Tag Archives: skeptoid

The Russian Sleep Experiment

Russian test subjects are said to have done unspeakably horrible things when sleep deprived.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid

It has become a permanent fixture in the fabric of Internet lore: the Russian Sleep Experiment, an account of a horrific experiment said to have been conducted in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. The subjects were five political prisoners, placed into a sealed chamber and exposed to a gas which prevented them from sleeping. After fifteen days the researchers entered the chamber, and found the men — sleep deprived beyond any human experience — had committed horrors that could scarcely be conceived. Today we’re going to look into the story, and into the facts of sleep deprivation. Might something as grotesque as the Russian Sleep Experiment truly be within the scope of human possibility?

scary stairs_300pxAccording to the story, the researchers cleared the gas from the chamber and entered, finding one of the five men dead:

The food rations past day 5 had not been so much as touched. There were chunks of meat from the dead test subject’s thighs and chest stuffed into the drain in the center of the chamber… All four ‘surviving’ test subjects also had large portions of muscle and skin torn away from their bodies. The destruction of flesh and exposed bone on their finger tips indicated that the wounds were inflicted by hand…

The abdominal organs below the ribcage of all four test subjects had been removed. While the heart, lungs and diaphragm remained in place, the skin and most of the muscles attached to the ribs had been ripped off, exposing the lungs through the ribcage. All the blood vessels and organs remained intact, they had just been taken out and laid on the floor, fanning out around the eviscerated but still living bodies of the subjects. The digestive tract of all four could be seen to be working, digesting food. It quickly became apparent that what they were digesting was their own flesh that they had ripped off and eaten over the course of days.

Those questioning whether or not this was a true story didn’t have to do very much work. It’s a widely published fact that the Russian Sleep Experiment was a piece of fiction, posted anonymously in 2010 to Creepy Pasta, a web site that showcases scary fictional tales. Despite this, there are always conspiracy minded people insistent that the story is true, or was leaked from some secret government lab; but no matter how strong their desire that this be the case, nobody has ever turned up anything like that. Sometimes a creepy story is just a creepy story.

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Pouring Cold Water on Cryotherapy

Questioning whether this new spa treatment provides all the medical benefits it claims.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

One of our most abundant renewable resources is bogus medical therapies. About every day, someone thinks up a new one: sometimes invented from whole cloth, sometimes extrapolated from a real therapy, sometimes tweaked from an old tradition. Today we’re going to look closely at one such spin-the-wheel-and-create-an-alternate-therapy: cryotherapy.

frozen faceDon’t confuse this with medical cryotherapy, the freezing off of tissue, usually called cryoablation. Alternative cryotherapy is a hijack of an actual medical term repurposed to refer to the use of what they call a cryosauna, the opposite of a regular sauna. Rather than applying ice to a specific body part, a cryosauna is used for what they call Whole Body Cryotherapy. It’s a small room for one or more people, cooled by liquid nitrogen to extreme temperatures, usually about -125°C/-200°F but sometimes advertised as low as -170°C/-275°F. You have to wear special slippers to protect your feet since you can’t touch anything in there, and you have to wear a mask to avoid frostbite to your pulmonary system. You stay in for no more than three minutes.

What is the medical claim? Unfortunately, as it is with so many alternative therapies, cryosaunas are claimed to cure just about anything the proprietor says, and they all have different spiels. Most all of them say it treats inflammation, skin conditions, and aids in workout recovery. There are several spas, plus chiropractors and other alternative practitioners near me who offer cryotherapy, according to Yelp.

Almost all of the customer reviews are raving. Here are some samples:

“My inflammation almost immediately decreased and I felt a huge wave of euphoria similar to a runner’s high.”

“Felt great afterwards. Will try again to see if I have any lasting effects.”

“I feel euphorically energized after each session and I have noticed that my tendinitis has gotten better after 2 sessions.”

“I feel so good afterwards. I can tell this cryotherapy is helping to heal my body!”

Why do these people feel so good unless there’s something to cryosauna therapy? Is it possible their reaction comes from something other than genuine treatment of some medical condition? The evidence shows that it probably is.

Continue Reading at Skeptoid – – –

The Flying Saucer Menace

The true, interwoven history of flying saucers in American folklore.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via Skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

The term “flying saucer” conjures up images of campy science fiction films from the 50s and 60s, with people in shiny metallic suits backed by experimental electronic music. They were something of a national obsession for a while, with “saucers” reported in the sky manned by everyone from Russians to little green men. KennethArnoldAir Force pilots chased them to their doom, and occasionally they would crash and spawn legends like Roswell. It turns out that the true genesis of flying saucer folklore is at least as fascinating as any of the fables themselves, and a worthy place to turn our skeptical eye.
Most historians of the strange trace flying saucers back to a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold, who had an encounter while flying his small plane in Washington state on June 24, 1947. His was not especially unusual; UFOs had always been reported, and there was nothing new about aliens; this was nearly a decade after Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Arnold’s story was merely the first time the term “saucer” had been used, when it was reported in the East Oregonian newspaper the next day, on June 25:

 

He said he sighted nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation at 3. p.m. yesterday, extremely bright — as if they were nickel plated — and flying at an immense rate of speed. He estimated they were at an altitude between 9,500 and 10,000 feet and clocked them from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams, arriving at the amazing speed of about 1200 miles an hour. “It seemed impossible,” he said, “but there it is — I must believe my eyes.”
Arnold’s story was syndicated and made his story famous, at least in the general public’s eye; as far as the UFO literature was concerned, his story made him immortal. Buoyed by the attention, UFO stories began to get traction in the newspapers, like any trending topic. Here’s an example of one from July 8, less than two weeks later:

 

The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer.
According to information released by the department, over authority of Maj. J. A. Marcel, intelligence officer, the disk was recovered on a ranch in the Roswell vicinity, after an unidentified rancher had notified Sheriff Geo. Wilcox, here, that he had found the instrument on his premises…
After the intelligence officer here had inspected the instrument it was flown to higher headquarters.
The intelligence office stated that no details of the saucer’s construction or its appearance had been revealed.
This one may sound familiar to you. It is, of course, the original newspaper article that launched the Roswell canon of alien lore.

Continue Reading at Skeptoid . . .

Kenneth Arnold’s report to Army Air Forces (AAF) intelligence, dated July 12, 1947, which includes annotated sketches of the typical craft in the chain of nine objects. (Source: Wikipedia)

The September 23rd Apocalypse

skeptoid eyeBy Mike Rothschild via Skeptoid

Biblical prophecy watchers, apocalypse predictors, rapture preachers, and doomsday preppers are buzzing about an upcoming day that might finally usher in the End of the World As We Know It: September 23, 2015. This is supposedly the day that a confluence of events, both political and scientific, is going to herald the destruction of humanity.

Oh man, not broken down cars!

Oh man, not broken down cars!

It’s clear that in prophecy circles, this is a big deal. A search for “September 23 2015 apocalypse” brings up 11 million hits. References to the “events of September, 2015” are all over major conspiracy websites, talking about everything from rapture to asteroids to aliens to Biblical blood moons. YouTube is brimming with videos showing “the signs” of what’s about to happen. Even Isaac Newton is said to have prophesied the end of the world for this date.

So what’s going to happen that day? What are the sources of these prophecies? And most importantly, should you be worried?

Let’s start with what’s being predicted for September 23, 2015 – and for September 2015 in general. According to various conspiracy, prophecy, and prepping websites, the following things will happen on the date itself:

  • Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
  • President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the White House. Of note is that Francis is the 266th Pope, September 23 is the 266th day of the year, and the average length of human gestation is 266 days.
  • The Autumnal Equinox.
  • The First day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, also known as “the Feast of the Sacrifice.”

If you add in days either just before or just after 9/23/15, you also get a number of apocalyptic events:

  • A range of dates that Comet 67P is scheduled to make an extremely close passage of Earth, September 15-28.
  • The September restart of the CERN Large Hadron Collider will open a portal to another dimension.
  • The end of Jade Helm 15 on September 15.
  • The September 25th launch of a new UN initiative, Agenda 2030, which signals the end stage of Agenda 21 implementation.
  • The date of the last of the “Four Blood Moons” heralding the End Times, on September 28.
  • The approximate date of predicted economic collapse.
  • The end of a Shemitah year in the Jewish Calendar, the last year of the seven year agricultural cycle, that traditionally brings with it great tribulation.

All of these events have been prophesied to form a combination that will bring on the End Times. What are the sources of these predictions?

Damn you, Ned Flanders! Damn you!

Damn you, Ned Flanders! Damn you!

  • The obvious confluence of the three major world religions on September 23.
  • Biblical prophecy, specifically the “Four Blood Moons” prophecy.
  • The End Times prophecy of Sir Isaac Newton.
  • A dire warning from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who claimed on May 13, 2014 that we have “500 days to avoid climate chaos.” 500 days after May 13, 2014 is September 24, 2015.
  • Prophetic dreams and visions by people attuned to such things.
  • Predictive programming in Hollywood entertainment – specifically, many uses of the numbers “9” and “23” in films and TV.

If all of this is correct, September 2015 is going to be a spectacularly bad month for humanity, with climactic, scientific, economic, and godly chaos brought down upon us. So stock up on beans, guns, and guns that shoot beans, because we’re in for it.

Except skeptics don’t think like this. We don’t see omens and prophecy and rumor, grab our bug-out bags and head for the bunker. We grab our facts and head for the…facts bunker.

Let’s start with these events of September 23 itself.

Continue Reading . . .

The Chess-Playing Mechanical Turk

The Turk 745_600px
An overview of the amazing chess playing robot of the 1700s.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re headed back in time, all the way back to the Vienna court of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary, in the year 1770. There the scientific polymath Werner von Kempelen, then thirty six years old, brought forth a mechanical automaton: the figure of a man seated at a large wooden chess table, the cabinet below filled with clockwork. A volunteer from the audience stepped forward. Kempelen wound up the machine, and it reached out and made the first move, the clockwork whirring and ticking. The astonished volunteer was quickly defeated. Delighted with the mechanical marvel, Maria Theresa ordered many more performances. In fact, the Turk, as it was nicknamed for its Turkish clothing, toured the world for the next 80 years, defeating the world’s top chess players plus luminaries such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin, without anyone ever discovering its secrets. Although many skeptics published fine articles purporting that the Turk actually contained a child, dwarf, or legless adult chess player, or that it must have been secretly controlled by its exhibitor, the workings of the Turk remained one of history’s best kept secrets.

But all secrets are fleeting, and shortly before the Turk’s destruction in an 1854 fire, its last owner’s son, Silas Mitchell, published the revelation, proving that no skeptic had ever correctly guessed how it worked. In fact, no one had even come close. Over the years, three authors in particular had put forth the best known hypotheses, and Kempelen had fooled them all.

But the most intriguing mystery about the Turk would not turn out to be how it worked, but rather why a man like Kempelen would have built it. Kempelen was no Barnum. He was neither a showman nor a magician; he was an inventor and engineer of the highest caliber and held a series of important public works appointments in Maria Theresa’s government. The last thing he’d do would be to construct some sort of sideshow trick. The first of the three most notable proposed explanations came in 1789, by Joseph Friedrich, Freiherr zu Racknitz. He wrote a book based on his many viewings of the Turk and his friendship with Kempelen. Racknitz noted that the Turk’s exhibitor would always first open and close the cabinet’s various doors for the audience’s inspection. He concluded that a very small human operator was inside the cabinet, lying flat during the opening of the doors; and then, during game play, sat up, played the game on a small secondary chessboard, and watched magnetized needles on the bottom of the tabletop to learn what move the opponent had made. By Racknitz’s measurements, the hidden human would have had to be less than five feet tall, and less than seven inches high when lying flat. Kempelen refused to offer any assessment of Racknitz’s proposed solution.

The Turk 800_600px
In 1821, Robert Willis, an engineer of musical instruments, published a pamphlet with his own explanation of the Turk. Willis noted in particular that the order in which the doors were opened for inspection never varied. This, he proposed, was to allow a hidden human operator to move from one part of the cabinet to another, allowing the various cabinets to be shown empty in sequence. Then, to play, the operator would sit up, place his own hand inside the Turk’s arm, and watch the board through the thin fabric shirt covering the Turk’s chest.

The best known analysis was that of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1835, which ultimately found in favor of Willis’ explanation but differed in that it offered far deeper reasoned analysis of why it must be so. For example, Poe noted  .  .  .

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Solfeggio Frequencies

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Are certain, specific sonic frequencies the key to love, intuition, and spiritual order? Do the sounds we hear have a real physiological effect?

skeptoid eyeby Craig Good via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Proponents on the web speak of Solfeggio Frequencies, musical notes that have great healing power. They claim that these pure sounds from antiquity can liberate us from fear, awaken our intuition, and even repair our DNA. Do specific sounds have such power? Where did these mystical frequencies come from? And what can we learn from them?

tuning forks_300pxFirst, their claims. The idea is that certain notes found in ancient music have special uses. Pitches, or notes, are described in Hertz (abbreviated Hz), which is their frequency in cycles per second.

For example, one of the special Solfeggio frequencies is said to be 396 Hz. It sounds like this. [396 Hz] Named UT, it is supposed to be good for “liberating guilt and fear”.

Next is the one called RE, at 417 Hz. [417 Hz] This is good for “undoing situations and facilitating change”.

Impressed? Wait until you hear MI, at 528 Hz. It does “transformation and miracles”, including DNA repair. [528 Hz]

FA, at 629 Hz, is for “connecting and relationships”. [629 Hz]

SOL, at 741 Hz is for “awakening intuition”. [741 Hz]

And LA, at 852 Hz, is for “returning to spiritual order”. [852 Hz]

brainwaves 739_225pxNow, you may have noticed a couple of patterns. One is that, just like most other woo-y, New Age modalities, the claims are all very breezy and unspecific. If they remind you a little of Deepak Chopra that’s not exactly an accident. Some of the web pages promoting Solfeggio Frequencies use his confused misinterpretations of quantum physics for support.

You may recall from Skeptoid #431 how acupuncture proponents can’t even decide how many meridians exist, nor where they are. Similarly, when we dig into Solfeggio Frequencies there are disagreements. One proponent says that the key frequency is not 417, [417 Hz] but 432 Hz. [432 Hz] Further, he claims that this “purest” of sounds is the same frequency to which both the great pyramids of Giza and the Sun itself are tuned.

solfeggioo_250pxYet another proponent says 528 Hz [528 Hz] is the “love frequency” that not only repairs DNA but can “raise the vibration in our chakra system”. There’s no evidence for a chakra system, and this odd use of the word “vibration” resonates more with woo than science.

In fact, if I play the Solfeggio Frequencies as specified on most of the web sites, the scale sounds a little out of tune. [Solfeggio Mystic Hexachord]

As is typical of woo, proponents make an appeal to antiquity. What makes these notes special, you see, is that they come from a medieval Gregorian chant to John the Baptist. It’s one of those things the ancients “just understood.” But, in modern times, our music was retuned to 440 Hz [440] and the secret was lost. Or hidden on purpose, depending on who you read. Some even blame the change, darkly, on a Nazi plot.

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Area 51 Facts and Fiction

Some say alien spacecraft are tested at Nevada’s legendary Area 51 site; what does history have to say?

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re going to soar above the alkaline flats of the Nevada desert at speeds in excess of Mach 3, banking and weaving among the peaks, and come in for a landing at runway 32R at airport designation KXTA. We’re inside the restricted airspace of the Nevada Test and Training Range, operated from nearby Nellis Air Force Base. Area 51 sign 05Commonly called Area 51 by the general public, this well-developed base on the shore of dry Groom Lake is one of the most famous mystery sites in the world, shrouded in rumor and wild claims of aliens and conspiracies.

In 2001, two friends and I took a Cessna Skyhawk from Las Vegas to Tonopah, closely skirting the border of the restricted airspace surrounding Nellis AFB. This happened to be just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at which time the restricted airspace was greatly expanded, and the route that we took then is no longer possible today. But at the time, flying past the radar facility atop Bald Mountain, we were able to legally look right down into Groom Lake, and took plenty of photographs and video. We were contacted by the air traffic control tower at Groom Lake, which was plainly visible from our position, and he asked us what our destination was. We told him Tonopah, and he asked if we’d like him to give us a direct vector to Tonopah. This was his way of saying “Maybe you’d like to veer away and go straight to Tonopah rather than hugging our border.” But as we weren’t doing anything wrong, we declined his offer and finished out our original flight plan. We saw a number of other landing strips scattered about inside Nellis, but none that were as well developed as Groom Lake.

