The Mad Aardvark

Critical commentary on culture…

Archive for the ‘pseudo-science’ Category

The Dying Art of Ghost Hunting

Posted by madaardvark on August 28, 2010

First, let me express my condolences to the family and friends of Christopher Kaiser, who died early Friday morning.  He was struck by a train in Statesville, North Carolina while he and others were walking along the tracks on a 300-foot bridge.  Reportedly, he showed incredible strength of character by sacrificing himself while throwing his girlfriend clear of the oncoming train.  She fell from the bridge and is now in serious condition, but she survived thanks to his efforts.

The group was investigating the rumors of a ghost train that is reported to race across the bridge on the anniversary of a massive crash that occurred in 1891.  They say that the sounds of a train, a crash, and more can be heard, and sometimes one can see the train itself.

“Professional” paranormal investigation teams point to the dangers of their profession and urge people to go through proper channels when investigating hauntings.  They also encourage safety, caution and preparation.

However, the explosion of ghost hunting is starting to fade away, at least in “professional” circles.  Of what constitutes professionalism I am not sure, but it seems that anyone who can assemble friends, promote themselves as an organization, and contact the proper authorities before entering purportedly haunted locations can call themselves a professional.  With these simple qualifications in mind, it is no wonder that the ghost hunting community is starting to splinter.  Television shows like Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted have been criticized by “real” ghost hunters as sensationalism and fiction, and I think it’s safe to say that we are hearing about those big programs less and less.  This may have something to do with fading interest by typical television watchers and active boycotts by “professional” ghost hunters.

That doesn’t mean the phenomenon of ghosts is going away.  The focus now has been on individuals rather than objective teams.  Two programs in particular, Celebrity Ghost Stories and My Ghost Story focus on an individual relating personal experiences, with no investigation, counter-examples, or even base interview as a balance.  Nor does the show need those things.  The idea is of a person telling a story that is a combination of what they heard and what they may have experienced (sometimes the storyteller isn’t even sure).

These stories are a great example of folk tales as tools of enculturation.  Many stories are similar, supposedly because the nature of ghosts is consistent.  Variations, of course, add to the mystique and suspense because,since ghosts can not be completely defined, the true nature of these things can not be determined.  The ghost tale is about confronting the unknown and coming to terms with it – especially the experience of death and what may happen afterward.

This experience is a personal one, which may be why ghost hunting as an institution is deteriorating.  This is also a result of postmodern religious thinking.  Either way, when a group begins claiming specialized knowledge that other groups within the same field do not have, that inevitably leads to in-fighting and unhealthy criticism.  Everyone disassociates themselves from everyone else, hostilely derides one another, and splinters off into their own factions.  The ones on top of the heap (namely the TAPS organization on the Ghost Hunters show) are both prime targets for criticism and often the most likely to criticize.

It’s a strange situation.  Scientific investigation relies on peer review processes.  Articles written for scientific journals receive such peer reviews both before and after publication.  There tends to be consent among scientists because of this reason, but new ideas are treated with the most critical observation, comment, and review.  Ideally, this would happen to paranormal investigations as well, and it seems to be occurring ever-so quickly.  Unfortunately, there is no consensus to even basic principles of that “discipline.”  Combine that with the aforementioned personal nature of the event being studied, and you have a flux of interest and communication.  Everyone claims authority, willing to afford it to none.

Such is what happens with a folktale developed for transmitting beliefs in personal validation.  How can a group or institution possibly sustain itself when what is perceived as a too rigid and impersonal draconic organization (science) is brought into question?   If the belief is to sustain itself, it has to relinquish some form of organizational authority and become one of personal validation and unorganized learned beliefs.  Even when ideas and ideals are shared and encouraged, the path to such knowledge has to be one of individual discovery.

That is one of the ironic manifestations of postmodernism.  How do we reconcile a group belief in individuality and unique experiences that must be reached through those experiences?  When the Truth that everyone shares is that there IS no Truth, or that Truth is subjective, how can we be sure of that?  It becomes a paradox unless one arbitrarily decides what that Truth is.  Some will allow for it to be whatever we decide it is, while others insist on their version of it.  Then Truth becomes synonymous with God.  (Is there Truth? How do we know what Truth is? Everyone has their own path to discover Truth.  Your Truth is not my Truth.  etc.)

