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Yes, Conspiracy Theorists’ Brains Really Are Different

by Alia Hoyt via HowStuffWorks

9-11 was an inside job. The moon landing was faked. Vaccines cause autism. These are just a few of the most well-known conspiracy theories perpetuated by otherwise intelligent, everyday people. But why do some people believe these things and others don’t? Scientists are one step closer to figuring that out, and it appears that the answer lies within the brains of the theorists’ themselves, which affects how they see they world.

Scientists had long hypothesized that conspiracy theory belief (which the researchers of a new paper define as “the assumption that a group of people colludes together in secret to attain evil goals”) was due to a phenomenon known as “illusory pattern perception” — seeing patterns where none really exist. But few studies had been done to support this. So, the British and Dutch scientists conducted a series of experiments to fill that void. Their paper was published recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

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Does aspartame cause MS?

aspartame
howstuffworks_iconby Laurie L. Dove via HowStuffWorks

For 10 years, Nancy drank diet soda — sometimes as many as four or five a day. Otherwise, she ate and drank in moderation, exercised regularly and got plenty of sleep. Then one day, as Nancy picked up her glass of diet soda, it slipped from her fingers and crashed to the floor. Shocked, Nancy tried again, only to discover her hand wouldn’t properly respond. The problems subsisted for weeks, then her legs began to buckle and her vision to blur. Eventually, Nancy’s doctor diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

The idea that aspartame causes MS most likely stems from a chain email.

The idea that aspartame causes MS most likely stems from a chain email.

Desperate to know more about MS, Nancy scoured the Internet for answers. She learned MS usually strikes between ages 20 and 40, that it affects women more often than men and that scientists don’t yet understand its root cause (source: WebMD). Then she came across an obscure message board and realized she might have a clue after all. There might be a link between aspartame and MS. Wasn’t that the ingredient in all the diet sodas she’d had over the years?

While the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation stops short of saying aspartame — or any additive, for that matter — is 100 percent safe, it doesn’t subscribe to the notion that aspartame causes MS. Aspartame was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in carbonated beverages, and other beverages and foods in the 1980s. After a volley of complaints from consumers experiencing everything from insomnia to diarrhea after ingesting carbonated beverages containing aspartame, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated aspartame’s use and concluded there wasn’t any evidence that it caused these symptoms. More to the point, the CDC failed to find a link between aspartame and the onset of MS (source: Guthrie).

The idea that aspartame causes MS most likely stems from a supposed first-hand account of an aspartame expert that has persisted on the Internet and in chain e-mails since the 1990s. Although this article is frequently attributed to the author “Nancy Merkle,” nobody has ever come forward to take credit and the article contains no citations (source: Guthrie).

The FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research refuted the claims made in the account, which linked aspartame to a number of diseases and maladies, including MS. According to the FDA, aspartame is one of the most frequently tested food additives and there’s no evidence to support a link between aspartame and MS (source: Hattan). That’s good news for Nancy and others who drink diet beverages and opt for “low-cal” foods containing aspartame.

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How Spontaneous Human Combustion Works

by via HowStuffWorks

spontaneous human combustion 1123bIn December 1966, the body of 92-year-old Dr. J. Irvin­g Bentley was discovered in his Pennsylvania home by a meter reader. Actually, only part of Dr. Bentley’s leg and slippered foot were found. The rest of his body had been burned to ashes. A hole in the bathroom floor was the only evidence of the fire that had killed him; the rest of the house remained perfectly intact.

­How could a man catch fire — with no apparent source of a spark or flame — and then burn so completely without igniting anything around him? Dr. Bentley’s case and several hundred others like it have been labeled “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC). Although he and other victims of the phenomenon burned almost completely, their surroundings, and even sometimes their clothes, remained virtually untouched.

Can humans spontaneously burst into flames? A lot of people think spontaneous human combustion is a real occurrence, but most scientists aren’t convinced.

In this article, we will look at the strange phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, see what believers have to say about it and try to separate the scientific truth from the myths.

