Tag Archives: Benjamin Radford

Spontaneous Human Combustion: Facts & Theories

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Live Science

For well over a century, some have claimed that people can suddenly and inexplicably explode into a ball of fire. The phenomenon is called spontaneous human combustion (SHC), and it has been described in many popular books on mysteries and the unexplained.
spontaneous human combustionThough the term “spontaneous human combustion” is of fairly recent vintage, it was a rare-but-real concern to many in the 1800s. In fact, there are nearly a dozen references to people bursting into flames in pre-1900 fiction. The most famous example is Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel “Bleak House,” in which a character explodes into fire, though the phenomenon can also be found in the works of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Washington Irving and others. In modern times, SHC has appeared in movies and on television shows, including “The X-Files,” and it’s even, sort of, the super-power of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in “Fantastic Four” comic books.

Spontaneous combustion theories

Fires do not typically start on their own. When investigators search for the cause of forest fires, they don’t assume that the flame ignited itself. Rather, they usually suspect that a careless camper or a lightning strike caused it. However, many things can self-ignite without exposure to flames, under the right circumstances, including coal dust, piles of compost and used oily rags.
spontaneous human combustion_300pxBut it’s a whole different matter to claim that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason. There is no doubt that bodies can burn; crematoriums routinely reduce the human body to ashes in the course of a few hours. The mystery of SHC lies in the supposedly strange circumstances under which victims burst into flames. Typically, the story goes, there is no obvious source of ignition, no open fires nearby that might set the person aflame. Furthermore, the victims are killed, and not, for example, only partly burned on one arm or a leg; SHC is fatal. Some claim that burning often seems to begin in the chest or stomach area, leaving the grisly remains of legs and hands intact. Others claim that the furniture and floors under and surrounding the victims (including even their clothing) remain mysteriously unburned.

A closer look

spontaneous human combustion 854_250pxSome of these popular claims are simply wrong. For example, there are many photographs of supposed SHC victims that clearly show extensive burning and damage to the clothing and surroundings of the burned person. It’s also important to understand a bit of fire forensics: many fires are self-limiting; that is, they put themselves out naturally because they run out of fuel. Though the public often sees uncontrolled fires completely engulfing and burning down entire rooms and buildings, fires are unpredictable. It is quite possible, for example, for only a rug, bed, or sofa to catch fire without spreading to the rest of the room. Because fires normally burn upward instead of outward, there is nothing paranormal or strange about finding a victim in one part of a room burned to death while the rest of the room has little more than smoke damage.
What about the source of ignition?

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Brain Games Don’t Improve Memory or Cognition

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

We’ve all seen the ads, banners, commercials and books hyping the benefits of “brain training,” offering games and puzzles that promise to keep your brain in tip-top shape as you age. Diseases such as dementia are terrifying, and millions of people do their best to stave it off though online games, crossword puzzles and so on.

brain game Mental-Fitness_225pxAs a recent Scientific American column noted, “cognitive training — better known as ‘brain training’ — is one of the hottest new trends in self improvement. Lumosity, which offers web-based tasks designed to improve cognitive abilities such as memory and attention, boasts 50 million subscribers and advertises on National Public Radio. Cogmed claims to be ‘a computer-based solution for attention problems caused by poor working memory,’ and BrainHQ will help you ‘make the most of your unique brain.’” It all sounds very impressive and scientific.

While it’s important to stay both mentally and physically active in our later years, there’s little evidence that most of the commercially-sold brain enhancement methods or pills do any good. In fact the scientific community pours cold water on these fanciful myths.

In late October the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered many of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to examine these brain games and programs. It then issued a statement that read in part:

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The Science and Non-Science of the Ouija

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

The new supernatural horror film “Ouija” hits theaters soon, and is expected to scare up big numbers at the box office this weekend.

The Oujia board, also known as a witch board or spirit board, is simple and elegant. The board itself is printed with letters and numbers, while a roughly heart-shaped device called a planchette slides over the board. The game was created in the 1890s and sold to Hasbro in 1966. It began as a parlor game with no association with ghosts until much later, and today many people believe it can contact spirits.

“Ouija” is only the most recent in a long line of movies featuring the board. Since the Oujia board’s film debut in the 1920 Max Fleischer film “The Ouija Board,” it has appeared in hundreds of films including “The Uninvited” (1944);”The Changeling” (1980); “Witchboard” (1986); and “Paranormal Activity” (2007).

Speaking to the Dead

People in all cultures have long believed that communication with the dead is possible, and throughout the ages many people have claimed to speak to the dear departed. Ghosts and spirit communication shows up often in classic literature, including in mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare’s plays.

Seance Scene in Dr. Mabuse the GamblerIn Victorian England it was fashionable in many circles to conduct séances; Ouija boards, three-legged tables, and candles were used to try to contact the dead. A century ago mediums “in touch with the spirit” during séances would write pages and pages of “automatic writing,” the psychic’s hands allegedly guided by ghosts to convey lengthy handwritten messages.

Since that time ghosts seem to have lost their will (or ability) to write—or even communicate effectively. These days the spirits (as channeled through mediums) seem to prefer a guessing game and instead offer only ambiguous, vague information: “I’m getting a presence with the letter M, or J in the name? A father, or father figure perhaps? Did he give you something special to remember him by, something small?” The Ouija board seems to cut out the middleman and let you communicate directly with the dead.

Fearing the Ouija

There’s a reason that scary movies are based on the Ouija game and not, for example, Monopoly or Scrabble. Many evangelical groups believe that playing with Ouija boards can lead to demonic possession.

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Also See: Video: What Makes Ouija Boards Move?

Are Ghosts Real?

Science Says No-o-o-o

The Pseudoscience of Ghost Hunting

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via livescience

If you believe in ghosts, you’re not alone. Cultures all around the world believe in spirits that survive death to live in another realm. In fact, ghosts are among the most widely believed of paranormal phenomena: Millions of people are interested in ghosts, and a 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses — and nearly half believe in ghosts.

ghost 820_250pxGhosts have been a popular subject for millennia, appearing in countless stories, from the Bible to “Macbeth,” and even spawning their own folklore genre: ghost stories. Part of the reason is that belief in ghosts is part of a larger web of related paranormal beliefs, including near-death experience, life after death and spirit communication.

People have tried to (or claimed to) communicate with spirits for ages; in Victorian England, for example, it was fashionable for upper-crust ladies to hold séances in their parlors after tea and crumpets with friends. In America during the late 1800s, many psychic mediums claimed to speak to the dead — but were exposed as frauds by skeptical investigators such as Harry Houdini.

It wasn’t until the past decade that ghost hunting became a widespread interest around the world. Much of this is due to Syfy cable TV’s hit series “Ghost Hunters,” now in its 10th season of not finding good evidence for ghosts. The show spawned several spin-offs, including “Ghost Hunters International” and “Ghost Hunters Academy,” and it’s not hard to see why the show is so popular: the premise is that anyone can look for ghosts.ElmerGhost02_250px The two original stars were ordinary guys (plumbers, in fact) who decided to look for evidence of spirits. Their message: You don’t need to be an egghead scientist, or even have any training in science or investigation. All you need is some free time, a dark place and maybe a few gadgets from an electronics store. If you look long enough, any unexplained light or noise might be evidence of ghosts.

The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn’t want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren’t looking out for us, or with us in our times of need? Most people believe in ghosts because of personal experience; they have seen or sensed some unexplained presence.

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Evolution of the Conspiracy Theorist

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Center for Inquiry

I’ve recently written about conspiracy theories, which means I have been recently attacked by conspiracy theorists. I thought I’d take a moment to briefly reflect on the evolution of conspiracy theorist…

The conspiracy theorist is, of course, not a new breed of human. All the basic psychological building blocks of conspiracy thinking are inherent in the human psyche, including distrust of authority, wantingagent smith 928_250px “inside information,” and real or imagined persecution-and, to be fair, often a dearth of critical thinking skills such as the ability (or desire) to separate anonymous rumor from established fact.

The conspiracy theory is at its heart a profoundly populist notion. It’s the common man demanding a peek behind the curtains of power-power in the form of information. Knowledge is power and information is the currency of conspiracists. For millennia there were no conspiracy theorists to speak of because most people had little or no access to independent information. News traveled very slowly from region to region, and anyway it didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much news anyway (“uncle Abraham’s cow died, more news as it happens”). Information and knowledge about the world came mostly from religious leaders. What went on in distant lands (or even neighboring countries) had little relevance to most people who spent their lives farming or fishing, living and dying without ever having strayed more than a few hundred miles from their birthplace.

conspiracy box secret package_250pxThe invention of the moveable type printing press was a boon to conspiracy theorists for the simple reason that books and knowledge was transportable. Instead of one source of knowledge there were dozens, or perhaps hundreds, and in some cases the authors had different viewpoints on the same subjects. As the old saying goes, a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never sure. If two authors disagreed, then someone claiming to be an authority was wrong-or even perhaps intentionally deceptive and intentionally hiding a truth.

Modern technology helped give birth to the modern conspiracy theorist as well. Decades ago conspiracy theorists largely relied on short-wave radio and crude stapled-and-photocopied mailings to gain followers and spread their enlightened truths. In the 1980s personal computers allowed conspiracy writers to create much more professional publications-in appearance, if not content-as well as “underground” magazines. One fascinating exception is the curious case of the . . .

