Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Saturday shorts

It's been a busy week here at Skeptophilia headquarters.  Our staff (me, my main dog Grendel, and Grendel's comical sidekick Lena the WonderHound) have been hard at work keeping you up to date on the latest from the Wide World of Woo-Woo.

Well, at least I have.  At the moment, Grendel is snoring on his bed in my office, and Lena is derping around outside.  I don't hear her barking at the moment, which is good, because she has been known to bark at:
  • squirrels
  • birds
  • farm equipment, which is a problem because we live next to a farm
  • our pond's resident snapping turtle, whom my wife has christened "Mitch McConnell"
  • the wind
  • a particularly threatening-looking stick
  • her own reflection
So maybe she's not that useful, after all.

But while the dogs have been wasting time, I've been combing the internet for current news stories, and I found three things that you definitely will want to know about.

First, we have the discovery of some strange stone structures in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.  Four hundred of them have been found on the ancient lava plain Harrat Khaybar, and they've been christened "gates" because that's what they look like from the air, although their actual function is unknown.


Well, there's nothing like "mysterious stone structures" to get the woo-woos going, and we're already seeing speculation that they may have been the foundations of temples or landing strips for ancient aliens.  Me, I find the latter a little far-fetched, because as you can see in the above aerial photograph, the "gates" are laid out in a vaguely rectangular fashion, which is a stupid way to design an alien landing strip since spaceships generally don't corner all that well.

I'd also recommend a little bit of caution in investigating these structures, because the desert wastes of Saudi Arabia are where the Nameless City was located in the historical document of the same name by H. P. Lovecraft, wherein ye Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred found the cursed book of ancient magic, the Necronomicon.  And considering all the trouble that caused in later historical documents such as "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," maybe we really shouldn't go poking around there, or we might wake up That Which Is Not Dead And Can Eternal Lie.

Which would suck.


Then we have a story from central California that was spotted by a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, wherein we learn that photographs have been taken of not one, not two, but five Bigfoots.  The photographer, Jeffrey Gonzales, a "self-described paranormal expert," tells quite a tale of his encounter.  He'd heard about the creatures from a farmer who lives on Avocado Lake, east of Fresno, and went to investigate.  Once he got there, the creatures were easy to find. "One of them, which was extremely tall, had a pig over its shoulder," Gonzalez said.  "And the five scattered and the one with the pig was running so fast it didn’t see an irrigation pipe and it tripped, with the pig flying over."

Which gives new meaning to the phrase "when pigs fly."  But Gonzales kept his presence of mind and fired off some photographs.  Fortunately, he remembered to put his camera on auto-blur, because this is one of the results:


Which to me only proves one thing, namely, if your photograph is grainy enough, you can find anything in it.  In fact, if you'll look immediately to the right of the Bigfoot, you'll see a huge screaming creature with hollow eyes and a gaping, round mouth.

See it?  It's a wonder the Bigfoot wasn't running for his life, with that thing around.


Last, it wouldn't be a normal week without a new conspiracy theory, and this one is a doozy:

When Melania Trump appears in public, it's not actually Melania, it's a body double.

Twitter user Andrea Wagner Barton is absolutely certain about this, and points to a video clip in which President Trump was speaking to reporters about the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, and made the statement, "My wife, Melania, who happens to be right here."  Barton thought this was odd, and tweeted the following:
Will the real Melania please stand up?
Is it me or during his speech today a decoy “stood in” for Melania??
And....
Why would the moron say “my wife, Melania, who happens to be right here...”
Seriously, watch very closely!
I did, and as far as I can tell, it's Melania.  On the other hand, that's what I would say, given that I'm probably a conspirator myself.  The conspiracy theorists disagree, however, and say that Melania hasn't been Melania for some time now.  Especially in the highly publicized video clip from Inauguration Day where her smile turned into a scowl, and the one in which the president tries to take her hand and she swats it away.

Of course, there are other explanations, such as Melania having more self-awareness than Donald does, which could also be said of many species of mollusk.  If I had to hang around with someone who made that number of cringe-worthy statements daily, I'd scowl too.


