WAR! Huh! Good god, y’all! What is it good for?

May 31, 2011

Growing your teaching portfolio, for one.

This semester, students in my 3 classes put together a website about World War II as experienced in Atlanta. They looked at Atlanta before, during and after the war, and we found that the war really shaped much of what Atlanta has become.

Behind the splash page, you’ll find that all of the groups have been named using the military alphabet of the day, because of my super cleverness. I need to work on that page, but other than that, it’s complete. I am immensely proud of so many students who worked very hard over the semester to produce a fantastic site.



TAPS paraMagazine, Part 2: TAPS the Ripper

May 30, 2011

Yesterday, I began my review of TAPS paraMagazine. Today, I am going to discuss an article that has nothing to do with the paranormal but which illustrates why competent writing is so important.

The article on Jack the Ripper is credited to Rev. Jonathan Tapsell. The only information about the author is that he is from “London, England, Great Britain” (oh, that London, England). There is no other biographical information and no explanation of his title of “Rev.” My investigoogling turned up no more information, except that he is the author of Porn-Again Christian: One Englishman’s Startling Adventures in the UK Sex Trade! Having read the product description, I can’t figure out what the “Christian” part has to do with anything. Oh well.

The article’s description (which, to be fair, may not have been written by Tapsell) begins, “Jack the Ripper was the world’s first media serial killer.” Wow. Wait, what’s a “media serial killer”? Does he kill media? “Oh my God, stop stabbing that newspaper!” Is it media with a penchant for homicide? “Oh my God, that newspaper is stabbing prostitutes!” The blurb goes on to describe Jack the Ripper as a “shadowy figure whose scarlet tracings wreaked terror in Victorian London, and whose name conjures up dark, fear-filled foggy streets.” Nice alliteration. The phrase “scarlet tracings” may be borrowed from the book White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair.

The article proper begins,

To this day experts on the Whitechapel murders (Ripperologists) disagree on the number of victims, but generally it is seen as five women, although according to some theories this figure could be higher. (p. 25)

This is a weak, awkwardly-worded opening that lacks context, but the problems with the writing are just beginning. When he begins considering suspects, Tapsell says,

From his official notes kept at the Public Records Office, Sir Melville Macnaughten [sic*] was quoted in the press during a later interview in 1894, stating that one suspect was a man called Cutbush….” (p. 26)

I’ve read and reread that sentence and still can’t make sense of it. Does the information come from Macnaghten’s notes or an interview? I assume it must have been from the report he wrote in 1894. According to Wikipedia, this report wasn’t publicly available until 1959; however, it seems that Frank Abberline, the detective who led the investigation, may have mentioned Macnaghten’s report in an interview. You’d never guess this from what Tapsell actually says. Tapsell then mentions that Macnaghten thought the most likely suspect was a man named Druitt:

Mr. M. J. Druitt, a doctor of about 41 years of age from a fairly good family, disappeared at the time of the Miller’s Court murder. His body was found floating in the Thames on 31st December….

Montague Druitt is one of the classic suspects. He was born in 1857, and would have been thirty-one at the time of the murders. Educated at Oxford, he soon went into teaching, and also practiced law as a barrister. (p. 26)

Are these two Druitts the same guy? On the one hand, their ages are different, they have different professions, and their names are not identical (M. J. versus Montague). On the other, could there have been two M. Druitt’s who were suspected of the murders and who both drowned in the Thames in 1888? The confusion over profession apparently came from Macnaghten, but Tapsell does nothing to clarify. The information he gives is very confusing.

He also mentions the work of “Laura Richards, a ‘pretty blonde’ who is the former Head of analysis for Scotland Yard’s Violent Crime Command.” I have no idea why “pretty blonde” is in quotation marks nor why her hair color and level of attractiveness are relevant to her position with Scotland yard or the validity of her work.

Tapsell’s own favored candidate is Francis Tumblety. After four whole paragraphs of discussion, Tapsell feels confident in concluding “Jack the Ripper died in St. Louis, Missouri in 1903 and is buried in Rochester, New York.” Case closed.

