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Unsubstantiated: A new Netflix documentary purporting to provide proof of alien visitation fails to deliver feed - Tue, 01/16/2018 - 10:00am

With its high production values and its parade of seemingly expert witnesses, Steven Greer’s film, Unacknowledged, may at first seem to provide substantial evidence of visitations by space aliens to the Earth—in particular that the Roswell incident involved an actual crashed spaceship and the bodies of its alien crew, of a massive cover-up of these contacts by the government of the United States, and the reason for the cover-up. This last is that the cover-up is part of the suppression of the science and technology of zero-point or quantum vacuum energy, which would give us unlimited, pollution-free energy and eliminate poverty and starvation throughout the world. The perpetrators of this evil conspiracy are, according to the film, those in charge of “Black Programs,” which gobble up either $40 to $80 billion a year (as it is claimed early in the film) or $100 to $200 billion (as the narrator claims later in the movie).

To anyone of a skeptical mind-set a red flag pops up early in the film when a flood of witnesses claim to have seen the crashed spaceship and the bodies of its alien crew at Area 51. I didn’t initially recognize many of the names of those witnesses. One, however stood out: Lt. Col. Philip Corso, who authored a book titled The Day After Roswell. Here is what the noted UFO investigator Stanton Friedman had to say in his review of that book:

The first part of the book, with the exception of the strange Ft. Riley, Kansas warehouse scene with an alien body being observed by Corso on July 6, seems to have nothing to do with him. He admits he wasn’t involved at all in the recovery, investigation, or evaluation of what happened near Roswell. It is almost certainly based on the many Roswell books already published by Randle and Schmitt, Moore and Berlitz, and Don Berliner and myself, but with no attempt to validate or critically evaluate anything and no credits being given.

In the second half of the book Corso seems to be taking credit for the single handed introduction of a whole host of new technologies into American industry. All this is supposedly derived from the filing cabinet of Roswell wreckage over which he was given control by General Trudeau. He is very vague about details, and there is no substantiation for any of the claims on fiber optics, Kevlar, laser weapons, microcircuits, etc.1

That the person who is taking Corso to task and implying that he is a fraud is none other than Stanton Friedman is quite telling, since Friedman is perhaps the foremost apologist for the contention that an alien spaceship crashed at Roswell and that the government is covering it up.

Another of the seemingly expert witnesses, one who also claims to have seen the bodies of the dead aliens from the Roswell crash site, is Richard C. Doty. This would seem to represent a turn-about, since Doty originally appears to have spread disinformation to lead UFO enthusiasts on wild goose chases. According to one article:

The UFO community has been familiar with Richard C. Doty, self-proclaimed “disinformation agent” who used to work as an AFOSI officer in Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. … Most folks seem to agree that he indeed had a deep impact on the life of businessman Paul Bennewitz, owner of defense contractor Thunder Scientific Laboratories in Albuquerque located right next to Kirtland Air Force Base.2

The article quotes Doty as saying:

I do not have anything to do with UFO research or investigations. I attempted to perform certain duties which would enable our team to trap possible foreign agents working against the interest of the United States. My supervisors, however, saw my actions as being unauthorized. Therefore, I was asked to leave AFOSI, which I did voluntarily.3

Is a man who has spread deceptive information and who at one time says he had nothing to do with UFO research to be trusted when he now says he saw the crashed Roswell spaceship?

Another of the witnesses giving important testimony in the film is Maj. George A. Filir III, who claims to have chased a UFO over Stonehenge. If we were to judge the credibility of a witness based on kooky beliefs he or she might hold, Filir would not come out well. When UFO skeptic Robert Schaeffer visited a MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) symposium in 2011, he reports that Filir gave a presentation in which he made some rather startling claims about the planet Mars:

Mars, according to Filer, used to be teeming with life until it was mostly wiped out in a nuclear holocaust some 180 million years ago. He showed NASA photos of Mars that purport to contain tubes (possibly water pipes, or trains) that extend for miles, as well as underground cities. There are numerous faces on Mars, and some of them look similar to Egyptian Pharaohs. But some life still exists among the ruins. The green colors on Mars represent growths of moss and algae.4

Considering that, according to NASA, the atmosphere of Mars is about 100 times thinner than that of Earth, and that it is over 95% carbon dioxide and only 0.13% oxygen,5 one wonders what the surviving Martians are breathing.

Similar to the assertion above by George Filir is the claim by Sgt. Karl Wolfe, another of the film’s witnesses, that he saw photos taken by the Lunar Orbiter of a base on the far side of the moon. In an online article titled “3 Dumbest Dark Side of the Moon Conspiracy Theories” Harrison Preston says of this claim:

Another prime candidate for our plain dumb category is one Karl Wolfe, a former sergeant in the United States Air Force. According to his own testimony for the Disclosure Project before the National Press Club in Washington DC in 2010, Wolfe claims to have been assigned to HQ Tactical Air Command in Langley, Virginia.

One day in “1965, mid-1965”, whilst assigned to the Lunar Orbiter Program, Wolfe says he saw “clear structures, buildings, mushroom shaped buildings, spherical buildings, towers” in a series of photographs of the far side of the moon shown to him by an airman in a lab he was working in.

He also stated the other airman told him “we’ve found a base on the far side of the moon.” Wolfe is very clear on the year this supposedly happened, and also the project he was a part of. It is this clarity which also serves to show why he couldn’t possibly be telling the truth.

The Lunar Orbiter Program ran from 1966 through to 1967, but the first images of the far side of the moon weren’t captured until the Lunar Orbiter 4 mission in May 1967—a full two years after Wolfe claims to have seen the structures and buildings! Lunar 4 photographed 9% of the far side, with Lunar Orbiter 5 imaging the rest in August that same year.6

A NASA report on the Lunar Orbiter missions notes that a total of 419 high resolution and 127 medium resolution photos were taken by the Lunar Orbiter missions, covering over 99% of the lunar surface.7 For all that, no alien bases show up in these photos.

Not all of the witnesses in the film can be dismissed as fraudulent or part of the lunatic fringe. Edgar Mitchell, the sixth astronaut to walk on the moon, believed that aliens had contacted us and that the government had covered it up.8 However, he also believed in remote healing, specifically that a young psychic in Canada named Adam Dreamhealer had cured him of kidney cancer, as reported by Julie Neimark:

Edgar Mitchell, one of Adam’s strongest proponents, told me quite openly on the phone that he never had biopsy-proven cancer. “I had a sonogram and MRI that was consistent with renal carcinoma,” Mitchell recalled when I interviewed him, “which is about the best they can do without a biopsy. I didn’t have the biopsy.” Adam worked on Mitchell from December of 2003 until June, when the “irregularity was gone and we haven’t seen it since.” But he didn’t have the biopsy. Is Mitchell convinced it was cancer? Sure. Is there any definitive proof? No.9

Thus, even respected and intelligent persons can hold beliefs that are irrational.

Another astronaut who would seem to support the film’s assertion of widespread knowledge of alien visitors, at least to our solar system is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. The movie shows a clip in which Aldrin says of the Martian moon, Phobos:

There’s a monolith, a very unusual structure on this little potato-shaped object that goes around Mars once in every seven hours. They’re going to say, “Who put that there? Who put that there?”

It would seem, from this clip, that Aldrin is saying that this is an artificial structure placed on Phobos by extraterrestrial beings. However, when one views Aldrin’s actual video, the inherent dishonesty of Unacknowledged is dramatically highlighted. Here is Aldrin’s actual statement, with the material edited out in Unacknowledged shown in italics:

There’s a monolith, a very unusual structure on this little potato-shaped object that goes around Mars once in every seven hours. They’re going to say, “Who put that there? Who put that there?” Well, the universe put it there. If you choose, God put it there.10

Skeptics are familiar with this tactic of deliberately quoting someone out of context to make it seem like they are advocating the opposite of what they are actually saying. It is a common ploy used by creationists to attempt to discredit evolutionary biologists. Here it has been used to falsely make people believe that Buzz Aldrin is saying there’s an alien artifact on Phobos. The “monolith” Aldrin refers to, by the way, bears no resemblance to the monolith in the move 2001: A Space Odyssey. While it is strange looking—a thin, vertical piece of rock—it is irregular enough to plainly be a natural object.

It might, at this point, seem as though this review is nothing more than an attack on the character of the witnesses. However, there is really nothing of substance to the film except the testimony of these people, many of who show evidence of questionable veracity. Despite claiming there are “Black Programs” secretly controlling information about extraterrestrial contacts and suborning the scientific establishment and the press, Greer and his associates give no evidence to support this assertion beyond the witnesses. In this regard, the film asserts that, since mainstream media has been suborned, the truth about UFOs has been forced onto the pages of the tabloids. This is almost comical, since this was one of the gags of the movie Men in Black.

From time to time Greer does read from what appear to be redacted secret documents released through the Freedom of Information Act. However, their headings are never shown. One reason we might doubt their authenticity is that they are coupled with yet another statement dishonestly taken out of context. Victor Marchetti, former Special Assistant to the Executive Director of the CIA is quoted as saying:

We have, indeed, been contacted—perhaps even visited—by extraterrestrial beings, and the U.S. Government, in collusion with other national powers of the Earth, is determined to keep this information from the general public.

The quote is from a 1979 article by Marchetti in a no longer published magazine called Second Look, titled “How the CIA Views the UFO Phenomenon.” While that magazine is defunct, the article is available on a number of websites. In it Marchetti first admits that he has no firsthand experience with UFOs, has never seen one, and has no empirical or physical evidence of their existence. He then says the following, and here the material edited out in the quote above is added in italics:

My theory is that we have, indeed, been contacted—perhaps even visited—by extraterrestrial beings, and that the U.S. Government, in collusion with other national powers of the Earth, is determined to keep this information from the general public.11

So the filmmakers grossly misquoted Marchetti by removing the statement that it was his theory that we have been contacted by extraterrestrial beings, dishonestly quoting him as saying that extraterrestrial beings have definitely contacted us and that he knows definitively that our government is covering it up.

Earlier in the film, Greer says that Carl Sagan originally supported the idea that UFOs were real and had said that it was clear Earth was not the only inhabited planet. Greer then says:

After he was threatened by the intelligence community, and blackmailed, he then began to debunk the issue.

So, was Sagan originally a UFO believer, silenced and cowed by those running the Black Programs? Here’s what Carl Sagan actually said about extraterrestrial intelligence:

It now seems quite clear that Earth is not the only inhabited planet. There is evidence that the bulk of the stars in the sky have planetary systems. Recent research concerning the origin of life on Earth suggests that the physical and chemical processes leading to the origin of life occur rapidly in the early history of the majority of planets. The selective value of intelligence and technical civilization is obvious, and it seems likely that a large number of planets within our Milky Way galaxy—perhaps as many as a million—are inhabited by technical civilizations in advance of our own. Interstellar space flight is far beyond our present technical capabilities, but there seems to be no fundamental physical objections to preclude, from our own vantage point, the possibility of its development by other civilizations.12

Here Sagan is merely running a thought experiment extrapolating the possible number of extra-terrestrial civilizations based on the number of potential planets in our galaxy, a very common theme in SETI literature. In any case, there is no evidence that Carl Sagan was threatened by the government or that he was ever anything other than a skeptic concerning reported contacts by UFOs.

Unacknowledged is divided into three acts. The first act, titled “Embarrassment of Riches,” asserts that the evidence of extraterrestrial contact is overwhelming. It isn’t. The second act, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” claims, but does not substantiate, a grand cover-up conspiracy. Act three, titled “The Lost Century,” begins with the assertion that Nicola Tesla had found an inexhaustible source of energy and that, upon his death, his files were confiscated by the powers that be. The energy source in question is called zero point energy or quantum vacuum energy. In the film, Mark McCandlish, military aeronautic illustrator says of this force:

The amount of energy in a cubic meter of space-time is 1026 power. That’s ten with 26 zeros behind it. That’s enough energy in a coffee cup to boil all the oceans of Earth completely away into steam.

This would certainly be an impressive energy source—if we could use it. The problem is that we may never be able to use it. The film never really explains what zero point energy is. A physics website points out that, while it is abundant it is also diffuse:

Zero-point energy is the energy that remains when all other energy is removed from a system. This behaviour is demonstrated by, for example, liquid helium. As the temperature is lowered to absolute zero, helium remains a liquid, rather than freezing to a solid, owing to the irremovable zero-point energy of its atomic motions. (Increasing the pressure to 25 atmospheres will cause helium to freeze.)13

Can this energy actually be accessed? The website goes on to say:

As to whether zero-point energy may become a source of usable energy, this is considered extremely unlikely by most physicists, and none of the claimed devices are taken seriously by the mainstream science community. Nevertheless, SED interpretation of the Bohr orbit (above) does suggest a way whereby energy might be extracted. Based upon this a patent has been issued and experiments have been underway at the University of Colorado (U.S. Patent 7,379,286).14

That research into extracting zero point energy is being performed at the University of Colorado belies the movie’s claim that the government is keeping this free energy source from us.

The film also claims in passing that a car that can run on water, invented by Stanley Meyer, was also suppressed. Cars that can run on water are a recurring theme in pseudoscience. Writing in Nature, Philip Ball says of this car:

And then there is poor Stanley Meyer, inventor of the “water-powered car.” Meyer just wanted to give people cheap, clean energy. But the oil companies clearly couldn’t have that and so harassed and intimidated him (the internet says so it must be true). In 1996 he was found guilty of “gross and egregious fraud” by an Ohio court. He died in 1998 after eating at a restaurant; the coroner diagnosed an aneurysm, but the conspiracy web still suspects he was poisoned.

It’s not easy to establish how Meyer’s car was meant to work, except that it involved a fuel cell that was able to split water using less energy than was released by recombination of the elements.15

And so, with zero point energy and cars that run on water the film descends into the realm of perpetual motion machines.

One question that is never even posed in the film, let alone answered, is why the space aliens, who Greer says are probably concerned by our warlike tendencies, haven’t used their immense energy resources and advanced technology to overwhelm the evil perpetrators of the Black Projects by, for example, simply commandeering the air waves and the internet to expose the cover-up and give the information to everyone on Earth. It would seem that despite their vaunted technology, they can’t do what Edward Snowdon did.

About the Author

Tim Callahan is religion editor of Skeptic magazine. His books include Secret Origins of the Bible, and Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? both published by Millennium Press. He has also researched the environmental movement, and his article “Environmentalists Cause Malaria! (and other myths of the ‘Wise Use’ movement)” appeared in The Humanist. He has co-authored UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says.

  2. Hayakawa, Norio. “Did Richard C. Doty ruin the life of Albuquerque businessman, Paul Bennewitz?”
  3. Ibid
  4. Schaeffer, Robert. 2011. “A Skeptic does the MUFON Symposium—Part 5 of 5.” Bad UFOs: Skepticism, UFOs, and The Universe. August 13.
  6. Preston, Harrison “3 Dumbest Dark Side of the Moon Conspiracy Theories”
  8. ”UFO UpDates: Edgar Mitchell On The UFO Cover-up” October 11, 1998. Archived from the original on January 28, 2007.
  9. Neimark J. 2005. “The Big Bird, the Big Lie, God and Science” Skeptical Inquirer November 29.
  11. Marchetti, Victor. 1979. “How the CIA Views the UFO Phenomenon” Second Look vol. 1. No. 7, May.
  12. Sagan, Carl. 1963. “Unidentified Flying Objects.” The Encyclopedia Americana.
  13. “Zero Point Energy” Calphysics Institute
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ball, Philip. 2007. “Burning water and other myths” Nature (published online) 14 September.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

More Mental Illness Denial

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 01/16/2018 - 5:15am

I was recently pointed to this article by Johann Hari in The Guardian that takes a critical look at depression and the treatment for depression. Unfortunately, it turned out to be nothing more than the usual mental-illness denial talking points, misdirection, and obfuscation.

As you will see if you follow the link above, this is a well-worn topic here. The basics are this – there are those, for various reasons, who are engaged in what I think qualifies as mental-illness denial. They include scientologists, because they push their cult/religion as an alternative to psychiatry. There are also those who follow Szasz who saw psychiatry as a mechanism for political oppression. I also find denial at times among rival professions who want to take psychiatry down a peg or two (often they just confuse their experimental expertise for clinical expertise – always a problem).

They all tend to have in common the core claim that “mental illness” is a fiction. How can thoughts be diseased? This is ultimately a straw man that confuses different types of illness. Some illness is based in biological pathology – cells are damaged, deteriorating, poisoned, genetically flawed, or essentially not functioning within healthy parameters for some reason. You can often see the pathology in a biopsy or measure it with some physiological parameter.

