The unexpected facts behind this famous ghost story from the 1970s
It was one of the great ghost stories of the 1970s. One of the world’s newest and flashiest airliners, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, was making one of its first flights for Eastern Air Lines on December 29, 1972. It infamously crashed in Florida’s Everglades swamp just before midnight, killing 101 of the 176 people on board. The story goes that parts from it were salvaged and installed in other L-1011s, and almost immediately, the ghost stories began. Air crews reported seeing apparitions of their dead coworkers on board the planes that had Flight 401’s spare parts. Books and TV movies frightened audiences, and this ghost story that had it all became a permanent fixture in great American tales of the paranormal. Surely, pilots and air crew would never make up such stories, would they? To all who shivered at night in fear of this creepy story, it seemed that it must have been true as reported.
The actual crash was, in fact, true as reported; and there’s never been any real doubt over what the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigators determined. Pilot Bob Loft, copilot Bert Stockstill, and flight engineer Don Repo were bringing the plane in to land at Miami International Airport. They got a warning light on the landing gear. Loft told Stockstill to put the plane on autopilot while Repo went below to the avionics bay (called the “hell hole”) to manually check the landing gear. Loft accidentally nudged the control yoke, perhaps with his knee, while turning around to speak to Repo, and the autopilot mode was one which followed whatever pitch the pilot set with the yoke. None of them realized in the dark that they were gradually descending, as their attention was on debugging the landing gear indicator. Stockstill began a turn to follow the airport’s approach pattern, and immediately noticed their altitude — but it was too late. The plane crashed into the swamp; fortunately, it was a relatively gentle angle into a soft surface, and that’s what allowed so many to survive. All three of Loft, Stockstill, and Repo were among the unlucky majority who perished.
The stories began four years later . . .
Also See: Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 (Wikipedia)
Some claim that certain common false memories are evidence for alternate realities.
Ever have one of those moments where you watch an old movie or pick up an old book, and hear a quote or see something that stands in stark contrast to what you thought you remembered? We all have. But what about a special case, where the exact same broken memory is shared by a large number of people? At first glance, it seems like this must be something different. It’s no surprise that any of us individually might remember something wrong; but for a whole group to share an identical false memory seems to suggest that there might be a new phenomenon at work. It’s been called the Mandela Effect.
The Mandela Effect is named for one of its most famous examples, that of Nelson Mandela, whose funeral some people remembered after he supposedly died in prison. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison in South Africa, but he survived it and was released in 1990. He was President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and some of those same people said “Wait, he died in prison, I watched the funeral on TV.” He didn’t actually die until 2013; and every time his name came up, these same people said “Wait a minute, I thought he was dead.”
Now, this group who erroneously remembered that Mandela had died did not include me, but I’m sure some people thought he had. One who did was psychic ghost hunter Fiona Broome, who writes that she discovered that some people she knew also thought that Mandela had died. Seeking an explanation for what she described as an “emerging phenomenon”, she turned not to social science, but to some nebulous concept of alternate realities. In her own words:
The “Mandela Effect” is what happens when someone has a clear memory of something that never happened in this reality. Many of us — mostly total strangers — remember the exact same events with the exact same details. However, our memories are different from what’s in history books, newspaper archives, and so on. This isn’t a conspiracy, and we’re not talking about “false memories.” Many of us speculate that parallel realities exist, and we’ve been “sliding” between them without realizing it. (Others favor the idea that we’re each enjoying holodeck experiences, possibly with some programming glitches. In my opinion, these aren’t mutually exclusive.)
Is a lot of people remembering something wrong evidence for alternate realities? Not really.
Deconstructing a wild tale about a Nazi military base deep inside Antarctica.
It’s a story that reads like a Captain America comic book: American firepower going after the Nazi super-villain in a remote fortress. Despite World War II having ended, Third Reich scientists were still soldiering on at their hidden lair, planning the doom of civilization. New Berchtesgaden was said to be a Nazi base in Antarctica, established in 1939. Then during World War II, the British launched at least one assault against it. In 1946 the Americans tried the same thing. It wasn’t until 1958 that three nuclear bombs finally destroyed New Berchtesgaden, putting a final end to the Nazi regime. It’s a story so wild that you can scarcely believe you haven’t heard of it before. But believe it you must; because as bizarre as it sounds, parts of this insane tale are actually true.
The story goes that in 1938, the Nazis sent a ship called the Schwabenland to Antarctica to set up a military base, on the orders of Admiral Dönitz. It landed at that sector of Antarctica called Queen Maud Land, and they named their area New Schwabia, after their ship. Deep in the interior of the continent, they established a permanent base and named it New Berchtesgaden, after the Bavarian town overlooked by the Kehlsteinhaus “Eagle’s Nest” retreat.
Nazi surveyors discovered a vast network of underground tunnels including a warm geothermal lake, and some say alien technology was found there. The Nazis used this resource to construct a large underground city, variously called New Berlin or Base 211.
On July 12, 2016, the FBI finally closed the files on one of its most famous unsolved cases. They called it the NORJAK case — short for Northwest Hijacking — but you probably know it by the name given to the hijacker,
D. B. Cooper. Most people are familiar with the basic facts: that in 1971, a man hijacked an airliner, demanded and received cash and a parachute, and jumped out the plane’s back door over the Pacific Northwest and was never caught or identified. Whether he got away clean, or was killed in the attempt, could never be determined. Even though the D. B. Cooper case continues to capture the public’s imagination, there is a lot of fact and fiction unknown to many fans.
On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, a man who looked mid-40ish, wearing a business suit, walked up to the counter of Northwest Airlines in Portland, Oregon. Using the name Dan Cooper, he bought a $20 one-way ticket to Seattle, Washington. He was the second-to-last person to board the plane, and while waiting for takeoff, he ordered and drank a bourbon and soda — unfortunately spilling half of it. Once airborne, he handed flight attendant Florence Schaffner a note, which said something to the effect of “I have a bomb which I will use if necessary, this is a hijacking, please sit next to me.” She showed it to fellow flight attendant Tina Mucklow and to the pilots. Cooper then asked for the note back, which is why its exact wording is not known.
Schaffner took the empty seat next to him as ordered and he opened a briefcase, and showed her what she described as red sticks with a battery and wires. He then dictated to her the following demands:
Take this down. I want $200,000 by 5:00 PM in cash. Put it in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff, or I’ll do the job.
Schaffner conveyed this information to the pilot. Almost nobody on the plane knew anything unusual was happening; the whole episode was handled discreetly. Cooper added that if these instructions were followed, he would safely release everyone on the plane, except for the flight crew.
The airline agreed and contacted the FBI for assistance making the exchange safely. The FBI collected the money from the Seattle First National Bank. Some FBI records say they used a Recordak high-speed microfilm machine to image the serial numbers of all the bills; other records say the bank had the money on hand with its serial numbers already recorded. The airline got on the phone and collected the four parachutes from local contacts. Two hours later, the exchange had been successful, and the plane taxied for takeoff, fully refueled.
Cooper instructed that the plane was to fly a specific route, from Seattle to Portland, to Medford, to Red Bluff, and then to Reno, all while staying below 10,000 feet and keeping the flaps and landing gear down. The plane was a Boeing 727, featuring the nifty “Airstair” rear access stairway under the tail. Cooper had released two of the flight attendants along with the passengers, but had kept Mucklow on board so she could show him how to operate the Airstair.
Frustrated that the money had not been delivered in a knapsack as he’d requested, Cooper began cannibalizing one of the parachute’s cords to do what Mucklow thought was tying the bundles of money to himself. About a half hour after takeoff, Cooper ordered Mucklow up to the cockpit with the pilots and closed the door, ordering them not to open it. At 8:13pm, over southern Washington, the pilots got a number of warning lights. The Airstair had been lowered, cabin pressure had dropped, and the cabin temperature fell sharply — it was -7ºF outside. Not knowing whether Cooper had jumped or not, they continued on to Reno as ordered and landed, causing a nice display of sparks (but no damage) as the Airstair briefly scraped the runway. After receiving no response from Cooper over the intercom, they chanced to open the door, and found him gone; all that remained were his clip-on tie, and a ton of cigarette butts. Nobody would ever see him again.
Pop culture tells us that some people have photographic memories. What’s the real story?
Remember when you were a kid and there was always someone in your class who claimed to have a photographic memory? If you believed it, as many children tend to do, you were probably both impressed and jealous. Then by the time you got older, you’d heard of people with savantism, and champions in memory contests, and people who could remember every day of their lives; and you probably wished that you too could have a photographic or eidetic memory. Well how would you feel if I told you that there might not be any such thing as those abilities?
That’s not to say that nobody has extraordinary or unusual memory prowess. Some do, and we’ll talk about those; but what we want to focus on today is the idea that some people have the pop-culture version of a “photographic memory” that we’ve all heard about, which sounds a bit like a superpower. They can, at will, call to mind the page of a book they’ve read, a license plate they saw, a long string of numbers, what have you; and simply read it off that image in their mind’s eye as if they’re seeing it live. What makes this such a great thing is that it doesn’t seem to come with any cost. They are not otherwise developmentally disabled, and haven’t had to trade other cognitive or behavioral functioning. This is the version of “photographic memory” that so many of us grew up believing in: the superpower version.
The Life and Times of the Moon Hoax Conspiracy
Yes, it’s a 3-part Skeptoid episode, the first one ever, and it took more than 500 episodes to get me to finally address the moon landing hoax conspiracy. To those who follow science, the claims that we never went to the moon are the most tiresome and foolish of the conspiracy theories; but to those who believe them, they are absolute religion, and the ultimate token of their conviction that anything coming from official sources is a lie. Today we’re going to begin our in-depth analysis of the Moon Landing Conspiracy, of those who believe in it, and a survey of the facts and figures of the basic narrative.
Today we’re going to talk about the history and cultural impact of the claim; next week we’ll go into the most popular evidentiary claims said to prove that we never went to the moon (hopefully including some you haven’t heard before); and in the final installment, we’ll look at the hard physical proof that we did go.
The basic narrative of the Moon Truth conspiracy theory, as you probably know, is that NASA faked the Apollo missions and nobody ever actually went to the moon. As with most conspiracy theories, there are all sorts of variations on the claims of what actually did happen, while the only thing they have in common is that no men actually landed on the moon. Some believe the Apollo missions orbited the moon but did not land; some believe they never went farther than Earth orbit; some believe the Apollo spacecraft flew but were unmanned; some believe they never launched anything at all. The astronauts performed their moonwalks on a movie set, and fake transmissions were provided to the TV networks for broadcast. The reasons given for why the government would have gone to all this trouble range from simply distracting Americans’ attention from the unpopular war in Vietnam, to fooling the Soviets into thinking they lost the Cold War, to protecting NASA’s budget by appearing to spend it on something supremely impressive.
A big question we have to answer is what’s the point of even talking about this? The people who believe it have already heard the science-based responses to their claims a hundred times, and rejected them a hundred times. Their minds are riveted shut to anything but their preferred narrative. We’ll not be changing any of their minds today. And the rest of us aren’t in denial, and aren’t asking these made-up, shoehorned questions that try to raise doubt where none exists. So who is this episode for, nobody?
