Odd memories, part 13

I am a big fan of decent education, which is funny perhaps, because I don’t consider that I received one myself. I attended school in a rural farming community with fairly small populations, which many might tell you is much better than overcrowded city classrooms. But the tax base also plays a role, and the classrooms I was in hovered around 30 students, a number now considered more than optimal. Worse, however, was the poor budget for new materials, and the inadequate payroll to attract better teachers (a problem throughout most of the US,) and even the lack of a drive to find or follow the more productive methods of teaching. In short, the schools were stagnating, and some of the approaches to which I was exposed were old, and based more on what someone thought might be useful than on proven effectiveness. Nothing exemplified this more than their approach to teaching social skills, that we endured for two years within our phys ed curriculum. I’m talking about square dancing.

Yes, that’s right – clapping and stomping and banjos and some drawling idiot calling out the moves. If you haven’t had any exposure to this, you should probably cherish your ignorance – I’m here to tell you that’s the best course of action, as your friend – but if you want to know just how horrifying it really is, there are videos to be found. I refuse to provide any examples myself, and I’m picking at mental scabs even making this post.

I can’t quite remember what grades this occurred in, but it was elementary school – fourth and fifth, maybe? Suffice to say, we were less than twelve years old. It’s not exactly true that kids of that age all find the opposite sex icky; usually, anyone can find a few individuals that are rather intriguing – but all the rest are icky. Moreover, admitting to finding anyone intriguing is a recipe for rumors and teasing and graffiti. And even if you have the extremely rare opportunity to speak to the object of your interest in total privacy, there is always the good chance that they don’t requite, as it were, and you not only get crushed, or uncrushed or something, you also open up the same potential for rumors and teasing and graffiti – tact and decorum are something that develops much later in life, if it does at all.

Into this morass of social clumsiness we introduce (the version of that word that means ‘force’) dancing, close contact, exchanging partners constantly, and really shitass music, not to mention the attempt to keep time and not trip over one’s own feet. I extend the barest credit to the school faculty here, in that square dancing requires little agility and involves nothing too intricate, primarily skipping in time, and most kids have figured this out by that age. But it did involve synchronizing these actions with someone else – everyone else, actually. It also involves memorizing arcane terms and moves, like “do-si-do” and “allaman left” – these may not be the conventional spellings and I’m not going to introduce a web search for the correct ones into my browser history or through the NSA’s filters.

Square dance music is uptempo, certainly much more than a waltz or foxtrot, and it indicates just how badly your plans have gone awry when you see a gymful of kids attempting to maintain this tempo while every bit of body english they can emit is screaming rebellion and distaste. And despite the intentions of the teachers, the social outcasts got this stigma reinforced, even more than gym class always did. Instead of being the last picked for a team or never having the ball passed one’s way, you could now see the obvious reluctance of each partner to make contact, trashing both the timing and the rhythm of the moves, of which everyone else is depending as well. Need I say I was one of those outcasts? Hard as this may be to believe, it was true – I would not lie to you unless it made for a good story…

To this day, I cannot dance, nor do I have any desire to. I find all country and western music to be execrable, but square dance music makes my eye twitch and voices start in my head. Despite the clear benefits of forcing kids to do things they utterly despise and will never use later in life if the remainder of the educational process has had any effect at all, none of us showed any improvement in social skills for years afterward. There might have been some students who actually liked these sessions, only two weeks long if I remember correctly, but they never would have admitted it among the others, rumors and teasing and graffiti and all that.

I found myself, just once, with the opportunity to use any of those moves again after learning them in phys ed, but the barn mysteriously burned to the ground before the dance was over, sometime after I’d left. The only person injured was the guy who called out the moves; the hay in his teeth caught fire and set aflame his straw hat, which would have singed off his hair had he possessed any. So I was told, anyway – as I said, I wasn’t there.

Life is not all spiders and mantids

hazy day in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Something to remind yourself when things start to look bleak. Or maybe I’m the only one that suffers from this narrow focus…


selective focus on raspberriesAnyway, a brief break for the fartsy stuff, since I don’t do art. Some are recent, some not so much – every once in a while I just have to post a string of images without a whole lot of oral background.

When I’m out with students, I don’t shoot a lot, and I generally work light – no macro strobe rig or bracket, and no tripod. If the light is reduced, this means shooting wide open with a large aperture fairly often, so I pick subjects where the short depth-of-field can work the best. Here, two contrasting berries in the same focal plane stand out among the others, but this is a slightly misleading photograph – this was only a small cluster of berries remaining on a bush that had been harvested by birds. As I’ve often said, whatever goes to the edges of the frame goes on forever to the viewer, representing the whole scene – it’s an easy way to provoke a particular mood or idea that works better than the reality. As long as you don’t tell everyone…

pink sky and crescent moon
I confess: this image, taken from the old yard during a cool sunset, had two electrical wires cutting across the bottom, the frustration of scenic photographers everywhere. Easy enough to edit out, though.

overlapping maple leaves with silhouetteI just liked the effect of the backlighting and shadows.

buttercups with short focus

Just a lily pad compositionSometimes it’s more how you take it than what you take. It’s easy enough to get photos of lily pads, but do they look better by taking advantage of the way the light and reflections provide contrast with a rich indigo color, and a little effort in framing? Subtle changes to position and shooting angle can change your images radically, communicating the setting while providing a little eye-catching abstraction. Or maybe not – that’s really up to you, and I’m on the edge of doing that ‘art’ thing where I overexplain what it is you’re seeing.

Way too much dew
The tip of the leaf almost touching the other gave the dew a chance to collect into a bigger drop than normal, bridging the gap. The things you find when you crawl around on damp mornings looking for something interesting.

crepe myrtle flower closeupI don’t recommend tackling high-contrast subjects in bright light conditions, which increase contrast even further – it’s too easy to go outside of the band the camera can capture effectively and start bleaching out the colors or making shadows too harsh. But sometimes it can work.

foggy morning comparison shot
I can’t decide which approach works the best; these were taken with a shift of a meter to so to the side to change the foreground elements, and a slightly different focal length. It doesn’t help that, put alongside one another here, they almost mirror each other.

a section of fallen leavesNot an autumn shot, but a summer one, only a few weeks ago after a heavy wind and rain storm deposited a selection of leaves into a stream. If you’re paying attention to how the light differs in these images, you can see how deep shade can make colors appear differently than in sunlight, and can hopefully use this to your advantage.

And in closing, a tight shot of dew (yes, again) on a dandelion blossom right before seed dispersal, short focus and a patch of direct sunlight from the rear, creating a seriously surreal image from the defocused effects.
surreal dandelion dew
I find it a curious anachronism, actually; one is supposed to keep the focus of attention sharp, because our eyes automatically go towards the sharpest portion of an image (as shown above,) but they also go towards contrast, and in this image, that’s the defocused highlights at lower left. I think our eyes go there first, then seek out the sharper details to try and make sense of what we’re seeing, putting it all in context. At least, that’s what I do…

Missing, presumed protein

katydid nymph under surveillanceSo, I commented not long ago about the almond tree we transplanted, which had been getting savaged by deer at the old place – they would come by every few weeks and strip half the leaves from it, returning when it had recovered. Here at the new house, it had escaped such attentions. For a while.

The Girlfriend opened the front door early one morning to come face-to-face with a young buck standing in the front yard about three meters from the door. By the time I got there it had moved on, so no pics yet, but an examination of the yard showed no damage to the almond tree, though some of the daylilies appeared to have been stripped of blooms.

A few days later, this was pretty much confirmed: something was taking off the blooms overnight, and we have to assume it’s the deer. However, after one such visit, the Chinese mantis that I’ve been following was nowhere to be found, and as of this writing, this remains the case. Deer aren’t really insectivorous in any way, but like any herbivore, whatever happens to be on the plants they seize is not filtered out in any way, and since the lilies were a favorite haunt of the mantis, we’re considering it a casualty of the visiting deer. Mantids are often pretty good about leaping away from danger, but they also count on their camouflage and remaining still, so we suspect this one simply didn’t register its peril in time.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about the mantis while showing a photo of a katydid nymph, it just means you didn’t note the background closely. I’m pleased with how this image came out, just the right amount of extremely subtle menace. The nymph, by the way, escaped – it jumped to a neighboring blossom without notice from the mantis, which continued to watch the same spot for a short while afterward. Here, I was hoping to capture a capture, but it was not to be this time, or perhaps, any time for my former photo subject.

Yet the other day, back on the nearby Japanese maple tree, I found a possible understudy.
Young suspicious mantis on Japanese maple
I consider this a little curious, because this one is less than a third the mass of my previous model. Mantids only create a single egg case per year to my knowledge, which hatches out in the early spring, so I would have presumed this one had hatched at the same time as the other. So, was a radical difference in obtaining food responsible for the size disparity? Or is this even another species, one that hatched later or is significantly smaller than the sizable Chinese mantises? I’m going to keep watching and see what happens.

deer-damaged almond saplingThe almond tree hasn’t fully escaped the attention of the deer. As seen here, it’s gotten cropped just a little in several places, even though the deer seems to greatly favor the lilies; you can still see new green leaves in the background. The tree’s only about a meter tall at this point and not terribly fast growing – we won’t be harvesting our own almonds anytime soon. I’m pretty laissez-faire about what animals get up to – this is how nature works, and I’m not going to improve on it – but the deer are starting to frustrate me. The almond tree was a bit of serendipity, having sprouted spontaneously in our compost pile, but messing with my photographic models is not cool.

