Tag Archives: The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

My Ninety Seconds of Cryotherapy

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

“You should freeze your toxins out!”
The emails were adamant. Everyone wanted me to undergo cryotherapy: step into a -260°F stall, alone and naked, for three minutes, and feel the toxins flutter away into the ether.
Cryotherapy_300pxNo thanks, I thought. I am a cold wuss. I grew up in Los Angeles, where anything below 80°F is cool and below 70°F is downright cold. Not to mention that even here in Hollywood, I am always the person to ask whether anyone has an extra sweater before we go into an air-conditioned movie theatre. I didn’t seem like a good candidate for experimental hypothermia.
Yet we got the request so many times that my curiosity grew. The frightening-sounding treatment has been on the rise the last few years, with The New York Times noting the increase in athletes who used it in 2011. Since then, companies offering the service have sprouted up, especially in Los Angeles, where alternative therapies abound. Earlier this year, The Atlantic released a video about their medical-doctor-turned-editor-in-chief trying out cryotherapy. He was willing to do it, despite the practitioner telling him that some brave partakers got frostbite. If a doctor could summon the courage, couldn’t I? With a little encouragement from my podcast host Ross, and seeing that the whole experience totaled out at three minutes, I decided to give it a shot, even though those three minutes would cost $65.

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The ‘Food Babe’: A Taste of Her Own Medicine

Mark Aaron AlsipBy Mark Aaron Alsip via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Vani Hari (the “Food Babe”) has built quite a following for herself since her 2011 debut, with nearly one million followers on Facebook and a new book release in February 2015. While Hari’s pseudoscience has been widely debunked by qualified scientists (e.g., Crislip 2013, Gorski 2014), food babe 10a more sobering fact seems to have escaped everyone’s attention: one of America’s most notorious bloggers is earning sales commissions from products that contain the very same ingredients she says are dangerous. Ironically, for a web activist who seems to do most of her research via Google, the evidence is only a few mouse clicks away. In her article “Throw This Out of Your Bathroom Cabinet Immediately,” Hari links aluminum in modern deodorants to horrific diseases such as breast cancer and Alzheimer’s (Hari 2013b). But in that same piece she recommends—and earns an Amazon.com affiliate commission from—Naturally Fresh deodorant, which contains ammonium alum and potassium alum (Naturally Fresh 2015). It’s perplexing that Hari didn’t take one additional step and look up these two compounds while writing her blog. She would have found they’re better known as ammonium aluminum disulfate dodecahydrate and aluminum potassium sulfate (U.S. National Library of Medicine 2015a; 2015b). Yes, after warning about the dangers of aluminum in deodorants, Ms. Hari earns a commission on a deodorant that contains . . . aluminum.
Is this just a one-off mistake, poor research, or the use of scare tactics to sell competing products? You be the judge: In “The Ingredients in Sunscreen Destroying Your Health,” Food Babe warns that applying vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) to your skin and going out in the sun puts one in danger of skin cancer (Hari 2013a). Yet she brings in affiliate dollars on skin care products that contain vitamin A, such as Tarte Blush. Affiliate links on FoodBabe.com lead the buyer to web pages that proudly proclaim retinyl palmitate among the ingredients (Tarte Cosmetics 2015a).
Screen shot from the "Food Babe" Vani Hari's website.

Screen shot from the “Food Babe” Vani Hari’s website.

The vitamin A/skin cancer scare has already been debunked by experts (e.g., Wang et al. 2010), but that’s beside the point. Hari makes the claim that vitamin A in skin care products is dangerous, yet she’s profiting from the sales of such a product.
On that note . . . what does Food Babe recommend in a sunscreen?

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Facilitated Communication: The Fad that Will Not Die

By Stuart Vyse via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

facilitated communication turkey_300pxMany readers will remember facilitated communication (FC). Back in the early 1990s, a new treatment came rushing onto the scene making promises that were enormously attractive to parents of children with autism. Proponents of FC claimed that many people diagnosed with autism were actually suffering from a physical rather than a cognitive disability. Trapped inside their faulty bodies were high functioning—and in some cases exceptionally intelligent—people. All that was required to free the person inside was to create a communication pathway.

That pathway turned out to be someone else’s guiding hand. Equipped with a keyboard and a facilitator who supported and steadied the communicator’s hand, children and adults who had never spoken a word began to type out full sentences and, in some cases, poetry and novels. Many psychologists and special education professionals were so taken with the results that they began to question their basic understanding of autism. The media quickly seized on the phenomena, reporting heartwarming stories of recovery from the prison of disability. Word spread rapidly, creating a strong demand for training, facilitators, and keyboards.

Then things turned ugly. Some of the messages typed out by communicators included serious accusations of child sexual abuse. Judges ordered parents removed from their homes, and children were placed in protective care—all based on the testimony of previously mute children and adults with autism who were now using FC. Suddenly it became very important to determine who was doing the typing—the person with autism or the typically functioning facilitator. Shockingly, the question of authorship had never been examined . . .

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Coincidences: Remarkable or Random?

Most improbable coincidences likely result from play of random events. The very nature of randomness assures that combing random data will yield some pattern.

By Bruce Martin via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

“You don’t believe in telepathy?” My friend, a sober professional, looked askance. “Do you?” I replied. “Of course. So many times I’ve been out for the evening and suddenly became worried about the kids. Upon calling home, I’ve learned one is sick, hurt himself, or having nightmares. How else can you explain it?”

CoincidenceSuch episodes have happened to us all and it’s common to hear the words, “It couldn’t be just coincidence.” Today the explanation many people reach for involves mental telepathy or psychic stirrings. But should we leap so readily into the arms of a mystic realm? Could such events result from coincidence after all?

There are two features of coincidences not well known among the public. First, we tend to overlook the powerful reinforcement of coincidences, both waking and in dreams, in our memories. Non-coincidental events do not register in our memories with nearly the same intensity. Second, we fail to realize the extent to which highly improbable events occur daily to everyone. It is not possible to estimate all the probabilities of many paired events that occur in our daily lives. We often tend to assign coincidences a lesser probability than they deserve.

However, it is possible to calculate the probabilities of some seemingly improbable events with precision. These examples provide clues as to how our expectations fail to agree with reality.

Coincident Birthdates

Happy Birthday_150pxIn a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birthdate. Who has not been surprised at learning this for the first time? The calculation is straightforward. First find the probability that everyone in a group of people have different birthdates (X) and then subtract this fraction from one to obtain the probability of at least one common birthdate in the group (P), P = 1 – X. Probabilities range from 0 to 1, or may be expressed as 0 to 100%. For no coincident birthdates a second person has a choice of 364 days, a third person 363 days, and the nth person 366 – n days. So the probability for all different birthdates becomes:

equation

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Faking Science Cred at a Sci-Fi Con: Not Smart

Paranormal investigators playing the role of “experts” and pretending to be scientific is not going to fly when the lack of deep knowledge is evident and there are actual scientists in the audience.

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

When it comes to Creationists, I’m actually fine when they say “God did it—that’s what I believe.” They don’t have a scientific worldview, and that’s their choice (I don’t think it’s a good choice, but that is not the point). They ought to be happy with their science-suspending miraculous explanations. Instead, a few try to interject the sciencey stuff in there and shoehorn blatantly unscientific ideas into a scientifical framework. They just don’t know what they are talking about. For the listener with a scientific background, it is painfully obvious that they are ignorant of how difficult research is, how rigorously it must be undertaken, how carefully definitions are crafted, and how diligently records are documented. hill-faking-cred-dog_250pxIt’s nails-on-a-chalkboard difficult for me to listen to. The champions at doing this same thing are paranormal investigators. So what happens when paranormal investigators give talks at a science-fiction convention? It doesn’t go over very well.

