Saturday, April 02, 2011

Is God Necessary for Us to be Moral

Last night I listened to a 2008 debate between Christopher Hitchins and Frank Turek on the existence of God. ( I enjoyed the lively exchanges between the two intelligent, well-spoken men. After the formal presentations, the moderator allowed each to question the other. Hitchins, actually, preferred to let the audience throw the questions, but Turek had one that he repeated many times because Hitchins appeared to miss the point or dodge the question.

(I say "appeared" because a response was made, but not recognized by Turek (and, me, at the time.) Certainly, Turek, and some people who posted to the website, thought Hutchins was ignoring the point. Turek kept repeating the question.

The question was, "Since you [Christopher] are a materialist, explain to me how carbon atoms and benzene molecules can bring about notions of truth, love, empathy, and justice. You can't. Those concepts require a higher entity to instil them in us, a judge of what is moral."

Repeatedly, Hitchins took issue--took offence, really--with the notion that religious people feel that they have to subjugate and enslave themselves to a deity who tells them that they are wicked and need to be cleansed, who demands obedience and worship, and so on. It's humiliating to feel that humans aren't capable of coming up with an appreciation of doing the right thing without a God having to demand it on penalty of eternal torture or human sacrifice.

Turek kept firing the carbon atoms and benzene molecules, to no avail. Hitchins wouldn't bite. (That's not exactly true. He did say that it's up to Turek to establish the insufficiency of the materialist position, but this was lost in the exchange.)

I'd like to respond. Turek's basic point is that God is the source of all goodness (and, presumably Satan is the source of all that isn't good) so that knowledge of good and bad has to be imposed from above. (He went so far as to say the existence of mathematics, information, and the DNA molecule required a deity, but let's keep it simple.) His point is that a bunch of carbon atoms and benzene molecules can't, without divine help, generate sensations of empathy.

There are two answers I could give.

One is "I don't know." The problem with that answer, unfortunately, is that deists jump on it triumphantly and say, "Right. Only God can do it." Their response is nonsense, of course. The existence of God does not depend on whether I or anyone else "knows" the answer or has a theoretical explanation. The existence of God does not depend on how far along in our thinking of science we are.

Going deeper, we could say that the deist's answer was just as inadequate. The deist could have said, "Gzort does it" or "Shublefumph does it" or "Satan does it" for that matter. When the deist says, "You don't know the answer, but I do. It was God." the deists isn't advancing toward knowledge. He's just putting a name to the cause of the phenomenon.

A problem with answering "I don't know" in a debate is that you always have to get sidetracked to explain that "I don't know" does not weaken the intellectual position.

(Hitchins responded a couple of times that had Turek asked the question a couple of thousand years ago, he wouldn't have been using the terms "molecule" and "DNA". Turek became exasperated, saying (in effect), "So what? Just answer the question.")

The second answer to how the accumulation of atoms that composes us instils in us ethics and morality appears, at first, to reverse the issue. An atheist could say, "evidently the laws of chemistry and physics do allow for it, and even if you deists don't know how, that doesn't shake my satisfaction that notions of morality are innate to humans (and to primates, and possibly to other organisms, too.)

An atheist shouldn't want to say this in a debate, because it's really putting the "I don't know" in the deist's mouth and taking unfair advantage.

So let's take this a little farther, but examine something simpler (but just as intellectually significant.) Consider the action of moving your finger. You think, "I'm going to move my finger." Then you move it. How does the thought trigger the actual, physical action? This is a deep mystery. A scientist could respond, "When I think, some electrochemical exchange happens somewhere in my brain which causes an electrical signal to go down the nerve and move the muscle." But the mystery still exists. How did the desire to move the finger cause the electrochemical exchange? We could get into an infinite regress here. But that's no reason to insist that God is in the details.

Consider the Big Bang (which Turek mentioned often.) "How did the universe start from nothing?" the deists scream. We could respond, "Well, not from nothing. Some mass was there." or "Well, not from nothing, some energy was there." or "Well, negative mass-energy went one way and positive mass-energy went the other way, so it still adds to zero." But we always have a "what started it" issue: how did the initial mass, the initial energy, the initial impetus to change things get there?

Infinite regress. There will always be an infinite regress. That does not mean there is a deity.