Fish in a barrel

I barely have to write anything for this.

There’s a website called LeastHelpful.com, which features product reviews that, uh, leave a bit to be desired. Far too frequently, the religious reviewer provides the strangest and most clueless entries, and many of those are laden with unintended irony. Case in point: this insight into Planet of the Apes by someone nicknamed, “Jesus First”:

This film was and still is a blatant piece of evolutionary propaganda made to push the unproven and unprovable theory of evolution.

In the movie, the apes have taken over and on an evolutionary timescale are just behind 20th century homo-sapiens. Their society has some differences of course, but the religious leaders of this ape-society are portrayed as medieval-like suppressors or scientific truth, with the young and humble seekers of truth only asking for honest answers. This then perpetuates the commonly held myth that the Church of the Medieval West was opposed to truth and would have kept people in the darkness of superstition if it had not been for the heroes of the renaissance and the enlightenment, such as Galileo.

While many comments have run through my head, I don’t need to add anything, do I? Yet there is something extra-special (choose your own definition of “special”) when religious folk try to inform everyone about brainwashing and propaganda. You have noticed that it’s always a ministry of propaganda, right? Even that’s not a big enough cluestick.

And he goes on:

In regards to the theory of evolution itself, if we had this sort of evidence that the movie portrays in support of the theory itself, that would be one thing. But we have no talking apes who build great empires, religious institions to worship their gods, and courts of law to administer justice. No, they just eat, defecate, sleep, fight, procreate and not much else. Well, on the other hand maybe they are signs of intelligence, because that’s all most of the human race seem to do… but I digress. The movie is pure science fiction, through and through.

Ah, look! Evidence is important, everyone! That explains why religion is so full of it…

One more thing I was pondering was the idea of the “Forbidden Zone”. The 60′s saw Western society cross over our own “Forbidden Zone” in regards to sexuality and other mores. Was it a good thing? Well a look at any graph showing anything from increases to STD’s, divorce rates, murder rates, abortion rates, theft rates and so on will show that we had a more religious and God-fearing society and so a safer and more stable society. Some “Forbidden Zones” perhaps did need to be crossed, and the established Church did do some things that were not right, but we have gone too far the other way in reaction against the wrongs of our forefathers. We will have as much (or perhaps more) to answer for to our descendants (but they won’t be apes, don’t worry!).

And a firm knowledge of history, too! Yes, those golden ages of theocracies, with witch hunts and inquisitions and trial-by-torture and regular use of the term, “infidel.” Such a shame we left those behind (except in various countries of the Middle East, where they maintain those core values and everything is milk-and-honey… or something sticky, anyway.) “Jesus First” here is from Ireland, so he knows firsthand how rosy religion makes things.

I wonder if this is that ‘sophisticated theology’ I keep hearing of?

But let’s leave behind the snark for a moment. Undoubtedly, most religious folk that read this post would gripe that I’m picking easy targets or unrepresentative examples, yet there really are a lot of examples like this out there, so many that I’ve been seriously considering starting a new website to highlight all of the ‘happy religious folk’ – since it is a frequent complaint that atheists are so mean, uptight, and strident, it’s important to demonstrate the difference, right? And this one is far from being the most ill-informed or indignant – seriously, some of them combine abysmal stupidity with arrogant self-righteousness to a much higher degree. And we know exactly where both of those traits originate, don’t we? The disinformation campaigns of so many churches are only outstripped by the efforts to emphasize elitism.

Rather than making excuses, maybe it’s a better idea to recognize just how rampant this is, and that, even if any particular church takes pains not to ever stoop to these levels (and I’d really love to see it if they did, believe me,) the impression that the above example fosters is damaging to all. Let’s not forget that one of the most frequented arguments in favor of religion is how many people practice it (as if a god is established by a democratic vote.) People constantly refer to themselves as, “christians,” and not, “first bible reformed pentecostals of the upper east side.” Theologians, of course, usually aim for arguments so vague that even “religion” is being too specific; “spiritual” or “supernatural” is about as far as they manage. And to be sure, it’s certainly not one sect or even one faith that spews stuff like these reviews. There’s no easy distinction to be made, or a sect that distinguishes itself by never producing such ignorance.

As an aside, you might even note that I have provided not just direct quotes, but links back to the source, which I would think is a damn sight better than the frequent blatant misrepresentations and straw man caricatures that appear in a vast number of complaints from the religious over atheism. But then again, I consider honesty to be a commendable trait…

An ignorant rant is an ignorant rant. That they’re so easy to find with religious themes is not something that I’m making up or taking out of context, and whining about the observer isn’t going to fix anything, is it?

And, there’s potentially an even worse effect. Anyone with even a modicum of scientific knowledge recognizes how many utterly wrong statements exist in such diatribes – it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that they’re fostered, promoted, and in most cases outright created by churches. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too keen on associating with such blatant bullshit tactics. And at the same time, these tactics are nearly impossible to find within the realm of science, certainly never producing ignorant rants, while the benefits and real, measurable advances are frequent and obvious. Any church that engages in propaganda tactics is only aiming for the lowest common denominator, and I’ll leave that to be interpreted as desired.

No you can’t

stag beetle Lucanus capreolus caught in webOut the other night in the yard looking for photo subjects, I found a curious bit of drama. A female reddish brown stag beetle (that’s the actual common name, scientifically named Lucanus capreolus) had gotten herself caught in a corner web and was dangling, unable to get a foothold on anything to draw herself free. Stag beetles are among the largest US beetles, certainly the most impressive in NC, this one running 35-40 mm I believe. A few days earlier I had handled one that was perched on our porch screens, attracted by the light at night – don’t pin them down and you won’t get acquainted with those lovely pincers. If you let them walk on your hand, however, those climbing hooks on their feet are hard to avoid, and she managed to get one of her feet hooked fast into my finger and couldn’t extricate herself for a minute – this isn’t exactly painful, but it’s noticeable, and you’re quite aware something is wrong. You’re also aware that grabbing it to help it get free is possibly not the best move. It is entirely possible that the one getting caught on my finger and the one seen here are the same individual; they were found only a few meters apart, a few days apart. You can’t blame it on the light attracting the beetle towards danger, however, because this is probably the darkest corner of the property, day or night, and I found this tableau by flashlight myself.

The owner of the web, probably a common house spider (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) so often found in dark corners, was making a valiant attempt to subdue the beetle, even though the size disparity was comical.

stag beetle with house spider captorThe beetle wasn’t in the mood to be cooperative, so the spider seemed able or confident only in dealing with the extremities; the effectiveness of this was pretty much as you imagine. In fact, the spider probably needed to sharpen her fangs after the attempts.

I was reminded irresistibly of going to a restaurant with a young child and allowing them to order for the first time – the conversation invariably involves something like, “Are you sure you can eat all that?” The answer is always yes; the result is no. I suppose when you have eight eyes that are all bigger than your belly, the effect is magnified.

Another interesting perspective was in evidence as well, since there was a male house spider in the web at the time, which means he was in the process of wooing the female. I know what you’re thinking, but no, the beetle was not a present from an overeager suitor, since the male spider was less than half the size of the female. He was also, chivalry be damned, not doing anything at all to assist her in subduing her statuesque meal. If emotions of any kind can be ascribed to spiders, beyond basic lust I mean, it would have been frustration over having to wait while she tried to figure out what to do about the beetle. There are all sorts of distasteful jokes that I’m avoiding right now, and if you’ve read the slug porn post, you know that this is saying something.
male and female common house spider
The next morning, the beetle was still there and still very much alive, not enveloped in webbing or anything, so I detached it from the web and set it free. The spider was given fair chance, but I saw no point in letting the beetle die from dehydration over a chance event. There are all sorts of ethical questions that can be asked about my actions, and have at it if you like; I don’t find it that important myself.

A few days before that, I’d also tackled another project that’s been in the back of my mind since we moved in. We have a raised porch, and the space underneath is a sheltered, bare earth area good for storing garden implements and such. While moving things in there, I spotted several telltale conical impressions that indicate ant lions, and resolved to do a photo set and post about them.
ant lion myrmeleon pit
Unfortunately, the pits are rather hard to photograph, especially in deep shade where additional light is needed, so this isn’t perhaps illustrating it as well as I’d like. The pits are small, a few centimeters across at best, and perfectly conical; they are also distinctive in that the interiors are all very fine grit or sand, regardless of what the ground surface is like. They are often found sheltered from direct rain and wind. These are the traps of ant lions, actually the larva of a lacewing fly in the genus Myrmeleon. And the way it all operates is fascinating.

