Monthly Archives: January, 2015

Warning: DNA is everywhere!

dna-double-helix

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

In yesterday’s post, I stated that I hated hoaxes worse than I hate outright scientific ignorance.  In response, a loyal reader sent me an article referencing a survey in which 80% of respondents said they favored mandatory labeling of foods that contain DNA.

DNA StrandsI kept looking, in vain, for a sign that this was a joke.  Sadly, this is real.  It came from a study done last month by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics.  And what it shows, in my opinion, is that there are people out there who vote and make important decisions and (apparently) walk upright without dragging their knuckles on the ground, and yet who do not know that DNA is found in every living organism.

Or maybe, they don’t know that most of what we eat is made of cells.  I dunno.  Whatever.  Because if you aren’t currently on the Salt, Baking Soda, and Scotch Diet, you consume the DNA of plants and/or animals every time you eat.

Lettuce contains lettuce DNA.  Potatoes contain potato DNA.  Beef contains cow DNA.  “Slim Jims” contain — well, they contain the DNA of whatever the hell Slim Jims are made from.  I don’t want to know.  But get the picture?  If you put a label on foods with DNA, the label goes on everything.

Ilya Somin, of the Washington Post, even made a suggestion of what such a food-warning label might look like:

WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.

Despite the scary sound of Somin’s tongue-in-cheek proposed label, there’s nothing dangerous about eating DNA.  Enzymes in our small intestines break down the DNA we consume into individual building blocks (nucleotides), and we then use those building blocks to produce our own DNA every time we make new cells.  Which is all the time.  Eating pig DNA will not, as one of my students asked me a few weeks ago, “make us oink.”

science cancelledBut this highlights something rather terrifying, doesn’t it?  Every other day we’re told things like “30% of Americans Are Against GMOs” and “40% of Americans Disbelieve in Anthropogenic Climate Change” and “32% of Americans Believe the Earth is 6,000 Years Old.”  (If you’re curious, I made those percentages up, because I really don’t want to know what the actual numbers are, I’m depressed enough already.)  What the Oklahoma State University study shows is:  none of that is relevant.  If 80% of Americans don’t know what DNA is, why the fuck should I trust what they say on anything else even remotely scientific?

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Does a devil live in Jersey?

By Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know via YouTube

The legend of the Jersey Devil dates back for centuries, and hundreds of people have reported seeing the creature. Yet despite extensive searches, no one has conclusively proven its existence.

Alex Jones Lies

Matt VannThis story tip provided by Matt Vann via Matt’s World O’ Wonders

Social media has escalated the tin-foil hat revolution. Baseless, fact-lacking garbage is multiplied a million-fold with the click of a mouse. When reading the latest drivel, every person has to wonder what truth lies behind the sensationalism. For once I’ve had a front row seat to the malicious nature of shock journalism.

Armored Personnel CarrierFifteen years of my law enforcement career were spent on the Midland County Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team. My last five years on the team were spent as commander before I transferred to the District Attorney’s Office. I’ve worked in or with many government entities in police and military capacity at state, local and federal levels.   My experience is that most government failure is the result of incompetence, complacency or indifference; all of which make a successful far-reaching conspiracy almost impossible.

Around 1998 our team received two M113 Armored Personnel Carriers from the military’s 1033 program. The current conspiracy theory is that these vehicles are to be used against civilians in a massive sweep to move the population into death camps. I never received any orders to take people to death camps, but we did deploy the vehicles in several high-risk situations. My team and its command consisted of very strong, proud patriots so I didn’t have much concern about their part in a world-domination plot. By providing smaller agencies with gear like the M113, the government has reduced the dependence of local police upon state or federal tactical assistance; which is the exact opposite of the alleged conspiracy. Further discredit of the 1033 foil hat theory is fodder for another blog post.

In 2007 our M113, nicknamed “Bubba,” was used to  .  .  .

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USAF ‘Project Blue Book’ details UFO reports in new archive

The archive of more than 12,000 UFO sightings is not the smoking gun to prove alleged sightings of flying saucers and little green men, but it’s a historical asset that chronicles decades of people mistaking meteors for something more.

By Nicole Hensley via NY Daily News

Don’t expect to find the famous 1947 Roswell incident, where witnesses allegedly saw body bags of aliens, in the Air Force reports of UFO sightings.

Don’t expect to find the famous 1947 Roswell incident, where witnesses allegedly saw body bags of aliens, in the Air Force reports of UFO sightings.

From weather balloons and meteors to Atlas missiles soaring high in the sky, the U.S. Air Force finally gave thousands of UFO reports spanning three decades an explanation.

After years of being stuck on microfilm at the National Archives, UFO enthusiast John Greenewald has made available more than 130,000 pages of the U.S. government’s “Project Blue Book.”

