Tag Archives: Skepticblog

“Chemtrails”? Really? Did you flunk science?

Donald Protheroby Donald Prothero via Skepticblog

For the past few years, my Facebook page kept flagging strange websites that claimed that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are “chemtrails,” a special kind of chemical sprayed on the unwitting population for reasons too bizarre and illogical to take seriously. For a long time, I’ve ignored this garbage on the internet, but in recent years it has gotten more and more pervasive, and I’ve run into people who believe it. There are whole shows about it on the once-scientific Discovery Channel, and the History Channel as well. chemtrails scare meNow the chemtrail community circulates their photos and videos among themselves, put hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and on their own sites and forums. But the way the internet works as a giant echo chamber for weird ideas with no peer review, fact checking, or quality control, it’s getting impossible to ignore them any more, and it’s time to debunk it.

The first few times I heard about “chemtrails”, my reaction was “You can’t be serious.” But the people who spread this are serious. They are generally people who have already accepted the conspiracy theory mindset, where everything that they don’t like or don’t understand is immediate proof of some big government conspiracy. But there’s an even bigger factor at work here: gross science illiteracy. The first thing that pops in my mind reading their strange ideas is “Didn’t this person learn any science in school?” And the fastest rebuttal I give when I run into one of these nuts is: “Do you even understand the first thing about our atmosphere? Anything released at 30,000  feet will blow for miles away from where you see it, and has virtually no chance of settling straight down onto the people below, and be so diluted it would have no measurable amount of the chemical by the time it lands. That’s why crop-dusting planes must fly barely 30 feet off the ground so their dust won’t blow too far away from the crops!”

As Kyle Hill describes it:

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

The entire chemtrail conspiracy idea is a relatively recent one, and an idea that would not have become so popular without the ability of the internet to spread lies. As this site shows, it was an ideas that was simmering among conspiracy theorists in the 1990s when one person in particular, William Thomas, made it popular back in 1996.chemtrail cat_225px By 1997-1999, he was trying to spread his ideas through interviews and media coverage and early conspiracy internet sites, and gotten many believers to buy in to his bizarre fantasy. Then in 1999, he was featured on Paranormal Central, Art Bell’s show on Coast to Coast radio. If there is any fast way to reach the mob of UFO nuts, paranormal fanatics,  and conspiracy theorists besides the internet, Art Bell’s show is the place. Soon the phenomenon exploded far beyond William Thomas or Art Bell, and became a widely accepted idea among the people who tune in to the paranormal or the conspiracy mindset.

So what are “chemtrails”? Allegedly, they are different from normal contrails produced by aircraft, and allegedly they contain some sort of evil chemical that the government conspiracy is trying to poison us with. Normal contrails are  .  .  .

MORE – – –


chemtrail Conspiracists studiing_400px

Area 51: Myth and Reality

by Donald Prothero via Skepticblog

area_510_250pxIn the past few decades, this perfectly ordinary military base in the middle of the desert in southern Nevada has taken on mythic status. Most military bases have tight security, and only authorized military personnel and their contractors are allowed on base. This particular base is top secret, with much tighter security than most military land. Not only is it surrounded by a secured perimeter and motion detectors in the ground, but the guards travel the perimeter regularly, and have video security cameras monitoring everything that comes near the fence. It is also located in one of the most remote areas of sparsely populated Nevada, more than two hours of driving north out of Las Vegas. Because there is no way to see the base from the paved road, even from the highest peaks outside the base except Tikaboo Peak (a long hard desert hike), it can only be viewed from the air or from space. Naturally, that high level of secrecy has led to all sorts of speculation about what happens there, and an entire industry of books and movies and TV shows which need only mention the phrase “Area 51” and immediately their audience assumes that there are aliens or some kinds of weird government experiments going on there.

ATOMIC-ENERGY-COMMISSION_thumb1First of all, let’s clarify one misconception: the proper name of the base. Some of the common names of the base are “Groom Lake” or “Homey Airport” on civilian aeronautics maps, or the longer “Nevada Test and Training Range” in CIA documents, but the older CIA documents do use the term “Area 51”.  The name “Area 51” was indirectly named from the old grid system the Atomic Energy Commission used in the 1950s and 1960s to map the Nevada Test Site and the associated air bases. The original grid system numbering did not go as high as 51, but the Groom Lake area was purchased later and added to the secured perimeter of the base near Area 15 of the original grid; it is speculated that they just reversed 15 to 51 to get the number for the newly annexed area. The area has acquired additional security nicknames used to hide the true nature of the place, such as “Paradise Ranch”, the name that Lockheed Aircraft designer Kelly Johnson used to attract workers to project. According to Alexander Aciman in Time magazine:

Area 51 was cheekily nicknamed Paradise Ranch, so that intelligence officers and government employees wouldn’t have to tell their wives that they were moving the family to a rather large fenced-off area in the desert.

The U-2 spy plane, secretly built by Lockheed and the CIA and tested at Area 51

The U-2 spy plane, secretly built by Lockheed and the CIA and tested at Area 51

Other names include the CIA name “Watertown” (a reference to Watertown, New York, birthplace of CIA Director Allen Dulles), and “Dreamland Resort,” “Red Square,” “The Box,” or just “The Ranch”. After the U.S. Air Force took over the base from the CIA in the late 1970s, the name “Area 51” was discontinued, and it was called Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center (or simply Det. 3, AFFTC). As such, it was a remote operating location of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Today the official name of the Groom Lake base appears to be the National Classified Test Facility. The Test Wing (Det. 3, AFFTC) is still the primary occupant of the site.

There is also an Area 52. It is another name for the secret airfield and testing facility near Tonopah, Nevada, about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Groom Lake. Many of the same aircraft that were developed and tested at Area 51 have their official base of operations at Area 52, especially the stealth aircraft.