First off, the pits are created by the larva digging around just under the surface of loose soil or sand, moving in a circle and using their head to flip the soil out of the way, slowly digging a pit in this manner. The sides are steep and coated with loose material, so that any insect wandering into it will find itself on an unstable slope carrying it down to the bottom of the pit; this is, naturally, where the ant lion waits. Should the insect be capable enough to maintain a footing and possibly even fight upwards, it will get pelted by debris from the same head-flips of the Myrmeleon, likely dislodging it to slide to the bottom. Once in range, the ant lion pokes its formidable chelicerae out and envenoms the victim, making it sluggish and unable to resist within a minute or two. The Myrmeleon larva then draws it underneath the soil and drains it of nutrients, discarding the corpse a few days later.
ant lion Myrmeleon exposed in palm
Here’s a sizable specimen that I unearthed a few years back; if I looked like that I’d stay buried too. They’re quite small, only a few millimeters in length, and harmless to humans. But what I was after was a capture. I waited patiently for some time crouched under the porch, but there were no potential victims to be seen in the area, so I went out looking for one. What I found was probably not the best choice.
assassin bug Pselliopus larva in ant lion Myrmeleon trap
This is an assassin bug larva, probably genus Pselliopus. It’s a little hard to make out, but let me build this a bit. Most times when you see insects with bright, contrasting colors, it’s a warning that they’re distasteful in some way; the coloration and some defensive mechanism work together to make the insect memorable to potential predators. So, the reason that you can’t make out the assassin bug too well is that its legs are largely coated with soil, which occurred soon after it reached the bottom of the pit after I dropped it in. Now I assumed, after examining the pics, that this was due to the defensive mechanism of the bug, some skin secretion that was bad-tasting or perhaps irritating, triggered by the attack of the ant lion. However, I can find no mention of this being a trait of the species.
assassin bug Pselliopus being rejected by ant lion Myrmeleon
Nevertheless, the ant lion seemed to respond appropriately. While the assassin bug struggled feebly, seeming to have already been injected by the ant lion, the ant lion was attempting to fling the victim back out of the pit. If you look closely at the above image, the head and pincers, well out of focus, can be seen underneath the assassin bug – the chelicerae are slightly paler than the surrounding soil, even though the head is a perfect match. I watched for some time, but the ant lion wanted nothing to do with the assassin bug, and I eventually removed it from the pit.
ant lion Myrmeleon reconstructing pit
Thereafter, the ant lion immediately set to work reconstructing the capture pit. Some larger bits of grit and soil had been dislodged, and instead of flipping these out of the way off the top of its head, it seized the ‘boulders’ in its pincers and hurled them away in that manner. Very often, these never cleared the pit rim and rolled right back down again to bounce off the ant lion’s head, and the performance would be repeated with stoic patience; I personally, after the third attempt, would have carried the offending fragment to the top of the pit and slammed it into position well out of the way, but that’s the difference between humans and arthropods. Whether this is a good or a bad thing should probably be judged by some other, neutral species.

Too cool, part 24: Ring species

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne talks about new research that shows that the we no longer have any examples of ring species (which actually means we never did in the first place.) What’s a ring species, you ask? Go ahead, I did myself. Coyne explains it best, and you need to go there to get the full understanding, but in a nutshell, it’s a peculiar classification where a species population may spread around a geographical barrier and meet when they complete the ring surrounding the barrier, but because of the distance covered and time it took for them to do so, the outlying ‘fingers’ that meet again have diverged enough genetically to fail to interbreed, one of the ways we classify speciation in the first place. However, the species can interbreed with the population behind it, and this trait extends back through the population and around the ring to the other ‘finger’ – while each individual can mate with its immediate neighbor, there remains some minor genetic variation between them, and the further the species has spread, the more variation can occur between distant sections of it, to the point where bringing the most distant portions together again may result in genetic incompatibility. In essence, it shows one of the problems with divergence and when to consider something a separate species.

It highlights something often missed: we make up words to help us communicate things, but sometimes the concept we want to communicate doesn’t have the clear distinctions that we want them to have. Many people believe that ‘species’ has a firm definition, and moreover, an easy way to tell one from another. This is not at all the case. After using the word/concept for centuries, we found that living things just cannot be separated so distinctly. Even with the working definition that we’ve adopted, the concept of a ring species defied it – it represented a continuum of reproduction with a speciation barrier at the far ends.

The fact that it is not shown to exist does not solve the problem, either; it demonstrates how we cannot have a definition that holds for all circumstances. It’s not much of a stumbling block – those in the field and many outside know the issues, and it only presents a problem in a few cases. Sometimes, this is when someone is trying to determine whether or not a new name is necessary.

It is a good example of correction, though, and Coyne puts it succinctly when he talks about the removal of the greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) from the examples of potential ring species – the last one on the list, by the way:

But nature is nature, and what happened is what happened.

That’s science, and moreover the practical frame of mind that it engenders – make the correction, accept the results, and move on. All of it is useful information and adds to our knowledge base, so the only thing lost is the emotional desire anyone might have had to know a species defined a particular trait – it’s strictly personal, in other words. From time to time, one hears arguments (I’ll let you guess from what subset of our population) that science changes all the time, as if this is a detriment. But science is actually very good at correcting itself, or to be more accurate, the structure serves to help us gain a more precise understanding of our world, realizing that we’ve never been perfect and neither is knowledge, and improvement is a good thing. Which would you rather have: a system that can correct its mistakes and improve constantly, or one that ignores all flaws and believes that never admitting to gross, blatant errors somehow means they don’t exist?

There are skeptics, and then there are skeptics

Reading an old post, it occurred to me that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about skepticism, enough so that perhaps it could stand a bit of clarification as to where it comes from, and why at least some people find it to be useful. In many circles – circles that spend a lot of time discussing ghost stories, or UFO encounters, or miracles, and so on – ‘skeptic’ is taken to mean ‘cynic’ or ‘disbeliever.’ There, the term is pretty much an epithet, derisive – not respectful, certainly. Very often, one can see any variation of phrases such as, “You just don’t want to believe,” or, “You don’t trust anybody.” Both of these are actually rather telling in themselves, and we’ll get to them in due time. First, let’s consider what skepticism, as a dedicated pursuit (rather than a description of attitude) really means, and why anyone would pursue it.

In short, it’s the bare recognition of how often, and in how many ways, we as a species can be wrong, and the best ways to try and prevent it. Our knowledge is imperfect, our senses limited, our interpretations too selective. On top of that, we are inundated with scams, hoaxes, agendas, and skewed viewpoints from those around us, so of course avoiding these really needs no rational support.

But on top of that there’s one other, crucial factor, a difference that is probably responsible for more of the clash than anything else. Some topics we have an emotional investment in; they make us feel better, or provoke a sense of wonder, or somehow substantiate something within us. Other topics we treat as functional, providing something of benefit to us as a species, topics that can predict, or lead to further knowledge. Our taste in music is emotional – it’s safe to say that we’re never going to use it to cure cancer or rid the world of blister packaging – while our interests in fuel efficiency are to solve a serious problem. While we still may have an emotional investment in such topics, they are typically ruled by practical considerations. It’s probably safe to say that neither approach is very distinct, with plenty of overlap, but the difference is best characterized by a much heavier emphasis on, for instance, the practical over the emotional.

Note that the poster in Fox Mulder's office, from The X-Files, does not say, "I believe" - this is quite possibly intentional. Amusingly, this subtle difference has been repeated wholesale by countless UFO proponents. Image © Alistair McMillan, cropped for this usage, licensed under Creative Commons.

Note that the poster in Fox Mulder’s office, from The X-Files, does not say, “I believe” – this is quite possibly intentional. Interestingly, this subtle difference has been repeated wholesale by countless UFO proponents.
Image © Alistair McMillan, cropped for this usage, licensed under Creative Commons.

In most subjects where the clash between believer and skeptic can be seen, this difference in outlook is often very prominent. Within emotionally important topics, the efforts are often to ‘open the door’ for possibilities, claiming that science hasn’t ruled them out, and that people should keep an open mind. There remains a lot of weight given to evidence, but not comparatively; conflicting evidence is often ignored or minimized, while hearsay accounts that support the topic are given significant weight. Skepticism, however, takes a more practical approach, trying to determine if the topic has usefulness or measurable effect. Note that this is in direct contrast to a cynical approach, which really is to dismiss topics out-of-hand, likely for emotional reasons – both can, naturally, fall on the same side of the topic of ghosts, but should not be confused; cynics also don’t weigh evidence comparatively.

[The amusing bit is, skeptics are very frequently accused of taking the same emotionally-biased approach that is used by believers, only on the opposite side of the topic - there remains the inner recognition that it's possible to be influenced by emotions, yet it is virtually never considered for oneself in such cases. I also want to emphasize that 'sides' is a bit misleading, since topics should never be broken into binary, yes/no possibilities, but I use it here just to simplify - the paragraph would get unwieldy otherwise.]

I wish to express clearly that there is nothing wrong with favoring a topic for emotional reasons – it does not necessarily represent a flawed personality or irrational approach. But if we wish to convince others that some topic deserves closer inspection or is strong evidence in some manner, we should expect to encounter the skeptical approach, and be willing to demonstrate that our interests are not strictly personal.

Given all of that, what constitutes the skeptical approach? There are lots of little factors, but those listed below are probably the most common and overriding ones.