But not all illness is pathological disease. There are also disorders in which some biological function is outside of healthy parameters without clear pathology. The brain in particular is prone to this type of illness, and that is because brain function depends on much more than just the health of its cells (neurons and glia). Even healthy brain cells can be organized in such a way that their neurological function is compromised.

Let’s say, for example, that the anxiety circuitry in the brain is hyperactive creating spontaneous, unfocused, and debilitating anxiety. Now of course, anxiety itself is part of our natural neurological function. It serves a purpose. But excessive and spontaneous anxiety no longer serves a functional purpose, it just inhibits the ability to function. It is a mental disorder, in the absence of biological pathology.

Mental health deniers, however, twist themselves into logical knots trying to deny that there could possibly be anything about excessive anxiety that we can properly call an illness or disorder.

Like all campaigns of denial, there is also a range of approaches to denying the existence and implications of mental illness. At the extreme end you will find pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. At the milder end you will find softer denial, and denial that they are deniers. At this end there is the attempt to sound reasonable, and to conceal that at the end of the day they are engaging in motivated reasoning to deny the topic they oppose for ideological or other reasons. They give themselves away, however, by using the tactics of denial, and always flirting with the more extreme arguments.

For example, climate change deniers trying to sound reasonable will often acknowledge that the Earth is warming, we just can’t be sure that humans are causing it. But if you back them into a corner with evidence, they will acknowledge this but just deny that we can do anything about it. There is evidence that this behavior is rooted in “solution aversion” – in the end they oppose proposed solutions to climate change, and will deny the science only as much as they need to in order to oppose those solutions.

With mental illness denial, sometimes the motivation is psychiatry denial – opposition to the psychiatric profession. Of course you can do this by denying mental illness, but for those trying to seem reasonable you can also say you accept that there is such a thing, but then deny that we understand it well enough to treat it. Or you can simply deny the approach to mental illness of the psychiatric profession.

At this point I want to be clear – there are legitimate criticisms of psychiatric science and practice. Just as there are legitimate criticisms of medicine in general, and any applied science, including climate science. There is also no sharp demarcation between fair and legitimate criticism and motivated denial. You need some knowledge and judgement to see the difference at the fuzzy border. That is why I tend to characterize denialism as a process, try to define and understand the process as best as possible, and then be vigilant about the intrusion of denalism strategies at any level.

So let’s get back to Johann Hari’s article and see where I think he veers into denialism. Hari is writing about the difference between a depression disorder and normal grief. He is commenting on the DSM (the manual psychiatrists use to make diagnoses – a popular target among deniers):

The authors conferred, and they decided that there would be a special clause added to the list of symptoms of depression. None of this applies, they said, if you have lost somebody you love in the past year. In that situation, all these symptoms are natural, and not a disorder. It was called “the grief exception”, and it seemed to resolve the problem.

So, in order to avoid confusing normal grief with a depressive disorder the DSM included a grief exception. This is common in defining mental illness. The brain interacts with the environment, so if we want to decide if a certain pattern of mood, thought, and behavior is due to a brain disorder we have to rule out that it is just responding to environmental triggers. Like with the anxiety example above – anxiety is normal if you have something to be anxious about, but a disorder if it is spontaneous or clearly out of proportion to the stimulus.

Hari continues his narrative:

Then, as the years and decades passed, doctors on the frontline started to come back with another question. All over the world, they were being encouraged to tell patients that depression is, in fact, just the result of a spontaneous chemical imbalance in your brain – it is produced by low serotonin, or a natural lack of some other chemical. It’s not caused by your life – it’s caused by your broken brain.

This is an oversimplification to the point of being wrong. See above – depression is caused by life, and when it is, that is not a disorder. But if an evaluation rules out reasonable life causes of depression, then we are left with the possibility that there is something about brain function that may be causing depression. Also keep in mind that the depression, in order to be considered a disorder, has to interfere with one’s life. It has to cause “demonstrable harm.”

And now here is where Hari goes entirely off the rails:

The grief exception seemed to have blasted a hole in the claim that the causes of depression are sealed away in your skull. It suggested that there are causes out here, in the world, and they needed to be investigated and solved there. This was a debate that mainstream psychiatry (with some exceptions) did not want to have. So, they responded in a simple way – by whittling away the grief exception. With each new edition of the manual they reduced the period of grief that you were allowed before being labelled mentally ill – down to a few months and then, finally, to nothing at all. Now, if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away.

Is he really claiming that a competent psychiatrist practicing within the standard of care would diagnose a client with mental illness and prescribe medication one minute after their child dies? You might be tempted to say he was using an extreme example to illustrate a point – but that misses my point. Making such a diagnosis is all about context.

Hari creates a neat little narrative here that serves his purpose of mental illness denial. In his narrative, psychiatrists removed the grief exception from the DSM because it was inconvenient. However, here is a passage from the DSM V that Hari neglects to mention:

Note: Responses to a significant loss (e.g., bereavement, financial ruin, losses from a natural disaster, a serious medical illness or disability) may include the feelings of intense sadness, rumination about the loss, insomnia, poor appetite, and weight loss noted in Criterion A, which may resemble a depressive episode. Although such symptoms may be understandable or considered appropriate to the loss, the presence of a major depressive episode in addition to the normal response to a significant loss should also be carefully considered. This decision inevitably requires the exercise of clinical judgment based on the individual’s history and the cultural norms for the expression of distress in the contest of loss.

So what they really did was remove it from the list of criteria, which required putting a time limit on grief, and instead moved it to a note that was more open-ended and encouraged “clinical judgment.” Any fair and reasonable discussion of the psychiatric approach to mental illness and the evolution of the DSM should have contained this passage. But I guess it didn’t fit Hari’s neat little narrative.

After recounting his startling discovery that people are psychological beings with emotional needs (shocker), he finishes with this false dichotomy:

If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs – for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.

This is a hopelessly simplistic approach to mental health, ironically as simplistic as the straw man “malfunctioning parts” approach he is criticizing. Rather, our mood, thoughts, and behavior are the net effect of a complex interaction between brain and environment. There are always a complex mix of psychological and psychiatric and sometimes neurological factors involved (rarely, it is a brain tumor). It takes care and clinical judgement to tease apart when someone just needs some counseling, or to make some practical changes to their life, or just time to process grief or other life events – and when they have a disorder that also needs to be treated in order to make it even possible for them to engage in therapy.

The DSM psychiatric approach to patients who have mental complaints, signs, or symptoms is to take a multi-tiered approach. First, rule out any underlying medical condition (make sure their anxiety isn’t due to hyperthyroidism, for example). Then assess their signs and symptoms in the context of their history to determine how much of it is likely to be due to life events. How much is personality. And how much, if any, may be due to some misfiring circuit in the brain.

This is really hard, and we have limited knowledge, but we have accumulated enough to take a practical approach to many patients and to help them improve their lives. This should include the full range of options available, including medication and counseling. To deny the role of medication can do great harm to those who may need it.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #606: The Murder in the Red Barn

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/15/2018 - 4:00pm
A murder was said to have been solved by the intervention of the victim's ghost.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Oprah Would Be a Disaster

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 01/15/2018 - 4:39am

I know that Oprah has not stated she is considering running for president in 2020 and the initial buzz about her is just a fantasy. But some of her people have stated that she would consider running, and it is possible that they are testing the waters. Let’s put the idea out there and see how the public responds.

Those who are enthusiastic about Oprah after her rousing speech at the Golden Globes have failed to fully appreciate what the real problem with Trump is (at least from this skeptic’s perspective). This is not about politics, and all the ways that Oprah is different than Trump don’t affect the ways in which she is the same – and those similarities are what I am primarily concerned about.

Marc Fisher, writing for The Citizen, describes what Trump apparently means when he calls himself a genius. Trump thinks that being smart is succeeding without trying. He congratulated himself on getting through school without ever really studying (like those other chumps). He admires instinct, his ability to feel in his gut what the answer is. He criticizes academics, and brags that the most important thing he learned at school was that academics don’t really know anything.

By all accounts that it his approach to the presidency. The very fact that he thought he could be president without any prior relevant experience betrays this attitude. It did not appear to bother him, or even occur to him, that being the executive of a large and complex government might requires skills and experience that he had never honed, or even tested. He thought he could sit in the Oval Office and just shoot from the hip, rely on his gut to divine the right answer to the country’s and the world’s complex problems. He would have a staff of eggheads to worry about the details.

Don’t confuse this approach with appropriate delegation to proper experts. Trump does not recognize experts, or the value of expertise, or apparently that there is even such a thing. The Trump presidency is an anti-intellectual assault on the very notion of objective knowledge, the benefits of hard intellectual work, and the very notion of expertise. That, to me, is the real threat to our society. It does not matter that Trump is enabling one side or the other of the political spectrum.

As if to demonstrate this point, the notion of Oprah as president presents the same problems. Sure, she has a different temperament and personality than Trump. But Oprah’s media career represents just as much of an anti-intellectual assault on expertise as does Trump, with perhaps a far greater negative impact on our society.

First, Oprah has no relevant experience. If she thinks she can walk into the presidency as an entry-level position, than clearly she does not respect experience itself. She must think that whatever qualities she has are more important than knowledge and experience (to be clear, I think both generic virtues and specific experience are important). I would consider part of the qualification for president a respect for the complexity of the job, and a willingness to put in the hard work that this respect deserves. The very fact that she thinks (if she does) that she could be president without prior experience, to me, is disqualifying. Run for governor or the senate, put in your time, then decide if the presidency is for you.

Another way in which Trump and Oprah are similar is their embrace of quackery (this, in my opinion, is a symptom of a deeper problem, the lack of respect for appropriate expertise). Trump is anti-vaccine and embraces conspiracy theories. Oprah has perhaps done more to fuel the anti-intellectual movement in our society than anyone else in the last few decades.

As others have already pointed out, she is responsible for making the likes of Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Jenny McCarthy famous. She promoted all sorts of pseudoscience and nonsense, like The Secret, Deepak Chopra, New Age spiritual delusions, and every flavor of dangerous alternative medicine. Her show has largely been a platform for mainstreaming and promoting pseudoscience and fantasy at the expense of science and reason.

Collectively the beliefs that she promoted are premised on the notion that we do not have to carefully study the universe with scientific rigor, humility, and critical thinking. We can just feel the answer, listen to our guts, and wish our desires into reality.

If the left embraces this approach as the right has, then our descent into post-enlightenment magical thinking will accelerate. It would also indicate a general failure to fully appreciate the real lessons of Trump. Expertise, knowledge, and experience really do matter – no matter your personality or other qualities.

I have previously pointed out a more subtle version of this lack of proper respect for expertise, and that is the fact that I think our culture overvalues talent and undervalues skill. We tend to admire those with “natural talent” that succeed without having to try too hard. There are also subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways we denigrate those who work hard to succeed, as “grinds”, eggheads, or “book smart.”

Pychologists, however, have demonstrated that this approach is counterproductive. It is always better to focus on what you can do and what you can change, and not on those things beyond your control. You cannot control the talents you are born with. In a way, focusing on talent relieves us of the burden of having to try. When we think our success or position in life is beyond our control, we are less likely to do something about it.

Focusing on skill and knowledge, however, and recognizing their ability to help us succeed motivates us to work harder, and to take the step necessary to succeed. In fact, we should not focus so much on the goal as the process the get there. What is the next step? That is what matters.

To me Trump’s presidency is the perfect example of what happens when you overemphasize natural ability. Trump thinks his natural “genius” means he can succeed at anything without really trying. If the polls are any indication then at least a majority of Americans recognize that this is perhaps not such a good idea, especially for a job as complex and important as the presidency.

This is a good historic opportunity to reinforce this lesson. I don’t think most people would want a surgeon with the same qualities, and lack of respect for knowledge and technical skill.

Now we need to push back against this trial balloon of Oprah in 2020 to reinforce this core lesson. Even if this is not serious, it doesn’t matter. The idea is now out there. It is a thought-experiment if nothing else. It is therefore also a great opportunity to remind everyone the real lessons from Trump, and why Oprah, the Queen of pseudoscience, magical thinking, and anti-intellectualism, would be a disaster.

Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #653 - Jan 13 2018

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 01/13/2018 - 8:00am
What's the Word: Eutrophication; News Items: Astronaut John Young Dies, Raw Water, Space X Loses Satellite, Human WiFi, Cancer Deaths Declining; Who's That Noisy; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Fast Radio Bursts – Still Not Aliens

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 01/11/2018 - 4:57am

This is a (sort of) follow up to my previous post. Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are a legitimate astronomical mystery, and very interesting. They are very brief (30 microseconds to 9 milliseconds) and very powerful bursts of radio waves. To date about 30 FRBs have been detected. Most of these FRBs are one-offs – they occur once and never repeat (at least so far). There is one exception, however, FRB 121102 (more on that below).

What do we know about FRBs so far? They are isotropic, which means they occur all over the sky. They are not concentrated in the galactic disk. This by itself implies they are extragalactic. But also analysis of the radio bursts indicate that they have traveled through intergalactic plasma, for billions of light years. So they must also be incredibly powerful. The radio waves are broadband, so they are spread throughout the radio wavelengths. They are also highly polarized, which means they were aligned at their creation with a strong magnetic field.

Because they are radio bursts, they are studied by radio astronomers, which includes SETI astronomers, whose primary mission is to survey the sky for possible alien communications. In an SGU interview with SETI astronomer Seth Shostak he indicated that SETI does a lot of non-ET related astronomy. This is a good example of that – they are helping to detect and analyze FRBs, including analysis of FRB 121102.

FRB 121102 is the only known FRB repeater, and so far we have detected a few hundred bursts from this same location. This has afforded astronomers the unique opportunity to more closely examine this FRB. A recent additional 15 bursts from 121102 has allowed astronomers to pinpoint the location to a star-forming region in a dwarf galaxy more than 3 billion light-years from Earth. Analysis of these bursts also shows that they are 100% linearly polarized, again indicating they are produced within a powerful magnetic field.

What this likely means is that the source of these FRBs is a massive black hole. Rotating plasma falling into massive black hole can generate a powerful magnetic field. This black hole is interacting with something to generate the FRBs.

Perhaps all FRBs come from massive black holes, but most result from rare and isolated events, while 121102 has a neighbor or something which allows for their repeated creation.

But keeping with the theme that all astronomical mysteries may be aliens until proven otherwise, SETI is analyzing the FRB 121102 signals to see if they contain any modulated information – complex information that would not be expected to come from a natural source.

It is reasonable to conduct this kind of analysis. We don’t know what we don’t know, and who can say what a superadvanced alien technological civilization could be capable of. At the very least this project will hopefully give them more experience in analyzing radio signals for interesting patterns, and may discover something non-alien but interesting about FRBs. It’s all good.

But I am not holding my breath that FRBs will turn out to be alien in origin. They clearly have a natural source. Hiding a signal in them would mean manipulating an interaction with a massive black hole in order to encode a signal in the FRB somehow. If you could pull something like this off, it would create a beacon you can send across the universe. But messing with supermassive black holes just seems unlikely. I’m happy to be surprised, but again, just not expecting to be.

The alien angle aside – FRBs are clearly the result of some interesting and powerful astronomical event. They may not be rare (well, not rare when you have the entire visible universe to survey). One estimate is that there may be thousands of FRBs visible somewhere in the universe every day. If that’s true we should start finding many more examples to study.

Categories: Skeptic

Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 97

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 01/10/2018 - 8:47am

Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!

The Top Stories

New Leadership for a New Year at Two CFI Branches

The new year begins with a new chapter for two of the Center for Inquiry’s vital and active local branches, as two dedicated members of the CFI family step into key leadership roles.

A decade ago, the Freethought Association of West Michigan had already been going strong for ten years when it merged with the Center for Inquiry, becoming CFI’s Michigan branch. At that time, CFI Michigan hired Jennifer Beahan as the assistant director, working with longtime Executive Director Jeff Seaver. Over the next ten years, CFI Michigan has hosted hundreds of lectures, organized civic events and family activities, and put their humanism into action with frequent “secular service” events.

At the end of 2017, Jeff stepped down from his position at CFI Michigan, now in its twenty-first year, and as Jennifer takes on the role of executive director of CFI Michigan. As Jeff wrote in a message to branch members, “I have full confidence in her as a talented and able leader who is personally invested and committed to CFI Michigan’s important work.” All of us at CFI share Jeff’s confidence in Jen.

