Check out Virtual Skeptics episode 15! The Mabus Chronicles…

November 23, 2012

This week on Virtual Skeptics

  • Bob finds out that he could probably practice medicine in Texas;
  • Eve explains why scientific ignorance is political bliss;
  • Sharon encourages you to stay active [this is a news update on some positive skepticism stories for the week];
  • and Tim has nothing for us this week, as it was completely uneventful.

This Week’s Panel:

  • Bob Blaskiewicz – CSI’s Conspiracy Guy web columnist, blogger for Skeptical Humanities and Swift Blog contributor
  • Eve Siebert – Editor and blogger at Skeptical Humanities
  • Sharon Hill – Editor of Doubtful News and author of the CSI’s Sounds Sciencey web column
  • Tim Farley – JREF fellow and creator of What’s the,the Skeptical Software Tools blog, and the official Virtual Skeptics Cherub of Canadian Justice!!!

The Virtual Skeptics is recorded live in a google hangout at every Wednesday at 8PM eastern.


This Week in Conspiracy (23 Nov 2012)

November 23, 2012

It was a veggie pizza and chocolate Thanksgiving in Wisconsin. An odd ritual, but a good time. Nonetheless, another bizarre ritual awaits us! The Week in Conspiracy! Huzzah!

I have never grabbed a more accurate screenshot.

This Week in Calm Down:

A series of tweets came at me fast and furious this week, and I though that I’d line them up and let you make up your own mind about them:

CHEM TRAIL (@lookupCHEMTRAIL11/18/12, 11:46 AM
***BREAKING NEWS***CHEMtrail plane shot down over MOJAVE DESERT. The pilot has not been found. More news to follow soon
CHEM TRAIL (@lookupCHEMTRAIL) 11/18/12, 11:47 AM
Did they HAARP Washington DC today???

CHEM TRAIL (@lookupCHEMTRAIL) 11/18/12, 11:47 AMThey are DEATH DUMPING the panhandle of TEXAS right now…and what is the panhandle known for??? That’s right, a whole lotta farmland!CHEM TRAIL (@lookupCHEMTRAIL) 11/18/12, 11:47 AM

11/18/12, 11:47 AM
I know they are spraying, I just can’t see the cloaked planes anymore!

CHEM TRAIL (@lookupCHEMTRAIL11/18/12, 11:48 AM

This Week in Mark Dice is a horrid person:

Mark Dice @MarkDice
Muslims love Jesus and believe he was a prophet. Jews say Jesus was a fraud and the bastard child of a lying slut, FYI.

Mark Dice @MarkDice
Why is it that Jewish Supremacists aren’t denounced like White Supremacists or racists of any other kind?
If you think he just hates Jews, you should see what he thinks of Jewish women!

@SarahKSilverman satanic skank
But his disdain for people who are not himself extends to…Thanksgiving Day shoppers?
Mark Dice @MarkDice
Screw any retailer that’s open on Thanksgiving and screw the zombies who go shopping that night. YOU are ruining America.

That’s a lax standard of “ruining”. You show them, crazy guy with bullhorn!
Does he somehow think that he’s IMPROVING America?  He could be at home having a traditional Thanksgiving meal:
Mark Dice (@MarkDice) tweeted at 4:36 PM on Thu, Nov 22, 2012:
I wonder if #Kesha is feasting a dead baby tonight for Thanksgiving.

Conspiracy Theories of the Week:

That’s all for now!


Comment restrictions lifted…

November 20, 2012

Now that Dennis Markuze has been re-arrested, I am opening up the blog to comments again without restrictions. Sorry about the last several months’ inconvenience. I would do it again in a heartbeat. 🙂


channelled languages and similar phenomena 7 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 16)

November 19, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

A short blog this time, presenting ‘theoretical’ aspects of claims regarding languages reported as used in the context of alleged contact with extraterrestrial entities.

Last time I discussed this issue as it applies to reports of (relatively) humanoid aliens. If the alien users of the alleged extraterrestrial languages were instead markedly NON-humanoid – and this might be considered more plausible, given their wholly exotic planetary and evolutionary origin – the languages themselves would very probably be even more dramatically different from known human languages. They would be such as would fit the alien physiology, psychology, home planetary environment etc.; partly for that reason, they would be very likely to infringe some of the main typological patterns which prevail across the range of human languages and indeed some human-language universals. They would also, in all probability, display some unfamiliar phonetics, including sounds not found in any human language or indeed sounds which were unpronounceable for humans.

