Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!


This Week in Conspiracy (19 Aug 2012)

August 20, 2012

What ho! The Virtual Skeptics has gotten off to a real whiz-bang of a start. It streams live at 8:00PM Eastern on Wednesday nights. It’s like Meet the Press, but with chupacabras.

But not all of the free, live content in the world could keep me from plucking the ripest lowest-hanging fruit from the tree of conspiracy and hurling it at your head. So, head’s up!

We have mass graves dug all over America for the planned killing of millions of the Middle Class of America. We have had a large number of guillotines that have been shipped to America. Chopping off of heads is the Islamic way of killing off your enemies. We have secret federal concentration camps set up all across America. C.I.A. and other intelligence sources are supposed to help engineer terrible economic conditions in America for October to help stir up the people to mass discontent, rioting in the streets, etc. and this gives Obama the legal excuse to place America under martial law. Foreign soldiers are already arranged to help mass disarm the American people of all their guns. Homeland Security for example has already been notified to prepare for massive uprisings in America in October.

The mocking of conspiracy theories in the American press and Western media is based on the simplistic argument that reason is on the side of the government and officialdom, not on the fringe of society and civilization.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

My favorite report of the week came from the venerable Weekly World News:

That’s it for this week! Check out the Virtual Skeptics this Wednesday at 8:00PM Eastern! Pip pip!

RJB

 


The Week in Conspiracy: Post TAM 2012 edition

July 17, 2012

For the last several weeks, I’ve been teaching, packing, hunting for a house, and preparing for my TAM panel. It turns out that when I’m not writing this feature, I do feel as if something is lacking, so I am making a great lunge at normalcy by coming back and writing another Week in Conspiracy. After TAM, a new project is in the works that is going to take this to the next level. More to come. But we are assembling the super-friends to start this sucker up. Needless to say (a phrase that should not exist) when you get a couple hundred skeptics in a bar together, the ideas come fast and furious (another phrase that shouldn’t exist, but for different reasons). I’ve been meticulously gathering the woo as I always have, so there are no gaps in the coverage, just gaps in publication.

STOP THE PRESSES!

Well, it looks sort of unavoidable that I’m going to have to talk about the mass shooting in Colorado. Damn it. But were not 24 hours into the aftermath and I’ve seen the CIA, FBI, MK-Ultra, and Obama targeted as possible culprits. I’m only going to point out a couple of the worst…people in general who have decided to fap furiously to the misery.

Lone Deranger ‏@postielinley
Alex Jones Says Aurora Shooting Was Staged By Obama
http://lgf.bz/LyGrFo  // Proof Alex Jones is a complete fucktard
Retweeted by Rhys Morgan

Enough of that. On with the other not news at all:

Twit of the Week

This week’s twit award goes out to the IntelHub, who sent (or “communicated”) this highly ironic tweet:

Obama Seizes Control of All Communications Systems With Executive Order: http://t.co/D7E7m8Qd — IntelHub (@IntelHub)

I would be remiss if I did not mention Josh Bunting’s quip on twitter:

Josh Bunting (@josh_b42)
7/22/12 6:13 PM
Michele Bachmann = M.B. = Muslim Brotherhood. Coincidence?

Conspiracy Theory of the Week

This week’s winner was flagged by Brian Gregory, and it made me very happy: “Earth landing ‘totally faked,’ claim Martian conspiracy theorists.”

That’s all for now, folks! Expect another slight hiatus as I finish up my summer class and move to Wisconsin. I leave in, like, a week and am pretty excited. Got a little house with…gasp!..an office. No more typing in the living room, no siree! I also have a couple of badass projects in the works, as always. But these are super-badass. For real. MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

RJB


Can Science Rape Nature?

July 16, 2012

I don’t mean metaphorically. I’m not talking about fracking damaging Mother Earth. Can science literally rape nature in the same way a man can rape a woman?

No.

This may seem obvious, but there was a bit of a kerfuffle at the Skepticism and Humanities panel at TAM 2012. Bob was talking about the Sokal Hoax, which is sometimes used to attack the Humanities in general. Of course, dismissing several disciplines on the basis of one data point is a failure in critical thinking. Bob was pointing out that it is only a small but vocal minority of post-modernist/post-structuralist scholars who have made radical and silly pronouncements that fly in the face of logic and common sense. One example he cited was the idea that masculine science rapes feminine nature. I made an off-the-cuff joke about nature asking for it. That may have been unfortunate, but–hey–it just slipped out of my mouth. More importantly, I was trying to highlight the absurdity of the accusation: abstract concepts don’t have sexual identities, and they can’t rape each other. Personification isn’t real.

To be clear, Bob was discussing a specific type of academic feminism. There is a lot of great feminist literary criticism: some discussing female authors, such as Aphra Behn and Lady Mary Wroth, whose work was under appreciated for many years; some discussing the treatment of women in works by male authors. But there is a type of feminist scholarship that sees masculine oppression in science, logic, reason and in writing and language itself. Specifically, Bob had in mind Sandra Harding who, in her 1986 book The Science Question in Feminism, called Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica a “rape manual.”

A number of leading proponents of post-structuralist feminist theory, such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cisoux and Luce Irigaray, also attack the supposed patriarchal, masculine oppression of science and reason. They decry the phallogocentrism of language and call for an écriture féminine in which the female body is inscribed on the text. As far as I can tell, this inscribed female body has been reduced to a womb and lactating breasts. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with nurturing and motherhood, but you know what? Logic’s pretty cool, too. And mothering without critical thinking seems to lead to stupid things, like not vaccinating children. To give an idea of how absurd this variety of feminism can get, Irigaray has characterized E=mc2 as a “sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.”

Rape is a vicious, vile, unforgivable crime, but saying that science, an evil masculine entity, rapes nature, a nurturing feminine entity, trivializes rape, demonizes men and makes women look like illogical idiots.

ES

Further reading:

Dawkins, Richard. “Postmodernism Disrobed.” Review of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Imposters. Nov. 1998.

Mandelker, Stephen. “The Radical Feminist Attack on Reason.” Reason Papers, Issue 19. 50-55.


Viking-Age Psychic: Some Hits and One Big Miss

June 21, 2012

Old Norse literature is filled with supernatural beings and occurrences. Obviously, the mythological works refer to gods, elves, dwarfs, giants, enormous serpents, etc., while the sagas feature the returning dead (lots of them), trolls, shape-shifting berserks and the occasional giant. There’s also quite a lot of magic. There is active magic: spells and curses, but, since the sagas were written by Christians and the Icelandic family sagas (Íslandingasögur) often take place after the conversion (at least in part), this kind of magic is often viewed negatively. In addition, since seiðr magic was particularly associated with women, male practitioners (including Odin) were often viewed with suspicion and contempt. Even though magic sometimes has a bad reputation in the sagas, it is generally taken for granted and therefore often works (in the saga accounts–not in real life).

Along with active magic, there is also prophetic or divinatory magic. Sometimes active and prophetic magic go hand and hand, but they could also be separate, and I’m going to focus on prophetic magic in this post. Prophecy can come in many forms in the sagas: sometimes people have prophetic dreams; sometimes a member of one of the overlapping groups of female deities associated with human fate will turn up (dísirfylgjurnornir). Since the sagas’ original audience would often have been familiar with the general plots of the stories, saga writers don’t build suspense in quite the same way modern novelists do. Instead they often use a lot of prophetic foreshadowing. This is particularly noticeable in Laxdæla saga, in which the author applies prophetic foreshadowing with a trowel: there are dreams, cursed weapons and predictions out the wazoo.

Some saga characters are particularly gifted at foretelling the future. They “see further into things than other people.” Some of these people are men, and they don’t bear the same stigma as men who practice seiðr. Indeed, they are often considered wise counselors. For instance, in Laxdæla saga, a man named Gest Oddleifsson

was an important chieftain and especially wise man, who could foretell many events of the future. Most of the foremost men of the country were on good terms with him and many sought his advice. (ch. 33, p. 328)

On one occasion, he and Olaf Hoskuldsson observe a group of young men swimming. He is able to identify Olaf’s sons and nephew. After Olaf leaves, Gest begins to weep and predicts that one day Olaf’s nephew Bolli will

stoop over [his cousin/fosterbrother/best friend] Kjartan’s corpse and in slaying him bring about his own death, a vision all the more saddening because of the excellence of these young men. (ch. 33, p. 331)

Earlier, he had interpreted a series of dreams for Gudrun Osvifsdottir. These dreams also relate to the central tragedy, as Gudrun gets engaged to Kjartan, but marries Bolli.

The sagas also feature professional seers, the völur (singular völva). The völur were female and often practiced seiðr as well as divination. The title of the mythological poem Völuspá means “The Prophecy of the völva.” The völur were respected and well-compensated (the Wikipedia article gives some examples of very rich völur graves).

Eirik the Red’s Saga gives one of the most detailed descriptions of a völva’s appearance and performance. Thorbjorg lives in Greenland and is known as the Little Sybil (lítilvölva). She and her nine sisters were all völur, but she is only one still alive. The saga makes it clear the kind of respect the völur commanded:

It was her custom in winter to attend feasts; she was always invited, in particular, by those who were most curious about their own fortunes or the season’s prospects…. Thorkel invited the prophetess to his house and prepared a good reception for her, as was the custom when such women were being received. A high-seat was made ready for her with a cushion on it, which had to be stuffed with hens’ feathers…. When she entered the room everyone felt obliged to proffer respectful greetings, to which she responded according to her opinion of each person. (ch. 4, pp. 81-82)

Her clothing and her meal are described in very great detail. This is what she ate:

[S]he was given a gruel made from goat’s milk, and a main dish of hearts from the various kinds of animals that were available there [during a time of famine]. She used a brass spoon, and a knife with a walrus-tusk handle bound with two rings of copper; the blade had a broken point. (ch. 4, p. 82)

The clothing, food, hen feathers and accouterments all presumably have some sort of magical significance. Unfortunately, she needs one more thing: a bunch of women who will stand in a circle and at least one woman who can sing certain spells. The only woman who knows the spells is Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a young woman recently arrived from Iceland, who learned the spells from her foster-mother but is hesitant to perform them because she is a Christian and doesn’t want to do something so pagany. Eventually, she is convinced.

If you strip away all the magical trappings, however, the Little Sybil’s performance isn’t too different from that of a modern psychic or a nineteenth-century spiritualist. She doesn’t actually contact the spirits of the dead–when the Norse dead wanted to contact the living, they just got up and did it themselves, using their dead bodies (this occurs in Eirik’s saga, when Thorstein Eiriksson sits up to give a final message to his wife, the aforementioned Gudrid). She does, however, mention spirits (náttúrur):

Many spirits are now present…which were charmed to hear the singing, and which previously had tried to shun us and would grant us no obedience. And now many things stand revealed to me which before were hidden both from me and from others. (ch. 4, p. 83)

And what is her actual prophecy? Well, she’s been invited because there has been a severe famine, and people want to know when it will end:

I can now say that this famine will not last much longer and that conditions will improve with the spring; and the epidemic which has persisted for so long will abate sooner than expected. (ch. 4, p. 83)

Yippee! Exactly what people want to hear. She also has a prediction for Gudrid:

…I can see your whole destiny with great clarity now. You will make a most distinguished marriage here in Greenland, but it will not last for long, for your paths all lead to Iceland; there you will start a great and eminent family line, and over your progeny there shall shine a bright light. (ch. 4, p. 83)

She gives readings to others as well, although the details are not provided. We are told, however, that “there were few things that did not turn out as she prophesied.” And, indeed, her predictions are accurate as far as they go, but, considering she can see Gudrid’s whole destiny, she leaves out a few important details: “During your first marriage, there will be an epidemic, and the dead will rise. Your own husband will rise as a zombie, but don’t worry, he doesn’t want to eat your brains; he just wants a Christian burial.” Missed that one.

Oh, and there’s one more glaring miss: all Gudrid’s paths lead to Iceland, except the one that leads to a new world that hadn’t been discovered at the time of the prophecy. Gudrid will start a great and eminent family line in Iceland, but one important member of that family line will be the first European born in that brand new world. North America–kind of a big thing to leave out, don’t you think?

Actual photo of “The Little Sybil”

ES

References:

Eirik’s SagaThe Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. Tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Penguin Classics ed. London, Penguin, 1965. All quotations are from this edition.

Eiríks saga rauða. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. Heimskringla.no

The Saga of the People of Laxardal. Tr. Keneva Kunz. The Sagas of Icelanders. Ed. Örnólfur Thorsson. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2000. All quotations are from this edition.


New Conspiracy Guy post up at CSI site

June 21, 2012

My most recent “Conspiracy Guy” column is up at CSI. It’s called, “Tim McVeigh’s Must-Read List: The Turner Diaries.” As always, I encourage comments here, as the CSI site does not offer that option. It’s a pretty goddamned awful book I’m discussing with a pretty goddamned good scholar, Tom Lolis.

RJB (codename: Defiant Taco)


Stephen Hawking Is Wrong!

June 10, 2012

…about Norse mythology.

Last night I watched an episode of Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design, called “Did God Create the Universe” on Discovery. The series is based on his book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow). At the beginning of the episode, Hawking discusses how people have invented gods to explain natural events they didn’t understand. In particular, he mentions Norse beliefs. We are treated to footage of actors pretending to be scraggly Vikings looking in terror at the sky. Hawking mentions that the Norse feared Thor, who made lightning, and Ægir who brought storms. But the god they feared the most was…Sköll.

Sköll?!

Yes, Sköll. Hawking explains that Sköll was a wolf who chased the sun, and when he caught up with her chariot, he ate her, causing an eclipse. He describes it somewhat differently in his book. He begins with a quote from Grimnismál, from the Poetic Edda:

Skoll the wolf who shall scare the Moon
Till he flies to the Wood-of-Woe:
Hati the wolf, Hridvitnir’s kin,
Who shall pursue the sun. (qtd. in The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Nowhere does he give credit to the translator. Most people who quote the passage on the Internet also fail to give the translator credit. The translation is by renowned twentieth-century poet, W. H. Auden, with Paul B. Taylor. You can find the complete translation here. Auden’s translation is lovely, but a bit…poetic. A more literal translation:

Sköll is the name of the wolf who pursues the bright-faced god to the defending wood. The other [is] Hati; he is Hróðvitnir’s son; he shall [be] in front of the bright bride of heaven. (My translation, based on the edition by Guðni Jónsson)

The sun is both the bright-faced god(dess) and the bright bride of heaven. One wolf pursues her, and the other is in front of her, presumably chasing her brother, the moon. Auden seems to have his wolves backwards. Hawking goes on to say:

In Viking mythology, Skoll and Hati chase the sun and the moon. When the wolves catch either one, there is an eclipse. When this happens, the people on earth rush to rescue the sun or moon by making as much noise as they can in hopes of scaring off the wolves. (The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Now, it is absurd to suggest that Sköll was the most feared of Norse gods. Outside this mention in Grimnismál and an elaboration on it in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, he isn’t even named. Also, he’s not a god or a “wolf-god,” as Hawking calls him. The two races of gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, were on one side, and supernatural wolves were in the opposing camp, along with giants. It’s true that Hati is said to be the son of Hróðvitnir (Fenrir)*, and Fenrir is the son of Loki, and Loki lived among the Æsir. But Loki was not quite one of the Æsir: while several gods (including Odin and Thor) had giantess mothers, Loki’s father was a giant (Fárbauti), which seems to be much more problematic. Many of Loki’s offspring were monsters who fought against the gods (one notable exception is Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed, but Loki was Sleipnir’s mother, not his father).

The main problem with Hawking’s discussion of Norse mythology is his claim that the wolves’ attacks on the sun and the moon were used to explain eclipses. They weren’t, no matter what the Internet says. The passage in Grimnismál is a bit obscure, but in paraphrasing it, Snorri says:

There are two wolves, and the one who is chasing her [the sun] is called Skoll. He frightens her, and he eventually will catch her. The other is called Hati Hrodvitnisson. He runs in front of her trying to catch the moon. And, this will happen. (Gylfaginning, Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 20)

Notice the use of the future tense? These are not events that happen regularly: they are extraordinary events that have not occurred yet. Later Snorri says,

First will come the winter called Fimbulvetr [Extreme Winter]. Snow will drive in from all directions; the cold will be severe and the winds will be fierce. The sun will be of no use. Three of these winters will come, one after the other, with no summer in between…. Next will come an event thought to be of much importance. The wolf will swallow the sun, and mankind will think it has suffered a terrible disaster. Then the other wolf will catch the moon, and he too will cause much ruin. The stars will disappear from the heavens. (Gylfaginning, The Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 71).

The disappearance of the sun, the moon and the stars heralds the beginning of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. I don’t know how the Norse interpreted eclipses. I suppose it is possible that they thought, “Oh no, Ragnarok’s coming,” but I tend to doubt it. They were used to the idea of the sun going away for most of the winter, so I wouldn’t think they’d be too worried if it disappeared for a few minutes. Oh, and I have no idea where he got the thing about making noises to scare the wolves away.

Hawking makes the mistake of thinking the mythic future applies to the historical present. This is similar to what ancient alien theorist Graham Hancock does in Fingerprints of the Gods, as I have discussed previously. Both Hancock and Hawking speak of an event that is supposed to happen in the future and apply it to real events that have already happened. This is not company you want to be in, Professor Hawking.

*In Vafþruðnismál, it is Fenrir himself who swallows the sun.

ES

REFERENCES:

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam, 2010. Kindle edition.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Tr. Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics Ed. London: Penguin, 2005.