This Week in Conspiracy…uh, I’ve lost count of the days. We’ll call it 25 Oct 2012

October 26, 2012

The hectic pace of a youngish professional on the way to… ever having permanent employment… remains, uh, hectic.

You just try to come up with an opening sentence so devastatingly painful, I dare you.

Anyway, I’ve been remiss in my duties as a crusader for truth (small t), justice, and critical thinking, and as we close in on the election, everyone is clearly getting dumber. I apologize for this and will try to set things right.

  • This week Donald Trump made yet more of a fool of himself. I didn’t think it was possible. He offered $5,000,000 to a charity if Obama released his college applications. This is part of the Birther conspiracy theory, that the President’s application materials will reveal something about the President’s citizenship. The theory is that they are “being kept secret,” when in reality FERPA keeps Columbia from releasing them. Some things you can’t buy, Donald, like respectability. For everything else, there’s gobs and gobs of inherited money.
  • Mark Dice is unfathomably unpleasant. Here’s his take on the upcoming (and delayed) Cleveland Show episode about the “Rap Illuminati,” and he seems to not understand that the show is basically mocking people like Mark and Vigilant Citizen who fail to perceive that marketing is driving the continued references to the Illuminati in rap and pop culture.
  • Occasionally, Mark Dice goes out and lies to people and then mocks them for believing him (because he is just that pleasant). He sent out this tweet: “Hope you are enjoying my retweets of the ZOMBIES who believe the SATIRE about Romney ‘banning tampons.’ #Idiots.” As long as he doesn’t ban douches, Mark, you’ll be just fine.
  • Veterans Today‘s Gordon Duff appeared on Coast to Coast AM talking about UFO disclosure.
  • In related news, this week I met George Noory:

See?

Twit of the Week:

A new player is in town. Here are two tweets in order. I want to know what class this was and where it was at!

Molly Williams (@LookItsMolly) tweeted at 11:08 AM on Thu, Oct 25, 2012:
Professor: “The character says she called 911 instead of saying she called the police. We can assume that this is a reference to 9/11.”
(https://twitter.com/LookItsMolly/status/261499375883276288)

Molly Williams (@LookItsMolly) tweeted at 11:08 AM on Thu, Oct 25, 2012:
… and then I realized that literary theorists and conspiracy theorists are uncomfortably similar.
(https://twitter.com/LookItsMolly/status/261499442702741505)

Well played, Molly. Well played. I elaborated on a similar theme back in the day in my NeMLA presentation, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory,” of which I am quite proud.

The least helpful, least insightful, most pathetic debate commentary came from Mark Dice:

Mark Dice @MarkDice
Both of these men think they are God. #Debates #Illuminati #SatanicScumbags

Just end it, man. You just aren’t cut out for…anything.

That’s all. Last week I was at the Paradigm Symposium on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer, and I will be writing that up over the next week or so. It was a hell of a time. Stay tuned!

RJB


The History Channel Discovers the REAL Cause of the Black Death

May 16, 2011

I saw part of an episode of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel this weekend. There were far, far too many ridiculous assertions for me to deal with them in any depth. Suffice to say, they kicked a very large number of academic fields in the metaphorical goolies. There were a smattering of academics. I’m not sure if their comments were taken out of context or if they managed to get tenure before going completely insane. Hard to tell. Most of the talking heads, though, were the usual bunch of ancient astronaut proponents, including Erich von Däniken, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos and David Hatcher Childress.

I find it interesting that these guys can read the Bible as literally as any Young Earth Creationist but just think the authors got things wrong a bit. So, if the Bible says there was a flaming chariot, you can bet there really was a flaming chariot, except it wasn’t really a chariot, it was a flaming flying saucer. And that’s pretty much how they read everything: very literally and without skepticism, but they can change the story as necessary to fit their particular nutty theory. Well, that’s how scholarship works, right?

Speaking of scholarship, one of the academics was William J. Birnes, Ph.D. He was wearing a suit and looked quite scholarly. He does have a Ph.D. in medieval English literature from New York University (1974). His dissertation was called Patterns of Legality in Piers Plowman, and he published an article called “Christ as Advocate: The Legal Metaphor of Piers Plowman” in Annuale Mediaevale 16 (1975): 71-93. But he’s also Bill Birnes, UFO Hunter. He more commonly appears in a turtleneck, bomber jacket, aviator shades and a hat that advertises his UFO Magazine (see here).

