I learned this week that Zecharia Sitchin, the ancient astronaut theorist, died on October 9 at the age of 90. Sitchin was the author of many, many books in which the author claimed that his special knowledge of Sumerian and other ancient Middle Eastern texts and languages allowed him to reveal that aliens from a wandering planet called Nibiru came to earth in the ancient past and used humans as slave labor to mine for gold.
Of Sitchin's outlandish theories, I have little to say now that I didn't say a decade ago in writing about the man and his work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first ancient alien tome, The Twelfth Planet. He was wrong then and remained wrong until his death. His self-designed programs of Sitchin Studies, complete with diplomas, were, shall we say, quaint.
Of the man, however, I can say this: Unlike his contemporaries Erich von Daniken and Robert Temple, Sitchin did not make a personal fetish out of claims of persecution. Unlike von Dankien and his minders, Sitchin did not personally attack those who criticized him and appeared not to hold vendettas years later.
I corresponded with Sitchin exactly once, when writing The Cult of Alien Gods, and he declined to be intereviewed, citing a lack of time--unlike other writers who immediately accused me of libel, slander, and worse simply for asking. As late as this summer, I still received queries from confused readers who assumed that I knew Sitchin and wanted me to give them his telephone number. He apparently inspired that kind of devotion.
MSNBC.com has done it again. Just a few weeks after turning over their site to a vengeful UFO author, Leslie Kean, looking to trash skeptical reviews of her book on government cover-ups of UFO sightings, MSNBC.com has now run a credulous interview with the authors of a new book claiming that ancient people witnessed the arrival of alien spacecraft and recorded their observations of the beings and their transportation in their art and literature.
The book is called Wonders in the Sky and deserves no serious discussion since its major claims have been around since Morning of the Magicians and Eric von Daniken half a century ago. What does deserve mention is the fact that another major news site provides free promotion to this pseudoscientific nonsense without any challenge or questioning of the outrageous claims. In fact, the MSNBC correspondent, Alan Boyle, actually asks the authors for their recommendations for ways the media could better report on alien sightings!
The article was obviously a fluff piece from a correspondent usually associated with strong science writing, and in places it's clear that Boyle doubts the alien explanation. However, even fluff interviews ought to try to probe for the truth and challenge outrageous claims rather than simply serve as a stenographic service for publishing houses' PR departments.
At least last time, MSNBC simply eliminated the pretense of doing journalism and just let the a UFO-monger writer her own article. It was much more honest.
Today the state of New York is sponsoring a psychic festival at the Empire State Plaza, the government-owned and operated underground shopping and services center beneath the state capitol. The festival includes booths devoted to fortune-telling, communication with the dead, energy manipulation, and crystal and other forms of paranormal healing and medicine.
Practitioners of the psychic arts are charging customers for their services from a nominal fee up to more expensive "readings" and "healings", all under the auspices of the New York State Office of General Services (OGS), who organized and managed the psychic fair.
Under New York law, psychic practitioners are required to display a disclaimer that services such as fortune telling and communication with the dead are "for entertainment purposes only." I asked a representative of the OGS where the disclaimer was posted. According to the OGS, the disclaimer was prominently displayed on the A-frame signs promoting the event in the hallways leading up to the Plaza but were not required for individual practitioners, not even those who made specific claims that they could communicate with specific dead people or could cure disease with crystals or Eastern religious practices. I walked the length and breadth of the festival site and was unable to find a disclaimer, though during my visit some event signs were still being put up.
I am not an absolutist about psychic fairs. As long as it is clear that fortune-tellers are plying their trade for fun and entertainment, I don't have a problem with carnival-style mentalism. What I do have a problem with is people who claim with all seriousness that they have specific messages from the loved dead. And what I find unconscionable is the State of New York lending its imprimatur to frauds and hucksters and the legitimately deluded who promise that for a small fee crystals, energy manipulation, and other quackery will cure any and all diseases.
I do not want my tax money going to support these hucksters, nor do I want the state offering its good offices to practitioners of Eastern religious mysticism masquerading as medicine when it certainly would never allow a similar violation of the separation of church and state if we called this by its Christian name: faith healing.
"Its no worse than religion," an OGS staffer told me this morning in explaining why the state was running a psychic festival. I don't think that's the standard we ought to be using in deciding what the state should sponsor--especially when the state is not only promoting this nonsense, but allowing its practitioners to charge money for imaginary services in publicly owned and operated buildings.
Note: An earlier version of this blog post contained some erroneous information, and, based on those mistakes, contained some inferences and interpretations that were not supportable. As a result, I have decided to take down the original, erroneous post and replace it with the edited and revised version below. Some of the comments on this blog post refer to the earlier, uncorrected posting.
At Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, psychology professor Daryl J. Bem believes he has found evidence of precognition--specifically that the human mind can reach back in time to influence decisions it is about to make.
In "Feeling the Future," an article to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Bem reported on a series of experiments in which 100 college students were asked to predict whether pornographic images would be found behind one of two computer-generated curtains. When they guessed correctly 53% of the time over 100 trials (amounting to more than 1,500 individual tests), he considered this to be affirmation that the students' minds had reached back in time to tell them the correct answer because in reality the computer assigned porn to a curtain only after a student selected a curtain. In other words, they were guessing between two blank squares and only after choosing a square was porn placed on the screen.
In another experiment, Bem showed students a list of 48 words divided into four categories and non-randomly listed so that no two words from the same category were adjacent. He then asked the students to write down what words they remembered. They remembered on average 18 of 48 words. The computer then showed them half of the words again, and the students were asked to write them down. Bem found that the 18 words the students remembered were slightly more likely than chance to be on the list of 24 words they were later shown. This implies, he suggests, that quantum mechanics allows the students minds to project the list of 24 words backward in time so they can be informed to remember them when they saw them during the initial batch of 48 words.
