Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 6, 2011

The Cult of Apple, and Steve Jobs

Filed under: cults,doomsday,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 3:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Everyone seems to be talking about Steve Jobs’ death yesterday (Wednesday, October 5, 2011). Even President Obama. I figured that there was absolutely nothing I could add to the discussion that was in any way related to Apple or Steve Jobs, but then I thought about the whole cult angle.

We rarely see cults in regards to astronomy, geology, or physics, but they do occasionally crop up. The Heaven’s Gate cult – the group that committed suicide because they believed a space ship was behind Comet Hale-Bopp – is the one most often cited for astronomy “what’s the harm?” questions.

I thought I’d give my readers my opinion about cults, what qualifies as a cult, and whether anything going on now-a-days in astronomy would qualify in my opinion.

First, on Apple and Me

I’m a Mac guy. A friend in college called me the “Mac Daddy” and I was effectively her tech support. I was the Mac club’s secretary for a year and VP another year. I have owned three Apple laptops and two Apple desktops in this millennium, and I have owned two iPod classics, two nanos, and one Touch. I will very likely be getting an iPad version 3 when it comes out next year. I have a few t-shirts (all given to me for free) and one jacket (again, free). I use two Microsoft programs only (Word and Excel) except I had to load up Windows via Parallels for the work I do since GIS products on the Mac are absolutely horrible.

That said, I do not consider myself “in the cult of Apple / Steve Jobs.” Why? I’ll get into the exact reasons a bit more specifically below, but for now, there are several reasons. Mainly, I am not blinded by devotion to the brand/products.

I find many faults with the software: I hate how 10.7 is merging with the iOS as I’m a power user and need actual access to things other than “apps;” I don’t like the whole “apps” shortening; iAm sick of iPrefixes; Apple’s version of a lot of software (Aperture, Pages, Numbers) I think is a poor substitute for the other brands.

I find faults with the hardware, mainly the price and subsequent huge profit margin for Apple (their RAM is well over 2x as expensive as any competition). And their veil of secrecy and tactics to maintain it are obnoxious and may be illegal (that whole thing where Apple employees convinced the SF PD to get them to someone’s house where they searched for a missing prototype thing? I hope the guy wins a massive settlement).

I put all that there because I wanted to lay my cards on the table. I’m a fan of Apple products, but I find them far from perfect and I do not consider Steve Jobs – alive or dead – my Dear Leader.

What’s a Cult?

Many people smarter than I and actually having degrees rather than a four-fifths-finished minor in psychology have studied and written about cults. I’ll direct you RationalWiki for a more thorough discussion if you’re interested.

In the end, though, it’s a spectrum. And different people have different definitions and different qualifiers for when they consider something to be a cult. For example, at what point is a system of beliefs a “religion” versus a “cult?” In the play and movie “Angels in America,” the line goes something like, “Any religion younger than a few thousand years is just a cult” (that was paraphrased, I don’t remember the exact line). Many Christians still consider Mormons to be a cult*, and I know at least one Jew who considers Christians to be a cult.

*Edited to Add: A day after I wrote this blog post, this article was in the New York Times: Perry Ally Calls Mormonism ‘a Cult’.

In my book, though, I look for a few specific things:

  • Is there a charismatic leader who people believe without thought?
  • Do they try to isolate you from anyone outside of it?
  • Do they have different beliefs at different levels, especially those inside versus outside?

That’s really it — I look for three things. I try to keep it simple. I know on some lists there are over 60. Maybe a fourth on my list would be “are former members talked incredibly negatively about, to the point of encouraging harmful acts against them?”

Now, granted, MANY of other peoples’ items fit into my first, such as “the leader is always right,” “the leader is beyond reproach,” “the leader has a direct line of communication with the divine,” “the leader’s dictates are absolute” … that sort of thing.

When you put these together, no, I was/am not in a cult. And I think very few people would ever consider Apple to be a legitimate cult under most psychological/social definitions of a cult.

Are There Astronomy-Related Cults Today?

I’m sure there are a few VERY small ones out there. They will usually crop up around a predicted astronomical event that is observed, such as what happened with Hale-Bopp. People who follow the idea of the “Hopi Blue Star Prophecy” may possibly qualify, in time, if a leader emerges to capitalize on it. However, I think that this type of cult could be lumped into the category of general “doomsday cults,” it just so happens that there’s something in the sky that is part of their belief system.

UFO cults actually occasionally crop up, though even those would rarely fit more than one of the criteria I look for. These usually center around a single individual or pair who claim to have had an extraterrestrial encounter. Their story touches people and the people giving the story are usually highly charismatic and seem sincere.

Betty and Barney Hill are a good example, where for many years, despite their story changing, people believed everything they said. Even today, they have a “sort of” cult following where people think that they represent the most convincing evidence for alien abductions. This is despite that later in life they were highly marginalized by the UFO community, to the point where Betty Hill was nearly jeered off the stage at a convention several years ago.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back. This post was more a stream-of-consciousness and thanks for coming along for the ride.

