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Skeptoid #595: Chasing Malaysian Airlines MH370

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/30/2017 - 5:00pm
A roundup of the conspiracy theories and the probable true fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 25, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/25/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Could a sonic weapon have focused a wave of energy with pinpoint accuracy on American diplomats in Cuba? In this week’s eSkeptic, Robert E. Bartholomew presents a plausible explanation for the illness cluster reported by State Department officials: mass psychogenic illness.

The “Sonic Attack” on
U.S. Diplomats in Cuba:
Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up

by Robert E. Bartholomew

…an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.
—Marcello Truzzi1

Even though sound is measurable, we tend to experience it as spectral, as something beyond our rational understanding. It is thus the perfect stand-in for a Cold War-style cunning enemy, who is surely out there, doing something, even though we can never seem to pin him down.
—Lisa Dierch & Ben Tausig2

It’s the stuff of spy novels and science fiction films. On October 13, 2017 the Associated Press released an eerie recording of a mysterious sound that was said to have been part of a “sonic attack” on American diplomats in Cuba.3 In August, State Department officials reported that several personnel at the Havana Embassy had been sickened by an unidentified acoustical weapon. The number of those affected in the sporadic, ongoing attacks is now at least two dozen. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar health complaints. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and remembering, insomnia, tinnitus, confusion, vertigo, hearing loss and “mild brain trauma.” Conspiracy theories abound with talk of secret military weapons from a foreign power or rogue agents, possibly Russian. But delve deeper, and the government’s claims begin to unravel.

For starters, there is no concrete evidence of an attack. Experts agree that what is being reported is not consistent with how sonic weaponry works. A leading figure in the field of psychoacoustics, former MIT researcher Joseph Pompei, is adamant that the State Department’s claims violate the laws of physics. “Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” he said, noting that to produce such an effect “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”4 German physicist and acoustics specialist Jürgen Altmann of Technology University Dortmund, concurs: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”5 Former Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz also views the claims as fanciful: “There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms.”6 He notes that while infrasonic sound waves can cause nausea, they would have no effect on human hearing as “there are no acoustic devices that can cause sudden onset hearing loss that the people involved could not hear.”7 Former CIA officer Fulton Armstrong agrees: “No one has a device that could do this” as “no such device exists.”8

The range of human hearing is between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Sounds below this level—infrasound, have proved a challenge to weaponize due to the difficulty in focusing the wavelengths. The central effect appears to be irritation. Sounds above this range—ultrasound, are an equally poor candidate for the symptoms because the waves dissipate rapidly as they travel. Even if they reached a building in an effort to target people inside, most of the wave would bounce off walls before harmlessly reaching their target. […]

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1ST EDITION, AUTOGRAPHED, HARDCOVER Only $9.50, plus shipping, while supplies last!

Get a 1st edition, autographed, hardcover copy of Dr. Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom for only $9.50, plus shipping (while quantities last). In this book about moral progress, Shermer demonstrates, through extensive data and heroic stories, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward truth, justice, and freedom, and that we are living in the most moral period of our species’ history.

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NEW EPISODE The Way of the Mister (Quickie): If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong.

Earlier this year, PragerU posted a video titled “If There Is No God, Murder Isn’t Wrong” in which Dennis Prager claims that without God, there are no moral facts and therefore one cannot know that murder is wrong. Brian Dalton explains why the entire argument hinges on the question of knowledge.

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SOLVING MORAL DILEMMAS How Do We Know What’s Right?

For those of you who missed the discussion we announced in last week’s eSkeptic, we present it here in video and audio-only versions. Jesse Dollemore and Brittany Page (hosts of the https://dollemore.com/) moderate a discussion involving Drs. Michael Shermer, Douglas Navarick, and Ryan Nichols on the question of whether science can be used to determine our moral values of right and wrong. The discussion is divided into opening statements, a period of exchanges among discussants, questions from the live audience, and closing statements. Watch the video below, or listen to the audio-only version.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up

Skeptic.com feed - Tue, 10/24/2017 - 10:00am

…an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.
—Marcello Truzzi1

Even though sound is measurable, we tend to experience it as spectral, as something beyond our rational understanding. It is thus the perfect stand-in for a Cold War-style cunning enemy, who is surely out there, doing something, even though we can never seem to pin him down.
—Lisa Dierch & Ben Tausig2

It’s the stuff of spy novels and science fiction films. On October 13, 2017 the Associated Press released an eerie recording of a mysterious sound that was said to have been part of a “sonic attack” on American diplomats in Cuba.3 In August, State Department officials reported that several personnel at the Havana Embassy had been sickened by an unidentified acoustical weapon. The number of those affected in the sporadic, ongoing attacks is now at least two dozen. Several Canadian diplomats have reported similar health complaints. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and remembering, insomnia, tinnitus, confusion, vertigo, hearing loss and “mild brain trauma.” Conspiracy theories abound with talk of secret military weapons from a foreign power or rogue agents, possibly Russian. But delve deeper, and the government’s claims begin to unravel.

For starters, there is no concrete evidence of an attack. Experts agree that what is being reported is not consistent with how sonic weaponry works. A leading figure in the field of psychoacoustics, former MIT researcher Joseph Pompei, is adamant that the State Department’s claims violate the laws of physics. “Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” he said, noting that to produce such an effect “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”4 German physicist and acoustics specialist Jürgen Altmann of Technology University Dortmund, concurs: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”5 Former Brown University neuroscientist Seth Horowitz also views the claims as fanciful: “There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms.”6 He notes that while infrasonic sound waves can cause nausea, they would have no effect on human hearing as “there are no acoustic devices that can cause sudden onset hearing loss that the people involved could not hear.”7 Former CIA officer Fulton Armstrong agrees: “No one has a device that could do this” as “no such device exists.”8

The range of human hearing is between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Sounds below this level—infrasound, have proved a challenge to weaponize due to the difficulty in focusing the wavelengths. The central effect appears to be irritation. Sounds above this range—ultrasound, are an equally poor candidate for the symptoms because the waves dissipate rapidly as they travel. Even if they reached a building in an effort to target people inside, most of the wave would bounce off walls before harmlessly reaching their target.

Since Weapons?

The use of sound as a weapon can be traced back to biblical times. The Book of Joshua 6:1–27, describes the Battle of Jericho, during which the walls of Jericho reportedly collapsed after an army of Israelites marched around the structure blowing trumpets. While this story has never been verified and is almost certainly mythical, it speaks to the age-old human fascination with the potential destructive power of sound. The research on the military use of acoustical weapons, is clear. Despite an abundance of conspiracy theories about secret sonic devices capable of “frying” human organs or triggering insanity, the scientific literature is clear. The most comprehensive study of sonic weapons to date, was conducted by Drs. James Jauchem and Michael Cook of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas. They state that based on the laws of physics, “it seems unlikely that high-intensity acoustic energy in the audible, infrasonic, or low-frequency range can provide a device suitable for use as a nonlethal weapon.”21 Furthermore, even if such a weapon were developed, it could not possibly cause the symptoms that are being reported in Cuba.

Sonic weapons may work for James Bond, but they are impractical in the real world, with one major exception: blasting loud noises. On October 12, 2000, a small boat laden with explosives approached the USS Cole and exploded, blowing a hole in the vessel and killing 17 American sailors. Since this incident, the Navy has developed an “acoustical canon” that works by generating extreme noise capable of causing deafness and headaches. Such weapons are not exactly covert. Research on the use of sonic weapons has tailed off in recent years as it is widely viewed as a waste of research funds and a dead end. Despite this, there is no lack of grandiose claims and conspiracy theories about the use of secret acoustic devices.

Could someone have developed a hand-held weapon that could focus a wave of energy on a victim with pinpoint accuracy? This is Buck Rogers-style science fiction according to Timothy Leighton, professor of Ultrasonics and Acoustics at Southampton University in the United Kingdom: “If you’re talking about a ray-gun rifle knocking out someone with ultrasound…that’s not going to happen.”9 New York City Police have used Long Range Acoustic Devices or LRADs to break up crowds of protestors, but there is nothing subtle or mysterious about these devices. These bulky machines are nicknamed “sound canons” due to their capacity to blast ear-piercing noises. The U.S. Navy has used similar devices to protect their ships by warding off small vessels suspected of carrying terrorists or pirates, while the Army has used them to clear houses of combatants.10 In 2015, riot police in the Philippines even blasted Katy Perry music to disperse anti-government protestors.11

Another oddity surrounds how diplomats have been targeted. Many claim to have been “attacked” in their homes, and even a hotel. Why were some people affected while others who were standing next to them, were not? While the U.S. cannot prove that the Cubans are responsible, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has suggested that the Cuban government knows more than they are letting on. “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats,” he said.12 Cuban President Raúl Castro vehemently denies any involvement in the “attacks” and has taken the extraordinary step of inviting the Federal Bureau of Investigation to travel to Cuba and conduct their own investigation.13 Since June, FBI agents have been on the Caribbean island conducting forensic analyses of the possible crime scenes, but remain stumped.14 This leaves one plausible explanation for the illness cluster in Cuba: mass psychogenic illness.

To those who are unfamiliar with the capabilities of sonic weaponry, the claims may sound ominous—and very real. After all, how can conditions like hearing loss and brain trauma be psychological in origin? State Department officials have even released a recording of the “weapon” in action. Yet the recording proves little. The high-pitched whine sounds like a swarm of cicadas. It could be anything. It is the equivalent of a blurry UFO photograph or grainy Bigfoot video. Furthermore, most of the symptoms are vague. Terms like “brain trauma” and “hearing loss” sound alarming but tell us little, and none of the medical records have been released. This could be done without violating privacy laws by redacting the names and identifying information about the “victims.” How many diplomats are suffering from hearing loss, and is it partial or total? Why haven’t they given us more specific figures? Is it one case or 17—and if it is the latter, why haven’t they said so in order to convince a skeptical media? There may very well be a small number of personnel who are experiencing health issues that are unrelated to either psychogenic illness or a sonic weapon.

Sick Building Syndrome

The literature on mass hysteria is filled with reports of so-called “sick buildings” where some harmful agent is blamed for a mysterious illness outbreak, most commonly in schools and factories. However, once the premises are tested, the results are negative. The symptoms often continue to recur, so long as the perceived agent is believed to remain. The failure to identify a potential culprit may generate more anxiety, leading to further outbreaks. Common suspects include pesticides from nearby farm fields, gas leaks, mold, and contaminated water. In these cases, the outbreak is triggered by the spread of an idea, aided by rumors, folklore, and erroneous media reports about the “toxic” building. Often speculation centers around nearby waste dumps. This could explain the illness reports at the Embassy, but what about their homes? Embassy staff would have been aware of the history of American diplomats in Cuba, and the Cold War folklore that included harassment of personnel in their homes.

Cold War Context

The historical backdrop of the “attack” may have contributed to the outbreak. The Embassy closed for 54 years, from 1961 when then President Dwight Eisenhower severed ties with Castro’s rise to power, to its reopening in 2015. While the Embassy was closed, the U.S. has maintained a diplomatic presence in Cuba such as the mission at the United States Interests Section in Havana. Due to the antagonistic relationship between the two countries, during the Cold War Cuban agents engaged in a series of antics that have become part of American Intelligence folklore. These actions were more harassing and prankish than sinister. They would do things like sneak into the homes of diplomats and rearrange their bookshelf or furniture. On the high end of the scale, some diplomats reported returning home to find fecal matter lying on their floor. The context of the illness cluster fits neatly with the psychogenic hypothesis as you have a group of people working in an anxious environment amid reports and rumors of a mysterious attack.15

Earlier Hum Scares

Since the early 1940s there have been similar outbreaks involving claims of mysterious humming sounds reportedly making people sick, especially in the United States. The most famous of these is the “Kokomo Hum” in the city of Kokomo, Indiana. Some have even suggested that the American military was conducting secret tests on its own citizens. Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with these cases. In 1999, Kokomo city officials were besieged by complaints from at least 90 residents, many of whom claimed that the hum was not only irritating, but ruining their health.16

A study of one Kokomo neighborhood by an acoustics engineer seemed to confirm the reality of the hum after he reported detecting a low frequency sound at about 55 decibels and 15 hertz—too low to be heard by the human ear. At the time, an expert from the Acoustical Society of America observed that the origin of the sound was unclear. “Those levels of sound could be coming from road traffic on even distant highways, air or rail activity or possibly just some industrial plants or even commercial buildings in the area. And, in fact, those levels could be caused just by the wind in the trees,” said Bennett Brooks. He cautioned that the range of ill-effects attributed to the low frequency hum could be entirely imaginary. “The levels that will rattle dishes on a wall…haven’t been shown to cause health problems, other than perhaps people waking up at night worrying,” Brooks said at the time.17 Some Kokomo residents were so concerned by the “hum” that they moved away.

Similar claims of ill-health associated with the presence of low-frequency sound have been recorded in Taos, New Mexico, since 1991, but the source has neither been determined nor any conclusive link to ill-health including sleep problems, earaches, irritability, and general discomfort.18 Investigative journalist Oliver Libaw notes that various investigations of the Taos Hum “failed to measure any low-frequency vibration that experts believed could cause either the noise or the infirmities reported by those who heard it.”19

London and South Hampton in the United Kingdom have had their own Hum Scares. Scores of residents have complained of an irritating low frequency sound dating back to the 1940s. They too have claims that it has caused health problems. In 1989, an organization was formed to investigate reports: The Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association, nicknamed “the Hummers.”20

The “sonic attack” on embassy staff in Cuba appears to be a case of old wine in new skins. It is the Hum Scare and Sick Building Syndrome dressed up in a different social and cultural garb. These scares may resonate because they reflect prevailing fears such as the distrust of foreign and domestic governments. It may be no coincidence then that the outbreak reportedly began just days after the election of Donald Trump, an administration known for promoting conspiracy theories.

About the Author

Dr. Robert Bartholomew is a medical sociologist who holds a Ph.D. from James Cook University in Australia. He is an authority on culture-specific mental disorders, outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness, moral panics and the history of tabloid journalism. He has conducted anthropological fieldwork among the Malays in Malaysia and Aborigines in Central Australia. His most recently books are A Colorful History of Popular Delusions with Peter Hassall and American Hauntings: The True Stories Behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies—From Exorcist to The Conjuring with Joe Nickell. Read his previous article, https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/mass-hallucinations-shoddy-journalism-why-we-need-skepticism-more-than-ever/An Outbreak of Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism: Why We Need Skepticism More Than Ever.

