January 27, 2013

Hi again, everybody!

I comment briefly here about some claims regarding ‘clicks’, the consonants technically described as ‘velaric ingressives’ (produced with airstreams drawn INTO the mouth and by movement of the velum aka the soft palate rather than by the lungs). These consonants are especially associated with the Khoisan or ‘Bushman’ languages of Namibia and neighbouring areas of southern Africa, as famously portrayed in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. Some of them resemble the sound stereotypically used to ‘gee up’ horses.

The mainstream palaeoanthropologist (etc.) Alice Roberts comments upon the long early period when pre-literate humans probably already had language (for the details of which little concrete evidence survives, naturally); she includes an interesting discussion of ‘click’ consonants in a range of African languages, comparing their distribution with genetic data and suggesting (with others, and not unpersuasively) that the development of these phones may well have pre-dated sapiens expansion from Africa.

There are also some more specific, less mainstream (and less persuasively argued) book-length works along broadly similar lines, such as that of Roman Stopa on alleged links between Indo-European and Khoisan.

Dan Willmore and Nicholas Wade are advocates of the view that some aspects of the phonology of Proto-World can be reconstructed; both Willmore (apparently familiar with the relevant aspects of human genetics and with palaeo-anthropology) and Wade argue that Proto-World featured ‘clicks’. At present the only non-Khoisan languages which extensively feature clicks are the languages of the Hadzabe and Sandawe of Tanzania. The two groups of languages are not otherwise similar, and their speakers are hardly close relatives: mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests that the two peoples have been separate from each other for more than 50,000 years. Willmore holds that modern humans began to leave Africa around 50,000 years BP, which itself would imply that any ancestral features which Khoisan and Hadzabe/Sandawe now have in common must have been shared at that date (compare Roberts as cited above). Australian evidence suggests that the beginning of homo sapiens movement out of Africa must be dated earlier than this, perhaps around 70,000 years BP; but the data are still striking. (In addition, Willmore holds that the overall evidence shows that there was just one Proto-World and that it can be reconstructed in part. He is also ‘certain’ that Neanderthals could speak; and he seems to believe (very oddly) that ‘imagination’ is somehow involved even in PHONOLOGICAL change.)

A manifestly non-mainstream article by T. Kluge argues that the human capacity for speech results from features of the brain, notably the ‘language centre’, which have become strengthened through the use of the arms, which in turn arose from the overall arrangement of human limbs (two arms, no wings). Kluge also associates many phonetic features with physiological characteristics; he claims, for instance, that clicks are associated with certain ‘racially’ determined mouth structures. (He further holds that variations in auditory perceptions of phonetic pitch in speech correlate with air-density and thus with the altitude at which a language is used; this is an extreme version of the commonly-expressed folk-linguistic view that differences in prevailing atmospheric conditions generate accent differences, for instance the ‘adenoidal’ quality of the speech of once fog-bound Liverpool).

As ever, detailed references on request. Another new topic area next time!


reversals & such 5 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 24)

January 20, 2013

Hi again, everybody!

I now turn, in concluding this section, to Backward Masking and related phenomena.

Backward masking, ‘backmasking’ or ‘backtracking’ is a phenomenon in which hidden messages are inserted into or created in music lyrics. These can be heard consciously only when the track is played in reverse, but like RS they can allegedly be heard unconsciously or subconsciously when one listens to the track in normal forward mode, and can thus affect the listener’s thinking (after the manner of ‘subliminal’ messages). Backward messages of this kind may be inserted deliberately by the lyricist, or may (supposedly) occur without any intent of the writer, indicating deep unconscious ideas on her part. (The deliberate introduction of accurate reversals is difficult in the absence of linguistic expertise but may be feasible to a degree.)

Reversals have been reported in the lyrics of AC-DC, the Beatles, Black Sabbath/Ozzy Osbourne, the Eagles, Electric Light Orchestra, Michael Jackson, KISS, Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Motley Crue, Pink Floyd, Prince, Queen, Styx, Frank Zappa, the Los Angeles metal bands the Plasmatics and W.A.S.P, and many other groups and individual performers. In many cases the force of the hidden messages is sinister, involving references to death, suicide, Satan, etc. Some cases of this kind have led to alarm on the part of Christian organizations, and indeed to legal proceedings, notably in connection with a suicide allegedly stimulated by backward masking in the lyrics of a song by the band Judas Priest.

