Tag Archives: 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.

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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:


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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?


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?

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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Bigfoot Files: Science, Skepticism and the True Believers

bigfoot right there
Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

There is a small, elite group of skeptics who know their Bigfootery. That’s right, the Bigfoot skeptics.

bigfoot-2Scoff if you will, but skeptical advocacy through talking about Bigfoot and other cryptozoological creatures is an important job. Those who joke about Bigfoot and how we are wasting our time researching and discussing it must have missed the Internet and popular TV shows lately. Bigfoot is booming.

Thanks to pop culture making this a hot topic, the public finds it more acceptable—people are talking about it, it has its own TV shows, there must be something to it.

Bigfoot is arguably one of the more plausible cryptids out there. While he tends to behave a bit supernaturally at times (can’t catch the bugger in real life or even on camera), a hairy hominoid is not an impossibility—just REALLY unlikely.

I thought it was time to update what has happened in the Bigfoot drum circles in the past year since Melba Ketchum released her astoundingly disappointing and inept study of Bigfoot DNA. You can read the chronology here. It’s quite a story, interesting for reason far beyond that of genetics and a new species (a claim which is not justified based on this one highly questionable set of tests).

finding-bigfoot_250pxKetchum’s credibility faded fast upon the reveal, even though she kept promoting more and more ridiculous events, like the “Matilda, the Sleeping Bigfoot” press conference. If the Ketchum team had sought assistance and advice from knowledgeable scientists, they would have been told in no uncertain terms this is the absolute worst way to appear trustworthy. Science should not be done by press conference, especially if your Bigfoot looks an awful lot like a Wookie (from Star Wars).

I have digressed. Back to the science of Bigfoot. Yes, there is some, it can be done.

All eyes and hopes in the Bigfoot world turned to Dr. Bryan Sykes of Oxford University in the U.K. who was well underway with the Oxford Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project. Sykes accepted samples of what was suspected to be an unknown hominid from around the world. Using his special technique to remove contamination and analyze the inner core of a single hair, he has reached results that have garnered far more weight that the Ketchum results.

Why? Because he had credibility to begin with. Sykes is genuinely interested in the answer, not hung up on a pre-existing conclusion. He has not been deceptive, or continually feeding us a whiney train of gripes about how the world is out to get him. There were no conspiracies mongered in this case. There were tests and there were results. It was objective science.

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Magnet People: How Do They Work?

By Kyle Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

. .. never mind that there is no evidence for these gaussy guys and gals, what would the world be like if people really did generate a noticeable or even intense magnetic field?


Strip club patrons would get quite a show, more so than usual, if people really were magnetic.

Amid the dollar bills and drunk-at-noon businessmen, a magnetic stripper, if she spun fast enough around the poll, would melt it. At the very least she would shock herself before shocking the crowd. When a conductor like metal meets a changing magnetic field, the magic of reality induces an electric current in it. Flip-flop this current around enough, and the metal heats up to the point of melting.

If people really were magnetic, they would be terrible navigators. Taking to their smart phones and computers, their screens would blur out and become unusable. Going back to the old methods, a compass wouldn’t help much either. It would be more likely to find you than Earth’s magnetic north.

Barrell MagnetLike all interesting human qualities, magnetic people would have a range of field strengths. Perhaps there would even be schools and universities dedicated to harnessing or improving your output. In any case, the strength of the field matters quite a bit. It’s the difference between being a glorified refrigerator magnet and being able to free fall down a metal tube without dying.

Magnetic people with the strength of refrigerator magnets would produce a field 100 times stronger than the Earth’s. But if any fortunate “Magnetos” existed, perhaps with MRI-like output, they would have one million times the field strength of Earth. For the refrigerator-strength people, you wouldn’t have to change much. But a public warning would have to go out whenever those Magnetos were about. Entire houses, entire cities, would have to be shielded; all metal objects not tied down turn into deadly projectiles. In fact, a rogue oxygen tank once proved this danger, killing a patient during an MRI scan after rocketing across the room, drawn by the monstrous amount of teslas. (You can see the incident re-created here.) And at this strength, you better avoid your friend’s stack of old floppy disks and unshielded hard drives, as you could shuffle their bits into blurry oblivion.

But it wouldn’t be all bad. Magnetic craftsmen would find that every part of their body has become a convenient tool and nail holder. Salmon fishermen could experience a huge boom. As salmon navigate their way home according to the Earth’s magnetic fields, a giant magnet in the form of a fisherman could disorient or even attract the fish. Magnetic lifeguards could take to the ocean as shark repellants.

Lovers might find it annoying however, as there is no telling when your poles, so to speak, would line up.

If people really were magnetic, it would eliminate the need for elevators, at least as a way down. A strong enough magnet can . . .

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Another Tower Fell: My Months with the 9/11 Truthers

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

Ross and I are in a coffee shop, on a miserably uncomfortable bench that may have once been a church pew, surrounded by conspiracy theorists who are yelling at us.

“Do you want your employer to know you have cancer? Or AIDS? Or AIDS?!” yells Abel, the leader of the group, his forehead bulging. Ross has asked him about digital surveillance. His question barely relates to AIDS, but we’re getting used to this kind of thing. Ross says he wouldn’t want his employer to know if he had AIDS.

poppy-truthers-2We’ve been going to these “9/11 Truther” meetings for a couple of months now. The Truther movement emerged shortly after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Truthers hold that the United States government planned and executed the attacks to create a false justification for the war in Iraq. Here in Los Angeles, there are two prominent Truther groups seemingly in competition. We have been attending the biggest and most active one. About twenty-five people attend each meeting. Each one is four to five hours long and mostly consists of Abel showing us YouTube videos and steamrolling conversations. Say, for instance, responding to a question about surveillance with rantings about employer/employee AIDS relations.

Another issue on Abel’s agenda: his recent tweets to Tom Hanks. He calls his tweets “twitters.”

“I twittered at Tom Hanks,” Abel says, “and asked him why he isn’t calling out Hollywood for covering up 9/11. Now his eight hundred thousand followers will all see my message!”

The room breaks into applause. Several people tell him he did a good job. A small voice from the back asks, “What’s Twitter?”

When I get home, I check Tom Hanks’s Twitter profile. He has seven million followers. I wonder whom Abel actually “twittered.”

After spending about a dozen hours with these people and watching the three 9/11 documentaries they have given us as homework, Ross and I still have questions about the September 11th conspiracy stories. The Truthers try their best to field our questions, but their answers sound exasperated. They can’t believe this isn’t obvious to everyone. And they’ve grown tired of showing 9/11 videos, so the “9/11 Truth” meetings are conspicuously absent of 9/11 truth.

“There’s only so many times you can watch Building 7 fall,” says Abel. Ross and I agree that that’s a good point.

YouTube University DVD_200pxBuilding 7, a part of the World Trade Center complex that collapsed along with the Twin Towers during the attacks, is key to the Truthers’ argument that the tragedy was orchestrated by the U.S. government. The DVDs they gave us for homework were full of Building 7. They say Building 7 collapsed exactly how you’d expect a building to collapse if someone blew it up. To them, this is evidence that the government deliberately manufactured a “false flag” event to lead us into war. The DVDs are full of barely related details and wild assumptions. We try to broach a couple of them during the meeting.

“The videos mentioned that the World Trade Center was built to withstand a plane crash, but wasn’t it also built in the 1970s, before these kinds of planes even existed?” I ask, a bit weakly. “Wouldn’t that be part of the government’s explanation?”

“RIGHT!” shouts a fifty-year-old woman across the room, throwing her hands in the air, “They built it to withstand a strike from the strongest airliner at the time!” She seems to have missed the point, but she’s very pleased with herself. She throws her hands in the air, as if to say, “Nothing could be more obvious!” It becomes clear that this group has grown so accustomed to incredulity that scoffing is their default. Counterpoints fly past unnoticed.
Two hours later, the room has dissolved into a shouting spree that I cannot follow to save my life (which, at this point, I’m not sure I want to save). Abel is on a long diatribe about Hillary Clinton: “The Democratic party is dusting off old Hillary’s vagina and waxing it and polishing it up so you can vote for her because she’s a woman. And we all know how well it worked when they did that for the black guy!”