Why were we able to do this, at a base that everyone believes is so top-secret? Everyone says the government denies its existence or that it doesn’t appear on maps. There is indeed one very big secret at Area 51. In the words of Joerg Arnu, founder of the Dreamland Resort web site: “The biggest secret about Area 51 is that it was never secret.”

U-2 spy planeIn late 1950, the United States Atomic Energy Commission established the National Proving Grounds for the testing of nuclear devices, inside the Las Vegas Gunnery and Bombing Range. This huge area was subdivided into parcels called simply Area 1, Area 2, and so on; and only those Areas from 1 to 30 became a final part of the project. Area 51 was merely a leftover piece of land among many others.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Project AQUATONE had resulted in the design of what would become the U-2 spy plane, but for security reasons, they wanted someplace more private than Edwards Air Force Base to develop it. In 1955, a team led by Lockheed’s chief designer, the legendary Kelly Johnson, flew around Nevada looking for an alternate site. They found one inside Area 51: the dry Groom Lake, which they described as “A perfect natural landing field… as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it.”

[…]

Bob-LazarSecurity and confidentiality have been constant throughout Groom Lake’s history. Nobody outside the base has ever had access to whatever work was being done inside, and for a long time, everything that had ever happened there was classified. So conditions were ripe in 1989 when a guy named Bob Lazar told a Las Vegas television reporter that he’d been working there for the past year, reverse engineering alien spacecraft to learn how they worked. For years, Lazar enjoyed a good run of television guest appearances and other publicity.

A lot of people in the UFO community really wanted to believe Lazar’s story, as it so perfectly confirmed their conviction that aliens visit the Earth and that the government covers it up. But everyone who seriously fact-checked Lazar’s claims  .  .  .

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Agenda 21

Does Agenda 21 want to save the world or take it over?

skeptoid eyeby Kevin Hoover via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

“Agenda 21.” Well it certainly sounds ominous. Someone has an agenda, and if this is the 21st, are there 20 others that we aren’t in on? And just look at Agenda 21’s goals – nothing short of a global shift in thinking that aims to put the way we live on planet Earth on a whole new footing. It does this by providing certain… plans guiding the actions of political leaders on every level, even in your neighborhood.

agenda21On its surface, Agenda 21’s goals are hard to fault. It purports to provide a framework for stewarding the environment and bettering the human condition on an enduring basis, all while protecting liberty.

Agenda 21 repeatedly affirms “freedom, dignity and personally held values,” emphasizing personal wealth, improving the health of women and children, protecting cultural and natural assets and keeping the world’s economy stable into the future. That cryptic number 21 simply refers to the 21st century. What’s not to like?

Well, with a name right out of a Robert Ludlum political thriller, Agenda 21 is also something of a conspiracy theory toolkit. It’s backed by the dreaded United Nations, proposes conspiracy-theory-alert_200pxwealth leveling with developing countries, an array of ambitious environmental goals and loads of other changes to traditional ways of doing things, all riding in on a raft of politically charged terminology.

The 300-page document uses the word “sustainable” 647 times and “environment” more than a thousand. The word “science,” by the way, gets 64 mentions, including index entries.

The potential for rhetorical redefinition hasn’t been overlooked by today’s hyperpartisan political writers and politicos. As an unintended consequence of the document, critics have figuratively deforested Earth to create millions of books exposing Agenda 21’s hidden agenda.

Does Agenda 21 forward the framework for a new era of international cooperation and perpetual prosperity for all, or is it really a sinister trick to take away our rights, abolish private property, squash our freedoms, destroy American sovereignty and usher the world into a dark age of dystopian eco-dictatorship?

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Cattle Mutilation

Do alien visitors really abduct and mutilate unsuspecting ungulates?

skeptoid eyeby Alison Hudson via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

It’s three in the morning on a cattle ranch somewhere in Texas. Bessie the cow is half-asleep, mindlessly chewing cud. her ears twitching at flies as she dozes. Suddenly, she is bathed in a cold, bright light from above. She finds her hooves dangling beneath her as she’s hoisted from the ground by an unknown force. cattlemutilation_by_realitylord-d3gwaxt_300pxShe lets out a plaintive moo as she disappears into the strange, alien craft that had been hovering above her. A week later, Rancher Bob stumbles upon the remains of poor Bessie. His prize cow has been skinned, her organs absconded with and her remains discarded in the very pasture where she once grazed.

For many, the above scenario is all too believable. They fear that extraterrestrial spaceships are kidnapping unsuspecting ungulates, conducting horrid vivisections, and then dumping the bodies. The phenomenon is called cattle mutilation, and it is a common part of the modern paranormal lore.

A typical cattle mutilation story begins when the remains of a victim animal have been discovered. Most commonly, these remains have been found in some open field by a rancher, farmer, or other unlucky individual. The animal in question is commonly reported to have been in good health just days prior to the discovery, so the death is unexpected and “natural causes” seems unlikely.

cattleMut613_250pxThe body itself appears to have been mutilated after death. Oftentimes, external body parts are missing, such as the ears, the eyes, the sex organs, or the tongue; in some cases flesh even appears to have been stripped off of the skull. Witnesses insist that the edges of the wounds are smooth and clean, as though done with a surgeon’s scalpel. A scalpel also appears to have split open the stomach of many animals, and internal organs have been removed. A conspicuous absence of blood is another common feature. Always, the witnesses claim that there are no footprints, tire tracks, or scavenger prints leading either towards or away from the body. The death is a mystery, and foul play of some kind is assumed.

The phenomenon does happen; a simple Google Image search for “cattle mutilation” will bring up endless gruesome images of cattle, sheep, and other victim animals with their lips stripped from their teeth, their eye sockets staring out from circles of excised flesh, their bellies open. The question is, how does it happen, and who — or what — is responsible for the condition of the remains?

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Ghost Photography

The history of ghost photography and its many problems as evidence.

skeptoid eyeBy Blake Smith via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

In books promising you a glimpse of the beyond you find page after page of chilling photographic evidence that spirits of the dead walk the earth! A ghostly baby sits on a grave. A translucent figure descends a staircase. A childs face emerges from the flames of a devastating fire. Do these photographs offer real glimpses of ghosts? Or is there a more rational explanation for ghost photography? Let’s expose these mysterious images to the light of science and see what develops.

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Yony O’Rahilly of Wem, England took this photo on 11/19/1995 as Wem Town Hall burned to the ground.
Image: BBC

The history of ghost photography is closely tied to the history of photography itself. Early photography was much like all new technology in that enthusiasts had to become skilled with the various equipment and chemicals required for producing images. Before the invention of photographic film the photographers worked with chemically treated glass plates which could be cleaned and re-used to make new images. Early photographers were often running small businesses, using their photography to make portraits for 19th century families. Because of the bulk of their equipment, most worked in small studios rather than moving their equipment about. Sittings were arranged and paid for. The expensive glass plates were often cleaned and re-used, but if not cleaned properly the remnants of the old image could be seen in subsequent photos. This method of producing multiple exposures was certainly widely known within the field by the photographers, but was not well understood by the general public.

Before we dive into the story of the early spirit photographers, it is important to talk about the cultural stage upon which they performed. The spread of photography was happening simultaneous to the rise of a new religion or belief system called “Spiritualism.” The main ideas of spiritualism centered around the belief that the dead continue to exist as spirits and maintain their consciousness here on earth after they’ve died. Interaction with these spirits was said to be possible through the use of psychics or mediums. Spiritualism began in the 1840s and grew through the early 20th century, attracting millions of followers and adherents. In the wake of this growing movement, ideas such as parlor seances grew very popular and it was quite easy to find people who openly believed in spirits as a scientific reality.

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One of Mumler’s most famous photographs apparently shows Mary Todd Lincoln with the “ghost” of her husband, Abraham Lincoln.
Source: Wikipedia

A large population of people seeking proof of life after death made it possible for a robust network of mediums to set up shop in the north east of the United States. It was in this environment that Boston photographer William Mumler introduced spirit photography to a community eager for more proof of life after death.

Mumler had been a jewelry engraver before he began his new career as a spirit photographer with a single photo which he alleged showed the image of one of his deceased relatives who had died several years before his self portrait was taken. In a time when photography was already an expensive proposition for a family looking for a portrait, Mumler was able to fetch several times the normal cost of a traditional photograph for one of his special portraits which would show a ghostly image of some alleged dead loved one along with the mundane image of the living subject.

How would he accomplish this? How did he fool people with his blurry but easy to reproduce multiple exposure photographs? It was a success for him because  .  .  .

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Ancient Astronauts

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Did aliens visit the ancient Earth and inspire human cultures? Some people claim so.

skeptoid eyeby Alison Hudson via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

UFO enthusiasts often cite June 24, 1947 as the beginning of the modern UFO phenomenon. On that day, Kenneth Arnold coined the term “flying saucer” for the unidentified objects he saw flying past Mount Rainier, and sparked the public’s interest in the idea of alien visitors from another world. But what if aliens had arrived on Earth sooner than that? What if they arrived a lot sooner? That’s the basis of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis, which suggests that alien visitors have been coming to earth for not just decades, but centuries, and maybe even millennia.

Click the image to visit Ancient Aliens Debunked

Click the image to visit Ancient Aliens Debunked

Notions of an Earth visited the ancient past by aliens from another world date back at least a century. In many ways, the Cthulhu mythos, H. P. Lovecraft’s famous mythology of Great Old Ones from deep space who come to Earth and build eons-old cities, is an iteration of the Ancient Astronaut idea. In fact, it’s quite possible that Lovecraft’s stories greatly influenced Morning of the Magicians, a nonfiction French book written in the 1960s that give serious consideration to the idea of Ancient Astronauts visiting the Earth.

If you’ve heard of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis, however, the man you probably have to thank for it is Swiss author Erich Von Daniken. In 1968, Von Daniken drew on various ideas of ancient aliens, probably including the ideas expressed in Morning of the Magicians, and turned them into a book called Chariots of the Gods? In doing so, he launched the modern Ancient Astronaut hypothesis.

aliens1_933_824_150pxThe argument put forth in Chariots of the Gods? is rooted in Clarke’s Third Law, which says that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”” In fact, the second chapter of Chariots of the Gods? sets the stage for the book with precisely that argument. Von Daniken asks readers to imagine what would happen if human spacefarers ever visited a distant world that was populated with a primitive alien culture. He argues that these primitive aliens would lack the vocabulary and knowledge to understand our advanced technology. Instead, they would view their human visitors as divine beings capable of incredible magic.

When our spaceship disappears again into the mists of the universe, our friends will talk about the miracle — “the gods were here!” They will translate it into their simple language and turn it into a saga to be handed down to their sons and daughters.

It’s from this premise, Von Daniken spun his theory: that if other spacefarers visited our primitive Earth cultures, then we too would view them as miraculous gods. And in fact they did visit, he argues, as evidenced by the great works that these primitive cultures simply could not have made on their own and the strange drawings and myths these cultures left behind.

Chariots of the Gods? was a bestseller, as were Von Daniken’s follow-up books with titles like Gods from Outer Space and In Search of Ancient Gods. They created a widespread public awareness of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis that persists to this day.

Popularity doesn’t equate to quality, of course, and the book itself is full of flawed and spurious logic. As just one example  .  .  .

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The Columbus Poltergeist

Did a poltergeist infest a home in Columbus, Ohio? Or was this the work of a mischievous teen?

skeptoid eyeby Blake Smith via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

In 1982 a terrifying phenomena was lifted from the pages of parapsychology literature and turned into the highly successful film, Poltergeist. Although the film was not based on a real case, and the phenomena in the film veered wildly from the historical symptoms, it did make this peculiar type of event culturally available in a way it had never been before. So when a trouble household in Columbus, Ohio began experiencing flying objects and mysterious disturbances, one had to wonder: was this a poltergeist or merely zeitgeist?

poltergeist 02_250pxEnthusiasts of paranormal lore will know that the word poltergeist is derived from the german words for noisy and spirit. Before we get into the particulars of the Columbus Poltergeist, lets talk about skeptics and hauntings. Skeptics are often depicted as dismissing the idea of ghosts and spirits without investigation, but there is actually a rich history of thorough scientific investigations of such alleged phenomena. The most difficult challenge is that the allegedly paranormal events rarely manifest themselves when skeptical researchers are present. This leaves the investigator to more of a forensic role and sometimes with nothing but a collection of anecdotes.

Even the terminology for such events is difficult because a skeptical view of any such phenomena is predicated on examining each unusual component rather than collectively viewing them as a haunting. This is a problem for paranormal believers too in that ghost investigations are all trying to explain elusive phenomena.poltergeist 0800_225px Consider these words: phantoms, shadows, phantasms, ghosts, spirits… there is a robust lexicon to describe these non-corporeal entities, but no scientific proof that any of them exist. For the purposes of this article I’m going to talk about various aspects of this field but remember that these are terms which the scientific community – and Skeptoid – do not endorse as real or genuine. So when I talk about hauntings I’m not endorsing the existence of supernatural manifestations, but using the word to mean “the collection of unusual events” associated with such cases.

Poltergeists cases are characterized by loud noises, things being thrown, apportations of tiny objects, mysterious liquids appearing, rocks falling on the roof, and occasionally people being pushed, clawed, pressed or otherwise harassed. In most cases the poltergeist events are centered around one person – often a teenager. Many times when this central figure is removed from the scene the events stop and do not follow them to other locations.

In 1984 the home of John and Joan Resch became the scene of such events. Glasses, photographs, telephones and lamps were being thrown about and broken and the events all seemed centered on the Resch’s adopted daughter Tina.

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The Fallibility of Memory

We are a story our brain tells itself. And our brains are habitual liars.

skeptoid eyeby Craig Good via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

memory-fix_250pxTake a moment to think of a cherished childhood memory. Try to recall it in detail. Think of where you were, who you were with, the sights, the smells, the tastes. Recall the sounds, like the wind in the trees, and how you felt. Were you happy? Anxious? Laughing? Crying?

We would all like to think that our memory is like a camera that records a scene, tucks it away in a corner of our brain, and retrieves it for playback when we want to relive that birthday ice cream or feel a long lost summer breeze on our cheeks. In a large sense we are what we remember, so memories are an integral part of who we are.

Unfortunately memory isn’t even remotely like a record/playback device. As neurologist and renowned skeptic Dr. Steven Novella puts it,

When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.

As I like to say, we are a story our brain tells itself, and our brains are motivated, skilled, pathological liars.

Lets take a look at memory, get a rough idea of how it works, and learn when and why we need to be cautious about trusting it. Functionally, the three parts of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.

memory falseAs Dr. Novella points out, the problems begin with encoding, even before a memory has been stored. Our brain is constantly filtering information, and constructing its own reality. We are surrounded by detail. Take a moment right now to be aware of every distant sound around you, of all the leaves on the trees, fibers in the carpet, your breathing, and the sensations on your skin — all of it. Imagine dealing with all of that all of the time! Our brains evolved to construct a narrative of what’s going on, lending attention to what matters most. That thing over there that might be a predator is a more pressing matter than the sensation of every individual blade of grass you’re standing on. But just as things get lost, distorted, or added when your favorite book becomes a movie, the running story your brain puts together isn’t a faithful rendition. In fact, sometimes the circuitry in your brain that distinguishes what’s currently happening from a memory gets confused. This is the most likely explanation for déja vu. It’s a glitch in your own brain’s matrix.

And the first thing your brain does with most information is forget it.