I was at RavenCon, a sci-fi fantasy convention in Richmond, Virginia, last April. As an invited speaker, I was there to talk about science from a scientist and skeptical advocate’s point of view. Bob Blaskiewicz, CSI’s “Conspiracy Guy,” was also there to talk about conspiracy theory. We aimed to bring the hammer down on nonsense thinking! Not really—we were going to schmooze and look at people in cool costumes and listen to presentations and panels about topics we just don’t get to talk about every day.

As with any such event, I expect that the invited speakers have prepared quality content. Many are professional authors and artists, and there were many scientists, too. One thing that is noticeable at these events is that the audience is pretty up on science and engineering. ElmerGhost02_250pxThe majority is really smart, read a lot, and comprehend and appreciate complexity and detail. This is not the best place to show off weak science cred.

The paranormal view has a presence at RavenCon. Not all sci-fi cons have speakers in that subject area. (I’ve been to the Paranormal track at DragonCon, but there is not an equivalent at Balticon.) In the lead up to RavenCon, the organizers invited Bob and me, perhaps partly to counter the presence of the paranormal group, to give some talks. One original idea was to have a panel about paranormal investigation with the different views represented, pro-paranormal versus application of scientific skepticism, or as I prefer to call it, evidence-based skepticism. However, this idea was scuttled when the leader of the paranormal group said she doesn’t do debates. (I actually don’t wonder why not.)

hill-faking-cred-muppet_250pxSo, they presented their talks and we presented ours separately. They didn’t come to our talks, but I went to theirs. I’m interested in their views and what they have found. The first presentation was by the group’s “scientist.” He did some demonstrations and experiments with chemicals (that should NOT have been used in a hotel ballroom) presumably to show that science looks like magic… or something. I thought the whole thing was rambling and pointless, meant to look “gee whiz” but was more like “Oh, Jeez…”

Up goes my hand: “Can you tell us about your scientific background?”

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Investigating the Rhode Island UFO

By Chip Taylor via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

With a half a century plus of interest in UFOs, astronomy, and science, I’ve despaired that in all that time I’ve never seen a real UFO. (With emphasis on what the “U” stands for of course.) I’ve seen bolides (really bright meteors), nighttime aerial refueling operations by USAF jets, odd contrails, space satellites, balloons, kites, birds, and insects. Some of these were initially unidentified, but only for a brief moment. Thus it was fascinating, weird, puzzling, and astonishing that in September of 2012 I actually got to see a real UFO that didn’t seem to fit any sort of known aerial object.

The mysterious Rhode Island “UFO.”

The mysterious Rhode Island “UFO.”

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon I was participating in a ham radio contest on Block Island, which is about a dozen miles off the Rhode Island mainland. It was one of those casual contests where there is plenty of free time to enjoy the day and watch the views. And there were a lot of things to watch. My friend and I were on an open roof deck of a house on the highest point of the Island on a crystal clear day with visibility to the horizon. ufo rhode-island_250pxBinoculars at hand, I was watching planes come and go at the nearby airport, sailboats off shore, an advertising blimp hovering between Narragansett and Newport, and birds flying about. Not a thing out of the ordinary.

And then, through the binoculars, I suddenly saw it: some kind of craft or “thing“ flying parallel to the distant shore at an estimated speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Too far away to see without binoculars, and even with them all I could make out was a parallelogram-shaped craft moving very slowly and into the wind. There was no sign of anything towing it and no sign of wings or motors. That was strange enough, but as it moved along it seemed to change shape: sometimes it was almost square, sometimes almost cigar shaped, but often getting shorter or longer as I watched. camera_225pxThe shoreline was about eight or nine miles away I guessed, and if this object was directly above the beach then it would have to be quite large—dozens of feet long and high.

I watched for several minutes and finally thought to take a photo or two. About a minute afterward it dove steeply down and disappeared behind some low hills that were a short distance behind the beach. That steep dive seemed unusual. What was back there? Where did it go? What was it? Well, I was in the middle of a radio contest (My partner was so engrossed with the radio he didn’t even bother to check out this weird craft), I was quite comfortable that I wasn’t seeing alien visitation or biblical angels, so an investigation would have to wait.

Once back home it was time to see if I could determine just what it was that I saw.

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The Weekend I Became a Reiki Healer

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

I am a Reiki practitioner, but I don’t believe in Reiki.

That may sound like a contradiction, but apparently it isn’t. One of the lessons Jenny, my Reiki master, taught my class when we first gathered in her small, purple classroom in La Crescenta, California, was this:

poppy-reiki-certificate_cropped_350px“Belief is irrelevant. You don’t have to believe a single word I say. If you have the Reiki energy and even the vaguest intention to heal, it will work.”

Now I had paid $350 to learn the “ancient” technique myself in a class called “Reiki 1-2.” But, contrary to popular myth, Reiki isn’t all that ancient. This hands-on healing method was developed by Mikao Usui just shy of one hundred years ago. The stories are not entirely clear, but the general idea is that he went up on a mountain top in Japan, fasted, and ended up receiving special healing energy from the Heavens, which he then passed down to his students. Reiki is hugely popular in the United States, where you can find a healer in nearly every city. During a Reiki treatment, you can expect your practitioner to wave his or her hands over you, often without even touching you, to heal your body, mind, and spirit. The National Institutes of Health warn that Reiki hasn’t been thoroughly studied and should never replace conventional health care.[1] Our best bet, my instructor told us, was to always assume that whoever we were dealing with was skeptical of Reiki. And plenty of people are.

When I told Jenny I didn’t know whether I thought Reiki was real myself, she said, “Oh, perfect! People who believe in Reiki are so boring. Skeptics are so much fun! Skeptics are the easiest to work with, because they want to be fair. Just go through the motions, and let them tell you if it worked. Pretend you know what you’re doing.”

reiki-cat 1104_300pxThe six of us students looked at our hands, which would soon be divine instruments.

“This is a metaphysical software download,” Jenny said. “It works as long as you have the software.”

Jenny explained that everyone’s hands have some healing energy, but 10–20 percent of the population have enough to be healers already. People who get the special healing Reiki energy (passed down from Usui to every other master and student since Reiki’s birth) have the strongest, most divinely guided healing powers possible. And receiving the two “attunements” we would get in this class meant having “Super Hands” forever. It couldn’t be undone. Jenny had guided this process many times, training 2,000 students, ages five to one hundred, over twenty-three years.

For the most part, Jenny seemed like a warm, intelligent woman who defied my expectations of a Reiki teacher at every turn. She studied biology in college and was staunchly pro-GMO. Although she wore a fair amount of green and purple, her outfit was simple and all-American. Her long, brown hair was cut in straight bangs, and she was as glued to her iPhone as everyone else in the class. Besides her odd habit of saying “yesterday” instead of “tomorrow”—“We’ll learn about animal Reiki yesterday”—she was downright normal.

When it came time to receive the sacred Reiki attunements, we all sat in a circle, closed our eyes, and waited for Jenny to walk around the outer edge of our chairs, giving the six of us the holy energy one at a time.reiki 1225 I was sitting with my hands in prayer position, centering myself and focusing on the holy energy within me already, though what I felt most strongly was a longing for the Thai restaurant next door. She reached in front of me and grasped my palms with hers, lifting my arms above my head. Then she patted my crown three times, whistled a strange tune, and touched my back. That was it. I now had partial Reiki powers.