“As I transition into the role of executive director, I look forward to leading the charge in our fight to defend science, reason, free inquiry, and humanist values,” wrote Jen in her own message. “I am honored by the continued support of our community and grateful for the countless hours Jeff Seaver … and all of our volunteers and members have devoted to building this community over the past twenty years.”

We turn then to the Center for Inquiry’s transnational headquarters in Amherst, New York, which is not only the base of CFI’s operations around the world, but also the home of our thriving and close-knit local branch for Western New York. Volunteer Program Director John Barrett transitioned to becoming chair of the branch’s advisory board on January 1. Stepping up to becoming the branch’s new program director and its first paid staff member is Stef McGraw.

Stef began as an outreach intern in 2012 and was hired as a full-time staff member in 2014. Her devotion and considerable communication and leadership skills were obvious from the beginning. Now, Stef will be dividing her time between her outreach duties for the national organization and running CFI Western New York.

“CFI Western New York became my community group for secular activism and skeptical conversation,” wrote Stef in a message to branch members. “Now, I’m excited to have the opportunity to make this group even stronger so that it can serve even more humanists and skeptics in our region.” We have no doubt she will do just that.


CFI Michigan Celebrates 20 Years at Solstice Awards Ceremony

CFI Michigan hosted their annual Solstice Dinners in Grand Rapids and Madison Heights (in the Detroit Area) on December 13 and 16 respectively, with 120 combined attendees, despite the terrible snow storm.

Eddie Tabash, CFI’s Board Chair, was the special guest at both dinners, and spoke about the dangers our movement and our country are currently facing and how supporting CFI is crucial to confronting those challenges. He also facilitated the “passing of the torch,” as mentioned in the above news item, honoring Jeff Seaver for twenty years of dedicated work building CFI Michigan. Eddie also expressed his confidence, and that of the national CFI leadership, in Jennifer Beahan as she takes on her new role as executive director.

The Advisory Board honored Jeff with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Freethinker of the Year Award was presented to longtime member and supporter of CFI Michigan, Carl Bajema. Carl was a professor of biology at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) for more than forty years, with visiting professorships and fellowships at several institutions including Harvard. He has been a member of the branch since the early days of the Freethought Association, was responsible for first bringing Richard Dawkins to Michigan to speak at GVSU in 1997, and was a vocal supporter of evolution when other biology professors at GVSU were advancing creationism. He was responsible for authoring the Michigan Science Standards for teaching evolution.

The Volunteer of the Year Awards were presented to the Shel Lynn Hawthorne and Dave Jensen, an inseparable pair who have volunteered together for several years. Jennifer noted, “It has been a pleasure to watch them go from quiet, introverted attendees who would sneak out before the Q&A was finished so that they didn’t have to talk to people … to becoming regular attendees at the information and sales tables at our regular meetings. Shel has been a dedicated volunteer to video tape our meetings, in spite of battling serious illness for the past year. Their dedication and perseverance has made them incredibly valuable volunteers.”


Was Jesus a Man or a Myth? A Heated Debate in Free Inquiry

The assertion that a historical Jesus once walked the Earth is obviously of monumental consequence to billions of Christians, and the question of the historicity of Jesus Christ, whether or not such a person ever existed, has been a matter of heated debate for centuries. Perhaps surprisingly, a great deal of that heat is generated from the arguments among nonbelievers! And the latest issue of Free Inquiry, the magazine of CFI’s Council for Secular Humanism, is practically ablaze from the disagreement between freethought factions as to whether Jesus was a real person or a myth.

This special cover feature is framed as a response to two previous articles by historian and Free Inquiry Senior Editor Bill Cooke, “Why Secular Humanists Should Abandon the Myth Theory of Jesus” (December 2016/January 2017) and “The Mythical Jesus Argument: What’s the Key Issue?” (October/November 2017) Representing the mythologist position for this issue are Biblical scholar Robert M. Price; David Fitzgerald, author of two books on the subject; and NASA engineer Michael Paulkovich.

These writers hold nothing back in their fervent assault on the historicity position. “Jesus myth theory is Kryptonite for Christians. They can’t even enjoy a relaxed agnosticism about the mere possibility of mythicism being true,” writes FItzgerald. “They need Jesus not to be a myth. Unfortunately, he is a myth.”

“If Jesus was as famous as the Bible claims,” writes Paulkovich, “somebody during the first century—outside of the authors of the New Testament fantasies—would have written about him.”

Cooke himself gets the chance to respond in kind, characterizing the mythologist position as a mirror image of evangelical Christianity’s conception of Jesus, adding, “Mythicist scholarship ... bears some uncomfortably close similarities to conspiracy theorist thinking.”

This issue of Free Inquiry also includes a moving essay from Lubna Ahmed Yaseen, a remarkable woman who escaped persecution in Iraq with help from CFI’s Secular Rescue program, and a personal story from Nigerian activist Leo Igwe on his journey toward humanism and the fight against deadly superstitious beliefs in Africa. Plus so much more.

Free Inquiry is available on newsstands, and by print or web subscription at


Latest Point of Inquiry Podcast is Non-Organic and Artificially Sweetened

Will sugar really kill you? Or will it be artificial sweeteners that do you in? Is it really better to eat organic, or is it more of a status symbol? Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo is, like many folks, confused about all of the conflicting health and nutrition information swirling around. That’s why on the latest episode of CFI’s flagship podcast, he’s got two brilliant and hilarious guests to help sort through it all: skeptic activists and writers Yvette d’Entremont, also known as the “SciBabe,” and Kavin Senapathy, who also appears in the new documentary Science Moms.

These three spend an hour clearing up myths, discussing their own journeys into science and reason, and laughing at their own jokes. A lot. It’s a great way to kick off a year of critical thinking, so go get the latest Point of Inquiry now at Apple Podcasts, Google Play, TuneIn, or wherever you get podcasts.


CFI Highlights on the Web

Climate scientist Mark Boslough, a fellow of CFI’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, has for four years in a row challenged climate change deniers to prove their case and put up $25,000 to make it interesting. He started in partnership with CFI back in 2015. No one has taken him up on the challenge yet, but Mark is at it again, as he explains at HuffPost.

New from Skeptical Inquirer:

Like so much else in our culture, the new year brings with it its own myths, particularly about dieting. Some of these are addressed and deflated by Benjamin Radford at the CFI Free Thinking blog.

Also at the blog, Joe Nickell shows off a new acquisition, a pre-Civil War bottle for Sands’s Sarsaparilla: “It purifies, cleanses, and strengthens the fountain springs of life, and infuses new vigor throughout the whole animal frame.” Sounds like it could be sold by Goop.

And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.

Upcoming CFI Events

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CFI Michigan


CFI Tampa Bay


CFI Western New York

Thank you!


Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values. Donate today!

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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director. 

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at 


Categories: , Skeptic

Heavens on Earth—the New Book by Michael Shermer, Available Now! feed - Wed, 01/10/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

AVAILABLE NOW Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia

In his most ambitious work yet New York Times bestselling author Michael Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality along with utopian attempts to create heaven on earth.

A scientific exploration into humanity’s obsession with the afterlife and quest for immortality from the bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer

For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, and though no one has ever returned from such a place to report what it is really like—or that it even exists—today science and technology are being used to try to make it happen in our lifetime. From radical life extension to cryonic suspension to mind uploading, Shermer considers how realistic these attempts are from a proper skeptical perspective.

Heavens on Earth concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and how we can live well in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.

Get an Autographed 1st Edition from Shop Skeptic

Order Heavens on Earth from Shop Skeptic, and we will send you an autographed copy, signed by Michael Shermer himself! The autographed version is only available from Shop Skeptic.

Advance Praise for the Book

“This book’s theme is the one of greatest practical importance to all of us: does some heaven or afterlife await us after we die? Most Americans, and even many atheists, believe that the answer is ‘yes.’ If there is no heaven, how can we find purpose in life? Michael Shermer explores these big questions with the delightful, powerful style that made his previous books so successful—but this is his best book.”

JARED DIAMOND, professor of geography at UCLA and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and other books

“Thank goodness for Michael Shermer’s sound and inspired mindfulness and for this importantly useful volume. Truly a delicious read. Ten Goldblums out of a possible ten Goldblums!”


Heavens on Earth is absolutely brilliant, filled with profundity, startling facts, and mind-expanding ideas. Michael Shermer somehow manages to be entertaining and scientifically erudite at the same time. He also brings some of history’s greatest thinkers to life and makes their ideas accessible. This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time.”

AMY CHUA, Yale Law professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and coauthor of The Triple Package

“I appreciate every evolutionary step skepticism takes toward openness. Heavens on Earth is an affirmation that other worldviews deserve respect and understanding. In this book science may actually be catching up with the world’s wisdom traditions.”

DEEPAK CHOPRA, M.D., coauthor of War of the Worldviews and You Are the Universe

“Michael Shermer is a beacon of reason in an ocean of irrationality.”

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, director of the Hayden Planetarium, host of Cosmos and StarTalk, and author of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

The following is an excerpt from chapter 6 of Heavens on Earth. Reviews of the book will be posted on Michael Shermer’s website. Be sure to read Maria Konnikova’s New York Times book review: “The Quest for Immortality, Rebooted.” We hope you enjoy the book!

What is the Soul, Anyway?
The Problem of Identity and the
Impossibility of Immortality

by Michael Shermer

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “Second Chances,” Commander William Riker of the starship Enterprise beams down to a planet to retrieve data from a research station he visited eight years before when he was a lieutenant on board the starship Potemkin. There he discovers an exact duplicate of himself, the product of the Potemkin’s transporter beam accidentally being split into two and materializing a second Riker after the original beamed back to the ship. Lieutenant Riker remained stranded on the planet while the other continued his life trajectory in Starfleet where he moved up the ranks to Commander Riker, now on the Enterprise. DNA and brain scans of the two Rikers reveal that they are genetically identical and neurologically indistinguishable. They are true duplicates. Lieutenant Riker’s lover before the transporter mishap, Counselor Deanna Troi, is no longer romantically involved with Commander Riker on the Enterprise, and much of the episode plays out the awkwardness of experiencing and re-experiencing the break-up for the two Rikers and Troi. In the end Lieutenant Riker is assigned a post on a different ship and adopts his middle name as his first in order to distinguish himself from his new-found twin.1

Were the two Rikers two different people or duplicates of one person? If they were true duplicates, did they subsequently become two different persons the moment they started leading separate lives and forming new memories and identities? This is the essence of the identity problem and it is vital to solve for all resurrection scenarios, both religious and scientific.

The identity problem was first articulated by the ancient Greek scholar Plutarch in his thought experiment known as the “ship of Theseus.” According to the myth, Poseidon’s son Theseus sailed to Crete where he slayed the half-man/half-bull Minotaur monster. After his triumphant return to Athens, Theseus’ ship was preserved in memoriam. As the vessel aged, however, the decaying wood was gradually replaced with new timber until eventually the entire ship was made of different material. Was it still Theseus’s ship?

The answer depends on how you define the true identity of a thing—as the pattern or the material.2 If Theseus’s ship is represented by the pattern, then replacing all its lumber does not alter its identity. If the ship’s distinctiveness is held in the material of which it is made, however, or in some combination of pattern and material, then altering the physical structure changes the identity in some manner. But how much would need to exchanged before it was no longer the same “thing,” no longer Theseus’s ship?

Take our bodies. In addition to the replacement of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, and organs every few years, there are a huge number of “foreign” cells inside us that contain no human DNA or RNA—bacteria that produce chemicals that enable our bodies to process the energy and nutrients in the food we eat, others that boost immunity, and still others whose function remains mysterious.3 More identity-shattering still, it appears that the complex eukaryotic cells of which we are made evolved billions of years ago from much simpler prokaryotic cells in a process the evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis calls symbiogenesis—the cooperative union of primitive simple prokaryotic cells into modern complex eukaryotic cells.4 The membrane-bound mitochondria organelles inside our cells that are so vital to the processing of energy, for example, have their own DNA different from that found in the nucleus of the cell (the famous mitochondrial DNA from which our genetic heritage can be traced over millions of years). It is now commonly believed that around 1.5 billion years ago some of these free-living bacteria (prokaryotes) symbiotically cooperated to form the more complex eukaryotic cells that make up modern organisms like us. So if you go back far enough in evolutionary time even our cells are foreign. And yet we don’t feel like a collection of other organisms. We feel like a whole self. The pattern of biological information coded in our genome, and the neural synaptic arrays recorded in our brain’s connectome, assures this continuity of essence. You are still you across space and time, even though the material making you up changes. Our sense of identity remains intact despite the exchange of body stuff, so our uniqueness appears to be ingrained in the pattern more than the material.

By this analysis, would a duplicate of you also be you, even if it meant that there is more than one of you? In principle, yes, as long as each of the duplicates feels like an autonomous person. This is why, in addition to the pattern and the material of identity, there is an additional component: personal perspective. Every self-contained sentient being—by which I mean the capacity to be emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, and conscious—has a personal perspective, and that is what makes each person an autonomous identity. By this definition, in the Star Trek scenario each Riker has his own personal perspective so each is his own person, in the same way that identical twins are two persons, both psychologically and legally. The moment you and your duplicate (or identical twin) begin to lead separate lives you are separate persons, not just because of the different perspectives but also because of the different experiences you have, forming distinct memories, personalities, and all the rest that goes into the make-up of your pattern of information.

The Soul. William Blake’s portrayal of the soul departing the body upon death captures what most people believe to take place. An illustration from a series designed by Blake for an edition of the poem “The Grave” by Robert Blair, engraved by Louis Schiavonetti in 1813, titled The Soul Hovering over the Body, Reluctantly Parting with Life. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The neurobiologist and philosopher Owen Flanagan summarizes the three primary characteristics of the soul:5 the Unity of Experience (a sense of self or “I”), Personal Identity (the feeling of being the same person over the course of a lifetime), and Personal Immortality (the survival of death). Polls consistently show that between 70 and 96 percent of Americans believe in a soul as so characterized.6 The vast majority of people base such belief on religious faith, but science tells us that all three of these characteristics are illusions.

Unity of Experience. There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead, we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules—or neural networks—that are often at odds with one another. According to the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban the brain evolved as a modular multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army Knife of practical tools in the old metaphor, or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade.7 The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short-term, for example, is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long-term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the module for competition, as is the module for truth-telling and the module for lying. Of course, the brain does not sense itself operating so we are blissfully unaware of all these networks running largely independently of one another, so it feels like there is a unity of self.8

Personal Identity. Scientists estimate that in the course of your lifetime most of the atoms in your body will be replaced by comparable atoms—hydrogen atoms most rapidly (given that our bodies consist of 72 percent water, which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen), then heavier elements such as carbon, sodium, and potassium.9 As atoms are replaced so too are molecules, cells, tissues, and organs, by some estimates on average every 7 to 10 years. There is a wide variation of the replacement process time, from a few days for the epithelial cells that line the gut, to a few weeks for the epidermis skin layer, to two months for red blood cells, to a year or two for liver cells, and 10 to 15 years for bone and muscle (exceptions appear to be neurons in the cerebral cortex, the inner lens cells of the eye, and heart muscle cells).10 So the belief that you are the same material person you were years ago—or will be years from now—is an illusion. At most what stays the same is the pattern of information, and even this changes over time.

Personal Immortality. We have already seen that there is no evidence for an afterlife as proposed by religionists, but what about a scientific immortality? The thought experiments above demonstrate that duplication is not an option for immortality unless there is a continuity of self from one duplicate to the next. When you fall asleep or go under general anesthesia for surgery, despite the disruption in consciousness of several hours you still feel like yourself when you wake up. How, exactly, would that happen if you were duplicated, replicated, resurrected, or uploaded? If a brain could be cryopreserved and reawakened after, say, a thousand years, would it be the same as waking up from a long sleep? Maybe. What about a brain whose connectome of information is precisely recorded and uploaded into a computer? When it is turned on would the personal perspective of the person be in there? Maybe not.

The Empyrean of God. Dante Alighieri’s 1320 poem “The Divine Comedy” is an imaginative vision of the afterlife inspired by medieval Christian theologians. The artist Gustave Doré illustrated God’s empyrean for an 1892 edition of the work.