References
  1. Truzzi, Marcello. 1978. “On the Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification.” Zetetic Scholar 1(1):11.
  2. Diedrich, Lisa, and Tausig, Benjamin. 2017. “Mysterious Sounds and Scary Illnesses as Political Tools.” New York Times (Online), New York: New York Times Company. Oct 10.
  3. Lederman, Josh, Weissenstein, Michael. 2017. “Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba.” Associated Press News, October 13, http://bit.ly/2g4DzrX
  4. Lederman, Josh, Weissenstein, Michael, and Lee, Matthew. 2017. “Cuba Mystery Grows: New Details on what Befell U.S. Diplomats,” Chicago Tribune, September 26.
  5. Zimmer, Carl. 2017. “A ‘Sonic Attack’ on Diplomats in Cuba? These Scientists Doubt It.” New York Times, October 5.
  6. Loria, Kevin. 2017. September 16. “U.S. Diplomats Returned from Cuba with Brain Injuries and Hearing Loss, and Mysterious ‘Sonic Weapons’ could be to Blame.” Business Insider Australia, September 16.
  7. Gearan, Anne. 2017. “U.S. investigating whether American diplomats were victims of sonic attack in Cuba.” Washington Post, August 10.
  8. Kornbluh, Peter. 2017. “Trump’s Non-Sonic Attack on Cuba.” The Nation, October 5.
  9. Zimmer, 2017, op cit.
  10. Evers, Marco. 2015. “The Weapon of Sound: Sonic Canon Gives Pirates an Earful.” Der Spiegel, November 15.
  11. Felipe, Cecille. 2015. “Katy Perry Roar at Anti-APEC Rallyists.” The Philippine Star, November 20.
  12. Lederman and Weissenstein, 2017, op. cit.
  13. Buncombe, Andrew. 2017. “Donald Trump expels 15 Cuban Diplomats Following Mysterious ‘Sonic Attacks’ on 23 U.S. embassy staff,” The Independent (London), October 3.
  14. Kornbluh, 2017, op cit.
  15. 15. Rosenberg, Carol. 2003. “U.S. Details Harassment of Diplomats by Cuba.” Miami Herald, February 6; Bruno, James. 2014. The Foreign Circus: Why Foreign Policy Should not be left in the Hand of Diplomats, Spies and Political Hacks. Canastota, NY: Bittersweet House Press.
  16. Huppke, Rex W. 2002. “Strange Doings Abuzz in Kokomo–Many Claim Illness from Mystery Noise.” Bergen County Record (Bergen County, New Jersey), June 13, 2002; Martinez, Matt. 2002. “Profile: City Council in Kokomo, Indiana, Authorizes a Study to Investigate the Source of a Sound that has Caused many Residents to Become ill.” All Things Considered, NPR, May 22.
  17. Martinez, Matt. 2002. “Profile: City Council in Kokomo, Indiana, Authorizes a Study to Investigate the Source of a Sound that has Caused many Residents to Become ill.” All Things Considered, NPR, May 22.
  18. Lambert, Pam. 1992. “Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…? (Ground Noise in Taos, New Mexico).” People Weekly 38 (12):61-62 (September 21); Begley, Sharon. 1993. “Do You Hear What I Hear? A Hum in Taos is Driving Dozens of People Crazy.” Newsweek 121 (18):54–55 (May 3); Huppke, op cit.
  19. Libaw, Oliver. 2003. “The Kokomo Hum. Reports of Mysterious Noise and Illness in Indiana.” ABC News report filed February 14, http://abcn.ws/2ioAyHy
  20. “The Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association.” Journal of Low Frequency Noise and Vibration 9(4):149–155; Donnelly, John. 1993. “Mysterious, Annoying ‘Taos Hum’ a Baffling Detective Story.” Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 9.
  21. Jauchem, James R., and Cook, Michael C. (2007). “High-Intensity Acoustics for Military Nonlethal Applications: A Lack of Useful Systems.” Military Medicine 172 (2):182–189. See. p. 182.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #594: Paul Is Dead

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/23/2017 - 5:00pm
The origins and history of the urban legend that Paul McCartney died and was replaced.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Tell Us Your Story. Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic!

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/18/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

Click the play button above to watch our short video introduction.

TELL US YOUR STORY! Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic

WE SKEPTICS CAN ALL REMEMBER that one moment when we began to think like skeptics. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, we asked a few of our favorite friends to tell us about that moment. (Click the play button above to watch our short video introduction.)

SKEPTIC FRIENDS FROM TOP LEFT TO BOTTOM RIGHT: Lawrence Krauss (Theoretical Physicist); Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend TV show); Randy Olson (Scientist turned Filmmaker); Tracy Drain (NASA Flight Systems Engineer); Aron Ra (Atheist Activist); George Hrab (Musician, Skeptic, Geek); Brian Brushwood (Magician, System Hacker); Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist); Shelley Segal (Singer Songwriter)

We’ll be releasing their incredible stories on YouTube over the next few months. Now, we would like for you to join us in celebrating our 25th anniversary by telling us your story of when you knew that you were a Card-Carrying Skeptic.

How Can I Become a Card-Carrying Skeptic?
  1. Film your story.
  2. Make it public on YouTube.
  3. EMAIL A LINK to your video.

In return, we’ll send to you your very own, genuine Skeptic Card in the mail. Be sure to tell us your mailing address when you email your video link to us. We promise we won’t share your mailing address with anyone (except the post office).

Proudly, let the world know that you are a Card-Carrying Skeptic!

We may even feature your video in a future eSkeptic, embed it on our website, and/or share it on our social media platforms!

To inspire you to film and submit your own story, check out this story that we recorded of our friend Rachel Bloom (creator and star of the American romantic-comedy-drama Crazy Ex-Girlfriend:

Thank you for being a part of our first 25 years. We look forward to seeing you over the next 25.

—SKEPTIC

American Goblins—Part 3
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 138

Our final part of our three-part look at the Kentucky Goblins case of 1955 concludes with an interview with the hosts of Astonishing Legends, Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess. We discuss the facts of the case, possible explanations, and the problems with the Wikipedia entry and the scholarly journal article cited within it. This episode’s topic is also discussed in a blog post by Blake Smith: Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts.

If you missed them, be sure to listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of American Goblins.

Listen to episode 138

Read the episode notes

Subscribe on iTunes

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

In conjunction with episode 138 of MonsterTalk mentioned above, MonsterTalk host, Blake Smith, explores whether a family in Kentucky got drunk and mistook owls for ‘space-goblins,’ or did something much more complex happen on that hot August night in 1955?

Read the Insight

DEBATE: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19 How Do We Know What’s Right?

Full details

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

Skeptic.com feed - Tue, 10/17/2017 - 10:00am

Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

A small percentage of the population self-identifies as “Skeptic.” This is somewhat different than being skeptical. Anyone can be skeptical, but what I usually call “capital-S” Skeptics are people who are so interested in the methodology and practice of scientific-skepticism that they label themselves to signal to others with a single word that they value these processes enough to say that what they most believe in (or strive to practice) is filtering information through the sieve of science.1

Within this group of Skeptics, there is a sub-set who enjoy researching fringe, paranormal and Fortean topics, which Sharon Hill and Jeb Card refer to as “spooky” topics. It’s a small group of people who value science and critical thinking and try to apply those tools to stories of mysterious monsters, strange phenomena, and magical events — all the while maintaining an enthusiasm for researching and thinking about (dare I say enjoying?) these stories.

I’m in that latter group. I frequently describe it as being in a ghetto within a ghetto. I don’t know if there is a useful and handy shorthand for this group of folks — perhaps Spooky Skeptics? Regardless, from this peculiar vantage we often find ourselves having to defend against stereotypes of skeptics as “armchair naysayers,” “scofftics,” “denialists,” “cynics,” “pseudoskeptics” and “the closed-minded.” This is from the printable pool of undesirable labels; there are many less savory ones. Because of my membership in this peculiar subculture, I find myself urged to defend science in communities whose familiarity with the long, deep history of science criticism is shallow, but whose passionate distrust of Skeptics is deep.

I am the host and producer of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. With my co-host, Dr. Karen Stollznow, we try to use these spooky topics to talk about science and critical thinking. (Ah, another subculture — podcasters.) To prepare for the show, and because I enjoy the topics, I listen to a lot of paranormal podcasts and view a lot of thematically similar shows to my own. One I regularly listen to is the podcast Astonishing Legends, hosted by Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess. In a recent episode they conclude a three-part look at The Kelly-Hopkinsville Incident. What transpires in that discussion is noteworthy to Skeptics and paranormal enthusiasts.

In a typical episode arc of Astonishing Legends, the hosts discuss a mysterious legend, talk about the topic and possible explanations, and then give their own thoughts about possible solutions. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t — but usually I feel like they’re entertaining and well informed, even when we don’t agree on the conclusions. But in episode 81, the content proved much more poignant to me given my interests and my affinity for scientific skepticism as a methodology.

BACKGROUND ON THE KELLY-HOPKINSVILLE INCIDENT

Briefly, the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident refers to an encounter with mysterious entities in rural Christian County, Kentucky in 1955. It was closely associated with an aerial phenomena that most skeptical researchers agree was a meteor. But what about the entities? They were big-eyed, pointy-eared and sometimes said to be glowing and to float. Because of their association with the aerial phenomenon, the case was investigated by UFO researchers very soon after it took place. I won’t go into great detail about the case or its associated phenomena within this article. Here, I’m concerned about the meta-issue of how the research of this case is perceived by paranormal enthusiasts, and the proper role of scientific skepticism in that context.

In the Wikipedia article about this case, a peer-reviewed article from the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Rodney Schmaltz and Scott Lilienfeld is cited. The hosts of Astonishing Legends discuss this article and its use within the Wikipedia entry in excruciating detail, and the crux of that discussion concerns a paragraph which contains a mistake. The paper, Hauntings, Homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: Using Pseudoscience to Teach Scientific Thinking, is written in a style which is quite accessible by non-academics (such as myself) and has been cited by at least fourteen other journal articles and numerous websites. As the title suggests, the paper is about using pseudoscientific topics as a tool for teaching critical thinking. Its content is closely aligned with my own thinking on the use of these topics for similar purposes. The authors were looking for examples to show how to apply the critical-thinking methods they were describing, and chose the case of the Kelly-Hopkinsville creatures to demonstrate the point. But there was a problem. Let’s look at the paragraph at the source of the contention. I’ve highlighted the sentence that caught the attention of the Astonishing Legends hosts.

The Hopkinsville entities have a decidedly earthly explanation. The “aliens” were in fact, Great Horned Owls, and the eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the “alien attack” (Davis and Bloecher, 1978). Students usually find the true story of the events amusing; and this example can lead naturally into a discussion on Area 51, the Greys, or other otherworldly interests (Nickell, 2012; Leman and Cinnirella, 2013). —Schmaltz and Lilienfeld, 2014

In that sentence there is a problem — the statements about the owls and the alcohol do not come from Davis and Bloecher. As I listened to the episode, my very first thought was, “Did the authors put in the wrong citation?” I felt bad as I listened to Scott and Forrest pretty much crush this entire paper because of this problem. They did briefly consider the possibility that the error might have been a clerical mistake, but the majority of the episode excoriated the Schmaltz and Lilienfeld’s certitude and focused on how there was nothing in the cited source to support that certainty about the root cause of this incident.

(AL 28:08) Forrest Burgess: “Now I don’t know why, it could be — the citation could just be a huge typo, which is bad enough in itself, really, because you’re publishing a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I thought that these things were better checked out… Again I’m not trying to be condescending here but it’s like people go off this thing as being totally accurate and measuring up to scientific rigour.”

I did agree with them that the citation was in error, but what followed in their discussion pained me. They were effectively taking what I guessed was someone’s innocent error and making much ado about it in a very public venue.

Part of their argument seemed to stem from their interpretation of Science as Orthodoxy. Those are my words, not Astonishing Legends’. It is an idea promoted by an author I know both they and I have read, John Keel. When Keel complains of science orthodoxy he seems to be implying that science is arrogant and implacable and bends evidence to meet its ends. I don’t know if Scott and Forrest actually explicitly believe that, but it’s what I felt was being complained about in the episode. In fact, in a sense, I felt like this episode would have been quite different if they viewed science as a tool rather than an institution. Perhaps we’ll get a chance to talk about that later.2 It’s certainly an issue with the public perception of science that is on my mind frequently.

What does one do when one encounters an error in a scientific journal? It is certainly within the purview of the public to read a journal and make public comment, but the writer in me empathizes with authors. Also, while I don’t know either author personally, I’ve read and corresponded with Scott Lilienfeld before. So I reached out to him, and also to the primary author of the paper, Rodney Schmaltz. Rodney confirmed my initial suspicions. He had meant for that to reference a different citation.

“Thank you for the email. The reference should have been Nickell, 2006, not Davis and Bloecher, 1978. I have contacted Frontiers and informed them of the correction.” —Schmaltz, 2017

I can’t really complain too much about Astonishing Legends’ take on the whole thing because I think they did a good service in at least one respect. They not only showed the error in the paper, which will hopefully be corrected by the journal in the near future, but they also highlighted some criticism of science common to paranormal enthusiasts as well as topics of criticism within the scientific community itself.

I’d like to briefly talk about some of those issues.

THE PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE
The general public does not understand science.

The general public doesn’t know what science is, possibly because there is no single universal definition and no ruling body or authority that really controls its meaning.3 In general, science is a methodology for trying to find explanations of phenomena4 through testing and rejection of demonstrably wrong solutions. It is always being refined as better tests and experiments are discovered, and it must always yield to evidence. If the evidence disproves the hypothesis, then it is the hypothesis that must change, not the evidence. There are longer definitions and more nuanced, but over the past couple of hundred years the methods of science have been refined to help drive out biases and preconceptions such that we might trust the results of these processes more than the anecdotes and untried ideas which served us before science was developed. (This is necessarily an understated explanation for something quite complex and diverse.) But the average person5 probably cannot define science, and probably conflates science with technology — one need look no farther than the popularity of sites like IFLScience to see this mistaken approach in full display.

The important parts — to me — that distinguish science from other methods of discerning what is real (to use laymen terms) is that science tests its ideas, and science is self-correcting. Science is not dogmatic. You can overturn scientific theories — anyone can — but you have to do it through the mechanisms of science. You can’t do it from outside that framework — your new ideas must be testable, and must stand up to testing and must validate your hypothesis.

Science journalism fails to relate science. Or journalism.

As a science enthusiast, I really enjoy stories about how science has uncovered some exciting new principle or unlocked a deeper understanding of nature. Unfortunately the vast majority of science stories don’t accurately convey the nuanced information that is revealed in what are often highly technical journal articles full of specialized terms and complex statistical mathematics. Math itself and the science ideas it helps test are often outside of the expertise and skill set of the majority of readers.6 This is not surprising since most of us are not working scientists, and the nature of science is that as it accrues more and more details about its domain, it requires more and more expert knowledge to fully grasp. The job of a science journalist is difficult from that starting point, and challenged more each year by the very vastness of the fields of expertise — but also challenged by the tumultuous nature of the media within which it is published.