What is Spontaneous Human Combustion?

spontaneous human combustion 707Spontaneous combustion occurs when an object — in the case of spontaneous human combustion, a person — bursts into flame from a chemical reaction within, apparently without being ignited by an external heat source.

The first known account of spontaneous human combustion came from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, who described how a woman in Paris “went up in ashes and smoke” while she was sleeping. The straw mattress on which she slept was unmarred by the fire. In 1673, a Frenchman named Jonas Dupont published a collection of spontaneous combustion cases in his work “De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis.”

The hundreds of spontaneous human combustion accounts since that time have followed a similar pattern: The victim is almost completely consumed, usually inside his or her home. Coroners at the scene have sometimes noted a sweet, smoky smell in the room where the incident occurred.

spontaneous human combustion 1143_250pxWhat makes the charred bodies in the photos of spontaneous human combustion so peculiar is that the extremities often remain intact. Although the torso and head are charred beyond recognition, the hands, feet, and/or part of the legs may be unburned. Also, the room around the person shows little or no signs of a fire, aside from a greasy residue that is sometimes left on furniture and walls. In rare cases, the internal organs of a victim remain untouched while the outside of the body is charred.

Not all spontaneous human combustion victims simply burst into flames. Some develop strange burns on their body which have no obvious source, or emanate smoke from their body when no fire is present. And not every person who has caught fire has died — a small percentage of people have actually survived what has been called their spontaneous combustion.

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What happens at Bohemian Grove?

Via Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know – YouTube

For decades rumors about Bohemian Grove have run wild through the conspiracy world — but what actually happens at Bohemian Grove?

What is going on during a near-death experience?

by via HowStuffWorks

near-death-tunnel_200pxA man we’ll call Joe recalls plunging into darkness and seeing a bright light. He remembers a field of flowers and a figure in white who spoke to him about his future. The next thing he recalls is awakening to discover that during the time he’d experienced this vision, he’d actually been lying on an operating table with doctors hovering over him, frantically trying to restart his stopped heart.

You’ve probably heard stories similar to this one, which was recounted in a 2006 New Scientist article. What Joe remembers experiencing is called a near-death experience (NDE). Reportedly, about 10 to 20 percent of people who survive heart attacks experience an NDE (source: Callaway). Written accounts of NDEs go back to ancient times. Usually, they involve euphoria, tunnels, bright lights, ethereal beings or some combination of those phenomena. Some people report seeing a high-speed replay of memories — aka, their lives flash before their eyes.

astralt_250pxNobody really knows what NDEs are, or how and why they occur, though there are widely-ranging opinions. Those who believe in the metaphysical think that during an NDE, a seriously ill or injured person’s soul leaves the physical body and journeys to the entrance of the afterlife. There, for whatever reason, he or she is turned away and sent back to resume Earthly life — sometimes with a newfound insight about life’s purpose.

Physicians and neuroscientists who’ve searched for a less mystical explanation for NDEs suspect they’re hallucinations, somehow caused by the process of the dying brain shutting down. Over the years, some have theorized that NDEs result when the brain is deprived of oxygen, or when a mysterious, yet-unverified chemical binds itself to neurons in an effort to protect them from that deprivation. Still others think that the brain’s impending shutdown triggers a flood of euphoria-causing endorphins, or electrical discharges in the hippocampus (the brain area involved in memory), while others think the state is caused by the side effects of anesthesia or medications.

neurotransmitters_150pxHowever, so far, science has failed to come up with an airtight explanation for NDEs. In the largest-ever study of the phenomenon, published in the Lancet in 2001, Dutch physicians interviewed 344 mostly elderly hospital patients who survived brushes with death in which their hearts stopped. Only 18 percent of them reported experiencing NDEs, and the researchers found no link to the amount of time they were in cardiac arrest, or the drugs they were given.

Since then, a 2010 study published in the journal Clinical Care offers yet another possible explanation.

