Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Polite Skeptic Interview: Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith has done a lot to help the world understand paranormal belief. He got his PhD studying the psychology of luck, and has looked into a wide range of different aspects of parapsychology, including the Ganzfield, psychic pets, the psychology of deception, and a number of other things. His research has, so far, supported a skeptical outlook. But, in a new experiment, he's decided to take his research to another level.

I've always been a proponent of a hands-on approach. Whether you're talking about The Oregon Vortex or cow-tipping, I'm more likely to trust someone who's been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt. Matthew Smith is taking this to what is, as far as I know, an unprecedented place, at least as far as the skeptical community is concerned.

His new project doesn't involve talking to psychics, or measuring statistics. He's decided that, to really get to the bottom of this psychic business, he's going to have to see it from the inside. He's going to try to become a psychic. This may bring a few questions to mind, and it definitely did for me, so a couple of weeks ago I emailed Matthew for an interview. His reply was quick, jovial and affirmative. The interview follows.

----

The Polite Skeptic: How should one go about becoming psychic? Could you give a general description of the methods involved, and how they've changed your day-to-day life?
Matthew Smith: This is a good question.  At the moment I am trying a whole range of methods to see what, if anything, seems to work. Remember, I'm quite sceptical about much that is written about psychic development, so I need convincing that there is anything to any of this. At a general level, it seems to involve allowing yourself to be open to viewing the world in a very different way. This can include noticing coincidences when they happen, paying attention to 'gut' feelings, that kind of thing. Also, I'm trying to be more open to ideas that my rational, sceptical, mind wants to question or dismiss out of hand. More specifically, meditation seems to be important but again I am finding it hard make it a priority... to me it feels like I am just sitting there doing nothing! I am also attending a regular development 'circle', attending workshops, talking to psychics and mediums about their experiences, and reading their books.

At the moment it doesn't feel that it has changed my day-to-day life too much (apart from the fact that I have left a full-time academic post to do this!), which may mean it's time to step things up a gear!

How much does a suspension of disbelief play a role in your project? Do you ever get a bit of information from a book or a mentor, and then get the feeling of, "Oh, I've got to accept this, too?"

Monday, August 30, 2010

Giving in to disbelief

Freedom can be a double-edged sword.  Moving out of your parents house means more privacy, perhaps more partying, but less money, and an introduction to adult problems (bill collectors, for example).  Opening your own business means never answering to a boss again, but now you have to keep records religiously, worry about taxes, and worry about customers.  Making an independent film means the ability to film pretty much what you want without a studio breathing down your neck, but your resources are limited, and you may need to hire actors that will work for lunch and an Xbox game.

I think skepticism is the same way.  Living without certain beliefs can be very freeing.  But is it worth it?

I went to church as a child, and I still occasionally go with my dad, just to spend time with him.  Some skeptics retain religion, just like some vegetarians eat fish, but I'm not one of them.  My earliest doubts regarded the story of Noah's Ark, and they continued to stack up on that foundation until I was walking around with a constant tension in my mind.  To believe something, without believing it fully, is a burden, and it's a burden I eventually had to get rid of. .  

So, what is it like?  To give in to skepticism?  To look around, and know that nobody is watching you, nobody is judging you, or recording your actions*?  To understand that your life isn't pre-determined, and that, if your'e not hurting anyone or breaking the law, you can do what you want, can be very empowering indeed.  To give up the idea that your opinions have to match those of an authority figure, whether they be a preacher, a rabbi, or God itself, is a breath of fresh air.

But it's not all peaches and cream.  That spot in your mind, that spot where you held God, or the conscious universe, that is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, isn't ever going to be properly filled, except for by the laws of physics, which are neither forgiving nor loving.  To get rid of that last vestige of parental authority can be a lot like running away from home.  Feeling cut off from something protective, and comfortable.

But, to those that do sit in church, carrying a stack of doubts on their back, and who decide that maybe they don't believe like they once did, you should realize that a life without religion is not a meaningless life.  You still have love, but it's from the people around you.  You still have responsibility, but it's to the people around you.  You can be a good person without feeling like you're being watched.

So maybe it is time to move out of Dad's house, and see for yourself just how well you can do on your own.  If you're ready to trust your own moral compass, I think you'll find that it's worth it.

Thanks for reading.

*Unless you're on the internet.  Then you're SOL.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My philosophy

Until recently, I never really thought about why I am a skeptic.  I never thought that I had a philosophy, regarding my belief and lack of belief, until I started chatting with people in paranormal forums.  Discussion with others acted like a mirror, allowing me to see myself more clearly.

So, why don't I believe in the paranormal?  It's not because I think it's stupid, it's not because I think the people who do believe are stupid, and it's not because I'm afraid of looking stupid.  It's simply because I don't have any reason to believe in it.

There are plenty of people I've spoken to who claim to have experienced things, that if I had experienced them myself, I probably would believe differently.  But, as it stands, these people's experiences are just stories I've heard, based on human perception and human memory, two things that, in the past, I've described as being as trustworthy as drug addicts.

None of us know everything, and there are plenty of mysterious things that happen during the day.  When there are noises in the kitchen, and you're home alone, some of us are more likely to blame a ghost, and others are more likely to blame a mouse.  Even when it turns out that there is no evidence of a mouse, that does not count as evidence of a ghost.  Even if you can't think of a single natural explanation for something, rest assured that there are lots of things that you never even thought of.  That's always the case.  

In the search for truth, one of the seven deadly sins is to narrow things down too quickly.  "That was either a mouse or a ghost.  But it wasn't a mouse!"  Another person, presented with the exact same evidence, might say, "That was either a mouse or a bat.  But it wasn't a mouse!"  

Such made-up dichotomies do us no good.

"It was either a dream or an out of body experience."

"It was either an airplane or a spacecraft from an alien civilization."

"Either I lost my wallet, or John stole it."

If you ever hear the words, "The only thing it could have been..." then you're hearing a conclusion being jumped to.  Especially if the "only thing" is something incredibly specific.  "The only thing it could have been was this government group doing this for this reason, which implies this."  The truth is, in many situations, things happen for reasons that we never would have thought of in a million years.  This world is complex, far beyond our own reasoning, and our obvious answers don't always look like reality.

I would love for certain supernatural things to be real, but I'm not going to accept any of them unless I know for sure.  That's the basis of my skepticism.  I just have to know.  If there is even one, foolish sounding, unlikely, but slightly possible explanation, then I'm not going to call it case closed.  Because if I go and accept a whole new world of spirits and psychic abilities into my mind, and it turns out that the unlikely, but more mundane thing was the truth, then I've been duped, and in a big way.