The archive of 12,600 reports have been declassified for several years, but until now, there’s been no easy way to read about Cocoa, Fla., cops seeing strange lights in the sky or the time a Shreveport, La., jokester played a flying saucer prank on a colleague.

“Proved to be practical joke perpetrated by one (redacted) … apparatus consisting of eighteen inch aluminum disk,” a July 7, 1947, report states. “Electrical condensers and wire was made in machine shop … and tossed from bldg (sic) into street as joke on (redacted).”

Though most of the reports perused by the Daily News meander toward the mundane — sightings of meteors blazing across the sky and weather balloons bobbing beyond the horizon — there are some gems.

Civilians and members of the military near Walker Air Force Base near Roswell, N.M., kept calling in UFO reports after the 1947 incident.

Civilians and members of the military near Walker Air Force Base near Roswell, N.M., kept calling in UFO reports after the 1947 incident.

“People have this fascination when it comes to UFOs. We can have our speculation that it’s top secret, but we simply don’t know,” Greenewald, of the Black Vault website, told the Daily News.

The entire collection obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests spans more than two decades of digitized and searchable reports. It’s hosted on Greenewald’s site dedicated to sharing government documents.

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10 Of The Worst Alternative Medical Treatments

My Michael Van Duisen via Listverse

Most of the treatments on this list are prescribed by proponents of so-called “natural medicine.” However, more often than not, they are simply quacks, a term derived from the Dutch word quacksalver, which means “hawker of salves.” Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian and musician, summed it up best: “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” That’s not to say that research into alternative medicine shouldn’t be done; rather, once a form of alternative medicine has been proven ineffective, it should be discarded as a viable treatment.

10 • Laetrile

1-laetrileA chemical sibling of amygdalin, a substance commonly found in the pits of apricots and other fruits, as well as almonds, Laetrile is often purported to greatly assist in the treatment of cancer. First created in the middle of the 20th century (the exact origins are unknown), it was allegedly synthesized by a man named Dr. Ernst T. Krebs Jr. However, at least a dozen separate experiments have been done on the substance, with no anti-tumor evidence produced.

The most common rationale for the reason for Laetrile’s “effectiveness” is that cancer cells have a certain enzyme which is not as present in regular, healthy cells. Therefore, the medication, which basically consists of cyanide poisoning, affects only the cancer cells. However, this is categorically false, and a number of cases of death due to cyanide poisoning have been documented. Because of this danger, and due to the fact that it is ineffective as a treatment, Laetrile has been banned from being transported into the US, though it is still used throughout the world.

9 • Colloidal Silver

2-silverColloidal silver is a popular treatment for a number of serious illnesses, such as cancer, HIV, herpes, and other bacterial and viral infections. Basically, a colloidal substance consists of microscopic particles suspended in a liquid. It’s usually taken orally, although some colloidal silver products are salves or injections. (In fact, topical drugs containing silver have been shown to actually benefit burn victims.) Research has been done to examine the claimed effectiveness of oral colloidal silver treatments, but so far no benefits have ever been observed.

The most common side effect of the oral ingestion of colloidal silver is the buildup of silver in a person’s body tissues, which normally results in a condition known as argyria. Usually untreatable and irreversible, argyria doesn’t pose a serious health risk, but it does create a cosmetic problem: The sufferer’s skin, eyes, and internal organs will all become discolored, normally a sickly blue. Excessive amounts of colloidal silver can also result in kidney damage and various neurological problems.

8 • Yohimbe

3-yohimbeExtracted from the bark of a species of evergreen tree native to western Africa, yohimbe has long been a traditional aphrodisiac for the local inhabitants. Touted by “experts” as having beneficial antioxidant properties designed to prevent heart attacks, it can actually lead to medical complications, including increased heart rate or kidney failure. Brought over to Europe at the end of the 19th century, Western medicine used the extract for treating impotence, a popular idea which persisted until other medications, such as Viagra, were introduced.

Unfortunately, the evidence for whether or not it even helps with impotence is spotty at best. Numerous trials have come up with either inconclusive or contradictory data. That not only makes it worthless as a treatment for its primary use, it turns it into nothing more than a potentially life-threatening placebo.

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4 Real News Stories Ripped Straight from ‘The X-Files’

Xfiles_200pxBy via Cracked.com

Besides serving as a brilliant case study for the evolution of 1990s hairstyles, The X-Files taught an entire generation that Occam’s razor — the simplest explanation for strange phenomena is usually the correct one — is boring and stupid and completely wrong. No, the superior explanation is always 44 minutes of aliens and Sasquatches.

That same lesson applies to these four recent news stories, which are all so bizarre that even the Gillian Andersonest of Gillian Andersons would have a tough time denying the involvement of interstellar poltergeists.

