Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Predictions for 2013, Part Two

Continuing our series from yesterday, I will be analyzing the predictions of the remaining five professional psychics whose predictions were quoted in this article. Yesterday's psychics didn't do very well, so we'll see if today's crop is more of the same or if there seem to be some genuine paranormal insights in the mix.

As I commented yesterday, making a living as a professional psychic is very difficult. As a magical practitioner, I'm pretty good at divination and can sometimes not only connect with genuine intuitions but also take advantage of them in my daily life. But magick by its very nature is sometimes quite unreliable. Doing significantly better than chance is certainly possible with training and practice, but most media psychics claim that they truly can see the future to an astonishing degree. And frankly, given my own experiences, I'm fairly certain that without some level of trickery such as cold reading nobody is that good.

I also have noticed that many of the predictions here are simply based on extrapolating trends. Most of the psychics predicted more extreme weather for 2013 just like a lot of climatologists did, but as it turned out 2013 was a milder year than 2012 in terms of significant weather events. Likewise, a number of them predicted various technological advancements, usually the sort of things that could be guessed at by regular readers of publications like Scientific American, Popular Science, and Wired.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Predictions for 2013, Part One

What's that? 2013? Isn't the New Year 2014? Of course it is. This article was actually published last year, with predictions from nine professional psychics for the year that we're now wrapping up. In the interest of science, I thought I would take a few minutes here and see how they did (Spoilers: not very well). I'll cover the first four today and the rest tomorrow to close out the year.

I've often been perceived as rather uncharitable towards professional psychics on this blog. That's not because I don't believe in psychic intuitions, but rather because having experienced them myself I know that it's very difficult getting them to work reliably enough to make a living without resorting to trickery, cold reading, and so forth. A substantial portion of media psychics, such as those mentioned in this article, in fact rely (as we will see) on the method of throwing a whole bunch of outlandish predictions at a wall and hoping some will stick. Then, if they get a hit on something unlikely, the idea is that's what people will remember rather than all of their other spectacular failures.

So let's meet our psychics. I'll start out with their biography, then comment on whether each of their predictions came true. I'll award one point for a correct prediction and half a point for a partial hit, in which something similar but not identical to the prediction took place. Then I'll tally up the total score for each psychic to see who was the most accurate.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year in Bigfoot

2013 has been a good year for the sasquatch. Back in February I covered the DeNovo scientific journal, a sham "independent journal" apparently created for the sole purpose of disseminating a paper analyzing supposed bigfoot DNA, and then in July I followed up with the announcement that an independent review of the same purported DNA found that it was in fact opossum DNA mixed with that of another species, raising the possibility of a half-ape, half-possum horror roaming the Pacific Northwest.

The bigfoot DNA story wasn't the only sasquatch news item of the year, either - 2013's sightings attracted more media attention than bigfoot research has in a long time. Huffington Post has a roundup of the various bigfoot stories that made the news this year.

The Bigfoot controversy reared its head (or feet) many times in 2013. The debate surrounding alleged Bigfoot DNA continued from 2012; numerous videos and still images emerged of reported Bigfoots (or is that Bigfeet? We've never really figured that out.); a Texas press conference presented a group of Bigfoot researchers who claimed to show real, never-before-seen high quality videos of the legendary tall, hairy creature; there was also a series of "clear" photos showing two Bigfoot in Pennsylvania.

Back in October I covered new research suggesting that the yeti is not an ape, but rather a species (or subspecies) of bear. In light of this finding, it's worth pointing out that if you draw up a map and put all of the bigfoot sightings on it what you get is a nearly perfect correspondence to the range of the American black bear. Now the videos from British Columbia and the "sleeping bigfoot" look like they might depict real animals - that is, as always, assuming they weren't faked.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Universe as Hologram - Or Not

Many news sites such as Huffington Post are touting a new simulation that apparently shows the universe "could be a hologram." At the same time, I've come across a couple of esoteric sites that are already taking the idea and running with it, claiming that it proves "matter is an illusion" or some other nonsensical variation on that point. The problem is, first of all, that New Age commenters jump on this stuff all the time in an attempt to justify concepts like that put forth in "The Secret," an updated version of "New Thought" cosmology in which the way in which you think determines every single thing that happens to you. Second of all, they are completely misunderstanding the use of the term hologram. The scientists publishing their findings are in no way arguing that the material world is an illusion - in fact, they're actually trying to understand it better.

Before explaining further I'm going to rant a little more about the whole "illusion" thing, because I think the way it gets used in some esoteric circles is so utterly wrong. I was looking through this stuff a couple of days ago and came across a site proclaiming that matter is an illusion because it's made of energy. That's just stupid. We've known that matter is made of energy since Einstein's relativity theory. It's true that when you touch an object what you're feeling is not a solid surface but rather electromagnetic repulsion at the atomic level - but so what? If you play with neodymium magnets carelessly you're going to get your fingers pinched by a magnetic field, and it's certainly real enough to damage your skin.

Now the idea is based on a valid point, that the way in which our minds mediate the world is "illusion" in the sense that it is basically an internal construction based on sensory data, and brain scans show that imagining something and experiencing it are similar mental processes. It is also true that advanced meditators gain the ability to manipulate this process to a degree that untrained people find incredible, even to the point of being able to control some autonomic body functions by thought alone. But extending this truism into the physical worlds leads to all sorts of incorrect assumptions. If you're about to be hit by a bus, for example, you need to jump out of the way - I'm quite convinced that even the most advanced practitioner in the world couldn't just think the bus out of existence.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fake Illuminati, How Do They Work?

The war against the Illuminati has officially begun. That is, the fake war against the fake Illuminati, which is oddly appropriate. Followers of musicians Insane Clown Posse who call themselves Juggalos have valiantly set up a Facebook page in opposition to the "Illuminati leadership" that is destroying America. Or something like that. So the perennial crazy people railing against the Illuminati have now been joined by the followers of insane clowns - at least on Facebook. You can't make this stuff up, folks!

On paper, the Illuminati and the Juggalos have a lot in common. Both are tightly knit societies whose customs strike outsiders as creepy and cultish, and under no circumstances should either be trifled with. But there’s only room for one new world order, and fans of the Insane Clown Posse have banded together to combat what they see as the influence of shadowy conspirators who occupy various seats of political power—mainly with crummy image macros.

The Facebook page for Juggalos Against Illuminati Leadership, or J.A.I.L., has drawn more than 600 followers, all “standing up to protect the rights of the people and raise awareness of the corruption within our government!!!!” It’s meant to be a hub where people can plan protests and “family events” as well as just “raise awareness.” To that end, they share pictorial grievances against gun control advocates, Barack Obama, police, war in the Middle East, the 1 Percent, the Federal Reserve, the Affordable Care Act, “sheeple,” marijuana laws, and even Disney.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wisconsin Does This Right

While Oklahoma struggles with non-Christian religious groups wanting to erect their own holiday displays on state grounds, the state of Wisconsin shows how to do it right. Wisconsin doesn't restrict anyone from putting up their own holiday displays, and the current crop includes a Festivus pole, a nativity-like scene featuring Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, and a Flying Spaghetti Monster display set up by a college atheist group. This is in fact exactly how religion should be dealt with in the public square, by allowing all voices to be heard, whatever their beliefs (or lack thereof). There are essentially two ways to do secularism - either allow everything, or ban everything. And my contention is that the former is by far the best option.

