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The Sailing Stones of Death Valley: An Overdue Correction

At TAM 2013 last month, I presented a news article (courtesy of The Weather Channel’s website) which told of a long-standing mystery that had “finally” been solved. However, it appears I presented an incomplete report. Here is how my report basically went, as told at TAM.

Known as The Sailing Stones of Death Valley, these rocks appear to be moving across the ground all by themselves, and scientists do not know how this is happening. And no one would know that the rocks are moving at all, if it weren’t for the trails they leave. Some of these stones weigh as much as 700 hundreds of pounds, and they are leaving trails thousands of feet long.

These sailing stones were first reported in 1915 (so that’s almost 100 years ago), and they have been investigated ever since by geologists from UCLA and the US Geological Survey.The problem is that the researches have yet to witness the rocks in motion.

Previous hypothesis included: 

Rainstorms  – which cause flash flooding followed by intense winds (which can reach 70 mph) – but this can not account for the heaviest of the stones moving.  They are just too heavy.

Gravity – is there are slight slope, so perhaps they are very slowly sliding downhill at a glacial pace.  However this can not account for how some of the stones move uphill – because at the southern end of the Playa (a dried up lake bed in the valley) this is where some of the rocks begin their journey and the southern end is a few centimeters lower than the north end.

So what’s going on here?  Are the supernatural forces at work?  Is this an elaborate hoax of some kind?  Are ET’s messing with our heads?

Well, according to the article, the mystery seems to have finally been solved.

Enter Ralph Lorenz (not Ralph Lauren) Johns Hopkins University. He is a planetary scientist, and he had been working on a project setting up weather stations in Death Valley. 

He noticed that the paths of the stones put them on a “collision course” with one another, but instead of a collision, one of the stones seemed to somehow deflect the other stone’s trajectory just slightly enough so that they never actually touched.

And he remembered reading something similar to this occurring in the Arctic, with Arctic boulders. The weather data Lorenz had collected told him that the desert got cold enough for something similar to be going on in Death Valley. So he decided to try and replicate the effect, and he describes it as such:

“I took a small rock, and put it in a piece of Tupperware, and filled it with water so there was an inch of water with a bit of the rock sticking out. I put it in the freezer, and that then gave me a slab of ice with a rock sticking out of it.”

By placing the ice-bound rock in a large tray of water with sand at the bottom, all he had to do was gently blow on the rock to get it to move across the water and viola – you get a rock drawing an impression in the sand.

Lorenz’s research team calculated that under certain winter conditions in Death Valley, enough water and ice could form to float the rocks across the muddy bottom of Racetrack Playa in a light breeze, leaving a trail in the mud as the rocks moved.

This is basically what I presented at TAM, however, soon afterwards, I was made aware that Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast had actually tackled this subject himself back in 2006, and he came across another explanation, with video footage to back up his report.

As Brian explains:

“Solid ice, moving with the surface of the lake and with the inertia of a whole surrounding ice sheet, would have no trouble pushing a rock along the slick muddy floor. Certainly a lot more horsepower than wind alone, as has been proposed. The wind was gusty and moved around some, and since the surface is not perfectly flat and with rocks and various obstructions, the water didn’t flow straight; rather it swapped around as it moved generally forward. Ice sheets driven by the water would move in the same way, accounting for the turns and curves found in many of the rock trails.”

So credit for Brian for an additional, highly plausible explanation. Unfortunately it was not covered by The Weather Channel’s article, and uncovered by the other 4 articles I looked at in support of my TAM news item presentation. Otherwise, I definitely would not have overlooked Brian’s contributions to helping solve this “mystery.”

UnWarrented: The “Possessed” Raggedy Ann Doll

I have not seen The Conjuring, yet.  Not sure I ever will. I might leave it on when I’m mindlessly clicking around the HBO stations on television in about 5-6 months, so I might eventually get around to seeing this “true” movie based on the greatest ghost hunters of all-time, The Late Ed and The Widow Lorraine Warren. After all, I was part of a 1997 investigation into The Warrens and had a year worth of exposure to their actions and claims. In the end, they could not produce a shred of “paranormal” evidence which could pass our most cursory observations or explanations.

