Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fortnight for Freedom

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is sponsoring a "Fortnight for Freedom" from June 21-July4.  This is to be "a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom" -- and it really should include, I might add, fasting.


Please join in with a renewed prayer effort during this time, whether you are Catholic or not.  Many of the prayers here and here can be used by any Christian; I suspect most Catholics will prefer traditional prayers like the Rosary, the Memorare, the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, etc.

One thing I intend to do is to learn the words to the hymn above: "O Lord, Save Thy People."  Yes, I know it's specifically Orthodox, but the Holy Father is working hard to heal that rift, and it's a beautiful hymn that says it well. 

Thanks to Simcha Fisher, by the way, for pointing this out.   I share her distaste for the upcoming election and her conviction that politics alone is not a cause for hope.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ghost Stories in Modern Fiction

Over the years I have become convinced that modern writers simply do not know how to tell a proper ghost story.  The problem almost always lies in an inadequate philosophical background.  Many writers today appear to be materialists, so they are left with only physical terror and psychological thrills, but no true horror.

This is probably most evident in the modern treatment of vampires.  The two most important things to remember about vampires are
  • vampires are dead, and
  • vampires are demon-possessed.
Vampires are not just kinda pale and moody.  They are not merely infected with a virus.  There is no hope of them being or becoming a good guy.  If you write a story like that, you are not really writing a story about vampires.  In almost all modern "vampire" stories, the "vampire" is clearly not really dead; they're angst-filled teenagers or twenty-something jerks.

As another example, take pretty much anything written by H.P. Lovecraft, who seems to appeal chiefly to boys between 12 and 21.  His ideas for horror seem to boil down to the following: 
  • Big is scary.
  • Old is scary.
  • Tentacles are scary.
  • Big words from the thesaurus are scary.
That's pretty much it; if you agree with his ideas, he's a genius of the horror genre -- otherwise he's an enormous bore.

Fortunately, there are good stories out there, too.  Some of the best come from M.R. James, who had precisely the knowledge of ancient and medieval religious beliefs, writings, and practices to give his stories a proper depth.  So when the villain in "Lost Hearts" writes a reference in his diary about the purported magical practices of Simon Magus as recounted in the so-called Recognitions of Clement, it is a bit creepy to discover that there really is such a book and that it says exactly what is quoted in the story.  Also, as is conceded in the story, this book, though of ancient origin, is not a genuine work of Pope St. Clement. 

Another excellent writer of ghost stories had his own interesting story to account for the learning evident in his writings.  Robert Hugh Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury; after his father's death, he converted to the Catholic Church and became a priest, then a monsignor.  His book The Necromancers is an excellent warning against the Spiritualism of his day and the "ghost hunting" of our own.  

Perhaps my favorite work of his pertaining to ghost stories is A Mirror of Shalott, which begins with an instructive philosophical argument between several priests, some of whom were entirely skeptical that ghostly appearances occurred as in popular tales, and others of whom were more accepting.  They agreed, however, that each evening one of them would recount some odd event from his own experience. In fact, I suspect that these are indeed fictionalized versions of accounts Msgr. Benson heard firsthand; something like one of them happened separately to a friend and to me. 

An important thing to remember is that a proper ghost story is always a morality tale.  Usually, the ghost appears to exact punishment on someone for a serious offense, which may be murder, greed, inappropriate curiosity, dabbling in sorcery, or something similar.

No, Aliens Don't Want to Eat Us -- But They Might Nuke Us

Jill Tarter is right that the science fiction staple of aliens wanting to eat us is virtually guaranteed to be wrong -- to say nothing of Star Trek and its idea that most aliens are basically exaggerated Americans with funny ears or foreheads who can freely interbreed with each other.  No, it is very likely that any truly alien life will have major chemical differences from familiar Earth life -- even if that alien life is also based on organic chemistry and water. 

That doesn't mean we'd necessarily be safe, though.  Aliens who made it to the solar system would see Mars as prime real estate -- nice and empty, all they have to do is move in their furniture and hang some pictures.  (That is "terraforming" Mars to make it habitable for them should be no trouble for a species that could travel between stars, and the difficulty of interstellar travel would mean they would want some kind of payoff at the end.)  The only downside would be the messy neighbors.

Earth would be too much of a mess for them to want to come here.  They may not actually be susceptible to a War of the Worlds-type infection, but the fact that Earth's own life is in every little nook and cranny would make it difficult to establish their own biosphere here, nor would they feel a need to.  Just to be on the safe side and keep us from tracking our muddy shoes across their new carpet, though, they might very well nuke us back to the stone age, after which they would make sure we never again achieved space flight.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Several years ago I had a dream in which there were some unexplained features in the earthquakes associated with a volcano.  We went to where we could look at the churning lava, and at first it looked just like regular convection rolls.  Then, as we continued to watch, it became clear that these were not just convection rolls, they were in fact living beings made of the same materials as the lava itself; they were salamanders.  In fact, in shape they were not unlike the amphibians. 

Salamander in fire

This discovery made me hugely excited:  here was silicon-based life living inside the Earth.  It would be more biochemically distinct from familiar life than anything we might find on the surface of Mars.

This story reminded me of that dream.  We really know very little about what happens in the deepest depths of the Earth.  We do know, though, that at the core-mantle boundary we have 
  • a fluid (liquid iron), that might act as a solvent, 
  • a solid surface, 
  • interesting chemistry, and
  • a flow of energy.
If the chemistry is interesting enough -- and at this point, I think it's safe to say we can't be sure -- these conditions sound like the basic requirements for life. 

Maybe those salamanders really are down there, after all.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Today is Pentecost, one of the holiest days of the year.  Somehow, thanks be to God, it has resisted being made into a commercial event, as has sadly happened to both Christmas and Easter.  This is probably, I am sad to say, because many Protestants (by number, though probably not by count of denominations) largely ignore Pentecost.  At least that was my experience with the independent Bible churches and the Southern Baptists; they would remember secular holidays (Mothers' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day) and forget Pentecost.
Pfingstwunder wolfegg

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a day to honor and remember those who died serving their country in the military.  That, however, is not what you will hear this weekend.

IMG 3984 - Washington DC - Arlington National Cemetary

Isn't it unfair to honor those who died and not those who served and survived, our veterans?  What about those who served their country in some other way -- maybe the peace corps or civil service? Shouldn't we be more inclusive?

No, we should not.  Veterans Day is for those who survived, Memorial Day is for those who did not.  All other patriots and happy aspects of our country may be celebrated on Independence Day.  If we try observer everything at once, it is too much, and we will observe nothing in particular; we will treat this as just a 3-day weekend.

