Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ouija Board Explained, Magicians Unsurprised

BBC has an article up today explaining how it is that Ouija board planchettes seem to move on their own. As I in fact mentioned back in 2009 in my novel Arcana, the explanation is simple - the board picks up small, imperceptible motions in your fingers and transfers them to the planchette. This is an observation that surprises absolutely no practicing magicians. It's obvious if you spend any amount of time working with a board that it's your fingers doing the movement. After all, there are some crazy stories and 1980's movies about planchettes moving on their own but I've never met anyone who's actually observed it. The article compares the use of a Ouija board with the motion of a pendulum, another common divination tool, and dowsing, which operates according to the same principle.

The phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect and you can witness it yourself if you hang a small weight like a button or a ring from a string (ideally more than a foot long). Hold the end of the string with your arm out in front of you, so the weight hangs down freely. Try to hold your arm completely still. The weight will start to swing clockwise or anticlockwise in small circles. Do not start this motion yourself. Instead, just ask yourself a question – any question – and say that the weight will swing clockwise to answer "Yes" and anticlockwise for "No". Hold this thought in mind, and soon, even though you are trying not to make any motion, the weight will start to swing in answer to your question.

Magic? Only the ordinary everyday magic of consciousness. There's no supernatural force at work, just tiny movements you are making without realising. The string allows these movements to be exaggerated, the inertia of the weight allows them to be conserved and built on until they form a regular swinging motion. The effect is known as Chevreul's Pendulum, after the 19th Century French scientist who investigated it. What is happening with Chevreul's Pendulum is that you are witnessing a movement (of the weight) without "owning" that movement as being caused by you. The same basic phenomenon underlies dowsing – where small movements of the hands cause the dowsing wand to swing wildly – or the Ouija board, where multiple people hold a cup and it seems to move of its own accord to answer questions by spelling out letters.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Censoring Magick, Internet Edition

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been in the news lately regarding his proposal to set up parental controls for the Internet throughout the United Kingdom that will block pornographic material. The plan has been widely criticized, mostly on the based on the futility of trying to block the vast ocean of pornography available online. But what has not been disseminated as widely is that pornography is not the only target for the new filters. Magick is also in Cameron's sights, as Open Rights Group reports. Based on their sources, the default filtering category screen will look something like this (emphasis mine):

☑ pornography
☑ violent material
☑ extremist and terrorist related content
☑ anorexia and eating disorder websites
☑ suicide related websites
☑ alcohol
☑ smoking
☑ web forums
☑ esoteric material
☑ web blocking circumvention tools

While the fact that users can disable the filters means that this is not precisely censorship, the problem is that all of the filtering categories will be enabled by default for every Internet account. That is, if a user sets up his or her account and just takes the defaults as most people do, he or she will then have to know enough about how the system works to get back to this screen and change the options. My guess is that this won't be particularly easy to do, as the point of having everything enabled is to push users into filtering out all these categories of information.

I have to say, I find it rather bizarre that a site like Joseph Peterson's Esoteric Archives is somehow being placed in the same category as pornography, terrorism, and violence. I suppose the idea is that geometrical figures and tables of letters and numbers somehow pose an existential threat to British civilization - except that makes no sense to anyone but the most extreme religious fundamentalists. That makes me wonder who exactly is pushing Cameron to implement the filtering system, and what their real agenda might be.

This information needs to be disseminated as far and wide as possible for two reasons. First of all, it puts some pressure on the British government to re-think its filtering strategy, or at the very least change it from an opt-out to an opt-in. Second of all, if the filtering system is implemented as planned, people need to know that in order to access material related to magick they will need to manually go into their settings and turn off the relevant filtering option. Every British citizen needs to be aware that the default position of their government is to block access to this material.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Malawi's Flying Witches Remain Elusive

Some paranormal claims are remarkably easy to test, or would be under the right circumstances. In the African nation of Malawi, many people believe that witches are capable of flying great distances in small baskets. This claim would be just about the easiest thing in the world to authenticate. All you would have to do is find somebody who can do it and observe them, since there's nothing subjective about a basket rising into the air and flying off - either it happens or it doesn't. But as German student Kristin Droop discovered when she set out to do exactly that, it's that first part where you run into difficulties.

