Red flags

I constantly find myself using the term ‘red flag’ whenever I notice something suspicious. I’m not at all sure many people know what I mean when I say it, though. It’s a skeptical term meaning, “Watch out, there is something fishy here.” Here is an amusing entry from RationalWiki citing some common red flags. I made this today.


Making memes

When I was in college I was there to study graphic design. When I began to study, however, I realized I wanted nothing to do with the graphic design crowd (and my teacher and I mutually loathed each other) so I opted for “sculpture”, a loosely-defined major which basically included anything you could invent in three spatial dimensions. We sculpture majors looked down our noses at our ad-agency peers. “They aren’t real artists,” we’d scoff. “They just want to get a good job one day.” We still believed real artists lived in broken-down lofts without plumbing and ate ramen noodles for lunch and dinner (black coffee for breakfast, please). This, of course, made them artists.

Of course, I’m no longer eighteen. I have developed an – ahem – appreciation of other forms of creativity that don’t perforce involve splattered paint and vodka. One of them is the internet meme. Meme is an interesting word because most people who use it use it to mean ‘internet meme’, or photos with catchy slogans or witty quotes. Memes, of course, were coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. They are a bit more complex than lolcats, but we can love them both.

I have recently taken to reworking some of my photos via cool apps that make it simple to do. Here’s one I like – made with Phonto – which uses a photo taken at the Museo della Tortura in Montepulciano, Tuscany to make a point I feel is worth stating. I’ll upload some of them here from time to time. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to spread them.


A really good pain in the ass

I’m reading an excellent book on critical thinking by Christopher DiCarlo called How to Be a Really Good Pain in the Ass. I heard an interview with him on Freethought Radio (I’m sensing a trend), and I thought I’d check it out. I didn’t find too much stuff online about the book, so I’m posting this talk. It’s pretty long, but it presents the main questions he raises in his book: How do humans go about investigating truth claims? What’s the difference between natural and supernatural worldviews? It’s top-notch skepticism and enjoyable reading. Check it out.

Assisi has atheists!

The light of reason breaking over Assisi

This is just a quick, informative post to let readers (and search engines) know that there is a new group on Facebook called Atei Assisi | Assisi Atheists. The idea behind it is to give atheists and other non-believers in the Assisi area – or Umbria, Italy and anywhere else they might live – some much-needed visibility.

Assisi, as most people know, is famous in all the world for one thing: St. Francis. A man who spoke to animals. A magician. And probably a charlatan (he was supposed to have stigmata – a red flag if ever there was one.)

It goes without saying that such a place probably has a bunch of frustrated atheists chomping at the bit. Plus, it doesn’t cost anything at all to “like” us. It’s free and always will be. So let’s show the theocrats we’re here to stay!


The Turin Shroud just won’t go away. The Telegraph has two articles (at least presenting different sides of the issue, which you would never read in an Italian newspaper) about a group of Italian scientists who claim the shroud is “authentic”. Funny word, that. Authentic what? Authentic fake, or authentic burial shroud of a man who lived around the beginning of the Common Era?

Whenever I read of scientists confirming miracle stories, I begin thinking either they aren’t very serious about science or they’ve been duped by personal faith. One thing you almost never hear about Jesus iconography is that no one has anything other than a speculative idea of what he may have looked like. There are no contemporary headshots of him. So, even if this were indeed Jesus’ actual burial shroud, how could we ever know such a thing? What evidence could possibly corroborate such a hunch? None. None at all.


Yet the Turin Shroud won’t die. Thankfully, it inspired a tweet I am proud to have tapped:


Further readingShroud of Turin entry in Skepdic. An interview with “paranormal investigator” Joe Nickell. (Just for fun, here’s an idiotic song about miracles.)

Bye bye birdie

Tim Farley has the scoop on the Mabus arrest. He was a notorious spammer who even spammed me on Twitter (I guess that means I’m a true skeptic now).

He would spend hours at it. For example, on February 25th I found 25 separate accounts he used. Based on the timestamps of the posts, he started around 7:30am, and posted more or less continuously until about 10am. He continued somewhat more slowly until noon, when I presume he took a break for lunch. He resumed at 3pm, and posted until 9pm that night. I counted almost 700 tweets. And because of the way Twitter was deleting each account (and all its output) when they noticed the spamming, all of that output from that day was gone within minutes. Disappeared.

It’s really a great story. Read the whole thing.

Postcard from Ectoville

Spooked out

In June we made our first trip to the United States with our baby daughter. After a trying week at the beach, we settled into a rented cottage immersed in the lush green of Hanover County, Virginia. Cows grazed next door. A family of chickens wandered over the grass to visit us each morning. In the evening, an industrious spider materialized on the porch, spinning its web anew, only to vanish by dawn.

By the standards of small town Virginia, we immediately became local celebrities. (My sister compared us to Jennifer Aniston, who is reportedly dating a man whose mother lives nearby.) A buzz built up around us: “The Italians are here!” We brought them real Parmigiano cheese (compare with “parmesan”), olive oil from Umbria (compare with “Goya”) and taralli laced with fennel (incomparable). We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

The pinnacle was Ashland’s July 4th parade. My brother-in-law was named honorary parade marshal, giving him and his family had the right to ride in a horse-drawn carriage with the mayor — an exciting prospect for my 10-year-old niece.