Well, maybe for somebody. Polling data has, for decades, consistently shown that some 6-7% of Americans believe the moon landings were faked; and even scarier, about four times as many Europeans agree with them. That’s a lot more people than the hardcore YouTube-obsessed serial conspiracists; it includes tens of millions of ordinary folks who are otherwise as rational as you or I. It seems there must be something deeply compelling about this odd belief.
From all around the world come reports of strange blasts of sound from the heavens. Some rumble like distant explosions or thunder, some blare like amplified tubas, some shimmer like reverberating wind chimes. YouTube has a full measure of videos taken from iPhones searching the sky while Sky Trumpets blast their portentous refrains. Commenters warn of the End of Days, or of aliens vainly trumpeting their misunderstood greetings, or of Mother Earth releasing great energies. But whatever the theory, the recordings of Sky Trumpets are sure to send a shiver up your vibrating spine. Must they all be either supernatural or hoaxes, or might science be able to sweep away the mystery?
Of course, the first thing we have to do is listen to some samples. While these play, keep in mind how easy it is to fake videos such as these today. Sounds can be taken from the Internet from any source, and it requires no more than journeyman computer skills to add a sound to a video and apply any manner of reverb or background noise to it. But regardless of their origin, these are the types of sounds that characterize the Sky Trumpets phenomenon; so if there is something to explain, this is what they sound like.
Here’s one from Beijing, China:
And here’s one from Indonesia:
And from Saskatchewan:
And from Oklahoma:
So far, all of these Sky Trumpet recordings were posted to the Internet after 2011. Here is what amateur researchers have determined is the earliest of these videos and certainly the most popular with over 4 million views, and it was uploaded to YouTube in August of 2011, from Kiev in Ukraine, by someone calling herself “Russian Kristina”:
Since this video went live, there have been any number of copycat hoax videos posted using the exact same audio file; including one that got a bit of press, by a girl who did the whole thing in five minutes to show her friends how easy it was to make a hoax Sky Trumpets video.
But hoaxes aside, it’s a virtual certainty that at least some of these videos are genuine, and represent real sounds heard by real people who recorded them and posted them online in good faith. Given that, is it then proven that Sky Trumpets are a real — and unknown to science — phenomenon?
Today we’re going to follow up on an older Skeptoid episode from a few years ago, the Flat Earth Theory. In that episode we looked at the history of belief in a flat Earth, which was mainly driven by 19th and 20th century Christian fundamentalism driving clumsy efforts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. That era ended when the last of the well known proponents, an elderly couple who called themselves the Covenant People’s Church, died after their house burned down in 1996, taking with it the archives of their International Flat Earth Research Society of America. And where their story ended, today’s story begins, with a new, reinvented version of the Flat Earth theory.
The Biblical literalists have moved from the center of Flat Earth belief to its fringe, and their place has been taken by believers in conspiracy theories and alternate science. 21st century Flat Earthers are less likely to recite Bible verses and more likely to oppose vaccination, to charge that 9/11 was an inside job, and to claim the government is drugging the population with chemtrails sprayed from airliners. Flat Earthing is now entwined with perpetual motion machines, with a belief that Nikola Tesla held the secrets to free energy now suppressed by the global elite, cold fusion and zero point energy, and declare that it’s all part of the grandest coverup of all: that the Earth is actually a flat disk and not a globe.
An excellent resource for tracking the popularity of ideas is Google Trends, which tells us that Internet searches for the term “Flat Earth” began a sharp increase at the beginning of 2015. The popularity of this search term is still rising, and is presently at its greatest over the course of Google’s entire tracking history. This is with the exception of January 2016 which saw a tremendous spike. By then a pair of fringy C-list celebrities had been trumpeting the Flat Earth and declaring their rejection of the Earth as a sphere loudly and proudly, though it’s never been clear whether they actually believed this or were just bucking for attention. One of these was a rapper named B.o.B, who had been among the most vocal; and to the delight of the Internet, astronomer and beloved science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson began correcting him over Twitter. Within a short time it developed into a rap battle, with Tyson’s nephew providing the rhythm. The other was celebrated salacious person Tila Tequila, for whose Twitter feed the Flat Earth tweets constituted the most intelligent and weighty content.
If the new Flat Earthers were limited to these two “celebrities” and the handful of remaining Christian Flat Earth fundamentalists, that would be one thing. But they are not. Google Trends proves that B.o.B and Tila Tequila were only riding a wave that had been building for the better part of a year. Where was it building? YouTube provides another indicator. Search YouTube for “Flat Earth” and you’ll find countless videos, mainly amateurish explainers full of gross misunderstandings and misinformation, yet many with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of views. Most of these were posted throughout 2015 and 2016. What triggered the sudden renewal of interest?
There are some events in history so profound and personal that they govern the courses of lives even generations later. History tells us that a tenth of the 60 million human beings killed in World War II were Jewish civilians who were murdered for no reaon other than being Jewish. Decades later, some promote an alternative view, a “revisioning” as they call it; a view that claims these people did not die, but that it is a myth created by the Jewish people themselves in order to win unearned sympathy. Today we’re going to take a look at Holocaust denial.
Let’s say an intelligent person decides to sit down at the computer and spend a few hours making an honest and thorough assessment of the evidence, to decide whether the Holocaust happened, and if it did, whether it was really as big as 6 million. I’ll tell you right now: by no means is that person necessarily more likely to conclude the Holocaust was real. For every piece of evidence one can find, thorough and well-reasoned counter arguments exist to contradict it, and are often easier to find. Complicating things further is that any given single piece of information, supporting either argument, can be fairly described as an out-of-context cherrypick. It’s dangerous to assume that the Internet provides a consensus perspective.
I quickly grew conscious of this as I was planning how to frame this episode. My initial idea was to lay out what we know, and how we know it. Pretty basic. However, I have plenty of experience with anti-Semitism, having done episodes on the Rothschild banking family, the Zionist conspiracy, and other topics sure to attract the bigots, so I’m well aware of how the comments are likely to go on this episode. If I were to merely describe the evidence, the comments would be overloaded with contradicting claims so specific and diverse that it’s virtually impossible to respond. So we will take a quick skim over some of that evidence, but my experience is that the more useful strategy in discussing this topic is to prepare the honest researcher for the broader task of being prepared for the incoming onslaught of pseudohistory, and be ready to recognize it for what it is.
How much truth is there to the conspiracy theories that the FBI deliberately killed the Branch Davidians?
Today we’re going to delve into the deepest, ugliest corner of urban legendry: conspiracy theories claiming that the US government deliberately attacks and kills its own citizens. In this case it’s the infamous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas resulting in the deaths of some 75 people inside. The accepted narrative is that the Davidians, intent on apocalyptic death according to their prophecies, committed mass suicide as the federal agents entered the compound with armored vehicles; while the conspiracy theory holds that it was the federal agents who set the fires in a successful effort to murder the entire population inside. Today we’re going to examine the claim, and find out how we know what we know.
The Branch Davidian sect, originally an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, had been on its land outside Waco for nearly 60 years when young Vernon Howell took it over in the aftermath of a 1987 armed raid. He luckily escaped conviction, changed his name to David Koresh (telling his followers that Koresh meant “death”), and assumed the role of prophet. A few years later, a confrontation with federal authorities led to a six week siege that ended with the complete destruction by fire of the compound as tanks rolled in with tear gas, killing Koresh and 75 other Branch Davidians inside.
The conspiracy theories came thick and fast. The most prominent were popularized by a pair of independent filmmakers, Linda Thompson (who was a full-throttle conspiracy theorist best known for her film Waco: The Big Lie) and Mike McNulty (who was more measured, and received an Academy Award nomination for Waco: The Rules of Engagement). We’ll take a look at the two most commonly repeated claims:
This ancient order of knights, cloaked in mystery and intrigue, find their way into more of today’s movies and novels than just about any other famous characters. For a fair summary of the degree to which made-up Knights Templar mythology has permeated pop culture, one need look no further than the History Channel, the world’s central warehouse of sensationalized pseudohistory. They’ve cast the Templars in some shadowy overlord capacity in just about every phase of human history. They’ve involved them in the Oak Island Money Pit, a sinkhole discovered in Nova Scotia in 1795; inexplicably entangled them with various alleged pirate treasures; with ciphers pretended to exist on the tomb of Jesus; with modern day Freemasons, separated by four centuries; and granted them fantastic treasures that they discovered buried beneath the Temple of Solomon and have kept secretly hidden ever since — and various described as either the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, or even all three.
These, and many more veins of Templar mythology, all extend from the mother lode: the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, best known today as Dan Brown’s main inspiration for The Da Vinci Code, in which he cast the Templars as guardians of the secret that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. But although Holy Blood, Holy Grail is clearly the main influence of today’s Templar mythology to which The History Channel owes so much of its programming, it was not the first to employ them in fiction. Sir Walter Scott used Templars for a number of characters in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe, which is set when the Templars existed, but heavily fictionalizes who they were and what they did. A number of French authors picked up this theme, most notably Maurice Druon, whose series of seven novels have been cited by modern author George R. R. Martin as his original inspiration for his series A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO series Game of Thrones. Yes, the Templars, willingly or not, have had a massive impact on modern popular mythology.
So for now, that’s enough of asserting that everything we’ve heard about the Knights Templar is fiction, and it’s time to now look at their true history.
Also See: Knights Templar (wikipedia)
Russian test subjects are said to have done unspeakably horrible things when sleep deprived.
It has become a permanent fixture in the fabric of Internet lore: the Russian Sleep Experiment, an account of a horrific experiment said to have been conducted in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. The subjects were five political prisoners, placed into a sealed chamber and exposed to a gas which prevented them from sleeping. After fifteen days the researchers entered the chamber, and found the men — sleep deprived beyond any human experience — had committed horrors that could scarcely be conceived. Today we’re going to look into the story, and into the facts of sleep deprivation. Might something as grotesque as the Russian Sleep Experiment truly be within the scope of human possibility?
According to the story, the researchers cleared the gas from the chamber and entered, finding one of the five men dead:
The food rations past day 5 had not been so much as touched. There were chunks of meat from the dead test subject’s thighs and chest stuffed into the drain in the center of the chamber… All four ‘surviving’ test subjects also had large portions of muscle and skin torn away from their bodies. The destruction of flesh and exposed bone on their finger tips indicated that the wounds were inflicted by hand…
The abdominal organs below the ribcage of all four test subjects had been removed. While the heart, lungs and diaphragm remained in place, the skin and most of the muscles attached to the ribs had been ripped off, exposing the lungs through the ribcage. All the blood vessels and organs remained intact, they had just been taken out and laid on the floor, fanning out around the eviscerated but still living bodies of the subjects. The digestive tract of all four could be seen to be working, digesting food. It quickly became apparent that what they were digesting was their own flesh that they had ripped off and eaten over the course of days.
Those questioning whether or not this was a true story didn’t have to do very much work. It’s a widely published fact that the Russian Sleep Experiment was a piece of fiction, posted anonymously in 2010 to Creepy Pasta, a web site that showcases scary fictional tales. Despite this, there are always conspiracy minded people insistent that the story is true, or was leaked from some secret government lab; but no matter how strong their desire that this be the case, nobody has ever turned up anything like that. Sometimes a creepy story is just a creepy story.