So that's our excursion in the deep end of the pool for this week.  Alien airstrips in the desert, Bigfoots carrying pigs, and FLOTUS body doubles.  I'm gonna wrap this up now, because Lena's just started barking, and I better go out and rescue her before she gets her nose bitten off by Mitch McConnell.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Mocking vs. smiting

A couple of days ago, televangelist Jim Bakker announced that he has it on good authority that god will smite anyone who makes fun of him.
When God says something to you, you don’t always know the exact time it’s going to happen.  [So] stop beating up the prophets because God says, "Woe unto you when you beat up on the prophets." 
God is speaking to his people.  The only ones who probably aren’t talking to God these days are mean people in America, people who just are anti-Christ. 
If you don’t want to hear it, just shut me off.  Especially you folks that monitor me every day to try to destroy me.  Just go away.  You don’t have to be there, you don’t have to hear it.  But one day, you’re going to shake your fist in God’s face and you’re going to say, "God, why didn’t you warn me?"  And He’s going say, "You sat there and you made fun of Jim Bakker all those years. I warned you but you didn’t listen."
What I find especially comical about all of this is that I have mocked Jim Bakker for years.  Here are a few of the things I've said about Bakker in various posts:
  • Is it too much to ask that people leave their bizarre mythology out of politics?  I mean, our political situation at the moment is surreal enough.  We don't need anything to make it more embarrassing to the world at large...  Which is a message that needs delivering to televangelist Jim Bakker.  Bakker hosted an interview with Robert Maginnis, of the Family Research Council, a far-right evangelical organization that was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 because of their stance on LGBT issues.  In the interview, Bakker opined that President Obama was showing his preference for Muslims by appointing Abid Qureshi to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. (in Bakker's mind, "one out of hundreds of federal appointments" apparently constitutes a "preference").  [Afterwards, Bakker] made an even wackier pronouncement -- that our federal government is being controlled by witches.
  • [P]eople like Bakker and Wiles never let a little thing like reality interfere with their message...  Lying for Jesus, is how I see it...  [And this comes from] a guy who resigned from his first ministerial post because of a sex scandal (in which he offered to pay $279,000 to the victim to keep silent), and in a separate incident was imprisoned for five years on fraud and conspiracy charges.
  • Bakker himself said that by "blaspheming against Donald Trump," we're hastening the End Times.   Which, honestly, I can't say is a particular deterrent for me at the moment.  Considering the news lately, the Dragon With Seven Heads and Ten Crowns, the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, and the Four Apocalyptic Horsepersons sound like a distinct improvement.
  • [Apropos of Bakker having a fit over Starbucks changing their holiday coffee cup design]  What strikes me about this tempest in a coffee cup is that these are, by and large, the same people who scream bloody murder about "political correctness" whenever someone objects to derogatory language being directed toward minorities, and yet they consider a change in a coffee cup design to be the moral equivalent of carpet-bombing Whoville.  So I guess their blathering about political correctness translates to "you can't take offense to anything I say, but I'm still entitled to get my panties in a twist over absolutely nothing."
So I haven't exactly been complimentary.  You'd think that if anyone has a target pasted on top of his head, it'd be me.

And yet, here I sit, unsmote.

Go ahead, Jimmy Boy, do your worst.  [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Bakker is constantly claiming that various awful events are due to god's wrath, most recently the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England during an Ariana Grande concert, which he said occurred because  concert-goers"literally invited the attack by mocking god."  Of course, since these claims are always made after the fact -- god never tips him off about a shooting or bombing or what-have-you before it happens, which is kind of odd if he's a "prophet" -- he can attribute them to any supernatural agency he wants, and there's no way to prove him wrong.  If he said that Hurricane Maria was caused by the god Lagomorphus, Who Doth Appear Unto Mankind As A Giant Bunny Rabbit, and that he triggered the storm by farting toward the south Atlantic, it's not like there's anything you could respond to effectively contradict him.

Other than science, logic, and common sense, of course.  But if you are fond of magical thinking, you've sort of abandoned those three in any case, so it's not like that'd do any good.

In any case, let me hereby make it clear:  Jim Bakker, I am officially mocking you.  You are a narrow-minded, hypocritical, bigoted, homophobic loon whose pronouncements are such a combination of weirdness and sheer nastiness that it's a wonder anyone still listens.  So there you are.  I invite you to use your connections to see to it that I get smote.  Who knows?  Maybe it'll happen.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Purging the experts

One of the political trends I understand least is the increasing distrust of scientists by elected officials.

