Tag Archives: General Science

Sky Trumpets

From all over the world come reports of strange trumpet-like blasts from the sky.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

From all around the world come reports of strange blasts of sound from the heavens. Some rumble like distant explosions or thunder, some blare like amplified tubas, some shimmer like reverberating wind chimes. YouTube has a full measure of videos taken from iPhones searching the sky while Sky Trumpets blast their portentous refrains. Commenters warn of the End of Days, or of aliens vainly trumpeting their misunderstood greetings, or of Mother Earth releasing great energies. trumpet-sounds-sky_0350pxBut whatever the theory, the recordings of Sky Trumpets are sure to send a shiver up your vibrating spine. Must they all be either supernatural or hoaxes, or might science be able to sweep away the mystery?

Of course, the first thing we have to do is listen to some samples. While these play, keep in mind how easy it is to fake videos such as these today. Sounds can be taken from the Internet from any source, and it requires no more than journeyman computer skills to add a sound to a video and apply any manner of reverb or background noise to it. But regardless of their origin, these are the types of sounds that characterize the Sky Trumpets phenomenon; so if there is something to explain, this is what they sound like.

Here’s one from Beijing, China:

And here’s one from Indonesia:

And from Saskatchewan:

And from Oklahoma:

So far, all of these Sky Trumpet recordings were posted to the Internet after 2011. Here is what amateur researchers have determined is the earliest of these videos and certainly the most popular with over 4 million views, and it was uploaded to YouTube in August of 2011, from Kiev in Ukraine, by someone calling herself “Russian Kristina”:

Since this video went live, there have been any number of copycat hoax videos posted using the exact same audio file; including one that got a bit of press, by a girl who did the whole thing in five minutes to show her friends how easy it was to make a hoax Sky Trumpets video.

But hoaxes aside, it’s a virtual certainty that at least some of these videos are genuine, and represent real sounds heard by real people who recorded them and posted them online in good faith. Given that, is it then proven that Sky Trumpets are a real — and unknown to science — phenomenon?

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The Russian Sleep Experiment

Russian test subjects are said to have done unspeakably horrible things when sleep deprived.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid

It has become a permanent fixture in the fabric of Internet lore: the Russian Sleep Experiment, an account of a horrific experiment said to have been conducted in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. The subjects were five political prisoners, placed into a sealed chamber and exposed to a gas which prevented them from sleeping. After fifteen days the researchers entered the chamber, and found the men — sleep deprived beyond any human experience — had committed horrors that could scarcely be conceived. Today we’re going to look into the story, and into the facts of sleep deprivation. Might something as grotesque as the Russian Sleep Experiment truly be within the scope of human possibility?

scary stairs_300pxAccording to the story, the researchers cleared the gas from the chamber and entered, finding one of the five men dead:

The food rations past day 5 had not been so much as touched. There were chunks of meat from the dead test subject’s thighs and chest stuffed into the drain in the center of the chamber… All four ‘surviving’ test subjects also had large portions of muscle and skin torn away from their bodies. The destruction of flesh and exposed bone on their finger tips indicated that the wounds were inflicted by hand…

The abdominal organs below the ribcage of all four test subjects had been removed. While the heart, lungs and diaphragm remained in place, the skin and most of the muscles attached to the ribs had been ripped off, exposing the lungs through the ribcage. All the blood vessels and organs remained intact, they had just been taken out and laid on the floor, fanning out around the eviscerated but still living bodies of the subjects. The digestive tract of all four could be seen to be working, digesting food. It quickly became apparent that what they were digesting was their own flesh that they had ripped off and eaten over the course of days.

Those questioning whether or not this was a true story didn’t have to do very much work. It’s a widely published fact that the Russian Sleep Experiment was a piece of fiction, posted anonymously in 2010 to Creepy Pasta, a web site that showcases scary fictional tales. Despite this, there are always conspiracy minded people insistent that the story is true, or was leaked from some secret government lab; but no matter how strong their desire that this be the case, nobody has ever turned up anything like that. Sometimes a creepy story is just a creepy story.