Interestingly, listeners (including skeptics) generally find that they cannot hear the reversals in such cases until they are prompted with the alleged wording, but that after this has happened they cannot avoid hearing them.

Chris French and I are currently planning work on one such case involving the Led Zeppelin song ‘Stairway To Heaven’, which allegedly contains a reversal (very much audible after prompting) interpreted as conveying Satanic messages.

Another phenomenon which arises in music lyrics and in other contexts involving repetition – notably ‘mantras’ as chanted by followers of some religions, etc. – is the distortion of words which are repeatedly heard.

As ever, detailed references on request. New topic area next time!


reversals & such 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 23)

January 13, 2013

Hi again, everybody!

Jane Curtain & I investigated the Reverse Speech theory in 1997. We found ourselves unable to hear more than a few very short reversals in Oates’ material; even these were short accidental approximate reversals of unconnected FS sequences (as in it’s an honour). In other cases, any resemblance between FS and alleged RS was minimal; for instance, Neil Armstrong’s … small step for man (said on the Moon in 1969) does not reverse to Man will space-walk, as is claimed; the consonants, especially, do not match. However, we found that we were being distracted by Oates’ continual prompting on his video and audio tapes, which induce listeners to hear the alleged RS sequences. Because of this effect and the requirement to subject the RS theory to empirically sounder testing, we turned to experimentation.

Oates’ description of his own experimental methodology is repeatedly obscure and ambiguous, and he is generally reluctant to answer questions seeking clarification (or else repeatedly fails to understand exactly what information is required). The replication of his experiments is thus somewhat uncertain. Nevertheless, we replicated the experiments as best we could; additional variants were introduced where this was thought potentially useful. Forty subjects, divided into four groups of ten, participated in the preliminary experiment. Six short recordings of alleged RS sequences were taken from Oates’ audio tapes and were reproduced in written form. Each group of subjects experienced a different set of procedures:

Group A: The Group A response sheets listed the six written sequences, without any identification of the speakers.

Group B: The Group B response sheets listed six written sequences, which were entirely different from the RS sequences alleged by Oates, but which displayed a) the same number of syllables and b) similar or the same vowel phonemes, within each sequence.

Group C: Group C subjects were not provided with a written list of the alleged RS sequences. They were, however, told that an intelligible sentence was present in each of the six recordings.

Group D: Group D subjects were not provided with a written list of the alleged RS sequences, and they were told NOT told that there WAS an intelligible sentence in each of the six recordings but that there MIGHT be such a sentence.

Groups A and B subjects were asked to tick those sentences which they could clearly hear in the extracts played to them, or to circle any syllables, words or sequences of syllables or words, shorter than the sentences, which they could hear. Groups C and D subjects were asked to record (in normal orthography) any clearly intelligible sequences in English which they could hear, whether these formed the whole of a given extract or only a part of it.

The Group A subjects provided a significantly greater number of ‘correct’ responses than did the other three groups, and the Group B subjects provided a greater number of ‘correct’ sentences than did Groups C and D. In respect of words and syllables, the Group D subjects provided a greater number of ‘correct’ responses than the Group C subjects. It is clear from these results that suggestion (prompting) is a major factor in the hearing of alleged RS sequences. Where the vowel phonemes were the same as those proposed by Oates, 32% of the relevant syllables were ‘correctly’ identified; while, for the same participants, where the vowel phonemes were different from those proposed by Oates, only 18% of the syllables were ‘correctly’ identified. A possible explanation for the fact that the Group D subjects had more success than the Group C subjects involves the idea that they concentrated very hard to hear such sequences, whereas the Group C participants initially believed that the sequences would be obvious and gave up attempting to hear such sequences when they proved difficult to hear.

Further, potentially decisive tests of Oates’ claims suggest themselves, notably tests aimed at determining whether information which (as it seems) could not otherwise be known can be obtained from listening to RS sequences. However, Oates has not been willing to co-operate with linguists and psychologists in arranging such tests.

In summary, it appears (as is agreed by most of the linguists and psychologists who have examined Oates’ theories) that RS is an artefact of the listening process, often encouraged by advance prompting in the material (written and oral) provided by Oates.