The secular displays join traditional Christmas items such as a 30-foot balsam fir tree encircled by a toy train set, and they have been part of the capitol holiday displays since a 1984 lawsuit failed to remove the Capitol Christmas tree, halt a menorah lighting and end an annual nativity pageant.

“We would prefer to keep our capitol secular,” said Sam Erickson, AHA president. “But if the state decides to turn it into an open forum, they have opened the floodgates. We hope everyone takes advantage of this opportunity to advertise their own viewpoints, no matter how silly.”

The group’s display features movie poster-style artwork depicting the Flying Spaghetti Monster, saying “he boiled for your sins,” and urging onlookers to “be touched by his noodly appendage, before it is too late!”

The Poor Oppressed Christians who are offended by the very existence of other religions will never get it, and their demands for appeasement know no bounds. Telling them to go stuff it is really all any government can do, short of declaring Poor Oppressed Christianity the official state religion and driving all others, even reasonable Christians, underground. And fortunately for the rest of us such a thing would be a blatant constitutional violation.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

RIP Harold Camping

Harold Camping, the radio evangelist who staked his reputation on the apocalypse coming to pass first in May, then in October of 2011, has died at the age of 92. His failed prediction marks him as the latest in a long series of failed end-times prophets going back to William Miller in the mid-nineteenth century. Camping's death was announced in an email sent to listeners of his radio program.

Yesterday, Sunday, December 15th, at around 5:30 p.m., Harold Camping passed on to glory and is now rejoicing with his beloved Savior!

On Saturday, November 30th, Mr. Camping sustained a fall in his home, and he was not able to recover from his injuries. He passed away peacefully in his home, with his family at his side. We know that each of us remain in God’s hand, and God is the One who knows our appointed time to leave our earthly body behind.

We are so grateful to God for Brother Camping’s dedication to Family Radio and for his lifetime of service to God. We are thankful to know that Family Radio is God’s ministry, and will continue to be in God’s care and keeping.

Please remember the Camping family in your prayers, in particular, Mrs. Camping, Mr. Camping’s wife of over seventy-one years. May God sustain her in her loss.

It's as if it simply is not possible to predict the apocalypse by constructing complex Biblical timelines that seem to reveal particular dates, as those dates always come and go without incident. Or, to quote Jesus himself from the Gospel of Matthew (24:36), "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only." In other words, Christians have to face the fact that the man they consider God incarnate specifically stated that predicting the end times is impossible.

So why do so many of them keep trying?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jesus Was White?

One of the most laughable bits about modern portrayals of Jesus is when he is rendered as a white European. It's laughable for the simple reason that Jesus was a Jew born in first-century Israel. The debate goes back and forth over whether a historical Jesus existed, but assuming that he did there is no confusion whatsoever about his ethnicity. That is, apparently, unless you're Fox News host Megyn Kelly.

Fox News host Megyn Kelly on Wednesday assured children viewing her program that both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus were white men even though some liberals were trying to make them black.

There's so much wrong with that statement I'm going to address it here before moving on. Not only was Jesus not white, he was also not black - that is, not of African ancestry. And I can't say that I know of any "liberals" arguing for an African Jesus. That's just as silly as a European one. It's central to the Christian interpretation of Jesus as Messiah that he be a Jew of the line of David. So the only way in which Jesus could be thought of as "black" is if the term simply means "not white," which frankly is just goofy.

“For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” Kelly said. “But this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But Santa is what he is.”

“Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know?” she added. “I mean, Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa — I just want the kids watching to know that.”

Contrary to Kelly’s assertions, Jesus Christ was a Jew of Mediterranean descent and not the white European figure often depicted in paintings and movies.

Clearly Kelly needs to read up on not only her history, but the basic theology of her religion. It's pretty amazing to see this sort of ignorance on display in a mainstream news program. And as for Santa Claus, the closest historical figure to the popular icon created in the early twentieth century is probably Saint Nicholas of Myra, who was a fourth-century Greek bishop and thus also of Mediterranean descent.

UPDATE: Megyn Kelly has now released a statement that she was being "tongue-in-cheek" with her comments about Santa Claus being represented as a white man, mostly ignoring that everybody is slamming her for her comments about Jesus. She added: “By the way, I also said Jesus is white,” Kelly said, “As I’ve learned in the past two days, that is far from settled.” According to Kelly's biography she's Roman Catholic, and I'm sorry, but anyone who could grow up Roman Catholic thinking Jesus was supposed to be a white European is simply so stupid that they should be kept as far away from relating actual news as possible. Who knows what other basic facts she's shockingly ignorant about?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dueling Monuments

There's a reason that religious displays are not generally permitted on government property in the United States. Because the Constitution forbids the government from endorsing one religion over another, once you allow the symbols of one faith to be displayed on public property you open the door to those of everyone else's. Or at least, that's how it should work.

Naturally, Poor Oppressed Christians hate the idea of being inclusive towards other religions, because they believe that unless they are being treated like special snowflakes they clearly must be victims of discrimination. That is, they want Christian symbols allowed and those of other faiths prohibited, a clear violation of one of the basic principles of religious freedom - because, I suppose, the very existence of other religions hurts their feelings.

Recently this debate has surfaced again in Oklahoma, where a monument of the Ten Commandments was allowed to be placed at the state capitol. Last week, a New York-based Satanist group called the Satanic Temple proposed a monument to Satan to accompany that of the Ten Commandments, which was soundly rejected by Oklahoma lawmakers. Some treated it as a joke, but in fact the Temple is a legitimate 501C religious organization and should therefore be legally entitled to the same rights as any other church.

The Satanic Temple represents neither a venerable nor popular religious tradition, so at least in the popular culture it's easy to dismiss. However, the Temple has now been joined by Hindus in demanding equal representation. Hinduism is the world's third largest religion, behind Christianity and Islam, with more than a billion adherents. While it's most popular in India, it's also the fourth largest religion in the United States.

“If the Oklahoma State Capitol was open to different monuments, we would love to have a statue of Lord Hanuman, who was greatly revered and worshipped and known for incredible strength and was (a) perfect grammarian,” said Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Two More "Satanic Panic" Victims Released

No occultist should ever forget the "Satanic Panic" of the late 1980's and early 1990's, when far too many innocent people were sent to prison after being accused of "Satanic Ritual Abuse." The roots of these accusations go all the way back to Freud's psychoanalytic model, which contends that traumatic memories are "repressed" and therefore can be "recovered" by therapists, even if no memory existed of them prior to treatment. Unfortunately back then the neuroscience revolution was in its infancy, and the understanding of memory we have obtained over the course of the last decade was yet to be discovered.

Furthermore, at that time fundamentalist Christians were a rising force in American politics. It is perhaps a bit of a stretch to assert that the "Satanic Panic" was an organized movement specifically designed to criminalize alternative religions by equating them with "Satanism" and linking them to child abuse, but the evidence suggests it as a possibility. Not only did fundamentalists vigorously pursue these allegations all over the country, they cultivated a network of therapists trained to induce memories in children at seminars funded by churches and other religious organizations.