When we opened our eyes, my classmates and I exchanged notes. Richard felt his heart become heavy and his hunger go away upon receiving the energy. Mary felt lightning bolts in her head. Tasha felt vulnerable, like wings had popped open on her back, exposing her spine. Priscilla, a physical therapist, said she was relieved she could finally be a true healer. Pablo and I were the only ones who didn’t feel much. Jenny said all our experiences were equal. We didn’t need to feel anything.

Now that we had received half of the full Reiki energy, we practiced on each other. First, the class tried to cure my headaches by feeling for lumps in the energy field above my head. I was as lumpy-headed as my teacher had expected. My fellow students all stood above me, their hands miming the removal of stagnant energy about three inches above my skull.

“Oh wow,” they said. “I can definitely feel it.”

When it was over, the teacher asked me how I felt.

“Well, fine… But I didn’t have a headache before.”

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Kevin Trudeau’s $18,000 Weight Loss Plan: A Book Review

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

When Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to ten years in prison recently, a lot of people scratched their heads. Sure, he had peddled and promoted a lot of nonsense in his day, from celebrating “natural cures” like homeopathy and “energetic rebalancing,” to recommending that his readers stop taking their prescription medicines. He had even tacitly encouraged parents not to vaccinate their children: “Vaccines are some of the most toxic things you can put in your body,” he said. [1] But this is America, where we don’t just send people to jail for saying things in books and on infomercials … do we?

txt

TV infomercial pitchman Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bilking consumers through his infomercials for his weight-loss book. (nydailynews.com)

But it wasn’t selling snake oil that put Kevin in the slammer. In fact, it wasn’t even the “natural cures” books for which he became so famous. It was his relatively forgotten book, The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.

In his infomercials, Trudeau had called his weight loss plan “easy” and said that those who followed the plan could “eat whatever they want.” A judge found that he had “…misrepresented the contents of his book [and] … misled thousands of consumers.”[2] The courts were especially sick of him because they had dealt with him a number of times[3] and had previously barred him from making outrageous claims about products in infomercials (at the time, he was selling a calcium product and saying it cured cancer).[4] Trudeau had carved out an exemption for his books, only to exploit it. He was charged $37 million in refunds to his readers, which he refused to pay, saying he was flat broke. The court knew he wasn’t because he kept buying things like $180 haircuts. This time, when he went back to court, the judge threw the book at him.

When I stopped by Trudeau’s Ojai, California, home to visit his estate sale for Skeptical Inquirer, I found about thirty copies of that very book in his den. I went home with one copy for $3. I wanted to see what fantastic weight loss secret was so good that Trudeau was willing to risk his livelihood. And here’s what I found out.

It’s Not “Easy” Unless You’re a Masochist

“The most common myth is that to lose weight, and keep it off, you must eat less and exercise more.” —Kevin Trudeau[5]

poppy-trudeau-weight-book_200pxTrudeau’s weight loss plan is long, grueling, and so confusing it might as well be a Dante poem. You, the dieter, will be doing the treatment for approximately ninety-six days, then following a maintenance routine. The plan itself is divided into four stages. But even these stages are not clear: part four contains elements of the diet plan itself as well as the maintenance program; at times he contradicts himself by saying you should have only one massage a week, then later saying that you should get three; at one point, he says you must always eat six meals a day, then later he recommends six meals a day “plus breakfast.” Not only is the diet not simple but the reading isn’t either. A graphing calculator may be recommended.

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Will Psychics “Cure” Cancer?

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

The online psychic industry is a seemingly bottomless collection of clairvoyants, tarot card readers, psychic healers, and other people in purple outfits. Like its predecessor, the psychic telephone hotline, and its contemporary, the “internet modeling” industry (which involves less clothing and more talking than the more traditional modeling industry), online psychics typically charge several dollars a minute for personal encounters, with some charging as much as $200 for a 30-minute session, making seeing a psychic often as expensive as seeing a therapist.

psychic 856_250pxThose who doubt the existence of psychic abilities point to the fact that clairvoyance would go against everything we know about science. But the vagueness of psychic powers poses a real problem when someone offers them for a price: when a psychic’s service cannot be pegged down by science, the practitioner can claim to do nearly anything… including curing cancer, ending suicidal depression, or bringing a lover back who is long, long gone. In fact, I once had a psychic tell me that my newly-ended four year relationship was “not over yet.” Fortunately for me and my ex, she was wrong.

But what happens when someone goes to a psychic for something really serious? I visited one of the most popular live-psychic sites on the internet, Oranum, and spent five hours speaking to thirteen of their psychics. Knowing I would never again have the patience for such a venture, I picked the boldest claim I could think of: I told each psychic that I had serious, life-threatening cancer. At first, that was all the information they got. But if asked, I was prepared with a back story: It was stage 3 ovarian cancer, and among other treatments, my doctor wanted to me undergo chemotherapy. I instead preferred, I said, “to find a spiritual solution.”

How many of the psychics would offer to help me skip medicine in favor of psychic healing?

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

The first psychic I spoke to said that she could not tell me to stop seeing my doctor. “That’s against the law, okay?” she said, looking directly in the camera, at me and the others who were tuned into her “channel.” We were all typing in a group, trying to grab her attention, but the word “cancer” had apparently won. Someone else in the group thought she was talking to them anyway.

“Why are you talking about cancer? Oh my god, do I have cancer?!” they asked.

I quickly left, satisfied that this psychic had refused to endorse my choice not to get real treatment from a real doctor.

The second psychic, a young woman with only two other people in her chat room, was eager to  .  .  .

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Where Is the Science in Electronic Voice Phenomena?

themer-evp
Via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

It is hard to turn on the television today without coming across a program about ghosts and the paranormal. These shows might shine an entertaining light on the unknown, but they are often more about their cast of characters and investigators than the science of parapsychology.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Since the 1920s, when Thomas Edison hinted that he might have attempted to build a “ghost machine” to communicate with the dead, some have tried to apply a scientific method to proving the existence of life after death. So far this has been unsuccessful, and to this day every group of investigators, both amateur and professional, has their own set of protocols as to what is or is not considered paranormal (see Sharon Hill’s “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things,” SI, March/April 2012).

With no universally accepted methods of investigating the paranormal, the beliefs of investigators can greatly influence the outcomes of their own investigations. Some investigators believe removing objects from a location will end a possible haunting. Others use objects to capture spirits, and psychic investigators believe spirits can be blessed or cast away. None of these methods have been scientifically proven, yet every investigator claims that the method they use is successful.

In pursuit of scientifically verifiable evidence, tools of all types have been employed. Many theories about detecting paranormal activity have been tested using everything from dowsing rods to Geiger counters. While the evidence they provide is scientifically debated, some tools such as audio recorders have become popular mainstays of the paranormal investigator.

soundwave-175x150The art of recording EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, is one of the most widely accepted methods of collecting evidence. Originally, a portable tape recorder was used to record an investigator asking a series of questions and waiting for responses in the silence following each question. After the EVP session, the tape was played back and investigators listened for intelligent and relevant responses caught on the tape but not audible to the ear at the time. The theory is that spirits do not have enough energy to create sounds audible to the human ear but can leave impressions on the tape.

