Thursday, July 31, 2008

PZ Myers Could Get His Own National Day of Prayer

In a continuation of the communion wafer desecration saga, the Catholic news organization is reporting that the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, an association of Catholic Priests and Deacons based in Chicago IL, is proposing a national day of prayer and fasting for Friday, August 1 in "reparation for the sacrilegious desecration of the Holy Eucharist," committed by Dr. Myers. The Confraternity claims Myers' treatment of the communion wafer goes way beyond the bounds of free speech and enters the territory of unconstitutionality. From the article:

"The statement of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy said it found the actions of Myers 'reprehensible, inexcusable, and unconstitutional. His flagrant display of irreverence by profaning a consecrated Host from a Catholic Church goes beyond the limit of academic freedom and free speech. Attacking the most sacred elements of a religion is not free speech anymore than would be perjury in a court or libel in a newspaper,' added the text."

As Dr. Myers writes, the Confraternity really has no write to declare something unconstitutional. Of course they can say it all they want, but that does not change the nature of the action. Which, Myers writes, was an act of irreverence aimed at a religious tradition. Something the Constitution clearly protects.

Quoted from the Confraternity's official statement:

"The freedom of religion means that no one has the right to attack, malign or grossly offend a faith tradition they personally do not have membership or ascribe allegiance."

Yeah, not really. No one in the United States has the write to not be offended. That's what the freedom of speech means: it protects any speech that even the majority of people might find grossly offensive. By the Confraternity's logic, only Catholics can "attack, malign or grossly offend" there own doctrine. Dr. Myers is in no way stopping Catholics from practicing their faith. What the Confraternity doesn't seem to realize is that freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the Constitution, implies freedom from religion.

The statement claims that Dr. Myers, as a biology professor, has no right to do what he did:

"The Chancellor of the University refused to reprimand or censure the teacher, who ironically is a Biology Professor. One fails to see the relevance of the desecration of a Catholic sacrament to the science of Biology. Were Myers a Professor of Theology, there would have been at least a presumption of competency to express religious opinions in a classroom. Yet, for a scientist to ridicule and show utter contempt for the most sacred and precious article of a major world religion, is inappropriate, unprofessional, unconstitutional and disingenuous."

Dr. Myer's responds:

"Ummm, I don't discuss religion in the classroom. I teach biology. My 'desecration' was performed at home, on my own time. There's nothing ironic about the fact that I'm a biologist, nor did I claim my profession gave me special qualifications to see through the foolishness of faith. Go ahead, any of you can do it — you don't need to be a theologian to see that it is just a cracker."

The statement also confuses what Dr. Myers does with his personal time with his behavior in the classroom:

"A biologist has no business 'dissing' any religion, rather, they should be busy teaching the scientific discipline they were hired to teach. Tolerating such behavior by university officials is equally repugnant as it lends credibility to the act of religious hatred. We also pray that Professor Myers contritely repent and apologize."

I feel I must quote Dr. Myers directly here, so I don't misrepresent anything he says:

"As for the idea that I'm supposed to be teaching biology 24-7…what, I can't have a hobby? I can tell you that when I try to tell my wife late evening on Wednesday night that I can't take out the trash because I'm too busy teaching biology, well, that excuse won't fly very far."

The funniest bit about this whole business, to me at least, is that the Confraternity seems to be playing directly into Dr. Myers' hands; not that I think he was planning to make such ruckus with his "desecration." However, by blowing this whole thing way out of proportion, the Confraternity is just demonstrating to the world (to Dr. Myers' readers at least) the absurdity of the communion wafer's sacred status against which Dr. Myers railed in the first place. By calling for a national day of prayer because a biology professor threw a cracker in the garbage, the Confraternity is locking in the value of the communion wafer to anyone else who wishes to profane it. Establishing the holiness of an object only makes that object more attractive to those who wish to cause a stir by desecrating it. It's a bit like making some words taboo. The more the words are censored, the more people who want to cause a sensation will use them. The Confraternity is doing the Catholic Church no favors by treating Dr. Myers' actions in this way. The smart thing to do would have been to declare the action something Catholics should not do, and leave it at that.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tests on Alleged "Yeti Hair" Have Begun

The Oxford Mail reported recently that scientists at Oxford Brookes University have a conducted microscopic analysis of the "yeti hairs" about which I wrote here. The Brookes researchers used high-power microscopes to examine the hair cuticle patterns, which differ from species to species. The sample was compared to hair from that of primates, bears, dogs, yaks and humans. From the article:

"Dr Anna Nekaris, of the university's anthropology department, said: 'It's exciting to be asked to take part in this research. We put the hairs in clear nail varnish because that helps us to see them more clearly under the microscope.'"

The article goes onto quote various scientists involved in the tests saying what an interesting find this would be if it turned out this hair didn't match that of any known animal. However, the article fails to affirmatively say whether or not these hairs are indeed from an unknown species.

What will be truly interesting is the DNA test to be performed on the hair. While looking at the hair through a microscope can only rule out the species against which the sample was tested, a DNA analysis will be able to compare any DNA present in the hair to a much larger variety of animals. Of course, there is no guarantee that the sample contains any viable sample of DNA. Also, the researchers must be careful not to confuse any trace DNA from the multiple times the hairs have been handled with DNA actually belonging to the hair.

So, the tale of the Indian yeti hairs continues. Like I mentioned in my previous post about this subject, I'm glad these hairs are being seriously studied. While I doubt the hairs are from a previously undiscovered large, bipedal primate, the discovery of a new species of macaque in the mountains of India just four years ago shows there are still great unknowns in the remote regions of the world.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Human/Dinosaur Fossil Footprint Hardly Convincing

A recent story out of Mineral Wells, Texas (that's right, Texas again) is reporting that a former resident of the east Texas town just west of Forth Worth has recently re-discovered an alleged fossilized human footprint underneath that of a large, therapod (T-Rex-like) dinosaur. Alvis Delk, 72, found the slab of alleged limestone containing the commingled footprints in July of 2000 at a creek near the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas, located about 53 miles south of Fort Worth.

The limestone contains two distinct prints – one of a human footprint and one belonging to a dinosaur. The significance of the cement-hard fossil is that it shows the dinosaur print partially over and intersecting the human print."

Delk, a longtime amateur archaeologist (read: not a real archaeologist), was searching for Native-American artifacts near the river with two friends when he saw a pile of rocks along the bank. Further investigation of the pile revealed a fossilized dinosaur footprint embedded in a chunk of limestone. While Delk claimed he had seen dinosaur prints before, he has never found one he has been able to take home with him. So, with the help of his companions, Delk hauled the chunk of rock back home where he sat on the find for eight years. He kept it in his collection, which, Delk claims, contains over 100,000 Native American artifacts.

After suffering a fall from a ladder eight months ago, Delk decided to try to sell some of his collection to pay for his resulting medical bills. He dusted off the piece of limestone, hoping to sell it to the Creation ( as in biblical creation) Evidence Museum in Glen Rose. As Delk cleaned up the specimen, he discovered a human-looking footprint underneath the dinosaur track. From the article:

“'I seen the (human) track coming out and (saw) that it was a man,' Delk said. 'I thought to myself, ‘Lord, I’ve been shown man was here when the dinosaur was here.’”"

Delk took his find to Dr. Carl Baugh, founder and director of the Creation Evidence Museum. Dr. Baugh claims doctorates in theology and philosophy in education in addition to a master’s degree in archeology. A little digging of my own found that "Dr." Baugh received every one of his degrees (except one in theology from Baptist Bible College in 1959) from unaccredited universities. Perhaps the most laughable of those is his master's in archeology from Pacific International University, an institution he started himself.

Anyway, back to the fossil human footprint farce. Baugh said he is confident about the authenticity of Delk's specimen, undoubtedly using his "expertise" in archeology winnowed from hard years at Pacific International. Baugh claims he took the chunk of rock to a medical lab at Glen Rose Medical Center, where he said 800 X-rays were performed in a CT scan procedure.

“'The compression lines, the density features, do show, and there is no way to fake that,' Baugh said. 'It is possible to carve a track in limestone. But there is no way to compress the material in the rock under the track. That is absolutely impossible. That’s why the CAT scans are so important.'"