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conspiracy theorist breakfast

Dyatlov Pass and Mass Murdering Yeti?

bigfoot right there

A Closer Look at Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Doubtful News

A new two-hour Discovery Channel “documentary,” Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives, revisits the curious case of nine Russian skiers who died under unclear circumstances in the Ural mountains. It is packed with dramatic “found footage” recreations, dubious derring-do, a pulse-pounding score, and piles of speculation.

Here’s the premise, based on a press release for the show:

“On February 2, 1959, nine college students hiked up the icy slopes of the Ural Mountains in the heart of Russia but never made it out alive.  Investigators have never been able to give a definitive answer behind who – or what – caused the bizarre crime scene.  hiking 753_225pxFifty-five years later, American explorer Mike Libecki reinvestigates the mystery—known as The Dyatlov Pass incident—but what he uncovers is truly horrifying…. Based on diary accounts, forensic evidence and files that have just recently been released, Mike pieces together the graphic stories in search of what really happened that evening.  According to the investigators at the time, the demise of the group was due to a ‘compelling natural force.’ The students’ slashed tent was discovered first with most of their clothing and equipment still inside.  Next, the students’ bodies were found scattered across the campsite in three distinct groups, some partially naked and with strange injuries including crushed ribs, a fractured skull, and one hiker mutilated with her eyes gouged out and tongue removed… Mike first heard about the Dyatlov Pass incident on a climbing expedition in 2011 and since then has become obsessed with the case… Determined to find answers, Mike hires Russian translator Maria Klenokova to join him.  Together, they set out to one of the most remote and inhospitable places on Earth.  However, nothing prepared them for what they were about to discover.  Following the trail of evidence, Mike finds proof that the hikers were not alone—a photograph, taken by one of the hikers a day before they died that suggests that they encountered a Yeti.  But just how far will they go to find the answers?”

tentFocusing on the undisputed facts in this case, we know that after nearly a week of skiing the group led by Igor Dyatlov, at some point on the night of February 1-2, 1959, cut slits in their tent and left through the cut for the safety of the wooded area below, most of them wearing their underwear or a few scraps of clothing. After they failed to return, a rescue party was sent, and tracks were followed from the tent to the woods, where all the skiers were found, some of them many months later. According to the autopsy, the cause of death for all of them was hypothermia, or freezing to death; four of the nine also had internal injuries, and one of them, Ludmila Dubinina, was missing a tongue and had additional injuries to her eyes. The biggest mysteries are why the group abandoned their tent (with their supplies and clothes inside), apparently in a hurry through a cut in the fabric; and what caused their injuries.

There are many elements and claims to the Dyatlov Pass story, and many theories including UFOs, top-secret government conspiracies, and unusual natural phenomena. I won’t be addressing those claims (in fact as we will see there’s really no need to invoke those anyway), but instead focusing on the plausibility of the newest theory as promoted in the new Discovery Channel show: That a Yeti was responsible for the mass murder of nine Russians in 1959.

The Group’s Injuries

hiking 754_225pxRussian Yeti: The Killer Lives begins with the premise that the injuries sustained by the skiers were so grave and extraordinary that could only have been inflicted by an inhumanly strong creature. The shows says that according to the autopsy, the hikers suffered “horrific injuries” including fractured ribs and a fractured skull attributed to a “compelling natural force” (in other words, some sort of blunt force trauma such as a fall or being crushed).

Unfortunately for the show, photographs of the dead hikers undermine most of the sensational claims. The photographs are crystal clear: the bodies were not “mutilated”. They were actually in fairly good shape for a party who had skied into the remote area, froze to death, and were discovered months later after exposure to the elements. Those who had cracked ribs were found at the bottom of a 13-foot ravine, and could have sustained the injuries falling into it, or at some point after their death during the months before they were found when buried by an avalanche or the weight of wet snow crushed them.

While a fractured skull might be considered “horrific” depending on your comfort with bodily trauma, according to the Mayo Clinic  .  .  .

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discovery channel_150pxAs of this writing, the Discovery Channel schedule shows the following broadcast dates and times for Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives:

  • 6/8/2014 @ 8:00 pm
  • 6/9/2014 @ 12:00 am
  • 6/9/2014 @ 3:00 am

The Riddle of Twin Telepathy

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

Many identical twins — perhaps as many as one in five — claim to share a special psychic connection. About one out of every 30 babies born in the United States is a twin, and identical twins are especially interesting because they have the same genes and are alike in many ways. Brothers and sisters can be close, but some twins claim to know what the other is thinking or feeling. It’s an intriguing idea, but what’s the truth behind it? Coincidence, psychic powers or something else?

shutterstock_40670914_250pxThis sort of psychological connection isn’t necessarily mysterious, of course: any two people who know each other very well and who have shared many common experiences — including non-twin siblings, old married couples, and even best friends — may complete each other’s sentences and have a pretty good idea about what the other person is thinking.

The idea of twin telepathy has been around for well over a century. It appears, for example, in the 1844 Alexandre Dumas novella “The Corsican Brothers.” It tells the story of two once-conjoined brothers who were separated at birth yet even as adults continue to share not only thoughts but also physical sensations. As one twin describes, “However far apart we are now we still have one and the same body, so that whatever impression, physical or mental, one of us perceives has its after-effects on the other.” The 2013 best-selling novel “Sisterland” by Curtis Sittenfeld also tells the story of twin girls who share a psychic connection.

telepathy500a_200pxMost of the evidence for twin telepathy is not scientific but instead anecdotal. For example, in 2009 a British teenager named Gemma Houghton was in her home when she suddenly had a feeling that her fraternal twin sister, Leanne, needed help. “I just got this feeling to check on her, so I went up to the bathroom and she was under the water,” she said. Gemma found Leanne in a bathtub, unconscious. She had suffered a seizure and slipped under the water, nearly drowning. Gemma called for help and administered first aid, saving her sister’s life.

The story of Gemma and Leanne Houghton has been widely cited as  .  .  .

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The Riddle of Twin Telepathy

Benjamin RadfordBenjamin Radford via LiveScience

Many identical twins — perhaps as many as one in five — claim to share a special psychic connection. About one out of every 30 babies born in the United States is a twin, and identical twins are especially interesting because they have the same genes and are alike in many ways. Brothers and sisters can be close, but some twins claim to know what the other is thinking or feeling. It’s an intriguing idea, but what’s the truth behind it? Coincidence, psychic powers or something else?

EvilTwins-th_250pxThis sort of psychological connection isn’t necessarily mysterious, of course: any two people who know each other very well and who have shared many common experiences — including non-twin siblings, old married couples, and even best friends — may complete each other’s sentences and have a pretty good idea about what the other person is thinking.

The idea of twin telepathy has been around for well over a century. It appears, for example, in the 1844 Alexandre Dumas novella “The Corsican Brothers.” It tells the story of two once-conjoined brothers who were separated at birth yet even as adults continue to share not only thoughts but also physical sensations. As one twin describes, “However far apart we are now we still have one and the same body, so that whatever impression, physical or mental, one of us perceives has its after-effects on the other.” The 2013 best-selling novel “Sisterland” by Curtis Sittenfeld also tells the story of twin girls who share a psychic connection.

Most of the evidence for twin telepathy is not scientific but instead anecdotal.

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Heaven for Real? PET Scans Offer Clues

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

A new film about a young boy’s near-death experience, “Heaven is For Real,” made a splash at the box office this past weekend, pulling in over $22 million. near-death-tunnel_150pxThe film, based on the best-selling book of the same name, is about a father whose young son, Colton Burpo, visits heaven.

Burpo’s experience, though unusual, is not unique: There are dozens of people who have claimed to visit heaven — or, less often, hell — during near-death experiences. The best-selling 2010 book “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” tells the story of another young boy’s near-death experience:

“In 2004 Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son, Alex, suffered a terrible car wreck. The impact from the crash paralyzed Alex — and it seemed impossible that he could survive. When Alex awoke from a coma two months later, he had an incredible story to share. Of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious … Of the angels who took him through the gates of Heaven itself.”

angels 644_300pxOf course neither Colton Burpo nor Alex Malarkey offered any real evidence of entering heaven, encountering angels or meeting God. These are two of many seemingly inexplicable examples of people who have been gravely injured and yet, upon recovery, later presented apparently accurate descriptions of things they should not have been aware of in their condition. Sounds, smells and snippets of conversations that occurred in the emergency room when the patient was assumed to be unconscious, comatose or even dead are offered as evidence of out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences.

A Scientific Explanation?

A recent study offers evidence that patients who are in a vegetative state may in fact have more awareness than previously thought. This research may also help explain near-death experiences. If, as this study suggests, apparently unconscious and vegetative patients are more conscious than assumed, their recollections are less mysterious.

An article in “The Scientist” reports:

“Some brain injuries can leave patients awake but unresponsive with little hope of regaining consciousness. But the gold standard of bedside evaluations, including shining light in the person’s eyes among other tests, may miss some subtle brain activity in patients in vegetative states — those thought to have little to no chance of ever recovering. According to a study published this week (April 16) in The Lancet, positron emission tomography (PET) scans can help clinicians detect with greater certainty these faint hints of consciousness even in patients thought to be hopelessly vegetative.”