There are various other skeptical discussions of RS, from various standpoints. Oates and some RS supporters have attempted rebuttal of some of these criticisms, but very few of these responses manifest anything resembling the level of specifically LINGUISTIC expertise required for dealing with the data, and their authors often misinterpret the criticisms and/or fail to understand what further information is required.

As ever, detailed references on request. Next time, I’ll say a little about Backward Masking and related phenomena.


Burzynski Filmmaker Contacts My EMPLOYER?!?!

January 7, 2013

You might remember last year how people who thought they were acting in the interests of the Burzynski Clinic issued quasi-legal threats to bloggers who took issue with his unproven “antineoplaston” treatments. I am specifically thinking of Marc Stephens, who contacted Andy Lewis, Peter Bowditch, and Rhys Morgan. As I understand it, Burzynski had hired Stephens to do web-optimization work, cleaning up B’s reputation (no small feat considering who was signing the checks!). Stephens apparently interpreted this as a green light to send a high school student a picture of his house, the unmistakable threat: “We know where you live.” This was when I first wrote about Burzynski, I believe.

Another Burzynski supporter (one at the same IP address as the Burzynski Patient Group) put up a website–albeit very briefly–which painted prominent skeptics…and somehow me… as pedophiles. (That’s my name in between those of two of my heroes, Simon Singh and Stephen Fry! Squee! Best. Defamation. Ever.) When it was discovered, the site was instantly taken down, but The 21st Floor has the goods.

Well, people who seem to somehow think that they represent Burzynski are at it again; this time it is his propagandist Eric Merola (@BurzynskiMovie), the guy behind the straight-to-Internet stinker Burzynski. He is currently putting together a sequel (working title: Burzynski II: This Time It’s Peer-Reviewed).

Not long ago, I received a call from one of the lawyers at my university. When I went over to see her, she handed me a letter that had been sent to the office of my university’s Chancellor. Honestly, from her description on the phone of how strange it was, I thought it was going to be something from Mabus, who had contacted my coworkers in the past. I was surprised to read that it was from the guy making the Burzynski movies. And now I share it with you:



How about that?

Let’s clarify a few things here, Eric. My “extracurricular” interest in Burzynski has nothing to do with my research and everything to do with my interest in science. My letters, articles, and blog posts that discuss Burzynski do not appear on my CV. The things I do in my spare time are no business of my employer and they respect that.

Your legal disclaimer is a joke; you are as competent a lawyer as you are a filmmaker.

The “present” we are going to give Burzynski on his birthday is a challenge to the Clinic to match the funds raised by skeptics for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The “something positive” you fear is what I have publicly called “Operation Cuddly Puppy,” a campaign designed to put reliable information about clinical trials and cancer treatments into the hands of cancer patients. I can see why a Burzynski supporter would be afraid of that.

Regarding, I will be delighted for you to discuss my (and others’) work there in your movie. What we offer there is an honest look at the patients who have not made it, patients whose stories are just as important as the ones you believe Burzynski gave a happy ending. I’m not prying either; the patients and their families have already shared this information with the world. Also, it has about 30 total views (well, until today!). What you seem to be opposed to is open inquiry into what goes on at the clinic.

I’ve yet to hear from the family of the patient you singled out in your email. I would, of course, give them my standard answer for patients of Burzynski: “I’m very, very sorry for your loss, and I don’t take down content. Your stories are too important.” All of which is true. In about a month, three of us working in our spare time have been able to accumulate as many (more, actually) examples of failed treatment as there are “successes” at the Burzynski Patient Group site, which actually opens up patient records to promote Burzynski. (Though I don’t hear you howling about the ethics of that!)

In a way, I guess I’m not surprised that you went to my employer. I have gotten threats from other wackdoodles before who were going to “expose me to my employer.” This is more of the same.

Eric, the interpretation of my actions that you put forward in your laughable letter are so far from the mark that I should warn you against replicating them in your movie–and now  you have been notified of that. Furthermore, should you make any attempt to link my family or my employer to my online science advocacy, I will not hesitate to hire an actual lawyer and pursue you until you cry. The fact that you actively tried to hide it from me, to spread half-truths about me to my employer behind my back, is stunning evidence of your malicious motives. It’s like the type of thing trial lawyers dream of.