As such, I’m perfectly fine not putting down my cash to watch Hollywood glorify in celluloid (er, rather ones and zeros) on the “big screen” a pair of people who have helped feed humanity’s addiction to pseudoscience.

For example … read this. It links to a site called BadAssDigest.com, where there is an article titled “The True Story of Annabel: The Haunted Doll From THE CONJURING”, authored by Devin Faraci of the New England Society For Paranormal Research.

Technically, Devin’s title is correct.  This is a STORY, and it is true insomuch that Ed and Lorraine have made a nice living off of telling this story, and many more stories just like the tale of “Annabel”. As for the article itself, Devin is just parroting the same anecdotes The Warrens have been offering sine the 1970’s.

Although I am using his article as an example, I am not ridiculing Devin, and I am not picking on the true-believer caste he occupies, many of whom are actually victims.

But an adult person living in our modern western civilization has to really suspend reality to allow their worldview to include dolls (fabric and stuffing and two buttons) to become possessed by evil spirits. In this context, it is extremely disturbing to think of how badly humanity has failed in educating people about science. As Carl Sagan perfectly summed up the point: “Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.”

And as disturbing as this thought might be, it becomes 10 times worse when you think about how “paranormalists” take full advantage of the shortcomings of the scientifically-challenged among us. People, like Devin, have a NEED to believe in dolls being possessed. For whatever his reasons, dolls MUST have the ability to become possessed. Where there is such a strong need, there is an addiction at work. Where there is an addiction, there are purveyors of “junk” to feed the addiction. Adults, by the millions (arguably billions) believe in “ghosts” and “ghost stories”. That’s quite a marketplace for the “paranormal dealers” to peddle their wares.

Simply put, it is unethical and immoral to perpetuate (and profit) off of the telling of ghost stories while passing them off as being “true”. 

Trillions And Trillions

It is being reported by The Washington Post (among others) that President Barack Obama could order two platinum coins to be minted, each with a designated value of one trillion dollars.  That’s $1,000,000,000,000.00 each.  Or 10^12 dollars each, if you prefer.

These trillion dollar coins would have one purpose … to be deposited into the Federal Reserve as a payment against the debt of The United States of America, which is currently just over sixteen trillion dollars. By law, The USA can borrow up to a certain limit ($16.4 trillion.) This is known as “The Debt Ceiling”. This is no more complex than understanding how the credit limit on a credit card works – something almost all of us can relate to.

So by depositing the 2 coins, The USA will have paid $2 trillion of it’s debt, and will have no immediate need to worry about reaching its credit limit until late 2014. (As it stands today, The USA will reach its credit limit this coming February.)

According to Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin, there are no laws prohibiting The President from ordering the production of this type of currency (there are legal limitations on the production of other forms of currency.) Economist Joseph Gangon of The Peterson Institute sees nothing economically problematic with this suggested “solution” to America’s debt ceiling problem.

I have no problem admitting my ignorance on many of the nuances and specialty-areas of economics. However, with skepticism as my footing, and with my basic understanding of economics, I see a pretty significant problem.

As far as the USA’s debt is concerned, I see no difference between printing a trillion dollar coin and printing a trillion one-dollar bills. This is called inflation. It makes every dollar in circulation less valuable (the more abundant something is, the less it is worth.)

By contrast, others argue that there is no inflationary effect on this maneuver because the coins would never make it into general circulation. It is effectively a kind of barter trade between 2 government entities (The Fed and The Treasury), albeit an entirely unequal trade. (Would you satisfy two trillion of debt someone owes you in exchange for a pair of platinum coins?) Also, if this were a legitimate way to handle debt satisfaction, why stop at $2 trillion? Why not make one coin and assign it a worth $16 trillion?