The whole town — except the misanthropes, if there are any — gathers yearly along Main St. to watch inventively named “brigades” march from one end of the township to the other. We saw the Lawn Chair Brigade composed of people doing a kind of Full Monty routine with, well, lawn chairs. There was also a Latin brigade, whose members mouthed the Roman greeting “Salve” and sported white togas. A man pedaled an old-time penny-farthing and an eccentric doctor marched on stilts. Then there was the patriotic dog contest…

The next day, my sister gave me a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Look,” she said, “you’re in the paper!” And there I was, looking on as the antique Big Wheel rolled along, part of the annual crowd. It’ll make a nice clipping for the family archive.

But it was a meeting at the barbecue the night before that most struck me. Over a plate of South Carolina peach cobbler, in an enormous, white antebellum home, I met a woman who introduced herself to me as a “ghost-buster.” I soon learned that she had cleansed the place where we were now standing of ectoplasm. It was a perfect setting for the conversation that followed.

I kindly probed as to just what is was that she did. Given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, she told me, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said.

As I patiently listened to tales of angels and spirits I began wondering if there was anything she didn’t believe in. I proposed unicorns. Maybe they were making the strange puttering noises that came from the attic. She dismissed the thought. Given her credulity, I wondered how she could shut out unicorns.

It was a weird conversation, hung with dusty spider webs, creaky staircases and relics of haunted house lore. She even spoke of a mysterious “third” dimension (spooky!). But when she knocked on a wooden bookcase we’d both been leaning on and announced, “This isn’t real,” I decided that further inquiry was pointless. Where do you go from there?

To save any embarrassment, I came clean. I told her I was skeptical, that I didn’t believe in angels, demons or the paranormal in general. I told her there was not a shred of evidence for any of the things she’d described. As she’d been frank with me, I’d return the favor. We parted amiably, returning to our respective beer coolers.

I love visiting Ashland. It’s like some long lost town in an America that probably never existed except on celluloid and the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. An overwhelming feeling of innocence, of childhood, creeps up on me.

Now that I have a daughter I’m coming to better appreciate innocence. Think about it: here is a human being with almost no sense of danger. She trusts people. She’ll put anything into her mouth. We, her parents, must keep watch over her lest she tumble down a flight of stairs or swallow a tack. I’ll be happy when Melissa is a jaded cynic, though; innocence is dangerous. It isn’t meant to last.

This observation illustrates the way I look at Ashland. Every time I visit, I wonder if it will still be the same. When will it morph into just another Richmond suburb? When will it shed that special cocoon of simplicity that so fascinates me, and which Ashlanders work to protect?

The moment we move into town, no doubt.

Published in The American

Of sacred cows and sacred unicorns

Meet Paisley, my pet unicorn

Ophelia Benson wrote a post yesterday about sacred cows. In it she asks readers what their cows are, and the responses are fairly typical of what one would expect from skeptical rationalists: democracy, the “golden rule*”, equality, etc…of course no reader of B&W holds actual cows to be sacred, or Jesuses or golden calfs (or is it “calves”?). That’s what you get when you ask a question like that to a gaggle of atheists.

My understanding of the term “sacred cow” is something beyond question, a thing we know is probably undeserving of intellectual protection yet which is protected, shielded from inquiry. It’s not necessarily something which we have fairly good reasons for holding dear, such as basic human rights or hygiene. Those make sense under even the most severe scrutiny (unless you are a sociopath or a pope.)

“David” – perhaps the one who sparked Ophelia’s post – posted a comment along these same lines:

I have a friend for instance who is a skeptic in almost all things but she wants so bad to believe in life after death so that she can think her mother is still somewhere that [sic] she believes in ghosts. She wont discuss it with anyone she does not go ghost hunting or anything but she simply will not consider any evidence against it.

Which is kind of funny because I’ve been thinking about ghosts lately; so I mentioned on Facebook that I have a sacred unicorn.

Here’s a little background:

Last week I had the opportunity to meet a ghostbuster at a 4th of July barbecue in Virginia. After a while of patiently listening to her tales of ectoplasm on walls, angels, spirits and other dimensions (she spoke of an imperceptible “third” dimension…spooky!) I mentioned that maybe what she thought were ghosts were really invisible unicorns. She let slip a telling smile, as if to say, “Nonsense!” I thought, “Gotcha!” Why are unicorns, invisible or not, any less plausible than what she believed were the real causes of unexplained noises in an old wooden house?

This woman was not a skeptic in any sense. In fact, she told me straight out that, when given the choice between a rational, materialistic explanation and a paranormal one, one should always choose the latter. “Why close oneself to the possibilities?” she said. Then why chuckle at unicorns?

So that’s how my sacred unicorn came into this world. She grazes imperceptibly with all those cows in a field of golden wheat somewhere beyong the horizon. If you see her, do me a favor: shoot.