PET scans, which can detect more subtle brain activity than the more frequently used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, found that . . .

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Can ‘Oil Pulling’ Improve Your Health?

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

The latest health fad making the rounds is something called “oil pulling,” an ancient Indian practice in which people cleanse their mouths (and bodies) of toxins by swishing a vegetable oil (such as olive, coconut, or sunflower) in the mouth for 20 minutes and then spitting it out.

oil-pulling_250pxIt’s ridiculously simple, and, it is claimed, amazingly effective. According to science writer Mike Rothschild’s blog for the Skeptoid podcast, “Oil pulling is said to treat chronic pain, insomnia, cavities, allergies, thrombosis, diabetes, asthma, bad breath, gingivitis, digestive issues, meningitis, low energy, heart disease, kidney disease, ‘toxic bodily waste,’ PMS, leukemia and even AIDS. Oil pulling, it would seem, is truly a life-changing medical miracle.”

Okay, so maybe swishing a few teaspoons of olive oil isn’t a “life-changing medical miracle.” Other claims are more down-to-earth; according to one proponent, “Oil pulling is an age-old remedy that uses natural substances to clean and detoxify teeth and gums. It has the added effect of whitening teeth naturally and evidence even shows that it is beneficial in improving gums and removing harmful bacteria. The basic idea is that oil is swished in the mouth for a short time each day and that this action helps improve oral health… The practice of oil pulling started in India thousands of years ago.”

oil pulling 02
The fact that oil pulling has been used for thousand of years (if indeed it has) is asserted as proof of its efficacy but in fact means nothing. This is an example of a logical fallacy called the “appeal to tradition.” Just because a practice has endured for hundreds or thousands of years does not mean it is valid. For nearly 2,000 years, for example, physicians practiced bloodletting, believing that balancing non-existent bodily humors would restore health to sick patients.

The fact that the premise was completely false and absurd made no difference: the patients who died were assumed to have been too sick (and not killed by the bogus medical treatment), and the ones who recovered (despite, not because of, the bloodletting) were convinced the treatment was a miracle cure. It’s the same reason that people believe superstitions  .  .  .

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TRUE or FALSE: Swishing plant oils in your mouth has been proved to ameliorate a variety of medical ailments? Click here for the answer.

TRUE or FALSE: Swishing plant oils in your mouth has been proved to ameliorate a variety of medical ailments?
Click here for the answer.

Synchronicity: Definition & Meaning

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

image descriptionAmazing coincidences happen all the time — but are they simply the product of random chance, or do they convey some hidden meaning? The answer may depend on whether you believe in synchronicity.

The term synchronicity was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961). Jung had a strong belief in a wide variety of paranormal phenomenon, including psychic powers, astrology, alchemy, predictive dreams, UFOs and telekinesis (moving objects with the mind). He was also obsessed with numerology — the belief that certain numbers have special cosmic significance, and can predict important life events.

A flock of birds inspired Carl Jung's theory that everything in the universe is intimately connected.

A flock of birds inspired Carl Jung’s theory that everything in the universe is intimately connected.

Jung’s concept of synchronicity is complicated and poorly defined, but can be boiled down to describing “meaningful coincidences.” The concept of synchronicity came to Jung during a period of mental illness in the early 1900s. Jung became convinced that everything in the universe is intimately connected, and that suggested to him that there must exist a collective unconscious of humankind. This implied to him that events happening all over the world at the same time must be connected in some unknown way.

In his book “137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession,” Arthur I. Miller gives an example of synchronicity; one of his patients “told Jung that when her mother and grandmother died, on each occasion a flock of birds gathered outside the window of the room.” The woman’s husband, who had symptoms of heart problems, went out to see a doctor and “on his way back the man collapsed in the street. Shortly after he had set off to see the specialist a large flock of birds had alighted on the house. His wife immediately recognized this as a sign of her husband’s impending death.”

Is synchronicity real?

There is, of course, a more prosaic explanation for curious coincidence: birds are very common, and simply by random chance a flock will appear near people who are soon to die — just as they appear daily around millions of people who are not soon to die.

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.

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.

The appearance of synchronicity is the result of a well-known psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias (sometimes described as remembering the hits and forgetting the misses); we much more easily notice and remember things that confirm our beliefs than those that do not. The human brain is very good at making connections and seeing designs in ambiguous stimuli and random patterns.

If Jung’s patient came to believe that a flock of birds meant that death was imminent, she would start noticing flocks of birds, and remember the times when they coincided with a loved one’s death. But she would not likely notice or remember the countless times when flocks of birds appeared over people who lived for years or decades longer. Put another way, a person dying when a flock of birds is present is an event; a person not dying when a flock of birds is present is a non-event, and therefore not something anyone pays attention to. This is the result of normal human perceptual and memory biases, not some mysterious cosmic synchronicity.

It’s easy to see why synchronicity has mass appeal; it provides meaning and order in an otherwise random universe. One famous (and more modern) example of synchronicity is  .  .  .

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What is Stigmata?

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

Stigmata15b_250pxPeople who have stigmata exhibit wounds that duplicate or represent those that Jesus is said to have endured during his crucifixion. The wounds typically appear on the stigmatic’s hands and feet (as from crucifixion spikes) and also sometimes on the side (as from a spear) and hairline (as from a crown of thorns).

Along with possession and exorcism, stigmata often appears in horror films, and it’s not difficult to see why: bloody wounds that mysteriously and spontaneously open up are terrifying. However, stigmatics, who are typically devout Roman Catholics, do not see their affliction as a terrifying menace but instead as a miraculous blessing — a sign that they have been specially chosen by God to suffer the same wounds his son did.

Curiously, there are no known cases of stigmata for the first 1,200 years after Jesus died. The first person said to suffer from stigmata was St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), and there have been about three dozen others throughout history, most of them women.

Padre Pio

A young Padre Pio (born Francesco Forgione) displays his stigmata.

A young Padre Pio (born Francesco Forgione) displays his stigmata.

The most famous stigmatic in history was Francesco Forgione (1887-1968), better known as Padre Pio, or Pio of Pietrelcina. The most beloved Italian saint of the last century, Padre Pio first began noticing red wounds appearing on his hands in 1910, and the phenomenon progressed until he experienced full stigmata in 1918 as he prayed in front of a crucifix in his monastery’s chapel.

Padre Pio was said to have been able to fly, and also to bilocate (to be in two places at once); his stigmata was allegedly accompanied by a miraculous perfume; the Rev. Charles Mortimer Carty, in his 1963 biography of the saint, noted that it smelled of “violets, lilies, roses, incense, or even fresh tobacco,” and “whenever anyone notices the perfume it is a sign that God bestows some grace through the intercession of Padre Pio.”

Journalist Sergio Lizzatto, in his book “Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age” explains the social context in which Padre Pio’s stigmata emerged: “In the first years of the twentieth century, when Padre Pio was a seminarian, the Eucharist — the body and blood of Christ — was at the height of its importance in Catholic practice. Communion was celebrated frequently and became a mass phenomenon. At the same time, asceticism was interpreted in ever more physical terms. Body language — ecstasy, levitation, the stigmata — was held to be the only real mystical language.”

Pio’s stigmata appeared, Lizzatto argues, because that’s exactly what the church and its followers expected to appear in its most devout servants: Jesus’ real, physical torment visited upon the holiest of men.

Though Padre Pio was widely beloved, many weren’t convinced that the friar’s wounds were supernatural. Among the skeptics were two popes and the founder of Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Agostino Gemelli, who examined Padre Pio and concluded that the stigmatic was a “self-mutilating psychopath.”

Still, Padre Pio garnered a widespread following and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Though Pio, who died in 1968, never confessed to faking his stigmata, questions about his honesty surfaced when it was revealed that he had copied his writings about his experiences from an earlier stigmatic named Gemma Galgani. He claimed ignorance of Galgani’s work, and could not explain how his allegedly personal experiences had been published verbatim decades earlier by someone else. Perhaps, he suggested, it was a miracle.

Is stigmata real?

Encyclopedia of Claims_300pxSo is stigmata real, or a hoax, or something in between? The claimed miracle of stigmata — like inedia, where people who claim not to eat food — is very difficult to scientifically verify. Veteran researcher James Randi, in his “Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural,” notes that “Since twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance would be necessary to establish the validity of these phenomena as miracles, no case of stigmata exists that can be said to be free of suspicion,” and though the possibility of genuine stigmata can never be ruled out, “It is interesting to note that in all such cases, the wounds in the hands appear at the palms, which agrees with religious paintings but not with the actualities of crucifixion; the wounds should appear at the wrists.”

If stigmata is real, there is no medical or scientific explanation for it.

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The Lore and Lure of Ley Lines

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

Many people believe that a grid of earth energies circles the globe, connecting important and sacred sites such as Stonehenge, the Egyptian Pyramids, and the Great Wall of China.

If you plot these and other sites on a map, a curious thing becomes apparent: Many of them can be connected by straight lines. Were these monuments and sacred sites specifically built at those locations by ancient people with lost knowledge of unknown earth energies especially strong along these “ley lines”?

