Tag Archives: csi

Mind Over Metal

Joe NickellBy Joe Nickell via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Can people move or alter physical objects simply by using a hidden power of the mind called psychokinesis? I have encountered many claims of such powers in the course of my work (since 1969) as a paranormal investigator. And I have pretended to have such ability myself—both as a professional stage magician and mentalist (a magician specializing in apparent psychic feats). In the fall of 2012, I attended a workshop that enabled me to investigate the latest popular expression of psychokinetic metal bending.

Psychokinesis

telekinesis_fullpic_250pxThe term psychokinesis (formerly telekinesis), or PK, derives from the Greek words for “mind” and “motion.” Together with extrasensory perception (ESP), it constitutes what parapsychologists refer to as “psi to describe the two seemingly closely related phenomena. However, the existence of psi has never been proven and, indeed, according to a sympathetic source: “Despite decades of research, psi continues to elude physical and quasi-physical theories of how it functions; it operates outside the bounds of time and space” (Guiley 1991, 468).

PK describes the alleged power of mind over matter, including such “micro-PK” acts as subtly influencing how thrown dice will land, or “macro-PK” feats like levitating a table or producing so-called “poltergeist” effects (actually, typically the tricks of children1). Psychokinetic metal bending is another alleged macro-PK phenomenon.

Geller the PK Marvel

Uri Gellermade millions in the 1970s pretending to bend spoons with his mind.

Uri Geller made millions in the 1970s pretending to bend spoons with his mind.

It appears that the first major performer of apparent PK metal bending (PK-MB) was Israeli-born former fashion model and nightclub magician, Uri Geller (b. 1946) (Figure 1). Claiming to be guided by super beings from a distant planet, Geller appeared to read minds, bend keys and cutlery with PK, see while blindfolded, and perform other feats—all of which skilled magicians easily duplicate. (I, for example, have driven a car while blindfolded [Nickell with Fischer 1992, 77].) He typically refused to perform when magicians were observing but, nevertheless, was occasionally caught cheating.

Renowned American magician and psychic investigator James “The Amazing” Randi once observed Geller up close. Posing as an editor when Geller performed in the offices of Time magazine, Randi saw the simple tricks behind Geller’s wonderworking. For example, while Geller pretended to cover his eyes as a secretary made a simple drawing, he actually peeked, thus enabling him to appear to read her mind and reproduce the drawing. Again, while supposedly bending a key “by concentration,” Geller had instead bent it against a table when he thought he was unobserved. (For more on Geller’s methods, see Randi 1982.)

More Benders

Spoon_bending_200pxGeller was soon imitated by other “psychics” who discovered that they, too, could bend keys and spoons. One was Judy Knowles, who impressed London physics professor and parapsychologist John Hasted with her apparent ability. Hasted invited James Randi to observe tests of Knowles in a lab at Bath. Randi arrived with colleagues and his checkbook, offering Ms. Knowles $10,000 if she successfully passed the test, which was designed by Harry Collins of the University of Bath. Collins had tested other spoon benders, but none had been successful, and some children had been caught cheating.

Briefly, the test involved Knowles holding the spoon in a . . .

Continues Reading @ The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Ten Tricks of the Psychics I Bet You Didn’t Know

(You Won’t Believe #6!)

By Susan Gerbic via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

“There is no way the psychic could have known that!”

I have been researching psychics since 2002, and I have heard this phrase too many times to count. Mentalist and psychic expert Mark Edward would answer that with “Oh yes, there is.” Let’s look at ten ways psychics could know that, with real life examples. I bet you don’t know them all!

1. These people are very good, slick, practiced, and fast.

Why don’t you remember this headline?

Hollywood Medium’s Tyler Henry claims he has already given over a thousand readings, and he is only twenty-two years old. When you look at people who have been in the psychic business for ten or more years, those people are on auto-pilot; the questions and statements flow out of them naturally. To an audience member who is watching them for the first time, they appear to be making statements that seem specific, but if you watch enough of these readings you will see some of the same “specific” statements come up over and over again. Old photographs in a box, the sound of keys or coins in a pocket, a fire in the house, someone fell off a horse, a bird came into the house, a garden with roses—all are generalities that seem specific.

2. They use stooges, and sometimes it’s you.

I’ve attended several psychic group readings, and it is pretty typical to arrive early and find that the first couple rows are saved for friends and the best fans. I purchase the VIP passes to these events and never get to sit in the very front row. When I chat up these front row women (yes, they are usually women) I discover that they attend multiple shows in different cities. They talk comfortably and with statements such as “he usually does this in his shows” or “in his show a couple days ago, he said/did this….” Chip Coffey reserves a segment of his show for something called “Coffey Talk,” which is where he chats with the audience and answers questions. It was clear from the questions that several of his fans knew a lot about the TV shows Coffey had been on years ago. Some were fairly obscure questions only a true fan would know to ask. Later on, during the psychic part of the evening, he “read” one of these women with some specific statements. I guess you would call these people psychic groupies; they are unaware that they are being used as stooges and are honored that their dead family members always seem to come through at each show. The regular audience who is seeing Coffey for the first time think he is really accurate and don’t realize what is going on.

Also, in that same event Coffey said that he was getting a message about a psychic business one of the audience women was thinking of opening. He made it sound like he had received this information from the spirit world, but I knew he had been chatting with the woman during the break.

For Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! Show “Talking to the Dead,” Mark Edward examined the incident of psychic Rosemary Althea connecting with a couple’s daughter who had committed suicide. Althea snapped her fingers and said, “She was gone like that,” and the parents nodded their heads and wiped away tears. Mark explained to the show’s producer that there was something not right with that; you don’t want to say suicide unless you are very sure. The producer interviewed the parents, and sure enough, they said that Althea had done readings for them before and the couple was friends with Althea’s publisher who brought them to this show.

At another psychic show Mark and I attended in 2017, after the event was over I chatted with a woman who was so excited that the psychic had given her a reading.

Continue Reading @ The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI – – –

Phrenology and the Grand Delusion of Experience

Geoffrey Dean via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

Today, phrenology (“head reading”) is usually seen as the fossilized stuff of cranks and charlatans. But in the nineteenth century it had a huge influence at all levels of Western society, more than all of its later competitors (such as psychoanalysis) put together. It was in­fluential because of its attractive philosophy and because practitioners and clients saw that it worked. But we now know that it could not possibly work; personal experience had led millions of people astray. Indeed, few beliefs can match phrenology for its extent of influence and certainty of invalidity. So it has valuable lessons about any experience-based belief.

Phrenology’s Influence

In the nineteenth century, phrenology affected all levels of Western life and thought. In Britain, Europe, and Amer­ica, its influence was felt in anthropology, criminology, education, medicine, psychiatry, art, and literature. In France, it eroded established power and led to wide social changes. In Australia, it rationalized the violence against Abo­rigines and explained the criminality of convicts. For ordinary people everywhere a head reading was often required for employment or marriage.1 But how could this happen if phrenology was totally invalid? For answers, we need to start at the beginning.

First Steps to Delusion

Around 1790, the German-born anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, one of the founders of modern neurology, put together his skull doctrine that later led to phrenology. He held that behavior such as painting or being careful had their own specialized organs in the brain, and that they influenced the shape of the skull. So the skull’s bumps would indicate behavior and abilities that were innate. Gall spent eleven years examining hundreds of heads to test his ideas: “If … he observed any mechanician, musician, sculptor, draughtsman, mathematician, endowed with such or such faculty from birth, he examined their heads to see whether he might point out a particular development of some cerebral part…. He also called together in his house common people, as coachmen and poor boys, and excited them to make him ac­quainted with their characters” (Spurz­heim 1815, 271).

Gall’s seemingly logical approach had two fatal defects. First, his claims were often based on a single striking case, for example “Cautiousness” was placed above the ears because an extremely cautious priest had a large bump there. Second, Gall looked only for confirmingcases and ignored disconfirming cases, a flaw not lost on his critics. Thus David Skae (1847), a physician at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, noted that once the truth is “fixed upon our minds,” looking for confirmation is “the most perfect recipe for making a phrenologist that could well be devised.” But to Gall and the thousands of phrenologists who came later, personal experience mattered more than procedural defects. Phren­ology had taken its first giant step on the road to delusion.2 Note that the delusion of experience is not limited to artifacts of reasoning such as the Barnum effect.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

Continue Reading @ The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – – –

The Consequences of “Stupid”

By Hayley Stevens via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

I used to believe in ghosts, an afterlife, and that people had the ability to talk to the dead; these beliefs were fuelled by an information overload. As a curious teenager, I had the internet at my fingertips and I wasn’t really taught how to critically examine claims like these at school. Thus, when I joined web forums dedicated to discussing paranormal experiences and the proof of these experiences, I wasn’t able to distinguish between the plausible and the implausible.

In addition to the forums, there were numerous television shows catering to aspiring ghost hunters that championed spiritual and pseudoscientific methodology, and many magazines in the shops that encouraged the belief that paranormal ideas were real because others had experienced them.

I could get psychic readings in person, online, over the phone, on television, or by writing into my favorite magazines. Having paranormal beliefs validated is easier today because we are constantly bombarded with information that we can then cherry pick to suit our particular ideas.

Falling into the trap of illogical thinking is very easy. You can quickly invest a lot of yourself into your new beliefs, and thus they become an important part of your life. I speak from experience when I say that calling people who hold such beliefs “stupid” because of their lack of rationale does nothing to make them reconsider the conclusions they have reached about those subjects.

In fact, dismissing people as “stupid” may have the opposite effect, depending on why they hold those beliefs and what they’ve invested in them. Abandoning important beliefs isn’t a light hearted change of mind, and forcing someone to turn their back on what they hold sacred too quickly can have a harmful and negative effect. Attacking someone—calling them names and suggesting they’re an idiot—because of what they choose to believe can push them away from reason and logic, and can cause them to develop such dependency upon those beliefs that nothing will ever change their minds.

Continue Reading @ The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – – –

Astrology: More like Religion Than Science

By Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)

I’ve discussed here and here how practitioners of paranormal piffle wish to look scientific. They fail under actual scientific scrutiny but, we have to admit, they are pretty effective at bamboozling the public with a sciencey show.