Daryl J. Bem is active in "psi" research, and he also is credited with developing the theory that homosexuality is caused by genetically predisposed children becoming attracted to activities associated with the opposite gender instead of their own, leading to gender confusion.
The full article "Feeling the Future" by Daryl J. Bem is here.
For a moment, let us assume that the phenomena reported in this article actually occurred. (I doubt that a thorough examination of the experimental protocol or attempts to repeat the experiment will yield the same results, but I am not qualified to critique experimental design, so for the moment let us assume it is so.) The statistical significance reported in this article is interesting, but it is not alone evidence of quantum fluctuations or reverse-chronological projection of psychic thoughts. For example, we could equally well conclude that the human brain projects its desires into the computers running the experiment to alter where the machine places pornographic images or which words it chooses to display.
Obviously, even if the results are exactly as reported, it is an unsupportable leap to argue that the results demonstrate psychic vibrations, quantum time travel, etc. To be fair, Dr. Bem does not explicitly say this. But, if he did not believe that this was exactly what his experiment suggests, then he wouldn’t have spent much of his article discussing such possibilities or, in truth, have tried to design an experiment to “prove” retroactive cognition.
The new edition of Skeptical Inquirer (November/December 2010) has a special section devoted to monsters. As part of their package, Ron Watkins informs us that "Frankenstein Was Not a Doctor." Watkins takes issue with the public perception of the Frankenstein story, claiming that the 1930s Universal film versions have distorted Mary Shelley's novel and judging this to be a very bad thing indeed.
"What we believe about this classic literary work is simply false, yet society has accepted it as true. It's as if the novel has been cast aside and forgotten, and that probably matters most of all. [...] Frankenstein has been so overshadowed by film versions that the book is no longer relevant to most people."
Watkins specifically criticizes all the extant Frankenstein films for altering details small and large, and for emphasizing some aspects of the plot over others, neglecting the themes that he considers most important to the Frankenstein story: the overreaching of the scientist and the suffering of the creature.
Watkins and I disagree that these themes are unaddressed in cinematic versions; but even if they were not, Wakins appears to be decidedly more rigid on the ideal relationship of printed page to celluloid frame than I. He believes that any alterations to a novel in adapting it for stage or screen is a "corruption," and he marvels that book and film are "two types of media telling completely different stories." Well, yes. Movies and books are inherently different, not just in how they tell their stories but in the types of stories they can tell. The cinematic Dracula differs greatly from Stoker's novel, as does every adaptation.
But the larger point is this: Is Frankenstein to be understood primarily as the novel Mary Shelley wrote, the movie James Whale filmed, or something else? Watkins wants Shelley's novel to be seen as the authentic Frankenstein, and all others as "corruptions." Instead, I choose to see Frankenstein as a modern myth, and like any myth, it accrues variants over time as the story is told and retold, continuously adapted to changing circumstances and needs. Mary Shelley will forever be the creator of Frankenstein, but she birthed something larger than a novel, a myth that has escaped the page and even the screen, to become simultaneously novel and movie, stage play and Aurora model kit, and so much more.
To complain that filmed versions fail to reproduce the novel line-for-line is to miss the point entirely.
Since it's October and Halloween is just around the corner, it's time for ghosts and goblins and the things that go bump in the night. For the most part, this is all good fun, and despite some skeptics' claims that there is no legitimate use for the supernatural, even in art, monsters and demons can serve cathartic purposes, showing us our deepest fears and reflecting the special anxieties of our lives.
But there is a big difference between using the supernatural as a set of symbols and metaphors to enliven fiction and claiming that the ghosts are not just real but really here...right now. Here in New York's capital city, Albany, the state capitol building is offering "ghost tours" all month long, informing tourists about the haunted history of the city's most iconic nineteenth-century monument. While these tours are offered in the spirit of fun, I can't help but think there is something amiss when the state government tells visitors that not only are there ghosts walking the building, but that a small carving of a "demon" among the elaborate Victorian decorations is evidence of a dark curse placed over the building during construction. (That never happened.) It may be designed as harmless amusement, but I would prefer that my government stop imagining that demons and curses are both real and manifest.
On the other hand, it would explain the state's dysfunctional government.
Once again, atheist author Sam Harris is promoting his view that science can yield answers to moral questions and teach us the right way to live based on policies that will improve human happiness and the flourishing of our species. On the Huffington Post, Harris writes at length about the science that will tell us what is good and what is evil.
Harris is dead wrong at every level, and he is blind to his own cultural biases. First, in an atheist cosmos (which Harris has previously advocated), there can be no inherent morality because the universe does not care. The cosmos takes no account of humankind and cares not a blip whether the human species lives or dies. Whether we lie, cheat, steal, or kill makes no difference to the stars and black holes, and therefore have no inherent moral value except what we--through our cultures--assign them. Stripped to is elements, therefore, Harris's argument is merely that science can tell us whether certain policies will lead to outcomes Harris views as favorable, such as increased lifespans, healthier bodies, etc. But this is not a universal moral imperative; it is the preference of a certain type of upper middle class, twenty-first century American who seeks to universalize his own preferences under the guise of scientific objectivity.
But let us grant Harris his argument. Under his reasoning, therefore, there is a strong scientific case that systematic human population reduction, through freeing up resources, will make humanity happier and healthier. Therefore, policies of mandatory sterilization are entirely justified. Where shall we start with the castrations? I vote to start with Harris, but will he agree? After all, science says to do it. Right?
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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