It's not like this disparagement of experts is across the board.  When you're sick, and the doctor runs tests and diagnoses you with a sinus infection, you don't say, "I don't believe you.  My real estate agent told me it sounded like I had an ulcer, so I'm gonna go with that."  When you get on an airplane, you don't say to the pilot, "You damn elite aviation specialists, you're obviously biased because of your training.  I think you should hand over the controls to Farmer Bob, here."  When you have your car repaired, you wouldn't say to the mechanic, "I'm not going to do the repairs you suggest, because you have an obvious monetary interest in the car being broken.  I'll get a second opinion from my son's kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hinkwhistle, who is a disinterested party."

But that's how scientists are treated by politicians.  And it's gotten worse.  Just yesterday, Scott Pruitt, who is the de facto leader of the Environmental Protection Agency despite his apparent loathing of both the environment and the agency, announced that there was going to be a purge of scientists on EPA advisory boards.


"What’s most important at the agency is to have scientific advisers that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations,” Pruitt said when he spoke to a group at the Heritage Foundation, an anti-environmental, pro-corporate lobby group.  "If we have individuals who are on those boards, sometimes receiving money from the agency … that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way."

Well, of course environmental scientists get funding from the EPA, you dolt.  One of the EPA's functions is providing grants for basic research in environmental science.  Saying that environmental scientists can't be on EPA advisory boards is a little like excluding doctors from being on medical advisory boards.

Can't have that, after all.  Those doctors are clearly biased to be in favor of policies that promote better health care services, because then they get money for providing those services.  Better populate the medical advisory boards with people who know nothing whatsoever about medicine.

Of course, I am morally certain that the purging of trained scientists from EPA advisory boards is not simply because of this administration's anti-science bent, although that clearly exists as well.  The fight between corporate stooges like Scott Pruitt and the scientific community stems from the fact that much of what the scientists are saying runs counter to economic expediency.  You know, such things as:
  • Climate change exists and is anthropogenic in origin
  • Dumping mining waste into streams and lakes is a bad idea
  • Corporations need strictures on the impact of what they do on the environment, because they have a poor track record of policing themselves
  • Reducing the allowable amounts of air pollutants improves air quality and eases such conditions as asthma and chronic bronchitis
  • Oil pipelines have a nasty habit of breaking and leading to damaging oil spills
  • It's a stupid idea to store pressurized natural gas in unstable underground salt caverns
All of which we environmental types -- by which I mean, people who would like future generations to have drinkable water, breathable air, and a habitable world -- have had to fight in the past year.  The Trump administration's approach to environmental policy is like the Hydra; you cut off one foul, pollution-emitting head, and it grows two more.

The whole thing is driven by a furious drive toward deregulation, which in turn comes out of unchecked corporate greed.  Jennifer Sass, senior scientist for the National Resources Defense Council, nailed it:  "Pruitt’s purge has a single goal: get rid of scientists who tell us the facts about threats to our environment and health.  There’s a reason he won’t apply the same limits to scientists funded by corporate polluters.  Now the only scientists on Pruitt’s good list will be those with funding from polluters supporting Trump’s agenda to make America toxic again."

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, agreed.  Halpern said that if Pruitt succeeds in his purge, he "would be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment."

The problem is, stories like this get buried in the ongoing shitstorm that has characterized the leadership of the United States in the last ten months.  It's another Hydra, and people simply can't pay attention to all of the horrible news at the same time.  That's what they're counting on -- that with outrages over kneeling athletes and disrespect by the president of military widows and allegations of sexual impropriety, we'll just ignore the fact that while all this other stuff is happening, our leaders are gutting every protection the environment has gained in the last fifty years.

You'd think that with the natural disasters this year -- unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires and floods -- we'd wise up and say, "You know, maybe it's time we started paying attention to the damage we've done."  But unfortunately, we're heading in exactly the opposite direction.  My fear is that by doing this, we're making the eventual backlash from the environment unstoppable.