#4. The Mars Rover Found a Mystery Rock (That Wasn’t There Before)

As far as exciting discoveries go, Mars has been kind of a wet noodle — the Opportunity rover has found no signs of ancient teleportation arks, atmospheric reactors, or dead John Carters. Just as it seemed we were all about to stop pretending we cared about any of Opportunity’s billion-dollar photographs of orange dirt, it sent back this picture:

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Image: NASA

Big deal, it’s a shiny rock. We’ve got those here on Earth. Now, look at a photo taken of the same area 12 days earlier:

239195_v1

Image: NASA

That shiny rock wasn’t there two weeks prior. Scientists are baffled by the rock’s composition — it contains high amounts of sulfur, magnesium, and manganese, something they claim they’ve never seen before on the surface of Mars. Of course, all of this takes a back seat to the more pressing question: Who the hell put that rock there? Did it grow legs and crawl like the moon rocks in Apollo 18?

Yes, that is actually what that movie was about.

Yes, that is actually what that movie was about.

#3. A Wandering Pit Bull Was Found With an Old Black & White Photo in Its Collar

239199Earlier this month, animal rescue workers in Greenville, South Carolina, picked up a stray pit bull that had wandered into town with absolutely no identification … except for a completely unlabeled black-and-white photograph of a man from Grapes of Wrath times sitting on a porch banister and smiling tucked into its collar.

Presumably the photograph is a picture of either the dog’s human form before he was metamorphosed by a gypsy curse or the man that the dog was sent back in time to destroy. Considering that they have yet to find the dog’s owner or any explanation for its sudden, mysterious appearance, our guesses are as good as any.

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Somewhat related: Fox Wants To Bring Back The X-Files, David Duchovny And Gillian Anderson (io9)

Investigation: Sosatec Wellbalancer (Debunking a quack product)

I just love when this kind of woo quackery gets totally exposed as a fraud. In this case it’s a bogus product called Sosatec Wellbalancer. This video features Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics.

Enjoy 🙂

MIB


By Good Thinking Society via YouTube

Sosatec Bionics Ltd sell pendants and products (“Wellbalancers”) to protect against what they claim is harmful radiation emitted by mobile phones and WiFi – claims which are highly questionable. The scaremongering around mobile phone radiation provokes unfounded health fears in the general public. We witnessed David Bendall (CEO and founder of Sosatec) supposedly demonstrating the effects of his product, using physical demonstrations which we felt were, at best, misleading.

We have reported Sosatec’s claims to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Read Sosatec’s full response and find out more at http://goodthinkingsociety.org/good-t…

Ever Wake Up and Think You See a Ghost?

Here’s What’s Happening

by Bahar Gholipour via LiveScience

It was an ordinary night, but Salma, a 20-year-old student at The American University in Cairo, had a particularly frightening experience. She woke up, unable to move a muscle, and felt as though there were an intruder in her bedroom. She saw what appeared to be a fanged, bloody creature that looked like “something out of a horror movie,” standing beside her bed.

She later explained her experience to researchers who were conducting a survey about sleep paralysis, a common but somewhat unexplained phenomenon in which a person awakens from sleep but feels unable to move. Up to 40 percent of people report experiencing sleep paralysis at some point in their lives, and a few, like Salma, hallucinate shadowy intruders hovering over them.

sleep paralysis 903 flipped_250px“Sleep paralysis can be a very frightening experience for some people, and a clear understanding of what actually causes it would have great implications for people who suffer from it,” said Baland Jalal, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Researchers say that sleep paralysis happens when a person awakens during a stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM). People in this stage of sleep are usually dreaming, but their muscles are nearly paralyzed, which might be an evolutionary adaptation that keeps people from acting out their dreams.

It is harder to explain why a subset of people who experience sleep paralysis feel a menacing figure in their room or pressing on their chests.

One possible explanation could be that the hallucination is the brain’s way of . . .

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Also See: Senses and Non-Sense: 7 Odd Hallucinations (livescience)

Ancient Astronauts

alien greys 918

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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Is your boss a psychopath?

By Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know via YouTube

Almost everyone has dealt with a difficult boss — but could yours actually be insane?

How To Create a Fad Diet

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

Fad diets pop up on a regular basis. I believe that is because they are so easy to manufacture and there is a ready made market for them. Add to that the fact that it is difficult to lose weight. There is also a great deal of misinformation out there about diet and health, so the environment is very friendly to pop pseudoscience.

If you want to create your own fad diet, here is a handy formula. These things pretty much write themselves.

#1 • You need a catchy title, usually taking the form of “The blank Diet.” You can fill in the blank with almost anything. For example, a recent fad diet is called “the bulletproof diet.” This doesn’t say anything about the diet itself, it’s just a catchy phrase, a brand. You can fill in the blank with a title that does reflect the diet itself, but this is optional. Creating a catchy title is actually the most creative work you have to do in making a fad diet.