Journalism was already a rocky field as more than two decades of “new media” have devastated stability for venerable old media companies. As the field has evolved, the need to drive quantifiable revenue through clicks and page views on web-based media outlets has pressured editorial boards to push for virality over quality. This has led to a disturbingly widespread tendency of science news stories to be rushed, inaccurate, and to always seek out some angle for how this latest paper will directly affect the reader. The cherry on top of that sundae of errors is the editor who wants a “click-bait” headline. The nuanced paper which describes an interesting discovery based on some molecule acting on a group of rats gets turned into the super-viral, but highly distributed, article about how some food will make you young or give you a better sex life.

In short, the pressure for accuracy in science is the inverted counterpart of the pressure for virality in science journalism. While the authors in both cases may have the best of intentions, both fields (for understandable reasons) are failing to make the scientific method well understood by the general public. I could go on, but this is a topic for vast contemplative introspection within both science and journalism. In a media culture where revenue is more important than accuracy or public service, there is no fix in sight for this problem. There is good science journalism being done, but there are more tears than wheat in the field.7

Science’s process of self-correction is messy.

I constantly encounter people talking about how scientists think they know everything, are arrogant, live in ivory towers of academic certainty, etc… But the reality is that if science were about certitude, nobody would need to become a scientist. As I mentioned before, science is a process. It is a slow process filled with many pitfalls, not the least of which is our own well documented litany of biases and logical fallacies. While, in principle, the methods of science can be described as self-correcting, the steps of that correction are conducted by human beings. Errors can range from typos, to misinterpretation of data, to hypotheses that account for some but not all of a phenomenon, to fraud and I’m sure there are many others. The uncovering of these mistakes can lead to a correction in a journal, or — for more egregious errors (like Andrew Wakefield’s notorious paper falsely linking vaccines with autism) the paper can be retracted by the journal that published it. Scientific theories can be politely but passionately disagreed upon in back-and-forth editorials, articles, or even books. A good example is Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould’s arguments about Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium in evolution, which included Dawkins critiquing it in his book The Blind Watchmaker. That’s the friendly stuff, not even considering the shouting matches and acid emails that often occur behind the scenes of any passionate disagreement. In time the passions of scientists must give way to the erosive effects of time and what is left, when all the is said and done, is still a provisional understanding of the question being examined, and any conclusion reached are always subject to being overturned.

Scientists often do not respect fields of expertise which are not their own.

There is a very human tendency to be dismissive of things which one does not understand. Even more so, there is a tendency to believe that one understands very well that which one has never examined with more than cursory interest.8 This misplaced confidence leads to both a sense that one doesn’t need to look into it, and a dismissive attitude at those who say they have more expertise. You will see this in play within scientific fields with a lot of cross-discipline criticisms such as physicists dismissive of philosophers, “hard science” experts dismissive of “social science” experts, and so on. What is usually at play here is a lack of deep understanding of the expertise in the other discipline.

This disdain or false confidence adds to that public image problem that scientists often struggle against, science as arrogance. Science really does have a PR problem, and unfortunately — as with many stereotypes — being able to point at specific, real-life anecdotes which support the stereotype tends to make it very hard to overcome. (See availability heuristic research.)

AND WE’RE BACK

I want to return now to this specific case because it works as a nice proxy for some of the nuanced issues that I face when putting together my own show, MonsterTalk. It bears repeating, in the field of Cryptozoology, we see all the spectrum of human belief writ small. I have come to realize that monster legends are an excellent way to talk about cherished beliefs without some of the interpersonal risks associated with other topics. Yes, there are many people who would come to blows over disagreement about Bigfoot’s existence, but I suspect we’re talking about thousands of people not the millions who feel a similar cognitive passion for valued ideas like their religious or political views.

However, just because there are fewer people with that level of passion does not mean that the topics should be treated lazily. If we’re going to use these unscientific ideas to demonstrate critical thinking and the scientific method, then it requires the same rigour and exactitude one would use when engaging more volatile topics. It can be done. Many well trained critical thinkers have sharpened their minds on the whetstone of Bigfoot.

So in this section, I want to talk about Astonishing Legend’s criticisms of the paper by Schmaltz and Lilienfeld. I’ll include references to the show audio where applicable.9

Mistakes were made.

The show begins by going through the Wikipedia article on the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident. (AL 6:53) In that entry, the Schmaltz and Lilienfeld paper is cited in a section titled “Explanations.” The hosts go through the paper and despite agreeing with the premise of the paper’s content, use the paper’s own points about identifying pseudoscience to skewer mistakes in the paper. A key issue, as mentioned above, is that a sentence in the paper makes an assertion that is not backed up by the cited source. A brief transcript about this issue follows:

[Note: This excerpt begins at 22:33 into the episode.]
Scott Philbrook: “That preceding statement right there is cited to Davis and Bloecher, 1978. The very report that we have drawn most of our research from for this entire series.”

Forrest Burgess: “Yeah. That was all of Part One.”

Scott Philbrook: ”Yes. So what they’re saying is that the Davis and Bloecher reports states that there’s an earthly explanation, the aliens were great-horned owls and eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the attack. The next sentence [quoting Schmaltz & Lilienfeld] ‘Students usually find the true story of the events amusing; and this example can lead naturally into a discussion on Area 51, the Greys, or other otherworldly interests.’ again citing Nickell, for 2012 and then P. J. Leman and M. Cinnirella, from Belief in Conspiracy Theories and the Need for Cognitive Closure, that’s from Frontiers in Psychology as well, and I want to keep that phrase in mind, ‘the need for cognitive closure.’ That’s what they’re saying people need when they use pseudoscience to evaluate these stories.”

Forrest Burgess: “Yeah, and it sounds like what these guys need too.”

Scott Philbrook: “Yeah. So this article that many point to as identifying the Kelly-Hopkinsville case as a hoax at worst or a misidentification of marauding owls at best is pretty weak.

Forrest Burgess: “It’s a little crappy in my opinion.”[laughter]

Scott Philbrook: “I think you’re (laughter) I think you’re right.”

[talking over]

Forrest Burgess: “We’re going talk this out-”

Scott Philbrook: “Let’s break it down, Forrest.”

Forrest Burgess: ”We’re gonna break it down! But I don’t want to sound like we’re bagging on these guys, their knowledge, their academic standing, any of that, their research into this… because I think these are valid points. We’re going to make a case here why I don’t think it fits with this case. And that it’s kinda… that maybe they didn’t do due diligence”

This error in the paper is mostly due to a mistaken citation, the attribution intended should have been to Joe Nickell’s research from 2006. In an article titled Siege of the ‘Little Green Men’: The 1955 Kelly-Kentucky Incident, (unlike Davis & Bloecher) Nickell does talk about both owls and intoxication.

From the outset, people offered their proposed solutions to the mystery. In addition to those who thought it was a hoax, some attributed the affair to alcohol intoxication. I talked with one of the original investigators, former Kentucky state trooper R.N. Ferguson (2005), who thought people there had been drinking, although he conceded he saw no evidence of that at the site. He told me he believed the monsters “came in a container” (i.e., a can or bottle of alcohol). A visitor to the farm the next day did notice “a few beer cans in a rubbish basket” (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 35). Whether or not drinking was involved, it was not responsible for the “saucer” sighting; other UFOs were witnessed in the area that evening (Davis and Bloecher 1978, 33). —Nickell, 2006

While this attribution error would dissolve much of the complaint directed at Schmaltz and Lilienfeld by the hosts of Astonishing Legends, it is unlikely to satisfy the entirety of their complaint. There is still the wording in the actual sentence from the psychology paper which is unlikely to sit well with people who have devoted hours, days or months (or even years) to investigating the case:

The “aliens” were in fact, Great Horned Owls, and the eyewitnesses were probably intoxicated during the “alien attack” (Davis and Bloecher, 1978). [emphasis added]

I’ll explain why this wording is problematic.

Certitude is no virtue

Part of the concern I had with the objections of Astonishing Legends to this paper by Schmaltz and Lilienfeld was that aside from their concern that even when one corrects the reference from Davis and Bloecher to Joe Nickell’s article, it is still questionable whether the wording about the explanation for the creature is accurate. Without digging into the depths of the case here, I’d like to talk about the use of “in fact” and “probably intoxicated” within that sentence.

Were the “goblins” really owls?

Joe Nickell has done much research into these “spooky” cases. I have many of his books, have read many of his research articles, have interviewed him several times for my podcast, and consider him a mentor and a friend. Our investigative methods are similar and I look to him as an excellent source for how to investigate mysteries with a scientific approach. Nickell often exudes confidence in his investigations. It is easy to conclude that his proposed solutions are the definitive scientific solutions. But outside the context of his meticulous methodology and write-ups, a summary of his findings will sound necessarily reductionist and repetitive to people who want to believe in these matters. A proposed solution of owls for cases with similar sounding monsters (Kelly-Hopkinsville’s goblins, the Flatwood monster, and Mothman all have elements that sound very owl-like) might lead one to conclude that Nickell thinks all monsters of this type are really owls. Similarly, otters and tree-trunks have been likely candidates for lake and sea monsters. In each case write-up, Nickell explains why he reached particular conclusions but it is very easy to jump to the ending and disagree with his assessment. And even concluding owls as an explanation is not the solution — it is part of an overall assessment that includes voluminous research which discusses the limits of human perception.

Schmaltz and Lilienfeld are very familiar with the complexity and limits of human perception and so would the reviewers of the article — the “peer” part of peer-review. What might sound like an absurdly unlikely explanation, that someone could confuse an owl with a large goblin-like creature, is less absurd given all of that research into the workings of the human mind and how it makes errors. Even so, while such an understanding could give one confidence in reaching the conclusion that owls are involved, I think that the wording here was imprecise and implied a level of certitude that was not warranted.

What is certain is that there is rich body of evidence that eyewitness testimony, despite being the most compelling kind of evidence in our daily lives, is notoriously unreliable. There are cultural factors that can be at play, as well as concepts such as “priming” and many other interesting elements that may better explain this case without needing to add aliens or goblins and without the overly simple explanation of owls. Any thorough treatment of this topic needs to include those factors in their possible explanations.

How probable is probably? Does drinking cause hallucinations?

The use of “probably intoxicated” is equally troubling. If one only read Nickell’s account (and the reference was supposed to be to Nickell 2006) there is still insufficient primary evidence to support the idea that the witnesses in the Kelly-Hopkinsville case were drinking or drunk. The implication, to non-psychologists, seems to be that drinking somehow causes people to see goblins. As the Astonishing Legends hosts rightly pointed out, outside of cartoons with “little pink elephants” hallucinations are not a normal byproduct of drinking alcohol. I believe what the authors were trying to allude to is that people who are intoxicated are more likely to be affected by a group delusion. Maybe. But the questionability of that explanation led the hosts to this exchange:

[32:10] Forrest Burgess: “The second one is kind of a social one for me in that the eyewitnesses ‘were probably intoxicated during the alien attack.’ Where does the word probably fit in with a scientific report?

Scott Philbrook: “It doesn’t make— yeah.”

Forrest Burgess: “‘Probably gravity has something to do with the unified, the grand unified theory, probably—’ How is that even allowed in a scientific thinking journal? Again, not to bash but—”

Scott Philbrook: “Also, it’s an offensive supposition. It’s all ‘Well look at these country folks all out on the farm, they got drunk and saw aliens.’”

Forrest Burgess: “Exactly and you’re getting my populist in a ruffle here, it’s a little bit of academic and social-standing marginalization and elitism. Those are big political charged terms now, but what I want to say is that I think that’s what’s going on. ‘These people are simple drunk hicks and they don’t know what they saw—’”

Scott Philbrook: “And by the way, they ‘we know for a fact they were owls, even though we were not there, we didn’t go there, and we didn’t even read the report on it.’”

Forrest Burgess: “Well no,—”

Scott Philbrook: “Here’s the other, you know, speaking of red flags, we only drilled down on this one source of the twenty or so that are cited with this paper, and the one we looked at, there is zero connection between the statement made in the report that we looked at and what they said the report said.”

This is just my opinion as an amateur, non-academic fan of science and monsters, but if you’re going to pick a monster-case as an example of how to spot pseudoscience, it would be ideal to be very careful about how you make that example. In this case, I fear that the authors of the journal article oversimplified their solution and picked one where the solution is far from certain. Picking any example that would satisfy everyone would also prove challenging because you will never find a fringe topic where everyone agrees that the mystery has been solved.

Everything is complicated.

It is worth remembering that everything is complicated, and the more you dig into a topic the more you may come to realize that it is impossible to fully understand anything. At some point one must draw a line and say, “Okay, this explanation is good enough,” or you risk falling down a rabbit hole with no end. I feel like science does have plausible explanations for the events that took place that night, but that they were not adequately explained in the cited paper — nor was that the point of the paper.

WIKIPEDIA NEEDS TO BE FIXED. YOU CAN HELP.

The final concern I want to mention about this case is that, outside the control of anyone involved in this discussion, Schmaltz and Lilienfeld’s paper has been used by Wikipedia in what seems to be an assertion that the Kelly-Hopkinsville case is solved definitively. Rather than use a primary source which makes such an assertion and has definitive evidence for such a solution, they pointed to this article which only references the case in a small paragraph and contains an error within that paragraph. As is often the case with Wikipedia, it gives very good coverage of popular topics but the more expertise one has on a matter, the more likely one is to see mistakes.

The good news10 is that anyone can edit Wikipedia and improve it. At the time of this writing, the Kelly-Hopkinsville case has the problem reference as described here. Even if Frontiers in Psychology posts a correction to fix the problematic text, I believe it would be helpful to edit the Wikipedia entry to go directly to Joe Nickell’s article if the point is to inform readers of possible solutions to the case.

I can’t fix the errors in the Wikipedia article myself because I believe my work in trying to tie together all the issues concerning this incident would constitute original research, which disallows me from editing the relevant entry. But there are many Wikipedia contributors working to improve coverage of topics like this, and hopefully this article will draw their attention to this particular entry.

SCIENCE IS SELF-CORRECTING

When I started working on this article, I also began correspondence with both Philbrook and Burgess as well as Schmaltz and Lilienfeld. I hope that this will be an ongoing discussion because all I find that I’m interested in many of the same things as both pairs. One outcome of the discussion is that Schmaltz and Lilienfeld have elected to request a change to their published paper. They’re submitting a corrigendum to Frontiers in Psychology requesting the sentence be changed to:

“It is plausible, if not likely, that the ‘aliens’ were Great Horned Owls, and there is some evidence that the eyewitnesses may have been intoxicated during the ‘alien attack’ (Nickell, 2006).” —Schmaltz, 2017

This softer version will likely not satisfy everyone who researches this case, but I’m proud of the authors for taking the time to make a more accurate statement in a paper whose overall content I not only agree with, but which parallels the very model we use on MonsterTalk to talk about science and critical thinking using fringe, spooky, and weird topics as a launching point for conversation.

CONCLUSION

After all this conversation I’m left in the same predicament as at the beginning, but with renewed hope that we can find common ground with people who are too often framed as enemies. I enjoy fringe topics, I believe in the scientific method, and I have faith that in time the processes of science will help drive us to a more accurate understanding of the world including the parts that now seem so mysterious. I hope that Skeptics will always strive to seek answers, admit the limits of science, adhere to the rules of the scientific method, and maintain a good bit of empathy for the people who experience the kind of astonishing events from which legends are forged.