Baugh goes on to list other aspects of the print which he thinks prove its authenticity:

"He said the scans demonstrate the human footprint was made 'during locomotion. That’s very important. That distribution is shown here. Compression is in the right place under both prints. Density. Compression, distribution. The density factor is there. Weight distribution. Forward locomotion, rocking of the foot.'"

However, no where in the article is the most basic tenant of Baugh and Delk's claims questioned: is the piece of rock even limestone? There is not one credible geological or archaeological expert in the entire piece quoted to vouch for the limestone's authenticity. Fortunately, Baugh has offered to put his reputation (however already tarnished) on the line: he is willing to subject the specimen to any non-destructive tests. Now that I would like to see.

Baugh continues on with his fairytale by claiming the dinosaur track is from an Acrocanthosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur that existed primarily in North America during the mid-Cretaceous Period, approximately 125 million to 100 million years ago. For comparison, let's look at an actual Acrocanthosaur track (which I found here) and Baugh's specimen:

In case anyone is having a hard time figuring it out, the real dinosaur track is on the left. How the hell can Baugh or Delk expect to have themselves taken seriously? And why is the big toe impression on the "human"track so deep? It looks like it was formed with a tent pole.

Although Baugh offers no evidence for this claim, he apparently believes both sets of prints were made “within minutes, or no more than hours of each other” about 4,500 years ago, around the time of Noah’s Flood. Based on what? Has the specimen been dated? The article doesn't say so.

Another telling quote revealing what the true intentions and beliefs of these men are is attributed to James Bishop, one of the friends who was with Delk when he first found the "footprint."

"A man of Christian beliefs who is a member of the First Assembly of God Church in Stephenville, Bishop said his hopes are that the stone will 'disprove Darwin’s theory. God made man. Man did not evolve from ape.'"

Ah yes, a faked fossil footprint disproving a scientific theory that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny for over 100 years. Tortured, creationist logic, how I missed you.

Another creationist the article digs up (no pun intended) to vouch for the specimen's authenticity is David Lines, a technical writer for Texas Instruments in Dallas. Lines photographed the rock for Baugh's website,

"'When I saw this, I said this is too good to be true,' said Lines. 'If someone found a way to fake that, they could also get a patent for concrete that would far surpass anything.'"

So, it's clear now that the chunk of rock in question must be a fake. Still have doubts? Think about this: why did Delk wait eight years to even closely examine this thing? He said himself he had never found any dinosaur track that he had been able to take home. That suggests that this footprint would have been the only one in his collection. You'd think even a 72-year-old who prides himself on being an amateur archaeologist would find some time to examine such a rare find, especially in a time span of eight freakin' years!

So the question would be: why wait until now? I think it may have a little to do with the recent renewal of talks in the Texas State Board of Education about the "weaknesses" in evolution. To further support this hypothesis, I present to you the final quote attributed to Baugh:

“I don’t think it is going to displace the theory of evolution,” said Baugh. “My hope is that the scientific concepts of archeology and paleontology will be used under the guidelines of the Texas schoolbook committee. Any evidence supporting that should be presented, and hopefully this particular fossil will be presented, for the students to be able to see that there is evidence supporting an alternative concept as opposed to just evolution.”

But, I leave to final decision up to my readers. Either a fossil footprint was found that will turn all the science behind the theory of evolution on its head, or it is a forgery perpetrated by at least two men who would have their twisted dogma taught to school children as fact.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Allah Meat" Amazes Muslims in Nigeria

Looking back on all my previous posts having anything to do with religion, I seem to pick on Christians rather extensively. If there's anything of which I can assure my readers, it's this: I am an equal-opportunity offender. With that in mind, I thought I'd write a bit about this story, despite it it being nearly a week old.

Not even followers of Allah are immune to pareidolia. As reported by BBC News, Muslims in northern Nigeria are gravitating to a restaurant in the city of Birnin Kebbi to catch a glimpse of their god's name allegedly inscribed on a piece of gristle. Fortunately avoiding what would most likely have been a gravely serious sacrilege, the restaurant owner noticed the sacred script just as he was about to eat the aforementioned tidbit of animal cartilage.

A subsequent search of the restaurant's kitchen miraculously turned up three more pieces of similarly inscribed meat! The holy cartilage has attracted thousands of the devote to the restaurant since it was discovered nearly two weeks ago. Owner Kabiru Haliru boasted of the important message his miraculous meat clearly imparts:

"'When the writings were discovered there were some Islamic scholars who come and eat here and they all commented that it was a sign to show that Islam is the only true religion for mankind,' he said."

Apparently, the BBC couldn't scrounge up even one skeptic to discount the script for what it truly is: a random arrangement of animal protein. Even Dr. Yakubu Dominic, a local vet (part of vet school is studying religious relics, right?) said the gristle "defied scientific explanation."

"'Supposing only one piece of meat was found then it would be suspicious, but given the circumstances there is no explanation,' he said."

In the interests of fairness, let's have a look at the meat in question and the word "Allah" written in Arabic script side-by-side:

The likeness is uncanny, isn't it? Yeah, not so much. For a religion where the most zealous freak out over a satirical depiction of their prophet, it's hard to believe some Muslims would compare a beautiful example of Arabic writing to a piece of meat resembling a brain, at best. I wonder how much fervor Muhammad appearing in food would ignite. Maybe he's not that powerful.

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Family of Woman Affected By "Exorcism" Determined to Take the Case to Supreme Court

It seems religiously-motivated idiocy is not that hard to come by in Texas. An article in the Star-Telegram of Fort Worth, TX tells the story of a woman who was physically abused at the age of 17 by members of her church under the auspices of an exorcism. Laura Schubert Pearson, then Laura Schubert, was repeatedly pinned to the floor of her church by people she called friends in a two-day long incident in June of 1996. From the article:

"Repeatedly, over two days, the youth pastor, his wife and others held the girl down on the floor of the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, even as Pearson screamed, fought and begged to be released."

The physical restrained imposed upon Pearson, now 29, left her with bruises and carpet burns. But it was the emotional trauma that would prove to be the most damaging to Pearson.

"After the exorcism, she dropped out of high school her senior year, began to cut herself as many as 100 times over several years, and refused to leave the house. Pearson slit her wrists with a box cutter."

The case was dismissed June 27 by the Texas Supreme court in a majority decision claiming the courts could not get involved in a debate over religious doctrine. Understandably, Pearson's parents, Judy and Tom Schubert, see things a little differently.

"As the parents see it, Pleasant Glade members abused their daughter in the same way a husband or a boyfriend abuses a wife or a girlfriend — and all under the guise of serving the Lord. They are willing to go to the U.S. Supreme Court in their fight against a church they once loved"

Representatives for the church seemed to have little more than ad hominem attacks to offer in response to Pearson's allegations.

"David Pruessner, the church’s attorney, has repeatedly described Pearson as an out-of-control, attention-seeking teenager who he once said 'breathes in attention the same way we breathe in air.'"

Pruessner claims Pearson already suffered from psychological problems caused by witnessing acts of brutality during her family's 1992 missionary trip in Africa. The attorney cites a preexisting condition as if that makes what Pearson's fellow church members did to her acceptable. If her psychological condition was known beforehand, why was the "exorcism" even attempted?

The talk of demons in Pearson's church started when on June 7, a teenager helping set up for a church youth group yard sale claimed to see a demon in the darkened church building around midnight.

Pearson had been there helping the church group and working at her part-time job when Ron Linzay, the youth pastor, urged everyone to exorcism the alleged demon with holy water sprinkled around the sanctuary. The "cleansing" continued until early in the morning. After Pearson went home, she was unable to sleep. When she had returned to the church on Sunday evening, she had been up for 72 hours.

"It was then that people believed demons had possessed her and the first exorcism was performed. Pearson said she collapsed on the floor out of exhaustion. During the trial, doctors suggested she was hypoglycemic. She clenched her fists, gritted her teeth, made guttural sounds, cried and yelled."

"'I was moving my head back and forth, and I hear people saying things are wrong with me and the youth pastor’s wife saying it was the demons,' Pearson said. They held her down, but after the thrashing stopped, Pearson was allowed to get up after saying the name Jesus."

Pearson returned to the church on Wednesday of that week. After hearing a sermon about "putting on the whole armor of God to fight off the devil," she retired to a corner of the church, curled up in a fetal position and prayed.