Do those who gave their lives for this country deserve a day when they will be singled out for honor?  

Yes.  They do.

Creation, Evolution, and Babies

I was reared in a small, fundamentalist Bible church, and from kindergarten through eighth grade I attended a like-minded small Christian school.  Most of the teachers were mothers of students.  What they lacked in specialized training they made up for in care, and the standardized test scores showed that they significantly outperformed their colleagues in the public schools.  However, there were a few peculiarities with this system, and one of them was a naive interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis. 

Foster Bible Pictures 0013-1  

I say naive, not literal, because it turns out that there is an ancient tradition of looking very carefully at each word -- more carefully, I might add, than my fundamentalist elders did -- but without assuming, for example, that the "waters" referred to in Genesis 1:2 are necessarily H2O.  St. Augustine argued that this was merely a picture for formless matter, because liquid water does not hold any shape and because the waves are caused by the wind (which is a picture for the Spirit), not the other way around.  St. Augustine was neither the first nor the last to reason in this way, but rather than go into details, I will simply refer the interested reader to Saint Augustine on Genesis: Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees and on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis : An Unfinished Book or, for those who do not wish to buy the book, to this excerpt.

I did not find out about this tradition for a long time, though, and I was left to struggle with the stark contradiction between what I had been taught in my fundamentalist upbringing and palaeontology.  Could there be, as had been strongly hinted, some atheistic conspiracy in science to deny the evidence that the world was created only 6000 years ago?  I finally concluded that no, this could not be; the science was fundamentally right.  As were the Scriptures.  If I am not clever enough to understand how they can both be right, that is my problem, not a problem with either science or Scripture. 

How, though, could science and Scripture both be true while giving such divergent descriptions of human origins?  This led me to consider the different truthful answers that can be given to a young child who asks the question, "Where did I come from?"

Here's one possible answer.  "Well, the atoms in your body come from what you eat.   What you eat comes from the grocery store.  So you come from the grocery store."  This is true, but it is not what the child is asking and will not satisfy the child. 

Many parents apparently think this is time to give some version of "the birds and the bees" talk, explained in a way suitable for the child's age -- at least enough to explain that the child's hair color comes from her father, and her eye color comes from her mother.  This answer is also true, but it is also not what the child is asking. 

What the child is really struggling with is a serious philosophical question.  "I know that although I am now a living, rational soul, there was a time before I existed.  How does that happen?"  The child's question is more grown-up, really, than the question that parents usually think the child is asking.  The Catholic Church's answer to the child's question is that each soul is a special creation by God, and only God knows exactly how He does this. 

Biological evolution answers the question of the origin of our species in the same way that sexual reproduction answers the question of our origin as individuals.  Both are true; both are the "scientific" answer; both are answers that seem, at least at first, to be an affront to our dignity.  Neither answers the more fundamental and important questions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Creepy Huntington

Huntington, WV may not exactly be a ghost town, but it is a town that has seen distinctly better days.  It also has spots where ghosts are reported to walk.  Two of these, the Keith Albee Theater and the Frederick Hotel, may or may not be haunted, but they are indisputably creepy.

Along 4th Avenue in Huntington

Huntington's fortunes were tied to those of the steel industry.  In the early 20th century, times were booming.  The Frederick was finished in 1906, and the Keith Albee in 1928.  Both were built in a style that would have been seen as opulent at the time, but gaudy today. When the American steel industry collapsed, Huntington went into a tailspin.  I am told that 30 years ago, the population was 100,000; it recently slipped below 50,000.  This leaves the city with an extended infrastructure but an insufficient tax base to support it, along with scores of abandoned houses that have lately become targets for an arsonist.

The Frederick has marble stairways and a large collection of animal heads in the main lobby, but the only time I've actually gone inside it looked like the steps had not been mopped for about 20 years.  The Keith Albee is made of dark woods, with elaborately carved gilded decorations that leave dark nooks and shadows.  For several years, but ending this year, the Marshall University College of Science held a commencement ceremony in the Keith Albee, and these are the only times I have been there.  

A must hangs around both.  Maybe that somehow accounts for the creepiness of these places; perhaps the creepiest place I've ever been was the old Science Building on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce, and that place had a real problem with mold.  Certainly there is an effect that may be due to the movies:  there is something about this decayed opulence that feels really creepy -- sort of a Haunted Mansion effect. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ghost Hunters and Pseudoscience

Since I've already looked at cryptozoology and pseudoscience, and since I've made a thermodynamic calculation about how much useful energy should be made available to a ghost using the assumptions made by The Ghost Hunters, I might as well go ahead and apply the standards of pseudoscience to the latter.

Medieval ghost

Once again let me emphasize that the problem with pseudoscience is a problem of the method and mental attitude.  If something claims to be scientific, there are certain standards it should meet.  Pseudoscience is not even science done badly; it is something entirely different that wants to be mistaken for science. 

So before we even get started, there are those who will start out in a huff because they have seen a ghost, or at least they believe they have.   Maybe they have.  I do not categorically reject the existence of ghosts, although caution should be exercised in any particular case.  It's like the situation in the Cold War when someone said their neighbor was a Soviet spy; it could be, since such spies really did exist, but in most cases it was probably just an over-active imagination.

So let's go back to the list of "defining characteristics" from What Science Is And How It Works, by Gregory N. Derry.

1. Static or Randomly Changing Ideas.

This appraisal is complicated by the question of whose ideas are being discussed.  

The Ghost Hunters and TAPS themselves have rather static ideas of uncertain origins, and such changes as we see on television may well be the result of television decisions.  For instance, in the first season or so they sometimes had a Protestant friend attempt to cast out evil spirits in the Name of Jesus.  The disappearance of this feature has been the most noteworthy change to their procedure.  Otherwise, if you've seen 3 or 4 episodes, you've pretty much seen everything.

If we talk about the wider group of people who are either now "ghost hunting" or who have done so in the past, we see wildly changing ideas.  The ideas espoused by groups like TAPS are quite different from those held by "psychic investigators", which in turn are rather different from those of the Spiritualists of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  All of these ideas are very different from the traditional ideas of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and also from the ideas of classical paganism.  As far as I can tell, the variations of ideas come from a few "inspired" individuals (the Fox sisters, for example) with radically new ideas, which are then adopted and adhered to in a rather static way.