SUGGESTED READING/LISTENING

Sometimes the reason a Skeptic is so unwilling to believe has to do with an extensive amount of expertise in the limits of human perception. Such research is deeply troubling when first encountered, and while I admit I am comfortable now knowing more about how little I can trust of my own sense, it is a disturbing thing to look into. If you want to take that plunge, I’d recommend checking out some shows like You Are Not So Smart, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid, The ArchyFantasies Podcast, 15 Credibility Street or even my own MonsterTalk. I’d also recommend some books such as Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World and Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So as primers.

REFERENCES
  • Phillbrook, Scott, and Forrest Burgess. “Ep 81: The Kelly–Hopkinsville Encounter (Part 3).” Astonishing Legends, 18 Aug. 2017, Ep 81: The Kelly–Hopkinsville Encounter (Part 3) [Audio blog interview]. (2017, August 18). Retrieved September 4, 2017, from http://www.astonishinglegends.com/al-podcasts/2017/8/18/ep-79-the-kelly-hopkinsville-encounter-part-3.
  • Nickell, Joe (2006). Siege of the “little green men”: the 1955 Kelly, Kentucky, incident. Skeptical Inquirer 30.6. Available at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/siege_of_little_green_men
  • Schmaltz, Rodney “Personal Correspondence Received by William Blake Smith”, 23 Aug. 2017.
  • Schmaltz, Rodney “Personal Correspondence Received by William Blake Smith”, 04 Sep. 2017.
  • Schmaltz, Rodney, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. “Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00336.
  • Wikipedia.org (2017), Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. [online] Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly%E2%80%93Hopkinsville_encounter [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017]
  1. Of course grabbing any cultural label opens one up to inevitable hypocrisy as it is impossible to be a paragon; one can only aspire to one’s values, not embody them.
  2. We did get to talk Friday October 13th, 2017 and that conversation should comprise MonsterTalk Ep #138.
  3. This is hardly surprising. Words change meaning and everyone carries around their own definitions, often incorrect ones.
  4. do-do-dee-do-do.
  5. I don’t want to keep harping on how “the average person” doesn’t know this or that. The simple fact is that science is a methodology which requires expertise, and much of human history was achieved without it. Expertise is by its very nature going to exclude people who either have not had the opportunity to receive training in it, or who don’t find it interesting enough to study it. This built-in exclusionary property just exacerbates the common criticism that scientists are “arrogant,” a criticism that is sometimes true but always hard to dismiss even when misapplied.
  6. Including me!
  7. John Oliver did an amusing piece that covers this, but of course you can do a web search for problems in science journalism to find out more about this problem.
  8. There has been some very interesting research into a related topic called “The Dunning-Kruger Effect,” which, for fear of committing the very kind of error of misguided confidence in something I have not studied deeply, I shall merely link to rather than attempt to summarize.
  9. I do not have an easy way to take you directly to the audio content in question without either cutting out audio excerpts or transcribing the episode audio, so in lieu of those time-consuming options, I will link to the audio and include time-stamps so that you can skip to the relevant point in the show.
  10. Some might say this is also a fault, but I am an optimist.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #593: I Still Can't Believe They Did That: More Human Guinea Pigs

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/16/2017 - 5:00pm
A further look at ten more scientists who experimented on themselves for the benefit of mankind.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan—UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

Skeptic.com feed - Sun, 10/15/2017 - 2:00pm

UFOs. Aliens. Strange crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, Don Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking.

Employing the ground rules of science and the standards of scientific evidence, Prothero and Callahan discuss a wide range of topics including the reliability of eyewitness testimony, psychological research into why people want to believe in aliens and UFOs, and the role conspiratorial thinking plays in UFO culture. They examine a variety of UFO sightings and describe the standards of evidence used to determine whether UFOs are actual alien spacecraft.

Finally, they consider our views of aliens and the strong cultural signals that provide the shapes and behaviors of these beings. While their approach is firmly based in science, Prothero and Callahan also share their personal experiences of Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary sites, creating a narrative that is sure to engross both skeptics and believers.

Order UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens from Amazon.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 11, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

CONSCIOUSNESS & REALITY Michael Shermer, Baba Brinkman, Deepak Chopra, Seth Andrews, and Aspen Matis

In late September 2017, in celebration of 25 years of Skeptic magazine and the Skeptics Society combating ‘fake news,’ Dr. Michael Shermer hosted a live variety science show, in partnership with YouTube Space NY, to explore the question: ‘How Can We Know What’s True?’.

Canadian hip-hop rapper, Baba Brinkman, opened the show with a rap about perception, hallucination, optical illusions, and the predictive model of consciousness.

Following that, in the name of open dialogue between those with differing or polarized worldviews, Michael Shermer (Director of the Skeptics Society, and creator of Skeptic magazine) discusses consciousness and the nature of reality with Deepak Chopra (philosopher and self-proclaimed “radical skeptic”).

In the following video, Michael Shermer discusses spirituality and science with Deepak Chopra (philosopher), Aspen Matis (author of Girl in the Woods), and Seth Andrews (creator and host of The Thinking Atheist).

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NEW EPISODE BY MR. DEITY Misterpiece Theater: I’m Listening

Tara helps Matt understand the importance of “listening to the universe.”

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Dr. David Speed examines why the definitional ambiguity of the word “spirituality” is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between it and other constructs.

What is Spirituality, Anyway?
Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

by David Speed

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified. […]

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Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

American Goblins—Part 2
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 137

In this episode of MonsterTalk — The Science Show About Monsters, we continue our examination of the case of the Kentucky Goblins. Blake is joined by CSI investigator Joe Nickell to discuss the details of the Kelly-Hopkinsville case and what real world creature Joe thinks best accounts for the mysterious events on that Kentucky farm back in 1955.

If you missed it, read the episode notes and listen to Part 1.

Listen to episode 137

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Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

What is Spirituality, Anyway? Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/11/2017 - 12:00am

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified.

Surprisingly, while definitions of spirituality are difficult to come by, measures of spirituality are not. In a recent review of various spirituality measures7, a journal article listed close to three dozen measures of spirituality. These measures were classed according to their purpose (e.g., general spirituality, spiritual well-being, spiritual needs, etc.) and were rated on their quality. The purpose of the review article was to organize existing measures of spirituality into a typology that would allow for a better understanding of the measures’ purposes. Within the article, the authors devoted reasonable space to providing evidence that these measures were reliable (i.e., if a participant takes the survey again their score is close to the first time); but there was very little discussion on whether the measures were valid (i.e., whether the measures were actually measuring spirituality). For the purposes of the review article, the working definition of spirituality was, “a sense of transcendence beyond one’s immediate circumstances… purpose and meaning in life, reliance on inner resources, and a sense of withinperson integration or connectedness.” As with the previously quoted definition of spirituality, this definition is less than helpful as it could mean a host of different things.

“In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores.

How would one go about defining spirituality in a way that is valid; that is, ensuring that a definition is uniquely and exclusively spiritual? Defining terms scientifically is often difficult even with concepts that everyone agrees exist (e.g., intelligence, happiness, hunger). The spirituality literature appears to sidestep this problem by defining a person’s level of spirituality by what he/she may score on spirituality indices. This approach is common within social science research as it provides a meaningful basis of comparison between studies. For example, intelligence can be discussed in a general way that people can understand, and researchers will use a person’s score on “IQ Test X” for comparing people between studies. However, the working definitions of spirituality are extremely varied, occasionally contradictory, and often include abstractions without obvious meaning. A consequence of this variety of definitions is that spirituality can only be meaningfully discussed by scores on specific measures, rather than in a broad conceptual way. While this approach may allow the literature to move forward (in terms of volume of studies), it does nothing to clarify what spirituality actually is.

This problem is exacerbated by the high variability of the items contained within spirituality measures. Spirituality measures will often inquire about concepts that may not be immediately associated with one’s perception of spirituality. Questions for spirituality address topics such as social interaction, meaning in life, environmental consciousness, etc. Contrasted with these are questions about interconnectedness, oneness with the universe, higher powers, benefits of prayer, etc. Some spirituality measures even have items that ostensibly inquire about the limitations of science: “In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores. Because spirituality is often being defined by the measure used to assess a person’s spirituality score, it is informative to investigate the specific items that are assessing spirituality.

Often, spirituality measures will have items related to social functioning. For example, the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale contains the items, “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong” or “I feel a selfless caring for others.”9 In a similar vein the Spirituality Assessment Scale10 presents items such as “I have a general sense of belonging” or “I feel a kinship to other people.” In addition, the Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale includes items such as “When I wrong someone, I make an effort to apologize” and “I examine my actions to see if they reflect my values.” These questions appear to be addressing how persons interact with other people, and presumably, the better social skills a person has, the healthier he/she is likely to be. However, the answers to these items are counted towards a global spirituality score. Global spirituality scores, which are in part the product of questions about social functioning, are in turn linked to better health outcomes.11 Yet, it is confusing as to why the word spirituality encompasses these characteristics, especially given that other measures (e.g., social support assessments) explicitly investigate these topics.

A different issue plaguing the spirituality literature is whether spirituality is intrinsically linked to a belief in god(s). Nearly all spirituality measures have at least one item that references god(s), higher powers, Creators, etc. (e.g., Spiritual Perspective Scale12, Spiritual Assessment Scale), and numerous spirituality measures have multiple items associated with a god construct (e.g., the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality13, Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale, Spiritual Health Inventory14). To be fair, these measures will often provide caveats that god(s) is whatever you define him/her/it to be, but this does not change the fact that this question does not apply to everyone. One may argue that deities represent a “power greater than oneself,” but this is a semantic argument. Using a placeholder that is functionally undifferentiated from god(s), but refusing to label it “god(s)” seems to be without benefit to understanding spirituality. Persons who object to “god-related questions” probably do not object to the specific word selection (i.e., “god”), but probably do object to the overarching concept (i.e., “a metaphysical unproven construct”).

The fact that god(s) is a recurring topic within many spirituality measures raises a number of important questions for researchers. Having items on surveys that are only answerable if one assumes the existence of deities seems to be a step away from the idea that spirituality is “an inherent component of being human.” With all other things being equal, persons who do not believe in god(s) (i.e., atheists) will be “penalized” on their spirituality score because of their non-belief. Given the prevalence of questions regarding belief, one could reasonably conclude that spirituality necessarily includes a belief in some form of higher powers. If this is the case, then spirituality is not an inherently human construct, as not all humans can or do believe in deities.

To address this criticism, measures may allow items to be omitted if non-applicable to persons; however, this fix does not address the underlying objection. Either conceptualizations of deities are necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would exclude atheists), or conceptualizations of deities are not necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would raise questions about why so many items address deities). In either case, it is clear that spirituality has either substantive definitional issues or substantive measurement issues, or both. Of course, researchers could argue that deities are often a part of many persons’ spirituality, but are not necessary. However, all this demonstrates is that the idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.4 (2016).
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It is important to note that these aforementioned spirituality measures have been published in peer-reviewed journals. They are reliable, have convergent validity, and they can be used to predict a variety of health outcomes. These facts are not disputed. However, it must also be made clear that if the items assessing spirituality are about social functioning, life purpose, or emotional maturity, then it is curious as to what makes these items “spiritual”. That these items are related to health outcomes is not surprising given that a bounty of literature has already established this in other fields. If the items assessing spirituality are suspect, then the reliability of the measures is ultimately immaterial to proving the benefits of spirituality. It would be as though “not smoking” was included as an indicator of spirituality, and if researchers then marvelled over the benefits of being spiritual. If spirituality measures do not uniquely predict health outcomes (beyond what is established by other constructs), then researchers should either modify how spirituality is being assessed or critically consider whether items within these surveys unambiguously measure spirituality. Ultimately, much of the investigation into spirituality seems less like research and more like recycling.

About the Author

Dr. David Speed completed his master’s and doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His primary field of interest is religion and health, but will research anything that “catches his eye”. He is a member of the Atheist Research Collaborative, which is a non-partisan group that researches atheism and irreligion. When David is not researching, teaching, or working, he is at home with his wife Betsy and his daughters Aliya and Charley.

References
  1. Dunn, K. S. 2008. “Development and Psychometric Testing of a New Geriatric Spiritual Well-Being Scale.” International Journal of Older People Nursing, 3, pp. 161–169.
  2. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  3. Pesut, B., Fowler, M., Taylor, E., Reimer-Kirkham, S., & Sawatzky, R. 2008. “Conceptualising Spirituality and Religion for Healthcare.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, 17, pp. 2803–2810.
  4. O’Connell, K. A., & Skevington, S. M. 2010. “Spiritual, Religious, and Personal Beliefs are Important and Distinctive to Assessing Quality of Life in Health: A Comparison of Theoretical Models.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, pp. 729–748.
  5. Carlson, T., McGeorge, C., & Toomey, R. 2014. “Establishing the Validity of the Spirituality in Clinical Training Scale: Measuring the Level of Integration of Spirituality and Religion in Family Therapy Training.” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 36, pp. 310–325.
  6. Tanyi, R. A. 2002. “Towards Clarification of the Meaning of Spirituality.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, pp. 500–509.
  7. Monod, S., Brennan, M., Rochat, E., Martin, E., Rochat, S., & Büla, C. 2011. “Instruments Measuring Spirituality in Clinical Research: A Systematic Review.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26, pp. 1345–1357. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1769-7
  8. Hatch, R. L., Burg, M., Naberhaus, D. S., & Hellmich, L. K. 1998. “The Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale: Development and Testing of a New Instrument.” Journal of Family Practice, 46, pp. 476–486.
  9. Underwood, L. G., & Teresi, J. A. 2002. “The Daily Spiritual Experience and Scale: Development, Theoretical Description, Reliability, Exploratory Factor Analysis, and Preliminary Construct Validity Using Health-Related Data.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 22–33.
  10. Howden, J. 1992. Development and Psychometric Characteristics of the Spirituality Assessment Scale. Texas Women’s University.
  11. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  12. Garner, L. F. 2002. “Spirituality among Baccalaureate Nursing Students at a Private Christian University and a Public State University.” Christian Higher Education, 1, pp. 371–384.
  13. Johnstone, B., McCormack, G., Yoon, D., & Smith, M. 2012. “Convergent/Divergent Validity of the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/ Spirituality: Empirical Support for Emotional Connectedness as a ‘Spiritual’ Construct.” Journal of Religion & Health, 51, pp. 529–541.
  14. Korinek, A. W., & Arredondo Jr., R. 2004. “The Spiritual Health Inventory (SHI): Assessment of an Instrument for Measuring Spiritual Health in a Substance Abusing Population.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 22, pp. 55–66.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #592: Alert 747: The Vela Incident

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/09/2017 - 5:00pm
In 1979, a mysterious flash occurred over the southern ocean that could have been a nuclear bomb.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for October 4, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 10/04/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

SCIENTIFIC NATURALISM A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism

This week, on our Patreon page, we present a recording of Michael Shermer’s article, “Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism,” originally published in the journal Theology and Science in July 2017, being read by the author, and introduced by David Smalley.