"When another youth asked to pray for her, Pearson refused. Eventually, she was held spread-eagle on the floor. She fought those holding her and asked to be let go. They said 'it was the devil talking,' Pearson said.

"The Rev. Lloyd McCutchen, leader of Pearson's church, then entered the room. He tried to calm Pearson and told her to 'just say the word Jesus' Eventually, he called Pearson’s parents, who came and took their 'dazed' daughter home. Later they saw the bruises and carpet burns. Soon she began having nightmares about hands and faces coming out of her bedroom walls to grab her."

Pearson's senior year of high school proved to be even more difficult. After a severe anxiety attack that allowed her to attend school for only one day, she attempted to take her own life through cutting her wrists and later overdosing on her medications.

Pearson, now married with two children, (her first marriage ended in divorce), works in her new home near Atlanta, GA with children from broken homes who have been in abusive relationships. She has an associate degree in criminal justice and is working toward a degree in social work.

"'I wanted to understand why good people do bad things or why bad things happen to good people,' Pearson said. 'I had a lot of questions I needed legitimate, honest answers to.'"

I hope the case of Pearson and her parents makes it to the Supreme Court. The issue here is not simply a state supreme court being constitutionally unable to deal with matters of religious doctrine. When that doctrine endangers the lives of anyone, especially young people, those affected need to be able to rely on their government. Religious zealots abusing a 17-year-old girl under the guise of exorcising imaginary demons should not go unpunished. Perhaps no one summed up the situation better than Pearson herself:

"You can’t use your religious beliefs to get away with harming a child."

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Texas State Board of Education Starts Hearings On Evolution

According to a recent editorial in The Austin Chronicle, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has begun hearings to decide whether or not Texas public school curricula should include material balancing the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution. SBOE chairman Dr. Don McLeroy D.D.S. (that means he's a dentist) believes that there is not enough evidence to support evolution. The self-proclaimed creationist is quoted in the editorial:

"this year's 'battle is to bring in some of the weaknesses of evolution,"'to ninth- and 10th-grade biology classrooms, retaining language requiring that teachers instruct students in the 'strengths and weaknesses' of scientific theories."

While McLeroy speaks of "scientific theories" in the plural, Dan Quinn, communication director for the Texas Freedom Network, a statewide organization that works to mitigate the influence of fundamentalism on state policy, claims the only theory of which McLeroy and the six other conservative members of the Texas SBOE remain unconvinced is evolution.

McLeroy claims there are three major weaknesses of evolutionary theory about which Texas students should be taught: "gaps" in the fossil record, there not being enough time for evolution to happen and the complexity of life. The author of the editorial Andrea Grimes asked University of Texas integrative biology professor David Hillis, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, about McLeroy's list of "weaknesses." His response was as follows:

"Hillis said McLeroy was simply denying facts. 'There is indeed a vast record of transitional fossils,' wrote Hillis, saying McLeroy's fossil record claims are 'completely at odds with the experts in the entire field of paleontology.'"

As for McLeroy's second assertion regarding length of time required for evolution to have taken place, Hillis wrote that the position 'demonstrates an extraordinary ignorance of biology,' since rates of evolution observed in laboratory tests have been 'more than sufficient' to prove natural rates of genetic change that coincide with the fossil record."

Finally, McLeroy's cell-complexity argument does not even belong in a scientific discussion, wrote Hillis: 'The argument that 'It is too complicated, so God must have done it' is not a scientific argument.'"

These three perceived "weaknesses" should sound familiar to anyone even remotely interested in the evolution/intelligent design creationism debate. I.D. proponents have been bringing up these same issues for decades.

Grimes cites the case of Chris Comer I wrote about here as evidence that anti-science conservatives have more than enough power to affect Texas SBOE policy. Grimes comments on the effect the anti-evolution school board could have on education in Texas:

"It's worth noting that part of the TEA and SBOE's duty statement includes a goal to "prepare today's schoolchildren for a successful future." If the weak-evolution curricula passes, Texas schoolchildren will be able to achieve that success in one of two ways: fly out of state for biology class and be back in time for lunch or set their sights on excelling at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University."

In addition to the detrimental effect weak-evolution curricula will have on students in Texas, there is another aspect of this issue the editorial did not mention. Since Texas is the second largest U.S. state, it is also one of the country's biggest buyer of textbooks. If the Texas SBOE purchases textbooks teaching the "weaknesses" of evolution as McLeroy understands them, the textbook manufacturer will most likely opt out of producing books for the rest of the nation different from those sold to its largest customer.

Quoting the New York Times article cited above, "The ideas that work their way into education [in Texas] will surface in classrooms throughout the country."

I really don't have any snarky, sarcastic comments about this story. Issues dealing with the education of this country's young people are too serious to joke around about. This sort of thing makes me truly ashamed to be a native-born Texan.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Oxford Scientists To Test "Yeti Hair"

No self-respecting blog about skepticism and the paranormal can exist for long with featuring a story about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster or some other creature whose existence is questionable at best. Given that, I present to you this story from the BBC.

Researchers at Oxford Brookes University are in the process of analyzing an alleged Yeti hair sample given to them by a BBC correspondent. The Oxford scientists plan to perform a microscopic analysis on the sample before they send it off to Bristol where a DNA test will be performed. The goal of the DNA test is figure out whether the hair comes from a known animal, or if it proves to be from a creature as yet undiscovered by science.

BBC reporter Alastair Lawson obtained the sample in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. A separate report filed by Lawson details his journey through the dense jungles of the West Garo hills in search of what locals call the "mande barung," or "forest man."

Local yeti investigator Dipu Marak lead Lawson on his journey and gave him the hair sample.

"'The tribal people who live there claim to have seen fossilised footprints of the creature which could have existed in prehistoric times,' Lawson said, 'Then one of the locals said he once saw a yeti and afterwards gathered hair which he thinks might be from the creature.'"

Lawson cites a few eye-witness reports and tales of larger-than-usual human-shaped footprints, but the only hard evidence he provides is the above-mentioned hair sample. Lawson also talked to local forestry officers who, in respect to the importance of local legends to the indigenous Garo people, diplomatically danced around actually saying that they don't think the creature exists.

"'As you know the presence of such a creature is an important part of our culture - passed down to us by our parents and grandparents,' said Meghalaya's Divisional Forestry Officer Shri PR Marak, 'But we have no concrete evidence it exists, and there may even be a possibility that some of the evidence has been manipulated to create a stir.'"

Dipu Marak, the believer in the creature who lead Lawson on the expedition, claims that the local forestry service has been lazy in their search for the creature. The forestry officer countered this with the lack of concrete evidence to necessitate a full-blown search and the difficulty in sending forestry officers into the dense jungles of the West Garo hills; terrain that can only be reached on foot.

It may turn out to be a waste of time and money, but I'm glad the Oxford scientists have agreed to test the hair sample. At the least, it will silence any "cryptozoologists" (as seekers of these types of creatures sometimes call themselves) who would claim that mainstream science is not doing what it should in the search for Bigfoot and the like. Whenever this issue is brought up, the first thing I want to tell the "cryptos" is to look at the example of the giant squid. Here's a creature that was rumored to exist for centuries. All these reports were written off as myth until pieces of dead squid started washing up on shores in various places around the world. This prompted mainstream scientists to seriously research this creature until Japanese scientists caught one alive on tape in 2006. And this video wasn't of the grainy, blurred quality of most videos of Bigfoot. The video clearly shows a real, live big-ass squid writhing around on a hook. You see, "cryptozoologists?" That is how real science works. Tales told by locals will never be able to stand up to hard, physical evidence of a previously unknown creature. I don't think wanting body parts of whatever mythical beast being searched for is too much to ask.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Cracker Desecrated, As Promised

I actually have a fellow blogger writing from to thank for bringing this item to my attention (his blog, incidentally, can be found here).

Readers of my blog may remember a brief post of mine roughly two weeks back telling of a college student in Florida causing a huge dust up among Catholics because he carried a communion wafer out of a Catholic mass uneaten. This story was written about beautifully by PZ Myers at his blog Pharyngula.