So, back to Turek's question: How do we humans have concepts of right and wrong? Evolution could help in the discussion. We could propose that organisms without such understanding did not, in the long run, survive. Natural selection among sentient beings could select for cooperation, for adherence to (or, at least, contemplation of) the Golden Rule.

I'm interested in the question. Recent studies with apes, monkeys, dogs, cows, and cats suggest that non-human animals have concepts of morality. Who's side of the debate does that help? The deist just says, "God gave them morality, too." Case closed.

Are molecules and the laws of physics and chemistry sufficient for the appearance of morals in people. Evidently yes, Hitchins says.

I agree.


P.S. Hitchins did point out, quite eloquently, that the religious authorities have another problem. Even if one were to accept that there were and entity to get it started, there is no way for them to link that to their conclusion that this same entity interacts with us daily, hears our thoughts when we are sleeping or awake, judges our thoughts and actions, demands that we worship it, and so on.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A friend returned from a fascinating visit to the SNO lab, the slow neutron observatory in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. He described the long ride down into the depths of the mine on the rickety, open elevator, and the remarkable equipment he observed. He made one statement, though, that bears examining, because it's a popular misconception.

He said, "You could feel yourself getting heavier."

Because he was progressing toward the centre of the Earth, he expected to weigh more.

This is a fallacy, though. He would weigh less. In fact, although weight follows the familiar inverse-square law outside, weight is proportional to the radius inside. It drops linearly.

Here's why. (It's a standard university calculus question, but you don't need calculus to see.)

First, the quick, intuitive answer. How much would you weigh at the centre? Zero, of course, because the mass is pulling you in all directions, each molecule on one side being cancelled by one on the other.

Since you weigh more than zero at the surface, and zero at the middle, either it decreases as you go down, or increases for a while before decreasing. Where is the logical turnaround point? (The surface, of course.) Also, it doesn't make sense to say that the force of gravity keeps increasing all the way to the centre, then instantly becomes zero when you travel that last nanometre to the absolute centre.

OK, so now that we expect a decreasing graph of weight versus distance from centre (radius), why is it linear.

The answer is easiest to understand if you consider the force inside a shell. Pretend the Earth is a perfectly spherical egg. You're inside. How much do you weigh? Then answer: zero everywhere. Pretend you are a two-thirds down to the centre. The mass below your feet is twice as far away as the mass above your head, so pulls a quarter strength (inverse-square law). But there is four times as much of the shell below you than above. Four times as much pulling at one-quarter the force…cancels out. Same with side-to-side, of course.

(This is analogous to the electric field inside a charged sphere--zero everywhere.)

So, now you're down a mineshaft. All the shells above you are cancelled out by mass below you, farther out than your radius. What's left is only the ground beneath your feet, acting as if it's all at the centre. Mass goes as volume, radius cubed. So as you go down, the mass of the sphere beneath your feet is decreasing by radius cubed, but acting stronger on you by radius squared.

Result, the force of gravity is decreasing by the radius to the first power. You feel lighter down a mine shaft.

Monday, January 31, 2011

What if Tests Don't Test What You Want to Test?

When my daughter was in elementary school, she came home with a couple of quizzes on which she'd scored zero or one out of ten. The topic was "greater than / less than". There were two columns of numbers and she had to draw a greater than or less than sign between them. (e.g. 5 less than 9).

I created similar quiz sheets. I cut out a bunch of little squares with the mathematical signs on them, and gave her a glue stick. Instead of drawing the sign, she could glue it in. She put in all the signs correctly, every time. Ten out of ten.

So my daughter's dismal marks on the quizzes did not indicate whether she knew the difference between less than and greater than. They did not indicate whether she knew which sign to use. They indicated whether she had the capability of drawing the sign.

As you might guess, my daughter has a learning disability. But the lesson here goes beyond that. Teachers of all grades should be aware that many times the questions on quizzes and exams are testing something other than what the examiner intended to test.

I remembered the episode with my daughter when I made a summative exam for my Workplace Math class last week. (I had taken over the class from a teacher midway through the course.) The exam consisted of 30 questions down the left of a large sheet of paper with answer boxes on the right. I gave the students all the answers on slips of paper, and a glue stick. They were to arrange the slips in the proper places and glue them into the boxes. (Students could write the answers if they wanted.) The student with the lowest mark in the course to that point (38%), scored a 70%, the class average on the exam.

