September 19, 2012

Go visit our our little web show at Virtual Skeptics! We were hilarious.

The Virtual Skeptics

This week on the “Virtual Skeptics”…

– Bob avoids taking sides in a cripple fight;
– Eve warns against taking medical advice from doctors who aren’t toilet trained;
– Sharon reminds us that animals don’t want to help, they mostly just want to eat
– and Tim is currently fixing technical problems… Dog bless ‘im.

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This Week in Conspiracy (16 Sept 2012)

September 17, 2012

Howdy ho! Wuz out of town this weekend–nipped off to be in the wedding of my bestest bud from grade school. A great time was had by all.

Meanwhile, the Internet burned.

  • Truer words were never spoken by The Onion: “9/11 Truther Convinced Government Destroyed Past 11 Years of His Life.” Yup! THE ONION IS IN ON THE CONSPIRACY!
  • Everyone knew that the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell would lead to this: “National Guard Partnering With Foreign Troops?
  • This week, Dirk Vander Ploeg came up with conclusive evidence that motherships not only fart orbs, but they also orbit in perfect synch with the ISS. Either that or that the glass is reflecting something on the inside of the space station. This is followed  by a petition to–and it’s hard to say– to keep us from nuking the aliens, I think.
  • I say we declare war on Kansas. HEAR THAT, KANSAS?! “Kansas panel delays ballot decision on Obama: Kobach seeks Democrat’s birth records from Hawaii.”
  • Speaking of 9/11 and OBL conspiracy theories, here’s one that comes from the lofty heights of Pakistani academia.
  • The trailer for The Innocence of Muslims was an excuse for riots and attacks on American diplomats around the Muslim world this week. It’s been out for months and only blew up now and the attacks seems to have been organized. Not the first time that people have been killed by rage-on-delay in that part of the planet. But that didn’t stop conspiracy theorists from INSTANTLY claiming that the movie was “a contrived fraud.”
  • According to Veterans Today, the movie the trailer was supposed to promote never existed. As evidence, the author cites discrepancies in location, actors, time of action, and apparent plot. Of course, someone as steeped in Mystery Science Theater as I am and who just watched all of the Left Behind movies back to back will know that these conventions are often entirely absent in low-budget movies.
  • Is Obama The Prophesied Warrior Coming To Help Islam Conquer The World?” The author of this piece asserts that our embassies were not warned of attacks known to be pending. Unfortunately, they only read the headline of the story they cited. In it, it seems that the embassy in Bangladesh was warned ahead of time, and some of the embassies even underwent preparedness evaluations ahead of the 9/11 anniversary. How a warning in Bangladesh was related to an embassy in Libya, I don’t know.
  • Also, what’s the legal requirement for putting Michelle Bachmann in the nuthouse? I mean, really?
  • So, the conspiracy-theory motivated band HAARP Machine has signed on with, uh, Sumerian Records to release their album, Disclosure, with the single “Pleiadian Keys,” which is incomprehensible. Also, there are some…I think they’re autotuned burps:

Twit of the week:

Luke Rudkowski (@Lukewearechange)
9/13/12 12:57 PM
I recently confronted Henry Kissinger AGAIN he got really pissed, told me to go to hell and called me a sick person lol

You should totally confront Buzz Aldrin, Luke.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

If you thought the Illiad was epic, you should see Xavier Remington’s story about Mr. Rogers and his supernatural vampire slaying powers:

Once he acquired his PBS kid’s show, and became famous he saw the world in far different light.  He realized the forces of supernatural evil were very real, and actually physical rather than just metaphysical.  He first encountered such evil when a vampire working for the Illuminati approached him on the PBS set, and tried to recruit him for the indoctrination of kids into the New World Order.  He flatly refused, and the vampire attacked him later that night.  Unfortunately the vampire had no idea who he was dealing with.  Fred dispatched him with extreme prejudice.  However he did not actually kill him for Fred’s powers were so extensive that he didn’t have to resort to death.  He sent the vampire off greatly weakened with a message to his masters to back off.  The Illuminati never bothered Mr.Roger’s again after that.