After Dr. Myers railed against the absurdity of it all and asked his readers to send him some communion wafers so he could do some desecrating of his own, the angry e-mails from irate Christians began to pour in. Dr. Myers dedicated an entire post to all the holier-than-thou vitriol seeping out of his inbox.

Well, Dr. Myers made good on his promise to disrespect his own personal piece of Jesus. He writes first of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 in which the doctrine that only Catholic priests could handle the Eucharist was set down. he then goes on to quote from representative hate mail he has received from angry Catholics, a few of which threaten violence against him and his family. Dr. Myers shows no fear in the face of these zealots while pointing out some incredible hypocrisies in a few of the quoted e-mails. He ends his post with a beautifully written paragraph decrying the desire to hold anything sacred and a picture of a communion wafer with a nail driven through in his garbage can, alongside pages from both the Qur'an and The God Delusion. The paragraph I feel I must quote here; if only for the purpose of expressing my jealousy of not having written something like that myself.

"Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind."

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Apollo 14 Astronaut Insists Extraterrestrials Have Made Contact With Earth

According to a story in the U.K.'s Daily Mail, former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, admitted in a recent radio interview that he knows for sure that the Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials, and have been doing so since the 1940s. He claims that every time the aliens have made contact, the United States government has done everything it can to cover it up. He cites his position at NASA as evidence for the authenticity of his claims.

"'I happen to have been privileged enough to be in on the fact that we've been visited on this planet and the UFO phenomena is real,' Dr. Mitchell said. 'It's been well covered up by all our governments for the last 60 years or so, but slowly it's leaked out and some of us have been privileged to have been briefed on some of it.'"

"'I've been in military and intelligence circles, who know that beneath the surface of what has been public knowledge, yes - we have been visited,' Mitchell continued. 'Reading the papers recently, it's been happening quite a bit.'"

A recording of the interview with Kerrang! host Nick Margerrison can be found here.

The producer of the radio program contacted NASA to get their opinion, and received this response:

"NASA does not track UFOs. NASA is not involved in any sort of cover up about alien life on this planet or anywhere in the universe. Dr Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinion on this issue. Thanks for the opportunity to comment."

Keep in mind that The Daily News is not known as the most reputable news organization, and I cannot independently verify the recording of the interview. Even if if turns out Dr. Mitchell did really say these things, he does not provide any evidence for them. Even the testimony of a former astronaut and man of science cannot be taken by itself. Dr. Mitchell does not reference any documentation, all he offers is here say.

In addition to the lack of evidence, Dr. Mitchell's founding of the Institute for Noetic Sciences in 1973 does not make it easy for his story to be believed. Noetic sciences are defined thus, and rather questionably, on the Institute's website:

"Noetic sciences are explorations into the nature and potentials of consciousness using multiple ways of knowing—including intuition, feeling, reason, and the senses. Noetic sciences explore the "inner cosmos" of the mind (consciousness, soul, spirit) and how it relates to the "outer cosmos" of the physical world."

I don't want anyone reading this to think that I'm completely riding Dr. Mitchell off as a crackpot. Hell, this whole story may turn out to be a hoax. But, if he did really say all those things about aliens, all it really proves is that no human is immune to delusion. And if he's telling the truth? Great. I'd love to find out once and for all that Earth has in fact been visited by extraterrestrials. But, what one wants and what the evidence bears out are two separate things. Until Dr. Mitchell offers some hard, verifiable evidence for what he claims, even the testimony of an American hero must be called into question.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Barbara Walters Discredits Psychic, Psychic Whines About It

I try to stay away from news, if it can be considered that, carrying the prefix "entertainment." The only journeys I've taken into the murky netherworld of "news" organizations such as People Magazine and E! Online were for research done in writing my Sylvia Browne predictions posts. But, a story about a famous journalist like Barbara Walters, albeit reduced to daytime television in recent years, publicly discrediting alleged psychic James Van Praagh is really too good to pass up.

Found both on The New York Post and ETOnline, the story tells of Van Praagh making an appearance on Walters' show The View on July 10. After giving audience readings with which Van Praagh claimed he was very pleased, the self-professed "sensitive" mentioned to Walters during a commercial break that there might be problems with her white blood cells and her lower back. Walters rightfully expressed skepticism, but decided to see her doctor anyway.

"The news prayed on her mind, even though 'I'm skeptical and Mr. Van Praagh knows it,' Walters said."

A week later, on an episode of The View airing July 17, Walters revealed, apparently early on in the broadcast, that her doctor had given her a clean bill of health.

"'Well, today I got the report. I am absolutely normal!' Walters said."

"I think it's a dangerous thing to do looking at someone and saying, 'Oh let me see, you have an elevated, there's an aura, you have an elevated white blood count,' Walters said of Van Praagh's advice."

Obviously, having his livelihood discredited by a respected reporter on national T.V. did not sit well with Van Praagh. He went on Entertainment Tonight to express how upset he was with Walters' "stab in the back." At the above link, a three-minute-long interview with Van Praagh can be found.

In the interview, the psychic, who claims he has helped thousands of people with his alleged "gift," used words such as "nasty" and "classless" to describe Walters calling him on his bullshit on her show. Van Praagh said he was surprised at Walters' skeptical and allegedly condescending reaction to his advice, citing her more friendly encounters with him in the past. He went on to say that a possible reason for Walters' truthful albeit blunt exposure of the psychic's incorrect health assessment might have something to do with that fact that Van Praagh's most recent book outsold Walters' on The most revealing quote given by medium would have to be this:

"I'd love a public apology from her but she'll never give me one… her ego's in the way I think."

Talk about classy, huh? It's interesting to note the only mention Van Praagh gave of his defunct medical advice in the interview was that it didn't necessarily apply to this point in time. That way, any medical problems Walters may develop in the future even remotely resembling the ones against which Van Praagh warned can be counted as a hit for him. The rest of the interview was reserved for defaming Walters' character in the "classy" way only a wounded bunko artist defending his source of income can pull off. It appears the term "sensitive" does apply to Van Praagh; just not in the manner he intended.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

The Eagle Has Landed

I just got back from my trip and I knew this was the first thing about which I wanted to write. It won't be long, I just thought a momentous occasion such as this warranted observation.

39 years ago, on July 20, 1969, a member of the species homo sapien named Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of Earth's moon. For two hours and 31 minutes, Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin traversed terrain upon which no human 40 years prior had ever dreamed of walking. With a single footstep, the phrase "to shoot for the moon" instantly became obsolete in describing the impossible.

This isn't a post about whether we should continue to advance space travel (I think we should), or about whether the moon landing actually happened (I will take on anyone who says it did not). No, the point of this post is to honor all the men and women involved in safely ferrying the 12 men who have set foot on Earth's only natural satellite there and back again.

So, from one science geek to a myriad other people smarter than I, thank you.


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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Making Fun of the Pope Not Illegal in Australia

Since I have some time on my hands before my flight this morning, I figured I'd write about this story I just found from The National Post.

A federal court in Sydney ruled yesterday that laws enacted to prevent protesters from "annoying" Catholic protesters were unconstitutional. The laws were put in place to prevent protesters demonstrating against Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Sydney to celebrate World Youth Day, which is the Catholic church's largest youth festival aimed at attracting more young people to Catholicism.

"Under the laws, protesters could be arrested or fined A$5,500 (US$5,340) for wearing anti-Catholic T-shirts or for handing out condoms in protest at church doctrine on sex and marriage. Civil liberties leaders said the laws stifled freedom of speech and were open to abuse by police who were mounting an Olympic-style security operation for the papal visit."

"'We now have a lot more confidence to take to the streets to condemn Pope Benedict's policies against condom use, against contraception, against homosexuality,' Rachel Evans from the 'No Pope' group which challenged the laws."

"Evans said 'No Pope' protesters welcomed young Catholics in Sydney, but would hand them coathangers to protest against backyard abortions, condoms to promote safe sex, and stickers with gay themes to promote the rights of homosexuals."

It's a little disheartening to find out that Australia would make such protests illegal in the first place, especially when the statistics about Catholicism in Australia given by the article are considered:

"In Australia, home to the world's biggest gay and lesbian mardi gras and where abortion and stem cell research is legal, the Catholic church's teachings often fall on deaf ears. Some 5 million Australians describe themselves as Catholic, but less than one million attend Sunday mass and the number may have dropped to about 100,000 in the past 5 years."