The identity problem confronts both religious and nonreligious seekers of immortality. If you are religious and believe in the resurrection of the body or the soul in heaven, for example, how does God go about the duplication or transformation process to insure conscious continuity and personal perspective? Is it your atoms and patterns that are resurrected, or just the patterns? If both, and you are physically resurrected, does God reconstitute your body so it is no longer subject to disease and aging? If it is just the patterns of you that are resurrected, what is the platform that holds the information? Is there something in heaven that is the equivalent to a computer hard drive or the cloud? Is there some sort of heavenly quantum field that retains your thoughts and memories? If you are not religious (or even if you are) and hold out hope that one day scientists will be able to clone your body and duplicate your brain, or upload your mind into a computer, or create a virtual reality in which you come alive again, we face the same technological problems as God would of how this is to be done.

So our self is defined by our pattern of information as much as it is by the stuff of which we are made, and it is our personal perspective and our unique experiences that makes us autonomous selves regardless of how similar or dissimilar we are from others. This is the real you. This is your soul.

The sums involved in achieving immortality through the duplication or resurrection scenarios are not to be underestimated. There are around 85 billion neurons in a human brain, each with about a thousand synaptic links, for a total of 100 trillion connections to be accurately preserved and replicated. This is a staggering level of complexity made all the more so by the additional glial cells in the brain, which provide support and insulation for neurons and can change the actions of firing neurons, so these cells better be preserved as well in any duplication or resurrection scenario, just in case.11 Estimates of the ratio of glial cells to neurons in a brain vary from 1:1 to 10:1. If you’re not a lightning calculator, that computes to a total brain cell count of somewhere between 170 billion and 850 billion. Then factor in the hundreds or thousands of synaptic connections between each of the 85 billion neurons, adding approximately 100 trillion synaptic connections total for each brain. That’s not all. There are around ten billion proteins per neuron, which effect how memories are stored, plus the countless extracellular molecules in between those tens of billions of brain cells.

These estimates are just for the brain and do not even include the rest of the nervous system outside of the skull—what neuroscientists call the “embodied brain” or the “extended mind” and which many philosophers of mind believe is necessary for normal cognition. So you might want to have this extended mind resurrected or uploaded along with your mind. After all, you are not just your internal thoughts and emotions disconnected from your body. Many of your thoughts and emotions are intimately entwined with how your body interacts with its environment, so any preserved connectome, to be fully operational as recreating the experience of what it is like to be a sentient being, would also need to be housed in a body. So we would need a warehouse of brainless clones or very sophisticated robots prepared to have these uploaded mind neural units installed. How many? Well, to avoid the charge of elitism, it’s only fair that everyone who ever lived be resurrected, so that means multiplying the staggering data package for one person by 108 billion.

Then there’s the relationship between memory and life history. Our memory is not like a videotape that can be played back on the viewing screen of our minds. When an event happens to us, a selective impression of it is made on the brain through the senses. As that sense impression wends its way through different neural networks, where it ends up depends on what type of memory it is. As a memory is processed and prepared for long-term storage we rehearse it and in the process it is changed. This editing process depends on previous memories, subsequent events and memories, and emotions. This process recurs trillions of times in the course of a lifetime, to the point where we have to wonder if we have memories of actual events, or memories of the memories of those events, or even memories of memories of memories…. What’s the “true” memory? There is no such thing. Our memories are the product of trillions of synaptic neuronal connections that are constantly being edited, redacted, reinforced, and extinguished, such that a resurrection of a human with memories intact will depend on when in the individual’s life history the replication or resurrection is implemented.

Most of our memories are lost over time, so when God, Omega, the Singularity, or far future Humans (GOSH) reconstructs the pattern of your memories, which ones actually represent you? The answer is none, some, and all. There is no coherently fixed individual in some absolute sense. Our self—our soul—consists of a constantly changing matrix of traits and memory patterns that are coherent enough for us to feel like we have a self/soul, and for others to treat us like we do, so a replicating entity must determine which set of patterns best represents our self/soul such that it would be recognizable to yourself and others. If GOSH resurrects you, for example, which of your memories will be included and from which point in your life? If it is a select set of memories at some point, say age 29, that’s not all of you. If it is all of the memories you formed throughout your entire life, that might be interesting (and revealing!) but this would not be what it is like to be you at any point in your life.

Finally, there is the problem of history and the lost past. I have defined history as “a conjuncture of events compelling a certain course of action by constraining prior events.”12 Most of those constraining prior events—contingencies and necessities, or chance and law—are not only lost to historians, they aren’t even apparent to those alive at the time. The problem of the irrecoverable past of both people and society is a serious one that any theory of immortality must solve. Even if GOSH could create a perfect replica of my genome and connectome, a human life is so much more than that. It is a product of all our relations with other people and their life histories, plus our interactions with all the elements in our environment, which is itself a product of countless systems and histories all wrapped up in a complex matrix with so many variables that it is inconceivable how any supercomputer or omnipotent deity could duplicate it all even if the information were available, which it isn’t.

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In his book The Physics of Immortality the physicist Frank Tipler calculates that an Omega Point computer in the far future will contain 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 123 bits (a 1 followed by 10123 zeros), powerful enough, he says, to resurrect everyone who ever lived.13 That may be—it is a staggeringly large number—but is even an Omega Point computer powerful enough to reconstruct all of the historical contingencies and necessities in which a person lived, such as the weather, climate, geography, economic cycles, recessions and depressions, social trends, religious movements, wars, political revolutions, paradigm shifts, ideological revolutions, and the like, on top of duplicating our genome and connectome? It seems unlikely, but if so GOSH would also need to duplicate all of the individual conjunctures and interactions between that person and all other persons as they intersect with and influence each other in each of those lifetimes. Then multiply all that by the 108 billion people who ever lived or are currently living. Whatever the number, it would have to be even larger than the famed Googolplex (10 to the power of a googol, with a googol being 10100, or 10^10100) from which Google and its Googleplex headquarters derived its name.14 Even a googol of googolplexes would not suffice. In essence, it would require the resurrection of the entire universe and its many billions of years of history. Inconceivable.

Get an Autographed 1st Edition from Shop Skeptic References
  1. “Second Chances.” 1993. Star Trek, The Next Generation. Episode 150. Aired May 24. Summary: Script:
  2. Chisholm, Roderick M. 2004. Person and Object: A Metaphysical Study. Routledge, 89.
  3. Wenner, Melinda. 2007. “Humans Carry More Bacterial Cells than Human Ones.” Scientific American, November 30.
  4. Margulis, Lynn. 1998. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. New York: Basic Books; Margulis, Lynn. 2011. ‘Symbiogenesis. A new principle of evolution rediscovery of Boris Mikhaylovich Kozo-Polyansky (1890–1957).” Paleontological Journal 44 (12): 1525–1539.
  5. Flanagan, Owen. 2002. The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them by Owen Flanagan. New York: Basic Books.
  6. Ibid., 164.
  7. Kurzban, Robert. 2012. Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite. Princeton University Press.
  8. Research in cognitive psychology also supports this proposition, elegantly summarized by the cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood in The Self Illusion, employing an analogy with a science fiction film: “We process the outside world through our nervous system in order to create a model of reality in our brains. And, just like the matrix in the science fiction movie, not everything is what it seems. We all know the power of visual illusions to trick the mind into perceiving things incorrectly, but the most powerful illusion is the sense that we exist inside our heads as an integrated, coherent individual or self.” Hood, Bruce. 2012. The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3.
  9. Kestenbaum, David. 2007. “Atomic Tune-Up: How the Body Rejuvenates Itself. NPR, July 14,
  10. Wade, Nicholas. 2005. “Your Body is Younger Than you Think.” New York Times, August 2,
  11. Jabr, Ferris. 2012. “Know Your Neurons: What is the Ratio of Glia to Neurons in the Brain?” Scientific American, June 13,
  12. Shermer, Michael. 1995. Exorcising Laplace’s Demon: Chaos and Antichaos, History and Metahistory. History and Theory 34, no. 1:59–83.
  13. Tipler, Frank J. 1994. The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York: Doubleday.
  14. The difference in the spelling—googolplex and googleplex—is because, says Google co-founder Larry Page, they didn’t yet have spell check when they named the company.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Tabby’s Star Mystery Partly Solved

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 01/09/2018 - 4:37am

It’s not aliens.

So far, no astronomical mystery has turned out to be aliens, although this hypothesis seems to come up every time. The first detections of signals from pulsars were named LGMs for “little green men.”

I’m not really criticizing this – part of me wishes the mystery will turn out to be evidence of an alien technological civilization. I always think of how plausible that is for an explanation. But still it should be last on the list. Chances are overwhelming that we are just seeing some new or unusual natural phenomenon. It’s a big complex universe out there.

In this case astronomers found a genuine mystery – a star that dimmed and brightened over time to a degree never seen before. The star has the designation KIC 8462852, and has been nicknamed “Tabby’s Star” after the astronomer who first described it, Tabetha Boyajian (she actually led a team of 200 astronomers involved in the work).

The intensity of the light coming from the star, which is a little bigger and 4.7 times brighter than our sun and is about 1300 light years away, dims at irregular intervals by as much as 22%. This could not be caused by a planet passing in between us – even a Jupiter-sized planet would only block about 1% of the light from the star. And what’s with the irregular period? Dimming from an object in orbit should be very regular.

The best hypothesis was that a swarm or cloud of something was blocking the light. It would have to be a big and dense cloud, however. This hypothesis had problems also, however, because such a cloud should be heated up and glowing in the infrared, but we don’t see it.

The “swarm” idea sparked the notion of a Dyson swarm, which is a hypothesized high-tech structure surrounding a star used to capture the light for energy. An advanced civilization, for example, could power themselves with either a large single structure of solar cells, or a swarm of smaller ones.

No scientists really took the alien megastructure hypothesis seriously, even though it could not be entirely ruled out. It was just way too early to get excited, and it was overwhelmingly likely that a natural explanation was to be found. But scientists love a mystery in any case, and whatever was going on around Tabby’s star was likely to be new and interesting.

What astronomers needed was a lot more data. So Boyajian and others started a kickstarter campaign to fund the telescope time they would need to gather that data. The campaign was successful, exceeding their needed $100,000. Last week they published the result of their analysis and…no aliens.

What they did was look at the different wavelengths of light to see how they were dimmed. If the swarm that is causing the dimming is comprised of solid objects, whether rocks, planetary debris, comets, or solar panels, then all wavelengths should be dimmed equally. That’s not what they found. They found that different wavelengths were dimmed to different degrees at different times.

That is what you would expect to find if the cloud (circumstellar material) blocking the light were comprised of very tiny particles (smaller than a micron), like dust. So that is what they concluded – there is a dense dust cloud around Tabby’s star blocking the light from our perspective. This also makes sense in terms of the variable periods, because different densities in the cloud could cause random fluctuations in the amount of light blocked.

But of course now astronomers just have a new mystery – what caused this massive fine dust cloud around Tabby’s star? Comets are very dusty, and a dust cloud like this could result from a comet – but it’s a lot of dust. It’s also probably close to the star, which means it is also probably a recent phenomenon as a dust cloud would likely not survive long that close to a star that bright. This also still doesn’t explain the lack of an infrared glow from the cloud.

The results also don’t rule out that the star is dimming and brightening on its own, and not just being blocked from view. And of course, some hopefuls have pointed out that it could be a swarm of alien nanobots or similar microscopic technology. Sure.

There is still more science to be done here, but this latest result does add a significant piece to the puzzle. It’s also cool that the research was crowd-funded. That’s a great way to get private citizens involved in science, and to fund more science. That may, in fact, be the bigger story here. Yeah for crowdfunding cool science.

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #605: The Civil War Pterosaur

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/08/2018 - 4:00pm
This famous Internet photo of Civil War soldiers posing with a pterosaur has a surprising source.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Nitrite Free Bacon

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 01/08/2018 - 5:12am

A Northern Irish food company, Finnebrogue, is offering what it calls “Naked Bacon” – free from chemical preservatives that contain nitrites. But would such bacon actually be more healthful? And what is the deal with nitrites in food?

Sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is a salt containing sodium, one nitrogen, and two oxygen atoms. Nitrate is similar but contains three oxygen atoms (NaNO3). Nitrites are oxidized to nitrated when exposed to the air. Nitrates can also be converted into nitrite in the GI tract. This is why we often talk about the two in food interchangeably.

Sodium nitrite serves a critical function in some foods – it is a good preservative that inhibits the growth of bacteria, specifically C. botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. It is therefore incredibly important to food safety, and removing it from meat products could therefore have the unintended consequence of increasing food poisoning.

What are the health effects of consuming sodium nitrite? Much of it is converted into nitric oxide, which is not only harmless, it serves several important roles in the body. One effect is to dilate blood vessels, and therefore can serve to lower blood pressure. In addition:

This effect is associated with a reduced risk regarding cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, and stroke. Moreover, dietary nitrate has been associated with beneficial effects in patients with gastric ulcer, renal failure, or metabolic syndrome.

The health concern is that nitrites can also be converted to nitrosamine compounds, which are probably carcinogenic. The amount of nitrites in food converted to nitrosamines is reduced by certain other food substances, such as vitamin C. Therefore, some food manufacturers have been adding vitamin C to food that also contain sodium nitrite.

There is also some evidence that cooking at very high heat can increase the formation of nitrosamines, and so this can also be avoided to minimize this conversion.

It is revealing also to point out what the sources of consumed nitrites/nitrates are. Much of the discussion focuses around sodium nitrite added to meats and other foods as a preservative. However. 80% of the nitrates you will consume in food come from fruits and vegetables. Nitrites are also made in the saliva, which is another significant source.

Contribution from preserved meats is about 10% – depending on your diet, of course. But even the most dedicated meat eater will still get a minority of their nitrites from cured meat.

What about the link between sodium nitrite and cancer? The evidence here is fairly complex and mostly observational. Many studies compare cohorts with the highest and lowest daily meat intake and find mixed results. Some datasets show a slight increase in pancreatic cancer and some GI cancers, but also reduced stomach cancer.

However, more recent research has called these associations into question. The problem with much of the prior research (in addition to being observational) is that it did not control well for many variables. If you look at meat consumption, for example, what aspect of the meat is causing any observed effect, and is it related to other dietary factors that just go along with high meat consumption?

A recent review concludes:

A critical review of the animal toxicology literature of nitrite indicates that in the absence of co-administration of a carcinogenic nitrosamine precursor, there is no evidence for carcinogenesis. Newly published prospective epidemiological cohort studies indicate that there is no association between estimated intake of nitrite and nitrate in the diet and stomach cancer.

So without the nitrosamine, consuming nitrites/nitrates is probably not associated with cancer at all, and has many known health benefits.

What the average consumer can make of all this is a few bottom lines: First, it is still the best advice to eat everything in moderation. The only studies that do show a negative health effect from consuming red or cured meats only finds such results in the highest meat consumption category. So basically, don’t eat a pound of bacon every day (literally, that is what it takes) and you will probably be fine.

Further, nitrites specifically have been unfairly maligned. Their story is much more complex, and overall we should look at nitrites/nitrates as having positive health effects. Remember – they mostly come from fruits and vegetables, and diets high in vegetable nitrates have been shown to be healthful.

Sodium nitrite specifically is an important food preservative, and we should not avoid its use over an unjustified fear.

What about the nitrite-free bacon? This is a good example of how food fears based on outdated, preliminary, or incomplete information can lead to bad eating decisions. First, many products touting themselves as not using added sodium nitrite, or avoiding chemical preservatives, actually do contain nitrites. The makers of Naked Bacon, for example, claim:

Finnebrogue said it worked with a Spanish chemist to develop the new flavouring from natural Mediterranean fruit and spice extracts and apply it to British bacon for the first time.

I wonder if those fruit and spice extracts contain sodium nitrite? That is often the case with similar products – they use the “appeal to nature” fallacy to imply their products are better because they use only natural ingredients. The source of the sodium nitrite, however, has zero effect on its health effects.

But thinking that your bacon is healthier may lead to consuming more fat and calories. This is the fallacy of blaming specific ingredients or types of food for being “bad” and thinking that avoiding them will make your diet magically healthy. Companies are quick to exploit this, with, for example “low fat” products that are loaded with sugar. Such products are often sold as “guilt free” but this is a scam.

Again – just eat a variety of foods in moderation, make sure you get enough fruits and vegetables, and watch your total caloric intake. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking you are eating a “superfood” or “guilt-free” food.

Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #652 - Jan 6 2018

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 01/06/2018 - 8:00am
What's the Word: Hormesis; Predictions 2017; News Items: Protein Folding Breakthrough, Nitrate-Free Bacon, Donkey Hide Snakeoil, Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

The Return of “Traditional” Astrology

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 01/05/2018 - 4:56am

I guess this is a theme recently – the return of previous pseudosciences that had been fading into the background. If you type “astrology” into the search window on this blog you get exactly two articles specifically about this topic in the last 10 years. Hopefully this won’t really change and astrology will remain safely on the fringe, an old-school pseudoscience curiosity.

But there are those who are trying to give astrology new respectability. A recent article by Ida Benedetto outlines the strategy, which is two-pronged. First, blame astrology’s poor reputation on modern psychology. Then the fix is an appeal to antiquity – return to the ancient texts. She writes:

“Astrology’s contemporary flavor has a closer relationship with the social science of psychology than the observational science it used to be based upon. If we can set modern judgments aside and learn the language of the ancient astrologers—a language that is now newly available due to the recent revival of classical texts—we may discover lost insights.”

Let’s strangle this infant in the crib, as both prongs of this strategy are nonsense.

First, modern psychology is not to blame for the failings of any version of astrology. Benedetto argues that modern astrology followed the pattern of pop psychology, offering simple solutions to life’s complex problems, and giving people light and positive answers. I think she is misinterpreting the lines of causation here.

Rather, astrology is a form of pop (pseudo)psychology, which is not based on any respectable psychological science. All such pop psy follows a similar pattern – the easy and comfortable answers. Modern astrologers have always been client-based, selling their fortune-telling for cash, and they simply followed (like all other forms of pop psy) the format that brought in the most money –  tell people what they want to hear.

In other words, any similarity between modern astrology and other forms of pop psychology do not come from psychology, but from the behavior of typical snake oil salesmen and fortunetellers.

But I am actually more interested in the second pillar of her argument – that there is something potentially valuable in the ancient astrological texts.

“The ancients looked to the sky for clues about why things happened in the material world around them. Astrology had its heyday in the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic period, an era that took place between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century CE. These ancient astrologers based their interpretations on centuries of observations recorded by the Mesopotamians who came before them. They kept careful records of astronomical phenomenon, looking for correlations between what happened in the sky above them and the material world around them.”

This is classic “Toothfairy science.” This is also the “teachable moment” I thought was most relevant about this article. Benedetto has a background in the arts, so it is not surprising that she is somewhat clueless about science.

The key point is this – science is more than carefully collecting observations. As the Toothfairy analogy explains, if you carefully documented the amount, denomination, and timing of money left in exchange for children’s teeth, and correlated that information with all sorts of demographic variables, you might create a convincing imitation of doing real science, but none of that data would actually test the underlying premise – is the Toothfairy real?

Similarly, carefully documenting the position of the stars and planets and then correlating those positions with events on Earth might be impressive for ancient Mesopotamians, but it is not science. This type of observational behavior is not capable of asking the important underlying question – is there any causal relationship between what is observed in the sky and events on Earth?

Just making such observations is missing a critical ingredient, testing whether or not the stars have any predictive value. For this you need objective outcomes, blinded assessment, and statistical analysis.

To reverse an analogy we have commonly used, this is similar to what many people do with the stock market. You can track the market in great detail, and look for patterns with sophisticated analysis. However, such patterns in past market behavior do not predict what the market will do in the future – it is stock market astrology.

The ancients cannot be blamed for thinking they can gain insight into worldly events by looking at the stars. They lacked any serious cosmology or understanding of fundamental forces. They did the best they could, and carefully documenting observations was a good start.

But we have a couple thousand years of advancement between them and us. We know quite a bit more about how the universe is put together, and the forces that are at work. There is no plausible mechanism by which the position of the planets and stars can influence or predict events on Earth. That notion is pure magic.

Further, numerous attempts at scientifically demonstrating the existence of such a phenomenon have failed. We are not starting from scratch here – there is more than enough evidence to reject the highly implausible hypothesis of astrology. This is not closed mindedness, as Benedetto and others would have you believe. It is simple Beysian analysis – astrology is not very likely to begin with, and all evidence points to no.

I also fully reject Benedetto’s reverence for “ancient texts.” As a source of history, sure, they are invaluable. As a source of science and understanding the world, not so much. Such reverence for the alleged wisdom of the ancients in counter-enlightenment and anti-intellectual. It rejects the hard-won knowledge that we have accumulated over centuries. It infantilizes modern people and suggests we should submit to the ancient wisdom of our long past elders.

It is also, ironically, still looking for an easy solution to complex questions. The world is complex, and it takes hard intellectual work to sort it all out, account for our biases, to look at questions from new perspectives, and to conduct rigorous observations and experiments to systematically test our ideas against reality. The answers aren’t waiting for us to translate from some ancient text.

So I’m sorry, Benedetto, astrology is fake. You just don’ understand how science works. But that is easy enough to fix. There are plenty of sources for popular science communication out there, a mere mouse-click away.




Categories: Skeptic

Backfire Effect Not Significant

neurologicablog Feed - Thu, 01/04/2018 - 5:23am

Previous research has shown that when confronted with a factual statement that appears to go against an ideologically held belief, a percentage of people tested will move their position away from the factual information – a so-called “backfire effect.” This notion was rapidly incorporated into the skeptical narrative, because it seems to confirm our perception that it is very difficult to change people’s minds.

However, more recent research suggests that the backfire effect may not exist, or at least is exceedingly rare. A recently published series of studies puts a pretty solid nail in the coffin of the backfire effect (although this probably won’t be the last word).

To be clear, people generally still engage in motivated reasoning when emotions are at stake. There is clear evidence that people filter the information they seek, notice, accept, and remember. Ideology also predicts how much people will respond to factual correction.

The backfire effect, however, is very specific. This occurs when people not only reject factual correction, but create counterarguments against the correction that move them further in the direction of the incorrect belief. It’s probably time for us to drop this from our narrative, or at least deemphasize it and put a huge asterisk next to any mention of it.

The new paper from Wood and Porter looked collectively at 10,100 subjects across 52 issues. The subjects were recruited online from the Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Subjects were asked to indicate how much they agree with political statements, such as, “President
Obama has been more tolerant of illegal immigration than previous presidents.”

They were then either exposed or not exposed to a factual statement, such as, “In fact, according to the Department of Homeland Security, President Obama has deported
illegal immigrants at twice the rate of his predecessor, President George W Bush.”

They were again asked to indicate the extent of their agreement with the original statement. The study measured to what extend the factual correction changed their position. They found:

Among liberals, 85% of issues saw a significant factual response to correction, among moderates, 96% of issues, and among conservatives, 83% of issues. No backfire was observed for any issue, among any ideological cohort.

These studies indicate that liberals and conservatives are about the same in their response to factual information, with a generally strong response to factual correction, and neither group experienced a significant backfire effect. Moderates had the best response to factual correction, indicating perhaps a cognitive advantage to not having a strong ideological or partisan identity.

The authors discuss at length what all this means, including how to interpret these results considering prior research. First, we have to consider the study population. The original studies showing a backfire effect used graduate students, and may not reflect the general population. The current studies rely on mechanical turk recruits, and again may be a biased sample. However, the fifth study compared the results to a nationally representative sample, and found similar results.

For me there are two main limitations of this study – the first is that it is difficult to extrapolate from the artificial setting of a psychological study to an emotional discussion around the dinner table (or in the comments to a blog). It seems likely that people are much more willing to be reasonable in the former setting.

Second, we have no idea how persistent the correction effect is. People may immediately correct their belief, but then quickly forget the new information that runs counter to their narrative. That would be consistent with my personal experience, at least some of the time. It seems I can correct someone’s false information, with objective references, but then a month later they repeat their original claim as if the prior conversation never happened. I would love to see some long term follow up to these studies.

So if people do not respond to ideologically inconvenient facts by forming counterarguments and moving away from them (again – that is the backfire effect) then what do they do? The authors discuss a competing hypothesis, that people are fundamentally intellectually lazy. In fact, forming counterarguments is a lot of mental work that people will tend to avoid. It is much easier to just ignore the new facts.

Further there is evidence that to some extent people not only ignore facts, they may think that facts are not important. They may conclude that the specific fact they are being presented is not relevant to their ideological belief. Or they may believe that facts in general are not important.

What that generally means is that they dismiss facts as being biased and subjective. You have your facts, but I have my facts, and everyone is entitled to their opinion – meaning they get to choose which facts to believe.

Of course all of this is exacerbated by the echochamber effect. People overwhelmingly seek out sources of information that are in line with their ideology.

I think it is very important to recognize that the backfire effect is a small or perhaps even nonexistent phenomenon. The problem with belief in the backfire effect is that it portrays people as hopelessly biased, and suggests that attempts at educating people or changing their mind is fruitless. It suggests that the problem of incorrect beliefs is an unfixable inherent problem with human psychology.

Certainly there are psychological effects strongly at play when it comes to how people form their beliefs, but immunity to facts is not necessarily one of them. Rather, it seems that culture and behavior play a large role, and those are modifiable variables.

I do think it is important for people to generally recognize the negative effect that strong partisan identity and strong ideology has on their ability to reason. The ideal to which we should strive is the Bayesian approach – we evaluate all factual information in an unbiased manner and form our conclusions based on those facts, updating them as necessary. We deviate from the Bayesian ideal when motivated by emotion, identity, and even just laziness.

Further, we need to think about how we come by our information, because this can have a strong bias on what information we know and believe. If we passively go with the flow of our identity, we will tend to cocoon ourselves in a comfortable echochamber that will bathe us only in facts that have been curated for maximal ideological ease. This feedback loop will not only maintain our ideology but polarize it, making us more radical, and less reasonable.

Ideally, therefore, we should be emotionally aloof to any ideological identity, to any particular narrative or belief system. Further, we should seek out information based upon how reliable it is, rather than how much it confirms what we already believe or want to belief. In fact, to correct for this bias we should specifically seek out information that contradicts our current beliefs.

These are behaviors that anyone can cultivate. We are not destined to wallow in our existing narratives, immune to facts and logic. It does take a lot of work, however, and perhaps in the end this is the biggest barrier – simple intellectual laziness.

Categories: Skeptic

Trial by Therapy: The Jerry Sandusky Case Revisited feed - Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:00am

“It was incredibly difficult for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.” —Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Linda Kelly after the Sandusky guilty verdict

In June 2012, the 68-year-old Jerry Sandusky, for three decades a successful and admired assistant to Pennsylvania State University’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, was found guilty on 45 counts of child molestation and was remanded to prison for, effectively, the rest of his life. Sandusky was exposed as a serial pedophile on a scarcely imaginable scale, and 10 of his victims—presumably a small sample—were featured in his trial. Penn State would eventually pay $109 million (and counting) in compensation to at least 35 men who had been schoolboys at the time of their reported abuse. And presumably there were hundreds more victims. Since 1977 Sandusky had led a substantial program of his own devising for disadvantaged youth, The Second Mile, that was thought to have served him as a “candy store,” affording opportunities to “groom” neglected boys and then to have his way with them.

Jerry Sandusky around 1999 with Second Mile kids, most of whom later claimed that he abused them and received millions of dollars in settlements. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The Sandusky case was so mortifying that it triggered the firing of Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, a vice president, Gary Schultz, its athletic director, Tim Curley, and the idolized Joe Paterno himself, at age 84 and after 61 years of service, for having abetted Sandusky’s crimes. Specifically, they had failed to take action after one horrific incident had been called to their notice. Paterno died of lung cancer two months after his shaming. Schultz and Curley, later indicted on felony charges, pleaded guilty to a compromise charge of child endangerment, for which they each received a two-year jail sentence (not entirely served). President Spanier protested his innocence but was convicted of the same offense and sentenced to four to 12 months of combined jail time and house arrest. (His appeal is still in process.) And in the wake of Sandusky’s own conviction, Penn State was fined $860 million and otherwise condemned and sanctioned for having placed sports mania ahead of helpless children’s welfare.

All that furor was commensurate with the depravity of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, divulged in sensational news reports after a grand jury “presentment” (summary) was released and dramatically recapitulated at the trial seven months later. A university janitor, Ronald Petrosky, testified that a fellow janitor, Jim Calhoun, had happened upon Sandusky, around the year 2000, giving oral sex to a boy in a university shower. And more directly, emotional Second Mile veterans told of having been subjected to multiple assaults. Under prosecution questioning, for example, Aaron Fisher agreed that between 2006 and 2008 he had been forced into oral copulation more than 25 times. Ryan Rittmeyer said that after initially fending off Sandusky’s advances, he gave in and repeatedly exchanged oral sex with his abuser. According to Brett Swisher Houtz, Sandusky had molested him in showers, in a sauna, and in hotel rooms, forcing him to assume “69” positions. There had been over 40 such events, Houtz reported, occurring two or three times a week. And Sabastian Paden told the grand jury of even more savage treatment.

None of those stories is as well remembered, though, as that of Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback and coach who, as a graduate student at the turn of the century, had been serving as an apprentice to the coaching staff. Two factors set McQueary apart. First, by 2012 he was the only mentally competent person who claimed to have seen Sandusky in the act of molesting a boy. And second, he was the informant who had alerted Coach Paterno and thence Athletic Director Curley, Vice President Schultz, and President Spanier. “Remember that little boy in the shower,” Governor Tom Corbett admonished the governing board that was about to sack all four men. And that boy in the shower is what the American public remembers, too.

To judge from the grand jury presentment of November 2011, there was no doubt about what McQueary had observed a decade earlier. At about 9:30 on the evening of March 1, 2002, it was stated, McQueary, upon entering the locker room of Penn State’s Lasch Football Building, had heard “rhythmic slapping sounds” indicative of sexual intercourse. Sure enough, when he had peered into the communal shower area he had seen a boy, roughly 10 years old, with his hands against the wall, being sodomized by Jerry Sandusky. McQueary had been too flustered to intervene, but on the next morning he notified Paterno, assuming, mistakenly, that Paterno and higher officials would turn Sandusky in to the police.

Once the McQueary story became public knowledge, Sandusky’s conviction in the following spring was a foregone conclusion. In the aftermath, the university’s new administration rushed to make amends. In addition to paying handsome settlements to claimants, it welcomed punishments and sanctions, tightened its rules on sexual abuse, and humbly acceded to a stinging report by the former FBI director Louis Freeh, deploring the disgraced leaders’ “total and consistent disregard…for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” From the issuance of the $8.3 million Freeh report in July 2012 until now, that has been the received wisdom. Its truth will be memorialized in the format that modern Americans find most convincing: an HBO docudrama, in this instance featuring Al Pacino as the devious Joe Paterno.

Not quite everyone, however, has been on board. A separate four-month investigation by John Snedden, a federal agent tasked with judging whether the fired president Graham Spanier ought to be stripped of his national security clearance, found no evidence whatsoever of administrative wrongdoing. There hadn’t been a cover-up, wrote Snedden, because there had been nothing to cover up. (Snedden offered his evidence to the Freeh investigators, but they disregarded it.) And John Ziegler, a conservative talk show host and documentary filmmaker, independently reached the same conclusion as Snedden—though no one paid attention to his argument. Ziegler had been troubled by an incongruity: how could the famously ethical Paterno have brushed aside the news of pedophilic rape by his own former defensive coordinator? Ziegler began his inquiry with only Paterno’s vindication in mind, but he ended, to his surprise, by believing that Sandusky himself was blameless.

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Can a sustained, comprehensive case be made for that inference? It already exists, in a book that was rejected by every major publisher and finally issued in November 2017 by the modest Sunbury Press of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Until now the work has been almost entirely ignored by reviewers. Yet it comes with the strong endorsement of a world-renowned psychologist and memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus, and a leading expert on coercive interrogation methods and false confessions, Richard A. Leo. If they are right, Mark Pendergrast’s 391-page The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment can erase the shame of both Penn State and Sandusky, who languishes in solitary confinement, for 22 hours a day, in a maximum-security state prison.

Pendergrast is an independent scholar and science writer who has long been concerned with the psychology and disastrous consequences of falsely “recovered memory.” Like nearly all consumers of mainstream news, Pendergrast at first took the reports of Sandusky’s misdeeds at face value. But when, in 2013, he received a tip that there appeared to be a recovered memory aspect to the case, he was intrigued. After studying all pertinent documents, corresponding with Sandusky and twice visiting him, and interviewing family members, alumni of Sandusky’s Second Mile program, and other figures involved in the case, Pendergrast assembled an imposing argument against the consensus. What follows is based on detailed evidence and reasoning in The Most Hated Man in America.