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The Queen Mary Is Not Haunted (But I Understand Why You Think She Is)

By John Champion via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

The RMS Queen Mary, a ship of enormous historical import, has been transformed into a roadside attraction whose owners profit off the allure of “ghosts.” Her glorious factual history has been brushed aside in a bid to pander to eager ghost-hunting tourists who aren’t thinking critically about the claims.


“For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

—Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

I’ve had a fascination with classic ocean liners for most of my life. In particular, I have had a sincere awe for the RMS Queen Mary (QM) since I first stayed on board in the early 1980s—well after her retirement in 1967 and subsequent conversion into a hotel. She is a thing of beauty—a near-perfect expression of the industrial design aesthetics of the era (conceived in 1929, launched in 1934, maiden voyage in 1936). To say that we don’t make them like we used to is an insulting understatement.

Queen Mary ship swimming pool in the 1930s, “ground zero” for supposed paranormal activity. (Mirrorpix/Newscom)

Queen Mary ship swimming pool in the 1930s, “ground zero” for supposed paranormal activity. (Mirrorpix/Newscom)

Anytime in the last few years that I have even mentioned the Queen Mary, the immediate reaction from people within earshot is, “Ooh! I’ve heard that she’s really haunted!” My first reaction is a kind of amusement: how could one even tell the difference between something being really haunted as opposed to fakely haunted? My next reaction is usually a sigh of, “Here we go again,” and my final reaction more recently has been a kind of offense taken on behalf of the ship. I suppose that since an entire generation has passed since the Queen Mary was in service, the popular understanding of her has morphed into something a little weird and otherworldly rather than something that was a practical means of (elegant) travel. I write this article to express my own dismay but also to try to piece together why the QM has this persistent aura as the “haunted ship” and to make a plea to emphasize the real history of the ship as part of her future.

What Is a Haunting?

haunted queenmary_300pxI suppose the first thing to do is to make a concise case for the problem of claiming that anything is “haunted.” No, I do not believe in ghosts, and at the same time a truly skeptical position must concede that this is not an outright rejection of the possibility that ghosts might exist, only that they haven’t been discovered yet. The problem is that there is no agreement among ghost believers as to what they actually are. If I had to aggregate just from popular ghost-hunting stories, I could paint a picture that ghosts are: sound-producing, light-producing, simultaneously corporeal and noncorporeal representations of “energy” (Electric? Chemical? Nuclear? Magnetic?) that can manipulate elec­tronic devices, temperature, and phys­ical bodies—except for when they don’t. There are so many definitions and assumed qualities of ghosts that it is impossible to come up with a working definition. In science, I would call that a “hypothesis.” Once there is a hypothesis or a working model explaining the properties of ghosts, then one could go about controlled experimentation. No one is at that stage though—be­cause, again, ghosts have no known properties. So, no, the things that are claimed as “evidence” of ghosts (orbs in photos, mysterious sounds on a tape, a creaky door) can’t hold up as scientific evidence until a working hypothesis is established.

Furthermore, of course, anecdotes are not evidence. An anecdote is a personal story of a personal experience. It’s not a reliable way to make a judgment about the validity of a claim. Our minds are subject to bias, misunderstanding, mis­interpretation, and conflation. The more anecdotes that accumulate don’t lead to the credence that the claim is true; it’s simply more “noise.” Personal experience is usually the absolute worst way to make a judgment about the veracity of any claim.

So that’s a little taste of why I don’t buy it when people make the “ghost” claim, but there are far better sources to brush up on your scientific understanding, such as Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, and 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True by Guy P. Harrison. While you’re at it, check out Brian Dunning’s excellent (and short!) dismantling of ghost claims in “Do Ghosts Exist?” on his blog at www.skepticblog.org/2012/08/30/do-ghosts-exist. There’s much more that can be said here, but I want to get back to the Queen Mary.

History

haunted_places_queen_mary_250pxThe Queen Mary was one of the crowning achievements of the art and industry of shipbuilding. She was created and sailed in an era after the Edwardian opulence of ships like the Titanic and Lusitania and just before the jet age had arrived. She’s a blend of old hand-craftsmanship with the speed and technology of modern industrial achievement. To put it in twenty-first-century terms, she was a marvel of art and design in the way that the space shuttle amazed onlookers thirty years ago or the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus 380 do today. She held the speed record for crossing the Atlantic for nearly two decades and carried more troops at a single time than any other vessel during World War II.

After an exceptional service history (and with the speed and economy of air travel relegating ocean travel to vacation cruising), the QM was set for retirement in Long Beach as a hotel/conference center/tourist attraction. Since 1967, tourists have visited her in dry dock and gotten a small taste of what travel was like when the “Queens” ruled the seas.

The infamous Watertight Door No. 13. where 18-year-old John Pedder was crushed to death. Photo: flickr

The infamous Watertight Door No. 13. where 18-year-old John Pedder was crushed to death.
Photo: flickr

Retirement, sadly, would be anything but peaceful. As soon as she pulled into port for the last time, the Queen Mary was subjected to numerous “renovations” and conversions that would forever mar her interior. Entire sections have been gutted, rooms and artifacts lost to history, artwork destroyed, and other blunders of huge proportion. The ship’s operations and ownership have changed hands numerous times in the years since, and she has struggled economically. In many respects, the experience has been “dumbed down” with subpar restaurants (with some notable exceptions), chintzy events, and history taking a backseat to exploitative tours—the most prominent and most egregious of which is the “ghost” tour.

In the early 2000s, the “Ghosts and Legends Tour” was installed. It makes use of some very interesting (and otherwise off limits) spaces of the ship. Fantastical tales of the paranormal are woven into the ship’s actual history and presented with a theatrical flair and some low-rent special effects. Tourists see the magnificent first-class pool area but not in any state resembling its days at sea. This version is fading, cracking and filled with fog. The real-life accident with the Curacao—in which 239 sailors perished—is played out for maudlin drama in a former mail hold that plays the part of the “bow.”

The Problem with the ‘Haunting’

On any night at the Queen Mary, groups of tourists who are interested can also take a guided tour from a “paranormal” expert guide. They bump around wav­ing electronics of dubious utility in the air hoping for some “evidence” of an apparition. They can explore otherwise off limits sections of the ship and really take their time exploring while asking each other, “Did you hear something?”

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Another Tower Fell: My Months with the 9/11 Truthers

Carrie PoppyBy Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Ross and I are in a coffee shop, on a miserably uncomfortable bench that may have once been a church pew, surrounded by conspiracy theorists who are yelling at us.

“Do you want your employer to know you have cancer? Or AIDS? Or AIDS?!” yells Abel, the leader of the group, his forehead bulging. Ross has asked him about digital surveillance. His question barely relates to AIDS, but we’re getting used to this kind of thing. Ross says he wouldn’t want his employer to know if he had AIDS.

poppy-truthers-2We’ve been going to these “9/11 Truther” meetings for a couple of months now. The Truther movement emerged shortly after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Truthers hold that the United States government planned and executed the attacks to create a false justification for the war in Iraq. Here in Los Angeles, there are two prominent Truther groups seemingly in competition. We have been attending the biggest and most active one. About twenty-five people attend each meeting. Each one is four to five hours long and mostly consists of Abel showing us YouTube videos and steamrolling conversations. Say, for instance, responding to a question about surveillance with rantings about employer/employee AIDS relations.

Another issue on Abel’s agenda: his recent tweets to Tom Hanks. He calls his tweets “twitters.”

“I twittered at Tom Hanks,” Abel says, “and asked him why he isn’t calling out Hollywood for covering up 9/11. Now his eight hundred thousand followers will all see my message!”

