My weird weekend in St Paul

Hey, it’s Fall Break for me, which means no classes or labs, but instead, I have to buckle down and get all caught up in my grading, so that’s what I’ll be doing the next few days. I thought I’d give a quick summary of my talk at the Paradigm Symposium, though. It was an odd experience. It had been a weekend full of woo and pseudoscience; that morning, L.A. Marzulli put on the most ghastly spectacle of ignorance and nonsense I’ve ever seen, raving about how evolution was false and aliens built piezoelectric teleporters in Peru and people with funny-shaped heads were signs that the End Times were here. I had been tempted at that point to drop my entire planned talk and simply get up there and tear every single one of his lies down…but I had a few hours to cool down, and I took into account that this was probably going to be the most hostile audience I’d ever had anyway, and went back to my original plan, a talk about biology. The talk was titled “An examination of the evidence for alien intervention in the history of life on earth”. It was a bit of bait and switch, because once I was up there I told them I couldn’t say much about that.

The first thing, I put the most antagonistic comment front and center: I told them that if I was here to talk about the scientific perspective on the evidence for aliens mucking about on planet Earth, there was one big problem: there isn’t any. They may have photos of lights in the sky, or the testimony of abductees, or the amazing mythology of ancient peoples that names the alien’s home star, and sure, that’s data of a crude sort…but there are many alternative explanations for the observations, and you simply can’t pick one alternative because it’s the one you like best. Blurry photos of ambiguous phenomena, numerology, interpretations of myth or religiously motivated pictograms in rocks, are very, very bad evidence, poorly assessed and clumsily shoe-horned into pet mythologies. They are not going to get published in peer-reviewed science journals.

I know what some of them would think about that: it’s a conspiracy theory. The grand poobahs of science are acting as dogmatic gatekeepers who will not allow the bold new ideas of an open-minded generation of serious investigators to enter the temple of science!

But that’s not it at all. I know a lot of scientists; I am one. We grew up on science fiction and weird ideas — I read Fate magazine as an adolescent — we love the idea of extraterrestrial intelligences. We have the same desire they do to see strange ideas come true, and experience exotic and mysterious phenomena.

But we also have standards. Extraordinary phenomena require extraordinary evidence. You don’t become a scientist unless you can couple imagination and curiosity to rigor and discipline.

And the current “evidence” doesn’t rise to the level it ought to — the enormous hypothesis that we have been visited by aliens is supported by the thinnest, feeblest, most bizarrely subjective nonsense.

I suggested that they imagine that I proposed that there was an elephant roaming the hall of the Union Depot, which is where the meeting was being held. That would be really cool — I love elephants. It would make me ridiculously happy to find a domesticated elephant sharing this room with us. And they might think that would be awesome, too — but looking around, there was no elephant is in sight. It was a fairly open space, and aside from a curtained area, there wasn’t anywhere where an elephant could possibly be hiding.

Just on the obvious evidence of your eyes, you would say there is no elephant there. But maybe, as an open-minded person, you might assume that I’ve got some additional information — I’d just come from behind the curtain, so maybe it was lurking back there. So you ask me to support my claim…and in reply, I say, “I found a peanut in my pocket. How else could it have gotten there other than that it was put there by a friendly elephant?”

Would the quality of my evidence and my logic reduce or strengthen my claim of an elephant? I think everyone would agree that that is extraordinarily poor reason and exceptionally weak evidence, and it would greatly reduce my credibility, and you’d be even less likely to accept the possibility of elephants lurking in train stations.

That’s how the scientific community feels about these stories of aliens. An enormous, earth-shaking reality is proposed, and the best evidence anyone can trot out is trivially dismissed blurry photos backed up by unsupportable logic. No, I’m sorry, until the alien proponents can provide better evidence, they’re not going to be taken seriously, and floundering about and flinging even more blurry photos and bizarre claims and elaborate fairy tales about ancient hieroglyphics is going to weaken your case.

Then the bulk of the talk was a discussion of why the idea that aliens hybridized with humans, or that humans are aliens who emigrated to Earth, is completely ridiculous. I tried to keep it as basic as possible. The first bits were a primer on what a gene and an allele are, a quick explanation about how we have roughly 20,000 genes, and that basically all mammals, to a first approximation, have the same suite of genes, and that differences in the forms of those genes in a mouse or a human allow us to estimate how closely related we are. I showed them a cladogram and explained how it was generated and what it meant.

