This Week in Conspiracy (11 May 2012)

May 11, 2012

Things are looking up. Last week I accepted a Visiting Assistant Professor position in Wisconsin, so at the end of the summer, the home base of Skeptical Humanities is going to be shifting northward. This does not mean, however, that I am going to be able to let the goofers of the world off the hook. Indeed, I will likely dive into it with more zeal than ever since I am less likely to overheat way up there than I am in Atlanta.

See?

Through the influence of a Rosicrucian-Masonic brotherhood, Washington D.C. seems to be constructed to be the capital of Francis Bacon’s vision of the New Atlantis, which is likely to become the center of the New World Order. On the back of the dollar bill we read the words Novus Ordos Seclorum, which means New Order of the Ages or New World Order. These words are found below an Egyptian pyramid with the all-seeing eye of Lucifer above it, inside of a smaller pyramid. This occult symbolism signifies that in the New World Order, a Luciferian elite will rule the masses; or to use the terminology of the Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, a scientific elite. This is the restructuring that is going on in America right now.

Twit of the Week:

Yeah, this one. It’s like the worst kickstart ever:

@MarkDice

I will go to #Bilderberg2012 if you help fund my voyage. A Chipin donation box is up on http://MarkDice.com. Use PayPal. Thanks in advance.

Mark did leave a couple of unpleasant presents in my twitter feed this week. Another one is:

@MarkDice
We only know the new #UnderwearBomber was a #CIA agent because someone leaked it to the #AssociatedPress. There are good people in gov.

It sounds like the CIA is annoyed that the news got out, but think of their position: is the entire support structure behind the operation now blown, as well as…how many other covers? Are now other lives in jeopardy I can see why they might be miffed.

Visibility911 made a valiant effort this week, though:

@Visibility911
It’s just plain old nauseating how @BarackObama is trying to grandstand over killing Osama bin Dead For 10 Years.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

Without a doubt the conspiracy theory of the week is the notion that the CIA staged a fake underwear bombing scare. The evidence is, of course, the fact that the bomb-makers assigned an informant to deliver the bomb. And then he informed, as it were. It’s all the rage, and the media illiterate are flailing about in their own ignorance exultantly under the delusion that everything that they always believed about the CIA staging domestic terrorism was true. The IntelHub (sigh) it was a “corporate media manufactured story [that] was literally a NON EVENT.” There is a difference between making a bomb and being handed a bomb, ding-dongs. Go out and show that the CIA made the bomb and you’ll get Pulitzers. Really.

UPDATE! This wins. I must strip the IntelHub of the only award it ever earned. I saw this minutes after I posted and felt compelled to revise. A concerned citizen from Nebraska gives her view of Dutch gays who like watching people perish, as well as p-e-n-i-s homiciders and anus-licking gay child molesting genociders who go to Gender Studies, but because only because they are gay like Hillary Clinton. She also talks about why college kids need their own doom rooms, when Canadian corpse funguses come from gay ruptured instestines, while Roman bathhouse orgiers watched Christians be eaten at the Colosseum, so that gays cuss sadistically after gaying each other sexually and before committing treason and their children rape each other hetero all day when they aren’t told not to and Judas was a homo:

I’m out of here. I’m going to try to get these back on a more regular schedule in the next week or two. Meanwhile, check out some of my other work which is popping around the web. I recently posted about Ancient Aliens at Skepchick; I wrote about using fiction (specifically Carl Sagan’s contact) to teach critical thinking over at the JREF Swift Blog (the first of many posts on teaching and skepticism); and my next article should be up at the CSICOP website shortly.

RJB


Bob on the BEASTcast talking about the Denver Airport

April 30, 2012

Last week I was interviewed by the BEASTcast about the Denver International Airport conspiracy theory, as well as a good bit about the humanities and skepticism. That interview is out today.

Thanks to Josh Bunting for the opportunity to speak with him. I enjoyed it very much!

RJB


This Week in Conspiracy (19 February 2012)

February 19, 2012

Just got back from Alabama (no banjo on my knee), where Eve was giving a talk about creationist interpretations of Beowulf to the Alabama Freethinkers. It was a rollicking good time prefaced by a spicy sausage potluck.

It was a rather slow week for conspiracy, truth be told. I saw a lot of leftover speculation about Whitney Houston’s death, all of which was as dull as it was predictable. Don’t try to confuse us, conspiracy theorists. We know that she is living in Bahrain with Michael Jackson, away from the prying eyes of the world.

