Archive for the “General” Category

Posts of a general nature

Several times I’ve blogged about the unthinking nature of journalism in the US, and how they’ll stoop to reporting on the “paranormal,” putative hauntings in various places, alien abductions, and so on if it’s a slow news day and they have space to fill. This trend has only gotten worse with the mass layoffs at most newspapers and many other types of media outlets, which have in turn resulted from the collapse of advertising revenue. The latest example of this horrible trend comes from KXTV, News10, in Sacramento CA:

Are children more psychic than adults? According to two people with American Paranormal Investigations (API) kids tend to be more open to certain paranormal occurrences.

Ana Marie Sotuela and Dave Bender are real-life ghostbusters with API. They are holding a seminar this Saturday, Sept. 18 called “Children and Psychic Phenomena” with paranormal expert Loyd Auerbach.

Folks, phony psychics peddling their crap in the form of seminars, is not “news.” And swindles like this hardly deserve any free advertising in the form of this story.

Note too that the word “investigations” in the name of this outfit, is a misnomer: They are not truly “investigating” anything, they’re merely taking their beliefs, and using methods such as shoehorning, cherry-picking, and following other cognitive biases, to justify and rationalize them. None of these things has the slightest thing to do with any kind of truly objective “investigation.”

I suppose it’s possible these “psychics” paid the TV station for their airtime and Web advertising … the wall between media outlets’ news and ad departments has been under pressure and is even collapsing lately elsewhere, so I assume this is possible. Then again, this may be a simple — but not unethical — example of overly-credulous reporters looking for something to fill time and Web pages.

At any rate, the last thing our young people need is to have the idea that they must be “psychic” pushed on them by these swindlers, the reporters who tell us about them, or their own well-meaning but misguided or ignorant parents. Children are a precious resource and ought not be exploited.

Hat tip: Skeptic’s Dictionary.

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There have been many attempts over the years to finally track down the elusive Loch Ness Monster. Numerous searches have been conducted to find the fabled aquatic monster (Wikipedia lists them), but all have failed, including an extensive search sponsored by the BBC in 2003. This stunning lack of evidence for Nessie’s existence has caused at least one veteran Nessie-hunter, Robert Rines, to give up … but not because there was never any monster there (no, he could never admit that!); rather, he thinks Nessie was killed off by global warming, you see. In his view, Nessie was there, but is now dead, so that explains why the monster will never be found. Convenient, no?

But the complete lack of evidence for Nessie’s existence hasn’t stopped people from continuing to believe the monster exists. They’ve simply turned to another venue to find “proof” it’s there. This time, that proof has been provided by Google Earth, as reported by the (London) Daily Mail:

It promised the world views of the entire planet from their laptop. But could Google Earth have unravelled our favourite mystery of the deep?

One internet fan claims he found the legendary Loch Ness monster in satellite images on the virtual globe.

Security guard Jason Cooke said the 65ft oblong shape followed by thin strands is actually the highly contested creature supposed to inhabit Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands.

Here is the image as provided by the Mail:

Loch Ness Monster on Google Earth?

Loch Ness Monster on Google Earth?

If you think this may merely be a picture of a boat, not an aquatic monster, you aren’t the only one … it sure looks that way to me! This may be one of those times when people are leaping to conclusions based on very meager evidence. It’s not the first time this has happened with images from Google Earth, and I doubt it will be the last.

Anyone care to venture what strange thing will next be found on Google Earth? The lair of Bigfoot/Sasquatch? The lost continents of Lemuria or Mu? A portal to the Hollow Earth? The ruins of El Dorado? What’s next to be uncovered by Google Earth’s just-fuzzy-enough-to-be-tantalizing pictures of odd things?

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I haven’t mentioned belief in extraterrestrials recently, but the assumption that various odd things — such as unidentified flying objects* — can only be explained by assuming that extraterrestrials exist and are visiting Earth (and even abducting people and experimenting on them) is just as irrational as any religion or form of metaphysics. Just because something seems strange, or isn’t immediately explainable, does not mean it requires some extraordinary conclusion. Lots of things that had once been attributed to gods or other elusive beings — such as storms, which the ancient Greeks thought were caused by their god Poseidon — have turned out to have mundane, natural explanations.

But belief in extraterrestrials and “alien abductions” hit prime-time television in the US, tonight; ABC’s Primetime offered an episode on the matter. Among the bits shown is the story of Stan Romanek, who famously filmed an alien peering in his window. ABC’s evidence of the video’s veracity? That Stan and his family have been subjected to ridicule over it, but stand by it.

To ABC, this is “proof” the video is what Stan claims it is. That this video is a hoax, is something the producers appear not even to consider … even though it almost certainly is one.