There’s a murmur in the crowd. Everyone mutters something quietly to him- or herself, ranging from “that’s right!” to “well, I don’t know about that…”

SHEEPLE 04_250pxThe man next to Ross and me, who is sporting cargo shorts and no shirt, shakes his dreadlocks at us. “They’re just MURDERERS. In a CEMETERY!” he says.

I give him a tiny smile, hopeful that this will end our interaction. Ross visibly pretends not to hear.

I raise my hand again. “I’m sorry. Can I bring this back to 9/11 for a second? I’m new to this, so maybe I’m missing something, but if so few people have even heard of Building 7, why did the government destroy it? Couldn’t they have achieved the same ends by just destroying the Twin Towers?”

Abel releases an annoyed sigh. Building 7, he says, was full of secret documents. September 11th planning documents, in fact. His voice slows and his eyes narrow on me. It’s the twelfth hour they’ve spent with us, but they seem to have just noticed us, like a smell creeping through a closed door.

“What’s your background, anyway? What do YOU think happened on September 11th?” asks Abel.

All eyes turn to us. We’ve been found out.

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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.


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 . . .

Messages from ‘Star Families’—in the ET Language

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

Cassandra Vanzant calls herself an “extraterrestrial communicator,” among other things. I appeared with her on CBS’s Anderson, hosted by journalist Anderson Cooper. (The show aired on April 24, 2012.) Vanzant claims to be in communication with alien intelligences whose messages she allegedly receives telepathically and then “translates.” She informed Anderson that he, too, had a star family, the “Lamarians” living in “the fourth dimension.” (See Nickell 2012.)

New Age Contactee

Cassandra Vanzant

Cassandra Vanzant

Vanzant’s claims are legion. At one time or another (sometimes under the pseudonym “Cheryl Hill”) she has acted as a tarot-card reader and instructor, ghost hunter, spiritualist medium, angel communicant, ordained minister (nondenominational), professional psychic (although she failed to foresee a serious car accident in which she was a passenger), and of course, telepathic “Master Alien Communicator” (“About the author” 2012; “About me” 2012; Vanzant 2012a).

When an amused Anderson Cooper asked his TV audience how many believed Vanzant’s claimed ability to communicate with aliens, a single person raised her hand. The audience was right to be skeptical. Ms. Vanzant is only the most recent embodiment of the contactee, a person who purports to be in repeated communication with extraterrestrials.

Contactees emerged in the early 1950s, following an influx of flying saucer reports. The Space Brothers were supposedly making themselves known to a select group of chosen persons (who thus function rather like the prophets in religions of yore) to spread their supposedly advanced wisdom to mere Earthlings. The contactees tended to be mystical folk of a type we would today call New Agers, embracing Eastern “mystery” religions, notably Hinduism, as well as Western Messianic traditions (Story 2001, 134). Today, contactees have been largely supplanted by abductees who themselves now also frequently serve as alleged cosmic messengers (Nickell 2007, 255–56).


Anderson Gets a Star Reading from Cassandra Vanzant (See Video Below)

Anderson Cooper Gets a Star Reading from Cassandra Vanzant (See Video Below)

Revealingly, like many other claimed extraterrestrial communicants (Nickell 2007, 251–58), Ms. Vanzant has several of the traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality. Such a person is sane and normal but with an unusual ability to fantasize, according to a pioneering study by Wilson and Barber (1983).

For example, Vanzant has ostensible imaginary friends (“Artoli” and “Mada­scrat”), claims to receive special messages from higher beings (not only extraterrestrials but also angels and spirit guides), purports to have psychic powers and fortunetelling abilities, reports having had an out-of-body/near-death experience (NDE), and so on, as well as appearing to generally have a rich fantasy life (Vanzant 2012a; see also her website, http://www.starfamilymessages.com).

Describing her near-death experience Van­zant (2012a) recalls floating up to the hospital roof and onward, “toward the stars.” She soon entered a “green tunnel,” then found herself “surrounded by angels, extraterrestrials, and spirit guides,” each of whom gave her a message. The experience, she says, “started my quest.” (The NDE—although only a hallucination produced by an altered brain state—is often life-transforming for the experiencer [Blackmore 1996].)

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(On YouTube)

The Feng Shui Way: A Catastrophe For City Planning

By Kyle Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Dick Van Dyke’s home had terrible feng shui.

Dick Van Dyke’s home had terrible feng shui.

Dick Van Dyke’s home had terrible feng shui. Improper positioning had him stumbling, fumbling, and tumbling all over the house. The futon in the living room had a particularly negative qi about it. To think of all the slapstick sitcoms we would be deprived of if feng shui were true…

If feng shui were true, already unbearable construction delays in major cities would be dwarfed by the demands of magnetism. The magnetic compass—built specifically for the practice of feng shui—guides modern feng shui application, and would dictate giant, regular shifts in the world’s architecture. The true magnetic north of our planet moves around like a cosmic stir stick in coffee, meaning that the proper alignment of a desk, room, or building moves as well.

To optimize the flow of qi, whole cities would need to shift every so often. Counties that could not afford the grand re-alignments would undergo terrible consequences. As magnetic poles wobbled, people would begin to feel sick and uneasy in their own homes. Others would experience piercingly odd feelings of “oneness.” Culture would begin to adapt accordingly. Certain months of the year would bring a general “lack of wellness” to a society. Alerts of shifting alignments would go out like air quality warnings. A neighbor’s house, now negatively positioned relative to your own, would affect you personally. Like accusations of witchcraft in the middle ages, a world where feng shui was true makes condemnation of a neighbor as simple as “they make me feel sick.”

feng shui doctorWith a reliance on the Earth’s magnetic field, true feng shui would drive a demand for consumer compasses. Smart phones would be outfitted with sensors. Dinner guests would have ample reason to avoid a tour of your home if the compass said so. But compass reliance also makes certain parts of the world uninhabitable. Building a positively positioned home at either of our planet’s poles, for example, would be impossible. With magnetic north so close, even walking a few feet to the right or left in such a home would drastically change the relative alignments of the structures within.

If feng shui worked, the optimal layouts for buildings would enter “best practices” manuals in architecture. Schools would have desks and hallways oriented in such a way as to promote learning. Hospitals would do the same with staircases, beds, and surgical theaters to promote healing. Feng shui masters would descend regularly to houses expecting children, ensuring the proper environment. “Energetic” layouts would be on every bachelor’s mind.

The DMV would get a radical overhaul to reduce the stress within its walls.

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Ghost Meters: I Can Name that Ghost in 5 Milligauss

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Why do paranormal investigations use EMF meters? Turns out, they don’t even know why. This is what happens when the paranormal gets sciencey. It isn’t pretty but there is beeping and flashing lights.

What's behind this hanging quilt? The ghost meter is pegged. (Photo by author)

What’s behind this hanging quilt? The ghost meter is pegged. (Photo by author)

I got a package in the mail from Amazon around the time of my birthday. It was light, not a book, something from my Wish List. I had my very own ghost meter! I started roaming my house looking for sources of electromagnetic fields.

If I just let my ghost meter sit there, it does nothing. But if I find a known source of electricity, then the analog meter bounces upward or, in some cases, pegs all the way to the right causing a flashing light and beeping sound. Around the house, here is what sets it off—the circuit box, the electronic displays on the oven and dishwasher, my digital alarm clock, the microwave, toaster oven and dehumidifier when turned on. No surprises there. My cell phone didn’t trigger it. I tested it outside with an approaching lightning storm. It was slightly greater than 0 milligauss outside compared to inside, and varied slightly from front of the house to back of the house. The storm never got close enough for me to record electromagnetic fields (EMFs) fluxes from lightning discharges. That probably was a good thing because I would have been standing out there in a rather dumb position, you know, for science.