* The “golden rule” is appropriately ridiculed in the comments section of the original post.

Miracle in Petrignano

Our Lady of Alderaan

One of the perks of living in Italy is that, no matter where you end up, you are in the realm of miracles. They happen all the time here. But like UFO sightings, hauntings or any other paranormal activity, miracles never seem to happen to me. I wonder why that is.

Not long ago we were having dinner with some friends when one mentioned that the Virgin Mary had appeared in our local church last year. There had been a big brouhaha over it on television, and apparently the Vatican is now doing whatever it is they do to “verify” the supposed breach of all known laws of reality. We might be living in the next Lourdes, or Medjugorje, for all we know.

According to RAI’s Massimo Giletti, who hosted the relevant television special, one of the “seers” of Medjugorje (one of the six people who supposedly saw the Virgin Mary appear the Herzegovina town in 1981) was at the church of our modest hamlet for some commemorative prayers. An elderly woman who was attending took out her cell phone to film the service for her daughter. When she got home and watched the results, there was “a luminous figure” in the foreground. The woman sustained later that there was “no one there” while she was filming.

Miracles often begin their lives this way. Let’s take a closer look, though.

First, Assisi is a place known for one of the best-loved saints in Catholic canon, St. Francis. Everything near Assisi is bathed in the glow of this humble man, and our town is no exception. He was akin to the Italian Jesus (or was until Padre Pio usurped his throne). It’s a very suggestive place, even for a skeptic.

Second, we are in the presence of religious believers. Who else goes to church to see a religious celebrity like the woman of Medjugorje, anyway? So two very essential elements are in place for miracles to happen.

What would be truly astonishing is if the woman had filmed something quite unrelated to the Catholic faith. Joseph Smith maybe, or a Hindu deity. That would’ve at least been worthy of scrutiny. That she filmed the Virgin Mary is prosaic; it’s expected in a place already saturated with Virgin Marys. They are on the walls, in paintings, on street corners, in people’s houses and in their wallets. There should be nothing surprising if she “appears” on someone’s cell phone.

The image itself is very suggestive — at least to me — of Princess Lea from Star Wars. There is a famous scene in the movie where she appears in a hologram projected by R2-D2. Supplicating, she says, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” It’s an astonishing resemblance. So how do we know it wasn’t Princess Lea in that church?

We don’t, any more than we know it was or wasn’t the Virgin Mary. Because for a vague white glow to be either of those two presupposes an enormous amount of supporting evidence, which we just don’t have. We’d need to establish their historical existence, first of all. One is a minor character from a book written thousands of years ago and full of all sorts of things we know to be fanciful, falsified and just plain fraudulent. The other is from a movie made comparatively recently, in 1977. The actress Carrie Fisher — who played Princess Lea — is still alive, giving a slight edge of probability to our admittedly absurd hypothesis.

I could go on, but I’m only trying to establish the idea that miracles are in the mind of the credulous. When enough people begin believing these things, the Vatican authorities step in and “verify” them, creating a moneymaking publicity machine in the process.

One could say that not all supposed miracles are accepted by the Vatican, thereby suggesting that there are some criteria by which miracles are tested for veracity. As they are by definition unfalsifiable, though, it really appears to be a matter of shrewdness. The case of Padre Pio is a good example. The Vatican actively opposed his cult for decades, until it grew too large to be ignored. So they incorporated it. Now, as they say, he’s more popular than Jesus and almost every Italian knows someone who has been “miraculously cured” by him. I know I do.

I’m daily amazed that adults are susceptible to such obvious nonsense. What doesn’t amaze me, though, is that Italian state-television cynically plays to this credulity. They know their public, and they will do just about anything to keep them as uninformed and complacent as possible.

From The American

Are skeptics aggressive?

“Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Are skeptics aggressive? This is a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Of course I believe the answer is “No.” But judging by the kind of conversations I end up having whenever I assert my opinion on matters like religion, the supernatural, magic and CAM, it seems some think otherwise.

But the knife doesn’t cut both ways. If a Buddhist were to explain his or her beliefs, then elaborate why he or she believes such things, I don’t think anyone would be disturbed or think their own beliefs were being aggressively challenged. Ditto for any religious believer. But when a skeptic says, for instance, that he or she is a materialist, an atheist or whatever it is almost certain to elicit a response such as, “Well, I don’t like having your views shoved down my throat.”

The double standard is obvious. Believers in all sorts of things enjoy the freedom to expound on those beliefs. They expect to be heard out, respected and thoughtfully considered. Fine. But why can’t skeptics expect the same? Why must it always be, “Don’t force your truth on me?”

Skeptics don’t adopt that tactic because it’s not what skepticism is about. We like to air opinions. We are even glad when someone proves us wrong. We are not at all dogmatic, as we try to have good reasons for believing what we do. None of it is based on faith or intuition – things we are, well, skeptical of.

In fact, we love nothing more than talking things over. That this approach should be considered “aggressive” is perhaps telling us more about our interlocutors than it does about us.