I addressed some of the most common misconceptions: I explained that chromosome number isn’t that big a deal, and showed them a synteny map to illustrate that it just meant the genes were juggled about in a different arrangement…but they were still the same genes. I knew some of the more knowledgeable people might have heard that the human genome project had found some genes that were unique to humans and not shared with other mammals, so I explained what ORFans were, and how they aren’t the key to finding signs of alien tinkering. I probably spent the most time discussing an actual, known case of “alien” genes in the human genome, the analysis of human and Neandertal genomes.

That’s the kind of evidence we expect to see if their stories are true, I told them.

I had to mention one thing that had been bugging me all weekend, even if it wasn’t strictly about biology. Could aliens have offered cultural guidance, rather than tinkering with genes? And I told them flat out that the question was a bit insulting and also often a bit racist. So I showed them a photo of the pyramids (man, there had been a lot of talk about Egypt this weekend) and said that it was peculiar that alien astronaut proponents are always talking about aliens helping to build these monuments, but…and then I showed a photo of Notre Dame cathedral and asked, why don’t you think the French needed alien assistance to build that? It helped that John Ward had given a talk earlier in the conference where he described the quarries where the stones of the pyramid had come from and how they’d been built by human labor.

Finally, I touched on the peculiarity of little grey men — why are so many of the aliens described so human-like? I told them that evolution would not predict any such convergence to a remarkable degree, and that was evidence that these creatures were actually projections of human fears and desires, rather than physical visitors.

My summary slide:

  • We are children of this Earth

  • We know our kinship to other children of Earth

  • We know the history of our genes

  • We know the history of our populations

  • Humans have accomplished greatness on our own

Humanity: Alien-Free for 6 million years, and proud of it!

I suppose I could have said “Earth: Alien-Free for 4.5 billion years”, as well. I was defining humanity pretty broadly, too, to stretch it to 6 million years.

The Q&A wasn’t as bad as I feared. A couple of people were aggressive about challenging me — one wanted me to enumerate all of the alien abductees I’d talked to, and I’ve only met a few, and most of what I know comes from reading. But that’s hardly relevant: as I said at the beginning, trotting out more anecdotes from people who claim their butts were probed is only going to weaken their credibility. Most of the people wanted clarification, and there were some questions about junk DNA, nothing unmanageable.

I think I reached a few people, anyway. I have no illusions that scales fell from eyes and anyone decided that aliens are bunk on the basis of what I said, but maybe they’ll think a little harder about what constitutes good scientific evidence. I invited the conference organizer, Scotty Roberts, to join us on FtBCon in January, and maybe we could argue some more.

Suddenly feeling a bit uncomfortable with my face

It started out that I was just reading this silly piece about some show called Duck Dynasty, and then I followed a link to “Power is on the side of the beard”: Masculinity and Facial Hair in Nineteenth-Century America. Well, yes, I thought. Power. Obviously power. But wait…

…the measures American men took to distinguish themselves from women politically, socially, and visually make sense: boxy clothing and bushy beards were reactions to women’s changing role in American public life. Although men in Europe and the United States had long written—even in times of overwhelming beardlessness—about how beards marked the male members of their species as strong, manly, powerful, and wise, it was only once women began entering “their” public that American men started to cultivate the facial hair they had publically revered (but personally scorned) for generations. Facial hair was a visual and visceral way for men to distinguish themselves from women—to codify a distinctly male appearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, beards thus emerged as a key method for American men to demonstrate their masculinity to themselves, to women, and to each other.

Uh, actually, true confession: I grew a beard because I’m kind of a homely guy, and something that would cover more of my face would be a plus. I dreamed of achieving the Cousin It look, but alas, my eyebrows never quite took off.

It gets worse:

By the second half of the nineteenth century, American men had made it clear what it meant for a man to have a beard: it gave him power, it conferred authority, and it allowed him to demonstrate his masculinity. In other words, facial hair turned a man into a “true man.”

“Radical revolt against nature”: Barefaced Women and Masculine Power

Bare chins, on the other hand, were obvious markers of effeminacy and inferiority. Many beard histories pointed out that bare chins were historically used to indicate servitude, and that prisoners were often forcibly shaved to disgrace them further. But despite the looming presence of chattel slavery on American soil until 1865, beard historians were far more interested in demonstrating that women were not supposed to have facial hair.

Perhaps the most passionate argument about why women should not wear beards came from Horace Bushnell, a prominent theologian and preacher who, in 1869, published the brashly titled book, Women’s Suffrage: The Reform Against Nature.