And it would be a Pyrrhic victory, but I hope Scott Pruitt is around to watch it happen.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Uncharted waters

There's a scuba diving site off the coast of Belize called the Blue Hole.  It's a circular limestone sinkhole in the middle of Lighthouse Reef.  You're swimming along in water that's 30 to 35 feet deep, and quite suddenly the bottom drops out from underneath you -- as you pass over the edge you get the feeling that you've been launched into space.  It's disorienting; there are accomplished divers who have reported that they couldn't quite bring themselves to swim over the edge.  The bottom is invisible, 480 feet beneath you, but the sensation is that there is no bottom, that the depths keep sinking away beneath you forever.

The Blue Hole [image courtesy of the USGS]

I had something of the intellectual version of that experience while searching for a topic for today's post.  On days when nothing in the news presents itself, I usually just snoop around online until something comes up.  The keywords "weird news" are usually fruitful in this regard, and within short order I had found a possibility -- a website about Cadborosaurus, a mythical dinosaur species that supposedly accounts for sea serpent sightings off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.  (At first I misread this as "Cadburysaurus" and wondered if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs, but sadly, this was not the case.)  But while I was reading about various sightings of the mysterious sea serpent, I was distracted by a link on the Cadborosaurus article to another site, which was called "Psychic Sasquatch Revisited."

Now, that sounded more interesting than sea serpents, so I clicked on the link.  I was brought to an article by a fellow named (I am so not making this up) Kewaunee Lapseritis, which to me sounds like the name of an obscure gastrointestinal disorder.  Lapseritis has written a new book, entitled The Sasquatch People and Their Interdimensional Connection, and the website acts as if this book is some kind of cross between Earth in the Balance, Chariots of the Gods, and the bible. Here's a brief excerpt from the preface, written by a guy named Christopher Murphy:
He [Kewaunee Lapseritis] elaborates on why they are humanoid beings and their purpose here is based on 32 years (out of the 55 years researching them) interacting with the giants (and ETs).  Kewaunee draws information from 187 witnesses who also experienced telepathic communication.  Quantum physics that describe the reality of mental telepathy, invisibility, inter-dimensionalism, and other PSI phenomena, actually juxtapose psychic Sasquatch and ET behavior.
Not only that: on this website you can purchase your very own SasqWatch, a wristwatch with a band shaped like a huge, hairy foot.

So I thought, "Wow, this is pretty fertile ground. Plus, I really enjoy saying 'Kewaunee Lapseritis.'  I bet I could make a blog post about this."  Then I noticed a link on that website for yet another website.  This link was entitled, "Mayastar: Pleiadian DNA Clearing." So I clicked on that, and was brought to a website for the "Mayastar Academy of Natural Healing and Spiritual Development."

Here is only the very first paragraph of their mission statement:
The Pleiadian DNA Clearing & Activation Attunement Programme is a series of 7 attunements facilitated by the Pleiadian Light Beings of the Star Alcyone.  These activations work on an etheric level to awaken and develop the full 12 strand DNA system that is the inheritance of all humans.  This awakens additional spiritual healing capacities and talents within us which can assist us and enhance our lives in many ways.  This system clears any blockages and activates the dormant elements of your DNA coding in order to fulfil [sic] the potential of your spiritual energetic blueprint.
Sort of spiritual Ex-Lax, is how I see it.  But maybe I only say this because I'm not a Pleiadian Light Being With Twelve-Stranded DNA. 

So unfortunately for me, I began to snoop around on the website.

I very quickly found out that to go through all of the nonsense on this website would take days -- there are books for sale, crystals (of course) for sale, instructions for mystical rituals regarding "focusing energy from Ancient Egypt and the Pyramids," courses on using Norse runes for divination, something called "Rainbow Sequence Healing Techniques," and... and... and enormous amounts of other stuff.  I know that sounds lame, but I was just overwhelmed.  I was faced with a source from which I literally had too much material to write a coherent post.  I think that was the point where my brain gave a little kick with the old mental scuba fins and zoomed right out over the edge of the Blue Hole.

I've made the statement before that the the credulousness of the public and the greed of the purveyors of sham worldviews seem to be boundless.  The bottom of that Blue Hole apparently doesn't exist.  I find it astonishing that anyone would look at this website, regardless of his/her level of education, background in science and critical thinking, or philosophical stance, and not guffaw and say, "wow, what a load of bullshit."  But evidently "Mayastar" is a successful business enterprise, to judge by the fact that the "Academy" has had over 700 students, and their website has been "liked" on Facebook over 2,000 times.