The value of a dollar is based on ‘faith” (not the most favorite of words in skeptical circles.) But this is essentially the truth. If people have faith that a one-dollar bill is good for one-dollar worth of services, then it is so. But does this kind of maneuver, printing trillion dollar coins, instill more or less faith in the value of a dollar? So it doesn’t make it into circulation – does that make it any less real that there suddenly exists an additional $2 trillion? Do other countries, some of whom we take to task for ‘currency manipulation’ (cough … China … cough) feel they are getting better value when investing in our country’s treasury bills? Could The USA not be accused of  its own form of manipulation?

Carl Sagan famously asked us all what the difference might be between an invisible, incorporeal, heat-less, floating dragon in a garage versus no dragon at all.  The answer is … not a bit of difference.  It forces me to ask what the difference might be  between inventing  two trillion dollars of currency to pay a debt versus not paying the debt at all. Is there any difference?

So what is the likelihood of this happening? From a political standpoint, it would be considered a very bad (and unpopular) move for The President to make. As such, it is unlikely to occur. 

But the fact that Yale professors and professional economists can not see the intrinsic inflationary issues is somewhat astounding. So I am calling economic shenanigans on this idea, at least until I am shown alternate evidence so I can adjust my understanding.

Footnote:  Platinum, in of itself, has value to it.  You can trade one ounce of pure platinum for about $1,600. If The USA were to actually try and come up with two trillion dollars worth of platinum, that would equate to about 78 million pounds of platinum.  Unrealistic, seeing as how all of the platinum mined to date equals a cube about 25 feet per side. (One cubic foot equals about 1330 pounds.)  That’s, roughly, 21 million pounds of platinum mined and collected in all of human history.

Hollywood … Low-Hanging Fruit

To a skeptic, Hollywood is like a candy store. The most cursory of internet searches will reveal that the culture of Hollywood is infused with paranormal beliefs. As part of my never-ending SGU show prep, each week I take a look towards “Tinseltown” to see which celebrity happens to be making a total ass out of themselves at that particular moment in time. Sure it is low-hanging fruit, but just because the tree blossoms a certain way doesn’t mean we shouldn’t partake of the juicy treats.

Two of the favorite flavors of paranormal out there are ghosts and psychics. ‘Celebrity Ghost Stories’ is a hit TV show, with no shortage of actors and celebrities coming forward to tell their story about how they were afraid of shadows and bumps-in-the-night when they were 9 years old.

Psychics and celebrities seem to almost go hand in hand. These people seem to have been designed for each other. I can’t help but wonder if psychics would be as popular in our culture if famous people did not embrace such nonsense. Seriously, would we know who James Van-Praagh, or John Edward, or Sylvia Brown are if it were not for the likes of famous personalities such as Ted Danson, or Larry King, or Oprah Winfrey?

Anyway, the winner of this past week’s “Hollywood Paranormal Dupe” award has to be given to Lindsay Lohan. Lindsay Lohan has made big headlines in the last few days. She punched a woman in the face at a bar, and a judge might rule that Lohan is in violation of her probation. (If you don’t already know, and you have a morbid curiosity, just look online for her history of bad behavior.)

But Wait! … the victim of Lohan’s wrath is none other than Tiffany Ava Mitchell. Have you ever heard of Tiffany Ava Mitchell?

Of course you haven’t. She’s one of these “psychic to the celebrities”, one of (seemingly) hundreds of psychics whom claim to be the psychic of some celebrity ( … just for once, I’d like to see a psychic profess that they are a psychic to some other class – “psychic to the barbers” or “psychic of the ballroom dancers”. That would be refreshing. But I digress…)

Here are some reported “facts” on this psychic no one has ever heard of until she was punched by Ms. Lohan:

– Mitchell owns a chain of psychic reading businesses in West Palm Beach, Fla., including “Ava’s Psychic Visions.”

– She specializes in readings through tarot cards, palms and psychic energy.

– It is reported that she tried to charge a client $43,000 to cleanse their aura (client called the cops and the cops said they couldn’t do anything about it.)

– She has retained famous “lawyer to the celebrities” Gloria Alred to represent her.

So that’s it … this obscure self-proclaimed “psychic” has been elevated to the front pages of both the tabloids and mainstream media for being the punching bag of a Hollywood actress with a rap sheet as long as her freckled arm. It does not matter what happens from here on out – Mitchell’s business and career is about to take off!  

