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  .  .  .

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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.

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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?

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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 . . .

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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?

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

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