Holy Flail

The SkepDoc, Harriet Hall, coined the phrase Fairy Science to refer to trying to find the cause or solution to a mystery without first ascertaining that the entity exists.

One could look at the demographics for how much money is given for lost choppers and whether race, religion, or riches play a role. You could look at trends of whether molars are deemed more valuable than incisors. And we could see if the pandemic impacted any of this. But all of this would be to assume the existence of a stealthy spirit who undertakes nocturnal sojourns to children who have one less tooth than they did the day before.

While no one seriously insists on the existence of a Tooth Fairy, they do so with Bigfoot, meridians, and extraterrestrial visitors. They ponder who may be Sasquatch’s closest biological relatives, wonder which internal bodily pathway should be punctured to cure eczema, and postulate as the purpose of alien anal probes. The do so without having first shown the relevant phenomena are real

While Hall had medicine in mind, the concept of Tooth Fairy Science can also apply to history.

Consider the Holy Grail, which is purported to be the receptacle Jesus drank from during the Last Supper. It has been sought and written about for centuries.

However, there are no references to the Holy Grail in the Biblical accounts of Jesus, nor does the religious receptacle make so much as a cameo in any other first millennium text.

Writing for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning noted that 12th Century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth published “History of the Kings of Britain,” which described Arthur as an unbeatable warrior and which included one of the first known references to the cup.

Then in 1190, Dunning continued, the poet Chrétien de Troyes created a heroic knight named Perceval, who proposes Arthur and his knights search for the Holy Grail in order to restore the assembly’s honor and prestige. Dunning noted that in this and future fictional works, the object was not near as important as the quest for it.

So it took nearly 1200 years for the notion of a Holy Grail to emerge. Since then, it has assumed iconic status and made countless appearances in print and film. According to Dunning, John Calvin identified nearly two dozen cups that had been identified by the bearer as the true Grail. Many other assertions have been made since, some of which ascribe supernatural powers to the cup, and none of which have cleared the first hurdle of proving that there had ever been a Grail held by a dining Jewish messiah.

“Mud dud” (Tartaria)

One attempt to drastically alter history purports that a 19th Century disaster obliterated much of the world, and in this misfortune’s wake sprung up most of today’s nations and societies.

A mud flood sludge, in all its rhyming glory, is said to have been the cause. Homes, businesses, farms, railroads, streams, and much more were said to have been swept under by the deluge. In this tale, villages that were partially buried were part of an advanced civilization called Tartaria. Residents of this futuristic landscape are described as giants who were already enjoying free wireless energy. In the same way that the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake forever bumped Portugal from its status as the world’s most powerful nation, the mud flood relegated Tartaria to the historical dustbin and allowed Western Civilization to flourish.

In what passes for their evidence, adherents point to any early photograph showing sundry town or country folks digging through high mud. Or they will refer to a modern picture of well-worn buildings featuring floors below grade, especially if there basement windows or if excavators are busy next door, having basement walls or foundations. They claim this as proof those lower layers had been topped by mud. This is no more convincing that using early photos of sailors to claim the entire world was once covered with water, or point to same era photos of planes as evidence were once an entirely airborne species.

Now let’s transition to a linguistic note. Writing for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning noted that until the mid-1800s, Europeans used the term Tartars to describe residents of largely unexplored Asian regions, such as Manchuria, Siberia, and Mongolia. Less than 200 years ago, world maps displayed an area dubbed “Tartary” in what we today call Asia. This cartographic tidbit is presented by proponents that not that long ago there existed a great civilization that succumbed to wet dirt.

This is a reverse the Great Mounds theory or of Mormon theology, both of which hold that Native American tribes were predated by White settlers. These palefaces made the greatest contributions to North America, and between those accomplishments and having been here first, are therefore entitled to the land. In the Tartaria belief system, it is those who constituted the minority in North American who are fetishized and made into inhabitants of an exotic, exalted kingdom. But the common ground between the two ideas is that they are bereft of any historical or anthropological evidence. Another charge bandied without proof is that governments are dedicated to suppressing this evidence. If so, the authorities are failing miserably, as the mud flood hypothesis can be found with a Google or YouTube search.