From the public’s standpoint, Sandusky’s criminality was epitomized in Mike McQueary’s revolting image of the shower room copulation. But McQueary’s testimony—which, he admitted, had been reframed in his mind “many, many, many times”—had evolved in stages between his first statement to the police in November 2010 and his appearance at Sandusky’s trial in the spring of 2012. In the final version, for example, he had peered into the shower three times, not twice, and he had halted Sandusky’s assault by loudly slamming his locker door—a strangely timid means for a 26-year-old, 6’5”, 220-pound athlete to have “done something about” the ongoing rape of a child. More important, McQueary’s belief that he had witnessed anal penetration wasn’t settled until quite late. At one point, in fact, he complained to Deputy District Attorney Jonelle Eshbach that she had twisted his words to make them sound more definite—but he was instructed, remarkably, to keep his mouth shut about it.

McQueary’s wavering could cause one to doubt the accuracy of his final testimony. And, as it happens, all of his late accounts departed radically from his first narration to listeners at the time. Which story, then, ought to be believed? The answer is obvious. In 2010 through 2012 McQueary was revisiting a decade-old incident that he now regarded in the light of other alarming charges against Sandusky that police and prosecutors had disclosed to him; but in the first instance he was telling people about a fresh experience. Significantly, Sandusky’s jury, which got everything else wrong, acquitted him of rape in that instance.

Here, then, is the most trustworthy variant of the story. From outside the locker room before he entered it, McQueary had heard slapping noises that sounded sexual to him. “Visualizations come to your head,” as he would later say. In the few seconds it took him to get to his locker, the noise had stopped. Curious, he looked into the shower room through a mirror and caught a glimpse of a boy. Then an arm reached out and pulled the boy back. Horrified, McQueary assumed he had narrowly missed watching a rape. But had he?

After closing his locker, McQueary had seen Jerry Sandusky walking out of the shower area, but he had made no attempt to confront him. Instead, he phoned his father, an office manager, and told him what he had heard and noticed. John McQueary asked him to come right over, and he also summoned his friend and employer, the nephrologist Jonathan Dranov. Dranov then grilled Mike, repeatedly asking him whether he had witnessed a sex act. No, he hadn’t. Considering the unlikelihood that the respected Jerry Sandusky had been living a Jekyll-Hyde existence, John McQueary and Dr. Dranov decided that no abuse had probably occurred.

So, evidently, did Mike McQueary. Several months after the shower incident, he signed up to participate in a celebrity golf tournament that bore Sandusky’s name, and he continued to associate cordially with Sandusky in later years. Could he have done so knowing that the pedophile’s depredations were going unpunished and unreported to the police?

Coach Paterno, too, when Mike consulted him, hadn’t been greatly concerned. Although the gregarious, practical joking Sandusky grated on Paterno, a lone taskmaster who never befriended his players, Paterno was sure that “Saint Sandusky,” as Sports Illustrated had called him in 1998 when honoring his charitable work, was no pervert. The venerable coach was already familiar with Sandusky’s “horsing around,” in plain sight, with boys who lacked a father’s companionship. Paterno didn’t care for it, but he didn’t regard it in a sexual light.

Given the ambiguous circumstances, Paterno did the right thing. He presented the matter to his immediate superior, Athletic Director Curley, who then conferred with Vice President Schultz and President Spanier. The three parties agreed that while Sandusky must be forbidden to bring any more Second Mile boys to campus, the shower episode had consisted of innocuous play.

The accuracy of that interpretation was confirmed by the grown-up shower boy himself, Allan Myers, who was almost 14 at the time of the incident. In May 2011, before the McQueary story went public, Myers wrote a letter defending Sandusky’s character in general terms. Then, after the grand jury presentment was made available on November 4, Myers, having recognized himself as the allegedly sodomized boy, gave a statement to an investigator for Sandusky’s defense in which he denied that anything sexual had occurred. And he added, indignantly, that the police had already been trying to bully him into alleging molestation by Sandusky. Myers’s recollection of the shower incident matched Sandusky’s own: the goings-on had consisted of friendly slap boxing and/or towel snapping, period.

McQueary’s later memory of the shower incident was so poor that he misdated it by more than a year, placing it on March 1, 2002. Later inquiry put it at February 9, 2001—but that date, too, was almost certainly wrong. It was chosen because the time of McQueary’s conversation with Joe Paterno was well established as February 10, and McQueary had testified that he met with Paterno on the day after the incident. But John Ziegler has shown, and Sandusky himself concurs, that the incident almost certainly took place on December 29, 2000.

If so, McQueary had waited more than five weeks to bring the matter up with Paterno. That would be further evidence that after conferring with his father and Dr. Dranov, McQueary was uncertain that any offense had been committed in the Lasch building. The absence of a police investigation at the time attests not to criminal negligence by Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier but to their reasonable judgment, shared by a calmed-down McQueary, that the matter was already resolved.

For a while the McQueary/Myers episode had looked like a smoking gun, until it turned out to be merely a water pistol. But the police and other authorities, though well aware of the considerations that had led Paterno and the others to deem Sandusky innocent, were undeterred. For them, McQueary’s latest memory was the most authentic. They derived their confidence from the fact that they had already been working with another accuser, Aaron Fisher, whose charges, though replete with dubious oddities, they were determined to believe.

The whole initiative against Sandusky had begun in November 2008 when Fisher, a former Second Miler whose delinquent tendencies had included a frequently rebuked penchant for lying, began at age 14 to feel that Sandusky’s attentions to him might have betrayed an aspect of perversion. Fisher had confided his worry to his mother, Dawn Daniels, who had taken advantage of Sandusky’s mentorship of her son to party hard in local bars. Until then, she had regarded Sandusky as “a real dumb jock with a heart of gold.” Now, however, she wanted to know whether he had ever molested her son.

Dawn Fisher Daniels Hennessy, the mother of Aaron Fisher (“Victim 1”), posted this picture on MySpace in 2008, boasting of her inebriation in a bar. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The answer she received from her son was an unequivocal no. Aaron did hold a grudge against Sandusky, but on further questioning it transpired that the source of resentment was Sandusky’s insistence on staying in supportive contact with him after the boy had become exasperated with Second Mile moralism and positive thinking. It was his mother, now, who pursued the seduction theme. According to her next-door neighbor, Joshua Fravel, she once boasted, “I’m going to get a lawyer and make a million dollars off Jerry Sandusky.” She is also said to have told him, “I’m gonna own the motherfucker’s house.” Likewise, in Pendergrast’s words, “Aaron Fisher later allegedly told Fravel that he planned to buy a big house in the country for his mother and family….”

A 2015 photo of Aaron Fisher, “Victim 1,” posted on Facebook. Covered with money (presumably from his Sandusky settlement), he is giving the finger to his critics. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The problem, however, was that Aaron couldn’t initially bring himself to declare that Sandusky had ever molested him. Yes, Sandusky had hugged him to “crack his back” after wrestling around, but they had both been fully clothed. That was all. Social workers in Clinton County’s Children and Youth Services urged Aaron to say more, but when he still showed reluctance, they deduced that his memory needed enhancing. And so they sent him upstairs to the psychotherapist Mike Gillum, who was, in all respects except the name, a recovered memory psychologist.

Gillum believed, as did the tutors of the mass “recovered memory” delusion in the 1980s and 1990s, that the usual response to a trauma is to “dissociate,” blocking awareness of the event in progress while nevertheless storing a repressed recollection of it in the unconscious. The therapist’s imagined task was to bring that repressed memory into consciousness and thus, in theory, to restore psychological health. Typically, a sexual abuse specialist would build trust in him- or herself while subtracting it from the alleged abuser, most often a father, stepfather, or other caretaker. As this disorienting process rendered patients more agitated and depressed, their unraveling would be offered as proof that the repressed memories were approaching the surface at last. The unraveling, anyway, was genuine. Aaron Fisher, for example, suffered panic attacks, became suicidal, and nearly killed himself in a car wreck.

As many researchers have shown, and as Mark Pendergrast himself expounds in another recent book on the subject, Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die (Upper Access, 2017), people actually tend to remember traumatic experiences quite vividly. (Has any survivor of the Holocaust, excepting those with brain damage or dementia, ever lost awareness of it?) Yet memory is also reconstructive, or framed anew with each effort of recall, and therefore it is subject to distortion in the light of subsequently acquired beliefs. To fall under the sway of a recovered memory practitioner is to acquire just such a belief, ensuring that artifactual details or a wholly invented incident will acquire the force of a real memory.

This was to be Aaron Fisher’s development under the watchful eye of Mike Gillum. The latter, noting Aaron’s nervousness in his company, classified him at once as a survivor of molestation. Gillum began spending many hours each day with the boy and making himself available by phone around the clock. He told Aaron that he would help and protect him until the memory of abuse could be safely expressed. As Fisher would later avow, “It wasn’t until I was 15 and started seeing Mike that I realized the horror.” Nor was it necessary for Aaron to tell Gillum what he thought had happened. The psychologist prided himself on guessing the truth and stating it to the boy, who would simply nod his head or say “Yes” or “No”—and “No” was clearly not an acceptable answer.

In Gillum’s view, as in that of other memory therapists, a severe trauma can be recalled only piecemeal, in anguished stages, with the result that the very latest iteration is sure to be the most accurate one. Gillum likened the process to peeling an onion. Such a model discounts the therapist’s all-important influence over the process of recall under treatment. Indeed, in the opinion of psychologists who study memory, when a “memory” keeps accreting ever more grotesque and improbable details, that is a sign that the originating event probably hadn’t occurred at all.

Having seen Aaron Fisher every day for weeks, Gillum felt frustrated when he was excluded from Aaron’s first police interrogation, which yielded meager results. After that setback, though, Gillum became in effect a tool of the prosecution, sitting in on every interview and, by his very presence, reminding Aaron of what he was expected to say.

Even so, Aaron’s compliance was always hesitant and partial. Gillum would later tell Pendergrast that it had taken him six months (actually seven) to get his patient to state in so many words that Sandusky had forced oral sex upon him—a charge that Aaron retracted when quizzed about it in the first of three grand jury appearances. The jurors, possessing no solid evidence against Sandusky, refused to hand down an indictment. In Aaron’s second appearance, he was so distraught and confused that, once again, no action was taken. And he tried to back out altogether from making the third appearance. A newly constituted grand jury had to settle for his reading a text that may have been crafted by others. Even at the trial in 2012, he could do no better than sob through rehearsed assent to statements by a prosecuting attorney.

Those statements included an assertion that Fisher had been an overnight guest in Sandusky’s house about a hundred times during the period of abuse, 2003–8. Mutual but by no means consensual fellatio had supposedly been practiced in the basement. But why had the boy returned, again and again, for more of what was traumatizing him? Had he sleepwalked through all five years? Like most false memories, Fisher’s couldn’t be reconciled with norms of plausibility. Nonetheless, his sobs on the witness stand, possibly expressing entrapment and remorse for his part in railroading Sandusky into prison, made a stronger impression on the jury than his illogic did.

Long before Sandusky’s trial, state officials had been shown that Fisher by himself, a mentally fragile teenager who kept changing his story, wasn’t going to bring Sandusky down. Before they had heard of the McQueary/Myers incident, only one other possible victim besides Fisher was known to them. In 1998 Debra McCord, the mother of a Second Mile child, 14-year-old Zachary Konstas, had been alarmed to learn that Sandusky had play-wrestled with him during another post-workout shower. She had notified the police, who investigated her claim of abuse and even performed two sting operations designed to entrap the perpetrator. But Zach Konstas himself insisted that Sandusky had merely been engaging in his usual mock-aggressive foolery.

Finding no incriminating evidence, the police had declared Debra McCord’s suspicions to be unfounded. And McCord herself must have agreed with their judgment. For the next dozen years she allowed Zach to continue attending football games with Sandusky and visiting his home. Indeed, Zach and Allan Myers, the more important if still anonymous shower boy who was now a young man, shared a dinner with Jerry and Dottie Sandusky as late as July 2011.

Dottie Sandusky at Christmas 2010. After she defended her husband in a 2014 appearance on the Today show, viewers wrote that she was a “hag,” a “sicko,” a “rapist,” and that she deserved the death penalty. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

To an objective observer, the terminated Konstas episode would have held no forensic interest. But Deputy District Attorney Eshbach and memory therapist Gillum were not objective observers. Because Eshbach never doubted that Sandusky was a serial molester, she hoped to lure Konstas into joining Aaron Fisher as a self-announced victim. And she decided to cast a wide dragnet for further victims, ordering troopers to interrogate every Second Mile veteran they could find who had had personal dealings with the founder.

Ironically, the sleuths were aided in that task by Sandusky’s upbeat autobiography of 2000, unselfconsciously titled Touched (!). It contained photographs of the beaming suspect with his arms draped around easily identifiable prepubescent boys. In that book, by the way, Sandusky had written about “reaching out” to boys and “having fun” in “wrestling” with them. As Pendergrast asks, would a child molester be likely to have allowed such a work to see print?

Eshbach’s agents told each respondent, falsely, that quite a few other young men had already volunteered narratives of molestation by Sandusky—so shouldn’t they, too, reveal what had been done to them? The overwhelming majority of some 600 ex-Second Milers, however, gave versions of the same disappointing answer. Yes, Sandusky had tickled them, squeezed their knees, cracked their backs, or even kissed them on the forehead at age 10 or 11; but this hadn’t been grooming for later assaults. It had simply expressed affectionate comradeship from a father figure. For many of these 20-somethings Sandusky had remained a hero, a man of spotless character who had once spared them from wretchedness and then, in their troubled adolescence, steered them toward responsible adulthood by providing advice and incentives for good schoolwork and clean living.

The interviewees’ recurrent mention of Sandusky’s moral counsel ought to have signaled caution to the district attorney. Some recalcitrant Second Milers had spurned their former mentor and plunged into early experimentation with alcohol, drugs, and sex. For them, Sandusky’s redoubled exhortations to virtue had rendered him an annoyance. If he had ever molested them, they would surely have fired back against such gross inconsistency. (“Who are you, a rapist of children, to be lecturing me?”) Yet no one, not even Sandusky’s most florid accusers, ever seems to have called him a hypocrite.

Among so many young men drawn in by the dragnet, however, there were bound to be a few who, in bad financial straits that were sometimes worsened by criminal records, caught the scent of money. Aaron Fisher’s mother, we recall, may have glimpsed that benefit from the start. Without explicitly saying so, Eshbach and police investigators implied that testimony against the abuser could lead to riches. Nor would the young men necessarily have to perjure themselves on the witness stand. If they would merely entertain the hypothesis that they had been violated by Sandusky many years before, when their sexual ignorance had prevented them from registering the offense, then Mike Gillum or other therapists, such as State College’s Cynthia MacNab, could assist them in bringing their “compartmentalized” memories to the surface.

By the time of the trial, Aaron Fisher and Zach Konstas were ready to denounce Sandusky—for Konstas, too, must have “flipped” under therapeutic pressure, now maintaining that the pedophile had been grooming him for future abuse. As a result of their recruiting, the authorities also had four new “victims” in tow, plus two more who belatedly responded to a hotline number that was established after the media had pounced on the Sandusky scandal. Thanks to the hotline, previously unknown parties could simply phone in to stake a claim. Then, too, there was Mike McQueary, who had finally convinced himself, on the basis of others’ charges, that he had actually witnessed a homosexual rape. And with the janitor Ronald Petrosky ready to report about another one, the prosecutors’ case was finally looking strong.

The appearance of strength, however, isn’t the same thing as proof, and dozens of false memories are no better than one. Let us review the claims of each accuser, as Pendergrast does more fully in The Most Hated Man in America.

1. Mike McQueary/Allan Myers. As we have seen, McQueary witnessed no sexual activity in the shower, and Myers confirmed that nothing untoward had been going on. Myers’s later intention to testify in Sandusky’s behalf should have put the question to rest.

2. Zachary Konstas told both his mother and the police that he and Sandusky had indulged in harmless horseplay in 1998. There is no reason to believe otherwise. In 2009, as a 23-year-old, Konstas messaged, “Hey Jerry just want 2 wish u a Happy Fathers Day! Greater things are yet 2 come!” And later that year he wrote, “Happy Thanksgiving bro! I’m glad God has placed U in my life. Ur an awesome friend!” Konstas’s “flipping,” just before the trial, may have resulted from some combination of opportunism, psychotherapy (which he did undergo), and surrender to a general moral panic.

