Archive for the ‘skepticism’ Category

2012 — The end of the world as we know it

September 10, 2009

As some would like to get you excited about anyway. Lately, the History Channel has been apparently trying to boost ratings by getting people excited about the end of the world coming shortly. In 2012, to be precise, and Dec. 21, 2012 to be even more precise. Of course, the world was already supposed to have ended in 1914, 1936, 1945, 1952, 1969, 1981, 1982, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, among other dates, including as early as 247. In 2013, we’ll likely be able to add 2012 to this list of failed dates.

So, why? Any google search will tell you that this particular date is the date that the Mayan calendar ends. In fact, as the above link shows, it seems likely that the Mayans had some notion of an age of enlightenment beginning with that new cycle. See here for more on the Mayan calendar end. Their calendars appear to be inspired from spiritual cycles, but based on the motions of Venus and possibly other planets. They were quite good at naked eye observational astronomy, great at making accurate seasonal predictions (useful for growing crops) based on those observations, and fantastic architects. They also seemed to think that blood letting is effective method to keep harmony in the universe and the gods happy to ensure good crops. So maybe in any case, the ancient Mayans are not the go-to guys for a useful model about how the universe works. There is still much to learn about the universe, of course, but nothing in astronomy, plate tectonics, or anything else suggests that an ultimate calamity is set to occur during 2012.

From what little I’ve seen on the programs on the History Channel, they don’t seem to be taking this more sober approach though. In fact, in their advertisements, they proclaim that many of the great prophets such as Nostradamus all point to a coming doomsday in 2012. In fact, I can’t find anywhere where Nostradamus makes a prediction specifically for 2012. The closest I’ve found is this famous quatrain:

The year 1999, seventh month,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror:
To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.

Well, that’s clear. Let’s see, what happened July 1999? Ah, the Liberty Bell 7 from the Mercury program was lifted out of the Atlantic ocean. Man, Nostradamus was spot on after all! Oh wait, he said “Mars”, not “Mercury”. Must have been a typo. But 2012? Huh? Oh, I get it. Nostradamus was talking about Jupiter and the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy. The five comet fragment that slammed into Jupiter. After all, Jupiter is the “King” of the planets, and to any Jovians living on the gas giant, those comet fragments must have seemed like a terror in the sky. But that was from 1994, five years off from 1999. Perhaps there was some perturbation Nostradamus forgot to calculate, or maybe five years is symbolic? Plus his quatrain would make the comet the king. Oh well, I’m sure somebody can think of some way to make it fit and it will be wonderfully poetic and symbolic.

Now I’m sure in 2012, somebody will find something that will twist some vaguely worded quatrain or prophecy to seem like that’s what was meant. One of the token skeptics on the History Channel said that these so-called prophets shoot a lot of arrows and later people draw targets around them to make it look like that’s where the arrow was meant to go. Shoot enough arrows and people will find ways to draw targets around them. I couldn’t say it better myself.

Of course, no mention of famous doomsday prophets is complete without Edgar Cayce. Someday I’ll have to do a full write up on this guy. The History Channel again seems to link up Cayce with 2012. So far, I’ve found no mention that Cayce predicted anything specifically for 2012. But that would seem to be irrelevant anyway. One of the major gifts he was supposed to have was psychic healing and diagnosis. In fact, there is no reliable evidence this ever worked. He seemed to rely on old homemade remedies and homeopaths and the like. What Cayce fans point to as evidence in favor of his psychic diagnoses is, in fact a scatter shot of arrows towards which they could point at one of the arrows in a diagnosis to claim victory. According to what I saw on the History Channel, he opened up a psychic hospital to perpetuate his fraud, er. self-delusions, er, cures. If his method was so successful, we would have expected this to have become a booming medical center. In fact, it went broke (albeit in a really bad economy), a fact one would think would have been “forseen”. For James Randi’s write up on Cayce, see here.

For another great take, and a rare agreement from me for this site, check out God and Science for another perspective on all the 2012 hoopla. For a taste:

The 2012 disasters are such good violence and mayhem that they would make the ultimate disaster movie. Hey, somebody needs to make a lot of money…

Well said.

So, in short, when the big bad asteroid comes to destroy the earth, the prophets and seers will not be the ones to tell you about it. It will be the astronomers, with telescopes pointed at the sky and scribbling down orbital mechanics calculations. Unless, of course, one of the prophets also happens to be one of the afore-mentioned astronomers.