And that’s where ghost hunting stagnates, at least as a manifestation of a belief system.  As a science, well, ghost hunting certainly leaves something to be desired, but that’s another post for another time…

Related Sites:

Ghost Hunters TV Show – Fake?

Don’t Watch Ghost Hunters Tonight!

Amateur “Ghost Hunter” Killed in Toronto

‘Ghost Train’ Hunter Killed in North Carolina

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Posted in america, pseudo-science, science, television | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Evangelical Reporting

Posted by madaardvark on April 28, 2010

As some of you may have learned, evangelical groups are claiming to have found Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey very recently.   This discovery was covered very differently by two news sources: FOX News, and MSNBC.

FOX news took an expectedly ‘open-minded’ approach to the topic.  That means they have taken the discoverer’s claims and published them without checking facts or other sources.  They simply present the material as it was in the press release sent out from the Noah’s Ark Ministries research team.  Of course, FOX News represents a predominantly conservative Christian viewer base, and to question or poke fun at such irrational topics as Noah’s Ark would drive them away.  You won’t find objective reporting here.

MSNBC has taken a different approach.  Instead of interviewing the research team, or publishing much of its press release, MSNBC reporters interviewed a few academicians – anthropologists, archeologists, historians – to give a scientific view of the discovery.  Of course, their reaction was less than enthusiastic and contained more than one accusation towards the evangelical research team of poor scientific skills, bias, and/or fraud.  MSNBC, it should be noted, has a predominantly liberal viewer base.

CNN, the usual leader in sensationalist reporting, remains suspiciously silent on the issue.  Back logs of CNN reports, however, contain stories about previous Ark discoveries that turned out to be bogus.  Maybe, on the Noah issue at least, CNN has learned a hard lesson from the past.  More likely, though, is that they are intentionally not speaking on the issue because of audience alienation.  Their viewer base is about as lowest common denominator as it gets, as the news network panders to ignorant atheists and Christians alike.

Now, I looked through some of the comments on this new story on both the FOX and MSNBC News sites.  Most of the pro-ark comments are misinformed about many things, so I thought I would clear them up here.

1. Science is based on peer review.  For some reason, people seem to think that just because a scientist had an idea, that everyone will blindly accept that idea.  The truth is, every scientific discovery is scrutinized down to the smallest detail before the scientific community comes to a consensus.  There are very few biases that spring from nowhere.  Most of them are based on my next point…

2. Consistency.  Science is consistent.  We know when science is correct because the end result was predicted correctly.  Ark discoveries have been consistent, too.  Each one has been consistently debunked and forgotten.  There is no surprise, then, when scientists admit to a certain level of skepticism when confronted with a new ark discovery.  Not only that, but

3. Carbon dating.  It’s consistent, too.  Stories of false data from insufficient collection practices are false because of the time, care, and repetition of carbon dating techniques.  A big controversy (if you want to call it that) in the Ark commentary is a question of who admits to carbon dating being useful when.  I want to point out that scientists are, again, very consistent with their carbon dating.  In the case of this ark that was supposedly dated to 4,800 years ago, scientists dismiss the evangelical team because DATING WAS ALREADY DONE ON THIS SITE, and the results were different.  Several times.  As MSNBC points out, “previous tests reportedly came up with more recent dates.”  That’s right, TESTS.  Plural.  As in more than one.  Consistent.  When there is a suddenly different result, that indicates a problem, mistake, flaw, or falsity with the testing method that one time.

And finally,

4. Science is not atheism.  There is no law anywhere, except in specifically literal-minded fundamentalist prosperity-religions, that believing science makes someone an atheist.  Arguing with science on subjects such as these is a veil for promoting literal-minded Creationism, not for promoting Christianity as a whole.  Most Christian sects – most world religions, for that matter – do not have a problem with science or  that unspoken subject, Evolution.  And that, folks, is the big, big issue with ark discoveries.  Inevitably, the new find will be debunked (if the scientific community gives another thought to it at all) and people will move on.  BUT a few folks, believers hope, will be fooled long enough for their minds to be opened to chicanery and lies.