I wonder what the earlier evaluations, the ones that rated him dead last, were actually testing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Faster Than The Wind

I was wrong. A year ago, my future son-in-law asked me if a sailboat could travel faster than the wind. I said no. If the sailboat were travelling faster than the wind, then, to a person on the boat, the wind would seem to be coming from the opposite direction. This applies to downwind sailing, not to tacking against the wind. My mistake was going with my intuition, not my analysis.

I have studied many websites explaining how a sailboat can go (at an upwind angle) faster than the wind. Most explanations are flawed. Many quote Bernoulli’s principle, which isn’t an explanation. In the same way, physicists have stopped using Bernoulli’s principle to explain why planes can fly. (Otherwise, how could they fly upside down?)

Some websites contain text or comments from readers linking the claim that a wind-propelled craft, on land or water, can travel faster than the wind to a claim of perpetual motion. This, of course, is faulty thinking. Such a vehicle is getting its energy from the wind, and the wind is losing energy to the craft. No wind, no motion. Nothing magic about that.

But, for those still worried about what pushes a boat faster than the wind, here’s a simple explanation. First, what pushes a tacking sailboat forward against the wind? The answer is, the water. The wind pushes the sail, which is attached to the boat. The sail pushes the boat, which includes the keel. The keel pushes the water back (at a slight angle) and the water pushes the boat forward [Newton's 3rd, action and reaction.] Remove the keel (e.g.. raise the centerboard on a tiny sailboat) and the wind shoves the boat back, no matter which direction the boat is facing.

The faster a tacking sailboat travels, the greater the force of the wind on the sail, the greater the force of the keel on the water, the greater the forward force of the water on the boat. The limiting factor is not the speed of the wind but the friction of the water on the hull.

Going downwind faster than the wind (DWFTTW) is a little more anti-intuitive. A great blog entry with videos that demonstrates that an object can move faster than the object (and wind is millions of “objects”, air molecules) that propels it is

Phony e-mail "News"

On Remembrance Day yesterday, someone I love and trust sent me a wonderful email about the origin of the bugle call Taps. It was beautiful, and inspiring, but fiction portrayed as fact. The PowerPoint presentation provided an alternate description of the composition of Taps and the tradition of playing it at military funerals and remembrance ceremonies.

The trouble is that the facts, and the real composer, got lost in the shuffle.

I find the prevalence of phony facts a big issue. Today, what is taken as fact is what one receives in one’s email. How long will it be before the real composer of Taps gets replaced in the history books?

One of my relatives forwards inspirational stuff to me regularly. It’s filled with ridiculous accounts of miracles, reports of events that never happened, stuff that can be easily verified as phony (like a reference to a non-existent doctor in a non-existent hospital in Boston.)

But if I point that out I am a party-pooper, I am negative, I am destroying her honest attempts to make other people’s lives better. (Other people = the hundred on her forward list.)

I suppose this isn’t different from 50 years ago when people would say, “I heard at the water cooler today that….” and pass on phony gossip. Yet, somehow, it is different. The water cooler is now as wide as the entire Earth. And we get the “news” from people we love and trust.

As an educator, and as a parent, I think it’s important that we instil in our students/children a healthy skepticism for what they read, even for what they see on the news. (For example, on 9-12, US radio stations carried the phony report that 9-11 attackers crossed into the US from Canada. The 9-11 Commission found that none did. Yet Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano repeated it the claim in 2009, then corrected herself. And Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-backed candidate in Nevada, made that claim anew.) The trouble is, receiving the stuff in email from a person you trust is different from seeing it on the front page of the National Inquirer at the supermarket checkout.

I try to keep passing on the other-side-of-the-issue to people who send me preposterous reports. But should I use Reply or Reply All?. I sent a counterargument to a report of a miraculous treatment for some serious ailment that a sister-in-law sent to fifty people. I got roasted for the action by a person on the list worried that I had embarrassed her. After all, she was only trying to be helpful. Same thing when I sent a “don’t worry — it’s a hoax” about a phony virus notification forwarded by a relative to the dozen people on his list. Apparently, it’s better to let everyone worry about something untrue than correct the fact.