For many decades, the activities in the base were top secret, so most of what was written about it was sheer guesswork or based on the reports of people who had worked there and spilled some of their information.

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The Tao of Chinese Medicine

by Yau-Man Chan via Skepticblog

sistem2I am not a medical doctor and I don’t even play one on TV!  So how am I qualified to write about Chinese medicine?  Well because I grew up with it! Is that really good enough?  Yes, and every Chinese who grew up in a Chinese household in a Chinese community are inculcated with knowledge about Chinese medicine and how it works.  Like any other Chinese kid growing up, when I was sick my mother could quickly diagnose my illness and if she couldn’t, she could turn to her mother or aunts or other higher authority figures. In more severe cases, there’s always the guy selling herbs. No formal training is required. By osmosis, we were all supposed to have absorbed medical knowledge and know what foods – plant/animal parts would be good medication for whatever ailed us.  I now live in a region of the U.S. very much enamored with eschewing Western evidence-base medicine for herbal treatments, acupuncture, and other Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) cures. I can usually provoke shock and jaw-dropping silence when my response to questions about TCM is that I want nothing to do with it when it comes to the health and well-being of my family.  The two primary arguments in favor of TCM involve the classic logical fallacy of argument from antiquity and conspiracy theory about the evil intents of “Big Pharma. I will confine the rest of this blog to discussing the totally unscientific and perhaps even anti-scientific origins of TCM and leave debunking the Big Pharma Conspiracy to my fellow skeptics.TCM 704The argument from antiquity in favor of TCM usually goes like this:  it’s been around N-thousand years (replace N with your favorite integer between 1 and 5) and so it must have worked well! The truth of the matter is that TCM has no scientific basis and has been developed over the years on a foundation of very flawed understanding of the human anatomy and physiology.  Historically, the pathetically low cure-rate of diseases plaguing the Chinese population with access only to TCM resulted in the evolution of a hyper-superstitious culture bent on seeing ghosts and goblins around every corner and behind every bush, too ready to take another life away.   The inefficacy of their medical treatments throughout history, in my opinion, is responsible for the Chinese culture’s obsession with superstitions associated with maintaining good health and longevity.  78321115_XSThe list of superstitious do’s and don’ts are especially long when it came to childbirth, prenatal and postnatal care.  Please note that I am not talking about ancient history or even 100 years ago – I am talking about the persistence of these superstitions today in very modern Chinese communities in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and big modern cities in China.

To understand TCM, you do not need to understand chemistry, biology, anatomy or physiology because the foundation of TCM has nothing to do with them.  You need instead to understand Taoism and Confucianism, as these philosophies are the founding principles of TCM. I will expend some ink here to explain these two very powerful underlying influences on Chinese society which gave rise to their understanding of the human body and the attendant medical fallacies.

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Dragon Video

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Skepticblog

These make for light-hearted posts, but occasionally it’s fun to deconstruct viral videos purporting to show something fantastical on the internet. Most such videos are one of the big three – ghosts, UFOs or Bigfoot (or some other cryptozoological creature).

dragon_250pxThe current video is in the cryptozoological category – a video purporting to show a dragon flying through the skies of Truro England.

Obviously the prior-probability here is vanishingly small, and so it would take a very compelling video to have any chance of being taken seriously, and this video does not come close. Before I take a close look at the video itself, let’s explore the plausibility of the claim.

Dragons are gigantic flying predators, at least in their current Western cultural image. Such creatures if they existed would be voracious. Flying is a high-energy activity and animals pay for the benefits of flight by needing to eat incredible amounts of calories. Bald eagles, for example, eat about 10% of their body weight per day. If we extrapolate that to a dragon, even if light for its size so it can fly, would require hundreds of pounds of food per day.

Each dragon would require a large hunting territory. If there is even a minimal breeding population of dragons, they would frequently be seen in the skies hunting for prey or carrion. Saying they live underground or are stealthy hunters, first is an argument from ignorance to explain a lack of evidence. green_dragon-20112027Further, it is not plausible such creatures could survive under ground (and why would they fly), and you can only be so stealthy when you are that size.

There are also the usual objective to cryptozoological creatures – why are there no specimens of such creatures, no bones, no carcasses, no nests, scat, or remains of their eating? We can invent a special reason why each bit of evidence is lacking, but Occam favors the conclusion that these creatures just don’t exist.

We also have the historical record of dragons, meaning their existence in culture, as a guide. We can clearly see the image of dragons evolve over time, going in different directions in different cultures. Real creatures have a more stable representation in art over time – the artistic style may evolve, but a lion is always a lion. (Here, of course, I am talking about historical time frames of hundreds of years, not evolutionary time scales.)

The Video

It is reasonable to conclude from existing evidence that dragons probably do not exist (as cool as it would be if they did), but let’s take a look at the video with an open, but critical, mind.

MORE . . . (video) . . .

Jenny McCarthy, Hypocrite

by Donald Prothero via Skepticblog

JennyMccarthy_Victim_200pxOf all the people who have been associated with the weird form of science-denial that claims vaccines cause autism, Jenny McCarthy is the most famous. She has been the effective national face of the movement, appearing at many rallies (sometimes with her former beau, Jim Carrey), loudly shouting down people with actual medical expertise on Larry King Live, and making numerous appearances on the TV circuit, including Oprah and many other high-profile shows. Her name is so prominent as the “leader” of the anti-vaxxers that the site cataloguing the number of new infections and deaths due to diseases preventable by vaccination is known as “JennyMcCarthyBodyCount.com.”