VH1
1515 Broadway
New York, NY 10036
Tel. 212-258-7800
Fax 212-846-1753

Conspiracy theory item of the week:
This is more of a conspiracy than theory, but the documents leaked from the Heartland Institute suggest that they are actively seeking to discredit the science of global warming, over which there has long since ceased to be debate among knowledgeable experts. I thought this might get picked up by Science Friday this week, but alas! Maybe next week, because this is important.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

This week’s winner came from Weird Al Yankovic, who I know from going to one of his shows can totally rock a peacock outfit:

Al Yankovic @alyankovic:
Why do they not make urinal PIES? #CakeConspiracy

Please sign the Weird Al at the Superbowl Half-Time Show Petition. I would actually watch the Superbowl again. The NFL needs to make this happen. I don’t do a lot of advocacy, but this is the defining issue of my generation.

That’s it for now. I’m working on a write-up about a pretty nifty little topic. I hope to have it ready in the next week or so.

RJB


Skeptical Book Review: Reading Outside of Your Discipline, or A Psychologist, a Magician, and an Archaeologist Walk Into a Bookstore

February 8, 2012

If a very literate thief were to break into my apartment, I like to think he would take a moment to browse and appreciate my bookshelves. It’s a varied collection, which includes a massive collection of cheap paperbacks I picked up for my masters and doctoral exams, a huge number of obscure lit books by well known authors which are only ever read by professors, books of theory and poetry, a lot of science books, a collection of primary sources photocopied at cost from the finest archives around the world, a shelf of WWII memoirs and histories, a pony-load of anthologies, rhetorics piled out the wazoo, and a heap of books that can only be described as “flaky to the nth degree” (think of the ouvre of Jenny McCarthy). This ne’er-do-well, just before my cats mauled him beyond recognition, I like to think, would be slightly confused by my collection, which serves the bastard right for breaking into my apartment in the first place.

Our thief, as the cats flayed him alive with their razor-sharp, serrated tongues, would in his dying moments probably wish that I would come home from my vacation, but in all likelihood I’d be too busy playing tourist. I’m as pleased as punch to wear a stupid Hawaiian shirt and wander the streets of an unfamiliar city gawking. I also like to pick up souvenirs when I travel, specifically, I like to buy a book in each town I visit. It gives me something to do during downtime, and I can always recall what I was interested in at the time I was traveling. For instance, the last time I was in New Orleans (CSICon excluded), visiting the D-Day Museum with my grandmother, I bought the collected short fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald at the airport bookstore. That’s presumably when I started using the phrase “a _____ as big as the Ritz” in everyday conversation.

Anyway, my recent trip to CSICon in New Orleans was no exception. Not only was the solar-fusion yellow Hawaiian shirt in full effect, but I also returned with three more books than I arrived with. What struck me about this particular collection of reads was the variety of disciplines they touched on. At the CSICon book display, I picked up The Truth about Uri Geller, the classic work of flair-trousered debunkery by magician James Randi, and 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jon Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. (Scott, I should mention, was my conspiracy theory session’s chair.) Down the street from the conference hotel, at Crescent City Books, I picked up Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, 6th ed., by Kenneth L. Feder.

These books, together, only make sense on a skeptic’s bookshelf, which is one of the reasons I am so attracted to skepticism as a methodological framework for scholarship–it gives one a large set of tools that can be applied to widely divergent areas of study. While I have chops in a couple of disciplines, I also have the flexibility to begin to assess the contents of novel claims, even if I am not an authority in all areas.

The value of these books, to me at least, is how each contributes to my mental map of my own limitations, which is important to know if you want to avoid making unwarranted, unsupportable and silly claims. The subjects of these books span the range of topics from deliberate deception, in the case of Geller, to inadvertent yet pervasive misinformation, in the case of popular psychology.

James Randi’s The Truth About Uri Geller is a skeptical standard, as is anything written by James Randi. Besides being a magician, Randi also has to be a bit of an acrobat, one the one hand laying bare that Uri Geller, the 1970s spoon bending Israeli, was little more than a stage performer, all the while protecting the secrets of the craft and so forth.

Much of the book is documentary, culled from sources reporting on Geller’s rise to prominence in the US. Randi spends a lot of time showing how the media was fooled, and how misremembering and misreporting fed into the Geller myth. Occasionally, Randi illustrates precisely how a trick was accomplished by publishing evidence of Geller’s mistakes. My favorite was Geller’s attempt to take a “psychic photograph” on a camera that still had its lens cap on. This “test” of Geller’s abilities was performed in a private residence, and illustrates how a patient and talented performer can multitask. In this case, he said that the photograph had been taken (it had not), but then later in the test, he had his test administrators leave the room to write something on a slip of paper. While they were out of the room, he removed the camera and snapped a photo. Randi can confidently assert this because Geller did not realize that the lens had an extra-wide field of view and caught his FACE in the shot, thoroughly debunking himself! Randi replicates effect, and the conclusion is undeniable.