Accuracy – Determining the accuracy of any given account, statement, measurement, or other evidence is important, crucial to a firm understanding of what we’re dealing with. This especially applies to personal accounts and observations, since people are notoriously bad about estimations, details, and emotional bias. There is a marked difference between the raw information we obtain through our senses, and how we interpret it.

Alternative explanations – It is often easy to find some potential explanation for any given event or evidence… but is it the only explanation? In most cases, there can be myriad causes, and remaining blind to them is only a method of introducing bias. If we’re seeking a full understanding of something, trying to ferret out what really happened, then it’s important to recognize how many options there truly are. This goes hand-in-hand with…

Probability – It’s not enough to know a list of options; it’s also important to know how likely any of them might be. Treating them all as if they had an equal likelihood is ludicrous. In many cases, probability remains our only guideline towards understanding.

Consequence – Simply put, “If this explanation is true, it should have these effects.” In order for someone’s death to be considered an assassination by conspirators, there would have to be adequate motive and means to both commit the murder and disguise the intent. If Bigfoot exists, we should expect to see more evidence as time goes on and urban development reduces the number of hiding places. Explanations do not sit in a vacuum; they impact everything around them.

Perspective – Cows missing tongues and rectums certainly seems mysterious, but this is hardly any support towards extra-terrestrial visitation; even if such beings wanted tissue samples, why not keep the whole cow? Why not dispose of the remains effectively? What the hell is a cow tongue going to tell anyone? These questions usually go unasked, since it is a cultural meme that aliens collect cow tongues (as well as various other bizarre activities) – curiously, we somehow know this specific behavior even while not knowing where they’re from, what they eat, how they travel, or even having proven ET life in the first place. The ability to ignore the cultural emphasis or ready explanation to ask, “But does that work in any way?” is a useful trait.

Avoiding the trap of ‘common knowledge’ – As indicated above, there are a lot of bits of folklore around, as well as numerous things that we ‘know’ because they’re what everyone believes. All too often, these haven’t been established in any way and are, at best, assumptions – check out what’s so damaging about gluten, as an example (hint: nothing if you’re not allergic to it.) Many people believe that if they’ve heard a story enough times, that makes it trustworthy, but popularity doesn’t equate with verisimilitude.

Awareness of ‘false relation’ – Not everything can be considered evidence, and often, items are conflated together when they bear no relation whatsoever. While a light in the sky and a radar track can be considered corroborative, this should be only if they are in the same location and behave in a reasonably similar manner – it’s not, after all, hard to find a light in the night sky. The desire to support a hypothesis leads to finding anything at all to add to a list of evidence, but evidence should be distinctive; if it’s ambiguous, is it even useful?

And finally,

The evidence leads to the conclusion – and not the other way around. Anyone whose mind is made up ahead of time, who is looking to confirm their suspicions, who seeks only supporting evidence, is obviously working from an overriding bias. Skepticism requires no investment in the answer, no interest in being proven ‘right’ – if a conclusion is to be found (and this is not always the case,) then it comes from the preponderance of evidence, and not from wishing it to be true. Note that, on most of the topics that benefit from skepticism, what is being examined is whether the claim for extraordinary phenomena – conspiracies, ghosts, aliens, gods, psychic powers – has been adequately supported; if not, the answer remains null. Not that psychic powers has been disproven, but only that no one has yet provided proof. This mistake is made constantly. Also constant is the idea that, with no proven scientific explanation, some extraordinary one can be accepted by default – the religious are notorious for this one, but there can be nothing that is determined by a lack of evidence either way. Every proposal requires positive proof (this is called logic.)

So, as an exercise, let’s see how these apply to a typical subject: The JFK assassination. This is admittedly a superficial treatment, but shows how these factors work towards the interpretation of evidence; they can be applied to all other traits named in any conspiracy, and further, in any other mystical, paranormal, or even curious account.

While there are literally hundreds of different theories pointing to a conspiracy, this is actually a red flag rather than a ‘smoking gun’: How come there are so many different ones, and why can’t they come to agreement? While plenty of people seem confident in their evidence, there’s no consensus on what it’s evidence of [Accuracy, Consequence, Perspective, Common Knowledge.] Virtually everybody traces back to one simple factor: the Zapruder film showing Kennedy’s head snapping back and to the left – Oliver Stone made a very big deal of this in his movie, perhaps without ever realizing that it was the only thing that anyone could agree on, and it solely relies on the belief that, in order to occur, the force had to come from the front right [Accuracy, Common Knowledge.] Ballistics experts, as well as those who have seen active combat, disagree entirely, and even a basic knowledge of physics and gunshot wounds tell us differently, despite what movies portray: the force did not come from the initial impact of the high-speed bullet, but from the shockwave of its passage through the brain as well as, potentially, muscle reflex. Get rid of this, of course, and the agreed-upon evidence of a conspiracy collapses in shambles.

That’s far from being the only evidence ever quoted, but it’s the only distinctive one. It was what prompted millions of armchair detectives to try and find supporting factors, such as the ‘puff of smoke’ from the grassy knoll seen in the photograph, which no one can see unless they’re desperate [Accuracy, Alternative Explanations,] and the ‘doctored’ photograph of Oswald posing with the gun in his backyard while there are order receipts, multiple photos, testimony from acquaintances, and even the admission of his goddamn wife that he owned the fucking thing [Accuracy, Probability,] the ‘impossible’ trajectory of the bullet that injured Connally that is explained by his sitting position and deflection from bones, that no one has demonstrated how it could be otherwise [Alternative Explanation, Probability, Consequence, False Relation,] and of course, the number of people with motives and apparently huge resources at their disposal who somehow didn’t recognize that the President does not wield autonomous power and so assassination would not permit an abrupt change of power or policy [Alternative Explanation, Probability, Consequence.] I could go on for hours (for a more amusing commentary, click here.)

The point is, any one account, any book, any ‘special’ television program, can sound convincing if we accept them without the understanding that they can be inaccurate, in countless ways. But there’s a lot of money to be made from promoting conspiracy theories, and humans are somewhat prone to believing them. Viewed with the idea that they might, just might, be bullshit, the flaws can become readily apparent. The bullet that fell out of Connally’s leg in the hospital – that’s surely atypical! True, but how does it even remotely support a conspiracy? The conspiracy claim is that he sustained his injuries from multiple bullets, converging from several different angles. So, the ‘planted’ bullet was all the doctors and the Warren Commission used to establish the single bullet theory? The fatal bullet was never found, but no one suspects Kennedy was killed by a ghost. The desperation to find evidence to support a conspiracy is obvious, especially when the scenario of how such evidence fits together is somehow routinely neglected.

Interestingly, it shows how probability is only considered when it’s useful. The highly improbable event of the bullet simply falling out is evidence that someone planted it, but all of the other highly improbable aspects are routinely ignored. It’s more improbable, however, that someone somehow planted the bullet, knowing that a) it explained the nature of wounds no one could possibly have any knowledge of, so quickly after the event; b) both the doctors and the Warren Commission would be fooled by it; and c) someone was handy and had the damn thing in their possession to plant in the first place. The bias is obvious, and it can be found in nearly every aspect of any JFK conspiracy. Compare all of these, of course, against the idea that a disgruntled, hotheaded, trained marksman acted alone from the very place that he worked. This is how probability is usefully applied.

Occam’s Razor is often mentioned here, but it is actually of limited use, at least in its popular form. It is only an expression of probability, not a law unto itself. It’s even subject to interpretation. Given the myriad bits of evidence often seized upon by UFO proponents (in denial of the ‘false relation’ tool,) claiming that all of it is explained by an extra-terrestrial visitor seems to easily, simply, fit the bill. This is the appeal of the conspiracy theory as well, but it ignores two things. The first is, the ‘evidence’ was chosen precisely because it fits the scenario, often with the dismissal of anything else that contradicts it. The second is, there is nothing simple about extra-terrestrial life; the number of questions that can be raised about it is vast, as is the amount of information we would need to confidently establish it as proven. While I have personally encountered many people who assure me that we have more than adequate proof of life beyond this planet, no one has ever answered my questions of, “Where is it from?” and, “Does it have DNA, or perhaps an analog?” Many conspiracies rely on suppositions that would require more and more complication – “we don’t have evidence of that because the government is suppressing it” – which bears no evidence at all, and usually begins to extend the hypothesis to involving hundreds or thousands of people and a vast structure of deceit, all without any indication whatsoever. It becomes a wanton abuse of probability, almost always just to explain why their initial ‘evidence’ has none of the support we’d expect to see.

Carl Sagan was probably not the first to express the thought (but he certainly popularized it) of, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This underscores a mistake made very frequently: it is not up to anyone to disprove any given explanation; the burden is on those espousing it to demonstrate that it is likely, or fits the evidence best. I’ve said it before; the idea is not to concoct the plot of a novel, but to determine the most plausible set of events. The idea of a prehistoric or wildly anomalous freshwater creature living in a lake in Scotland is a great story, but just saying, “Maybe it got trapped in there during the glaciation many thousands of years ago,” isn’t really cutting it; how come this never happened anywhere else? How did it last for all these years? What does it eat, how does it reproduce, do you realize that many species in small populations all over the world go extinct constantly because small populations are unstable? Can we even find the evidence of the peculiar event that trapped it, since it’s pretty clear such events leave gobs of evidence behind?