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10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction

by via HowStuffWorks

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10: Beware of Cognitive Bias

Confirmation bias: Selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs.

Confirmation bias: Selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.

Our brains are designed to make sense of the onslaught of sensory stimulation and information that they get from the world by filtering and organizing. We have a tendency to focus on certain details and ignore others, to avoid being overwhelmed. And we habitually organize information into patterns, based on things we’ve seen or learned about before. That leads us to process what we hear, read or see in a way that reinforces what we think we already know. That phenomenon is called cognitive bias (source: Science Daily).

To make matters worse, some theorize that we also engage in selective exposure — that is, we pick sources of information that tell us what we want to hear. Ohio State researchers, for example, found that when college students spent a few minutes reading news articles online, they selected ones that supported their already-held views 58 percent of the time (source: Hsu).

 The famous 1934 photograph of the Loch Ness monster. Just before his death in 1994, Chris Spurling confessed that he and some other men had staged the picture. Keystone/Getty Images

The Loch Ness monster
Keystone/Getty Images

So, we’re vulnerable to information that fits what we want to believe — even if it’s of dubious authenticity. That’s probably why the infamous photograph of the Loch Ness monster, taken in 1934 (source: Nickell), was so convincing for many people. The silhouette resembled a long-necked dinosaur, which was something they had seen pictures of in natural history textbooks. And the idea that ancient creatures might have survived extinction already had surfaced in fiction such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel “The Lost World,” so it wasn’t too much of a leap conceptually. It wasn’t until 1994 that researchers got an elderly man who had been part of the hoax to reveal that the monster in the photo actually was a foot-high model, fashioned from a toy submarine (source: Associated Press).

9: Pay Attention to the Unspoken Message

Used-Car-Salesman_250pxIf you’ve ever sold used cars or peddled vacuum sweepers door-to-door, you probably know this from experience: Researchers have found that an attractive physical appearance and positive nonverbal cues, like eye contact, smiling and a pleasant tone of voice, may have as much or more of an influence upon us than the actual words that the person is saying. In fact, someone who is skilled at nonverbal messaging can actually foster what communication experts call a halo effect. That is, if we think that a person looks good, we assume that he or she is intelligent or capable as well. That’s a big help in fostering credibility (source: Eadie). But just as a salesperson can learn to project a convincing demeanor, a swindler or a dishonest politician can practice the same tricks.

However, other nonverbal cues provide useful information for evaluating whether someone is telling the truth or a lie. Researchers who’ve studied the questioning of criminal suspects, for example, note that even highly motivated, skillful liars have a tendency to “leak” nonverbal clues to their deception in the course of a long interview, because of the difficulty of managing facial expressions, physical carriage, and tone of voice over time. The trick is to watch for those tiny flaws in the subject’s demeanor to emerge.

When making an untrue statement, for example, a person may flash a “microexpression”– a frown, perhaps, or a grimace — that reflects his or her true emotions, but clashes with what the person is saying. Since some of this microexpressions may happen as quickly as the blink of an eye, the easiest way to detect them is by replaying a video. But it is possible to do it in a real-time conversation as well. U.S. Coast Guard investigators trained in spotting such leakage, for example, have been able to spot such clues about 80 percent of the time (source: Matsumoto, et al.).

8: Watch for the Big Lie

 Master of the Big Lie, Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Master of the Big Lie, Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Throughout history, purveyors of falsehoods seldom have bothered with piddling minor fibs. Instead, they generally have opted for what propaganda experts call the “Big Lie” — that is, a blatant, outrageous falsehood about some important issue, and one that’s usually designed to inflame listeners’ emotions and provoke them to whatever action the liar has in mind. The Big Lie is most often associated with Adolf Hitler, who advised in his book “Mein Kampf” that the “primitive simplicity” of ordinary people makes them vulnerable to massive deceptions. “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and would not believe that others would have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously,” the Nazi dictator wrote.