3. Aaron Fisher. The “victim” who set the Penn State tragedy in motion was egged on by his mother and then by the memory diver Mike Gillum. We have seen that in a number of ways, straight through the trial, Fisher manifested a reluctance to accuse Sandusky of misdeeds that he could never clearly bring to mind. And his friendly association with Sandusky throughout the five years of alleged abuse argues strongly against the likelihood that any abuse occurred.

4. Dustin Struble (b. 1984) recalled the Second Mile program with unmixed gratitude in 2004. That was when he wrote on a scholarship application, “Jerry Sandusky, he has helped me understand so much about myself. He is such a kind and caring gentleman, and I will never forget him.” More recently, when Pendergrast asked Struble what he would have said about Sandusky in 2010, he replied, “I would have said I went to games with him and that we were friends.” Indeed, tailgate parties with the Sanduskys had been a regular feature of his life for 14 years, until he was 25.

Nevertheless, when the McQueary scandal broke in 2011, Struble wondered whether Sandusky’s typically hands-on encounters with him could have included a sexual component. In February 2011 he told investigators that he was entering psychotherapy, presumably in order to dredge up repressed memories. Still, on April 11 of the same year, he assured the grand jury that, so far as he could recall, Sandusky had never once touched him inappropriately.

But around that time, Struble began comparing notes with his fellow memory patient Zach Konstas. Before long he signed a contingency fee agreement with a local attorney, Andrew Shubin. Obviously, then, the lawyer and his client were looking forward to splitting a possible settlement for psychological harm. Struble met with Shubin 10 to 15 times before the trial, and he entered therapy with Cindy MacNab to find hidden memories of abuse.

Soon thereafter, Struble’s story drastically changed. Sandusky, he claimed, had touched his penis in a car and had nestled against him erotically in a shower. Asked in cross examination why he hadn’t disclosed those events in earlier testimony, he replied in recovered memory psychobabble: “That doorway that I had closed has since been reopening more.” And in a 2014 email to Pendergrast, Struble wrote: “Actually both of my therapists have suggested that I have repressed memories, and that’s why we have been working on looking back on my life for triggers. My therapist has suggested that I still may have more repressed memories that have yet to be revealed, and this could be a big cause of the depression that I still carry today.”

5. Michal Kajak (b. 1988), a friend of both Struble’s and Zach Konstas’s, said nothing to investigators until well after the Sandusky uproar had become headline news. Then, on June 7, 2011, he alleged that Sandusky had once seized his hand and placed it on his (Sandusky’s) erect penis. When had this happened? At first Kajak located the offense in the fall of 1998, before he and Sandusky had even met. Later he changed the date to August 2001. No, he corrected himself again, it had been sometime in 2002, in Penn State’s Lasch Football building. But by then Sandusky was complying with former Athletic Director Curley’s ban on bringing any Second Mile boys onto the campus; so this date, like the first one, is unbelievable.

By moving the incident’s occurrence to 2001 or 2002, Kajak and his attorney were placing it “post-McQueary”—that is, at a time when the Penn State administration would be vulnerable to the highest damages for having neglected to turn Sandusky in to the police. And indeed, Kajak’s final version would be worth millions to him and his lawyer. But had any misbehavior ever taken place? Like all of the other supposed victims, Kajak had never mentioned it to anyone and had gone right on cordially fraternizing with his presumptive abuser.

6. In July 2011 Jason Simcisko (b. 1987) was questioned by two policemen whom he told, in the words they quoted,

I lost touch with [Sandusky] around the time I went into tenth grade. I was in trouble a lot then: in and out of foster homes and stuff. He made me feel special, giving me stuff and spending time with me. I just always took it that he was trying to make sure I kept out of trouble. I don’t believe any of this stuff is true and hope that he’s found not guilty.

But a month later Simcisko had taken on Dustin Struble’s contingency fee lawyer, Andrew Shubin, and had changed his tune. Now, it seems, he had spent some 20 overnights in the Sandusky home and had been subjected to numerous genital rubbings. By the time of the trial, 20 visits had grown to 50, and Sandusky’s touching of his penis had occurred nearly every time. Once again, recovered memory was invoked. When challenged about inconsistency with earlier statements, Simcisko responded, “I tried to block this out of my brain for years.”

7. Brett Houtz (b. 1983) was a rebellious adolescent—by all accounts a habitual liar and manipulator who neglected school, dropped out of sports, used drugs, stole a car, and got sexually involved with a young girl. Sandusky had taken him on as an especially challenging project, but by 16 Houtz was fed up with Sandusky’s preachy messages, some of which would be introduced in the trial as grooming “love letters.”

Abuse became an issue for Brett Houtz only after the press sensation that began on March 31, 2011. Reading of the charges against Sandusky, Houtz’s biological father got in touch with him and proposed that he retain a lawyer and get in on the action. Houtz’s immediate retort was that he wanted nothing to do with the case. On reconsideration, though, he retained Benjamin Andreozzi, the lawyer his father had contacted, who would end by serving lucratively as the attorney for 10 claimants against Penn State.

Even then, Houtz refused at first to enter charges against Sandusky. Afterwards, two police officers drew him out, with attorney Andreozzi present, in the only interview with a Second Miler that was ever tape recorded. The tape could serve as a classic lesson in biased interrogation. From the beginning, the idea was to get Houtz’s recollections into alignment with those of other accusers; and the questioners, with the attorney’s collusion, didn’t relent until they had done so.

Houtz’s eventual testimony, which was so graphic that it served as the opener in the prosecution’s horror show, may not have been entirely disingenuous. He had entered psychological counseling soon after retaining Andreozzi, and at some point he, too, had come under the care of recovered memory guru Mike Gillum. As he told the jury, “I have spent, you know, so many years burying this in the back of my mind forever.” Pendergrast thinks Houtz may also have been the Second Miler who underwent 30 trauma sessions with a recovered memory advocacy group called Let Go Let Peace Come In.

Like other putative Sandusky victims, Houtz ramped up his charges between the grand jury and the trial. At first his questioners had had to coax him before he would say that he had ever experienced oral sex with Sandusky. In the trial, though, he was ready to declare that he had been molested at least 50 times, with Sandusky often forcibly jamming his penis into his mouth.

The events that Houtz narrated bore the usual marks of recovered memory craziness. In his recollection, he had been playing basketball or racquetball with Sandusky nearly every evening during the 1997 football season and preseason, when the coach’s all-consuming duties barely allowed him enough time to come home for dinner. No less bizarre was his assertion that the puritanical Sandusky, who had never been known to smoke, consume alcohol, or utter a swear word, used to buy cigarettes for the teenager and once drove him to a drug dealer and gave him $50 to buy marijuana, which he smoked in Sandusky’s car.

Above all, Houtz was stumped by the same paradoxes that no accuser would be able to resolve. Why, once having been assaulted by a monstrous villain, had he kept returning to be raped again? Why had he informed no one at all about his ongoing torture? And why hadn’t his opinion of Sandusky, already mixed because of the latter’s moralizing, drastically worsened? At age 26, in the year before turning on his benefactor, Houtz had brought his girlfriend and three-year-old son for a happy visit with the Sanduskys, as if there had never been a cause for complaint. That fact speaks louder than anything he would say in court.

8. Sabastian Paden (b. 1993) was a senior in high school when, on November 5, 2011, his mother saw the televised news of Sandusky’s arrest and learned that Pennsylvania’s new attorney general, Linda Kelly, had established a hotline soliciting more victims to declare themselves. At once the mother asked someone at her son’s school to call the hotline. But she hadn’t consulted Sabastian himself, and so, when the police soon knocked on his door, his answers to their queries were unrehearsed. He informed them without hesitation that Sandusky had done nothing to him in a sexual way.

Very soon thereafter, though, with or without therapeutic prodding, Paden began telling the grand jury dreamlike tales about Sandusky’s outrages. During the period of his abuse, he testified, he had crossed the Sandusky threshold about 150 times, seemingly powerless to stay away. Although we know that Second Mile kids often came around to play games in the basement, they were all conveniently absent on the many days of Paden’s abuse, leaving the rapist free to work his mischief unobserved.

In one instance Sandusky had allegedly lured Sabastian home after school, locked him in the basement (whose lock was on the inside), and kept him there for three days while depriving him of food and repeatedly assaulting him orally and anally. At the time, Paden testified, Dottie Sandusky was on the first floor of the small, unsoundproofed house, but Sabastian’s loud screams of pain and terror were ignored. Dottie, then, must have been a fiendish accomplice to rape. But for anyone who knew her—a loving mother, a churchgoing Methodist, and a stern enforcer of household rules who was nicknamed “Sarge”—this was the most preposterous fantasy of all.

9. Ryan Rittmeyer (b. 1988) had attended a Second Mile camp, but neither Jerry nor Dottie Sandusky could recall ever having met him. He hadn’t turned out well, having been incarcerated for burglary in 2004 and again in 2007 for having robbed, beaten, and permanently injured an elderly man. He was probably hard up for money when the Sandusky hotline posed an opportunity for sudden improvement in his fortunes.

Unlike the accusers who had felt Sandusky’s kindness and may have suffered pangs of conscience about betraying him, Rittmeyer wholeheartedly embraced the role of prosecution witness. He had seen Sandusky once or twice a month, he stated, through 1997, 1998, and part of 1999, and on nearly every occasion the man had made sexual contact with him. At last, supposedly, they had begun to take turns committing fellatio.

Rittmeyer’s story, fitting the general pattern, was a tissue of physical, temporal, and motivational absurdities. But the jury, without having been shown that Sandusky and Rittmeyer were even acquainted, found it compelling. Indeed, the jurors believed all eight of the Second Mile veterans who testified—forming, collectively, a portrait of a man with little time to do anything but scurry from one unreported molestation to the next. Even Aaron Fisher and Sabastian Paden would have had to take turns getting ravaged in Sandusky’s basement, as their supposed ordeals there overlapped between 2005 and 2008.

10. Ronald Petrosky was the Penn State janitor who told the Sandusky jury what he thought Jim Calhoun, another janitor, had revealed to him one night in 2000, 12 years before. Calhoun himself couldn’t testify; in June 2012 he was suffering from dementia. But Petrosky testified on his behalf, even reproducing what he imagined to be Calhoun’s thought process from long before. His recollection, though it wavered and contained some odd features, impressed the jury as the crowning proof of Sandusky’s guilt. That it was hearsay at a 12-year remove didn’t matter to the judge, who admitted it into testimony on the novel ground that it was consistent with the other unproven charges in the case.

Apparently, something awful had indeed occurred one night in 2000. Calhoun had seen a man licking an older boy’s genitals in the Lasch building’s shower area. Unnerved, he had communicated his alarm to Ronald Petrosky. More than a decade later, when the mounting charges against Sandusky were dominating the news, Petrosky evoked that incident, which neither he nor Calhoun had reported at the time. Nor, curiously, had Petrosky ever mentioned it to anyone else. Now he seemed to remember that Calhoun had identified the perpetrator as Sandusky and that he, Petrosky, had caught sight of Sandusky and the boy exiting the locker room together. Further, he thought he recalled having noticed Sandusky driving slowly around the building’s parking lot later that night and again around 2 a.m.

Months before the trial, Petrosky’s story had figured, albeit erroneously, in an influential televised exchange between Sandusky and the sportscaster Bob Costas:

Costas: A janitor said that he saw you performing oral sex on a boy in the showers in the Penn State locker facility. Did that happen?

Sandusky: No.

Costas: How could somebody think they saw you do something as extreme and shocking as that, when it hadn’t occurred, and what would possibly be their motivation to fabricate it?

Sandusky: You would have to ask them.

Sandusky’s terse, bland responses damned him in the eyes of future jurors and the public. No one pointed out that the janitor in question, Petrosky, had not in fact observed any activity in the Lasch building’s shower room.

The man who did witness a crime, Jim Calhoun, had been interviewed by state trooper Robrt Yakikic on May 15, 2011, when his Alzheimer’s was still at an early stage. Asked what he thought of Sandusky, Calhoun had brightened and said he was “a pretty good guy.” Did Calhoun recall the shower incident? Absolutely, and he felt that even now he would recognize the dastardly abuser if he encountered him. Was it Sandusky? Calhoun answered at once, “No, I don’t believe it was.” An incredulous Yakikic asked, “You don’t?” Calhoun became more emphatic: “I don’t believe it was. I don’t think Sandusky was the person. It wasn’t him. There’s no way. Sandusky never did anything at all that I can see.” The exculpating tape was in the possession of Sandusky’s lead attorney, Joe Amendola—who, however, lacking time for adequate preparation, made no use of it.

The Sandusky trial, described in detail by Pendergrast, proved to be a perfect storm of juror prejudice, prosecutorial malfeasance, incompetent and perfunctory defense, judicial bias, and unlucky circumstances. Among the latter was the fact that Mike McQueary’s “little boy in the shower,” Allan Myers, who had been planning to attest to Sandusky’s innocence, saw dollar signs and, joining forces with the claims lawyer Andrew Shubin, apparently maintained (out of court) that Sandusky had molested him after all. That decision may have cost him his conscience but it gained him financial security, thanks to the munificence of the new, ask-no-questions administration of Penn State.

Again, Sandusky had been counting on the last of his six adopted children, Matt (né Heichel), to vouch for him at the trial, as he had already done in the face of nagging interrogation. The Christian activists Jerry and Dottie Sandusky had welcomed Matt into their home because he was continually getting into trouble, which eventually included theft, arson, and exposing himself on multiple occasions to the family’s only daughter. Jerry had kept bailing Matt out and lecturing him about the good life. He even got him to sign a contract whereby improved behavior would be repaid with funds—Jerry’s own money—for a college education.

Matt Sandusky with children and Jerry Sandusky from the Sandusky family 2010 Christmas booklet. The following year, Matt testified that his father has never abused him before the grand jury, but he “flipped” in 2012 to accuse his father on the basis of recovered memories. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

Jerry’s refusal to be discouraged by Matt’s lapses seemed to be vindicated by a turnaround in the young man’s deportment, and Matt was grateful for such steadfastness. In 1998 he told Sports Illustrated,

My life changed when I came here to live [in the Sandusky household]. There were rules, there was discipline, there was caring. Dad put me on a workout program. He gave me someone to talk to, a father figure I never had. I have no idea where I’d be without him and Mom. I don’t even want to think about it. And they’ve helped so many kids besides me.

But the negative pattern resumed. Matt dropped out of Penn State, got in further trouble, married and divorced after fathering three children, and then moved back in for a year with his adoptive parents—an unthinkable decision if he had ever been molested by Jerry. It isn’t surprising, but it is telling, that he swore under oath to the grand jury that no such molestation had happened.

Right up until the middle of the trial, Matt was looking forward to delivering a strong tribute to Jerry. But psychologically he was in a bad way, obsessed with a nonexistent odor in the family basement and hearing voices calling his name. When he attended to Brett Houtz’s colorful testimony, something snapped. Now he wondered whether abuse by Jerry, though unremembered, had been the source of his many problems in life.

Evidently, Matt had already been in the care of a psychotherapist. Now, under the guidance of lawyer Shubin, he went to the police and reported that a recollection of Jerry’s assaults was beginning to take shape in his mind. The weird sex acts that he subsequently “recovered” sounded like characteristic products of therapeutic prodding. As he later explained, “My child self was holding onto what had happened to me,” so that at first “I didn’t have these memories of the sexual abuse.”

The “flipping” of both Allan Myers and Matt Sandusky was a disaster for the already hapless defense team. Not only could the two young men not be called upon to testify; Jerry himself was dissuaded from taking the stand, lest Matt then be summoned by the prosecution to add an exclamation point to its ghoulish case. And so the jurors never got to compare the real Jerry Sandusky with the bogeyman conjured by his adversaries.

Long before Sandusky faced the justice system, he had been thoroughly demonized in the press. The journalist Sara Ganim, profiting from grand jury leaks by the district attorney’s office, would win a Pulitzer prize for articles bearing such unequivocal titles as “Former Coach Jerry Sandusky Used Charity to Molest Kids.” And once Sandusky’s wickedness had been engraved on the public mind, everything about him was twisted to fit a predator profile.