One of the basic distinguishing features of human language (not found in the communication systems of any other known species) is its ‘double articulation’ into a) individually meaningless phonemes and b) meaningful morphemes/words made up of sequences of these phonemes. This is what enables language to express very many word-meanings with such a limited inventory of individual sounds. Another general linguistic universal is the existence and indeed the dominance of syntax (syntactic structure), by means of which words and morphemes are organised into phrases, clauses and sentences; while human languages vary typologically in respect of syntax, it is hardly possible to imagine a human language WITHOUT syntax. It is plausible for features as basic as these to be absent only in cases where UTTERLY non-humanoid beings are described.

In such extreme cases, non-human languages might not be similar to human languages even in more general/superficial terms. For instance, they might not be uttered with remotely similar speech organs, if the alien users’ overall physiology were as different as might be expected. Even if such beings used the auditory-acoustic channel of communication, as with human speech, they might have vastly different vocal apparatus, auditory acuity and frequency range, etc.

In fact, the vocal apparatuses and acuities/hearing ranges of some physically possible types of alien would allow (for example) the avoidance of double articulation, by permitting a language to have thousands of distinguishable phonemes and hence thousands of single-phoneme morphemes without thereby displaying excessive amounts of homophony and ambiguity. But without linguistic expertise the invention of such an utterly alien system, would be EXTREMELY difficult; indeed, the possibility of such a system would scarcely occur to most non-linguists. As things are, however, there are (perhaps predictably) currently NO quasi-factual reports of languages of this kind which manifest the required degrees of expertise and plausibility (as opposed to openly invented cases in fiction).

If any such truly alien languages really do exist, these enormous differences which will probably obtain between alien and human systems will surely hinder the analysis of these languages, especially if little specific information about the users of these systems is available (for example, if a system is presented only as performed by human contactees, possibly with ensuing modifications of its more markedly alien features). But linguists might expect to make some progress as more was learned, even if contactees had themselves learned the systems by currently inexplicable means (see above).

Most unfortunately, the linguistic expertise in much of the literature in this area is, as noted, scanty. Little work on the issue has been done in ufological circles, although it HAS been a more salient focus of attention in SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) circles, often in the context of informed speculation regarding alien intelligence and psychology. Even here, however, the discussion, though interesting, is often seriously lacking in specifically linguistic expertise. For instance, it is often assumed (as it is in much science-fiction) that core notions in science and especially logic and mathematics – believed to be very generally shared – will permit rapid movement towards overall decipherment/mutual understanding. However, given the diversity of structures and concepts even among human languages and cultures at comparable technological levels, this may be over-optimistic, at least in some respects. The grammatical and semantic systems even of human languages, if these are unrelated, can certainly differ very dramatically.

I turn here to the actual content of the reports of alien language use. Many of these involve communication allegedly emanating from extraterrestrials by means of ‘telepathy’ (without specific linguistic forms) or some form of mind transference, sometimes involving advanced technology. Telepathy is a ‘convenient’ feature of the scenario if the material is in fact being fraudulently invented, because it negates the necessity of inventing the many specific details of a language (see later on another strategy of this kind, involving ‘holistic’ translations). On the other hand, it is not agreed among researchers that telepathy ever occurs, either amongst members of one species or between species, or if it is possible in principle; the advantage gained by fraudsters who adduce telepathy is thus doubtful.

More next time on more ‘orthodox’ communication systems attributed to aliens!


Eve and Bob on The Skeptic Zone podcast…

November 18, 2012

After a few beers at TAM, I introduced myself to Maynard. This is the horrifying chronicle of what followed.

Thanks to Maynard and Richard (SAWN-DAAAS)!


This Week in Conspiracy (13 Nov 2012)

November 13, 2012

We had snow this week in Wisconsin, but I didn’t see it because I was working on a bunch of different projects–job apps, a piece for Disinfo (which got picked up at Boing Boing, thanks to Xeni Jardin), and a couple of other things that are in the works. My job is never done, whatever that job may be.

We’re through the election. Mitt Romney’s kids did not manipulate the electronic voting, or whatever, unless they strongly dislike their dad (which is a real possibility considering who he is). The proposed Benghazi conspiracy fell mostly on deaf ears. L’affaire Petraeus is blowing up right now, and we need to see how that pans out, but I’m mostly completely uninterested in it. It’s like a bad soap opera.

But I have miles to go before I sleep, and things aren’t getting any less crazy!

  • This would have been funny if it weren’t Mark Dice, who is just as silly and is acting a bit like a jilted lover:
Anonymous 4thEstate (@OpMediaEngaged)
#Benghazi Reveals Obama-Islamist Alliance

Godlike Productions @glptweets
BREAKING!!!! LINK…80% of N.J. gas stations WITHOUT GAS!!!! DOOM ON!!

