The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘illusion’

Loch Ness Monster Activity is Likely Just Seismic in Nature

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 8, 2013

I ran across two articles recently about the latest research regarding the Loch Ness Monster.  And by “research” I really do mean serious scientific work: it seems that many supposed Nessie sightings over the years have been accompanied by audible rumbling and gas bubbling up to the surface of Loch Ness.  There seems to be a plausible geological (note: “geological” does NOT equate to “big freaking monster”, just to clarify) explanation for these phenomena.

As a lesson in critical thinking (or a lack thereof) in the media, let us compare the coverage of this research from two different sources, the Scientific American blog and the Huffington Post.  First, the SciAm blog…

The Earth-shattering Loch Ness Monster that wasn’t

Summer is traditionally Silly Season, when newspapers publish strange stories about aliens and monsters again and again to bridge holiday time – and so will July on “History of Geology” be dedicated to frivolous science stories…

In 2001 the Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi presented during the Earth Systems Processes meeting in Edinburgh a hypothesis explaining the supposed appearance of the sea/lake monster “Nessie” as a result of geologic forces.

According to Piccardi’s idea the historic description of the monster – appearing on the surface with great (earth)shakes and rumours – could be associated with bubbles emanating from the bottom of the Scottish lake of Loch Ness in response of seismic activity along the Great Glen fault system, passing below the lake. …

VERNE_1864_Voyage_au_centre_terre_Plesiosaurus

… Not only biological constrains, also the geology don’t seems to support the existence of an earthshaking monster in Loch Ness.  Common earthquakes from the Loch Ness area range between magnitude 3 to 4, larger events were recorded only in 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. These earthquakes don’t coincide with the years of supposed increased activity of Nessie (like 1933). Even the largest Scottish earthquakes were anyway too weak to cause any observable effects on the surface of Loch Ness (curiously the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 generated waves on Loch Ness, but no Nessie sighting is reported for this year).

Piccardi himself sees the value of his hypothesis more in the possibility to make geologists aware of the geological origins of some myths, as to propose verifiable cryptozoology.

Well, that seems pretty good: a well thought-out article regarding an area of actual scientific research, even going so far as to note the limitations of Piccardi’s hypothesis.

Now, let’s see what the HuffPo has to say…

Loch Ness Monster Mystery Solved? ‘Nessie’ Just Bubbles From Seismic Activity, Geologist Says (VIDEO)

… The first claimed sighting of “Nessie” occurred in the sixth century, according to Scientific American. Legend has it that the creature appears along with earth tremors and bubbling from the bottom of Loch Ness, one of Britain’s largest freshwater lakes.

Formed as a result of a long-ago collision between the northern tip of Scotland and the rest of Britain, the loch sits over the 62-mile Great Glen fault line. Piccardi argues that this position may have fueled centuries of Loch Ness Monster rumors.

“Loch Ness is exactly on the fault zone,” Piccardi said in 2001, according to The Telegraph. “When there are small shocks, it can create a commotion on the water surface. Along the fault there can be gas emissions, which can create large bubbles on the surface. There are many surface effects which can be linked to the activity of the fault.”

But Piccardi’s theory is not without critics, especially among Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts like Gary Campbell, president of the Loch Ness Monster Fan Club in Inverness, Scotland.

“Most of the sightings involve foreign objects coming out of the water. There’s two most common — one’s a hump, and the other is a head and neck,” Campbell told ABC News. “At the end of the day, there’s still sightings that are inexplicable. There’s something physical in there.” …

*facepalm*

Where to begin?  First of all, the fact that the HuffPo elevates a pseudoscientific hack – in this case, the Gary Campbell who runs a fan club for the Loch Ness Monster – to the level of a serious critic of a pretty plausible area of scientific research speaks volumes.  Apparently, to the HuffPo, “scientist” equates with “anyone who can make sh*t up”.

Next, pay attention to Campbell’s response: “At the end of the day, there’s still sightings that are inexplicable…” So that proves… what exactly?  That there isn’t a full explanation?  And how exactly does a lack of an explanation provide any validity to the explanation via invoking Nessie?  This is a classic argument from ignorance, and one could just as easily invoke leprechauns or unicorns as an explanation using such shoddy logic.

Last, but not least, is the final few seconds of the video at the HuffPo link, wherein the host shows some TV anchors moaning about how they don’t want to accept the geological research of Piccardi because they like the idea of Nessie.  The HuffPo host summed it up as follows:

“Sometimes you just don’t want scientific reasoning, and you just want to believe.”