Getting back to the beginning and the news du jour, I think that Steve Jobs co-founded a great company, brought it back from the brink of failure in the mid-1990s, and oversaw some amazing product developments. I hope that Apple will be able to continue to innovate as before even without his leadership.


April 1, 2011

April Fools: A Serious Post for the Day


In the past, I’ve had a bit of obvious fun on April 1 with my posts, such as last year’s where I explained how I had seen the light and was giving up science. And apparently it wasn’t too obvious to all that I was joking, as Michael Horn apparently thought I was serious.

Anyway, this year I thought I would use the day to look over several ideas and concepts that I address on this blog or that, in general, the modern skeptical movement takes issue with. The purpose of this is that, often, people who believe in any of these topics will claim that skeptics can’t have their pet idea be true because it would upset their worldview, destroy everything they “believe” in, etc. On the contrary, I would absolutely love for many of these things to be true. Let’s take a look …

Near-Death Experiences, Spirit Contacts, Ghosts

Any and all of these things, if real (and by “real” for NDEs I mean they actually cannot be explained by biology), would mean that there is some form of existence after we die in this one. Seriously, I would be delighted if this were true. I don’t care what people say about how I can’t have this be true because it would mean there’s accountability, or that I can’t just do anything in this life ’cause I’d be reincarnated as a cockroach, or whatever.

Living for maybe 75 years and then ceasing to exist is a scary thought. Occasionally late at night, it crops up in my mind and I get freaked out. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that there is a form of existence after this one. I see no hard, reproducible evidence for it, and all the purported evidence that people have put forth is generally easily refuted (especially when we’re talking about ghosts and mediums).

But I would love it to be true. I asked a friend of mine once what he believed and he unabashedly said he was an atheist. As did his wife, who had grown up in some form of Christianity in a very conservative town. I asked her why, and if that meant she didn’t believe in life after death, either. She explained the usual reasons, but then it was this that got me: “No, I don’t think there’s life after death. But believe me, if someone were taking a vote and if I had any say in the matter, I would vote ‘yes.'”

I agree: If I have a vote in the matter of whether there will be a life after this one, I would vote “yes, I want there to be one.” But do I actually believe there is one? No.

Present-Day Visitation by UFOs and Aliens

In what you’ll quickly discover is a theme with this post, I think this would be cool, assuming of course some sort of benevolence as opposed to an Independence Day style of alien invasion. More Vulcans, less Borg. But do I think that tiny light in the sky that I happen to not be able to explain at the moment is an alien craft? No. Do I “believe” the Betty & Barney Hill story? No. Do I think Billy Meier’s laughable evidence is proof of visitation? No.

Ancient Aliens and Alien Artifacts in the Solar System

Following from the last section, this would again be pretty cool. Though I find it odd some people think Earth was the brothel of the galaxy eons ago and the idea that deviant aliens came here to make sweet sweet monkey love is wacked out. Again, actual real evidence of alien visitation in the past would be very neat. Evidence of an alien civilization on Mars or some other body in the solar system would likewise, I think, be cause of great interest and people would flock to it.

Does that mean I think the Nazca Lines are ancient alien landing strips? No. Or that aliens built the pyramids? No. Just because we may not have a mundane explanation for something now does not mean that “aliens did it.” Or, following perhaps a frequent refrain of creationists, it does not mean that “aliensdidit” (a la “goddidit”). Similarly, Richard C. Hoagland’s ideas of crystal tunnels and ancient sculptures on Mars, Andrew Baggiago’s ideas of fossils on Mars, and – closer to home – Hoagland’s “Data’s Head” find on the moon are obvious and clear examples of pareidolia and bad image processing, not the desired evidence of ancient advanced civilizations.

Young-Earth Creationism

To be perfectly fair, I really don’t “care” how old Earth is. As far as I’m concerned, I only “know” for sure that it’s just under 28 years old. Or really, it could have been created just a second ago but with the appearance of age and with all of our individual memories forged and everything made with the appearance of age. After all, that’s what you have to believe to be a young-Earth creationist, that every single piece of geologic, historical, astronomical, archaeologic, etc. evidence that points to a planet – much less solar system, galaxy, and universe – older than 6000 years was planted there by some sick, twisted omnipotent being to make us scratch our heads in the fashion of a chimp. Or you have to invent new science that doesn’t fit with anything else in order to make your models work out.

I think that in the coming decades, young-Earthers are going to be looked upon the same as flat-Earthers: People who ignore all evidence to the contrary, invent ways around what they can, and otherwise stick their fingers in their ears and shout, “La La La! I can’t hear you!”

Magic (Powers/Abilities like psychokinesis, Elves, Fairies, etc.)