The abstract to the paper serves as a quick summary of it.

Abstract

The success of the Scientific Revolution led to the development of the worldview of scientific naturalism, or the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that can be understood, and that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, including human cognitive, moral, and social phenomena. The application of scientific naturalism in the human realm led to the widespread adoption of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that places supreme value on science and reason, eschews the supernatural entirely, and relies exclusively on nature and nature’s laws—including human nature and the laws and forces that govern us and our societies—for a complete understanding of the cosmos and everything in it, from particles to people.

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia. His two TedTalks, viewed nearly 8 million times, were voted in the top 100 of the more than 2000 TedTalks.

Hear the manifesto

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SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “SKEPTIC” COLUMN FOR OCTOBER 2017 Sky Gods for Skeptics: Is belief in aliens a religious impulse?

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk encounters a deity that lures him to its planet in order to abscond with the Enterprise. “What does God need with a starship?” the skeptical commander inquires. I talked to Kirk himself—William Shatner, that is—about the film when I met him at a recent conference. The original plot device for the movie, which he directed, was for the crew to go “in search of God.” Fearful that some religious adherents might be offended that the Almighty could be discoverable by a spaceship, the studio bosses insisted that the deity be a malicious extraterrestrial impersonating God for personal gain.

How could a starship—or any technology designed to detect natural forces and objects—discover a supernatural God, who by definition would be beyond any such sensors? Any detectable entity would have to be a natural being, no matter how advanced, and as I have argued in this column [see “Shermer’s Last Law”; January 2002], “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence [ETI] is indistinguishable from God.” Thus, Shatner’s plot theme of looking for God could only turn up an ETI sufficiently advanced to appear God-like.

Perhaps herein lies the impulse to search. In his 1982 book Plurality of Worlds (Cambridge University Press), historian of science Steven J. Dick suggested that when Isaac Newton’s mechanical universe replaced the medieval spiritual world, it left a lifeless void that was filled with the modern search for ETI. In his 1995 book Are We Alone? (Basic Books), physicist Paul Davies wondered: “What I am more concerned with is the extent to which the modern search for aliens is, at rock-bottom, part of an ancient religious quest.” Historian George Basalla made a similar observation in his 2006 work Civilized Life in the Universe (Oxford University Press): “The idea of the superiority of celestial beings is neither new nor scientific. It is a widespread and old belief in religious thought.” […]

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American Goblins—Part 1
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 136

In August of 1955, a farm family in Kentucky found their home under attack by strange goblin-like monsters. In the years since the attack, the case has retained a perplexing endurance. What happened that night in Kentucky? Were aliens to blame? Underworld monsters? Misidentified natural causes? This is part one of our discussion of what has become known as The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Skeptoid #591: Ouija Boards

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 10/02/2017 - 5:00pm
Real effects far more interesting than spiritualism claims are behind these famous talking boards.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Conjuring Up a Lost Civilization: An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:00am

Graham Hancock’s 2015 book Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization1 is something of a sequel and update to his 1995 international bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization,2 which was translated into 27 languages and sold more than three million copies.3 In Fingerprints, Hancock uses creation myths in ancient texts and wild geological scenarios to suggest that 12,450 years ago major crustal shifts moved Antarctica to its present location. Portions of a supposedly highly advanced unknown lost civilization (none other than Atlantis) living on Antarctica at the time were able to survive the destructive cataclysms and go on to convey their knowledge to the builders of the megalithic structures of Egypt, Maya, Babylon, and other known great civilizations. He also claims that the Mayan calendar portended world cataclysms in 2012. In Magicians, Hancock now says he got it all wrong—there was no crustal shift; instead he thinks this advanced civilization was destroyed by a comet.

Magicians appears to be on its way to becoming another bestseller for the British writer. Although Hancock has few scientific credentials (an undergraduate degree in sociology from Durham University),4 his early career as a journalist5 helped him navigate through a wide range of scientific research, but without benefit of specialized training in astronomy, geology, history, archaeology, or comparative religion and mythology. Hancock is obviously bright, articulate, and a good writer and storyteller who comes across as eminently reasonable, which makes it all the more difficult to tease apart fact from fiction in the many claims made in his books, documentary films, and lectures.

Göbekli Tepe

Figure 1: Excavators uncover one of many circular enclosures at Göbekli Tepe. Two large T-shaped pillars over 5m (16 feet) high typically stand in the middle of the ring with smaller pillars facing them. Some of these stones are decorated with reliefs of animals that once lived in the area. This area known as Enclosure D features birds, while others emphasize animals such as snakes, foxes, boars, or wildcats.

The centerpiece of Hancock’s Magicians is a remarkable archaeological site called Göbekli Tepe in Turkey dated to 11,600 years ago. He contends Göbekli Tepe is too advanced to have been built by hunter-gatherers alone, and must therefore have been constructed with the help of people from a more advanced civilization. Unfortunately for Hancock these people left behind no hard evidence for their existence, so he is forced to allude to what he thinks is sophisticated architecture, along with a few carved figures that he asserts represent astronomical constellations. From these speculations Hancock concludes: “At the very least it [Göbekli Tepe] would mean that some as yet unknown and unidentified people somewhere in the world had already mastered all the arts and attributes of a high civilization more than twelve thousand years ago in the depths of the last Ice Age and sent out emissaries around the world to spread the benefits of their knowledge.”

It’s a romantic notion, but not the conclusion that the late great German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt came to after excavating Göbekli Tepe for more than two decades beginning in 1994. The site, he says, was used from 11,600 to about 10,000 years before the present. Lower sections were backfilled giving way to new structures on top. The fill is refuse containing sediment, hundreds of thousands of broken animal bones, flint tools for carving the structures within the site and for hunting game, and the remains of cereals and other plant material, and even a few human bones. There is no evidence that the site was ever used as a residence, and the megaliths found there (Schmidt called them “monumental religious architecture”) along with carvings and totems, imply ritual and feasting.

Figure 2: A T-shaped megalith with animal carvings at Göbekli Tepe.

The main features of Göbekli Tepe are the T-shaped 7– to 10-ton monolithic pillars cut and hauled from crystalline limestone quarries on the tepe (hill) and erected within 10– to 20-meter ring structures made of rocks annealed by clay mortar that encircle the pillars. The stone statues are clearly anthropomorphic— arms and hands can be seen on the sides of the pillars reaching around to the front. A variety of animals, mostly representing the wild animals found within the refuse, have been carved on the pillars.6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Göbekli Tepe and other archaeological sites being studied nearby have forced archaeologists to rethink the way the prehistoric lifestyle of hunting, gathering, and foraging gave way to a more domesticated lifestyle in northern Mesopotamia. Oliver Dietrich, a colleague of Klaus Schmidt at the German Archaeological Institute, poignantly expressed the impact of these discoveries: “These people must have had a highly complicated mythology, including a capacity for abstraction. Following these ideas, we now have more evidence that…social systems changed before, not as a result of, the shift to farming.”11 It also shows that hunter-gatherers were capable of more than we previously thought, and that the origins of religion may have to be pushed back by millennia.

But this is a far cry from Hancock’s proposal that the site is a link to his lost civilization. In fact, archaeologists consider Göbekli Tepe to be a pre-pottery Neolithic site. Not only is clay pottery absent, the site contans no evidence of any metal or metal workings. The obvious reason for this is that clay pottery and metals are typical of more advanced cultures. Although Hancock writes that “our ancestors are being initiated into the secrets of metals, and how to make swords and knives,” no such thing is found at any of the archaeological sites he touts as being influenced by his highly advanced lost civilization, not at Göbekli Tepe, nor in the non-Roman areas of Baalbek, Easter Island, nor at any of the ancient Mayan sites he discusses.

During an exchange with Michael Shermer on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Hancock suggested that “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “possibly” this lost civilization did not have metal tools, writing, and other features of societies traditionally labeled as “advanced,” and that we need to reconfigure the mainstream scientific timeline of what it means to be an advanced culture. Perhaps, he hinted, they communicated entirely through the oral tradition, skipping writing. When Shermer pressed him to explain what he means by “advanced” Hancock replied: “I am saying that a group of people settled amongst the hunter-gatherers and transferred some skills for them.” When I came into the debate later and pushed him on this same issue of how an allegedly advanced civilization could lack all the features of other such societies, such as metallurgy, he demurred: “I do not make that claim. I am reporting that this claim is made in the Book of Enoch.” It is true that in his book Hancock discusses the secrets of metals in the context of discussing the Book of Enoch, but the entire chapter is in support of evidence that a lost civilization had superior knowledge that included the secrets of metal working. Such details are important because it gives us a glimpse into how Hancock infers one thing when it is convenient in making his point, but then shifts to claiming he is only reporting what other people say when the implications stretch our credulity. For example, Hancock calls these ancient peoples the “Watchers” (aka the “Magicians”) in a section titled “Mystery of the Nephilim”:

The Watchers begin their development project in quite small ways, teaching “charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots” to humans, and making them “acquainted with plants.” This sounds fairly harmless; apart from a bit of “enchantment,” it’s not really above and beyond the basic hunter-gatherer level of skills. But pretty soon, as we saw earlier, our ancestors are being initiated into the secrets of metals and how to make swords and knives, and how to study the heavens.

Hancock may call this reporting, but Shermer was not satisfied by such chicanery when he questioned Hancock on why the hunter-gatherers at Göbekli Tepe were not taught the “secrets of metal workings.” Hancock had no explanation as to why the hunter-gatherers at Göbekli Tepe knew nothing about metals, or even pottery, nor did he reply to Shermer’s numerous requests for a definition of an “advanced civilization” that lacked writing, metallurgy, or ceramics.

Schmidt and his colleagues have arduously documented the use of flint tools for the construction of Göbekli Tepe, and none of the hundreds of thousands of animal bones and cereals found in the backfill from the lowest levels show any signs of domestication— they are all wild species. In fact, the large abundance of bones from wild animals found at the site allows Schmidt to underscore the ability of the hunter-gatherers in the region to support the hundreds of workers and stone cutters presumed necessary to create the megaliths and other structures. Schmidt makes a salient point almost as if he anticipated Hancock’s book: “Fabulous or mythical creatures, such as centaurs or the sphinx, winged bulls or horses, do not yet occur in the iconography and therefore in the mythology of the prehistoric times. They must be recognized as creations of the high cultures which arose later.”12 I would only add that unlike the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations where inscriptions made by literate societies have been well documented, not a single inscription has been found at Göbekli Tepe.

Patterns in the Stars

Next consider Hancock’s assertion that the stone carvings on the sides of the T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe represent constellations. Figure 49 on page 319 of his book (Figure 3 below) emphasizes how virtually any figure could be matched to star asterisms (clusters). In fact, Schmidt concluded that the figures on the pillars mostly represent the wild animals whose bones were found in the backfill from the site.

Figure 3: Hancock claims that the “teapot” asterism of the constellation Sagittarius fits the vulture from Göbekli Tepe better than the archer (page 319).

Figure 4: Two interpretations of the “teapot” asterism by the author: Uncle Sam and a commando insignia. It is easy to find matching patterns if you are motivated to do so.

Recently Hancock’s thesis seemed to find support from two professors at the University of Edinburgh, Martin Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis, whose paper reported that the “vulture stone,” a pillar at Göbekli Tepe, is “a date stamp for 10950 BCE ± 250 yrs.”13 I wrote Sweatman about the article prior to our debate with Hancock on the Rogan show, and he directed me to his website where he states:

Graham Hancock attempted to decode GT in his book Magicians of the Gods using the ideas of Paul Burley and the YD [Younger Dryas] context provided by [Andrew] Collins, but in our view his logic takes a wrong turn early on, leading him to make some erroneous conclusions. Especially we oppose Graham’s contention that the Vulture Stone predicts an impact 12,000 years into their future—around 2030 AD—this is, ocurse [sic] impossible.

That Sweatman distances himself from Hancock’s theory is telling, but in my decades of reading scientific papers I have never come across an article more speculative than this one. The entire paper rests on the supposition that the authors can match “low relief carvings” on a pillar of Göbekli Tepe to star asterisms in 10,950 BCE in the western sky at 4 seconds after 1:01 PM on September 11 (Figure 5, below). Specifically, Sweatman and Tsikritsis use the carvings on pillar 43. But why that one? There are many pillars both unearthed (44) and still buried at Göbekli Tepe, so it is not clear why pillar 43 has the significance they attribute to it—drawings of animals decorate most of the pillars. In any case, they start by assuming that the scorpion at the bottom of pillar 43 is the same as the modern-day constellation Scorpius. The assumption that we can attribute 12,950 year-old patterns on rocks to star asterisms is highly suspect. Here in the U.S., for example, we call a set of stars in the constellation Ursa Major the Big Dipper because to our eyes it looks like a dipper. In the UK, however, they call the same asterism the Plough. In Mayan culture it is described as a parrot. In ancient Egypt it is the leg of a bull. No doubt naming asterisms helped ancient peoples remember star patterns, but the names were not always chosen on the basis of a matching appearance with the asterism. Such naming could be and often was symbolic. There are many carved images of animals at Göbekli Tepe, and attributing even one to a star pattern is more like astrology than science.

Figure 5: The star pattern is from the day sky in 10,950 BCE (using the astronomical computer program Stellarium) with the images from pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe matched with the constellation as proposed by Sweatman and Tsikritsis. I argue that the correlations are purely speculative.

Here is the rub. Sweatman and Tsikritsis casually assume that because in the past a star asterism was attributed to a scorpion (in this case Scorpius), it makes perfect sense that ancient hunter-gatherers living 13,000 years ago saw the same pattern as a scorpion. Look carefully at Figure 6 (below) and compare the scorpions to the star pattern we call Scorpius. I think most would contend that almost any elongated figure could be associated with the star asterism and that matching of a scorpion to the pattern takes a fertile imagination. Finally, the scorpion on pillar 43 looks nothing like the star pattern.

Figure 6: The Scorpius star asterism (above left) associated with the scorpion is compared to the carving of the scorpion found at Göbekli Tepe (above right). We know constellations are symbols not necessarily based on matching patterns, as can be seen from the lack of correlation between either scorpion and the asterism. This shows the tenuous foundation of the Sweatman and Tsikritsis argument. (Image on the left above is from the Stellarium astronomical computer program.)

The pattern correlation problem does not keep Sweatman and Tsikritsis from matching figures on pillar 43 in a roughly clockwise fashion to the asterisms surrounding Scorpius in the day sky of 10,950 BCE. I show the day sky with the location of the sun and images of the various animals below with arrows pointing to the constellations they supposedly match (Figure 5).