Conspiracists like to play connect-the-dots with important and sacred sites around the world to make pretty lines.

Conspiracists like to play connect-the-dots with important and
sacred sites around the world to make pretty pictures.

History of ley lines

People have often found special significance in the unusual landmarks and geological features surrounding them. High mountain peaks and majestic valleys may be viewed as sacred, for example, while deep, dark caves have often been considered the domain of the underworld. The same is true for roads; in 1800s on the British Isles many people believed in mysterious “fairy paths,” trails connecting certain hilltops in the countryside. It was considered dangerous (or, at the very least, unwise) to walk on those paths during certain days because the wayward traveler might come upon a parade of fairies who would not take kindly to the human interruption.

gridviewPhilip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate describe the origin of ley lines in their “Book of English Magic”: “Alfred Watkins, a landscape photographer in Herefordshire, noticed that ancient sites seemed to be aligned with others nearby. His idea was that our ancestors built and used prominent features in the landscape as navigation points. These features included prehistoric standing stones and stone circles, barrows and mounds, hill forts and earthworks, ancient moats, old pre-Reformation churches, old crossroads and fords, prominent hilltops and fragments of old, straight tracks. Watkins went on to suggest that that the lines connecting these ancient sites represented old trackways or routes that were followed in prehistoric times for the purposes of trade or religious rites, and in 1921 he coined the term ‘ley lines’ to describe these alignments.”

Watkins himself did not believe that there was any magical or mystical significance to ley lines. However, the authors note, “The idea that there is a hidden network of energy lines across the earth … fired the imagination of the burgeoning New Age movement, and dowsers in particular became keen on detecting leys with dowsing.”

Because of this New Age interest, ley lines rose from mundane origins to an entire field of study, spawning books, seminars, and groups of ley line enthusiasts who gather to discuss, research, and walk the lines. Ley lines have also been incorporated into a variety of otherwise unrelated paranormal subjects, including dowsing, UFOs, Atlantis, crop circles and numerology.

Science and pseudoscience

You won’t find ley lines discussed in geography or geology textbooks because they aren’t real, actual, measurable things. Though scientists can find no evidence of these ley lines — they cannot be detected by magnetometers or any other scientific device — New Agers, psychics and others claim to be able to sense or feel their energy.

After all, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

After all, a straight line IS the shortest distance between two points.

Watkins’s original idea of ley lines is quite valid and rather intuitive; archaeologists have long known that, on a local and regional scale, roads tend to be built in more or less straight lines, geography allowing, and since a line is the shortest distance between two points it makes sense that important sites in a given culture would often be aligned, not randomly placed.

Ley line experts cannot agree on which “sacred sites” should be included as data points. Some internationally known ancient sites are obvious choices, such as England’s Stonehenge, Egypt’s Great Pyramids, Peru’s Machu Picchu ruins, and Australia’s Ayers Rock. But on a regional and local level, it’s anyone’s game: How big a hill counts as an important hill? Which wells are old enough or important enough? By selectively choosing which data points to include or omit, a person can come up with any pattern he or she wishes to find.

With literally tens of thousands of potential data points around the globe, it is little wonder that ley lines . . .

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The Evil Eye: Meaning of the Curse & Protection Against It

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

If we accidentally cut someone off in traffic, we may get a scowl or menacing glare in return. For most of us it is soon shrugged off, but in many places the evil eye is taken very seriously.

evil-eye_250pxThe evil eye is a human look believed to cause harm to someone or something else. The supernatural harm may come in the form of anything from a minor misfortune to disease, injury or even death. Folklorist Alan Dundes, in his edited volume “The Evil Eye: A Casebook,” notes that “the victim’s good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with the evil eye. If the object attacked is animate, it may fall ill. … Symptoms of illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive yawning, hiccups, vomiting, and fever. If the object attacked is a cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or fruit tree, it may suddenly wither and die.”

It can even affect objects and buildings: The evil eye cast upon a vehicle may cause it to break down irreparably, while a house so cursed may soon develop a leaky roof or an insect infestation. Just about anything that goes wrong (for any reason, or no reason at all) may be blamed on the power of the evil eye.

Eye in history

The evil eye is well known throughout history. It is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well as in many famous literary works, including the Bible (Proverbs 23:6: “Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats”), the Koran and Shakespeare.

The evil eye is essentially a specific type of magical curse, and has its roots in magical thinking and superstition.

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Psychics Boost Believers’ Sense of Control

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

A new study has found that people who believe that psychics can predict the future tend to feel more in control of their lives than those who don’t.

A group of Australian researchers from the University of Queensland led by Katharine Greenaway offered the hypothesis that belief in psychic prediction would be positively correlated with a sense of control over one’s life.

psychic 1208“If it is possible to predict what the future holds, then one can exert control,” the study reports. “Having insight into what will happen in the future would therefore allow people to control their outcomes in a way that would guarantee personal success and survival.”

Several experiments were done to examine this phenomenon. In one of them, two groups of people were asked to read passages either promoting or disputing the idea that scientists have found evidence of precognitive psychic powers.

Afterwards, each group was asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about how much control they feel they have over their lives and circumstances.

Those who read the information confirming the existence of psychic powers agreed more strongly with statements such as “I am in control of my own life” and “My life is determined by my own actions” than those in the other group.

The Psychology of Prediction

What’s behind this psychology of prediction? Humans are a pattern-seeking species, and we constantly look for ways to make sense of the world around us. Many superstitious people, for example, find — or, more accurately, believe they find — ways of knowing and even influencing the future. Gamblers may wear a lucky shirt to a casino, for example, or an athlete might perform a small ritual before a game to assure good luck.

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Did Woman’s ‘Visions’ Locate Missing Boy?

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

The search for a missing 11-year-old California boy came to a tragic end recently when the body of Terry Smith Jr. was found. The boy’s mother reported him missing July 7, and his body was found three days later not far from his home in the rural town of Menifee, according to news reports.

psychic 1208A woman named Pam Ragland, who claims to have psychic or intuitive powers, is being credited by police and others as having located the boy through her visions, according to news reports.

Driven by recurring visions of the boy, a distinctive home and a tree, Ragland searched the area where the boy was last seen, and to her surprise, found a home and tree matched those in her visions, even though she lived 60 miles away and had never been there. Ragland and her children searched the area and discovered Smith buried in a shallow grave near the tree.

The case is strange and intriguing, but not unexplainable. Clues to solving the mystery may lie in psychology and statistics.

Prophetic visions?

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

Because Ragland had never met the Smith family nor been to their property, how could she possibly have recognized their home from her psychic visions? The answer is simple: She very likely saw it on television. Ragland stated that she had been following the extensive news coverage about the missing boy, and that she had her first visions while she was watching a news report about the search for Smith.

Television reports included photographs and video footage of the Smith home and property, and whether or not Ragland remembered paying attention to those images, she had indeed seen the Smith property before she arrived there.

Therefore the fact that a house and tree in her vision “matched” the house and tree where Smith was finally found is not surprising, and merely evidence of her not remembering where she saw an image, not psychic powers.

Psychics or statistics?

psychic_200pxWhy would Ragland suddenly get a (correct) vision of Smith’s location? She has stated believes that she and her children are “intuitive” and that the senses, ideas and intuitions that come to her are meaningful and important.

In high-profile missing persons cases, it is common for police to be inundated with hundreds or thousands of visions, hunches, and feelings from psychics, most of which are contradictory and all of which turn out to be wrong. Despite popular belief and claims to the contrary, there is not a single documented case of a missing person being found or recovered due to psychic information.

Like Ragland, many psychics state they genuinely believe in their powers and abilities, and are sincerely trying to help. Over the course of many missing persons cases and tens of thousands of visions and predictions, eventually a few of them will turn out to be correct simply by chance.

In this case, however, Ragland’s chance of correctly guessing where Smith’s body would be found was much better than pure chance.

It is a statistical fact that . . .

. . . MORE . . .

Here to Hereafter: Can Psychics Really Talk to the Dead?

By Benjamin Radford  via LiveScience (October 2010)

psychic 920_250pxIn the … Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter,” Matt Damon stars as George, a man who has the ability to communicate with ghosts. George, who retired from the contacting-the-dead business (calling it a curse instead of a blessing) is reluctantly drawn back into doing  readings for people who have recently lost loved ones.

People in nearly every culture have long believed that communication with the dead is possible, and throughout the ages many people have claimed to be able to speak with the dearly departed. Ghosts and spirit communication often show up in classic literature, including mythology, the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays.

In Victorian England, it was fashionable in many circles to conduct séances; Ouija boards, three-legged tables, candles and other accoutrements were used to try to contact the dead. ouija-board-gifIn the U.S., belief in communication with the dead rose dramatically in the 1800s along with the rise of Spiritualism, a religion founded on hoaxed spirit communication by two young sisters in Hydesville, N.Y. Despite the fact that the sisters later admitted they had only been pretending to get messages from the dead, the religion they helped start flourished, claiming more than 8 million adherents by 1900.