Below are some links to pages on ReligiousTolerance.org about religious views on evolution.  Enjoy

Evolution and religion overview

Christian beliefs about evolution

World Religion beliefs about evolution

Pagan/aboriginal beliefs about evolution

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Ghost Stories and the Waking Dream

Posted by madaardvark on October 3, 2009

fuseli_nightmare-1781

Fuselli's "Nightmare," inspired by 18th century misunderstandings of sleep paralysis

I love the feeling in the air during this time of year.  The crispness and chill after the warmth of summer reminds us of mortality.  With that comes the hopes and fears of life after death, coupled with the limitless imagination of the human mind.  It’s beautiful, frightening, confusing, and a whole lot of fun.

I’m going to tell some ghost stories.  I’m going to tell as many personal anecdotes as I can.  Despite my personal beliefs on their credibility, I believe that it’s important that certain of these kinds of stories repeat in our culture.  There are important things that can sometimes only be conveyed through the personal anecdote of unverifiable paranormal accounts.

So I was watching the first of these ghost story documentaries that they’ll be playing for the rest of the month.  The formula is pretty standard now.  Tape some people sitting in a dark room, throw some dramatic lighting and the optional odd camera angle, and get them to tell ghost stories.  Meanwhile, actors reenact the events, complete with film-student camera cuts and special effects.  Cue creepy music and suggestive text or narration that pretends to act ‘objective.’

Now, there are a lot of standard stories that you hear on these shows.  I propose that they’re always similar because 1) people hear them a lot already, 2) people tend to make judgments and leaps in logic toward those things they already believe in, and 3) there’s something about the values and beliefs of our culture that bears repeating again and again in similarly coded symbolic interpretations of events (as I said above).

My favorite television show ghost stories are ones that involve children waking up in the middle of the night and seeing something at their bedside.  Creepy in the extreme, surely.  These stories are followed by the child (now an adult) insisting to their parents that what they saw was real and not a dream.  This is usually followed by coincidental experiences after the event that seem to support the idea of a ghostly encounter.  The moral of the story is that children are somehow more attuned to things that adults take for granted (as symbolized by the ‘spiritual’ world), perhaps due to their perceived innocence (i.e. lack of full cognitive ability and the talent to blissfully ignore social norms that adults are conditioned into), and that adults should really listen to children more often.

I have a kid of my own, who woke up in the middle of the night last month screaming that there was something in her room.  I ran in there, fueled by parental instinct and ignoring the voice of reason telling me that she was mistaken.  Sure enough, there she was, sitting up in bed in terror, pointing at a stuffed monkey sitting on her bed that she had won at the fair.  We shared a good laugh, but she still ended up sleeping in my bed.

In the words of Bill Cosby, I told you that story so I could tell you this one.  My heart sank when I heard her scream, not because I thought there was something there, but because I empathized with her terror.  My childhood was fraught with sleepless nights due to nightly events that would leave me frightened and exhausted.  I spent a lot of time either getting to bed as early as I could, to get as much sleep in as I could before things happened, or staring at the walls, not sleeping at all.  When I would drift off, my eyes would snap open, my heart would pound, and I’d wait for whatever it was to happen.

First, I would wake, but I would be frozen in place.  I would be incredibly drowsy and have a hard time fighting the inevitable return to sleep.  I would be in a panic for seemingly no reason at all.  Worst of all, I was convinced that someone or something was at my bedside, forcing this experience on me.  For some reason, I was trapped, unable to move, while something was there, doing God-knows-what.  Sometimes I was convinced it was a ghost, sometimes a demon, sometimes aliens.