Besides the obvious fact that the images have no good correlation to the star patterns in the known constellations displayed (e.g., look at the bird figure that has been matched with Libra), there are many constellations that have been ignored, such as Norma, Ara, Telescopium, Corona Australis, Scutum, and Serpens. In addition, there is one bird-like feature that does not match to any star asterism and in another case, for an unexplained reason, a crane-like image is combined with a fish-like image to match with Ophiuchus. Not only do Sweatman and Tsikritsist claim their mapping of the images in the sky documents a date of 10950 BCE ± 250 years, but they go on to conclude that the hunter-gatherers of Göbekli Tepe must have been certifying the date of “the” comet strike. (Even though that strike supposedly occurred in North America). They try to bring their point home by suggesting that a “belt buckle” with a “nested U” has “an excellent likeness of the very specific bow shock wave of a hypersonic spherical object.” Seriously? Without high speed photography how does one see the bow shock wave of an object traveling faster than the speed of sound?

If you wanted to convey the existence of a comet strike to future generations, would it not be prudent and obvious to carve the actual positions of the stars along with the comet on a rock? Sweatman and Tsikritsis, along with Hancock, attribute evolved astronomical knowledge to these huntergatherers. So why don’t these ancients show off their knowledge with star maps rather than with figures that may or may not represent constellations? I think the answer is obvious—the carvings likely have nothing to do with asterisms.

Hancock has attempted to make the case that the megalithic structures at Göbekli Tepe are so complex that they had to involve assistance from his lost advanced civilization when the hunter-gatherers built them. But Schmidt found that the backfill that covered these structures had no signs of any advanced technologies including domesticated animals or crops. Shermer’s point about lack of technology becomes even more salient when you carefully examine Hancock’s proposal—the Magicians supposedly taught hunter-gatherers the secrets of asterisms (and even how to predict the destruction of our planet some 12,000 years in the future) but did not pass on simpler technologies like domestication of plants and crops or the use of metals and pottery? Not likely.

The Great Sphinx of Giza

Hancock’s formula used at Göbekli Tepe for inferring a lost advanced civilization—speculation absent of supporting data—is extended to other archaeological sites. Arguably, the most egregious example of “fitting” ancient structures into a lost civilization fantasy occurs at the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Sphinx and Valley temples.

The major evidence Hancock brings to the table comes by way of the Sphinx water erosion hypothesis proposed by Boston University professor Robert Schoch. The hypothesis has never been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but that has not stopped Schoch from becoming the darling of subscribers to the ancient lost civilization myth. The argument posits that there is erosion on the Great Sphinx that must have been caused by “thousands of years of heavy rain” as Hancock puts it. He continues: “this means it [the Great Sphinx] has to be much older than 2500 BCE (the orthodox date, when Egypt received no more rain than it does today) and must originally have been carved around the end of the Ice Age when the Nile valley was subjected to a long period of intense precipitation.”

Recent dating that contradicts Hancock’s assertion was published in 2015. University of the Aegean physicist Ioannis Liritzis and his collaborator Asimina Vafiadou published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cultural Heritage surface luminescence dates of the Valley and Sphinx temples that match perfectly with the time period that archaeologists have long accepted based on other dating techniques—the Great Sphinx of Giza and associated temples were built during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2558–2532 BCE).14 Nevertheless, with a stiff upper lip Hancock spends several pages in Magicians attempting to argue that the dates come from what we are told “Schoch already regarded as restoration work.” I wrote Dr. Liritzis and asked him to comment on the assertions made by Hancock and Schoch. He told me he was aware of Hancock’s “ideolipseis” and assured me that the samples Hancock claims were from a coating placed over the blocks to shield them from weathering “were not shielded coatings…but derived from the whole block in between a firm contact!” In other words, the Sphinx and Temple Complex are evidence of an ancient civilization that existed in the third millennium BCE, not thousands of years earlier.

During our debate, Hancock was keen to emphasize that the dates are from the temples and not the Sphinx. But a careful reading of both Fingerprints and Magicians shows that he argues that the Sphinx and associated temples were built in the same period, which explains why he spends several pages in Magicians attempting to undermine or explain away the dates from the temples as noted above. And with good reason, as the work of renowned Egyptologist Mark Lehner shows. Lehner received his Ph.D. from Yale and is currently the director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates. He wrote his dissertation on the Sphinx and has spent the last 30 years working on the approximately two-square miles of the Giza plateau, making some remarkable discoveries. First, the Sphinx is carved directly from an in situ limestone mass. Lehner, together with geologist Tom Aigner, demonstrated that the limestone used to construct the temples has precisely the same fossil assemblage as the limestone in the Great Sphinx, and therefore must have come from the same source. Moreover, they found that the walls of the Sphinx temple were excavated from a trench surrounding the Sphinx. Lehner and Aigner emphasized that the most likely scenario was that the Sphinx temple was built while they were carving the Great Sphinx.15

Hancock makes no mention of these aspects of Lehner’s work, but he does tell us that “By virtue of the distinctive weathering patterns on that monument’s [the Sphinx] flanks and on sections of the trench that surrounds it—highlighted in the analysis of geology professor Robert Schoch of Boston University— a proto Sphinx does appear to have existed when heavy rains fell across Egypt at the end of the Ice Age.” Attentive readers will notice that Hancock links the weathering on the Sphinx with the weathering in the trench from which the walls of the Sphinx and Valley temples were extracted. In other words, the weathering must have occurred after the walls were excavated from the trench and placed in the Sphinx temple—the very walls that have been dated to approximately 2500 BCE by Liritzis and Vafiadou.

Further, in 1853 French Archaeologist Auguste Mariette discovered a life-size statue made of “black volcanic rock” of the Pharoah Khafre within the Valley temple. He also unearthed a paved processional causeway between the Valley temple and a mortuary temple adjacent to Khafre’s pyramid. Is it any surprise that professional archaeologists have concluded that Khafre constructed the Sphinx, the Valley and Sphinx temples, as well as his great pyramid? Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs of Egypt, Zahi Hawass, wrote in 2006: “Most scholars believe, as I do, that the Sphinx represents Khafre and forms an integral part of the pyramid complex.”16

Indeed, Lehner located the site where as many as 2,000 laborers lived while constructing the Giza complex near the Old Kingdom cemetery that Hawass had uncovered nine years earlier. The cemetery was the burial site of some of the directors of the construction of Giza based on tomb inscriptions. Lehner showed that the laborers were not slaves, but the kingdoms hired hands—bone artifacts indicate that their diet was mainly young cattle (prime beef!). The makeup of the laborer community is important because it appears they walked off the job before the Giza complex was finished. As far back as 1978, Hawass and Lehner discovered that stone blocks were left abandoned as the Sphinx temple was being built.17 Why?

That’s where German climatologists Rudolph Kuper and Stefan Kröpelin come into the picture. They published a study of climate changes in the eastern Sahara in Science in 2006, based on copious amounts of archaeological dating (more than 500 dates from over 150 excavations). Their conclusions are telling: (1) A vast region including Egypt and Sudan and parts of Libya and Chad were bone dry from the last glacial maximum at 20,000 years ago until about 8,500 years ago—not the advantageous environment Hancock envisions for hunter-gatherers when they supposedly met up with his “magicians” in 10,000 BCE to build the Great Sphinx. (2) Monsoon rains beginning in 8,500 BCE transformed the desert into a habitable environment for huntergatherers who began settling in the region about 7000 BCE—no evidence of hunter-gatherers in the lower Nile exists prior to this time, contrary to Hancock’s assertions. (3) By 1,500 BCE desiccation was complete, leading Kuper and Kröpelin to conclude: “The final desiccation of the Egyptian Sahara also had an essential impact on the contemporaneous origin of the pharaonic civilization in the Nile valley.”18

Lehner attributes the evidence of erosion on the Sphinx and along the trenches from which the Valley and Sphinx temple walls were excavated to the monsoon rains that periodically fell in the region as it became desiccated. Not only are there erosional remnants on the Sphinx from rains during this period, but Lehner found evidence of erosion within the laborers’ camp. He postulates that by the later years of the Old Kingdom, laborers refused to work in the suffocating dry conditions and stopped the construction of the Giza complex when food became in short supply.19

It is also worth noting that Lehner has tied the Giza complex together—including the Sphinx and pyramids—through his careful mapping and research of the structures. As Hancock has pointed out, the Sphinx runs east-west, but not because the Egyptians had help from magicians in aligning it with asterisms. Swiss archaeologist Herbert Ricke noted in the 1960s that the Sphinx temple walls encompass a courtyard with 24 pillars—each pillar representing an hour of the day as the sun crosses the sky from east to west. Lehner recognized that at the equinoxes “the shadow of the Sphinx and the shadow of the pyramid, both symbols of the king, become merged silhouettes. The Sphinx itself, it seems, symbolized the pharaoh presenting offerings to the sun god in the court of the temple.” Hawass agrees, reminding us that Khafre as the royal falcon god “is giving offerings with his two paws to his father, Khufu, incarnated as the sun god, Ra, who rises and sets in that temple.”20

The Younger Dryas and the Comet Strike

Next we will consider Hancock’s explanation for why there is no direct evidence for his lost civilization— it was completely wiped out by a comet impact. Here’s the back story which involves a mainstream scientific controversy that Hancock has stepped into for his own unique reasons.

Figure 7: Temperature variations from Greenland ice cores over the last 23,000 years (Source: climateshifts.org)

About 23,000 years ago Earth began to come out of the last glacial deep freeze, marked by receding glaciers at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (see Figure 7, above). But rather dramatically, about 12,900 years ago temperatures plummeted and then did an about face, warming again about 11,500 years ago—a period of 1,400 years geologists call the Younger Dryas (YD). The cause of the event has been a matter of considerable scientific debate for decades, but consensus in the early 1990s centered on a paper by Wally Broecker and his colleagues that proposed the disruption of a large-scale ocean phenomenon called the Thermohaline Circulation in the north Atlantic, driven in part by the interaction of surface heat and freshwater fluxes.21 Melt water from the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet covering large swaths of northern North America drained into ancient Lake Agassiz, itself formed by the retreat of the more than mile thick glacier. Water then flowed south through the Mississippi embayment to the ocean. Oxygen isotope analyses along with 14C dating of planktonic shells from the Gulf of Mexico reveals a decrease in the flux of fresh water from about 11,100 until 10,000 years ago. The Broecker group postulated that the compositional change in seawater related to a change in the drainage through flooding from Lake Agassiz toward the North Atlantic. The idea was that an influx of freshwater into the North Atlantic diminished density-driven circulation of oceanic currents— the conveyor belt that brings warmth to the northern climes—initiating worldwide cooling.

However, neither geomorphic evidence of flooding from Lake Agassiz into either the Arctic or Atlantic oceans, nor a drop in the water level in Lake Agassiz could ever be found, causing even Broecker to abandon the Lake Agassiz flooding hypothesis.22 That left the door open for another scenario, a comet strike termed the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis (YDIH). The proponents of YDIH claim that the impact not only caused the dramatic climate change, but also triggered the demise of the Pleistocene megafauna (the extinction of dozens of large North American mammals more commonly attributed to either overhunting by humans, gradual climate change, or both) and the collapse of the Clovis culture in North America. The debate over what happened during the YD can only be described as a scientific “dogfight” that may go on for decades. But the reason the YDIH extraordinary claim has yet to find consensus is that extraordinary evidence has yet to emerge to support it. To be clear, the debate is not over lost civilizations.

The firestorm began in 2007 when Richard Firestone and numerous colleagues proposed that it was a comet strike of “multiple ET [extraterrestrial] airbursts along with surface impacts” that occurred at 12,900 years ago that initiated the YD.”23 The paper was full of impressive evidence gathered from 10 sites where a carbon-rich layer (referred to as the “black mat”) marked what they claimed was the end of the Clovis culture in North America: “The in situ bones of extinct Pleistocene megafaunas, along with Clovis tool assemblages, occur below this black layer but not within or above it.” They reported that sediments directly below the black mat were enriched in magnetic grains, iridium, magnetic microspherules, charcoal, soot, carbon spherules, glass-like carbon containing nanodiamonds and fullerenes containing extraterrestrial helium. They explained that the soot, charcoal, spherules, etc. were the result of extensive and intense forest fires initiated by the airbursts. Melting of the Laurentide Ice Sheet would have dumped copious quantities of melt water into the Atlantic, thereby disrupting the density currents and bringing on the cooling.

Over the years, however, support for the YDIH has been undermined. Nearly every aspect of the original evidence has been challenged by a host of scientists in various fields. Only one of the indicators, iridium, has been commonly used as an impact marker, and the iridium data have not always been reproducible. The iridium concentrations can also be explained by terrestrial origins.24, 25 Nor do nanodiamonds require extraterrestrial events. The absence of any impact craters at the beginning of the YD worldwide is the most disconcerting evidence against YDIH, as is the lack of control for the age of sediments/black mat at or near the YD boundary. Figure 8 (below) shows the range of 14C dates from the YD boundary at various Clovis sites. The gray region represents the YD, and the dates emphasize the difficulties in precisely defining the YD boundary at 12,900 years ago.

Figure 8: Carbon 14 ranges from samples taken from “the Younger Dryas boundary” at various Clovis sites (one standard deviation above and below the mean is shown as a vertical line). The gray region marks the YD. From Holliday et al.26 (Click image to enlarge)

In addition to these arguments against the YDIH, it is difficult to imagine how an airburst/impact could annihilate the North American mammal megafauna and Clovis culture and initiate huge wild fires, without leaving any evidence in the way of massive flooding or impact features. Vance Holliday and his colleagues argue that “no physical mechanism is known to produce an airburst that would affect the entire continent.”27 They also point out that any comet strike large enough to affect an entire continent would leave a detectable crater even if it struck the ice sheet. To get around this glaring problem, the Firestone group proposed that the comet broke up upon entry into earth’s atmosphere. But according to physicist Mark Boslough and his colleagues,28 that would produce “more than a million Meteor craters” (the size of the crater in central Arizona) based on the comet size postulated by Firestone and his cohorts.29, 30

While the Firestone group claims that the comet strike was responsible for the disappearance of the 37 mammal megafauna genera specifically in North America, extinctions occurred on other continents, most notably South America, where at least 52 mammal genera disappeared. And not all those genera disappeared synchronously at the YD boundary! Instead, megafauna extinctions on continents and islands seem to correlate with the arrival of humans. The thinking goes that these huge megafauna would have had no reason to fear humans, and were probably easy pickings for the newly arriving hunter-gatherers. Scientists have also been a bit incredulous that a comet strike could wipe out all the megafauna as far south as Patagonia, while leaving mammoths alive and well on St. Paul Island, Alaska until 3,700 years ago.31

Figure 9: A typical Clovis projectile point. (Image courtesy of the Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources, via Wikimedia Commons

There is, in fact, no need to hypothesize a catastrophic event to explain the disappearance of the megafauna and associated Clovis culture. The Clovis culture in North America is known foremost for the large fluted lanceolate projectile points found primarily around 13,500 years ago. There are spectacular mammoth kill sites associated with Clovis artifacts with butchery marks on the mammoth bones. At the Manis site in Washington, Dr. Carl Gustafson and his team excavated a mastodon skeleton in the 1970s with a long projectile point embedded in one of the bones. Under the “overkill” scenario, the disappearance of Clovis projectile points and other artifacts does not require a catastrophic event. It probably means that the human toolkit, originally developed to kill the megafauna, was gradually replaced as the megafauna were killed off.32 There is no evidence that humans disappeared in North and South America after the YD. How would a comet kill the megafauna but leave humans virtually untouched?