And that's what I mean about swimming out over the edge, and the disorientation that results.   Because after reading about Mayastar, I'm thinking that Kewaunee Lapseritis's studies of psychic communication with interdimensional quantum Bigfoots sound by comparison like they're pretty well grounded in reality.  And from there, it's only a short step to believing in Cadborosaurus, even if they were hatched from chocolate creme eggs.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Weighty matters

Despite all of the daily litany of depressing and/or fury-inducing news, I'm pleased to say that the scientists are still hard at work showing us more of the internal workings of the universe, giving us better insights into the nature of the cosmos even as most of the rest of us focus on the minuscule doings of one species on a tiny planet around a completely ordinary star in the edge of a spiral galaxy that is one amongst billions.


Not to denigrate my fellow humans, of course.  I rather like being human, and I'm awfully fond of the little floating green-and-blue sphere where I live.  But it's nice to know that while we focus on our petty concerns, we have people who are looking outward, not downward.

The discovery I'm referencing is the observation by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) of the collision of two neutron stars.  Neutron stars are the phenomenally dense cores of exploded giant stars; their matter is so compressed that, in the famous comparison, one teaspoon of neutron star-stuff would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

What is stunning about this observation isn't just the thought of what it would be like to see two such dense objects collide; in fact, the collision itself is just part of what's fascinating about this event.  Other amazing features are:
  • In the moments before the collision occurred, the two stars were circling their center of mass at a rate of a thousand times per second.
  • The collision not only created gravitational waves and a burst of light across the spectrum, it's thought that such events are what create a lot of the heavy elements in the periodic table.  So yes: the gold in your ring was very likely formed in a cosmic cataclysm.
  • It is possible that the combined mass of the two stars exceeded the mass limit for a neutron star, and after the collision the stars immediately vanished -- became a black hole.  That point isn't settled yet.
The coolest part of all of this, however, is that the light and the gravitational waves from the collision arrived at detectors at the same moment -- showing that gravitational waves do indeed travel at the speed of light, which is one of the predictions of the General Theory of Relativity.  Put simply: Einstein wins again.  

If that doesn't put relativity into the "proven beyond a shadow of a doubt" column, I don't know what would.

The result was a flurry of papers being published, including one in Astrophysical Journal Letters that had 4,500 authors from 910 different institutions -- which surely must be some kind of record.

Daniel Holz, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, who worked on the LIGO project, said, "I can't think of a similar situation in the field of science in my lifetime, where a single event provides so many staggering insights about our universe."

So maybe it's time to take a step back from the dreary ongoing march of political news and think a little bit more about the bigger picture.  I mean, the really big picture.  The one that encompasses the entire universe in which we live.  And now, because of a cataclysmic event 130 million light years away, one piece of which we are now able to view with greater clarity and understanding.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Merry Christmas mandate

Last week, Donald Trump addressed the "Values Voter Summit," a group of people whose Values apparently include supporting a thrice-married serial philanderer whose main claim to fame is embodying all Seven Deadly Sins in the same person.

Notwithstanding the mindblowing irony of someone like Trump addressing issues of morality, the Values Voters were wildly enthusiastic about the speech.  The part that got the most rousing round of applause was when he informed the Values Voters that he was going to make it legal to say "Merry Christmas" again:
America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened and sustained by the power of prayer.  George Washington said that “religion and morality are indispensable” to America’s happiness, really, prosperity and totally to its success.  It is our faith and our values that inspires us to give with charity, to act with courage, and to sacrifice for what we know is right.

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence -- four times.  How times have changed.  But you know what, now they're changing back again.  Just remember that...  Religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.  And we all pledge allegiance to -- very, very beautifully -- “one nation under God...”  To protect religious liberty, including protecting groups like this one, I signed a new executive action in a beautiful ceremony at the White House on our National Day of Prayer, which day we made official.

We are stopping cold the attacks on Judaeo-Christian values...   And something I've said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don't talk about anymore.  They don't use the word "Christmas" because it's not politically correct.  You go to department stores, and they'll say, "Happy New Year" and they'll say other things.  And it will be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say it.  Well, guess what?  We're saying “Merry Christmas” again.
Okay, just hang on a moment.

