Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quick update... and WTF?

So, I'm out on a work trip all week, and I've been BEYOND busy. whew!

That means no blogging... well, except for this.

Also, to the people at Ralph Lauren: are we REALLY supposed to believe this is a real person, or even some "idealized" version of one?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

City Weekly alien abduction story

[X-Posted at Salt City Skeptics]

A month or so back, I was interviewed by Salt Lake City Weekly, the local alternative weekly. I was asked help provide a skeptical perspective on alien abduction.

Looks like the story was just published online (my quotes are all on page 2), and the dead tree version comes out next week.

This is my first experience at being a Token Skeptic, but hopefully not my last (token skepticism is at least better than NO skepticism, right?), so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

When interviewed I didn't have any information on the specific cases being discussed, so I tried to speak in generalities. I will say that I appreciate the author including every main point I tried to make, and including a second skeptical voice as well (Joel Layton, who made some similar points).

Is the story written from a rather credulous perspective, taking the statements of "abductees" at face value? Yeah, but I'm having trouble faulting the author for that. That's just kind of how stories like this go. I think I did a decent job of giving a reasonable counter-balance, though it would have been nice to tailor my thoughts more to the specifics of the stories mentioned.

And so... that's what I'll do here! I'll try not to recap the stories themselves too much here, so keep the article handy if you want to follow along. In each case, I'm more or less assuming that the people interviewed are being honest about their memories, and not deliberately lying (there's no reason to think they were lying).

The article starts with a few "abduction" accounts. First up is Don Anderson's story, where aliens come to take for his four-year-old son and he convinces them to bring him along.

To me, Anderson's story reads just like the recounting of a dream: many things happen that aren't particularly causally linked to each other, lots of odd details that stick out with unusual focus in the story, the "tall blond woman" who seems strangely familiar (I know when *I* dream, people I know are often composited into other people who I don't quite know... alternative explanation: it was Six). It even ends with him springing out of bed.

I once dreamed that I was eaten whole by a fifty-foot tall genie on a Godzilla-like rampage through downtown Salt Lake City, only to discover that it was a robot on the inside. I challenged the robot's controller to a game of Uno and, upon winning, defeated him with a withering one-liner.

No one would report such a dream as an actual experience, yet if they dreamed the same experiences as Anderson, I could easily see them interpreting it as an actual experience, as our society is primed to accept stories of alien abduction more readily than those of giant robot genies.

There is nothing in this story to make me think it was anything other than a vivid dream.

Ron Johnson's story (not to be confused with Jon Ronson) is the same. It sounds like it was a nightmare, period. He had a nightmare about a scary-looking creature staring at him when he was fourteen. Two hundred years ago, he'd have dreamed it was a demon or a succubus; but in our culture, aliens are a more plausible beastie, so he he dreamed about an alien. Moving on...

Glenys Moore also recounts a story that sounds much more plausible as a dream. I hate to sound like a broken record here, but to me, these all just sound like dreams. Moore's may have been a sleep paralysis dream. As I mention in the article, sleep paralysis is a well-understood neurological phenomenon that, when coupled with a nightmare, can lead to some horrific experiences of captivity at the hands of whatever is in the nightmare, be it an alien, a succubus, or Freddy Krueger. Terrifying, but still just a dream.

None of these people are crazy nutjobs, but neither are the stories compelling... But wait, there's more!

Enter, Marlee Spendlove. Spendlove is a hypnotherapist and (though the article fails to mention this fact) Assistant Dirctor of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) of Utah.

Now, if those two details together don't raise your skeptical alarm bells, perhaps you should have them readjusted.

According to Spendlove, aliens futz about with the memories of abductees to erase or mask what really happened. And Spendlove uses hypnotherapy to help her patients, including Anderson and Johnson, recover their memories of alien abduction.

Uh oh...

In the 1980s, there was a nationwide pandemic of people who, as adults, used hypnotherapy to "recover" "memories" of their parents sexually abusing them children in Satanic rituals. The only issue? It didn't happen. There was no such pandemic of Satanic abuse, and the recovered memories were actually false memories created by the therapist and the patient, sometime cause huge amounts of personal trauma, family estrangement, and prosecution over events that never took place. Furthermore, it minimized or distorted the trauma of people who really have been sexually abused by their relatives.

I should mention that I don't think such false memories are deliberately put in place through such therapy. I've no doubt that these therapists, including Spendlove, are providing these "therapies" honestly. It's just that they don't provide reliable memories, particularly when the therapist is predisposed to lead their patients to a particular conclusion, like Satanic sexual abuse or alien abduction.