  • Calm down, Mr. Doom On! The government just wants you to think there was a hurricane.
  • Ed Asner is still alive.
  • Remember when martial law was declared all over the country for Hurricane Sandy? Me neither.
  • Yeah, I don’t agree with Fenster on this (or at least the gloss they give one his comments). Conspiracy theories don’t turn out to be “right” because by their nature they are bad methodology itself. Even if the conclusion happens to correspond with reality, the theory itself is still deeply flawed. But I’m a nitpicker. Ooh! There’s a nit! (scampers off):
  • Chris French and Tony Sobrado on the psychology of conspiracy theory. Bathe in their dreamy accents:

This Week in Mark Dice is a Horrible Person:

His love letter to the veterans:

Mark Dice @MarkDice Thanks for getting your legs blown off for the Illuminati banking elite! Happy Veterans Day!

His love letter to Tony Sobrado:

Mark Dice (@MarkDice) tweeted at 4:23 PM on Sun, Nov 11, 2012:
@TonySobrado do you have ANYTHING else to tweet other than the same 3 tweets every single day? #Loser (

Twits of the Week:

This was a favorite from the Borowitz Report:

Attention parents: if you give your children even the tiniest bit of attention now, maybe they won’t grow up to be Donald Trump.

Perhaps that had something to do with this:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
Obama lied 100% about Libya and the killings–emails are absolute. He
must release his records on Wednesday and stop the lies.

Possible POE, but makes me happy to think it’s not:

Stephen Lee @CaptainSLEE
If space has no oxygen, then how the fuck is the sun on fire? It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s just science.

There’s also this:

Top Conservative Cat (@TeaPartyCat) tweeted at 4:25 PM on Thu, Nov 01, 2012: Rush Limbaugh: “Obama only had FEMA help New Jersey so Chris Christie would embarrass Romney. It’s blackmail!”

And this made me happy:

Angelo Carusone (@GoAngelo)

Can we pass law saying: if a foreign born secret muslim manages to get elected president twice, he/she automatically becomes natural citizen

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

That’s all. I’m hoping for things to settle down here in the next few weeks, but you never know.


channelled languages and similar phenomena 6 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 15)

November 12, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

A particularly modern manifestation of channelling and related/similar phenomena involves languages (spoken, written, etc.) reported as used in the context of alleged contact with extraterrestrial entities. As a matter of policy, I don’t assume here, by way of background, either that any such entities have ever interacted with human beings or that this has never occurred.

Numerous reporters who identify as UFO-contactees or abductees – some as early as George Adamski and George Hunt Williamson – have reported hearing samples of the languages used by the aliens and/or seeing samples of written language (or of what appeared to be written language). Some contactees and abductees have even claimed that they have learned such extraterrestrial languages (often, it seems, by mystical means such as ‘telepathy’ rather than by any known means; see later). These reporters produce texts written in these languages (supposedly by alien associates, or by themselves) and/or volumes of speech. (Some reporters also provide non-linguistic semiotic material.)

Such cases are in fact very numerous and varied. Linguistically-informed comments on this material are few, but Christian Macé provides a comparative account of various claims of this kind. Macé examines possible links with other (allegedly) mysterious linguistic material; for instance, he relates characters reported by Adamski to those described in a very different context (alleged ancient South American inscriptions) by Marcel Homet. Assessment of such claims would be of more interest if at least one out of two or more allegedly related sets of texts could be established as undeniably alien in origin; but of course this has never been accomplished, and in any event the similarities adduced are typically superficial and unsystematic, and thus not especially persuasive.

Since 1999 Gary Anthony, latterly in partnership with me, has been developing the ‘Alien Semiotics Project’, an endeavour to question and cooperate with abductees, witnesses and researchers, to explore the UFO abduction narratives and literature, and to involve unbiased qualified experts in the relevant fields so as to give alleged alien languages and symbols a fair appraisal using scientific methodology.

Anthony was inspired by the work of Mario Pazzaglini, who was more at home with semiotics than with linguistics proper. The linguistic conceptualisation in Pazzaglini’s material is often weak. Most strikingly, he confuses matters of script and language, the distinction between types of script (alphabetic, syllabic, logographic; in addition, Chinese and Egyptian scripts are wrongly described as ideographic), the issue of the iconic transparency of logographic symbols (pictographic/non-pictographic), and distinctions between specified named types of script (hieroglyphs, cuneiform etc.). He also states that an unknown script cannot be assigned to any type; but in fact this can be done with a high degree of reliability – even if the language itself is unknown – by applying statistical tests. Pazzaglini is also too ready to accept sensationalistic explanations for doubtful data or reports rather than psychological or other less dramatic explanations.