So, should I reply to the sender of the Taps email? If I did would I be “making a mountain out of a mole hill”, or “taking the joy out of a nice story?”

Well, I did send evidence of the more widely accepted credit for the origin of Taps to her alone and received an “I knew you would say that” rejoinder.

I wonder what that means.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Non-missing links...Creationist's error...

My friend Bob is a creationist. He has asked me more than once, "What about the missing links? If evolution were true, there shouldn't be transitional fossils?"

Answer: This question keeps coming back, no matter what scientific discoveries are made. If there are two species in existence today--call them species A and B--that evolutionists propose have a common ancestor, we should be able to find bones in the fossil record of the common ancestor. The ancestor would be the "link" between them and, presumably, have some of the attributes of each species.

There are many, many transitional fossils. We have fossils of creatures that are intermediary between humans and apes. (Note the often misunderstood point: humans did not evolve from chimps. Chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor. We were never apes. The phrase "Man descended from the apes" is not correct, and not part of evolution theory. Modern apes and modern humans had a common ancestor. Any chimpanzee teaching her offspring that chimps descended from humans is making the equivalent mistake. )

We have fossils of a link between fish and land animals. Tiktaalik, discovered in Canada in 2004 had physical features from both, allowing the huge fish to live in very shallow water. It has the cranial features associated with both fish and land-living animals, including a neck (i.e. the earliest fossil with a neck). It had primitive lungs, leg-like fins adapted for life in the shallows, and ribs of a land animal, but the primitive jaw, scales, and other fins of a fish.

Some modern animals have remnants of their ancestors. For example, some whales have vestigial legs and pelvic girdles inside, showing that their DNA still possesses the codes for constructing the legs of the land mammals they evolved from. So do pythons (snakes).

We have fossils that are clearly intermediary between birds and reptiles. The famous Archaeopteryx is one.Unlike all living birds, Archaeopteryx had a full set of teeth, a rather flat sternum (breast bone), a long, bony tail, gastralia (belly ribs), and three claws on the wing. However, its feathers, wings,wishbone, and reduced fingers are all characteristics of modern birds.

Now, it is true that many of today's evolutionist do not consider Archaeopteryx to be the ancestor of birds. Instead, some other transitional fossils have been found that are better candidates. But the point is, there ARE transitional fossils.

Some creationist articles say, in effect, that there are no transitional fossils, that Archaeopteryx looks like a transitional fossil but "even" evolutionists think it isn't. What they don't say is that scientists have found even better transitional fossils bridging dinosaurs and birds than Archaeopteryx.

The point I am making is that many anti-evolution writers are either ignorant or dishonest about the existence of transitional fossils when they claim that the "links" are "missing".

By the way, not only do we find transitional species in the fossil record, but they are ordered the correct way. We find the ancestors of species A and species B in sediment that is older than the sediments in which we find species A and B.

Are there "missing links". Sure. But are there non-missing links? Yes. Many.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wii Fit...Recommendation and Spoiler

I strongly recommend Wii Fit (and especially Wii Fit Plus. Get it for sure.) In addition to the hand sensors you have likely seen, Wii Fit includes a balance board. The Wii board can sense shifts in weight. The way you can try to walk tightropes, get through obstacle courses, ski slalom courses, and bicycle around the Wii island.

There are dozens of games that are very imaginative, and extremely well done. They allow you to work on your balance, your strength, and endurance. Some, like the stepping, running, and biking, allow you to work up a sweat. There are many little challenges to keep you thinking while you exercise.

Speaking as a computer programmer, I am very impressed by the 3-D graphics, the flexibility, and the intelligence built into the programs.

Now: For those who do the free biking, here are the locations of the 20 balloons and the fastest route I've found to get them. I just got off the "bike" and had them in 20:24:25, a new record for me. (I know one place I lost a second.)

If you want to find them yourself, don't read any farther.

To get the balloons in a fast time, start near the top of the mountain, at the balloon on the grass by the stone pillars. That way you head downhill at the start and don't have to climb the mountain again. The free ride starts where you last stopped, so prepare by going up the mountain and stopping after popping that balloon. (Press B to stop there, and exit.)

Also, have you found that the A button rings a bell that attracts a pet? With it alongside you, if you are pointing at a nearby balloon and ring the bell, the dog or cat runs ahead and pops the balloon while you are turning around. Don't ring too soon, though.

