Bob on the BEASTcast talking about the Denver Airport

April 30, 2012

Last week I was interviewed by the BEASTcast about the Denver International Airport conspiracy theory, as well as a good bit about the humanities and skepticism. That interview is out today.

Thanks to Josh Bunting for the opportunity to speak with him. I enjoyed it very much!


Are Ghost Stories History?

April 25, 2012

I like ghost stories. I like the fictional variety, and I like the non-fictional variety, within reason. That is to say, I enjoy collections of ghost stories that don’t try too hard to convince me that they’re true: “No, really, it was a real ghost. We got photos of orbs and EVPs and everything!” I like the folkloric and historic aspect of ghost stories: an interesting story about an interesting place. Walter Raleigh bopping around the Tower of London, yes; “footsteps” in a 60s ranch house in Indiana, not so much.

I recently found The World’s Most Haunted Places: From the Secret Files of by Jeff Belanger on a discount shelf at Barnes and Noble. Yay, ghost stories. Sadly, the ghost stories are pretty dull: full of clichés and footsteps when no one was there and doors opening when there was no wind. For example, one of the world’s most haunted places is, apparently, the catacombs of Paris. Belanger spends most of his time describing how creepy the place is. Fair enough–the place is full of countless skulls and bones. And the ghosts? The place is “as haunted as it is macabre,” Belanger assures us. Here is the evidence of haunting:

“Avez-vous vu un fantôme?” I asked the man at the ticket counter in my best French if he has seen a ghost. “Je ne sais pas,” was his reply. The man smiled and shrugged his shoulders” (p. 71)

“It’s a little overwhelming with all of the bones,” said Julie Hardman of Tempe, Arizona. I spoke with Hardman after she visited the museum with her daughter, Megan.

A security guard who asked not to be identified told me, “Some people go down and they are very afraid after seeing the bones. Some people say they hear things. Voices” (p. 75)

I was interested, though, in something Belanger says in his introduction:

To study these spirits is to study history. The spirit world and our past are intertwined–there’s a lot we can learn by studying both. (p. 11)

Now, I wouldn’t have put it like that, but to some extent I agree. For one thing, when ghost stories become attached to a place, such as the Tower of London, for instance, they become a part of that place’s history, even if they don’t accurately reflect the events that actually occurred. Like it or not, they become part of the folk history. More importantly, researching ghost stories certainly does involve studying history. In the first place, you are looking at the history of a location and the people associated with it. Secondly, in studying ghost stories in general, you will see how the stories change as the world changes. Belanger, of course, doesn’t look at ghost stories from this point of view–such a study might shake his belief in ghosts–so let’s look at how well he handles the history of the locations he discusses.

First up is Ballygally Castle, now greatly expanded into a hotel in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. According to Belanger,

Ballygally was originally built by James Shaw, a Greenock, Scotland native who came to Northern Ireland in 1613. Shaw built the castle in 1625 in a French chateau style….

Shortly after the completion of the castle’s construction, James Shaw took a wife named Lady Isobel Shaw. The current legend says that  during the first few years of their marriage, Lady Shaw had a daughter. James Shaw became angry that his wife didn’t produce a male heir, and so he locked her in the tiny turret of the castle facing the sea. It’s unclear whether Lady Shaw leapt to her death from the small window while desperately trying to get to her daughter, or whether James Shaw had some henchmen throw her down the steep staircase, killing her.

The first time I heard this bit of folklore, it didn’t sit right with me. (pp. 15-16)

Oh, good, because it doesn’t sit right with me, either. First of all, I’m highly suspicious of that title, which varies between Lady Isobel, indicating that her father was an earl or above, and Lady Shaw, indicating that her husband had a title (which Belanger doesn’t use). Secondly, what a Gothic cliché: evil husband confines wife to turret room for some crappy reason. She jumps or is pushed to her death. What do the records tell us?

If James Shaw was so upset about not getting a male heir, wouldn’t the couple just try for another child? After some digging, I heard another version of the legend that seemed to make more sense. Apparently, Lady Shaw may have been having an affair with a seaman. One could also speculate that her daughter may have been the love-child of this mysterious man. (p. 16)

Oh dear. Apparently, historical research involves looking for unsubstantiated anecdotal legends and choosing the one you like best. Well, I did a bit of extremely superficial historical research myself. That is to say, I asked my friend Google. It was difficult to find information that wasn’t ghost related. Even the Wikipedia entry on Ballygally was infested by legend. I found that Isobel’s name is variously spelled and that she is sometimes called Elizabeth. She didn’t have a title, and her maiden name was Brisbane. The information is confusing, but the following is a typical nugget, which comes from the Brisbane family genealogy. Among the offspring of John Brisbane was

 f-III. Elizabeth, m. to James Shaw, of Bailliegellie, in Ireland, of the family of Shaw of Greenock, and was mother of JAMES SHAW, who is mentioned hereafter, as the husband of his cousin, ELIZABETH BRISBANE, and continuator of the family.