2. Vague Mechanisms to Acquire Understanding.

Example:  Ghost hunting groups claim that hauntings are more likely to occur near limestone, quartz, or water.  Of course, any reported haunting must be reported by some living person, and people have always tended to live near water.  Also, both limestone and quartz are extremely widespread.  My home state, Florida, not only is a peninsula surrounded by water and with large numbers of rivers and ponds, it also consists largely of quartz sand and limestone rock.  Finally, it might well be the case that there are correlations in the upbringing, life experiences, and tastes of those who choose to live in one area vs. those who choose to live in another. For example, it may be that those who choose to live in dry, barren regions may see themselves as no-nonsense realists who have no time for ghosts.  They may be less likely to imagine ghosts, or alternatively, to dismiss any real ghosts they may see.

It does not seem that any serious effort has been made to control for these considerations.  Instead, it appears that some ghost hunters have noticed water, limestone, or quartz near what they believe to be a residual haunting and made a leap in judgment. 

3.  Loosely Connected Thoughts.

Writings from the nineteenth century regularly use "magnetism" as a synonym for what is today called the paranormal.  The only real connection seems to be that both are invisible forces of which most of the public had no real understanding.  It is less humiliating to assume that two things you don't understand are really just two examples of one thing you don't understand.  

(To be fair, the more well-educated might also point out Galvani's experiment in which electricity made a dead frog kick -- the basis for the story of Dr. Frankenstein -- and the growing evidence that electricity and magnetism were related.  I don't think that really had much impact on how widely used the term was, though.)

The same thing happens today.  In fact, it seems to be the basis of the assumption that ghostly activity should be detectable as an electric or magnetic field.  Electromagnetism is still almost a complete mystery to the general public, even though it is understood quite well by those with the right education.  

Likewise, ghost hunters will frequently insist that spirits are a form of energy, and that the survival of a spirit after death is an example of the conservation of energy.  This is the result of a bad misunderstanding of what energy is and a failure to notice that the heat energy of a warm, dead body is in fact conserved -- it is just lost to the environment as the heat is lost and the body grows cold.  Conservation of Energy (the First Law of Thermodynamics) is not the problem; loss of organization (the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is the problem. 

Let's not even get started on how the word "dimension" is misused....

4.  Lack of Organized Skepticism.

TAPS may say they look for explanations to "debunk" claims, but that is not really what is meant by organized skepticism. Something more on the order of peer review is intended, and there is nothing like that in paranormal investigations.  In fact, there is usually not enough skepticism of any kind.  The ghost hunters seem very quick to identify words and phrases from "electronic voice phenomena" (EVPs), even though most "voices" use monosyllabic "words" that require a great deal of imagination to decipher.  To be perfectly honest, I think many of these "voices" are rumblings from their tummies as they carry the recorders around just above their belly buttons.

5.  Disregard for Established Results. 

When they attempt to use arguments from thermodynamics or electromagnetism without bothering to learn the basics of those sciences, I'd call that a disregard for established results.  

Note that disregard does not necessarily mean that they deny the established results; they just don't have a real interest in what those results actually are.


The TV show is, after all, just a TV show, and it airs on what used to be called SciFi -- the Science Fiction Network.  Not the Science Network.  No one should be surprised that what they do is not good science, but in fact is pseudoscience.

Before closing, I would like to point out that Christianity has always forbidden necromancy -- the attempt to summon the dead so that they can perform some function or communicate.  (Prayers to the saints, which someone is sure to bring up, are not the same thing, since all that is requested of the saints is that they will pray to God for us -- not a service and not communication.)  If a ghost appears unbidden, I suppose it is permissible to speak to it, though great care should be taken in believing a spirit solely on the basis of its appearance.  The best advice I have heard is to pray for the spirit; if it is indeed a soul in Purgatory, it could use the help, and if it is a soul or demon from Hell, at least it has not deceived you into doing anything wrong.  One way or the other, there seems to be no moral difference in attempting to summon a spirit using a mirror or basin, a Ouija board, or an electromagnetic field detector.  It's a bad idea; don't do it. 

Interestingly enough, Fr. Herbert Thurston was convinced years ago that some, at least, of the Spiritualistic manifestations were genuine -- at least of some preternatural origin -- but he knew quite well that most, if not all, of even the most reputable mediums were detected in fraud.  He concluded that necromancy always has a degenerative effect on morals, and that even the "best" mediums would eventually fake a manifestation rather than disappoint an audience.  I wonder if the Ghost Hunters have followed a similar trajectory, perhaps starting off sincerely (even though what they were doing was not really science) and only resorting to trickery towards the end.  Certainly, there have been allegations of trickery.

License Plates Are Not Bumper Stickers

Enough already with the vanity license plates!  These cause nothing but problems (here's the most recent), because inevitably someone wants a design or number that someone else will find offensive (and often, but not always, that is the intent).  After all, these are just a scam for the state government to make a few extra dollars.

Government should do itself a favor and get out of the business of deciding which organizations are worthy of having a tag and which are not, or of which design or number is offensive and which is not. 

If you want to express something on your car, just get a bumper sticker!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Little More About Tokyo

The internet is an amazing thing.  Not only did I find those pictures taken by another resident at the Komaba International Lodge, I also found a few other things that really sent me down memory lane.  The most literal of these is of course the Google Maps street view, which showed me that the aptly-named "Liquor and Food" convenience store near the Komaba-Todaimae Train Station has sadly closed, and that the Catholic chapel near the International Lodge is a mission of the Piarist Fathers. Unfortunately the street view does not get very close to the International Lodge itself.  I was, however, able to "revisit" Tokyo Baptist Church.  I wonder if I would still really be able to find my way around Tokyo after all these years; even in familiar areas, navigating street view is not exactly like walking down the street.

The Sunkus convenience store near the Lodge still appears to be open.  I remember looking around in it one evening for something modestly familiar as supper when I came across a can of Vienna Sausages.  "Wow, Vienna Sausages!" I thought -- then I realized how bad it must be for me to think, "Wow, Vienna Sausages!"  I passed on them; they are really only suitable for human conception when you're starving on a fishing trip, and there are alternatives in Tokyo.  I didn't really do too badly, though.  I really liked their rice triangles, especially with Tabasco sauce, and the "bun" (nikuman) came to be a favorite of mine once I realized it was already fully cooked.  (I had seen baked bread and fried bread before, but never steamed bread.)

At one point, I became obsessed with pancakes.  Normally I like pancakes OK, but I could probably go 3 or 4 years without eating them and never notice; I don't go to that much trouble when I'm cooking just for myself.  However, the thought that I could not get pancakes really got to me.  Fortunately, a friend at Tokyo Baptist pointed out that there was a Denny's near the church.  I went in and had my pancakes, but that satisfied the craving and I never went back.  