For our part, Anthony and I seek to consult any interested parties (whatever their roles) on the relevant issues. We request samples of as great a length as possible. Frequently, samples of alleged alien speech or writing are not long enough to permit useful linguistic analyses; shorter samples are useful only if translations – preferably ‘literal’ – are available. (See later on the issues surrounding ‘holistic’ understanding of such material.) We have asked for assistance through the ufological literature, seeking:

a) samples of alien scripts and of texts written in these scripts, with statements regarding script-type and ductus (left to right or right to left, top to bottom or bottom to top, starting where on the page) and (for alphabetic or syllabic scripts) identification of word-boundaries;

b) samples of spoken alien language, ideally recorded on tape but, if this is not possible, in the form of transcriptions either into ‘imitated spelling’ (where the sounds are represented using the spelling of English or of the reporter’s own strongest language, with identifications of the reporter’s language and/or accent) or (better) into the International Phonetic Association Alphabet;

c) translations into English (or other human languages.

Responses have been disappointingly limited, but the project remains active.

One issue here is that of the physical and psychological nature of the alleged alien users of the languages: either humanoid to a considerable degree (and inhabiting planets similar to Earth), or markedly different (or of course of an intermediate nature). In the former case, the languages envisaged, like those represented in this context in science-fiction or fantasy, might be relatively ‘normal’ languages which happen not to exist in the real world as human languages which developed on Earth. However, even the languages of humanoid aliens, being as they would be totally unrelated to any actual human language, might still infringe some of the main ‘typological’ patterns which prevail across the range of human languages (such as prevailing word order patterns) or indeed some of the few really well-established ‘human-language universals’.

These issues are obviously highly relevant to the possible fraudulent invention of languages of this kind. It is more difficult than most non-linguists imagine to invent, convincingly, even a novel human language (as opposed to an unstructured set of vocabulary items); and this applies also to more exotic ‘languages’ such as those in question here (even though it is somewhat more difficult to be confident about matters of plausibility where alleged non-human languages are at issue). Expertise in linguistics is needed in such acts of invention if the languages are to appear possibly genuine to an examining linguist. Few fraudsters and few reporters of alien languages would actually have such expertise, which suggests that if any such ‘languages’ really appeared to linguists to be plausible they might very well prove to be genuine languages (whatever their actual origin; there might be possibilities other than extraterrestrial origin). In contrast, languages which had in fact been fraudulently invented might appear too similar to known human languages, structurally and phonetically, to be genuinely of alien origin, or might simply appear implausible. (This also applies to openly invented non-human languages in fiction.)

Full references for any specific item on request! More next time!


The Anitneoplaston Scam: A Guest Post at Disinfo

November 10, 2012

Today Disinfo put up an essay I wrote about Stanislaw Burzynski. You should head over and join the conversation. Also, Camron Wiltshire showed up in the comments, which is always hilarious. 


channelled languages and similar phenomena 5 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 14)

November 5, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

A further phenomenon of the same general type as channelling involves ‘Electronic Voice Phenomenon’: electronically generated noises which resemble speech in known or unknown languages but are not the result of intentional voice recordings or renderings. The parapsychologist Konstantin Raudive was the first to popularize the concept; he reported that most instances of EVP were the length of a word or phrase, sometimes displaying alternation between languages, unfamiliar grammatical patterns, etc. Notable earlier claims along these lines had been made by Attila von Szalay & Raymond Bayless and Friedrich Jürgenson, and more recent advocates of EVP or associated/similar phenomena include Peter Bander, Tim and Lisa Butler, Sarah Estep, Frank Sumption (who invented a ‘box’ for accessing EVP), George Meek (working with the channeller William O’Neil), Mark Macy, Christopher Moon, Ernst Senkowski, Judith Chisholm, etc., etc.

Most of these advocates of EVP claim that it is of paranormal origin. Explanations include living humans imprinting thoughts directly on an electronic medium through psychokinesis, and communication by spirits, beings from other dimensions or extraterrestrials. The recent work by Anabela Cardoso examines the extraterrestrial hypothesis but concludes that EVP emanates from deceased persons. Steve Mizrach suggests that paranormal entities with the capacity for speech may actually be brought into being by the use of the relevant technology.

Most skeptics who have examined these cases consider that the voices are probably artefacts of the listening process. Sources include static, stray radio transmissions, background noise (especially where the sensitivity of the recording equipment has been enhanced) and ‘apophenia’ (the finding of significance in insignificant phenomena, here illustrated by ‘auditory pareidolia’, the interpretation of random sounds as forming words and longer oral texts in a language known to the listener); some cases may simply be hoaxes.