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GMO Facts and Fiction

See if you know how many of these GMO “facts” are right.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid

No matter how many articles are published detailing how and why genetically engineered crops are safe, misinformation always seems to reign. Anti-biotech activists persist in charging GMO crops (Genetically Modified Organisms) with just about every crime against humanity, ethics, and science. Although Monsanto is the company drawing nearly 100% of the flak from anti-biotech activists and is probably the only genetic engineering company known to most people,gmo-labeling_2_150px it’s actually only one of the six biggest companies that develop GMO crops. The others are DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, and Bayer Cropscience. Beyond the big six, about 20 other smaller companies located all around the world are also in the business. But don’t expect to go down to the local nursery and find seeds branded with these names: like most manufacturers, they all sell under a variety of more customer-friendly brands. Monsanto, the market leader among the big six, sells 15 different brands, each tailored to specific products or regions. What happens to all these brands of seeds that get bought, sown, and reaped? See if you can guess all of these “fact or fiction” choices right, starting with:

Supermarkets are full of GMO foods.

True, but mostly as ingredients in prepared food. About 85% of three major food crops grown in the US — corn, soy, and cotton — are GMO. Most of the produce you buy (corn and soybeans being the only real notable exceptions) are currently not GMO. Another exception is the papaya. Most of the papayas available in the United States come from Hawaii, where the ringspot virus decimated the species in the mid 1990s. But in 1998, a crop scientist found a way to insert a single ringspot gene into the papaya, thus conferring natural immunization; and now the Hawaiian papaya flourish.

But beyond those three examples from the produce aisle, it’s pretty hard to find a prepared food product that contains no corn, soy, or cottonseed products, so the answer is yes. If you live in the Americas, you’ve been eating a lot of GMO food from the supermarket for the past several decades.

GMO leads to monoculture.

False. Supply and demand is what leads to monoculture, and that’s got nothing to do with GMOs. Monoculture is when you plant the same crop over and over again in the same field, without rotating. GMO killer tomato_200pxRotating crops naturally prevents the most common pathogen and pest antagonists to gain a foothold on any particular crop, and keeps the soil as healthy as practical. Farmers have understood the benefits of crop rotation since at least 6000 BCE. If there was an equal demand for corn, soy, and cotton, farmers would be able to rotate perfectly and everything would be hunky dory.

Sadly that’s not the case. In 2011, the United States had 84 million acres of corn; 74 million acres of soybeans, 56 million acres of hay, 46 million acres of wheat, but only 10 million acres of cotton. So many products, both food and industrial, come from these, but the acreage needed from each is so disparate that crop rotation is often problematic. Further complicating it is that each crop grows best in a specific climate zone and soil. It’s really, really hard to find two or more crops that are both in equal demand and that will grow well on any given farm’s ecology.

Three of these top five crops are mostly genetically engineered varieties. But as we can see, this has nothing to do with the problems of monoculture or the farmer’s ability to rotate.

GMO crops contain genes from jellyfish and other animals.

False. There have never been any GMO crops brought to market that contained any animal genes. But it’s not necessarily for lack of trying. In many parts of the world, crops can freeze and get destroyed. So one thing researchers have tried is to give them some genes that confer antifreeze abilities in the winter flounder, a fish that can survive sub-freezing temperature. These genes express a protein (found in many plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria) that binds to small ice crystals, preventing them from becoming larger ice crystals that can damage cells. Although it would be great if we could give fruit and vegetable orchards this same ability, so far it hasn’t worked. This is why genetic engineers are always going to be busy: for every one project that succeeds, a hundred fail.

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Has Jack the Ripper Finally Been Solved?