I mean, holy crap! Mr Rogers had angel DNA.

On that happy note, I leave you to stew in the goof that is conspiracy.

New Conspiracy Guy article is up at CSI

September 17, 2012

It’s called, “Enemies, Mostly Domestic.” I look at the conspiracy theories that erupted around the recent spate of mass shootings. Because, you know, I’m cheery.

And I’m pretty damned proud of my last sentence.


texts and scripts 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 6)

September 17, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

Many claims regarding Hebrew script (as discussed last time) involve gematria (isopsephia in Greek). This is a form of mystical numerology, applied mainly to the Hebrew scriptures and other sacred Jewish writings – notably those associated with the Kabbalah (see below) – but according to some of pre-scriptural or other extraneous origin (again, see below). Like numerology generally (to be discussed later), gematria is a system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other, or bear some relation to the number itself as it may apply to a person’s age, the calendar year, or the like. The letter-values and calculation methods to be used in gematria vary somewhat across sources.

There is some evidence that versions of gematria existed in ancient Mesopotamian syllabaries. Some authors suggest that gematria was then further developed in Greece. David Fideler argues that the spellings of the names of the Greek gods were formulated according to isopsephic principles, under Pythagorean influence, around 500 BCE (for example, the name Zeus was allegedly formulated so as to express the geometric mean of the names Hermes and Apollo) and that many Greek temples, including the Parthenon (447 BCE), were constructed isopsephically. Although some of these individual claims are dubious or worse, the general notion expounded here agrees with the only known etymology of the word gematria (from Greek geometria, ‘earth-measures’). Other authors have made similar suggestions, notably Karl Menninger, David Diringer and Georges Ifrah. Ifrah notes that the numeric uses of Greek letters date back at least to the end of the fourth century BCE, whereas the oldest known examples of the Hebrew system date only to the last few years of the second century at the earliest.

The classicist Kieren Barry also argues that gematria and the Hebrew Kabbalah itself had their origins in Greek. Barry analyzes the history of Greek ideas regarding links between, on the one hand, the Phoenician abjad and its offshoot the Greek alphabet, and, on the other, the number system, the zodiac, planetary aspects of astrology, planetary astronomy, musical scales, symbolism associated with individual letters, acrostics used in invocations and imprecations, Pythagorean notions about the universe, etc. The idea that gematria has Greek origins (while unwelcome to some Jewish writers) is not prima facie ridiculous. However, some of Barry’s discussion, in particular, is rather approximate and even inaccurate. In addition, he agrees too readily with Joscelyn Godwin in finding significance in the ‘seven vowels’ of Greek.

Kabbalah (variously spelled) is itself a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an eternal and mysterious creator and the mortal and finite universe. Authors who interpret Biblical text in interesting Kabbalistic terms include George Sassoon and Rodney Dale (claiming that Moses ben Shem Tov’s thirteenth-century work Zohar actually describes a machine for making ‘manna’) and Carlo Suarès (proposing a novel and arguably tendentious analysis of Genesis which implies that the names of the twenty-two Hebrew letters of the Hebrew abjad are in fact proper names originally used to designate different states or structures of ‘cosmic energy’). Some writers, such as Lawrence Kushner and Michael Munk, focus upon the alleged special, often mystical attributes or characteristics of some of the individual letters. Compare also the ideas of Leonardi as discussed earlier.

It has never been convincingly argued that gematria or Kabbalah should be regarded as having any empirical validity.