Evidence that these accusations were essentially fabricated keeps emerging, albeit slowly. Recently Dan and Fran Keller, who were convicted back in 1992, were released from prison after serving 21 years for committing imaginary crimes at the daycare center the two of them ran.

The Kellers were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child, even though the three-year-old girl at the centre of the case recanted her claims in court.

The only physical evidence against the Kellers was the testimony of Dr Michael Mouw, who examined the girl in the emergency room of a local hospital after the therapy session and said he found tears in her hymen that potentially indicated that she was molested.

Mouw signed an affidavit last January in which he affirms that he now realises his inexperience led him to a conclusion that "is not scientifically or medically valid, and that I was mistaken."

Friday, December 6, 2013

Bad Animal Husbandry is All They Know

I recently covered efforts by Answers in Genesis, the group of young-earth creationists that operates the Kentucky Creation Museum, to secure funding for their proposed "Ark Encounter" theme park. The park will be centered around a full-sized replica of Noah's ark, complete with live animals held in enclosures. Wired has an article up today that takes a closer look at the plans for the ark, and concludes that the conditions would have been downright hazardous to both animals and humans on board. The image above is an artist's rendering of the ark's interior from the proposed plans themselves.

If I saw something like that in my neighbor’s garage, I’d call animal welfare. The wooden poop diversion system shown in this photo will not hold up under a constant bombardment of feces, uric acid, and ammonia.

I’ve helped manage and care for a wide assortment of wild and domestic animals, big and small, over the course of my career. There is a HUGE amount of paperwork, documentation, and inspections involved in having captive animals. It is, frankly, a gigantic pain in the ass, and the animals are healthier and receive better care because of all the annoying, complex rules. That’s why the Ark project set off all sorts of alarm bells in my head.

Keeping animals in captivity is really, really difficult. By gathering animals together in an artificial environment you concentrate all the poop and pee, and just make it easier for diseases to rapidly spread. (Got a kid in daycare? You know exactly what I’m talking about.)

The fact that the ark couldn't successfully hold all the animals it was supposed to for any period of time is one more nail in the creationist coffin, and that's even ignoring the similarities between the story of Noah and a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the fact that the bible story was written down more than a thousand years after it supposedly took place. The article notes that the latest plan is to include only a few live animals as part of the ark exhibit, but if that's really necessary in order to make the enclosures workable, how likely is it that the story of Noah bears any resemblance to real history?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

World's Worst Ghost Hunters

There are a lot of bad paranormal investigators out there. Some are jumpy individuals who think that every stray draft is a sign of a haunting spirit, and others accept every word out of some psychic's mouth as true without any attempt to verify it independently. But I hereby nominate this group of investigators from Louisiana as the world's worst. During their investigation of a historic plantation, they burned the place down.

The suspects told authorities that they snuck into the Lebeau Plantation in order to investigate claims that the building was haunted. Unfortunately for everyone, many news outlets reported that these ghost hunters had more in common with Shaggy and Scooby than with Fred and Velma, because instead of actually solving any mysteries they just got wrecked on cheap weed and cheaper beer. Then they accidentally set fire to the building.

By the time police showed up to the plantation at around 2am, the building was fully engulfed in flames. All 7 men were arrested and charged with arson, burglary and criminal damage over $50,000.

Aleister Crowley once famously commented that the Great Work is not a tea-party. Likewise, it would seem that a corollary to that principle is that paranormal investigation is not a frat party. Getting high and drunk doesn't make anyone a better investigator, and even if it did anything observed by a person in that state would be immediately suspect. As it is, these folks may wind up with the dubious distinction of being the first people ever to serve prison time for hunting ghosts, and as for the plantation, the house is a total loss. Odds are any spirits inhabiting the place have been released.

UPDATE: Gawker has an update to this story that does the seemingly impossible - it makes these geniuses look even worse. According to the report, they deliberately set the fire because they were frustrated at not finding any ghosts.

"They had been looking for ghosts, trying to summon spirits, beating on the floors," Sheriff's Office's rep Col. John Doran told the Times-Picayune, referring to the seven suspects. After failing to find any ghosts, the men, who were allegedly drunk and high on pot, reportedly began building a bonfire at the instruction of ringleader Dusten Davenport, 31.

Wow. Just wow. These are the world's worst ghost hunters, for sure.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mastering the Great Table is Now Available!

It's finally here, folks! Mastering the Great Table, the second volume of my Mastering Enochian Magick series, is now available from Pendraig Publishing. Mastering the Great Table covers working with the angels and cacodemons of the Great Table or Watchtowers just as I covered the Heptarchial Kings and Princes in Mastering the Mystical Heptarchy. The attributions for these entities are not those of the Golden Dawn, but rather the schema presented to John Dee and Edward Kelley. Like the first book, though, this one includes a template for Enochian operations that allows the operator to integrate modern forms and methods into the original grimoire structure.

Currently only the print edition is available, but an ebook version is in the works. You can click here or on the link to the right to order the print edition from Amazon. Other online retailers should be following soon, if you would rather order from one of them.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Raganarok 2014?

These "end of the world" prophecies seem to be coming faster than ever these days. 2012 saw the made-up "Maya apocalypse" and Harold Camping's two failed predictions of the equally made-up "Rapture." Now it some experts believe 2014 is the date that the Norse predicted for their own apocalypse, Ragnarok. Apparently this latest calamity is scheduled for February 22, 2014.

During the world's end, the sun's beams will become black and the weather will become treacherous. The wolf Skoll would devour the sun, and his brother Hati would eat the moon, causing stars to vanish from the sky and the Earth to be thrown into eternal darkness. According to one of the prophetic poems: "Brothers will fight and kill each other, sisters' children will defile kinship. It is harsh in the world, whoredom rife - an axe age, a sword age - shields are riven - a wind age, a wolf age - before the world goes headlong. No man will have mercy on another."

According to Norse legend, the apocalypse is due to be preceded by the winter of winters. Vikings believed that three freezing winters would follow each other with no summers in between. All morality would disappear and fights would break out all over the world, signalling the beginning of the end.

My opinion, of course, is that this will turn out to be yet another failed prediction. I really don't understand why people seem to be so open to the idea that the world could mysteriously end based on dates extrapolated from ancient mythology, and more to the point why some seem to be drawn to it. Nobody who's tried has ever been right. And let's say, just for the sake of argument, that this one is for real. What could you do? It seems to me that regardless, the best strategy is always going to be living your life to the best of your ability, whether it's right up to the supposed "end" or, more likely, far beyond.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Train Goddess" Unleashes Naked Menace

So is this the beginning of an emerging new cult? A naked woman identifying herself as "Goddess of the Train" caused a bit of mayhem over the weekend on a Chicago commuter train.

A naked woman shocked train commuters in Chicago on Saturday when she jumped the turnstile and declared she was the ‘Goddess of the Train’ and planned to take over the train.

The unidentified woman appeared at the Granville station of Chicago’s Red Line, the Chicago Transit Authority's busiest line, in her birthday suit. She then slapped several commuters before heading to the front of the train with the intent to drive it.