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most iconic serial killer in history. Part of the mystique of this dark figure is the fact that he was never identified, leaving room for endless sleuthing and speculation. Every Ripper fan has their list of favorite suspects, usually filled with famous and powerful people of the time to add even more interest. JACK DESTRIPADOR 2My favorite, of course, is that he was a time-traveling friend of H. G. Wells.

Now a private researcher, Russell Edwards, claims that he has finally solved the case. First I will present his story without comment, and then we can take a skeptical look at it.

Edwards claims he acquired a blood-stained shawl in 2007 that is supposed to be from Catherine Eddowes, one of the five fairly accepted victims of the Ripper. The shawl was apparently recovered from the scene of Eddowes murder, and was covered in her blood. Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson took the shawl home as a gift for his wife. She was, apparently, not impressed and stored the shawl away without cleaning it.

The shawl remained in the possession of his family until they auctioned it off in 2007 and Edwards acquired it.

Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes

Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes

Edwards then solicited the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a Finnish expert in historic DNA. Louhelainen found that the 126 year old shawl contained a great deal of blood, likely all from the victim. However, he also found a semen stain on the shawl. Genomic DNA is unlikely to have survived 126 years sufficiently intact for DNA matching. However, mitochondrial DNA is more hardy and likely did survive.

Sperm, however, contain few mitochondria (almost none). Fortunately, Louhelainen was able to isolate an epithelial cell from the region of the semen stain. Epithelial cells line many tissues, and so it is possible that the cell (which would contain mitochondrial DNA) was from the same source as the semen itself.

Louhelainen was able to extract and amplify the DNA, and then type it, finding that it belonged to  .  .  .

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Also See: How Jack the Ripper Worked (howstuffworks)


Is acupuncture really ancient Chinese medicine? Does it work? Is it safe?

Craig Good Skeptoid 02_90pxby Craig Good via skeptoid
Read podcast transcript below or listen here

This ancient Chinese medical tradition stretches back over 3,000 years, the wisdom of the ancients producing medically valid results even today. As in antiquity, slender needles are inserted at precise meridian points on the body and manipulated by a skilled practitioner. acupucture_chinese_medicine_300pxEach acupuncture point relates to a specific organ or function in the body, and the practice manipulates the body’s energy, or qi to manage pain and treat a host of conditions including allergies, asthma, headaches, sciatica, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, constipation, and even sexual dysfunction. Acupuncture is, in short, a venerable medical miracle.

Or is it? Let’s cast a skeptical eye at one of the most popular “alternative” medical modalities in the modern world.

Exactly how ancient is acupuncture? Not nearly as ancient as you may think. The first clue is right there in the hands of the acupuncturist: Those slender, flexible, stainless steel needles. The technology to make them didn’t even exist until about 400 years ago.

There are even more historical clues. The Chinese have long kept detailed records. When we examine them we do, indeed, find references to a practice called needling, but the earliest dates to about 90 BCE. The needles from that era were large, and the practice of needling refers to bloodletting and the lancing of abscesses, a treatment nothing like today’s acupuncture. Earlier Chinese medical texts, some reaching back to the 3rd century BCE, never even mention it. There’s no evidence at all that acupuncture is anywhere near 3,000 years old.

No matter. At least acupuncture is Chinese, right? Maybe not.

Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld thinks that the practice may have started in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates of Cos, and later spread to China. A fundamental feature of acupuncture, namely the special meridian points where the needles must be placed, can be traced to the medieval Islamic and European ideas of astrology mapped onto the body. This rather obvious link led researcher Ben Kavoussi to call acupuncture “Astrology with needles” He writes:

…for most of China’s long medical history, needling, bloodletting and cautery were largely practiced by itinerant and illiterate folk-healers, and frowned upon by the learned physicians who favored the use of pharmacopoeia.

funny_medical_acupuncture_poster-rd59e5d04896c4a0a8f114cb47de682b6_wvk_8byvr_512_250pxAccounts of Chinese medicine first reach Europe in the 13th century. None of them even mentioned acupuncture. Wilhelm Ten Rhijn, writing in 1680, was the first Westerner to reference acupuncture. But what he described bears little resemblance to the acupuncture of today. There was no mention of qi, which is sometimes translated as chi, or any specific points. He spoke of large gold needles that were implanted deep into the skull or womb and left in place for 30 respirations.