In his role as tweedy academic, he talked about Gervase of Tilbury. In his work Otia imperialia, Gervase mentions the following incident:

There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday, while the people were at Mass, a marvel. In this town is a church dedicated to St. Kinarus. It befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope attached to it, and one of the flukes caught in the arch above the church door. The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board, floating before the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and jump down to the anchor, as if to release it. He looked as if he were swimming in water. The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the Bishop forbade the people to hold the man, for it might kill him, he said. The man was freed, and hurried up to the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed out of sight. But the anchor is in the church, and has been there ever since, as a testimony. (Source I couldn’t find Otia Imperialia online)

That is totally a weird story. And it involves a ship in the sky. Of course, it’s an anecdote, and the fact that it comes from an educated medieval aristocrat who served an emperor doesn’t somehow make it more reliable than an anecdote from Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. Let us look a bit more closely at Gervase and his writings. According to Wikipedia, he claimed “kinship with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and relations allegedly descended from a fey serpent-woman recognizable as the Melusine.” That’s a promising start. He devotes a section of his work to mirabilia or marvels, about which he says, “what constitutes the marvel is our inability to fathom the cause of a particular phenomenon” (quoted in Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories, p. 46). He made a distinction between mirabilia and miracula. As Jean-Claude Schmitt explains,

[T]he miracle invited one to rely on one’s faith, to accept the total power of God, who was upsetting the order that he himself had established… [while] the marvelous aroused the curiositas of the human mind, the search for hidden natural causes, ones that would someday be unveiled and understood. The development of the latter attitude at the turn of the twelfth century must be seen as an early form of the scientific spirit that valued inquiry…true accounts of the facts, and even experimentation. (Ghosts in the Middle Ages, pp. 79-80)

So, hey, score one for Gervase. So, what kind of marvels did he write about? Well, ghosts, lamia, fairy creatures “the phoenix arising from the flames,” “women with boars’ tusks and men with eight feet and eyes” (Joynes, p. 74). Hmmm, perhaps we should take Gervase’s marvels with a grain or two of salt.

But the show wasn’t done with the Middle Ages. No, far from it. At some point, they started wittering on about the Black Death. As someone, possibly Tsoukolas, pointed out, one theory about the Black Death is that it was carried by rats, but William Bramley has a theory that the Black Death was caused by aliens. Now at this point, I think my brain short-circuited and partially shut itself down to protect itself from damage. I liked the way the two theories were given equivalence: “well, there are two theories about the Black Death: one that it was an illness spread by rodent-borne fleas and another that it was caused by chemtrail-spraying little green men. It’s really kind of a toss up.” Now to be fair, some perfectly sensible people have questioned whether the Black Death was caused by the plague, specifically the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Some have suggested an Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever. But human-culling aliens?

In the course of the segment, various talking heads managed to call Y. pestis a virus rather than a bacterium, and they placed all the blame on the rats, rather than on the fleas. Well, of course, they actually vindicated both the rats and the fleas, since now we know it was aliens. After all, it wasn’t the first time the aliens tried to wipe out most of humankind, cuz–hey–The Flood. And they’ve got evidence for their “theory:” reports of lights and shapes in the sky as well as mists and miasmas. In addition, a black figure was often seen outside a town about to be hit by the plague. This figuring wandered about and was seen carrying a scythe and possibly making crop circles. He looked a little like this:

Oh. My. God. Death’s a frikking alien! We’ve got to find the planet Death comes from, and kill all the bastards. Then there’ll be no more death! Of course, reports of the Grim Reaper appearing outside affected towns couldn’t possibly be interpreted allegorically, nor could the accounts be made up or simply mistaken. It’s definitely aliens. Someone alert Above Top Secret! Oh, wait, they already know, and, holy crap, many of them are skeptical: attention William Bramley, when ATS forum members think your theory is a bit far-fetched, it’s time to find another theory.

ES

Further Reading:

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York, Free Press, 1983.

Joynes, Andrew. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Boydell, 2001.

Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. New York: Harper-Perennial, 2005.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the dead in Medieval Society. Tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Collins, 1969.


Pitch the Perfect History Channel Show

May 10, 2011

So, I’ve been thinking about the History Channel (or the “History” Channel or the Pseudo-History Channel) and wondering if I could come up with the perfect History Channel show. I suppose it would probably be a reality show featuring mostly unpleasant people doing dangerous and/or stupid things and arguing a lot. But I’m thinking about shows that involve actual history (or “history”). Among the shows listed on the website are such gems as:

I am only including shows listed on the website which have “about the show” information available. I’m not including History International.