One of my favorite spots on campus was Sanshiro Pond.  I would often go there and feed the carp while thinking about my research.  The Japanese really know how to make gardens!  Yet for some reason, I find it disconcerting that this guy goes around the pond counterclockwise.  I don't remember ever going in that direction; I always went clockwise, though I'm not sure why. There were signs along the way, and maybe they were numbered.  I don't remember. 

Of course, Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park was one of my favorite places in the city.  I've always loved good museums, and these were fascinating. 


Yasuda hall - University of Tokyo

I've never been very good about taking photos, but I was delighted to find someone who also stayed at the University of Tokyo (or East Capital Big Learning) Komaba International Lodge who actually did take and post some good pictures.  So, for example, this picture shows what I tended to think of as the back of the Lodge; the small building on the right is where we took our garbage.  

This view of the balcony indicates that he had a ground floor apartment on the same side as mine was -- in fact, although I don't think we were there at the same time (I was there in 1996, he seems to have only arrived in 2002), his room must have been right next to mine.  (His room is mirror-reversed to mine, otherwise I would suspect it was the exact same room.)  That little bit of greenery in the back yard was very important to my mental health, by the way; I had been afraid that I would see nothing but asphalt and concrete in Tokyo.  

I occasionally tried drying clothes on the balcony.  This did not really work very well, because the air pollution would stick to the clothes and make them dirty.  I was shocked at how much soot I would have to blow out of my nose at the end of a day.  

In the tourist materials I read before going, it said that Mt. Fuji is visible from Tokyo only a few days a year, when strong winds blow out the pollution.  I didn't really believe this.  I thought that even if Mt. Fuji were visible in principle, it would be small and near the horizon, so that it would never really be visible above the cityscape.  Certainly there was no hint of the mountain from Tokyo the first 6 months I was there. Then one day in the fall, the wind really did blow the pollution away, and suddenly there was this huge mountain where before there had seemingly been nothing but empty sky! 

Skyscrapers of Shinjuku 2009 January

On the other hand, the light pollution was not as bad as I had feared.  That is, I've been in much smaller cities with just as much light pollution.  I was pleased to see that I could still make out the shapes of the prominent constellations.  

Even more impressively, I was actually able to see comet Hale Bopp from Tokyo.  I had read about it in the news, of course, but never thought I would be able to see it from inside the city.  I was walking back to the Lodge from the Yoyogi-Uehara subway station when I looked up and boom!  There it was; unmistakably the comet.  I made sure all the folks in the common room knew about this so that they could see it, too.

Comet-Hale-Bopp-29-03-1997 hires

Back to the Lodge.  I was thoroughly delighted to learn that I would have my own bathroom!  The bathroom, like the apartment as a whole, was very tiny but very complete.  For ease of cleaning, it seemed to all be made of one piece of plastic, and to prevent an overflow of water from damaging the outside floor, it had a rim about 2 inches high at the door.  I nearly broke my toe on that rim, after which I was careful to always wear flip-flops so that they could absorb some of the energy of any kick. 

That's really enough for one post, but I should not close without acknowledging the good people at Tokyo Baptist Church.  The only ones I recognize in the staff pictures from when I was there are Takeshi and Miki Yozawa, who were among the best friends I've ever had, and Ted and Judy Oman; I didn't expect them still to be in Tokyo.  I'm Catholic now, and the theological differences are real and important, but my affection for Tokyo Baptist Church is undiminished.


Here's a more typical dream, one with no chance of becoming a story.

I was looking toward sunset and noticed a bright object in the sky near the sun.  I wasn't sure what it was, so I used Stellarium to check on the identity of the object.  It turned out that there were several moons (not of earth, but apparently of Jupiter) in that area, the largest of which by far was the giant moon Dione.


Even in my dream that didn't make much sense to me, and as I drifted back and forth from sleeping-nearly-waking to waking-nearly-sleeping, the following occurred to me in about this order:
  • Dione is not really a giant moon.
  • It is a moon of Saturn, not Jupiter.
  • For such a small object, it is much too far away to be a bright object in our night sky.
  • It is probably beyond the diffraction limit of the human eye to resolve Dione from Saturn.

I have no idea what brought this on, but having astronomy in my dreams has been fairly typical since I took an intro astronomy course from the local community college when I was in 10th grade.  

At least this time I realized there was something wrong even when I was in the dream.  What can be more disturbing is when elements from a dream seem to make sense even after waking.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

An Unfortunate Double

About ten years ago, I was not paying much attention to anything and happened to glance at what I thought was a picture of me; it looked practically identical to a Polaroid photo from about 2 years previous.  Actually, the main difference was that it was mirror-reversed and cropped, neither of which I noticed right away.  However, the picture was not of me, but of Arlen Hill, a man who was suspected of having kidnapped his daughter from his estranged wife.

In retrospect, I'm a little surprised I was not questioned by the police due to the strong resemblance.  Two things worked in my favor, though: 
  1. Arlen Hill is noticeably taller than I am. 
  2. I was living and teaching in a town with a population of only about 8000.  Anonymity was not really a problem.

Weird Coincidences

There was a composer who recently died who had more-or-less the same name I do. (His middle name may not have been the same as mine, but he has the same initial.) Here's his obituary

The name is not the only thing we have in common. I majored in physics and went on to get my Ph.D.; he started out in physics before switching to music. I got my masters and Ph.D. at Florida State University, which is where he got his masters degree. We both did our earliest important professional work in Tokyo. 
I've read enough books to know that weird coincidences like this, if spread out in time, have been used as "proof" of reincarnation. Of course that is nonsense. In this case, the nonsense is explicit -- we overlap in time!

I tried to find a way to contact this other Howard L. Richards through Florida State several years ago, sadly with no success. I suspect he would have enjoyed the coincidences as much as I do. You can hear a sample of his work on Youtube

I did manage to contact this Howard Richards, who is also a musician. And of course, there's the much more famous Howard Richards who played for the Dallas Cowboys, then worked for the CIA.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Based on a Dream from January 2012

Back when I was in grad school, we used to do a lot of canoeing. Usually there would be four of us: Sam, who was doing research in the same office as me; Josh, who had an office down the hall; Josh's girlfriend Lisa; and me.