Or maybe not, as there is an “Editor’s Addendum,” five more paragraphs discussing another suspect. Presumably based on the Discovery Channel’s documentary “Jack the Ripper in America” (part 1 available here; critique of the show here), the addendum presents the investigative work of Ed Norris, radio host, former police officer and convicted felon, who believes that James Kelly was Jack the Ripper. The addendum doesn’t actually mention the Discovery program, but it seems fairly clear this where the information comes from. For instance, Roberts mentions that Kelly, after returning to Broadmore Asylum after a long absence, said he disliked “skanks.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “skank,” meaning “A person (esp. a woman) regarded as unattractive, sleazy,sexually promiscuous, or immoral,” is slang of American origin which first appeared in 1967. However, in the documentary, Norris does say the notes on Kelly mentioned “sqanks,” although he does not provide a full context. It seems that “skank” may come from “skag,” which first appeared in the 1920s (Kelly returned to Broadmore in 1927). While no credit is given to the documentary, readers are invited to “Learn more about James Kelly on the web: http//www.casebook.org/suspects/jameskelly.html.” That site (minus the “www”) gives an unsourced but detailed timeline of the events of Kelly’s life; however, it does not include some of the information mentioned in the TAPS article (such as the “skank” reference).

So, there you have it: a poorly-written, confusing, badly-sourced article that makes a bold claim which the editor undercuts in a poorly written, badly-sourced addendum.

*Tapsell mispells the names of Macnaghten, Frank Abberline (he adds an extra “b”) and Patricia Cornwell (he also calls Cornwell an “author and pathologist.” Although she worked as a technical writer and computer analyst with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, she was never a pathologist: her degree is in English). The proofreading in the magazine is quite appalling. Aside from spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, some information is simply missing. When discussing the man he believes committed the murders, Tapsell says, “Tumblety was arrested for–what was then punishable as misdemeanor–and prosecuted.” He doesn’t actually say what crime it was (it was “gross indecency“). In another article, a “Demonology F.A.Q.,” a sentence begins at the bottom of one column, but never concludes: “My functions include…investigating claims of paranormal activity, speaking to” That’s it. The next column begins a new paragraph: “I am on a committee that put on a conference for clergy and laity….”

This week in conspiracy (29 May 2011)

May 29, 2011

Ahoy! It’s been another week of insidious insidiousness, sneaky sneakiness and false flaggy false flagitude here at Skeptical Humanities. I have been gathering fears all week and am ready to regurgitate the best of them up at you. So get your raincoats and shovels!

  • It’s official! Congress has been alerted to the uninstitutionalized mentally ill:
This week in September 11:

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

From the very busy goofball Alex Jones: “AAAAAAAH MOUSE POX!!!!!!!!

That’s it for now. Stay afraid!


Review of TAPS paraMagazine

May 29, 2011

From time to time, Bob and I buy and sometimes even read fringe publications. We use them to illustrate logical fallacies and (occasionally) sound critical thinking (no really, it happens occasionally). I was looking through some of the notes I’ve made on a couple of these publications and thought I might share them with you, gentle reader, lest you be tempted to pick up one of the magazines for your own reading pleasure.

Up first, TAPS paraMagazine (March/April 2010). Everyone’s favorite Ghost Hunters, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, are pictured next to the magazine’s name, but, aside from a paragraph or two on the “Founders” page (5), they seem to have little direct involvement in the magazine, although they, along with Steve Gonsalves, are listed as “senior staff.” Gonsalves is also listed as the Art Director.

(For a tl;dr capsule review, scroll to the end.)

So, okay, The Name: paraMagazine: who came up with that? Is it beyond a magazine? beside a magazine? I suspect they didn’t think that one through very carefully.

Overall, the magazine is rather self-serving and self-promoting: there are ads for TAPS-related events and products as well as stories (and a cartoon) that promote TAPS. Fair enough: TAPS is part of the title, after all. On Ghost Hunters, however, the members of TAPS argue that their method of investigation is scientific and even skeptical (wow, I can hear you cringing), so what else do they advertise in a magazine to which they attach their corporate name, individual names and likenesses? Well, on the inside cover, there is an advertisement for DVDs from Reality Films. Any conspiracy you can think of, Reality Films has a video about it: Lies & Deception: UFO’s [sic] & the Secret Agenda (What They Don’t Want You to Know); UFOs and Close Encounters (The Most Amazing Encounters of Alien Abductions, UFO Visitations and Government Cover Ups in History!); The Truth Injection (more new world order exposed; Swine Flu Conspiracy, New World Order, Totalitarianism, Financial meltdown, and more…); The Conspiracy to Rule the World: From 911 to the Illuminati; Angels, Demons & Freeemasons: The True Conspiracy (666, New World Order); Inside the Freemasons: The Grand Lodge Uncovered (Freemasons on Freemasons [is anyone else imagining the world’s worst porn?]); Secret Societies and the Global Conspiracy: The Ultimate Conspiracy 3 DVD Set! (Discover the Secret Origins of the Knights Templar, Fremasonry, The Bilderbergers, Serpent Cults, the Illuminati and MORE!).