Dunning wrote that city officials sometimes raise their street levels, which necessitates burying the first few floors, in order reduce the steepness of some hills. “Similar earthmoving projects have been undertaken in cities all around the world, particularly in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, when streetcars and automobiles quite suddenly came into wide use and required regrading in areas that were already developed,” he explained.

This brief lesson on city planning and engineering is a tidy answer that obliterates any need for a mud flood explication.

The gentle giant Robert Wadlow is sometimes insinuated by believers to be of many such behemoths to have roamed Earth at this time. Wadlow is the only one of unusual size in those photos, but that is glossed over by believers. His era was no more populated with giants than our time is chockfull of potential trillionaires because Jeff Bezos walks amongst us.

“Jumping to conclusions” (Learning preferences)

In first grade I would entertain my classmates by jumping off my desk when the teacher left the room. By my senior year in high school, I had attained a similar level of popularity by being easily the most garrulous participant in the civic teacher’s preferred Socratic Method. Some days consisted entirely of a dialogue between the two of us, and as long as conversation kept going, the teacher would refrain from giving his boring lectures.

My two learning styles in these environments could be described respectively as nonexistent and highly participatory. But according to one hypothesis, learning can be described in one of four ways: Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinesthetic. Students answer 16 questions about their learning preferences and a computer program spits out which learning style would work best for them.

The follow-on step is to give hands-on lessons to those who those who learn best that way, lecture to those who prefer presentations by subject matter experts, and show videos with pleasing graphics to the more visually-oriented. The idea seems sound and the intent is admirable.

But Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning has highlighted some studies that show the idea is not near as effective as advertised. He cited a study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which concluded, “There is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

Dunning added, “Any reasonable review of just a small percentage of the academic work on learning styles gives you the same answer: there’s no evidence that they work.”

Here’s why. First, respondents end up divided into disparate, absolute categories. They are introverted or extroverted, absorb visuals or deflect them, prefer one speaker to several. In reality, few people fit snugly into a particular group. Given an either-or option of listening to lecture or reading a graphic-heavy textbook, the person will answer. But perhaps the preference is a very slight one – yet it will end up being favored 100 percent in the calculation. It also leaves no wiggle room for evolving preferences or working best with a mix of the styles.

Another issue, Dunning noted, is that preference won’t necessarily equate to aptitude. You can like something without being very good at it, as a number or weekend golfers can attest.

“Terrible lizards” (Reptilians and Nashville bombing)

Among the multitudinous conspiracy theories, a candidate for most bizarre is that the government is run by monovalent, shape-shifting reptilian space creatures. While the idea is comical, someone so unhinged as to believe it may be capable of supporting such beliefs with deadly action.

In Skeptic Magazine, Tim Callahan posited that may have been the case on Christmas when Anthony Warner detonated explosives in Nashville. Warner died in the explosion, which may have taken innocent lives had police not evacuated the area. The officers did so after a strange foreboding emanated from Warner’s RV. His previous social media posts had suggested a sympathy for the reptilian conspiracy theory.

Callahan has researched and written about similar beings and has identified three primary types of alias-using aliens: Kind Nordic creatures usually hailing from the Pleiades star cluster; Gray-skinned interlopers of uncertain intent; and the Sleestak types, that is to say evil and reptilian, although with concealment abilities and intelligence as well unknown to their Land of the Lost brethren. As you can see from these three types, the darker the skin, the more deadly the threat, a notion which mirrors everyday bigotry.

The first type are the least frequent, and this is consistent with conspiratorial or secret thinking. There is some belief, for example, in benevolent inner Earth creatures who toil willingly in a paradise for our benefit. This enables the believers to idealize or romanticize the world. But far more common among those who think they have secret knowledge is that otherworldly or interdimensional beings are out to get us. This enables blame to be placed on a fixed point and, while the subconscious intent is that the person will feel better for exposing it, the reality is far different. Hardened conspiracy theorists lead miserable, fear-filled lives. Each “exposure” is touted as a victory, but in truth is only seen as the next link in a never-ending chain.