Questioning whether this new spa treatment provides all the medical benefits it claims.
One of our most abundant renewable resources is bogus medical therapies. About every day, someone thinks up a new one: sometimes invented from whole cloth, sometimes extrapolated from a real therapy, sometimes tweaked from an old tradition. Today we’re going to look closely at one such spin-the-wheel-and-create-an-alternate-therapy: cryotherapy.
Don’t confuse this with medical cryotherapy, the freezing off of tissue, usually called cryoablation. Alternative cryotherapy is a hijack of an actual medical term repurposed to refer to the use of what they call a cryosauna, the opposite of a regular sauna. Rather than applying ice to a specific body part, a cryosauna is used for what they call Whole Body Cryotherapy. It’s a small room for one or more people, cooled by liquid nitrogen to extreme temperatures, usually about -125°C/-200°F but sometimes advertised as low as -170°C/-275°F. You have to wear special slippers to protect your feet since you can’t touch anything in there, and you have to wear a mask to avoid frostbite to your pulmonary system. You stay in for no more than three minutes.
What is the medical claim? Unfortunately, as it is with so many alternative therapies, cryosaunas are claimed to cure just about anything the proprietor says, and they all have different spiels. Most all of them say it treats inflammation, skin conditions, and aids in workout recovery. There are several spas, plus chiropractors and other alternative practitioners near me who offer cryotherapy, according to Yelp.
Almost all of the customer reviews are raving. Here are some samples:
“My inflammation almost immediately decreased and I felt a huge wave of euphoria similar to a runner’s high.”
“Felt great afterwards. Will try again to see if I have any lasting effects.”
“I feel euphorically energized after each session and I have noticed that my tendinitis has gotten better after 2 sessions.”
“I feel so good afterwards. I can tell this cryotherapy is helping to heal my body!”
Why do these people feel so good unless there’s something to cryosauna therapy? Is it possible their reaction comes from something other than genuine treatment of some medical condition? The evidence shows that it probably is.
Biblical prophecy watchers, apocalypse predictors, rapture preachers, and doomsday preppers are buzzing about an upcoming day that might finally usher in the End of the World As We Know It: September 23, 2015. This is supposedly the day that a confluence of events, both political and scientific, is going to herald the destruction of humanity.
It’s clear that in prophecy circles, this is a big deal. A search for “September 23 2015 apocalypse” brings up 11 million hits. References to the “events of September, 2015” are all over major conspiracy websites, talking about everything from rapture to asteroids to aliens to Biblical blood moons. YouTube is brimming with videos showing “the signs” of what’s about to happen. Even Isaac Newton is said to have prophesied the end of the world for this date.
So what’s going to happen that day? What are the sources of these prophecies? And most importantly, should you be worried?
Let’s start with what’s being predicted for September 23, 2015 – and for September 2015 in general. According to various conspiracy, prophecy, and prepping websites, the following things will happen on the date itself:
- Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
- President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the White House. Of note is that Francis is the 266th Pope, September 23 is the 266th day of the year, and the average length of human gestation is 266 days.
- The Autumnal Equinox.
- The First day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, also known as “the Feast of the Sacrifice.”
If you add in days either just before or just after 9/23/15, you also get a number of apocalyptic events:
- A range of dates that Comet 67P is scheduled to make an extremely close passage of Earth, September 15-28.
- The September restart of the CERN Large Hadron Collider will open a portal to another dimension.
- The end of Jade Helm 15 on September 15.
- The September 25th launch of a new UN initiative, Agenda 2030, which signals the end stage of Agenda 21 implementation.
- The date of the last of the “Four Blood Moons” heralding the End Times, on September 28.
- The approximate date of predicted economic collapse.
- The end of a Shemitah year in the Jewish Calendar, the last year of the seven year agricultural cycle, that traditionally brings with it great tribulation.
All of these events have been prophesied to form a combination that will bring on the End Times. What are the sources of these predictions?
- The obvious confluence of the three major world religions on September 23.
- Biblical prophecy, specifically the “Four Blood Moons” prophecy.
- The End Times prophecy of Sir Isaac Newton.
- A dire warning from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who claimed on May 13, 2014 that we have “500 days to avoid climate chaos.” 500 days after May 13, 2014 is September 24, 2015.
- Prophetic dreams and visions by people attuned to such things.
- Predictive programming in Hollywood entertainment – specifically, many uses of the numbers “9” and “23” in films and TV.
If all of this is correct, September 2015 is going to be a spectacularly bad month for humanity, with climactic, scientific, economic, and godly chaos brought down upon us. So stock up on beans, guns, and guns that shoot beans, because we’re in for it.
Except skeptics don’t think like this. We don’t see omens and prophecy and rumor, grab our bug-out bags and head for the bunker. We grab our facts and head for the…facts bunker.
Let’s start with these events of September 23 itself.
Are certain, specific sonic frequencies the key to love, intuition, and spiritual order? Do the sounds we hear have a real physiological effect?
First, their claims. The idea is that certain notes found in ancient music have special uses. Pitches, or notes, are described in Hertz (abbreviated Hz), which is their frequency in cycles per second.
For example, one of the special Solfeggio frequencies is said to be 396 Hz. It sounds like this. [396 Hz] Named UT, it is supposed to be good for “liberating guilt and fear”.
Next is the one called RE, at 417 Hz. [417 Hz] This is good for “undoing situations and facilitating change”.
Impressed? Wait until you hear MI, at 528 Hz. It does “transformation and miracles”, including DNA repair. [528 Hz]
FA, at 629 Hz, is for “connecting and relationships”. [629 Hz]
SOL, at 741 Hz is for “awakening intuition”. [741 Hz]
And LA, at 852 Hz, is for “returning to spiritual order”. [852 Hz]
Now, you may have noticed a couple of patterns. One is that, just like most other woo-y, New Age modalities, the claims are all very breezy and unspecific. If they remind you a little of Deepak Chopra that’s not exactly an accident. Some of the web pages promoting Solfeggio Frequencies use his confused misinterpretations of quantum physics for support.
You may recall from Skeptoid #431 how acupuncture proponents can’t even decide how many meridians exist, nor where they are. Similarly, when we dig into Solfeggio Frequencies there are disagreements. One proponent says that the key frequency is not 417, [417 Hz] but 432 Hz. [432 Hz] Further, he claims that this “purest” of sounds is the same frequency to which both the great pyramids of Giza and the Sun itself are tuned.
Yet another proponent says 528 Hz [528 Hz] is the “love frequency” that not only repairs DNA but can “raise the vibration in our chakra system”. There’s no evidence for a chakra system, and this odd use of the word “vibration” resonates more with woo than science.
In fact, if I play the Solfeggio Frequencies as specified on most of the web sites, the scale sounds a little out of tune. [Solfeggio Mystic Hexachord]
As is typical of woo, proponents make an appeal to antiquity. What makes these notes special, you see, is that they come from a medieval Gregorian chant to John the Baptist. It’s one of those things the ancients “just understood.” But, in modern times, our music was retuned to 440 Hz  and the secret was lost. Or hidden on purpose, depending on who you read. Some even blame the change, darkly, on a Nazi plot.
Some say alien spacecraft are tested at Nevada’s legendary Area 51 site; what does history have to say?
Today we’re going to soar above the alkaline flats of the Nevada desert at speeds in excess of Mach 3, banking and weaving among the peaks, and come in for a landing at runway 32R at airport designation KXTA. We’re inside the restricted airspace of the Nevada Test and Training Range, operated from nearby Nellis Air Force Base. Commonly called Area 51 by the general public, this well-developed base on the shore of dry Groom Lake is one of the most famous mystery sites in the world, shrouded in rumor and wild claims of aliens and conspiracies.
In 2001, two friends and I took a Cessna Skyhawk from Las Vegas to Tonopah, closely skirting the border of the restricted airspace surrounding Nellis AFB. This happened to be just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at which time the restricted airspace was greatly expanded, and the route that we took then is no longer possible today. But at the time, flying past the radar facility atop Bald Mountain, we were able to legally look right down into Groom Lake, and took plenty of photographs and video. We were contacted by the air traffic control tower at Groom Lake, which was plainly visible from our position, and he asked us what our destination was. We told him Tonopah, and he asked if we’d like him to give us a direct vector to Tonopah. This was his way of saying “Maybe you’d like to veer away and go straight to Tonopah rather than hugging our border.” But as we weren’t doing anything wrong, we declined his offer and finished out our original flight plan. We saw a number of other landing strips scattered about inside Nellis, but none that were as well developed as Groom Lake.
Why were we able to do this, at a base that everyone believes is so top-secret? Everyone says the government denies its existence or that it doesn’t appear on maps. There is indeed one very big secret at Area 51. In the words of Joerg Arnu, founder of the Dreamland Resort web site: “The biggest secret about Area 51 is that it was never secret.”
In late 1950, the United States Atomic Energy Commission established the National Proving Grounds for the testing of nuclear devices, inside the Las Vegas Gunnery and Bombing Range. This huge area was subdivided into parcels called simply Area 1, Area 2, and so on; and only those Areas from 1 to 30 became a final part of the project. Area 51 was merely a leftover piece of land among many others.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s Project AQUATONE had resulted in the design of what would become the U-2 spy plane, but for security reasons, they wanted someplace more private than Edwards Air Force Base to develop it. In 1955, a team led by Lockheed’s chief designer, the legendary Kelly Johnson, flew around Nevada looking for an alternate site. They found one inside Area 51: the dry Groom Lake, which they described as “A perfect natural landing field… as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it.”
Security and confidentiality have been constant throughout Groom Lake’s history. Nobody outside the base has ever had access to whatever work was being done inside, and for a long time, everything that had ever happened there was classified. So conditions were ripe in 1989 when a guy named Bob Lazar told a Las Vegas television reporter that he’d been working there for the past year, reverse engineering alien spacecraft to learn how they worked. For years, Lazar enjoyed a good run of television guest appearances and other publicity.
A lot of people in the UFO community really wanted to believe Lazar’s story, as it so perfectly confirmed their conviction that aliens visit the Earth and that the government covers it up. But everyone who seriously fact-checked Lazar’s claims . . .
Does Agenda 21 want to save the world or take it over?
“Agenda 21.” Well it certainly sounds ominous. Someone has an agenda, and if this is the 21st, are there 20 others that we aren’t in on? And just look at Agenda 21’s goals – nothing short of a global shift in thinking that aims to put the way we live on planet Earth on a whole new footing. It does this by providing certain… plans guiding the actions of political leaders on every level, even in your neighborhood.
On its surface, Agenda 21’s goals are hard to fault. It purports to provide a framework for stewarding the environment and bettering the human condition on an enduring basis, all while protecting liberty.
Agenda 21 repeatedly affirms “freedom, dignity and personally held values,” emphasizing personal wealth, improving the health of women and children, protecting cultural and natural assets and keeping the world’s economy stable into the future. That cryptic number 21 simply refers to the 21st century. What’s not to like?