As Droop writes in an article published in the Maravi Post, her search for real flying witches uncovered plenty of people who believed in the phenomenon but found no one who could actually do it. That's a shame, because with a per capita GDP of only $857, anybody who managed to win the Randi Challenge could live like a king. And I have a hard time believing that the Randi Foundation would be able to weasel out of paying off somebody who could actually make a basket fly using magical powers.

Droop goes on to explain that she went so far as to track down a practicing witch doctor recommended to her by a friend. The man confirmed many of the stories she had heard, but nevertheless provided no proof of their veracity.

I started to ask my questions in English, those questions were translated by my friends to the witchdoctor since he could not understand the language. I asked him if witchcraft was real. If it was true that babies could be taken on a flight during the night. And; again, he said it was. He even had medicine for parents who want to protect their children from witches and wizards. He showed the medicine. To me, it looked like some mere pieces of wood.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wanted: Creation Scientists

Are you a young person who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and yet somehow managed to make it through a degree program in an actual science? Do you find that your peers are misguided atheists and heretics who fail to comprehend that since the world is only six thousand years old just about every scientific claim about nature is wrong? You know, even though you studied and passed tests on it all - but that was just to complete your degree program so you could get a job! God will understand! If this sounds like you, the Institute for Creation Research has the perfect job that will bring your career in line with your faith. You can become a professional Creation Scientist!

ICR, together with the rest of the creation science movement, has made great strides in the last 40 years. In many areas, the superiority of the creation worldview has been clearly demonstrated. Even now, ICR is making exciting discoveries in the fields of biology and geology, and we have started new research initiatives in the field of astronomy. However, there is much work that still needs to be done, and this work is hindered by a lack of trained scientists.

Which would be because most trained scientists understand that Young-Earth Creationism is a bunch of drivel that no thinking person should even consider accepting. You know, given the massively overwhelming evidence that the Earth existed long before 4004 BCE, or 10000 BCE, or whatever ridiculously recent date the movement is now pushing. This isn't even "intelligent design," folks. It's "God snapped his fingers" kind of stuff. Since God is not amenable to any sort of scientific testing, one wonders what it is that "Creation Scientists" even study.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

God Versus Gay Marriage - and Cheapskates!

Remember Cindy Jacobs? She's the self-proclaimed prophet who back in January claimed that the power of God had granted her quality footwear. Now she's back, with a more sinister and self-serving claim - that God will punish those who support same-sex marriage with natural disasters, along with those who can't afford to give her money.

“Recently in the United States we’ve had these Supreme Court decisions that are against biblical marriage,” Jacobs said. “and the Lord said to me, ‘duck your head, duck your head.’ I said, ‘Oh God, duck my head?’”

The Holy Father, she said, will “mark” believers — as long as they are giving at least 10 percent of their income to the church — and save them from a series of natural disasters that Jacobs described as “a whole lotta shakin’ getting ready to happen.”

“We have displeased the Lord and the earth is going to answer,” she insisted, intimating that God is going to punish the U.S. in the form of natural disasters.

I love that little totally non-Biblical but completely money-grubbing comment about how to be saved from these disasters you have to be giving ten percent of your income to the church. Presumably, that means her church, on the grounds that anyone taking her seriously is probably a follower. Because when you read the words of Jesus, the central takeaway is that the Lord will spare only those who can afford it. Oh, wait...