Among special claims involving Kabbalah, Gregg Braden believes that the universe (‘creation’) ‘speaks’ to humanity through a ‘language’ which has been forgotten (over 530,000 relevant documents have been lost) but which can now be re-accessed through advances in the understanding of ‘quantum science’, human DNA, non-physical ‘energies’, and especially Kabbalah; he links the letters of the Hebrew abjad with mystical and other non-linguistic notions (such as chemical elements) in the usual manner. However, Braden’s linguistics appears weak: his account of the Hebrew script is incoherent and mistaken in various ways, he presents a confused typology of writing systems, he confuses script and language (at least terminologically), and he frequently refers to subjective ‘feelings’. In fact, Braden does not attempt serious linguistic analysis of Hebrew or the Hebrew abjad.

A very striking multi-disciplinary proposal is advanced by Stan Tenen, a mathematician who holds that the shapes of number symbols, the shapes of the letters making up the Hebrew abjad and in other guises the Greek and Arabic scripts, and the meanings of the acrophonic Hebrew names of the Hebrew letters all derive from gestures made with the human hand and the (multi-dimensional) symmetries which these allegedly display. Tenen supports this analysis with data of many types, including the communicative behaviour of non-human primates, the use of communicative gestures by pre-linguistic infants and congenitally blind people, findings regarding the origins of cognition more generally, etc. He also believes that his findings have implications for communicating with putative extraterrestrials.

Tenen is sophisticated on various fronts, but some of the claims made here appear at least overstated. For instance, even if Tenen’s account of the Hebrew letter-names were itself correct, this would not enable non-Hebrew-readers to determine the senses of longer words spelled with these letters. Thus, even if the letter corresponding with P, whose name (pe) means ‘mouth’, does represent a hand pointing to a mouth, most longer Hebrew words containing this letter have nothing to do with the word pe or its meaning. Hebrew words cannot be interpreted merely on the basis of knowing (by whatever means) the forms, meanings and alleged origins of the individual letter-names.

Tenen expands his theory into a general account of the evolutionary origins of human language and writing, arguing for instance that the human genetic capabilities underlying reading and writing clearly pre-date the actual invention of written language in its known forms and thus must have developed for other reasons, which he takes to be such as would account for his own gestural theory. Tenen believes that these points relate to the ‘Tower Of Babel’ language-origin myth reported in Genesis. More generally, he implicates Biblical, religious, esoteric and cosmological theories with his central ideas; he has founded the ‘Meru Foundation’ for the purpose of exploring the implications of these ideas.

More next time!


The Virtual Skeptics (12 Sept 2012)

September 12, 2012

Watch us here live at 8:00 Eastern:


texts and scripts 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 6)

September 10, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

I turn here to another ‘popular’ aspect of non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics: non-historical issues involving written texts and scripts.

I start with claims regarding hidden patterns in texts. Many of the cases at issue here concern religious texts; some of these involve literary, religious and mathematical/statistical issues, as well as linguistic issues. The linguistics practiced by the writers in question is often less than competent, although this is not usually the main aspect of the work which either invites or has drawn skeptical comment.

There have been many efforts to prove that the Bible or some other religious text is reliable by finding numerical and/or verbal patterns in the text which allegedly could not have come to be there by chance and which often carry important messages (prophecies, etc.). For example, Ivan Panin, supported by Chuck Missler and others, claimed to have discovered significant numerical patterns in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. However, the best known such set of claims is now that presented by Michael Drosnin in The Bible Code and later volumes. Drosnin identifies statistical/distributional patterns (‘the Code’) in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament; these allegedly predict important later events, some of them in very recent times (such as twentieth-century political assassinations) and others still in the future at the time of writing (such as the end of the world in 2006, which of course did not occur). Grant Jeffrey and others support and extend Drosnin’s notions. Drosnin even suggests that the Code was written by extraterrestrial life-forms, who he claims also brought the human DNA code to Earth; he believes that these aliens left the key to the code in a steel obelisk.