For well over a century, many mediums have been caught faking spirit communication. Harry Houdini exposed many psychics as frauds who used trickery to make vulnerable people believe in the reality of spirit messages. (For more on this, see Massimo Polidoro‘s book “Final Séance,” Prometheus Books, 2001).

ghost-1_200pxWhether real or faked, the messages supposedly conveyed from the great beyond have changed dramatically over time. A century ago, mediums “in touch with the spirit” during séances would write pages and pages of “automatic writing,” the psychic’s hands allegedly guided by ghosts to convey lengthy handwritten messages.

Curiously, ghosts seem to have lost their will (or ability) to write since that time — or even communicate effectively. These days the spirits (as channeled through mediums) seem to prefer a guessing game and instead offer only ambiguous, vague information: “I’m getting a presence with the letter M, or J in the name? A father, or father figure perhaps? Did he give you something special to remember him by, something small?”

If spirit communication is real, one might think . . .

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Dowsing: The Pseudoscience of Water Witching

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

dowsing 730_300pxDowsing is an unexplained process in which people use a forked twig or wire to find missing and hidden objects. Dowsing, also known as divining and doodlebugging, is often used to search for water or missing jewelry, but it is also often employed in other applications including ghost hunting, crop circles and fortunetelling.

The dowsing that most people are familiar with is water dowsing, or water witching or rhabdomancy, in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch (or two L-shaped wire rods) and walks around until they feel a pull on the branch, or the wire rods cross, at which point water is allegedly below. Sometimes a pendulum is used held over a map until it swings (or stops swinging) over a spot where the desired object may be found. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits and even archaeological ruins.

[…]

Dowsing: No better than chance

Skeptic James Randi in his “Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural,” notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when divining rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”

Though some people swear by dowsing’s effectiveness, dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. It’s not surprising that water can often be found with dowsing rods, since if you dig deep enough you’ll find water just about anywhere. If missing objects (and even missing people) could be reliably and accurately located using dowsing techniques, it would be a great benefit: If you lose your keys or cell phone, you should be able to just pull out your pendulum and find it; if a person goes missing or is abducted, police should be able to locate them with dowsing rods.

Science differs from the New Age and paranormal belief in that it progresses, correcting and building on itself. Technology and medicine are continually advancing and refining. Designs and techniques are improved or abandoned depending on how well they work. By contrast, dowsers have not gotten any more accurate over centuries and millennia of practice.

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Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

How Belief in Magic Spreads HIV in Africa

by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

42-25074860In many countries throughout the world belief in witches is common, and black magic is considered part of everyday life. A 2010 poll of 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that over half of the population believe in magic. Witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing, or removing, curses or bringing luck.

One human rights activist in the small African country of Malawi, Seodi White, has been fighting for years to stem many traditional beliefs that help spread HIV, especially among poor and underprivileged women.

According to a CNN story, widows in some parts of southern Africa are expected to engage in unprotected sex in order to “cleanse” them. The belief is that the husband’s spirit will return otherwise, cursing the family.

“It’s a mindset issue,” White told CNN. “Even the widows, they’ve told me, ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want a curse to come to my husband.’ They cry to be cleansed.”

Because this spiritual cleansing involves unprotected sex — just as sex with the deceased husband was assumed to have been — the widows are placed at increased risk of contracting HIV, which is endemic on the continent. There are even professional “cleansers” who charge high prices for their services, which the widows are often eager to pay to avoid a curse on their families.

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UFOs Over Texas: Unidentified Floating Fireballs?

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

aliens-ufo_300pxA strange sight in the Texas night sky over the weekend had many people talking about fireballs and alien invasions. But, alas, the real culprit has been identified, a much more Earthly one.

Police in East Liberty County got a 911 emergency call at around 8:30 p.m. on Saturday from a person reporting “red fireballs in the sky.” Responding police officers, along with a dozen locals, described seeing four orange lights moving slowly in a line high in the sky. Police scopes revealed that the objects looked like hot air balloons — complete with flames — but were much smaller and did not have the signature gondola at the bottom.

Even more mysteriously, the lights were estimated to only be a few thousand feet off the ground, and yet they moved silently. No known airplane or helicopter technology could fly that low and remain so quiet. Within minutes the UFOs were gone, having disappeared into the night. They didn’t fly away but instead simply blinked out of existence; some eyewitnesses thought they had vanished behind a passing cloud and would reappear at any moment, but they never did.

Even so, the sighting wasn’t over: A second batch of the strange lights soon appeared, in an identical line and in a more or less identical formation, until they too vanished in the same pattern. Baffled police contacted the National Weather Bureau, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies, though none of them could shed light on the mystery. No unusual aircraft appeared on radar, and though weather balloons had been launched earlier that day, they were not aloft in the area at that time — and in any event did not match the UFOs description. The National UFO Reporting Center was also contacted, though they had no information to offer.

The Unidentified Flying Objects became IFOs when members of a nearby wedding party informed police that the floating, flaming objects were paper lanterns lit just after their ceremony. Such Chinese lanterns are made of lightweight paper and a candle that provides the heat that lifts the lanterns as well as the light that makes them glow.

That explains why there was no aircraft engine sound, and the flame-like appearance. Each lantern represented a wish made by each of the guests for the new couple. The newlyweds apologized if their wish lanterns scared anyone, and the sheriff took it in stride but noted that the lanterns might pose a fire threat, and asked the public to notify police before lighting such lanterns in the future.

This is not the first time that paper lanterns have sparked UFO reports.

MORE . . .

Also See: UFOs & Psychic Powers: Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena

Jersey Devil: Impossible Animal of Story & Legend

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

jersey-devil

Jersey Devil sightings go back to the 1700s. This image is from a 1909 Philadelphia newspaper.

A devil is said to haunt the wooded Pine Barren of southern New Jersey. Dubbed the Jersey Devil, it has never been photographed or captured, but has appeared in dozens of books, films, and television shows including “The X-Files.”

Most accounts suggest that the creature has a horse-like face with antlers or horns sprouting from the top of its head. It walks on two legs, ending with cloven hooves or pig’s feet. The overall body shape resembles a kangaroo, though it also has wings like a bat. Some say it has a tail like a lizard; others say it has no tail at all. The monster is said to kill dogs, chickens and other small animals, as well as leave spooky cloven hoof prints in snow, and bellow a terrifying screech in the wooded darkness.

History of the Jersey Devil

The Jersey Devil is the subject of a legend dating from the early 18th century. There are several variations, but a common story holds that a woman named Mother Leeds (who was believed to have been the wife of a Daniel Leeds) gave birth to her 13th child on a dark and stormy night. Rumors claimed that she was a witch, and bore the Devil’s child. Shortly after birth, it changed form, growing wings, hooves and an equine head. It flew into the air with a bloodcurdling shriek, killing a midwife in the process, and headed toward the woods.

It sounds like a scene from a horror film or novel, too bizarre to be true. And indeed Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast notes that there are holes in the popular story of the Jersey Devil: “In looking at the historical sources, we soon find that this story is not possible. … There appears to be no contemporary sources connecting Daniel Leeds or either of his wives to a devilish character of any sort, and … Although newspapers of the 1800s did occasionally print the Mother Leeds story as given in the legend, we seem to have a total lack of factual basis to anchor it to any real history.”

Despite its origins in legend, several people have claimed to have seen or encountered the Jersey Devil over the past 250 years. In a section on the topic in the encyclopedia “American Folklore,” folklorist Angus Kress Gillespie notes that “The Jersey Devil remained an obscure regional legend through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, until 1909 when a series of purported ‘Devil’ sightings inspired a Philadelphia businessman to stage a hoax. He painted a kangaroo green, attached fake wings to the helpless creature, and had it exhibited to the public.” The 1909 hoax (and others like it) inspired further sightings and reports, which continue to this day.

What Is the Jersey Devil?

Could the creature be real? The Jersey Devil’s diverse features are strong evidence that it does not — and cannot — exist as a real animal. The most obvious biologically implausible feature is its wings: they would need to be much bigger, and anchored in a much more massive musculoskeletal structure, to lift the animal’s body weight into the air. Birds and bats can fly because their bodies are relatively lightweight; the reputed heavy muscles and thick limbs of the Jersey Devil would never work; you’d have better luck putting butterfly wings on a rhino. Most images of the Jersey Devil look like a monster that a high school Dungeons & Dragons player might dream up as a composite of different, unrelated animals whose features could never actually exist in the same animal, but look weird and scary.

So what’s the explanation for the Jersey Devil? There’s very little to “explain”; we have a monster whose origin is obviously . . .

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Exorcism: Facts and Fiction About Demonic Possession

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

To the extent that exorcisms "work," it is due to the power of suggestion and psychology: If you believe you're possessed (and that an exorcism will cure you), then it just might.

To the extent that exorcisms “work,” it is due to the power of suggestion and psychology: If you believe you’re possessed (and that an exorcism will cure you), then it just might.
CREDIT: udra11 | Shutterstock

The belief that demons exist and can possess people is of course the stuff of fiction and horror films — but it is also one of the most widely-held religious beliefs in the world. Most religions claim that humans can be possessed by demonic spirits (the Bible, for example, recounts six instances of Jesus casting out demons), and offer exorcisms to remedy this threat.