In reality, the extraverted but high-principled Sandusky didn’t fit any model of deviance. No doubts about his sexual orientation or conduct were raised before he was 54 years old. No pornography was found on his computer. Disapproving of sex out of wedlock, he had been happily married to his only spouse since 1966. His domestic lovemaking, he and Dottie separately attested, was conventional in frequency and nature. He was disgusted by the idea of anal or oral copulation. His testosterone level was abnormally low. And if Jerry had been an unscrupulous homosexual pedophile, his adopted boys would have been prime targets; but until Matt became afflicted with pseudomemories, all five of them considered the charge to be outlandish.

Had Sandusky testified, he could have explained the aspects of his behavior that some parents and even some children found “creepy.” He had spent much of his youth living on the second floor of a recreation center managed by his father, himself a charitable man who cared about helping underprivileged children. Jerry had wanted to emulate him in every way. In Art Sandusky’s facility, communal showers and prankish romping after exercise had been routine. The roughhousing had been play, but it had also offered a heartening, asexual token of solidarity between athletically inclined men and boys. Even Jerry’s most unsettling practice, squeezing the knees of a boy passenger in a car, was inherited from his father. It meant something like “Don’t forget that you can rely on my support.” As Jerry’s son Jon, now Director of Player Personnel for the Cleveland Browns, has commented,

[My father’s] whole picture of the world was stuck in the 1950s and 1960s, with no concept of what was politically correct or what is taboo nowadays…. To him, horsing around in the shower, snapping towels or throwing soap wasn’t out of the realm of normality…. But people’s view of the world is different now…. I don’t think he really understood that.

And Jon added, “My parents gave me morals. They taught me how to live my life, with a work ethic but mixing in pleasure too…. They were well-rounded parents. They modeled things I’m striving to be as a parent myself.”

Many factors contributed to the Sandusky debacle: a prurient misconstruction of well-meant deeds; excessive zeal by officials, police, social workers, and therapists; scandal mongering by the media that preempted the judicial process; the greed of abuse claimants and their lawyers; and a political vendetta against Penn State’s President Spanier by then Governor Tom Corbett. But the main ingredient in the witches’ brew, the one that rendered it most toxic, was something else: bogus psychological theory.

The indefinite and unsupported concepts of dissociation and repression, wielded without allowance for the distorting effects of suggestion and autosuggestion, lent forensic weight to nightmarish scenes that were “retrieved” in a climate of fright. Without that bad science, imparted first by therapy (Fisher) and then by social contagion (McQueary), there would have been no case at all against Sandusky. Attorney General Linda Kelly acknowledged as much in her triumphant press conference following the conviction. She praised the accusers for their courage and persistence in struggling toward a negation of their original statements to authorities. “It was incredibly difficult,” she proclaimed, “for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.”

Bo, the loyal St. Bernard, from the Sandusky family 2010 Christmas booklet. Bo died while Jerry Sandusky was in prison. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

With The Most Hated Man in America and its companion volume, Memory Warp, Mark Pendergrast has demonstrated that the obituaries of our lamentable recovered memory movement were premature. Its virulent misconceptions, originally propagated by ideologues and ignorant psychotherapists, will surely continue to wreak havoc. Forewarned is forearmed. But who, meanwhile, will restore Jerry Sandusky’s liberty and good name? And when will the stain of criminality be erased from Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier, and the late Joe Paterno? As Charles Mackay wrote in his 1852 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, men “go mad in herds, while they only recover their sense slowly, and one by one.”

About the Author

Frederick Crews is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is Freud: The Making of an Illusion. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Other Resources we have on Topic of Recovered Memories
  1. False Memory Syndrome and the Recovered Memory Movement
    (lecture on DVD), by Dr. John Hochman
  2. “Recovered Memory Therapy & False Memory Syndrome”
    (in Skeptic magazine 2.3)
  3. The Memory Wars: Recovered v. False Memories
    (lecture on DVD), by Dr. Pamela Freyd & Eleanor Goldstein
  4. “First of All, Do No Harm: A Recovered Memory Therapist Recants —
    An Interview with Robin Newsome,” by Mark Pendergrast
    (in Skeptic magazine 3.4)
  5. Junior Skeptic # 25: “Alien Abductions (Part 2),” by Daniel Loxton
    (bound within Skeptic magazine 12.4)
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for January 3, 2018 feed - Wed, 01/03/2018 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

In this week’s eSkeptic, Frederick Crews reviews Mark Pendergrast’s book The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment: a sustained, comprehensive case—based on detailed evidence and reasoning—that Jerry Sandusky (found guilty on 45 counts of child molestation) was, in fact, blameless.

Editor’s Note

We are aware of the sensitive nature of the subject of this review and the book itself, given the fact that the sexual molestation of children is a real and troubling problem. And we cannot comment on whether or not Jerry Sandusky is innocent, inasmuch as the legal system is designed not to prove innocence but to find someone either guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty. However, it now appears that much of the testimony upon which Sandusky’s conviction was based relied on the “recovery” of “repressed memories,” a concept considered by the vast majority of psychological scientists to be unfounded. Given what we know about how memory works—it is not like a video recording that can be played back on the theater of the mind—the memories of those who testified are now so modified by their recovered memory therapists, police investigators, lawyers, and the media that the original memory of whatever happened may now be lost to history. The relevance of the subject to Skeptic magazine is that we published many articles on the Recovered Memory Movement in the 1990s and early 2000s (see links at end of review), and for a time it appeared that this scientifically discredited view of memory had faded from the scene. Alas, it is still with us. Efforts to identify and help the real victims of sexual abuse can only be set back by this baseless theory. If Sandusky’s conviction rests almost entirely on the tainted, “recovered” memories of those who claimed to be his victims, and the evidence persuasively suggests that it is, it would appear that the guilty verdict rendered against him may be unwarranted.
Michael Shermer, Editor-in-Chief, Skeptic and eSkeptic

Trial by Therapy:
The Jerry Sandusky Case Revisited

by Frederick Crews

“It was incredibly difficult for some of them to unearth long-buried memories of the shocking abuse they suffered at the hands of this defendant.” —Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Linda Kelly after the Sandusky guilty verdict

In June 2012, the 68-year-old Jerry Sandusky, for three decades a successful and admired assistant to Pennsylvania State University’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, was found guilty on 45 counts of child molestation and was remanded to prison for, effectively, the rest of his life. Sandusky was exposed as a serial pedophile on a scarcely imaginable scale, and 10 of his victims—presumably a small sample—were featured in his trial. Penn State would eventually pay $109 million (and counting) in compensation to at least 35 men who had been schoolboys at the time of their reported abuse. And presumably there were hundreds more victims. Since 1977 Sandusky had led a substantial program of his own devising for disadvantaged youth, The Second Mile, that was thought to have served him as a “candy store,” affording opportunities to “groom” neglected boys and then to have his way with them.

Jerry Sandusky around 1999 with Second Mile kids, most of whom later claimed that he abused them and received millions of dollars in settlements. (Photo from The Most Hated Man in America)

The Sandusky case was so mortifying that it triggered the firing of Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, a vice president, Gary Schultz, its athletic director, Tim Curley, and the idolized Joe Paterno himself, at age 84 and after 61 years of service, for having abetted Sandusky’s crimes. Specifically, they had failed to take action after one horrific incident had been called to their notice. Paterno died of lung cancer two months after his shaming. Schultz and Curley, later indicted on felony charges, pleaded guilty to a compromise charge of child endangerment, for which they each received a two-year jail sentence (not entirely served). President Spanier protested his innocence but was convicted of the same offense and sentenced to four to 12 months of combined jail time and house arrest. (His appeal is still in process.) And in the wake of Sandusky’s own conviction, Penn State was fined $860 million and otherwise condemned and sanctioned for having placed sports mania ahead of helpless children’s welfare.

All that furor was commensurate with the depravity of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, divulged in sensational news reports after a grand jury “presentment” (summary) was released and dramatically recapitulated at the trial seven months later. A university janitor, Ronald Petrosky, testified that a fellow janitor, Jim Calhoun, had happened upon Sandusky, around the year 2000, giving oral sex to a boy in a university shower. And more directly, emotional Second Mile veterans told of having been subjected to multiple assaults. Under prosecution questioning, for example, Aaron Fisher agreed that between 2006 and 2008 he had been forced into oral copulation more than 25 times. Ryan Rittmeyer said that after initially fending off Sandusky’s advances, he gave in and repeatedly exchanged oral sex with his abuser. According to Brett Swisher Houtz, Sandusky had molested him in showers, in a sauna, and in hotel rooms, forcing him to assume “69” positions. There had been over 40 such events, Houtz reported, occurring two or three times a week. And Sabastian Paden told the grand jury of even more savage treatment.

None of those stories is as well remembered, though, as that of Mike McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback and coach who, as a graduate student at the turn of the century, had been serving as an apprentice to the coaching staff. Two factors set McQueary apart. First, by 2012 he was the only mentally competent person who claimed to have seen Sandusky in the act of molesting a boy. And second, he was the informant who had alerted Coach Paterno and thence Athletic Director Curley, Vice President Schultz, and President Spanier. “Remember that little boy in the shower,” Governor Tom Corbett admonished the governing board that was about to sack all four men. And that boy in the shower is what the American public remembers, too.

To judge from the grand jury presentment of November 2011, there was no doubt about what McQueary had observed a decade earlier. At about 9:30 on the evening of March 1, 2002, it was stated, McQueary, upon entering the locker room of Penn State’s Lasch Football Building, had heard “rhythmic slapping sounds” indicative of sexual intercourse. Sure enough, when he had peered into the communal shower area he had seen a boy, roughly 10 years old, with his hands against the wall, being sodomized by Jerry Sandusky. McQueary had been too flustered to intervene, but on the next morning he notified Paterno, assuming, mistakenly, that Paterno and higher officials would turn Sandusky in to the police. […]

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The Tail of the Lizard Man

In this episode of MonsterTalk, we creep narratively into the swamps of South Carolina as we talk of the strange lizard man who is alleged to live in the swamps outside Bishopville. Lyle Blackburn leads our expedition as he recounts the story as told in his book Lizard Man: The True Story of the Bishopville Monster. Lyle previously joined us for episode 106: What The Fouke? The Beast of Boggy Creek.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

VR is the Future

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 01/02/2018 - 5:11am

I have written about virtual reality (VR) before, but over the break I acquired my first VR headset so now I have experienced it for the first time. It is better than I imagined.

It is still to early to make firm predictions about how the technology will be used, but my personal experience has definitely upgraded my optimism. First let me talk about the experience itself, and then we can delve into possible applications.

In case you are not aware, VR involves wearing a headset that completely covers your vision and fills your visual field with a 360 degree 3D digital reality. In addition there are sensors which can read your location in the room and sense your controllers as well. You have to setup the space so that the system knows where the edges are. You can move about freely in the space, and virtual gridline walls will appear to warn you that you are approaching the edge.

The first thing I noticed when I activated the VR software is how completely natural it felt. I was a little surprised, actually. I had some fear that it would be a bit disorienting and I guess I assumed it would feel artificial, perhaps primed by how the tech is sometimes portrayed in Sci Fi.

I am using an HTC Vive with Steam VR software. You first appear in a room, which is like your digital office. The space is beautiful and very realistic at the definition available. You can, of course, tell it is not real, especially if you look closely at things that require a great deal of detail, like a tree. But at the level of detail it felt completely comfortable, even pleasant.

The overall experience is great. It is nice to be able to simply look at what you want to see, to change your perspective and to move around in the space in order to interact with it. What I think I learned from this is that VR has the potential to simply be a great computer interface.

I had wondered if people would want to use VR instead of just looking at a monitor for basic computer applications. I don’t think we are quite there yet with the tech or the applications available, but its very close, certainly close enough for early adopters.

What is nice about a VR office is that the monitor essentially fills your entire world. You can have applications open on the different walls of your office and interact with them very naturally. You can customize your digital office to optimize its utility – you can have a clock on the wall to monitor the time, other information displayed where you can conveniently look at it but it will not be in your way. You can easily find what you are looking for, because you already have a lifetime of experience living in a 3D world.

You can also easily interact with objects in the real world, because they can be represented in the digital space. I had no problem putting down and picking up my controllers, because I could see them in VR. The controllers could also be skinned with different applications – think about that, the appearance of the controllers can be infinitely modified to fit their current use.

I was amazed at how visceral the experience was. One of the environments you can choose is a space platform in low orbit above the Earth. You are standing on the edge of this open platform, with the globe of the Earth spinning below you. I felt the unease of being at that height.

I have only had time to sample a few applications, but they are amazing. The first thing I did, of course, was play Fallout 4 VR. No surprise here – VR games are fantastic. In the game I can literally peak around a corner and aim my digital gun (it’s a first person shooter), and then see where my bullets are going to adjust my aim. I can swing my digital club at an enemy, and if I hit, I hit. When I want to consult my Pip Boy (a wearable computer on my wrist), I simply raise my wrist and look.

In the other applications, movement was limited and I had no sense of vertigo at all. In the game, however, I had to run through the virtual world. There are essentially two ways to do this. You can make a series of short teleports – use the controller to point to a spot a few feet away and move your character there You can do a series of quick jumps to move fairly quickly. In this mode I had no vertigo.

The other ways is to walk or run more naturally through the environment. In this mode I had almost instant motion sickness. The visual experience of smooth movement is more inducive to motion sickness than the sudden jumps. The jarring disconnect between what your visual system thinks is happening and what your vestibular system feels is exactly what causes motion sickness.

Part of this was my unfamiliarity with the controls – suddenly running sideways, for example. As I got better with the controls I was able to reduce the motion sickness, but not eliminate it. I had to switch back to the short teleports.

There are also some museum applications available, although these are currently limited. This showed me the potential of VR first hand. The Museum of Natural History has a VR display where you are standing in the middle of five exhibits. You can look at them in high res, rotate them, zoom in, and click floating boxes for more information. You can then go to a more detailed experience with that exhibit – pick up the bones and move them around.

Many of the available locations, like the museums, are created through laser scanning. This captures them is high 3D detail. While impressive, you can see the limitations of this technology. It has a hard time separating items that are touching, or filling in crevices.

But even with the current limitations, a virtual museum trip is still worth it. No, it is not as good as the real thing in meat space, but visiting a location, art gallery, or museum in Japan in VR is better than not doing it at all (you know, because it’s in Japan). There are also certain advantages, like the control over information and perspective.

Not surprisingly, we are just scratching the surface as VR (since it is a relative new technology). Already, however, we are at the point where it is a useful technology for interfacing with our computers. I expect (and hope) the applications will explode as adoption increases.

Right now the only fully realized applications are games. If you are into immersive games, VR is awesome. Even simple games, like a shooting gallery, were a great experience in VR.

The rest of the applications I felt were introductory novelties. I still need to do much more exploring, but what I would like to see is an office built to function as your workaday digital office – not a mock up of what such an office could be. I want to see real digital museums and locations.

Also, the social media applications are immense. Steam has rooms you can host, but while there you have a cheesy floating avatar and you can’t do much. A highly functional VR social media space could be incredible. In fact, I predict there will be entire VR conferences. Imagine the possibilities there.

Like many new technologies, at first we figure out how to duplicate more traditional functions in the new media. But then people figure out entirely new functions, optimized to the new technology. So probably the best VR has to offer has not even been imagined yet.

There are also some clear ways the tech needs to improve. The wires are a bit of a hassle. You get used to avoiding tangling yourself up, but still a wireless experience would be better.

The definition will improve incrementally I am sure, and that will enhance the experience. The laser scanning will likely also incrementally improve. Right now I feel like I am looking at raw scans. There needs to be much more post production where errors are fixed, and holes filled in.

We also need more ways to interact. Typing is OK with the controllers (you point like a laser at a virtual keyboard and select one letter at a time).  Having a glove that allows me to use all 10 of my fingers would be better.

I am not sure how long it will take to eliminate the motion sickness (and to be clear, I am particularly sensitive to this). Any way to match my actual physical movement with my avatar’s movement will help. They are already working on this (like being in a bubble that moves as you physically walk, but keeps you in the same place).

The bottom line is that the current VR tech is ready for prime time, and if you are a gamer I highly recommend it. But I look forward to the improvements in the technology, and await the more fully realized applications.


Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #604: Net Neutrality Reexamined

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 01/01/2018 - 4:00pm
A skeptic's guide for organizing the issues raised by Net Neutrality.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #651 - Dec 30 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Fri, 12/29/2017 - 8:00am
Year end review; Science 2017; Best and Worst of 2017; In Memoriam; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

Science Friction

Skeptoid Feed - Thu, 12/28/2017 - 4:00pm
Finally, a documentary film about scientists who get misrepresented by the media.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic


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