The room breaks into applause. Several people tell him he did a good job. A small voice from the back asks, “What’s Twitter?”

When I get home, I check Tom Hanks’s Twitter profile. He has seven million followers. I wonder whom Abel actually “twittered.”

poppy-truthers-1
After spending about a dozen hours with these people and watching the three 9/11 documentaries they have given us as homework, Ross and I still have questions about the September 11th conspiracy stories. The Truthers try their best to field our questions, but their answers sound exasperated. They can’t believe this isn’t obvious to everyone. And they’ve grown tired of showing 9/11 videos, so the “9/11 Truth” meetings are conspicuously absent of 9/11 truth.

“There’s only so many times you can watch Building 7 fall,” says Abel. Ross and I agree that that’s a good point.

YouTube University DVD_200pxBuilding 7, a part of the World Trade Center complex that collapsed along with the Twin Towers during the attacks, is key to the Truthers’ argument that the tragedy was orchestrated by the U.S. government. The DVDs they gave us for homework were full of Building 7. They say Building 7 collapsed exactly how you’d expect a building to collapse if someone blew it up. To them, this is evidence that the government deliberately manufactured a “false flag” event to lead us into war. The DVDs are full of barely related details and wild assumptions. We try to broach a couple of them during the meeting.

“The videos mentioned that the World Trade Center was built to withstand a plane crash, but wasn’t it also built in the 1970s, before these kinds of planes even existed?” I ask, a bit weakly. “Wouldn’t that be part of the government’s explanation?”

“RIGHT!” shouts a fifty-year-old woman across the room, throwing her hands in the air, “They built it to withstand a strike from the strongest airliner at the time!” She seems to have missed the point, but she’s very pleased with herself. She throws her hands in the air, as if to say, “Nothing could be more obvious!” It becomes clear that this group has grown so accustomed to incredulity that scoffing is their default. Counterpoints fly past unnoticed.
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Two hours later, the room has dissolved into a shouting spree that I cannot follow to save my life (which, at this point, I’m not sure I want to save). Abel is on a long diatribe about Hillary Clinton: “The Democratic party is dusting off old Hillary’s vagina and waxing it and polishing it up so you can vote for her because she’s a woman. And we all know how well it worked when they did that for the black guy!”

There’s a murmur in the crowd. Everyone mutters something quietly to him- or herself, ranging from “that’s right!” to “well, I don’t know about that…”

SHEEPLE 04_250pxThe man next to Ross and me, who is sporting cargo shorts and no shirt, shakes his dreadlocks at us. “They’re just MURDERERS. In a CEMETERY!” he says.

I give him a tiny smile, hopeful that this will end our interaction. Ross visibly pretends not to hear.

I raise my hand again. “I’m sorry. Can I bring this back to 9/11 for a second? I’m new to this, so maybe I’m missing something, but if so few people have even heard of Building 7, why did the government destroy it? Couldn’t they have achieved the same ends by just destroying the Twin Towers?”

Abel releases an annoyed sigh. Building 7, he says, was full of secret documents. September 11th planning documents, in fact. His voice slows and his eyes narrow on me. It’s the twelfth hour they’ve spent with us, but they seem to have just noticed us, like a smell creeping through a closed door.

“What’s your background, anyway? What do YOU think happened on September 11th?” asks Abel.

All eyes turn to us. We’ve been found out.

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The Feng Shui Way: A Catastrophe For City Planning

By Kyle Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Dick Van Dyke’s home had terrible feng shui.

Dick Van Dyke’s home had terrible feng shui.

Dick Van Dyke’s home had terrible feng shui. Improper positioning had him stumbling, fumbling, and tumbling all over the house. The futon in the living room had a particularly negative qi about it. To think of all the slapstick sitcoms we would be deprived of if feng shui were true…

If feng shui were true, already unbearable construction delays in major cities would be dwarfed by the demands of magnetism. The magnetic compass—built specifically for the practice of feng shui—guides modern feng shui application, and would dictate giant, regular shifts in the world’s architecture. The true magnetic north of our planet moves around like a cosmic stir stick in coffee, meaning that the proper alignment of a desk, room, or building moves as well.

To optimize the flow of qi, whole cities would need to shift every so often. Counties that could not afford the grand re-alignments would undergo terrible consequences. As magnetic poles wobbled, people would begin to feel sick and uneasy in their own homes. Others would experience piercingly odd feelings of “oneness.” Culture would begin to adapt accordingly. Certain months of the year would bring a general “lack of wellness” to a society. Alerts of shifting alignments would go out like air quality warnings. A neighbor’s house, now negatively positioned relative to your own, would affect you personally. Like accusations of witchcraft in the middle ages, a world where feng shui was true makes condemnation of a neighbor as simple as “they make me feel sick.”

feng shui doctorWith a reliance on the Earth’s magnetic field, true feng shui would drive a demand for consumer compasses. Smart phones would be outfitted with sensors. Dinner guests would have ample reason to avoid a tour of your home if the compass said so. But compass reliance also makes certain parts of the world uninhabitable. Building a positively positioned home at either of our planet’s poles, for example, would be impossible. With magnetic north so close, even walking a few feet to the right or left in such a home would drastically change the relative alignments of the structures within.

If feng shui worked, the optimal layouts for buildings would enter “best practices” manuals in architecture. Schools would have desks and hallways oriented in such a way as to promote learning. Hospitals would do the same with staircases, beds, and surgical theaters to promote healing. Feng shui masters would descend regularly to houses expecting children, ensuring the proper environment. “Energetic” layouts would be on every bachelor’s mind.

The DMV would get a radical overhaul to reduce the stress within its walls.

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Ghost Meters: I Can Name that Ghost in 5 Milligauss

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Why do paranormal investigations use EMF meters? Turns out, they don’t even know why. This is what happens when the paranormal gets sciencey. It isn’t pretty but there is beeping and flashing lights.

What's behind this hanging quilt? The ghost meter is pegged. (Photo by author)

What’s behind this hanging quilt? The ghost meter is pegged. (Photo by author)

I got a package in the mail from Amazon around the time of my birthday. It was light, not a book, something from my Wish List. I had my very own ghost meter! I started roaming my house looking for sources of electromagnetic fields.

If I just let my ghost meter sit there, it does nothing. But if I find a known source of electricity, then the analog meter bounces upward or, in some cases, pegs all the way to the right causing a flashing light and beeping sound. Around the house, here is what sets it off—the circuit box, the electronic displays on the oven and dishwasher, my digital alarm clock, the microwave, toaster oven and dehumidifier when turned on. No surprises there. My cell phone didn’t trigger it. I tested it outside with an approaching lightning storm. It was slightly greater than 0 milligauss outside compared to inside, and varied slightly from front of the house to back of the house. The storm never got close enough for me to record electromagnetic fields (EMFs) fluxes from lightning discharges. That probably was a good thing because I would have been standing out there in a rather dumb position, you know, for science.

A circuit box generates high EMF readings on the ghost meter. (Photo by author)

A circuit box generates high EMF readings on the ghost meter. (Photo by author)

My questions about this device were many and varied. What was it really measuring? Was it telling me anything? And, most importantly, what does this have to do with ghosts?

ElmerGhost02_250pxEarlier this summer, during a ghost hunt in which I was an observer, I saw paranormal researchers each with their own kinds of EMF meters. Some meters registered a change in the surrounding field at the same time. Some individual meters would fluctuate with no apparent electrical sources. The researchers considered these fluctuations to be indicative of responsive entities or paranormal energy around us. It was assumed that these anomalies were paranormal.