Callahan writes that the reptilian overlord idea stems from the mini-series V, in which evil reptiles hid their true nature under a synthetic human skin. Believers extrapolated this notion to the real world and think world leaders are actually lizard people who operate from dimensions inaccessible by the rest of us. They attribute alien abductions to the reptilians, rather than the usual Grays, but think it is only happening in the mind and that the lizard folks are using their shape-shifting abilities to look like the stereotypical gray alien with huge heads and tiny eyes. Rather than food and water, the reptilians are nourished and sustained by human fear, trauma, and acquiescence. If believer are correct about this, they are giving the Reptilians just what they need.

“Popular misconception” (Cube-shaped UFO)

A headline more suited to the 1970s National Inquirer, rather than the 2020s Popular Mechanics in which it appeared, strongly suggests that a cube-shaped UFO unknown to the military has been photographed.

Kenny Biddle specializes in ghost claims, but the skeptic leader is also well-versed in the UFO field and he writes that he quickly recognized the object as a party balloon, which is something that is regularly mistaken for alien transport vehicles by those who are hoping to spot just such a device. In this case, Biddle thinks the airborne inflatable was a Batman balloon sold at Party City.

UFO enthusiasts dismiss this explanation, citing unnamed pilots who described the object as motionless and not impacted by air currents. Since all such claims are attributed to anonymous sources, it is impossible to verify if they said this or even if they exist.

Biddle’s fellow CSI fellow, Mick West, agrees that the likely explanation is Biddle’s Batman Balloon. West has previously shown how  photographed objects can seem motionless when they are whizzing by and, upon examination of this picture, he has concluded this is another case of that.

Many amateur organizations and science classes often use party balloons in experiments since the inflatables are cheap, effective, and plentiful. Teachers and students fill the balloons with helium, though not all the way since, as they rise, the light gas inside them expands due to the decrease in atmospheric pressure. Biddle writes this is the likely explanation for why the item in the supposed leaked photo appears fully inflated: The helium inside has expanded.

The unnamed sources claim the balloon hovered at more than 30,000 feet, which would be about double the altitude that party balloons can reach. However, unnamed also means unverifiable, so there is no way to corroborate or test this assertion.

Biddle points out that, just from the headline, there are clues about the story being sensationalist instead of scientific. It reads, “Leaked Government Photo Shows ‘Motionless, Cube-Shaped’ UFO.”

He writes, “The term leaked has become an overused buzzword…to grab the attention of those with an interest in conspiracy theories that focus on the government keeping some secret from the people.”

Further, the article describes the image as unclassified, which Biddle notes means the image would have gone through government review and release rather than being leaked or discovered.

Another red flag from the headline is “motionless.” The photo was allegedly snapped by someone in a passing fighter jet, which is far from motionless. This means the photographer would have had less than a second to spot, frame, bring into focus, and snap the image. Even if the flying fast-fingered photographer had managed that, West shows here how moving objects can seem motionless when they are actually speeding by.

The final issue from the headline is the description “cube-shaped,” used even though the object in question is roughly triangular. Playing this loose with the truth suggests that author was skimming over facts, doing no real research, and regurgitating what believers in UFOs and conspiracy theories had fed him.

Biddle’s hypothesis is that a family hosted a Batman-themed birthday party and a few days later, the balloons slowly leaked helium, were set free, and went skyward. With this idea in mind, Biddle got hold of two similar Batman balloons and went to a park to attempt a recreation of how this might have happened.

He describes the results thusly: “My wife secured one of the balloons by a length of ribbon measuring about 100 feet, which placed the balloon well above the trees surrounding the park. I walked approximately 500 feet from her and took some photos. I am satisfied this flying object has been identified.”

His simple experiment suggests this is the cause. Conspiracy theorists condemn the rest of us for blindly swallowing government and media products. Yet they fail to apply the same standard to the claims of their fellow conspiracy theorists. Here, this meant believing that a floating UFO is amongst us and being covered up by military brass. This is a more attractive conclusion for them than conducting a simple experiment that produced an answer that was much more mundane but much more accurate.