The show also goes over the phenomenon of “sleep paralysis,” as though the only possible explanation for it is alien abduction … without conceding there may be mundane, perhaps neurological explanations for it. As it turns out, however, sleep paralysis is a phenomenon which has been studied, and has even been observed in experimental or clinical settings (e.g. sleep labs) without one iota of evidence that extraterrestrials were responsible.

The problems with the “alien abduction” scenario are so numerous that it hardly pays to list them all; but they include: Aliens freely getting in and out of homes, sometimes in congested areas, without being seen; aliens being able to penetrate walls as though they didn’t exist, even taking abductees through them the same way; aliens being able to levitate or teleport abductees into and out of space vessels without being detected; and so on.

We can posit all of these improbable things — and more! — or, on the other hand, we could instead decide that “sleep paralysis” is a neurological phenomenon, internal to the person, requiring none of those outrageous assumptions. Simple application of Ockham’s Razor implies that the neurological explanation is the more probable … and I’ve seen nothing that compels me to think otherwise.

ABC’s “proof” that this is what’s happening to these putative abductees, is that these folks “reject scientific explanations.” And that it’s probable that extraterrestrial intelligence lies somewhere in the universe.

Sorry but I’m not impressed. What these “abductees” claim is not relevant, since they cannot back up their claims with objective, verifiable evidence. And there’s a big difference between conceding that extraterrestrial intelligence exists (which is a concession I make), and asserting not only that it exists, but that at least one extraterrestrial race is visiting Earth, abducting people, and experimenting on them.

Once again, the mass media prove themselves all too willing to be the purveyors of rubbish, nonsense, irrationality, fallacy, and leaps of logic. What a waste of time.

* The ubiquity of belief that Earth is being visited, has reached the point where a lot of people think “UFO” means “extraterrestrial spacecraft.” This is not true. “UFO” means exactly what its component words mean … i.e. it’s an object in the air that one hasn’t yet identified. Nothing more.

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As a follow-up to my blog entry from last week … evangelist Tony Alamo — whose real name is Bernie Lazar Hoffman — has been convicted. Here’s the report from CNN:

A jury in Arkansas convicted evangelist Tony Alamo on Friday of 10 federal counts of taking minors across state lines for sex, according to the court in the Western District in Arkansas.

Of course, Alamo Hoffman has claimed not to have done anything wrong … and following the usual playbook of the paranoid conspiracy theorist, claims he was set up by the government:

In a phone interview last year with CNN, [Alamo Hoffman] called the accusations a hoax. …

Asked why authorities were searching the property, Alamo compared himself to Christ.

“Why were they after Jesus,” he asked. “It’s the same reason. Jesus is living within me.”

Perhaps you don’t realize it, Mr Alamo Hoffman, but making yourself into a living messiah is heretical … still, I’m sure your Christian sheep won’t be dissuaded from believing in you as ardently as ever. True believers never let insignificant little things like federal criminal convictions get in the way of their irrational metaphysics.

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No sooner did I publish my last blog post on irrational and erroneous beliefs, especially about Obama’s citizenship and the putative “moon-landing hoax,” than I noticed that the “moon-landing hoax” theory has a public proponent, and that is Whoopi Goldberg. This report comes via Real Clear Politics (video available there):

Whoopi Goldberg questioned the original moon landing on today’s edition of “The View.” Goldberg, a co-host, wondered who shot the footage and why the flag was “rippling” if there was no wind.

The flag rippling has been explained — by Mythbusters and others — and the lander had external cameras requiring no one to hold them.

Not that these facts are likely to sway Whoopi or any other moon-hoaxer. It would be nice if people like Ms Goldberg weren’t so gullible or ignorant … but they are.

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Americans are not only among the most religious people in the occidental world, they’re also among the most paranoid and conspiracy-minded. Perhaps the two tendencies are psychologically linked … I tend to think so, especially since perhaps the most common paranoid-conspiracy theory currently in circulation — i.e. the claim that President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen — is mostly being propagated by Christian fundamentalists. That Obama is, indeed, a citizen — as explained by numerous sources, ranging from fact-verifying groups like FactCheck, to major media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, to Web sites such as Snopes — has had absolutely no measurable effect on this belief among fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. Facts do not matter to them, not when there’s a paranoid conspiracy they can cling to instead.

The 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing has also pushed into the open yet another conspiracy theory, which likewise appears never to die. CNN reports on this persistent controversy:

It captivated millions of people around the world for eight days in the summer of 1969. It brought glory to the embattled U.S. space program and inspired beliefs that anything was possible.

It’s arguably the greatest technological feat of the 20th century.

And to some, it was all a lie.