A couple of other shows are listed which I hadn’t seen before. First is Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. I watched the episode on the Georgia Guidestones to see what it was about. Well, it’s awkward, with way too much time spent on shots of the investigators giving each other looks when they are interviewing someone. I haven’t quite figured out the relevance of the investigators’ qualifications: one’s a lawyer, one’s an engineer, and one is a journalist described as an “English professor.”  When they get to the guidestones and see all the languages, the English professor whips out his phone and Googles to see what the languages are. Really? Really? That’s your research? You wait until you get there and then start Googling? Not to mention he’s Googling information that is provided at the monument.

During the investigation, they interview various people and uncover various conspiracy theories: evil Rosicrucians planning genocide and using mind control and other occult gifts; good Rosicrucians warning us of global catastrophe. Occasionally Meltzer pops up in the studio like a deus ex machina and dismisses a particular theory (spoiler alert: Rosicrucians aren’t evil). And in the end, he puts the guidestones into the context of the Cold War, when they were built. His explanation is one of the least loopy; however, he does give a certain amount of credence to some of the theories (catastrophic solar flares! asteroids! 2012! Mayans!). Based on the one episode I’ve seen, it’s a conspiracy theory show for people who aren’t quite Jesse Ventura/Alex Jones crazy.

And then there’s MysteryQuest. Again, I was willing to sit through one episode. The episode I chose is called “Return of the Amityville Horror.”

I wasn’t encouraged by the opening, which summarized the story of the Amityville Horror without so much as mentioning the possibility that it was a hoax. Also, someone was bibbling about demons and vortices. But, while I was banging my head against the desk, I saw something out of the corner of my eye: did that bespectacled bald man have a Radfordian look to him? Why yes, that’s Ben Radford, well-known paranormal investigator and skeptic. It was at this moment that my often absent and frequently drunk spirit guide Sir Percival Piddlestew smacked me on the head and showed me a psychic vision: “Ben Radford’s point of view will get short-shrift.” If you don’t believe I made this prediction, ask Bob. (Spoiler alert 2–James Randi owes me a cool million).

So, is the Amityville house still (or again, or for the first time) haunted? Nope, it’s fine. Apparently the ghosts and demons and assorted paranormal whatnot have packed up and moved across the country to Wolfe Manor in Clovis, CA. What the supposed haunting at Amityville has to do with the supposed haunting at Wolfe Manor, I have no idea, unless it be the terrifying Ghost of Marketing come to call.

The investigative team includes a paranormal investigator and a demonologist joined by a medium and a scientist/engineer who makes ghost-hunting gadgets. No Ben Radford. The owner of Wolfe Manor shows them a picture of what could be a ghost or a demon:

Personally, I think it’s a velociraptor in ceremonial robes, possibly a reptilian mason. Or the Egyptian god Horus. Pareidolia‘s fun. As for the investigation, if you’ve ever seen Ghost Hunters, or Ghost Adventures, or Ghost Lab, you might as well have seen this investigation, except that Ghost Hunters are paragons of skepticism compared to these people.

Once the investigation is over, they take their data to analyze at the scientist’s lab–which is also haunted. This is where Radford comes in. There is security video of a desk chair rotating and a cubicle wall falling down on the same night six hours apart. Radford investigates that, and comes up with possible natural explanations. The scientist agrees that these explanations are plausible or would be, if both events hadn’t occurred during the same night. That’s it. Radford isn’t part of the main investigation, and he doesn’t get to comment on the practices used by the team. The team goes on to investigate the lab/warehouse. Upshot: at both locations there are “heat anomalies.” At Wolfe Manor, there is a possible vortex. They aren’t sure if the lab is haunted, but Wolfe Manor definitely is.

So, here’s your challenge: come up with the perfect idea for a History Channel show. Include title and description, if the spirit moves you. Try to incorporate as many of the following as possible:

  • Nostradamus
  • 2012
  • Mayans
  • DOOM!
  • Ancient aliens
  • Lost civilizations
  • Bigfoot
  • Freemasons
  • Reptilians
  • Illuminati

And anything else you can think of. Extra points if you can work in Hitler somewhere (nostalgia for the days when the History Channel was the Hitler Channel).

Grand prize: one shiny new Internets!