Well, with a name right out of a Robert Ludlum political thriller, Agenda 21 is also something of a conspiracy theory toolkit. It’s backed by the dreaded United Nations, proposes wealth leveling with developing countries, an array of ambitious environmental goals and loads of other changes to traditional ways of doing things, all riding in on a raft of politically charged terminology.
The 300-page document uses the word “sustainable” 647 times and “environment” more than a thousand. The word “science,” by the way, gets 64 mentions, including index entries.
The potential for rhetorical redefinition hasn’t been overlooked by today’s hyperpartisan political writers and politicos. As an unintended consequence of the document, critics have figuratively deforested Earth to create millions of books exposing Agenda 21’s hidden agenda.
Does Agenda 21 forward the framework for a new era of international cooperation and perpetual prosperity for all, or is it really a sinister trick to take away our rights, abolish private property, squash our freedoms, destroy American sovereignty and usher the world into a dark age of dystopian eco-dictatorship?
Do alien visitors really abduct and mutilate unsuspecting ungulates?
It’s three in the morning on a cattle ranch somewhere in Texas. Bessie the cow is half-asleep, mindlessly chewing cud. her ears twitching at flies as she dozes. Suddenly, she is bathed in a cold, bright light from above. She finds her hooves dangling beneath her as she’s hoisted from the ground by an unknown force. She lets out a plaintive moo as she disappears into the strange, alien craft that had been hovering above her. A week later, Rancher Bob stumbles upon the remains of poor Bessie. His prize cow has been skinned, her organs absconded with and her remains discarded in the very pasture where she once grazed.
For many, the above scenario is all too believable. They fear that extraterrestrial spaceships are kidnapping unsuspecting ungulates, conducting horrid vivisections, and then dumping the bodies. The phenomenon is called cattle mutilation, and it is a common part of the modern paranormal lore.
A typical cattle mutilation story begins when the remains of a victim animal have been discovered. Most commonly, these remains have been found in some open field by a rancher, farmer, or other unlucky individual. The animal in question is commonly reported to have been in good health just days prior to the discovery, so the death is unexpected and “natural causes” seems unlikely.
The body itself appears to have been mutilated after death. Oftentimes, external body parts are missing, such as the ears, the eyes, the sex organs, or the tongue; in some cases flesh even appears to have been stripped off of the skull. Witnesses insist that the edges of the wounds are smooth and clean, as though done with a surgeon’s scalpel. A scalpel also appears to have split open the stomach of many animals, and internal organs have been removed. A conspicuous absence of blood is another common feature. Always, the witnesses claim that there are no footprints, tire tracks, or scavenger prints leading either towards or away from the body. The death is a mystery, and foul play of some kind is assumed.
The phenomenon does happen; a simple Google Image search for “cattle mutilation” will bring up endless gruesome images of cattle, sheep, and other victim animals with their lips stripped from their teeth, their eye sockets staring out from circles of excised flesh, their bellies open. The question is, how does it happen, and who — or what — is responsible for the condition of the remains?
The history of ghost photography and its many problems as evidence.
In books promising you a glimpse of the beyond you find page after page of chilling photographic evidence that spirits of the dead walk the earth! A ghostly baby sits on a grave. A translucent figure descends a staircase. A childs face emerges from the flames of a devastating fire. Do these photographs offer real glimpses of ghosts? Or is there a more rational explanation for ghost photography? Let’s expose these mysterious images to the light of science and see what develops.
The history of ghost photography is closely tied to the history of photography itself. Early photography was much like all new technology in that enthusiasts had to become skilled with the various equipment and chemicals required for producing images. Before the invention of photographic film the photographers worked with chemically treated glass plates which could be cleaned and re-used to make new images. Early photographers were often running small businesses, using their photography to make portraits for 19th century families. Because of the bulk of their equipment, most worked in small studios rather than moving their equipment about. Sittings were arranged and paid for. The expensive glass plates were often cleaned and re-used, but if not cleaned properly the remnants of the old image could be seen in subsequent photos. This method of producing multiple exposures was certainly widely known within the field by the photographers, but was not well understood by the general public.
Before we dive into the story of the early spirit photographers, it is important to talk about the cultural stage upon which they performed. The spread of photography was happening simultaneous to the rise of a new religion or belief system called “Spiritualism.” The main ideas of spiritualism centered around the belief that the dead continue to exist as spirits and maintain their consciousness here on earth after they’ve died. Interaction with these spirits was said to be possible through the use of psychics or mediums. Spiritualism began in the 1840s and grew through the early 20th century, attracting millions of followers and adherents. In the wake of this growing movement, ideas such as parlor seances grew very popular and it was quite easy to find people who openly believed in spirits as a scientific reality.A large population of people seeking proof of life after death made it possible for a robust network of mediums to set up shop in the north east of the United States. It was in this environment that Boston photographer William Mumler introduced spirit photography to a community eager for more proof of life after death.
Mumler had been a jewelry engraver before he began his new career as a spirit photographer with a single photo which he alleged showed the image of one of his deceased relatives who had died several years before his self portrait was taken. In a time when photography was already an expensive proposition for a family looking for a portrait, Mumler was able to fetch several times the normal cost of a traditional photograph for one of his special portraits which would show a ghostly image of some alleged dead loved one along with the mundane image of the living subject.
How would he accomplish this? How did he fool people with his blurry but easy to reproduce multiple exposure photographs? It was a success for him because . . .
Did a poltergeist infest a home in Columbus, Ohio? Or was this the work of a mischievous teen?
In 1982 a terrifying phenomena was lifted from the pages of parapsychology literature and turned into the highly successful film, Poltergeist. Although the film was not based on a real case, and the phenomena in the film veered wildly from the historical symptoms, it did make this peculiar type of event culturally available in a way it had never been before. So when a trouble household in Columbus, Ohio began experiencing flying objects and mysterious disturbances, one had to wonder: was this a poltergeist or merely zeitgeist?
Enthusiasts of paranormal lore will know that the word poltergeist is derived from the german words for noisy and spirit. Before we get into the particulars of the Columbus Poltergeist, lets talk about skeptics and hauntings. Skeptics are often depicted as dismissing the idea of ghosts and spirits without investigation, but there is actually a rich history of thorough scientific investigations of such alleged phenomena. The most difficult challenge is that the allegedly paranormal events rarely manifest themselves when skeptical researchers are present. This leaves the investigator to more of a forensic role and sometimes with nothing but a collection of anecdotes.
Even the terminology for such events is difficult because a skeptical view of any such phenomena is predicated on examining each unusual component rather than collectively viewing them as a haunting. This is a problem for paranormal believers too in that ghost investigations are all trying to explain elusive phenomena. Consider these words: phantoms, shadows, phantasms, ghosts, spirits… there is a robust lexicon to describe these non-corporeal entities, but no scientific proof that any of them exist. For the purposes of this article I’m going to talk about various aspects of this field but remember that these are terms which the scientific community – and Skeptoid – do not endorse as real or genuine. So when I talk about hauntings I’m not endorsing the existence of supernatural manifestations, but using the word to mean “the collection of unusual events” associated with such cases.
Poltergeists cases are characterized by loud noises, things being thrown, apportations of tiny objects, mysterious liquids appearing, rocks falling on the roof, and occasionally people being pushed, clawed, pressed or otherwise harassed. In most cases the poltergeist events are centered around one person – often a teenager. Many times when this central figure is removed from the scene the events stop and do not follow them to other locations.
In 1984 the home of John and Joan Resch became the scene of such events. Glasses, photographs, telephones and lamps were being thrown about and broken and the events all seemed centered on the Resch’s adopted daughter Tina.
We are a story our brain tells itself. And our brains are habitual liars.
Take a moment to think of a cherished childhood memory. Try to recall it in detail. Think of where you were, who you were with, the sights, the smells, the tastes. Recall the sounds, like the wind in the trees, and how you felt. Were you happy? Anxious? Laughing? Crying?
We would all like to think that our memory is like a camera that records a scene, tucks it away in a corner of our brain, and retrieves it for playback when we want to relive that birthday ice cream or feel a long lost summer breeze on our cheeks. In a large sense we are what we remember, so memories are an integral part of who we are.
Unfortunately memory isn’t even remotely like a record/playback device. As neurologist and renowned skeptic Dr. Steven Novella puts it,
When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.
As I like to say, we are a story our brain tells itself, and our brains are motivated, skilled, pathological liars.
Lets take a look at memory, get a rough idea of how it works, and learn when and why we need to be cautious about trusting it. Functionally, the three parts of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.
As Dr. Novella points out, the problems begin with encoding, even before a memory has been stored. Our brain is constantly filtering information, and constructing its own reality. We are surrounded by detail. Take a moment right now to be aware of every distant sound around you, of all the leaves on the trees, fibers in the carpet, your breathing, and the sensations on your skin — all of it. Imagine dealing with all of that all of the time! Our brains evolved to construct a narrative of what’s going on, lending attention to what matters most. That thing over there that might be a predator is a more pressing matter than the sensation of every individual blade of grass you’re standing on. But just as things get lost, distorted, or added when your favorite book becomes a movie, the running story your brain puts together isn’t a faithful rendition. In fact, sometimes the circuitry in your brain that distinguishes what’s currently happening from a memory gets confused. This is the most likely explanation for déja vu. It’s a glitch in your own brain’s matrix.
And the first thing your brain does with most information is forget it.
A large riverboat vanished without a trace on the Mississippi River in 1872. Or did it?
We’re all familiar with ship disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. Though many say they’re the result of some supernatural force, it’s far more likely that each incident is a case of a big, stormy ocean taking its toll on small, poorly-maintained, or simply unlucky craft. But when a ship disappears without a trace from a river, it’s harder to imagine an explanation. And the legend of the SS Iron Mountain is difficult to explain away.
Here is how her story is usually told. This is an excerpt of the version on paranormal.about.com, complete with the picture that’s most often associated with the SS Iron Mountain:
In June, 1872, the S.S. Iron Mountain steamed out of Vicksburg, Mississippi with an on-deck cargo of bailed cotton and barrels of molasses. Heading up the Mississippi River toward its ultimate destination of Pittsburgh, the ship was also towing a line of barges.
Later that day, another steamship, the Iroquois Chief, found the barges floating freely downriver. The towline had been cut. The crew of the Iroquois Chief secured the barges and waited for the Iron Mountain to arrive and recover them. But it never did. The Iron Mountain, nor any member of its crew, were ever seen again. Not one trace of a wreck or any piece of its cargo ever surfaced or floated to shore. It simply vanished.
Some versions go on to say that ghostly voices can be heard near the site screaming “They’re trying to hurt me! Help!”
As with most legends, there is some truth and some fiction. Let’s see if we can separate the two.
The first “full body cast” of an alleged Bigfoot left many experts with a different impression.
It’s not as famous outside of the Bigfoot research community as the other alleged evidence. The shaky films and blurry photographs appear in more documentaries, and the giant plaster foot castings are more widely recognized. But in September 2000, a team of investigators from the Bigfoot Field Research Organization (BFRO) emerged from the woods near Skookum Meadows in Washington state with 15 square feet of plaster and Hydrocal® that they claim results from a full body impression of the mysterious man-like animal known as Bigfoot. Was this the best new evidence supporting the existence of Bigfoot since the Patterson Gimlin film? Or was it something else?
