Revolution on Tuesday, factions by Friday: When efforts self-destruct

boxing haresTo continue with a theme I started yesterday on outrage fostered by social media, I found this relevant piece by Thomas Friedman: Social Media: Destroyer or Creator? 

Friedman describes how that Facebook revolutions start out as pretty awesomely powerful things, then they self destruct. Hold on… I’m having a deja vu moment.

Many new communities – from atheists to religious, ghost hunters to skeptics – have flourished on the Internet as people of like minds were able to connect to each other and share their thoughts and interests. It was all great, for a while. The exciting sense of community eventually broke down into factions that became vehicles for the spread of misinformation and rumors. I hesitate to compare all these groups to each other since Friedmans’s piece is actually about a very serious issue – the Egyptian revolution in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Yet, the process of group formation, dynamics and destruction appears fundamentally similar. In the end, there was no consensus achieved and no progress made towards a sustainable working government. Read More »

Thanks to the Internet, I know so much more about you that pisses me off

outrage catIt’s weird that people seem so overly sensitive these days when society is awash like never before in so many imaginative and opposing views and opinions; you’d think we’d have a much thicker skin towards outrageousness. Angry outrage towards individuals or groups may be justified in many cases but there are times where I do not find that justification compelling enough to boycott, shun, block or attack others (or support any of those actions). It’s become trendy to speak out against whom your community has labeled and promoted as “the enemy”. It’s part of crafting our reputation and identity.

Obvious to me is the tribal reaction to stuff on social media that then blows up even more via social media. Whether it be because of political candidate preference or reaction to ill-advised satirical commentary, it takes so little for us to unfriend people and never want anything to do with them again.

I’m beginning to think this social media thing has some serious drawbacks.

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Trust No One: All news is doubtful

My main project, Doubtful News is on hiatus right now. (Update 22-Jan-2016: We’re back.) Honestly, it’s because I don’t have the motivation to keep up with the onslaught of questionable claims that are in the media. Twice this week, I was reminded by others of the following: 1. I am not alone in this and, 2. We are foolish to rely on the media for accurate information.

DN was designed to reach the “Googler”, the curious, the smart searcher. I wanted to show that there was more to these stories than just “they’re fake”. Early on, it was clear that DN could be a full-time job for me. In fact, it could be work for half a dozen people. But it wouldn’t make a profit because I was opposed to plastering the site with crappy ads.

After four years, I noticed a few things.

By covering news on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot and the general paranormal I saw that these very poorly done, sometimes obviously hoaxed pieces came mainly from tabloids like The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Mirror and Huffington Post. Several reputable news sites would pick them up because they were great click-bait. They were like pre-packaged fast food snacks – devoid of nutritional value, pure filler, really not part of a healthy news diet. But for some, this is their main news feed.Read More »

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Slow down and chew a book: About “Notes on the Death of Culture”

My book collection is about 95% nonfiction. There are many of what my husband calls “long-haired books” (a derogatory term taken from, I think, Foghorn Leghorn). He is amazed that I stay committed to reading volumes he considers school “textbooks”. I’m a fan of reality; I attempt to understand the world. So what? Thought and introspection is considered tedious in these days of our colossal array of cultural activities, rapid fire news and opinions, and a fast-paced, fit-it-all-in lifestyle including commitments to work, family and leisure. But engaging with a book is time I have to ponder and to learn, to sloooooooow doooooowwwwnnnnn.

I tried modern fiction. I don’t much like it. Every month Amazon Prime gives me a choice of a free download. I’ve gotten three, made it through two, and was unimpressed. They just didn’t grab me. My preference is for well-written nonfiction narratives and essays.

This one might be impressive, I thought, as I spied Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture on my local library’s list of new arrivals. “Essays on Spectacle and Society” – only 240 pages. The Nobel laureate discusses the decline of intellectual life and his problem with global culture.

Notes turned out to be a moderately difficult book to digest. It took me over a week to read as I made my own notes (which I almost always do in order to remember what I read) and grappled with these ideas. This was one of those books that you don’t (or probably shouldn’t) sit back, absorb, and nod, but one where you pause, look away from the page, and think about whether you agree with his premise and why. Read More »

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Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?

Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?

lmtI’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.

There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.

I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.

The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.

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The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.

Anomalies

In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.

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Rock and roll and the occult – A Book Review

Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
by Peter Berbegal (2014)

seasonSaved it from what? I’m not clear. From “sugary teenybopper purgatory”? Meh. I don’t think the “occult” interest was the key aspect. Culture was changing and music reflected this. Pressing our conscious bounds outside the norm is the way of all art and creativity. Perhaps use of occult themes was one convenient path; but it was also widely used for just theatrics and to gain attention.

This book was not as good as I hoped. The subject matter – occult aspects within rock music – is rich with possibilities; every obvious aspect is at least mentioned – Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, the Beatles dabbling in Transcendental Meditation, The Rolling Stones lyrical relationship with Satan, Aleister Crowley’s connections to Jimmy Page (Crowley’s ideas are threaded throughout the book), the hidden meaning in Led Zeppelin albums, the Satanic imagery of heavy metal, alternative spiritual ideas, even Jay Z and the Illuminati symbolism.

But nothing is covered deeply. It’s written in an art-based language instead of what I would have preferred – a historical and sociological framework (surprisingly, since Berbegal is an expert in religion and culture). I just did not enjoy the language he uses. Here’s an example:

“Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipe for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled towards it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was not inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock muscians crafted music that did more than tug at the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them towards transcendence, towards creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.”

Such rumination is fit for the intro and conclusion but not what I wanted to read in the informational body of the text.

I did like the section on David Bowie very much. But several long parts of the book were more about drug use than occult ideas. It seemed to go off on tangents and be missing a strong focus and factual information that I would have preferred. Many music culture fans will find this book pleasing, my personal preference notwithstanding. So, your milage will vary.