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The Astronauts and the Aliens

A close look at some of the stories of UFOs said to have been reported by NASA astronauts.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid – August 10, 2010
Read transcript below or listen here

It was 1962 and American John Glenn was orbiting the Earth in Friendship 7, his capsule on the Mercury-Atlas 6 flight. Ground controllers were mystified at Glenn’s report of fireflies outside his window, strange bright specks that clustered about his ship. The first thought was that they must be ice crystals from Friendship 7’s hydrogen peroxide attitude control rockets, but Glenn was unable to correlate their appearance with the use of the rockets. Astronauts on later flights reported similar bright specks, and eventually we learned enough about the space environment to identify what they were. Spacecraft tend to accumulate clouds of debris and contamination around themselves, and even though Glenn’s rockets sprayed jets of crystals away from the capsule, many of the crystals would gather in this contamination cloud, where they reflected sunlight and interacted with other gases in the cloud. Experiments on board Skylab in the 1970’s using quartz-crystal microbalances confirmed and further characterized this phenomenon. The case of John Glenn’s mysterious fireflies was solved.

The Apollo 16 "flying saucer", compared with a view of the spolight boom from a different mission Photo credit: NASA

The Apollo 16 “flying saucer”, compared with a view of the spolight boom from a different mission
Photo credit: NASA

The stories of our humble explorations of the space around our planet tell of courage, danger, and adventure. But do they conceal another element as well? For as long as humans have had space programs, there have been darker tales flying alongside: tales of mysterious UFOs, apparently alien spacecraft monitoring our progress. These stories come from the early days of the Soviet launches, from the Mercury program, the Gemini program, the space shuttle flights, and perhaps most infamously from the Apollo flights to the moon.

Like pilots, astronauts are often given something of a pass whenever they report a UFO, a pass that presumes it’s impossible for someone with flight training to misidentify anything they see in the sky. Most famously, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, has long maintained that most UFOs are alien spacecraft and that the government is covering up its ongoing active relations with alien cultures. Coming from a real astronaut, Mitchell’s views are often quite convincing to the public.

NASA’s reaction to Mitchell was anticlimactic, but highlighted that their business is launching things into space, not studying UFO reports  .  .  .

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Also See: Apollo 16 UFO Identified (ufocasebook)

SS Iron Mountain

A large riverboat vanished without a trace on the Mississippi River in 1872. Or did it?

skeptoid eyeby Jeff Wagg via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

We’re all familiar with ship disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. Though many say they’re the result of some supernatural force, it’s far more likely that each incident is a case of a big, stormy ocean taking its toll on small, poorly-maintained, or simply unlucky craft. But when a ship disappears without a trace from a river, it’s harder to imagine an explanation. And the legend of the SS Iron Mountain is difficult to explain away.

Here is how her story is usually told. This is an excerpt of the version on paranormal.about.com, complete with the picture that’s most often associated with the SS Iron Mountain:

not_iron_mountain

In June, 1872, the S.S. Iron Mountain steamed out of Vicksburg, Mississippi with an on-deck cargo of bailed cotton and barrels of molasses. Heading up the Mississippi River toward its ultimate destination of Pittsburgh, the ship was also towing a line of barges.

Later that day, another steamship, the Iroquois Chief, found the barges floating freely downriver. The towline had been cut. The crew of the Iroquois Chief secured the barges and waited for the Iron Mountain to arrive and recover them. But it never did. The Iron Mountain, nor any member of its crew, were ever seen again. Not one trace of a wreck or any piece of its cargo ever surfaced or floated to shore. It simply vanished.

Some versions go on to say that ghostly voices can be heard near the site screaming “They’re trying to hurt me! Help!”

As with most legends, there is some truth and some fiction. Let’s see if we can separate the two.

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The Skookum Cast

The first “full body cast” of an alleged Bigfoot left many experts with a different impression.

skeptoid eyeby Blake Smith via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

It’s not as famous outside of the Bigfoot research community as the other alleged evidence. The shaky films and blurry photographs appear in more documentaries, and the giant plaster foot castings are more widely recognized. But in September 2000, Patterson_bigfoota team of investigators from the Bigfoot Field Research Organization (BFRO) emerged from the woods near Skookum Meadows in Washington state with 15 square feet of plaster and Hydrocal® that they claim results from a full body impression of the mysterious man-like animal known as Bigfoot. Was this the best new evidence supporting the existence of Bigfoot since the Patterson Gimlin film? Or was it something else?

Before we dig into the question of whether or not the Skookum Cast is evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, let’s take a look at how the cast came to be taken in the first place. bigfoot-2In late 2000, the Australian television show Animal X was filming its second season. As part of a planned Bigfoot special, they sent a film crew to Washington state to meet with team members of the BFRO to look for Bigfoot evidence in the Pacific Northwest. An expedition was mounted in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The expedition included Matt Moneymaker, Thom Powell, Rick Noll, Dr. Leroy Fish, the film crew from Animal X and several other BFRO members. For six days the team had been blasting recordings of alleged Bigfoot vocalizations, experimenting with pheromone lures, and using thermal cameras. In many ways, they were doing the same kinds of activities that would become the basis for the television show Finding Bigfoot. On the evening of the expedition’s sixth day, the team placed fruit bait near a muddy patch by the road in the hope that it might lure a Bigfoot and provide some good physical evidence. On the seventh day, September 22, the team discovered the large animal impression that would become known as the Skookum Cast.

The Skookum cast is a plaster cast often claimed to be an imprint of the body of Bigfoot, although it is more typically regarded as that of an elk (Wikipedia). Some bigfoot enthusiasts believe the cast shows the imprints of bigfoot body parts (above right).

The expedition members used 200 pounds of casting material and some tent poles to make a record of the large impression. But where were the footprints? Clearly a large animal had made the shape in the mud, but there were none of the signature tracks that have made Bigfoot so famous – and from which it gets its name. There was much discussion and finally a scenario emerged that the BFRO suggests explains the situation: A lone Bigfoot was attracted to the bait, but did not want to leave its tracks so it carefully crawled to the fruit. It then reclined on the ground in the mud while it ate the fruit, before departing in a similar trackless mode. With this theory and their 200 pounds of alleged Bigfoot evidence, team members transported the cast to an indoor location where it could be studied by scientific experts.

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That Elusive Fibromyalgia

Some say fibromyalgia is a real disease, while others question the diagnosis.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re going to head down to our doctor’s office with a complaint that he hears all too often: we have pain. We’re tired. We get headaches, and our hands and feet might be numb in the morning. And along with that pain comes some stiffness. It’s like, “Doc, I just don’t feel all that great.” Don’t fret, because the doctor has heard it all before. But also don’t expect to be able to guess what your doctor is going to say. fibromyalgia_250pxThe diagnosis of fibromyalgia — nonspecific pain that doesn’t seem to have any particular source — is as controversial as just about any other subject at your doctor’s office. Some believe it’s a real physical condition, some believe it’s purely psychogenic, and some think it doesn’t exist at all. What is really known about this popular but vague diagnosis?

Everything about fibromyalgia is rife with red flags. Sham treatments for it are offered in magazine ads and on late-night television infomercials. You’ll see it advertised on billboards. Books, websites, special diets, and worthless supplements are all marketed to sufferers just as aggressively as is the condition itself — the more people can be convinced that they have it, the more products they’ll buy. Chapter and verse, fibromyalgia bears every single warning sign of a pseudoscience. But where it veers from this course and enters the realm of real science is that a growing number of medical researchers believe there is something real here, and some cases are now even proving to be treatable.

Much of the time, when we discuss the subject of whether conditions have a psychological cause or a physiological cause, we find a general trend that psychogenic conditions are best treated by psychotherapy, and physiological conditions are best treated with non-psychiatric medicine. Fibromyalgia appears to be a rare exception to this rule. Its causes have not been determined to be purely psychological, but it does seem to be best treated with psychiatric medicine, including both antidepressants and psychotherapy.

Have I confused you yet? Here’s the thing  .  .  .

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‘Ebola is man-made’, and other crazy conspiracy theories

By Will Storr via The Telegraph

Icke - Remember what you are_250px

Who are the Anunnaki? What is the Planet Nibiru? Click the image to find out.

The best conspiracy theories are like enchanting mazes of logic whose thresholds, once crossed, are hard to return from. As ludicrous as they can appear from a distance, the closer you get, the stronger their gravity and the greater the danger of being sucked in. How else to describe the extraordinary rebirth of David Icke? Best known to some as the former BBC sports presenter who appeared on Wogan in a turquoise tracksuit implying he might be the son of God, to the post-Twin Towers generation he’s the visionary master of conspiracy, performing his unscripted 10-hour lecture about the secret forces that rule the world to sell-out crowds at Wembley Arena.

A 2011 BBC poll found that 14 per cent of Britons believed 9/11 was an inside job. Just as conspiracy websites are flourishing, so are those dedicated to undermining them, such as Snopes, The Skeptic’s Dictionary and Skeptoid. The number one debunking podcast on iTunes, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, claims a weekly listenership of 120,000 and tens of millions of downloads since its 2005 launch.

Icke often describes his work as “dot connecting”. But connecting dots is precisely how all sorts of mistakes about reality arise. “Our brains evolved to spot patterns in the environment and weave them into coherent stories,” says psychologist and conspiracy theory expert Dr Rob Brotherton. “We’re all conspiracy theorists because of the way our minds work. It’s how we make sense of the world. But it’s easy to connect dots that shouldn’t be connected.”

Confirmation bias: Selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.

So humans are rampant dodgy dot connectors, and they also suffer from an array of biases that make them susceptible to faulty belief. “We’re biased towards seeing intentions in the world, to think things were done deliberately instead of being chaotic,” says Dr Brotherton.

“There’s also a proportionality bias, so we want to think that when something big happens in the world it has a big explanation. In the case of JFK, you don’t want to believe some guy you’ve never heard of killed the most important man in the world and changed the course of history. Another is confirmation bias – when we get an idea in our head it’s very easy to find evidence that seems to support it. It takes a very unusual mind to de-convince itself. We’re made to believe.”

And some of the theories out there at the moment really take some believing. Here are five:  .  .  .

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The War of the Worlds Panic Broadcast

War of the worlds 133
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles panicked a nation with a single broadcast. Or did he?
skeptoid eye
by Alison Hudson via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.

War of the worlds 135BSo began one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time: the October 30, 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Whenever Halloween rolls around, I always get in the mood to listen to the so-called “Panic Broadcast”. It’s one of my favouite radio shows. Not only is it a great program by itself, but I’m also fascinated by the story around it. Not the story that’s usually told, however, but the far more interesting truth behind what we all think we know about the “Panic Broadcast.”

Most people know the broad strokes of the popular story. On the evening before Halloween, the Mercury Theater on the Air starring Orson Welles performed a radio version of the popular science fiction story. What set the War of the Worlds broadcast apart from other shows the Mercury Theatre produced was its script, written by Howard Koch with input from Welles. Koch and Welles decided to use what was at the time an uncommon trick for creating realism:war of the worlds 148 they framed the audio play as if it were itself a totally different radio broadcast experiencing a series of journalistic interruptions to the normal nightly entertainment.

What happened next is widely told today in books, in television documentaries, and online: many people tuned in after the show began and, lacking the context of the intro, assumed they actually were listening to news reports about New Jersey being invaded by Martians. This triggered a night of chaos as listeners panicked about the arrival of the interplanetary menace. People fled their homes; people flocked to churches; people called the police; people grabbed their guns; people contemplated suicide; all because of a fake news broadcast about Martian invaders.

The event created a social and political firestorm that threatened the radio industry’s very existence. Within a few days, newspapers were reporting that “literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL”. A flurry of lawsuits was filed against CBS. war of the worlds AttackCongressional hearings were declared, and regulations were imposed forbidding stations from airing fake news broadcasts. The Panic Broadcast has since become a morality tale for broadcasting, a warning against the misuse of the great power that media wields over the public.

At least, that’s the way it’s told. But how could reasonable people accept a fantastic event like Martian invaders as real? Before we answer that question, we need to ask a different question, one often asked here on Skeptoid: did it really happen the way it’s told?

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Here Be Dragons (Brian Dunning)

Originally posted February 9, 2013 this video is definitely worth a second look.

Enjoy :)

MIB


Here Be Dragons is a 40 minute video introduction to critical thinking. This video is on my “must watch” list for skeptics and critical thinkers :)

Most people fully accept paranormal and pseudoscientific claims without critique as they are promoted by the mass media. Here Be Dragons offers a toolbox for recognizing and understanding the dangers of pseudoscience, and appreciation for the reality-based benefits offered by real science.

Here Be Dragons is written and presented by Brian Dunning, host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast and author of the Skeptoid book series.

Source: Here Be Dragons – YouTube.

The St. Clair Triangle UFO

On January 5, 2000 in St. Clair County, Illinois, police officers chased what has come to be known as the St. Clair Triangle UFO. What was in the sky that day?

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

It was a bitterly cold winter morning on January 5, 2000 in St. Clair County, Illinois. At just 4:00 in the morning it was black as pitch and more than three hours before sunrise, and the streets were correspondingly deserted. Today we’re going to study what is said to have happened over the next 45 minutes or so, involving at least four police officers from different different towns, speeding down the highways, chattering on their radios, and pursuing what would become considered by some to be one of the most elusive UFOs in history. It’s become known as the St. Clair Triangle case, and it’s had UFOlogists scratching their heads ever since.

St. Clair Triangle UFO_300pxIn all, seven people saw the object, including four police officers; due to the wee hours, not many people other than police officers were up and about. The first was 66-year-old Mel Noll who parked at his miniature golf course around 4 in the morning, to make sure his plumbing hadn’t frozen. He saw what he described as a big house floating in the air, with windows and all sorts of details. He went to the nearby police station in Highland, where the dispatcher radioed officer Ed Barton. He saw a bright white light, followed it, then parked and got close enough to shut off his own lights and observed that it looked like a giant triangle with bright white lights at each corner. Nearby, insomniac Johnny Doss, listening to a police scanner, heard the call and also went outside and saw what he later described as having several bright lights.

UFO Triangle 752_225pxNext, officer Dave Martin in a neighboring department spotted it, and described three bright white lights with a blinking red one in the middle. Nearby, officer Craig Stevens also heard the chatter and parked his car in a big dark field where he hoped he might be able to see something, and described a huge object with three bright lights in back and a red one in the middle. Further south, officer Matt Jany got out his binoculars and saw what he thought he heard the others describing. It was big, taller in the middle, with lots of lights on it; white on the extremities and red in the middle. The final sighting was two hours later, near sunrise, when commuter Steven Wonnacott saw what he described as a motionless arrowhead shaped object, with a few bright lights and lots of smaller lights on it. Overall, the object spent about one hour traveling some 100 km in a generally southwestern direction.

The UFO community wasted no time. Among the first on the scene was . . .

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The Braxton County Monster

A group of 7 West Virginians looked for a crashed UFO in the hills and ended up getting the fright of their lives.

by Ryan Haupt via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Home-of-the-Green-Monster-300x200Today we tackle a terrifying tale of an alien encounter that goes by many names: “The Braxton County Monster”, “The Sutton Monster”, “The Green Monster” and “The Phantom of Flatwoods,” just to name a few. Growing up as I did in nearby Kanawha County, I had always heard the tale told using the Braxton County Monster moniker, so that’s what I’ll keep using here to avoid confusion. The story goes that in the evening of September 12th, 1952 seven witnesses saw a light from the sky land in the hills outside the town of Flatwoods, West Virginia, and when they went to investigate they came upon a being which frightened them to their very core. So was the Braxton County Monster a true case of an alien encounter in the hills of West Virginia? Or did a confluence of unlikely events lead to a group getting the fright of their lives?

The Night of the Sighting

Even contemporary reports made within days of the incident vary in some details of the actual event, but most agree roughly on the following points. Around 7:15pm several local boys (reports differ on exactly how many there were and their identities) were playing football at the nearby elementary school. meteor 808_300pxThey noticed a bright light streak across the sky and over a hill, seeming to touch down on the property of the farm owned by a Mr. Bailey Fischer. The boys then raced to the home of Kathleen May, a local beautician and mother of Edison and Fred, possibly two of the boys playing football, to report their sighting of a UFO. The group recruited a few more local boys, including 17-year-old national guardsman Eugene Lemon and his dog. The group, now made up of, Kathleen May, Eugene ‘Gene’ Lemon (17), Neil Nunley (14), Teddie Neal (13), Edison ‘Eddie’ May (13), Fred ‘Freddy’ May (12), Ronnie Shaver (10), and possibly Tommy Hyer (10), headed outside of town and up the hill towards the farm.