The Train Goddess was apprehended by police before she could explain the nature of her creed. While police issued a statement asserting that the woman suffers from mental illness, hasn't that always the way with the sages and hierophants of the past?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Even Photographic Memories Lie

One of the more intriguing discoveries coming out of neuroscience research is that much of what we remember is essentially fabricated. The way that brain seems to deal with the enormous amount of information it is expected to store is to only truly recall key bits and pieces and fill in the rest based on everything from general assumptions about the world to material from completely unrelated recollections. This discovery has enormous implications for everything from psychotherapy to eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Certain people have better memories than others. The best memories are found in people with what researchers call "Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory," or in colloquial parlance photographic memories. So far 50 individuals with this trait have been identified. They seem to have a nearly superhuman ability to recall times, dates, and other trivial details from throughout their lives, such as identifying what they ate for breakfast on a particular day decades ago. And yet, a recent study has found that even these individuals are vulnerable to false memories.

UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning, where professor James McGaugh discovered the first person proved to have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, is just a short walk from the building where I teach as part of the Literary Journalism Program, where students read some of the most notable nonfiction works of our time, including Hiroshima, In Cold Blood, and Seabiscuit, all of which rely on exhaustive documentation and probing of memories.

In another office nearby on campus, you can find Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has spent decades researching how memories can become contaminated with people remembering—sometimes quite vividly and confidently—events that never happened. Loftus has found that memories can be planted in someone’s mind if they are exposed to misinformation after an event, or if they are asked suggestive questions about the past. One famous case was that of Gary Ramona, who sued his daughter’s therapist for allegedly planting false memories in her mind that Gary had raped her.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Trouble With Faith Healing

Proponents of the "blogosphere school" of magick - using mundane actions to increase your likelihood of success combined with magical operations to shift the odds further in your favor - usually complain about esoteric practitioners who expect their magick to work without any mundane effort on their part. However, some of the worst offenders are in fact Christians who belong to "faith healing" churches that try to replace medical treatments with prayer.

Now I want to be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with using magick or prayer or whatever you want to call it to facilitate healing. The problem arises when magical and mundane methods are framed as antithetical to one another rather than complementary. It's a classic logical fallacy, apparently based on the idea that because spiritual methods can affect health they suddenly become all you need, an either/or construction that has no grounding in reality.

This investigative report out of Idaho, home to a number of such churches, shows where embracing this fallacy can lead - to dead children who would have lived had they received proper medical care.

Peaceful Valley Cemetery sits on a windswept hill 30 miles east of Boise. Some of The Followers of Christ faith healers bury their dead there. The same last names appear over and again, going back decades. Some - like Beagley - are the same names you’ll see in a similar cemetery in Oregon City.

In 2010, jurors in Clackamas County convicted Jeff and Marci Beagley of letting their son Neal die of an untreated urinary tract infection. KATU’s Dan Tilkin covered that story, as he has so many faith-healing stories. That’s why he traveled to Idaho to trace the connections between Followers members in both states, and a new trail of dead children.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Strange But Not True

A recent study found that many people in Iceland still believe in the existence of elves. This article cleverly builds on that fact to create a plausible-sounding story about a missing anthropologist who may have been kidnapped by the creatures and held for seven years. It sounds like a great paranormal tale, with the little nagging problem that none of it is true.

Seven years after she vanished without a trace, a female anthropologist emerged from a mysterious cave where authorities believe she may have been held hostage by real-life elves!

Danish researcher Kalena Søndergaard was stark naked, covered by dust and babbling incoherently when rescuers found her outside a tiny opening in the famous Elf Rock, traditionally believed to house the underground dwelling place of mankind’s tiny cousins.

“She was crouching like an animal and spoke only in a language unrelated to any we know,” said Armor GuĂ°johnsen of the National Rescue Service, which airlifted the 31-year-old survivor to a hospital by helicopter.

“The only word we could understand was ‘alfur,’ an old Icelandic word for elves. On her back were strange tattoos similar to those markings Viking explorers found on rock formations when they settled Iceland in 874, traditionally known as ‘elf writing.’ ”

This is another one of those fake news stories that people sometimes pass around as fact on the Internet. How do I know? Take a look here and you'll realize that photo accompanying the story was taken from an unrelated article about a woman stuck on a cliff after attempting to climb down to a nudist beach in California - which is a long way from Iceland. Now a real story of abduction by elves would be something, especially if it were well-documented. This article just is not it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pope Versus Mafia

It sounds like the plot of a bad action movie. According to an Italian state prosecutor, Pope Francis may be in danger from the ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia-like organized crime syndicate with ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Francis strongly denounced organized crime back in May, and is moving to reform the church and limit its economic power.

Nicola Gratteri, 55, a state prosecutor in the southern Italian region of Calabria, where the ‘Ndrangheta is most active, said the pope’s effort to reform the church is making the ‘Ndrangheta “very nervous.” The organization is considered by experts in Italy to be the most dangerous, most unified and most difficult to penetrate mafia-type organization in the country.

“I cannot say if the organization is in a position to do something like this, but they are dangerous and it is worth reflecting on,” Gratteri warned. “If the godfathers can find a way to stop him, they will seriously consider it. Those who have up until now profited from the influence and wealth drawn from the church are getting very nervous,” he added. “For many years, the mafia has laundered money and made investments with the complicity of the church. But now the pope is dismantling the poles of economic power in the Vatican, and that is dangerous.”

Gratteri noted that in southern Italy organized crime figures have strong and high-profile relationships with local church leaders, who help give the crime figures legitimacy.

If Francis succeeds in his efforts, the ‘Ndrangheta financial base will be significantly undermined. It seems that the pope's widely recognized reasonableness includes stamping down corruption within the church itself, and this is making the beneficiaries of said corruption quite concerned. Hopefully Francis will press forward despite these threats and clean up the mess that Vatican finances have become. He certainly shows no signs of letting up.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Surprise Exorcism

This is a story that you would guess took place in Africa or India, not modern-day California, but you would be wrong. A California man and his son are being charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment after abducting the man's ex-wife and forcing her to undergo an exorcism - because they apparently believed she was possessed by demons.

Jose Magana-Farias, 42 and his son, Victor Farias, 20, arranged to meet with his ex-wife and mother of the son at a Wal-Mart in north Stockton on Saturday under the pretense of trying to make the marriage work, San Joaquin sheriff’s Lt. Mike Jones told KCRA-TV.

But after getting into the car, the men allegedly picked up two priests before forcing the woman to undergo an exorcism, Jones said. The men apparently believed drastic changes she’d made in her life were a sign that she was possessed by demons.

The woman was allegedly doused with sacred oil and “purified” during a religious ritual, according to KCRA-TV, which cited a deputy’s report. No torture was involved and the woman was found physically unharmed after the victim’s roommate reported the alleged kidnapping.

There's no mention of what the "drastic changes" the woman underwent might have been. My guess is that the husband was so incredulous that the woman would divorce him that clearly the only explanation had to be demons - and not, say, that he was the sort of abusive shit who would kidnap someone in order to perform an exorcism on them against their will.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Ark Encounter" Junk Bonds

Back in June I covered financial problems at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Declining attendance forced the museum to put its proposed "Ark Encounter" exhibit, which was set to include a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark, on hold. However, the project is not quite dead yet. Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, the group that developed and runs the Creation Museum, is now trying to sell bonds to raise the funds he needs to build his Ark.