Thursday and Friday there had been rain showers for the first time in about a month. The local creeks and rivers had been low, with sand bars and roots making any canoeing difficult, but by the time the skies cleared on Saturday they had risen, and we had a good time. We canoed about a dozen miles downstream, and sunset was only a half-hour away when we finally pulled out at a bridge. Sam's car had been left at the put-in spot, so Josh and Lisa drove him back to pick it up while I stayed with the canoes.

There wasn't much to do, and after maybe twenty minutes I wandered up the landing to the road to see if I could see anyone coming. It was still too early for the others to be back, though, so I started back down, when I was surprised to notice that someone had pulled off on the other side of the road. It looked like they must have come from an antique car show; both their car and their clothing looked like something out of the 1950's.

There was something about them that seemed wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. The people looked normal enough: two young men and two young women, who might have been their girlfriends or sisters (they all looked vaguely Italian to me), and an older man who may have been one of their fathers. The two women, one of whom was visibly upset, held back near the car with the older man. The two young men had gone down to the creek, where they threw in something small. My uneasy feeling seemed to be strongest about these two. They were doing something else, but I couldn't see or hear very distinctly what that was.

No one had noticed me yet, so I went back down quietly to the canoes. My friends got back a few minutes later, and before long we had the canoes packed away and were headed off to find something to eat. As we pulled out, I noticed that the “Italians” were gone. Also, even though our cars were leaving ruts in the muddy ground, there were no such ruts on the other side of the road.

I didn't think about the “Italians” again until several days later, when an errand took me out of town and I came back around dusk by the same road. I was surprised to see they were pulled off at the side of the bridge again. I slowed down in case they were having car trouble, but as I got closer I saw that they were doing exactly the same thing I had seen them do that previous day. What's more, even though I was on their side of the road, it looked like they could not see me. Glad of that, I sped off again.

StateLibQld 1 121984 1950 Riley 2 1-2 litre four door saloon

The next day at work I mentioned all this to Sam. At first he thought I was kidding him, but when he saw I wasn't, Sam wanted to see for himself. I met up with him again after supper and drove him out to the bridge; we both thought that the time of day might be important.

Sure enough, there they were again, going through exactly the same motions as before. I slowed down to about one mile per hour, but I was not willing to come to a complete stop. After a couple of minutes, I sped back up, never to see them again. “Got it!” Sam said.

He had had the sense to take down the information from the car's tag. It took him two months, but Sam was eventually able to identify the “Italians.” They turned out to be an immigrant family of Hungarian gypsies. The tag was from 1955, and its owner was a widower who had two adult sons and a grown daughter. The older son was married, but his wife divorced him the next year.

Most surprising to me was the fact that they were all still alive, though the father was now nearly ninety. Well, almost all of them, anyway: I had some strong suspicions about the small thing that was thrown into the creek, but no way of knowing for sure.

Cryptozoology and Science: Problems

In a recent post, I argued that cryptozoology is the search for animals which are not impossible but for which only weak evidence exists. I should have added that the animals for which cryptozoology searches would be surprising, which certainly fits the categories I enumerated and even more fits the list of "celebrity cryptids":  Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and other lake monsters, Mokele Mbembe and other living dinosaurs, etc. 


A real problem is that cryptozoology
  • is a search for conclusive evidence and 
  • is defined by the absence of conclusive evidence.  
It is a putative science that is defined by its own failure. 

In physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, or standard biology, the more evidence one has from observation and experiment, the better the science is.  By contrast, if conclusive evidence were ever found for the existence of Bigfoot, for example, he would cease to be a cryptid and become just another primate to be studied by professional primatologists -- not by cryptozoologists. 

That may seem to be nit-picking, but the reality is that the "scientific method" is cyclic, which allows both theories and experimental methods to be refined.  Perhaps some cryptozoological ideas may be falsified by the absence of evidence, but few could be validated.  So, for example, some Bigfoot researchers believe him to be descended from Gigantopithecus, some from a common ancestor with humans not long after the divergence from chimpanzees, some that he is something else.  With no unambiguous evidence that Bigfoot exists in the first place, there certainly is not enough evidence to constrain such speculation.  Likewise, a wide variety of techniques, including the use of recorded sounds allegedly made by Bigfoot, wood knocking, scents and pheromones, etc., are used to try to attract Bigfoot so that photos, footprints, hair samples, etc. might be collected -- so far with (obviously) no unambiguously positive result.   Is this because the methods are flawed, or because Bigfoot is rare (or does not exist)?

Remember, one of the "defining characteristics" of pseudoscience is "vague mechanisms to acquire understanding."  The fact that cryptozoology, so long as it remains cryptozoology, does not have enough evidence to refine its methodology means that it is always flirts with pseudoscience. 

This is the point at which Bigfoot believers jump up and shout, "But what about all those witnesses?  What about the DNA and hair samples?  What about the footprints?"  Some of those are suggestive, and they are the reason I think there is a 1% chance Bigfoot is real (as opposed to the Loch Ness Monster or visiting space aliens, both of which seem much, much less likely).  They constitute enough evidence to form a hypothesis, but not enough to confirm that hypothesis, at least in the opinion of the majority of biologists with some relevant expertise.  Not being a biologist myself, let alone a primatologist or expert in North American ecology, I'll defer to them. 

At this point, another problem with cryptozoology emerges, because by saying I will defer to the consensus of professional biologists, all manner of conspiracy accusations will be brought forward.  To be fair, I think it is the mostly the "armchair quarterback" cryptozoology fan who is most likely to believe that there are conspiracies to hide the existence of Bigfoot and other cryptids, followed by the untrained amateurs, but since these two groups make up the bulk of the cryptozoology universe, their schizophrenic love/hate attitude towards established science taints the community as a whole.  

The real problem with that kind of attitude is not that it is offensive, but rather that it gives cryptozoology a shove in the direction of pseudoscience.  Again, two of the "defining characteristics" of pseudoscience are
  • Lack of Organized Skepticism and
  • Disregard for Established Results.

The hyper-sensitivity of the cryptozoological community essentially eliminates the possibility of organized skepticism.  Members of that community distrust the biologists who actually have a process for organized skepticism -- and they also distrust each other.  That's not to say that they make no use of established biology or other cryptzoologists, only that such use shows symptoms of being heavily filtered through their ideas.

Finally, let me return to the "cherry picking" of data I mentioned before.  I have seen it argued that the consistency of the sightings of Bigfoot argues strongly for its existence.  Well ... not so much.  

For one thing, the idea of something intermediate between man and the animals seems to be deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Thus we hear legends of vaguely Bigfoot-like creatures from all over the world, just as we hear legends of dwarfs and giants from all over the world.  These ideas are simply too obvious for storytellers not to continually reinvent them -- and they're probably always somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds, too.  