Indeed, Spendlove is approaching her therapy with the assumption that her subjects have had an abduction experience, and from how I read it, helps direct her therapy to make her subjects come to that conclusion:
Spendlove says that extraterrestrials are able to block portions of memories, so that the human who interacts with them carries screened memories where the actual alien encounter is replaced with elements that are more typical of everyday human life. After his initial experience, Anderson says that memories of other experiences made more sense to him. “When I was a kid, the 9-foot man in the back yard was one of those beings coming to get me. On other times, they would send these little 3-foot black troll-looking guys to get me, and I called them my gorillas. Thinking back, it made sense, because I had a little black stuffed animal that was a gorilla.”
Umm... Or you, in a suggestible state, constructed a memory wherein two unrelated memories you already had (a scary nightmare and the gorilla stuffed animal) were combined into a narrative story that's much more interesting. Continuing...
Anderson hoped his young son would corroborate it. “I thought, ‘My son has got to prove to me that this really happened.’” When he arrived home from work the day after his first alien encounter, he met his son, who told Anderson he’d had a dream about being attacked by wild bears that were in the house. Anderson had recently read that “in screened memories, aliens mask themselves as animals, because people are comfortable with that.”
Really? A dream about bears = "I was abducted by aliens!" What would the interpretation have been if his son had dreamed of a trip to Willy Wonka's factory, or of a slimy reptilian monster under the bed, or us a giant robot genie, or if he could remember no dreams atr all? I'd bet money that any of these would be interpreted as evidence that the abduction story were true.

Anderson's original story was that they brought him along to make his son feel less afraid. Why was that necessary if they seem to have such mind-control powers? And why, then, did the aliens choose to disguise themselves as BLOODTHIRSTY FREAKING BEARS
Anderson’s son said, “It was really, really weird because it felt so real. And I reached down to scratch my leg, and it’s all bloody.” Anderson says he wiped some of his son’s blood away and “there was a little crescent mark on his leg, which is what extraterrestrials do to take DNA samples.”
So, let me get this straight: An alien species that has evolved to be so human-like in appearance and physiology that we can have sex with them (more on that later) develops faster-than-light space travel and journeys to our planet, but they don't know how to take a DNA sample without leaving a gaping, bloody gash on a young boy's leg? And this is supposed to be a plausible explanation? Ever heard of a cotton swab on the inner cheek? Or a syringe?

None of the stories recounted have any kind of physical evidence to support them. It's all based on people recounting their experiences years or decades after they actually happened. Ron Johnson claims to have actually obtained physical evidence at one point, though of course, it was never retained for analysis. Back to Ron Johnson...
In 2008, for the first time, Johnson was willing to discuss finding tangible physical evidence of alien encounters following several instances of sexual relations with extraterrestrials that occurred over many years. He describes lying on a table having intimate encounters with scrawny-looking, near-anorexic aliens with large eyes. For him, it felt like having sex with a mannequin. “They had no life to them.”

He says he always awoke with a green residue—the color of lime sherbet and texture of Karo syrup—in his underwear. He says he encountered a young man from England at a UFO conference in Laughlin, Nev., who had similar experiences. Recalling his many encounters, Johnson wishes that “whatever the aliens want to do with me, I wish they would let me know what it is.”
Great! So, he always awoke with a mysterious green substance in his underwear, and even found others that had the same experience! We should have some of this mysterious green goop, right?

No? We are supposed to accept that these who independently evolved to be almost human traveled across space to have sex with humans, and even left behind some sort of intergalactic lube for us to study, but the people they left it with threw it all away so we don't actually have any physical evidence?

Again, what is more plausible?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unintentionally Wingnut Irony, Part II

On the heels of "don't steal from Medicare to support socialized medicine" comes more from Unintentional Wingnut Irony Theatre.

(from WSJ, via Balloon Juice)
Protesters who attended Saturday’s Tea Party rally in Washington found a new reason to be upset: Apparently they are unhappy with the level of service provided by the subway system.

Rep. Kevin Brady called for a government investigation into whether the government-run subway system adequately prepared for this weekend’s rally to protest government spending and government services.


The Texas Republican on Wednesday released a letter he sent to Washington’s Metro system complaining that the taxpayer-funded subway system was unable to properly transport protesters to the rally to protest government spending and expansion.

And there's more...

[hat tip to Tobasco da Gama]

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I don't understand religious moderates and progressive Christians

I don't understand religious moderates. At all.

Let me start with the caveat that I *love* religious moderates and progressive Christians. Yay for religious moderates! I am glad that you are moderate, progressive and liberal. Religious fundamentalism and extremism pose significant threats, both to individual people (e.g, George Tiller) and to societies as a whole (e.g., generations of people in Africa condemned to die of AIDS because the Catholic church continues to lie about condoms and forbid their use). These are among the reasons our governmental structures need to be built on secular, religiously-neutral pillars. This is where the fight should be, and nontheists and moderates alike can strive for this...