So, what is my philosophy, in brief?  There is enough variety in the known universe that mysteries are inevitable.  So let's take a good long look at what we already understand before we decide that the cause must be something new.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Crop circles as an art form -or- What humans can do

Even if I don't believe in aliens, I think I can appreciate a crop circle as much as any UFOlogist.  The shapes that appear in fields, primarily in the UK, are sometimes astonishing, and moreso every year, as those that create them gain experience and skill.  It seems obvious to me (and don't most opinions just seem so obvious?) that they're created not by interstellar travelers, but enterprising human beings.

I'm a polite skeptic, and I'm a patient and tolerant skeptic.  I try my best to see things through the perspectives of others, and in most cases I understand why someone would believe in something.  Out of all of the arguments that I hear from crop circle researchers--or all of the arguments made by anyone that argues for the existence of any paranormal thing--there's only one I can think of that actually gets my blood to rise.  Just one statement, in that whole spectrum of belief, that makes me not want to be polite, and makes me want to club someone with a trout and ask them why they're being so closed-minded.

That statement is that, obviously, humans could not make crop circles.  That, yeah maybe people could make some of the smaller, simpler ones, but that the very large, very elaborate crop circles are outside of the range of human ability.

Really?  Really-really?  Are you sure that's an argument you want to make?  You're talking about the cleverest animal on this ball.  You're talking about the animal that achieves the impossible so often that it's starting to get boring.  We don't drop our jaws in wonder when a four-hundred fifty ton 747 is able to support itself on thin air, it's only of passing interest when the guy on the corner is juggling torches, and most of us don't care when a figure-skater pulls off a triple-axel, which none of us could ever hope to do.  But the moment it looks like something might be communicating with us from another planet (in a hopelessly obscure way, I might add) it's way outside of the realm of reason that a group of friends could flatten crops in a fancy shape.

Say what you want, about what you want, and I'll try to listen with an open mind.  When you start to put limits on human ingenuity, you will lose ground with me very quickly.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fabrication Friday - Aug 27, 2010

The following is not true.

I think the main thing that made me a skeptic isn't any lack of experiences, but actually the opposite.  On a couple of occasions, I've had experiences that were a little too frightening for me to accept.

The main, number one experience was something that I didn't remember until recently.  I was in therapy, just for the sake of general mental health (or so I thought) and this old thing came up.  Now, it didn't come out through hypnosis, or anything like that.  I don't know if it was actually repressed.  I just know that, for the last ten years, I've chosen not to think about it, and have effectively forgotten it.  I think the only reason I'm willing to write it here is because I don't think anyone will believe me.  If I thought people would take it seriously, I would probably keep it to myself.

I was probably eighteen or nineteen, because I wasn't long out of high school.  There was a house (it's no longer there) on Yelm Highway that people simply called, "That old haunted house," and I used to drive by it on the way to Burger King, where I worked.  I was always curious about that house.  We had a party at my apartment one night, and my friend (call him Chad) had brought his Ouija board, and he was playing with that in the bedroom with some people, and I was playing Xbox in the living room, drinking way too much Miller High Life.  It was probably the board that got it into my head, but I found myself trying to talk everyone into an outing, to the haunted house on Yelm Highway.

Nobody went for it, except for Chad, his sister, and this other guy.  Now, I don't endorse drunk driving, and I have no remorse for a drunk driver.  This doesn't change the fact that, that night, I was driving drunk, and we somehow safely made it to the broken down old house.  There wasn't any good place to park (the original driveway actually had small trees growing in it!) but I eased the car over a shallow ditch and parked it behind a tree, where the car would be hidden.

The house felt cold, and not just cold on your skin.  Just being near it felt like there was literally a chilly hand inside of your stomach.  This was pretty much what everyone said.  It probably took us a half hour to get the balls to go from the car to the house.

To make a long story short, we were using the Ouija board inside of the house, and it wasn't giving us anything.  I was writing down the letters as they came up, and it was all a jumble.  I was about to have my second bright idea of the evening (getting out of there) when I saw that, as I'd been recording the letters, the board had spelled out the word GOOD.  The word ended up being GOODBYE.  I wanted to tell the others, but I saw that Chad was gone.

He was just gone.  Nobody saw him leave, and he'd been one of the three with their hands on the planchette. There was just no way he could have gotten up and left.  I remember we didn't look for him, or call his name. It was eery, but I think we were just trying to keep ourselves from freaking out, so we just got up, and walked out the front door, single-file, to the car, and drove off.  Another thing that's a little weird is that I remember seeing the three of us getting in the car, from the perspective of looking down from about ten feet up.  It's just an image I remember, but I don't know why.

We didn't make a pact of silence, or anything like that, but none of us said anything, ever, and I think the choosing to forget happened pretty soon after the event.  I remember hearing that the night Chad disappeared, his whole bedroom was ransacked the next morning, and it was full of ants.  I thought, when I heard that, that he must have went through his stuff to pack and run away, because I had already stopped thinking about the house on Yelm Highway.  I also remember that I ended up moving, because I didn't like driving down that road any more, and had started going miles out of my way to avoid it.  I never saw him again after that.

I don't know what I think I'm going to accomplish by sharing the story, but it is what it is.

Please readhttp://bit.ly/bmmXlX

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Making money through dishonesty

I could be a fraud.

What I'm saying is, I could do it.  I am capable.  Freelance writing is grueling work, and competitive, and dollars run short a little too often.  Imagine the money I could make being a fraud!  It sounds like a joke, but if you look at your own life, and your own troubles, you realize it's no joke.  Life just might be a little better, for me, my girlfriend, and her children, if I put my scruples aside and decided to take advantage of the natural gullibility of the human.

How would I do it?  My natural talent is writing, so I would write a book.  It would be a long, inspirational Fabrication Friday, as convincing as anything I've ever written.  The book would include:
  • Visitation from an angel.
  • A message centered on the importance of peace.
  • A number of fabricated accounts of miracles, backed up by the written accounts of fictitious people, written by me.
  • At some point, I would meet God personally.  He would appear as an unimaginably bright light, giving off love and caring.
I would pump it to bursting full of good feelings and inspiration, telling people about how they have the power to change the world, and change their lives.  I would come up with logical arguments to back all of it up, and I would say that it was the angel that had told them to me.  I would make out the angel to be kind of snobby, which would be believable because it isn't what the reader is expecting.  Also, I would write it as a woman.

Here is an excerpt, fresh-made as I write this:

I don't remember exactly what time it was, but the waiter hadn't brought our food yet, and I noticed that my bladder was, very suddenly, painfully full.  I excused myself, trying to act casual, but I don't think I pulled it off because Mark looked concerned.

I didn't understand why I had to urinate so badly!  I had actually been neglecting my thirst all day, having to tear myself away from Lonnie and her dangerous habits just to get a glass of water.  When I  got into the bathroom, though, I suddenly felt fine.  I was bewildered, and I was already thinking about how long something like that could go on before I eventually forced myself to go to the doctor's office.  A second later, though, I understood what was going on.