Upon cresting the hill to a ridge, they were engulfed in a malodorous mist and spotted a pulsing red light emitting from a ball-shaped object hovering just above the ground. Gene’s dog growled at something to their left side, where whomever was holding the flashlight, reports differ, immediately pointed the beam. What the light fell upon was terrible to behold. A large creature, between seven and 12 tall, stood hovering next to a nearby oak tree. It appeared to be wearing some sort of green armor, and a black cowl shaped like a spade from a playing card over it’s blood read head and bright glowing red eyes. flatwoodsmonster 02_350pxSome of the witnesses reported seeing two claw-like hands near the creature’s head, one of which may have been holding a device. Upon seeing the group, the being let out a shrill hiss and started towards them in a slow gliding motion.

The group, gripped with terror, ran headlong down the hill back into town, whereupon they immediately called Braxton County Sheriff Robert Carr. The sheriff was not at his station in nearby Sutton, because he had been called out to investigate a plane crash reported by Woodrow Eagle, who had also seen a light in the sky disappear into the mountains along the Elk River south of Gassaway. By the time Sheriff Carr was able to make it to Flatwoods, local newspaperman A. Stewart Lee of the Braxton Democrat was also on the scene. While the entire group of witnesses was visibly shaken, Gene worked up the nerve to lead a gun-toting posse back to the scene to investigate. The craft and the creature were gone, all that remained was a faint sulfuric odor, some track marks in the grass, and some oily residue along with bits of a black rubber-like substance. In the aftermath of the event, several members of the group described suffering from irritation and swelling of the nose and throat, followed by vomiting and convulsions for another few weeks. These were said to be symptoms of exposure to mustard gas and were attributed to the mist surrounding the area the craft and creature had been spotted in. Whatever had happened, it had clearly make an impact, both emotionally and physiologically, on the witnesses.

braxton headline 02

Possible Explanations

UFO investigators, Gray Barker, who actually grew up in Braxton County, and naturalist Ivan T. Sanderson both went to Flatwoods to research the events of September 12th, with Sanderson arriving as early as September 18th. They explored the site, interviewed witnesses, and wrote reports of their findings that were later published. They both concluded that the group had encountered an extraterrestrial craft and it’s occupant.

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BraxtonCountyMonster

The Water Woo of Masaru Emoto

Masaru Emoto believes that water entagles with human consciousness and emotion, a concept he calls ‘hado’. Is there anything behind Emoto’s water woo?

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re going take a look at one of the founders of a pseudoscience that has, for more than three decades, given birth to a whole slew of knockoff pseudosciences pertaining to water. The man is Masaru Emoto, born in Yokohama in 1943, and creator of what he calls hado (rhymes with shadow). emoto_225pxIt is Emoto’s firm conviction that water, human consciousness, and human emotion are deeply entangled; and he has become best known for his photographs of ice crystals (basically snowflakes) that he says are either beautiful or ugly based on the emotions expressed at the time of their formation. If you write a positive word on a bottle of water, or expose it to a picture of beautiful animals like dolphins, it will freeze into beautiful ice crystals; but if you speak harshly to it, or write a negative word on the bottle, it will freeze into ugly non-crystalline lumps. Emoto’s definition of hado is “The intrinsic vibrational pattern at the atomic level in all matter. The smallest unit of energy. Its basis is the energy of human consciousness.” Throughout his writing in his several books, Emoto uses the word “vibration” in much the same way as Deepak Chopra uses the word “quantum”: without any actual meaning relevant to its context. He writes:

Hado creates words
Words are the vibrations of nature
Therefore beautiful words create beautiful nature
Ugly words create ugly nature
This is the root of the universe.

Dr. Masaru Emoto, the Japanese “scientist” who magically turns normal rice into gross rice, simply by yelling at it.

Dr. Masaru Emoto, the Japanese “scientist” who magically turns normal rice into gross rice, simply by yelling at it.

It’s quite poetic, yet to find any meaning in it, it seems one must view Emoto’s writing purely from the perspective of metaphysics and allegory. But Emoto means it quite literally, and a massive number of products and books have sprung to life in the ecosystem created by Emoto’s magical water beliefs. Water filters claiming to form water into special molecular arrangements that promote super health cite Emoto. His emotion-governed ice crystals were a major theme in the 2004 New Age pseudo-documentary film What the Bleep Do We Know? Uncounted companies sell bottles of water that they say has been blessed, or spoken to positively, or exposed to positive energy, or otherwise prepared in some manner according to Emoto’s research. One web site selling such blessed water (since defunct) even claimed:

…Malformed crystals were created when the water was placed next to a microwave oven, a cell phone, a computer, and a television (unless it showed wholesome family shows).

Emoto also famously claimed that jars of rice will rot if negative words are written on the containers yet will stay fresh if positive words are used instead, an experiment that has become viral on the Internet. And, of course, his beliefs have been embraced and publicized by Hollywood celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow.

But to establish the validity of a scientific claim, we don’t look at what pop culture phenomena it has created. Instead, we look at the data; so to learn more about Emoto’s hado, we have to set aside all of that.

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Out of Place Artifacts (OOPArts)

Originally posted February 28, 2014:

Some objects found around the world seem to defy rational explanation.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re going outside with pick axe and shovel in hand, dig through some ancient strata, and unearth something that looks like it shouldn’t be there. In fact, upon closer inspection, it definitely shouldn’t be there. Throughout recorded history, diggers — both amateur and professional — have been finding objects that appear to be modern or made of advanced materials, but are located in old rock or other places where they shouldn’t, or couldn’t, be.classic-tape2 Such objects have become known as out of place artifacts, or “OOPArts” for short. An OOPArt, by definition, is one that contradicts our existing understanding of history. Some take this to its apparently logical next step, and believe that OOPArts prove history wrong.

In this episode we’re going to take a quick look at some of the most famous OOPArts and see what’s known about each, and hopefully see if we have enough information to conclude that known history must be wrong. A lot of objects that show up on published lists consist of artworks — sculptures or carvings — that make ambiguous depictions, which some interpret as being out of place. One example is a pictograph from Egypt that some say shows an electric lamp. We’re not going to include these today because they’re most likely misinterpretations. Instead we want hard, physical proof of items that couldn’t and shouldn’t exist, but do.

The Baigong Pipes

The Baigong Pipes

Two of the best known have already been covered in previous Skeptoid episodes. The Baigong Pipes, featured in episode 181, were said to be a network of metal pipes buried in native rock said to be 150,000 years old. Some believed they proved the existence of an ancient culture of aliens; others actually studied the pipes and found that they not only weren’t very pipe-like, they were simply petrified wood and bamboo that had washed into a basin and later solidified.

Not all turn out to be misidentifications. The Antikythera Mechanism, featured in episode 184, was a Greek clockwork mechanism found in a shipwreck, and it did indeed represent knowledge that was about a thousand years off from our previous understanding. The find turned out to be really important, and we changed our models of ancient technology as a result. Since it was found, other artifacts have continued to fill in the gaps. This is the model we hope to see for all candidate OOPArts. No misidentification; nothing open to interpretation; just solid physical evidence that changes our understanding. So let’s see if any of the other famous examples fit the bill.

The Coso Artifact

The coso artifact sliced in two

The coso artifact sliced in two

In 1961, three people were out collecting geodes and other interesting rocks for the rock and gem shop they operated in Olancha, CA, little more than a truck stop in the Owens Valley west of Death Valley. When they put their specimens under the diamond blade saw to cut them open, one of them jammed the blade. It had a piece of metal in the center.

It became known as the Coso Artifact, named for the Coso Range of mountains in which it was found. Spark plug collectors all agree that the object inside the rock, as depicted in the one existing X-ray, is a 1920s Champion spark plug. Rocks take a very long time to form, certainly a lot longer than 40 years; so the Coso Artifact has become an icon of OOPArts, and is popularly believed to constitute an insoluble problem.

Unfortunately, the real secret of the Coso Artifact is that . . .

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The Death of Rasputin

Legend says that Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk”, was hard to kill. What does the history say?

Alison Hudsonby Alison Hudson via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

The legend started almost as soon as the cold, lifeless body was fished out of the water. Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, a man who claimed powers from God but whom many saw as the Devil himself, did not die easily. Legend says that his assassins first poisoned him , then shot him, then shot him again, then beat him, and then finally dumped him into the Malaya Nevka River where he drowned only after struggling out of his bonds. Is this unlikely story true? Let’s see if the history agrees with the legend.

RasputinRasputin was born in early January, 1869, in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye. As a young man he developed a strong interest in religious mysticism. He eventually abandoned his family and went to stay at a nearby monastery, where he read theology and debated Scripture with the monks, though he never became a monk himself. In 1890 he claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary which marked him as someone chosen by God for a greater purpose. Eventually, he began to claim the powers of a spiritual healer, saying that through prayer he could cure illness.

Rasputin’s reputation as a healer grew, eventually bringing him to St. Petersburg, where he came to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, the reigning couple of the Romanov line. You see, they were keeping a dark secret: their only son Alexis had been born with hemophilia. The next Tsar of Russia was fated to bleed to death long before he could take his father’s place. When the boy became very ill in 1907, and no doctor was able to bring him back to health, a desperate Alexandra decided to place the fate of the royal line in Rasputin’s hands. Rasputin visited the palace and prayed for the boy; to the Tsarina’s surprise, Alexis improved.

Over the next decade Rasputin developed an increasingly influential relationship with the royal family and a complex yet undeniable place in Russian high society. Alexandra became convinced that Rasputin had been sent by God to save her son, and he eventually became a close confidant of the Tsarina. Rasputin, in turn, used his new favor to wield both social and political influence. Getting into all of the subplots and side stories of Rasputin’s life amongst the Russian elite would be an episode unto itself. Suffice it to say that Rasputin quickly became a noted, sometimes notorious figure, and in doing so made both political and religious enemies, some of whom eventually decieded to remove the bothersome peasant.

The first attempt on Rasputin’s life came  .  .  .

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When People Talk Backwards

Some people believe that your brain encodes its actual meaning in reverse within everything you say.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Just when you thought there was nobody in the world crazier than yourself, along come people who believe that we all subconsciously say what we really mean in reverse, through the unconscious but deliberate choosing of careful words which, if played backwards, say what we actually mean. Get it? ear_180pxThe idea is that I think some coffee is really horrible but I still want to be polite, my brain will subconsciously choose words to make my polite compliment that, if played backwards, would say: This coffee stinks.

Proponents of this hypothesis call it Reverse Speech, because they were really creatively inspired on the day they named it. This is a small group of people — I believe there were six of them at last count — who take this completely seriously and believe that a whole world of secret information and opportunities is waiting to be unlocked by analyzing peoples’ speech in reverse. They turn first to world leaders, play their speeches backward, and listen to learn what they believe is the truth underlying the speech.

A leading advocate for reverse speech, also called backward masking, is David John Oates, an Australian. He’s written several books on the subject and even used to have a syndicated radio show promoting his theory. backward masking_250pxJust about any time a reverse speech expert is interviewed on television, it’s David John Oates. His web site is ReverseSpeech.com, and it’s loaded with all the examples you could ever hope to hear, as well as quite a few products and services he’d like to sell you if you believe his claims. He believes strongly that the human brain secretly encodes its actual meaning in reverse into a person’s normal speech. You can use this to your advantage in business, by decoding what the people across the table are actually telling you; and you can even use it in personal development by listening to your own speech backwards and learning more about what you really want. One of the examples from ReverseSpeech.com is of this man giving a talk:

And when you play it backwards, turns out he was trying to comfort you with the message “You’re frightened, lean on me”:

Pretty interesting, but not necessarily convincing to a skeptic. A skeptic is more likely to dismiss these guys as conspiracy nuts and laugh at what paranoid delusionals they are, but it’s actually way cooler and more interesting (and more constructive) to ask if there is any science behind what they’re claiming. backwards masking_300pxI’m not talking about science supporting the claim that people say what they actually mean in reverse; I’m talking about science behind the perception of order from chaos. And, it turns out, there is good science behind it. The journal Science published an article in 1981 by Remez, Rubin, Pisoni, and Carrell called Speech perception without traditional speech cues. By playing what they called a “three-tone sinusoidal replica”, or a complicated sine wave sound, they found that people were able to perceive speech, when in fact there were no traditional speech sounds present in the signal. So rather than laughing at a reverse speech advocate, instead appreciate the fact that there is good science driving their perception of what they’re hearing. They’re not making anything up, they’re just unaware of the natural explanation for their phenomenon.

To better understand what these authors did in their experiment, listen to this brief cue consisting of nothing but sine waves:

It almost does sound like speech, doesn’t it? But it’s not quite clear what it’s saying. Well, suppose someone told you that it says:

Now listen to it again:

This time, it’s almost impossible not to hear the words that you’ve been preconditioned to hear. Let’s play another one, this one is harder . . .

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Acupuncture

Is acupuncture really ancient Chinese medicine? Does it work? Is it safe?

Craig Good Skeptoid 02_90pxby Craig Good via skeptoid
Read podcast transcript below or listen here

This ancient Chinese medical tradition stretches back over 3,000 years, the wisdom of the ancients producing medically valid results even today. As in antiquity, slender needles are inserted at precise meridian points on the body and manipulated by a skilled practitioner. acupucture_chinese_medicine_300pxEach acupuncture point relates to a specific organ or function in the body, and the practice manipulates the body’s energy, or qi to manage pain and treat a host of conditions including allergies, asthma, headaches, sciatica, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, constipation, and even sexual dysfunction. Acupuncture is, in short, a venerable medical miracle.

Or is it? Let’s cast a skeptical eye at one of the most popular “alternative” medical modalities in the modern world.

Exactly how ancient is acupuncture? Not nearly as ancient as you may think. The first clue is right there in the hands of the acupuncturist: Those slender, flexible, stainless steel needles. The technology to make them didn’t even exist until about 400 years ago.

There are even more historical clues. The Chinese have long kept detailed records. When we examine them we do, indeed, find references to a practice called needling, but the earliest dates to about 90 BCE. The needles from that era were large, and the practice of needling refers to bloodletting and the lancing of abscesses, a treatment nothing like today’s acupuncture. Earlier Chinese medical texts, some reaching back to the 3rd century BCE, never even mention it. There’s no evidence at all that acupuncture is anywhere near 3,000 years old.

No matter. At least acupuncture is Chinese, right? Maybe not.

Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld thinks that the practice may have started in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates of Cos, and later spread to China. A fundamental feature of acupuncture, namely the special meridian points where the needles must be placed, can be traced to the medieval Islamic and European ideas of astrology mapped onto the body. This rather obvious link led researcher Ben Kavoussi to call acupuncture “Astrology with needles” He writes:

…for most of China’s long medical history, needling, bloodletting and cautery were largely practiced by itinerant and illiterate folk-healers, and frowned upon by the learned physicians who favored the use of pharmacopoeia.

funny_medical_acupuncture_poster-rd59e5d04896c4a0a8f114cb47de682b6_wvk_8byvr_512_250pxAccounts of Chinese medicine first reach Europe in the 13th century. None of them even mentioned acupuncture. Wilhelm Ten Rhijn, writing in 1680, was the first Westerner to reference acupuncture. But what he described bears little resemblance to the acupuncture of today. There was no mention of qi, which is sometimes translated as chi, or any specific points. He spoke of large gold needles that were implanted deep into the skull or womb and left in place for 30 respirations.

The first American acupuncture trials were in 1826, when it was seen as a possible method of resuscitating drowning victims. As Dr. Harriet Hall describes it, “They couldn’t get it to work and ‘gave up in disgust.’ I imagine sticking needles in soggy dead bodies was pretty disgusting.”

Even through the early part of the 20th century nobody spoke of qi or meridians. Practitioners merely inserted needles near the point of pain. In fact, qi used to refer to the vapor arising from food, and the meridians were called channels or vessels, which is part of acupuncture’s link to medieval astrology and vitalism.

So just when and where did meridians enter the picture, and qi finally become some kind of energy?