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Disabling the Cain myth

August 20, 2009

There was a bit of stir in the blogsphere recently concerning a certain visit of freethinkers, scientists, and assorted godless heathens to a certain Creation “Museum”. The Creation Museum, located somewhere in Kentucky, of course stands out as a shining example, a tremendous monument to humanity’s ability to remain stubbornly and willfully ignorant, while still somehow retaining the ability to read. The event was sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance (Go here to get involved.) and was a resounding success, such as from the above links and here (with associated links), and elsewhere.

Other than that, I won’t say much about the visit as I was unfortunate enough not to go and much more about can be found elsewhere. I was sent a book from this Hall of Ignorance previously, which when I free up some time I hope to review a bit of here. A cursory glance reveals extremely poor and misrepresented science, lies, and ad hominem attacks against Charles Darwin. Wonderful. Now one of the items I saw when looking through the various blog reports concerning this Cargo Cult Museum was an entire panel explaining from where Cain picked up his wife. Given the absurd starting assumptions, the only possible answer is that his wife was his sister.

As luck would have it, I came across this very topic discussed at GodAndScience.org. Not surprisingly, the author supports Ken Ham’s (the creator, if you will, of the afore-mentioned Baffle ’em with BS Museum in Kentucky) proposition. For a site advertising itself as showing God through science, I was surprised at how little science there was in this particular post. The idea is that man (an creation) was formed to perfection. Therefore no genetic flaws. So there will not be the genetic problems of inbreeding right from the start. These imperfections started multiplying after the so-called fall. So, at the time, marrying your sister was fine. I had seen further arguments elsewhere that this is consistent with the longer lifespans in the earlier parts of the Bible, presumably believing that genetic mutations necessarily lead to shorter lifespans.

The problem is that this is not how science is done. You don’t start with a conclusion based on an old book you think is right, and throw around some sciency terms, like genetics, in an effort to arrive at some self consistency. You might as well analyze the science in Lord of the Rings. You may get some cool ideas and interesting consistencies, but it is still fiction.

Let’s start with the idea of perfection, which I guess means no genetic defects, whatever that means. A genetic characteristic is beneficial ultimately in the “eye of the environment”, so I’m not really sure what this perfection entails at a reasonable level of precision. Certainly there are some defects which turn out to be harmful, some neutral and a few of which happen to be advantageous for a particular environment. I presume the biblical justification is that Adam was made “in the image of God”, since I can’t find any Bible references to Adam being genetically perfect. So God has genes, and specifically none of which are defective? Has anyone done a genome sequence of God to discover by how much we differ from genetic perfection? Or is being made in the image something different? Perhaps spiritual awareness? Would this entail knowledge of good and evil? God supposedly knew good from evil, but humans had to eat magic fruit to obtain this? So, perhaps not a perfect image? How did the introduction of sin lead to genetic defects and how can you test this? So right away our first assumption leads to more questions for which no clear answers are available.

At one time I did hear arguments that the old age (some to past 900, including Adam) to which people lived in the pre-flood era were consistent with the idea that human started with “perfect” genes before the fall. It is not at all clear to me how a lack of genetic defects leads to lifespans on the order of those mentioned in the Old Testament. I’ve seen no scientific evidence to support this. Other interpretations hold that the numbers associated with the long ages held only symbolic meaning, so not all Christians buy into a literal long lifespan picture presented by the Bible. That the earliest humans had the longest lifespans also flies in the face of available evidence (also mentioned in the discussion at the bottom of the page here). Note that the average life span in the Neolithic age, that is 9500 B.C., close to 5000 years before Creationists say we had the first human, was about 20.

So, how could this be made somewhat scientific? First thing to do is forget the Bible. You want independent evidence that will corroborate it, not by starting off with the Bible as your conclusion. Where is the evidence that the earliest humans had far fewer genetic defects? What predictions does this model lead to? Should we see an increase in the number of genetic defects through human existence? Should we expect a continuous rise in defects (accounting for systematic error due to pollutants in our industrial age)? If you want to take the approach that the earliest humans were living over 500 years of age, apart from old mythological stories, where is the actual evidence? Bone analysis can tell us something about age and we haven’t seen anything like the claimed ages in the Bible.

We do have bones from some of the earliest humans from 195,000 years ago. We also have the skeleton of a 25-35 year old woman from France who died about 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, roughly 7000 years before death came into the world, according to Creationists.