Before we dig into the question of whether or not the Skookum Cast is evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, let’s take a look at how the cast came to be taken in the first place. In late 2000, the Australian television show Animal X was filming its second season. As part of a planned Bigfoot special, they sent a film crew to Washington state to meet with team members of the BFRO to look for Bigfoot evidence in the Pacific Northwest. An expedition was mounted in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The expedition included Matt Moneymaker, Thom Powell, Rick Noll, Dr. Leroy Fish, the film crew from Animal X and several other BFRO members. For six days the team had been blasting recordings of alleged Bigfoot vocalizations, experimenting with pheromone lures, and using thermal cameras. In many ways, they were doing the same kinds of activities that would become the basis for the television show Finding Bigfoot. On the evening of the expedition’s sixth day, the team placed fruit bait near a muddy patch by the road in the hope that it might lure a Bigfoot and provide some good physical evidence. On the seventh day, September 22, the team discovered the large animal impression that would become known as the Skookum Cast.
The expedition members used 200 pounds of casting material and some tent poles to make a record of the large impression. But where were the footprints? Clearly a large animal had made the shape in the mud, but there were none of the signature tracks that have made Bigfoot so famous – and from which it gets its name. There was much discussion and finally a scenario emerged that the BFRO suggests explains the situation: A lone Bigfoot was attracted to the bait, but did not want to leave its tracks so it carefully crawled to the fruit. It then reclined on the ground in the mud while it ate the fruit, before departing in a similar trackless mode. With this theory and their 200 pounds of alleged Bigfoot evidence, team members transported the cast to an indoor location where it could be studied by scientific experts.
Some say fibromyalgia is a real disease, while others question the diagnosis.
Today we’re going to head down to our doctor’s office with a complaint that he hears all too often: we have pain. We’re tired. We get headaches, and our hands and feet might be numb in the morning. And along with that pain comes some stiffness. It’s like, “Doc, I just don’t feel all that great.” Don’t fret, because the doctor has heard it all before. But also don’t expect to be able to guess what your doctor is going to say. The diagnosis of fibromyalgia — nonspecific pain that doesn’t seem to have any particular source — is as controversial as just about any other subject at your doctor’s office. Some believe it’s a real physical condition, some believe it’s purely psychogenic, and some think it doesn’t exist at all. What is really known about this popular but vague diagnosis?
Everything about fibromyalgia is rife with red flags. Sham treatments for it are offered in magazine ads and on late-night television infomercials. You’ll see it advertised on billboards. Books, websites, special diets, and worthless supplements are all marketed to sufferers just as aggressively as is the condition itself — the more people can be convinced that they have it, the more products they’ll buy. Chapter and verse, fibromyalgia bears every single warning sign of a pseudoscience. But where it veers from this course and enters the realm of real science is that a growing number of medical researchers believe there is something real here, and some cases are now even proving to be treatable.
Much of the time, when we discuss the subject of whether conditions have a psychological cause or a physiological cause, we find a general trend that psychogenic conditions are best treated by psychotherapy, and physiological conditions are best treated with non-psychiatric medicine. Fibromyalgia appears to be a rare exception to this rule. Its causes have not been determined to be purely psychological, but it does seem to be best treated with psychiatric medicine, including both antidepressants and psychotherapy.
Have I confused you yet? Here’s the thing . . .
By Will Storr via The Telegraph
The best conspiracy theories are like enchanting mazes of logic whose thresholds, once crossed, are hard to return from. As ludicrous as they can appear from a distance, the closer you get, the stronger their gravity and the greater the danger of being sucked in. How else to describe the extraordinary rebirth of David Icke? Best known to some as the former BBC sports presenter who appeared on Wogan in a turquoise tracksuit implying he might be the son of God, to the post-Twin Towers generation he’s the visionary master of conspiracy, performing his unscripted 10-hour lecture about the secret forces that rule the world to sell-out crowds at Wembley Arena.
A 2011 BBC poll found that 14 per cent of Britons believed 9/11 was an inside job. Just as conspiracy websites are flourishing, so are those dedicated to undermining them, such as Snopes, The Skeptic’s Dictionary and Skeptoid. The number one debunking podcast on iTunes, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, claims a weekly listenership of 120,000 and tens of millions of downloads since its 2005 launch.
Icke often describes his work as “dot connecting”. But connecting dots is precisely how all sorts of mistakes about reality arise. “Our brains evolved to spot patterns in the environment and weave them into coherent stories,” says psychologist and conspiracy theory expert Dr Rob Brotherton. “We’re all conspiracy theorists because of the way our minds work. It’s how we make sense of the world. But it’s easy to connect dots that shouldn’t be connected.”So humans are rampant dodgy dot connectors, and they also suffer from an array of biases that make them susceptible to faulty belief. “We’re biased towards seeing intentions in the world, to think things were done deliberately instead of being chaotic,” says Dr Brotherton.
“There’s also a proportionality bias, so we want to think that when something big happens in the world it has a big explanation. In the case of JFK, you don’t want to believe some guy you’ve never heard of killed the most important man in the world and changed the course of history. Another is confirmation bias – when we get an idea in our head it’s very easy to find evidence that seems to support it. It takes a very unusual mind to de-convince itself. We’re made to believe.”
And some of the theories out there at the moment really take some believing. Here are five: . . .
We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.
So began one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all time: the October 30, 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Whenever Halloween rolls around, I always get in the mood to listen to the so-called “Panic Broadcast”. It’s one of my favouite radio shows. Not only is it a great program by itself, but I’m also fascinated by the story around it. Not the story that’s usually told, however, but the far more interesting truth behind what we all think we know about the “Panic Broadcast.”
Most people know the broad strokes of the popular story. On the evening before Halloween, the Mercury Theater on the Air starring Orson Welles performed a radio version of the popular science fiction story. What set the War of the Worlds broadcast apart from other shows the Mercury Theatre produced was its script, written by Howard Koch with input from Welles. Koch and Welles decided to use what was at the time an uncommon trick for creating realism: they framed the audio play as if it were itself a totally different radio broadcast experiencing a series of journalistic interruptions to the normal nightly entertainment.
What happened next is widely told today in books, in television documentaries, and online: many people tuned in after the show began and, lacking the context of the intro, assumed they actually were listening to news reports about New Jersey being invaded by Martians. This triggered a night of chaos as listeners panicked about the arrival of the interplanetary menace. People fled their homes; people flocked to churches; people called the police; people grabbed their guns; people contemplated suicide; all because of a fake news broadcast about Martian invaders.
The event created a social and political firestorm that threatened the radio industry’s very existence. Within a few days, newspapers were reporting that “literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL”. A flurry of lawsuits was filed against CBS. Congressional hearings were declared, and regulations were imposed forbidding stations from airing fake news broadcasts. The Panic Broadcast has since become a morality tale for broadcasting, a warning against the misuse of the great power that media wields over the public.
At least, that’s the way it’s told. But how could reasonable people accept a fantastic event like Martian invaders as real? Before we answer that question, we need to ask a different question, one often asked here on Skeptoid: did it really happen the way it’s told?
MORE – – –
On January 5, 2000 in St. Clair County, Illinois, police officers chased what has come to be known as the St. Clair Triangle UFO. What was in the sky that day?
It was a bitterly cold winter morning on January 5, 2000 in St. Clair County, Illinois. At just 4:00 in the morning it was black as pitch and more than three hours before sunrise, and the streets were correspondingly deserted. Today we’re going to study what is said to have happened over the next 45 minutes or so, involving at least four police officers from different different towns, speeding down the highways, chattering on their radios, and pursuing what would become considered by some to be one of the most elusive UFOs in history. It’s become known as the St. Clair Triangle case, and it’s had UFOlogists scratching their heads ever since.
In all, seven people saw the object, including four police officers; due to the wee hours, not many people other than police officers were up and about. The first was 66-year-old Mel Noll who parked at his miniature golf course around 4 in the morning, to make sure his plumbing hadn’t frozen. He saw what he described as a big house floating in the air, with windows and all sorts of details. He went to the nearby police station in Highland, where the dispatcher radioed officer Ed Barton. He saw a bright white light, followed it, then parked and got close enough to shut off his own lights and observed that it looked like a giant triangle with bright white lights at each corner. Nearby, insomniac Johnny Doss, listening to a police scanner, heard the call and also went outside and saw what he later described as having several bright lights.
Next, officer Dave Martin in a neighboring department spotted it, and described three bright white lights with a blinking red one in the middle. Nearby, officer Craig Stevens also heard the chatter and parked his car in a big dark field where he hoped he might be able to see something, and described a huge object with three bright lights in back and a red one in the middle. Further south, officer Matt Jany got out his binoculars and saw what he thought he heard the others describing. It was big, taller in the middle, with lots of lights on it; white on the extremities and red in the middle. The final sighting was two hours later, near sunrise, when commuter Steven Wonnacott saw what he described as a motionless arrowhead shaped object, with a few bright lights and lots of smaller lights on it. Overall, the object spent about one hour traveling some 100 km in a generally southwestern direction.
The UFO community wasted no time. Among the first on the scene was . . .
A group of 7 West Virginians looked for a crashed UFO in the hills and ended up getting the fright of their lives.
Today we tackle a terrifying tale of an alien encounter that goes by many names: “The Braxton County Monster”, “The Sutton Monster”, “The Green Monster” and “The Phantom of Flatwoods,” just to name a few. Growing up as I did in nearby Kanawha County, I had always heard the tale told using the Braxton County Monster moniker, so that’s what I’ll keep using here to avoid confusion. The story goes that in the evening of September 12th, 1952 seven witnesses saw a light from the sky land in the hills outside the town of Flatwoods, West Virginia, and when they went to investigate they came upon a being which frightened them to their very core. So was the Braxton County Monster a true case of an alien encounter in the hills of West Virginia? Or did a confluence of unlikely events lead to a group getting the fright of their lives?
The Night of the Sighting
Even contemporary reports made within days of the incident vary in some details of the actual event, but most agree roughly on the following points. Around 7:15pm several local boys (reports differ on exactly how many there were and their identities) were playing football at the nearby elementary school. They noticed a bright light streak across the sky and over a hill, seeming to touch down on the property of the farm owned by a Mr. Bailey Fischer. The boys then raced to the home of Kathleen May, a local beautician and mother of Edison and Fred, possibly two of the boys playing football, to report their sighting of a UFO. The group recruited a few more local boys, including 17-year-old national guardsman Eugene Lemon and his dog. The group, now made up of, Kathleen May, Eugene ‘Gene’ Lemon (17), Neil Nunley (14), Teddie Neal (13), Edison ‘Eddie’ May (13), Fred ‘Freddy’ May (12), Ronnie Shaver (10), and possibly Tommy Hyer (10), headed outside of town and up the hill towards the farm.
