for so many material pleasures just so they could get the girl – and this irrationality is held up as triumphantly praiseworthy. Screw reason, you’re doing something better.

Now, I acknowledge the obvious irrational aspects to something like love. Emotions are things that happen without recourse to reason, and I know there’s a significant difference between empirically assessing somebody’s attributes and calculating them to be laudable, and loving someone for being a wonderful person. I accept all that.

But that doesn’t make it an irrational thing to act on one’s emotions in any way, once they’re there.

Concrete example: I finished watching the complete series of Due South not long ago, and toward the end, Fraser gets an offer of some big fancy job of some sort elsewhere, with more money, more prestige, more whatever. It’s a promotion, a step up for him professionally in every way, and it’s his for the taking. But he doesn’t. He turns it down, and chooses to stay in his current position, a lower-paying job with a crappy apartment and few perks. And why? Because he wants to keep working with his partner, Ray, along with all the other people with whom he’s built up a relationship where he currently is.

Now, Ray’s the first to tell Fraser that this makes no sense, it’s an illogical choice. But it makes perfect sense. Fraser’s looking at his choices and deciding what would make him happiest, and it isn’t the pay rise and the fancy apartment in some other part of the country, it’s doing a job he loves with people he cares about. Staying where he is is entirely the correct and sensible decision, because of the emotions he’s feeling.

No doubt letting overwhelming emotions drown out any other factors at all can lead people to irrational decisions, where they fail to act in their best overall interests due to what feels right more immediately. But it’s annoying how everyone always seems to get described as “irrational” whenever they admit that emotions matter. Give rationalism a little more credit.

For that matter, don’t get me started on the phrase “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this”. “Reasonable” does not mean being in denial about the fact that there are very obviously vampires trying to eat you. For instance.

People saying that line (or one very like it) are so often mere moments away from getting shown up and humiliated/disembowelled for their oh-so-foolish-in-retrospect skepticism. Look, being skeptical when some crazy guy starts ranting about the zombie apocalypse is a good thing. Otherwise you’ll believe any old shit crazy people tell you. But once you’ve seen the hordes of dead rising from their graves, or looked into the dead eyes of your best friend as he gnaws on the leg of your brother’s corpse, or been provided with whatever extraordinary evidence the extraordinary claims in question need, then the “rational explanation” becomes holy shit you guys there’s fucking zombies.

Seriously, you’re allowed to be rational and still change your mind when new facts come in. If you’re Buffy, the most reasonable explanation for a lot of things is vampires, duh, but otherwise you really shouldn’t be chastised for not leaping straight to wacky assumptions about undead armies as soon as something odd crops up which needs explaining.

Okay, hold on… this has nothing to do with anything, but did anyone else see that the Large Hadron Collider was scuppered when a bird dropped some bread in it? It’s not clear from this one article quite how big a problem it’s caused – did they just notice that something was up, have a look, take the bread out, and get on with things? Should I take @ProfBrianCox’s silence on the matter as a sign that nothing too drastic has gone awry this time? Anyone know any more about this?

That’s derailed whatever minimal train of thought I might have had, now.

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I’m pretty confident that I won’t be praying before I die.

Never mind all that “no atheists in foxholes” bollocks. I’m confident in my non-belief. I’m not just petulantly refusing to believe in a god I secretly know is really there, and I’m not going to run crying back to him when I’m scared and suddenly want him to protect me.

I don’t even consider it worth it on the off-chance. Even taking a shot at picking the correct deity from the pantheon, and acting as if I thought there were a worthwhile chance they’d be able to do anything for me, would kinda undermine the whole rational approach I’ve been trying to build up here. I don’t touch wood, or throw salt over my shoulder, or conscientiously avoid opening umbrellas indoors, even “on the off-chance” that I might avoid some misfortune by just quietly going along with these little rituals anyway. Any god I might consider praying to is something I consider vanishingly unlikely to exist, so I stay similarly true to that.

But is it a principle worth risking eternal damnation over?

That’s what I would have had to decide if I’d been in this guy’s class at a university in Tennessee. He had his students sign a pledge voluntarily offering themselves to an eternity in Hell if they cheated on a test.

Questions of how appropriate (or, y’know, how really not) this is are more than I’m up to getting verbose over right now. But would I have a problem putting something like that in writing? When the stakes are quite so high, can it really be worth it, just for the sake of making a point and retaining a principle? Even being as sure as I am that there’s no conceivable way it could have any negative effect, would I really be blasé about signing a piece of paper that purports to hand over the rights to my immortal soul? I find it as close to impossible as to not be worth considering that a) I possess such a soul, and b) such a writ would be binding unto infinity… but isn’t it worth being careful?

… Actually, probably not. I’ve already committed the ultimate blasphemy, so that’s at least one god whose good books I’m effectively written out of. Why would this be any different?

I’m just thinking out loud, and too late at night for it to be very effective. Any thoughts? Hat-tip to PZ for the link. Oh, and the latest Skeptics’ Circle is up, and is once again really excellently put together despite my not being in it.

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