Ironically, even as he explained the method of the Big Lie, he used it to promote an especially brazen untruth — that Jews and Communists somehow had deceived the German people into thinking that their nation’s loss in World War I was caused by reckless, incompetent military leaders. The Nazi dictator was onto something, though perhaps even his own twisted mind didn’t grasp it: Some of the most effective Big Lies are accusations of someone else being a liar (source: Hitler).

Hitler, of course, didn’t invent the Big Lie, and a liar doesn’t necessarily have to be a bloodthirsty dictator to pull it off. But the best way to protect yourself against the Big Lie is to be an educated, well-informed person who’s got a broad base of knowledge and context. Sadly, we live in a culture where fewer and fewer people seem to have that background. In a 2011, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. citizenship test; more than a third scored a failing grade — 60 percent or lower — to questions such as “How many justices are on the Supreme Court?” and “Who did the U.S. fight in World War II?” That’s kind of scary (source: Quigley).

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How Conspiracy Theories Work

By via HowStuffWorks

Are you the kind of person who likes to hear to a good conspiracy theory?

ALEXJONESFOIL_250pxSome people simply do not like the discomfort that a conspiracy theory creates. But for others, conspiracy theories are intriguing. They like to explore all of the possibilities that a conspiracy theory presents, in the same way that they like to explore puzzles or mystery novels. Sometimes a conspiracy theory is ridiculous and learning about it is a form of entertainment. Or you may find that the theory is credible and it makes you think. It’s interesting to consider the theory, weigh the evidence and come up with a conclusion.

In the 21st century, one event reigns supreme in the catalog of conspiracy theories: the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. This event is seared into the nation’s consciousness and significantly affected the entire planet. It seems inevitable that people would cry “conspiracy” about any event with this much impact. However, the conspiracy theories around 9/11 have been strong and consistent.

The whole controversy surrounding 9/11 boils down to one simple question:

airplane_500px_2Did 19 terrorists cause all of the destruction witnessed on 9/11/2001, or did a group of people in the U.S. government conspire to create that destruction for political gain?

The U.S. government has offered the terrorist explanation, and that is the story that many people believe. A large number of people, however, refuse to believe this “official story.” They believe conspiracy theorists when they say that the U.S. government actually masterminded and executed the attack.

We could spend a great deal of time arguing one side or the other. Instead, we’ll focus on the process. Isn’t it fascinating that there can be two credible explanations for such a complex event, and that both explanations can be so diametrically opposed to one another?

How does a conspiracy theory like this get started? What is required to fuel it into a full-fledged public debate? Can the theory ever be proven? What does the possibility of the theory say about our society? In this article we will explore these questions and many others as we look at the events of September 11.

Conspiracy Theory Basics

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Image courtesy Amazon
Oliver Stone‘s 1991 film “JFK” addresses a controversial version of the events surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The dictionary defines a conspiracy theory in this way: A theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act. A conspiracy theorist, therefore, is a person who formulates such a theory.

There is a certain negative undertone to the term “conspiracy theory” in today’s society. Detractors will point out that many conspiracy theories contain certain features that undermine their credibility. In this article, however, we will use the term “conspiracy theory” in its neutral sense. We are using it to mean an alternative explanation for an event, as it is defined in the dictionary.

In modern times there have been a number of “conspiracy theories.” One example is the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After the assassination, the government offered its explanation of the events. A large number of people (at one point, more than half of the adult population in the United States) simply do not believe the government’s explanation. This particular conspiracy theory rose to such a high level in the public consciousness that an entire Hollywood movie was made about it: “JFK”, directed by Oliver Stone and released in 1991.

The Kennedy assassination really started the modern “conspiracy theory” movement. This is an event where the “official” government explanation of the crime was openly ridiculed by a large number of “normal citizens.” Many people believe that the Kennedy assassination was carried out as part of a larger government-centered conspiracy, rather than as a random event arranged by a single gunman.

In the same way, a very large number of people do not believe that “terrorists” carried out the events seen on 9/11. Instead, they believe that the government caused those events.

Next, we’ll look at how conspiracy theories get started.

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