A circuit box generates high EMF readings on the ghost meter. (Photo by author)

A circuit box generates high EMF readings on the ghost meter. (Photo by author)

My questions about this device were many and varied. What was it really measuring? Was it telling me anything? And, most importantly, what does this have to do with ghosts?

ElmerGhost02_250pxEarlier this summer, during a ghost hunt in which I was an observer, I saw paranormal researchers each with their own kinds of EMF meters. Some meters registered a change in the surrounding field at the same time. Some individual meters would fluctuate with no apparent electrical sources. The researchers considered these fluctuations to be indicative of responsive entities or paranormal energy around us. It was assumed that these anomalies were paranormal.

Where did this idea come from—this connection between EMFs and ghosts? It looks sciencey and objective. But something is not on the level. I consulted more knowledgeable people and the parapsychology literature to get some clarity on this issue.

There is Science Behind These Devices

My meter was cheap but was noted by reviewers as being a “good beginner device”. Just don’t wave it around too fast, they said, because that makes it go off.

ghost hunt emf_200pxI asked former physicist and one-time paranormal investigator on the Queen Mary “haunted” ship, Yau-Man Chan, what the deal was with these devices. He said they are simple to construct, very straightforward. They are an inductor coil and an amplifier. They pick up “impulsive” EMF signals, like a large inductive load turning on and off—an appliance with a motor, for example. Elevators, he notes, are a huge source of EMF signals like this. But because these hand-held meters are not specific enough in direction or frequency, they aren’t very useful for much and not at all precise enough to conclude what is detected if it’s not obvious. Electricians don’t use these meters. They use more advanced equipment.

There are many other kinds of EMF meters used in paranormal investigations. GhostGadgets.com’s has a discussion about the different types and how they work. I attempted to contact the owner of that site with more questions but got no response.

They do capture seemingly anomalous and transient EMFs during paranormal investigations as I observed. An EMF anomaly is an interesting phenomenon regardless of the paranormal association. It is a recording of an environmental variable that shows an unexpected flux. Yet, ghost hunters are rather convinced of their cause. I found this type of statement often: “When you find an unexplainable field, normally between 2 and 7 milligauss, it is associated with spirit activity”. (Source) This statement is problematic. There are too many leaps in logic and no evidence to support that conclusion. The connection between anomalies and spirit activity is assumed. The best we can rationally say is that we found an anomaly. Concluding “I don’t know what is causing this” (often without even a modicum of effort to find out) does not equal “paranormal”. But that is indeed what happens. According to many in paranormal investigation, it’s the default conclusion.

EMF meters “… detect fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and low strength moving EMF fields that have no source,” says Ghosthunting 101. How do you know there is no source? Has every potential source been eliminated? It is improbable that the investigator has been able to do that. There IS a source. You just didn’t locate it.
“It is a common theory that spirits disrupt this field in such a way that you can tell one is present by higher than normal readings with [an EMF] meter.” (Source) I found that “common theory” assumption in several places – stated that it is “generally accepted” by paranormal investigators that spirits emit an ELF (extremely low frequency) field and this measurement is indicative of their presence. (Curiously, the quote above appeared verbatim and unattributed on many ghost group sites which is evidence that these websites readily copy and paste from each other.) Researchers are often far too conclusive in their baseless assertions: “Nine times out of ten, if a mysterious field is constant and stable, it’s artificial; if it fluctuates wildly, it’s paranormal.” (J.P. Warren, How to Hunt Ghosts, p. 145) Oh, really? Citations please! Show your work! Another possible interpretation of that statement is that the concept of paranormal is too broad and vague to be of any meaning whatsoever.

Messy and Vague Data and Language

K2 Meter

K2 Meter

Not all paranormal investigators get that excited over EMF spikes because they will admit it’s clearly not a consistent observation. The data are all over the place. Paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle conducted experiments with the widely used K2 Meter made popular due to its appearance in the equipment array of television ghost chasers. He found the readings were inconsistent, the device was very sensitive and also easily manipulated with small electrical devices like cell phones, cameras and camera flashes. [The Bent Spoon magazine V1 p 17-22.]

Some have noted that they had a “paranormal” moment yet the EMF device did nothing. That’s actually a data point that is unsupportive of the theory of EMF=ghosts, but they have not recognized the importance of that. But they would admit that no device conclusive detects ghosts.

There are a few studies that are suggestive that haunt phenomena is correlated to local EMF variances. However, others that have not found this correlation. Much more solid work is needed before we can definitively link EMF anomalies to experiences described as “hauntings”. Yet, the link is widely touted by paranormal researchers.

Vagueness is a problem in this field. We have an unreliable reading of questionable accuracy, positing an unknown source or the source is that which we have not yet conclusively determined to exist. We can’t even get an operational definition of a “ghost”! Science is particular about defining terms and using supporting references. Not so with 99% of paranormal “research.” You can’t do anything resembling science is such a state.

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Billions and Billions of Planets and Stars, Twelve Personalities

By Kyle Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

astrology_854_300pxYou are not special, the stars and planets decided that at your birth. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, as Tyler Durden might say. In fact, all your complexities and quirks, your desires and passions, everything you have done or will do fits neatly into what looks like a twelve-slice pie chart laden with calligraphy. A snowflake you are not if astrology were true.

Despite what your mother may have told you, if astrology were true there would be at least hundreds of thousands of people who share in your uniqueness. Indeed, if astrologers could determine your personality and future from your hour and date of birth, there would be 8,760 different combinations available. With 7.1 billion people on the planet this means around 810,000 people would each receive your exact horoscope, your wisdom from the wandering planets above, your future. Human psychology may be broken up into general personality traits, but astrology breaks up human life into less possible variations than the combinations of a 2x2x2 Rubik’s Cube.

If astrology were true, society would fracture. Over time we would learn what days of the year gave rise to what kinds of people. Like parents who want their children to become professional hockey players, mothers would calculate conception and birthing times in order to give their son or daughter a particular star sign. Pharmaceutical companies would make a killing developing the drugs that allowed mothers to delay and control births more effectively. Being born into a specific astrological sign would create grand social rifts. Different schools would spring up as they did for different religions in twentieth century Ireland. Potential mates would need not only good looks but also descendants who shared the same sign. Libras and Aries would be the modern Capulets and Montagues.

Studies would be undertaken to establish the psychology determined by stars and planets. The zodiac would replace Myers Briggs. Modern descriptions of psychopathy would include “being a Gemini” as a defining symptom. The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual cites Mercury as much as it does brain chemistry in a world where astrology is true.

Political parties would also incorporate star signs. Candidates run on the basis of how compatible they are with Cancers and Leos—perhaps key demographics. The Speaker of the House would need to be in the astrological 10th House. And when faraway stars eventually shift enough to change star signs, revolutions follow. A new type of human would enter the mix every few centuries. The status quo would be forever challenged by the whims of gravity.

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Nope, It Was Always Already Wrong

By Robert Blaskiewicz via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

conspiracyfilesRecently, the claim that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was popularized in the 1960s by the CIA to discredit those who dared to question the Warren Commission has been popping up in the conspiracy-o-sphere. From the original PsyOp, so the story goes, the application of the phrase spread to encompass all sorts of nefarious doings, and now people reflexively think that all conspiracy theorists are crazy. The first version that I heard, in fact, was the claim that the term was actually invented in the 1960s, and that grabbed my attention. Really? Never appeared before the 1960s?

An infuriating feature of conspiracy theory is its propensity to take the standard of evidence that skeptics value so highly and turn it on its head: extraordinary claims no longer require extraordinary evidence; rather an extraordinary lack of evidence is thought to validate the extraordinariness of the conspiracy. It is thinking just gone wrong. Worse still, disconfirming evidence becomes evidence in favor of the conspiracy. I strongly suspect that the “the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ was invented by the CIA” gambit is a fairly radical extension of this tendency, that the mere fact that so many people recognize that conspiracy theorizing is a futile and intellectually unproductive exercise is only more proof to the conspiracy theorists that they are really onto something.