If you are appalled by this behavior, I encourage skeptics to contribute to the St. Jude fundraiser. We will be donating everything raised to the hospital in Burzynski’s name and then challenge the Clinic to match those funds. If he doesn’t participate, we will still be able to say it’s probably the best thing ever done for cancer research in his name!



reversals & such 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 22)

January 6, 2013

Hi again, everybody! Yet more on Reverse Speech!

Further implausible, incoherent and/or suspect aspects of the RS theory and Oates’ material include the following:

1) RS should only occasionally yield phonologically/phonetically possible sequences, even in the same language. There will be even fewer cases where the reversed sequence is not only possible but corresponds with a meaningful sequence of morphemes. One example is a reversal of any word terminating in /-r/ followed by the word honesty; in an American accent, this yields a close approximation to the phrase it’s an honour. However, this reversal will, obviously, occur on all occasions when the FS sequence is produced; it does not depend upon the feelings, knowledge etc. of the speaker. The shorter elements commonly reported in alleged reversals are simply the reversed forms of common words or word-parts, although in fact the resemblance is often much weaker than in the above case. For instance, one of Oates’ favourite RS metaphors is that of the ‘wolf’; but the RS word wolf is in fact an inaccurate reformulation of the reversed forms of four, for, etc.

2) Oates lists six ‘guidelines’ or ‘criteria’ on which he claims to rely in determining whether or not a given sequence in reversed speech actually counts as a case of genuine RS. However, most of his leading examples do not meet these six criteria successfully. Indeed, some of the criteria are based on errors as to linguistic facts, and are thus most unlikely to be met:

a) The syllable counts for FS and RS should be identical. This criterion is frequently not met.

b) There should be audible spaces between words in RS. This criterion is invalid: there are not usually any spaces of this kind between words in FS, only potential pauses. Furthermore, such spaces appear to be rare in alleged RS sequences also.

c) The beginnings and ends of the words in RS should be clearly defined. The same objection may be made here as under b).

d) The vowel sounds in RS should be clear and precise. The precise sense of this criterion is unclear.

e) The reversal should be distinct from surrounding ‘gibberish’. The same objection may be made here as under b) (above); but, to the extent that this kind of judgment is possible, the criterion is frequently not met, because the reversal itself is often unclear.

f) The RS phrase should have a ‘continuous, melodious tonal flow’. The sense of this criterion is unclear.

When apprised of these criticisms, Oates argued that RS is so different from FS that objections based on the workings of FS are irrelevant. This idea raises serious methodological issues, but it would allow Oates to claim that criteria b) and c) apply to RS even though they do not apply to FS. However, he at no point makes this explicit; and, given that most non-linguists, relying (as Oates himself does) largely upon spelling, would probably imagine that FS displays these features, it appears likely that Oates originally attributed them to RS because he too believes (or believed) that they apply to FS.

3) Oates claims that very young children begin to produce coherent RS, and, indeed, that they acquire RS well before they acquire FS, in fact as early as the ‘babbling’ stage, in the middle of their first year of life. These claims appear utterly implausible in view of what is known about child language acquisition.

4) Oates’ treatment of phonetics and phonology, including intonation, is superficial, vague, folk-linguistic and inaccurate. He also adopts a naïvely folk-linguistic, prescriptivist approach to the issue of grammaticality and accepts some other folk-linguistic ideas, apparently believing for instance that Sanskrit was the Ursprache (see my 2012 blogs here on ‘fringe’ historical linguistics).

5) In his print and video material, Oates repeatedly prompts listeners with full versions of what he claims they should expect to hear. As work with ‘backward masking’ and replications of Oates’ experiments (see later) demonstrate, this practice is highly suspect. See also earlier on Oates’ inconsistency on this issue.

6) Oates pays little attention to the findings of mainstream psychology, but develops complex, poorly-supported psychological theories, notably on the role of the metaphors he ‘finds’ in RS. Many of the concepts which he associates with RS are in fact of a ‘New Age’ or ‘fringe’ nature.

Along with Jane Curtain, I myself investigated the RS theory in 1997. Details next time!

As ever, detailed references on request.