The idea that invading spirits are inherently evil is largely a Judeo-Christian concept; many religions and belief systems accept possession by both beneficent and malevolent entities for short periods of time as uncommon — and not especially alarming — aspects of spiritual life. Spiritualism, a religion that flourished across America in the 1800s and is still practiced in a few places today, teaches that death is an illusion and that spirits can possess humans. New Agers have also long embraced a form of possession called channeling, in which spirits of the dead are said to inhabit a medium’s body and communicate through them. Hundreds of books, and even some symphonies, have been allegedly composed by spirits.

Fictional exorcisms

Hollywood, of course, has been eager to capitalize on the public’s continued fascination with exorcism and demonic possession with films often dubbed “based on a true story.” There are countless exorcism-inspired films, including “The Last Exorcism,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Devil Inside” and “The Rite” — wildly varying in quality, originality, and scariness. The greatest cultural influence, of course, came from the classic “The Exorcist.” In the weeks after the film came out in 1974, a Boston Catholic center received daily requests for exorcisms. The script was written by William Peter Blatty, adapted from his best-selling 1971 novel of the same name. Blatty described the inspiration for the film as a Washington Post article he’d read in 1949 about a Maryland boy who had been exorcised. Blatty believed (or claimed to believe) it was an accurate account, though later research revealed the story had been sensationalized was far from credible.

Michael Cuneo, in his book “American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty,” credits Blatty and “The Exorcist” with much of the modern-day interest in exorcism. As for historical accuracy, though, Cuneo characterizes Blatty’s work as a massive structure of fantasy resting on a flimsy foundation of one priest’s diary. There really was a boy who underwent an exorcism, but virtually all of the gory and sensational details appearing in the book and film were wildly exaggerated or completely made up.

Real exorcisms

While many Americans think of real exorcisms as relics of the Dark Ages, exorcisms continue to be performed, often on people who are emotionally and mentally disturbed.

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Quick Bigfoot DNA Update

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 14 2013 via Skepticblog

bigfoot-2The internet was buzzing [on February 13, 2013] with the long-anticipated1 release of a paper purporting to present DNA evidence that “conclusively proves that the Sasquatch exist as an extant hominin and are a direct maternal descendent of modern humans.”2 With DNA sourced, according to the paper, from among “One hundred eleven samples of blood, tissue, hair, and other types of specimens,” this is the most prominent Sasquatch DNA case to date.

Full expert review of the team’s data and methods should emerge in the coming days. In the meantime, science writers identified several serious red flags within hours of the paper’s release.

To begin with, it seems that the paper was roundly rejected by mainstream science journals. “We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review,” complained lead author Melba Ketchum.3 So how did the paper get published? Although Ketchum insists that this fact did not influence the editorial process, it seems she bought the publication.4 In fact, her paper is the only paper included in the inaugural “Special Issue” of the DeNovo Scientific Journal. Benjamin Radford notes that no libraries or universities subscribe to the newly minted DeNovo, “and the journal and its website apparently did not exist three weeks ago. There’s no indication that the study was peer-reviewed by other knowledgeable scientists to assure quality. It is not an existing, known, or respected journal in any sense of the word.”5 Invertebrate neuroethologist Zen Faulkes notes further that DeNovo lists no editor, no editorial board, no physical address—not even a phone number. “This whole thing looks completely dodgy,” he writes, “with the lack of any identifiable names being the one screaming warning to stay away from this journal. Far, far away.”6

Beyond these irregularities, there are also signs of serious problems with the paper’s data, methods, and conclusions.

MORE . . .
Also see: Bigfoot Witnessed in Texas (GhostTheory.com)

The Wisdom of Not Understanding

By Ben Radford via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

WhatThe_400pxAbout two years ago during a conversation, a friend of mine mentioned a movie she thought I’d really like. In fact it was a documentary, and as a fan of docs, I was eager to hear more about it. “You’d find it interesting,” she said. “It’s kind of about stuff you investigate. It’s called What the Bleep Do We Know!? Have you heard of it?”

I had indeed heard of the film, a New Agey jumble of pseudoscience and mysticism about supposed links between consciousness and quantum physics, produced by followers of J.Z. Knight, a woman who claims to dispense in­formation from a 35,000-year-old ghost. In fact, I had done my best to keep it from misinforming the public when it was first released, writing a few short skeptical pieces about it.

Not wanting to get into an argument with my friend, I just let the conversation trail off. But before I did, she made an interesting comment: “To be honest I didn’t really understand a lot of it. . . . But you’re really smart—you would get it.”

She assumed that the reason she didn’t understand the film’s information was be­cause she had no background in science. I, on the other hand, did not understand the film precisely because I do have a strong background in science. When people don’t understand something they are told, there are three possibilities or root causes.

Most commonly, the person assumes, as my friend did, that the problem lies with the listener. Her (quite reasonable) assumption was that the film was comprehensible and that if she didn’t understand it, it was due to her limitations or lack of knowledge. This was a mainstream, feature-length documentary film with some famous people in it—in­cluding physicists. Surely these people would not appear on camera discussing self-evidently nonsensical ideas such as that thoughts can control reality.

einstein evidence_400pxLess often, the problem lies with the speaker’s inability to effectively communicate—perhaps he or she does not share the same native language as the listener, is disorganized, or has a speech impediment for example. In this case the information and message may be correct and clear, but communication does not occur because of a problem with the source.

Sometimes the problem lies neither with the listener nor with the speaker, but instead in the content. In this case, the reason that the listener doesn’t understand what is being said is that what is being said makes little or no sense by any objective measure. This is in­sidious and difficult to detect because people do not like to challenge authority on a topic they are presumably trying to become educated about—especially in public. The speaker is not talking gibberish; quite the opposite: he or she may be very eloquent. Furthermore, identifying nonsense often requires some basic understanding of the subject.

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Crop Circles Explained

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

According to some estimates, crop circles appear every week somewhere around the world. The strange circles and patterns appear mysteriously overnight in farmers’ fields, provoking puzzlement, delight, and intrigue for both locals and the news media. The circles are mostly found in the United Kingdom, but have spread to dozens of countries around the world in past decades. But who — or what — is making them?

This massive 780-foot (238 meters) crop circle appeared in 2001 in the remote area of Milk Hill in Wiltshire, England. The elaborate design is composed of 409 circles that form a pattern called a double, or six-sided, triskelion, which is a motif consisting of three interlocking spirals.CREDIT: Handy Marks | public domain

This massive 780-foot (238 meters) crop circle appeared in 2001 in the remote area of Milk Hill in Wiltshire, England. The elaborate design is composed of 409 circles that form a pattern called a double, or six-sided, triskelion, which is a motif consisting of three interlocking spirals.
CREDIT: Handy Marks | public domain

[…]

… the first real crop circles didn’t appear until the 1970s, when simple circles began appearing in the English countryside. The number and complexity of the circles increased dramatically, reaching a peak in the 1980s and 1990s when increasingly elaborate circles were produced, including those illustrating complex mathematical equations such as fractals. [Image Album: Mysterious Crop Circles Gallery]

Theories & explanations

Unlike other mysterious phenomenon such as psychic powers, ghosts, or Bigfoot, there is no doubt that crop circles are “real.” The evidence that they exist is clear and overwhelming. The real question is what creates them.

People inspect crop circles within a golden wheat field in Switzerland. The photo was taken on July 29, 2007.CREDIT: Jabberocky | public domain

People inspect crop circles within a golden wheat field in Switzerland. The photo was taken on July 29, 2007.
CREDIT: Jabberocky | public domain

Crop circle enthusiasts have come up with many theories about what creates the patterns, ranging from the plausible to the absurd. One explanation in vogue in the early 1980s was that the mysterious circle patterns were accidentally produced by the especially vigorous sexual activity of horny hedgehogs. Some people have suggested that the circles are somehow created by incredibly localized and precise wind patterns, or by scientifically undetectable Earth energy fields and meridians called ley lines.

Many who favor an extraterrestrial explanation claim that aliens physically make the patterns themselves from spaceships; others suggest that they do it using invisible energy beams from space, saving them the trip down here. Still others believe that it is human, not extraterrestrial, thought and intelligence that is behind the patterns — not in the form of hoaxers but some sort of global psychic power that manifests itself in wheat and other crops.

While there are countless theories, the only known, proven cause of crop circles is humans. Their origin remained a mystery until September 1991, when two men confessed that they had created the patterns for decades as a prank to make people think UFOs had landed (they had been inspired by the 1966 Tully UFO report). They never claimed to have made all the circles — many were copycat pranks done by others — but their hoax launched the crop circle phenomena.

Most crop circle researchers admit that the vast majority of crop circles are created by hoaxers. But, they claim, there’s a remaining tiny percentage that they can’t explain. The real problem is that (despite unproven claims by a few researchers that stalks found inside “real” crop circles show unusual characteristics), there is no reliable scientific way to distinguish “real” crop circles from man-made ones. [Related: Crop-Circle Artists Becoming High Tech]

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Do Scientists Fear the Paranormal?

paranormal-alien-630x433_05by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

The question has been asked for decades: why haven’t psychic powers been proven yet? Psychics have been studied for decades, both in and out of the laboratory, yet the scientific community (and the public at large) remains unconvinced.