Where did this idea come from—this connection between EMFs and ghosts? It looks sciencey and objective. But something is not on the level. I consulted more knowledgeable people and the parapsychology literature to get some clarity on this issue.

There is Science Behind These Devices

My meter was cheap but was noted by reviewers as being a “good beginner device”. Just don’t wave it around too fast, they said, because that makes it go off.

ghost hunt emf_200pxI asked former physicist and one-time paranormal investigator on the Queen Mary “haunted” ship, Yau-Man Chan, what the deal was with these devices. He said they are simple to construct, very straightforward. They are an inductor coil and an amplifier. They pick up “impulsive” EMF signals, like a large inductive load turning on and off—an appliance with a motor, for example. Elevators, he notes, are a huge source of EMF signals like this. But because these hand-held meters are not specific enough in direction or frequency, they aren’t very useful for much and not at all precise enough to conclude what is detected if it’s not obvious. Electricians don’t use these meters. They use more advanced equipment.

There are many other kinds of EMF meters used in paranormal investigations. GhostGadgets.com’s has a discussion about the different types and how they work. I attempted to contact the owner of that site with more questions but got no response.

They do capture seemingly anomalous and transient EMFs during paranormal investigations as I observed. An EMF anomaly is an interesting phenomenon regardless of the paranormal association. It is a recording of an environmental variable that shows an unexpected flux. Yet, ghost hunters are rather convinced of their cause. I found this type of statement often: “When you find an unexplainable field, normally between 2 and 7 milligauss, it is associated with spirit activity”. (Source) This statement is problematic. There are too many leaps in logic and no evidence to support that conclusion. The connection between anomalies and spirit activity is assumed. The best we can rationally say is that we found an anomaly. Concluding “I don’t know what is causing this” (often without even a modicum of effort to find out) does not equal “paranormal”. But that is indeed what happens. According to many in paranormal investigation, it’s the default conclusion.

EMF meters “… detect fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and low strength moving EMF fields that have no source,” says Ghosthunting 101. How do you know there is no source? Has every potential source been eliminated? It is improbable that the investigator has been able to do that. There IS a source. You just didn’t locate it.
electromagnetic03
“It is a common theory that spirits disrupt this field in such a way that you can tell one is present by higher than normal readings with [an EMF] meter.” (Source) I found that “common theory” assumption in several places – stated that it is “generally accepted” by paranormal investigators that spirits emit an ELF (extremely low frequency) field and this measurement is indicative of their presence. (Curiously, the quote above appeared verbatim and unattributed on many ghost group sites which is evidence that these websites readily copy and paste from each other.) Researchers are often far too conclusive in their baseless assertions: “Nine times out of ten, if a mysterious field is constant and stable, it’s artificial; if it fluctuates wildly, it’s paranormal.” (J.P. Warren, How to Hunt Ghosts, p. 145) Oh, really? Citations please! Show your work! Another possible interpretation of that statement is that the concept of paranormal is too broad and vague to be of any meaning whatsoever.

Messy and Vague Data and Language

K2 Meter

K2 Meter

Not all paranormal investigators get that excited over EMF spikes because they will admit it’s clearly not a consistent observation. The data are all over the place. Paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle conducted experiments with the widely used K2 Meter made popular due to its appearance in the equipment array of television ghost chasers. He found the readings were inconsistent, the device was very sensitive and also easily manipulated with small electrical devices like cell phones, cameras and camera flashes. [The Bent Spoon magazine V1 p 17-22.]

Some have noted that they had a “paranormal” moment yet the EMF device did nothing. That’s actually a data point that is unsupportive of the theory of EMF=ghosts, but they have not recognized the importance of that. But they would admit that no device conclusive detects ghosts.

There are a few studies that are suggestive that haunt phenomena is correlated to local EMF variances. However, others that have not found this correlation. Much more solid work is needed before we can definitively link EMF anomalies to experiences described as “hauntings”. Yet, the link is widely touted by paranormal researchers.

Vagueness is a problem in this field. We have an unreliable reading of questionable accuracy, positing an unknown source or the source is that which we have not yet conclusively determined to exist. We can’t even get an operational definition of a “ghost”! Science is particular about defining terms and using supporting references. Not so with 99% of paranormal “research.” You can’t do anything resembling science is such a state.

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UFO research is up in the air: Can it be scientific?

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

A few months back, a British anomaly investigation organization announced the possible death of UFOlogy. They admitted that failure to provide proof that UFOs were extraterrestrial craft and a decline in the number of UFO reports suggests that aliens do not exist after all. Was this the end of “UFOlogy”—the study of UFOs? “No way! It’s alive and well here,” said the U.S. UFOlogists. So it is. But what is the real status of the study of UFOs?

Seth Shostak: The UFO BestiaryThe UFO research field is having a bit of a crisis these days. Reports come in by the hundreds. There are not enough people to investigate them. Yet, decades of UFO research by private and military organizations have resulted in disappointment for those who surely thought there was something out there to reveal. Many of the historic figures of UFOlogy are aging or have passed away. Who is doing the work now? And what exactly are they doing?

The major organization remaining in the U.S. for investigating UFO sightings is MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network. MUFON is not in good shape. Their stated mission is to conduct scientific investigation of UFO reports for the benefit of mankind. But there is dispute about their ability to actually do that. The current version of MUFON, according to those observing the situation, is focused on everything except proper UFO investigation and is nowhere near scientific. Membership in the organization has fallen off and some local MUFON groups are disgruntled. Leadership upheavals over the past few years may have been distracting and overall, they are experiencing a serious case of mission creep.

MUFON consists of chapters covering each state across the country who operate somewhat independently with members paying dues to the main headquarters. They promote a scientific method. But do they actually accomplish that goal? Recent commentators say no, they do not. The focus in local MUFON chapters meetings these days is decidedly unscientific with talks on alien abduction, conspiracy theories, human-ET hybrids, hypnotic regression, and repressed memories. That’s a wide range of pseudoscience in one place. It’s dragging down the credibility of the entire subject as well as missing the point of improving actual UFO investigations.

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A Million Poisoning Planes

By Kyle Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

The largest fleet of aircraft the world has ever seen was created to poison it. Millions of planes criss-cross the skies, dumbing down the populace with secret and powerful chemical agents. Every time you board a plane, you can’t look out a window without seeing one of these jet-powered poisoners. There is always danger overhead when chemtrails really do cover the sky.

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

Unless a plane could make multiple runs per day, a true chemtrail conspiracy would need 2,700 times as many 747s as have ever been constructed.

chemtrail UFO culprit_250pxAn infrastructure large enough to cover the country in chemicals would make the skies look like Coruscant. Pilots—not the millions in on the scheme—never pick up on the increased traffic. It’s a mystery to them that they never report, and they never scan the communication channels to find out what is going on. They don’t question that they have to wait an hour while half a dozen unmarked planes make their descents. A world with a chemtrail conspiracy means the most skilled vehicle operators on the planet have no idea who is operating the other vehicles or why. Ever.

Property values across the country plummet, as the most populated areas are inundated with airplane traffic and the associated noise. The government thought about putting the planes higher up in the atmosphere, but the higher they go, the more agent they would need—and that only leads to more planes, pilots, and secrecy. At this point the government might not even need a secret, stupefying chemical—if hundreds of millions of Americans never catch on to the millions of passenger-less planes overhead everyday, who needs to spend all that money on devious research and development?