Not sure about conspiracies, but you’d like to cure all illness and live forever? Well, there’s an advertisement for Covenant of Silence: The Secret of Immortality Revealed by Nicholas D. Collette:

All throughout history, elite secret societies have guarded the knowledge of how to manufacture the true “Elixir of Life”, which restores youth, prolongs life, cures disease, and opens the gateway to extraordinary psychic power…. After 12 years of researching these texts and experimenting in the lab, correct methods have been discovered which don’t involve the use of corrosive chemicals or dangerous acids…. Experience the power of the true Elixir of Life for yourself, and open the gateway to the paranormal!

So it turns out alchemy is true. Yay. I suppose this is mostly silly, but it is also potentially dangerous as it claims the Elixir can cure illness (though it apparently can’t cure dangling modifiers).

Perhaps it’s not fair to judge the magazine by its advertisers. So, let us look at the magazine itself.

The magazine is edited by Scotty Roberts, and his “From the Editor” is the reader’s first introduction to the prose one can expect from this periodical. If Scotty Moore ever took a creative writing class, he should sue his teacher. Heck, he should sue all his English teachers:

The Mag you now hold in your hands is the product of an evolution. It started as a big dream of its founders and went on to reality, coursing it’s way through the Pillars of Hercules of the business and creative process–the good, bad and ugly (p. 4, emphasis added).

He goes on to say that their goal is to become “the finest paranormal magazine on the market,[sic]  today.” They will accomplish this, in part, “[b]y offering a more journalistic approach.” You will note the apostrophe error I have bolded above, as well as the unnecessary comma. I feel a bit petty pointing these errors out, but the poor quality of the writing, punctuation and grammar are quite distracting. Glancing through my notes, I see that I have recorded at least 14 apostrophe errors. Every possible mistake you can make with apostrophe has been made: possessive “its” has been given an apostrophe; the contraction “it’s” lacks an apostrophe; non-possessive plurals have apostrophes; possessives lack them. Then there are the awkward attempts at rhetorical flourishes, as when Roberts imagines his magazine traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar for some reason.

One of the magazine’s more serious articles is called “The Resonance Factor: The Role of Vibration and Consciousness in The Infrastructure of Reality” by Larry Flaxman and Marie D. Jones. A better title might be, “She Blinded Me with SCHMIENCE!”  To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the authors are trying to say. They are taking real science that I suspect that they don’t really understand and trying to apply it to everything: ghosts, UFOs, The Secret, Bigfoot–everything. And it all has to do with resonance and vibrations and sound. Somehow resonance connects “Let there be light” and the Big Bang theory:

The term resonance really is much more encompassing than one might initially realize…. Judeo-Christian tradition refers to the Word as the first utterance of the Creator, from which all of creation sprang forth. Science points to the Big Bang as the explosive moment of the birth of our universe. (p. 9)

See? The article starts vague, and uses many weasel words and the weaselly passive: “some believe,” “is generally believed,” “studies have shown,” “may indeed be,” “may also work,” “research has shown.” You get the idea. Eventually, they discuss some real scholarly-sounding articles, but I’m not sure the quotes, which are probably taken out of context, actually have anything to do with what the authors of this article are saying. One of the experts they cite is Amit Goswami, who appeared in the film What the Bleep Do We Know!? In general, the article doesn’t make much sense; it is hard to understand, but it sounds all sciencey. Since most normal people can’t understand scholarly scientific articles (I include myself), the fact that it doesn’t make sense may actually lend it credibility to some readers (I do not include myself): they expect science to not make sense, so stuff that doesn’t make sense must be science.