"People don't talk about" Christmas any more?  Then explain to me why this year the department stores started putting up Christmas decorations in September.  And I'm going to say this loudly, one more time, as plainly as possible:

I know a lot of liberals, atheists, agnostics, secularists, and what-have-you.  And not a single one of them gives a flying rat's ass if you say "Merry Christmas" or not.  The only two things I have ever heard any of them gripe about, apropos of the Christmas season, are the following:
  1. Saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" is polite because it's an acknowledgement that not everyone thinks like you do.  It's a way of saying, "I realize you may have a different set of beliefs, and that's okay."  It's not a slap in the face to Christians, it's not a way of belittling or eliminating Christmas from the national consciousness (hell, the retailers wouldn't let that happen anyhow), and for cryin' in the sink, it's not an "attack on Judaeo-Christian values."  It's simply saying, "I recognize that my beliefs and attitudes are not the center of the whole damn universe."
  2. For the same reasons outlined in #1, Christmas displays should not be put up at the expense of taxpayers.  No one has any objection to privately-owned businesses, much less homeowners, putting up Christmas displays using their own money.  Hell, I'm about as atheist as they come, and I don't care if you want to put up a Christmas display so garish that it interferes with air traffic and then stand on your roof wearing nothing but a Santa hat shouting "Jesus is the Reason for the Season!" at the top of your lungs.  Whatever floats your boat, you know?  But if you're using tax money -- i.e. money collected from all American citizens, regardless of their beliefs -- you shouldn't be putting up displays promoting one religion (or, honestly, any religion at all).
And the whole "America is a nation of believers" thing is more than a little troubling.  What does that imply?  That by not being a believer, I'm not an American?  Or that I should just pack up and leave?  If you think that last bit is just me being alarmist, only two days ago I saw a post of a photograph of a sign in a shop window (don't know where it was taken) that said, "Here, we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.  We say Merry Christmas.  We defend ourselves.  We salute the flag.  We worship Jesus.  And if you don't like it, LEAVE."


To which I'd respond, if I had the chance: I don't honestly care what you do.  You can live at the church and surround yourself with American flag wallpaper and salute it 24/7 with a gun in each hand, if that's what you want.  But if you imply that I'm not an American -- if, in fact, you're saying I don't have a right to live here -- because I don't do the same thing, I think you're sorely misunderstanding both the Right to Free Speech and the Separation of Church and State.

What it boils down to is that 99% of non-religious people don't object to, or even care, what others believe.  They're more concerned with not having a requirement of belief rammed down their throats. Okay, there are some asshole atheists who do disparage Christianity and Christians, and would love to see religious belief eradicated.  But you know what?  If you think that assholery is limited to the atheists, you aren't looking at other groups very carefully.

But messages of tolerance and live-and-let-live don't sell well to the perpetually outraged members of the Values Voter Summit, who think that Christianity is besieged and that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Christ at the very least.  So if any people of that stripe are reading this, allow me to reassure you.

Relax.  Chill out.  We atheists have no intention of doing to you what you'd like to do to us.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The shadow knows

One of the most terrifying sleep-related phenomena is sleep paralysis.

I say this only from hearing about the experiences of others; I have never had it happen to me.  But the people I've talked to who have had episodes of sleep paralysis relate being wide awake and conscious, but unable to move -- often along with some odd sensory experiences -- such as feelings of being watched or having someone in the room; hissing, humming, or sizzling noises; a tingling in the extremities that feels like a mild electric shock; a feeling of being suffocated; and (understandably) the emotions of fear and panic.

The reason all of this comes up is an article that appeared over at the site Mysterious Universe last week about "shadow people."  The piece was by Nick Redfern, whose name should be familiar to anyone who is an aficionado of cryptozoology; Redfern has been involved in a number of investigations of the paranormal, and is the author of books such as The Roswell UFO Conspiracy, Shapeshifters: Morphing Monsters and Changing Cryptids, The Real Men in Black, The New World Order Book, and a variety of other titles I encourage you to peruse.