In a recent book, “Science & Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics,” author Chris Carter insists that the reason that psychic powers have not been proven is because scientists are unaware of the research or refuse to take it seriously because “Clearly many scientists find the claims of parapsychology disturbing.”

Curiosity Spots Mystery Mars 'Flower'

Curiosity Spots Mystery Mars ‘Flower’
(Click image for analysis)

This is a common charge leveled against skeptics and scientists: that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of paranormal phenomenon (psychic abilities, ghosts, etc.) because it would somehow challenge or “disturb” their worldview.

Skeptics and scientists, they say, are deeply personally and professional invested in defending the scientific status quo and cannot psychologically tolerate the idea that they could be wrong. This results in a closed-minded refusal to accept, or even seriously examine, the evidence.

But is this really true? Do scientists ignore and dismiss claims and evidence that challenge dominant scientific ideas? Let’s examine some recent examples.

Psychic Powers

A study published in 2011 in a scientific journal claimed to have found strong evidence for the existence of psychic powers such as ESP. The paper, written by Cornell professor Daryl J. Bem, was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and quickly made headlines around the world for its implication: that psychic powers had been scientifically proven.

Bem’s claim of evidence for ESP wasn’t ridiculed or ignored; instead it was taken seriously and tested by scientific researchers.

Indonesian Crop Circle Prompts Rumors of Aliens

Indonesian Crop Circle Prompts
Rumors of Aliens
(Click image for analysis)

Replication is of course the hallmark of valid scientific research — if the findings are true and accurate, they should be able to be replicated by others. Otherwise the results may simply be due to normal and expected statistical variations and errors. If other experimenters cannot get the same result using the same techniques, it’s usually a sign that the original study was flawed in one or more ways.

A team of researchers collaborated to accurately replicate Bem’s final experiment, and found no evidence for any psychic powers. Their results were published in the journal PLoS ONE. Bem — explicitly contradicting Carter’s suggestion that skeptics set out to discredit his work or refused to look at it — acknowledged that the findings did not support his claims and wrote that the researchers had “made a competent, good-faith effort to replicate the results of one of my experiments on precognition.”

The following year a second group of scientists also tried to replicate Bem’s ESP experiments, and once again found no evidence for psychic power. The article, “Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi,” was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and is available on the web page of the Social Science Research Network.

Einstein’s Mistake?

In September 2011, news shot around the world that Italian physicists had measured particles traveling faster than light. The neutrino in the experiment only exceeded the speed of light by a little tiny bit — 60 nanoseconds — but if validated would violate the fundamental laws of physics.

Questions swirled: Would the findings hold up under repeated experiments? Could this team have proven Einstein wrong about the speed of light?

Real-life 'Paranormal Activity': Are Ghosts Real? (Credit: Paramount Picutures)

Real-life ‘Paranormal Activity’:
Are Ghosts Real?
Photo Credit: Paramount Picutures
(Click image for analysis)

What was the reaction from the scientific community to the news of this fundamentals-of-physics-challenging finding? They didn’t ignore the results, hoping the inconvenient truth would go away; they didn’t brand the scientists liars or hoaxers; they didn’t shout, “Burn the witch, this is heresy and cannot be true!”

Instead, they did what all scientists do when confronted with such anomalous evidence: they took a closer look at the experiment to make sure the results were valid, and tried to replicate the research. It later turned out that the anomaly was caused by at least two measurement errors, possibly including a loose cable: the experiment was flawed.

The scientists were not skeptical because accepting that Einstein was wrong about something would lead to a nervous breakdown, or that their whole worldview would crumble beneath them, or that they would have to accept that science doesn’t know everything.

The reason scientists were skeptical is because the new study contradicted all previous experiments. That’s what good science does: When you do a study or experiment — especially one whose results conflict with earlier conclusions, you study it closely and question it before accepting the results.

In science, those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Disproving one of Einstein’s best-known predictions (or proving the existence of psychic powers) would earn the dissenting scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel Prize.

The same pattern exists in other areas of the unexplained. For example . . . (READ MORE) . . .

Are Ghosts Real?

Science Says No-o-o-o

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

GhostGirl_250pxIf you believe in ghosts, you’re not alone: A 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses, and about one-third believe in ghosts. Tens of thousands of people around the world actively search for ghosts as a hobby. Researcher Sharon Hill of the Doubtful Newsblog counted about 2,000 active amateur ghost-hunting groups in America.

Ghosts have been a popular subject for millennia, appearing in countless stories, from “Macbeth” to the Bible, and even spawning their own folklore genre: ghost stories. Ghosts are perhaps the most common paranormal belief in the world. Part of the reason is that belief in ghosts is part of a larger web of related paranormal beliefs, including near-death experience, life after death, and spirit communication.

The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn’t want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren’t looking out for us, or with us in our times of need? Most people believe in ghosts because of personal experience; they have seen or sensed some unexplained presence.

The science and logic of ghosts

ghostly_173Personal experience is one thing, but scientific evidence is another matter. Part of the difficulty in investigating ghosts is that there is not one universally agreed-upon definition of what a ghost is. Some believe that they are spirits of the dead who for whatever reason get “lost” on their way to The Other Side; others claim that ghosts are instead telepathic entities projected into the world from our minds.

Still others create their own special categories for different types of ghosts, such as poltergeists, residual hauntings, intelligent spirits and shadow people. Of course, it’s all made up, like speculating on the different races of fairies or dragons: there are as many types of ghosts as you want there to be.

There are many contradictions inherent in ideas about ghosts. For example, are ghosts material or not? Either they can move through solid objects without disturbing them, or they can slam doors shut and throw objects across the room. Logically and physically, it’s one or the other. If ghosts are human souls, why do they appear clothed and with (presumably soulless) inanimate objects like hats, canes, and dresses — not to mention the many reports of ghost trains, cars and carriages?

Ghosts1001_200pxIf ghosts are the spirits of those whose deaths were unavenged, why are there unsolved murders, since ghosts are said to communicate with psychic mediums, and should be able to identify their killers for the police. And so on; just about any claim about ghosts raises logical reasons to doubt it.

Ghost hunters use many creative (and dubious) methods to detect the spirits’ presences, often including psychics. Virtually all ghost hunters claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras and sensitive microphones. Yet none of this equipment has ever been shown to actually detect ghosts.

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Saved by Psychic Powers

via NeuroLogica Blog

eye_see_the_future_250pxIn just about every disaster or event in which there are many deaths, such as a plane crash, there is likely to be, by random chance alone, individuals who survived due to an unlikely sequence of events. Passengers missing their flight by a few minutes can look back at all the small delays that added up to them seeing the doors close as they a jog up to their gate. If that plane were then to crash, killing everyone on board, those small delays might seem like destiny. The passenger who canceled their flight because of flying anxiety might feel as if they had a premonition.

This is nothing but the lottery fallacy – judging the odds of an event occurring after the fact. What are the odds of one specific person winning the lottery? Hundreds of millions to one against. What are the odds of someone winning the lottery? Very good.

Likewise, what are the chances that someone will miss or choose not to take any particular flight? Very high – therefore this is likely to be true about any flight that happens to crash. If you are that one person, however, it may be difficult to shake the sense that your improbable survival was more than just a lucky coincidence.

A similar story has emerged from the Sandy Hook tragedy. A mother of a kindergartener there, Karen Dryer claims that her 5 year old son was saved by his psychic powers. She reports that her son, after a few months at the school, started to cry and be unhappy at school. He was home schooled for a short time, during which the shooting occurred. Now, at the new elementary school that recently opened, he seems to be happy.

In retrospect it may seem like a compelling story – if one does not think about it too deeply. As Ben Radford points out in the article linked to above, the story as told is likely the product of confirmation bias. The mother is now remembering details that enhance the theme of the story (her son’s alleged psychic powers) and forgetting details that might be inconsistent.

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‘UFO’ Videotaped From Airplane: What Is It? : Discovery News

by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

A home video allegedly taken just before Christmas during a late-night flight appears to show a UFO flying next to the plane. The video, posted to YouTube by a man named Mauricio Ruiz, has the Internet buzzing.

According to Tom Rose, an Examiner.com blogger,

The UFO itself is of a type possibly never filmed before. For most of the video the lustrous, rounded object flies alongside the jet, maintaining relative distance and speed. This in itself is unusual as aircraft are usually separated by a mile or more for safety reasons. The object looks metallic and resembles a closed fist encased in a glove.

TheUFO1013_cropped

Still frame from the video in question
showing the alleged UFO.

Actually the video doesn’t show a “lustrous, rounded object” — nor, for that matter, a metallic one — but instead a group of six or eight clustered irregular-shaped lights that remain more or less fixed in one position. Still, its identity has many puzzled: Lights on the ground? A hoax? Reflection of interior cabin lights? A flying saucer?

Though a definitive conclusion has yet to be reached, there are a few clues in the video that offer a plausible explanation.

For one thing, the light cluster does not move relative to the airplane; indeed it remains apparently stationary in the sky from the cameraman’s point of view. It keeps the exact same speed and altitude near the plane, which would very unusual if it is an aircraft sidling nearby.

It’s important to remember that airplane windows are different from ordinary house windows. For one thing, the panes are not flat but instead slightly curved, which can alter and distort images seen in them.

Furthermore, objects outside the cabin are viewed not through one pane but instead through at least two transparent panels of glass and plastic; this creates an overlaying double reflection of lights from inside the cabin.

The image is reflected once by the plastic near the seat, and once more by the thick laminated glass on the inside of the window itself, a few inches beyond. The result is a reflection that often appears as a duplicate image, depending on the angle of the viewer.

Indeed, this effect can be seen in the ‘UFO’ video. At several places in the video (including 0:18 and 0:41), this duplicate ghosting effect is apparent; though the image is moving and blurry because of the unsteady camera, the same pattern of lights can be seen overlapping each other.

Mr. Ruiz moves his hand toward and around the window, apparently trying to rule out the possibility that the image is a reflection from within the cabin. However his hand only blocks reflections coming from the extreme left of the window; it does not rule out reflections coming from above and behind him — which is where cabin lights would be.

At one point the lights suddenly disappear, likely because …

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IllumiNuTTi.com editor’s note:

I think Benjamin Radford, author of the above article, is onto something. I agree the UFO seen in the aircraft window is a reflection from some light source originating from inside the aircraft cabin. I think an overhead reading lamp like the one pictured below would make an excellent UFO reflection in an aircraft window. What do you think?

On the left

On the left is a typical overhead reading lamp.
On the right is the reflection (UFO) in question.

Psychic Sued for Police Hoax About Massacre

by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

The owners of a Texas ranch raided by police in 2011 based on false information from a psychic are now suing, along with police and several news organizations.

psychic_300pxThe case began June 6, when a psychic using the name ‘Angel’ called police and described a horrific scene of mass murder: dozens of dismembered bodies near a ranch house about an hour outside of Houston, Texas. There were rotting limbs, headless corpses and, chillingly, children in a mass grave.

Deputies from the Liberty County Sheriff’s office went to investigate but didn’t see anything amiss. After a second call the following day, dozens of officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the FBI and the Texas Rangers were on the scene—not to mention cadaver dogs, news helicopters and gawkers.

It all turned out to be a false alarm. There were no dead bodies; the psychic was wrong (or lying).

Though the incident became a national embarrassment, the police refused to apologize, saying that procedures were followed and that the severity of the claims warranted an investigation. Whether a tip comes from an ordinary citizen, an anonymous informant or a self-proclaimed psychic, information about mass murders cannot be ignored.

The ranch owners, Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, were not amused and filed a lawsuit earlier this year. However, according to Anna Merlan of The Dallas Observer

Angel, who’d called in the tip by phone, vanished into the ether, leaving the couple to sue the media outlets for defamation and the sheriff’s office for unreasonable search and seizure. … Now, court records show that the plaintiffs seem to have located and sued the woman they think is an Angel in disguise. Her name is Presley Gridley, she goes by “Rhonda,” and she lives in Stanton, Texas, about 800 miles away from their farmhouse.

According to Merlan, a Liberty County blogger named Allen Youngblood did some detective work and discovered a call Gridley made to a nearby county Sheriff’s Department in which she told police to investigate a rural Texas farmhouse in search of two missing children who were the subject of an Amber Alert.

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Denver ‘UFO’ Likely Has Earthly Explanation

by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

(H/T Thomas J. Proffit)

An unusual video of mysterious dark objects moving very quickly and erratically over the skies of Denver, Colo., has local residents buzzing.

Fox affiliate KDVR reporter Heidi Hemmat described “an unusual object that appears to launch and land in the metro area.” The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had no record of anything unusual in the skies at the time, either visually or on radar.

The video made news last week when KDVR reported:

“Strange objects caught on camera flying over the city and nobody can explain it. We first learned about these sightings when a metro area man, who does not want to be identified, brought us his home video. He captured the images on his digital camera from a hilltop in Federal Heights looking south toward downtown Denver. … The strangest part is they are flying too fast to see with the naked eye, but when we slowed down the video, several UFOs appear. … Aviation expert Steve Cowell is a former commercial pilot, instructor and FAA accident prevention counselor. He thought he would have a logical explanation, until he watched the video. ‘That is not an airplane, that is not a helicopter, those are not birds, I can’t identify it,’ he said.”

Cowell is certainly correct: It is not an airplane nor helicopter, nor birds. He’s also right that he can’t identify it, though he’d likely have better luck if he was trained as an entomologist instead of an aviation expert.

There are many obvious holes in the spacecraft explanation, not the least of which is that it’s amazing that no one in Denver apparently noticed the extraterrestrial spacecraft launching and landing in the skies over the downtown area in the middle of the day.

The most likely explanation? A bug or insect, probably a fly or bee.

How Optical Illusions Create UFOs

Assuming that the TV station is not being pranked by the anonymous cameraman, it’s not difficult to see how the insects could fool people. It’s not necessarily that anyone is stupid or gullible; instead it’s an optical illusion created by the camera representing a three-dimensional object in two dimensions.

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Also See: Bugged by UFOs (iLLumiNuTTi.com)

Psychic Devastates Dead Student’s Family

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

Harsha Maddula, a Northwestern University pre-medical student from Long Island, N.Y., went missing Sept. 22, last seen leaving an off-campus party in Illinois. Police and volunteer searchers were unable to find him, but Maddula’s family said reassuring words from psychics had raised their spirits.

Apparently, psychics contacted by the Maddula family’s relatives in India said Harsha was okay and would be found: “He’s still alive. Don’t worry.'”

The next day, however, Maddula’s body was found in Wilmette Harbor near his dormitory. He’d been dead for nearly a week, hidden from searchers in the water between two boats. There was no sign of struggle, robbery, or assault; though toxicology tests are still underway, police believe he was likely the victim of an accidental drowning.

This is only the latest of many cases where grieving families of missing persons have been given false hope by psychics. Despite the failure of psychic detectives to locate missing people, desperate families often turn to psychic and soothsayers.

It happens regularly: grieving families hoping psychics will recover their missing loved ones are always disappointed. Still, even if they don’t believe in psychics, they conclude that nothing else has worked, so there’s no harm in trying.

Indeed, as a news article on Michigan Live.com noted, the mother of a missing woman will be seeking advice from a nationally-known psychic next week: “The mother of Venus Stewart, who has been missing since April 2010 and is presumed to have been killed by her estranged husband, has been invited to appear on the syndicated talk show ‘Dr. Phil,'” according to Live.com. The news article went on to say the mother Therese McComb of Colon, Mich., would fly to Los Angeles next week to tape the show, which will air in November. On the show, famed psychic John Edward will try to contact Stewart’s spirit to possibly get information about the whereabouts of her body.

“I’m desperate’ to find Stewart’s body and have closure,” McComb said. ‘This is about a desperate mother. That’s what it is,” she added.

If Edward can lead police and the McComb family to where Venus Stewart is, dead or alive, it would be the first time it’s happened.

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Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

Also see: Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena

ESP & Psychic Powers: Claims Inconclusive

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

The idea of special — apparently paranormal — mental abilities such as psychic powers or extrasensory perception (ESP) has intrigued people for centuries. There are several claimed varieties of psychic powers, including telekinesis (or psychokinesis, the ability to move objects through mind power); precognition (knowing future events before they happen); and telepathy or clairvoyance (French for “clear sight” — describing things at a remote location). It’s the stuff of fiction and movies — but is it real?

Many Americans believe in psychic ability (about 15 percent of the country, according to a 2005 Baylor Religion Survey; and 41 percent in another survey), but scientific evidence for its existence remains elusive. And it’s not for lack of trying; people — and the U.S. government — have spent decades searching for ESP.

Government ESP research

During the Cold War, rumors circulated that the Russians were developing an army of psychic spies; in response, the U.S. military created a program to examine whether psychics could be useful in military applications. The program, called Stargate, tested “remote viewers” to see if their feelings and visions were accurate. The research continued for about two decades, ending in the mid-1990s with little apparent success. Finally the CIA took over the program and asked scientists to review the results. They concluded that the psychics did no better than chance, and that the psychic information was neither validated nor useful. Project Stargate failed and was shut down.

Some suggest that the fact that Stargate program even existed is evidence that there must be some validity to psychic powers (otherwise it would not have been created and funded for years). Yet countless programs have been funded despite never having been proven valid or effective; the U.S. government spending money on fruitless programs is hardly novel. Some believe that top-secret government programs still use psychics today, though high-profile intelligence failures (i.e., if accurate psychics are employed by the government, why did it take a decade to find Osama bin Laden?) cast doubt on such conspiracy claims.

ESP in the laboratory

Though the government concluded that psychic power doesn’t exist (or, if it does, the information it provides is no more accurate than random chance guesses), ESP research has continued. Unfortunately, ESP has not fared well under scientific conditions, whether in the private or public sector.

Early experiments used “Zener cards” with common symbols such as circles, squares, and wavy lines selected at random and which a psychic would try to guess. In the 1930s and 1940s a researcher at Duke University named J.B. Rhine became interested in the idea that people could affect the outcome of random events using their minds. Rhine began with tests of dice rolls, asking subjects to try and influence the outcome through concentration. Though his results were mixed and hardly robust, they were enough to convince …

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