I was the only person in the bathroom, but when I looked into the mirror, I saw Lotem standing next to me, but only in the mirror!.  Now, I know crazy stuff like that happens in movies all the time, but I can't describe how eerie and disorienting it is when it really happens.  I tried to keep my cool, just happy that I didn't pee myself.  I asked him what he wanted, perhaps a little more curt than one should talk to an angel.  I had finally gotten used to him, it seemed.  Then he gave me his message, all at once, like a ball of information right into my brain.  What he said made my blood run cold.  After he said it, he vanished. 

His message was, "Marcus has a malignant tumor in the lymph nodes under his left shoulder.  He's been keeping the pain secret from you, hoping it would go away.  You can get rid of it in less than a month by holding an herbal compress over it, for an hour a day.  Ask Bill Chan about the herbs that cured his ulcers."

I washed my hands, even though I hadn't used the toilet, and then went back to the table with my big secret.

There are a few publishers out there that would probably fight over that book.  After publication I would mail it, not to book reviewers, but instead to Oprah, and the ladies on The View.  It would certainly do better than any book written by The Polite Skeptic, I'll tell you that much.

There is an old, persistent myth about people who sell their souls to the devil.  It's used as a metaphor, and I think that it's always had root in metaphor.  Money seems to come more freely when you disregard your fellow human being.  Plenty of large companies know this, loads of charlatans, and robbers, and slavers understand that once you stop caring, you start earning.  That's not to say that dishonesty is the only way to become wealthy (that's a bit of a stereotype) but it's certainly one way to do it.

And I know that if I did use my creativity to become a fraud, and I did it properly, no army of skeptics would be able to dent my fan base.  Because most people don't appreciate a downer.

I'm not saying that everyone who writes a book about supernatural things is a fraud.  I'm not all-knowing, after all, and such a statement would be a guess.  I'm just pointing out that the motivation to do such a thing is there, it is real, and it is strong enough that I fantasize about it from time to time.  And, as far as I can tell, I am a good person.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

So purple, you can't see it

Colors are a big part of psychology.  Graphic artists understand this, as do advertisers.  A color can set the mood, or kill the mood.  Have you ever walked into a friend's living room to discover that the walls and ceiling were all painted blood-red?  Or jet-black?  Maybe, but probably not.  Too much of a color can be enough to make someone feel a little nauseous, or induce a headache.  The right color can help relax you.

My favorite color is green.  Dark, forest green, to be precise.  It reminds me of trees.  Based on what I've read, green is the color of the heart chakra, and the energy that comes from it.  Similarly, green in the aura can indicate natural ability in faith healing.  

You can find the importance of colors throughout much of parapsychology, whether it's the color of a nonphysical plane, the color of a spirit guide's clothing, or a prominent color portrayed in a psychic vision.  The soul is supposed to be able to see in perfect color.  

So, what is color?  Color is light.  Color is something our brain uses to sort out different frequencies of light, as the photons hit our eyeballs.  At some point in our species' evolution, natural selection favored this separation of frequencies, which helps us predict the weather, identify plants and animals, and see the blush in the cheeks of an attractive member of the preferred sex.  Those of us that do see in color surely take it for granted.

There's actually a very wide range of light frequencies.  We see purple at one edge of the rainbow, but there are other colors that are so purple we can't see them (whoa!).  Ultraviolet light, x-rays and gamma rays are the purplest things we've got.  The other edge of the rainbow is red, but infra-red is even redder than that.  It's so red, we can't see it.  

There's a mental separation between our rainbow colors and things like ultra-violet, or x-rays, but you have to realize that it's entirely in our heads.  ROYGBIV is not special.  It is not not not special.  There is nothing particularly unique about the visible spectrum, other than it's the frequency range we can see.

Think of it this way.  You go to a gravel pit, and there are chips and chunks of rocks all over the place, ranging from giant boulders to minute sand.  Now imagine a guy sorting through these rocks with a basket slung over his shoulder, measuring each one, and only collecting rocks that were between one and two inches wide.  Then he takes all of these stones aside, and arranges them into seven groups, by size.  He calls the first group red, the second group orange...

Do you see where I'm going?  And other animals have ended up sensitive to other frequencies of light.  Birds, for instance, can see in ultra-violet.  Because of this, they can get certain information through sight that we cannot.  Presumably, information that's important for being a bird.

So, if you were to ask the question, is color a fundamental part of the universe, the answer is no.  Color doesn't exist, any more than a distinction between one-inch stones exists in a quarry.  Even though it's such a big part of our experience, it's just a method of organizing information.

So, with this in mind, I have to wonder why the seven chakras would somehow correspond to the narrow frequency band that humans can see.  I have to wonder, in fact, why our very limited eyes have such a sway in the non-physical universe.  Why do people who believe they have left their body been saddled with this limitation?  Is this something we have to carry on into the afterlife?

And if your soul uses light to see after you're dead, you had better hope that its vision is 20/20, because I don't imagine there are any optical shops in heaven.  

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why skeptics should have out-of-body experiences

I mentioned out of body experiences in my August 11 post, I can't believe my eyes, but I think there's a lot more to say about them.  In the aforementioned post, I said that my OBE could have been a vivid dream.  I wasn't, however, being entirely honest.

I don't think that out-of-body experiences can be explained by simple dreaming, and I think that the dismissal of these experiences may be causing us to miss out on a mysterious aspect of psychology.

The anecdotal evidence tells us that

  • The OBE is supposed to be as vivid as waking life.
  • The OBE involves the feeling exiting one's body, and existing as a discarnate spirit.
  • The wild abstraction that's found in the average dream is absent in the OBE.
  • The OBE includes the apparent ability to effectively wake oneself up.
  • The OBE includes a "vibrations" sensation, where it seems one's body is vibrating.
  • Upon waking, it's commonly believed that the the preceding experience was not a dream.
Now, this is all remarkably subjective, and I understand this.  All I want to outline is that an ordinary dream comes with a one set of expectations, a lucid dream comes with another set of expectations, and a supposed OBE comes with an entirely different set of expectations.

I don't see any reason to believe in the supernatural basis of the out-of-body experience.  However, I think that for a psychologist to dismiss the experience as a simple dream is to avoid explaining something that I, personally, would like explained.  The OBE seems to be a very interesting, specific type of dream, that, because of the conclusions of those that experience it, is pushed into the fringe of science.  The lucid dream used to be in the same boat, until Stephen Laberge brought it into scientific scrutiny in the late seventies.

The dismissiveness I see in the scientific and skeptical community is sometimes disconcerting.  This affects scientific progress in a negative way.  Let me explain how.

If the general public notices an effect that is not yet observed by science (often in biology or psychology, which are extremely complex systems that we have day-to-day exposure to), there is sometimes a tendency to give it a supernatural label, and to incorporate it into an existing supernatural worldview.  At that point, it is prime to be debunked or ignored, and we all suffer.

Even with these speedbumps, though, science is self-correcting, even if it is sometimes in the long term.  