Jacobs claims that she predicted natural disasters before Hurricane Sandy hit, but that's the nice thing about natural disasters - there's always going to be another one at some point in the future. Jacobs stresses in the article that she doesn't want these natural disasters to come, God is just angry and that's the way it is. Apparently all she does want is those sweet, sweet donations. You know, so she can afford more of those holy shoes.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Different Religions, Same Scandals

Most of the time in the United States when a scandal emerges surrounding a religious leader, the leader in question is Christian. That's not surprising, as Christianity is by far the majority religion in America. But this story out of Thailand reminds us that corrupt religious leaders can be found in every spiritual tradition. Wirapol Sukphol, a Buddhist monk, is at the center of a scandal involving sexual misconduct, fraud, and the amassing of $32 million dollars in assets. Sound familiar?

Despite the vows he took to lead a life of celibacy and simplicity, Wirapol had a taste for luxury, police say. His excesses first came to light in June with a YouTube video that went viral. It showed the orange-robed monk in aviator sunglasses taking a private jet ride with a Louis Vuitton carry-on. The video sparked criticism of his un-monkly behavior and a stream of humorous headlines like, "Now boarding, Air Nirvana."

Since then, a long list of darker secrets has emerged – including his accumulated assets of an estimated 1 billion baht ($32 million). This week, authorities issued an arrest warrant for the disgraced monk after having him defrocked in absentia. Wirapol was in France when the scandal surfaced after leading a meditation retreat at a monastery near Provence. He is believed to have then fled to the United States but his current whereabouts are unknown.

The arrest warrant implicates him on three charges including statutory rape, embezzlement and online fraud to seek donations. He is also under investigation for money laundering, drug trafficking and manslaughter for a hit-and-run accident. Authorities are struggling to figure out how he amassed so much money.

It truly is remarkable how this scandal seems so similar to our own despite all the differences between Christian and Buddhist beliefs. It just goes to show that no matter what spiritual tradition we follow, we're all human and power has a corrupting influence on many if not most people. Whether that power is religious or political seems to matter very little.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Indulgences for the Modern World

Indulgences are back - though of course they've never really left. According to Roman Catholic theology, after death souls are tormented in Purgatory in proportion to their sins in life. Indulgences allow those who receive them to take "time off" from this punishment and enter Heaven sooner. One of Martin Luther's strongest objections to the Catholicism of the sixteenth century was the selling of indulgences to wealthy individuals, which became one of the driving forces behind the Protestant Reformation.

Following the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church reined in the practice and today indulgences are granted for particular activities and cannot be bought or sold. In a modern twist, the Vatican is now offering them to those who follow Pope Francis' appearance at the upcoming Catholic World Youth Day in Brazil by television, radio, and social media in addition to those who can attend the event in person. So Catholics can in fact get time off Purgatory by following the Pope on Twitter. Talk about updating the practice.

Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks – such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate's house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.

But attendance at events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long event starting on 22 July, can also win an indulgence.

Mindful of the faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil, the Vatican's sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, has also extended the privilege to those following the "rites and pious exercises" of the event on television, radio and through social media.

"That includes following Twitter," said a source at the penitentiary, referring to Pope Francis' Twitter account, which has gathered seven million followers. "But you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Psychics and Police Work

It's not just religious people who are closed-minded. As I alluded to in my recent article on the importance of critical thinking, skeptics can exhibit a mindset remarkably similar to that of a Christian who fails to understand the difference between paranormal powers and stage magick. A prime example is this article from Slate, which purports to debunk the claim that psychics help police solve crimes in response to a report that California psychic Pam Ragland was able to locate the body of a murder victim when police had failed to do so.

The issue of psychics aiding police investigation is contentious and complex. Researchers who have studied actual criminal case data agree that most people who claim to be psychics are unable to offer helpful information. At the same time, there are a few individuals who seem to produce results that are better than chance. The possibility may exist that Ragland could be one of those people, but one lucky guess does not make a pattern. I would expect a real skeptic to make this same argument - most psychic tips aren't helpful to police, and you can't infer much from a single incident, even a high-profile one. Instead, the Slate article offers this:

Yet another example of the mystical properties of the universe? No, but it’s certainly another example of the gullibility (or willful ignorance) of the news media. I’m willing to accept that Pam Ragland helped find Terry Smith’s body. I’m even willing to accept that Riverside County authorities believe she used psychic powers to direct her search. But I am beyond certain that, despite what Ragland says and the authorities might believe, psychic intuition had absolutely nothing to do with the discovery of Smith’s body.