I discussed the entire anti-vaxx movement in my new book, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future. The anti-vaxxers are  one of the most serious threats to society, since they are causing the revival of many once-conquered diseases, which are infecting and killing hundreds of innocent children. Some of these child victims had parents who support vaccination, but (since they cannot vaccinate very young kids) these babies and toddlers are  infected by an anti-vaxxer’s older kids who are not inoculated. As McCarthy prepares to take her seat on the most watched show on daytime TV, The View, people from across the political spectrum decried this as a truly bad move, because it gives the stamp of approval to the foremost leader of a lethal anti-science movement. As I argued in a previous post, it is comparable to putting the leader of some other science-denial movement, such as AIDS denier Peter Duesberg, or creationist minister Ken Ham or Ray Comfort, or Holocaust denier David Irving, in the panel of the most watched show on daytime TV.

Throughout her attacks on vaccination and her attempts to blame her son’s autism on vaccines, she has called the vaccines “toxins” and “poison”, and claims she has only followed “healthy” practices since her son’s autism became apparent (although most experts think her son is not autistic, but has Landau-Kleffner syndrome). Instead of vaccination, she has listened to an array of quack doctors and used a bunch of dangerous, unproven “therapies”, including chelation therapy, which most doctors regard as a quack therapy much more dangerous than vaccines. She has led a crusade for “Green our Vaccines” and claimed she wants to be advocate for healthy practices and against “toxins” in your body.

Well, guess who is now the paid spokesmodel for the latest dangerous fad, eCigarettes? Would it surprise you to find out that it is the same Jenny McCarthy?

MORE . . .

Changing Your Fate

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Skepticblog

There is a cartoonish sight gag that I have seen multiple times – a patient lying ill in a hospital bed has some indicator of their health, on a chart or monitor. The doctor comes by an flips the downward trending chart into an upward trending one, or adjusts the monitor so the readings are more favorable, and the patient improves.

This is a joke that a child can understand, even if they don’t explicitly understand that the humor lies in the reversal of cause and effect. And yet more subtle or complex forms of this same flawed reasoning is quite common, especially in the world of pseudoscience.

Even in medicine we can fall for this fallacy. We often measure many biological parameters to inform us about the health of our patients. When the numbers are out of the normal range it is tempting to take direct action to correct those numbers, rather than address the underlying process for which they are markers. Medical students have to learn early on to treat the patient, not the numbers.

palm_225pxOf course when the underlying belief is magical, rather than scientific, it is hard to argue against just changing the signs so that the reading is more favorable. Since the cause and effect is pure magic to begin with, does reversing it make it any worse?

Apparently not – at least for those in Japan who still believe in palmistry, according to the Daily Beast. At least one cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Matsuoka, is offering surgery to change the lines in the palm of your hand in order to change your fortune. Living longer, therefore, is just a matter of extending the life line. Of course this is absurd, but is it really more absurd than palmistry itself?

Dr. Matsuoka does not make direct claims about the efficacy of his procedure, but does justify it with the placebo effect and anecdotes:

“If people think they’ll be lucky, sometimes they become lucky.”

There is some truth to that, actually. Belief in being lucky or fortunate does seem to lead people to exploit more opportunities because they are more positive about their chances of success. This reasoning could be used, however, to defend any superstition, and it’s difficult to measure the psychological benefit against the risks of being that gullible and believing in magic.

He also reports:

The woman with the early wedding line wrote to the doctor that she got married soon after he had performed the operation. Two male patients wrote to him that they had won the lottery after the surgery. His luckiest patient collected more than $30,000 (3 million yen).

Well, there you go. I have no way to counter these completely unsubstantiated anecdotes.

Now excuse me while I roll back the mileage on my car. It’s been acting up a bit lately and I’m hoping this will make it run more like it did when it was new.


[END] via Skepticblog

Vaccine Denial Pseudoscience

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Skepticblog

I was recently asked about this article, Bedrock of vaccination theory crumbles as science reveals antibodies not necessary to fight viruses, which is a year old, but is making the rounds recently on social media. I was asked if there is any validity to the article. It’s from NaturalNews (not to be confused with NatureNews), which means, in my experience, it is almost certainly complete nonsense.

For the average consumer my advice is to completely ignore NaturalNews and Mike Adams. He is, among other things, an anti-vaccine crank. This article is written by staff writer Ethan Huff.  Let’s take a close look  and see if it lives up to the site’s reputation.

He writes:

While the medical, pharmaceutical, and vaccine industries are busy pushing new vaccines for practically every condition under the sun, a new study published in the journal Immunity completely deconstructs the entire vaccination theory. It turns out that the body’s natural immune systems, comprised of both innate and adaptive components, work together to ward off disease without the need for antibody-producing vaccines.

Guess which child was vaccinated.

Guess which child was vaccinated.

He opens with a bit of hyperbole – medical science is developing vaccines for infectious diseases that respond to vaccines, not “practically every condition under the sun.” Further, his word choice marks his piece as propaganda, referring to the medical “industry” rather than medical “science.”

He takes a nose dive, however, in his next sentence – he claims that one study (already a dubious claim) deconstructs the entire vaccine theory, which is built upon thousands of studies over decades of research. The study in question: B cell maintenance of subcapsular sinus macrophages protects against a fatal viral infection independent of adaptive immunity, is not even a study of vaccines.

He claims that the study shows . . .

MORE . . .

Dead Wrong, . . . Again

by Mark Edward via Skepticblog

H/T Thomas J. Proffit

Amanda Berry

Amanda Berry

Grief Vampire Sylvia Browne has once again proven herself to be the worst possible psychic medium in known history. Skeptics should be happy she is back in the news this time for her ”incorrectly predicting”(?) the outcome of the Amanda Berry disappearance. Chalk up another totally reprehensible miss to her worthless career.