“What a crop out” (Mowing Devil)

In Skeptical Inquirer, ­­­cryptozoology expert Benjamin Radford addressed the claim popular among crop circle UFO enthusiasts that a 17th Century woodcut contains just such an image.

These round riddles began appearing in the English countryside circa 1970, mostly consisting of smashed-down wheat or barley, which are the food crops that are most-easily flattened. But proponents feel that the image featured above in a 1687 woodcut suggests that the circles predate modern times.

This attempt to marry the past to newer claims is a common technique of paranormal proponents, according to Radford. He writes, “Indigenous myths and legends of spirits and figures are retroactively claimed to represent early sightings of particular mysterious creatures…including the lake monster in British Columbia and the Puerto Rican vampire el Chupacabra.” Further, Michael Goss noted in the journal Folklore that, “The contents of ‘The Mowing Devil’ seem to prove the rule that…­­given time, some industrious researcher is bound to turn up a historical precedent” for a contemporary mystery.

Artwork served as an early medium for stories, truthful or otherwise. These works included morality tales that instructed on the consequences of one’s conduct. Therefore, The Mowing Devil should be viewed through this folkloric lens. While the piece is usually presented out of context, the original tale can be found in a pamphlet dated from 1678. There, we learn that the woodcut illustrates the legend of an English farmer who, during a dispute with a contractor, tells him that he would rather pay the devil to cut his oat field than have the worker do it.

The storyteller makes clear that Satan’s Sickle cut the crop rather than laying it down. And the perpetrator is of known diabolical origin rather being unspecified interplanetary visitors creating a parking spot.  

Crop circles only came about in the 1970s when simple renditions began appearing in the English countryside. They were made by Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, who attempted to fool people into thinking UFOs had landed and they succeeded wildly in this goal. The pranking pair inspired several imitators who engaged in an indirect competition for who could create the most complex designs. People sometime blame the devil for their doings, but Bower and Chorley have made so such assertion, citing an Australian entertainment program episode as their inspiration. And as Radford demonstrated, the 17th Century woodcut IS of the devil and there is no tie-in the modern phenomenon, much as crop circle jerks wish that there was. 

“Amazon bungle” (5G blocking)

Some Amazon consumers have purchased what are described as Faraday Cages, but which can more accurately be described as simple wire-mesh containers. A Faraday Cage is an enclosure intended to block electromagnetic signals, one example of which is WiFi.

The products are advertised as having the ability to deflect 5G signals, which the purchasers believe cause harm to humans. This is a misnomer, as 5G signals are too low on the EMF spectrum to do us damage.

The containers “work” in the sense that signals are deflected when routers are placed inside them. But those signals are necessary for WiFi to function. One would get the same self-defeating effect by unplugging the router or foregoing Internet use altogether.

According to Matthew Willie at Input, these clueless consumers are leaving negative reviews about the cages, or at least they are when not employing the cages since there’s no getting online when one does so. To be clear, consumers are placing routers in the cages, then getting steamed when the cage blocks the signal the customers are hoping to block! Despite all their rage, they should just take a bat to their cage.

“No in-between” (Missing Link)

The concept of a Missing Link is sometimes bandied about by evolution deniers who think they have just upended the entire biology field.

The term has grown antiquated even among Young Earth Creationists since changes in biological populations over time can be observed in a Petri dish or even in nature, such as when a Florida lizard developed a toe pad that enabled the reptile to climb trees and escape predators. With evolution literally being seen in these instances, its authenticity is obvious to all but the most hardened deniers. The ad hoc response of most YECs is to create artificial categories of micro- and macro-evolution. To them, the toe pad addition is acceptable, but they reject evidence showing that the lizard’s deep ancestor was a Carboniferous amphibian and they insist that its descendant millions of generations from now could be something other than a lizard.