But this post is not about fundamentalists. It's about moderates. It's about people I view as allies on nearly every issue I care about, but I simply do not understand why they are religious. And the issues here are at the core of why I'm an atheist. (Note: I talk here about Christianity, becuase that's the tradition I'm most familiar with, but the same goes for just about of the big "world religions.")

I touched on a lot of these same things last year in my review of For the Bible Tells Me So, the documentary about Christian families coming to terms with their homosexual children. I'll try not to reiterate TOO many points from that post. (You may want to read that post, as well.)

Okay, enough preamble. Let's do this:

Religious fundamentalists get a lot of criticism (and rightfully so) from nontheists, liberals, progressives, and religious moderates. Some particularly egregious examples (viz, Westboro Baptist Church) even get a fair dose of criticism from the right.

Many of these criticism take the form of "you're just reading the Bible the way you want! You're cherrypicking only the parts that back up your hateful views!" arguments.

These points are right on the money: Fred Phelps and friends (bizarrely) protest in front of soldier funerals that "God Hates Fags" but you never see him in front of Red Lobster saying "God Hates Crustaceans." They are cherrypicking the Bible. They are the just choosing the parts that back up their hateful views, and ignoring the "love thy enemy as thy self" parts.

But here's the thing: religious moderates are doing the same thing, just with different passages. They are cherrypicking the Bible (or whichever holy books they happen to be using), identifying with the passages that back up their already-held views of love and acceptance and charity, and ignore the parts advocating for murder and rape and avarice.

Homosexuality is perhaps the most currently pertinent case of this cherrypicking. I'll try not to rehash my points from my earlier post, but here's the thing: The Bible is pretty unequivocal about homosexuality, or at least male homosexual sex: The punishment is death. Period. People like Phelps say that every time homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, it's met with execution and/or revulsion. And you know what? They're right. And that goes for the supposedly-progressive New Testamant as well, which also includes the only explicit mention (and condemnation) of lesbianism.

In fact, the Bible makes the point again and again that RAPE, though nearly always viewed bad (except when "righteous" men order it as a punishment), is somehow far less bad if a man rapes a woman than if a man rapes another man. In fact, if a man rapes an unbetrothed virgin, the only "punishment" is that she has to marry him and a small fee is paid to her father. That's horrid.

Let's look at a case in point: Do you know the Bible story of "the Levite?" In this charming little tale (itself a partial plagiarism from another part of the the Bible, the story of Sodom and Gommorah), a man and his concubine are traveling to Jerusalem and get caught on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. A man invites them to spend the night in his house, but things don't go as planned:

22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him."

23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing."

25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

27 When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

Now, it's not the central lesson of this story (which, as it happens, was that you should never trust anyone who's not part of your own ethnic group), but one of the explicit lessons here is that it is far preferable for these men to rape the concubine and the virgin daughter than the man. Like I say, the rape is condemned regardless, but it is less bad to rape a woman. It's the same thing in the story of Sodom and Gommorah: Lott offers up his daughters to be raped, and when the Sodomites decline the offer, God destroys them and their city. What an asshole.

How is it that someone can look at this story, or countless other horrid "moral" lessons found in the Bible, and say that the book is a good document to use as one's moral code?

And it's not just an Old Testament/New Testament thing. It's often said that the Old Testament god is a being of jealousy and wrath and terror; while Jesus and the New Testament god is/are being(s) of love and peace and forgiveness... But that's not really true.

Now, on the whole, there's less to dislike in the NT than the OT, but it still doesn't come close to being a positive moral guide, if you ask me. Jesus DOES say to love your enemy, but he also says people (by which here, as most anywhere in the Bible, he means only men) should abandon their wife and chidren for a cool reward. The NT states explicitly numerous times that women are subordinate to men. Paul, who more-or-less founded Christianity, had many charming things to say about women and their place in the chruch.

Let's be clear: *I* am cherry picking here, too. I'm only picking out a few particularly ugly and abhorrent passages. There are many positive moral teachings and lessons in the Bible.

But for for every one of those, there are three or four truly abominable moral lessons. Those lessons are ignored by progressive Christians and religious moderates... And though I think that's a good thing, it's also my point:

If the Bible is such an unpredictable mixed-bag anyway, why use the it as a moral guide at all? Either the Bible is the word of God or it isn't, right? If you're a good person and you recognize the nastiness of the stories mentioned in this post, then clearly the Bible is not really your moral compass anyway. Why not embrace the qualities you cling to and live by, and reject the superstitious and hateful nonsense?

Again, I'd be interested in hearing the thoughts of anyone who reads this. Positive, negative, whatever. Please post in the comments! :)

Also, in the course of writing this: Reed at Homosecular Gatheist put up an excellent post touching on similar themes. Go check it out as well.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What ever happened to posts with actual substance?

Hi everyone!

My apologies lately for not having many posts with any real, you know, substance. It's been an extraordinarily busy month or so. I'll be back in the swing of things here on the blog shortly. :)