Bushnell’s argument was quite simple: women’s rights advocates argued that they should have the same rights as men because they were equal to men, but no claim of gender equality could be valid, Bushnell believed, because “men and women are, to some very large extent, unlike in kind.” A person merely needed to glance at the two sexes, he said, for the differences between them were so immediately obvious.

The man is taller and more muscular, has a larger brain, and a longer stride in his walk. The woman is lighter and shorter, and moves more gracefully. In physical strength the man is greatly superior, and the base in his voice and the shag on his face, and the wing and sway of his shoulders, represent a personality in him that has some attribute of thunder. But there is no look of thunder in the woman. Her skin is too finely woven, too wonderfully delicate to be the rugged housing of thunder… Glancing thus upon man, his look says, Force, Authority, Decision, Self-asserting Counsel, Victory.

Oh, no, that’s not a view I’m trying to promote! Maybe I need to shave and start wearing a bag on my head instead.

Although now I’m really curious about the mindset that would compel people to write arguments about why women shouldn’t grow beards. Isn’t that kind of unnecessary?

Useful instructional materials

The wave/particle duality of light is always tricky to explain to my students. If only I’d known that the Dogon priests had already figured it all out — all I have to do is put up a picture of Nummo the Fish, and wisdom shall follow.

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I’m listening to Laird Scranton exercising his remarkable pattern-matching abilities, finding correspondences in glyphs and pictures drawn by the Dogon, Chinese, and Egyptians to modern scientific concepts. Did you know the Dogon have had string theory all figured out? I didn’t.

No self-awareness at all

Man, the sad sacks at AVoiceForMen must be desperate for affirmation if they think this article in The Beast on the Men’s Rights Movement is praising them. It’s a rather odd article that goes out of its way to be fair-minded, which may be what set them up: it treats W.H. Price, the head goon at The Spearhead, as a voice of reason, talks about the growing influence of AVFM, and calls John Hembling (JohnTheOther) a “superstar”. But if the article is setting them up, it’s also knocking them down — it exposes Hembling’s inflated claims of being a heroic warrior and savior of women as totally bogus, describes in detail the awful things the ranting kooks on the MRA side say, and concludes with this:

Or, as Hembling tells feminists, apparently without irony: “You are losing control of the narrative, and the vicious, sadistic and amoral character of your movement is increasingly and glaringly obvious. You might just want to check yourselves in a mirror, dummies.”

Do you guys realize the author was trying to hold a mirror up to you?


Manboobz fact-checks the article.

My turn

Today is the last day of the Paradigm Symposium, which is good — I don’t know how much more my poor brain could take. But this afternoon, after lunch, it’s my turn to speak. And I’ve been doing my homework, looking into what kinds of things paranormalists often believe about biology and evolution, and it’s been a long exercise in face-palming. They’re all over the map, but there are some common threads: the idea that evolution is inadequate (even while they rather blandly accept it for everything other than humans) and that aliens had to somehow assist us to reach the state we’re in now. Again, there isn’t one simple, coherent formula to describe their ideas — they’re not like the creationists who neatly fall into a few categories — and their hypotheses wobble all over the place. Some believe humans are the aliens, that we immigrated here to Planet Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago. Others believe that we’re hybrids, the product of mating between alien star-lords that we called gods and the common stock. Others think that no, it was planned modification of the ape genetic line by high-tech aliens, who intentionally inserted special genes into our cells to give us higher powers. And some are willing to say we evolved naturally here, but the aliens showed up to give us a technological boost, planting only ideas in human culture. So I’ve got a great big moving target to deal with, and I suspect that if I shoot down one hypothesis people will just glibly shift to one of the other excuses.

Here’s an example of the kind of nonsense I have to deal with.

Why is it that ancient native, cultures all around the world, from the Americas to Africa and Australia speak of advanced ETs ‘seeding’ humanity on earth? How is it that such apparently primitive peoples had in-depth accurate knowledge of constellations such as Sirius – which cannot be seen with the naked eye – several thousand years ago?

It is in my knowing that originally, a group of spiritually and technologically advanced ETs seeded humanity with the apparently ‘benevolent intent’ of mankind becoming ‘custodians’ of Mother Earth and working to live in balance with her. That’s why so many of the original tribal cultures such as the North American Indians, The Mayans, The African Dogon, The Tibetans and the Australian Aborigines all lived largely in harmony with the earth and at balance with nature.

I love that phrase, “It is in my knowing.” So meaningless, so pompous, so vacuous. You also get a taste of that benign assumption that any alien intervention was friendly in intent, and that “tribal cultures” are one with the Earth Mother. No, these cultures had relatively small population sizes and so did not impose any stresses on their environment that the environment could not handle, but give ’em a chance, and they could overwhelm a place just about as well as Europeans — look at Easter Island, for instance. We are all of us just people.