600px-Double_facepalm

Posted in cryptozoology, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Fun with Pareidolia: Mr. Bill in my Soup!

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 28, 2012

I’ve been meaning to post this for awhile, but I keep forgetting to do so.  During my summer vacation to the Adirondacks in New York, my wife and I took a break from hiking to get some dinner.  As we were getting ready to chow down, lo and behold, I observed the following “miraculous” appearance in my wife’s soup!…

Laugh if you will, unbeliever, but you should tremble in awe at the miraculous appearance of…

Mr. Bill!  Ohhhh Noooooo!!! :(

Of course it isn’t Mr. Bill in my soup, folks.  It’s just another classic case of pareidolia, the same phenomenon by which people think they see dogs or cars in the clouds, the so-called Face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, or visions of Jesus in a window.  Essentially, our brains work as pattern-recognition machines, and one of the most familiar patterns which we are evolutionarily programmed to recognize is other human faces.  So we tend to see human (or human-like) faces in bits of random data even when there really is no face there to begin with!

I really like how skeptical magicians Penn & Teller put it during their Bullshit! episode on supposed “miracles”, so I’ll let them have the last word :)

Posted in humor, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 27, 2012

I was inspired to write the following JREF Swift blog post as a result of my earlier posts (here and here) on the question of gasoline prices in the United States and the powers (perceived or real) of the U.S. president.  I hope you find it enlightening…

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

On my blog, I recently put together a post – Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction – about higher gas prices and how people are blaming President Obama for it.  As I pointed out there, Republicans blaming him for the increase in the price of gasoline (and oil in general) are wrong for the same reason as when Democrats blamed former President Bush back in 2007: the President doesn’t really have that much power to influence oil and gasoline prices.

So, if it is true that no such power exists for the leaders of our government to affect the price at the pump (and that is true, as the prices are set more by market factors such as global supply and demand of oil), why is it that people want to lay blame upon our mostly blameless leaders?  I struggled with the answer to this question for some time, but I think I have finally hit upon a possible answer: many people, either consciously or not, attribute powers to the President of the United States and Congress that simply do not exist.

And that asks the next obvious question: why do people attribute such powers to our political leaders?  Why is it that many of us assign almost god-like abilities to our decidedly non-god-like and wholly fallible authority figures?

I think the answer is multi-faceted and can give some interesting insights into how we think about a lot of things, especially regarding politically oriented topics.  In addition, an analysis of this topic can lead us into a deeper discussion of a philosophical concept known as “agency”.

First, I think (somewhat cynically) that there are some, if not many, politicians in government who, either actively or inactively, encourage the notion that they have more power than they are in reality.  After all, this is one of the reasons why people vote for candidates running for political office: because they make promises and we expect them to deliver on those promises, whether or not those promises are in any way, shape, or form realistic to achieve.  This also goes for the various subsidiaries which surround the government, such as lobbying groups, political action committees, etc.  But it’s too easy to stop there.

Second, I think that in many ways we are somewhat hard-wired to make inferences to the existence of things which are not there.  In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as “agency”, where we assign some kind of powers and abilities to an entity through our beliefs about that entity or our behavior towards it.  For example, how many of us have been in the middle of some very important work on the computer when suddenly the program crashes?  No doubt that many of us then engaged in a certain amount of cursing at (not necessarily about) the computer, as if it could not only hear but understand us.  (Aside: my wife works with computers for her career, and she will swear up and down that “they know what we’re thinking”)  The computer itself is real enough, but what about the agency which we assign to it?

But when you step back and think about it, it’s downright silly to rant and rave at the computer.  The most obvious reason for this is that it simply doesn’t work.  Yell at the computer all you want, but that won’t fix the problem; actually trying to solve the relevant hardware and/or software problem will fix things.  The other reason is that, let’s face it, at the end of the day the computer is simply a collection of circuits, wire, switches, and assorted electronics.  Does it really have a mind with which to interact?  The answer, so far with today’s common technology, is a negative, yet for some reason we engage with the computer as if it did have such a mind.  And in so doing, we assign agency to the computer. …

Click here to read the rest of the post

Posted in economics, philosophy, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Jesus Toast: Pareidolia You Can Believe In!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 3, 2011

As a fun way of sharing some skepticism of “miraculous vision” claims, I wanted to share with you a really funny YouTube a friend sent me.  It pokes fun at the phenomenon of pareidolia, wherein people claim to see all manner of wild things – Jesus, the Virgin Mary, aliens, Michael Jackson, etc – in everything from the clouds to their shower curtain.  Of course, we know from modern science that these are illusions of perception, because our brains are marvelous pattern recognition machines, causing us to sometimes see things that are not really there.