Also, of the half-man, half-animal sightings reported in the US, there are very noticeable variations.  There are reports of Bigfoot speaking and wearing clothes or a hat.  There is the Michigan Dogman and the Skunk Ape and the Lizard Man.   If, from such a range of reported sightings, you select the ones that seem most like the creature shown in the Patterson-Gimlin film, you can't use the "remarkable consistency" of those sightings to prove anything.

Lastly, since the 1970's the media have been saturated with representations of Bigfoot and Bigfoot knockoffs (Chewbacca).  These provide a stereotype around which to understand any unknown.  Something similar seems to have happened with space aliens, which in the US are now typically small "gray" aliens -- though that was not the case 50 years ago, nor is it the case in other parts of the world. 


So, after all that, do I now consider cryptozoology to all be pseudoscience?  No.  I think that trying to construct a "field" of cryptozoology is fundamentally flawed, and there are serious problems with the cryptozoological community.  There is a good deal of pseudoscience done under the name of cryptozoology.  That does not mean that everything done under the name of cryptozoology, though.  Probably the best of cryptozoology should be compared with good amateur astronomy -- though not, so far at least, with as much success as amateur astronomers have had.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Psalm 100:3

Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves....
I remember hearing this verse as a child and thinking, “No kidding. How could anybody think that they made themselves?” Sadly, as an adult I see that this is, after all, a common misconception. Many people are not only in rebellion against God, but against their own nature, because it is something chosen and made by God and not by them. They really want to make themselves, and they have deluded themselves into believing that this is possible.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Cryptozoology and Science: What is Cryptozoology?

In my last post I argued that cryptozoology (specifically, some kinds of Bigfoot research) does not meet the standard criteria for pseudoscience, but that it still falls short of the standards of good science.  This leads to two questions.
  1. What is meant by cryptozoology?
  2. What is different between it and good science?
In this post I will try to clarify what at least I mean by cryptozoology.  I'll save the second question for later.
Cryptozoology may be defined to be the search for animals reported by witnesses or recounted in legend but either not recognized by science or believed to be extinct.  Such animals are called cryptids, so cryptozoology is the search for cryptids.

Thylacinus cynocephalus (Gould)
These definitions, though, are so broad that they cover very different cases which should be distinguished; each of the following have been called cryptids by some people.
  1. An animal known to currently exist, but not in the location where it was seen.  The sightings of big cats in Britain fall into this category.
  2. An animal which is known to have existed and is believed to have gone extinct during human history, but for which there are unconfirmed sightings after its presumed extinction.  Alleged sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and of the Tasmanian Wolf fall into this category.
  3. An animal which is known to have existed and is believed to have gone extinct before the dawn of human history, but for which there are unconfirmed sightings.  Alleged sightings of dinosaurs and pterosaurs fit this category.
  4. An animal which is not known to have ever existed, but which is biologically possible and for which there are unconfirmed sightings.  Alleged sightings of Bigfoot go here, since Bigfoot seems to be either an ape that has independently evolved a preference for bipedalism or a relative that diverged from us at or about the time of the Australopithecines. 
  5. A creature which appears to be biologically and/or physically impossible.  Mermaids, which make no sense biologically, and werewolves, which appear to violate the laws of physics, go here. 
Category 1 is really pretty boring.  There is a long, sad history of people bringing exotic pets or specimens into an area outside that animal's normal range and releasing it, usually with disastrous consequences for the pet, sometimes with disastrous consequences for the local environment.

Category 5, on the other hand, belongs in the category of the paranormal, if not in the category of pure fiction.  As with Category 1, many self-professed cryptozoologists do not consider these to be truly a part of cryptozoology.

Category 2, on the other hand, is dubious.  Even the most skeptical are not surprised that sometimes announcements of extinction are premature, though some survivals would be more surprising than others.  It seems much more likely, for example, that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is still in existence than that the Dodo still survives.

That leaves Category 3 and 4 as the solid core of what is meant by cryptozoology, with Category 2 on the edge and Categories 1 and 5 outside the boundaries.  The upshot, then, is that cryptozoology is the search for animals which are not impossible but for which only weak evidence exists.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bigfoot Research: Pseudoscience, Pathological Science, or Something Else?

Rather than looking at cryptozoology as a whole, let's take a look at what is probably its most familiar example:  Bigfoot research.  Based on my previous post, does it meet the standards of either pseudoscience or pathological science?

B5bugerbear, by Lizard King at en.wikipedia [GFDL ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

It's pretty clear that it cannot be pathological science.  In particular, Langmuir's talk went a long way towards defining pathological science lists 6 symptoms:  
  1. "The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
  2. "The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
  3. "Claims of great accuracy.
  4. "Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
  5. "Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
  6. "Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion."
Symptoms 4 and 5 may fit some Bigfoot research, but the rest do not fit at all.

But what about pseudoscience?  For that, we can look at the list of "defining characteristics" from What Science Is And How It Works, by Gregory N. Derry:
  1. Static or Randomly Changing Ideas
  2. Vague Mechanisms to Acquire Understanding
  3. Loosely Connected Thoughts
  4. Lack of Organized Skepticism
  5. Disregard for Established Results 
The problem with trying to apply this list to Bigfoot research as a whole turns out to be ... that it's not at all clear there is such a thing as Bigfoot research as a whole.

So, for instance, it is possible to find websites that claim that Bigfoot are some kind of space alien, or that they are some sort of interdimensional beings, or whatnot.  Those are pretty much a home run for pseudoscience and require little further comment. On the other hand, there are more moderate claims that bear more scrutiny.

What about the idea, popularized through shows like MonsterQuest, that some sort of large, bipedal ape migrated across the Bering land bridge and established a small but persistent population in the Americas?  Let's go through the "defining characteristics" of pseudoscience one by one. 
  1. Does this kind of Bigfoot research exhibit static or randomly changing ideas?  Not so much, in my opinion.  The ideas have not changed much since the 1970's, but that's due to the one overwhelming problem -- not enough evidence.  Still, those who subscribe to the ape theory of Bigfoot tend to keep tabs on developments such as the discovery of fossils of the Flores "hobbit" and archaeological studies piecing together the arrival and spread of man in North America, and they use these developments to tweak their own theories.
  2. Are the methods used to acquire understanding vague?  Again, not really.  Most adherents of the ape theory really want hard scientific data; many of them actively look for hair samples, feces, or footprints, set up trailcam traps in hopes of a photo, etc.  There's nothing wrong with that from a scientific point of view.