Upon cresting the hill to a ridge, they were engulfed in a malodorous mist and spotted a pulsing red light emitting from a ball-shaped object hovering just above the ground. Gene’s dog growled at something to their left side, where whomever was holding the flashlight, reports differ, immediately pointed the beam. What the light fell upon was terrible to behold. A large creature, between seven and 12 tall, stood hovering next to a nearby oak tree. It appeared to be wearing some sort of green armor, and a black cowl shaped like a spade from a playing card over it’s blood read head and bright glowing red eyes. Some of the witnesses reported seeing two claw-like hands near the creature’s head, one of which may have been holding a device. Upon seeing the group, the being let out a shrill hiss and started towards them in a slow gliding motion.
The group, gripped with terror, ran headlong down the hill back into town, whereupon they immediately called Braxton County Sheriff Robert Carr. The sheriff was not at his station in nearby Sutton, because he had been called out to investigate a plane crash reported by Woodrow Eagle, who had also seen a light in the sky disappear into the mountains along the Elk River south of Gassaway. By the time Sheriff Carr was able to make it to Flatwoods, local newspaperman A. Stewart Lee of the Braxton Democrat was also on the scene. While the entire group of witnesses was visibly shaken, Gene worked up the nerve to lead a gun-toting posse back to the scene to investigate. The craft and the creature were gone, all that remained was a faint sulfuric odor, some track marks in the grass, and some oily residue along with bits of a black rubber-like substance. In the aftermath of the event, several members of the group described suffering from irritation and swelling of the nose and throat, followed by vomiting and convulsions for another few weeks. These were said to be symptoms of exposure to mustard gas and were attributed to the mist surrounding the area the craft and creature had been spotted in. Whatever had happened, it had clearly make an impact, both emotionally and physiologically, on the witnesses.
UFO investigators, Gray Barker, who actually grew up in Braxton County, and naturalist Ivan T. Sanderson both went to Flatwoods to research the events of September 12th, with Sanderson arriving as early as September 18th. They explored the site, interviewed witnesses, and wrote reports of their findings that were later published. They both concluded that the group had encountered an extraterrestrial craft and it’s occupant.
Masaru Emoto believes that water entagles with human consciousness and emotion, a concept he calls ‘hado’. Is there anything behind Emoto’s water woo?
Today we’re going take a look at one of the founders of a pseudoscience that has, for more than three decades, given birth to a whole slew of knockoff pseudosciences pertaining to water. The man is Masaru Emoto, born in Yokohama in 1943, and creator of what he calls hado (rhymes with shadow). It is Emoto’s firm conviction that water, human consciousness, and human emotion are deeply entangled; and he has become best known for his photographs of ice crystals (basically snowflakes) that he says are either beautiful or ugly based on the emotions expressed at the time of their formation. If you write a positive word on a bottle of water, or expose it to a picture of beautiful animals like dolphins, it will freeze into beautiful ice crystals; but if you speak harshly to it, or write a negative word on the bottle, it will freeze into ugly non-crystalline lumps. Emoto’s definition of hado is “The intrinsic vibrational pattern at the atomic level in all matter. The smallest unit of energy. Its basis is the energy of human consciousness.” Throughout his writing in his several books, Emoto uses the word “vibration” in much the same way as Deepak Chopra uses the word “quantum”: without any actual meaning relevant to its context. He writes:
Hado creates words
Words are the vibrations of nature
Therefore beautiful words create beautiful nature
Ugly words create ugly nature
This is the root of the universe.
It’s quite poetic, yet to find any meaning in it, it seems one must view Emoto’s writing purely from the perspective of metaphysics and allegory. But Emoto means it quite literally, and a massive number of products and books have sprung to life in the ecosystem created by Emoto’s magical water beliefs. Water filters claiming to form water into special molecular arrangements that promote super health cite Emoto. His emotion-governed ice crystals were a major theme in the 2004 New Age pseudo-documentary film What the Bleep Do We Know? Uncounted companies sell bottles of water that they say has been blessed, or spoken to positively, or exposed to positive energy, or otherwise prepared in some manner according to Emoto’s research. One web site selling such blessed water (since defunct) even claimed:
…Malformed crystals were created when the water was placed next to a microwave oven, a cell phone, a computer, and a television (unless it showed wholesome family shows).
Emoto also famously claimed that jars of rice will rot if negative words are written on the containers yet will stay fresh if positive words are used instead, an experiment that has become viral on the Internet. And, of course, his beliefs have been embraced and publicized by Hollywood celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow.
But to establish the validity of a scientific claim, we don’t look at what pop culture phenomena it has created. Instead, we look at the data; so to learn more about Emoto’s hado, we have to set aside all of that.
Originally posted February 28, 2014:
Some objects found around the world seem to defy rational explanation.
Today we’re going outside with pick axe and shovel in hand, dig through some ancient strata, and unearth something that looks like it shouldn’t be there. In fact, upon closer inspection, it definitely shouldn’t be there. Throughout recorded history, diggers — both amateur and professional — have been finding objects that appear to be modern or made of advanced materials, but are located in old rock or other places where they shouldn’t, or couldn’t, be. Such objects have become known as out of place artifacts, or “OOPArts” for short. An OOPArt, by definition, is one that contradicts our existing understanding of history. Some take this to its apparently logical next step, and believe that OOPArts prove history wrong.
In this episode we’re going to take a quick look at some of the most famous OOPArts and see what’s known about each, and hopefully see if we have enough information to conclude that known history must be wrong. A lot of objects that show up on published lists consist of artworks — sculptures or carvings — that make ambiguous depictions, which some interpret as being out of place. One example is a pictograph from Egypt that some say shows an electric lamp. We’re not going to include these today because they’re most likely misinterpretations. Instead we want hard, physical proof of items that couldn’t and shouldn’t exist, but do.
Two of the best known have already been covered in previous Skeptoid episodes. The Baigong Pipes, featured in episode 181, were said to be a network of metal pipes buried in native rock said to be 150,000 years old. Some believed they proved the existence of an ancient culture of aliens; others actually studied the pipes and found that they not only weren’t very pipe-like, they were simply petrified wood and bamboo that had washed into a basin and later solidified.
Not all turn out to be misidentifications. The Antikythera Mechanism, featured in episode 184, was a Greek clockwork mechanism found in a shipwreck, and it did indeed represent knowledge that was about a thousand years off from our previous understanding. The find turned out to be really important, and we changed our models of ancient technology as a result. Since it was found, other artifacts have continued to fill in the gaps. This is the model we hope to see for all candidate OOPArts. No misidentification; nothing open to interpretation; just solid physical evidence that changes our understanding. So let’s see if any of the other famous examples fit the bill.
The Coso Artifact
In 1961, three people were out collecting geodes and other interesting rocks for the rock and gem shop they operated in Olancha, CA, little more than a truck stop in the Owens Valley west of Death Valley. When they put their specimens under the diamond blade saw to cut them open, one of them jammed the blade. It had a piece of metal in the center.
It became known as the Coso Artifact, named for the Coso Range of mountains in which it was found. Spark plug collectors all agree that the object inside the rock, as depicted in the one existing X-ray, is a 1920s Champion spark plug. Rocks take a very long time to form, certainly a lot longer than 40 years; so the Coso Artifact has become an icon of OOPArts, and is popularly believed to constitute an insoluble problem.
Unfortunately, the real secret of the Coso Artifact is that . . .
Legend says that Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk”, was hard to kill. What does the history say?
The legend started almost as soon as the cold, lifeless body was fished out of the water. Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, a man who claimed powers from God but whom many saw as the Devil himself, did not die easily. Legend says that his assassins first poisoned him , then shot him, then shot him again, then beat him, and then finally dumped him into the Malaya Nevka River where he drowned only after struggling out of his bonds. Is this unlikely story true? Let’s see if the history agrees with the legend.
Rasputin was born in early January, 1869, in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye. As a young man he developed a strong interest in religious mysticism. He eventually abandoned his family and went to stay at a nearby monastery, where he read theology and debated Scripture with the monks, though he never became a monk himself. In 1890 he claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary which marked him as someone chosen by God for a greater purpose. Eventually, he began to claim the powers of a spiritual healer, saying that through prayer he could cure illness.
Rasputin’s reputation as a healer grew, eventually bringing him to St. Petersburg, where he came to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, the reigning couple of the Romanov line. You see, they were keeping a dark secret: their only son Alexis had been born with hemophilia. The next Tsar of Russia was fated to bleed to death long before he could take his father’s place. When the boy became very ill in 1907, and no doctor was able to bring him back to health, a desperate Alexandra decided to place the fate of the royal line in Rasputin’s hands. Rasputin visited the palace and prayed for the boy; to the Tsarina’s surprise, Alexis improved.
Over the next decade Rasputin developed an increasingly influential relationship with the royal family and a complex yet undeniable place in Russian high society. Alexandra became convinced that Rasputin had been sent by God to save her son, and he eventually became a close confidant of the Tsarina. Rasputin, in turn, used his new favor to wield both social and political influence. Getting into all of the subplots and side stories of Rasputin’s life amongst the Russian elite would be an episode unto itself. Suffice it to say that Rasputin quickly became a noted, sometimes notorious figure, and in doing so made both political and religious enemies, some of whom eventually decieded to remove the bothersome peasant.
The first attempt on Rasputin’s life came . . .
Some people believe that your brain encodes its actual meaning in reverse within everything you say.
Just when you thought there was nobody in the world crazier than yourself, along come people who believe that we all subconsciously say what we really mean in reverse, through the unconscious but deliberate choosing of careful words which, if played backwards, say what we actually mean. Get it? The idea is that I think some coffee is really horrible but I still want to be polite, my brain will subconsciously choose words to make my polite compliment that, if played backwards, would say: This coffee stinks.
Proponents of this hypothesis call it Reverse Speech, because they were really creatively inspired on the day they named it. This is a small group of people — I believe there were six of them at last count — who take this completely seriously and believe that a whole world of secret information and opportunities is waiting to be unlocked by analyzing peoples’ speech in reverse. They turn first to world leaders, play their speeches backward, and listen to learn what they believe is the truth underlying the speech.
A leading advocate for reverse speech, also called backward masking, is David John Oates, an Australian. He’s written several books on the subject and even used to have a syndicated radio show promoting his theory. Just about any time a reverse speech expert is interviewed on television, it’s David John Oates. His web site is ReverseSpeech.com, and it’s loaded with all the examples you could ever hope to hear, as well as quite a few products and services he’d like to sell you if you believe his claims. He believes strongly that the human brain secretly encodes its actual meaning in reverse into a person’s normal speech. You can use this to your advantage in business, by decoding what the people across the table are actually telling you; and you can even use it in personal development by listening to your own speech backwards and learning more about what you really want. One of the examples from ReverseSpeech.com is of this man giving a talk:
And when you play it backwards, turns out he was trying to comfort you with the message “You’re frightened, lean on me”:
Pretty interesting, but not necessarily convincing to a skeptic. A skeptic is more likely to dismiss these guys as conspiracy nuts and laugh at what paranoid delusionals they are, but it’s actually way cooler and more interesting (and more constructive) to ask if there is any science behind what they’re claiming. I’m not talking about science supporting the claim that people say what they actually mean in reverse; I’m talking about science behind the perception of order from chaos. And, it turns out, there is good science behind it. The journal Science published an article in 1981 by Remez, Rubin, Pisoni, and Carrell called Speech perception without traditional speech cues. By playing what they called a “three-tone sinusoidal replica”, or a complicated sine wave sound, they found that people were able to perceive speech, when in fact there were no traditional speech sounds present in the signal. So rather than laughing at a reverse speech advocate, instead appreciate the fact that there is good science driving their perception of what they’re hearing. They’re not making anything up, they’re just unaware of the natural explanation for their phenomenon.