Okay, enough seriousness.  Time for some fun… check out the “Jesus Toast” video, and share it with a friend.  Enjoy! :)

 

Posted in humor, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Another Crappy “Lake Monster” Sighting in Canada?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 11, 2011

Here’s a new one for the “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” files: a halfway serious ABC News report on a really bad video shot by someone who claims to have evidence of a lake monster in Canada called Ogopogo (basically, the Canadian equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster).  Below is the video footage in question…

Oooh, scary!!!

That’s it?!!  That’s all there is to this supposedly astonishing story sweeping the world?  Some ripples/waves in the water which are likely caused by debris?

Sometimes I weep for humanity; if this is the best that cryptozoologists can come up with (and it pretty much is the best they can come up with), then it is no wonder they are mocked.  I think the following comment on the ABC News story sums it up best…

How come most quickly taken video’s are crystal clear but any UFO – Yeti – Nessie videos look like they were shot by a 2 yr. old with a Fisher Price camera???

‘Nuff said, folks.

Posted in cryptozoology, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Solution to the “Self-tying” Knot Trick from TAM9

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 24, 2011

This is the solution to the puzzle presented in my previous blog post – Self-Tying Knot Trick from TAM9  – wherein I show you how to supposedly tie a knot in a length of rope without releasing the ends. Of course, it is a trick, so watch the video carefully to see just how the trick is done. And have fun with some friends, family, or (if you’re a teacher) students with this puzzle.  It is a wonderful exercise in critical thinking!

Check out the Youtube video for the answer…

One last thing: I cannot claim credit for inventing this trick. I learned about it from Penn & Teller’s old book “Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends”, so credit should go to them :)

Posted in education, magic tricks | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The “Loch Ness Monster”… of Alaska?

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2011

So there’s this video going around the Internet where some fishermen claim to have discovered a new “Loch Ness Monster”… in Alaska.  Here is the article and related video wherein witnesses claim to have found evidence of the creature…

The Loch Ness Monster of Alaska?

Move over, Montauk Monster. Step aside, Nessie. There’s a new sea creature in town–maybe. Footage of a 20- to 30-foot long creature caught on tape by fishermen suggest we have an Alaska bonafide marine-creature mystery.

The black and white footage from 2009 is by no means definitive. It is taken on a rainy day with a shaky camera, which make it all the more confounding. But you can check out the testimony of people who say they witnessed the creature’s appearance in the video above.

The Alaska-dwelling creature has been labeled a “Cadborosaurus willsi,” which means “reptile” or “lizard” from Cadboro Bay, British Columbia, where it was originally spotted centuries ago. Called “Caddy” for short, it has a “long neck, a horse-like head, large eyes, and back bumps that stick out of the water,” according to a report on MSNBC. …

So “Caddy” is the newest craze to hit the cryptozoology community of “monster hunters”, it seems.  Sadly, the supposed “evidence” here is no better than the best ever provided for the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or any other of the many mythical creatures that cryptozoologists claim exist.  In this case, we have a video of very poor quality – it is out of focus, grainy, and shot under bad weather conditions.

The claims that “this cannot be a sea lion” are also very questionable, because this assumes that the “humps” appearing behind the head that surfaces are actually part of the creature’s back without any kind of confirming evidence.  But here is a more reasonable and plausible explanation: as any seafarer knows, oftentimes when a sea lion, boat, or any other waterborne craft/creature is moving across the surface of the water it produces a regular pattern of ripples, such as those shown below…

Looking at this boat and its pattern of ripples from the side at a distance can certainly make it appear like there is a series of humps breaching the water behind the boat, but that is simply an illusion.  It is my guess that this is the same kind of illusion which has fooled these fishermen into thinking they are seeing “Caddy”.

One would think that if cryptozoologists are actually serious about investigating their claims, they could come up with something better than blurry photos, crappy video footage, and a profound lack of alternative explanations which are consistent with the environment they are observing.  Color me unimpressed.

Posted in cryptozoology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Self-Tying Knot Trick from TAM9

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 18, 2011

Well, I’m back from The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, and I’m slowly but surely getting caught up on things.  I just wanted to take a moment to share with everyone a trick I showed off during my “Skepticism in the Classroom” lecture at TAM9.  In this video, I show how to use a simple nylon rope to perform a *seemingly* mathematically impossible feat: having the rope tie a knot in itself without releasing either end of the rope. I show this to my students as a lesson in skepticism and critical thinking, and it never ceases to catch their interest.