And as predicted by me (ha!) no one along the way is questioning the existence of psychic abilities. Can’t let science or reality get in the way of the culture of stupid, can we? For example, take this headline from The Huffington Post on the matter:

“Tiffany Ava Mitchell: Lindsay Lohan Alleged Victim is a Psychic, Offered Actress Free Reading Before Assault”

How about this instead, HuffPo editors … 

Tiffany Ava Mitchell: Lindsay Lohan Victim is an Alleged Psychic, Offered Actress Free Alleged Reading Before Assault

MUCH better, in my humble opinion. My headline is entirely accurate. 

How Now Brown

The Brown Daily Herald (BDH) is the Brown University student newspaper based out of Providence, Rhode Island. According to its Wikipedia entry, it is the second-oldest student newspaper among American college dailies. Brown University is an Ivy League school, the 7th oldest university in the United States. It is considered one of the finest universities in the nation.

This past Sunday BHD posted an article titled “From ghosts to ghostbusters, paranormal interest thrives in R.I.”

As you will read from the article, they talk about the bustling paranormal culture that is thick in Rhode Island. That is to say the ratio of paranormal organizations and practitioners to the overall population is high. Much of the credit for Rhode Island’s bustling ghost hunting community is given to SYFY Channel’s “Ghost Hunters”, for they hail from Warwick. The Ghost Hunters led an investigation at Brown University not too long ago, to the apparent delight of many people who are impressed by such undertakings.

In the middle of the article, author Gabrielle Dee offers this statement:

Understanding the paranormal consists not only of the creepy, otherworldly creatures that haunt the insides of closets, decrepit attics and corn fields that spaceships mistake as landing pads — it’s a new vision of reality.

A NEW vision of reality? No. Paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs are as old as recorded history. They are very much culturally based. They adapt and morph in almost perfect synchronicity with societies and cultures through the ages.

As far as “reality” is concerned, I suppose you could argue that people’s inherent belief in the unproven is the reality of the human condition. But reality as measured by science has filtered thousands of years of paranormal claims, with the collective sum of scientific evidence totaling Zero. None. Nada. Zilch.

The article goes on to mention another paranormal investigation group named RISEUP, a Rhode Island and Connecticut conglomerate (first I’ve ever heard of it, but no matter.) This particular group had these pearls of wisdom to offer:

It is important to keep in mind that paranormal sightings include an interpretive element, and depends on what the viewer perceives as real, he (the group’s founder) said. Religious and cultural interpretations, which give rise to what people may perceive as paranormal, must be balanced with today’s science and technology in a very logical manner, he added.

An interpretative element? The entire exercise of “ghost hunting” is interpretive. Ghost hunters whip out their recorders and thermometers and other devices with “ON” buttons and they think this is the epitome of scientific investigation. They take readings and they interpret readings based on their preconceived notions. If there is an “anomaly” of any kind, then that’s a ghost in their book. This is exactly why ghost hunting is pseudoscience. They have all the trappings of science, and they claim they are being scientific.  By scientific standards, they the polar opposite of good scientific practices.

And the statement  about religion and culture being “balanced with today’s science and technology in a very logical manner” … this is a very oddly phrased description. I agree that religion and culture is the driving force behind many people’s “paranormal” experiences, but why it “must be balanced” with today’s science and technology makes little sense to me. Apparently, I lack a “very logical manner” for not being able to understand exactly what is being said here.

So in summary: this article is horribly unimpressive on so many levels. It is poorly written. It has failed to adequately describe the activity of ghost hunting. It offered no skeptical perspective. It assumes ghosts are real. Their subjects offer no extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claims being made.

But perhaps worst of all is the disappointment in that one of our nation’s most impressive institutes of higher learning is catering to people’s enthrallment with pseudoscience, and simultaneously, taking advantage of people’s lack of understanding about how science REALLY works. And this is courtesy of an Ivy League university with its roots dating back to colonial times. King George III must be rolling over in his grave.

WAIT … I thought of one thing worse than my disappointment … I wish I could say I am surprised.