Elsewhere, I did find James Shaw’s wife referred to as Isabella Brisbane Shaw, and they apparently had a daughter named Margaret. I think it’s possible that Isabella got confused with the Elizabeth Brisbane who married the second James Shaw. Regardless, she seems to have had a son, and there is no record of a mysterious death outside the ghostie books.  Nothing I found definitively contradicts Belanger’s legends (except for the erroneous title), but the genealogical information certainly calls certain aspects of the stories into question. And that’s after maybe a half an hour of Googling. Belanger didn’t try to find the truth behind the legends. He didn’t look at historical records–official documents recording births and deaths or genealogical research–he just listened to people telling stories. That is not history. But maybe he’ll improve as he warms to his subject.

The chapter on Ordsall Hall in Salford, England begins,

Here lies Lord have mercy upon her;
One of Elizabeth’s maids of honour.
Margaret Radclyffe fair and witty;
She died a maid, the more the pity.

Margaret Radclyffe’s gravestone is inscribed with the preceding epitaph. Radclyffe died November 10, 1599 at the age of 25. She was one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honor, one of the top six ladies in the royal court. The young maiden died in the building she grew up and lived in: Ordsall Hall. Because of her royal connections, she would receive a semi-state funeral and be interred in Westminster Abbey in London, but her spirit will always be at Ordsall Hall. (p. 87)

Margaret Radclyffe was one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting. She did die young. She was not, however, buried in the Abbey, but at St. Margaret’s church on the Abbey’s grounds. As for the epitaph: there are several variants of it. Some do mention Margaret Radclyffe, but not all. I certainly can find no evidence that the passage is on her gravestone: it seems wholly inappropriate. Most of the variants do not name the lady. Here is the most common version. Some sources attribute the poem to John Hoskyns or Hoskins.

Don’t feel too bad for Margaret, though. One poet did write an epigram on her death:


M arble, weep, for thou dost cover
A dead beauty underneath thee,
R ich as nature could bequeath thee :
G rant then, no rude hand remove her.
A ll the gazers on the skies
R ead not in fair heaven’s story,
E xpresser truth, or truer glory,
T han they might in her bright eyes.

R are as wonder was her wit ;
A nd, like nectar, ever flowing :
T ill time, strong by her bestowing,
C onquer’d hath both life and it ;
L ife, whose grief was out of fashion
I n these times.  Few so have rued
F ate in a brother.  To conclude,
F or wit, feature, and true passion,
E arth, thou hast not such another. (source)

Oh, I know–it’s not as dignified as a bit of doggerel about how it’s a shame that such a pretty girl died a virgin, and the poet’s no John Hoskins. It’s only Ben Jonson.

I’m beginning to suspect that Belanger and I have a different understanding of the word “history.”



Belanger, Jeff. The World’s Most Haunted Places: From the Secret Files of New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.

Finucane, Ronald C. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation. New York: Prometheus, 1996. A book that genuinely combines ghost stories and historical research.

This Week in Conspiracy (23 April 2012)

April 24, 2012

Technically, it will be “These Last Few Weeks and a Bit in Conspiracy,” but who’s keeping score, really?

It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.

For instance, at the very moment that Arthur said “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle,” a freak wormhole opened up in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried his words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.

The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time.

A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl’hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G’Gugvuntt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the vile creature to take back what it had said about his mother.

The creature stirred in his sickly broiling vapour, and at that very moment the words I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle drifted across the conference table.

Unfortunately, in the Vl’hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries.

Eventually of course, after their Galaxy had been decimated over a few thousand years, it was realized that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, and so the two opposing battle fleets settled their few remaining differences in order to launch a joint attack on our own Galaxy – now positively identified as the source of the offending remark.

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.

Those who study the complex interplay of cause and effect in the history of the Universe say that this sort of thing is going on all the time, but that we are powerless to prevent it.

“It’s just life,” they say.

Twit of the Week:

Paul of Paul and Storm had a good tweet this week:

Paul and Storm ‏ @paulandstorm

[P] In honor of today’s anniversary of Project MKULTRA, I’m going to secretly feed my family LSD-laced tacos.