Can you figure out the trick? Stay tuned to my Youtube channel for the solution ;)

Posted in education, magic tricks, mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Discovery Channel’s “The Supernaturalist” is Super Stupid

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 7, 2011

There was a time when I had really high hopes for cable channels like the Discovery Channel – I had hoped that they would be bastions that would promote sound science amidst a sea of sensationalistic cable TV docudrama and crapola (can you tell I don’t watch TV or cable?)  Sadly, the more time that passes, the more and more I shake my head in shame for what has happened to the Discovery Channel.  Case in point: the newest show on this “science” network, “The Supernaturalist”.

The show just launched a few days ago, and the Discovery Channel was promoting it as the Next Big Thing on their network.  Here’s the press release:

Mind-blowing Magic in The Supernaturalist

06/14/2011

MAGICIAN USES HIS OWN SKILLS TO FIND ELUSIVE MAGICAL MONK IN NEW
DISCOVERY SPECIAL ‘THE SUPERNATURALIST

Dan White performs mind-blowing magic: manipulating physical objects, performing surprising card tricks and making items appear from seemingly thin air. All of this, he admits, is merely an illusion. White has a mission: to find REAL magic. In Discovery Channel’s THE SUPERNATURALIST, premiering Wednesday, June 29th at 10PM et/pt, White travels to a remote corner of the planet and finds himself in a place where magic isn’t just tricks. It is believed to be very real… and even dangerous.

Locals in the Himalayan country of Nepal believe there are monks within its borders who use their powers to harm anyone who crosses their path. White relies on his talents as an illusionist to open doors normally closed to outsiders in an attempt to find one of these feared monks and – hopefully – witness his true magic. White’s mission will introduce him to many people, each getting him one step closer to the men in the mountains.

Unfortunately, in Dan White’s quest to “find REAL magic” – and the Discovery Channel’s quest to continue catering to the lowest common denominator (remember their stupid ghost-hunting show?) – it seems that everyone involved has left their basic critical thinking skills at the door.  For example, check out this footage of when Dan White “discovers” the levitating powers of the monk he has sought for so long…

The overly credulous nature of this clip, and how Dan White – the supposed skeptic – plays it up as legitimate (honest!) is downright pathetic.  There are some very basic questions to ask regarding a scenario like this:

1. Why isn’t the filming done in one continuous shot?  Note all the breaks in the clip between the time the monk sits down and when he “levitates”.

2. Why does the monk have to sit where he does, in front of a wall full of curtains that can easily obscure a device which can lift him?

3. Why doesn’t Dan White ask the obvious question as outlined in #2 above, instead of standing there looking like an idiot with his mouth agape?

4. Why doesn’t Dan White, our token “skeptic”, take a moment to simply walk over to the side to make sure there isn’t a mechanical arm or similar contraption connecting the monk to something behind the curtain.  On a related note, why isn’t this camera angle shown?

A simple application of Occam’s Razor is all that is necessary to slice through what is very clearly a bullshit display put together to get ratings.  Folks, this is a big joke, and if anyone takes it seriously the only one’s laughing will be the executives at the Discovery Channel who are guffawing at having one over on gullible viewers.  Fortunately, there is a silver lining: I have been inspired to incorporate this footage and a critical analysis of it into my upcoming talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas next week – it will make a good lesson for my students :)

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, magic tricks, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments »

My Challenge to the Discovery Institute’s “Design Inference” Model

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 7, 2010

In an earlier blog post, I gave a detailed rebuttal to a lecture by the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin titled “Intelligent Design: Dead Science or the Future of Biology?” – however, it wasn’t until recently that I came up with what I consider to be the real killer criticism of a basic intelligent design argument: their so-called “design inference” model. During his talk, Casey Luskin showed a picture of Mount Rushmore, which he stated the design inference model shows is clearly a product of ID, not the result of natural processes.  The implication is, of course, that much of evolutionary science is false because ID’s design inference model can prove that ID is a better explanation; but there’s a fatal flaw here.

The basic argument is simply a variation of the classic watchmaker argument, which is essentially an argument from ignorance. Not to mention, Luskin has stacked the deck in favor of the ID design inference model because every time an ID-advocate trots out their model it is in the context of a post-hoc analysis: they already know ahead of time that the object/situation they’re analyzing is the product of intelligent (human) processes.  Hell, of course Mount Rushmore is the result of (human) ID, because we have records & photos of humans chipping away at the damn rock!  So they can’t lose – in this sense, the ID folks are proposing a non-falsifiable model, which makes it NON-science.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs, creationism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

 
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