Happy Birthday, Dr. Burzynski!

January 4, 2013

Happy Birthday, Dr. Burzynski!.

Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients are kicking off a project to celebrate the life’s work of Stanislaw Burzynski by giving immense amounts of money to…anyone else. Well, not just anyone, but St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Follow the link and find out how you can help get money and GOOD INFORMATION into the hands of potential Burzynski patients.


Yes, Virginia, There Is a Dragon in Beowulf: Review of When They Severed Earth from Sky

January 3, 2013

In 1988, folklorist Paul Barber published an excellent book about vampire belief, Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. In it he posits that historical belief in vampires and revenants depended, at least in part, on ignorance of the ways illness is transmitted and the ways dead bodies can decay. In looking at accounts of vampires, he separates actual observation of the bodies of alleged vampires from interpretations based on observation. For instance, according to the official report on suspected vampire Peter Plogojowitz:

Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him. (Barber’s translation, Vampires 6)

The blood–or reddish liquid–is an actual observation. The assumption that the blood comes from the vampire’s victims is an interpretation of the physical evidence. This method works very well when Barber is discussing eye-witness accounts. If there is a weakness to the book, it is a tendency to treat all accounts equally: Barber applies the same method to literary works as he does for official accounts. For example, he makes several references to draugar, the undead of Old Norse sagas, particularly Glámr, an especially nasty draugr who appears in Grettis saga:

[While the appearance of Glam’s corpse resembles that of vampires, his] activities have little in common with the vampire, because he robs people not of their blood but of their consciousness and their sanity, merely by appearing, diurnally as well as nocturnally, in their presence. Note the the disparity between the assertion and the evidence: we are told that “terrible things happened,” but they consist solely of someone walking about or beating his heels against a roof. (Vampires 85)

This is an oddly cherry-picked account of Glam’s activities. He also kills both animals and people, sometimes breaking every bone in their bodies. The battle between Glam and the protagonist Grettir is described at some length and is very similar to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Before Grettir cuts off Glam’s head and burns his body, Glam makes a speech, cursing Grettir. There is no naturalistic explanation for this corpse’s behavior, and it can’t be dismissed as an interpretation of physical evidence. Glam’s activity is integral to the story and crucial to the formation and understanding of Grettir’s character.

Sadly, this minor flaw has become the foundation of When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, co-written by Barber and his wife, archeologist and linguist Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This book has garnered a certain amount of interest among skeptics: Michael Shermer reviewed it for American Scientist and invited Wayland Barber to speak as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series. According to the blurb on the lecture’s video:

How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don’t exist? Strange though they sound, however, these “myths” did not begin as fiction. Barber shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies.

Considering their focus on oral cultures, the very short-shrift the Barbers give to some of the most important scholars of oral tradition is somewhat disturbing. Neither Walter Ong nor his extremely influential book Orality and Literacy merit a mention. Nor do Eric A. Havelock or John Miles Foley. Even Milman Parry and Alfred Lord receive only the briefest of mentions, and Lord’s monumentally important work, The Singer of Tales, is not mentioned at all. On the other hand, they seriously cite other works of a slightly more fringey nature, such as Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.

In seeking to find explanations for mythological stories in natural phenomena or real events, they seem to give credence to highly questionable tales. Take, for instance, their discussion of the Golden Calf: “What’s that all about? Why a calf?” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3). They gently nudge us toward the correct answer through the Socratic method:

Where had the Children of Israel been living? In Egypt, of course–the country from which they were escaping after centuries of servitude. One can reasonably conjecture that in all that time they had absorbed something of their captors’ culture. (Barber and Barber, chap. 3)

The Golden Calf, they suggest, derives from the Egyptian conception of the sky as a giant cow-goddess, “which could well have been known by folk who had lived in ancient Egypt for centuries. . . . In worshipping [sic] a Golden Calf at dawn, the Children of Israel would simply be reverting to Egyptian sun-worship: they were probably relieved that the sun finally came up, after all that thundering during the night” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3).

They seem to be suggesting that the story of the Exodus is historically true to some significant degree: the Children of Israel were kept enslaved in Egypt; they escaped during a time of dark portents; they wandered in the desert, and, in difficult times, they began to worship the deities of their captors.