You walk away from the book admiring Geller’s skill as a magician and manager of illusions, but with no respect for him as a person. Geller’s talent for peeks, distraction, and causing confusion is undeniable. But his trickery, which seems inexplicable to the untrained eye, withers under the scrutiny of his technical equals and moral betters.

Next is Kenneth Feder’s Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. I read the sixth edition. Feder provides a general guide to distinguishing good archaeology from not-as-great archaeology. Feder pays special attention to a number of hoaxes and sensational claims about civilizations past. In doing so, he builds up models of how archaeologists treat and interpret evidence.

Personally, I think that much pseudo-archaeology, including ancient alien hypotheses and so-called biblical archaeology (which seeks to establish that one’s own literal interpretation of the Bible is the correct one), do not meet nearly enough informed criticism in the popular press. Feder lays bare what we would expect to find if these extraordinary claims are found to be true and how news evidence fits into a much larger body of evidence about humanity’s past.

The most important warning that Feder delivers, it seems to me, is to be especially wary of those claims that give you exactly what you most expect or hope to find. Many of the hoaxes and instances of scientific fraud Feder takes the reader through, like Piltdown, succeeded because people embrace agreeable finds. While it may seem staggeringly obvious in hindsight, the satisfaction of expectations and justification of prejudices seems to be especially compelling to the public. At the same time, those most memorable, earth-shattering claims are the most likely to be repeated in the media and repeated. An understanding of the standards of practice and the process of archaeology is an important safeguard against embracing impossibilities. Critical thinking exercises at the end of each chapter drive home the important points and encourage readers to consider the implications of issues raised in the chapters.

As questions at the end of chapters usually do. (Sigh.)

The final book that I brought home from New Orleans was 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by…a whole lot of psychologists. Fine, I’ll type them all out: Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jon Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein (abbreviated to  “L.L. RuBe”). L.L. RuBe looks at a large number of popular popular misconceptions about how our minds work. The topics covered, from the idea that we use only 10% of our brains to the idea that people commonly repress traumatic memories, are those sorts of things that have seeped into the culture. Again, the explanations for why these ideas are popular vary, but often they seem to patch over gaps in actual knowledge, and L.L. Rube does an excellent job filling those in with solid science.

An interesting and unexpected feature is a list of topics that the authors, numerous as they were, simply did not have time to cover. At the end of each chapter, they remind you that they have only scratched the the tip of the volcano. Uhhh… That metaphor slipped away from me like a slippery thing. I can easily see using this book in my writing about science and pseudoscience class as an invention source for first-year research questions, for instance.

Review Questions:

1) Can you tell where Bob forced together two versions of this post? If not, check to see if you have a lobotomy scar.

2) At what point did Bob simply run out of steam?

RJB


This Week in Conspiracy (5 February 2012)

February 6, 2012

BAM! Finished another article and sent it off tonight. What next? I could watch Puppy Bowl reruns….Aw shucks, let’s do a conspiracy theory round-up!

Conspiracy Theory of the Week: Ron Paul Edition

First, an irony of epic proportions. It turns out Ron Paul’s biggest donor is a Bilderberger.

Also, and I know I posted this earlier, but I love, freaking LOVE, this video at the Georgia Guidestones by a Ron Paul supporter/conspiracy theorist. Make sure you watch until after the wind dies down, because, wow, there is some profound linguistic analysis.

Conspiracy is so much fun!

Anyway, I have a couple of reviews in the pipeline, so stay tuned. Keep it classy, Internet!

RJB


A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

January 31, 2012

Yesterday, chum of the Skeptical Humanities site, Sharon Hill of the Doubtful News blog, posted a generally excellent piece about skeptics putting on hoaxes. Go read it. But be ye warned, she ventures like a deer into the barreling Mack track that is Skeptical Humanities when she says:

Many other hoaxes can be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website including the famous Sokal hoax where Alan Sokal sent in a paper full of gobbledegook words to a journal to see if it would be accepted. It was. He succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals and embarrassing his field into reaction.

Well, not exactly. Sokal was a physicist, who was attempting to make a point about certain critics’ misuse of scientific terminology and a sort of absurd posturing that one often sees in the postmodern camps of literary theory.