As evidence of this deliberate manipulation of language, theorists offer up a 1967 document released in 1976 via a FOIA request, Dispatch 1035-960. In short, the CIA document outlines arguments that field operatives can use to counter conspiracy theorizing abroad and advises where those arguments might have the largest effect. The document was released to the New York Times, but conspiracy theorists’ seizure of this notion, that what they do has been deliberately stigmatized by nefarious outside agents rather than by the internal flaws of their arguments, ignores both linguistic and historical reality in order to flatter their delusions.

conspiracy-theory-alert_200pxWhile the notion that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was weaponized has been around since at least 1997, it recently received a boost by the Lance deHaven-Smith’s 2013 Conspiracy Theory in America, published by the University of Texas Press. So, with this stamp of apparent academic legitimacy (I have my own opinion about that, and this is not the venue to elaborate), conspiracy theorists have begun citing this work as an authority.

Take for example the recent article by Kevin Barrett, “New studies: ‘Conspiracy theorists’ sane; government dupes crazy, hostile,” which was republished at Before It’s News as “CIA Invention of the Phrase, ‘Conspiracy Theory’ to Block Questions on JFK’s Assassination, is ‘One of the Most Successful Propaganda Initiatives of All Time.’” Barrett’s arguments were well and truly destroyed by the rogues on the July 27 Skeptics Guide to the Universe, so I will not rehash the staggering lapses in critical thinking they employ. But Barrett also leans very hard on deHaven-Smith’s work:

Both of these findings are amplified in the new book Conspiracy Theory in America by political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith, published earlier this year by the University of Texas Press. Professor deHaven-Smith explains why people don’t like being called “conspiracy theorists”: The term was invented and put into wide circulation by the CIA to smear and defame people questioning the JFK assassination! “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.” [emphasis added]

conspiracies05Well, we have a claim of fact about the origins of the term “conspiracy theorist.” This is certainly something we can check up on. I will not ascribe this claim to deHaven-Smith. I don’t recall him making the claim that it was invented by the CIA, only that it was deliberately deployed by the CIA.

A quick search of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds that the phrase had been used in May 1964:

New Statesman 1 May 694/2 Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction.

This is two years before Dispatch 1035-960 appeared. If you go to the magazine, you will find that this sentence appears in an unsigned editorial, “Separateness,” about the London Magazine’s recent transition from being an exclusively literary publication to a more interdisciplinary review of the arts.

So, no. The CIA did not invent the word “conspiracy theorist.” But this made me wonder how far back I could push the use of a term like “conspiracy theory.”

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A Million Poisoning Planes

By Kyle Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

The largest fleet of aircraft the world has ever seen was created to poison it. Millions of planes criss-cross the skies, dumbing down the populace with secret and powerful chemical agents. Every time you board a plane, you can’t look out a window without seeing one of these jet-powered poisoners. There is always danger overhead when chemtrails really do cover the sky.

If the chemtrail conspiracy were true, millions of pilots would be needed to crop dust the American population. A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.

Unless a plane could make multiple runs per day, a true chemtrail conspiracy would need 2,700 times as many 747s as have ever been constructed.

chemtrail UFO culprit_250pxAn infrastructure large enough to cover the country in chemicals would make the skies look like Coruscant. Pilots—not the millions in on the scheme—never pick up on the increased traffic. It’s a mystery to them that they never report, and they never scan the communication channels to find out what is going on. They don’t question that they have to wait an hour while half a dozen unmarked planes make their descents. A world with a chemtrail conspiracy means the most skilled vehicle operators on the planet have no idea who is operating the other vehicles or why. Ever.

Property values across the country plummet, as the most populated areas are inundated with airplane traffic and the associated noise. The government thought about putting the planes higher up in the atmosphere, but the higher they go, the more agent they would need—and that only leads to more planes, pilots, and secrecy. At this point the government might not even need a secret, stupefying chemical—if hundreds of millions of Americans never catch on to the millions of passenger-less planes overhead everyday, who needs to spend all that money on devious research and development?

The incognito infrastructure needed to conceal the chemtrail conspiracy would dwarf any other governmental agency. Millions of people—pilots, engineers, chemists, data analysts, and boots-on-the-ground hazmat teams—would need top-secret clearance for information that could never get out. If a chemtrail conspiracy were true, chances are you would run into a few involved in the cover up everyday. An effort to keep millions of mouths silent—to keep any information from pilots or participants out of the media—makes the NSA look like child’s play.

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Over-reliance on Science

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Science is great, one of the best processes humans have come up with. It has everything to do with how we live long, productive, healthy lives. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all method of how to solve every problem.

science 824_200pxI am unabashedly a fan of science. I wholeheartedly recommend it. But lately I’ve been feeling a bit uneasy when science cheerleaders pronounce, “Science will solve everything!,” i.e., just apply science and all will be fixed. Because, SCIENCE! YAAAAYY.

I may get myself into trouble with this post, but as an advocate of science, I still say there is more to thinking and knowing than the scientific method. People who advocate fanatical reliance on science—where all competing methods of gaining knowledge are illegitimate—are practicing scientism.

Just Throw Science At It

The “just apply science” plan is an overly simplistic solution that not everyone will automatically buy into. There are other, also valid ways of evaluating problems. All the world’s problems cannot be solved by throwing science at it. At least not now (probably never).

philosophy 830_250pxLately, this position has been disputed. There is an ongoing debate in the science/skeptical community regarding philosophy. Is it dead? Does science need it? How does it inform us (if at all)? Can we discuss morals via a scientific basis? You will see heated exchanges about these questions crop up in publications, blogs and in conference discussions. You will also see science placed above the fields of the humanities. Should it be? It’s worth thinking about. So I have been. I assume I’ll be thinking it through for a while because it’s weighty stuff. But, at some point, you have to stop collecting data and taking notes and finally write things down.

For a start, scientism has utility problems. If we need to justify everything with empirical evidence, and then justify that evidence with evidence, and so on, not only do we get bogged down in minutiae, we end up in a scientistic loop which we can’t resolve. There must be a point where we accept a premise as a given – that reality is real, that we aren’t being fooled by a devious creator. See this Peter S. Williams video.

Philip Kitcher writes in a May 2012 piece called The Trouble with Scientism, that it is folly to think everything human can be reduced to a scientific explanation:

“…it is tempting to infer that all phenomena―including human actions and interaction―can “in principle” be understood ultimately in the language of physics, although for the moment we might settle for biology or neuroscience. This is a great temptation. We should resist it. Even if a process is constituted by the movements of a large number of constituent parts, this does not mean that it can be adequately explained by tracing those motions.”

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Quantum Quackery

quantum-physics-lecture_600pxQuantum physics is claimed to support the mystical notion that the mind creates reality. However, an objective reality, with no special role for consciousness, human or cosmic, is consistent with all observations.

By Victor Stenger (1997) via Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

quantum_physicsCertain interpretations of quantum mechanics, the revolutionary theory developed early in the century to account for the anomalous behavior of light and atoms, are being misconstrued so as to imply that only thoughts are real and that the physical universe is the product of a cosmic mind to which the human mind is linked throughout space and time. This interpretation has provided an ostensibly scientific basis for various mind-over-matter claims, from ESP to alternative medicine. “Quantum mysticism” also forms part of the intellectual backdrop for the postmodern assertion that science has no claim on objective reality.

The word “quantum” appears frequently in New Age and modern mystical literature. For example, physician Deepak Chopra (1989) has successfully promoted a notion he calls quantum healing, which suggests we can cure all our ills by the application of sufficient mental power.

Photo courtesy Daniel Johansson

Photo courtesy Daniel Johansson

According to Chopra, this profound conclusion can be drawn from quantum physics, which he says has demonstrated that “the physical world, including our bodies, is a response of the observer. We create our bodies as we create the experience of our world” (Chopra 1993, 5). Chopra also asserts that “beliefs, thoughts, and emotions create the chemical reactions that uphold life in every cell,” and “the world you live in, including the experience of your body, is completely dictated by how you learn to perceive it” (Chopra 1993, 6). Thus illness and aging are an illusion and we can achieve what Chopra calls “ageless body, timeless mind” by the sheer force of consciousness.1

Amit Goswami, in The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World, argues that the existence of paranormal phenomena is supported by quantum mechanics:

. . . psychic phenomena, such as distant viewing and out-of-body experiences, are examples of the nonlocal operation of consciousness . . . . Quantum mechanics undergirds such a theory by providing crucial support for the case of nonlocality of consciousness.

(Goswami 1993, 136)

Since no convincing, reproducible evidence for psychic phenomena has been found, despite 150 years of effort, this is a flimsy basis indeed for quantum consciousness.

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Failure to Replicate Results of Bem Parapsychology Experiments Published by Same Journal

By Kendrick Frazier via the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal


Psychologist Daryl Bem

Two years ago the prepublication re­lease of a research paper by psychologist Daryl Bem claiming experimental evidence for precognition created a worldwide media stir and intense controversy within the scientific and skeptical communities.

Bem, of Cornell University, claimed that through nine experiments he had demonstrated the existence of precognition, specifically the existence of “conscious cognitive awareness . . . of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process.” Essentially, he had claimed to have produced evidence that psychic abilities not only exist but can transcend time and allow the future to reach backward to change the past.

Informed critics of parapsychology were almost uniformly incredulous. Although Bem is a respected psychologist, they found so many flaws in the research protocols and methods that in their view the conclusions had no validity. One of the most stinging re­bukes came in the form of an ex­tended, in-depth critique of all nine experiments by York University psychologist and CSI Executive Council member James Alcock in the Skeptical Inquirer (“Back from the Future: Parapsy­chology and the Bem Affair,” SI, March/April 2011; see also editorial “Why the Bem Experiments are Not Parapsychology’s Next Big Thing” in the same issue).

Alcock also concluded that the journal that published Bem’s study, the Journal of Personality and Social Psy­chology (JPSP), had done everyone a disservice by publishing this “badly flawed research article.” Parapsy­chology and the journal’s own reputation, he wrote, had been damaged, and the article’s publication disserved the public as well, “for it only adds to [public] confusion about the existence of psi.”

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

Experiments attempting to replicate Bem’s results were quickly conducted at various universities, but none were accepted for publication by JPSP. In fact, it said it would not consider publishing replication failures. This fact raised more controversy and concern.

Now the journal has had an apparent change of heart. It has finally published a set of experiments that attempted (and failed) to replicate Bem’s results. Seven experiments conducted by Jeff Galek of Carnegie Mellon University, Robyn A. LeBoeuf of the University of Florida, Leif D. Nelson of the Uni­versity of California at Berkeley, and Joseph P. Simmons of the University of Pennsylvania have been published in JPSP’s final issue of 2012 (Vol. 103, No. 6) under the title “Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi.”

The article is lengthy, but the central conclusion is succinctly stated:

“Across seven experiments (N= 3,289), we replicate the procedure of Experiments 8 and 9 from Bem (2011), which had originally demonstrated retroactive facilitation of recall. We failed to replicate that finding.” They further conducted a meta-analysis of all replication attempts of the Bem experiments “and find that the average effect size (d=0.04) is not different from 0.”

To put it even more directly (from the beginning of their conclusions section): “We conducted seven experiments testing for precognition and found no evidence supporting its existence.”

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When All of Us Are Nostradamus

By Kyle Hill via the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

psychic_fraudYou open up the morning paper to check the obituaries. With a shaking hand, you read what you’ve been dreading all along—your own name. Your number is up; your fate is sealed. Sometime in the next month you are going to die. Everyone knows it. And you know it, too. At least you have time to choose your own epitaph. You’re psychic; everyone is, or at least has the potential to be.

Peeking at the hand fate dealt you is commonplace in a world where psychics actually exist. For them, the future is as clear as the past, though abilities would range from Spidey sense to Oracle at Delphi. The most powerful seers—the Nostradamuses, if you will—among them wouldn’t be relegated to pricey phones lines. Such powers almost demand public service. A Minority Report-style pre-cognition division would surely spring up in every police department that could afford one. Seismologists and volcanologists could no longer be persecuted for inadequate predictions—the onus would be on the psychics to alert the public of impending natural disasters. Predicting better than even our best computer models, tune in for the psychic weather forecast on the nightly news.

psychicFair_210pxIf people had psychic future-sight every phone number would be for a Miss Cleo. Casinos around the world would close. Gambling isn’t a matter of luck anymore; can you predict the snake eyes or not? And the lottery hardly seems fair when any real psychic could pluck the numbers from the tealeaves. Insurance plans would diversify and skyrocket. When a psychic insurance agent could predict a cancer diagnosis, future-existing conditions are what they will deny. Forget about the heat of competition. Every sports team is a group of players on a stage going through the determined script until the last whistle blows.

Raising children in a world full of actual psychics would involve going through another stage of development: existential turmoil. If a psychic taps into the loom of fate to see where a string weaves, children would quickly learn that they live in a determined world. Perhaps they will learn about free will like psychology students learn about behaviorism—a clever idea that eventually fell by the wayside in the light of how the world really is. Is anyone really responsible for his or her actions? Should we punish criminals if they are beholden to fate and not sadistic whim? Parents in a world full of real psychics wouldn’t look forward to fielding such questions. The “birds and the bees” talk is much easier to handle.

Real psychics wouldn’t just grasp the future. They would be able to sense beyond what an eye or ear can tell them—a “sixth sense” for objects and feelings. Marriage disputes over where the hell the remote is are no more. Car keys, if not in the pocket, are never lost. Neither are children or loved ones. Real psychics wouldn’t be the laughing stocks of detectives anymore; they would be their saviors. Resolving a manhunt or Amber Alert would be a simple matter of having the psychic manpower (and psychic children would find hide and seek pretty boring). Every cold case would be hot again.

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The Life of Death

By Kyle Hill via CSI – Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

ghosts 829_300pxMore humans have died than you will ever meet, see, or learn about. Since our split from the apes, Earth has been littered with the detritus of human demise—nearly 110 billion bodies. If spirits did live on after death, most of the people you meet will have already met their end.

Every single house on Earth would be haunted by default.

If becoming a ghost were the next stage of life after death, our planet would be absolutely packed with ectoplasm. Earth currently harbors over seven billion human beings, all very much alive. We pack them in skyscrapers and in endless suburbs. But adding another 110 billion souls to the population would make everyone a neighbor. If ghosts could interact with matter, they would need space to haunt, and in the United States, we value our space. If the seven billion humans alive today wanted to live like Americans, they would need over four times the landmass currently available on Earth. By extrapolation, all the haunting space required by ghosts would push that number to 185 times all the landmass on Earth. If ghosts existed, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one (or it passing through one). Ghost hunter’s thermal cameras would see a blur of reds and blues wherever they looked.

ghost 820_250pxFamous for being able to pass through matter, ghosts might simply pack together instead of being neighbors to everyone on the planet. Just how much space these phantasmal people would require is impossible to determine. How many ghosts could fit on the head of a pin? How many Ghostbusters’ ecto-containment chambers would you need to hold them all?

A new view of death accompanies real-life ghosts. When the body is just a vessel—a way station for the eternal spirit—life is a race to your best self. If ghosts manifest themselves as a picture of the person at the instant they died, old, grotesque ghosts would evaporate. Like how most animals strive to raise their children to reproductive maturity, all humans would occupy this material plane only until they looked however they wanted to look for eternity. Droves of twenty-somethings would commit suicide, seeking to remain young for all time. Billions of Dorian Grays make their pacts with death. Why live until you are old if you are bound to exist in that form forever? “Live fast, die young” is sound advice in a world where ghosts exist.

Carrying on as a ghost taking the last form of the deceased still would be spooky.

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Supernatural Creep: The Slippery Slope to Unfalsifiability

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) – Sounds Sciencey

I’m taking a step beyond sciencey with the following topic. What happens when science doesn’t cooperate with your subject area? Researchers of unexplained events may get frustrated and disenchanted with the scientific process when the eyewitness accounts they collect are too weird to explain via conventional means. They go unconventional.

hill-supernatural-creep-1Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

The cognitive dissonance experienced by the French captain is reflected today by those who can’t capture Bigfoot. When normal processes and causes fail to satisfactorily explain events or answers to questions, then the reasoning slips beyond nature, into super nature, beyond the testable claims of science.

I call this “supernatural creep.” Although, I swear I’m not the first one to name it as such. I searched to find where I have seen this referenced before. (If anyone knows, please email me so I can give the originator due credit.) Once I noticed this kind of reasoning, I saw it frequently. Wherever I come across this concept, it reveals a bit about human nature:

If you have to choose between the belief or a rational explanation, the rational explanation may be that which gets rejected.

hill-supernatural-creep-2_200pxThe effect of supernatural creep can be seen with UFOs, anomalous natural phenomena (Fortean topics), and in bizarre stories categorized as “high strangeness” (which I’ll explain a bit further on in this piece). A perfect example is that of “black dogs” whose appearance is spectral or demonic and is associated with either protection from or nearness of bad spirits. Could it be just a big black dog? Witnesses perceive that it’s more than that. When the circumstances feel uncanny, we slip into thoughts of the supernatural. An enjoyable book that illustrates supernatural creep quite nicely is Three Men Seeking Monsters by Nick Redfern. Fun stuff.

With phantom black dogs, there is a connection to local legends and ghost stories. A modern example of the dispute about supernatural creep is evident in the Bigfoot/Sasquatch community.

Bigfoot proponents generally fall into two camps: those who search for a real animal that functions as nature intended (called ‘apers’) and those who entertain the option that the entity is not natural (paranormalists).

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Sylvia Browne’s Biggest Blunder

By Ben Radford via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

From June 2007

The tragic consequences of listening to psychic advice were brought into sharp focus in January 2007, when yet another psychic vision from Sylvia Browne was revealed to be wrong.

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

Several years ago during one of her many appearances on the Montel Williams show, Browne told the parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that their son was dead. His body, she said, would be found in a wooded area near two large boulders. Furthermore, according to Browne, Hornbeck was kidnapped by a very tall, “dark-skinned man, he wasn’t Black, more like Hispanic,” who wore dreadlocks.

According to a spokesman for the Hornbeck family, following the Montel broadcast Browne tried to get money from the family: “She called Pam and Craig about one month after the show and pretty much offered her services to continue their discussion for a fee. Pam was that desperate that if she had had $700 in her bank account she would have put it on the table. We are talking about a mother who would have sold her soul to have her boy back.”

In fact, Hornbeck and another boy were found very much alive January 16, 2007, in the home of Michael Devlin, a Missouri man accused of kidnapping them. Hornbeck had been missing for four years, but his parents had not given up hope of finding him despite Browne’s misinformation. Devlin, a Caucasian, is not Black, dark-skinned, nor Hispanic and almost certainly did not have dreadlocks at the time he allegedly abducted Hornbeck.

Within days of Hornbeck’s recovery, critics such as James “The Amazing” Randi spoke out against Browne. CNN’s Anderson Cooper featured Randi and gave refreshingly skeptical (and harsh) coverage of the case, calling attention to Browne’s highest-profile failure to date. Browne, in a statement posted on her Web site, responded to the criticism, stating that “I have never nor ever will charge anyone who seeks my help regarding a missing person or homicide. In these cases I choose to work strictly with law enforcement agencies involved to aid and not impede their work and only when asked. To be accused of otherwise by James Randi and others like him is a boldface [sic] lie. . . . If the brilliant scientists throughout history had a James Randi negating every aspect of their work, I doubt we would have progressed very far in medicine or in any technology. . . . I cannot possibly be 100 percent correct in each and every one of my predictions.”

Yet her documented track record is one of nearly 100 percent failure rate instead of 100 percent success. Browne’s confidence in her body of work is baffling, and her claim that her flawed visions were “one human error” is an amazing understatement.

Also see:

The Secret Life of J. Allen Hynek

via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

According to legend, the astronomer J. Allen Hynek was a skeptic before becoming an outspoken UFOlogist, but is the legend true? This article takes a look at Hynek’s unusual life and career.


Allen Hynek (left) and Jacques Vallee (right)

It was a “road to Damascus” experience for the Mad Men era. In 1966, the respected astronomer J. Allen Hynek had gone—seemingly overnight—from a determined debunker to an ardent apostle of the UFO gospel. A longtime consultant to Project Blue Book noted for his skeptical stance toward UFOs, Hynek suddenly began telling anyone who would listen that the UFO phenomenon merited serious scientific scrutiny. The great director Stanley Kubrick was among the many who listened. In a 1968 Playboy interview promoting his science-fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick spoke approvingly of what he termed Hynek’s “belated but exemplary conversion” (Phillips 2001, 58).

In fact, the professor’s apparent trans­formation from skeptic to UFO proponent was not quite the conversion event that it appeared on the surface. Since his teens Hynek had been an enthusiastic though closeted student of the occult. The French-born Jacques Vallee, a computer scientist and UFO author, was one of the few persons who knew Hynek’s secret. Hynek once told Vallee that he had become an astron­omer in order to discover “the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain” (Vallee 1996, 232). Nonethe­less, the scientist’s public U-turn gave a big boost to the UFO movement, lending it a measure of credibility, and made Hynek into a celebrity as the nation’s “foremost expert on flying saucers” (O’Toole 1966). For two decades people could point to Hynek and say, “He’s a trained scientist, an astronomer no less: if even he believes in this UFO stuff then there must be something to it.”

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Hitler’s South Pole Hideaway

By Massimo Polidoro via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

hitler-adolf_250px“Searching for Hitler’s DNA in Antarctica.” This is the bizarre headline that made the news a few months ago, launched by Russian news agency Ria Novosti and picked up by the world media after scientists were able to successfully drill into Antarctica’s Lake Vostok. The lake, a massive liquid reservoir cut off from daylight for fourteen million years and buried beneath two miles of ice, is the object of a years-long project to study its waters, which may house life-forms new to science. But what immediately caught the imagination was what seemed to be a revamping of the long-held myth that Adolf Hitler did not commit suicide in his Berlin bunker in May 1945 but was able to escape via submarine to a secret base at the South Pole.

Doubtful Death

Such an idea started circulating immediately after the end of the war. In 1952, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “We have been unable to unearth one bit of tangible evidence of Hitler’s death. Many people believe that Hitler escaped from Berlin.” Stalin’s top army officer, Marshall Gregory Zhukov, whose troops were the first to enter Berlin, flatly stated after a long thorough investigation in 1945: “We have found no corpse that could be Hitler’s.” The chief of the U.S. trial counsel at Nuremberg, Thomas J. Dodd, said: “No one can say he is dead.” Former Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes in his book Frankly Speaking stated that, after the war, at the Potsdam Conference of the Big Four, he met Stalin, who “left his chair, came over, and clinked his liquor glass with mine in a very friendly manner. I said to him: ‘Marshal Stalin, what is your theory about the death of Hitler?’ Stalin re­plied: ‘He is not dead. He escaped either to Spain or Argentina.’ ”

Hitler’s Berlin bunker, after the Soviet army destroyed it.

Hitler’s Berlin bunker, after the Soviet army destroyed it.

If so many Nazi officers and criminals, like Adolf Eichmann or Joseph Mengele, were able to escape undisturbed from defeated Germany, who’s to say that a diabolical mind like Hitler’s could not have set up a plan in order to simulate his own death? After all, it was known that, like many dictators, he used doubles in order to disorient his enemies. What if he had left the body of one such double in Berlin while he was fleeing to the South Pole?

It appears that in the early 1930s, the imaginations of Nazi hierarchs and maybe Hitler’s as well was captured by theories that the Earth was hollow inside and inhabited by a superior race. In particular, Madame Blavatsky’s esoteric theories had inspired the notorious Thule Society, the extremist right-wing German secret group that later reorganized and became the Nazi Party. Anxious to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race, theorists accepted legends of advanced civilizations living inside the Earth: such a superior breed had to be the Reich’s progenitor.

Nazis on Ice

hitler-uboatsProof is lacking, but some claim that Hitler had ordered an expedition aiming to find the entrance to the inside of the Earth and that this had been located at the South Pole. Admiral Karl Doenitz referred to this during the Nuremberg trial when he stated: “The German submarine fleet has even now established an earthly paradise, an impregnable for­tress, for the Fuhrer, in whatever part of the world.” Although he did not specify where the exact location was, many believed it was Antarctica.

After the war, Nazi sympathizer Ernst Zundel claimed that Hitler and a trusted group of men had been able to escape aboard a ship in which they entered the Earth through a hole at the South Pole. Inside the Earth, Nazi scientists worked to build a new army with which to take over the world. An army that could count on revolutionary round, flying vehicles: UFOs.

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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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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.

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Curse That Painting!

By Massimo Polidoro via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – csicop.org

Paranormal legends about paintings have always existed. Some think that a picture falling off the wall represents a bad omen for the person depicted or photographed in it. Others feel watched by some portraits whose eyes seem to follow onlookers as they move through a room. And still others claim that paintings can come alive; people in it can move, smile, close their eyes, or even leave the picture. And, of course, tales of “cursed” paintings abound.

Certainly great writers, from Oscar Wilde with The Picture of Dorian Gray to Stephen King with Rose Madder, have been able to tell extraordinary stories of scary and unsettling paintings. However, many believe that “haunted” paintings can exist in real life. Coming from a family that has always dealt with paintings—my grandfather is a painter, my father was an art collector, and together with their wives they have run a shop selling paintings for over fifty years—it is easy to understand why this is a subject that particularly fascinates me.

The Hands Resist Him


The Hands Resist Him painting by Bill Stoneham was sold on eBay as “cursed.”

In February 2000, a supposedly cursed painting was auctioned on eBay. It was titled The Hands Resist Him and was painted in 1972 by California artist Bill Stoneham. It depicted a young boy and a female doll standing in front of a glass paneled door against which many hands are pressed. The owners claimed that the characters in it came alive, sometimes leaving the painting and entering the room in which it was being displayed. It was sold for $1,025 to Perception Gallery in Grand Rapids, Mich­igan, which, when contacted some time later, stated that they had not noticed anything strange since buying the painting.

Luckily for Stoneham, the rumor caused by the story made the painting so popular that it was depicted in a short movie by A.D. Calvo (Sitter), as the CD cover art for Carnival Divine’s self-titled album, and was featured in the PC video game “Scratches.” Today, prints of it—and of its sequel, Resistance at the Threshold—are sold in different sizes.

Smiling Portrait


Teresa Rovere. On the right, seen through a viewfinder, the face seems to smile;
it’s just an illusion created by the shape of the lens.

In November 2005, the Italian TV show Voyager showed a painting owned by self-proclaimed psychic Gustavo Rol from Turin. It depicted a noble lady, Teresa Rovere, wearing nineteenth century garments and a somber frown. However, when the painting was seen through the viewfinder of a camera the mouth seemed to curl upward, forming a smile. Nothing could be seen with the naked eye and the film recorded through the camera did not show anything unusual. On the show, it was claimed that this was an unexplainable phenomenon, maybe an after-life paranormal experiment of the late Rol. In reality, it was a simple optical effect due to the round shape of the viewfinder, the lens of which tends to narrow and make rounder anything seen through it: thus, the coronet on Teresa’s hair seems to bend downward just like the mouth appears to bend upward, creating the illusion of a smile that in reality is not there.

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Alien Mug Shots: The Ten Best (or Worst) Photos of Aliens

via CSI

Photos of supposed UFOs abound. Most of the time they show dark stains or bright dots in the sky, of varying dimension and quality, which could be due to a lot of things: military aircrafts, weather balloons, birds, meteors, etc. Sometimes the UFO is well focused, but the flying saucer always looks suspiciously similar to a pan lid suspended from a thread or a lamp holder or a wheel cap thrown in the air. And of course today the possibilities for digitally retouching an image are endless.

What are lacking, however, are credible photos of the creatures that should be flying these UFOs—the actual aliens or extraterrestrials. It appears there are no more than fifty such photos shot in the past eighty years, but once you take out those plainly fake and the more suspicious looking ones all you are left with are about ten photos. These are, essentially, “mug shots” of wanted extraterrestrials. Here is my personal list of the best (or worst) photos of aliens.

10. High Bridge, New Jersey (August 2, 1956)

Howard Menger was a well-known American contactee who claimed he had met extraterrestrials throughout his whole life. He detailed in his books his chats with friendly Adamski-like Venusian “space brothers” who also gave him a wife and took him on their bases on the Moon and on Venus. This is one of the photos that he took of his ET friends; interestingly, in his photos the aliens are always dark shapes illuminated from behind. They almost look like Menger’s mother or wife coming out in the porch at night with a flashlight in hand, calling for that weird Howard, always lost in his UFO dreams.

9. Lossiemouth, Scotland (1954)

Cedric Allingham was an amateur ornithologist who was looking for birds in the North of Scotland when he saw a flying saucer descend to the earth. One of the occupants exited the spaceship and walked up to him. The alien told him he was coming from Mars and, after a little chat, left. Precisely in that moment, Cedric took this picture. Well, yes, the beanpole here looks more like a janitor or a plumber than an extraterrestrial. However, it was later suspected that Cedric Allingham never existed and that the photo was circulated by Patrick Moore, an astronomer well known for his pranks.

8. Carp, Ontario, Canada (August 15, 1991)

The photo of this alien “entity” was supposedly taken along with the film of a UFO landing. The fact that nobody knows who took the photo or the film, both sent by an unknown person calling him or herself “Guardian” to Tom Theofanous, a Canadian UFOlo­gist, does not help in taking the photo seriously. Other messages sent by “Guardian” describing a “conspiracy between the Chinese and Grey Aliens planning to take over the world” did little to increase its credibility.

7. Alaska (1930s)

This seems to be the most ancient of the lot, even if it was seen for the first time in 2003. The anonymous source claims that his grandfather took the picture seventy years before in Alaska and gave it to him the day before he died. Nothing is known about the photographer, the location, or the date of the photo. Some thought that since the little man seems to be leaning on one side it might actually be a dummy. What is more suspicious, however, is the fact that with the original source “conveniently” dead exactly one day after his revelation (isn’t that a little too trite?), all possibilities of verifying the story are defunct.

6. Falkville, Alabama (October 17, 1973)

That night, police chief Jeff Greenhaw received a phone call from an excited lady who said that she had witnessed a “spaceship” land in an open field not far from the town proper. The sheriff took off with a camera and found a “tinfoil alien” who consented to be photographed but then ran away. The ridicule that the whole story brought on the sheriff’s office cost Greenhaw his job as well as his wife. Some think that he may have encountered someone wearing a fireman’s as­bestos suit; others, however, think that the being in the suit was a friend of Greenhaw and that the whole thing was an attempt to get famous that went terribly wrong.

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Eyewitness to the Paranormal: The Experimental Psychology of the ‘Unexplained’

via CSI | The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Research in experimental psychology has shown that many paranormal sightings fall directly within the realm of eyewitness memory. Experiments reveal that such “sightings” derive from the psychology of the observers rather than from supernatural sources. Experiments show these proclivities.

If many sources on cable TV and the Internet are to be believed, the world is currently under attack by a variety of supernatural forces, apparently acting in concert.

Such reports are ubiquitous. Aliens appear at night on deserted country roads. The ghosts of hoary and defunct Scottish peers turn up on castle battlements, demanding retribution for ancient defeats at the hands of the Sassenach. Bigfoot, all eight or nine feet of him, runs past a given cabin on his way to some cryptozoological tryst—and all of it winds up on television.

What, exactly, is going on?

There is a difficulty in explaining many of these paranormal “sightings.” At first, one might expect that the witnesses to these phenomena would be residents of the wilder shores of psychological instability; however, many of the people who report these things are sober, educated, reasonable individuals. Many are ac­tively adverse to publicity, and an ap­preciable fraction of them passes polygraph tests. In short, many of these witnesses—in fact, probably the majority of them—are neither lying nor mentally ill. They have normal nervous systems, and they are convinced that they have experienced something extraordinary.

Logically, therefore, there are only two viable explanations for the events these people claim to experience. Either Bigfoot, the ghosts, and the Gray aliens actually exist, or the individual witnesses to these exotic beings have actually observed and misinterpreted relatively prosaic phenomena. If the latter is the case, then these misinterpretations are very literally eyewitness errors and, as such, are governed by the same psychological principles that operate in eyewitness processes in the forensic world.

Eyewitness Memory and the ‘Paranormal’

On average, most of us think of eyewitness memory in relatively narrow terms, such as criminal identification via police lineups. In fact, the eyewitness field has much broader significance both in the criminal justice system and beyond. Every human phenomenon involving reportage—from recall of childhood memories in psychotherapy to the observation of a planetary transit—coalesces around some kind of account of some variety of human experience. This means that the processes involved in eyewitness cognition per se are continually operating, albeit at a relatively subtle level, through the entire fabric of human existence.

Unfortunately, eyewitness memories are frequently wrong. In my own work I have found that people, including and perhaps especially jurors, tend to think of the human nervous system as some kind of digital recorder, faithfully reproducing what we’ve actually seen when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Eighty years ago (Bartlett 1932) it was demonstrated that human memories become reconfigured—changed in terms of gist, brevity, and personal belief. Our memories lose detail; they become shorter; and what we think we’ve seen frequently replaces what we’ve actually seen. These aspects of human memory have been reconfirmed by modern studies (e.g., Ahlberg and Sharps 2002) and have been shown as far back as the 1970s to be directly important for eyewitness memory; for example, Loftus (1975) showed that witnesses will typically “remember,” and confidently re­port, the color of a barn in a given scene as red even when there is no barn in the scene to be observed. This illustrates the effect of personal belief on an individual’s memory. People generally expect barns to be red; therefore, when Loftus asked experimental witnesses for the color of the barn they had seen, their imaginations obligingly provided the most typical color even though no actual barn had been presented to them.

Our recent experimental research has underscored this effect (Sharps et al. 2009; see also Sharps 2010). In studies of witness errors derived from a violent crime scene, the most prevalent error
(an average of nearly two errors of this type per witness) was a mistake in the physique or clothing of a gun-wielding perpetrator. However, the second most prevalent error (an average of 1.25 errors of this type per witness) was one of “inference, extrapolation, or imagination”: in other words, the average witness simply made up, out of whole cloth, one and one-quarter nonexistent “facts” about a given violent crime.

‘Seeing’ the Supernatural

Human memory, therefore, is malleable: what you see is not necessarily what you get. This concept has obvious relevance to sightings of the “unexplained.” It is clearly possible for a human being …

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The Roswellian Syndrome: How Some UFO Myths Develop

By Joe Nickell and James McGaha via CSI | csicop.org

An analysis of four classic flying-saucer incidents reveals how debunking can send a mundane case underground, where it is transformed by mythologizing processes, then reemerges—like a virulent strain of a virus—as a vast conspiracy tale. Defined by the Roswell Incident (1947), this syndrome is repeated at Flatwoods (1952), Kecksburg (1965), and Rendlesham Forest (1980).

Near the very beginning of the modern UFO craze, in the summer of 1947, a crashed “flying disc” was reported to have been recovered near Roswell, New Mexico. However, it was soon identified as simply a weather balloon, whereupon the sensational story seemed to fade away. Actually, it went underground; after subsequent decades, it resurfaced as an incredible tale of extraterrestrial invasion and the government’s attempt to cover up the awful truth. The media capitalized on “the Roswell incident,” and conspiracy theorists, persons with confabulated memories, outright hoaxers, and others climbed aboard the bandwagon.

We identify this process—a UFO incident’s occurring, being debunked, going underground, beginning the mythmaking processes, and reemerging as a conspiracy tale with ongoing mythologizing and media hype—as the Roswellian Syndrome. In the sections that follow, we describe the process as it occurred at Roswell and then demonstrate how the same syndrome developed from certain other famous UFO incidents: at Flatwoods, West Virginia (1952); Kecksburg, Pennsylvania (1965); and Rendlesham Forest (outside the Woodbridge NATO base) in England (1980). Between us, we have actually been on-site to investigate three of the four cases (Joe Nickell at Roswell and Flatwoods, and James McGaha—a former military pilot—at Rendlesham).

Roswell (1947)

Here is how the prototype of the Ros­wel­lian Syndrome began and developed:

Incident. On July 8, 1947, an eager but relatively inexperienced public information officer at Roswell Army Airfield issued a press release claiming a “flying disc” had been recovered from its crash site on an area ranch (Berlitz and Moore 1980; Korff 1997). The next day’s Roswell Daily Record told how rancher “Mac” Brazel described (in a reporter’s words) “a large area of bright wreckage” consisting of tinfoil, rubber strips, sticks, and other lightweight materials.

Debunking. Soon after these initial reports, the mysterious object was identified as a weather balloon. Although there appears to have been no attempt to deceive, the best evidence now indicates that the device was really a balloon array (the sticks and foiled paper being components of dangling box-kite–like radar reflectors) that had gone missing in flight from Project Mogul. Mogul represented an attempt to use the airborne devices’ instruments to monitor sonic emissions from Soviet nuclear tests. Joe Nickell has spoken about this with former Mogul Project scientist Charles B. Moore, who identified the wreckage from photographs as consistent with a lost Flight 4 Mogul array. (See also Thomas 1995; Saler et al. 1997; U.S. Air Force 1997.)

Submergence. With the report that the “flying disc” was only a balloon-borne device, the Roswell news story ended almost as abruptly as it had begun. However, the event would linger on in the fading and recreative memories of some of those involved, while in Roswell rumor and speculation continued to simmer just below the surface with UFO reports a part of the culture at large. In time, conspiracy-minded UFOlogists would arrive, asking leading questions and helping to spin a tale of crashed flying saucers and a government cover-up.

Mythologizing. This is the most complex part of the syndrome, beginning when the story goes underground and continuing after it reemerges, developing into an elaborate myth. It involves many factors, including exaggeration, faulty memory, folklore, and deliberate hoaxing.

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The Consequences of “Stupid”

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.

Keep Reading: CSI | The Consequences of “Stupid”.

Astrology: More like Religion Than Science

By Sharon Hill
July 25, 2012

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.

Keep Reading: CSI | Astrology: More like Religion Than Science.

A Spiritualist Ghostbuster’s Crystal Skull

A Canadian spiritualist ghostbusting actor walks into a bar wearing New Age crystals and a crystal skull around his neck, goes up to the bartender, and orders a vodka. . . . No, this weird mashup is not the setup to a joke (certainly not a funny one) but instead more or less describes one of the strangest intersections of Hollywood, New Age paranormal belief, ghost hunting, and alcohol.

This story involves crystal skulls. There are many skulls in the world carved out of quartz crystal of varying sizes and designs. I’ve seen them in a lot of places, especially in South and Central America, where they are sold as tourist trinkets. The ones you can buy for a few dollars are rather plain, but the big ones (life-size or so) are steeped in myth and romance. There are only a handful of the life-size skulls in existence, and they have inspired awe for generations. They are said to be hundreds of years old and possibly of Mayan or Aztec origin.

Continue reading: CSI | A Spiritualist Ghostbuster’s Crystal Skull.

Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure

The most extensive study of alleged psychic Sylvia Browne’s predictions about missing persons and murder cases reveals a strange discrepancy: despite her repeated claim to be more than 85 percent correct, it seems that Browne has not even been mostly correct about a single case.

via CSI | Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure.

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