Going Berserk

April 19, 2011

Who hasn’t at one time or another gone berserk? And by “gone berserk,” of course I mean become enraged, howled like an animal and then killed indiscriminately. What, just me? Ha ha, just kidding. Really.

But what does it really mean “to go berserk”? Berserks (Old Norse berserkr, pl. berserkir) were fearsome Viking Age warriors. They appear frequently in sagas, but it is difficult to separate legend from reality in the sagas. Sometimes they had supernatural abilities and sometimes they were stock characters–bullies who served as a foil for the protagonist. Where can we find the truth?

Where else but the History Channel. A few years ago History International ran a program called Unconventional Warfare. The first segment deals with the Trojan Horse. According to the narrator, no one really knows whether the story of the Trojan Horse is true or not, so you know off the bat that this is going to be another serious, hard-hitting, scholarly look at history.

The segment on berserks begins well enough, with information provided by real, genuine experts (and General Wesley Clark for some reason). Okay, the fact that the History Channel manages to bollox up their credentials may be a bit of a concern. They properly credit Ruth Mazo Karras as “Historian, Univ. of Minnesota,” but they identify Anatoly Liberman (more here) as a “Scandinavian Historian” at the Univ. of Minnesota as well. In fact, Liberman teaches in the department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, and much of his work focuses on linguistics and philology. Similarly, they identify Paul Acker* as a “Norse Historian” at Saint Louis University, and, to be fair, he does look a bit like a Viking who’s given up raiding for academia. However, he is a professor of English rather than a historian. They don’t bother to give John Lindow (more here) any academic qualifications at all, identifying him as “Author ‘Handbook on Norse Mythology.’”

Regardless, the misidentified academics give a good summary of the berserks: they were fierce fighters who whipped themselves into a frenzy and fought in the front lines. In legendary tales, they are described as wearing bear or wolf skins (berserkr means “bear shirt”). They supposedly fought without armor and could not be harmed by weapons or fire. In reality, of course, they could be harmed and killed, but for the duration of  the berserker rage, they may have seemed impervious.

But what, asks the narrator, caused the berserker rage? Acker says, “Through their training and initiations, they whipped themselves into frenzy: that’s part of their jobs.”  The narrator, of course, knows better: “Some theorize, however, that the berserkers had a little help–from mood-altering substances.” Karras notes that “If you read a lot of modern works that refer to berserks, they talk about how they may have used either alcoholic beverages or perhaps hallucinogenic mushrooms to bring on the rage.”

Now, at this point, you can sense the word “however” hurtling across the room, desperate to make it before the camera cuts away, but, alas, to no avail. Magic mushrooms is what the History Channel wanted, and once someone mentioned them, they stopped. The point of Unconventional Warfare is to compare strategies used in the past to ones used much more recently. The berserks and their magic mushrooms are compared to Somali warriors who use a narcotic weed to become more aggressive.

None of the academics were told that this was the point of the segment. They only knew that the History Channel was doing a segment on berserks. When asked about the magic mushrooms, Acker and presumably Karras (quite possibly the others as well) explained that while some have speculated that the berserks used hallucinogens, there is absolutely NO evidence. There is nothing in the literature to suggest that the berserks used anything but training, natural aggression and the gift of Odin to work themselves into a frenzy. They may well have had a bit of a tipple now and then, but that hardly separates them from anyone else in Viking society.

If this is how they do history, perhaps it’s just as well that they stick with monsters and doomsday.

But enough about historical berserks; let’s talk about the literary and legendary ones–they’re much more fun. First the stock characters. These guys wander around, acting like bullies and intimidating people until they get their comeuppance from the saga protagonist. In Grettis saga, Grettir fights and kills a mound-dweller (an undead guy who attacks Grettir when Grettir is robbing his grave), a draugr (an ueber-nasty undead guy), a she-troll, a giant, a bear and lots of people. LOTS of people, including a number of berserks. Grettir meets a group of twelve berserks, led by a couple of brothers named Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Evil.

They came from Halogaland and were bigger and stronger than anybody else. They would go berserk and spare nothing when they flew into a rage. They used to take away men’s wives and daughters and keep them for a week or two, then return them. Wherever they went, they used to plunder and cause other trouble (Saga of Grettir the Strong, p. 42)

Grettir pretends to befriend them, then gets them drunk and fights them (the alcohol is of no benefit to them, by the way). When they realize what is happening, the berserks, of course, go “berserk and [begin] howling like dogs” (p. 46). While they’re howling, Grettir thrusts a spear through Thorir and Ogmund, who bumps into him. Then he takes out the other berserks.