The so-called out-of-body experience can be induced, I understand.  I think that if more people were using whatever methods to experience this, with a skeptical point of view, we might begin to understand the purpose of it, psychologically.

And we skeptics may be able to have some fun of our own, without all of the spiritual baggage.

Facebook is serious business

I've got a Facebook "like" button on the right, now.  I would appreciate that anyone who actually does enjoy the blog take the time to click that.  If you don't enjoy it, then you're exempt.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why you shouldn't believe everything you read on myspace

I was a bit younger than I am today (early 20s, as opposed to late 20s) and, at least hopefully, a bit more pathetic.  I was heartsick over a girl who, I was pretty sure, was not heartsick over me.  For the sake of this blog, we'll call her Joan Marshall.

I was on myspace, back when I used the site, and the front page had a little spot where it would show three new profiles.  I looked at the names, and then I looked at them again, and then I looked at them a third time, and almost fell off of my chair.

The first profile was of a young black man, all decked out in whatever urban gear was popular at the time.  His name was listed as Go Getta.  The second profile was some girl named Joan.  The third profile was of some guy.  His name was Marshall.

Printed out, as clear as day, on the front page of myspace, was Go Getta Joan Marshall!

This sort of thing is called a synchronicity.  A synchronicity is like a coincidence, only it's implied that there's some kind of higher power behind it.  Synchronicity is one of the key players in the Law of Attraction.

I think synchronicity is a great example of why many of us humans believe in the paranormal.  Like Jung's Beetle, or my myspace front page (which I think is much more impressive) there is obviously something going on here.

But, how do you define a synchronicity?  What does it have to include, in order to earn the title?  Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any kind of defined parameters.  It could happen anywhere, in regards to anything, and it could take as long or as short as it takes.

We know that the odds of me sitting down and seeing that composite sentence are very low, because there are thousands of different first names that could have landed in those spots.  But you could change the incident in any number of fundamental ways, without removing its supposed significance.  I could have seen the words spelled out between the loose pages of a magazine.  The website could have said something personal about my neighbor, instead of my love life.  The first profile could have been, Take a Look instead of Go Getta.  Now, what are the odds of all of the possibilities put together?  I'd say still pretty low, because that sort of thing doesn't happen very often.  If it had been any of those variations, though, I would still be using it as an example in today's blog.

So, I guess the real question is, what are the odds that something in my wide experience will somehow seem to relate to anything else at all in my wide experience, which includes things I've seen, heard and thought?  The odds are high.  This is something that would necessarily happen in a supernatural world and a skeptic's world alike.

If you roll a handful of twenty-sided dice, the odds of you getting an extremely unlikely result are 100%.

That's all I'm trying to say.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A case of beer and some waterproof boots

Some of you may have been in suspense since yesterday.  I did, after all, mention that a post about cow tipping was in the pipeline.  I, myself, would have been biting my nails in anticipation.

Absurd
As a skeptic, I have plenty of criticisms I can give to those that believe in things that I think are (at best) very unlikely.  As a critical thinker, though, I have plenty of criticisms for the skeptical community as well. I'm sure that some of you heard the words cow and tipping, and your first thought was that it's been debunked.  Well, yes, it has, for the following reasons.

1. Cows do not sleep standing up.  They doze.
2. Cows have an excellent sense of hearing and smell.  They would not be easy to sneak up on.
3. Cows are heavy, with a low center of gravity.

From the Times Online article Cow-tipping myth hasn't got a leg to stand on:

“The static physics of the issue say . . . two people might be able to tip a cow,” she said. “But the cow would have to be tipped quickly — the cow’s centre of mass would have to be pushed over its hoof before the cow could react.”

Newton’s second law of motion, force equals mass multiplied by acceleration, shows that the high acceleration necessary to tip the cow would require a higher force. “Biology also complicates the issue here because the faster the [human] muscles have to contract, the lower the force they can produce. But I suspect that even if a dynamic physics model suggests cow tipping is possible, the biology ultimately gets in the way: a cow is simply not a rigid, unresponding body.” 

So, case closed?  Well, I have to admit that all of this troubles me.  Not only is there the anecdotal evidence (and sorry, fellow skeptics, it is actually evidence.  I'll do a blog about this later) of people who've been involved in tipping a cow, but there's also the debunkers, who've never been involved in tipping a cow.

In my mind, the best information comes from scientists who have been in the field (so to speak) and have studied a matter first-hand, using the scientific process.

The second-best information comes from the lay person who reports a matter, and has experienced it first-hand, using a non-scientific process.

And the third-best information comes from scientists who sit at a desk, with a calculator and a protractor, and use their abilities to remote-debunk a phenomenon, believing that they have been given the power to settle an argument at a distance.

Of course, this isn't an absolute scale.  Some things are perfectly viable on a piece of paper.  Theoretical physicists have done wonders with chalkboards.  With biology, though, and things that are alive and aware, the edges are much more fuzzy than the pencil lines on a piece of paper.

If you've ever watched Mythbusters* (a show I enjoy more for the fun they have than the sometimes-iffy science) whenever they do a myth about an animal, the animal will consistently not behave the way they had expected.** An animal is something that cannot be represented by simple math.  There are too many factors involved.  In short, I don't buy it, and I won't until the debunkers find themselves in a field, skirting around piles of poop, sneaking up on an unsuspecting cow.

Perhaps a dozing cow isn't alarmed by approaching humans.  It may be used to humans approaching.  Perhaps a cow, when shoved, would decide that falling over was preferable to regaining balance, because of some quirk in bovine psychology.  I don't know, and likely neither do you.  All I know is that to arrive at the now-accepted conclusion, you have to make a boatload of assumptions, and then pretend that they're all correct.

In short, go, and I don't want to see you again until your boots are soiled.

Thanks for reading.

*I just checked, there have been multiple submissions of cow tipping to the Mythbusters homepage.

**My favorite instance, by far, was a bull in a china shop.  If you haven't watched the episode, take a look.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Your very own universe

I started to write a blog about cow-tipping, but I'm off my routine today, and the blog was sort of all-over-the-pace.

In my August 16 post, Why we don't let pigeons gamble, I discussed the idea of luck.  There were some things I wanted to include in that post, but when it was over, they were still absent.

The main problem I have with a luck is that those who believe in it (or even half believe in it, which I think would be a large percent of humanity) don't have an explanation for how it should work.  There are plenty of things in science that I don't understand, but there is at least an established framework that leads to it.  There are experts that do understand, and we can read what they have to say.  When it comes to luck, it seems to be a roof without a house.

I think, though, that we can look at beliefs about luck, and try to put together a system that could result in it.

To start with, luck is clearly a substance.  It's something we can gain or lose.  Some items and areas give off luck.  Lucky socks, for instance, or a lucky parking spot.  Others, like the underside of a ladder, or mirror shards, can suck up your luck, and shrink your reserves.