While I was getting used to being used, the events started to take a new turn.  Sometimes I would wake up, not feeling paralyzed, and see things in my room.  I once saw a prison inmate, complete with striped suit and shackled to a ball and chain, crouching in my closet, grinning.  Once, I saw a man in black clothes standing at the foot of my bed, looking at me.  Another time a man and a woman looked at me over their shoulders while I woke up, saw that I had noticed them, and rushed towards me with malicious intent.  Every time I saw these things, they would fade in a few moments.  I started to get so used to seeing them that I would casually discount them.  One night I saw only a floating pair of hands that motioned around like a stage magician, clearly there just to try and scare me.  I yawned and went back to sleep.

I never knew what the hell this all was, but it would happen to me regularly until I was about 22 years old.  I never quite knew if all of this was just in my head, if my soul was in danger, or if I was experiencing some kind of psychic feedback from the alien abductions.  These things weighed on my mind so much through my life that they would of course enter into my dreams.  Nightmares of ghosts, demons, aliens, government experiments, etc. never ended.  Then one night that all changed.

I was sleeping on the lower bunk of my dorm room, alone, after my room mate had dropped out.  I started to wake up, I felt the usual feelings of terror, and I struggled to open my eyes and fight the sensation.  That’s when I saw him walk past my bed:

jasonv

He walked past my head, looking towards the door.  He stopped, looked down at me for a second, then he moved on.  I woke up as soon as he was out of my field of vision, and I jumped to my feet.  I was alone, of course, except for the big cardboard cut-out of Jason Voorhees that I bought at a video store just two weeks before.  This was the sign from my subconscious that I have been making all of this up myself for years.

When I realized it was just a sleeping disorder, I felt great.  I would still have episodes on occasion (my last one was a few months ago), and the immediate feeling of terror will always come with it, but I started to get a lot more sleep and the problems declined immediately.  I spent the next few weeks looking on the internet for people with similar problems.  Lo and behold, I learned about ‘sleep paralysis’ and how it occasionally comes with hallucinations (both visually and audibly – I have had some, but very few, sound hallucinations in this state).

I would encourage anyone who has had childhood imaginings like this (and at least three people I have known have) to look into this.  Alternately, don’t do anything of the kind, and keep spreading ghost stories.  I like to hear them, but please keep them out of science classrooms and academic discourse.  They do not belong there except as examples of contemporary folklore and mythology.  Fascinating!

Posted in america, pseudo-science, science, television | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

CNN Monster Reports

Posted by madaardvark on September 20, 2009

…and I’m bowled over by CNN again.  We have a story about four or five teenagers from Panama, who find some creature alive (maybe barely) and kill it with rocks.  They dump the creature in the water and run home.  They come back some time later and take a few pictures of the thing.  Then they destroy the body.  That means, aside from the photographs and the unverifiable story, there is no evidence of what the creature may have been.  I smell a hoax.  How many other stories with as little support for its reliability as this would get airtime on an international news channel?

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Chupacabra on CNN

Posted by madaardvark on September 2, 2009

Okay, seriously.  When will they stop ‘reporting’ things like this?  CNN has to stop treating contemporary folklore as though it was factual news.

In other news, the guys with a bigfoot in their freezer stepped up to say that it was a big joke.  I’m of two minds about this.  On the one hand, I hate to see people perpetuate these ideas.  It just gets the crazies in an uproar and validates their belief systems, even if the claimants are obvious hoaxers making a joke or trying to make a buck.  On the other hand, this Andy Kaufman approach to the paranormal is kind of funny.  In the end, I think I’m a little upset with myself that I didn’t assume that they were doing it for a joke.  I still think they were more interested in money than humor, mostly because they didn’t really make it THAT funny.  They were just riding a little joke to see how far it would go and how big their names would get.  Final verdict then, after talking my way through it: they’re still idiots.

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An Interim

Posted by madaardvark on August 16, 2009

For your enjoyment and education…

Posted in pseudo-science, science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Alien Artists

Posted by madaardvark on June 4, 2009

jellyfish

Just to remind people, the giant jellyfish crop circle is something that is completely within the ability of human beings to create.  As wonderful as it is to think that something out there beyond us creates crop circles or had some hand in the building of ancient tombs, I have to assume the simplest explanation is the most likely.  Human beings enjoy deviant behavior, especially when they get giggles out of watching other people go crazy over it.  People are perfectly capable of making crop circles, so why is it so hard for crop circle junkies to accept that they do?