OK, here's the fastest route I've found.
1. On the mountain path, by the pillars. Head down...
2. Behind the castle. Keep going around and pick up a pet.
3. Curve around the pond, up on the grass on the right before you get to the tunnel.
4. Cut down slope to tunnel. You will survive and pet will follow. After tunnel, cut right and skirt the cliff to a raised grassy strip. Balloon at end.
5. Go back, up sand path through tunnel with iron bridge. Curve right at exit of bridge. Balloon is in the field.
6. Cut right toward the big rock. Pass it on the right; go across the two suspension bridges, cut up the grass through the tunnel to balloon on sandy plateau.
7. Go back, follow cliff around to left...balloon near the rock.
8. Cut right. This is the trickiest. Coast down and cut sharply around the FIRST fence (passing it with your right shoulder.) Balloon is at far end of a narrow grassy strip. Careful when you turn around.
9. Reverse, follow lower fence; cut around it at end and find balloon near the water by the left side of the bridge.
10. Cross bridge. (You will probably lose your pet.) Cut left at town and take first grass path between houses to balloon.
11. Follow around houses to town square and up the ramp to the upper town. JUST BEFORE you go up, ring bell twice to summon pet.
12. After breaking balloon go back down the SAME ramp. At the bottom, ring bell again. Pet should come running up as you turn right. Head through town, turn down towards water at last street. Go behind last house on right to find balloon (on grass, near water.)
13. Follow black walk, then up to lighthouse. Pass left of lighthouse to balloon on the point.
14. Pick up road that goes around the island. Take immediate right after short tunnel. Balloon is on right side of pond.
15. Another balloon on left side of pond.
16. Cross road, up grass to ruins. Balloon behind ruins.
17. Out of ruins, continue on road through tunnel. Take immediate left down to balloon near water.
18. Follow shore along the sand. (Fastest along the harder, wet sand.) Balloon just past the first large rock with small tunnel in it.
19. Keep going toward end of sand. Go up the jump to the left of the next rock. Balloon on top.
20. Keep going past balloon. Jump down. Keep going. Pick up pet just before final large rock. Follow around the left. Tell pet to break the last balloon.

Now you should have a few minutes to start back to the grass for the long trek back for your next run. (Or try this run in reverse!)

Good luck.

The other day, my friend Ray called Obama a Nazi, a socialist, a danger to Western democracy, a man intent on bringing down the United States. He shied away from calling him the Antichrist.

I couldn't believe that a person I thought was an intelligent, rational, free-thinking person would make that preposterous statement. So, what led him to it? I conclude that the 'free-thinking' attribute was probably wrong. He was trumpeting the standard line spouted by Beck, Palin, the Tea Partiers, and other radical right types. (I do not claim that Beck, Palin, and every Tea Party member thinks the same thing. But if asked to take a stand for or against Ray's statement, I propose that they would be Ray-supporters. So I will continue to generalize.)

"Ray," I said, "think for a moment. You are just saying stuff other people say, without thinking about it."

"Look at the bank bailouts," he said.

The bailouts were started by Bush, not Obama. Did Obama allocate more funds? Yes. But why? Not to line the pockets of the filthy rich CEO's. Obama is as upset as everyone at those robber-barons getting multimillion-dollar salaries for incompetent management of assets. Many of those assets came from Main Street, and represent many honest Americans' pension plans and life savings. By keeping the banks afloat, the bailout safeguarded the financial futures of millions of ordinary people.

According to the NYTimes: Losses from the $700 billion financial rescue are expected to be much less than initially feared, according to a Treasury report and government audit late last year. Besides banks’ repayment of their bailout money with interest, the government also has made money by selling the bank warrants that it held as collateral for its loans to the institutions.
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"What about healthcare?" Ray demanded. "That's socialism."

Well, so is using taxpayer's dollars for building roads. Everyone pays, even those who don't use the roads. (Of course, everyone benefits. The trucks bringing food to your grocery story use the roads, even if you don't.) And tax money funds schools. (Even if you have no children, presumably you want your doctor to have had a good education.) The idea of a decent universal healthcare system is that the country benefits as a whole from the good health of its citizens. Economy of scale considerations suggest that the total amount spent by the citizens of the country could go down. (I acknowledge that the two sides disagree on that point. Certainly, prevention costs less than cure, so if people see doctors early, before conditions worsen, every person who is spared a hospital stay helps save the system money.)