There’s even a telling shortcut that I use all the time. It’s been well established that hoaxes and misinterpretations abound in the topics of ghosts and UFOs; anyone unaware of this is far too ignorant to bother with. Thus, it makes sense that the very first thing any investigator, reporter, or enthusiast should do is to try and rule these things out before going any further at all. For UFOs, did they check the astronomical reports, and the list of satellites and rockets boosters that would be visible at that time? For ghosts, did they check for a history of belief, or pay attention to how the witness was trying to market the story? Most times, you’ll see none of this, or any other efforts; the emphasis is on trusting the story, right from the start. In such cases I consider it safe to assume that no skeptical approach is being taken, and ignore the remainder of the ‘investigation’ – they’re not going to produce dependable evidence or conclusions.

Also useful is the ‘case for the prosecution’ angle: those promoting any scenario should be obligated to establish their case as if it’s being heard in court (the response to this has not been warm and open, I can tell you.) If their evidence is as solid as they claim, this should be easy, but typically, the evidence is unsubstantiated, hearsay, speculation, and excuses (see government suppression, above.) Our court system and standards of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ are there for a reason: if there isn’t really good evidence, the conclusion isn’t sound.

That’s a hint of how often the skeptical approach is used in areas other than UFOs and paranormal research and debunking religion. Police departments know to separate witnesses and compare their stories for discrepancies, and seek corroboration of all personal accounts. Scientific journals rely on experiments that not only test a conclusion, but actively rule out all other conclusions at the same time – and then, it’s up to other scientists to replicate the experiments, to eliminate the possibility of bias or mistakes or jumping the gun. Even with a healthy history of success and experience, the researcher does not expect to be taken at their word, but provides distinct measurements and references to other papers, tracing their way back to visible results rather than relying on mere testimony; you will never hear of the “reputable researcher” within journals, since that assumption is purposefully avoided as corrupt. Wikipedia does the same, to a fault [citation needed.] As Joe Friday said, “Just the facts.”

It’s another reflection of the difference in approach. Relying on ‘trust,’ believing eyewitness accounts, or failing to consider how wrong something might be is an emotional approach; very often it is openly expressed that it is cruel or cynical not to extend this trust. Yet, there are far too many ways for humans to be wrong, including being untrustworthy, that extending such trust automatically is naïve and impractical. It is not a judgment on the individual, but a knowledge of humans in general (and thus not to be taken personally, though it often is anyway.)

Nearly everyone places value in truth; no matter how pleasant some belief might be, if it’s false, it’s not really useful – that’s fantasy, or denialism, or even mental instability. But the desire for something to be true can have a radical effect on how we approach certain topics, skewing perspective and weighing factors unjustifiably. Skepticism is the recognition of this bias, and the attempt to eradicate it. No one can be said to be a perfect Skeptic – we all have biases of one kind or another, so it’s really just an approach, a method to ensure that what we’re seeing is the truth, as close as we can determine… and sometimes we need to remind ourselves to use it. It’s not foolproof, either, but remains the best method we’ve ever used to determine how our world really works.

*     *     *     *     *

While this was in late draft form, I came across this article by Sasha Sagan, the daughter of Carl Sagan; the first half, at least, expresses the skeptical approach quite aptly. Check it out! (It’s much shorter than my post above.) Also, the special attitudes displayed by many of those who seize onto conspiracies and paranormal explanations is examined in this post, as a counterpoint.

* * * * *

P.P.P [In the old days of letter-writing, "P.S." stood for "post script," meaning after the main body of the letter, and if you thought of something after that, it was a "post post script" - of course, this is a post post post] – I was just about to publish this when I found this article on Cracked.com addressing conspiracy theories. Just to make me look bad, note the image they used on page 2. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Cracked for the meticulous accuracy of their articles, but quite often they provide a lot of links sourcing their information, like this article on the NY Times site regarding the mindset of conspiracy theorists. It is admittedly a bit disturbing seeing how well I fit the profile, and of course leads to introspective consideration that my skepticism is another form of ‘taking control’ – I’ll leave you to speculate on whether it’s a legitimate method or not. The most telling trait that I’ve seen among conspiracy theorists, though, is the lack of response, action, or follow-through; while there are a lot of people who are quite confident that they know there’s something nasty going on behind our backs, not once have I ever found anyone that had any idea what to do about it – there’s no apparent interest in correcting it.

So, spiders

wolf spider Lycosidae
And so, we rejoin our hero in his further adventures of spider encounters and arachnophobia…

When I did the detailed portraits of a largish wolf spider (family Lycosidae) a few days back, I released it under the porch steps and vowed to keep an eye open. Accommodatingly, the spider assisted this endeavor by molting sometime in the next 12 hours or so, leaving behind the old exoskeleton almost exactly where it had disappeared from my sight. About a day after that, casually, I started looking around under the steps to see if, by any chance, I could spot it again, and found it perched only centimeters away from the exoskeleton, almost in plain sight. This was an open invitation as far as I’m concerned.

I went in and got the ringflash, the most dependable way to try and elicit a reflection from the eyes while close enough for detail. It takes a very narrow angle between light and receiver, which is usually your eyes, but in this case the camera lens. What typically happens is, you can spot a reflection at night from a moderate distance if a bright flashlight is held close to your eyes, but the reflection will vanish as you get closer. While I have had some success with the ringflash (a circular flashtube that goes around the lens itself,) at macro distances even this tiny difference between light and receiver is enough to eliminate the reflection. I got the barest evidence of it, but nothing that showed as distinctly as I would have liked.

[Someday I will try a different trick, which is to set up a piece of glass angled at 45°, right in front of the lens so I am shooting through it, and fire off a flash unit aimed at the glass, perpendicular to the lens. This will bounce the light on a path directly from the lens, and may produce the effect I'm after. This will be a fussy rig to construct, however, and for very limited uses, so it hasn't happened yet...]

After doing the establishing shot above, I decided to attempt what I had skipped over the previous time, which was to have the spider walk across my palm, and preferably get a shot of it perched there. This has four purposes: to show scale, to creep people out, to demonstrate the harmlessness of wolf spiders, and to help me get over my lingering arachnophobia. It’s something I’ve had since childhood, and I think irrational fears should be eliminated, so I’ve been working casually towards this end, not always effectively. So, adjusting the camera settings and focus for my palm, I set it down nearby, put my hand palm-up next to the spider, and started nudging it in that direction.

We pause here for dramatic effect, while I relate the size of the spider. Using methods soon to be revealed, I determined that the spider was about 25mm (1 inch) in body length, which puts the leg spread over 100mm (4 inches) – I’ve seen bigger, but you have to admit it’s impressive nonetheless. The spider was already a little concerned over the various angles and close approaches from the various photos I’d already taken, but had remained motionless, relying on its camouflage. As my fingers touched it, however, it was made aware that its cover was blown, and instead of nicely, calmly, walking onto my hand in a casual and nonthreatening manner, it scrambled across at quite high speed. The ‘conquering irrational fears’ thing only goes so far, and I flinched sharply, causing the spider to launch itself on a dragline off of my hand and down to my feet. There, I was fine with it, and was even embarrassed with myself for flinching, but I can attest personally that, no matter what the rational mind wants to say, the place where the phobias lie still has the first word.

It really is peculiar. I know the bite of a wolf spider is harmless, far less than a bee’s sting, and I’ve been stung by those too many times to care much. But the spider thing still makes me react. A few days later, I coaxed a stag beetle onto my hand to show The Girlfriend, despite the prominent pincers plainly visible, and didn’t have the slightest issue with it. Spiders just don’t move right, and have too (two) many legs. So I’m sympathetic towards phobias, to a limited extent – at the point where people feel they have to kill every spider (or snake) they see is the point where they’re letting the phobia dictate actions beyond the reflexive; It’s useful to remind oneself that this is an irrational fear, and not a justification.

Anyway, after this failed therapy, I gathered in the molted exoskeleton for some detail shots. It was interesting to note that the exoskeleton over the abdomen has shriveled up into a twisted thread, making the remains look much less significant – here’s a scale shot on a penny:
wolf spider Lycosidae molted exoskeleton with penny for scale
Not terribly impressive there, is it? Note how the ‘skullcap’ upper half of the cephalothorax has separated from the chelicerae and pedipalps seen in the center – that’s typical of this species, and indeed, many arthropods including some crabs. Others, like mantids, split longitudinally down the ‘spine.’ But since I hadn’t brought out the calipers for the live specimen, I was able to measure the molted cephalothorax, and use that (and a photo of a ruler superimposed on the fullbody image above) to determine the body length overall. To be honest, the spider was even bigger, since they always emerge larger than the molted skin, but we’ll go with the measurements I gave anyway.

wolf spider Lycosidae chelicerae fangsYou might remember these from the earlier post – they are, of course the fangs (chelicerae.) Curiously, every species where I’ve been able to see these, regardless of the coloration on the body, displays this same deep reddish-brown hue. I know I’m not helping anyone’s own arachnophobia by posting these so prominently, but they’re cool anyway – you can see just how small they are in the previous pic. For many a bug, this is the last thing they saw – well, okay, considering the compound eyes, it would be this, and the ground, and the sky, and the plant they were on, and the zit on their back…

A few days later, while watering the front garden where the mantis lives late at night, I scared up another wolf spider, much smaller than the first subject, but special in her own way. Even from a distance, the shape of the abdomen looked suspicious, and bringing out the penlight I always carry (you’d be amazed how often it’s useful when you always have it on hand,) I confirmed my suspicions: she was carrying her brood on her abdomen, as wolf spiders tend to do.
wolf spider Lycosidae carrying young
Aren’t they just adorable? Their cute teeny-weeny wittle legs, and those button eyes – yeah, I know, you can’t really see the eyes, since the young have the instinct to keep their heads pointed inwards and bunch their legs up as protective armor.

baby juvenile wolf spider Lycosidae portraitExcept for this one. Brazenly exposed up on top of the stack, it takes advantage of the best view and the freshest air, perhaps serving as lookout or hall monitor, or maybe some purpose akin to the guy who drives the back end of the hook-n-ladder truck (didn’t you always want to do that? Whaddya mean, “The what?” Just how young are you?)