#2 • Make outrageous claims of success. The bigger the lie, the more people are inclined to think that it’s not a lie because no one would be that audacious. before and after_300pxSo just come up with a very impressive figure – a pound a day, 10 pounds a week, or whatever. In reality, on a healthy weight-loss diet people will lose about 1.5-2.5 pounds per week maximum, depending on their current weight, fat percentage, and other variables. Also, weight loss itself is not the ultimate goal, just a marker. People really want to reduce fat and build muscle. Following waist size is also a good measure, and perhaps better. Using the scale is helpful to make sure you are staying on track, however. Liberally use the world “miracle,” although admittedly Dr. Oz has tainted this word a bit by overusing it.

#3 • Testimonials. Personal stories, starting with your own, are the bedrock of fad diets. Don’t worry if there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support your claims – fad diets are not about evidence. They are about selling a narrative, one in which people struggled endlessly to lose weight, but then started the X diet and the weight just fell off. Testimonials can be very compelling, even though they are almost worthless as evidence. Actually, that is their advantage for you as a fad diet marketer, because you can find testimonials to support whatever claims you wish to make.

#4 • The Secret. Your fad diet has to have the secret or key to weight loss. Make this as compelling as possible, using  .  .  .

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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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Glyphosate – The New Bogeyman

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

There is an ideological subculture that is motivated to blame all the perceived ills of the world on environmental factors and corporate/government malfeasance. Often this serves a deeper ideological drive, which can be anti-vaccine, extreme environmentalism, or anti-GMO. Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 6.09.56 PMThe latest environmental bogeyman making the rounds is glyphosate, which is being blamed for (you guessed it) autism.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. It has been widely used for about 40 years, and with the introduction of GM crops that are Roundup resistant, its use has increased significantly in the last 20 years. It has therefore become a popular target for anti-GMO fearmongering.

round upGlyphosate is one of the least toxic herbicides used. It inhibits the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase which interferes with the shikimic pathway in plants, resulting in the accumulation of shikimic acid in plant tissues and ultimately plant death. The enzyme and pathway do not exist in animals, which is why toxicity is so low. Still, chemicals can have multiple effects and so toxicity needs to be directly measured and its epidemiology studied.

A systematic review published on 2000 found:

Experimental evidence has shown that neither glyphosate nor AMPA bioaccumulates in any animal tissue. No significant toxicity occurred in acute, subchronic, and chronic studies.

and

Therefore, it is concluded that the use of Roundup herbicide does not result in adverse effects on development, reproduction, or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals. For purposes of risk assessment, no-observed-adverse-effect levels (NOAELs) were identified for all subchronic, chronic, developmental, and reproduction studies with glyphosate, AMPA, and POEA.

As pesticides go, glyphosate has very low toxicity, and any dose a person is likely to get exposed to is well below the safety limits.

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Dream weavers

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

Hard-nosed science types like myself are often criticized by the paranormal enthusiasts for setting too high a bar for what we’ll accept as evidence.  The supernatural world, they say, doesn’t come when called, is highly sensitive to the mental states of people who are nearby, and isn’t necessarily going to be detectable to scientific measurement devices.  psychic newspaper-1_250pxAlso, since a lot of the skeptics come into the discussion with a bias toward disbelief, they’ll be likely to discount any hard evidence that does arise as a hoax or misinterpretation of natural phenomena.

Which, as I’ve mentioned before, is mighty convenient.  It seems to boil down to, “It exists, and you have to believe because I know it exists.”  And I’m sorry, this simply isn’t good enough.  If there are real paranormal phenomena out there, they should be accessible to the scientific method.  Such claims should stand or fall on the basis of evidence, just like any other proposed model of how things work.

The problem becomes more difficult with the specific claim of precognition/clairvoyance — the idea that some of us (perhaps all of us) are capable of predicting the future, either through visions or dreams. future-sign-wide5_200px The special difficulty with this realm of the paranormal world is that a dream can’t be proven to be precognitive until after the event it predicts actually happens; before that, it’s just a weird dream, and you would have no particular reason to record it for posterity.  And given the human propensity for hoaxing, not to mention the general plasticity of memory, a claim that a specific dream was precognitive is inadmissible as evidence after the event in question has occurred.  It always reminds me of the quote from the 19th century Danish philosopher and writer, Søren Kierkegaard: “The tragedy of life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.”

This double-bind has foiled any attempts to study precognition… until now.

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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 search for the Loch Ness Monster

By Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know via YouTube

Scientists from around the world have scoured Scotland’s Loch Ness in an attempt to discover the infamous Loch Ness monster.

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