The incognito infrastructure needed to conceal the chemtrail conspiracy would dwarf any other governmental agency. Millions of people—pilots, engineers, chemists, data analysts, and boots-on-the-ground hazmat teams—would need top-secret clearance for information that could never get out. If a chemtrail conspiracy were true, chances are you would run into a few involved in the cover up everyday. An effort to keep millions of mouths silent—to keep any information from pilots or participants out of the media—makes the NSA look like child’s play.

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Hitler’s South Pole Hideaway

By Massimo Polidoro via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

hitler-adolf_250px“Searching for Hitler’s DNA in Antarctica.” This is the bizarre headline that made the news a few months ago, launched by Russian news agency Ria Novosti and picked up by the world media after scientists were able to successfully drill into Antarctica’s Lake Vostok. The lake, a massive liquid reservoir cut off from daylight for fourteen million years and buried beneath two miles of ice, is the object of a years-long project to study its waters, which may house life-forms new to science. But what immediately caught the imagination was what seemed to be a revamping of the long-held myth that Adolf Hitler did not commit suicide in his Berlin bunker in May 1945 but was able to escape via submarine to a secret base at the South Pole.

Doubtful Death

Such an idea started circulating immediately after the end of the war. In 1952, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “We have been unable to unearth one bit of tangible evidence of Hitler’s death. Many people believe that Hitler escaped from Berlin.” Stalin’s top army officer, Marshall Gregory Zhukov, whose troops were the first to enter Berlin, flatly stated after a long thorough investigation in 1945: “We have found no corpse that could be Hitler’s.” The chief of the U.S. trial counsel at Nuremberg, Thomas J. Dodd, said: “No one can say he is dead.” Former Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes in his book Frankly Speaking stated that, after the war, at the Potsdam Conference of the Big Four, he met Stalin, who “left his chair, came over, and clinked his liquor glass with mine in a very friendly manner. I said to him: ‘Marshal Stalin, what is your theory about the death of Hitler?’ Stalin re­plied: ‘He is not dead. He escaped either to Spain or Argentina.’ ”

Hitler’s Berlin bunker, after the Soviet army destroyed it.

Hitler’s Berlin bunker, after the Soviet army destroyed it.

If so many Nazi officers and criminals, like Adolf Eichmann or Joseph Mengele, were able to escape undisturbed from defeated Germany, who’s to say that a diabolical mind like Hitler’s could not have set up a plan in order to simulate his own death? After all, it was known that, like many dictators, he used doubles in order to disorient his enemies. What if he had left the body of one such double in Berlin while he was fleeing to the South Pole?

It appears that in the early 1930s, the imaginations of Nazi hierarchs and maybe Hitler’s as well was captured by theories that the Earth was hollow inside and inhabited by a superior race. In particular, Madame Blavatsky’s esoteric theories had inspired the notorious Thule Society, the extremist right-wing German secret group that later reorganized and became the Nazi Party. Anxious to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race, theorists accepted legends of advanced civilizations living inside the Earth: such a superior breed had to be the Reich’s progenitor.

Nazis on Ice

hitler-uboatsProof is lacking, but some claim that Hitler had ordered an expedition aiming to find the entrance to the inside of the Earth and that this had been located at the South Pole. Admiral Karl Doenitz referred to this during the Nuremberg trial when he stated: “The German submarine fleet has even now established an earthly paradise, an impregnable for­tress, for the Fuhrer, in whatever part of the world.” Although he did not specify where the exact location was, many believed it was Antarctica.

After the war, Nazi sympathizer Ernst Zundel claimed that Hitler and a trusted group of men had been able to escape aboard a ship in which they entered the Earth through a hole at the South Pole. Inside the Earth, Nazi scientists worked to build a new army with which to take over the world. An army that could count on revolutionary round, flying vehicles: UFOs.

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The Wisdom of Not Understanding

By Ben Radford via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

WhatThe_400pxAbout two years ago during a conversation, a friend of mine mentioned a movie she thought I’d really like. In fact it was a documentary, and as a fan of docs, I was eager to hear more about it. “You’d find it interesting,” she said. “It’s kind of about stuff you investigate. It’s called What the Bleep Do We Know!? Have you heard of it?”

I had indeed heard of the film, a New Agey jumble of pseudoscience and mysticism about supposed links between consciousness and quantum physics, produced by followers of J.Z. Knight, a woman who claims to dispense in­formation from a 35,000-year-old ghost. In fact, I had done my best to keep it from misinforming the public when it was first released, writing a few short skeptical pieces about it.

Not wanting to get into an argument with my friend, I just let the conversation trail off. But before I did, she made an interesting comment: “To be honest I didn’t really understand a lot of it. . . . But you’re really smart—you would get it.”

She assumed that the reason she didn’t understand the film’s information was be­cause she had no background in science. I, on the other hand, did not understand the film precisely because I do have a strong background in science. When people don’t understand something they are told, there are three possibilities or root causes.

Most commonly, the person assumes, as my friend did, that the problem lies with the listener. Her (quite reasonable) assumption was that the film was comprehensible and that if she didn’t understand it, it was due to her limitations or lack of knowledge. This was a mainstream, feature-length documentary film with some famous people in it—in­cluding physicists. Surely these people would not appear on camera discussing self-evidently nonsensical ideas such as that thoughts can control reality.

einstein evidence_400pxLess often, the problem lies with the speaker’s inability to effectively communicate—perhaps he or she does not share the same native language as the listener, is disorganized, or has a speech impediment for example. In this case the information and message may be correct and clear, but communication does not occur because of a problem with the source.

Sometimes the problem lies neither with the listener nor with the speaker, but instead in the content. In this case, the reason that the listener doesn’t understand what is being said is that what is being said makes little or no sense by any objective measure. This is in­sidious and difficult to detect because people do not like to challenge authority on a topic they are presumably trying to become educated about—especially in public. The speaker is not talking gibberish; quite the opposite: he or she may be very eloquent. Furthermore, identifying nonsense often requires some basic understanding of the subject.

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Phrenology and the Grand Delusion of Experience

Geoffrey Dean via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

Today, phrenology (“head reading”) is usually seen as the fossilized stuff of cranks and charlatans. But in the nineteenth century it had a huge influence at all levels of Western society, more than all of its later competitors (such as psychoanalysis) put together. It was in­fluential because of its attractive philosophy and because practitioners and clients saw that it worked. But we now know that it could not possibly work; personal experience had led millions of people astray. Indeed, few beliefs can match phrenology for its extent of influence and certainty of invalidity. So it has valuable lessons about any experience-based belief.

Phrenology’s Influence

In the nineteenth century, phrenology affected all levels of Western life and thought. In Britain, Europe, and Amer­ica, its influence was felt in anthropology, criminology, education, medicine, psychiatry, art, and literature. In France, it eroded established power and led to wide social changes. In Australia, it rationalized the violence against Abo­rigines and explained the criminality of convicts. For ordinary people everywhere a head reading was often required for employment or marriage.1 But how could this happen if phrenology was totally invalid? For answers, we need to start at the beginning.

First Steps to Delusion

Around 1790, the German-born anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, one of the founders of modern neurology, put together his skull doctrine that later led to phrenology. He held that behavior such as painting or being careful had their own specialized organs in the brain, and that they influenced the shape of the skull. So the skull’s bumps would indicate behavior and abilities that were innate. Gall spent eleven years examining hundreds of heads to test his ideas: “If … he observed any mechanician, musician, sculptor, draughtsman, mathematician, endowed with such or such faculty from birth, he examined their heads to see whether he might point out a particular development of some cerebral part…. He also called together in his house common people, as coachmen and poor boys, and excited them to make him ac­quainted with their characters” (Spurz­heim 1815, 271).