I have wanted to do some detail shots of young ones like this all by themselves, but that would entail separating them from their mother – while the cruelty aspect has a little to do with my hesitation, it’s much more that I’m not sure I could do it without injuring them (since I doubt there’s really any emotional trauma that could occur – extending what we would feel to arthropods is not exactly sciencey.) There are two things that I’m curious about when seeing this, by the way. The first is wondering just how long they remain with momma before venturing out on their own, or even whether they hang on until she dies – it’s not uncommon for adults to pass on after reproducing, and likely happened to the green lynx spiders I watched last year. Second, I wonder if, and how, they feed when riding piggyback. The mother might be able to snag an insect and offer it to them, but she certainly isn’t going to feed them any other way, and I suspect they’re just on their own in that department. So what does riding with mamma do? Is it only protection for a few days?

Oh, you want another baby pic? Okay.
baby wolf spider Lycosidae up close
Notice how nobody’s eyes are visible, and the legs are bunched up tightly to shield their bodies. I’m a little surprised the abdomens are left so open, though.

No, we’re not done yet.

The yard plays home to a lot of this species, known as orchard orbweavers (Leucauge venusta.) They’re small, only about 10mm in body length, and generally unobtrusive. This couple was a-courtin’ on the same chive plants that I posed the wolf spider on earlier.
orchard orbweaver spiders Leucauge venusta courtship
The male is on the left, the female on the right – I only know this because I could see the difference in pedipalps; the coloration is variable and likely not an indication at all. While in many species the female is significantly larger than the male, in this one (and the wolf spiders) the difference is minimal. Following a successful mating (which is always an iffy thing,) the female’s abdomen will swell with eggs before she deposits them in an egg sac. Now, there was no evidence of this to be seen on the chive plants, but alongside the front door where I watched another courtship take place, the female produced an egg sac pretty quickly.
basilica orbweaver spider Mecynogea lemniscata with egg sac
I had intially believed this to be another orchard orbweaver, but a closer look at that color pattern showed that they didn’t match, and I started searching through BugGuide.net. Having no luck, I finally uploaded some pics. In six minutes, I received a reply – you gotta appreciate that. So what you’re seeing here is a basilica orbweaver (Mecynogea lemniscata,) same size, same habitat as the orchard orbweaver, but more distantly related than you might imagine, coming from different families – this one, in fact, is more closely related to the long-jawed orbweavers (first post, second post) than to the species above. I’m very pleased with this image, by the way. Not only did I get that dorsal coloration in great detail, I got the egg sac in the same sharp focus, which took an awkward angle aiming up from underneath. And one more thing, too:
basilica orbweaver spider Mecynogea lemniscata dorsal detail
Aside from the ‘shroud of Turin’ abdomen, those are two of the eyes you see reflecting from the head – somehow the flash (well off to the side on a macro bracket) hit the right angle to bounce back to the lens. Likely, this was helped by the softbox, which provided a broad light source overhead. Once again, the body length is 10mm, so you can judge for yourself how small the details are.

The egg sac of the black widow that I was watching some time back never did produce any young, nor did a second one created by the same spider, who stayed behind at the old place (for reasons unknown, I was forbidden to bring her along.) Maybe I’ll have better luck with this one.

But how? Part 15: Benefit

In earlier posts I have tackled, I think, all of the aspects about to appear within this one, but I think it’s worth having them here in one collection, under a heading which makes it easier to find. On top of that, the argument is a common one, and probably cannot be answered often enough. Sooner or later, every atheist is challenged to address all of the benefits of religion that we must do without if we had a completely secular society, so let’s take a close look at these benefits.

The first thing we need to consider is that ‘benefit’ can be construed a lot of different ways, which I’m going to break down into just three for the sake of simplicity, and to ensure that the distinction is clear. There’s personal benefit, which doesn’t extend past the individual; there’s social benefit, which provides a general improvement to a group, town, or culture; and then there’s overriding benefit, which is as close to universal as anything might be, crossing cultural and racial and national boundaries. Few topics can actually fit into this latter one – even vaccines depend on both an economic structure that makes them viable for a populace, and the ability to both distribute them and ensure enough participation to achieve group immunity. These distinctions are important, since very frequently, the benefits of religion are treated as if they are an overriding benefit when they can barely be considered a personal one.

Another distinction that needs to be examined is if the benefit is actually demonstrable, rather than nothing but hearsay and supposition. For instance, probably the most prevalent claim in regards to the topic is how, without religion, we would be anti-social, nihilistic, and outright evil – a ridiculous number of people even seem to believe that atheism equates with satanism. Yet the actual evidence for this descent into savagery is completely lacking, while numerous contra-indicators lend more than a little weight to exactly the opposite effect; secular societies tend to be more social and cohesive, and certainly not completely chaotic. So any claims for benefits should be more than just assertions, but backed with solid evidence – this shouldn’t be hard to find, should it?

Let’s take a look at more of the most common claims of benefit:

Religion is a force for peace – For this to even be plausible, we should expect two things: that deeply religious societies have a lower percentage of conflict, crime, and social corruption than others; and religious motivations and/or connections to warfare be significantly lower than other motivations. Any knowledge of either history or current world events render both of these ludicrous. From Europe’s long bloody history with the catholic/protestant schism to the current clash of shia and sunni muslims throughout the Middle East and beyond, the US’s religious justifications of slavery and racism to the righteousness of the Conquistadors, religion is instead deeply intertwined with violence and oppression. This is no surprise at all from a sociological standpoint; privilege and righteousness frequently lead to abuse. In fact, an indefensible claim of superiority, one that cannot be demonstrated in any way, quite possibly leads to more conflict: the bully whose superiority is questioned resorts to physical violence. If you think this is an inappropriate argument and not practiced by adults, go look at the news regarding the Middle East for a week.

It has been claimed that the presence of religion has actually served to temper the potential violence – without its influence, the situations would have been much worse. It’s a possibility that certainly deserves examination, but again, just raising the possibility is not in any way establishing the viability – the real work hasn’t even begun. If the claim were true, we should expect to see the manifestations of religion within conflicts to be, you know, peaceful, or restraining, or at least urging a more civilized discourse, yet this is exceptionally hard to find. Even in situations where economics or classism are surely major factors of the conflict, the appearance of religion within is easily seen as justification and motivation, rather than palliative. And of course, we cannot ignore such prominent bits of history like the Crusades and Inquisition, which are directly defined by their religious influence. Even if we could establish that they were motivated more by power or greed (and no one has effectively made this case at all,) it is clear that the purpose of religion within was not to slow things down – quite the opposite, in fact.

Religion builds communities and social cohesion – I suspect, whenever anyone makes this claim, they are imagining Amish barn-building parties and not a different church at every third crossroads and, um, all that shit above. But yes, indeed, churches do maintain a certain level of community, certainly more than the average suburban neighborhood in the US, and they do lend themselves to generating cohesive goals, or at least ideas. And this is good – as long as the goals or ideas are beneficial. It is usually assumed that they are, but the evidence proves this inaccurate far too much of the time. Legislation against same-sex marriage, or regarding ‘teaching the controversy’ in schools, or even the nonsense idea of ‘abstinence-only education,’ all comes from these same communities, to say nothing of cults, extremism, and similar manifestations – “community” does not automatically imply, “progressive.”

And far too often, the community is rather small anyway – yielding a few dozen to a few hundred people, separated from numerous other ‘communities’ of baptists, catholics, muslims, buddhists, and so on, all just down the street. It all depends on what you’re using as a comparison, doesn’t it? While any church might be better than a village full of individualistic families with no common goals, it’s much worse that a community that encompasses the entire village itself, drawing no dividing lines between personal ideologies. There are not the vast number of splinter sects among every major religion because of how much it fosters community.

Moreover, can churches even be said to build, foster, or encourage community, or are they simply taking advantage of the human trait towards this in the first place? There are millions of communities, from Facebook groups to book clubs, Mensa to the NRA – it’s not like mankind would be made up of hermits without the influence of religion.