There is an answer for that.  It’s the same reason that fundamental religions deny the basic tenets of natural laws.  They want desperately not to be alone in this postmodern isolated society so they reach out for something that they hope is there.  When groups of people get together with the same hopes, they convince each other that those hopes are reality, despite what a rational mind might tell them.

As a caveat, let me express that I do not believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive.  It takes compassion and humanity to apply the laws of nature that science has uncovered, for one thing.  For another, people absolutely need religion in their culture.  Individual results may vary, but the truth is that religion helps people abstract and transmit the ideas which that culture values.  These are the Big Ideas of Humanity that are directly approached through art and literature; religion allows them to be accessed intuitively and subconciously.  The beliefs themselves serve only as the dressing, the method of transmission.

The real TRUTHS that people glean from them are the big questions that religious followers have to go to their leaders for: how do I, as a member of this culture, deal with issues like revenge, betrayal, jealousy, economic distress, war, pride, love, etc?  What is the meaning of life?  Holy writ is investigated, studied, while the learner wades through confusing, sometimes contradictory, information in the hopes of finding something solid as an answer they can cope with.  That answer depends on who is investigating, what culture they are from, what the standards are for their particular religious sect.  The answer is almost always, “This is what our culture has come to understand about this issue.  This is what our religous group does to help eachother on this issue.  This is how we go on every day.”  This is helpful.  Religion is helpful and necessary.

BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF LEARNING ABOUT OUR WORLD!  There is no usefulness in ignoring new discoveries or understandings about the world.  Scientific study and rational thought need not be tossed out the window.  Think carefully.  Aliens have no motivation to create crop circles if they are advanced enough to travel AT LEAST 4.5 light-years across the galaxy to deliver us a message.  What the hell kind of message is a picture of a jellyfish?

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the joke.  The jellyfish is one of the strangest and goofiest things a person can think of, and symbolically is the epitome of oddball meaninglessness.  And there the believers are, out there in some farmer’s field, talking about what revelations can be found in it.  Just beautiful.

Posted in creationism, pseudo-science, science | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Ida know…

Posted by madaardvark on May 24, 2009

missing_link

Talk of the fossil that was discovered in Germany a little while ago is incredibly important to scientific study, but calling it the ‘missing link’ is just a little unnerving.  The problem is that animals taks so very long to evolve from one distinct form into another, and there are many many many transitional forms between them that we just don’t have.  Because of the odds of finding such pristine preservation, the odds of finding each and every form between stages is astronomically small. I don’t have much of a problem with that, considering the forms we do have are remarkably similar and show the transitions nicely.

Here’s the problem: because so many fossils will not be found, fundamentalist groups that doubt the validity of scientific study, particularly evolution, will never be satisfied with the number of finds.  There are already pseudo-scientific creationists out there attacking the discovery of the century (granted, the century is only 9 years old…) in an effort to promote their agenda of spreading ignorance on behalf of their world view. But, maybe I’m just a pessimist, and the creationist community will understand the findings, and stop working against the rest of the human race.

At any rate, I found a creationist opinion on the find, located here, and I’d like to quote the main opposing points, and offer counter-points to them:

…rather than an apeman-like missing link that some media sources have irresponsibly implied, the real story is quite underwhelming and should in no way faze creationists. Let’s first review the facts:

–The well-preserved fossil (95 percent complete, including fossilized fur and more) is about the size of a raccoon and includes a long tail. It resembles the skeleton of a lemur (a small, tailed, tree-climbing primate). The fossildoes not resemble a human skeleton.

–The fossil was found in two parts by amateur fossil hunters in 1983. It eventually made its way through fossil dealers to the research team.

–Ida has opposable thumbs, which the ABC News article states are “similar to humans’ and unlike those found on other modern mammals” (i.e., implying that opposable thumbs are evidence of evolution). Yet lemurs today have opposable thumbs (like all primates). Likewise, Ida has nails, as do other primates. And the talus bone is described as “the same shape as in humans,” despite the fact that there are other differences in the ankle structure.3

–Unlike today’s lemurs (as far as scientists know), Ida lacks the “grooming claw” and a “toothcomb” (a fused row of teeth) In fact, its teeth are more similar to a monkey’s. These are minor differences easily explained by variation within a kind.