In the schools of thought that concerned Alan Sokal, all language is basically a game and meaning is never absolute. He was prompted to perpetrate the hoax after he read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Gross and Levitt. In Higher Superstition, the authors, both working scientists, look at a lot of the big names in critical theory, including Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and others and show in excruciating detail how utterly unqualified to have an opinion about the scientific matters on which they publish. Most of what they find is gobbledegook, not unlike the science word-salad of newage gurus like Deepak Chopra and Ramtha, the guy from outer space who lives inside a lady.

Gross and Levitt notice that there are some similarities between the schools of thought that accrete around these academic gurus. In these cliques, you are generally rewarded for exaggerating the socially liberating potential of… whatever text you are looking at, whether it is Finnegans Wake or the back of a Happy Meal. (I’d rather read the back of a Happy Meal, to be honest.) They notice a particular ritual vocabulary, the presence of which seems to validate whatever is being said by the critical theorist, but which is impenetrable to mortals. And, lastly, they especially focus on the ways in which critical theory has presumed to critique not only the language in which science is communicated, but the content of the science itself, that is, that in the extreme forms of this criticism, all reality is merely a linguistic construct, often one that somehow offends the political principles that motivate the cultural critics. Therefore, the critic concludes: “Science is wrong. I just recreated the entire world. I’m pretty much a genius.”

You’d like to think that I’m joking, but take Sandra Harding’s closer to her book, The Science Question in Feminism:

“When we began theorizing our experience…we know our task would be a difficult though exciting one. But I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined that we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself to make sense of women’s social experience.”

So, this sort of self-important posturing by the scientifically illiterate does exist, and this is what Gross and Levitt demonstrated in spades in their book. How far can it go, wondered NYU physicist Alan Sokal?

Pretty far, it turns out.

Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodern critical journal, Social Text, called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It’s a screamer. It makes no sense. The editors of Social Text accepted it without any changes (they had asked for some, but Sokal refused, and they ran it anyway). It seems they were excited to have a physicist speaking their language and trusted him.

Oops.

When “Transgressing the Boundaries” went to press, Sokal released yet another article in a different publication exposing the hoax. I was an undergraduate at the time and missed the controversy the first time around, but it was intense and still ignites fierce debate about the meaning of the hoax, academic honesty, and a whole range of other issues, many of which Sharon identifies with respect to other hoaxes. I discussed this hoax in a paper I gave in April, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.”

What is important for the purpose of this post is that the Sokal Hoax does not actually demonstrate what people have said that it demonstrates. A sample size of one does simply does not qualify all-inclusive statements like “[Sokal] succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals….” He did, after all, only show that one journal of a specific academic bent, postmodern criticism, was WAY too uncritical about what it accepted, not that humanities journals are in decline.

The type of problem that Social Text represented back in the day (it is not often noted that the editors re-schooled themselves in science after the hoax was revealed, much to their credit) should not reflect on the myriad of other journals that use accumulated evidence and genuine expertise to make statements and meaningful arguments about history, linguistics and languages, literature, rhetoric, media, music, ethics, philosophy, theology, and all the other fields of study that fall under the purview of the humanities writ large. Yes, critical theory sometimes is wacky, but sometimes it’s sensible, even enjoyable. No, critical theory is not the humanities, though by the grandiose posturing that some practitioners have adopted, you might be tempted to think that they were.

This is the point of this blog, to show that there is more to the humanities than theorizing feminist algebra, whatever that is, and to remind our friends in the sciences that we are doing serious, scholarly work as well.

RJB


Skeptical Humanities Panel at Dragon*Con

January 15, 2012

We’ve been out of commission for a few weeks. I am working on another edition of the conspiracy theory round up this evening, but to tide you over, I’d like to direct you to a video that just went up, our Skepticism and Humanities panel at Dragon*Con, featuring Eve, Massimo Pigliucci, Jenna Marie Griffith, Joe Nickell and me.

Much thanks goes to Derek Colanduno, who runs the SkepTrack, and Mark Ditsler of Abrupt Media, who records every second of SkeptTrack in high-def on a minimum of five cameras.

RJB


The Last Two Weeks or So In Conspiracy (31 Dec 2011)

December 31, 2011

Yeah, I’ve been out of contact recently, traveling the country, racking up foursquare points (why, I’m not sure), and learning the ways of the iPad. Things have settled back down, and I can take a little time to bring everyone up to speed on the wide, wide world of weird.

In the next few days, I’ll be heading out to Seattle to interview for a job in Mississippi (yeah, it’s easier if you just don’t think about it). I have seized upon the opportunity to make sure that I have a long layover at the Denver International Airport, which is where the bigwigs who are really in charge are going to wait out the end of the world. Or detain gun owners. Or transfer planes. Nobody is too sure about that. Anyway, I’m there. I’ve been trying to contact the artist whose murals have come under suspicion most goofy so that I could meet and interview him during my 4 hours at DIA, but given the weird attention his work has received, he’s hard to get in touch with, as you might imagine. (If anyone has any ideas…the email addy on his website is obsolete.)

Mike Adams, Health Stranger

davidfrum (@davidfrum)
12/26/11 1:08 PM
“CNN is run by Jews.” From the comments on my CNN.com Ron Paul column … bit.ly/soURcG

Well played, redneck. Well played. I’m willing to bet that you read Veterans Today, which was also horrible this week.

SEEDS?!?!?!?!?!

I enjoyed this book, because of some of the insider information that he brings out. I liked the insights into the invisible world, for example, how certain aliens are working with Satan the Devil, how Satan looks like a reptilian, including his hosts.

Conspiracy theories of the last few weeks:

“And, therefore planet Earth, as a female cosmic body with its newer, progressively greater level of 4th dimensional energy emanating from her – from Earth’s core – she is finally ready to be ‘fertilized’, and is attracting, pulling, drawing to her… the transformative cosmic 4th dimensional vibratory ‘male’ energy from the new crystal blue star (that was comet Holmes).”

Told you.

Dishonorable mention:

  • IntelHub gives exopolitics a run for its money, though, and this one blew me away with the goof. OK. Try to keep up. The Intel Hub, whose logo appropriately suggests something stinks over there, sez: “Chemtrail-like Substance Could Be Used in Blue Beam Type Operation.” Blue Beam is a continuation of the Philadelphia (boat teleportation) and Montauk (dead raccoons) Projects. Blue Beam is designed, according to this guy on the Internet, “to create a world-wide light show with accompanying electronically driven wave patterns.” Also, WTF does that even mean? Anyway, the pulse of energy is supposed to make people think that God is talking to them. Totally f-in’ superfluous, since people already think that God is talking to them! This is really an elaborate one that assumes earthquake-making, archaeological forgeries, telepathy, messiah-arriving, faked one-world religion, and staged UFO invasions. But this is the real problem: the IntelHub is setting itself up to believe this unfathomably vast pile of whale poop: “The Intel Hub has also received similar reports from various locations in the CONUS (Continental United States) and is requesting additional information/sightings to be sent to us (tips@theintelhub.com).” No matter how much contradictory information can be brought to bear on the questions raised by the Blue Beam video (like all of physics, meteorology, aerospace and electrical engineering, and psychology), they are completely and explicitly uninterested in that evidence. So, if, for instance, an airline pilot wrote in saying, “Hey, I need to take into account all the mass on my airplane to calculate how much fuel I have, including the ‘magic fairy chemtrail dust,’ so it’s impossible that I would be able to spray and not know about it. Now tell me I’m poisoning people to my face, suckafoo,” Intelhub will hear none of it. Here’s a tip: Grow. Up.

Week’s Best Headline:

Not strictly related to conspiracy theory in…any way I can think of, but this headline needs to be read aloud to orphans every Christmas: “Victoria’s Secret: Busted for Undies With an Ugly Past”.

Thanks for an excellent year, folks! We had over 100,000 hits, many of which were not my mother. We’ll see you on the other side of the New Year!

RJB


Skeptical Humanities on The Token Skeptic Podcast

December 31, 2011

Even and I were recently interviewed by Kylie Sturgess, whose work we admire immoderately. Her podcast is The Token Skeptic, and the episode in question is about the film Anonymous:

http://tokenskeptic.org/?powerpress_embed=1450-podcast&powerpress_player=default

We’ve worked with Kylie in the past. We were on a couple of panels together at this year’s Dragon*Con. She’s also the editor of the Young Australian Skeptics’ only recently published Skeptical Blog Anthology, and we have a piece in there. GO BUY IT NAOW! While it’s great that a lot of the big names are represented, they also give voice to a number of clever and insightful yet less well-known skeptics. An excellent snapshot of an important period in skeptical history, I think. Check it out!

RJB


This Week in Conspiracy (4 December 2011)

December 4, 2011

Howdy. We may be blasting Burzynski mercilessly, but we’re still constantly collecting stories for the week in conspiracy. If you come across any good ones, please let me know!

Conspiracy Theories of the Week

“Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities, relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States or any other person who is captured or arrested in the United States.”

That’s all you’re going to get out of me this week. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some important Mystery Science Theater 3000s to watch.

RJB