Another important relevant alleged phenomenon in this general area is xenoglossia: cases of humans speaking and/or understanding languages which they have never learned – not in a trance, as if channelling or experiencing glossolalia, but as a second personality which emerges in everyday situations (and usually does not appear to command the language used by the speaker’s main personality). The material apparently emanates from ‘another part’ of the speaker’s own mind. In some reports of xenoglossia the command of the relevant ‘other’ language is reported as only passive (or largely so), but in others active command is reported. See earlier on parallels and links involving xenoglossia on the one hand and glossolalia or channelling on the other.

The psychologist Ian Stevenson claimed several cases of this kind as evidence of reincarnation; the second language is one which was acquired by normal means in a previous lifetime and has somehow been transmitted into the mind of the new incarnation. Of course, this is a possible explanation only if reincarnation itself is a genuine phenomenon; it is rejected both by the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim religion complex (according to these religions, people live in this world only once) and by contemporary (largely ‘materialistic’) science (according to most scientists, death is the end of a person’s existence). Belief in reincarnation is associated with Hinduism and Buddhism and their offshoot religions. If reincarnation is indeed the explanation for xenoglossia, this has major consequences for world-views.

Several writers on such matters, including Steven Rosen and some of the advocates of glossolalia and channelling discussed earlier, have endorsed Stevenson’s interpretation of such cases, at least to a degree; and Ian Lawton examined the matter with some care, drawing no firm conclusions but not categorically rejecting Stevenson’s analysis, and critiquing some skeptical comments.

However, Sarah Thomason found that Stevenson’s reports of fluency and understanding were much exaggerated. The subject’s command (active and passive) of the ‘other’ language is typically minimal and unimpressive, and could have been obtained from very limited studies which the subject might have forgotten (‘cryptomnesia’, a term coined by Flournoy; see earlier). In other such cases, it emerges that the subject had in fact had sufficient exposure to the language in question (not always consciously) to account for the data, or was familiar with a very closely related language. In addition, Stevenson’s own grasp of linguistics appears limited; he makes some conceptual errors, suggesting for instance that the usage of uneducated speakers of languages cannot be expected to manifest grammar (a folk-linguistic idea).

In some other such cases there is again a mixture of contemporary usage and an attempt at archaic forms, usually in the same language; see for instance the case of the Bloxham Tapes, made under hypnosis and allegedly relating to past-life experiences. In one extreme case, it is reported that a 13-year old Croatian awoke from a one-day coma no longer able to speak her native language but instead communicating in German. As Benjamin Radford comments in this context, such cases have at times been attributed to demonic possession – although reincarnation might still be adduced in such cases.

Some groups of religious believers also claim that they are able to understand languages which they have never learned. This was reported in conversation with me by some followers of Subud in New Zealand, who were unfortunately uninterested in demonstrating the truth of their claims (as occurs in some cases involving glossolalia).

There are a few cases involving linguistic material and time travel. The best known case of linguistic information allegedly arising out of time travel or at least the viewing of past events involves the ‘Chronovisor’, a supposed mid-twentieth-century invention by one Father Marcello Pellegrino Ernetti which allowed observation of past events (but not participation). An important piece of evidence concerns a lengthy, previously unrecorded passage in Latin, around 10% of a play which is known to have existed but which is largely lost (Thyestes, by Quintus Ennius). However, there are anachronisms in the text, and in addition the clustering in this passage of a high proportion of the surviving minor fragments is suspicious. If the text is a hoax, as must surely be judged probable, someone who was proficient in Latin went to a great deal of trouble in the course of faking it.

Some reports of non-humans using language involve apparitions of what appear to be the spirits of deceased animals. One of the most striking cases involved a ghostly mongoose known as ‘Gef’ which allegedly interacted with the Irving family at a remote location in the Isle of Man during the 1930s, speaking intelligently in English, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, Welsh, etc. Christopher Josiffe believes that some sort of anomalous phenomenon was in fact taking place; he suggests that Gef was ‘formed’ from the collective minds of the three family members. Support for this view is furnished by the fact that Gef’s reported interests and knowledge overlapped substantially with those of the family; his ability to speak some Hebrew (like the father) was also interesting in this context. However, he also appeared to have some knowledge of other matters such as song lyrics which were supposedly unknown to the family. Josiffe’s interpretation depends, of course, upon acceptance of the reality of collective minds and related phenomena more generally.

Full references for any specific item on request! More next time!