Scientific investigation of heaven

March 18, 2009

O.K., not quite heaven, but near-death experiences, anyway. Earlier, I posted about the possible physical bases of near-death experiences (or NDEs). Now, a study has been launched to investigate just this. Fortunately, some of the methodology seems to be scientific, more or less, in nature. They will be studying patients who undergo hypothermic cardiac standstill procedures and so are possible candidates to experience one of those NDEs. From the link:

The experiments are fairly rudimentary: In addition to monitoring brain activity, researchers will plant pictures near the ceiling that are not visible from the ground, and test the subjects’ memories by uttering random words in the room.

If patients report an out-of-body experience in which they claim to watch their operation from above — that is, if their consciousness separates from their dying brain — then the reasoning is that they should be able to identify the pictures.

“I am not a religious person so I am not trying to validate religion,” Dr. Beauregard says. “I just think these questions are the most fascinating questions for humanity, and they deserve to be investigated further.”

I think nothing conclusive will be demonstrated, although if done carefully enough, I rather doubt any evidence will be found for existence of the self outside the physical body. Further, although a good start, I think recollection of hearing random words uttered would not be conclusive as the brain may be picking up on it somehow. Putting up pictures out of view though is a better approach. So far, out of 65 patients, nobody has seen the pictures, which is, of course, exactly what we’d expect if it’s all the brain. Of course, it seems none them experienced an NDE either.

In addition to the photographs placed on the ceiling, a special sensor will be attached to the patients to test whether those who see tunnels and visions have minute levels of oxygen in their brains that previously went undetected. A doctor with the study will call out the names of cities or colours during the cardiac arrest to see if patients recall them upon reviving.

If no one can identify the visual or verbal cues, Dr. Parnia says, the experiment will confirm the “false memory” theory; however, if they are recalled, he says, the study will demonstrate that consciousness is something that can exist, if for only a short time, outside the physical brain.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the verbal cues will be conclusive of anything. They may not detect all the oxygen and it is not clear to me that the brain can be receiving and storing some sort of signal.

However, I think Dr. Parnia is completely correct when it is noted:

But at the very least, Dr. Parnia and his colleagues say, the phenomenon of near-death experience merits the search for a scientific answer to what is often deemed a spiritual event.

“People die; death is a biological process,” Dr. Parnia says. “And science should take over the study of death.”

I certainly don’t have a problem with a scientific approach to these experiences. As I’ve mentioned earlier, this has already led us to a better working knowledge of neural networks, etc. Dr. Parnia has taken, what appears to be at least, a rational mindset. Make a hypothesis about an external (to the body) existence of personality and, as rigorously as possible under the circumstances, test it. Of course, there are already a number of expectations I would have if this were the case. Out of the millions and millions of people who have died, I would expect at least one reliable communication from the beyond. There has been none. I would expect personality and emotions to not be so entirely susceptible to physical changes in the brain, as has been repeatedly documented elsewhere. I think it would be reasonable to expect at least one reliable success from people who have been trying to do “remote viewing”. There are none. I think it is a fairly safe bet what Dr. Parnia is going to find, or rather, not find.

A great pyramid scam

March 15, 2009

After getting home this Saturday night, I popped on the ol’ television out of curiosity. The History Channel had a show on “Ancient Astronauts”. So, I thought this ought to be amusing for a few minutes. You could cut the credulity with a knife.

Apparently, the pyramid is an amazing structure. How could lowly humans possibly come up with it? Why are these mysterious pyramid shapes found throughout the world? It would seem that the narrators of this fine enlightening show had not gotten around yet to considering the possibility that a pyramid structure is, in fact, the most stable large structure, at least in a place with gravity (which most spots on the Earth have), that could be built with technology possessed by ancient peoples. This is discussed in more detail here. How they were built is not a mystery either, as discussed here.

The most hilarious bit though, was what was said immediately prior to my changing the channel (I just couldn’t take any more entertainment). Apparently, two of the pyramids have the same perimeter. How, some strangely unimaginative person queried, could this possibly be done? Clearly, the implication is that ancient Egyptians were utterly incapable of either working from a set design or even measuring the perimeter of the pyramid to figure out what to make the perimeter of the next one and plan accordingly. Amazing. By this logic, 747 jets are designed and built by extraterrestrials, along with cars, and cookie cutter houses. It was immediately after this I figured I should see what else was on.

Do they really think humans were so incapable of figuring anything out, even back in the days of the ancient Egyptians? Why is it that every time somebody can’t figure out how something was done, or sees some fanciful drawings, extraterrestrials are immediately invoked by some? Now, if they found a clear extraterrestrial skeleton (or its equivalent) in a pyramid, or some piece of alien technology clearly not of human origin, then we’d have something. Until then, give our a species a little credit, eh? We’re not perfect and are still learning, but we’ve always been pretty good problem solvers.