I came across a news story in Business Insider about an astrologer who was doing mighty well for herself. In times of uncertainty, society tends to turn to anything that will give them a sense of control. Astrologic and psychic advisors seem to fill that role for some people, even professional businesspeople. This astrologer, who thinks quite highly of her craft, had these things to say:

“What I do is scientific. Astrology involves careful methods learned over years and years of training and experience.”

“There are so many things we don’t understand in the world. What if 200 years ago someone had said that these metal barrels in the sky would get us around the world in a few hours? Or that we’d inject ourselves with mold to treat illnesses? People are so skeptical.”

And then I laughed.

Few examples of pseudoscience are more perfect than astrology, which has been studied A LOT, and whose practitioners still cannot demonstrate a root in reality.

Continue Reading @ CSI – – –

My Ninety Seconds of Cryotherapy

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

“You should freeze your toxins out!”
The emails were adamant. Everyone wanted me to undergo cryotherapy: step into a -260°F stall, alone and naked, for three minutes, and feel the toxins flutter away into the ether.
Cryotherapy_300pxNo thanks, I thought. I am a cold wuss. I grew up in Los Angeles, where anything below 80°F is cool and below 70°F is downright cold. Not to mention that even here in Hollywood, I am always the person to ask whether anyone has an extra sweater before we go into an air-conditioned movie theatre. I didn’t seem like a good candidate for experimental hypothermia.
Yet we got the request so many times that my curiosity grew. The frightening-sounding treatment has been on the rise the last few years, with The New York Times noting the increase in athletes who used it in 2011. Since then, companies offering the service have sprouted up, especially in Los Angeles, where alternative therapies abound. Earlier this year, The Atlantic released a video about their medical-doctor-turned-editor-in-chief trying out cryotherapy. He was willing to do it, despite the practitioner telling him that some brave partakers got frostbite. If a doctor could summon the courage, couldn’t I? With a little encouragement from my podcast host Ross, and seeing that the whole experience totaled out at three minutes, I decided to give it a shot, even though those three minutes would cost $65.

Continue Reading . . .

The ‘Food Babe’: A Taste of Her Own Medicine

Mark Aaron AlsipBy Mark Aaron Alsip via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Vani Hari (the “Food Babe”) has built quite a following for herself since her 2011 debut, with nearly one million followers on Facebook and a new book release in February 2015. While Hari’s pseudoscience has been widely debunked by qualified scientists (e.g., Crislip 2013, Gorski 2014), food babe 10a more sobering fact seems to have escaped everyone’s attention: one of America’s most notorious bloggers is earning sales commissions from products that contain the very same ingredients she says are dangerous. Ironically, for a web activist who seems to do most of her research via Google, the evidence is only a few mouse clicks away. In her article “Throw This Out of Your Bathroom Cabinet Immediately,” Hari links aluminum in modern deodorants to horrific diseases such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s (Hari 2013b). But in that same piece she recommends—and earns an Amazon.com affiliate commission from—Naturally Fresh deodorant, which contains ammonium alum and potassium alum (Naturally Fresh 2015). It’s perplexing that Hari didn’t take one additional step and look up these two compounds while writing her blog. She would have found they’re better known as ammonium aluminum disulfate dodecahydrate and aluminum potassium sulfate (U.S. National Library of Medicine 2015a; 2015b). Yes, after warning about the dangers of aluminum in deodorants, Ms. Hari earns a commission on a deodorant that contains . . . aluminum.
Is this just a one-off mistake, poor research, or the use of scare tactics to sell competing products? You be the judge: In “The Ingredients in Sunscreen Destroying Your Health,” Food Babe warns that applying vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) to your skin and going out in the sun puts one in danger of skin cancer (Hari 2013a). Yet she brings in affiliate dollars on skin care products that contain vitamin A, such as Tarte Blush. Affiliate links on FoodBabe.com lead the buyer to web pages that proudly proclaim retinyl palmitate among the ingredients (Tarte Cosmetics 2015a).
Screen shot from the "Food Babe" Vani Hari's website.

Screen shot from the “Food Babe” Vani Hari’s website.

The vitamin A/skin cancer scare has already been debunked by experts (e.g., Wang et al. 2010), but that’s beside the point. Hari makes the claim that vitamin A in skin care products is dangerous, yet she’s profiting from the sales of such a product.
On that note . . . what does Food Babe recommend in a sunscreen?

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Facilitated Communication: The Fad that Will Not Die

By Stuart Vyse via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

facilitated communication turkey_300pxMany readers will remember facilitated communication (FC). Back in the early 1990s, a new treatment came rushing onto the scene making promises that were enormously attractive to parents of children with autism. Proponents of FC claimed that many people diagnosed with autism were actually suffering from a physical rather than a cognitive disability. Trapped inside their faulty bodies were high functioning—and in some cases exceptionally intelligent—people. All that was required to free the person inside was to create a communication pathway.

That pathway turned out to be someone else’s guiding hand. Equipped with a keyboard and a facilitator who supported and steadied the communicator’s hand, children and adults who had never spoken a word began to type out full sentences and, in some cases, poetry and novels. Many psychologists and special education professionals were so taken with the results that they began to question their basic understanding of autism. The media quickly seized on the phenomena, reporting heartwarming stories of recovery from the prison of disability. Word spread rapidly, creating a strong demand for training, facilitators, and keyboards.