1. The skeleton resembles both a lemur and a human, suggesting that the human race evolved from primates much more like lemurs than monkeys.  A brief overview of skeletal and muscular anatomy would clearly show how human-like the fossil is.  To the uneducated, or the ignorant (not the same thing), the skeleton certainly doesn’t ‘look’ human.

2.  The fossil was found in two parts because they had to keep digging to find the rest of it.  But find it they did, and it fits together perfectly.

3. Humans are the only creatures that have OPPOSABLE thumbs.  Not all thumbs are opposable, though many animals (monkeys, raccoons, lemurs, gorillas) have semi-opposable thumbs.  Touch your thumb to the tip of your pinkie finger.  Now, quickly, touch your thumb to the tip of each finger rapidly.  Right.  Only humans can do that.  Fine manipulation is beyond the ability of any other primate.

4. Similar to a monkey’s and not consistent with the lemur group.  This is how we know animals are transitions between species.  Like the platypus.

More information about the fossil can found here, at the National Geographic website.  And here’s a Youtube video for you to enjoy:

Posted in america, creationism, pseudo-science, science | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

This Week in Paranormal Paranoia

Posted by madaardvark on May 14, 2009

While I was working on the computer last night, the TV was tuned to the National Geographic show “Is It Real?,” this one featuring Bigfoot. It was descent background noise and Nat Geo does fair debunking work on their show. Anyway, I decided to look up the idea of ‘dermal ridges’ found on plaster casts of Bigfoot prints (that is, the tiny lines on our hands and feet that create fingerprints, for example) and I came across a great website run by someone who has, for the most part, completely debunked the idea. Here’s the URL if anyone is interested, but I warn you that his site is screwed up and I wasn’t able to read the text without highlighting it. He’s also unhealthily obsessed with Bigfoot, even as he debunks it (I think he calls himself a ‘Bigfoot Agnostic’).

http://orgoneresearch.com

What was impressive was the amount of documentation of his experiments (recreating Bigfoot casts perfectly) and, in parts of his site, his accounts of confrontation with people in Bigfoot circles (“Bigfootery” he calls it).

http://orgoneresearch.com/sex.htm

In other news, another monster has washed up onto the shores of Suffolk County, New York – another Montauk Monster, if any of you have heard of that. It doesn’t matter if you have; same old crazy bullshit. What was frightening was this youtube clip I found. This dude, after scaring away some girl he was hitting on with his psychotic paranoia, rides his bicycle home while videotaping his ‘theories.’ Who travels around on bike with a video camera? People who expect to find monsters washed up on shore, or find government agents going through their trash. Watch this all the way through, set your speakers to ‘background wind noise while jackass on a bike films himself’, and listen very closely to the last lines of his diatribe. Frightening.

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UFO vs. Windmill: CNN’s expert reporting strikes again

Posted by madaardvark on January 15, 2009

Here we go again. CNN doing their damndest to avoid actual reporting in favor of promoting sensationalism, superstition and stupidity.

I found in a blog attached to CNN that a real explanation was given by authorities: the thing just snapped apart. I can’t find this guy’s source, but it sounds like these kinds of things happen all the time. Things break when under stressful conditions. Or, as John Bender would say “Screws fall out all the time. The world is an imperfect place.” But no, people jump to conclusions based on several factors:
1. Lack of reasoning skills, both deductive and inductive
2. Irrational faith in the physical products of mankind
3. Inexperience
4. Beliefs bordering on religious fervor, wanting to believe in ‘something else out there’
5. Sheer ignorance

And CNN won’t report “oh, it wasn’t a UFO after all. It was just mechanical failure based on a faulty part and bad weather conditions.” No, they’ll let the UFO story stand and promote ignorance among the population. Thanks, CNN, for making everyone stupider.

Posted in america, pseudo-science, television | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »