I Ought to be a Woo: My Brain

This is the first post in what will probably be a long and rambling introspective series on how it’s a miracle* that I ended up as skeptical as I am. First up: how my brain works.

Yesterday I was listening to a “Doctor Who” audio drama on my iPod and thinking a little about continuity–not “Doctor Who” continuity, even…I think I was considering something about Kryptonite for some reason. Anyway, my years in various sorts of fandom have taught me that I’m very good at rationalizing things. Give me any continuity error, quibbling (“Han was bluffing Obi-Wan; obviously a parsec is a unit of distance. As he showed with the Death Star communicator, he’s not always good at bluffing”) or monumental (“Due to the traumatic regeneration, which took place on Earth instead of in the TARDIS, the Doctor took on some terrestrial biological characteristics for his Eighth Incarnation; he’s ‘half-human’ on the side of his mother–Mother Earth”) and I can smooth it out with some post-hocking. I don’t even have to try particularly hard, except when I start applying this kind of thinking outside of fiction.

Moreover, I’m pretty good at drawing connections between otherwise disparate things. It makes compare/contrast essays really easy, and I imagine it’s a large part of why I’m so fascinated with Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn off. I find myself sometimes assigning thematic significance to things that happen in my life. I often hear new bands or see movies and begin describing it in terms of other bands or films–for instance, when I was riding with a friend yesterday, I described the band he was listening to as “Wall of Voodoo meets Tom Waits.” I then promptly felt like an asshole hipster and wanted to shoot myself. But that kind of thing happens all the time; I look at Xander from “Buffy” and can’t help thinking he must be Bruce Campbell’s secret love child, or I watch a preview for “P.S. I Love You” and think that it’s “Saw” as a love story. My brain is forever drawing connections.

As anyone who’s had any experience in the Skeptosphere already knows, post-hoc rationalization and connection-drawing are foundational to a variety of different types of magical thinking and woodom.

Post-hoc rationalizations require two things: first, an assumption of the truth, and second, an inconsistency between that assumption and observation. In fandom, that might look something like this:
Assumption: The “Star Wars” series is coherent and without contradiction.
Inconsistency: Princess Leia says in “Return of the Jedi” that she remembered her birth mother, who was “beautiful, kind but sad.” But we see in “Revenge of the Sith” that Padme Amidala dies in childbirth; how could Leia possibly remember that?
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Leia is Force-sensitive, and so her memories are influenced by telepathic impressions she received of her mother pre- and immediately post-natal.

See how it works? You start with your pre-existing worldview, and then iron out any inconsistencies with easy hand-waving explanations, ignoring totally the simpler, more parsimonious explanation that your initial assumptions may be flawed. For instance:
Assumption: God exists and answers prayers from His followers.
Inconsistency: Not all believers’ prayers get answered.
Post-Hoc Rationalization: They weren’t praying/believing right.

Or how about:
Assumption: Sylvia Browne has psychic powers.
Inconsistency: She told this lady that “the reason why you didn’t find him [her late husband’s body] is because he’s in water.” But the woman’s husband was a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center, not “in water.”
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Well, Sylvia was getting the water impression from the water used by the firefighters to put out the fire. The spirits, you see, they’re hard to hear, and maybe he didn’t die in the tower at all, or…

Did someone say World Trade Center? Why, I do believe that brings us to “drawing connections” (see how I drew that one? Not yet? Oh, well, wait a minute). Without the tendency to draw connections between otherwise unrelated things, there would be no conspiracy theories (get it now?), and alternative medicine types would have a much harder time hocking their wares. Connection drawing requires, in most cases, a great deal of cherry-picking, an affinity for analogies, and a tendency to inflate “connection” into “causal relationship.” It’s a boon for English majors, because it allows us to do things like literary interpretation and analysis, and pretend to have some degree of certainty.

As an example, I recently had to write a research paper on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” One of the ideas I had was that the vampires in Dracula (especially the Count himself) are 19th-century anti-Catholic caricatures. There’s the easy bits, like the fact that Stoker was an Anglican and the whole blood-drinking thing (since Catholics believe in real, not symbolic, transubstantiation). Our protagonists are largely Church of England, and are rather blasé about their faith; Jonathan Harker thinks that the Eastern Europeans he encounters are silly and superstitious, and he tries to refuse the Rosary one woman gives him. The vampires are all cowed and harmed Catholic iconography–the Host, crucifixes, etc.–which are used by our protagonists like magical spells. Only the vampires (and the “superstitious” characters) recognize any power in the icons, for everyone else, they are meaningless. This is a reference to the common characterization of Catholicism as witchcraft (and perhaps to Medieval Catholicism, where the illiterate laity incorporated those same Catholic icons in their old pagan magic rituals).

See, I could have built a pretty decent paper around that thesis, even though I recognize that it’s probably utter bullshit. I doubt that Stoker wrote his book as an anti-Catholic polemic, and if he did, then I doubt many of his readers would have gotten it. And to make the case, I have to ignore the fact that the most lauded character in the book is the obviously Catholic Abraham Van Helsing, or the various other details that don’t support (or actively contradict) my thesis. But I can cherry-pick details all day long, maybe do some quote-mining, and get a good essay out of it.

The same kind of thing is necessary for alternative medicine, astrology, or any other woo that posits a cause-effect relationship between otherwise unconnected objects. And conspiracy theories thrive on this. The phrase “do you think that’s [the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts/the government’s reluctance to release details about purported UFOs/the crash of Flight 93/the ‘expulsion’ of these ID advocates from academia/etc.] a coincidence?” is testament to that. I could offer up an example here, to match my term paper paragraph, but I’m sure you get the picture.

These are natural human drives. We are built to make connections; our ability to infer causal relationships and plan accordingly is one of the biggest survival advantages we have–it just doesn’t have a great deal of precision. And we crave explanations for things, any explanations, even ones that are pure guesswork, because that’s still more satisfying than not knowing.

When we combine these tendencies, to draw connections and iron out inconsistencies, we end up with neat, emotionally-satisfying narratives. In narrative storytelling, events must be connected or significant somehow. Everything fits together in a neat package, usually with some kind of moral center. There’s a climax and a resolution, and all the loose ends are tied up in a way that provides fulfillment and closure. We understand that kind of story; what we have a hard time grasping is reality, where things aren’t all connected and symbolic and leading to some emotionally-gratifying conclusion.

Maybe it’s hubris or shame or something that causes me to think that I’m somehow abnormal in having these connection-building and rationalizing drives in overdrive. Maybe I’m not that much different from anyone else. But it still seems amazing that I could become skeptical–heck, that anyone could become skeptical, with these cards stacked against them.

I think the first step is becoming aware of the common faults of human thought. In order to overcome the tendency toward erroneous thinking, you have to know that there’s something to overcome. It always comes back to education, doesn’t it?

That seems like enough rambling for now, but I’ll come back to this topic periodically.

The Ghift that keeps on Ghiving

In a previous post, I talked about an image bestowed upon us by Ghislain, a commenter here and over at Action Skeptics. In that post, I referred to Ghislain as a “troll,” and I’m really not sure about that appellation. To me, “trolling” involves some degree of intent to annoy or deliberately irritate the writer/community, and I don’t get that vibe from Ghislain. I don’t even dislike the guy, though I think he’s a little egotistical. I really think I hit on it in the comments to that previous post: that he’s been honestly suckered into this Newage garbage because it allows him to feel special and talk like he’s intelligent and claim some superiority, without having to learn anything of substance. It’s easy to learn catchy buzzwords like “imaginify” and pop philosophy like “you create your own universe;” it’s a lot harder to learn actual information and philosophy and whatnot.

And I think that’s an attraction for most religious groups, particularly the younger ones (Scientology and Mormonism especially, it’s also a feature of the early Gnostic Christian sects)–they tell you you’re special and superior to other people, and they give you the “secret knowledge” that lets you feign intellectual superiority and lord it over the unenlightened rubes all around you. New religions don’t have things like tradition and majority to help convince people to join, so they have to offer something else, and that something else is often “everyone else is wrong, and you can be better than them.”

But that’s all neither here nor there; my purpose for this post was to explore the contents of a link that Ghislain left in one of his last posts at Action Skeptics. Unfortunately, he’s deleted the post, but it went something like this:

god bless

carpe diem

http://www.paoweb.com/umacexp.htm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4Hcd60VoRM

Ghislain left the same post here, sans links, which is why I was able to reconstruct it. The last link there is to a terrible Michael Jackson video, so feel free to watch that, but the first link is to a tiny cornucopia of crazy.

Oh, this is my +4 shield of insanity.
“Ummac Dan”
Galactic Federation Symbol For The Sirian Star System

The “Ummac Dan” is the symbol of the Sirian Star system.
It is an emblem that intensely activates all humans.

What does it mean to “intensely activate” all humans? Why would a symbol from the Sirian star system have an effect on humans? Shouldn’t the symbol of the Dog Star have some effect on dogs? How do you know this is the symbol of the Sirian star system? For that matter, why would a whole star system have only one symbol? Is there an equivalent symbol for the Sol system? I suppose the Voyager disk might qualify, but that seems more a symbol of Earth than of the whole system. As far as we know, the Sirius system consists of two stars and some dust…who, then, created the symbol?

The escutcheon, or shield, consists of three parts. A gold six-pointed star tetrahedron, lies at the centre.

Yeahbuhwha? No, no it doesn’t. A gold six-pointed star lies at the center, sure, but not a tetrahedron. Nothing in that image could be described as a tetrahedron: a tetrahedron is a three-dimensional solid (-hedron) with four faces (tetra-) that are all triangles. There are triangles in that shield, and there’s a six-pointed star, but there sure as hell isn’t a tetrahedron anywhere near it.

Superimposed on the gold star is a silver cross. On either side of the cross is a silver scythe.

Really? I see a couple of curved lines, but neither one looks like a scythe. This is a scythe:
Oh, this is my +2 scythe of death-bringing.
They look, if anything, like bows.

Cross, scythes and star are encircled by an inner band of silver and an outer band of gold. All are set on a background field of purple.

And they all have some wacky symbolic meaning, I’m sure. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, or something.

Each part of the “Ummac Dan” is symbolic. The gold star tetrahedron represents the essence of all sentient life in Creation. Silver cross and scythes stand for the manifestation of spirit into matter and its victory over darkness. The silver and gold circles embody the union of male and female principles. The purple field symbolizes God’s holy Creation.

Man, I love dualistic Manichean Newage Christian Space-woo!

PAO
The word “PAO” means “Peace and Inner Strength Through Unity”. It originates from a galactic language that is spoken by a civilization of advanced land Cetaceans living in the Cetus star system. Composed of six planets, this star system is approximately 800 Light Years from our sun.

Cetus isn’t a star system, it’s a constellation, consisting of a whole bunch of stars, the closest of which, sci-fi favorite Tau Ceti, is a mere 12 light years from the Earth. Isn’t it convenient that a planet in Cetus, the whale constellation, would have a species of land-dwelling sea creatures as its main intelligent life? It’d be like Ursa Minor being populated by bear-people, or Sirius bearing canine-inhabited planets.

I’m curious about this galactic language. Why would a language spoken by Cetaceans be pronounceable by people? And so simply? No weird inflections, no different sounds or vowels, just sounds that can be easily formed with human mouths and teeth and tongues and vocal cords, even though the language was invented by land-dwelling water-evolved mammals with a completely different sound-forming apparatus. And how, exactly, did we learn of this galactic language, since it originated 800 light years away?

I love this kind of stuff, because the stories spiral so quickly into inconsistency and insanity, and rarely have any actual science content. The nice thing about Newage is that its stories are new and different, rather than the tired old myths of the Abrahamic religions. Debunking Newage woo, especially space-woo, is just refreshing, because you’re not always making the same old arguments about the same verses and passages. You’re making the same old arguments against new verses and passages, but ones that we can all see are silly and unbelievable. They’re not really any sillier than the beliefs of the more prominent religions, but they don’t have tradition to protect them. Everyone can see that the Newage Emperor is naked.

So thanks for that, Ghislain. One last laugh before you dumped all your posts down the memory hole.

Visualizing Comedy

A particularly vapid troll has been bloviating over at Action Skeptics for some time now, to our collective amusement, annoyance, and frustration. Recently, though, he seems to have paid off. See, he posted a link with the following urgent message:

this is very interesting

MUST CHECK OUT

http://www.imaginify.org/tesseract.gif

(again… make what you will of it)

peace
in the middle east xD

The link was to this image:
WTF?
I looked, and I laughed and laughed and laughed.

But as I tried to make sense of it, I realized how truly profound the image actually was; it’s just that the text is confusing. I’ve cleaned it up and done my best to make the meaning clear:
I am the Necker Cube master!
It all makes sense now! I feel like I am one with the universe.

For those who aren’t quite so trivia-savvy, here’s a list of references (clockwise from top):
beware of minotaur
directional nautilus
lon lon milk
Justice League of America #9
old steve martin gag
complex eyedrocarbon
that thing from pan’s labyrinth
doppler effect

Homeopathic Question

Wouldn’t a homeopathic question actually be an answer, surrounded by so much white space that you’d have to look through dozens of screens in order to find just one pixel of one letter?

But I digress. Here’s my real question: we all know how homeopathic solutions are made (when not talking about the kooks who transmit the homeopathic-ness over the phone or the Internet): you take a substance that causes the symptoms you’re trying to cure (like cures like), dissolve it in a large amount of water, shake it all about, then repeat the last two steps until you feel Avogadro rolling in his grave. Somehow, this makes the medicine super-potent (quantum vibrations) and better than regular medicine (which only treats the symptoms…which are how you determined what substance to use in the first place. Wait a minute…).

Now, here’s where my understanding falls apart. It seems, at this point, that any homeopathic medication would have to be in liquid form, seeing as it’s just plain water. But I know you can buy homeopathic pills. What the heck are they made of?

If, for instance, the pills are capsules, wouldn’t the water inside them dissolve the capsule? If the pills are some kind of geltab, what is the gel made of? And if they’re tablets of any sort, then what are they made of? It’s not like you can just dehydrate a homeopathic remedy. Or is it just that, like Zicam, none of these homeopathic pills actually follow the tenets of homeopathy? I tend to doubt that; seems like Randi would have mentioned it.

So, what do they make homeopathic pills out of?

Mercury Militiaman McCain

I know, I'm shocked at your stupidity too.Apparently John “Million Years War” McCain has decided to divorce himself even further from reality by joining up with the whackjobs and denialists in the “vaccines cause autism” crowd. There’s not a whole lot I can say about how wrong those jackasses are (you can start here if you’re interested), but I have to wonder what would possess John McCain to make such a stupid statement. I mean, I’ve seen him embrace anti-science positions in the past, then reject them when he was more correctly informed (as he did with Darwin several years ago), so it’s possible that the Mercury Militia merely misinformed McCain, and he hasn’t yet found out about their fallacious follies and factual flaccidity.

The other possibility is that he sees some kind of political advantage in this position. How? Is he trying to win the “credulous parent” vote? Is he hoping to steal tinfoil-hat-wearers away from Ron Paul? Could he be courting “arrogant unemployed gamblers” as a significant voting block? Or is he just trying to add to the Republican Party’s ongoing campaign of anti-intellectualism, anti-science sentiment, and unsubstantiated fear?

Oh. Nevermind.