Religions promote charity – Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I do not, in any way, consider money or efforts spent towards self-perpetuation and promotion of the church itself to qualify as ‘charity,’ any more than I consider it as such when practiced by any major corporation; again, believing that “church equals good” or “church equals charitable” is an unwarranted assumption. Can we agree on that? I hope so, but if not, think of it in the context of a church other than your own. Now, removing all of that from the equation, how much do religions really provide towards charity?

Chances are, you don’t know – very few people, outside of those doing church bookkeeping, have any idea, really. But if I ever run across a community where the church buildings are more run-down than every other house, I’ll let you know – don’t wait up nights for it. While the days where the churches and temples were the most elaborate structures in the city are largely past, it can’t be denied that they are usually expensive and well-maintained structures, to say nothing about the megachurches, teleministries, and even colleges, all built on the donations of the followers. So you tell me: are their contributions to worthy, charitable causes exceeding the amounts spent on church buildings (and priest housing, and travel expenses) by a factor of ten? Even five? I’m curious, myself, because the contributions are continually sought under the assurance that they are used for good causes…

While all this is going on, countless charitable organizations are plugging away, using minimal funds to maintain core functions while channeling most of their contributions towards the areas that need it more. Have you ever seen a stylish and elaborate Red Cross building? Wouldn’t it make you suspicious if you did?

Then we have to consider that, in an awful lot of cases, the ‘charitable’ efforts of religions are thin disguises for recruitment, and even early indoctrination. Let’s think about something for a moment: religion, by and large, is a nuanced thing, dealing with ethics and social structure and, basically, mature decisions. While we have a minimum voting age, there is apparently no minimum age for religious instruction, even though (as can be attested by virtually anyone who’s been through it) young children are not going to grasp even a tiny portion of what it is supposed to provide. The point isn’t to build core ethical values, and you’ll never see churches teaching comparative religions (at least not honestly) – the point is to hammer the ideas home very early, in the formative years, to try and establish the ridiculous stories and bizarre ideas as ‘normal.’ And that dig about ‘honesty’ above isn’t a cheap jab – the misinformation spread by churches and religious groups is rampant, concerted, planned, and intentional. Are you sure that ‘day care center’ is solely concerned with helping the young mother with her children? If a parent requested that no religious viewpoints be expressed to their child during this care, do you believe that will be respected, or even that the ‘charity’ will not be withdrawn at that point?

The same can be said for the various programs and clinics aimed at adults, as well – it’s an extremely common tactic to target the disadvantaged and down-on-their-luck, leveraging their vulnerability to try and convince them of the love of the church. That’s fine, really, but when there are strings attached, we’re not really hitting the definition of charity, are we? Alcoholism programs that require religious services, financial counseling that continually promotes a faith in god? Are these necessary, or even germane? And how many of these come from the same parishioners who fret and babble about the ‘secular agenda’ of teaching evolution and permitting abortions? But I suppose manipulation is okay, as along as it’s the right kind of manipulation…

[A quick aside: In the neighborhood we just left, I routinely received visits from a near-homeless guy, living on welfare and scrimping for money to get by. At christmas, he was given a rather elaborate bible by some religious soul, obviously warmed by their own largesse. Not, apparently, by their sense, since he was illiterate and couldn't read at all - I'm sure he would have benefited more from just a decent meal. His few bills, by the way, were paid by the state, not any of the umpteen churches in the area...]

Crediting the churches with their charity efforts, even if no self-serving aspects are to be seen, still remains a bit selective, considering how many other charitable organizations exist – it’s not like religion has a monopoly on the practice. On the rather frivolous website theChive, content is primarily reposted or solicited humor, trivia, and cheesecake photos – but when they hold a charity drive (which is often,) the results are astounding. There is no appeal to salvation, status, moral responsibility, or really, anything at all except the background of those in need, and the bare challenge to meet/break the goal – and invariably, they achieve this within hours. No one needs the input of religion to be charitable. And, it deserves to be said in recognition of the previous claimed benefit, theChive’s web ‘community’ is undoubtedly larger than 95% of the churches in the world…

Religions offer moral and emotional support – Hard as it may be to believe, I find this a noble practice; everyone, at one time or another, just needs a little social interaction and support, even when it doesn’t actually change their situation at all. Our own mental perspectives have a lot to do with how well we cope with adversity, and simply ‘being there’ for someone can mean a lot.

Yet, the perspective thing can go both ways. The overriding aspect of most religions – that there is some form of being that intended for things to be this way – has its own input into how people view their personal situations. Within most religions, there is no ‘shit happens’ – no random events, no impersonal effects of mere physics. Instead, we are asked to believe that everything happens for a reason, a grand plan that we are not privy to, and of course this includes all of the bad things that happen to people. This is no minor thing; it has such a significant impact that a major branch of religious philosophy, theodicy, is devoted to hashing out the problem of evil from a loving god. Maybe in another few thousand years they’ll get it to the point where people are no longer bothered by it…

In the meantime, we have to recognize that judgment and damnation, or the planned death of our children, has a fierce impact on our emotional states. That merely feeling horny as a youth, instead of being a perfectly natural and biologically functional thing, is often considered wicked. That even a simple mistake can be responsible for ruining one’s entire afterlife. Oh, yeah, religions often provide us with an afterlife to look forward to, which is great – provided, of course, that one does not waste the entirely of their presentlife fretting over making it to the right side after death, and there are an awful lot of these people.

Even something as simple as moral guidance can be problematic, since the religious definition of ‘moral’ often leaves a lot to be desired (see ‘force for peace,’ above.) Rather than coping with the incredibly difficult concept of being beneficial to as great a number of people as possible, religious morality usually involves selective quotes from scripture and a serious dose of self-righteousness; there has only been a few million people killed because they were ‘heretics’ and deserved it. Even if we can somehow establish that homosexuality is truly immoral, laws against gay marriage don’t actually affect it in the slightest, do they? They only exist to register the disapproval of the vapid devout. This is what comes from failing to understand what the function of morality even is.

And like charity above, moral and emotional support isn’t exactly a hard thing to provide; aside from the numerous individuals that are perfectly capable of rendering this elaborate assistance, there are plenty of professional organizations that do the same – without baggage, without strange rules, without skewed perspectives. In my own personal experience, I’ve spent no small amount of time helping friends cope with the emotional and perspective problems stemming entirely from religious sources. Without those influences, they would have been in a much better state of mind.

Religion is, and has been, an inspiration for the greatest works of art throughout history – Paintings, music, sculpture, literature – our museums are filled with references to religious themes and inspirations, true enough. And this applies as long as you don’t include any art at all from the last two centuries, where religious themes have become so minimized that it effectively disproves the idea. There are, however, a few contributing factors behind this apparent inspiration. The first is, we have almost nothing from the Middle Ages on back – most works have vanished, and even the historical record is sporadic and fragmented badly. The Renaissance, of course, is what most people are thinking of when they speak of this topic, and that’s when the churches were commissioning these works directly – with what money, anyone can surely wonder. The churches were also responsible for preserving them (when they didn’t alter them to reflect the more uptight tastes of later church authorities.) Anyone who believes Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo were divinely inspired is perhaps unfamiliar with the commentary Leonardo repeatedly slipped into his works, and the anatomical studies that may well have prompted the shape of a brain in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. It is also worth noting that, of most of the religious works to be found, creative interpretations abound, much more so than scriptural accuracy.

Literature has its own special qualities. Overall, religion is a story, relating remarkable, epic events and larger-than-life people, the staple of all storytelling (who wants to hear about what I did yesterday?) As such, religious motifs lend themselves to creative interpretations and expansions, which carries over into music as well. But if we ignore the selectivity, we find plenty of other subjects tackled at every point throughout history, love being far and away the biggest, closely followed by tragedy.

And finally, like charity and community above, can we even remotely propose the idea that, without religion, far fewer works of art would have been made? It’s possibly true enough from the monetary angle, since (in part due to the churches themselves) many people lacked the funds to commission their own topics, but do we honestly believe Michelangelo would have taken up gardening instead? Without Shakespeare, we wouldn’t have as many derivatives of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth around, but would we actually have fewer movies and plays? There is a notable difference between using religion as a theme, and crediting religion for the artistic ability.

Religion makes people feel good – Despite the vague nature of this claim, I really have heard it expressed as a benefit, more than once. Taken all by itself, it might be somewhat useful, and in fact, it likely serves as one the biggest supporting factors claimed for religion in the first place. More on this in a second.

First off, it’s not like our society, or most for that matter, has any shortage of indulgences – put in a DVD, eat some ice cream, fire paint pellets at total strangers. Seriously, the way this is often expressed, we’re expected to believe people’s lives would be total shit without religion. In a few, isolated cases, this is probably true, but not for most, and certainly not in a way that justifies the huge emphasis it is given within our cultures.

Secondly, feeling good is that personal benefit pointed out in the beginning – nothing wrong with that, but again, hardly worth the effort. ‘Feeling good’ is also a perfect justification for drug addiction, isn’t it? Hey, I feel good calling religious people self-indulgent twits…

It is the same kind of perspective that causes the religious to defend their personal choice, which is just ducky; keep it personal, and you won’t hear a word from me. Yet, there isn’t much about religion that’s personal in any way, and even those who manage to keep their mouths shut are still influenced in how they vote, what they teach their kids, and what views they have on ethics and society. Liking Metallica is a personal choice; we’re never going to see any proposed legislation regarding it, are we?