To better understand what these authors did in their experiment, listen to this brief cue consisting of nothing but sine waves:
It almost does sound like speech, doesn’t it? But it’s not quite clear what it’s saying. Well, suppose someone told you that it says:
Now listen to it again:
This time, it’s almost impossible not to hear the words that you’ve been preconditioned to hear. Let’s play another one, this one is harder . . .
Is acupuncture really ancient Chinese medicine? Does it work? Is it safe?
This ancient Chinese medical tradition stretches back over 3,000 years, the wisdom of the ancients producing medically valid results even today. As in antiquity, slender needles are inserted at precise meridian points on the body and manipulated by a skilled practitioner. Each acupuncture point relates to a specific organ or function in the body, and the practice manipulates the body’s energy, or qi to manage pain and treat a host of conditions including allergies, asthma, headaches, sciatica, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, constipation, and even sexual dysfunction. Acupuncture is, in short, a venerable medical miracle.
Or is it? Let’s cast a skeptical eye at one of the most popular “alternative” medical modalities in the modern world.
Exactly how ancient is acupuncture? Not nearly as ancient as you may think. The first clue is right there in the hands of the acupuncturist: Those slender, flexible, stainless steel needles. The technology to make them didn’t even exist until about 400 years ago.
There are even more historical clues. The Chinese have long kept detailed records. When we examine them we do, indeed, find references to a practice called needling, but the earliest dates to about 90 BCE. The needles from that era were large, and the practice of needling refers to bloodletting and the lancing of abscesses, a treatment nothing like today’s acupuncture. Earlier Chinese medical texts, some reaching back to the 3rd century BCE, never even mention it. There’s no evidence at all that acupuncture is anywhere near 3,000 years old.
No matter. At least acupuncture is Chinese, right? Maybe not.
Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld thinks that the practice may have started in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates of Cos, and later spread to China. A fundamental feature of acupuncture, namely the special meridian points where the needles must be placed, can be traced to the medieval Islamic and European ideas of astrology mapped onto the body. This rather obvious link led researcher Ben Kavoussi to call acupuncture “Astrology with needles” He writes:
…for most of China’s long medical history, needling, bloodletting and cautery were largely practiced by itinerant and illiterate folk-healers, and frowned upon by the learned physicians who favored the use of pharmacopoeia.
Accounts of Chinese medicine first reach Europe in the 13th century. None of them even mentioned acupuncture. Wilhelm Ten Rhijn, writing in 1680, was the first Westerner to reference acupuncture. But what he described bears little resemblance to the acupuncture of today. There was no mention of qi, which is sometimes translated as chi, or any specific points. He spoke of large gold needles that were implanted deep into the skull or womb and left in place for 30 respirations.
The first American acupuncture trials were in 1826, when it was seen as a possible method of resuscitating drowning victims. As Dr. Harriet Hall describes it, “They couldn’t get it to work and ‘gave up in disgust.’ I imagine sticking needles in soggy dead bodies was pretty disgusting.”
Even through the early part of the 20th century nobody spoke of qi or meridians. Practitioners merely inserted needles near the point of pain. In fact, qi used to refer to the vapor arising from food, and the meridians were called channels or vessels, which is part of acupuncture’s link to medieval astrology and vitalism.
So just when and where did meridians enter the picture, and qi finally become some kind of energy?
The clash between the champions of scientific skepticism and supernaturalism.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was best known as the world’s most famous magician during his lifetime, and also as a tireless debunker of false mediums and dishonest claims of profit-driven supernaturalists. He followed a simple strategy, one that’s the fundamental basis of the scientific method: Work hard to falsify all new hypotheses, and maintain a mind open to all new evidence. Sadly for Houdini, this meant testing what could have been one of the most important personal relationships to the history of public understanding of science.
Much has been made of the friendship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur would seem to have been a man of science and rational thought, but he was a lifelong steadfast believer in the supernatural. In fact, it was something that was at the forefront of his attention much of the time. One of the most telling events in Sir Arthur’s career came when he was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which is often criticized for being composed mainly of true believers in the paranormal, and not all that interested in objective research. In the 1920s, Sir Arthur led a mass resignation of 84 members of the Society, on the grounds that it was too skeptical. The staunchest of the resignees joined the Ghost Club, of which Sir Arthur was a longtime member. The Ghost Club made no apologies for being fully dedicated to the supernatural as an absolute fact. In addition, Sir Arthur’s wife, Lady Doyle, was a medium who often conducted séances appearing to be in communication with the dead, and Sir Arthur was absolutely convinced of the reality of her ability.
Despite a radical difference of opinion, Houdini and Sir Arthur managed to keep their friendship alive for some years, each often writing to the other of their mutual respect, their agreement to disagree, and the value of honesty and integrity in one’s own beliefs — neither man ever doubting the other’s sincerity; at least for a while.
In the spring of 1922, Houdini invited Sir Arthur to the home of his friend Bernard Ernst, a lawyer in New York, in an effort to show him that even the most amazing feats of mediums could be accomplished by skilled — albeit earthly — trickery. He had good reason to sway Sir Arthur if he could; Sir Arthur was passionately engaged in promoting the supernatural to his vast worldwide audience, a public disservice if there ever was one, as honestly intentioned as it was. Houdini prepared a magic trick, one that’s familiar to any practitioner of the art. He had Sir Arthur go outside in private and write a simple note that there’s no way Houdini could have seen; and then upon his return to the room, Houdini had a cork ball soaked in white ink magically roll around on a slate and spell out the very note Sir Arthur had written. Sir Arthur was aghast. Houdini wrote him: . . .
Also See: An Actual Recording Of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Spirit” From A 1934 Séance (io9.com)
Organic food labeling is marketing, not science. Organic marketers utilize any bit of data that can be spun to promote a significant difference, producing a constant drone of nonsense. This week an article in Science World Report tops my nonsense list for organic agriculture promotion. The article “New Test May Detect Organic Food Fraud: Is Your Produce Really Organic?” is a subtle but effective promotion of organic foods’ purported benefits. This article is based on a press release offering the idea that there may be a test to separate falsely labeled organic produce from true organic produce.
Testing foods for organic label fraud sounds plausible on the surface, but is it? The proposed methodology for testing, as described by Science World Report, lacks a major scientific underpinning. Organic agriculture proponents have long suggested that there organic foods have measurable nutritional benefits over conventional agriculture, asserting that organic foods are safer and/or more nutritious than conventionally grown products. Most of this conjecture is based upon small, poorly structured studies. Any measurable benefit, when compared to conventional agriculture, disappears in large well controlled studies. That pattern—poor research yielding positive outcomes, well-structured research producing negative outcomes—is consistent with statistical noise or poorly done research. So what is this proposed test looking for? Is there any testable difference between organic and conventional?
Testing organic food is the agricultural world’s version of the ghost meter, in my opinion. A ghost meter is a electromagnetic field meter used by “Ghost Hunters” to detect the presence of ghosts. Sometimes it’s a charlatan’s prop, but more often the device is used to assure people (typically the user) that ghosts can be detected. A science-y sounding method and device is demonstrated, just without any science actually involved. The meter finds changes in EM fields around a supposedly haunted site, and ghost hunters assume that ghosts produce or affect EM fields. This also assumes that the fields they detect are different from any regular EM field, which are everywhere, produced by the sun, cellphones, cameras, light bulbs, and other electrical devices.
A test for organic food “authenticity” similarly lacks any scientific basis. Like a ghost meter there are fundamental assumptions being made that thus far have been answered tested out as false. Currently the best information is that there are no . . .
Many times have the annals of the paranormal been graced with descriptions of Frank’s ghost box, an electronic device that is claimed to allow ghosts to communicate with us through randomly tuned radio broadcasts. Imagine turning the tuning knob on a radio (first, imagine a radio that still works that way), and recording the sound output. You’d expect a bunch of random noise from across all those stations you just swept past, and that’s exactly what Frank’s Box produces. But inventor Frank Sumption, and many imitators who have built similar devices, believe they receive intelligent communication in that noise. It’s basically an iteration of what ghost hunters call Electronic Voice Phenomena, the idea that ghosts communicate with us through electronics.
I should note that the impetus for this episode was an email I received from Frank Sumption’s niece. I won’t give her name or what she said in the email, but her point is that Frank is a good, honest, average guy who is notable only in that he believes he’s stumbled onto something. He doesn’t scam anyone; he’s neither selling his box with unproven claims, nor is he charging people money to talk to their dead relatives. Frank makes the plans to build his device available for free as a downloadable PDF file, and he has a page on SoundCloud where he posts his most interesting recordings, for everyone to hear. He’s a guy who has some bad information, and has failed to apply critical thinking to it within the context of scientific literacy. In other words, he’s exactly like 99% of the people out there. Nevertheless, most of the time when Frank Sumption has been mentioned anywhere, online, in print, or on a radio program or podcast, he’s dismissed as a crazy nutcase — and that’s precisely what prompted his niece to write. So today we’re going to look at the phenomenon of Frank’s ghost box and talk about how and why it occupies the place it does in pop paranormal culture, and hopefully find something more intelligent to discuss than hurling personal insults.
So let’s get to what you really want to hear, some of Frank’s received messages. Let’s get started with one just to get the idea. On his SoundCloud page, Frank posts clips that he has already edited down to just the moment that he considers significant, and then repeats each one several times as he adds equalization and/or changes the pitch to make the speech more distinct. Here’s one, and I’ll just tell you in advance that Frank has identified the words “Frank we’ll save you” in here:
Frank’s Box, or the “ghost box” as Frank prefers it to be called, is often described as a random radio tuner, but there’s a bit more to it than that. He first developed the idea in 2002, and there are three basic parts to his device. First is a component that generates either white noise, like this:
Or, a sweeping tone like this:
Then the voltage of that signal is moderated to the correct voltage that can be used to control the tuner of a radio taken from a car stereo, which is the second component. Car stereos are used whose tuners are voltage controlled, which in their original factory condition, would have come from the tuning knob; but in Frank’s case, it’s either a random signal that constantly tunes the radio all over the dial, or a sweeping signal that tunes the radio all the way from one end to the other. Frank has said he believes that the sweeping method gives better results than the random, or white noise controlled, method.
The third component is what he calls the echo box. It’s a box about the size of a shoe box with speakers and a microphone inside. The radio’s audio output is played over the speakers inside the chamber, and picked up by the microphone. The signal coming from this microphone is what produces the final product. So what you hear from the box is not the direct output of what the radio tuner picks up; you’re actually hearing it one generation away. It’s played over speakers into a small box and then that live audio is recorded and played for you.
Frank describes the purpose of the echo box . . .
A popular tale tells of a haunted Jewish wine box that brought ill fortune upon its owners… apparently.