There’s just one teeny-tiny problem with this: the stunning lack of documentary, historical or archeological evidence that a large number of Israelites were enslaved in Egypt or that they wandered through the desert for forty years.

The Barbers make a number of dubious arguments (flood stories are really about the precession of the equinoxes), and, even when there may be some truth to their theories, their interpretations are monolithic and reductive, suggesting that there is a single source for a given myth, a single answer to a complex question.

In the last chapter, they discuss fire-breathing dragons, including the one in Beowulf. According to the Barbers, there is no dragon in Beowulf. I imagine that this would come as rather a shock to the poet, who went to such great pains to tell us about the dragon. The Barbers summarize the story and then use “the stripping procedure,” isolating actual “observations” and removing the “explanations,” as Paul Barber does in his vampire book. But how do you decide which are actual observations and which are added explanations in a poem? Apparently, you remove anything that doesn’t agree with your theory. Here are the “observations” that are left after they’ve stripped away the “explanations”:

(1) Someone steals a cup from an old barrow.
(2)  Fire erupts from the barrow and spreads.
(3) Near the stone entrance, our hero stabs blindly at the source of flames while shielding himself (ineffectively) from them.
(4) It smells bad.
(5) People stab deeper, and eventually the flame goes out.
(6) Inside the barrow is treasure but no trace of a dragon’s body. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

One might argue that the Barbers themselves are adding “explanations” when they say that Beowulf stabbed “blindly,” and they have certainly left out a whole lot of detail. Why, they’ve left out an entire dragon.

They argue that the “dragon” is merely ignited gases produced by decomposition in a tomb that had been sealed until broken into by a thief:

We don’t know the dragon’s appearance, however, because while it’s alive all you can see is flame and once the fire is out there is nothing left. No one ever saw it–they saw only flames and smelled a bad smell. The dragon must be a figment of Explanation: a Willer invisible except for its fiery exhalations, postulated to explain the presence of that barrier of flames. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

Except that’s not exactly true. The dragon is not visually described in detail, but it is described. It is referred to several times as coiled (hringbogan, l. 2561, coiled creature; ða se wyrm gebeah/snude tosomne, ll. 2567b-2568a, then the worm quickly coiled itself together; Gewat ða byrnende gebogen scriðan,/to geschipe scyndan, ll. 2569-2570, then, coiled in burning, it went gliding, rushed to its fate).

The Barbers’ argument rests, to a large degree, on the argument that the dragon’s body seems to disappear–that it is nowhere to be seen when Wiglaf, Beowulf’s young kinsmen who came to Beowulf’s assistance in the battle, inspects the hoard:

                        Næs ðæs wyrmes þær

onsyn ænig,     ac hyne ecg fornam. (ll. 2771b-2772)

As they translate it, “not of the Worm was there any sign, for him the [blade’s] edge had destroyed.” In slightly simpler language: “There was no sight of the worm there, for the sword had carried him off.” Does this mean the corpse had disappeared? Does it mean there never was a dragon. Well, according to the Barbers,

The storykeepers are so sure that a tangible creature must have existed that, four hundred lines later, the poet hedges his bets by explaining the lack of dragon bones a second and contradictory way. When the frightened retainers returned, he says, they pillaged the mound, “shoved the dragon, the Worm, over the cliff, let the wave take–the flood enfold–the guardian of the treasure” [ll. 3131-3133] then carried the dead king to his pyre. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

So, that would be a “no.” The poem mentions the corpse and what happens to it. Okay, so we have two passages: one says there’s no dragon body; the other says there is. The Barbers identify this as a contradiction and explain the latter passage as “explanation,” an interpretation rather than an observation. And, of course, they are the arbiters of which is which. Now no one claims that Beowulf is free of inconsistencies or contradictions, but I’m not really sure this is a good example. Let’s look at another passage:

                        Bona swylce læg,

egeslic eorðdraca     ealdre bereafod,

bealwe gebæded.     Beahhordum leng

wyrm wohbogen     wealdan ne moste,

ac him irenna     ecga fornamon,

hearde heaðoscerpe     homera lafe,

þæt se widfloga     wundum stille

hreas on hrusan     hordærne neah.