But that optimism also hides some profound ignorance and some nasty racism. On the ignorance side, this passage is about as annoyingly stupid as anything I’ve heard from creationists:

When Official Science delved deeper [into the question of why humans have 46 chromosomes while other apes have 48], it realised that the reason we have two less, is because the second and third chromosomes have been fused into one. It tries to explain this by saying such a mutation could happen naturally and points to other evidence in nature such as butterflies. Indeed such spontaneous mutation can happen, but what they’re not saying (and quietly brushing under the carpet), is that although this ‘mutation’ offers no natural evolutionary advantage whatsoever, it appears in EVERY SINGLE HUMAN!

How could that be? This fusing of the chromosomes is not what makes us human, and it does not offer any ‘natural’ evolutionary advantage (I’ll return to this in a moment). Yet we all have the mutation? If we supposedly evolved from Hominoids (like Neanderthal) and this mutation offers no advantage, then you’d expect to see some humans with 48 chromosomes and some with 46, but not ALL with 46!

But when you delve deeper into the chromosome story it gets even more curious. Each chromosome has three parts to it: both ends and a middle. Now in eight of the other human chromosomes, there has been an inversion of the middle part – it’s been ‘spun around’. Again, these inversions offer no natural evolutionary advantage – they don’t change the genetic material – yet ALL eight supposed ‘mutations’ appear in ALL humans.

Now you don’t need to be a mathematician to know, that the odds for all nine mutations to happen spontaneously, where no natural evolutionary advantage was gained, and for that to happen to both the original human male and female, at exactly the same time, and in exactly the same place, and for them to breed and produce the entire human offspring is so unlikely, the odds are literally zillions to one!

“Literally zillions to one!” Heh.

Just look at that raging typological thinking, though. This person apparently can’t grasp the idea of long, slow periods of gradual change in relatively neutral properties: it all had to happen all at once. Zing! All at once, all of the differences between humans and chimpanzees had to occur.

And here’s the underlying nastiness. This same post includes the video below with no qualification. It’s a smug little conversation between two racist assholes of the genus Newageius concluding that human races are soooo different that they must have been independently transplanted to earth from different alien worlds.

If you don’t want to listen to the whole awful thing (and I don’t blame you), here’s a representative comment from youtube that nicely illustrates what we’re dealing with.

My studies have actually yielded the idea that there are four basic structures that the Multi-racial structures evolve from: Africans, Asians, Europeans and Native Americans. These will coencide with the colors of the Medicine Wheel being Black, White, Yellow and Red. As with paint in art, you can derive many colors from four basic colors. Cells Are solar systems. We’re making all of this harder than it has to be. Chakra Systems. LOOK for crying out loud.

I can’t possibly address all of this bullshit in one hour; I also don’t assume that most of the audience agrees with this particular brand of lunacy. So I’m going to be giving a very simplified introduction to the human genome and properties of the human population that show that we are entirely children of Earth. Baby steps. Basics first. We’ll see how it goes.

‘ware the cookies!

What have I gotten myself into? I just sat through a bizarre, rambling, self-congratulory lecture by Scott Wolter (some guy with a fringey History Channel show) that started with the Kensington Runestone — it’s a genuine Viking artifact, don’t you know, staking a land claim for some Catholic order of monks — then wandered over to the Bat Creek stone, a rock with some funny scratches on it unearthed from an Indian mound. The scratches are ancient Hebrew! Wait, no, they’re secret Masonic symbols! Did you know the Cherokee rituals were exact copies of the Knights Templar’s rituals? Yes, they are. Obviously.

Then we got a whole series of photos of Catholic figures and medieval and renaissance paintings and sculptures in which people are making the Masonic gang sign. This one:

image

That’s an “M”. For Mary Magdelene, Jesus’s wife. The Masonic cult spread over to the New World in the first century AD to share the word among the Indians, who happily adopted it. And now it’s everywhere.

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Oreo cookies bear the sign.

Then to wrap it all up, he goes back to ancient Egypt, the precession of the Equinox, and the signs of the zodiac, which represent major shifts in world cultures, each paradigmatic shift associated with changing which house was represented in the equinox.

People applauded.

Dear god, wasn’t the cookie slide a loud enough cry for help?

Bigfoot!

I spent my first evening at the Paradigm Symposium last night. I’ve missed virtually all of the talks so far — I got to watch a panel about new media, podcasting and that sort of thing, and there wasn’t too much novelty to it, but it was fine…except for the bits where they mentioned how the skeptical outlook was distasteful.