I’ll be honest here (as elsewhere) and admit to a guilty pleasure: The TV show Charmed was one of my favorites. And I’m a Harry Potter fan, though that’s more socially acceptable for a guy. Anyway, I love the idea of magic existing, either out in the open or the concept of a hidden world “beyond the veil” that exists alongside our everyday lives but is hidden from us normal folks. In fact, for the past 4 years I’ve been working on and off on my own novel exploring that idea. But here you have the problem of not just a lack of even shaky evidence or suggestions that it’s true, but a solid lack of any suggestions that it’s true beyond the stray anecdote from the mentally questionable.

[Pick Your] Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are interesting because many of them actually could be true when first broached. It’s when people ignore all evidence to the contrary of a conspiracy theory that it begins to get stupid. For example, the Apollo Moon landings. Every claim by conspiracy theorists have been appropriately answered by reasonable explanations that adequately fit the model that the astronauts landed on the moon. And now we have Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the Apollo landing sites. This particular conspiracy theory may have made some sense WAY back in the day, but no anyone who clings to it is willfully ignorant or simply delusional. There really is no other, kinder way to say it.

2012 Doomsday

Do I want this one to be true? Of course not. I want to see the solar eclipse in 2017. I have plans set for 2013. I’d prefer not to die in some cataclysm at the end of next year. Does my desire for this not to happen cloud my judgement on whether it will? No. Again, much like with the conspiracy theories above, every idea put forward by 2012 doomsdayers has been shown to be simply wrong, not physically possible, or just an outright lie. If there were actual evidence or even a physical mechanism that could occur, then I would reevaluate my conclusion and start eating more ice cream and Doritos.

Vaccines Cause Autism

Actually, I think it would be great if there were any kind of simple cause of autism, be it the thimerosal that was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines, parents playing Beethoven to the pregnant mom’s stomach, or solar flares. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Thimerosal was removed from most vaccines in the US a decade ago, and autism rates didn’t go down at all. No one knows what actually causes autism, but it’s definitely not vaccines. Concerned parents should be concerned, but they shouldn’t blame something that protects a child’s health and has conclusively been shown by every study to not cause autism.

Final Thoughts

That about wraps it up. Now, yes, this was posted on April 1st. No, this is not a “fake” nor joke post. In the end, this really boils down to this message for a “true believer” who harps on the “skeptics:” Get over yourselves. We are not “scared” that your-supernatural-belief-of-choice may be true. We would welcome it. Instead of wasting everyone’s time with that straw man, how about actually addressing the legitimate criticisms of the methodology instead of the claims?

What I’ve written above are my honest thoughts on the issues. What are yours?

April 1, 2010

Giving Up the Fight and Turning to the Light

Giving Up the Fight and Turning to the Light


Well folks, I’ve decided to give up the fight. No, not because some “Big Government” folks got to me, nor for the opposite reason that they stopped my paychecks commin’. Rather, I’ve decided to approach life with a much more open, spiritual mind.


Over the past few months, from listening to shows like Coast to Coast AM, Skeptiko, ID the Future, and Around the World with Ken Ham, I’ve decided that the world really must have some aspect to it that science just can’t explain.

There is just so much evidence of it. People have near-death experiences all the time, proving that consciousness is separate from the brain. Children are born with birthmarks and memories of previous lives, the birthmarks being the exact same locations where they were stabbed or shot by a bullet in those previous lives. Every culture around the world believes in ghosts. Everyone can’t just be imagining it!

And then there’s that Dogon tribe in Africa that knew about the companion star to Sirius way before astronomers did, proving they were contacted by ETs. Everyone and their cousin has seen a UFO that has to be proof of ETs or Secret Government Technology controlled by the Men in Black. And there are such convincing test cases – Betty and Barney Hill, and of course the über-clad case of Billy Meier – that it can’t possibly be just someone’s hoax. Horoscopes are in every news paper – even The Onion – and they’re among the most popular sections … people still pay over $500/hr to see astrologers, psychics, etc. They can’t all be wrong!

We just have to live in a beautiful, created universe by a loving creator. It was tailored just for us – Earth is perfect for us to live in and inhabit, and that Creator has provided us a wondrous solar system, galaxy, and universe to view and explore. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” indeed. Every culture around the world has some sort of flood story in its past – they can’t all be just imagining it, it can’t all be Yungian collective unconsciousness.

Final Thoughts

So, I have decided on this First day of April of the 2010th Year of Our Lord, to throw in the towel and embrace the unknown. After all, isn’t that why so-called skeptics don’t like it? Because they fear the unknown? They’re afraid to put themselves into God’s hands? They’re afraid to admit that there may be something more powerful out there than themselves, or that their science cannot explain?

Besides, with the world ending in just 3 years, at the end of 2012 since the Mayans were excellent astronomers and predicted this, why should I spend the last years of my life worrying about convincing people not to believe what everyone else on the planet does?

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