In addition, contrary to what Hancock would have us believe, there is no evidence of catastrophic flooding. Recall that Broecker had to back off his Lake Agassiz hypothesis because no evidence for catastrophic flooding could be found. The glacial moraines formed by the Laurentide Ice Sheet have been precisely mapped and they show a consistent retreat until about 9,800 years ago.33 They would most assuredly have been disrupted by the postulated massive floods.

Hancock claims that the “comet and asteroid impacts not only cause floods but can also impose huge stresses on the crust of the earth resulting in increased earthquake and volcanic activity.” As a volcanologist, I would strongly argue that a strike would not lead to volcanic activity, and beyond the initial impact, it may not lead to earthquakes. Regardless, Hancock can’t have it both ways—huge stresses cannot happen to the earth’s crust without leaving identifiable scars on the land. Notably, Broecker and his colleagues have most recently concluded that “there is no need to call upon a one-time catastrophic event to explain the YD. More likely, the YD was a necessary part of the last termination…cold reversals equivalent to the YD seem to be integral parts of global switches from glacial to interglacial climate.”34

I want to emphasize that although the YDIH has lost acceptance within the scientific community over the last decade, the debate proceeds in the proper scientific manner (i.e., by publishing results in peer-reviewed scientific journals). As Malcolm LeCompte, one of the comet researchers, pointed out in our debate on Joe Rogan’s show (he was Hancock’s expert guest; I was Shermer’s), there are four indicators at the YD boundary that may be due to an extraterrestrial origin: nanodiamonds, magnetic sphericals, melt glass, and the platinum group metals (reduced from the 10 or more originally proposed by the Firestone group). But all of these can be explained through terrestrial processes also, which he acknowledged on the show.

A recently published paper has some intriguing data. Moore et al.35 found platinum concentrations above background levels within what they believe is representative of the YD boundary. The problem, of course, is that Pt concentrations are traditionally low in ice-rich comets. LeCompte suggested that the Pt concentrations could be indicative of an asteroid. The story continues to evolve, and I am loathe to comment further until the comet/asteroid group can decide what the correct scenario is. While Pt concentrations do increase within the YD boundary, dating the event is difficult (see Figure 8). The debate may take many years to be resolved. While I would not rule out an extraterrestrial event at this point there is virtually no evidence that an asteroid/comet devastated the megafauna, caused massive flooding, and destroyed the Clovis culture.

In any case, Hancock’s reliance on the YDIH is problematic for a number of reasons. First, Hancock’s white whale is what geologists call uniformitarianism— the idea that the earth has been affected by continuous, gradual, uniform processes. He claims that scientists are so blindly wedded to this dogma to the point that they cannot see the catastrophism before their eyes. This is disingenuous. As a practicing geologist, I can assert in the strongest terms that although uniformitarianism is a tool in geological research, the importance of catastrophes has been recognized since the early to middle 20th century, thanks to work by Daniel Barringer and later Gene Shoemaker on Meteor crater, J Harlen Bretz and J. T. Pardee on the Scabland floods, and the documentation of massive volcanic eruptions, past tsunami events, glaciation, plate tectonics, and many more examples. Far from being dogmatically closed minded, our openness toward catastrophic events is precisely what allowed Walter and Luis Alvarez to overcome an initially doubting geologic community to accept the idea that the dinosaurs had been wiped out by a meteor impact. Hancock implies conspiracy whenever he runs into normal scientific skepticism (he actually has sections of his book entitled “Conspiracy Corner” and “Taking on the dogmatic uniformitarians”). This allows him to deflect scientific criticism from his unlikely ideas by painting himself as just one of many that have run up against the supposed scientific juggernaut of uniformitarianism.

Hancock portrays himself as the modern-day J Harlen Bretz, continually comparing the difficulties Bretz had getting a skeptical scientific community to accept the Scabland flooding hypothesis with his own helter-skelter conjecturing. Hancock insists that Bretz’s first claim that there was one major flood through the Scablands is correct. Bretz later changed his mind in favor of multiple periodic floods. Science has moved on, not only eventually accepting Bretz’s original evidence for flooding (Bretz would receive the coveted Penrose Medal for his work on the Scablands), but carefully documenting the dates of specific floods through the Scablands. We now know with some confidence that ice dams that formed ancient Lake Missoula broke periodically, pouring erosive water through a massive area of eastern Washington and northern Oregon (see Figures 10 and 11 below).36

Figure 10: The distribution of Lake Missoula and the flooded areas. (From Waitt)
[Click image to enlarge]

Figure 11: The range in dates of the timing of the periodic flooding from Lake Missoula. (From Waitt) [Click image to enlarge]

At least 17 floods in the Scablands have been documented by careful dating. But the most important thing required to support Hancock’s theories is missing—no larger flood occurred in the Scablands at the YD boundary. All the floods were clearly limited in area and are consistent with the breaking of ice dams formed by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, which released water from ancient Lake Missoula. Hancock admits that the periodic flooding occurred, but insists that geologists have missed the evidence for an apocalyptic flood at the YD boundary brought on by a comet strike. This, in turn, is used as evidence for a worldwide flood that wiped out his lost advanced civilization. A flood of this scope is quite a contrast to the limited area covered by the Scabland floods. So what is his evidence for worldwide flooding? Once again, he relies on flood mythologies, including the Noachian flood, stating: “So although the floods at the end of the Ice Age could never have carried Noah and his Ark thousands of feet above present sea level to the slopes of Mount Ararat, they were indeed global in their extent and would have had devastating consequences for humans living at the time.”

I asked Isaac Larsen at the University of Massachusetts, one of the world’s experts on the Scabland flooding, if there was any chance that the deluges could be related to the YDIH, and if he had any thoughts on the claims made by Hancock about a conspiracy to hide evidence. (Larsen along with his colleague Michael Lamb have just published a paper in Nature on “outburst flooding in the Scablands.”37) He did not mince words in his response: “The scientific consensus is that there was not one single catastrophic flood, but multiple floods, and the occurrence of multiple floods is hence not consistent with the comet impact proposal…. Regarding conspiracies, I would say that the scientific community is very open to new ideas, and those ideas supported by data gain credence, whereas ideas that lack compelling empirical or theoretical basis fail to gain traction. Scientists are quite individualistic, and getting thousands of them to subscribe to a conspiracy isn’t something I can imagine happening.” Neither can I.

The Lost Civilization Sends a Message

Magicians is admittedly a compelling read, and its thesis a titillating one, invoking an advanced lost civilization that reinforces the myth of a “Golden Age” of humanity, but it is convoluted and twisted in its substance. Hancock is often vague, which makes it difficult to ferret out what he is trying to say. His book is full of excerpts from mythology that he insists bear hidden truths. Not once are we told why the magicians had to send their messages using obtuse metaphors. But Hancock’s message is clear: a technologically advanced civilization—no less than the most famous lost civilization in all fiction, Atlantis—was destroyed by the YD comet strike, and it could happen to us!

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.3
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Hancock informs us that emissaries from Atlantis survived the destruction and carried their advanced science and technology to Göbekli Tepe, the Maya, Egypt, Baalbek—even Easter Island. Further, these Magicians, these Seven Sages who Hancock says were imbued “with mysterious ‘powers’” (so mysterious that we are never told what these powers are)—set about “wandering.” They also had a message for us—a powerful message as deduced by Hancock. From the inferred astrological signs and proposed alignments of the megaliths, Hancock makes the following wild leap: “The last time this grand celestial line-up of earth, December-solstice sun and the galactic center occurred was a full precessional cycle of 25,920 years ago and the next time it will happen is a full precessional cycle of 25,920 years in the future. We live, in other words, in a very special, indeed rather unique, moment in terms of cosmic astronomical symbolism.” Spoiler alert! Hancock avers:

However improbable it may seem, therefore, we are obliged to consider the possibility that in 9600 BC the builders of Göbekli Tepe were already so advanced in their knowledge of the recondite phenomenon of precession that they were able to calculate its effects for thousands of years backward and forward in time in order to produce an accurate symbolic picture of the Sagittarius/winter solstice conjunction… Bearing in mind that half a precessional cycle is 12,960 years… if I understand the message correctly, we’re in the danger zone now and will be until 2040.

In other words, Hancock is seriously proposing that we are being told by the Magicians that the comet clusters that supposedly struck earth some 12,900 years ago and led to the destruction of Atlantis, the North American megafauna, the Clovis people, etc., will rain death and destruction upon us sometime over the next few decades. The extreme mental gymnastics Hancock goes through to warn us of eminent doom fails in the light of logic. (1) Hancock insists that the Mayans could predict the future from celestial mechanics; (2) He claims the Mayan calendar is based on a precession that began with the “conjunction of the winter solstice Sun and the center of the Milky Way galaxy” some 26,000 years ago. (3) The hunter-gatherers with their magician watchers at Göbekli Tepe recognized, according to Hancock, that the destruction of the lost civilization was precisely at a midway point between the precession 12,900 years ago when a supposed comet struck; and (4) The Göbekli Tepe inhabitants generated symbols indicating that this 26,000 year precession cycle spells doom for our planet in the coming decades. Remember, a 26,000 year precession cycle can be started at any time—there is nothing physically unique about conjecturing that a cycle started when we were aligned “with the dark rift and nuclear bulge of the Milky Way” as Hancock suggests. Nor is the alignment itself unusual. It happens every December.

Figure 12: The wobble of the earth’s axis during a 26,000 year precession cycle is shown by the circle above the Earth. (By NASA, Mysid [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Ignoring such mental gymnastics, the obvious flaw in Hancock’s scenario is the association of a precessional cycle with comet strikes. Precession relates to the “wobble” of the earth on its axis over 26,000 year cycles (see Figure 12). Hancock has surmised that the source of the comet that struck the earth 12,900 years ago came from the Taurid meteor shower. The belt or ring does indeed look like it was formed from the breakup of a large comet (which does not imply that a comet struck the earth 12,900 years ago). The earth passes through the Taurid belt in late October or early November and in June and July of each year, which creates meteor showers. But what does this have to do with the earth’s precession?

The earth wobbling on its axis over 26,000 years does not affect the earth’s orbit, so why would we expect large comet strikes every 12,900 years from the precession of the earth? I asked Hancock this question during our debate and he seemed dumbfounded by its implications. He never answered my question, probably because there is no answer. All I am left with is that Hancock has a wild imagination and romantic longing for a past best described by myth, not science.

About the Author

Dr. Marc J. Defant is a Professor of Geology at the University of South Florida. He specializes in the study of volcanoes—more specifically, the geochemistry of volcanic rocks, the associated processes within the mantle, and the origin of the continental crust. He has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, the American Chemical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences, and has published in many internationally renowned scientific journals including Nature. He has written a book entitled Voyage of Discovery: From the Big Bang to the Ice Age and published several articles for general readership magazines such as Popular Science. He has presented a Tedx talk on “Why We are Alone in the Galaxy” and has written many essays on his blog at www.marcdefant.com

References
  1. Hancock, G., 2015. Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization. St. Martin’s Press.
  2. Hancock, G., 1995. Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization. Three Rivers Press.
  3. “Fingerprints of the Gods,” Wikipedia, http://bit.ly/2b1aSMC
  4. I have no objection to Hancock’s lack of scientific qualifications per se, but his entire book continually refutes evidence from experts in a plethora of fields. Generalists with no qualifications run the risk of ruined reputations by challenging experts who have dedicated their careers to specific fields.
  5. Graham Hancock, Wikipedia, http://bit.ly/2jZbp5P
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  22. Broecker, W., et al., 2010. “Putting the Younger Dryas Cold Event Into Context.” Quaternary Sci. Rev., v. 29, 1078–1081.
  23. Firestone, R. B., et al., 2007. “Evidence for an Extraterrestrial Impact 12,900 Years Ago that Contributed to the Megafaunal Extinctions and the Younger Dryas Cooling.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., v. 104, 16016–16021.
  24. Paquay, F. S., et al. 2009. “Absence of Geochemical Evidence for an Impact Event at the Bølling–Allerød/ Younger Dryas Transition.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., v. 51, 21505–21510.
  25. van Hoesel, A., et al., 2014. “The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis: a Critical Review.” Quaternary Sci. Rev., v. 83, 95–114.
  26. Holliday, V. T., et la., 2014. “The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis: a Cosmic Catastrophe.” J. Quaternary Sci., v. 29, 515–530.
  27. Holliday, V. T., et al., 2014. op cit.
  28. Boslough, M., et al., 2012. “Arguments and Evidence Against a Younger Dryas Impact Event. Climates, Landscapes, and Civilizations. Geophysical Monograph Series 198.” American Geophysical Union, 13–26.
  29. Firestone, R. B., 2009. “The Case for the Younger Dryas Extraterrestrial Impact Event: Mammoth, Megafauna, and Clovis Extinction, 12,900 Years Ago.” J. Cosmology, v. 2, 256–285.
  30. Firestone, R. B., et al., 2007. op cit.
  31. Holliday, V. T., et al., 2014. op cit.
  32. Hancock refers to the Clovis culture as having a “sophisticated weapons technology” which is simply not true.
  33. Holliday, V. T., et al., 2014. op cit.
  34. Broecker, W., et al., 2010. op cit.
  35. Moore, C. R., et al., 2017. “Widespread Platinum Anomaly Documented at the Younger Dryas Onset in North American Sedimentary Sequences.” Nature, http://go.nature.com/2rmbCCs
  36. Waitt, R. B., 2016. “Megafloods and Clovis Cache at Wenatchee.” Quaternary Res., v. 85, 430–444.
  37. Larsen, I. J. and Lamb, M. P., 2016. “Progressive Incision of the Channeled Scablands by Outburst Floods.” Nature, v. 538, 229–232.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for September 27, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/27/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

ABOVE: From the cover of Skeptic magazine 22.3: Lost Civilizations (2017)

In this week’s eSkeptic, Professor of Geology at the University of South Florida, Dr. Marc J. Defant, provides an analysis of the claims made by Graham Hancock in his book Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization.