How do I know this? Because psychics don’t exist. Psychic powers are not a real thing. A psychic cannot help a detective solve a crime, because there is no such thing as a legitimate psychic. And it’s dangerous and wrong to report otherwise. Pretending that mystics and "intuitives" have something real to offer criminal investigations gives false hope to desperate people, and it’ll just end up wasting time and resources that would’ve been better spent on actual investigative techniques.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bathroom Witchcraft

Tanzania's Daily News reports that experts have recently been consulted regarding the role of witchcraft in bathroom and toilet accidents. Thankfully for those living in fear of their restroom facilities, they concluded that such deaths are in fact the result of normal accidents rather than evil spells. This suggests that Tanzanian resources could be better applied towards enforcing modern building codes than in trying to obtain magical protection for the nation's bathrooms.

Giving living examples, some of the Dar es Salaam residents interviewed by this paper said that according to their experience, in rare cases does one escape serious injuries after falling in the bathroom or toilet, while others brushed it off as mere accidents which can occur anywhere.

"Three years ago, a neighbor of mine dies on the spot after falling the bathroom while taking a shower, and a year later my brother-on-law also died after suffering a similar fate," said Filipo Siraju, a resident of Tegeta on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam.

He said that with the death of the neighbor, he ruled it as a normal accident, but after his brother-in-law died under similar circumstances, he started having serious worries. He told our reported that after the two deaths, he got to lear of similar deaths which occurred in the same fashion, and a relative later informed him that in most cases, these deaths are related to dark forces.

However, retired medical doctor Amos Mwakilasa disagreed, noting that falls in the bathroom can in fact be deadly and when they are health problems such as high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of a concussion or internal blood clot, are often to blame. And as in most other countries around the world, the falls themselves are usually caused by wet tile floors, which can be extremely slippery. Funny how that works.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Critical Thinking Fail

If you ever find yourself wondering how fundamentalists could possibly see the world that way that they do, look no further than this article. Author Dan Delzell is a Christian concerned about magicians being misled and corrupted by evil spirits. And by magician he means both occultists and stage performers, because as far as I can tell he thinks they are one in the same. That is, he apparently believes that stage illusionists are actually working with paranormal forces. I expect James Randi would find that pretty bizarre - as do I. As an example, Delzell pulls up stage magician Dynamo's recent double decker bus levitation illusion (warning: linked article contains spoilers) as the sort of supernatural occurrence he's trying to warn readers against.

I had never heard of the magician, Dynamo, until I read about how he floated alongside a double-decker bus in London recently. I watched the video. Personally, I think it was legit. I believe this was a paranormal event and an authentic example of levitation. But it's not like this sort of thing is completely unheard of today.

Whether the levitation is experienced by young girls playing a dangerous occult "game" at a slumber party, ("Light as a feather, Stiff as a board") or by street magicians as shown on YouTube videos, paranormal things happen when people engage in practices that are rooted in sorcery, magic and witchcraft. Many magicians and other occultists have experienced levitation and various forms of supernatural power. These sorcerers typically cast spells or perform other rituals in an attempt to conjure the power to accomplish these feats. It is becoming more and more commonplace to see such expressions of magical performance.