  3. That's not to say that some of the analysis doesn't strike me as rather far-fetched -- for example, attempts to see details in the Patterson-Gimlin film that seem to be too near the limit of the image's resolution.  There also seems to be some cherry-picking with data, among other procedural issues.  These are problems, but they still don't amount to "defining characteristic #2".
  4. Are the thoughts loosely connected?  This may be more of a real problem.  Elaborate theories abound, but the connection to solid evidence and/or mainstream scientific literature tends to be tenuous at best.  Again, the real problem is that there is very little concrete evidence to begin with. 
  5. Is there a lack of organized skepticism?  Yes, because there is a lack of organization.  Anyone who occasionally reads Cryptomundo will know that there are plenty of people in the cryptozoological community who are quick to pounce on a hoax or point out possible misidentifications.  Since cryptozoology has few if any peer-reviewed journals, though, it really does lack the kind of safeguard enjoyed by established sciences.

    A more serious problem along these lines is the emotional attachment to both their data and interpretations. Cryptozoologists may be willing to criticize each other's work, but they too often fail to exhibit the cautious approach that comes with self-criticism, and they too often lose their tempers when criticized by others. This is a very normal and human behavior, but there is no formal structure to hold it in check. Cryptozoology suffers because of it.
  6. How about disregard for established results?  I think this is less of a problem than might be expected.  It's nearly impossible to prove a negative, so the non-existence of Bigfoot is not really an established result.  Unlike the interdimensional Bigfoot theories or the space alien Bigfoot theories, the Bigfoot-as-an-ape theory does not require violating the laws of physics, nor does it necessarily require violating the established results of biology.  Creatures that may have looked very much like smaller versions of Bigfoot once existed in Africa, but there is no evidence that they moved out of Africa before going extinct. And yes, Gigantopithecus was a large ape living in east Asia not more than 1 million years ago, but it probably was not bipedal, since
    1. there is no evidence about how it walked, 
    2. walking on two legs the way we humans do is a complicated stunt that seems unlikely to have evolved multiple times, and
    3. Gigantopithecus does not appear to have been closely related to humans.
How about the characteristics mentioned in my earlier post?  I think it is a fair assessment that the more theoretical a study of Bigfoot is, the more likely it is to exhibit all the characteristics of pseudoscience.  I also think that many people accept Bigfoot as a physical reality not due to the evidence, but because they really want it to be true.  A world with a Bigfoot in it would just be way cooler than a world with no Bigfoot.  Also, it does display the warning signs of a nearly constant minority of adherents while being rejected by the preponderance of professional biologists.

On the whole, then, I would say that some Bigfoot research is clearly pseudoscience, but that the best of it, though usually falling short of the standards I would expect for good science, is at least not pseudoscience.

By the way, please note that whether something is pseudoscience or not depends entirely on its structure and methodology, not whether its conclusions are right or wrong.  Personally, my guess is that there is about a 1% chance that there is some sort of American ape that is responsible for the Bigfoot sightings.  On the plus side, this does not appear to be physically or biologically impossible, and there are a lot of sightings.  On the minus side, the sightings data are not consistent enough to be sure they represent anything real, there is the lack of convincing concrete evidence, and yarns about a creature halfway between man and the animals are so compelling to any storyteller that I would expect similar tales to be told all over the world -- and they are -- regardless of whether any real animal lies at the heart of these stories.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pseudoscience vs. Pathological Science

A comment asking about pathological science was left on my post about cryptozoology, so it's probably worth contrasting the two kinds of "science gone wrong".
  • Pathological science is basically being led astray by wishful thinking and excitement while making observations at the very limits of perception.
    • Pseudoscience is basically holding beliefs that are not subject to observation or experiment but still claiming they are scientific facts or theories.
  • Pathological science is usually experimental in nature. 
    • Most pseudoscientists call themselves theorists.
  • People involved in pathological science tend to have the degrees and backgrounds that would prepare them for real science.
    • Pseudoscientists are more often self-educated or amateurs. 
  • Because of the background and experience of the person who generates pathological science, his idea is often widely accepted among the scientific community at first.  However, as time goes on others find it difficult or impossible to replicate the initial successes; this becomes much more noticeable as experimental equipment improves.  As a result, support for the idea diminishes to practically zero. 
    • Pseudoscience is less likely to become popular in the scientific community.  Because it does not depend on observation or experiment for validation, it tends to persist at a more-or-less constant, low level of support from the general public. 
A few important things must be pointed out.
  • Real science may give wrong results through honest mistakes or bad luck.  Pathological science or pseudoscience may be factually correct through dumb luck.  The real difference between them is that real science has a methodology that can be trusted to generally yield good answers and to eventually correct itself when it is wrong. 
  • A hypothesis can come from anywhere and still yield good science -- as long as it is subject to being tested by observation or experiment.  A good example is Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy from geographic clues in Homer's Iliad.
  • The scientific community can get caught up in pseudoscience, too, because scientists are also people.  A notable example is the rise of "Aryan physics" in the Third Reich, which involved some really big names in physics, and some Soviet science was likewise distorted by politics.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


I run across cryptozoology on a regular basis, mostly because I have an interest in provocative ideas, but also because I have an interest in the boundary between "healthy" science and its unhealthy relatives:  namely pseudoscience and pathological science, to say nothing of outright hoaxes.  Exactly where cryptozoology falls in this range is difficult to say, in no small part because different people mean somewhat different things by the word "cryptozoology", but I think it's a fair assertion that much of what is called cryptozoology is contaminated to a greater or lesser extent with pseudoscience.

Right now I don't have time to go into this in any real detail, but if this interests you at all, please take a look at this recent post at the Tet Zoo.  I will return to the subject later.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Monkey Head Monster

One of my guilty pleasures is the "Your True Tales" set of posts to near the beginning of each month.  For the most part, I'd say that these are neither true nor tales -- they're the first real attempt at fiction by a teenager (typically) who has read a few dozen of these stories and thought to himself or herself, "I can write a story as good as that."  Sadly, they are correct.

I have to make an exception for the story "Monkey Head Monster" (preserved here) from April 2007, though. That story is a work of art, almost of poetry: a truly beautiful satire of a genre that screams out for satire.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why Does One Side of the Moon Always Face the Earth?

One odd aspect of the moon is the fact that the same side always faces the earth. (Well, pretty nearly; it does seem to rock back and forth a little from the perspective of the earth, a process called libration. This small effect would be very hard to notice without a telescope, though.) Why is this?