The twerpiest tweet of the week won not only because of the horrific violation of the laws of logic the tweet embodies, but also because the article talks at some length about how Anders Breivik told the court how he did it all alone. TURN ON YOUR THINKER, DUDE!

We are speeding into the last weeks of classes right now, and I have a couple of little projects in the works. You will hear of them soon, I am sure.

Muahahaha, as they say.


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 9

April 24, 2012

Hello, everybody

Thanks for the ongoing feedback!

I am aware of the Zuni-Japanese claims and may well comment on them down the track as one example of claims of this nature!

Re a query re my earlier comments about ‘Jewish’ writers who uphold non-mainstream ideas about Hebrew: I am informed by David Leonardi that he personally identifies as a Christian (albeit of an unusual kind), and that some of Jeff Benner’s supporters are also Christians. As far as I know, Benner himself is Jewish.

Another set of non-mainstream claims regarding relationships between languages involves the use of typological similarities as evidence of unrecognized links between languages. Typological features are general features, at any linguistic level (phonetic, phonological, morphological, syntactic), which may be shared between languages whether or not they are (‘genetically’ or by contact) related (for instance, the degree to which words are heavily ‘inflected’ = displaying many grammatical affixes such as noun-case endings, verb-tense markers, etc.) – or on the other hand may differ between languages which are closely related (for example, Icelandic and Afrikaans are quite closely related [Germanic] languages, but the former is heavily inflecting and the latter almost entirely without inflections). In many cases, typological features have only a small number of possible values; for example, there are obviously only two possible preferred word orders for pairs of associated linguistic items such as a noun and its modifying adjective (‘big book’, ‘book big’). Typological features cannot themselves be treated as evidence of relatedness.

Despite this, there are various typology-based claims that apparently unrelated, often geographically dispersed languages are in fact related either ‘genetically’ or by contact. For example, there are various claims regarding links between Dravidian (Southern India) and Finno-Ugric (Finnish, etc.) based largely upon typological similarities, notably the ‘agglutinating’ morphological structure which both groups of languages display. This use of typological similarities by non-mainstream writers in no way strengthens their cases.

Of late, it has become common for conclusions regarding deep-time linguistic relationships to be grounded partly in newly available data on the evolutionary cladistics (‘family-tree’ structure) of human genetics. Not surprisingly, these two sets of characteristics do often correspond significantly; and this means that one can seek to clarify obscurities in historical linguistics through ancient genetic information, which is often more readily accessed. This applies especially to the pre-literate period, where there are no linguistic details at all apart from reconstructed ‘deep-time’ ancestor-forms (inevitably uncertain).

However, there are many cases, such as those of the African-Americans, where genetically identifiable groups have (for various reasons) abandoned their languages, at least in some areas. Although some recent discoveries suggest that there are fewer such cases than might be imagined, it is still clear that it is dangerous to press arguments of this kind too far in filling in ‘gaps’ in the linguistic record. The important genetic work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and others does not necessarily have the major linguistic implications which might be attributed to it (especially by writers predisposed to argue for genuine ‘racial’ divisions of the species on these and other grounds).

Despite these issues, some important findings have emerged from this interaction between disciplines. For example, Spencer Wells, relying mainly on genetic data and the ideas of the maverick linguist Ruhlen, treats Na-Dene (North America) as demonstrably related to Sino-Tibetan and as probably related to Caucasian (Caucasus). Although this position might appear outrageously hyper-diffusionist to most linguists, it has been argued since the mid-1990s (by Ruhlen and Sergei Starostin) and with more persuasion since 2008 that the Yeniseian language ‘family’ of Siberia is related to Na-Dene in a larger Dene-Yenisein ‘family’ (obviously involving a very considerable time-depth). Even this more modest proposal is not by any means universally accepted, but it is not altogether to be dismissed. On the other hand, it is not clear that the comparative method as such is appropriate when dealing with a proposed common ancestor as early as 50,000 BP. (Starostin for his part ranges more widely, for example linking Basque and Amerindian.)

Some non-mainstream authors propose entire alternative theories of language change, intended (overtly or covertly) to replace existing mainstream theories (similar in nature to more general alternative linguistic theories). Such theories tend to display degrees of confusion; some of them involve elements, not necessarily compatible with each other, drawn eclectically from those mainstream theories with which the author does have some familiarity. Some of the mainstream ideas used in this way are also misinterpreted.