The ark must “stand as a warning of coming judgment—to condemn those who reject God’s clear Word.” Gays, scientists, and liberals: Consider yourselves on notice. According to Ham, our current era of sin may soon be flooded by another cataclysm of divine punishment. When it arrives, those who “encounter ... God’s Word” (young-earth creationists, as long as they aren’t gay) will travel through the “door of the ‘Ark’ ” to “the Lord Jesus.” Those who don’t will go to Hell—a doomsday rapture Ham feverishly anticipates.

There’s just one problem. Before Ham can usher in a new era of mass destruction “to separate and to purify those who believe in Him from those who don’t,” as he wrote in his newsletter to supporters, he’ll need to actually build his ark—and three years after first announcing the project, he hasn’t even broken ground. The project’s first phase will require $73 million in total, and $24 million just to commence construction. (The state of Kentucky generously offered to toss in $37.5 million worth of tax breaks, though those will expire in 2014.) The next phases will require $52.6 million. Thus far, Answers in Genesis has raised $13.6 million—just 10 percent of an optimistic estimate of the total cost.

In order to make up that shortfall, Answers in Genesis will have to sell a lot of bonds. And at first, the bonds look like ordinary investment vehicles with a decent rate of return, between 5 and 6 percent. However, the fine print pretty much renders that moot.

Monday, November 11, 2013

But God Wants Them to be Rich!

Six of the wealthiest televangelists are currently under investigation by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. As I've covered before, the "Green Gospel" movement in Christianity is essentially a scam that completely inverts Jesus' message regarding compassion for the poor. Instead, its proponents contend that the richer you are the more God likes you, and God likes them a lot.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said those under scrutiny include faith healer Benny Hinn, Georgia megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar and one of the nation's best known female preachers, Joyce Meyer.

Grassley sent letters to the half-dozen Christian media ministries earlier this week requesting answers by Dec. 6 about their expenses, executive compensation and amenities, including use of fancy cars and private jets.

In a statement, Grassley said he was acting on complaints from the public and news coverage of the organizations. "The allegations involve governing boards that aren't independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces," Grassley said.

"I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code."

I'm glad to see that such an investigation is underway. These televangelists are no better than cult leaders in terms of how they spend their followers' donations on their own extravagant lifestyles. You certainly don't need mansions and private jets and so forth to spread the word of God.

UPDATE: The linked article is from 2007, and Grassley's report was issued in 2011. You can read it here. It raises a number of questions regarding the tax exempt status of these evangelists' organizations, but makes no recommendations and so far has led to no real policy changes. That's unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected. These days it seems like money talks in politics, and these folks have plenty of it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Devil or Dust Devil?

One of the things that I like to point about my viewpoint on occult phenomena is that I believe in paranormal phenomena but not supernatural ones. To some extent it's a tautology, in that my perspective is that everything in existence is part of the natural world. And as I see it consciousness, spirits, magical operations, and so forth all exist - so they must essentially be natural components of the universe.

The concept behind paranormal is completely different - that is, it refers to phenomena outside the realm of most peoples' everyday experiences. So it includes psychic phenomena, but also especially unusual or unlikely occurrences. The video here shows what I think is unarguably a paranormal phenomenon, but at the same time one that conforms to known scientific principles. It is highly unusual, but not inexplicable in a "supernatural" sense.

In the video you can see a ghostlike mist flowing across a parking lot and taking a mirror off one of the parked cars. Since this parking lot happens to be at a police station and is therefore under constant surveillance it was captured by the camera. According to a local meteorologist, this is in fact a dust devil, a tornado-like vortex small enough that it does little damage to its surroundings - aside from the one unfortunate mirror.

And by the way, if anyone knows a reliable spell for conjuring one of these I'm all ears. I can imagine all sorts of mischief I could get up to with such a thing. I can think of a number of ways to do it that might work, but real experimental evidence always trumps speculation.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Dark Matter or Probability Structures?

In his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn leveled a strong critique of the supposed objectivity of scientific inquiry. What Kuhn found was that revolutions in scientific thinking seemed to be more grounded in social dynamics than was previously thought. Once data accumulated to the point where it challenged an existing scientific paradigm, new theories would be developed and tested to explain the new data - but rather than sweeping through the entire scientific establishment all at once the new theories would be resisted by entrenched interests. He found that often, what was necessary for a new paradigm to be fully accepted was the retirement or even death of the entire generation of scientists brought up on the previous one.

Fringe scientists love Kuhn's work and cite it constantly. It allows anyone who's infatuated with the beauty of some new scientific hypothesis that everyone working in the field rejects to think of themselves as geniuses for seeing "the future" of science - even when the hypothesis itself is deeply flawed in some obvious way. Anyone proposing an idea that represents a paradigm shift, therefore, needs to be especially careful when reviewing its implications. Most of the time a "new paradigm" simply represents some sort of error in data collection, like the case of polywater, which was covered on Slate today. Scientists in the 1960's believed that they had discovered a new form of water, when in fact the material in question was simply ordinary water that exhibited different properties because of sample contamination.

That being said, I'm now going to go ahead and put forth a hypothesis about the structure of the universe with profound ramifications for many areas of science. To be clear I have no idea if this hypothesis is accurate at all, and any eventual validation would have to be accomplished by experimental methods. It hinges on two basic factors - first, some recent observations from physics and cosmology, and second, my own observations of the activity consciousness and operant magick. Even though all I have so far is a speculative idea, I think it's an idea that may be worth a look.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Strange Things Afoot in Gloucestershire

A recent Freedom of Information Act request filed in the English county of Gloucestershire has revealed nearly a thousand calls to police regarding werewolves, witches, wizards, and ghosts. Apparently paranormal phenomena are common there - or at least local residents think so.

In Cheltenham, a caller contacted police to say a taxi driver who took his wife to a destination said he "changes into a werewolf." He then touched the wife's knee.

Elsewhere in the county, a caller contacted the police, saying they had discovered possible witchcraft items in the Forest of Dean. A "pile of stones in shapes of human shape" were what prompted the call to the force.

In Stroud, a man contacted police saying a satellite, which was above his house and controlled by a "coven of witches", was poisoning him.

My guess is that last one would be pretty easy to debunk - either there's a satellite positioned above the guy's house or there isn't (and my money is on "isn't"). But that's not all.

Elsewhere in the county, in Gloucester officers recorded a call from a woman whose ex partner was threatening to kill her and to cast a spell on her with witchcraft.

Also in the city, a young boy – perhaps who had watched too many Harry Potter movies – called in to tell officers he was a wizard.

And with a clear sign that people in Gloucester have a sense of humour, a man called the police saying he wanted the Ghostbusters, because there was "something strange in the neighbourhood", before hanging up.

A paranormal investigator asked to comment on the calls stated that he thought the high volume was simply due to increased media exposure. However, at the same time he added that some of the reported events may be real cases, and it would be difficult to identify which those might be without conducting thorough investigations.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Runner of the Beast

The latest harbinger of the apocalypse manifested this last weekend at a cross-country meet in Kentucky, where runner Codie Thacker was randomly assigned the number 666. Fortunately for the rest of us, Thacker refused to play out her role in the cosmic drama by declining to race, once more sending the forces of evil on their way.