Why even try to make something illegal about which so many people are obviously going to be angry? But, all's well that ends well I suppose. The above statistics are obviously the reason for the pope's visit to Sydney in the first place.

In a laughable attempt to make Catholicism "cool," the pope sent text messages to thousands of Catholic pilgrims in Sydney on Tuesday, urging them to renew their faith. The text message read:

"Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus - BXVI."

Really, Pope Benny? I don't think abbreviating "you" to "u" in classic text message short hand is going to do Catholicism as a whole any good. If anything, it makes the pope look like the elderly uncle trying desperately to convince his nieces and nephews of his street cred. I mean come on, he didn't even do it on ever instance of "you." The least he could have done was be consistent. Fortunately, the Holy Father avoided further embarrassment by referring to Jesus as "JC," although I guarantee you that idea was thrown around the Vatican. It probably seemed too "gangsta" for the Catholic church. The last thing they want would be for Jesus to be associated with bitches and hoes; other than Mary Magdalene that is.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Centaur Ghost?/ We All Scream For Jesus

Just a brief, light-hearted post before I'm off for a couple days to visit my girlfriend in Olympia, WA (her blog, incidentally, can be found here). I once again have Dr. Phil Plait's blog Bad Astronomy to thank for bringing these news items to my attention.

The first story from The Telegraph in Britain tells the tale of a group of "paranormal enthusiasts" who have supposedly captured the image of a soldier, dead for 363 years, still fighting the English Civil War. The picture below comes from the above "story" link.

"The Northampton Paranormal Group caught the figure on camera during a visit to the site of the Battle of Naseby, a field between the villages of Clipston and Naseby in Northamptonshire, last month."

The "figure" in question can be more accurately described as a multi-colored blob created by some digital image distortion. Whatever defect in the image that has produced the psychedelic color palette in the background has also gotten the members of the paranormal group mighty excited. Emma Whiteman, leader of the group, said:

“When we saw it, when we were looking back through the pictures, we were gobsmacked. We’re saying that it’s a soldier. Some people can see it sitting on a horse and some people just see it as a walking soldier.”

The group seems to be so "gobsmacked" by this image that they can't even come to a decision on what it actually depicts. A member of the cavalry? A soldier walking by himself (who appears to be carrying some sort of wand)? What the hell, why not go way out on the limb already threatening to snap under the wait of the entire Northhampton Paranormal Group and call it a centaur ghost. They had centaurs in the English Civil War, right?

The paper graciously offered the forces of skepticism and rationality (inhabitants of a little place I like to call "reality") four whole lines to explain that *gasp* the image might not actually depict a ghost.

"Sceptics said the effect was caused by the camera itself."

"Anne Haddon, of The Naseby Battlefield Project, said: 'I haven’t heard anything like this at the battlefield in all my association with it. It’s fair to say I’m a bit sceptical.'"

But of course, no one wants to read about what someone who works at the battlefield where the picture was taken has to say; let's push her statement all the way to end. That's the responsible way to write an article.

The second story tells of a classic case of perhaps my favorite psychological phenomenon: pareidolia. The picture below comes from the above link.

The article would have its readers believe that Jesus Christ (yes that Jesus Christ) found time in his busy schedule to appear in a bucket of ice cream in the Avenues Candy and Ice Cream Shop in Utah. The Anointed One himself can apparently be glimpsed in the left-hand side of the image below.

A patron of the ice cream shop seems to have no problem imagining the possibility of Jesus appearing in his next spoonful of Neapolitan.

"Scott Toxsic says why not? His image has shown up other places. 'Potato chips, and brickwork, and all kinds of things,' he said. 'But whoever thought ice cream? It's amazing!'"

Amazing, yes! Amazing that it always seems to be the alleged son of God that appears in inanimate objects. As Dr. Plait pointed out, that could just as easily be Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon.

As is the norm with these types of stories, a token skeptic is dragged in to ruin things for everyone, and given the smallest percentage of the article possible:

"There are still the skeptics, like Chase Pinkham. 'It just kind of looked like ice cream to me. I don't know,' he said."

Why don't stories reporting the appearance of a holy figure in someone's food ever mention pareidolia? It strains my mind to understand why news media don't take the opportunity to teach the public something about science. I know newspapers are often more concerned with the amount of readers than subject matter, but do the media actually think the public is so ignorant that they wouldn't appreciate a brief science lesson about the workings of the human mind?

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Not Alien Abductees, Call Them Cryptomnesiacs

It seems I have been hearing quite a bit about UFOs and alien abductions lately. CNN's Larry King Live has devoted two whole hour-long shows in the last two weeks to UFO hunters and debating the "truth" about what happened in Roswell, NM in 1947. There was a recent article in Scientific American telling the story of a scientist who's working on a "real flying saucer" (I wrote about it here), and now I find this.

It's a story on the io9 blog about a 1993 report, which was published in Skeptical Inquirer. The report, written by professor of sociology at Rutgers University Ted Goertzel, calls into question the findings of a 1992 report that found 3.7 million Americans suffer from "alien abduction syndrome."

The original report, the one on which Goertzel wrote his, offered five experiences that might suggest one was abducted by aliens. But since there have never been any scientifically confirmed cases of alien abduction, I am at a loss as to how these five experiences were chosen. The descriptions of the experiences were as follows:

1. "Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something else in the room."
2. "Experiencing a period of time of an hour or more, in which you were apparently lost, but you could not remember why or where you had been."
3. "Feeling that you were actually flying through the air although you didn't know why or how."
4. "Seeing unusual lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what was causing them."
5. "Finding puzzling scars on your body and neither you nor anyone else remembering how you received them or where you got them."

If a participant in the study claimed to recognize four or more of these experiences, he or she would qualify as an "abductee." Again, how the researchers were able to come to such a conclusion based upon what amount to assumptions about what a "real" alien abduction feels like, I do not know.

In an attempt to remedy methodological and logical deficiencies in the original report, Goertzel tasked one of his research methods classes at Rutgers with redesigning the study.

"Our questionnaire included the same items which they believed were indicators of UFO abduction, but added other items designed to place their items in a broader psychological context."

Goertzel's class conducted interviews with 697 residents of Southwestern New Jersey. They found that 3.7% of the residents interview were considered "abductees" by the standards set down by the original study. The 18 other questions designed to gain a more in-depth psychological picture of the respondents asked about beliefs in government conspiracies, astrology and the respondents' ease of trusting others.

The addition of the new questions revealed the "alien abduction syndrome" for what it truly was, a psychological phenomenon known as cryptomnesia.

"Psychologist Robert Baker (1992: 78) states that this phenomenon of 'seeing complex visual images in one's head that you cannot remember ever having seen before or...suddenly hearing voices from unknown and unrecollected sources is not only a much more common occurrence than is generally known but is also one of the more interesting and intriguing anomalies in the field of 'normal' human behavior.'"

"To investigate the cryptomnesia phenomenon, Goertzel mapped out the correlation between the various survey responses and the reports of unusual personal experiences. People who believe that high government officials were involved in the Kennedy assassination, for example, had a 21% correlation with those supposed 'abductees.' There was a 20% correlation between 'abductees' and those who think the Air Force is hiding evidence of flying saucers. But the most overlap occurred with two separate groups of survey respondents: Those who admitted to feeling that others were conspiring against them, and those who said they enjoyed 'reading books about UFOs and other strange phenomena.'"

Further analysis by Goertzel suggested that cryptomnesia was rooted in a lack of trusting relationships. The ability to trust others, such as friends or neighbors, was one of the deeper psychological aspects Goertzel's revised study sought to explore.

"The path analysis suggests that cryptomnesia is rooted in a lack of trusting relationships. This problem may have its origins in early childhood, but it continues into adult life with a lessened feeling of trust of friends and neighbors. This lack of trust leads to feelings of anomie and anxiety which make the individual more likely to construct false memories out of information stored in the unconscious mind. People who think in this way are susceptible to belief in conspiracy theories since these theories help them to make sense of an otherwise incoherent world."

Goertzel cautions that his study is hardly comprehensive. He has not done the psychological case studies necessary to prove the conclusions made in his analysis. All his study does, Goertzel writes, is "...provide a more plausible interpretation of the data than the UFO abduction hypothesis." In this case, Goertzel has shown more scientific integrity than the authors of the original study. For one think, he didn't claim that 3.7% of Southwestern New Jersey residents are cryptomnesiacs.