What most of these magicians do not realize, however, is that the power to do such things only appears to be under their control. These magical performers are actually being duped by beings with superior intelligence to their own. Just as some magicians engage in illusion, so do the spirits which seduce magicians to go deeper and deeper into their craft. It is incredibly enticing, especially when the performers start to get high on the attention it brings them. While the spellbinding feats such as levitation are very often real, these "abilities" are not under the ultimate control and power of the magician.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Politicians Who Meditate

Meditation has been found to both reduce stress and expand awareness, and there are few who could benefits from those effects more than members of the United States Congress. Congressional approval ratings have been low for many years, and over the last two decades harsh polarization between the two major parties has been the norm. Republican gains in 2010 gave their party control of the House of Representatives while Democrats retained control of the Senate, creating a divided congress that has passed little major legislation since that time. Salon has an article up about the so-called "mindfulness caucus," a group of legislators who have taken up meditation.

This year saw gains for bona fide Buddhists, with Mazie Hirono becoming the first to enter the Senate in history, and with fellow Buddhist Hawaiian Colleen Hanabusa in the House. And from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, to health-conscious Bill Clinton, to redeemed Southern Republican lawmaker Mark Sanford, a growing number of politicians and the people they employ are getting turned on to the benefits of meditation, in general.

“If more people meditiated, we probably would have less arguing, less animus, physically, mentally, and legislatively, and we’d probably have a lot more effective legislation because people would be coming from a much more balanced place when they’re doing their jobs as legislators,” said Los Angeles Democratic Rep. Tony Cardenas, who has been meditating twice a day for a little over a year (at least when his schedule allows).

Many of those involved are Christian rather than Buddhist, but there's nothing wrong with that. Contemplative Christianity has a long history of meditators inspired by Western rather than Eastern esotericism, and studies have shown that the benefits of meditation accrue regardless of the practitioner's religious foundation. Contemplative practitioners have the advantage that they actually are doing spiritual practice, unlike those who do little more than attend church services.

The mindfulness caucus is small, and unless it grows substantially I doubt it will do much to change the tone in Washington. On the other hand, I'm certainly open to be proven wrong. Lawmakers with more enlightened perspectives certainly can't hurt.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

School Yoga Lawsuit Fails

So the Poor Oppressed Christians believe that stretching is inherently religious. That is, it does not explicitly support Christian privilege, which makes it fundamentally pagan or at the very least irredeemably evil. On those apparent grounds, two San Diego parents sought to ban secular yoga classes taught at local schools for violating the separation of church and state. Fortunately, Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer rejected this logic - or, I suppose, the complete lack thereof.

Meyer sided instead in the Monday ruling with administrators from the Encinitas Union School District who argued the practice while often religious is taught in a secular way to promote strength, flexibility and balance. The judge said parents who objected relied on personal opinions, some culled from Internet searches. "It's almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn't what this court does," said Meyer, who took nearly two hours to explain a decision that explored yoga's Indian roots and philosophy.

The judge emphasized that the school district stripped classes of all cultural references, including the Sanskrit language. The lotus position was renamed the "crisscross applesauce" pose. Dean Broyles, an attorney for Encinitas parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, said he would likely appeal.

Refering to lotus as the "crisscross applesauce" pose is so stripped of its original context that it just sounds stupid. To my way of thinking this shows that the district made every effort to ensure that nothing religious or even reflective of Indian culture was mentioned in the classes - which, by the way, families could opt out of. Still, for the Poor Oppressed Christians that's never enough. Hindus do these stretching exercises, so even if they are presented in a neutral context their kids are going to get heathen cooties or something by osmosis.

As usual, it's the hypocrisy that drives me nuts the most about these folks. When atheists file lawsuits to prevent authority figures in schools from leading sectarian prayers, the "separation of church and state" is a myth created by liberal activist judges that must be challenged at every turn. But the moment the Poor Oppressed Christians see anything that doesn't support their privilege, they go running to the courts offering up the exact same arguments as their atheist opponents.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Atheists Just Like Everyone Else

A study from a Tennessee university has reached the completely obvious conclusion that atheists exhibit the same distribution of personality types that believers do. In other words, people are people. Funny how that works. The study found that non-believers can be broken down into six basic groups spanning a range of personality types that are also found among religious adherents.