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Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The clash between the champions of scientific skepticism and supernaturalism.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was best known as the world’s most famous magician during his lifetime, and also as a tireless debunker of false mediums and dishonest claims of profit-driven supernaturalists. He followed a simple strategy, one that’s the fundamental basis of the scientific method: Work hard to falsify all new hypotheses, and maintain a mind open to all new evidence. houdini_conan_doyle_250pxSadly for Houdini, this meant testing what could have been one of the most important personal relationships to the history of public understanding of science.

Much has been made of the friendship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur would seem to have been a man of science and rational thought, but he was a lifelong steadfast believer in the supernatural. In fact, it was something that was at the forefront of his attention much of the time. One of the most telling events in Sir Arthur’s career came when he was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which is often criticized for being composed mainly of true believers in the paranormal, and not all that interested in objective research. In the 1920s, Sir Arthur led a mass resignation of 84 members of the Society, on the grounds that it was too skeptical. The staunchest of the resignees joined the Ghost Club, of which Sir Arthur was a longtime member. The Ghost Club made no apologies for being fully dedicated to the supernatural as an absolute fact. In addition, Sir Arthur’s wife, Lady Doyle, was a medium who often conducted séances appearing to be in communication with the dead, and Sir Arthur was absolutely convinced of the reality of her ability.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spirit photo_200px captionedDespite a radical difference of opinion, Houdini and Sir Arthur managed to keep their friendship alive for some years, each often writing to the other of their mutual respect, their agreement to disagree, and the value of honesty and integrity in one’s own beliefs — neither man ever doubting the other’s sincerity; at least for a while.

In the spring of 1922, Houdini invited Sir Arthur to the home of his friend Bernard Ernst, a lawyer in New York, in an effort to show him that even the most amazing feats of mediums could be accomplished by skilled — albeit earthly — trickery. He had good reason to sway Sir Arthur if he could; Sir Arthur was passionately engaged in promoting the supernatural to his vast worldwide audience, a public disservice if there ever was one, as honestly intentioned as it was. Houdini prepared a magic trick, one that’s familiar to any practitioner of the art. He had Sir Arthur go outside in private and write a simple note that there’s no way Houdini could have seen; and then upon his return to the room, Houdini had a cork ball soaked in white ink magically roll around on a slate and spell out the very note Sir Arthur had written. Sir Arthur was aghast. Houdini wrote him:  .  .  .

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Also See: An Actual Recording Of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Spirit” From A 1934 Séance (io9.com)

Seance

Organic Ghost Detector

Stephen PropatierBy Stephen Propatier via Skeptoid

Organic food labeling is marketing, not science. Organic marketers utilize any bit of data that can be spun to promote a significant difference, producing a constant drone of nonsense. This week an article in Science World Report tops my nonsense list for organic agriculture promotion. The article “New Test May Detect Organic Food Fraud: Is Your Produce Really Organic?” is a subtle but effective promotion of organic foods’ purported benefits. Organic EMF 03_250pxThis article is based on a press release offering the idea that there may be a test to separate falsely labeled organic produce from true organic produce.

Testing foods for organic label fraud sounds plausible on the surface, but is it? The proposed methodology for testing, as described by Science World Report, lacks a major scientific underpinning. Organic agriculture proponents have long suggested that there organic foods have measurable nutritional benefits over conventional agriculture, asserting that organic foods are safer and/or more nutritious than conventionally grown products. Most of this conjecture is based upon small, poorly structured studies. Any measurable benefit, when compared to conventional agriculture, disappears in large well controlled studies. That pattern—poor research yielding positive outcomes, well-structured research producing negative outcomes—is consistent with statistical noise or poorly done research. So what is this proposed test looking for? Is there any testable difference between organic and conventional?

Testing organic food is the agricultural world’s version of the ghost meter, in my opinion. A ghost meter is a electromagnetic field meter used by “Ghost Hunters” to detect the presence of ghosts. Sometimes it’s a charlatan’s prop, but more often the device is used to assure people (typically the user) that ghosts can be detected. gmo-labeling_2_150pxA science-y sounding method and device is demonstrated, just without any science actually involved. The meter finds changes in EM fields around a supposedly haunted site, and ghost hunters assume that ghosts produce or affect EM fields. This also assumes that the fields they detect are different from any regular EM field, which are everywhere, produced by the sun, cellphones, cameras, light bulbs, and other electrical devices.

A test for organic food “authenticity” similarly lacks any scientific basis. Like a ghost meter there are fundamental assumptions being made that thus far have been answered tested out as false. Currently the best information is that there are no  .  .  .

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The Many Voices of Frank’s Box

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Frank’s ghost box is a radio designed to hear communications from ghosts. What can we actually learn from it?

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Many times have the annals of the paranormal been graced with descriptions of Frank’s ghost box, an electronic device that is claimed to allow ghosts to communicate with us through randomly tuned radio broadcasts. Imagine turning the tuning knob on a radio (first, imagine a radio that still works that way), and recording the sound output. You’d expect a bunch of random noise from across all those stations you just swept past, and that’s exactly what Frank’s Box produces. FranksBox 844But inventor Frank Sumption, and many imitators who have built similar devices, believe they receive intelligent communication in that noise. It’s basically an iteration of what ghost hunters call Electronic Voice Phenomena, the idea that ghosts communicate with us through electronics.

I should note that the impetus for this episode was an email I received from Frank Sumption’s niece. I won’t give her name or what she said in the email, but her point is that Frank is a good, honest, average guy who is notable only in that he believes he’s stumbled onto something. He doesn’t scam anyone; he’s neither selling his box with unproven claims, nor is he charging people money to talk to their dead relatives. Frank makes the plans to build his device available for free as a downloadable PDF file, and he has a page on SoundCloud where he posts his most interesting recordings, for everyone to hear. He’s a guy who has some bad information, and has failed to apply critical thinking to it within the context of scientific literacy. In other words, he’s exactly like 99% of the people out there. Nevertheless, most of the time when Frank Sumption has been mentioned anywhere, online, in print, or on a radio program or podcast, he’s dismissed as a crazy nutcase — and that’s precisely what prompted his niece to write. So today we’re going to look at the phenomenon of Frank’s ghost box and talk about how and why it occupies the place it does in pop paranormal culture, and hopefully find something more intelligent to discuss than hurling personal insults.

So let’s get to what you really want to hear, some of Frank’s received messages. Let’s get started with one just to get the idea. On his SoundCloud page, Frank posts clips that he has already edited down to just the moment that he considers significant, and then repeats each one several times as he adds equalization and/or changes the pitch to make the speech more distinct. Here’s one, and I’ll just tell you in advance that Frank has identified the words “Frank we’ll save you” in here:

Frank’s Box, or the “ghost box” as Frank prefers it to be called, is often described as a random radio tuner, but there’s a bit more to it than that. He first developed the idea in 2002, and there are three basic parts to his device. First is a component that generates either white noise, like this:

Or, a sweeping tone like this:

GhostBox_300pxThen the voltage of that signal is moderated to the correct voltage that can be used to control the tuner of a radio taken from a car stereo, which is the second component. Car stereos are used whose tuners are voltage controlled, which in their original factory condition, would have come from the tuning knob; but in Frank’s case, it’s either a random signal that constantly tunes the radio all over the dial, or a sweeping signal that tunes the radio all the way from one end to the other. Frank has said he believes that the sweeping method gives better results than the random, or white noise controlled, method.

The third component is what he calls the echo box. It’s a box about the size of a shoe box with speakers and a microphone inside. The radio’s audio output is played over the speakers inside the chamber, and picked up by the microphone. The signal coming from this microphone is what produces the final product. So what you hear from the box is not the direct output of what the radio tuner picks up; you’re actually hearing it one generation away. It’s played over speakers into a small box and then that live audio is recorded and played for you.

Frank describes the purpose of the echo box  .  .  .

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The Haunted Dybbuk Box

A popular tale tells of a haunted Jewish wine box that brought ill fortune upon its owners… apparently.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Every once in a while, there’s a small, local ghost story that’s not very good, or that even has an obvious commercial origin, and that has no business becoming popular — but it does. The famous “dybbuk box” (also spelled dibbuk) is one such story. It went from a screenwriter’s pen on an eBay auction page, all the way onto the Hollywood big screen, with 2012’s The Possession starring Kyra Sedgwick and directed by Sam Raimi. It is the story of a small antique wooden box designed to hold a few bottles of wine, to which was attached a horror story going all the way back to the Holocaust. Whoever owned the box, it was said, experienced terrible disturbances for as long as the box was in their home. Why? Because, according to the story, the wine box was inhabited by a “dybbuk”, said to be a tormented spirit come back from the dead.

Dybbuk, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien.

Dybbuk, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien.

The whole idea of the box being inhabited by a dybbuk (דיבבוק) is nonsensical, according to what a dybbuk is supposed to be. The Encyclopedia Mythica describes it as “a disembodied spirit possessing a living body that belongs to another soul” and usually talks from that person’s mouth. An important 1914 Yiddish play The Dybbuk was about the spirit of a dead man who possessed the living body of the woman he had loved, and had to be exorcised. The word comes from the Hebrew verb “to cling”, so a dybbuk is specifically a soul who clings to another. Nowhere in the folkloric literature is there precedent for a dybbuk inhabiting a box or other inanimate object.

But of course, we’re talking definitions of folkloric terms, fictional by their very definition; so there’s no reason why this particular dybbuk can’t inhabit a wooden box if it wants to. And besides, the fact that folklore exists for a possessing spirit tells us nothing about whether or not factual events did indeed harass the owners of this box. dybbuk box_225pxThe folklore is irrelevant to the question of whether or not this wine box did indeed cause the frightening disturbances attributed to it. So let’s see what the box’s claimed history is.

One thing to keep in mind is that, if you’ve heard this story before, you’ve probably heard that the box was owned by a whole series of people, each of whom had lots of terrifying experiences, and they then got rid of it to someone else. In fact, the lone skeptical quote associated with this story is from Chris French, who said of these many owners:

“[They were] already primed to be looking out for bad stuff. If you believe you have been cursed, then inevitably you explain the bad stuff that happens in terms of what you perceive to be the cause. Put it like this: I would be happy to own this object.”

kevin mannis syfy_250pxBut then when we look at its actual history, the number of people whose hands it is documented to have gone through becomes astonishingly small, two or three at most; and each of whom went to great pains to tell the ghost story in a dramatic way. Let’s have a look.

The dybbuk box first appeared in 2003 as an eBay auction by Kevin Mannis, who owned a used furniture shop in Portland, Oregon. But it was not listed as a piece of furniture; it was listed as a mysterious haunted item. Mannis wrote on his eBay page an elaborate horror story.

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Click image to watch

Click image to watch

The Legend of the Flying Dutchman

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What is the real source of the ancient nautical legends of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship?

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Some say it is a spectral schooner seen under full sail, sometimes in the distance, sometimes at night or through the fog, sometimes gliding above the water; its sails may be torn to ribbons, or it may be making great headway even in the lack of wind. Some say the Dutchman refers to the captain of the ship, a man cursed to sail the seas forever and never make land. Flying Dutchman 736_300pxSome say the captain and his ship are doomed to forever try to round a stormy cape, never quite succeeding and always being beaten back by the howling wind and waves. But whatever the specifics of the legend, the Flying Dutchman has become a mainstay of maritime lore.

With such a famous story, it would seem worthwhile to see whether it grew from some seed of fact. References to the Flying Dutchman have been around for more than two centuries, and sailing ships were plowing the salt water for centuries before that; so it seems a practical certainty that we should be able to nail down exactly what triggered the stories. A good place to start is its most famous iteration in pop culture. In Wagner’s 1840 opera Der Fliegende Holländer, it is not the ship that is named the Flying Dutchman, but refers to the captain of the ghostly vessel.

The Dutchman, who is unnamed in the opera, commands a ship with only a spectral crew. He makes port in a storm in Norway, and grapples to the ship of Captain Daland. The Dutchman reveals to the captain that years ago, me made a curse during a storm, swearing to Satan that he would round the Cape of Good Hope even if he had to keep trying until doomsday. Satan took him at his word, and cursed him to never be able to make port until he found a woman who would love him until she died. Fortunately, the captain has a nubile daughter, Senta, who, upon hearing of the Dutchman’s terrible plight, falls in love with him. But another suitor, the muscular and handsome huntsman Erik, reminds Senta that she had once promised herself to him. When the Dutchman hears of this, he assumes he is lost forever and casts off with his ghostly crew. Flying Dutchman 735_300pxBut Senta’s love was true, and when she sees the Dutchman sail away, she throws herself into the ocean and drowns. The terms of the curse thus fulfilled, the Dutchman and his ship are seen ascending to heaven (thus becoming the “flying” Dutchman), where he will finally be able to rest.

Interestingly, the Cape of Good Hope is not the cape infamous for its stormy seas; that’s Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America. The Cape of Good Hope is the tip of the peninsula jutting south from Cape Town, South Africa, and is some 150 kilometers west-north-west from the true southern tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas.

The ship is known for its many ghostly appearances; showing up out of the dark or the fog and then disappearing, often terrifying the sailors who witness it. An interesting point shared by so many of the books and articles written about the Flying Dutchman is that they all list the same half dozen or so famous sightings of the ship; but these reports are all terrible, because in not a single instance is there any reason for the witness to have identified the ship as that of the infamous Dutchman. They saw, or believed they saw, unidentified wooden ships under sail. Let’s have a look at a few:

In 1881, the future King George V of the United Kingdom was a midshipman aboard the H.M.S. Bacchante, when he reported unambiguously that a ship he identified as the Flying Dutchman had crossed their bow. Thirteen men on the Bacchante and two other ships saw it, and it remains in the Admiralty’s official publications in The Cruise of H.M.S. Bacchante.
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In 1942, Nazi admiral Karl Dönitz, at that time the senior commander of the U-boat forces, is reported to have said that “Certain of his U-boat crews claimed that they had seen the Flying Dutchman during their tours of duty east of Suez.”
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In 1939, dozens of people at Glencairn Beach in Cape Town reported seeing the Flying Dutchman charging toward shore under full sail, only to disappear just before disaster.
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Lighthouse keepers at the Cape Point Lighthouse are said to have frequently sighted the Flying Dutchman during storms.
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In 1835, a British ship came near having a collision with the Flying Dutchman, approaching at night under full sail in a storm, but it vanished at the last instant.
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And so on, and so on.

Tall ships remain common all around the world, and have been ever since they first took to the water. Even most modern Navies maintain a multi-masted square rigged ship for training purposes, such as Norway’s Christian Radich, the American USCGC Eagle, and Japan’s Nippon Maru II. Oman is even launching a brand-new three masted, square rigged ship in 2014. Combine these with the hundreds of other square rigged ships afloat and at sea worldwide, and it’s very possible to go out today and see what you might think to be the Flying Dutchman.

So to narrow it down, let’s work backward from Wagner’s 1840 piece, to can see what source materials were available for him to work from.

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Albino Facts and Fiction

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid

The past decade has brought news of an atrocity, mainly from Africa: the slaughter of albino humans for their body parts for use in ritual magic. Bodies are usually found headless and missing one or more limbs, but sometimes are completely torn apart, missing even internal organs. The reason is, of course, pure unadulterated pseudoscience; we can confidently state that there is no magical benefit to the use of albino body parts, and that’s to say nothing of the abhorrence of murder for any purpose. Clearly there are some fictional beliefs out there concerning the nature of people with albinism, and today we’re going to look at some more of these beliefs that might be held even by those of us who are not into black magic.

A young man with albinism in Africa Photo: Wikimedia

A young man with albinism in Africa
Photo: Wikimedia

But the use of their body parts in ritual magic is the elephant in the room. Arms and legs are the witch doctors’ preferred bits. They are used as charms and talismans, and other body parts also have magical value, such as hair being sewn into fishing nets to bring good luck. About five albinos per year are reported to be killed in Africa for their body parts, but the total is probably larger. Perhaps even more frightening is that about the same number of people survive similar attacks, suddenly accosted by men with machetes who hack off the valuable limbs and abscond, with little care for the still-living victim they leave behind. It’s quick cash; in Tanzania, a single limb can be worth up to four times the average annual income. A complete albino body, chopped apart and sold bit by bit, can be worth more five times what the average Tanzanian can expect to earn in a lifetime; a figure often given in the press is $75,000. Fortunately, over the past few years, witch doctors and attackers have been prosecuted and some have been executed, leading to a reduction in these attacks.