Words cannot be used here at Skepticblog that could express my utter contempt for this bottom-feeding woman and her supporters. This time out she not only caused untold grief to family and community members, but also may have contributed to Amanda’s mother Louwana’s untimely death:

From:  http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2013/05/amanda_berrys_mother_louwana_m.html

“The case was featured on “American’s Most Wanted.” Louwana Miller appeared on Montel Williams’ nationally-syndicated talk show in November 2004. On the show, a psychic (read as Sylvia Browne)  told Miller that Amanda was probably dead.

“I still don’t want to believe it,” Louwana Miller said in an interview after the show. “I want to have hope but . . . what else is there?”

Louwana Miller: Amanda’s Mother: Dead of a Broken Heart?

Louwana Miller: Amanda’s Mother: Dead of a Broken Heart?

Activist Art McKoy befriended Louwana Miller during her ordeal. He said he could tell that the stress and heartache were wearing her down. The visit with the psychic was the breaking point, he said.“From that point, Ms. Miller was never the same,” McKoy said. “I think she had given up.”

For those who say psychics like Browne, Edward et. al. somehow help or comfort those in need and repeat the phrase “What’s the harm?” there should be a real answer in what has taken place here. How much more can we stand without getting The Law involved in these sorts of horrible mind games? This is not comforting or entertainment – this is blatant criminality of the worst kind. Sylvia and her ilk make a very good living doing this day in and day out. How many other people have had their lives, hopes and dreams shattered by these predatory harpies?

Browne to Miller: “ She’s not alive, honey.”

The Hornbeck Family

The Hornbeck Family

In a related development: French television news program “Enquete exclusive – Voyants, mediums, mentalistes revelations sur leurs mysterieux pouvoirs’” which featured myself and CFI/IIG’s Jim Underdown, showcased through amazing interview footage the entire Shawn Hornbeck drama. If you are not already familiar with Browne’s mis-deeds in this matter – it’s too much to go into here. Let’s just say once again, Sylvia told Shawn’s parents on nationwide television he was dead when he was later found quite well and alive.

French program here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34Iji3aMAa0

Not only do the Hornbeck parents come forward and speak out about the emotional damage that ravenous bad-tempered shrew Browne inflicted on their lives, they also give a very negative shout out to that other slimeball James VanPraagh for doing the same sort of “comforting.”

Maureen Hancock

Maureen Hancock

In the “Enquete” program, “The Medium Next Door,” everybody’s darling Maureen Hancock also gets her fair share of explicit exposing when Jim and I reveal the latest trend in mediumship: using “hot reads” taken from credit card information to later reveal dramatic “hits” in a live audience performance. This isn’t a magic or mentalism show folks, this is a con pure and simple.

Later in another segment of the program, Hancock is also shown in her opulent home psychically picking out suspects and leading police (and another mother of a missing woman) on wild goose chases that lead everybody off the track. It is obvious Maureen is bluffing her way through the whole segment. Hancock has absolutely no track record anywhere for her claims as a successful “psychic detective” – other than her known background an “associate member” of the Licensed Private Detective Association of Massachusetts. What might that tell us about her ability to suss out information on people? So why isn’t this mis-use of private information a crime? Isn’t this tantamount to filing a false police report? Having the French television crew capturing her deceptions on camera in the presence of their own law enforcement officers should be extra embarrassing for the police involved. How do you feel about being seen internationally as dupes for this woman?

MORE . . .

Also see: Sylvia Browne’s Biggest Blunder (iLLumiNuTTi.com)

Debating Homeopathy Part I

by Steven Novella via Skepticblog

warning-homeopathy-not-medicineSix years ago I was asked to participate in a group debate over the legitimacy of homeopathy at the University of CT (there were six speakers, three on each side). This year I was asked to participate in another homeopathy debate at UCONN, but this time one-on-one with Andre Saine ND from the Canadian Academy of Homeopathy taking the pro-homeopathy side. (I will provide a link when the video is posted online.)

While the basic facts of homeopathy have not changed in the past six years, the details and some of the specific arguments of the homeopaths have evolved, so it was good to get updated on what they are saying today. In this post I will discuss some overall patterns in the logic used to defend homeopathy and then discuss the debate over plausibility. In tomorrow’s post I will then discuss the clinical evidence, with some final overall analysis.

Believers and Skeptics

As with the last debate, the audience this time was packed with homeopaths and homeopathy proponents. When I was introduced as the president of the New England Skeptical Society, in fact, laughter erupted from the audience. But that’s alright – I like a challenge. It did not surprise me that the audience, and my opponent, were unfamiliar with basic skeptical principles. Andre, in fact, used the word “skeptic” as a pejorative throughout his presentation.

medicine badThe difference in our two positions, in fact, can be summarized as follows: Andre Saine accepts a very low standard of scientific evidence (at least with homeopathy, but probably generally given that he is a naturopath), whereas I, skeptics, and the scientific community generally require a more rigorous standard.

The basic pattern of Andre’s talk was to quote from one of my articles on homeopathy declaring some negative statement about homeopathy, and then to counter that statement with a reference to scientific evidence. The problem is, his references were to low-grade preliminary evidence, and never to solid reproducible evidence.

That is one functional difference between skeptics and believers – the threshold at which they consider scientific evidence to be credible and compelling (there are many reasons behind that difference, but that is the end result).

I was asked what level of evidence I would find convincing, and that’s an easy question to answer because skeptics spend a great deal of time exploring that very question. In fact, I have discussed this in the context of many things, not just homeopathy.