The first American acupuncture trials were in 1826, when it was seen as a possible method of resuscitating drowning victims. As Dr. Harriet Hall describes it, “They couldn’t get it to work and ‘gave up in disgust.’ I imagine sticking needles in soggy dead bodies was pretty disgusting.”

Even through the early part of the 20th century nobody spoke of qi or meridians. Practitioners merely inserted needles near the point of pain. In fact, qi used to refer to the vapor arising from food, and the meridians were called channels or vessels, which is part of acupuncture’s link to medieval astrology and vitalism.

So just when and where did meridians enter the picture, and qi finally become some kind of energy?

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12 Step Programs

Are religious-based twelve step programs better at stopping addiction than other programs?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was formed by two men struggling for sobriety, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. Theirs was a new type of program in that it formalized a series of twelve steps that an alcoholic must follow in order to get sober and stay that way. smith wilsonThe original Alcoholics Anonymous was only the first of many such programs set up to address just about every type of addiction and obsessive behavior you can think of: Overeaters Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Underearners Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and even Online Gamers Anonymous. Today we’re going to look a bit into the history of twelve stepping and also how it compares to mainstream psychological treatment of addiction, but mainly into the most important question: Does it work?

It’s impossible to discuss the history of the twelve steps without acknowledging that it is first a religious practice, and second a recovery method. Seven of the twelve steps invoke God. This is the main thing that separates it from medical or psychological addiction treatments that are primarily targeted at the biochemical and psychological causes of addiction. So let’s get started by reviewing the actual twelve steps, and these are the steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. AA-step-1.12_225pxWere entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Wilson and Smith were both from an evangelical Christian organization called the Oxford Group, and the twelve steps they formalized were reminiscent of practices from the Oxford Group. It had standards it called the Four Absolutes (honesty, purity, unselfishness, love), a set of four spiritual practices, and the “Five Cs” procedures: confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance. Thus, salvation through evangelical Christianity was deeply interwoven with the concept of twelve stepping. In the words of Bob Wilson:

“…Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Rev. Sam Shoemaker, their former religious counsel in America, and from nowhere else.”

Because of this, twelve step programs have been strongly criticized, usually by people who dropped out of the programs for one reason or another, and became disgruntled. Some have written books and devoted whole web sites to the idea that twelve stepping is just a bait-and-switch program; come to stop your addiction, but stay to join our church. It’s the same criticism that’s been leveled at Scientology’s Narcanon; it promises to help you get off drugs, but is in reality just a side door into the Church of Scientology.

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Lie Detection

Has technology ever been able to reliably discriminate between lies and truths?

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 8.00.43 PMA lot of people, like police officers and gamblers, think they can tell when a person is lying. But what we’ve always longed for is hard data; testable, mechanical proof that a subject is telling the truth or lying. For a long time, the standard has been the polygraph machine. Unfortunately it’s also widely believed to be unreliable and to be inadmissible in a court of law, so today we’re going to look at the hard data to see what polygraphs can and cannot do, and what other lie detection techniques may be on the immediate horizon, and how they fare in comparison. So put out that fire on your pants, and sit back.

Polygraph machines haven’t changed much since the earliest versions were introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century. They combine readings of blood pressure, respiration, pulse rate, and skin conductance, graphing these out with moving needles on a paper scroll. The idea is that these readings will change based on your stress level as you tell a lie. Polygraph_animatedWhile that basic concept is sound, the problem — and it’s a big one — is that any real effect is lost under a sea of other variables. Not only can the subject manipulate all of those readings with simple actions (biting the tongue, poking oneself with a hidden sharp object or fingernail, or even clinching the anal sphincter muscle), but the results are highly dependent upon the interaction between the subject and the polygrapher.