But the Missing Link term still makes infrequent appearances, so consider this a guide to delivering a handy retort. When someone uses the phrase, they ostensibly are referring to a supposed gap in the fossil record. Their supposition is that there are a series of transitions observable in the geologic column in which a group of populations become primate-like and continue to evolve. But there is a supposed gap from the likes of a gorilla to, say, Neanderthals. Proponents insist that since the record shows no in-between species that perhaps walks upright and sports opposable digits but has a lower IQ than your xenophobic great uncle dooms the concept of humans having evolved from a lower animal.

This, of course, gets evolution completely wrong. There is no neat, orderly, easily-identifiable path from single-cell organisms to all the members of today’s diverse Animal Kingdom. As populations split from their parent population, they disperse and adapt to their environment. Some die out and genetic drift impacts the process. Some populations continue to evolve because of their surroundings, while others like sharks hold steady since their biologic characteristics are sufficient for their surroundings.

Despite what some excited evangelicals Tweet, evolution does not teach that one species leads directly to another, such as a monkey giving birth to a human. Rather, the process is gradual, sometimes relatively quick and sometimes over 100 million years. Paleontologists do not expect to find a man-ape hybrid. They, were however, expecting that they might find a fossil of a species that lived before amphibians evolved but after fish did. That’s how they unearthed Tiktaalik. Like fish, Tiktaalik possessed fins and scales, but it also had a neck, a flat skull, and strong ribs. Tiktaalik filled the gap between previously known tetrapod-like fish and the earliest tetrapods. It is an in-between animal for fish and land animals.

While the Missing Link is a mistaken concept, an authentic notion is transitional morphologies, a term scientists use to describe discoveries that contain the anatomical features of both older and more recent species. This is the case with Tiktaalik.

Similarly, Live Science noted that humans share a common ancestor with some primates, such as the African ape. Hominids include people, chimps, and gorillas, as well as extinct ancestors, while hominins include those species after the human lineage split from chimpanzees. Much as I would like so support all this with a URL, that link is missing.

“Ankle rankle” (Sprain treatment)

I find myths and misconceptions intriguing and pondering how they came to exist and why they still endure. Big Ben brings to mind the giant London clock, but the alliterative moniker actually refers to the bell inside the tower which houses the oversized timepiece. The Immaculate Conception is often assumed to refer to a Christian savior’s birth, but it is actually used to describe Mary being born without the stain of Original Sin. Peruse may be the word most mangled from its original meaning. It is often thought to mean skimming a manuscript when it instead is defined as to pour over it thoroughly.

The world of health has its share of myths as well, to include the idea that a sprain should be iced. The twisting of lower ligaments is are among the most common medical misfortunes, meaning a million people or more each year are likely tending to it the wrong way.

The SkepDoc, Harriett Hall, reviewed Dr. Paul Offit’s book Overkill, which focuses on medical myths, most specifically on supposed cures. Per Hall, a frigid fix came to be associated with ankle in 1978 when Dr. Gabe Mirkin wrote a book about sports-related injuries in which he recommended ice along with rest, compression, and elevation, forming the acronym RICE. But Hall wrote that these ideas stemmed from “intuition rather than evidence.”

Since then, research and studies have consistently shown that icing does nothing to speed recovery. Hall cited a 2012 Dutch review of eleven studies which found no evidence to support the RICE hypothesis. In fact, the regiment could even aggravate the injury. What did work, researchers found, was early movement.

A 2013 Taiwanese study showed that strenuous exercise damaged muscle tissue by causing increased creatine kinase levels and myoglobin in the blood. The supposed cure, ice, led to even higher levels of such damage. Further, patients treated with ice experienced more fatigue.

Offit wrote the key to healing is inflammation. While painful, inflammation increases blood flow, which transports immune cells to the damaged body part. Also, warmth can be applied and gentle ankle exercises can be done without weight-bearing.

Conversely, anything that decreases blood flow will lengthen the time of healing. And rest, ice, compression, and elevation all cause this decrease; so everything traditionally recommended for ankle sprain recovery actually makes them worse. To his credit, Mirkin now says RICE is the wrong way to go. So if you twist an ankle while walking up the stairs to see the Big Ben bell because you were perusing a tourist guide, go with heat and moderate activity instead of their opposite numbers.