But another problem faced by African albinos is that they are nearly always from broken homes. When some African fathers see their child born white, they assume their wives must have been having affairs with white men. The Albino Association of Kenya says that 90% of albinos in that country are raised by single mothers as a result.

There are four basic types of albinism, some of which have subtypes, corresponding to different genetic defects  .  .  .

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The Santa Barbara Simoom of 1859

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Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid

Today we’re going to go back more than a century and a half to a hot summer day on the central coast of California, to the town of Santa Barbara. June 17, 1859 began as a summer day much like any other, clear with plenty of warm sunshine, plus a cool breeze to make it just perfect. But according to legend, something happened that wrought sudden death and destruction: from out of nowhere, a wind with temperatures usually reserved for baking ovens blasted down from the hills, killing animals and injuring people. It immediately set the country’s highest recorded temperature. They named it the simoom, after the hot Sahara wind of the same name. But it turns out that data is hard to come by. Was the Santa Barbara simoom a true freak of nature, or perhaps merely a tall tale told to visitors?

Here is a snippet about the 1859 simoom from the Insider’s Guide to Santa Barbara:

Until 1934, Santa Barbara had a record high temperature on the U.S. Weather Bureau’s books. On June 17, 1859, a simoom (scorching wind) swept down from the northwest, and the mercury soared to 133° Fahrenheit (about 56° Celsius). Cattle dropped dead, and birds fell from the sky. The record was topped when the mercury hit 134° Fahrenheit (about 57° Celsius) in Death Valley in 1934.

It sounds a bit like a tall tale, a perfect subject for our skeptical eye.

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Was the Santa Barbara simoom a true freak of nature, or perhaps merely a tall tale told to visitors?

Sudden, hot winds are absolutely a reality on the California coasts. They’re called the Santa Ana winds, and are the main contributors to the wildfires that can so often be so destructive to coastal communities. Dry air from the Mojave Desert and even the Great Basin further inland forms a high pressure region which cools, sending it spilling downhill toward the coast. The wind is very dry and gusts can reach hurricane forces at their strongest. The wind is usually hot, but not because it came from the desert; it gets heated on the way by adiabatic forces; basically, compression. Santa Ana winds can happen at any time of year, but are most common in the late autumn and early winter.

Although Santa Barbara is a ways up the coast from the Santa Ana winds, it is indirectly affected by them. The high pressure systems that create the Santa Anas are usually moving east, so a few days before they collapse into Santa Anas, they often cause a similar phenomenon in Santa Barbara that locals call the Sundowner. When the Sundowner winds spill over the Santa Ynez mountains and rush to the sea, they can wreak some havoc; but because their path is much shorter, adiabatic compression forces don’t have as much opportunity to heat the Sundowners as much as their more southerly cousins.

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Something Fishy About Omega-3 Supplements

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Stephen PropatierBy Stephen Propatier via Skeptoid

The Huffington Post recently published an article by Dr. Neal Barnard, MD. It is titled “New Study explodes the Eskimo Myth” and it makes some very salient points about the development of the supplement fish oil, its historical roots, and subsequent evaluations of its benefits. This was a pleasure to read—a rare science-based examination by the Huffington Post. Dr. Barnard points out that the original conclusions from investigating fish oil appear to be tainted by researcher error. The seminal 1976 survey  had demonstrated abnormally low rates of heart disease among Inuit despite a high fat diet. But further research has shown that the original study was in fact poorly done and did not properly evaluate the true health history of the Inuit. A recent study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology reviewed the original 1976 research and outlined its major flaws. In  2003 and 2009  follow-up studies demonstrated higher levels of cardiovascular disease among the Inuit peoples, essentially invalidating the hypotheses. If Inuit diets are not cardio-protective what does that say about diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids overall? What does this mean to fish oil supplementation?

SnakeOil-250pxFish oil was developed out of the so-called “Eskimo Anomaly”: the observation that Inuit consumed a relatively high-fat diet rich in blubber and fatty fish, yet also appeared to have low rates of heart disease. As with the “French Paradox,” scientists proposed a possible cardiovascular protective benefit from diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids, a proposition that has formed the basis of fish oil supplementation. The idea that fish oil can help prevent heart disease is has now become entrenched conventional wisdom. But if the original study has been invalidated, we must reconsider whether or not fish oil is actually beneficial. Is the discovery of fish oil a lucky accident or is it just snake oil?

It would seem highly improbable that an incorrect guess about the Inuit’s health would lead to an effective cardiovascular treatment, but it’s not impossible. Science is filled with happy accidents. The fact that fish oil was discovered due to an erroneous evaluation actually says nothing about the effectiveness of the treatment. Fish oil is one of the very few supplements in the United States to have been developed into a prescription drug, called Lovaza. Its active ingredient is Omega-3-acid ethyl esters, which are metabolized by the body into Omega-3 fatty acids. This drug is prescribed to lower serum triglycerides. Randomized, controlled research does show that it seems to be of moderate benefit for hypertriglyceridemia, a condition that predisposes people to cardiovascular disease and prancreatitis.

alternative-medicine-for-dummies_150pxUnfortunately, proponents of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) often suggest that fish oil treats a variety of related and unrelated illness. In CAM, the uses for supplements seem to always exceed the evidence; fish oil is no different for them, and has been recommended to treat everything from cancer to headaches. Despite the large amount of research surrounding fish oil, CAM proponents always seem to find areas that haven’t been studied, using what I call the “drug of the gaps argument” and using what we don’t know about supplements to make wild speculation about benefits. In other words, if we haven’t done any studies for fish oil’s effect on stubbed toes, their assumption is that it will probably cure stubbed toes. Fish oil has tons of research, a lot is known about it and it is safe to say that we have a good grasp of what it can and cannot do. I think it is useful to review what is currently known about the supplement, highlighting what it is most commonly purported to treat as well as its problems.

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12 Step Programs

Are religious-based twelve step programs better at stopping addiction than other programs?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was formed by two men struggling for sobriety, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. Theirs was a new type of program in that it formalized a series of twelve steps that an alcoholic must follow in order to get sober and stay that way. smith wilsonThe original Alcoholics Anonymous was only the first of many such programs set up to address just about every type of addiction and obsessive behavior you can think of: Overeaters Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Underearners Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and even Online Gamers Anonymous. Today we’re going to look a bit into the history of twelve stepping and also how it compares to mainstream psychological treatment of addiction, but mainly into the most important question: Does it work?

It’s impossible to discuss the history of the twelve steps without acknowledging that it is first a religious practice, and second a recovery method. Seven of the twelve steps invoke God. This is the main thing that separates it from medical or psychological addiction treatments that are primarily targeted at the biochemical and psychological causes of addiction. So let’s get started by reviewing the actual twelve steps, and these are the steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. AA-step-1.12_225pxWere entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Wilson and Smith were both from an evangelical Christian organization called the Oxford Group, and the twelve steps they formalized were reminiscent of practices from the Oxford Group. It had standards it called the Four Absolutes (honesty, purity, unselfishness, love), a set of four spiritual practices, and the “Five Cs” procedures: confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance. Thus, salvation through evangelical Christianity was deeply interwoven with the concept of twelve stepping. In the words of Bob Wilson:

“…Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Rev. Sam Shoemaker, their former religious counsel in America, and from nowhere else.”

Because of this, twelve step programs have been strongly criticized, usually by people who dropped out of the programs for one reason or another, and became disgruntled. Some have written books and devoted whole web sites to the idea that twelve stepping is just a bait-and-switch program; come to stop your addiction, but stay to join our church. It’s the same criticism that’s been leveled at Scientology’s Narcanon; it promises to help you get off drugs, but is in reality just a side door into the Church of Scientology.

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The Truth About Remote Viewing

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The psychic technique of remote viewing is consistent with simple, well known magic tricks.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid (May 11, 2007)
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re going to sit in a quiet room and draw sketchy pictures of — well, of anything, really — and claim psychic powers, for we’re demonstrating the amazing psychic ability known as “remote viewing.”

remote viewing psychic_300pxRemote viewing was made popular beginning in the 1970’s, when some in the US intelligence community grew concerned that the Soviets had better psychics than we did. $20 million was appropriated to test the skills of a group of psychics called remote viewers. Supposedly, you could ask them a question about some place, and they’d use psychic abilities to draw you a picture of whatever’s going on there, and it was hoped that this would lead to useful intelligence. Project Stargate, and a few others like it, was canceled by the 1990’s, due to a lack of reliable results. Proponents of Project Stargate say that the US government’s investment in the project proves that it had merit. Critics point out that the funding was stopped, and say that if merit had been found, funding would have at least been continued, if not dramatically increased. We can be reasonably assured that the project did not move underground with renewed funding, since the participants have all long since gone public with full disclosure of what happened. Since none of them have turned up mysteriously disappeared, we can safely assume that the government is not too concerned about this supposedly “classified” information.

The most famous remote viewer to emerge from these projects is a man named Joseph McMoneagle. Today he offers his remote viewing services on a consulting basis, and in 1994 he went on the television show “Put to the Test” to show just what he could do. [This] is a clip from the show … and if you want, … watch it, form your own opinion, then [read] my comments.

remote viewing_250pxWhat you’ll find is that the show’s unabashed endorsement of his abilities contributes largely to the perception of his success, but if you really listen to the statements he makes, and look at the drawings he produces, you’ll find little similarity to what he was supposed to identify. They took him to Houston, Texas and sent a target person to one of four chosen locations. McMoneagle’s task was to draw what she saw, thus determining where she was. They edited the 15 minute session down to just a couple of minutes for the show, so you’ve got to figure that they probably left in only the most significant hits and edited out all of the misses.

The four locations were a life size treehouse in a giant tree, a tall metal waterslide at an amusement park, a dock along the river, and the Water Wall, a huge cement fountain structure. Here is what McMoneagle said:

  1. There’s a river or something riverlike nearby, with manmade improvements. Houston is a famous river town, so this was a pretty good bet. It applies equally well to the waterslide and to the dock.
  2. There are perpendicular lines. I challenge anyone to find any location anywhere without perpendicular lines.
  3. She’s standing on an incline. She was not standing on an incline, and there were no apparent inclines at any of the four locations. Remember, they edited it down to just the most impressive two minutes.
  4. She’s looking up at it. This would apply best to the treehouse, the waterslide, or the Water Wall. There was really nothing to look up at at the dock.
  5. There’s a pedestrian bridge nearby. Sounds like a close match for the treehouse or the walkways on the waterslide.
  6. There is a lot of metallic noise. Probably the big metal waterslide structure is the best match for this.
  7. There’s something big and tall nearby that’s not a building. This applies equally well to all four locations.
  8. There’s a platform with a black stripe. Not a clear match for any of the locations.

That’s it – those were the only statements of Joe’s that they broadcast. Strangely, at no point did they ask McMoneagle to identify the location; they did not even ask him to choose from the four possibilities. Instead, they simply took him to the actual destination where the target person was, which turned out to be the dock, and then set about finding matches to Joe’s statements. Suddenly, nearly all of Joe’s statements made perfect sense! Certainly there’s a river nearby. There was a traffic bridge in the distance: traffic, pedestrians, near, far, no big difference. Metallic noise and something big: there was a ship at the dock, but if you ask me what kind of noise a ship makes, metallic is not the word I’d use. And that platform with a black stripe? Could be a ship.

I argue that the target person could have been  .  .  .

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Project STARGATE: Psychic Soldiers via Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know – YouTube

Project STARGATE may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but for years taxpayer cash funded experiments with psychic powers. Tune in to learn more about the Cold War psychics — and why some people believe these programs continue today.

The London Hammer: An Object Out of Time?

By Mike Weaver via Skeptoid

The London Hammer. Via Wikimedia.An old story regarding a hammer found encased within rock has recently resurfaced. It came to us in a question: is this hammer, the London Hammer, an example of an out of place artifact (OOPart) that calls into question geology, archeology, and the natural history of the Earth? Let’s take a look.

The article that was shared with me is from Epoch Times, written by Tara MacIsaac. From the article:

A hammer was found in London, Texas, in 1934 encased in stone that had formed around it. The rock surrounding the hammer is said to be more than 100 million years old, suggesting the hammer was made well before humans who could have made such an object are thought to have existed.

If this were true, it would be quite interesting. In fairness to Epoch Times and Ms. MacIsaac, the article does do a decent job presenting some of the evidence. I’d ask for a bit more of a scientific inquiry tone to the piece, but there have been far worse examples of reporting than this one.

The London Hammer is well known to those who follow the debates and discussions around OOParts. You may recall that I blogged about OOParts last year. In that piece, I mentioned a good site to explore for bad archeology claims, named, of course, Bad Archaeology. They had a short write up on the London Hammer saying:

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Also See: Out of Place Artifacts (OOPArts) (iLLuMiNuTTi.com)

Lie Detection

Has technology ever been able to reliably discriminate between lies and truths?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.00.43 PMA lot of people, like police officers and gamblers, think they can tell when a person is lying. But what we’ve always longed for is hard data; testable, mechanical proof that a subject is telling the truth or lying. For a long time, the standard has been the polygraph machine. Unfortunately it’s also widely believed to be unreliable and to be inadmissible in a court of law, so today we’re going to look at the hard data to see what polygraphs can and cannot do, and what other lie detection techniques may be on the immediate horizon, and how they fare in comparison. So put out that fire on your pants, and sit back.

Polygraph machines haven’t changed much since the earliest versions were introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century. They combine readings of blood pressure, respiration, pulse rate, and skin conductance, graphing these out with moving needles on a paper scroll. The idea is that these readings will change based on your stress level as you tell a lie. Polygraph_animatedWhile that basic concept is sound, the problem — and it’s a big one — is that any real effect is lost under a sea of other variables. Not only can the subject manipulate all of those readings with simple actions (biting the tongue, poking oneself with a hidden sharp object or fingernail, or even clinching the anal sphincter muscle), but the results are highly dependent upon the interaction between the subject and the polygrapher.

A large part of a polygraph test consists of the presentation. The machine is intended to be intimidating, as are all the wires and sensors attached to the subject’s body; as are actions by the polygrapher such as marking with a pen on the scroll at mysterious intervals. The polygrapher always begins by making you feel that you are very easy to read; for example, by asking you to lie to an innocent question like whether you’re wearing blue jeans, and then looking at the results and reacting as if you are the most comically easiest person to read ever. Polygraph 818_225pxThe whole show is designed to make you anxious about lying; so that if you do lie during the test, your stress will hopefully rise high enough above the noise level to actually give a useful reading. If you go in knowing all of this, knowing that you’re not overmatched and that this is a fair fight, you’ve got a great chance of yielding no useful results, whether you have anything to hide or not.

But more than that, the reading of polygraph results is completely subjective. There was a famous case in 1978 of a man named Floyd “Buzz” Fay, arrested for a murder he had nothing to do with, and who was convicted based on a polygrapher’s analysis of a lie detector test. Fay’s appeal included reports from four other polygraphers who examined the same charts and concluded there was no evidence of any deception. Fay was ultimately released when other investigations found the true killer, and he then became a keystone of the fight against the use of polygraph tests in courts.

Fay was not the only data point. In 1983  .  .  .

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Orbs: The Ghost in the Camera

Are orbs really ghosts, or a common artifact of photography?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Next time you pick up a camera, watch out. You’re holding in your hand the very device responsible for tens of thousands of the most bizarre and unexplainable type of ghost photographs: Orbs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOrbs, formally called Spirit Orbs, are those semi-transparent white balls seen floating around in many photographs taken in ghostly locations. Orbs are among the class of paranormal phenomena that are visible only to cameras, and not to the naked eye.

The usual hypothesis presented by believers is that orbs represent spirits of dead people, though some support variations on that. The science behind this hypothesis is not clear. For example, there are no plausible hypotheses that describe the mechanism by which a person who dies will become a hovering ball of light that appears on film but is invisible to the eye. There are lots of other things that a dead person might become, presumably; and the only reason believers have chosen orbs seems to be that orbs are the most common unexpected objects seen in photographs. If there was any good science behind this, there would at least be some plausible proposals for what the orb might consist of, how and why it is generated by a dead body, why it floats in the air; and also some good predictions about who will become an orb after they die, what size and color that orb would be, and where and when it can be found. orbsI welcome any hypotheses that would explain how orbs could be a real phenomenon, but I haven’t been able to find any. The only evidence is anecdotal reports and, of course, the obligatory photographs, found on the Internet by the thousand.