Forty years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, a small cult of conspiracy theorists maintains the historic event — and the five subsequent Apollo moon landings — were staged. These people believe NASA fabricated the landings to trump their Soviet rivals and fulfill President Kennedy’s goal of ferrying humans safely to and from the moon by the end of the 1960s. …

Conspiracy theories about the Apollo missions began not long after the last astronaut returned from the moon in 1972. Bill Kaysing, a technical writer for Rocketdyne, which built rocket engines for NASA’s Apollo program, published a 1974 book, “We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.” …

Decades later, Kaysing’s beliefs formed the foundation for “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” a sensational 2001 Fox TV documentary that spotted eerie “inconsistencies” in NASA’s Apollo images and TV footage.

Is there a connection between the same Fox News channel, which is currently fueling the “Obama-is-not-a-citizen” mantra, and the Fox Entertainment division that aired this documentary? I doubt it. They’re part of the same media empire, yes, but are separately run. Fox Entertainment has given us many things that the religionazis at Fox News would never have approved of, e.g. Married With Children.

But I digress.

That the moon landings were hoaxed is, of course, nonsense. At least one of the reasons is one that CNN cites:

Critics of moon-landing hoax theorists, and there are many, say it would be impossible for tens of thousands of NASA employees and Apollo contractors to keep such a whopping secret for almost four decades.

Not to mention an even more obvious objection: Had NASA “hoaxed” the Apollo 11 moon landing, why would they have gone to the expense of faking several more? If the point was to make people think astronauts had landed on the moon, that would have been accomplished by just the first “hoax.” What need would there be to orchestrate any more?

What’s more, there’ve also been several attempts to show that the moon hoaxer’s claims are untrue … most recently this was done by the TV show Mythbusters, just under a year ago, in one of their more famous episodes. Also, astronomer Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has an extensive, point-by-point rebuttal of the Fox network so-called “documentary,” along with a list of other moon-hoax-related resources for your perusal. [Just added: The Skeptic’s Dictionary has a new entry on the moon-landing hoax, too.]

But as it turns out, none of this really helps alleviate the controversy. The people who subscribe to it are impervious to insignificant little things like “facts” and “verification.” Those don’t matter … the only thing that does matter, is one’s emotional attachment to the conspiracy theory. Of course, that’s what conspiracy theories and religious fundamentalism have in common — that underlying appeal to emotion and sentimentality. Ultimately that’s all they have going for them … but given how susceptible human beings are to emotion and sentiment, that’s more than enough. People usually choose wishful thinking over verifiable fact.

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The “haunting as news story” (about which I’ve blogged a couple times already) has become not merely a curiosity, it seems, but a persistent journalistic motif. Everybody’s getting in the act now. Here’s an AP report via Fox News (WebCite cached article):

Baseball teams fear ‘haunted’ Milwaukee hotel

The Pfister [Hotel] is Milwaukee’s most regal address, having hosted every U.S. president since William McKinley and scores of celebrities who can take a self-guided tour of the hotel’s Victorian art collection. Today, it’s the place to stay for upscale business travelers and out-of-town visitors, including many Major League Baseball teams. Commissioner Bud Selig, a Milwaukee native, is a frequent visitor.

But some players don’t care for the 116-year-old hotel’s posh accommodations and reputation for privacy. They swear it’s haunted.

Yes, folks, this is exactly the sort of urgent, breaking news we need the AP and Fox News to provide us! That ballplayers are afraid of a hotel because — they say — it’s haunted. They can provide all sorts of stories to back up this claim, and the article itself lists a number of them. There are even some Milwaukee locals milking the presumed haunting of the Pfister for their own gain:

Allison Jornlin, who leads haunted history tours for the folklore research organization Milwaukee Ghosts, said guests have reported seeing a “portly, smiling gentleman” roaming the halls, riding the elevator and even walking his dog. The apparition is said to resemble Charles Pfister, who founded the hotel with his father, Guido.

“His ghost is thought, usually, to behave very well,” Jornlin said. “But MLB players seem to bring out his mischievous side.”

Why’s that?

“Obviously, he’s a Brewers fan,” Jornlin said.

But even some of the Brewers won’t stay there in the offseason.

There’s a problem with this assumption; Charles Pfister cannot have been a Milwaukee Brewers fan … he died in 1924, but the team didn’t arrive in Milwaukee until 1970. (There was a Milwaukee Brewers team in Pfister’s time, but they moved long ago, and have been the Baltimore Orioles since 1954.) This means Jornlin’s claim is chronologically impossible!

No matter how commonplace these stories are … strange tales being passed around, do not make a true haunting. Haunted houses (and hotels, and any other structure you can name) are mythology, not reality.

With mass media outlets suffering due to the recession, and newspapers failing around the country, one would think journalists could find something more substantive to report on, than “hauntings.” But I guess not. Sigh.

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