Then things turned ugly. Some of the messages typed out by communicators included serious accusations of child sexual abuse. Judges ordered parents removed from their homes, and children were placed in protective care—all based on the testimony of previously mute children and adults with autism who were now using FC. Suddenly it became very important to determine who was doing the typing—the person with autism or the typically functioning facilitator. Shockingly, the question of authorship had never been examined . . .

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Sylvia Browne’s FBI File: Examining Her Alleged Detective Work and a Federal Criminal Investigation

By Ryan Shaffer via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

During Sylvia Browne’s decades-long career offering psychic readings and doing television appearances, she made numerous claims about working with law enforcement to solve crimes. In an age before the Internet, fact-checking by television and newspapers was more labor intensive. It was difficult to find sources to support or deny many of her claims. sylviamontel 819While several articles in the Skeptical Inquirer have cast doubt on her psychic abilities, Browne defended herself by citing her “work” on cases and giving the media endorsements from seemingly respectable law enforcement members, such as former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Ted Gunderson. Recently obtained FBI files shatter her insinuation that she had a relationship with federal law enforcement and show that the only interest the agency had in Browne was investigating her for fraud.

Records about a person in possession of an investigating government agency, such as the FBI, are available with the person’s permission or if they are deceased. In all likelihood, Browne would not have consented to the release of her FBI file given her refusal to allow Robert Lancaster, of StopSylvia.com, to post a transcript online that her own office sent him in 2007 (Lancaster 2007a). FBI Seal_150pxIn her haste to refute claims from an ex-husband about an alleged lack of higher education credits, Browne’s office sent Lancaster her St. Teresa’s College (now Avila University) transcripts. The transcripts, according to Lancaster, did show Browne’s ex-husband was incorrect about how long she attended college. Yet unfortunately for Browne, that transcript also demonstrated that she did not complete college and proved her often-made claim about having a higher education degree was false. Given Browne’s reluctance to make records her office sent to a critic publicly available, she probably would not have been willing to allow the release of her law enforcement records. Following her 2013 death, anyone can now obtain the government files concerning Browne.

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI asking for documents about Browne, using her date of birth under her previous legal last name of “Brown” and her later addition of “e” to the name.

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Poltergeist at Amityville?

Joe NickellBy Joe Nickell via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

On December 18, 1975, George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into a six-bedroom Dutch colonial home in Amityville, New York. But soon they were driven out, they claimed, by horrific supernatural forces. Ghosts? A poltergeist? Demons? Let’s take a look, as new claims continue to surface.

The Horror Tale

The Lutzes lasted just twenty-eight days before fleeing the house, reportedly leaving behind their possessions except for a few changes of clothes. Just three weeks later, they were telling an incredible tale.

Amityville_Horror_1979_300pxThe Lutzes claimed they had been attacked by sinister forces that ripped open a two-hundred-fifty-pound door, leaving it hanging from one hinge; threw open windows, bent their locks, and wrenched a banister from its fastenings; caused green slime to ooze from a ceiling; slid drawers rapidly back and forth; flipped a crucifix upside down; caused Kathy to levitate off the bed and turned her, briefly, into a wrinkled, toothless, drooling ninety-year-old crone; peered into the house at night with red eyes and left cloven-hooved tracks in the snow outside; infested a room in mid-winter with hundreds of houseflies; moved a four-foot ceramic statue of a lion about the house; produced cold spots and stenches; and caused other ostensibly paranormal phenomena, including speaking in a masculine voice, “Get out!”

These claims were detailed in the book, The Amityville Horror: A True Story, by Jay Anson (1977). However, the tale was a suspicious admixture of phenomena: part traditional haunting, part poltergeist disturbance, part demonic possession, with elements curiously similar to those from the movie The Exorcist thrown in for good measure.

In fact, the story soon began to fall apart, and in time a civil trial yielded evidence that the reputed events were mostly fiction.

‘Poltergeist’ Antics?

Although claims in The Amityville Horror book and movie once seemed to have been laid to rest, in 2013 the case resurfaced again. This time the oldest child of the troubled family, Daniel Lutz, who was nine at the time of the brouhaha, has come forward to claim the essential story was true and that he and his stepfather George had been “possessed.”

A documentary, My Amityville Horror (2013), focuses on Daniel, who revises discredited material. For example, he says  .  .  .

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Coincidences: Remarkable or Random?

Most improbable coincidences likely result from play of random events. The very nature of randomness assures that combing random data will yield some pattern.

By Bruce Martin via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

“You don’t believe in telepathy?” My friend, a sober professional, looked askance. “Do you?” I replied. “Of course. So many times I’ve been out for the evening and suddenly became worried about the kids. Upon calling home, I’ve learned one is sick, hurt himself, or having nightmares. How else can you explain it?”

CoincidenceSuch episodes have happened to us all and it’s common to hear the words, “It couldn’t be just coincidence.” Today the explanation many people reach for involves mental telepathy or psychic stirrings. But should we leap so readily into the arms of a mystic realm? Could such events result from coincidence after all?

There are two features of coincidences not well known among the public. First, we tend to overlook the powerful reinforcement of coincidences, both waking and in dreams, in our memories. Non-coincidental events do not register in our memories with nearly the same intensity. Second, we fail to realize the extent to which highly improbable events occur daily to everyone. It is not possible to estimate all the probabilities of many paired events that occur in our daily lives. We often tend to assign coincidences a lesser probability than they deserve.

