New Sounds Sciencey post: Apocalyptic January and the Portents of Doom

I posted a new piece that was inspired by two Januarys in a row where weird things were in the news. Then, I found some common themes between the two. Here’s a preview:

In January 2012, the Internet was buzzing over a string of reports about strange sounds coming from the sky. It’s what Forteans would call a “flap,” meaning there is an outbreak of activity in a relatively short time span that causes a commotion. This flap reminded me of last January (2011), when another flap manifested. This one got the public all aflutter over mass animal deaths, mostly birds and sea critters.

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Did zoo animals predict the Virginia earthquake? Look closer.

A day after the east coast earthquake (now forever to be remembered by me as “the best birthday present ever!”), the Smithsonian issued a press release about the behavior of animals at the National Zoo, more than 80 miles from the epicenter of the quake. Some media outlets reported on the news as “animals go wild”, “animals went berserk”. Many said “how animals predicted the quake”.

All of those are wrong.

What really happened?Read More »

Stunning findings about origin of mountain lion killed in Connecticut

This post originally appeared on the Keystone Society for Rational Inquiry blog.

In a followup to this story Connecticut officials have reported some “amazing” news.

…they said that the Connecticut Cougar had made its way east from the Black Hills of South Dakota and that genetic testing matched samples of an animal confirmed as having been in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

That means that the animal traveled more than 1,500 miles to Connecticut, more than twice as far as the longest dispersal pattern ever recorded for a mountain lion. The news stunned researchers trying to make sense of the first confirmed presence of the species in Connecticut in more than a century. Many believed that the animal must have been released or had escaped from captivity.

Daniel C. Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that the journey was a remarkable and positive reminder of the ability of wild animals to survive and adapt, but that there was no evidence that mountain lions were returning to the state.

“This is the first evidence of a mountain lion making its way to Connecticut from western states, and there is still no evidence indicating that there is a native population of mountain lions in Connecticut,” he said.

But the finding may add at least a smidgen of mystery or paranoia to dozens of reports of similar creatures in Connecticut and the Northeast, most of them investigated and then dismissed as mistaken impressions. Before the animal was reported seen in early June in Greenwich, the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Connecticut was in the late 1800s.

This news means that the animal passed through Pennsylvania en route to Connecticut.
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Pop descent into low quality

As a follow up to my last post on why cryptozoology may or may not be called a pseudoscience (depending on your criteria), I was reminding of the idea of “deviant” science as discussed by Dolby.

When a “deviant” science, or what might be labeled pejoratively as “pseudoscience” by mainstream scientists or commentators, appeals to a niche group and takes off primarily outside the scientific community, active enthusiasts keep it afloat instead of allowing it to die off like most popular trends. One can argue that this process has happened to many fringe topics such as UFOlogy, cryptozoology and ghosts (possibly add Creationism and global warming denialism as well). Here is a gem of a quote I found while researching “deviant” science:

“…work [on this deviant topic] is disseminated to a wider more passive group from which further enthusiasts are drawn…[T]hose with a mild and passive interest in the deviant science are sufficient in number to provide a market for further journalistic activity. They buy books and read popular articles on the subject. As their critical standards are usually not very high, the commercial pressures of writing for as large a market as possible encourage professional writers to write at a low intellectual level and discourage the display of the apparatus of scholarship. Popular literary traditions in deviant science therefore may be of low quality…”
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Ghost hunters as “really good researchers, I guess”

Story from The Onion: ‘Ghost Hunters’ Enjoys Surprising 100% Success Rate

“What can I say? We’re just really good researchers, I guess.” At press time, despite having repeatedly resolved the most central question of human existence, the program is somehow not on the cover of every major newspaper, magazine, and scientific journal in the world.

Sure, we can all laugh at how sharp and witty The Onion is. It’s a little strange to get such accurate news (through a satirical filter). Why are the Ghost Hunters convinced of their work? Why do they think that they are doing “research”? Well, wait…aren’t they doing research? If we define research as a systematic way to collect data and information in a sustained way, then, sure, I guess they are doing research.

But their research isn’t taken seriously. It’s not scientific. There are many reasons why paranormal investigators work falls way short of being “scientific”. I’ll just focus on the primary reason – paranormal bias.Read More »

It “appears as if” the world is ending

Remember that the year began with mass animal deaths? It continued with revolution in the Middle East. And, poor Australia was hit with the wrath of the gods. (What did you guys do? Just kidding.) Now, we have catastrophic earthquakes – one after another – and a wicked tsunami. With all the political turmoil and natural disasters this year, it would appear as if the world is being ripped apart, socially and physically.

“Appear as if” are the important words to consider. It depends on the perspective you take.

People mostly get their news from the media. The media gives attention to unique things, stories that affect certain groups of people or important people. They don’t always cover events that affect A LOT of people if those people aren’t considered important (remote, poor, unknown).

Once a story is in the news, the topic becomes important. I’m calling this the Google Alert effect. Read More »