Why do some people feel the need to complicate an incredibly interesting psychological phenomenon such as cryptomnesia with useless nonsense about alien abductions? The same can be said for sleep paralysis, which is a documented condition whose symptoms are incredibly similar to those described by alleged alien abductees; indeed a condition which can account for three of the five experiences described in the original study. When did the wonders of the labyrinthine human mind get replaced by myths?

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

The World's First Flying Saucer: Made Right Here on Earth

I just love the subtle jab Scientific American took at people who think UFOs are controlled by extraterrestrials with the title of this article.

Subrata Roy, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida, is currently working on plans to build a flying machine that uses electrodes on its surface to ionize the air around it, turning the air into plasma. The positively charged plasma would then repel the neutrally charged air around it, theoretically creating enough force to lift the craft of the ground. Roy plans to have a model of the craft ready to demonstrate his claims within the next year.

"At six inches (15.2 centimeters) in diameter, the device, which Roy calls a 'wingless electromagnetic air vehicle"'(WEAV), will truly be a flying saucer. Theoretically, Roy says, the flying saucer can be as large as anyone wants to build it, because the design gives the aircraft balance and stability. In other words, this type of aircraft could someday be built large enough to ferry around people. But, Roy says, 'we need to walk before we can run, so we're starting small.'"

"The biggest hurdle to building a WEAV large enough to carry passengers would be making the craft light, yet powerful enough to lift its cargo and energy source. Roy is not sure what kind of energy source he will use yet. He anticipates that the craft's body will be made from a material that is an insulator such as ceramic, which is light and a good conductor of electricity."

"Roy has been working with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, since 2001 to study how plasma could be used to control the flow of air—pushing air in different directions—and thereby the vehicle's movements. "

"At this early stage, and without a clear decision on how the craft will be powered, Roy says it is unclear how much a WEAV might cost to build and operate. Still, he is optimistic. 'All of the materials needed to make this aircraft currently exist,' he says, 'and plasma is the most abundant form of matter in the universe. If we can somehow tap into that in the future we should be able to fly anywhere.'"

You see, this kind of thing is just cool. I simply do not understand why some people need to perpetuate the myth of alien-controlled UFOs when the reality of science is so much more interesting.

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Kinoki Foot Pads: Update

A call I received a few days ago earned Walgreens a little bit more respect from me (like the company cherishes that as a valuable commodity). It may not have been the answer I would have preferred to hear, but at least they actually responded to my Kinoki Foot Pads complaint.

The call came from the reasonable and soft-spoken manager of the specific branch of Walgreens about which I had complained. He politely told me what a store sells is not up to the local managers to decide, as I had suspected. The Walgreens corporate office makes those decisions, he said, and corporate wants to sell the foot pads because people keep buying them. He told me since the original airing of the ABC News report, the Kinoki people had removed all unsubstantiated claims from their packaging; which is really all an investigative journalist could expect.

I was glad to hear a tone of reluctance to sell the products in the manager's voice. This was most evident when he told me that some of his employees have bought the foot pads. He also mentioned he thought there are way too many of this type of product on the market. A statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.

So, this proved to be a valuable learning experience. You can't always get the desired outcome in situations like this, but the manager's attitude and the results of the ABC News report served as a glimmer of hope that rationality and skepticism can still enjoy small victories every so often.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Catholics Threaten a Student With Death Because of A Cracker

I know I just wrote a post about how I won't be able to post in the next few days, but this story is just too good to pass up. I don't really have the time to present one of my usual summaries, but trust me, anything I write would not do PZ Myers writing style justice.

The story in question can be found here. Read it and wonder how far humans have truly come since the Dark Ages.

Also, you might want to check out Dr. Myers' post here to find out how many death threats he has personally received for daring to express his opinion about the above mentioned story. Apparently, it's a personal record for him.

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Jeremy the Skeptic On Hold

Due to some unfortunate unforeseen circumstances, my computer situation has recently become a temporary one. What this ultimately means is that I won't be able to post here for the next few days.

Not to worry, though. All this really means is that I'll have loads of stuff about which to talk once I get back.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Atheist Soldier Sues Army for "Unconstitutional" Discrimination

Fortunately, my approximately three years of being an "out-of-the-closet" atheist have not been marred by any serious discrimination. I imagine I have my friends and the college in which I'm enrolled to thank for that. However, this has not made me blind to the plight some American atheists face today. Major news media often don't widely report stories such as the one to follow. Whether that's due to the stigma still attached to the word "atheist," or maybe that these stories really don't happen that often, I cannot say. Either way, I think stories like this deserve more attention.

In March of this year, U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy Hall filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Dept. of Defense, citing violations to his right to freedom from religion made by the U.S. Army.

"Hall (who was raised Baptist) served two tours of duty in Iraq and has a near perfect record. But somewhere between the tours, something changed. Hall, now 23, said he no longer believes in God, fate, luck or anything supernatural."

"His sudden lack of faith, he said, cost him his military career and put his life at risk. Hall said his life was threatened by other troops and the military assigned a full-time bodyguard to protect him out of fear for his safety."

"Two years ago on Thanksgiving Day, after refusing to pray at his table, Hall said he was told to go sit somewhere else. In another incident, when he was nearly killed during an attack on his Humvee, he said another soldier asked him, 'Do you believe in Jesus now?'"

"Hall also said he missed out on promotions because he is an atheist.
'I was told because I can't put my personal beliefs aside and pray with troops I wouldn't make a good leader,' Hall said."

"Hall isn't seeking compensation in his lawsuit -- just the guarantee of religious freedom in the military. Eventually, Hall was sent home early from Iraq and later returned to Fort Riley in Junction City, Kansas, to complete his tour of duty."

A representative from the Pentagon, Deputy Undersecretary Bill Carr, claims complaints of evangelizing are "relatively rare," and that it is not the business of the Pentagon to push a particular faith among the troops.

"'If an atheist chose to follow their convictions, absolutely that's acceptable,' said Carr. 'And that's a point of religious accommodation in department policy, one may hold whatever faith, or may hold no faith.'"

Michael Weinstein, a retired senior Air Force officer and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation who is suing along with Hall, cites Christian groups that have filmed advertisements inside the Pentagon and have representatives on the majority of U.S. Army bases worldwide as evidence the the Army is pushing a Christian agenda. The Army officials who were involved with filming the advertisement inside the Pentagon have since been reprimanded.

"'Proselytizing or advancing a religious conviction is not what the nation would have us do and it's not what the military does,' Carr said."

Honestly, I don't know how to feel about Hall's lawsuit. It's obvious that since the majority of Americans are Christian, the majority of the U.S. Army is going to hold similar beliefs. Some of the comments Hall claims were made to him were in extremely bad taste, but Army leaders can't be everywhere at once. If Hall truly was denied promotion because he wouldn't be able to pray with his troops, that is clearly unconstitutional. Judging atheists based on their lack of beliefs is the root from which the majority of discrimination against them springs. I think Hall deserves respect for not asking for monetary compensation in his lawsuit. If there's anything the Dept. of Defense doesn't need more of, it's spending taxpayers' dollars.

However this lawsuit turns out, I hope at least one thing happens: if this unconstitutional discrimination against non-believers in the U.S. Army is as rampant as Hall and Weinstein claim, I hope this lawsuit will inspire similarly discriminated-against atheist and agnostic soldiers to make their voices heard.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

BBC Report Finds Acupuncture No Help for In Vitro Fertilization

Much thanks to a friend of mine who brought this story to my attention.

Acupuncture is apparently the most popular form of complimentary therapy used by patients seeking In vitro fertilization (IVF) in England. London-based researchers recently presented the findings of an analysis covering 13 trials and approximately 2,500 women to a European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology meeting in Barcelona. The analysis did not show any benefits to treating IVF patients with acupuncture.

"The experts from Guy's and St Thomas' NHS (the UK's National Health Service) Trust carried out an extensive evaluation of the research carried out over the last 50 years."

"Five of the trials analysed by the team looked at the effect of acupuncture at the time of egg retrieval, while the other eight examined the benefits of giving it at the time of embryo implantation."