However, it is possible to calculate the probabilities of some seemingly improbable events with precision. These examples provide clues as to how our expectations fail to agree with reality.

Coincident Birthdates

Happy Birthday_150pxIn a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birthdate. Who has not been surprised at learning this for the first time? The calculation is straightforward. First find the probability that everyone in a group of people have different birthdates (X) and then subtract this fraction from one to obtain the probability of at least one common birthdate in the group (P), P = 1 – X. Probabilities range from 0 to 1, or may be expressed as 0 to 100%. For no coincident birthdates a second person has a choice of 364 days, a third person 363 days, and the nth person 366 – n days. So the probability for all different birthdates becomes:

equation

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Faking Science Cred at a Sci-Fi Con: Not Smart

Paranormal investigators playing the role of “experts” and pretending to be scientific is not going to fly when the lack of deep knowledge is evident and there are actual scientists in the audience.

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

When it comes to Creationists, I’m actually fine when they say “God did it—that’s what I believe.” They don’t have a scientific worldview, and that’s their choice (I don’t think it’s a good choice, but that is not the point). They ought to be happy with their science-suspending miraculous explanations. Instead, a few try to interject the sciencey stuff in there and shoehorn blatantly unscientific ideas into a scientifical framework. They just don’t know what they are talking about. For the listener with a scientific background, it is painfully obvious that they are ignorant of how difficult research is, how rigorously it must be undertaken, how carefully definitions are crafted, and how diligently records are documented. hill-faking-cred-dog_250pxIt’s nails-on-a-chalkboard difficult for me to listen to. The champions at doing this same thing are paranormal investigators. So what happens when paranormal investigators give talks at a science-fiction convention? It doesn’t go over very well.

I was at RavenCon, a sci-fi fantasy convention in Richmond, Virginia, last April. As an invited speaker, I was there to talk about science from a scientist and skeptical advocate’s point of view. Bob Blaskiewicz, CSI’s “Conspiracy Guy,” was also there to talk about conspiracy theory. We aimed to bring the hammer down on nonsense thinking! Not really—we were going to schmooze and look at people in cool costumes and listen to presentations and panels about topics we just don’t get to talk about every day.

As with any such event, I expect that the invited speakers have prepared quality content. Many are professional authors and artists, and there were many scientists, too. One thing that is noticeable at these events is that the audience is pretty up on science and engineering. ElmerGhost02_250pxThe majority is really smart, read a lot, and comprehend and appreciate complexity and detail. This is not the best place to show off weak science cred.

The paranormal view has a presence at RavenCon. Not all sci-fi cons have speakers in that subject area. (I’ve been to the Paranormal track at DragonCon, but there is not an equivalent at Balticon.) In the lead up to RavenCon, the organizers invited Bob and me, perhaps partly to counter the presence of the paranormal group, to give some talks. One original idea was to have a panel about paranormal investigation with the different views represented, pro-paranormal versus application of scientific skepticism, or as I prefer to call it, evidence-based skepticism. However, this idea was scuttled when the leader of the paranormal group said she doesn’t do debates. (I actually don’t wonder why not.)

hill-faking-cred-muppet_250pxSo, they presented their talks and we presented ours separately. They didn’t come to our talks, but I went to theirs. I’m interested in their views and what they have found. The first presentation was by the group’s “scientist.” He did some demonstrations and experiments with chemicals (that should NOT have been used in a hotel ballroom) presumably to show that science looks like magic… or something. I thought the whole thing was rambling and pointless, meant to look “gee whiz” but was more like “Oh, Jeez…”

Up goes my hand: “Can you tell us about your scientific background?”

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Investigating the Rhode Island UFO

By Chip Taylor via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

With a half a century plus of interest in UFOs, astronomy, and science, I’ve despaired that in all that time I’ve never seen a real UFO. (With emphasis on what the “U” stands for of course.) I’ve seen bolides (really bright meteors), nighttime aerial refueling operations by USAF jets, odd contrails, space satellites, balloons, kites, birds, and insects. Some of these were initially unidentified, but only for a brief moment. Thus it was fascinating, weird, puzzling, and astonishing that in September of 2012 I actually got to see a real UFO that didn’t seem to fit any sort of known aerial object.

The mysterious Rhode Island “UFO.”

The mysterious Rhode Island “UFO.”

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon I was participating in a ham radio contest on Block Island, which is about a dozen miles off the Rhode Island mainland. It was one of those casual contests where there is plenty of free time to enjoy the day and watch the views. And there were a lot of things to watch. My friend and I were on an open roof deck of a house on the highest point of the Island on a crystal clear day with visibility to the horizon. ufo rhode-island_250pxBinoculars at hand, I was watching planes come and go at the nearby airport, sailboats off shore, an advertising blimp hovering between Narragansett and Newport, and birds flying about. Not a thing out of the ordinary.

And then, through the binoculars, I suddenly saw it: some kind of craft or “thing“ flying parallel to the distant shore at an estimated speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Too far away to see without binoculars, and even with them all I could make out was a parallelogram-shaped craft moving very slowly and into the wind. There was no sign of anything towing it and no sign of wings or motors. That was strange enough, but as it moved along it seemed to change shape: sometimes it was almost square, sometimes almost cigar shaped, but often getting shorter or longer as I watched. camera_225pxThe shoreline was about eight or nine miles away I guessed, and if this object was directly above the beach then it would have to be quite large—dozens of feet long and high.

I watched for several minutes and finally thought to take a photo or two. About a minute afterward it dove steeply down and disappeared behind some low hills that were a short distance behind the beach. That steep dive seemed unusual. What was back there? Where did it go? What was it? Well, I was in the middle of a radio contest (My partner was so engrossed with the radio he didn’t even bother to check out this weird craft), I was quite comfortable that I wasn’t seeing alien visitation or biblical angels, so an investigation would have to wait.

Once back home it was time to see if I could determine just what it was that I saw.

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The Weekend I Became a Reiki Healer

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

I am a Reiki practitioner, but I don’t believe in Reiki.

That may sound like a contradiction, but apparently it isn’t. One of the lessons Jenny, my Reiki master, taught my class when we first gathered in her small, purple classroom in La Crescenta, California, was this:

poppy-reiki-certificate_cropped_350px“Belief is irrelevant. You don’t have to believe a single word I say. If you have the Reiki energy and even the vaguest intention to heal, it will work.”

Now I had paid $350 to learn the “ancient” technique myself in a class called “Reiki 1-2.” But, contrary to popular myth, Reiki isn’t all that ancient. This hands-on healing method was developed by Mikao Usui just shy of one hundred years ago. The stories are not entirely clear, but the general idea is that he went up on a mountain top in Japan, fasted, and ended up receiving special healing energy from the Heavens, which he then passed down to his students. Reiki is hugely popular in the United States, where you can find a healer in nearly every city. During a Reiki treatment, you can expect your practitioner to wave his or her hands over you, often without even touching you, to heal your body, mind, and spirit. The National Institutes of Health warn that Reiki hasn’t been thoroughly studied and should never replace conventional health care.[1] Our best bet, my instructor told us, was to always assume that whoever we were dealing with was skeptical of Reiki. And plenty of people are.

When I told Jenny I didn’t know whether I thought Reiki was real myself, she said, “Oh, perfect! People who believe in Reiki are so boring. Skeptics are so much fun! Skeptics are the easiest to work with, because they want to be fair. Just go through the motions, and let them tell you if it worked. Pretend you know what you’re doing.”

reiki-cat 1104_300pxThe six of us students looked at our hands, which would soon be divine instruments.

“This is a metaphysical software download,” Jenny said. “It works as long as you have the software.”

Jenny explained that everyone’s hands have some healing energy, but 10–20 percent of the population have enough to be healers already. People who get the special healing Reiki energy (passed down from Usui to every other master and student since Reiki’s birth) have the strongest, most divinely guided healing powers possible. And receiving the two “attunements” we would get in this class meant having “Super Hands” forever. It couldn’t be undone. Jenny had guided this process many times, training 2,000 students, ages five to one hundred, over twenty-three years.

For the most part, Jenny seemed like a warm, intelligent woman who defied my expectations of a Reiki teacher at every turn. She studied biology in college and was staunchly pro-GMO. Although she wore a fair amount of green and purple, her outfit was simple and all-American. Her long, brown hair was cut in straight bangs, and she was as glued to her iPhone as everyone else in the class. Besides her odd habit of saying “yesterday” instead of “tomorrow”—“We’ll learn about animal Reiki yesterday”—she was downright normal.

When it came time to receive the sacred Reiki attunements, we all sat in a circle, closed our eyes, and waited for Jenny to walk around the outer edge of our chairs, giving the six of us the holy energy one at a time.reiki 1225 I was sitting with my hands in prayer position, centering myself and focusing on the holy energy within me already, though what I felt most strongly was a longing for the Thai restaurant next door. She reached in front of me and grasped my palms with hers, lifting my arms above my head. Then she patted my crown three times, whistled a strange tune, and touched my back. That was it. I now had partial Reiki powers.

When we opened our eyes, my classmates and I exchanged notes. Richard felt his heart become heavy and his hunger go away upon receiving the energy. Mary felt lightning bolts in her head. Tasha felt vulnerable, like wings had popped open on her back, exposing her spine. Priscilla, a physical therapist, said she was relieved she could finally be a true healer. Pablo and I were the only ones who didn’t feel much. Jenny said all our experiences were equal. We didn’t need to feel anything.

Now that we had received half of the full Reiki energy, we practiced on each other. First, the class tried to cure my headaches by feeling for lumps in the energy field above my head. I was as lumpy-headed as my teacher had expected. My fellow students all stood above me, their hands miming the removal of stagnant energy about three inches above my skull.

“Oh wow,” they said. “I can definitely feel it.”

When it was over, the teacher asked me how I felt.

“Well, fine… But I didn’t have a headache before.”

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Kevin Trudeau’s $18,000 Weight Loss Plan: A Book Review

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

When Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to ten years in prison recently, a lot of people scratched their heads. Sure, he had peddled and promoted a lot of nonsense in his day, from celebrating “natural cures” like homeopathy and “energetic rebalancing,” to recommending that his readers stop taking their prescription medicines. He had even tacitly encouraged parents not to vaccinate their children: “Vaccines are some of the most toxic things you can put in your body,” he said. [1] But this is America, where we don’t just send people to jail for saying things in books and on infomercials … do we?

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TV infomercial pitchman Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bilking consumers through his infomercials for his weight-loss book. (nydailynews.com)

But it wasn’t selling snake oil that put Kevin in the slammer. In fact, it wasn’t even the “natural cures” books for which he became so famous. It was his relatively forgotten book, The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.

In his infomercials, Trudeau had called his weight loss plan “easy” and said that those who followed the plan could “eat whatever they want.” A judge found that he had “…misrepresented the contents of his book [and] … misled thousands of consumers.”[2] The courts were especially sick of him because they had dealt with him a number of times[3] and had previously barred him from making outrageous claims about products in infomercials (at the time, he was selling a calcium product and saying it cured cancer).[4] Trudeau had carved out an exemption for his books, only to exploit it. He was charged $37 million in refunds to his readers, which he refused to pay, saying he was flat broke. The court knew he wasn’t because he kept buying things like $180 haircuts. This time, when he went back to court, the judge threw the book at him.

When I stopped by Trudeau’s Ojai, California, home to visit his estate sale for Skeptical Inquirer, I found about thirty copies of that very book in his den. I went home with one copy for $3. I wanted to see what fantastic weight loss secret was so good that Trudeau was willing to risk his livelihood. And here’s what I found out.

It’s Not “Easy” Unless You’re a Masochist

“The most common myth is that to lose weight, and keep it off, you must eat less and exercise more.” —Kevin Trudeau[5]

poppy-trudeau-weight-book_200pxTrudeau’s weight loss plan is long, grueling, and so confusing it might as well be a Dante poem. You, the dieter, will be doing the treatment for approximately ninety-six days, then following a maintenance routine. The plan itself is divided into four stages. But even these stages are not clear: part four contains elements of the diet plan itself as well as the maintenance program; at times he contradicts himself by saying you should have only one massage a week, then later saying that you should get three; at one point, he says you must always eat six meals a day, then later he recommends six meals a day “plus breakfast.” Not only is the diet not simple but the reading isn’t either. A graphing calculator may be recommended.

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A Grain of Truth: Recreating Dr. Emoto’s Rice Experiment

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Are you a human? Do you have access to the internet? Then you may already know about Dr. Masaru Emoto, the Japanese “scientist”[1] who magically turns normal rice into gross rice, simply by yelling at it.

But for the uninitiated, Dr. Emoto gained international fame from the film What the Bleep Do We Know?!, which praised his experiments on the cellular structure of water. Maybe you remember this dramatization, in which a science docent describes Emoto’s experiments, and a creepy guy creeps up on Marlee Matlin to explain everything, just in case she’s a complete buffoon.

During his studies, Emoto separated water into one hundred petri dishes and assigned each dish a fate: good or bad. The good water was blessed or praised for being so wonderful (“Oh look at you wonderful little water droplets! One day you shall be a water slide!” I imagine him saying).

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

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

The bad water was scolded (“May you become that gross grey sludge that builds up under a Zamboni,” he maybe said). Each petri dish was frozen, allegedly under similar conditions. Lo and behold, when the frozen water was viewed under a microscope, the water which had been praised and valued had rearranged itself into beautiful crystalline structures. The “bad” water was as ugly as ice crystals can get (which, to be honest, isn’t that ugly), showing a lack of symmetry and more overall jaggedness. Emoto started to get a little giddy with his findings, trying new methods like taping the words “Adolf Hitler” to a glass of water and seeing what happened (allegedly, the water was very ugly).[2]

He even had a team in Tokyo transmit their thoughts to some water across the world, to California, in a double-blinded study. According to the abstract, “crystals from the treated water were given higher scores for aesthetic appeal than those from the control water.”[3] We are all made up largely of water and, as Emoto explained, that is why this study is so important and the findings are so serious.

Except that they aren’t. As Stanford University professor Emeritus William Tiller (also featured in What the Bleep) pointed out after the film’s release,[4] After Prayer copie_200pxit is extremely easy to manipulate the crystalline structure of water, especially by adding contaminants or tinkering with the cooling rate of the water. In Dr. Tiller’s words, “In Dr. Emoto’s experiments, [supercooling] was neither controlled nor measured, a necessary requirement to be fulfilled if one wanted to prove that it was the new factor of specific human intention that was causative.”[5] Apparently, Emoto’s experimental protocols are so lacking as to be unrepeatable, and even the most basic attempts at scientific controls are absent. Regular Skeptical Inquirer contributor Harriet Hall reviewed Emoto’s book about his experiments herself, giving it the honor of “the worst book I have ever read. It is about as scientific as Alice in Wonderland.”[6] In one portion of the book, Emoto recalls watching a priest perform incantations into a lake, causing the lake to become more and more clear. And then things get really weird:

The crystals made with water from before the incantation were distorted, and looked like the face of someone in great pain. But the crystals from water taken after the incantation were complete and grand… A few days after this experiment, an incident was reported in the press. The body of a woman was found in the lake, and when I heard about this I remembered the crystals created from the water before the prayer, and remembered how the crystals had looked like a face in agony. Perhaps through the crystals, the spirit of this woman was trying to tell us something. I would like to think that her suffering was alleviated in part by the incantation.[7]

As What the Bleep faded to memory, Emoto and his water evaporated too.[8] But recently, Emoto has made a comeback in the form of a viral video meme of people carrying out yet another Emoto water experiment, now in their own kitchens. The experiment, seen here in its original form, had Emoto pouring water over cooked rice[9] in three different beakers, then labeling one “Thank You!,” one “You’re An Idiot,” and leaving one unlabeled (the control).

Every day for one month, Emoto spoke whatever was on the bottle to the rice inside (since this is about intentionality, it doesn’t matter whether the other rice “overhear”). i-hate-you-1050x787And after thirty days, what happened? Well, the “Thank You!” rice “began to ferment, giving off a strong, pleasant aroma.” The “You’re An Idiot” rice turned mostly black, and the control rice “began to rot,” turning a disgusting green-blue color. Well, the jig is up when your control rice rots, right? Apparently not. According to Emoto, the “ignored” rice fared the worst because negligence and indifference are the absolute worst things we can do to water, rice…and ourselves. He goes on to explain that “we should converse with children,” a piece of monumental parenting advice that is sure to forever be attributed to this rice experiment. “Indifference,” our narrator tells us, “does the greatest harm.”

Egad! All I’ve ever been doing with my rice is ignoring it! It sits in my pantry, quietly waiting for use, when I should at the very least be calling it an idiot, to stave off some rotting, and at best thanking it for its existence. But did others get the same results?

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Will Psychics “Cure” Cancer?

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

The online psychic industry is a seemingly bottomless collection of clairvoyants, tarot card readers, psychic healers, and other people in purple outfits. Like its predecessor, the psychic telephone hotline, and its contemporary, the “internet modeling” industry (which involves less clothing and more talking than the more traditional modeling industry), online psychics typically charge several dollars a minute for personal encounters, with some charging as much as $200 for a 30-minute session, making seeing a psychic often as expensive as seeing a therapist.

psychic 856_250pxThose who doubt the existence of psychic abilities point to the fact that clairvoyance would go against everything we know about science. But the vagueness of psychic powers poses a real problem when someone offers them for a price: when a psychic’s service cannot be pegged down by science, the practitioner can claim to do nearly anything… including curing cancer, ending suicidal depression, or bringing a lover back who is long, long gone. In fact, I once had a psychic tell me that my newly-ended four year relationship was “not over yet.” Fortunately for me and my ex, she was wrong.

But what happens when someone goes to a psychic for something really serious? I visited one of the most popular live-psychic sites on the internet, Oranum, and spent five hours speaking to thirteen of their psychics. Knowing I would never again have the patience for such a venture, I picked the boldest claim I could think of: I told each psychic that I had serious, life-threatening cancer. At first, that was all the information they got. But if asked, I was prepared with a back story: It was stage 3 ovarian cancer, and among other treatments, my doctor wanted to me undergo chemotherapy. I instead preferred, I said, “to find a spiritual solution.”

How many of the psychics would offer to help me skip medicine in favor of psychic healing?

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

The first psychic I spoke to said that she could not tell me to stop seeing my doctor. “That’s against the law, okay?” she said, looking directly in the camera, at me and the others who were tuned into her “channel.” We were all typing in a group, trying to grab her attention, but the word “cancer” had apparently won. Someone else in the group thought she was talking to them anyway.

“Why are you talking about cancer? Oh my god, do I have cancer?!” they asked.

I quickly left, satisfied that this psychic had refused to endorse my choice not to get real treatment from a real doctor.

The second psychic, a young woman with only two other people in her chat room, was eager to  .  .  .

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Where Is the Science in Electronic Voice Phenomena?

themer-evp
Via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

It is hard to turn on the television today without coming across a program about ghosts and the paranormal. These shows might shine an entertaining light on the unknown, but they are often more about their cast of characters and investigators than the science of parapsychology.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Since the 1920s, when Thomas Edison hinted that he might have attempted to build a “ghost machine” to communicate with the dead, some have tried to apply a scientific method to proving the existence of life after death. So far this has been unsuccessful, and to this day every group of investigators, both amateur and professional, has their own set of protocols as to what is or is not considered paranormal (see Sharon Hill’s “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things,” SI, March/April 2012).

With no universally accepted methods of investigating the paranormal, the beliefs of investigators can greatly influence the outcomes of their own investigations. Some investigators believe removing objects from a location will end a possible haunting. Others use objects to capture spirits, and psychic investigators believe spirits can be blessed or cast away. None of these methods have been scientifically proven, yet every investigator claims that the method they use is successful.

In pursuit of scientifically verifiable evidence, tools of all types have been employed. Many theories about detecting paranormal activity have been tested using everything from dowsing rods to Geiger counters. While the evidence they provide is scientifically debated, some tools such as audio recorders have become popular mainstays of the paranormal investigator.

soundwave-175x150The art of recording EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, is one of the most widely accepted methods of collecting evidence. Originally, a portable tape recorder was used to record an investigator asking a series of questions and waiting for responses in the silence following each question. After the EVP session, the tape was played back and investigators listened for intelligent and relevant responses caught on the tape but not audible to the ear at the time. The theory is that spirits do not have enough energy to create sounds audible to the human ear but can leave impressions on the tape.

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