Every once in a while, there’s a small, local ghost story that’s not very good, or that even has an obvious commercial origin, and that has no business becoming popular — but it does. The famous “dybbuk box” (also spelled dibbuk) is one such story. It went from a screenwriter’s pen on an eBay auction page, all the way onto the Hollywood big screen, with 2012’s The Possession starring Kyra Sedgwick and directed by Sam Raimi. It is the story of a small antique wooden box designed to hold a few bottles of wine, to which was attached a horror story going all the way back to the Holocaust. Whoever owned the box, it was said, experienced terrible disturbances for as long as the box was in their home. Why? Because, according to the story, the wine box was inhabited by a “dybbuk”, said to be a tormented spirit come back from the dead.
The whole idea of the box being inhabited by a dybbuk (דיבבוק) is nonsensical, according to what a dybbuk is supposed to be. The Encyclopedia Mythica describes it as “a disembodied spirit possessing a living body that belongs to another soul” and usually talks from that person’s mouth. An important 1914 Yiddish play The Dybbuk was about the spirit of a dead man who possessed the living body of the woman he had loved, and had to be exorcised. The word comes from the Hebrew verb “to cling”, so a dybbuk is specifically a soul who clings to another. Nowhere in the folkloric literature is there precedent for a dybbuk inhabiting a box or other inanimate object.
But of course, we’re talking definitions of folkloric terms, fictional by their very definition; so there’s no reason why this particular dybbuk can’t inhabit a wooden box if it wants to. And besides, the fact that folklore exists for a possessing spirit tells us nothing about whether or not factual events did indeed harass the owners of this box. The folklore is irrelevant to the question of whether or not this wine box did indeed cause the frightening disturbances attributed to it. So let’s see what the box’s claimed history is.
One thing to keep in mind is that, if you’ve heard this story before, you’ve probably heard that the box was owned by a whole series of people, each of whom had lots of terrifying experiences, and they then got rid of it to someone else. In fact, the lone skeptical quote associated with this story is from Chris French, who said of these many owners:
“[They were] already primed to be looking out for bad stuff. If you believe you have been cursed, then inevitably you explain the bad stuff that happens in terms of what you perceive to be the cause. Put it like this: I would be happy to own this object.”
But then when we look at its actual history, the number of people whose hands it is documented to have gone through becomes astonishingly small, two or three at most; and each of whom went to great pains to tell the ghost story in a dramatic way. Let’s have a look.
The dybbuk box first appeared in 2003 as an eBay auction by Kevin Mannis, who owned a used furniture shop in Portland, Oregon. But it was not listed as a piece of furniture; it was listed as a mysterious haunted item. Mannis wrote on his eBay page an elaborate horror story.
The past decade has brought news of an atrocity, mainly from Africa: the slaughter of albino humans for their body parts for use in ritual magic. Bodies are usually found headless and missing one or more limbs, but sometimes are completely torn apart, missing even internal organs. The reason is, of course, pure unadulterated pseudoscience; we can confidently state that there is no magical benefit to the use of albino body parts, and that’s to say nothing of the abhorrence of murder for any purpose. Clearly there are some fictional beliefs out there concerning the nature of people with albinism, and today we’re going to look at some more of these beliefs that might be held even by those of us who are not into black magic.
But the use of their body parts in ritual magic is the elephant in the room. Arms and legs are the witch doctors’ preferred bits. They are used as charms and talismans, and other body parts also have magical value, such as hair being sewn into fishing nets to bring good luck. About five albinos per year are reported to be killed in Africa for their body parts, but the total is probably larger. Perhaps even more frightening is that about the same number of people survive similar attacks, suddenly accosted by men with machetes who hack off the valuable limbs and abscond, with little care for the still-living victim they leave behind. It’s quick cash; in Tanzania, a single limb can be worth up to four times the average annual income. A complete albino body, chopped apart and sold bit by bit, can be worth more five times what the average Tanzanian can expect to earn in a lifetime; a figure often given in the press is $75,000. Fortunately, over the past few years, witch doctors and attackers have been prosecuted and some have been executed, leading to a reduction in these attacks.
But another problem faced by African albinos is that they are nearly always from broken homes. When some African fathers see their child born white, they assume their wives must have been having affairs with white men. The Albino Association of Kenya says that 90% of albinos in that country are raised by single mothers as a result.
There are four basic types of albinism, some of which have subtypes, corresponding to different genetic defects . . .
Today we’re going to go back more than a century and a half to a hot summer day on the central coast of California, to the town of Santa Barbara. June 17, 1859 began as a summer day much like any other, clear with plenty of warm sunshine, plus a cool breeze to make it just perfect. But according to legend, something happened that wrought sudden death and destruction: from out of nowhere, a wind with temperatures usually reserved for baking ovens blasted down from the hills, killing animals and injuring people. It immediately set the country’s highest recorded temperature. They named it the simoom, after the hot Sahara wind of the same name. But it turns out that data is hard to come by. Was the Santa Barbara simoom a true freak of nature, or perhaps merely a tall tale told to visitors?
Here is a snippet about the 1859 simoom from the Insider’s Guide to Santa Barbara:
Until 1934, Santa Barbara had a record high temperature on the U.S. Weather Bureau’s books. On June 17, 1859, a simoom (scorching wind) swept down from the northwest, and the mercury soared to 133° Fahrenheit (about 56° Celsius). Cattle dropped dead, and birds fell from the sky. The record was topped when the mercury hit 134° Fahrenheit (about 57° Celsius) in Death Valley in 1934.
It sounds a bit like a tall tale, a perfect subject for our skeptical eye.
Sudden, hot winds are absolutely a reality on the California coasts. They’re called the Santa Ana winds, and are the main contributors to the wildfires that can so often be so destructive to coastal communities. Dry air from the Mojave Desert and even the Great Basin further inland forms a high pressure region which cools, sending it spilling downhill toward the coast. The wind is very dry and gusts can reach hurricane forces at their strongest. The wind is usually hot, but not because it came from the desert; it gets heated on the way by adiabatic forces; basically, compression. Santa Ana winds can happen at any time of year, but are most common in the late autumn and early winter.
Although Santa Barbara is a ways up the coast from the Santa Ana winds, it is indirectly affected by them. The high pressure systems that create the Santa Anas are usually moving east, so a few days before they collapse into Santa Anas, they often cause a similar phenomenon in Santa Barbara that locals call the Sundowner. When the Sundowner winds spill over the Santa Ynez mountains and rush to the sea, they can wreak some havoc; but because their path is much shorter, adiabatic compression forces don’t have as much opportunity to heat the Sundowners as much as their more southerly cousins.
The Huffington Post recently published an article by Dr. Neal Barnard, MD. It is titled “New Study explodes the Eskimo Myth” and it makes some very salient points about the development of the supplement fish oil, its historical roots, and subsequent evaluations of its benefits. This was a pleasure to read—a rare science-based examination by the Huffington Post. Dr. Barnard points out that the original conclusions from investigating fish oil appear to be tainted by researcher error. The seminal 1976 survey had demonstrated abnormally low rates of heart disease among Inuit despite a high fat diet. But further research has shown that the original study was in fact poorly done and did not properly evaluate the true health history of the Inuit. A recent study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology reviewed the original 1976 research and outlined its major flaws. In 2003 and 2009 follow-up studies demonstrated higher levels of cardiovascular disease among the Inuit peoples, essentially invalidating the hypotheses. If Inuit diets are not cardio-protective what does that say about diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids overall? What does this mean to fish oil supplementation?
Fish oil was developed out of the so-called “Eskimo Anomaly”: the observation that Inuit consumed a relatively high-fat diet rich in blubber and fatty fish, yet also appeared to have low rates of heart disease. As with the “French Paradox,” scientists proposed a possible cardiovascular protective benefit from diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids, a proposition that has formed the basis of fish oil supplementation. The idea that fish oil can help prevent heart disease is has now become entrenched conventional wisdom. But if the original study has been invalidated, we must reconsider whether or not fish oil is actually beneficial. Is the discovery of fish oil a lucky accident or is it just snake oil?
It would seem highly improbable that an incorrect guess about the Inuit’s health would lead to an effective cardiovascular treatment, but it’s not impossible. Science is filled with happy accidents. The fact that fish oil was discovered due to an erroneous evaluation actually says nothing about the effectiveness of the treatment. Fish oil is one of the very few supplements in the United States to have been developed into a prescription drug, called Lovaza. Its active ingredient is Omega-3-acid ethyl esters, which are metabolized by the body into Omega-3 fatty acids. This drug is prescribed to lower serum triglycerides. Randomized, controlled research does show that it seems to be of moderate benefit for hypertriglyceridemia, a condition that predisposes people to cardiovascular disease and prancreatitis.
Unfortunately, proponents of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) often suggest that fish oil treats a variety of related and unrelated illness. In CAM, the uses for supplements seem to always exceed the evidence; fish oil is no different for them, and has been recommended to treat everything from cancer to headaches. Despite the large amount of research surrounding fish oil, CAM proponents always seem to find areas that haven’t been studied, using what I call the “drug of the gaps argument” and using what we don’t know about supplements to make wild speculation about benefits. In other words, if we haven’t done any studies for fish oil’s effect on stubbed toes, their assumption is that it will probably cure stubbed toes. Fish oil has tons of research, a lot is known about it and it is safe to say that we have a good grasp of what it can and cannot do. I think it is useful to review what is currently known about the supplement, highlighting what it is most commonly purported to treat as well as its problems.
Are religious-based twelve step programs better at stopping addiction than other programs?
In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was formed by two men struggling for sobriety, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. Theirs was a new type of program in that it formalized a series of twelve steps that an alcoholic must follow in order to get sober and stay that way. The original Alcoholics Anonymous was only the first of many such programs set up to address just about every type of addiction and obsessive behavior you can think of: Overeaters Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Underearners Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and even Online Gamers Anonymous. Today we’re going to look a bit into the history of twelve stepping and also how it compares to mainstream psychological treatment of addiction, but mainly into the most important question: Does it work?
It’s impossible to discuss the history of the twelve steps without acknowledging that it is first a religious practice, and second a recovery method. Seven of the twelve steps invoke God. This is the main thing that separates it from medical or psychological addiction treatments that are primarily targeted at the biochemical and psychological causes of addiction. So let’s get started by reviewing the actual twelve steps, and these are the steps as published by Alcoholics Anonymous:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Wilson and Smith were both from an evangelical Christian organization called the Oxford Group, and the twelve steps they formalized were reminiscent of practices from the Oxford Group. It had standards it called the Four Absolutes (honesty, purity, unselfishness, love), a set of four spiritual practices, and the “Five Cs” procedures: confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance. Thus, salvation through evangelical Christianity was deeply interwoven with the concept of twelve stepping. In the words of Bob Wilson:
“…Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Rev. Sam Shoemaker, their former religious counsel in America, and from nowhere else.”
Because of this, twelve step programs have been strongly criticized, usually by people who dropped out of the programs for one reason or another, and became disgruntled. Some have written books and devoted whole web sites to the idea that twelve stepping is just a bait-and-switch program; come to stop your addiction, but stay to join our church. It’s the same criticism that’s been leveled at Scientology’s Narcanon; it promises to help you get off drugs, but is in reality just a side door into the Church of Scientology.