There was also a final Q&A session of the evening where a few of us, me included, were put up front to introduce ourselves and take questions from the audience. I went bold and made it explicitly clear that I’m a skeptic, I don’t believe in little grey men or ghosts or the paranormal or any of that sort of thing, just so no one would be at all confused about my position. The responses of the other panelists were interesting: lots of mumbling about how we don’t know everything, and mysteries, and that sort of thing, and I got in one rejoinder about how science builds on what we know, not what we don’t know, and leaping into mysteries is a formula for failure.

It was an aggressive approach, but a good one, I think. At the bar session later a number of people collared me to argue, and several just wanted to know more. There’s a huge difference between this group and, for instance, the creationist events I’ve been to: paranormalists tend to be strongly anti-dogmatic, so so far I’ve only encountered one person who hit me with the “invite Jesus into your heart” line. They also tend to be curious, so they ask lots of questions, which is good. I think the main problem is a lack of criteria to judge the quality of evidence, so they tend to go lurching off indiscriminately into weird phenomena.

I met one nice fellow who was proudly showing off his cast of a Bigfoot print.

bigfoot

He was very friendly, and he’d carefully documented everything he could about it: who found it, when it was cast, all that sort of thing. Of course it’s totally useless as evidence for Bigfoot since prints are so easily faked, but that’ll be one of the subjects I talk about tomorrow: the quality of evidence and setting standards for your work.

Today I’m going to sit back and listen. I’ve browsed all their vendor tables, though: anyone need some healing crystals, or books about the Illuminati?

The descent of Xanth

I have never cared for Piers Anthony — I’ve always considered him a cheesy hack with some repulsive ideas — so I’ve never been tempted to go back and read his old juveniles. They were tremendously popular, though. I used to get annoyed when I’d go to the second-hand book store and discover that all they had in genre fiction was a mountain of Piers Anthony crap.

But someone who had fond memories of reading the books as an adolescent did go back and read some of the Xanth series. It turns out they’re also twisted misogynistic pieces of shit.

This is the sad crux of Chameleon’s cheerful hatred of women. Bink leers at women, and it’s presented as not only okay, but as the way things should be. In a different part of the Slashdot Q&A above—where another reader asks Anthony about the poor treatment of women characters in Xanth—the author tries to prove how much he appreciates and understands women by extolling their virtues as “thinking, feeling creatures.” Not people. Creatures. You know, like basilisks. And not only that, but creatures whose thoughts and feelings apparently require the validation of someone with Anthony’s authority—that is, someone with a dick. Ultimately, Anthony is the worst kind of misogynist: one who defends his offensive views by saying, in essence, how could he possibly hate women if he’s drooling over them all the time?

A lot of us grew up reading science fiction and fantasy that glorified a particular attitude — the ultra-competent nerd engineer who conquers all of his problems with a high-tech gadget in one hand and the adoring, pretty girl in his other arm. Is it any wonder so many of us are screwed up?

Of course, maybe the reason those second-hand book stores were flooded with Xanth was that they were marketed heavily, lots of people read one, and then immediately dumped it so they could buy some LeGuin, instead.

A shame

Ken Ham is very proud to have spent a half-million dollars to buy a genuine, rare allosaur skeleton, which will now be locked up in a non-research institution and used to gull the rubes. It’s all part of their grand plan to pretend to be a scientific institution, while doing everything in their power to corrupt the public understanding of science.

What a shame.

And of course they’re going to use it to lie to visitors. Here’s what Andrew Snelling, their pet pseudoscientist, says about it.

As a geologist, Dr. Snelling added that unlike the way most of the Morrison Formation bones had been found scattered and mixed, the intact skeleton of this allosaur is testimony to extremely rapid burial, which is a confirmation of the global catastrophe of a Flood a few thousand years ago.

Lovely logic. Because the bones this one example were unscattered, it somehow supports their claim that it was killed 4000 years ago in a global flood. What? There’s nothing in the distribution of the bones that can be said to support a particular age for the specimen, and even if it were killed in a flood, floods do happen — it says nothing about a global catastrophe.

And if unmixed bones equal Recent Global Flood, what does it say that they admit that “most of the Morrison Formation bones had been found scattered and mixed”?

The rest of the press release is revealing in that it mentions that money for this grand exhibit, and another half-million dollars, came from one family — one very, very rich family — with far more money than sense. Just another demonstration that being an idiot does not interfere with the process of getting rich.