“Down the no-rabbit hole” (Geologic column)

My tween daughter kept asking if we could get a rabbit, figuring the answer would either be yes or no, giving her a 50 percent chance each time she asked. After 28 or so negative replies, I gave in for reasons of peace and my sanity.

It also afforded me the chance to use our new pet as a springboard into a lesson about evolution. Southeastern Oklahoma State University biological sciences professor Stanley Rice wrote that evidence for the field rests on the convergence of multiple independent lines of evidence. He credited early 20th Century British scientist J.B.S. Haldane with noting that evolution could be disproven by means of a Precambrian bunny. The lagomorph in question was just a placeholder animal, so a cat, dog, mouse, elephant, or frog would suffice. In truth, any mammal, amphibian, or land animal appearing amongst other Precambrian fossils would be strong evidence against the current school of evolutionary thought.

Rice reminds us (or informs, for those of us who played tiddlywinks during high school biology) that the Cambrian featured lots of really cool gargantuan creatures they are still making blockbuster movies about more than 500 million years later. By contrast, Precambrian strata have no large animal fossils because no such creatures had yet evolved. If that strata were produced by a flood that wiped out large animals that had been created no later than 2,000 years prior, it should have some giant critters embedded within.

While Noah’s menagerie was floating about, its members’ less fortunate relatives would have eventually became part of the lowest fossil layers. Rice wrote that a worldwide flood would yield a fossil record with mostly fish at the bottom and primarily mammals on top, but that there would be a smattering of exceptions. Or surely at least one. He mused, “The raging flood waters would have drawn large animals down into the bottom layers. Just one. Just one Precambrian bunny. That’s all it would take.”

Alas, there is no such Darwin-defying rabbit.

Now onto rabbit food, the plants. If all plant fossil deposits resulted from a flood, one would expect wetland plants on bottom and their mountain counterparts on top. While this is largely the case, there are exceptions. Rice asks us to “consider the small wetland plants of the Ordovician and Silurian periods. None of them are the flowering plants that are the most abundant plants on the earth today. Find me a Silurian weed from, say, the aster family or the mustard family. Today, wetlands have little pickleweeds in them, from the spinach family of flowering plants. Yet somehow there were no plants that had flowers in the Ordovician or Silurian wetlands.”

The fossil record also reveals one of the strongest individual pieces of evidence for evolution, Tiktaalaik. While any fossil is, strictly speaking, a transitional one, Tiktaalik’s mix of fish and amphibian features make it the type of animal that evolution deniers long insisted would never be found. Further, researchers digging through sedimentary layers found it in the precise place one would expect it to be were it the descendant of fish and an ancestor to amphibians.

These theories work with the tiniest, most simple life forms as well. Single-celled algae called foram are housed in calcium carbonate shells, which linger once the foram cell has died. These shells come in different distinctive shapes and each represents a specific time and place in geologic history. That they appear more or less in order within strata points to evolution, whereas if they had all been wiped out in a flooded, microbiologists would find them randomly scattered.

Then there is the matter of where the surviving animals went after the flood. Endemic species like kangaroos would have had to travel from Turkey to Australia, making for two very determined marsupials. A common creationist retort is that maybe it was the distant offspring of these kangaroos that eventually made their way Down Under. But if so, this hopping ancestral line did so without leaving one fossil behind. And this scenario would had to have repeated for every endemic species, such as Antarctica’s penguins, Papua New Guinea’s cassowaries, and South America’s guanacos.

The same pattern holds true for all major animal groups that live on continents that have been separated for millions of years. But it is not true for continents that have been connected relatively recently. Rice explained, “This is why many of the animals of northern Europe and Asia are similar – and in cases, such as reindeer and elk – the same as those in North America. Only about 20,000 years ago, the Bering land bridge connected Asia and North America and allowed large mammals to migrate.”

Plants follow the same pattern. The major plant families of the southern continents are not the same as those of the northern continents. And, once again, Australia its own beast – or fern, maybe, since we’re addressing plants. It has some flora the other continents don’t.

So that’s how we know. Now If I could only get my daughter to listen to this.