For any scientific claim (regardless of plausibility) scientific evidence is considered well-established when it simultaneously (that’s critical) fulfills the following four criteria:

  1. Methodologically rigorous, properly blinded, and sufficiently powered studies that adequately define and control for the variables of interest (confirmed by surviving peer-review and post-publication analysis).
  2. Positive results that are statistically significant.
  3. A reasonable signal to noise ratio (clinically significant for medical studies, or generally well within our ability to confidently detect).
  4. Independently reproducible. No matter who repeats the experiment, the effect is reliably detected.

This pattern of compelling evidence does not exist for ESP, acupuncture, any form of energy medicine, cold fusion or free energy claims, nor homeopathy. You may get one or two of those things, but never all four together. You do hear many excuses (special pleading) for why such evidence does not exist, but never the evidence itself.

The reason for this is simple – when you set the threshold any lower, you end up prematurely accepting claims that turn out not to be true.

Plausibility

homeopathyThe less plausible, the more outrageous and unconventional a scientific claim, the more nitpicky and uncompromising we should be in applying the standards above. This follows a Bayesian logic – you are not beginning with a blank slate, as if we have no prior knowledge, but rather are starting with existing well-established science and then extending that knowledge further.

To clarify – if a new claim seems implausible it does not mean that it is a-priori not true. It simply means that the threshold of evidence required to conclude that it is probably true is higher.

Scottish philosopher David Hume sort of captured this idea over two centuries ago when he wrote:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

I like to think of it this way: The evidence for any new claim that contradicts prior established scientific conclusions must be at least as robust as the prior evidence it would overturn. You can also ask the question – what is more likely, that the relevant scientific facts are wrong, or that the new claim is wrong?

What is more likely, that much of what we think we know about physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, and medicine is wrong, or that the claims of homeopathy are wrong? I think this is an easy one.

MORE . . . Debating Homeopathy Part I

• Debating Homeopathy Part II

Still Getting Hosed: Starfire Water

by Mark Edward via Skepticblog

The quest for the ultimate in hydration has now reached a high-water mark in surrealchemy. After the hype of fog-drip, coconut water, charcoal water, smoked water, vitamin water, gogi water and even “black water,” America continues getting hosed with a steady stream of scientific claims and the height of medicine show quackery. Can you say “snake oil?” One of my favorite episodes of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit”  is “The Truth About Bottled Water.”  That classic featured a  ”Water Sommelier” at a high-end restaurant.:

Penn & Teller video. Language alert!!

The national obsession with water was beautifully skewered. That should have been the end of the story. Not by a long shot apparently.

caption

The label design on Aquafina (the best-selling water brand in the U.S.) implies Aquafina is sourced from a mountain spring. In reality, Aquafina is bottled at Pepsi plants as far away as Vietnam using a public water source (tap water). [sources PDF]

The purveyors of woo knew that few of the people searching for the Fountain of Youth would pay much attention to to scallywags like Penn & Teller, and so the river flows on. Take the claims of “Isklar,” Norwegian glacier water:

The people behind Isklar claim that while most of our planet’s water evaporates into the atmosphere and is recycled in a seven-year period – picking up pollutants on the way – the water frozen inside  glaciers was formed thousands of years ago when the air was far cleaner. But some reviewers on Amazon say Isklar water (£8.44 for 24 500ml bottles) never tastes better than when mixed with whisky. ”

I suppose the “frozen inside” theory makes sense of a sort and the taste test from Amazon would depend largely on the whisky and amount you drink. We all have blind spots. Back in my single malt drinking days, I had to have that special bottle of Scottish “Highland Spring Water” to truly complete my solemn drinking ritual. I bought into the hype. What garden hose it came from didn’t matter to me as I fancied myself a connoisseur of fine regional “waters of life” and wouldn’t think of sullying my fine dram with mere tap water.

Today you can even get genuine “Loch Ness Water.”  Never mind what the locals say when you read about the loch. They warn visitors boiling for 5 minutes before drinking any loch water owing to the algae and other pollutants present in the murky depths. Visitors are further advised to take any water from the center of the loch rather than the surrounding edges for that reason. I’m not sure how far out in the loch or what part of  the purveyors of “Genuine Loch Ness Water” syphon their bounty from, but I’m guessing it’s close to the shore.

But now we are assured have the ultimate:

Starfire Water!

caption

Some kind of a new age, double-talking description from the Starfire website:


«… Starfire Water™, a proprietary alkaline, performance water produced using breakthrough 21st-century quantum water technology. Starfire Water™ is treated with ultraviolet ozonation, infrared stimulation and electromagnetism for a negative ion charged water, as in nature, allowing deep, cellular intake through aquaporins, the floodgates to hydration.»

Yes, it’s here – and no less a personage than Mayor Villaragosa himself heartily endorses it!

If you aren’t sitting down while you read the next paragraph, I would advise it. I haven’t seen such a load of non-stop woo bullshit since the power bracelet hit the streets. Here’s the label in it’s entirety:

THIRST THE FIRE

“Legend has it that the mystical “Starfire” was the liquid manna of the divine, used by the ancients for ultra-focus, extreme performance, and even enlightenment. In that vein, we introduce STARFIRE WATER, a propiratary alkaline performance, bio-holographic “living” water produced using breakthrough 21st century, quantum water technology. STARFIRE WATER is treated with ultraviolet, ozonation,infra-red stimulation and electromagnetism for a negative (-) ion charged water, as in nature, allowing deep cellular intake through your aquaporins, the floodgates to hydration.Vortex induced, using a solar -helix and pyramid-grid system. to give it a hexagonal structure, and infused with monatomic elements, we are able to achieve a water with cosmic healing energy. This water is amplified with psionic wave oscillation tuned to the Universe’s frequency, helping to synchronize you with the heartbeat of our Earth. STARFIRE WATER is treated with Sacred Sound Resonance Transmission to vibrationally transform you on the deepest molecular level. Altogether we’ve created the world’s first premium alkaline . performance, “living,”” hexagonal super-structured water.”