Runner Codie Thacker said she was assigned a bib Saturday with the number, “666,” which many Christians associate with the biblical Antichrist or Satan. The Whitley County High School student said she asked for another number, but officials with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association declined.

“I just don’t believe that 666 should be a number that’s anywhere on your body, and I did not want that number associated with me,” Thacker said. “It kind of made me sick.” The number is mentioned as the “mark of the beast” in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, and some Christians believe it’s a harbinger of the apocalypse and try to avoid it.

Now I have a couple of more serious thoughts about this. First off, it seems to me that if somebody has a religious objection to wearing the number 666 it's no different than Thelemites being attracted to numbers like 418 and 93. But what's odd about this case is that according to race officials the numbers were assigned and issued to the runners in advance, and they only refused to give Thacker a new one because she asked on the day of the race rather than ahead of time.

That makes the situation hard to evaluate. On the one hand, if Thacker knew all along what her number would be, she may have made her request on the day of the race with the specific intention being refused, just so that she could get into the media as the latest supposedly oppressed Christian victim. However, if the race officials are lying about the numbers being issued ahead of time, they are failing to honor their stated policy of allowing number changes based on religious objections.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Unimpressive Hauntings

I used to read Cracked back in the 1980's when it was pretty much a ripoff of Mad magazine. These days, though, cracked.com is a web-only publication with some pretty amusing articles. Today, for Halloween, I thought I would share this list of unimpressive hauntings. While these look like potentially paranormal events, their scope leaves a lot to be desired - especially compared to media representations of ghosts.

Movies have kind of spoiled us when it comes to ghosts. Nowadays we won't take any spirit seriously unless it's pulling little girls into television sets or pulling terrified women down staircases. But real hauntings never play out that way.

It makes sense, when you think about it. Most dead folks had to be painfully normal, boring people whose ghosts certainly may want to give this haunting thing the old college try but, bless their hearts, just don't have the imagination for it.

In the article you can read about the ghost who throws fruit roll-ups, another that moves butter dishes, and so forth. None of them would make very compelling films, but that's pretty much the point. Ghosts aren't actually that powerful in the physical realm - if they were, they would be a lot easier to detect with regular measuring instruments. So maybe, just maybe, it's in fact the unimpressive hauntings that are the most genuine.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Witches Versus Thelemites

It's no big secret that in some parts of the United States practitioners of Wicca and witchcraft don't get along with Thelemites. This isn't true everywhere, and is actually kind of sad because in many cases OTO bodies have been very successful when they have been able to integrate themselves into the local Pagan scene in addition to attracting ceremonial magicians. As this article demonstrates, it's not just here in the States that witchcraft and Thelema find themselves at odds. In the article, with its title seemly ripped from the headlines of 1987, British "white witch" Kevin Carlyon warned people to steer clear of cult groups and wasted no time singling out OTO.

Mr Carlyon said the authorities should monitor some groups, including the controversial O.T.O., because of the alleged sex rituals held during some meetings. “I constantly tell people that nothing in witchcraft involves taking your clothes off,” he said. The European headquarters of O.T.O., which stands for Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Temple of the East), is just a street away from Kevin’s home in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex.

Now here are some facts. First off, OTO does not in fact hold "sex rituals" during meetings. Second, the article focuses on "youngsters" avoiding cults but completely fails to mention that only adults of "full age" - 18 in the US and UK - can join the Order in the first place. Finally, if what Carlyon's worried about is people taking their clothes off, it's in Wicca where you will find the practice of "skyclad" ritual nudity, not in OTO. Of course, in an apparent effort to smear the Order Carlyon ignores all of that. It's pretty clear from his comments what his "white witches" think of Thelema.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Occult Shed" Somehow Newsworthy


Police in Lakewood, Colorado were recently called to a vacant home being readied for sale when bones and a handful of "occult items" were found in a disused shed. The items suggest that the shed may have been used for some sort of ritual work long ago, but in terms of what most practicing occultists keep in their homes the find was pretty underwhelming. Since a few of the bones looked as if they might be human, cadaver dogs were called in to search the property for additional human remains but found nothing. The police operation is probably why it made the news at all, because otherwise there's not much to it - as you can see from the photo.

Animal skulls, chains, bones from a goat and possibly other animals, a skull mask with a black hood, candles and a machete were among the items that were found in the home's backyard shed. Police say that some of the bones, including a partial skull, are suspected of being human and have been sent to an out-of-state lab to determine whether any DNA evidence can be found. Up to 20 bones were found and investigators even brought in search dogs trained to find decomposing bodies.

Neighbor Carlos Fraire said the discovery was very eerie. "It's weird that it's this time of year, right around Halloween," Fraire told 9News. According to a report by Westword, neighbors described the woman who lived there as a Christian and the items in the shed are suspected of having belonged to her now-deceased husband, who reportedly left the country in 1998. For the last 15 years, his wife apparently either hadn't known the items were there or left them completely alone because when they were discovered most were covered in thick dust.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Graphing Consciousness?

The emerging science of consciousness studies has profound implications for the study of magical and mystical experiences. The tool that we would need to measure states of consciousness in an empirical manner hinges upon being able to define what consciousness is in the first place, and a new study from UCLA suggests a possible methodology for constructing such a device by modeling information flow across multiple brain regions.

Lead study author Martin Monti, an assistant professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA, and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the flow of information in the brains of 12 healthy volunteers changed as they lost consciousness under anesthesia with propofol. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 31 and were evenly divided between men and women.

The psychologists analyzed the “network properties” of the subjects’ brains using a branch of mathematics known as graph theory, which is often used to study air-traffic patterns, information on the Internet and social groups, among other topics. “It turns out that when we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another,” Monti said.

The finding shows that consciousness does not “live” in a particular place in our brain but rather “arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another,” he said.

The connectivity matrix above from the study show results for waking (W), sedation (S), loss of consciousness (LOC), and recovery (R). The two axes of the graphs represent particular brain regions. The correlation strength represents the degree of communication and thus the level of information flow both between and within those regions.

Subjectively, enlightened or awakened states of consciousness seem to possess the property of coherence, a combination of consistency and self-reference. If this study is accurate, it implies that this subjective feeling could be a direct result of heightened information flow between multiple areas. If the relationship between the two is strong enough, it might even mean that the level of overall information flow in the brain could act as a stand-in for the "level" of consciousness itself - and that would really be something.

Friday, October 18, 2013

But Freemasons!

In a bizarre end to the United States government shutdown yesterday, a House stenographer took to the podium and berated members of Congress during the vote on the resolution to re-open the government. Apparently she has a problem with Freemasons, many of whom were involved in the founding of the country. She was eventually escorted out of the room and taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation.

As members cast their votes Wednesday evening on legislation to end the 16-day government shutdown, Reidy was seen calmly ascending the rostrum before unleashing a verbal tirade at members of Congress.

She was heard shouting “the House is divided,” according to one congressional source. After about 30 seconds, Reidy was pulled off the rostrum by two people from the House chamber security staff.