But of what practical use is luck?  How can it help us meet with favorable events?  Perhaps it has the power to influence our decisions, and help us make the right ones.  Choose the right lottery numbers, or send the manuscript to the right literary agent.  It would do this by suggesting decisions to us, at a subconscious level.

But how does luck know what decision to make in the first place?  Is it intelligent?  Is luck a being?  We still don't know what causes some things to give off luck, or how it interacts with our physical brain.

The only point I'm trying to make is that we need to look at our beliefs more closely.  It can't be enough that something is so, there has to be a reason why it is so.  Every occurrence in the universe has a cause.  We can't have a roof without a house, and we can't have a baseball hit a window unless it has traveled there from somewhere else.

If your belief can't exist as a result of the current laws of physics, then you're going to need new physical laws, that not only fit with your beliefs, but also fit with all of the existing physical laws, and daily experience.  That's a big responsibility.

Because, after all, you don't get your own universe.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fabrication Friday - Aug 20, 2010

The following is not true.

This was only a couple of weeks ago.  It was actually on the same day that I started this blog, but I don't know if that's significant.

I used to sleepwalk when I was a kid.  I would wake up standing in the living room, or, more frightening, walking down the road.  I don't know what eventually stopped it, but I was about fifteen when I noticed that it hadn't happened it about a year.  I'm twenty-eight now, but this is what I thought must have been going on when I woke up.  I knew that I was uncomfortable, and I woke up slowly, and when I finally opened my eyes I didn't know where I was for a second.  I was off-balance, lying on a slant, and I was outside.  That was the first thing I noticed.  It was the middle of the night, but it was somewhat bright, and a few moments later I realized that I was on the roof.

I was on the edge of the roof, looking at old shingles and the very edge of the gutter.  I didn't make any quick movements (I've never liked heights) but got up slowly, hoping that  ladder I must have used to get up was still there, so I wouldn't have to wake anybody up to get it.  After about a minute I had realized that I was not on my own roof.  I was three houses down from my house.

I carefully inched around the edge of the roof, more afraid of being caught on my neighbor's roof in my boxers than falling off.  I saw a plum tree than overhanged the roof a bit, and thought that was probably how I got up.  I approached, and saw a woodpecker there, and when I got closer it didn't get frightened.  I spoke the way people absently speak to animals.  I said, "Hey, you going to stay there?"

And the woodpecker actually answered, to my astonishment.  "I'm resting."

So, a talking woodpecker.  It's insane, and I'm just going to report it the way I remember it.  What else can I do?

I talked with the woodpecker a little bit.  I wasn't as shocked as I would have thought I'd be.  I asked her the kinds of questions you might ask an animal that you can suddenly communicate with.  I asked what her favorite thing to do, and she said, "Taking care of my babies."  I found out that she was, in fact, one of the woodpeckers that had hatched in our backyard last year.  I asked what she thought of our house and she said it was beautiful.  Her general feeling was that things humans made looked beautiful and smelled terrible.

So, as we were talking, I reached for a tree branch, ready to climb down, and it felt like an electric shock.  The moment I touched it, I woke up in bed, disoriented.  And what's weird is that the last image I had, waking up, was of myself being channeled, like electricity, through the tree branch, trunk, root, and that one roots of the tree actually reached three houses down, and touched the foundation of my house.  I knew, deep inside, that that was exactly how I had ended up on the roof of the other house.  I also had a feeling, and this is crazier than talking to a woodpecker, that the tree had actually grown that way intentionally for this purpose.  I can't explain exactly what happened, maybe I never will be able to, but I know that my view of the way the world works is forever changed.

Thanks for humoring me by reading this far, even if you don't actually believe me.  I'm just glad I could get my story out, so that other people that have experienced this might feel comfortable doing the same thing.

Thank you.

Please readhttp://bit.ly/bmmXlX

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How not to be a sheep

When I'm speaking to fellow skeptics, the main criticism of the paranormal is lack of hard evidence.  Where are the definitive, repeatable, unambiguous, lab-tested studies that tell us that, say, ESP is real?  Then, when I speak to those that claim to experience ESP, they give you a list of such experiments, saying that the skeptics are so closed-minded that they wouldn't see the evidence if it was printed on the wall opposite the toilet.

The skeptics say the believers are using bad methods.  The believers say the skeptics are afraid of change.  The skeptics say the believers prefer their fairy tale world to reality.  The believers say, "Hey, skeptics, that was a dickhead thing to say!"

We see this everywhere.  Everything from climate change to the health benefits of cigarettes has plenty of scientific evidence to back up both sides of the argument.  Or even worse, a word that should be struck from the dictionary, they have definitive "proof."

So, what do we do?  We know that someone is, at best mistaken, or at worst lying.  If you ask most people surrounding an emotionally charged controversy, all you'll get is more bogged down by second, third and fourth-hand studies of things that should have been figured out by now.

Don't go around asking people what the studies said.  A person recalling what they heard someone else tell them about the study is bound to sound like, "Well, they had the subjects... I guess people off of the street... they had 'em put on a... something that blocked out light and sound.  And then they had them guess about... Anyway, it was a very significant result.  Seventy percent.  Or something."  What you're doing is playing a game of telephone, and you're the fifth person down the line.  This is useless, as far as learning goes.  It's tiny bits of truth buried in a lot of noise, like listening to a radio frequency that falls just outside of a music station.

Read the studies yourself!  You're a human, the most intelligent animal on this planet, so click a link or two, and find the raw material.  Don't be intimidated by the way scientists word things.  Scientists, like lawyers, want to be very specific in their speech, and it doesn't sound natural, but if you wade through all of that intimidating text, you'll come out the other side with a better understanding of the study than most people have.

And, while you're reading, keep in mind that scientists are people, too.  Some of their conclusions are premature.  For instance: showing that two things happen together (violence and video games, for instance) does not tell you that one caused the other.  This is logic, and all of us have easy access to it.  More than once, I've read a peer-reviewed scholarly paper, and realized that there was something they never accounted for, or that  the results relied too heavily on human perception.

Skeptics: Don't rely on James Randi to tell you that something has been debunked since 1980, so that you can parrot that onward.  See exactly how it was debunked, and your arguments will be stronger for it.

Believers: Don't rely on Charles Tart to tell you that something has been proven since 2003, so that you can argue with the skeptic in the previous paragraph.  Go see the proof yourself, get to the root of it, and see exactly how the conclusion was made.

Because anything else is just lazy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A brief word on Phil Plait's talk at The Amazing Meeting 8.

I encourage you to watch this video, skeptic or believer.  It's about thirty minutes.

I don't really keep up on JREF news, and I wasn't aware of this speech until yesterday.  Plait tells a very important message, one that I hope I'm shown to believe in this blog.  You are not going to change anybody's mind by getting in their face, and being rude.  If you actually want to get a message across, treat the person like they are an intelligent human being..

Summed up: Don't be a dick.


Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Cal Booker Knows his Place

I'm not a physicist. I've read books on physics. I've read many books on physics, just because it's something that interests me. I know more about physics than the average lay person. But I'm not a physicist. Not even a little, tiny bit.

Now let's hear some physics from someone else who is not a physicist. His name is Bob Proctor, and he was on the film, The Secret. This quote is from that film.

"Think of this for a moment. Take your hand and look at it. Now your hand looks solid, but it's really not. If you put it under a proper microscope, you'd see a mass of energy vibrating."

That is actually not true. I don't necessarily think that Proctor is lying in this statement, he just doesn't fully understand what he's saying. Yes, it is true, from what I understand, that all the matter around us is, at a very very basic level, just energy. Einstein's most famous equation,  E=mc2, is a way of saying that a little tiny bit of matter is made up of enormous, unimaginable amounts of energy.

So, what was wrong with what Bob Proctor said? Well, the problem is that there is no microscope you can look into that's going to show you the energy basis of mass. It's not something we can see directly. No scientist, at any point, looked into a microscope and said, "Holy crap it's energy! Get Bob Proctor on the phone!"

So why am I nit-picking? I'm not. There are so many paranormal books out there, and articles, that shove physics in your face, but it's often not physics. It's an impostor. Little slip-ups like the one quoted above simply go to show a lack of familiarity with the subject. Physics is very complex, and often counter-intuitive. There's a lot to know, and this is why people get degrees in the subject. You should be very very cautious about listening to people that never got this degree. This includes myself.

Like I said, I am not a physicist, and very few of these authors are physicists. Do not treat them as if they are.

Modern physics, especially quantum physics, has a few things that, when partially understood, may remind someone of ESP. If two entangled particles can "communicate" at a distance, maybe that means Jamie and I can, too. Well, before your start telling everyone your idea, keep in mind, you aren't a physicist, either*. I am willing to leave science to the scientists, leave belief to the believers, and I'll sit at the computer and make my observations, for anyone who's willing to listen.

All I'm saying is, I know my place.

*This excludes physicists that may be reading this blog

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The $17.50 Paranormal Challenge

You may have heard of the JREF's million dollar paranormal challenge. Regardless of my feelings about the contest, which I'll discuss in depth in a future blog post, it's very well-known, and I decided I wanted to have some fun, myself. That's why I'm introducing The Polite Skeptic's $17.50 Paranormal Challenge. The setup is simple and straightforward.

I wrote five nouns on a piece of paper that I have shown to nobody else. I sealed the paper in a bubble mailer, and hid it in a top secret location. All someone has to do to win seventeen dollars and fifty cents USD is post, in a comment to this blog, the five secret nouns that I wrote on the paper. You can use any method to divine the words, excluding interrogating me and ransacking my property. You can guess once for each blog post.

I hope we can have some fun with this. The ultimate fun would be if someone actually guessed correctly, and I had to give up the green. This is not likely to happen by chance. Even if there were only 100 nouns in the English language, there would be a 1 in 10,000,000,000 (ten billion) chance of guessing it right. And we all know that there are more that 100 nouns even in a small pamphlet, much less a dictionary, so I don't expect anyone to get this by rolling dice.

So feel free to guess, and invite your friends to do the same. I expect to never have to mail that money order, but will anybody step up to prove me wrong?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why we don't let pigeons gamble

I'm not much of a gambler, but I have a close family member who is.  Shortly after I reached 21 years of age I found myself dragged frequently to the various Native American casinos in the area, so that this person could have company, and, presumably, because she thought I was enjoying myself, too.

To be completely honest, I did enjoy myself most of the time.  Bright lights, bells, alcohol.  It's preferable to literally dropping your money into a toilet bowl.

One thing I noticed during my trips was the thick encyclopedia of superstitions this person had developed around the building.  She got upset when she couldn't park in her lucky spot (where she'd parked the day she won 1,500 dollars).  She religiously stopped the slot machines' rollers one second after they started rolling.  She always ordered a single Miller the moment she walked in, and that's all she would drink.  I actually once heard her blame a bad day at the casino on the fact that she hadn't been able to order her Miller early enough.

All these things sound crazy, except that I was somewhat susceptible, too.  I came to think of one side of the building as the "lucky" side, for instance.  Whenever I caught myself indulging in such things, I would make a reality check.  "You're becoming a superstitious pigeon," I would think.

Some of you know what I'm talking about, and some of you just think I just have cute ways of insulting myself.  Let me explain.

In the forties, a psychologist named B.F. Skinner did an experiment on some pigeons.  I'll give it to you in brief, and his paper on the subject is linked below.  Skinner would take a hungry pigeon, and then, for a few minutes a day, put it inside of a special cage where a container of food would automatically be given to the pigeon for five seconds at a time, at regular intervals.  The result was, one pigeon ended up thrusting his head into the corners of the cage, one of them kept lifting its head abruptly, as if throwing something off of itself, one of them was pecking toward the floor.

It makes sense.  Trust me.

What happened was, the pigeon would be hungry, in the cage, and while sitting there unhappy it would do something.  Say it smoothed out its wing feathers.  Immediately, the food comes in, the pigeon eats, and the food leaves.  Now, when you're a pigeon, this is no different from having food arrive when you press a button.  The pigeon realizes that smoothing its wing feathers had made the food come in.  It does this action a few more times, and lo!  More food.  Now the pigeon's suspicion is confirmed, and it continues to be confirmed, and researchers from the next room walk in to wonder exactly what drug Skinner had fed this pigeon.

The casino is like this.  A friend of mine once likened a slot machine to a toilet that you drop quarters in until it backs up, spits out quarters, and you feel like you've won.  Casinos are so popular because you do "win" every once in a while.  Our minds naturally link cause and effect (which is natural) and when we're faced with things that are random, these causal links can give us false beliefs.  Not to mention that the games are designed to give us just enough control to hide the fact that we have none.

So don't wear your lucky shoes to the casino.  Don't park in your lucky spot, don't eat a lucky corn dog.  Or, when someone walks in and sees you, they're going to wonder exactly what drug you've been fed.

http://psychclassics.asu.edu/Skinner/Pigeon/

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mars time

I feel drained.

I woke up with the notion that I would give my take on the "reptilians."  From what I've read, the idea is that many of our media personalities and politicians are actually lizard-type aliens that have holographic projectors that make them look human, but sometimes, on television, their projectors mess up and reveal their slit eyes, forked tongues and scaly skin.  Somewhat fun to believe, I tried to do some cursory research on the subject this morning, but became bogged down by the mind-boggling list of conspiracy theories at the David Icke website.  Did you know it was actually a metal ball that hit the second tower on 9/11.  I sure didn't.

So I shrugged it off, and went about my day, deciding to choose another topic.  Somehow I ended  up watching a video about people remote-viewing life on mars, and that led me to an article that, in the end, was ten times more mind-boggling than David Icke's conspiracy theories.

Here is the link.