It isn’t just water – it’s structured water. It’s also infused and energized.

MORE . . .

Quick Bigfoot DNA Update

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 14 2013 via Skepticblog

bigfoot-2The internet was buzzing [on February 13, 2013] with the long-anticipated1 release of a paper purporting to present DNA evidence that “conclusively proves that the Sasquatch exist as an extant hominin and are a direct maternal descendent of modern humans.”2 With DNA sourced, according to the paper, from among “One hundred eleven samples of blood, tissue, hair, and other types of specimens,” this is the most prominent Sasquatch DNA case to date.

Full expert review of the team’s data and methods should emerge in the coming days. In the meantime, science writers identified several serious red flags within hours of the paper’s release.

To begin with, it seems that the paper was roundly rejected by mainstream science journals. “We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review,” complained lead author Melba Ketchum.3 So how did the paper get published? Although Ketchum insists that this fact did not influence the editorial process, it seems she bought the publication.4 In fact, her paper is the only paper included in the inaugural “Special Issue” of the DeNovo Scientific Journal. Benjamin Radford notes that no libraries or universities subscribe to the newly minted DeNovo, “and the journal and its website apparently did not exist three weeks ago. There’s no indication that the study was peer-reviewed by other knowledgeable scientists to assure quality. It is not an existing, known, or respected journal in any sense of the word.”5 Invertebrate neuroethologist Zen Faulkes notes further that DeNovo lists no editor, no editorial board, no physical address—not even a phone number. “This whole thing looks completely dodgy,” he writes, “with the lack of any identifiable names being the one screaming warning to stay away from this journal. Far, far away.”6

Beyond these irregularities, there are also signs of serious problems with the paper’s data, methods, and conclusions.

MORE . . .
Also see: Bigfoot Witnessed in Texas (GhostTheory.com)

Magnetic myths

by Donald Prothero via Skepticblog
Dec 26, 2012

608139main1_geomagnetic-field-670-560x420
All throughout the long buildup up to last week’s latest failed prediction of an global apocalypse, you would hear people claiming that the earth-shattering catastrophe of Dec. 21 would include “pole shifts” or “changes in the earth’s magnetic field” and all sorts of other sciencey phrases, proclaimed by people with absolutely no idea what they were talking about. The idea of “magnetism” is one of the most popular memes in the lexicon of pseudoscientists and New Agers, since magnets operate “mysteriously” and exert a force at a distance. From the days of Franz Mesmer claiming he had “magnetism” over people, to the trite phrase “animal magnetism,” the concept of magnetism has always been mysterious and misunderstood. Hence the big market for sticking magnets on various parts of your body to “cure” you. All they do is waste money, and possibly demagnetize the magnetic strip on your credit cards. The idea that somehow the earth’s magnetic field will shift abruptly or that the earth’s core will stop rotating (as in the idiotic Hilary Swank movie “The Core”) or even more wildly, that the earth’s rotational pole will change, are all common ideas out there in Wacko-Land.

Among the crazy ideas out there is that somehow the magnetic poles will shift and destroy all electrical devices (this web site), thus destroying civilization. Or this site, which claims that pole shifts will cause earthquakes and hurricanes, and NASA is covering up what’s happening. Or this bizarre post, which freely uses the words “gruesome” and “horror”. Or this site, which cherry-picks items from actual science posts and then completely misinterprets what they mean.

This is just a small sampling of the pseudoscientific garbage all over the internet posted before Dec. 21. Most of us know enough about science and apocalyptic predictions to guess that they are not worth taking seriously, but very few people have bothered to debunk this stuff. Unfortunately, we saw lots of sad consequences of people who did take the ridiculous apocalyptic predictions seriously, often with tragic results.

Among my other specialties, my professional training is in paleomagnetism, and I’ve conducted over 35 years of published research in the field, so I’m pretty familiar with what we do and don’t know about the earth’s magnetic field and how it behaves.

First, some science. The earth’s magnetic field has at least two components, the dipolar field (illustrated above), which makes up about 90% of the magnetism we normally feel, and a non-dipole field, which is normally hard to detect beneath it but makes up at least 10% of the earth’s field. The dipole field is not exactly lined up with the rotational axis of the earth (i.e., there is a small angle between magnetic north and true north), but over geologic spans of time, magnetic north wanders around the vicinity of the rotational pole; this movement known as secular variation. Studies have shown … MORE . . ..

Is Caputo Kaputo Yet?

I have one question for this Long Island psychic: Did she predict the absolute devastation hurricane Sandy would bring to Long Island? No? Really? But, but, but … she’s psychic!!! Right?😉

– Mason

by Mark Edward via Skepticblog

Together at Last!

If you didn’t watch the Nov. 8th episode of “Inside Edition,” you missed an expose of “America’s favorite psychic” and star of the popular “Long Island Medium” television “reality” series, Theresa Caputo. A few weeks ago I was asked to take part in a “sting” on Caputo with several IE investigative reporters who had been singling out Caputo for a serious takedown for months. We worked hard to reveal her for what she is – a fast talker of the lowest order. There was no question she was doing old cold reading bits, but her other methods were less obvious to the untrained eye.  I was put on the case in New York City for four days. It was a eye-opening experience and great fun watching Caputo going through her histrionics, but I quickly learned that mediums and psychics are getting more and more slippery and hard to catch red-handed than they were only a decade ago.

Like many of the latest crop of bullshit tossers making the rounds, Theresa and her savvy crew have learned from the mistakes of others like Sally Morgan, John Edward and Jimmy VanPraagh. Instead of taking chances with too much guessing, Theresa bumps-up her percentage of hits and avoids bad misses by front-loading her stage shows with a combination of techniques; some time tested like cold reading and planting previous clients they have already read for in specific seats in the audience, (ala Rosemary Altea on the Penn & teller Bullshit!” episode I worked on) but also making use of the latest social media outlets.