“He will not be mocked,” the woman said, according to an audio recording of the incident posted online by Public Radio International reporter Todd Zwillich. “This is not one nation under God. It never was.”

“The greatest deception here is this is not one nation under god! It never was. Had it been, it would not have been! The Constitution would not have been written by Freemasons!” she added.

You know, the funny thing is that for the most part her statements are precisely correct. The House of Representatives was clearly divided during the vote. "One nation under God" was not even part of the original Pledge of Allegiance and was added in the 1950's, along with "In God We Trust" on US currency. And the main reason that we enjoy religious freedom in the United States is likely the result of the influence of Freemasonry on the Founding Fathers.

In fact, to me the only confusing part of this is that she says it like those are bad things.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Yetis are Real

It's official - the yeti, mythical monster of the Himalayas, is a real animal. It's just not an ape or any other sort of large primate. According to a recent analysis of genetic samples, the yeti is apparently a species of bear that may be a cross between polar and brown bears. Reinhold Messner published My Quest for the Yeti back in 2000, in which he concluded the idea that the yeti was some kind of ape was based on a misunderstanding of the Tibetan language by westerners. In fact, when shown pictures of Himalayan bears, locals immediately identified them as yetis. And now the DNA evidence has caught up and confirmed Messner's hypothesis.

Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes performed DNA testing on 27 suspected yeti samples that had been sent to him from around the world, and got a big hit, reports PhysOrg. Two brownish hair samples found in opposite ends of the Himalayas were a perfect match with the DNA of an ancient polar bear species that lived 40,000 to 120,000 years ago, the Telegraph reports. His conclusion? That yeti is a cross between a polar bear and brown bear—and "may still be there."

One of the "yeti" hair samples is 40 years old and came from a hunter in India's western Himalayas; the second was found in a Bhutan bamboo forest 30 years later, so "we know one of these was walking around 10 years ago," Sykes says. In the former case, the hunter who shot the animal described being unusually frightened by it, Sykes says. "If its behavior is different from normal bears, which is what eyewitnesses report, then I think that may well be the source of the mystery," he tells the BBC, adding the species may be "more aggressive, more dangerous."

Looking at the mythologized yeti in the picture above next to the Himalayan brown bear standing, it's easy to see how eyewitness accounts of the latter could produce an image of the former. This is especially true if the bear feels threatened; it will remain upright and extend its "arms" to look even bigger and scarier. And cross-breeding with polar bears could explain the lighter coat that is sometimes reported in yeti sightings. While it would have been fascinating to identify a new large primate, a new subspecies of bear would be just as legitimate a discovery.

UPDATE: Slate has an article up today that argues there's "no such thing" as a yeti on the grounds that the DNA is more likely to have come from regular Himalayan brown bears rather than a new subspecies of them. But that's the point I'm making here - as Messner argued quite convincingly and the DNA evidence supports, yetis are indeed bears. That doesn't mean yetis don't exist; on the contrary, it means that they're real animals.

Monday, October 14, 2013

More on Mythic Jesus

In my last article on the mythic versus historical Jesus, a commenter recommended that I look into the works of Richard Carrier, one of the foremost proponents of the "mythic Jesus" hypothesis. Lately an article by independent researcher Joseph Atwill has been making the rounds on the Internet, putting forth the argument made in his 2005 book Caesar's Messiah that Christianity was the result of a Roman "psyop" intended to pacify the Jews of Palestine. This argument sounds dubious, and even though Atwill's book has been out for years it has only recently attracted a lot of attention. So who's going to show up to convincingly debunk the whole thing? Why, none other than Richard Carrier himself, who characterizes Atwill as a "crank myther" and goes on to demolish his entire thesis. Read the whole article, it's that good.

Atwill is best known as the author of Caesar’s Messiah (subtitle: “The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus,” Roman meaning the Roman imperial family…yeah). In this Atwill argues “Jesus [is] the invention of a Roman emperor” and that the entire (?) New Testament was written by “the first-century historian Flavius Josephus” who left clues to his scheme by littering secret hidden coded “parallels” in his book The Jewish War. Atwill claims to prove “the Romans directed the writing of both” the JW and the NT, in order “to offer a vision of a ‘peaceful Messiah’ who would serve as an alternative to the revolutionary leaders who were rocking first-century Israel and threatening Rome,” and also (apparently) as a laughing joke on the Jews (Atwill variously admits or denies he argues the latter, but it became clear in our correspondence, which I will reproduce below…it’s weird because making fun of the Jews kind of contradicts the supposedly serious aim of persuading the Jews, yet Atwill seems to want the imperial goal to have simultaneously been both).

Notice his theory entails a massive and weirdly erudite conspiracy of truly bizarre scope and pedigree, to achieve a truly Quixotic aim that hardly makes sense coming from any half-intelligent elite of the era (even after adjusting for the Flynn effect), all to posit that the entire Christian religion was created by the Romans (and then immediately opposed by it?), who somehow got hundreds of Jews (?) to abandon their religion and join a cult that simply appeared suddenly without explanation on the Palestinian (?) book market without endorsement. I honestly shouldn’t have to explain why this is absurd. But I’ll hit some highlights. Then I’ll reveal the reasons why I think Atwill is a total crank, and his work should be ignored, indeed everywhere warned against as among the worst of mythicism, not representative of any serious argument that Jesus didn’t exist. And that’s coming from me, someone who believes Jesus didn’t exist.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Rituals and Bad Luck

Skepticism can sometimes get in the way of genuine scientific inquiry. The headline of this recent article is quite misleading, in that it implies that ritual actions can alleviate bad luck. In fact, the study found nothing of the sort because that question was not even asked - instead, it found that ritual actions alleviated peoples' concerns rather than actually affecting their luck.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, explained that people believe that negative outcomes are especially likely after a jinx.If someone says, "No one I know will ever get into a car accident," for example, it often feels that a car accident is likely to occur. But people's elevated concerns after tempting fate can be eliminated if they engage in a ritual to undo that bad luck.

The researchers, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, discovered that actions which involve exerting force away from one's body are the most effective at undoing a jinx.Study author Jane Risen said: "Our findings suggest that not all actions to undo a jinx are equally effective."

"Instead, we find that avoidant actions that exert force away from one's representation of self are especially effective for reducing the anticipated negative consequences following a jinx."Engaging in an avoidant action seems to create the sense that the bad luck is being pushed away."

This is all fine and good as a psychological experiment goes, and the idea of incorporating "pushing-away" type gestures into magical rituals may be a nice piece of "sleight-of-mind" for undoing bad luck. However, what's so disappointing about this experiment is that all it needed was one more phase in which the subjects, say, engaged in a game of chance or something similar that would test whether or not the ritual action truly affected their luck.

Since this would have been so easy, why wasn't it done? It seems that it never occurred to the researchers that there was any possibility that luck could be influenced by a ritual. Instead, they confined their study to the subjects' beliefs rather than trying to measure any macrocosmic effect.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Really Fake African Witches

Most of the time people who are accused of witchcraft in Africa aren't magical practitioners at all, but rather individuals who are simply disliked in their community. In such situations witchcraft accusations become a convenient excuse to drive out or even murder these people, whose only real crime is not getting along with their neighbors. In this case from Zimbabwe, though, the level of phoniness is greater still. Two women arrested for witchcraft revealed to the judge that they were actresses hired to play the role of witches to drum up publicity for a local religious leader.