A large part of a polygraph test consists of the presentation. The machine is intended to be intimidating, as are all the wires and sensors attached to the subject’s body; as are actions by the polygrapher such as marking with a pen on the scroll at mysterious intervals. The polygrapher always begins by making you feel that you are very easy to read; for example, by asking you to lie to an innocent question like whether you’re wearing blue jeans, and then looking at the results and reacting as if you are the most comically easiest person to read ever. Polygraph 818_225pxThe whole show is designed to make you anxious about lying; so that if you do lie during the test, your stress will hopefully rise high enough above the noise level to actually give a useful reading. If you go in knowing all of this, knowing that you’re not overmatched and that this is a fair fight, you’ve got a great chance of yielding no useful results, whether you have anything to hide or not.

But more than that, the reading of polygraph results is completely subjective. There was a famous case in 1978 of a man named Floyd “Buzz” Fay, arrested for a murder he had nothing to do with, and who was convicted based on a polygrapher’s analysis of a lie detector test. Fay’s appeal included reports from four other polygraphers who examined the same charts and concluded there was no evidence of any deception. Fay was ultimately released when other investigations found the true killer, and he then became a keystone of the fight against the use of polygraph tests in courts.

Fay was not the only data point. In 1983  .  .  .

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New Age Energy

An examination of energy, as new agers use the term.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via skeptoid – October 03, 2006
Read transcript below or listen here

I’m feeling a little low today, so let’s tap into a source of energy from a neighboring dimension as a quick upper.

NewAgeFaith in pseudoscience is rampant. Everywhere you turn, intelligent people fully accept the existence of anything from psychic phenomena, to angels, to new age healing techniques, to ancient health schemes based on mysterious energy fields not understood by science. Most of these paranormal phenomena rely on “energy,” and when the performers are asked to explain, they’ll gladly lecture about the body’s energy fields, the universe’s energy fields, Chi, Prana, Orgone, negative energy, positive energy, and just about anything else that needs a familiar sounding word to explain and justify it. Clearly, there are too many loose interpretations of the word energy, to the point where most people probably have no idea exactly what energy really is.

I believe that if more people had a clear understanding of energy — and it’s not complicated — there would be less susceptibility to pseudoscience, and more attention paid to actual technologies and methods that are truly constructive and useful.

body-energyfield_250pxA friend told me of her ability to perform minor healings, and her best explanation was that she drew energy from another dimension. She had recently rented What the Bleep Do We Know, so she was well prepared to explain that alternate dimensions and realities should be taken for granted, since science doesn’t really know anything, and thus those things cannot be disproven. That’s fine, I’ll concede that she can make contact with another dimension: after all, the latest M theories posit that there are probably ten or eleven of them floating around, and I’ll just hope that my friend’s is not one of those that are collapsed into impossibly small spaces. What I was really interested in was the nature of this vaguely defined energy that she could contact.

I asked what type of energy is it, and how is it stored? Is it heat? Is it a spinning flywheel? Is it an explosive compound? Is it food? These are examples of actual ways that energy can be stored.

energy star trek 820_250px

Spock encounters New Age energy

In popular New Age culture, “energy” has somehow become a noun unto itself. “Energy” is considered to be literally like a glowing, hovering, shimmering cloud, from which adepts can draw power, and feel rejuvenated. Imagine a vaporous creature from the original Star Trek series, and you’ll have a good idea of what New Agers think energy is.

In fact, energy is not really a noun at all. Energy is a measurement of something’s ability to perform work. Given this context, when spiritualists talk about your body’s energy fields, they’re really saying nothing that’s even remotely meaningful. Yet this kind of talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force, floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist adepts to do just about anything.

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