Orbs most often appear on camera when a piece of airborne dust, an insect, or a water droplet is close to the camera, outside of the depth of field, and the flash source is no more than a few degrees away from the axis of the camera lens. This causes the object to be brightly light but way out of focus, resulting in a semi-transparent whitish circle. If the flash or other light source is significantly off of the axis of the lens, you won’t get nearly as much light reflected right straight back to the camera. If the object is within the depth of field it will be in focus and generally very small, and probably not noticeable. If the object is not very close to the camera, again it won’t pick up enough light from the flash.

I’m often challenged by believers that if orb photos are so easy to take, why don’t I do it then? I don’t because many people have already done so. If you want great step-by-step instructions for taking an orb photo, go to assap.org and click on Paranormal Photos. You will get all the examples, instructions, and explanations that you could ask for.

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The Real Amityville Horror

America’s most popular true ghost story was a hoax.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via Skeptoid, 2007
Read transcript below or listen here

In the small town of Amityville on New York’s Long Island, on a dark evening in 1974, 23 year old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo burst into a bar and declared that his entire family had just been shot. Police discovered six bodies in the DeFeo home at 112 Ocean Avenue, and what’s more, the subsequent investigation revealed that Butch DeFeo had himself killed them all: both his parents, and his four younger siblings, with a Marlin rifle. Despite DeFeo’s claim that strange voices in his head compelled him to commit the murders, he was convicted of all six murders and remains imprisoned to this day.

Amityville_Horror_1979_300pxJust over a year after the murders, the home was purchased by newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz, who moved in with their three children. The house was sold furnished so all of the DeFeo’s furniture was still there, just as it had been on the night of the murders. George Lutz had heard of the murders, so just to be on the safe side, they called a priest whom Kathy knew, to bless the house. The trouble began when the priest was driven out of the house by an angry disembodied voice, and received stigmatic blisters on his skin. The family daughter reported a friendly pig named Jodie, who later began making appearances to the rest of the family through windows. A sculpted lion came to life and walked around the house, and even bit George Lutz. The apparition of a demonic boy appeared and was photographed, which you can find online. Angry red eyes looked into the house at night, and left cloven footprints in the snow. George Lutz woke up in a sweat every night at the same hour the DeFeos were murdered. Stephen Kaplan, a local parapsychologist, was called in to investigate. Powerful forces caused doors to explode off their hinges. Kathy developed strange red marks on her chest and levitated two feet off her bed, and George saw her transform into a hideous old hag. Green slime oozed from the walls of the house, and a crucifix on the wall constantly rotated itself upside down. And, in one final night of terror that the Lutzes have never even been able to describe, the family was driven out of the house, never to return. Their stay had lasted only 28 days.

The apparition of a demonic boy appeared and was photographed.

The apparition of a demonic boy appeared and was photographed.

The events are not surprising, since a few hundred years before the Defeos were murdered, the local Shinnecock Indians used the same property as a sort of insane asylum for their sick and dying. Negative demonic energy was nothing new to the Amityville Horror house.

So what happened next?

George Lutz, whose business was failing (ostensibly as a result of the distraction of the haunting), hoped to find a silver lining and called up the publisher Prentice-Hall. The Exorcist had come out only two years before and had been wildly successful, putting things like demons and abused priests firmly in the public consciousness, so Prentice-Hall was keen to capitalize on the Lutzes’ experience. The publisher engaged author Jay Anson to write the book The Amityville Horror, and the rest is history. The book and subsequent nine motion pictures were highly successful, though most critics agree that the movies were all stupid.

Where it started to get murky was a meeting that George Lutz had during his 28 days in the house. The man he met with was William Weber, who was none other than Butch DeFeo’s defense attorney. Who initiated the meeting is not clear. According to William Weber’s admission in later years, what transpired in that meeting was an agreement that served both men’s interests. The story of the haunting was concocted, based in part upon elements from The Exorcist. George Lutz stood to gain from the potential commerciality of a ghost story based upon the DeFeo murders, and Weber would have a new defense for his client: Demons, as evidenced by the Lutzes’ experience, caused Butch DeFeo to murder his family, at least in Butch’s own mind.

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Hillary vs. Mallory: The First to Everest

Did George Mallory really beat Sir Edmund Hillary to the summit of Mount Everest in 1924?
Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Today we’re going to up in altitude, back into history, and down in temperature, to the days when the most daring adventurers wore wool, cotton and leather instead of advanced lightweight synthetic materials. They had heavy wood handled ice axes instead of aluminum. Their canvas and nylon sleeping bags and tents weighed at least three times what today’s climbers use. Sir Edmund HillaryThey packed calories with heavy metal tins of fish and fruit instead of dense energy bars and electrolyte shots. Their only support was sparsely manned expeditions, rather than today’s crowds of competing porters and contractors and rope layers. Their chances of survival were far slimmer, yet even in the punishing days of the mid 20th century, men managed to compete to be the first to summit the world’s tallest point: Mt. Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit the mountain and live to tell the tale, which they did in 1953. But they certainly weren’t the first to try; Tenzing had, in fact, made it the previous year to a point only 240m short of the summit with a Swiss expedition. A competing claim exists from about 30 years earlier, when climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared while on the final leg of their climb. Their claim is a thin one; it’s based only on the fact that they disappeared and thus aren’t proven to have failed. But today we’re going to examine what evidence there is, and see if we can arrive at a “best guess” at who was first.

The north face of Mount Everest (Wikipedia)

The north face of Mount Everest (Wikipedia)

Let’s look at some foundational information about the mountain. Everest is, in broad strokes, a three-sided pyramid. Its north and east faces are in Tibet, and its southwest face is in Nepal. The boundary between the two countries follows the ridge lines over the summit, so only that northeastern ridge is entirely in one country, Tibet. Tibet and Nepal were both originally closed to outsiders, so nobody had ever been able to try and climb the mountain. But in 1921, Tibet was persuaded to allow access, giving mountaineers access to the north face, the east face, and the northeastern ridge between them. Thus, this ridge, today called the north ridge route, became the route used by the early mountaineers, including Mallory and Irvine. Its grand finale is a series of technical walls that must be climbed, called the First Step, Second Step, and Third Step. The Second Step is the hardest of the three. In 1950, coincident with China’s assertion of its claim over Tibet, access to foreigners was closed, and the north route was no longer available.

George MallorySo when Hillary and Tenzing’s 1953 expedition succeeded, it was via the southeast ridge route. Having secured permission from Nepal, climbers start from the base camp west of the mountain in Nepal, ascend to that southern ridge dividing Nepal from Tibet, and head northwest to the summit, straddling the border all the way. This route remains the most popular today, and is significantly easier. Its most famous obstacle near the summit is the Hillary Step; besides that, it’s mostly no more than a strenuous hike.

So, since Hillary and Mallory took different routes to the summit, we can’t directly compare them. Hillary made it up the southeast ridge route, no problem; and will only be dethroned if evidence ever surfaces that Mallory made it up the north route thirty years before. The only way we can ever solve the mystery is to  .  .  .

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GMO Labeling: Consumer Protection or Fear Mongering?

Stephen PropatierBy Stephen Propatier via Skeptoid

The use of Genetically Modified Organisms, better known as GMO, is an area of debate among skeptics. GMO is actually a broad term that has a lot of moving parts. Forced labeling for consumer foods containing GMOs in the United States has been a growing issue. In skeptical circles this is a controversial topic. GMOs 822_300pxRecently, at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City, there was a GMO discussion panel involving Dr. Steven Novella, Kevin Folta, and Marty Mesh, representing a fair distribution of experts from both sides of the aisle. The discussion panel debated the idea of labeling GMO products for consumers. The organic lobby suggests it as an answer to the questions about the safety of GMO and wants it to be required. The scientific community claims that such labels are deceptive, unnecessary, and there are already safeguards. The GMO proponents say requiring labels would mislead the public about the content and safety of the product.

I have intended to write this blog post since that panel discussion, but it is such a broad subject. Simplifying the issue has been difficult. Here I will limit GMOs to the following definition: food or food-producing organisms that have been altered using genetic engineering techniques . Conventional and organic use selective breeding to tailor organism genetics.

Currently there is advocacy in the United States to require labeling of GMO food. Some EU member states now require labeling of GMO. Is labeling necessary or desirable? Is it a systematic marketing assault on GMO food?

There are good reasons to want GMO in the food supply.

  1. Creating plants better resistant to weeds, pests, and other diseases.
  2. Bigger yields to create more efficient use of land, less uses of herbicides and other pesticides.
  3. Foods with better texture, flavor, and nutritional value.
  4. Foods with a longer shelf life for easier shipping.
  5. GM foods can create an essentially sustainable way to feed the world.

GMO killer tomato_200pxFrom my own observations, most objections to GMO food fall into two categories: corporate fear-mongering and unsubstantiated “fear of the unknown” arguments. The science shows absolutely no dangers in consuming GMO food. There are environmental issues and monocrop issues, but they are not significantly different from conventional crops, including organic crops and animal-farming. Most of the con arguments (we’ll skip the wacky ones) comes from two broad and possibly accurate points:

  1. Genetic modification is unpredictable. It may have unknown horrible consequences for the consumer, environment, or stability of the food supply. I call this the Frankenstein Argument.
  2. GMO are corporate attempts to monopolize food consumers as well as restrict producers through manufactured controls. I call this Argumentum Monsanto.

Like all really good ideological arguments they contain a certain amount of truth. Also like all really good ideological arguments they minimize or avoid facts that do not support their argument. Scientific evaluation of GMO shows no significantly different risk from GMO products than from conventional crops. In many cases the product is chemically identical. Sometimes GMO have been shown to be safer products than conventional foods

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Slacktivism: Raising Awareness

Does clicking a “Like” button on a web site really accomplish anything useful?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

“Slacktivism” is a portmanteau of slacker activism. Everyone likes to think they are being an activist. The Internet is bursting at the seams with ways to make this easy: click a Facebook “Like” button; sign an online petition; retweet a shocking photograph. Facebook-Like-Button-big 03_225pxSuch forms of armchair activism almost never accomplish anything. At their best, most of them are wastes of your time; a pointless click of the mouse. But at their worst, they can steal millions of dollars from armchair activists who are persuaded to donate actual money to what they’re told is some useful cause.

I remember a day in the 1980s when I was driving through a depressed area of Los Angeles, and there was a billboard advertising “Speak Out Against Racism”, with a 976 phone number. These are premium rate phone numbers where the owner receives a portion of the caller’s bill for the call. Out of curiosity, I noted the number and called it later, and all it was was a solicitation for you to leave your thoughts about racism, and then you could speak for however long you wanted, into the recording. slacktivism 02_250pxThere was no indication that anyone was even listening to the recorded messages; in fact, I doubt anyone did anything but collected their monthly check for the calls and took it to the bank. It was an early version of what we now call slacktivism; a malicious one at that, because someone was making money off people who thought they were doing something useful.

Today, an example of slacktivism is more likely to be benign. The online petition is very common. Online petitions are not generally binding on anyone, so they carry essentially no weight at all. But they’re an easy way to make people think they’re accomplishing something, so companies like Change.org offer them by the hundreds of thousands; Google currently lists about three quarters of a million petitions on that site alone. Perhaps once in a long while, a petition will garner enough signatures to persuade a reporter to write an article that a company may respond to from a public relations perspective; but more often, these are not productive. slacktivism 925_300pxOne such example was a petition demanding that PepsiCo remove brominated vegetable oil from their products. Known as BVO, this oil has many uses including non-food applications, like virtually every compound found in virtually every food. Thus, it’s really easy to scare people with. “This food contains a chemical used in flame retardant!” shouted the petition. Not a problem, but because of the negative publicity, PepsiCo announced they’d remove it.

Slacktivism is also commonly used to promote deliberate hoaxes, in addition to the ignorant paranoia to which PepsiCo responded. Twitter is often used to spread misinformation in a shocking way that prompts many people to respond. In 2014, a photograph was circulated that showed a laboratory with a lot of cats strapped into frightening-looking racks. The caption said “Retweet if you say NO to animal testing.” Over 5,000 people spread the shocking message, with cries of “vivisection” and all sorts of horrors, apparently unaware that it was a photo that had, at some point, been deliberately misattributed by a hoaxer who got it from the Gainseville Sun news website. The cats in the picture had been seized from an abusive hoarder, and were being spayed and neutered by veterinary students at the University of Florida to prepare them for adoption to start new lives.

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Subliminal Seduction

How true is Wilson Key’s magnum opus work about subliminal advertising?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Put on your 3D glasses and grab a seat in the theater — it’s time for a wild ride through the psychological cinematic world of subliminal advertising.

Alleged subliminal advertising is said to take place in two forms. In the first, a marketing message like “Drink Pepsi” is flashed on a screen so briefly that a person cannot consciously perceive it. subliminal-messages 02_250pxIn the second, sexual imagery is cunningly hidden within artwork to make it more compelling for no consciously discernible reason. Subliminal means below the threshhold of conscious perception. So, for any such message to be truly subliminal, it must not be consciously detectable. In fact sexual imagery is all over advertising, but if you’re able to perceive it, it’s not subliminal and thus not part of this discussion. Draping a bikini model across the hood of a Camaro is not subliminal advertising.

The magnum opus of subliminal advertising is a book written in 1974 by Wilson Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction, inspired by Vance Packard’s original 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders. Packard’s book discussed ways advertisers might appeal to consumers’ hopes, fears, and guilt. Key took it to a whole new level, “exposing” advertising methods that he had envisioned or perceived on his own. Subliminal Seduction has been highly successful over the decades, spawning at least two sequels (though they contain much of the same material). Key’s assertions have inspired whole college curricula dedicated to propagating the claim that the advertising industry systematically influences the public with subliminal advertising. Just listen to what a few Amazon customers have said about Subliminal Seduction:

subliminal seduction_250px“Why You Should Read This Book”
I have studied subliminal techniques for 30 years. You have to understand psychology to appreciate that you can be manipulated by hidden messages in visual images. Why would commercial artists continue to do it if there were no evidence that it works?

“Read It Carefully”
Key has an uncanny insight into a subject that more people should become aware of. This is where you will miss the boat by not taking the information in this book seriously. The manipulation of our minds is more far reaching than even he could have guessed.

“Enlightening Eye Opener”
This comes from a time before digital computers, and should provoke anyone to ask “If they were that good then, what are they doing to us now?!?”

So what does the advertising industry have to say about subliminal advertising? As it happens, I took a series of advertising seminars earlier in my career with a panel of local ad executives. During one Q&A session, a guy stood up and asked about the findings made in Subliminal Seduction. As one, the panel collectively groaned and laughed. They said that book was the oldest joke in the advertising industry. The author Key has never worked in advertising and his books exhibit no practical knowledge of the advertising business, other than his own delusional perceptions of what he sees in ice cubes.

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Left Brained, Right Brained, or Hare Brained?

Pop psychology tells us we’re all either left brain dominant or right brain dominant. Really?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Perhaps the most pervasive popular belief that people associate with neuroscience is the idea that we all tend to be either left-brained or right-brained, based on traits like creativity or analytical ability. It’s well known that certain brain functions are localized in various parts of the brain, so it would seem to make sense that some of our individual strengths and weaknesses can be quantified based on brain hemisphere dominance. left_right_brain_250pxQuite a few companies even sell products intended to analyze your brain sidedness, promising a variety of personal development benefits. But is this belief — so widely held — good science, terrible science, or some mixture of the two?