One writer of this kind is David Leonardi (discussed previously), who believes that all or nearly all of the world’s languages and very many of their forms are related (that is, there are far fewer genuine cases of accidental similarity than most mainstream linguists hold), chiefly by way of language contact and diffusion; Leonardi downplays the entire notion of ‘genetic’ relatedness. He invokes in his support various mainstream and marginally mainstream linguists, some of whom disagree profoundly with each other. They might also reject Leonardi’s interpretations of their ideas, which he sometimes takes to be closer to his own than they are. (Edo Nyland, also discussed earlier, takes a similarly inaccurate view of the status of his own ideas.) However, Leonardi’s exposition of his own ideas is often obscure, and it is difficult to comment upon them in detail.

A more prominent alternative theory of language change was expounded by the members of a mid-twentieth-century breakaway Italian school of non-scientific linguists, the ‘Neo-Linguists’, influenced by the idealist philosophy of Benedetto Croce. Some of the neo-linguists, such as Giorgio Fano, rejected Croce’s more extreme ideas, but remained conspicuously non-mainstream in international terms. Robert Hall – interestingly a believer in the Kensington Stone (see later) – provides a linguistic critique of Neo-Linguistics.

More next time!


‘fringe’ historical linguistics 8

April 17, 2012

Hello again, everybody!

I summarize here the linguistic aspects of some general catastrophist theories involving Atlantis and other ‘lost’ continents/civilizations.  Some of the thinkers in question, like Ryan & Pitman (discussed last time), are highly qualified in some of the relevant disciplines; one such is Stephen Oppenheimer, who locates an early centre of diffusion in a now-submerged South-East Asian continent (but note that both Oppenheimer and his linguistically-trained ally Paul Manansala appear relatively weak where historical linguistics is concerned).  Others, such as Stan Hall (to whom I referred earlier) are clearly non-mainstream.

Arysio dos Santos accepts the reality of Atlantis; he places much emphasis on historical linguistics, arguing that unexpected similarities (at all the main linguistic levels) exist between languages such as Guanche (Canary Islands), Etruscan and Dravidian (Tamil etc.), at frequency levels which exclude chance.  He disputes the mainstream use of statistics in this area and argues that accidental similarities are much less likely than has been concluded by mainstream linguists such as Ringe (see earlier).  The disagreement does not seem to involve the mathematics per se but rather dos Santos’ handling of the linguistic data, which, a linguist might suggest, does not appear to incorporate adequately the factors which I discussed, such as structural differences between the languages in question.  (Dos Santos also rejects conventional ideas about proto-languages and language families.)

Other writers who accept the reality of Atlantis (especially as a lost land rather than as a location or culture known later by other names) include: Viatcheslav Koudriavtsev and his colleagues with their ‘Protolanguage’ (pan-Slavic) and its ‘Protoscript’; J.M. Allen and Rand & Rose Flem-Ath with their focus upon South American locations(the Flem-Aths believe that Atlantis was in Antarctica and that the Atlantean refugees arrived first in South America; they endorse some extreme and unjustifiable claims about the structure of Aymara which are associated with the idea that it is of Atlantean origin); Constantin Benetatos with the view that all later European languages (especially those in Northern Europe) are descended from the language of Atlantis; etc., etc.

J.S. Gordon also accepts the reality of Atlantis (and links his ideas about Atlantis as a real entity with arguments in support of the currently fashionable theory of the universe as pervaded by consciousness).  His work is vitiated by a number of unwelcome features, including some relating specifically to his use of linguistic data.  For instance: a) he repeatedly discusses key linguistic matters in an impossibly vague manner; b) he fatally confuses linguistic levels (pronunciation and grammar) in using key terms such as agglutinative; c) he relies upon earlier non-mainstream thinkers and ill-informed and dated sources; d) he proposes wildly implausible and unsupported scenarios involving the development of languages and scripts (intended to replace well-established mainstream ideas about these matters); e) he largely ignores the two hundred years of scientific historical linguistic scholarship and thus employs the usual loose, seriously unreliable non-mainstream philological/etymological methods; etc.

One of the works of Gene Matlock (see my earlier references) also argues for the reality of Atlantis.  His claim to have ‘proved’ his case is grotesquely exaggerated, to say the least.  As in his other works, Matlock relies repeatedly upon isolated and unsystematic superficial similarities of vocabulary items in attempting to establish etymologies which would demonstrate his diffusionist claims about ancient links between the languages and cultures of India (and other Old World areas) – all derived from the supposed Ursprache, Sanskrit – and the Americas.  And again, as in his other works, his claims on these fronts also contradict many established etymologies and vast amounts of well-established information about the relationships between languages.  Matlock ignores the crucial structural aspects of the languages which he compares; his linguistic terminology is popular and non-standard; he makes many claims about poorly-documented periods of early history without presenting any references or worthwhile evidence; he cites other non-mainstream claims rejected by most experts; etc., etc.