The two women accused of engaging in practices associated with witchcraft yesterday revealed their true identity as Elmet Mbewe and Christine Nyamupandu from Landas Business Centre in Chihota when they appeared before a Mbare magistrate for routine remand.

They also attempted to disassociate themselves from witchcraft, saying they were hired by a "prophet" from Harare's Budiriro suburb, Alfred Mupfumbati (30), as a publicity stunt to earn him more followers.

When they were caught while naked with paraphernalia associated with witchcraft at a house in Harare's Budiriro suburb on September 10 -- the two women gave their names to the police as Maria Moyo (30) and Chipo Chakaja (26) and said they were from Gokwe.

In Africa "prophets" who claim to do battle with witches can clean up on donations from followers, so I imagine this constitutes Mupfumbati's motive for hiring the women. What I am now wondering is how widespread this sort of thing might be. If those reporting flying in baskets or performing other unbelievable-sounding feats are simply performers, such accounts would have no relevance to the evaluation of real African magical techniques. Rather, they simply would be based on repeating stories from folklore as if they were true and leaving it at that.

Religious leaders who engage in this sort of deception are enriching themselves at the expense of their communities, and paying actresses to run around claiming to be witches only feeds hysteria that can claim lives. If Africa ever wants to get a handle on dealing with witch persecutions Mupfumbati and people like him need to knock these sorts of stunts off, the sooner the better.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Amplutihedrons and Probability Structures

Practical magick is all about the manipulation of probabilities. In order to accomplish any particular goal, the most effective path is to (A) take all possible mundane steps towards your objective and (B) use magick to further increase your likelihood of success beyond what can be done by mundane steps alone. While it may sound trite and New-Agey to talk about this latter effect being produced by the interaction of consciousness and the quantum realm, the idea gets touted so often because if magical operations can influence probability at all, that's pretty much the only way they could possibly work.

Parapsychologists of the last century managed to exclude every known form of energy as responsible for psychic effects. There is some ongoing research in China that suggests the healing effects of Qigong might be related to infrasonic waves, but otherwise the entire electomagnetic spectrum has been ruled out by methods such as testing psychics in Faraday cages and other similar methods. Furthermore, Princeton's PEAR group found that subjects could exert a tiny but measurable and statistically significant influence on quantum diodes, random number generators that were themselves isolated from all forms of electromagnetic radiation.

The reason everyone is sick to death of quantum physics being used as an explanation for paranormal phenomena is one of simple overreach. The fact that quantum effects are probabilistic in no way proves the existence of magick, psychism, or any other such concept. In fact, there are plenty of ways in which a non-paranormal universe could incorporate quantum uncertainty in a completely reasonable manner, and most quantum physicists interpret the data along such lines. The PEAR studies found that the influence of consciousness on individual diodes was practically negligible (.01% to .05%, depending upon the subject).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Jack Parsons Mystery

Most modern occultists know the story of Jack Parsons, rocket propulsion pioneer and leader of Agape Lodge of OTO from 1942 until his death ten years later. Parsons died in 1952 following a mercury fulminate explosion at his garage laboratory. Rumors that this explosion was a murder or suicide have been advanced over the years, but the official explanation has always been that he just accidentally dropped a vial of the highly explosive compound while working on a contract for a special-effects company.

In recent years, mercury fulminate has made an appearance on the critically acclaimed television series Breaking Bad. On the show, chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White blows up the office of a drug dealer named Tuco by throwing 50 grams of the material to the floor. An episode of the Discovery Channel television series Mythbusters set out to test whether this was possible, and the results were surprising to me and probably anyone else familiar with Parsons' story.

The busters then went big by building a replica of Tuco's office, complete with windows, desk and dummies. To prevent anyone from getting blown up in the name of mythbusting, star Grant Imahara created a robot with a throwing arm to play Walt, and programmed it to toss 50 grams of mercury fulminate (the same amount used by Walt) at a speed of 60 MPH so it would hit the floor at about the same speed the average human can throw. But there was no explosion.

Imahara then tweaked his robot to throw with "superhuman speed," and still, nothing. The gang then seriously jacked up the power and used 250 grams of mercury fulminate, and finally, the whole room came down. Unfortunately, all the mannequins perished in the explosion, leaving robot Walt, plastic Tuco and the minions dead.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

BRAIN Initiative Takes Shape

As I covered back in February, a new brain mapping initiative modeled on the Human Genome Project is in the works. The project's totally appropriate acronym, BRAIN, stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.” Last week a report compiled by an advisory group was presented to the National Institutes of Health outlining recommendations for the project's overall approach.

The program should begin by generating a census of cell types and create structural maps of the brain, said committee co-chairs Cornelia Bargmann, Ph.D., a professor at Rockefeller University in New York, and William Newsome, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford University, in a teleconference. “We’re seeking an understanding of the dynamics of the brain: where signals come from and how they are related to internal states,” said Newsome.

Work should begin with animal models, but human research data could come from patients undergoing diagnostic brain imaging or monitoring or those receiving deep brain stimulation or other technological interventions, the group suggested. Key to the suggested approach will be development of new or improved technologies to record brain activity and to manipulate brain circuits.

As I've mentioned before, I don't see consciousness as some sort of epiphenomenon of brain activity as many neuroscientists do, but I'm in agreement with the advisory group that this is exactly the right approach. While I'm convinced that there's more to consciousness than internal brain states, I believe that there is a substantial overlap in activity between mind and brain. Since our current tools measure the brain rather than the mind, understanding the physiology is where we have to begin this research.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Church for Atheists

One of the most common complaints I see from atheists online is that religious people often fail to understand that a lack of belief is not a religion. As I covered awhile back, nonbelievers exhibit the same range of personality traits found among the religious, and as such cannot be considered to constitute a monolithic group. Still, a new organization called "The Sunday Assembly" is now essentially billing itself as a "church" for atheists. The group started in London back in January and has been attracting members ever since.

Yesterday, The Sunday Assembly—the London-based “Atheist Church” that has, since its January launch, been stealing headlines the world over—announced a new “global missionary tour.” In October and November, affiliated Sunday Assemblies will open in 22 cities: in England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia. “I think this is the moment,” Assembly founder Sanderson Jones told me in an email last week, “when the Sunday Assembly goes from being an interesting phenomenon to becoming a truly global movement.” Structured godlessness is ready for export.

The Assembly has come a long way in eight months: from scrappy East London community venture (motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More;” method: “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”) to the kind of organization that sends out embargoed press releases about global expansion projects. “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world,” organizers boast.

All churches boast a high growth rate when they're just starting out, so it remains to be seen if the group can keep up its momentum. To me, frankly, it seems a little silly - not going to church is one of the advantages of not being Christian. Furthermore, for people who actually want a church experience without any theistic dogma, Unitarian Universalism has been providing that for a long time. So it's hard to see where this new group expects to fit. What seems clear, though, is that they've gone a long way towards muddling the distinction between religion and nonbelief. It will be up to the larger atheist community to decide whether this is a good thing.