The question of how this came to be is not really in question. The moon is slowly moving away from the earth, as confirmed by laser pulses sent to retroreflectors left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. Eons ago, then, the moon must have been much closer, and the mass of the earth would have generated huge tides on the moon that gradually synchronized the moons rotation with its orbit.

That only answers how it happened, though, not why it happened. There only appear to be three legitimate answers to that question:
  1. A large moon near the earth is somehow responsible for earth being the kind of place where intelligent life could live.  Venus, which is nearly earth's twin, has no moon, and it also lacks both a magnetic field and plate tectonics, both of which are needed for life as we know it to exist over the long term.  Maybe the tidal force of the moon  helped keep the earth stirred up enough for a magnetic field and plate tectonics.  Maybe, but probably not; the absence of a magnetic field on Venus is probably due to its slow rotation, and its absence of plate tectonics is probably due to the fact that it has no water to help "lubricate" the rocks.  (This really happens, but not the way it sounds.  Rocks with water chemically bound in them behave differently than rocks with no water.)
    Or maybe the moon in some way protected us from asteroid impacts by acting as a shield.  Maybe, but probably not; the moon's gravity helps pull asteroids towards earth, and the center of gravity of the earth-moon system (to which asteroids would be attracted) is actually about a thousand miles beneath the surface of the earth. 

  2. Maybe there is no particular reason for it.  If there were no moon, we would be asking why there was no moon; if the moon rotated at a different speed, we would be asking why that happened.  Even if all these things are equally possible, only one of them can happen. 

  3. Maybe God arranged this for a reason, to teach us some kind of lesson.  This is the idea I favor.
Consider the song Abendlied by Matthias Claudius, specifically the two verses

Seht ihr den Mond dort stehen?
Er ist nur halb zu sehen
und ist doch rund und schön.
So sind wohl manche Sachen,
die wir getrost belachen,
weil uns're Augen sie nicht seh'n.

Wir stolze Menschenkinder
sind eitel arme Sünder
und wissen gar nicht viel.
Wir spinnen Luftgespinste
und suchen viele Künste
und kommen weiter von dem Ziel.

These can be translated

Do you see the moon up there?
You can only see half of it,
all the same, it is round and beautiful.
The same goes for many things
that we laugh at without hesitation,
just because our eyes don't see them.

We proud children of man
are vain poor sinners
who do not know much at all.
We spin gossamers of air
and search for many skills
and further depart from our goal.

That, I think, is the best explanation we will get as to why the moon always shows us one face.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thermodynamics of Ghost Hunting

For about a decade there has been a TV show about two plumbers who try to “scientifically” detect and communicate with ghosts. There are all kinds of problems with this, but let's just confine ourselves to one aspect that relates to physics. One sign of ghostly activity they look for is a localized “cold spot.” The plumbers frequently explain this as follows: “The theory is that spirits drain heat energy from the environment and use it for manifestations.” (The “manifestations” include the sudden collapse of unstable piles and the sort of faint knocking noises houses make as they cool overnight.) How much energy are we talking about? Let's assume that the cold spot is the exact size and shape that the body of the haunting ghost had in life, which may have had a mass of 75 kg. The density of the human body is close to that of water, so each kilogram of mass corresponds to one liter of volume. The volume of the cold spot is then 75 L, or 75000 cm^3.

In a typical investigation, the ambient indoor temperature might be 65 degrees (291.483 K), and the cold spot might be as low as 60 degrees (288.706 K). The temperature drop in this case is 5 degrees or 2.777 K. According to Wikipedia, the volumetric heat capacity of air under typical room conditions is 0.000121 J / (cm^3 K). This means the total energy extracted from the cold spot is 25.2 J, enough energy to lift a 1 kg (2.2 lb) mass 2.57 m (8' 5”). The plumbers have never seen anything like this.

A major problem with their “theory” is that a ghost would be constrained by the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy) but not by the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which implies you cannot just convert ambient heat energy into useful energy the way they imply). Maybe, though, the ghost is making use of a temperature difference – say, the temperature difference between the room and its grave, which we take to be 48.5 degrees (282.317 K, the average temperature of Akron Caves in NY). If there were some way to make a thermal connection between the two, the flow of heat could be used to do useful work; that is how steam engines and internal combustion engines work. The maximum efficiency of a cyclic engine (the cycle means it can keep going) is given by the Stirling efficiency: Efficiency = (TH – TC) / TH, where TH is the absolute temperature of the heat source (the room, at 291.483 K) and TC is absolute temperature of the heat sink (the grave, at 282.317 K). The efficiency in this case is thus 3.14%. The total amount of useable energy, then, for a Stirling engine operating between the temperature of the room and the temperature of the grave and reducing the temperature of 75 L of air by 5 degrees is 0.8 J – much smaller than before, but still enough to lift a 100 g (3.5 oz) mass 81 cm (32") or to swing a door with a moment of inertia of 7 kg m^2 at an angular speed of 0.48 rad/s or 28 degrees per second.

That sounds more reasonable. Kinda. The real problem, of course is with the oddball mixture of spirits (which are by definition incorporeal) and physics (which only applies to the corporeal).

Oh, and the "practical upshot" would seem to be: If you are annoyed by a haunting, turn down the thermostat. If the ghost is using the Stirling Engine approach above, it would not be able to extract any useful energy if the temperature of your house is the same as the temperature of its grave.

What are we to make, then, of those ghost sightings in winter, frequently outside, where the temperature is less than that of the grave?

... But Critics Disagree

Well, of course they do.  Otherwise they wouldn't be critics, would they?

The line about "critics disagree" is one you'll probably hear at least once in every news broadcast, but it's far too predictable to be truly newsworthy, particularly since many critics make careers out of perpetually disagreeing.

There are much more important examples, but the example I'd like to concentrate on right now is in sports.  Specifically, headlines like "College football's potential four-team playoff isn't perfect, but it's a start".  The typical sports columnist or broadcaster seems to schedule about 1 or 2 weeks of complaints yearly about how national champions are chosen in college football.  They have a professional interest in being dissatisfied.
  • They weren't satisfied with the traditional bowl situation in which the #1 and #2 teams (according to any given poll) rarely met in a bowl game. 
  • They weren't satisfied with the Bowl Coalition or the Bowl Alliance, which usually guaranteed a #1 vs #2 matchup.
  • The BCS finally guaranteed a #1 vs #2 matchup.  The Associated Press -- the very people with an interest in complaining about the status quo -- bailed on it after 2004. 
That the press would complain about whatever replaces the BCS was completely predictable.