Skeptics argue that claims such as these are typically much weaker in statistical terms than their proponents suggest. It has been argued, especially against Drosnin, that the likelihood of finding patterns of this kind by chance is much greater than he suggests (compare my earlier comments on chance similarities between unrelated words) and that post hoc one can find a wide range of spurious messages in any sufficiently lengthy text. For instance, by applying Drosnin’s analytical methods Brendan McKay found references to twentieth-century political assassinations and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (1997) in the texts of novels such as Herman Melville’s 1851 work Moby Dick (even though written English is less flexible than the Hebrew abjad in such respects).

One important set of linguistic considerations with respect to the Bible Code and similar claims involves the spelling of Hebrew and in particular the ‘pointing’ of the Hebrew abjad (the inclusion of diacritics indicating vowels, which were not originally written). Even prior to the adoption of pointing, some consonantal letters were also employed in a secondary capacity to indicate long vowels, and a given word may appear either with these characters or without them. In addition, repeated manual copying of texts naturally created variants, some introduced in error and some intentionally (often for the sake of greater clarity). These considerations obviously affect the numbers and identities of the letters in any given section of the text of the Bible.

Claims such as Drosnin’s thus have no secure textual basis and cannot be taken seriously – unless the evidence suggests very strongly in a given instance that the alleged prophecies are indeed both a) startlingly accurate (especially in respect of events yet to occur at the time when the theories are propounded) and b) statistically unlikely to appear in the text by chance. Neither of these conditions appears to have been met in any analyzed case.

There are many other critics of Drosnin employing statistical considerations and arguments such as these. In contrast, John Weldon (writing with Clifford and Barbara Wilson) discovers many errors and inconsistencies in Drosnin’s work but also attacks the Bible Code theory on religious grounds, urging Christian believers to focus on the plain messages of the text of the Bible rather than seeking hidden additional messages.

Claims similar to those of Drosnin have been made regarding the Muslim Qur’an, notably by the United Submitters International organization; this approach was pioneered by Rashad Khalifa. Khalifa argues that the Qur’an contains a mathematical structure based on the number nineteen, involving many of its elements: chapters, verses, words, letters, numbers of words with the same root, etc. Most other Muslim writers reject Khalifa’s claims or at least regard them as dubious, for example Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips and Ibn al-Rawandi. Non-Muslim skeptics have also critiqued Khalifa’s work.

Another writer who found hidden messages in the Bible was Max Freedom Long. Long came to believe that Jesus had studied in an ancient Polynesian mystical tradition called Huna; he and his apostles had inserted secret messages in the texts of the Gospels, which are much more important than the overt message of the texts. These messages are in a secret language or ‘code’ which is the ancestor of Polynesian and is said to be still used by a tribe in Morocco. Long also identified in the texts ideas derived from ancient Egypt, transmitted via ancient India and Israel; he regarded the Hawaiians as one of the ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’. In 1945 he founded an organization called the Huna Fellowship.

In fact, Long’s ideas bear little relation to traditional Hawaiian ideas about the world, which do not involve his use of the term huna. In addition, his specific claims often seem to involve current Hawaiian, not early Polynesian. He clearly did not know any linguistics, and his interpretations cannot be deemed plausible.

More next time!


This Week in Conspiracy (9 Sept 2012)

September 9, 2012

Apparently, the entire Internet did not appreciate the meaning of last week’s conspiracy-related snark. What I was trying to say was that you should not take conspiracy theories at face value because they are often unreliable. So I’m going to do another week, and I would very much appreciate it if the entire Internet would give me its full attention. Surely that is not too much to ask? Please try to keep up, Internet.


Twit of the week:

Alex Jones, who just couldn’t be more of a scam artist:

My gut tells me #Gold is only going up. Call Midas Resources & Ask about the ‘Alex Jones Specials’ 800-fwe-f2w7 — Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones)

As Carl Sagan said in the reading I just assigned my students, “I try not to think with my gut.”

That’s what I have. We’ll have another episode of the Virtual Skeptics live on Wednesday night at 8:00PM Eastern. Keep your eyes here or watch for the #virtualskeptics hashtag.