An article about orbs (16-17) starts out more promisingly. For starters, the author, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, is actually a professional writer. The content of her works may be questionable, but she is a more competent writer than some of the other contributors. Secondly, she briefly gives rational explanations for the appearance of most orbs; however, eventually she says, “even the hardest skeptics acknowledge that at least a tiny percentage of orb photos cannot be explained” (17). I suppose this is technically true, but the implication seems to be that if these orbs haven’t been explained they are therefore inexplicable. Of course, this is not true: while we may not have sufficient information to formulate a firm explanation, we don’t have to assume that the explanation must therefore be ghosts or aliens or quantum energy farts. Naturally, Guiley isn’t content to say, “huh, we don’t know what that is. The video just isn’t clear enough.” No, she, citing Miceal Ledwith and Klaus Heinemann, authors of The Orb Project, suggests they might be “images of spirit manifestations, or emanations of spirits” (17). She also cites physicist William A. Tiller, another alumnus of What the Bleep, who suggests that orbs may indicate an “unfolding of ‘communications manifestation,'” whatever that may mean. In the end, Guiley concludes that “Orbs should not be dismissed outright. There may be much more behind them than we realize.” Or, you know, maybe there isn’t.

Stay tuned for “Review of TAPS paraMagazine, Part the Second,” in which we will encounter a new Jack the Ripper, who eviscerates the English language and dumps her entrails over her shoulder. We will also discover how a Ph.D. in medieval English literature makes one a qualified paranormal researcher.

tl;dr capsule review: One of the cats barfed on the magazine. A harsh assessment, but fair.

ES, with assistance from Mina the Cat (pictured below)

The Language of Pseudoscience

May 28, 2011

On April 20th, I was a guest on Inside the Black Box, a science-themed radio show produced at Georgia Tech. Well, they have archived the show, which makes me very happy, because now I get to hear myself speak, which as you can imagine is something I enjoy immensely! Also, I am dying to know if they kept in a calculus joke I made that they thought might be too dirty for the archives. I know! I can make calculus positively obscene!

The topic is “The Language of Pseudoscience” (mp3 file) and it draws on a course that I taught in the Fall of 2010.


A poetry slam of a different kind

May 27, 2011

I was recently accused of having never done anything for my country. This may be true. As an English teacher, it’s often difficult to take my peculiar skill set out into the real world, what with the decadent lifestyle of a professor at a Research 1 institution like mine.  When you are a member of power-elite like me, dropping nuggets of wisdom like so many water balloons from the pinnacle of my ivory tower, you wonder, “How can I make a difference? I mean a real difference in the lives of the little, unimportant people? One that they’ll have a chance of understanding?” It’s tough, let me tell you.

Then it hit me. The Internet is a vast repository of unreadable prose and poetry.  Surely I could ply my trade to make the Internet just a little bit more pleasant. With that in mind, I knew exactly where I could make the most difference–the public forums of Alex Jones’ Prison Planet. And there it was, a whole world just begging for me to improve it. My first effort is for a poem called “Stand.”

Click to embiggen!


This Week in Conspiracy (23 May 2011)

May 23, 2011

It’s been a helluva weekend for me, which you will all probably read about in Skeptical Inquirer one day. This episode of TWIC is a day late because I needed a little time to recover.

With that in mind, the improbable was par for the course in the world of conspiracy this week:

  • It’s always cool when you are doing this and you find yourself as part of the story. Here’s the Georgia Guidestones video from CBS Atlanta.
  • First off, We Are Change Atlanta and Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth co-hosted an event here in Atlanta, which is where I was this weekend. Here’s the promotional trailer:

This week in Osama bin Laden

Conspiracy Theory of the Week (+bonus extra conspiracy theory!)

Well, that’s it. I’ve had all I can bear this week. I’ll see you guys on the flip-flop.


On Being the Only Treasonous Cockroach in the Room

May 22, 2011

The 9/11 Truth event with Richard Gage last night was exhausting. I was literally the only one who was skeptical, as evidenced by a show of hands at the end of his talk. (The title of this post comes from something I heard an audience member shout, nothing that you heard from anyone on the stage.) I’m spent, I think, right now. So instead of posting This Week in Conspiracy tonight, here’s a picture of my cat, Gavin, asleep this afternoon:


What’s wrong with this advertisement?

May 21, 2011


I was on the TV! Kind of!

May 20, 2011

“Andy Warhol said that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. Well, with the coming of high speed processors and fiber optics, we’ve gotten that down to .15 millisecond…”

“I dawned upon Atlanta today. Unfortunately, Atlanta is on the arctic circle, and it’s the winter solstice…”

“Wait, was that me? I couldn’t tell. I didn’t get a good enough look…”

Just some of the possible ways I could have started this post. Yep, I was on the TV for like 6 seconds. (Shakes my head.) I am actually glad that I pause and stutter when I speak because because it, like, doubled my face time. It was an interview about the Georgia Guidestones. The interview was about 20 minutes or so.

Here’s the online link. And whatever you do…don’t blink: