Tag Archives: Discovery News

Brain Games Don’t Improve Memory or Cognition

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

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

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

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

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

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The Science and Non-Science of the Ouija

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

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

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

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

Speaking to the Dead

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

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

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

Fearing the Ouija

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

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Also See: Video: What Makes Ouija Boards Move?

Second Madoff Son Dies: Why Some Blame Karma

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

With the news of convicted Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff losing a second son — the first to suicide, the most recent to cancer – some have speculated that some sort of divine cosmic justice is being meted out to a man whose Ponzi scheme cost about $65 billion in savings.

Andrew Madoff 738A piece on Salon.com noted that the recent deaths of Joan Rivers and Andrew Madoff were attributed to karma on social media:

“2 weeks ago Joan Rivers stated Palestinians deserve to die and they were asking for it,” noted one typical tweeter Thursday evening. “Now she’s dead. #karma.” Another added, “Karma at work there. Without a doubt.” It was a sentiment that had already been expressed elsewhere earlier in the week, when Bernard Madoff’s son Andrew died of mantle cell lymphoma at the age of 48. (Madoff’s other son Mark committed suicide four years ago.) “Bernie Madoff’s last remaining son passed away today,” tweeted one armchair analyst of spiritual payback. “If you have any doubts about Karma catching you for bad deeds, here’s the sad proof.” Another observed, “There’s a mysterious karma that still surrounds Bernie Madoff.”

Karma is a widely-used word and pop culture notion, but is there any validity to the idea that if you put bad stuff out there, it comes back to you? Let’s take a closer look.

Karma Chameleons

Karma 745_300pxWe must first distinguish karma from justice. After all, if a criminal is apprehended, convicted, and sentenced to prison, that’s not karma, that’s just the ordinary course of justice. Karma is also not simply paying the consequences for an act. If you punch someone in the face and get punched in return, that’s just retaliation, not karma.

Instead karma usually refers to delayed and/or extra-judicial moral revenge, something that a person did at one time that they didn’t have to fully answer for — in their critic’s eyes anyway — but paid a higher price for later, in the form of some devastating misfortune.

The word karma comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “fate, work or action.” The concept of karma varies somewhat among Buddists, Hindus, and Jainists, but the popular understanding is that karma assures that good things will happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Karma in Buddhism holds that the fate of the soul is determined by its karma or actions. Every act — whether good or bad, no matter how insignificant — will eventually return to the person who does the act, and with equal force.

karma science-of-karma_250pxHowever many people mistakenly assume that the good or bad will come back in this lifetime, but that’s not what karma says. Those who do good deeds will be rewarded in future lives, and those who do bad deeds will be punished in their future lives (such as by being reborn as a lowly animal).

While many Westerners say they believe in karma, most don’t really understand or believe in the Buddhist or Hindu idea of karma. For one thing, there would no need for prisons or punishment. Cosmic justice will be meted out in another realm. Karma is fundamentally linked to belief in reincarnation. In Western society anyway, the idea of being reborn as a dog or rodent in a future life doesn’t really seem very likely, nor that much of punishment.

There is also a dark, cruel aspect to karma, one that is rarely discussed. The doctrine of karma holds that everything bad that happens to you is  .  .  .

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Viral Video Claims to Prove ‘Chemtrails’ Conspiracy

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

For many years, conspiracy theorists have claimed that the government conducts top-secret chemical testing in the skies above us. As evidence, they point to “chemtrails” — actually ordinary airplane contrails, or condensation trails — that, it’s claimed, have some sinister purpose.

contrail607_225pxIn his conspiracy book “Above Top Secret,” Jim Marrs notes that “No one in a position of authority will admit that they exist, much less who is responsible, and what purpose they may serve. Unlike many mysteries, this one is visible to anyone who cares to look up on the days that large jets weave narrow and continuous vapor/chemical trails through the sky.”

chemtrail cat_225pxIt’s odd that conspiracy theorists are so certain they exist but can’t even agree on what, exactly, they are or what they do. Some say it’s a sinister government mind-control experiment. Others say the trails are a form of weather control. Still others insist that experimental drugs are being tested on unsuspecting urban populations.

Hard evidence of the existence of these chemtrails has been elusive, but earlier this week a video surfaced that claims to provide proof. It shows a plane landing in a fog, with what are claimed to be jets of chemicals spewing from the wings.

According to the breathless description on one website:

“A pilot of a commercial airliner made a mistake that irrefutably PROVES the existence of ‘CHEMTRAILS’— by forgetting to turn them off before he landed! We have video of the plane landing while still spraying CHEMTRAILS as it hits the runway. This is the first empirical evidence to back-up claims made (by) people, smeared as ‘conspiracy-theorists,’ who claimed airlines are being used by government to spray aerosols into the air without the knowledge or consent of the people being sprayed. With proof like this, the public now has legal standing to file lawsuits, utilize subpoenas and force discovery of evidence.”

This is not the first time that someone has claimed to have found hard evidence of chemtrails. In “Above Top Secret,” Marrs offers this evidence:contrails 01_225px

“One Louisiana TV station in late 2007 took upon itself the task of testing water captured under a crosshatch of aerial trails. According to investigative reporter Jeff Ferrell, ‘KSLA News 12 had the sample tested at a lab. The results: high level of barium, 6.8 parts per million, (ppm). That’s more than three times the toxic level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.’”

However, David E. Thomas, a physicist writing in Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, took a closer look at the KSLA report. Thomas notes:

“The actual video clearly shows 68.8 ug/L (micrograms per liter), or 68.8 ppb (parts per billion)…. 68.8 millionths of a gram per liter corresponds to 68.8 parts per billion, (and) the reporter was off by a factor of 100 because he read the ’68.8′ as ’6.8.’ Ferrell overestimated the amount of barium in the test report by a factor of 100…. The test result was not ‘three times the toxic level set by the EPA’; it was around 30 times less than the EPA’s toxic limit.”

So the alarming levels of barium that conspiracy theorist Jim Marrs cited as evidence of chemtrails was in fact a mistake created by a TV reporter’s poor math skills.

What about the new video showing explosive proof of chemtrails?

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chemtrail race car_600px

Heaven for Real? PET Scans Offer Clues

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

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

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

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

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

A Scientific Explanation?

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

An article in “The Scientist” reports:

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

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

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Can Thieves Rob People Using Hypnosis?

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

A woman in Germany claims she was hypnotized outside of a supermarket, put into a trance, and later woke up at home having been robbed.

A news story explains, “A pair of hypnotists are being hunted by police after a victim claimed she was put in a trance before being robbed. Police in Germany are investigating a spate of crimes involving two Russian women who tell their victims they will read their fortune. mindcontrol 858_200pxIn one incident 66 year-old Sarah Alexeyeva told detectives she was spoken to outside an Aldi supermarket in Elmshorn, Schleswig-Holstein. But the next thing she knew she snapped out of a trance and was sat in her armchair at home. All her jewellery and valuables had disappeared, police said.”

Though such claims are unusual, they are not unheard of. According to a 2008 BBC News story, “Police in Italy have issued footage of a man who is suspected of hypnotizing supermarket checkout staff to hand over money from their cash registers. In every case, the last thing staff reportedly remember is the thief leaning over and saying: ‘Look into my eyes’, before finding the till empty.”

There’s a certain creepy Gothic allure to the idea that a mesmerizing stranger can ask you to stare deeply into his eyes, or ask you to follow a pocketwatch swaying seductively to and fro and listen to him count backwards into a hypnotic trance. But it’s pure fiction.

Misunderstood Hypnosis

HypnotizeAnimatedHypnosis is a widely misunderstood psychological phenomenon, due largely to its depictions in popular culture and film. Many people believe that hypnosis is a way to access memories of traumatic events that have somehow been hidden or forgotten. In the book “Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory,” Dr. Ian Neath of Purdue University notes, “The majority of studies do not find that hypnosis allows recollection of information that could not otherwise be recalled.”

In fact there is a significant danger that any information or memories that may be recalled under hypnosis may be false, created accidentally by the power of suggestion. False memories elicited using hypnosis played a role in . . .

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Can ‘Oil Pulling’ Improve Your Health?

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Leftist Science-Denial The Most Dangerous Kind?

Science Denial Is Not Exclusive To Right Wing Fundamentalists

By David Jerale via The Libertarian Republic

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer
“The Liberals’ War on Science.”
(click to download PDF)

In a column for Scientific American January of last year, Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society, exposed what he calls “The Liberals’ War on Science.” Shermer observes that, while it is true that Republicans are more overwhelmingly opposed to well-established scientific consensus like anthropogenic climate change theory and evolution, the problem of science denial also reaches epidemic proportions on the left.

“Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—,” Shermer writes, “in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.”

Taken only at face value, this seems fairly innocuous– and critics like Chris Mooney were quick to point out, correctly, that science denial is predominantly right-wing.

Fair enough, but I offer this riposte: Rick Santorum and his ilk don’t teach science.

What-are-GMOs-and-How-Safe-Are-They-_250pxDiscovery News, on the other hand, does– and in June, they posted a YouTube video by Laci Green, a popular online social justice advocate, feminist and peer sex educator, about genetically modified organisms.  In this video, Laci doesn’t explicitly state her own opinion with regard to whether or not genetically modified foods are safe, choosing instead to present arguments for and against, with a heavy bias against, ending by asking viewers to post their thoughts on the matter in the comments section below the video.

This is a clear example of “false balance,” a tendency for media to overstate controversy in scientific matters.  Fox News has been criticized for this because their coverage of climate science greatly over-represents those who disagree with anthropogenic global warming theory while there is a strong consensus among climate scientists that the theory is correct.  As it happens, there is a similarly strong scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods, but Laci conveniently ignores it for the sake of manufactured controversy– and she’s not alone.

SciShow, hosted by Hank Green, is a YouTube channel with over 1.5 million subscribers devoted to discussing scientific topics.  Last year, Hank posted a video wherein he discusses genetically modified organisms– what they are, why they exist, how they’re made, etcetera– which included some cherry-picked information and outright fabrications about the supposed dangers of genetic modification, in spite of the existing scientific consensus to the contrary.  It was later removed, and re-uploaded by another YouTube user– in the comments section there, Hank explains “We dropped it because we cited studies that have since been discredited.”

 Bill Nye “The Science Guy” - perhaps the most well-known science popularizer alive - supports the global warming theory while trying to scare people into thinking GMOs are harmful.


Bill Nye “The Science Guy” – perhaps the most well-known science popularizer alive – supports the global warming theory while trying to scare people into thinking GMOs are harmful.
Science education programming being used to spread pseudoscience?


But Hank and Laci Green are just a couple of online personalities– No real harm, right?

Enter Bill NyeThe Science Guy.”  Bill has been, for the most part, strongly against science denial– he has spoken against teaching creationism to children as well as climate change denial, but oddly, he breaks form when the topic is genetically modified organisms.

Let that sink in for a moment– perhaps the most well-known science popularizer alive, Bill Nye, trying to scare people into thinking GMOs are harmful.

That’s a far cry from some preacher doing the same thing because it conflicts with his religious dogma.  It’s science education programming being used to spread pseudoscience, and the consequences could be devastating.

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Thirteen Common (But Silly) Superstitions

via Discovery News

THE GIST

  • One study found that superstitions can sometimes work
  • The make a wish on a turkey bone saying dates back to first-century Romans.
  • The word friggatriskaidekaphobics describes those afraid of Friday the 13th.

cat_250pxIf you are spooked by Friday the 13th, you’re in for a whammy of a year. And it would come as no surprise if many among us hold at least some fear of freaky Friday, as we humans are a superstitious lot.

Many superstitions stem from the same human trait that causes us to believe in monsters and ghosts: When our brains can’t explain something, we make stuff up. In fact, a 2010 study found that superstitions can sometimes work, because believing in something can improve performance on a task.

Here, then, are 13 of the most common superstitions.

13. Beginner’s luck

Usually grumbled by an expert who just lost a game to a novice, “beginner’s luck” is the idea that newbies are unusually likely to win when they try out a sport, game or activity for the first time.

Beginners might come out ahead in some cases because the novice is less stressed out about winning. Too much anxiety, after all, can hamper performance. Or it could just be a statistical fluke, especially in chance-based gambling games.

Or, like many superstitions, a belief in beginner’s luck might arise because of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon in which people are more likely to remember events that fit their worldview. If you believe you’re going to win because you’re a beginner, you’re more likely to remember all the times you were right — “and forget the times you ended up in last place.

lucky_penny_for_one-dollar_250px12. Find a penny, pick it up . . .

And all day long, you’ll have good luck. This little ditty may arise because finding money is lucky in and of itself. But it might also be a spin-off of another old rhyme, “See a pin, pick it up/ and all day long you’ll have good luck/ See a pin, let it lay/ and your luck will pass y.”

11. Don’t walk under that ladder!

Frankly, this superstition is pretty practical. Who wants to be responsible for stumbling and knocking a carpenter off his perch? But one theory holds that this superstition arises from a Christian belief in the Holy Trinity: Since a ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, “breaking” that triangle was blasphemous.

Then again, another popular theory is that a fear of walking under a ladder has to do with its resemblance to a medieval gallows. We’re sticking with the safety-first explanation for this one.

10. Black cats crossing your path

As companion animals for humans for thousands of years, cats play all sorts of mythological roles. In ancient Egypt, cats were revered; today, Americans collectively keep more than 81 million cats as pets.

afterall-rabbit-feet-are-good-luckSo why keep a black cat out of your path? Most likely, this superstition arises from old beliefs in witches and their animal familiars, which were often said to take the form of domestic animals like cats.

9. A rabbit’s foot will bring you luck

Talismans and amulets are a time-honored way of fending off evil; consider the crosses and garlic that are supposed to keep vampires at bay. Rabbit feet as talismans may hark back to early Celtic tribes in Britain. They may also arise from hoodoo, a form of African-American folk magic and superstition that blends Native American, European and African tradition. [Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology]

8. Bad luck comes in threes

Remember confirmation bias? The belief that bad luck comes in threes is a classic example. A couple things go wrong, and believers may start to look for the next bit of bad luck. A lost shoe might be forgotten one day, but seen as the third in a series of bad breaks the next.

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Psychics Boost Believers’ Sense of Control

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Psychology of Prediction

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

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Why Do Some People Only Have Bad Luck?

by Patrick J. Kiger via Discovery News

[ . . . ]

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Unlucky? Or just bad parking skills? The scene in 1933 after a car had run away, driverless, rolled 50 feet down a hillside to a retaining wall and became jammed against a two-story brick home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

There’s Violet Jessop, who worked as a stewardess on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912, and managed to survive the giant liner’s collision in the North Atlantic with an iceberg — only to take a job as a nurse on the Britannic, which sank in 1916 in the Aegean Sea.

And more recently, there’s the bizarre story of English tourists Jason and Jenny Cairns-Lawrence, who were visiting New York City when Al Qaeda hijackers crashed two planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and happened to be in London when the city’s public transportation system was attacked by terrorists in July 2005, and traveled to Mumbai, India in November 2008, just in time to witness a third terrorist attack.

Newspaper writers took to calling them “the world’s unluckiest couple.”

The idea that some people are destined to suffer chronic misfortune is so ingrained in our consciousness that there even have been songs written about it — for example, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the blues classic recorded by Albert King back in 1967, in which the narrator complains that “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

But is there really such a thing as chronic bad luck, and if so, why do some people seem to be plagued by it?

bad luck 910_250pxPsychologists and academic experts in probability and statistics, who’ve studied the phenomenon of bad luck, provide a complicated answer. It is true that in the course of a lifetime, some people have a lot more bad things happen to them than most of us do. But that outcome can be influenced by a variety of factors, including random chance, the actions of other people, and individuals’ own decision-making skills and competence at performing tasks.

But in our minds, it all blends together and forms this thing that we think of as bad luck.

Rami Zwick, a business professor at the University of California-Riverside, points out that the idea of bad luck exists, in part, because most of us don’t have a very good understanding of how the science of probability works.

“There is a difference between individual and aggregate experiences of people in a population,” he explains. If you ask 100 people to flip a coin 100 times, for example, over time, you can expect that the average result for the group will be 50 heads and 50 tails. But within the group, individuals may have more heads than tails, or vice-versa. “If we think of heads as good and tails as bad, a few people will have a sequence of mostly good outcomes, and others will have mostly bad ones.”

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Superstitious Beliefs Getting More Common

by Emily Sohn via Discovery News

THE GIST

ghost 820_250px

  • Believing in the paranormal is actually more normal than you might think and may be growing more common.
  • Contrary to common stereotypes, there is no single profile of a person who accepts the paranormal.
  • It might be in our nature to look for patterns and meaning in strange and random events.

It’s that time of year again. Ghosts, goblins and other spooky characters come out from the shadows and into our everyday lives.

For most people, the thrill lasts for a few weeks each October. But for true believers, the paranormal is an everyday fact, not just a holiday joke.

To understand what drives some people to truly believe, two sociologists visited psychic fairs, spent nights in haunted houses, trekked with Bigfoot hunters, sat in on support groups for people who had been abducted by aliens, and conducted two nationwide surveys.

Contrary to common stereotypes, the research revealed no single profile of a person who accepts the paranormal. Believers ranged from free-spirited types with low incomes and little education to high-powered businessmen. Some were drifters; others were brain surgeons.

paranormal_america_book_300pxWhy people believed also varied, the researchers report in a new book, called “Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture.”

For some, the paranormal served as just another way of explaining the world. For others, extraordinary phenomena offered opportunities to chase mysteries, experience thrills and even achieve celebrity status, if they could actually find proof.

“It’s almost like an adult way to get that kidlike need for adventure and exploration,” said co-author Christopher Bader, of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Other people are sitting at home and renting videos, but you’re sitting in a haunted house that is infested with demons.”

“These guys who are hunting Bigfoot are out chasing a monster,” he added. “I could see the real appeal in going out for weekend and never knowing what you might find.”

There is no hard data on how common it is to believe in the paranormal, which Bader and co-author Carson Mencken define as beliefs or experiences that are not fully accepted by science or religion.

But trends in television programming offer a sense that there is a widespread interest in . . .

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How Belief in Magic Spreads HIV in Africa

by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

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

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

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

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

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

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Have TED Talks Jumped the Shark?

by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

ted-logoTED is a nonprofit organization devoted to the dissemination of, as their slogan says,  “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Supported by many prominent thinkers, scientists, and entrepreneurs including Bill Gates, evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker, and philosopher Daniel Dennett, TED began in 1984 as a collaboration between thinkers from three enterprises — technology, entertainment, and design — and has since broadened its scope globally.

“The two annual TED conferences, on the North American West Coast and in Edinburgh, Scotland, bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” according to the website, “who are challenged to give the talk of their lives.”

TED talks have been popular for years, highlighting interesting and thought-provoking speakers on a wide variety of social and scientific issues. However, TED has increasingly come under fire for promoting pseudoscience and misinformation.

A spin-off department of TED, TEDx, licenses individuals across the country and around the world to stage similar events, record the talks on video, and submit the videos to TED for inclusion on their website. As TED and TEDx talks became more and more popular, the standards began slipping.

Bad Science

One notorious series of TEDx talks in Spain invited speakers to discuss a long list of conspiracy and New Age topics such as “Basic Mind Control,” rebirthing therapy, “Angelic Reiki,” and even something called “Egyptian Psycho-Aromatherapy and Transpersonal Homeotherapy.”

This list of pseudoscience apparently did not set off any red flags for TEDx organizers at the time, but it did for scientists and journalists who demanded to know why these were considered to be “ideas worth spreading.”

Concerns that the once-prestigious TED brand was being diluted and contaminated by sloppy scholarship and bad science grew so loud that in December 2012, TED representatives issued a letter to TEDx affiliates about it.

MORE . . . .

Emergency Alert System Issues Zombie Warning For Michigan

via Discovery News

lawn_zombie2The zombie drama “The Walking Dead” normally airs on the American cable-television channel AMC on Sunday evening.

But on Monday, residents of two small American cities got treated to a zombie apocalypse over the air, courtesy of pranksters who apparently hacked into the Emergency Alert System at three broadcast stations.

“Civil authorities in your area have reported that the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living,” said an ominous voiceover that interrupted programming yesterday afternoon on KRTV-TV, a CBS affiliate in Great Falls, Mont., and on a KRTV subchannel that carries a CW network feed.

“Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous,” the voice also said as listings of affected counties scrolled across the top of the screen.

Around the same time, WNMU-TV, the PBS affiliate in Marquette, Mich., on the state’s Upper Peninsula, was similarly pranked, according to local reports.

Later that evening, WBUP-TV, the ABC affiliate in Marquette, was hit by a “zombie alert” that scrolled across the bottom of the screen during the broadcast of “The Bachelor,” according to the station’s website.

According to the website of Radio magazine, there were reports that “zombie” hacks of the Emergency Alert System were attempted yesterday at TV stations in Salt Lake City.

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Do Scientists Fear the Paranormal?

paranormal-alien-630x433_05by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

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

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

Curiosity Spots Mystery Mars 'Flower'

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

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

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

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

Psychic Powers

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

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

Indonesian Crop Circle Prompts Rumors of Aliens

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

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

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

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

Einstein’s Mistake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denver ‘UFO’ Likely Has Earthly Explanation

by Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

(H/T Thomas J. Proffit)

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

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

The video made news last week when KDVR reported:

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

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

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

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

How Optical Illusions Create UFOs

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

MORE . . .
Also See: Bugged by UFOs (iLLumiNuTTi.com)

Controversial ESP Study Fails Yet Again

via Discovery News

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

Bem’s experiments suggested that college students could accurately predict random events, like whether a computer will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. However scientists and skeptics soon questioned Bem’s study and methodology. Bem stood by his findings and invited other researchers to repeat his studies.

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

Last year a group of British researchers tried and failed to replicate Bem’s experiments. A team of researchers including Professor Chris French, Stuart Ritchie and Professor Richard Wiseman collaborated to accurately replicate Bem’s final experiment, and found no evidence for precognition. Their results were published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

Now a second group of scientists has also replicated Bem’s experiments, and once again found no evidence for ESP. In an article forthcoming in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Jeff Galak, Robyn LeBoeuf, Leif D. Nelson, and Joseph P. Simmons, the authors explained their procedure: “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. We further conduct a meta-analysis of all replication attempts of these experiments and find that the average effect size (d = .04) is no different from zero.” In other words there was no evidence at all for ESP. The paper, “Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi,” is available on the web page of the Social Science Research Network.

MORE . . .

NOAA Denies Existence of Mermaids

In case you were wondering …

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which usually deals with environmental matters like tsunamis and hurricanes, recently took the strange step of posting a statement on their website denying that mermaids exist.

via NOAA Denies Existence of Mermaids : Discovery News.

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