Gall’s seemingly logical approach had two fatal defects. First, his claims were often based on a single striking case, for example “Cautiousness” was placed above the ears because an extremely cautious priest had a large bump there. Second, Gall looked only for confirmingcases and ignored disconfirming cases, a flaw not lost on his critics. Thus David Skae (1847), a physician at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, noted that once the truth is “fixed upon our minds,” looking for confirmation is “the most perfect recipe for making a phrenologist that could well be devised.” But to Gall and the thousands of phrenologists who came later, personal experience mattered more than procedural defects. Phren­ology had taken its first giant step on the road to delusion.2 Note that the delusion of experience is not limited to artifacts of reasoning such as the Barnum effect.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

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Curse That Painting!

By Massimo Polidoro via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – csicop.org

Paranormal legends about paintings have always existed. Some think that a picture falling off the wall represents a bad omen for the person depicted or photographed in it. Others feel watched by some portraits whose eyes seem to follow onlookers as they move through a room. And still others claim that paintings can come alive; people in it can move, smile, close their eyes, or even leave the picture. And, of course, tales of “cursed” paintings abound.

Certainly great writers, from Oscar Wilde with The Picture of Dorian Gray to Stephen King with Rose Madder, have been able to tell extraordinary stories of scary and unsettling paintings. However, many believe that “haunted” paintings can exist in real life. Coming from a family that has always dealt with paintings—my grandfather is a painter, my father was an art collector, and together with their wives they have run a shop selling paintings for over fifty years—it is easy to understand why this is a subject that particularly fascinates me.

The Hands Resist Him

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The Hands Resist Him painting by Bill Stoneham was sold on eBay as “cursed.”

In February 2000, a supposedly cursed painting was auctioned on eBay. It was titled The Hands Resist Him and was painted in 1972 by California artist Bill Stoneham. It depicted a young boy and a female doll standing in front of a glass paneled door against which many hands are pressed. The owners claimed that the characters in it came alive, sometimes leaving the painting and entering the room in which it was being displayed. It was sold for $1,025 to Perception Gallery in Grand Rapids, Mich­igan, which, when contacted some time later, stated that they had not noticed anything strange since buying the painting.

Luckily for Stoneham, the rumor caused by the story made the painting so popular that it was depicted in a short movie by A.D. Calvo (Sitter), as the CD cover art for Carnival Divine’s self-titled album, and was featured in the PC video game “Scratches.” Today, prints of it—and of its sequel, Resistance at the Threshold—are sold in different sizes.

Smiling Portrait

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Teresa Rovere. On the right, seen through a viewfinder, the face seems to smile;
it’s just an illusion created by the shape of the lens.

In November 2005, the Italian TV show Voyager showed a painting owned by self-proclaimed psychic Gustavo Rol from Turin. It depicted a noble lady, Teresa Rovere, wearing nineteenth century garments and a somber frown. However, when the painting was seen through the viewfinder of a camera the mouth seemed to curl upward, forming a smile. Nothing could be seen with the naked eye and the film recorded through the camera did not show anything unusual. On the show, it was claimed that this was an unexplainable phenomenon, maybe an after-life paranormal experiment of the late Rol. In reality, it was a simple optical effect due to the round shape of the viewfinder, the lens of which tends to narrow and make rounder anything seen through it: thus, the coronet on Teresa’s hair seems to bend downward just like the mouth appears to bend upward, creating the illusion of a smile that in reality is not there.

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Eyewitness to the Paranormal: The Experimental Psychology of the ‘Unexplained’

via CSI | The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Research in experimental psychology has shown that many paranormal sightings fall directly within the realm of eyewitness memory. Experiments reveal that such “sightings” derive from the psychology of the observers rather than from supernatural sources. Experiments show these proclivities.

If many sources on cable TV and the Internet are to be believed, the world is currently under attack by a variety of supernatural forces, apparently acting in concert.

Such reports are ubiquitous. Aliens appear at night on deserted country roads. The ghosts of hoary and defunct Scottish peers turn up on castle battlements, demanding retribution for ancient defeats at the hands of the Sassenach. Bigfoot, all eight or nine feet of him, runs past a given cabin on his way to some cryptozoological tryst—and all of it winds up on television.

What, exactly, is going on?

There is a difficulty in explaining many of these paranormal “sightings.” At first, one might expect that the witnesses to these phenomena would be residents of the wilder shores of psychological instability; however, many of the people who report these things are sober, educated, reasonable individuals. Many are ac­tively adverse to publicity, and an ap­preciable fraction of them passes polygraph tests. In short, many of these witnesses—in fact, probably the majority of them—are neither lying nor mentally ill. They have normal nervous systems, and they are convinced that they have experienced something extraordinary.

Logically, therefore, there are only two viable explanations for the events these people claim to experience. Either Bigfoot, the ghosts, and the Gray aliens actually exist, or the individual witnesses to these exotic beings have actually observed and misinterpreted relatively prosaic phenomena. If the latter is the case, then these misinterpretations are very literally eyewitness errors and, as such, are governed by the same psychological principles that operate in eyewitness processes in the forensic world.

Eyewitness Memory and the ‘Paranormal’

On average, most of us think of eyewitness memory in relatively narrow terms, such as criminal identification via police lineups. In fact, the eyewitness field has much broader significance both in the criminal justice system and beyond. Every human phenomenon involving reportage—from recall of childhood memories in psychotherapy to the observation of a planetary transit—coalesces around some kind of account of some variety of human experience. This means that the processes involved in eyewitness cognition per se are continually operating, albeit at a relatively subtle level, through the entire fabric of human existence.

Unfortunately, eyewitness memories are frequently wrong. In my own work I have found that people, including and perhaps especially jurors, tend to think of the human nervous system as some kind of digital recorder, faithfully reproducing what we’ve actually seen when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Eighty years ago (Bartlett 1932) it was demonstrated that human memories become reconfigured—changed in terms of gist, brevity, and personal belief. Our memories lose detail; they become shorter; and what we think we’ve seen frequently replaces what we’ve actually seen. These aspects of human memory have been reconfirmed by modern studies (e.g., Ahlberg and Sharps 2002) and have been shown as far back as the 1970s to be directly important for eyewitness memory; for example, Loftus (1975) showed that witnesses will typically “remember,” and confidently re­port, the color of a barn in a given scene as red even when there is no barn in the scene to be observed. This illustrates the effect of personal belief on an individual’s memory. People generally expect barns to be red; therefore, when Loftus asked experimental witnesses for the color of the barn they had seen, their imaginations obligingly provided the most typical color even though no actual barn had been presented to them.

Our recent experimental research has underscored this effect (Sharps et al. 2009; see also Sharps 2010). In studies of witness errors derived from a violent crime scene, the most prevalent error
(an average of nearly two errors of this type per witness) was a mistake in the physique or clothing of a gun-wielding perpetrator. However, the second most prevalent error (an average of 1.25 errors of this type per witness) was one of “inference, extrapolation, or imagination”: in other words, the average witness simply made up, out of whole cloth, one and one-quarter nonexistent “facts” about a given violent crime.

‘Seeing’ the Supernatural

Human memory, therefore, is malleable: what you see is not necessarily what you get. This concept has obvious relevance to sightings of the “unexplained.” It is clearly possible for a human being …

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