Zoltán Simon argues for a historical Atlantis in Western Atlantic waters, and for a catastrophist and otherwise revisionist account of early human history; he believes that the cases for (a) catastrophist interpretations of early history, (b) the early discovery (and subsequent loss) of advanced technology, and (c) extraterrestrial intervention in that period are much more persuasive than they are.  His linguistic ‘evidence’ is of the usual amateur kind; he also makes various specific errors; and he rejects reconstructed proto-languages such as Proto-Indo-European, assessing the evidence/argumentation for such entities in thoroughly confused terms and grossly undervaluing it – partly because he wishes to propose alternative genetic and other links between languages, often involving his native Hungarian.  Indeed, he exaggerates the influence of Hungarian and the Hungarians on linguistic differentiation and world history, finding pseudo-cognates and grammatical parallels between Hungarian and English and reading the mysterious Yarmouth Runestone (Nova Scotia) as Hungarian.  (Again, compare Stan Hall.)

Some other non-mainstream authors are interested in Lemuria and/or Mu rather than (or as well as) Atlantis.  One such, Frank Joseph, cites similarities between short words and syllables, with related or allegedly related meanings, in languages normally regarded as unrelated and as not having experienced important cultural contact.  These include the words moai as used in Okinawa and Easter Island (where the meanings are not in fact even close), Japanese torii and German Tor (both meaning ‘gate’), various words containing the syllable -mu-, etc. He believes that these similarities mostly indicate common origin in Lemuria/Mu.  (Joseph also includes in this discussion a completely mistaken comment about the pronunciation of the Latin names Romulus and Remus; he believes that these words too contain the word Mu and were stressed on the relevant syllable.)

There is an entire small world of non-mainstream scholarship based on the works of Immanuel Velikovsky, a major-planet catastrophist and chronological revisionist.  The (minor) linguistic element in Velikovsky’s thought involves the alleged diffusion of words after the catastrophe (compare Michal Tsarion).  Since Velikovsky’s death his ideas have persisted and diversified.  One leading Neo-Velikovskyan tradition is represented by David Talbott and his fellow ‘Saturnists’, who hold that Earth and the other inner planets were formerly in captive rotation about a much larger Saturn and that this situation and the catastrophic restructuring which led to the present configuration of the system are reflected in myths around the world.  Talbott places emphasis upon the similarity and alleged common origin of words in many apparently unrelated languages, which in his view relate to myths and motifs associated with cultural ‘memories’ of the earlier configuration and the ensuing cataclysm.  Most of the Saturnists show little detailed knowledge of linguistics, but one of Talbott’s associates was Roger Wescott, a qualified linguist, who posited relatively recent dates for the commencement of linguistic diversification, partly because of his catastrophist account of the recent history of the planet (many pre-existing cultures and their languages would have been destroyed in any Velikovskyan catastrophe).

There are writers in this area of thought with even more markedly non-mainstream ideas.  These include, notably, Ted Holden, who argues, for instance, that features of the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian) reflect the beginning of the re-diversification of languages ‘from scratch’ following a catastrophe early in the first millennium BCE.  Holden is also a supporter of Julian Jaynes’ highly suspect theory that during the first millennium BCE the psychology of Homo sapiens underwent a major shift – revealed, for instance, in contrasts between discourse styles found in Homeric Greek and in later Classical Greek – involving the loss of telepathic abilities and the emergence of self-awareness.


This Week in Conspiracy (11 April 2012)

April 12, 2012

It’s that time of the week, y’all, when I mosey up to biggest and baddest in conspiracy theory, size ‘em up,  and brand them with humor. Then I run away, trying not to get gored.

Let’s see what’s shaking.

Not exactly the Durham Light Infantry

Twit of the Week:

President @BarackObama claims to be a Trekkie. But where’s the proof? Why won’t he release his fan fiction? — Conan O’Brien (@ConanOBrien)

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

Well, that’s about all I can take this week folks. I have a backlog of conspiracy theories for you, but a lot of work to attend to in the near future. Also, my brother suckered someone into marrying him this weekend, and I need to write the best man’s toast. But I will keep my ear to the ground, don’t you worry.


By the way, I also write as “The Conspiracy Guy” for the CSICOP website. Visit me there for in-depth coverage of some of the major conspiracy theories. My latest is about the Denver International Airport.

The Denver International Airport Conspiracy

April 12, 2012

My most recent “Conspiracy Guy” article is up at the CSICOP website. It’s about the DIA conspiracy.



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