Nalles æfter lyfte     lacende hwearf

middelnihtum,     maðmæhta wlonc

ansyn ywde,     ac he eorðan gefeoll

for ðæs hildfruman     hondgeweorce. (ll. 2824b-2835)

[Beowulf’s] slayer also lay dead, the terrible earth-dragon, bereft of life, oppressed by evil. The coiled worm could no longer control the ring-hoard, for iron edges had carried him off, hard battle-sharp remnant of hammers, so that the far-flyer, stilled by wounds, fell on the ground near the hoard. Not at all did he go flying through the air in the middle of the night, glorying in treasures, showing his form, but rather, he fell to the earth on account of the handiwork of the war-chief.

For three hundred years, no one could inspect the hoard, in part because no one knew it was there, but also because there was a big old dragon lying on it. Wiglaf, however, is able to examine the hoard and bring back selected items to show the dying Beowulf because the two of them had killed the dragon. The passage above says that the dragon fell dead near the hoard. Near it, not on it. Wiglaf can inspect the hoard because the dragon is lying dead nearby. He is not on the hoard as he had been for the last three hundred years.

The passage above makes it quite clear that there is a dead dragon lying around: bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-dragon!

Is it possible that marsh gases from sealed graves played a role in the evolution of the fire-breathing dragon? Maybe, but I think it’s clear that there is more to the story than this. More importantly though, the Barbers “strip down” Beowulf to a point that it is no longer Beowulf. They are not simply removing interpretation from observation, as Paul Barber did in his examination of official accounts of vampire exhumations. They are stripping away anything that doesn’t fit their theory and overemphasizing anything that they think does support their ideas. They are cherry-picking and, to a large extent, they are telling their own story, not the one the Anglo-Saxon poet told.

I recently wrote about the ways some Young Earth Creationists interpret the monsters in Beowulf to support their worldview. What the Barbers are doing seems precious little better. Unlike the Creationists, though, they are real scholars–they should do better.



Barber, Elizabeth Wayland and Paul T. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton UP, 2004. Kindle edition. No page numbers.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Skeptics Society Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series, California Institute of Technology, Mar. 6, 2005. DVD.

Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight and Finnsburg. 4th ed. ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. U of Toronto P, 2008. All translations are mine, except where indicated.

Siebert, Eve. “Monsters and Dragons and Dinosaurs, Oh My: Creationist Interpretations of Beowulf.” Skeptical Inquirer Jan./Feb. 2013.

Virtual Skeptics #21 (2 Jan 2013)

January 2, 2013

This week on the Virtual Skeptics:

– Bob pokes dead things with a stick
– Eve looks into her crystal ball and sees elves
– Sharon loves rocks, strange sounds and giant eyeballs
– and Tim talks about the “Year of the Skeptool”

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 and Skepticality contributor
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 and the Skeptical Software Tools blog

Host: Brian Gregory – Bon vivant, chapeau connaisseur

Bob’s Links:

Spitzer’s original paper:

Spitzer’s Retraction:

Original Criticism: Oct 2003

Village Voice Blogs by Tony Ortega:

Tony Ortega now blogs here:

Jim Lippard’s article from Skeptic Magazine 17.1

What’s the Harm in Scientology?

Eve’s links:
Iceland Review: Icelandic MP Moves Elves’ Boulder to His Home

Sharon’s links:
Doubtful News favorite stories of 2012

Tim’s links:
Obituary slides from #TAM2012:

Back in April Tim asked if 2012 was the “Year of the Skeptool”


Truth Market

Pundit Tracker

Brian’s Robot’s links:
Roboy Junior YouTube Site
Roboy Junior on Facebook


  • Eve has an article in Skeptical Inquirer (although she only has hearsay evidence for this).
  • Sharon is on this week’s edition of Monster Talk talking about the best cryptozoology stories of 2012. Catch up on all the Bigfoot news on that podcast.
  • Registration is open for Skep Tech in Minneapolis April 5 & 6th. Tim is speaking, and they just added Maggie Koerth-Baker from Boing Boing as a guest:
  • Bob has a new Conspiracy Guy article coming out soon.

The Virtual Skeptics is an independent production of Doubtful News,, Skeptical Humanities, and Brian Gregory. Our logo was designed by Sara Mayhew at Our theme music is by Tremor and is used with permission.