Measured by a word count, it's a long article.  Measured in mental energy units used to read it, it's a tome.  As a skeptic, I feel well-read when it comes to fringe beliefs, and reading something like this just goes to show me how little I know.  Every couple of paragraphs, this article (it is an article, not a blog or a "truth pillar" like Time Cube) punched me in the brain.  A person sitting on the couch nearby asked me why I kept saying, "What?"

It's the story of our human bases on Mars, and the people that are employed to work there.  There is a lot of information there, and I don't expect most people to read the entire thing.  I'm going to paste some of my "what" moments, so that you can at least get the feel for what I went through reading this.

"Mr. Basiago, 48... was a child participant in the DARPA time travel program Project Pegasus (1968-72) and later teleported to a U.S. base on Mars twice in 1981"


"...called for a Congressional investigation of the U.S. presence on Mars, with its emphasis on military occupation rather than diplomatic engagement of the indigenous human society living in underground cities beneath the surface of Mars."


"...he walked on the surface of the Martian terrain after teleporting there from a CIA facility in El Segundo, California."


"...the abuse of quantum access technologies and other covert methods to identify potential colonists..."


"Arthur Neumann, who has stated publicly that he has teleported to the secret Mars colony for project meetings."


"In 1996 (Mars time), Mr. Relfe was time-traveled via teleportation and age-regressed 20 years, landing back at a U.S. military base in 1976 (Earth time)."


"Michael Relfe: Yes, some are stationed there. I remember the Grays as doctors or technicians. I believe the Reptilians stay camouflaged (cloaked) most of the time." [note: Hey, I ended up posting something about reptilians, anyway!]


"Mr. Basiago states that he was first teleported to Mars in July 1981 from a CIA facility in El Segundo, California.  He went via “jump room”..."


"...as to intelligent Martian life both on and under the surface of Mars, it seems to me, is highly credible."


"...recruiting her because of her social identity as an Eisenhower and spiritual identity as a divine feminine “Sophia.”"


"Agent X’s associates may have used time travel or looking glass technology to pre-identify Ms. Eisenhower as a target for recruitment..."


"To me the most telling song beyond what my 'Patrons' have told me is that the Looking Glass Project has never ever been able to look into the future beyond 2012.""

So, there it is.  A belief system that includes a cornucopia of paranormal things, including things that I didn't know anyone believed in.  Teleportation, for example.

So, assuming that this is not true (this is my assumption) I wonder how such a complex set of beliefs can arise.  When it comes to belief, there are levels.  You can't believe in aliens implanting people unless you believe in aliens.  You can't believe in automatic transmission unless you believe in automobiles.  Sometimes we're confronted with beliefs that are many many levels deep, beneath something that we don't believe in to begin with.  Often, the deeper you go through the layers, the less public the belief, and the smaller the group of people that discuss it.  Most of us have heard of out-of-body experience, but not as many of us have heard of the silver cord.  Even fewer have heard of the mental body (as opposed to the ethereal body, I think).  I'm not an expert, myself.

Now, it's a fallacy that something is false just because it is outrageous.  The distance between our experience and the truth can be very great.  But, at the same time, if you believe in something that isn't backed by evidence or experience, then there's nothing to say that your belief looks anything like objective reality.  Even if it is incomplete, there's only one physics, and it doesn't change from person to person.  With all of the contradictory beliefs, some of them, of course, have to be false.

I would like to hear a debate between the people that think humans can teleport to Mars, and the people that think we've never been to the moon.  I may bring popcorn.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why I hope the Law of Attraction isn't real

When individuals talk about certain paranormal things, I enjoy hearing how they believe these things work.  If the nature of the universe is consistent, things like ghosts, UFOs, and ESP, if they do exist, are parts of a very complex systems, the same as moss, earthquakes and sexual arousal.  Much of the time, though, the explanations I read, while the author is confident in them, seem woefully incomplete.  One example of this is the Law of Attraction.

From what I've read, and watched on television, I understand that the Law of Attraction is an omnipresent force of the universe, as dependable and predictable as gravity.  What this force does is bring similar things together.  The most famous property of the law of attraction, especially since the release of the film The Secret, is that the images you hold in your mind will attract the real-life analogues of those images.  So, if you're a negative person, always pissed-off, you'll be bringing more upsetting things into your life.  If you feel happy, healthy and wealthy, then you'll get more of that.

Those who teach the Law of Attraction are quick to let you know that, since our world is solid, we don't materialize things as quickly as we think about them.  They are brought to us through the usual channels, which might be a friend, or a boss, a random stranger, or a strange coincidence.  All of this is choreographed by the universe.

It's hard to prove, but I get it.  In the end, it amounts to a reversal of cause and effect.  It's not that people think about poverty because they're poor, they're poor because they keep thinking of poverty.  

When considering the Law of Attraction, free will is not the first issue that comes to mind, but on deeper consideration of it, the role of free will in the process can't be ignored.  No man is an island.  Virtually everything you own came to you because of the actions of others.  People who work at the store, people who employ you, even the people that made the car that you used to make a purchase.  So, let's say someone without much money wants to use the Law of Attraction to manifest a new car stereo.  A month later, he talks to someone at a bar who works for Pioneer, and the man gives him a tip that the company has a small warehouse full of "factory defect" stereos, that were set aside because they were the wrong color.  He gives our character the phone number for the factory, and he ends up getting the perfect car stereo for a fraction of the price.  

What if this is because of his mental work, and that the universe provided the stereo for him?  So, we'll make the assumption that, if he hadn't held the stereo in mind, the employee for Pioneer would have gone to a different bar that night, or perhaps would have stayed at home, watching television.  As he put his nice shirt on that night, he had no clue that the real reason he was going to the bar was because of what some stranger had been concentrating on in his spare time.

But the Law of Attraction is supposed to bring everything into our lives.  It's as consistent, and ever-present, as the law of gravity.  Maybe you honked at that guy on the interstate because he'd been having negative feelings.  Maybe you gave the panhandler a dollar because he believes he is a very effective panhandler.  Maybe you met that special someone because she (or he) conjured you!  The inevitable conclusion is that virtually every decision you make during the day, every step you take, is because of the expectations of the multitudes around you, and around the world.  You're floating in the breeze, with only an illusion of free will.

So, while The Secret was a very inspirational film, when I really sit and think of what it implies, I prefer to believe that my day is a series of dice rolls, and that I have the free will to react to things as they come, and to use my actions to create my own luck.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Alternative to medicine

Alternative medicine has been around since before it was the alternative.  Before we knew as much as we now know about the body (not a complete knowledge, but impressive) many of our maladies were treated with plants, prayers and, sometimes, rituals.

There are quite a few herbal remedies that would fall under the heading of "alternative" if we didn't know they worked.  Eucalyptus for opening the airways, cranberry juice for UTIs, vitamin C for colds.  Even so, we have over-the-counter versions of all of these, because many of us tend to trust what comes out of a bottle more easily than what comes out of the ground.