Feeling good should probably also come with at least a modicum of value and supporting evidence, as well. Countless cultures throughout history undoubtedly felt good about their exalted status as god’s chosen, or the master race, or the enlightened – was that worth encouraging and protecting? Perhaps we need a bit higher goals than that.

Many aspects of religion are tailored specifically to make people feel good – that’s the selling point, and the reason why it still exists. You will be rewarded, god loves you, there is a goal, you will not die, and on and on. Now, this can be done for anything, if our only criteria is to feel good – it’s called a motivational poster. The rot sets in when it’s incorrect, misleading, or fosters detrimental actions or attitudes – again, some standards would be useful here.

Most especially, the personal benefit angle crashes spectacularly when it’s tied to something detrimental to someone else, something that all of those who assert their ‘personal choice’ tend to forget, conveniently. So much for moral guidance. And this applies to every benefit mentioned above, and all others as well; defending religion by selecting only those items that sound good while ignoring those that are extremely, irrefutably damaging is reprehensible, and hardly worthy of the minds we have. I’ve said it before and will need to keep saying it: there is no reason to try and determine the balance, how the scales end up weighing. Do good; don’t so bad. That’s all the elaborate, nuanced, complicated guidance that’s necessary. If your idea of ‘good’ targets others or reinforces your own status, you need to exercise more thought in the matter.

This tendency towards selectivity needs further critical examination. The Crusades and Inquisitions mentioned above did not just happen despite the influence of religion, they never would have occurred without it. The ideas of witches and demons and holy lands do not come from anyplace else. Even when the participants actually believed they were doing good, this definition of good was created solely by religious influence (to say nothing of those who were only using religion as an excuse to consolidate their power or status – I’ll leave you to speculate on how many that might have been, and how poorly religion worked to temper their actions.) When it comes right down to it, just about every time that someone wants to speak of the benefits of religion, it is to try and offset the pretty goddamned nasty aspects that are also part and parcel, things that we wouldn’t have had without religion in the first place. It’s a desperate attempt to justify their personal viewpoint, conveniently ignoring the long, bloody history in favor of… what, exactly?

I’m also not impressed with the arguments, which always appear, that all of that above is not my religion, the sudden, distinct dividing line that gets created whenever anyone is observant enough to note all the bad stuff going on. Up until that point, of course, religion is usually used in a universal sense, with great emphasis put upon the sheer numbers encompassed within that overriding, ill-defined descriptor. There are two things that I’ll observe, in response. The first is that I have never, ever seen any self-professed religious person challenge the statement that religion is good; the challenges only appear when the umbrella term that they shelter under is no longer a point in their favor. Second, the exact same traits that they follow, emphasize, and venerate by even being part of a religion are what’s responsible for that list of pseudo-benefits above. Since we’re now in the realm of fine distinctions, what’s the fine distinction that makes their faith good? Isn’t that the important bit? Even if we want to consider religion a force for both good and bad, what’s the point that’s being made then?

I’ll be the first to point out that human nature produces a lot of the behavior we’ve seen throughout history and still see today; I will never say that eradicating religion will eliminate conflict and abuse, and make everybody love one another. But to try and take religion, as a whole, and assign it any properties at all, much less beneficial ones, to permit some handy little label is ludicrous beyond reason. If someone wants to be considered good, then they should do good things, not seek out an association with a cultural convention. If they’re inspired by religion to do it, fine, no problem – others may be inspired by simple empathy, fairness, and the sense of ethics that we’ve evolved to have over millions of years. However, to make any claim at all that religion deserves credit for benefits, and is thus worthy of a ‘good’ status, is an exceptionally shallow, superficial, and above all self-serving perspective. We can do better.

Not spiders

damselfly on reed
You know, if I’m telling you in the title that spiders will not be found in this post, that only means some following post is not going to be good for arachnophobes…

bumblebee on water plantSince the move, I’ve been taking the opportunity on occasion to scope out the new area, trying to determine what kind of decent shooting locales can be found nearby. One stroke of luck is a large pond, close and easy to get to, but so far unspoiled. It’s big enough that it will serve as foreground interest for sunrises and passing storms, and is partially bordered by a great wetlands section. I expect it’s going to contribute a lot of images to my stock.

I’m going to be lazy this time around, and not worry about finding the proper species names for the subjects in this post – it’s time-consuming sometimes, and really messes with the flow of thoughts into charged silicon. So just cope with “bumblebee” and “flowering water plant” for this one, as I relate the special efforts I went through to capture the shadow of the bee against the leaf below. Even I imagined this to be an easy thing to capture, just taking a bit of patience, but that wasn’t really the case – the range the bee had to be in to cast a distinctive shadow on the leaf is pretty narrow, and bumblebees move fast and rather erratically. Of course, it takes finding a flower and leaf in just the right position in the first place, then staking it out and waiting for a bee to come along, hoping it wouldn’t take too long since the shadow would move off the leaf eventually. You’d like to think that a bee visiting the neighboring flower indicates that it’s just a matter of moments before it moves to the one you’ve chosen, but that comes from our structured, pattern-oriented, anal minds; bees don’t possess these traits. Planning shots like this can get you sunburned easily, and I wasted a lot of frames on near misses.

two dragonflies posingThe pond area, unsurprisingly, plays home to a stunning number of dragonflies and damselflies (the difference between the two: the former has outstretched wings when sitting, like here, while the latter has wings aligned with their bodies like at the top of the post.) Both species need to have their wing muscles fairly warm to operate efficiently, which is why they perch in sunny areas so frequently, but this day was warm enough that they didn’t have to sit still very much. The one at top was cooperative and sat there for quite some time, while the pair seen here didn’t remain there together longer than 30 seconds before one or the other was off to pursue some tasty insect – they have no interest in bumblebees, by the way, and on those occasions when a dragonfly chose to perch atop one of the many flower spears, they were usually dislodged by bees within a few seconds. The nice thing about dragon/damselflies is that they often have preferred perches, and even when spooked off by an incautious movement from the photographer, may return quickly to the exact same spot. That allowed me to get these two together in the frame, though I admit this is actually a composite image. They were far enough apart in distance from the camera that one would be in focus while the other wasn’t, and stopping down to capture them together also sharpened the background to the point of being distracting and less appealing, so I combined two images where I had selected focus for either dragonfly. Shameless abuse of technology, I know.

I have also returned to the pond at night, not really expecting to see much going on but curious as to how much light was in the area for night shots (too much – the nearby shopping complex and apartment buildings were liberally sprinkled with floodlights that reached all the way to the pond.) The cacophony of frog calls, however, was almost disturbing; I’ve misplaced my recorder in the move and so do not have any examples yet, but I’ll get one soon enough. I won’t even attempt to describe it, since I won’t be able to do it justice, and just let you hear it for yourself in a later post.

assassin bug nymphAs should be apparent from previous posts, I’m not neglecting my immediate local surroundings either. Spotted in the backyard, an assassin bug nymph displays some atypical adornments; the white hairs are supposed to be there, the bits of fluff that make it look fresh from a pillowfight, not so much. But while I didn’t directly see how it achieved its ensemble, I’m pretty sure I know where it came from:
leafhopper nymph
This variety of leafhopper nymph has been spotted numerous times nearby; this particular one was just coaxed out of the circle above where it had been sitting idly. I don’t pretend to know what that was all about, though I’d flushed it out since I thought it might be a variety of spider that I’d heard of but never seen, one that makes a white ‘splash’ of webbing on a leaf and then sits in the middle. With its green mottled markings, it looks very much like bird feces, and this appearance attracts flies for it to capture. Alas, this was only a fluffy leafhopper, not half as interesting even though those tendrils, when seen from above, certainly looked uniform enough for spider legs. Many local species of leafhopper extrude long, glassy tendrils from their hind ends, ‘feathers’ of starchy feces that may serve to distract predators by giving them a decoy to grab. That’s entirely different from what you see here, but it may be a related trait – like I said, I’m too lazy to look them up right now. Ask me nicely and maybe I’ll do a follow-up. But I consider this very likely to have contributed the lint to the assassin bug, especially since I saw the same effect on the legs of a crab spider a few weeks back, one that still had the leafhopper in its grasp. If it’s a defensive thing, it doesn’t seem to work all that well.

newly-molted adult leafhopperThis is quite possibly the newly-molted adult form of the same leafhopper. At the very least, those wings look like they’re still drying and unfolding, but I didn’t spot the old exoskeleton anyplace nearby, so I can’t be sure. I even went back out a little later to see if the wings were fully-extended and dry by then, but couldn’t locate the leafhopper. As above, the eyes are red because these images were taken at night. Leafhopper eyes change color like praying mantis eyes do; during the day, they display a more camouflaging hue. Presumably, this provides some advantage to their night vision, but I suppose they could also be up well past their bedtime, or suffering from allergies – must maintain an open mind.

More pics will be along in a day or so – it’s been a fairly spidery couple of weeks. I’m kind enough, at least, to issue warnings. Sometimes.