So Redfern has a pretty obvious bias, here, which is why I was already primed to view his piece on the Shadow People with a bit of a jaundiced eye.  Let me let him speak for himself, though.  Redfern tells us that there are these entities that we should all be on the lookout for, and then tells us the following:
Jason Offutt is an expert on the Shadow People, and the author of a 2009 book on the subject titled Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us.  He says there are eight different kinds of Shadow People – at least, they are the ones we know about.  He labels them as Benign Shadows, Shadows of Terror, Red-Eyed Shadows, Noisy Shadows, Angry Hooded Shadows, Shadows that Attack, Shadow Cats, and the Hat Man.
Shadow Cats?  Why only cats?  Cats, in my experience, are already conceited enough that they don't need another feather in their caps.  Of course, the positive side is that Shadow Cats wouldn't be very threatening.  My cats specialized in two behaviors: Sitting Around Looking Bored, and Moving Closer To Where We Are So We'll Appreciate How Bored They Are.  If their Shadow versions are no more motivated, it's hard to see why you'd even care they were around, since Shadow Cats presumably don't eat, drink, or use a litter box.  They'd kind of be a low-impact paranormal home d├ęcor item.

On the other hand, I'm just as glad there are no Shadow Dogs, because then we'd have yet another source of the really obnoxious noise that dogs make when they are conducting intimate personal hygiene, a sound my wife calls "glopping."  Our two dogs glop enough, there's no need for additional glopping from the spirit world.

But then there's "Hat Man."  On first glance, that seemed fairly non-threatening, but Redfern tells us that Hat Man is the scariest one on the list:
I sat and listened at my table [at a conference, speaking to an attendee] as he told me how, back in July of this year, he had three experiences with the Hat Man – and which were pretty much all identical – and which were very familiar to me.  He woke up in the early hours of the morning to a horrific vision: the outside wall of his bedroom was displaying a terrifying image of a large city on fire, with significant portions of it in ruins. It was none other than Chicago.  The sky was dark and millions were dead.  Circling high above what was left of the city was a large, human-like entity with huge wings.  And stood [sic] next to the guy, as he watched this apocalyptic scenario unravel from his bed, was the Hat Man, his old-style fedora hat positioned firmly on his head.  The doomsday-like picture lasted for a minute or two, making it clear to the witness that a Third World War had begun.  On two more occasions in the same month, a near-identical situation played out.  It’s hardly surprising that the man was still concerned by all this when we chatted at the weekend.
So he talked to some other people, and more than one person mentioned seeing Hat Man, and always associated with images of doom and destruction.  Toward the end, he mentions the fact that one of the people who'd seen Hat Man suffered from sleep paralysis... which kind of made me go, "Aha."

In a paper by Walther and Schulz back in 2004 entitled, "Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis: Polysomnographic and Clinical Findings," it was found that people who suffered from sleep paralysis showed abnormal patterns of REM and non-REM sleep, and (most interestingly) fragmentation of REM.  REM, you probably know, is associated with dreaming; suppressing or disturbing REM causes a whole host of problems, up to and including hallucination.  Another paper -- Cheyne, Rueffer, and Newby-Clark, in 1999, "Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis: Neurological and Cultural Construction of the Night-Mare" -- has another interesting clue, which is that during sleep paralysis, cholinergic neurons (the neural bundles that promote wakefulness and REM) are hyperactive, whereas the serotonergic neurons (ones that initiate relaxation and a sense of well-being) are inhibited.  This implies that the mind becomes wakeful, but emotionally uneasy, before the brain-body connection comes back online.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem here is that if you're in sleep paralysis, or the related phenomenon of hypnagogic experiences (dreams in light sleep), what you are perceiving is not reflective of reality.  So as creepy as Shadow People are -- not to mention "Hat Man" -- I'm pretty certain that what we've got here is a visual hallucination experienced during a dream state.

Not sure about the Shadow Cats, though.  I still don't see how that'd work.  Given my luck at trying to get my cats comply with rules such as "Stay The Hell Off The Kitchen Counter," my guess is that even feline hallucinations wouldn't want to cooperate.  If you expected them to show up and scare some poor dude who was just trying to get a good night's sleep, they'd probably balk because it wasn't their idea.  Shadow Dogs, on the other hand, would be happy to climb on the sleeping dude's bed and glop right next to his ear.  They're just helpful that way.