But what about the rest of it?  What about acupuncture, and faith healing, and reflexology?  Why in the world would anyone want to use alternative medicine?

The question may be more easily answered if it were slightly altered. Why in the world would anyone want an alternative to medicine?

As skeptical as I naturally am of techniques like acupuncture, I'm also growing increasingly skeptical of modern healthcare, especially here in my homeland of the United States.  A few of the factors that contribute to this skepticism are as follows:
  1. The eerie experience of watching an ad for medication.  Loved ones laugh and play together while an indifferent voice reads off a list of horrible side-effects that the medication may cause.  Some of these pills seem like an illness in themselves.  If you watch television, I'm sure you don't need any examples.
  2. The fact that simply remaining alive can sometimes cost as much as a very nice house.  I don't care how anyone justifies it, it's wrong, and is effectively evil.  I understand that the price of healthcare (at least in the US--I've never lived abroad) is the product of a system, not necessarily the decision of any one person, but something more needs to be done.  
  3. The fact that, when I'm at the doctor's office, it too often feels like the docs are just making a wild guess, and ignoring half of what I tell them.  I don't know what causes this, but I know that I go to the doctor's office less often than I used to.
Thinking about visiting the doctor makes me wish for an alternative, myself.  The only alternative to medicine that I truly believe in, though, is living healthfully so that you don't get the illness in the first place.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Turning a fish into a dog in four steps -or- You can't buy God a beer!

I don't like heavy furniture, and I don't like writing in permanent marker on canisters.  I don't like owning a pet that's supposed to live thirty years.  What's the theme?  It's that I think flexibility is very important.  It's usually a bad idea to make a change that's too rigid, or permanent, when the world around it is changing constantly, and before long it will no longer be appropriate.

Also, I have a canister full of dry pinto beans in the cupboard that says "Froot Loops" on the side.  Eventually I'm going to have to buy a new canister.

So, if I was an omnipotent being, perhaps the Christian god, and I wanted to make a planet full of animals and plants, I would think twice before writing them in permanent marker.  If I saw a friend (who, of course, is also a god) creating a planet that way, I'd have to take him aside.

"Hey, buddy.  Not a good idea.  If you're organisms can't change when their environment changes, they're going to die.  All of them.  Give it a million years, and you're planet will be a giant barren desert."

But he doesn't listen, and now we have Mars.

All kidding aside, though, I'm discouraged by the tendency of some to ignore or avoid the idea of natural selection because of their religious beliefs.  I don't even see where the debate of creation vs. evolution came from.  I'm no Bible scholar, but I'm pretty sure that when God decided his creation was good, he didn't say, "And now it will all stay the same forever."  That statement is more recent.

So, if the argument isn't based on the Bible, what is it based on?  I think it may have more to do with observation than religion.  Science has its fair share of intangible specters; things that are so small, so far away, or take so long that we never have any real experience of them.  Natural selection is one of those things.

I guess the way I look at it is, how could you avoid a process like natural selection?  The most basic premise of it is that :

  1. Siblings* are born different from each-other.  Besides some twins, nobody is identical to his/her brother or sister.
  2. Some creatures/plants have a better chance at surviving than their siblings.  If a squirrel can run faster than his brother, it's not absurd to think he will live longer.
  3. Surviving longer means having more babies.  More mating seasons, more mates, more little selves running around.
  4. Children inherit tendencies from their parents.  So not only did one sibling have more offspring, those offspring are, on average, living longer than the other sibling's offspring... and having more offspring themselves.  You see where this is going.
Now, I think that most of us will agree on those four separate points, and maybe even on that process as a whole, but what does it look like over the course of millenia?  Can it really make a fish look like a dog?  Well, I think a better question is this: Will the changes continue to happen, or will they stop?  If they continued, over unimaginable lengths of time, I think your fish would eventually be burying bones in the back yard.  

But what would it look like if the changes did stop?  Every pup born, and every egg hatched, every creature, would be genetically identical to his/her siblings.  Huh.

So, are organisms changing, or are they static?  

I'm personally blown away by the process, which I find to be awe-inspiring.  Almost numinous.  I'm not offended by the thought of the wholeness of life springing from single-celled organisms, I'm humbled by it.  When I really sit and consider the absurd traits, the unlikely simbiotic relationships, the unfathomable variety in the world, I get a feeling that's only a few blocks away from worship.

If I was religious, and also understood natural selection, I'd buy God a beer, and not a cheap one, either.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I can't believe my eyes

I was fifteen.  I had recently gone through a breakup, and had gone to bed quite upset.  I had a nightmare that night that I don't recall fully, but it involved standing in the middle of the freeway.  I woke up from this nightmare in a cold sweat, and with a full bladder.  I got out of bed, and made my way to the bathroom.  When I reached my bedroom door, though, I had a hunch to turn around, and look back at my bed.  There was somebody laying in my bed!  I took a step closer, and recognized the sleeping figure as myself.

I woke up then, abruptly, still in bed, bladder still full, and a bit more flustered than I had been the first time I thought I had awoken.  When I went back to bed, after going to the bathroom, I was certain that I'd had what I now know is called an out-of-body experience.  When I woke up the next morning, I wasn't so sure.

It was just a matter of which direction you approached the experience from.  I eventually decided that I didn't see why that had to be the explanation.  As far as the evidence concerned, it was a toss-up between an OBE and a vivid waking dream.  So, why choose OBE?  I couldn't think of a single reason to.

A few years later, I read the autobiographical Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman for the first time.  In a later chapter of the book physicist Richard Feynman gains access to a sensory deprivation chamber, where he experiences what I'm sure some would describe as out-of-body experiences, and it filled me with respect that he consistently referred to the experiences as hallucinations.

Let me tell you why.

We humans have a big problem, that leaves us making the wrong conclusions a little too often.  While many of us don't believe it until we see it, most of us do, when we see it, believe it.  We trust our senses, and we trust our memories, but like keeping friends who are drug addicts, we are misplacing our trust.

Something that you'll read in a lot of books on extra-sensory perception applies here.  What we humans see is not necessarily what's there.  Not just because of the narrow frequency band our eyes pick up, but because of how our brain handles these photons.  All of us, as humans, notice things selectively, based on what's been important in the past.  Three people can look at the exact same scene, and come away with three different descriptions, based on their past experiences, current mood, and beliefs about life.  I'm not going to bog you down with examples, because I'm sure you've been in at least one argument with someone about what seemed, to the both of you, to be the most obvious thing.

So that's why I respect someone who's able to doubt their own senses.  There is, of course, a threshold where such a practice becomes unreasonable, but it is necessary if you're interested in getting to the bottom of something, rather than just being led around by what you expected to see in the first place.

So, did I dream it?  The conclusion that I came to was entirely a choice of my own, and isn't evidence of anything but my own beliefs, which aren't a mystery in the first place.

Thanks for reading.