In combination with selling seats through Ticketmaster and the use of credit cards, Facebook, Fousquare, Twitter and all the rest of the latest places people post private information, our own egocentric fascination with ourselves makes it easy for the techie-smart-agent or producer to make seeming miracles happen. Like the old days when the gypsy only needed to tell her sitters what they wanted to hear about themselves, we are now in an era when anyone can tell you more about yourself than you might ever want to know.

At the show we saw, at one point Theresa asked a woman, “…Why am I picking up baby clothes?” To which the woman replied, “Oh, that’s weird. I just put up a bunch of pictures of baby clothes on my Facebook page!”

Not weird at all really. With five or six  gathered bits of information like that placed beforehand on a seating chart of the show  it’s easy to be cued by her staff of roving  microphone and camera people. All seats are numbered and the sections are far enough apart so even Theresa can’t screw up: a red shirt is a fireman, down in front under the lights is the missing child, on the left is the suicide’s mother, etc.

After watching this crew with their equipment  move over to a person who was next called upon by Theresa, it became apparent that only one of two things could be happening.  The only two logical reasons for the roving crew to move  BEFORE Theresa points out the person in the audience they are standing near are:

1.  Theresa has already planned with her crew what people she is going to be talking to before the show.
2.  The crew is psychic and knows who Theresa is going to be calling on.

I leave it to the reader to decide which option is more likely.

On the heavily edited segments for Caputo’s so-called “reality” program, everyone who happens to apparently casually “bump into” Theresa on the street or in supermarkets or beauty parlors, each is a carefully choreographed set-up.  In classic mentalist style, everyone must sign a pre-show waiver or agreement to have their image used on television. It’s only a standard form to those folks. Why would they suspect anything? They should. All the staff needs is a laptop, a name, an address and a willing victim.

The slippery part is this perfect storm of information availability seems to make no sense when you watch Theresa live doing nothing but asking a non-stop machine gun scatter shot of questions, one after the other. It would be so much easier for her to just stick to a list of sure-fire pre-show information. That’s what I would do… So why doesn’t she stick to that strategy?

I’ll tell you why: She’s not a professional mentalist for one, and also because if she did use all the information available all the time, she would be far too accurate and her audience of adoring believers would begin to smell a rat.  She has to play that “odds” part down to a believable minimum. It’s the “less is more” angle mediums have been using for centuries.

It was amazing to see her act “surprised” by her hits, as if she had no idea how she did it. Maybe  a few times she was genuinely surprised

MORE . . .

An excerpt from The Jeff Probst Show. With the help of Mark Edward, Jeff Probst goes undercover as a fake psychic:

The Long Island Medium – Can She Really Communicate with the Dead?

via InsideEdition.com

She’s one of the most popular reality stars on TV today. For three seasons now, Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, has amazed viewers and brought people to tears by communicating messages from beyond.

“I have a very special gift. I talk to the dead,” Caputo says on her hit series.

[…]

So is the Long Island Medium really communicating with those who have passed on, or is she simply using trickery to fool the living? INSIDE EDITION decided to see what happens at her popular live readings across the country. What we saw was starkly different from what viewers see on her TV show.

On TV, she’s almost always dead right, but at her live shows, we watched her strike out time and again.

Caputo asked one audience member, “Is your mom also departed?” “My mom? No, she’s with us,” said the audience member.

“Is your mom departed?” she asked another fan. The woman responded, “My mom? No, she’s still with us.”

Caputo asked another audience member, “Did they pass one right after the other?” to which the audience member responded by shaking their head ‘no.’

She asked one person, “Was this on your mother’s side.” “No, my dad’s,” she replied.

“I know a trick when I see one,” said Mark Edward, after watching the L.I. Medium’s live show. Edward once made a living as a psychic, but he’s now coming forward to reveal the secrets that he says some psychics use to convince people they really do communicate with the dead.

Edward believes one technique Theresa Caputo uses is a classic trick called “cold reading.” It’s done by firing-off open-ended questions that someone in a large audience will surely relate to, like a number.

“How do you connect with the number 2? Is it the month of February? The day?” Caputo asked an audience member.

Inevitably someone raises a hand.

MORE . . .

Do Ghosts Exist?

by Brian Dunning, Aug 30 2012 via Skepticblog

Since so many of my acquaintances know me as “that skeptic guy”, it’s not rare for one of them to challenge me with an experience they had, often reporting something like a ghost experience and saying “Disprove THAT, Mr. Skeptic.”

Of course, this completely misrepresents what I do, and where the process of skeptical science leads us. I’m far less qualified than my friend to prove or disprove his ghost experience; I wasn’t even there. In fact I’m always a little disappointed to find that my friends think I’m obsessively out to tell people that they’re wrong. If there is one thing that obsesses me, it’s the challenge of finding solutions to interesting mysteries — and telling people that they’re wrong is not relevant to that process. Proving alternate explanations wrong is collateral damage when a mystery is eventually solved, but it’s never the goal.

Yet, plenty of unsolved phenomena exist, and so the field for possible explanations remains wide open. Perhaps some strange experiences are caused by ghosts. However, I don’t think that’s a very satisfactory hypothesis, and the main reason is that the rationale for the existence of ghosts is — forgive the term — illusory.