I guess what bothers me the most is that Ray echoes the people who shout the apple pie slogans: no taxation, no driver's licenses, no restrictions on guns, no restrictions on freedom, no government interference in anyone's lives, etc. etc.

No income tax? Right: who is going to build the roads? Who is going to pay for the navy that guards the shores? Does everyone then teach their kids at home? (Ray: "People can freely combine and pool their money for a community school." Me: "Give me a break! Would the US have gained prominence in so many areas if it hadn't had government-funded schools?")

Regarding government influence: Do you want no standards for quality of food? No standards for toxin-free paint or microbe-free water?

What I'd prefer is that you Tea Partiers, you local militia folk, you radical Right people just come out and say it. Be honest. You guys don't want a black president; you guys don't want to contribute to the common good of your country (except on your terms); and, basically, you want anyone who thinks differently from you to get the hell out of your country.

P.S. McCain said, regarding working with Democrats on other big items on Obama's agenda. "There will be no cooperation for the rest of this year." Although he softened the statement after receiving criticism, it speaks volumes about whether Republicans care about governing the country. The country can go to hell before any Republican will participate in honest government. Sabotaging the president is their highest priority.

P.P.S. Many in the Tea Party movement do not shy away from calling Obama the Antichrist.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Lying for Christ ... Three questions.

I just received an email that contained a religious PowerPoint presentation created, apparently, by Bro. Joe. It begins with a "news" article about an Egyptian man who kills his wife for reading the Bible, then kills and buries his two kids. Fifteen days later people go to bury an uncle and find the girls alive. They describe a Christ figure as feeding them after their interment.

On subsequent pages, the a commentator (not Bro. Joe) expands the story. He claims that the people in Egypt are "outraged" and that the "man will be executed in July." Also, the writer predicts that "Muslim leaders are going to have a hard time to figure out what to do with this."

Of course, the story never happened. According to, the email was first seen in 2004, and its creator has been identified (the wife of a pastor). It's a fabrication. [Subsequent note: now reports that the pastor's wife says her husband received the story via email himself.-Rob]

It's a lie. There were no news reports about this event; no one was sentenced to be executed for this crime.

Now for the first question. If the writer wants people to believe in God and Christ, is she justified in creating a phony story to convince people of Christ's presence and miraculous powers? I think not. Christ used fables to get a point across, but I doubt if he used phony news reports. I doubt if he would have sanctioned such an ends-justifies-the-means approach to spreading his message.

The second question is related. Was the pastor's wife trying to gain converts? My guess is that she is preaching to the choir. Will any non-Christian read it and decide to become a Christian? Surely not.

Besides, it's my guess that she sends out such God's message emails to friends who are already Christians. (I have relatives that do that.) So the desire is either to make them feel good or to reinforce an "us versus them" perception. Hence the anti-Muslim slant. Part of the reason for sending it out is fear.

Now the third question. Why did Joe make the woman's email the foundation of a PowerPoint presentation and send it out to his friends? I will assume that Joe believes the story was true. In a dozen pages following the story he urges the reader, many times, to send the slides on to many others. Why is only bad news forwarded? he asks. Why jokes but not messages about God? As I read, I could feel his despair. He bribes people with "Send this on and God will abundantly reward you."

By the end, instead of the beautiful scenery over which he had pasted his text, he was putting images of Christ in the clouds, with lines of scripture beneath. Poor desperate Bro. Joe.

So, about the entire production. I find myself annoyed with the creator of the phony news article. No girls in Egypt were found alive after being buried for 15 days. It just didn't happen.

I find myself feeling sad for Joe who is so desperate to get the good news out that he creates a PowerPoint presentation about it. (He rushed it, as shown by the cut-and-paste errors he made from an original HTML document.) That he even believes the story, though, causes me to lose sympathy for him.

And I find myself frustrated that so many people will believe the countless crap that appears in our mailboxes, whether it's reports about abductions by UFOs, conspiracy stories, or tales of little girls surviving in the ground because Christ visited them bearing food.