“Previous research and studies focusing on the diverse landscape of belief in America have continually placed those who profess no belief in a God or gods into one unified category infamously known as the ‘religious nones,’” reads the report’s overview. “This catch-all category presented anyone who identified as having “no religion” as a homogenous group in America today, lumping people who may believe in God with the many who don’t.”

The University of Tennessee researchers found that, on the contrary, religious non-believers actually break down into groups. The study identified six types of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).

Among believers, the Intellectual type would seem to correspond to individuals who are is drawn to theology and philosophy, seeking to understand the divine through intellectual means, and the Activist type to those who are primarily motivated by social justice concerns. Likewise, the Seeker type corresponds to those who are drawn to contemplative religious practice, and the Ritual type to those who are attracted to complex and involved liturgies.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Eben Alexander Debunked

When Eben Alexander's book Proof of Heaven came out I initially found the story circulated by his publisher potentially compelling. Alexander claimed that much like the events fictionalized in the film Flatliners, he experienced a detailed vision of the afterlife while in a coma. During that time, doctors monitoring his condition detected no brain activity. At first the story sounds like solid evidence of out-of-body consciousness, but several caveats have emerged following the book's publication.

The first is that Alexander's vision does not exactly match up with the Christian concept of Heaven. He had a classic near-death experience consisting of a tunnel of white light leading to a bright and awe-inspiring place in which he felt the presence of the divine. Despite the book's title, Alexander's experience fits the general New Age description of the afterlife just as well as it does that of Christianity. Alexander just happens to be Christian. The thing is, so is most of America, and the title is just savvy marketing. It apparently worked; the book has sold over 15 million copies. My guess is that the same book titled Proof of an Afterlife would not have done nearly as well.

The second caveat came to my attention when it was revealed that Alexander wrote his book over a period of many months surrounding his emergence from the coma. Memory is not fixed or necessarily reliable, especially when recalling altered states of consciousness. When it became clear that the the account was not written right away, that threw up a red flag because it is entirely possible that events remembered long after the fact can be jumbled or even completely made up. So the time delay means that the account could have been fabricated, even if Alexander himself believed that what he was writing was true.

Now a new article published in Esquire raises a third and probably fatal caveat to Alexander's paranormal claims. Not only was his coma medically induced rather than spontaneous, but he was clearly at least somewhat conscious while his doctors were bringing him out of it. During that time he certainly exhibited brain activity, which easily could account for his experience. The article is behind a pay wall, but Yahoo News has an excerpt:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Real Bigfoot?

Back in February I covered the story of the DeNovo Scientific Journal, a publication apparently created for the sole purpose of publishing a research paper by geneticist Melba Ketchum regarding the supposed sequencing of bigfoot DNA. As I noted at the time, the trouble with this is that publishing your own paper in your own scientific journal bypasses the process of peer review and as such cannot meaningfully be called scientific. The whole point of peer review is to allow other researchers to check your findings, to rule out any possibility of experimental error that might happen in any individual study.

Yesterday science blogger Eric Berger published his account of having Ketchum's "bigfoot DNA" analyzed by another geneticist - that is, performing the sort of peer review that would be necessary to validate that bigfoot indeed represents an unknown species.

I am first and foremost a journalist, and I figured if there was even a 1 percent chance that the Bigfoot evidence was real, it was worth my time to check the story out.

So I agreed to be an intermediary between Ketchum and a highly reputable geneticist in Texas, whom I trusted and knew personally. I also knew that this geneticist was first and foremost a scientist, and if there was even a 1 percent chance the Bigfoot evidence was real, he’d want check out the story. I asked, and he was willing to approach the evidence with an open mind.

(Why am I maintaining my source’s anonymity? Because some of his peers would question his engagement on such a topic, believing it unworthy of valuable research time. But make no mistake, he is a top-notch scientist at the top of his field.)