"Neither group of studies showed any difference in pregnancy rates between those given true acupuncture, those given a sham version and those given nothing."

"Dr Sesh Kamal Sunkara, who led the work, said, based on the evidence she had analysed, she would not advise her patients that having the therapy could improve their chances of having a baby through IVF."

Not surprisingly, Paul Robin, chairman of The Acupuncture Society of England, said he was really surprised by the findings.

"'I've been treating people for twenty years,' Robin said, 'and in my experience treatment does seem to improve their chances of becoming pregnant.'"

Unfortunately, Robin did not cite any studies in support of his claims. In the scientific community, where researchers often ask for a pesky thing called "evidence," anecdotal accounts of a treatment working are not good enough.

A detailed description of what acupuncture is and what practitioners claim it does can be found here. Put simply, it is a traditional Chinese medical technique that claims to unblock the flow of "chi" in one's body by inserting thin needles into the body at specific points. Unblocking "chi" allegedly balances the bodies opposing forces, known as the "yin" and "yang."

The mysterious energy known as "chi," a force which allegedly permeates everything, has yet to be documented by modern science. You'd think practitioners of alternative medicinal techniques that claim to manipulate "chi" would be working their collective yangs off to prove to the mainstream scientific community that "chi" actually exists. Not only would they no longer be scoffed at by their counterparts (I refuse to use the word colleague) in modern medicine, the ones to prove "chi" exists would most likely win a Nobel prize in physics. But honestly, who would want that Stockholm piece of crap and a measly US$1.6 million when they could potentially pull down a chunk of the approximately US$500 million a year made by acupuncturists in the United States?

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Kinoki Foot Pads: There's Bullshit Afoot

There is a Walgreens Pharmacy about a half-mile from my house. These particular establishments seem to be as ubiquitous as Starbucks franchises in Las Vegas. The Walgreens near my house has an animated billboard in its parking lot which advertises various products that can be found for sale inside. One day while driving by, I noticed the billboard display: "Kinoki Footpads: $19.99." Now, I had seen the occasional television commercial for these products in Bellingham, WA and I must admit, I thought it was a Northwest thing. I laughed off those commercials like I have done for those of thousands of other products that offer vague claims of "cleansing your body naturally" and "removing toxins." So, my understandable first reaction to seeing these things for sale not a mile from my house was, "They're actually selling this crap?"

Since this happened a few days after I had decided to post on my blog every day, the first thing I thought of doing was going to down to Walgreens, shelling out the $19.99 (plus tax) and trying these things for myself. They plan was to offer a day-by-day report on my blog on whether or not these things actually worked.

All that changed when I searched "Kinoki" on Google and found that John Stossel over at ABC News had already done the work for me and wrote an article about it; four months ago at that. The article handily debunked the foot pads as being nothing more than strips of absorbent material that darkened when moisture was applied to them. This darkening was claimed by the Kinoki people as evidence of the toxins that had been removed from your body overnight.

So, feeling a bit disappointed that I didn't get to do my own investigative journalism, I decided to do the next best thing: write a letter to Walgreens asking why they sold these things. What follows is the text of that complaint.

I have a complaint regarding Walgreens' decision to sell Kinoki Cleansing Detox Footpads. I would like to know why a fine establishment like Walgreens chooses to sell this product despite the fact there is absolutely no scientific evidence that they do what the Description on the Walgreens website claims. Indeed, there is no earthly reason why these foot pads would "absorb toxins and impurities" as claimed.

A recent report by ABC News revealed these foot pads for what they truly are: useless pads of absorbent material that rely on the placebo effect to produce results in the user. From the article:

"The idea that they're drawing toxins through the skin out of the body in any significant amount, I think is just wrong," said Dr. George Friedman-Jimenez, the director of the Bellevue / New York University Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic in New York City.

NMS Labs, a national laboratory in Willow Grove, Pa. tested for a lot of things, including heavy metals like arsenic and mercury and 23 solvents, including benzene, tolulene and styrene (materials the foot pads are claimed to remove) and found none of these on the used pads. There's no evidence that it's toxins. When I dropped distilled water on the pad, it turns dark in seconds.
Link to article online:

So, I would like to know, is it the usual practice of Walgreens to sell products that don't perform as claimed? If so, I'm afraid I may have to rethink my decision to shop at your particular pharmacy.

I will post any response I get from Walgreens here.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

My Letter to the Texas Education Agency

As a vehement opponent of the teaching of creationism/intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution in public school science classrooms, and a native Texan, it seems I cannot let this go. Here is a formal letter of complaint I plan to send to the Texas Education Agency:

I am a concerned citizen living in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am appalled at the lack of common sense and rationality shown by the Texas Education Agency in forcing the resignation of its former Science Director, Chris Comer. It is preposterous that the TEA should chose to remain neutral on a subject such as choosing not to teach creationism/intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution. There is no credible reason given in the memorandum entitled "Proposed Disciplinary Action" sent on November 5, 2007 as to why the TEA should choose to remain neutral on such a topic. If these attitudes of the TEA persist, I fear the education of the young people in the great state of Texas, of which I am a proud native, will be put in major jeopardy. It is atrocious to think that the TEA is willing to compromise the education of the young people under its jurisdiction by not taking a stand on a subject as fundamental as the theory of evolution. I am writing this letter to express my support for Ms. Comer in her suit against the TEA, and to express my abject disappointment in the decisions of the agency.

The memorandum mentioned in the letter can be found here. It was originally linked from the story by the National Center for Science Education. I will post any response I get from the TEA here.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Woman Forced to Resign Over Evolution in Texas Fights Back

I have been wanting to write about this story since it first came to my attention on July 3, but other posts which seemed more pressing at the time forced themselves to the front.

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit organization that follows the evolution/intelligent design debate across the United States. Its website keeps those interested, such as myself, up to date on the actions of school boards across the country which seem to be pro-creationism/intelligent design.

The story in question started in November of 2007 when Chris Comer, director of Science at the Texas Education Agency (TEA), was forced to resign because she forwarded an e-mail to her colleagues at the TEA alerting them to a talk scheduled to be given in Austin, TX. The talk was to be given by Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a member of NCSE's board of directors. The TEA cited the subject matter of the talk, the history of the intelligent design movement and Forrest's involvement in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, as a reason for Comer's requested resignation. The TEA said Comer's forwarding of the e-mail represented her endorsement of the speaker on a subject, the evolution/intelligent design debate, on which the TEA must remain neutral. Just to make that clear to everyone reading this, that's a state-run educational agency choosing to remain neutral on the subject of evolution through natural selection.

Eight months later, Comer has now, thankfully, filed suit against the TEA in Federal District Court for redress. From this NCSE article, Comer seeks:

  • a declaratory judgment that the TEA policy of being "neutral" on the subject of creationism violates the Establishment Clause;
  • a declaratory judgment that Comer's firing was unconstitutional;
  • an offer from the TEA of reinstatement of Comer to her previous position as Director of Science;
  • an injunction against TEA "having, expressing, or imposing through any means, a policy of 'neutrality' with respect to the teaching of creationism in the Texas public schools, or a policy that expressly or implicitly equates evolution and creationism, or that in any way credits creationism as a valid scientific theory"
  • legal fees

It is my sincere hope that Miss Comer gets fully reinstated and once there, brings some much-needed common sense and rationality to a public agency clearly devoid of even the smallest shred of either. If this issue did not affect so many young people, it would truly be laughable. How can any member of the TEA, an elected board of 15 people, claim the agency must remain neutral on a subject as fundamental as evolution, and keep a straight face?

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Friday, July 04, 2008

One Nation, Under God?

I'm well aware that this blog is called "Jeremy the Skeptic," but I am also an atheist. As an atheist, issues having to do with religion, specifically the separation of church and state we currently enjoy in the United States, are of great interest to me. So, in addition to posts having to do with science and the paranormal, posts about religious issues in the United States will crop up from time to time. This is one of the latter.