Later, when Grettir is staying with a man named Einar, a group of berserks arrive, and the leader challenges Einar “either to hand over his daughter or defend her if he was man enough” (p. 95).  Einar consults with Grettir, and the berserk becomes impatient:

The berserk thought that Grettir and the farmer were stalling. He started to howl loudly and bite the edge of his shield. He put his shield in his mouth, spread his lips over the corner of it and acted like a savage. Grettir strode over to him and when he came alongside the berserk’s horse he kicked the bottom of the shield up into his mouth so hard that his face ripped open and his jaws fell down to his chest (p. 95)

Then Grettir cuts off his head, and the other berserks decide to be on their way–rather quickly. Throughout the sagas, the beginning of the berserker rage is signaled by howling and shield-biting. Some of the Isle of Lewis chessman seem to depict shield-biting berserks:

As far as I know, Grettir is the only person who has the sense to kick the shield back into the berserk’s mouth. Not all berserks are slightly comic bullies, however. Some have supernatural powers. Examples may be found in Egils saga. Egil was a great warrior, an exceptional poet and a truly phenomenal drunk (again, though, his drunkenness is unrelated to his frenzies). Jesse L. Byock has argued that Egil may have suffered from Paget’s disease, which has a genetic component. Based on his saga, Egil may also have suffered from a genetic predisposition for berserkerism.

Egil’s grandfather is named Ulf. He is big and strong and a good farmer. As evening rolls around, however, he turns bad-tempered and is known as Kveldulf or Evening Wolf. You might as well wear a name tag that says, “Hi, I’m a werewolf. Ask me how.” He has two sons, Thorolf and Grim, known as Skallagrim (Bald Grim). Thorolf is tall, strong, brave, handsome, honorable (by saga standards) and an all-round swell guy. Grim is big, strong, ugly, troublesome and, like his father, has a tendency to shape-shift. Skallagrim has sons named Thorolf and Egil. Thorolf II is a carbon-copy of Thorolf I. Egil is big, strong, freakishly ugly and has the family tendency to shape-shift. The non-berserk Thorolfs both die young; the berserks all die of old age.

In one of Skallagrim’s rages, he seizes one of Egil’s friends and “[dashes] him to the ground so fiercely that he was crushed by the blow and died on the spot” (Egil’s Saga p. 63). He then seizes twelve-year-old Egil, who is rescued by his foster mother who is “as strong as a man and well versed in the magic arts” (p. 63). Skallagrim is described by an enemy as being “as vicious as a wolf” (p. 42), and Egil is mistaken for a bear on one occasion (p. 104). According to the narrator:

It is said that people who could take on the character of animals, or went berserk, became so strong in this state that no one was a match for them, but also that just after it wore off they were left weaker than usual (p. 46)

Kveldulf, Skallagrim and Egil also tend to befriend people with similar berserker characteristics. For instance, there is Egil’s friend, Onund Sjoni: “Not everyone agreed that he was not a shape-shifter” (p. 130).  Although Egil’s connection to berserker madness is less explicit than Kveldulf’s and Skallagrim’s, he performs one of the best killings in all the Icelandic family sagas. He is fighting a duel against a man named Atli, who is “strong and courageous, an experienced dueller, and skilled in the magic arts” (p. 128). Egil is able to hack Atli’s shield to bits and land blows, but the sword is unable to bite. His own shield is beginning to split, so

He threw down his sword and shield, ran for Atli and grabbed him with his hands. By his greater strength, Egil pushed Atli over backwards, then sprawled over him and bit through his throat. Atli died on the spot. Egil rushed to his feet and ran over to the sacrificial bull, took it by the nostrils with one hand and by the horns with the other, and swung it over on to its back, breaking its neck (p. 128)

Let this be a warning to you, History Channel: don’t mess with berserks.

ES

*Full disclosure: Professor Acker was my dissertation director. When the History Channel came a-filming, they collected several graduate students to sit listening in rapt attention while Prof. Acker delivered a faux lecture. We were cut.

References:

Byock, Jesse L. “Egil’s Bones.” Scientific American. Vol. 272. Jan. 1995, pp. 82-87

Egil’s Saga. Tr. Bernard Scudder. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Viking, pp. 8-184.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Tr. Bernard Scudder. London: Penguin, 2005.


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