Here, in brief, are a few of the reasons I give most often why it’s never right to jump to the conclusion of “It was a ghost”:

  1. There is no theory in any life science that makes a prediction that ghosts exist.
  2. Ghosts have no properties that can be described.
  3. There has never been a reproducible ghost event. This makes it unlikely that the perceived phenomenon was a real one.
  4. The logic that most people use to arrive at a conclusion of “ghost” is faulty. It’s usually “Something inexplicable happened, what else could it be?” A ghost is an unknown. By no logic can a set of unknown properties be considered consistent with your experience. Any other unknown – leprechauns, sorcery, Bigfoot – is an equally valid match.

Continue here: Skepticblog » Do Ghosts Exist?.

Looking Back at TWA Flight 800

by Steven Novella via Skepticblog

On July 17, 1996 TWA flight 800 took off from JFK airport on its way to Paris. Fifteen minutes into its flight, shortly after climbing to about 13,000 feet, the jet exploded in mid air. The nose of the jet fell off into the Atlantic while the rest continued to fly, erratically while on fire and spewing smoke, until 42 seconds later when there was a second explosion. The right wing and the rest of the fuselage separated and descended as two separate streams of burning debris until they hit the surface of the water 7 seconds later. All 230 people aboard lost their lives.

Sixteen years later there are still those who believe that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile. This is despite the fact that the largest and most expensive investigation in history into the crash of a commercial airliner came to a very different conclusion. I had the opportunity this past week to speak to six different eyewitnesses of this tragedy, some of whom firmly believe a missile took down the jet, while others are unsure. The incident remains a classic historical case demonstrating the fallibility of perception and eyewitness accounts.

Read More: Skepticblog » Looking Back at TWA Flight 800.

Travis Walton’s Alien Abduction Lie Detection Test

by Michael Shermer, Aug 14 2012, via Skepticblog

Fire in the Sky (book cover)On July 31, 2008, I appeared on The Moment of Truth (watch Part 1 on YouTube. I appear at about 7 min. 35 secs. in Part 2.) The contestant was Travis Walton, arguably the most famous alien abductee in Earth history. I agreed to appear only if there were no sexual allusions (alien probes aside). My question for Mr. Walton: “Do you have any evidence to support your claim of being abducted?” Of course he answered in the affirmative, because for three decades Travis Walton has been telling people that on the evening of November 5, 1975, he was “zapped” into a UFO while working as a logger in an Arizona National Forest. His evidence? His co-workers said they saw it happen. Five days later Walton called from a nearby payphone to report that the aliens had let him go.

[…]

… Walton was once again in the polygraph hot seat. His affirmative answer to my question passed the truth test, because of course Walton believes he has evidence in the form of his friends’ corroborative story. The next question, for $100,000, was refreshingly straight-forward: “Were you abducted by a UFO on November 5, 1975.” Without hesitation he barked “Yes.” The voice in the sky once again boomed: “That answer is…”

False.” I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Walton, whose jaw dropped faster than a crashed flying saucer. At last, after a bestselling book and popular film about his abduction, Fire in the Sky, after countless UFO conferences and media appearances, it took a Fox reality television show to bring the case to a head. What does this mean? To be fair and balanced (!), possibly nothing, because the polygraph test is unreliable. In fact, I even thoroughly debunked it myself in a two-part special for the Fox Family channel (watch Part 1 and Part 2 on YouTube).

Given the shortcomings of both reality television and the polygraph, I wrote to Travis and asked him for his account of his experience on Moment of Truth. I had met Walton once before at my office in Altadena, California, where we filmed a segment for a television special on UFOs. I found him to be an exceptionally likeable man, a nice guy, and I found his account of this television show to be most illuminating. As he wrote me on August 21, 2009:

Keep Reading: Skepticblog » Travis Walton’s Alien Abduction Lie Detection Test.
Followup: What Really Happened on Fox’s TV show Moment of Truth:
Travis Walton responds to Michael Shermer

The Seat of Consciousness

by Steven Novella via Skepticblog

Where is the “seat of consciousness” in the brain? This is often presented as an enduring mystery of modern neuroscience, and to an extent it is. It is a very complex question and we don’t yet have anything like a complete answer, or even a consensus. The question itself may contain false assumptions – what, exactly, is consciousness, and perhaps what we call consciousness emerges from the collective activity of the entire brain, not a subset. Perhaps every network in the brain is conscious to some degree, and what we experience as our consciousness is the aggregate effect of many little consciousnesses.

One way to approach this question (really a set of related questions) is to study different mental states – altered states of consciousness. How those differences relate to brain function are likely to tell us something about the contribution of that brain function to full wakeful consciousness.

A new study by scientists from the Max Planck Institutes of Psychiatry in Munich and for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and from Charité in Berlin attempts to do just that. They have studied the brain activity of those in normal dreaming and in a so-called lucid dreaming state.

Dreaming is an excellent subject of study for questions of consciousness. I often use dreaming when discussing this topic as an example of an altered state that everyone experiences. While dreaming we have awareness and experience and are forming memories (at least sometimes). When we remember our dreams, however, they don’t quite make sense to our waking selves. Things happen in dreams, for example, that …

… continue reading:  Skepticblog » The Seat of Consciousness.

Firewalk Mishap

by Steven Novella, Jul 23 2012

According to reports, 21 people had to be treated for burns from walking over hot coals at a Tony Robbins inspirational event.

Robbins is a successful self-help guru with a schtick that depends upon the scientific illiteracy of his audience. After a session of telling people how to “unleash the power within” he demonstrates their new-found power by inviting them to walk barefoot over hot burning coals while thinking about cool moss. This is meant to demonstrate the power of mind over matter. This is, of course, nonsense.

The Hot Coal Deception

Many physicists have used the hot coal demonstration to teach a bit of elementary physics, as there is a very simple explanation for how people can walk over hot coals in their bare feet.

Keep Reading: Skepticblog » Firewalk Mishap.

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