Since it is the Fourth of the July, I have heard the Pledge of Allegiance recited once or twice today. Most recently on a television commercial, oddly enough. It always bugged me, well as long as I've been calling myself an atheist (that's a whole separate story), why the phrase "One Nation, Under God" was smack dab in the middle of the allegiance pledge of a country that was supposed to be secular. I remember first talking about this issue when I was a senior in high school. I was in my AP Government class and the girl with whom I was talking about this didn't see it as a big deal (I went to a Catholic high school). "It's tradition," she said, to which I replied, "So is slavery. Just because some thing's been there for a long time doesn't mean it's right." The class discussion moved on after this exchange, so I never did get to hear her reply.

A few months passed and I learned, much to my surprise and relief, that the phrase in question was added in 1954, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus and a Scottish-born minister named George MacPherson Docherty. Rev. Docherty talked about a conversation he had with his son about the pledge in a sermon he gave at Washington, D.C.'s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on a Sunday in February of 1954. Docherty thought the addition of "Under God" was important and that it didn't necessarily serve as a statement of faith for any non-believing Americans. Without a reference to God, Docherty thought, the pledge could apply to just about any nation. Then President Dwight Eisenhower, who was in attendance of the aforementioned sermon, apparently agreed. On June 14, 1954, President Eisenhower signed into law a resolution officially adding the phrase "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now, I would be fooling myself if I thought this would be some breaking news story; that "Under God" was not in the original pledge. I learned it as a senior in high school from my parents, and have only recently researched the details. I bring this up on the Fourth of July because such a phrase would undoubtedly be thought of as a bad idea by our founding fathers. Men who knew what a dangerous mix religion and government could make. It absolutely infuriates me when fundamentalists Christians call the United States "A Christian Nation" and use the "under God" phrase as proof. For one thing, it is a source of pride for me to know that the founding fathers and I share the same opinions about religion and government. To hear the ideals upon which this country was built thrown in the garbage just because of an inexcusable ignorance of America's history upsets me to no end. The purpose of this post has been to remind people of America's secular origins, and maybe to vent a little.

I'll end this evening with the Pledge of Allegiance as it was originally written, by a Baptist Minister named Francis Bellamy in 1892. A pledge I would have no problem reciting today.

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. America"

Other sources I used for this post can be found here.

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Independence Day

I'm usually not prone to blind displays of patriotism, but in these times when the United States seems to slipping in its international standing at an alarming rate, I would feel remiss if I didn't write a brief post reminding everyone of the importance of this day. I would also feel remiss if I didn't state up front that I stole this idea from Dr. Phil Plait's blog, Bad Astronomy.

The true importance of the Fourth of July is often washed out by the glare of fireworks and beaten down by the forceful cacophony of television commercials offering sales on everything from mattresses to swimwear. It is perhaps even more shameful to see the ideals for which the early Americans fought and died twisted for the personal gains of politicians. Does it really matter that Barrack Obama doesn't wear an American flag lapel pin? How can his patriotism be questioned when he is running for the highest office in the land for which he obviously cares a great deal? Is blind patriotism, supporting one's country no matter what its government does, really what the founding fathers had in mind? It was dissent and a spirit of rebellion that built the country in which I live. A country whose ideals and principles I hold dear.

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
-Thomas Jefferson

It's this spirit of dissent that has recently brought to my mind a little experiment. An experiment, I'm sorry to say, I haven't had a chance to try. Instead of blowing things up this Fourth of July, I think it would be interesting, a true display of what makes the United States great, to light an American flag on fire. Not in protest of our government's policies, but in celebration of the freedoms our founding fathers bestowed upon us. What sort of reaction would this get, were you to do it, say, in your front yard? I can imagine, not a welcoming one. I can only hope it would start some interesting conversations with your neighbors about our freedoms as Americans, and what free speech truly is.

So, while you're outside this weekend enjoying the rockets' red glare along with a hot dog or two, keep in mind what this holiday represents. And remember how the freedoms you now enjoy came about in the first place.

"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
-The Declaration of Independence

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Alleged Psychic Sylvia Browne's 2008 Predictions: Mid-Year Update

Readers of this blog, if any remain, might ask why I devote so much time to covering Sylvia Browne. Believe me, if I had more time on my hands and a steady income, I would be doing more. Offering a record and critiques of her predictions is truly the least I can do to make my wish that she be stopped come true. This is why I applaud the work of one Robert Lancaster (creator of A quick skim of his sight will reveal how Browne truly operates, and the stories of those she’s hurt. One of Mr. Lancaster’s most recent posts details his harrowing descent into the underworld that is Browne’s live show at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino, in my home town of Las Vegas. But I digress.

This mid-2008 update will review the predictions Browne has made for the year in attempt record which ones, if any, have come to pass. I’ll admit freely that I am biased against Browne and her despicable work, but I do try to be fair. So here, presented in a simple list format as before, is a review of Browne’s predictions for 2008 (in bold) and anything news-worthy that has happened with regards to them.

1. Britney Spears’ younger sister Jaime Lynn Spears will have her baby.
Spears the younger gave birth to a healthy, although 10-days-premature, baby girl on June 19, 2008. Complications during the delivery apparently forced doctors to perform an emergency Cesarean on the 17-year old.

2. Browne described Britney Spears as having a "bi-polar condition," and that she will get help for it in 2008.
Several reports released a week or so after Spears was released from a Los Angeles area hospital in January of 2008 claim that the singer’s family suspects Spears may suffer from bipolar disorder. However, I could only find rumors and speculation regarding Spears’ actual diagnosis.

3. Actor Owen Wilson will have "another dip" in his depression.
As of this posting, actor Owen Wilson has not had any other publicized bouts of depression.

4. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will adopt another child, but the couple will not stay together.
The couple is planning to adopt another child some time after the twins Jolie is expecting this summer are born. It has yet to be seen if the couple will stay together. Browne failed to predict Jolie becoming pregnant with twins.

5. Jennifer Aniston will marry a producer in a year or two.
Aniston appears to currently be in a relationship with singer/songwriter John Mayer.

6. United State troops stationed in Iraq will start coming home "in increments" due to the withdrawal of other collation forces.
There have been no reports of US forces in Iraq returning home due to the withdrawal of other coalition forces. An NBC News affiliate in Colorado reports that President Bush plans to return some troops home from Iraq due to the recent decrease in violence there.
From the article:
"Our troops have driven the terrorists and extremists from many strongholds," Bush said. "As a result of this progress, some of our troops are coming home as a result of our policy called Return on Success,"

7. President Bush’s approval rating will continue to drop.
Bush’s approval rating has hit an all-time-low of 23% according to a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News.

8. Senator Barack Obama will become the Democratic "front-runner" in the race to be the next president of the United States. Senator Hillary Clinton will be in the lead in polls until the summer and suddenly "flatten out."
The race to become the Democratic nominee for president ended well before summer started. The last few months were marked by Senator Clinton’s tenacious refusal to concede to her opponent from Illinois.

9. Browne predicts "diabetic breakthroughs" and the use of "sound waves with cancer."
The biggest diabetic breakthrough I could find was that of a team working at the University of Manchester. "Scientists have discovered a new technique for turning embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing pancreatic tissue in what could prove a significant breakthrough in the quest to find new treatments for diabetes," the article reported.
Regarding the use of "sound waves with cancer" a story by the National Prostate Cancer Coalition reports on a new clinic opening up in Argentina which uses High Intensity Focus Ultrasound (HIFU) as a treatment for prostate cancer.
"HIFU utilizes focused sound waves to rapidly heat and destroy the tissue within the prostate," the article reported. It would seem that Browne was correct about this one, until you realize that this story was written in August of 2007.

10. Browne predicts "whooping cough, mumps and measles will be on the rise" in 2008.
It appears that mumps did make a comeback, but in 2006. There was no news of which to speak regarding whooping cough, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims the US is on track to get hit by one of the biggest measles outbreaks in seven years, "A series of outbreaks in nine states between January and April 25 has resulted in 64 measles cases -- the highest number reported over the same time period since 2001," the article reported.

11. Browne predicts more tsunamis, "a big earthquake in Japan," and "volcanoes erupting from all parts of the country that have been dead for years."
As of this posting, there have not been any newsworthy tsunamis or any dormant volcanoes erupting around the country. A 7.2 magnitude earthquake did strike Japan’s Iwate prefecture on June 14, 2008 killing nine people and injuring at least 200. But did Browne offer an specifics with the predictions? Of course not. She also failed to predict the massive earthquake that struck China in May, killing 70,000 people.

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