Once in college, I took an Honors Colloquium class that was supposed to expose us to a wide variety of ideas and experiences. It was taught by three professors who were presented to us as being the smartest, most well-rounded guys on campus. One of our exercises was to take a test that was supposed to reveal our brain sidedness. The questions were similar to what you might get in a personality test, asking about whether you prefer math or art, privacy or crowds, planning ahead or working on the fly. Some days later we each received our results: a two-axis radar chart, showing a skewed diamond with its left and right corners representing the levels to which we depended on our left brain or right brain, and the top and bottom corners showing the degree to which we depended on our anterior or posterior parts of our brain. It was explained to us that these results could be used to help us self-assess our aptitudes at various skills. Would we be good at sales, leadership, or education? What areas of ourselves could we work on to improve ourselves? What kind of value could we add to an organization with our particular brain map?

Left brain or right brain?

Left brain or right brain?

Most students had crazily shaped radar charts that showed a strong dependence on one brain area or the other. The horizontal axis had a range of zero to 120 on both sides. We all thought that anyone who had a chart exceeding 100 on either side must be extraordinarily talented according to the popularly believed norms: if you were over 100 on the left you were a math or analytical genius; if you were over 100 on the right you were the next Mozart or Rembrandt. I was very proud that mine was the only one that was symmetrical, 94 on both sides; but after later reflection, I recalled that many of the questions had to do with the classes we were taking. At the time my idea was to double major in computer science and film directing, so I’d given a lot of answers that indicated I was both analytical and creative. I hadn’t had much experience in scientific skepticism at that point, but if I had, I might well have realized that the test was grossly unscientific and relied completely on self-reported answers that might have changed from one day to the next, depending on mood, terminology, context, and many other variables.

Looking at the same test now, I realize that was only the tip of the iceberg. Brain sidedness as a predictor of either preferences or aptitudes is unscientific for a very good reason: it’s virtually entirely wrong.

Let’s go back to that popular public assumption that the left brain is analytic and the right brain is creative, upon which so many of the questions in my Honors Colloquium test focused, and upon which the whole class based the entirety of their analyses of their test results. The natural inference is that people whose left brains are dominant must be good at analytical skills, and people whose right brains are dominant must be good at creative skills. The reverse would also be true: If you are a mathematician or engineer, we might deduce that you are left-brained; and if you’re an artist or poet, that you’re right-brained.

Where did this idea come from?

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The Riddle of Flight 19

bermudatri

What caused the 1945 loss of these five aircraft that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Nearly everyone has heard of the Bermuda Triangle, the supposedly mysterious region off the United States’ southeastern coast where planes and ships are believed to disappear at an alarming rate. Its story began in 1946, when a training flight of five US Navy aircraft disappeared, leaving no trace. Also lost without explanation was a large Navy flying boat that went to search for them. bermuda-triangle_250pxSome believe they were swallowed up by whatever strange forces are at work in the Triangle, perhaps some magnetic or weather anomaly, or perhaps something intelligent and more sinister. Today we’re going to examine all the evidence to see if we can solve what happened to the missing planes and their crew.

The aircraft were five Grumman TBM Avengers, the same type of plane in which George H. W. Bush was shot down during World War II only two years earlier. Although they had the same general appearance of a single-engine WWII fighter plane, the Avenger was actually a small bomber containing a bomb bay and carrying a crew of three. Behind and below the pilot were a turret gunner, and a third crewman who was the radio operator, bombardier, and ventral gunner. The plane was powered by a single massive 14-cylinder radial engine, intended to be rugged and reliable enough to keep the plane flying over water even when damaged by enemy fire. Thus, the Avenger was the biggest and heaviest single-engined airplane of the second World War.

Lt. Charles Taylor, Flight 19 instructor Photo: US Navy

Lt. Charles Taylor, Flight 19 instructor
Photo: US Navy

It was just three weeks before Christmas in 1945 when Flight 19 took off for an afternoon training flight from the Naval Air Station at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The exercise was called “Navigation Problem #1”. They were supposed to fly a large triangular route, 91° east out to a point south of Grand Bahama island, then 346° north to a point north of Grand Bahama, and then 241° southwest back to Fort Lauderdale. Halfway out along the bottom line of the triangle, they were to drop practice bombs at a place called the Hen and Chicken Shoals. The total distance was to have been about 316 nautical miles, or about 585 kilometers. Lieutenant Charles Taylor was the instructor, but one of the four student pilots was to act as flight leader. One of the planes was a man short, so in all, there were fourteen men aboard the five planes. The missing man, a Corporal Kosnar, had asked to be excused. Most UFO books and books about the Bermuda Triangle usually state that he had a premonition of danger. This claim seems dubious, as any airman requesting to be excused on that basis would not likely have been coddled and released. In fact, Kosnar was excused because he had simply already completed all the required hours of training.

All went well with dropping the bombs, and continued to go fine until the planes reached their first turn and were supposed to head north, overflying Grand Bahama in the process. That’s when everything got unaccountably crazy. Taylor seemed to be lost. Radio contact was made with ships and with other Navy planes in the area. There was great confusion and contradicting reports of location and direction. At 6:20pm, Taylor made his final radio call:

All planes close up tight… We’ll have to ditch unless landfall.. When the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.

TBF_(Avengers)_flying_in_formation_300px

US Navy Avengers, similar to those of Flight 19. Image: WikiPedia

Other Navy planes that had already been airborne were already searching for them by that time, heading to an area that land stations had triangulated as being the last known location of the Avengers. Bizarrely, this area was well north of the exercise’s triangular route. They’d gone nearly three times as far north as they should have, and never made the turn west back toward the coast.

Within two hours, two big PBM Mariner flying boats had joined the search, each with a crew of thirteen. One of them exploded in flight and went down, an event witnessed by the crew of the commercial ship S.S. Gaines Mills. The PBM had been declared in top shape, and no clue as to the cause of its loss was ever found, nor was its wreckage… just like the fate of Flight 19.

So what happened? The weather was getting pretty rough; the seas and the wind were both running high, and there was rain. While the weather certainly affected visibility to some degree, it was probably not a significantly contributing factor. Any number of bizarre explanations have been suggested: waterspouts, seaquakes; the types of things that have never been known to bring down an aircraft. There’s even a book out titled The Loss of Flight 19: Is There a UFO Base inside the Bermuda Triangle?

The hype that exists was mainly the fruit of the labors of Charles Berlitz, who could arguably be described as the father of the Bermuda Triangle with his 1974 book The Bermuda Triangle in which he promoted all manner of strange hypotheses that could take down a ship or a plane. None of his suggestions have ever been observed to actually do so in the real world. So does all of this mean that we’re forced to leave the mystery of Flight 19 as an unsolved mystery?

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5 Conspiracy Theories that Turned Out to Be True… Maybe?

Skeptoid listeners are always asking for conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. Here’s the best I could come up with.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or Listen here

Ever since the earliest days of Skeptoid, listeners have been asking me for two things: Do an episode on paranormal claims that turned out to be true, and do an episode on conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. For both types of requests, I’ve always answered “Great, just find some for me.” Nothing. Ever. Crickets chirping. So when I went on the Joe Rogan podcast, conspiracy box secret package_250pxwhich has an enormous conspiracy theory following, I asked straight out: Please send me examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. I was buried in email… to the degree that such a thing is possible.

Judging conspiracy theories can be a tricky business. For one thing, they’re often uselessly vague. I can say “The government does things we don’t know about,” and then virtually anything can come out in the news and I can claim to have been right. For another thing, the world is full of real criminal conspiracies, and I can always point to any one of them and claim “Hey, this is a conspiracy theory that was proven true.” So I have a simple pair of requirements that a conspiracy theory must adhere to in order to be considered the type of conspiracy theory that we’re actually talking about when we use the term.

  1. First, it must be specific enough to be falsifiable. This is the fundamental requirement that every scientific theory must comply with to be considered valid. By way of example, compare a vague version of the chemtrails conspiracy theory to a specific disprovable claim. You can’t just say “Some airplanes spray some unknown chemical.” That’s so vague that you could claim you were proven correct the next time a crop duster sprays a field. conspiracy-theories-true_225pxBut if you say “United Airlines tail number NC13327 is equipped to spray VX nerve gas, and that one right there is spraying it right now,” then that’s a claim that can be disproven with a single inspection. You make a claim that specific, you’re proven right, I’ll stand behind you 100%.
  2. Second, it must be known to the conspiracy theorist before it’s discovered by the media or law enforcement. Simply repeating what someone else’s proper investigation has led them to does not constitute developing a theory. Woodward and Bernstein did an intense investigation and put together evidence bit by bit until they had the whole story of the Watergate scandal; at no point did they sit back in their chairs, propose an elaborate conspiracy, then watch as every detail unfolded exactly as they predicted. If you want to impress me with your conspiracy theory, you have to discover it (in detail) before other investigators piece together the proof and make it public for you. Otherwise you’re just claiming credit for reading the newspaper.

So now let’s look at the most common “conspiracy theories proven true” that I was sent:

1. The Gulf of Tonkin

This was overwhelmingly the most common story sent to me from listeners of the Rogan podcast. It was the American excuse to enter the Vietnam War. A small naval battle took place between US forces and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, after which Congress gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to order military action in support of certain Southeast Asian countries who were threatened by Communist forces. Basically, a thinly-veiled authorization for Johnson to go to war with North Vietnam.

USS Maddox in action against North Vietnamese torpedo boats (navy.mil)

USS Maddox in action against North Vietnamese torpedo boats (navy.mil)

The conspiracy part comes from the claim that the naval battle never actually took place, or that it was a fake “false flag” attack by American conspirators trying to give Congress the excuse they wanted. There’s probably a grain of truth to this. There was indeed one real engagement on August 2, 1964, in which planes and ships were damaged on both sides and the North Vietnamese suffered a number of casualties. There’s no doubt there. But it was the second attack two days later on August 4 that was fishy. American forces fired heavily on radar targets only, and nobody ever reported any visual sightings of North Vietnamese forces.

Throughout the day on August 4, as the action was unfolding, Captain Herrick of the destroyer USS Maddox cabled Washington a number of times, and reported in no uncertain terms that he believed there were no enemy forces. This information was public from the beginning. Even as Johnson was drafting his resolution, Senator Wayne Morse was holding public press conferences to reveal that the second attack was without evidence.

Provoking attacks may seem pretty unethical to most of us, but the fact is it’s been a common military tactic since the Romans and the Carthaginians. At no point were the details of the Gulf of Tonkin incident unknown, so it never existed as a conspiracy theory.

2. COINTELPRO

FBISeal_200pxThe FBI’s domestic Counter Intelligence Program was a terrible thing from the beginning. It operated since 1956, and also less formally for nearly 50 years before that. Their purpose was to discredit and harm American groups mainly associated with civil rights, characterizing them as hate groups that threatened national security. The program was blown in 1971 when a group of eight men, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into a small FBI office in a perfectly planned and executed raid. They seized some 1,000 documents detailing COINTELPRO operations and mailed them to newspapers. The FBI was unable to identify any of the burglars before the statute of limitations ran out, so they got away with it clean. As a result, the FBI was forced to terminate this often-illegal program.

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Hey, Where’s the Fukushima Plume?

Mike RothschildBy Mike Rothschild via Skeptoid

After I started writing about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it quickly became clear that there was a huge amount of fearmongering about it. Garbage anti-science pieces like “At the very least your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish are over” and “28 Signs the West Coast is Being Absolutely Fried by Fukushima Radiation” were needlessly scaring the crap out of those who didn’t have the training, knowledge, or common sense filter needed to see through them.

fukushima bread 02_200pxThe result was that people became afraid that radiation was melting all life in the Pacific Ocean, that cancer was slamming the West Coast, that fish were inedible, that the beach was a death zone, that Japan would be obliterated, that half of America would have to be evacuated, that giant marine animals were washing ashore, that the ocean was broken, that life as we knew it was over, and on and on.

And all of that horror was before “the plume” reached the West Coast.

The radiation leak from Fukushima actually has two components. One was the initial leak from the incident itself, which hit the US fairly quickly. The other was the much slower moving “plume” of radioactive water, the extent of which only became clear last year after Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted that 300 tons of runoff was leaking into the Pacific every day, with no way to stop it.

The New York Times’ map of the Fukushima Plume projection. (click image for larger view)

The New York Times’ map of the Fukushima Plume projection. (click image for larger view)

There were generally two reactions to the news that a plume of radioactive water was heading straight toward the West Coast:

Scientists did science. They researched, they set up studies, they developed computer models, they wrote papers, they disseminated their findings, they adjusted their hypotheses accordingly. The aim was to determine when the plume would arrive, what danger it carried, and what the next steps should be.

Panicmongers mongered panic. They wrote long blog posts trumping up the unknown dangers, they spread false stories, they relied on dubious sources, they sold anti-nuclear products, they accused researchers and government officials of covering up the “real story” of how bad it was. The aim was to make money, abolish nuclear power, and spread fear.

What the researchers looking into the plume found was, at least to me, fairly comforting:

  1. Traces of Fukushima radioactivity would reach the West Coast of the US sometime in early 2014.
  2. Because of the natural dilution of a relatively small amount of water in the hugeness of the ocean, they would be just that – traces.
  3. However, there was no way to tell exactly when the radiation would arrive.
  4. Therefore, monitoring of the radiation levels in sea life and water should continue.
  5. While that’s happening, go about your business safe in the knowledge that you aren’t being fried.

So here we are, past early 2014. Almost halfway through the year, really. What’s the status of the plume?

For one thing, we still don’t know when the plume will hit, or if it actually has. The estimates are still a moving target.

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The Mystery of the Sailing Stones in Death Valley

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

California’s remote, beautiful, and foreboding Death Valley has held a mystery for almost a century: it has stones that seem to move on their own, when no one is looking. It happens at Racetrack Playa, a dry lakebed known for its “sailing stones.” This effect occurs at a few other places as well, though Death Valley is the most famous spot.

Heavy rocks like these seem to slide across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park.

Heavy rocks like these seem to slide across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park.

In their book “Mysteries of the World: Unexplained Wonders and Mysterious Phenomena,” Herbert Genzmer and Ulrich Hellenbrand state that “the perfectly flat, dry ground is scoured and scraped with paths that suggest these boulders are being moved along the ground… there is no indication of how this movement could have been brought about by outside forces, and no stone has ever been observed actually making its way across the ground.”

Not all of the stones in Death Valley move. Those that do only move every two to three years, and they don’t all move at the same time or in the same direction. In fact, some seem to have made abrupt 90-degree turns, judging from the tracks, which range from tens of feet to hundreds of feet long. Most of the stones are not huge boulders but instead range from about 6 to 18 inches (15 to 45 centimeters) in diameter.

Several theories have been proposed to explain this curious phenomenon, including some sort of localized, unknown magnetic effect. This theory has been discounted for a variety of reasons including that many of the stones do not contain significant amounts of magnetic elements such as iron, and that the stones should gradually assemble in one place — which they don’t. Some have suggested that the strong winds that blow through the area might move the rocks after the lakebed has become slick.

The most likely solution to the mystery involves a combination of wind, temperature and water. Although Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed, it is not always dry; in fact, water collects on the surface after rainfall or when snow from surrounding peaks melts. Brian Dunning, a California researcher who discussed this mystery on his Skeptoid podcast, notes that when water is present and the temperature falls below freezing — as it sometimes does — a thin sheet of ice is created: “Solid ice, moving with the surface of the lake and with the inertia of a whole surrounding ice sheet, would have no trouble pushing a rock along the slick muddy floor… As the wind shifts and the flow ebbs, these ice floes drag the rocks across the slippery mud surface in zig-zagging paths, even moving heavy rocks and sometimes dragging some but washing past others nearby.”

NASA researcher Ralph Lorenz became intrigued by the enigmatic stones while studying Death Valley weather conditions. He developed a tabletop experiment to show how the rocks might glide across the surface of the lakebed.

Ralph Lorenz’s home experiment

Ralph Lorenz’s home experiment

“I took a small rock and put it in a piece of Tupperware, and filled it with water so there was an inch of water with a bit of the rock sticking out,” Lorenz told Smithsonian.com.

After putting the container in the freezer, Lorenz ended up with a small slab of ice with a rock embedded in it. By placing the ice-bound rock in a large tray of water with sand at the bottom, all he had to do was gently blow on the rock to get it to move across the water. And as the ice-embedded rock moved, it scraped a trail in the sand at the tray’s bottom.

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Video via inFact with Brian Dunning (YouTube)

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