Conjuring Up a Lost Civilization
An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods

by Marc J. Defant

Graham Hancock’s 2015 book Magicians of the Gods: The Forgotten Wisdom of Earth’s Lost Civilization1 is something of a sequel and update to his 1995 international bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization,2 which was translated into 27 languages and sold more than three million copies.3 In Fingerprints, Hancock uses creation myths in ancient texts and wild geological scenarios to suggest that 12,450 years ago major crustal shifts moved Antarctica to its present location. Portions of a supposedly highly advanced unknown lost civilization (none other than Atlantis) living on Antarctica at the time were able to survive the destructive cataclysms and go on to convey their knowledge to the builders of the megalithic structures of Egypt, Maya, Babylon, and other known great civilizations. He also claims that the Mayan calendar portended world cataclysms in 2012. In Magicians, Hancock now says he got it all wrong—there was no crustal shift; instead he thinks this advanced civilization was destroyed by a comet.

Magicians appears to be on its way to becoming another bestseller for the British writer. Although Hancock has few scientific credentials (an undergraduate degree in sociology from Durham University),4 his early career as a journalist5 helped him navigate through a wide range of scientific research, but without benefit of specialized training in astronomy, geology, history, archaeology, or comparative religion and mythology. Hancock is obviously bright, articulate, and a good writer and storyteller who comes across as eminently reasonable, which makes it all the more difficult to tease apart fact from fiction in the many claims made in his books, documentary films, and lectures.

Göbekli Tepe

Figure 1: Excavators uncover one of many circular enclosures at Göbekli Tepe. Two large T-shaped pillars over 5m (16 feet) high typically stand in the middle of the ring with smaller pillars facing them. Some of these stones are decorated with reliefs of animals that once lived in the area. This area known as Enclosure D features birds, while others emphasize animals such as snakes, foxes, boars, or wildcats.

The centerpiece of Hancock’s Magicians is a remarkable archaeological site called Göbekli Tepe in Turkey dated to 11,600 years ago. He contends Göbekli Tepe is too advanced to have been built by hunter-gatherers alone, and must therefore have been constructed with the help of people from a more advanced civilization. Unfortunately for Hancock these people left behind no hard evidence for their existence, so he is forced to allude to what he thinks is sophisticated architecture, along with a few carved figures that he asserts represent astronomical constellations. From these speculations Hancock concludes: “At the very least it [Göbekli Tepe] would mean that some as yet unknown and unidentified people somewhere in the world had already mastered all the arts and attributes of a high civilization more than twelve thousand years ago in the depths of the last Ice Age and sent out emissaries around the world to spread the benefits of their knowledge.”

It’s a romantic notion, but not the conclusion that the late great German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt came to after excavating Göbekli Tepe for more than two decades beginning in 1994. The site, he says, was used from 11,600 to about 10,000 years before the present. Lower sections were backfilled giving way to new structures on top. The fill is refuse containing sediment, hundreds of thousands of broken animal bones, flint tools for carving the structures within the site and for hunting game, and the remains of cereals and other plant material, and even a few human bones. There is no evidence that the site was ever used as a residence, and the megaliths found there (Schmidt called them “monumental religious architecture”) along with carvings and totems, imply ritual and feasting. […]

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SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

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Skeptoid #590: Skepticism vs Cynicism

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 09/25/2017 - 5:00pm
The line between skepticism and cynicism is a bit too blurry for many people. Today we bring it into focus.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for September 20, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/20/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

WHAT IS PATREON? A New Way to Support the Things Skeptic Creates

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Patronage, of course, is a really old idea. If it weren’t for patrons, we might not have had Mozart, Shakespeare, or Leonardo da Vinci. They all had patrons!

Patrons set a monthly subscription-style payment for the level of support they want to give. This creates a sustainable income, allowing us to create, without worrying about how we will fund our projects. Patreon explains in this short video:

Check Out Our New Patreon Page and learn more about this new way to donate to Skeptic by watching our introductory video below. Your patronage will certainly be rewarded, and your pledges are tax-deducible! Patreon automatically emails a receipt for your monthly pledges, once each month.

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In conjunction with our 25th anniversary milestone that we are celebrating, we would also like to share with you this recent profile of Michael Shermer featured in the Wall Street Journal, published on September 1, 2017, written by Alexandra Wolfe, republished here with permission.

MICHAEL SHERMER’S SKEPTICAL EYE

The founder of the Skeptics Society has devoted his career to questioning orthodoxies, from religious belief and self-help movements to the anti-scientific claims of left and right

Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society, points to a single event in the late 1970s as his breaking point with the Christianity of his youth. The “final straw,” as he calls it, was finding himself at the hospital bedside of his college girlfriend, who had been a passenger in a van that rolled off the side of a hill, breaking her back and leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. He prayed fervently for her recovery, to no avail. “If anyone deserved to be healed it was her, and nothing happened, so I just thought there was probably no God at all,” he recalls.

His career over the past several decades has involved insistent questioning not just of religious belief but of other sorts of orthodoxy, in pop culture, self-help, science and politics. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Skeptics Society, which is now a 50,000-member group dedicated to “promoting critical thinking and lifelong inquisitiveness.”

In his longstanding monthly column for Scientific American, Dr. Shermer, 62, has turned a critical eye on antivaccination advocates, the campus craze for condemning “micro-aggressions” and disinviting controversial speakers, and the movement to ban genetically modified crops. He has come out against both climate-change alarmists and deniers. (He tends to side with commentators such as Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg, who agree that humans are changing Earth’s climate but argue that the consequences may not be as dire as doomsayers think.) In his columns and books, he has debunked everything from UFOs and claims of alien abduction to conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks.

A convert to evangelical Christianity as a high-school student in La Cañada, Calif., he went to Pepperdine University intending to become a theologian. But after taking classes in science and philosophy, he decided to study psychology instead. He later earned a Ph.D. in the history of science at Claremont Graduate University.

Unable to find a job as a professor, he went to work at a cycling magazine in Irvine, Calif. He became so interested in the sport that he started cycling hundreds of miles a week and racing long distances, with the support of corporate sponsors. In 1982, he co-founded the 3,000-mile Race Across America, which bills itself as “the world’s toughest bicycle race.”

At night, Dr. Shermer taught at Glendale Community College. He is now a presidential fellow at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he offers a course called “Skepticism 101.” The school is about 2½ hours from Santa Barbara, where he lives with his wife.

Dr. Shermer started the Skeptics Society in 1992 out of his garage. For the past 25 years, he has also edited and published Skeptic magazine, which he says tackles issues scientifically, questioning hypotheses and weighing research and data. “The principle is to start off skeptical and be open-minded enough to change your mind if the evidence is overwhelming, but the burden of proof is on the person making the claim,” he says. “I would change my mind about Bigfoot if you showed me an actual body, not a guy in an ape suit in a blurry photograph.”

Dr. Shermer is the author of more than a dozen books, including Why People Believe Weird Things (1997), whose targets included creationists, Holocaust deniers and believers in ESP, and The Moral Arc (2015), which argued that reason and science have made the world progressively more just.

His new book Heavens on Earth comes out in January. In it, he casts a critical eye on many religious visions of the afterlife and on the high-tech quest to evade death through such methods as deep-freezing (cryonics) or uploading memories into the cloud. “There’s no assurance that by copying every last thing in your brain, you’re going to wake up and say, ‘Here I am!’ ” he says. “You wouldn’t wake up inside the computer—you’d just be dead.”

President Donald Trump may often dismiss “fake news,” but Dr. Shermer warns against shrugging off evidence. Still, he says, “Everyone does it to a certain extent…It’s a little more heightened now because the internet is so fast to respond in real time.” Politicians have always ignored data, he says, though Mr. Trump “seems to be more bold about it than others, and that inspires others to do the same.”

Recently, Dr. Shermer has denounced both the alt-right and “the regressive left.” After the violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, he warned against what he calls “this whole ‘punch a Nazi’ thing,” including the actions of the controversial far-left movement known as antifa. “This is why the antifa movement is just as bad as the white supremacist movement,” he says. “They both feel they have a moral cause that’s worth dying for and worth killing for.”

In the decades ahead, Dr. Shermer expects to see more people adhering to secular philosophies and Eastern religions with stronger links to science: Meditation, he says, can clearly improve health and well-being.

He is less enthusiastic about the rise of some New Age philosophies, which he says can contain troubling quasi-religious urges toward utopianism. “There is no one answer to what makes a perfect society,” he says, and the attempt to create an earthly paradise can turn murderous, as it did at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978: “Someone is in your way, preventing you from achieving eternal happiness, and they have to be dispensed with.”

Dr. Shermer considers organized self-help movements misguided because they tend to encourage people to chase after money and a simple ideal of happiness, rather than to find satisfaction in a purposeful life.

“Most of what we do doesn’t make us happy, it makes us more fulfilled as a person,” he says. His morning bike ride, for example, wasn’t fun, he says. “It’s a suffer-fest,” he says. “It’s 90 degrees out, my lungs are screaming and my legs are screaming, but I feel better after.”

SCIENCE SALON # 15: OCTOBER 15, 2017 Donald Prothero & Timothy Callahan—UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says

UFOs. Aliens. Strange crop circles. Giant figures scratched in the desert surface along the coast of Peru. The amazing alignment of the pyramids. Strange lines of clouds in the sky. The paranormal is alive and well in the American cultural landscape. In UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens, Don Prothero and Tim Callahan explore why such demonstrably false beliefs thrive despite decades of education and scientific debunking.

Employing the ground rules of science and the standards of scientific evidence, Prothero and Callahan discuss a wide range of topics including the reliability of eyewitness testimony, psychological research into why people want to believe in aliens and UFOs, and the role conspiratorial thinking plays in UFO culture. They examine a variety of UFO sightings and describe the standards of evidence used to determine whether UFOs are actual alien spacecraft.

Finally, they consider our views of aliens and the strong cultural signals that provide the shapes and behaviors of these beings. While their approach is firmly based in science, Prothero and Callahan also share their personal experiences of Area 51, Roswell, and other legendary sites, creating a narrative that is sure to engross both skeptics and believers.

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Reserve your seat(s) online or by calling 1-626-794-3119. Online reservation closes Sunday October 15, 2017 at 11am PDT.

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2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 Join us for a 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

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Skeptoid #589: The Big Pharma Conspiracy

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 09/18/2017 - 5:00pm
Popular claims of a Big Pharma Conspiracy don't stand up to any rational scrutiny.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Dr. Nancy Segal — Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins

Skeptic.com feed - Sun, 09/17/2017 - 2:00pm

Dr. Nancy Segal, the world’s leading expert on twins, has a new book that sheds light on over 70 commonly held ideas and beliefs about the origins and development of identical and fraternal twins. Using the latest scientific findings from psychology, psychiatry, biology, and education, Dr. Segal separates fact from fiction. Each idea about twins is described, followed by both a short answer about the truth, and then a longer, more detailed explanation. Coverage includes embryology of twins, twin types, intellectual growth, personality traits, sexual orientation of twins, marital relationships, epigenetic analyses, the frequency of different twin types and the varieties of polar body twin pairs. This book, and Salon with Dr. Segal, will inform and entertain behavioral and life science researchers, health professionals, twins, parents of twins, and anyone interested in the fascinating topic of twins and what they can teach us about human nature.

Dr. Segal earned her Ph.D. in the Social Sciences and Behavioral Sciences from the University of Chicago. From 1982-1991 she was a post-doctoral fellow and research associate at the University of Minnesota, affiliated with the well-known Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. She is currently Professor of Psychology at CSU Fullerton and Director of the Twin Studies Center, which she founded in 1991. Dr. Segal has authored over 200 scientific articles and book chapters, as well as several books on twins. Her previous book, Born Together-Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (2012, Harvard University Press) won the 2013 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association. Her other books include Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth (2011), Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins (2007) and Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (2000). She is the 2016 recipient of the Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University administrators and trustees for “exemplary contributions and achievement.” She was recognized as CSUF’s Outstanding Professor of the Year in 2005 and as the Distinguished Faculty Member in Humanities and Social Sciences in 2007 and 2014. She has been a frequent guest on national and international television and radio programs, including the Martha Stewart Show, Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show and The Forum (BBC). Dr. Segal has variously served as a consultant and expert witness for the media, the law and the arts.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for September 13, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/13/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

WATCH THE LIVE STREAM THIS SUNDAY Dr. Nancy Segal — Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins

Reserve your seat(s) online or by calling 1-626-794-3119. Online reservation closes Sunday September 17, 2017 at 11am PDT.

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SKEPTIC MAGAZINE 22.3 Evaluate the Evidence for a Mysterious & Advanced Lost Civilization

Skeptic 22.3: Lost Civilizations
on sale now in print & digitally

In the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (22.3): Debating Science and Lost Civilizations: Michael Shermer on the Joe Rogan Experience; Conjuring Up a Lost Civilization: an Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods; Lost Civilizations and Imaginative Conjectures; The Real Origin of UFOs and Aliens: How the Media Shaped Our Ideas About Extraterrestrials; Publicly Funded Stem Cell Research: California’s $3-Billion Experiment in Public Science; Science, Facts, and “Provisional” Knowledge; Juicing for Health or Torture; Our Angry Era; Zombies: The Gruesome True Story of Zombies…

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JUNIOR SKEPTIC # 64 Zombies: The Gruesome True Story

Get this issue of Junior Skeptic bound within issue 22.3 of Skeptic

Physically bound inside each and every issue of Skeptic magazine is Junior Skeptic: an engagingly illustrated science and critical thinking publication for younger readers (and the young at heart).

Our world has been conquered by hordes of zombies! They menace us in video games, comics, television, and movies. They lurch gruesomely down city streets in “zombie walk” events. After decades of zombie fiction, the walking dead are more popular than ever. Mindless, moaning, hungry for human flesh, zombies may be the ultimate modern monsters. They’ve spread like a virus through tales of terror and horrified imaginings. But where did the idea come from? Were zombies invented for fiction, or do they have a basis in legend—or perhaps even in reality? Could anything like fictional movie zombies actually exist in the real world?

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Junior Skeptic # 64

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2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 Join us for a 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

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ABOVE: UC Berkeley, Sproul Hall Plaza, October 1 1964. Free Speech Movement advocates, including Mario Savio in this instance, speak from the roof of a police car. They remove their shoes before climbing on the car, in order to do no damage. In the back seat of the car sits an FSM leader whom the police have arrested.

Is Antifa an enemy of free speech? In this week’s eSkeptic, Raymond Barglow discusses the recent violent demonstrations in Berkeley, which purported to “fight fascism,” while fueling it instead.

Radically Wrong in Berkeley

by Raymond Barglow

Berkeley California is famous for its history of political protest. In 1949, faculty and students at the University of California opposed an anti-Communist loyalty oath imposed by the Board of Regents. In 1964, Berkeley was home to the Free Speech Movement and subsequently to resistance against the war in Vietnam. These political efforts were all peaceful — very deliberately so. In the early 1960s, some Berkeley activists had traveled to Mississippi and other Southern states to give support to the Civil Rights Movement, and they returned as advocates of Martin Luther King’s politics of nonviolence.

Although wide differences remain, it clearly is possible for us to reach through to one another, not with a fist but with an open hand.

During the Free Speech Movement (FSM), the protesting students made a point of allowing the speech of those who disagreed with them. They held that even speech deemed repellent should be countered not by disallowing that speech but by meeting it verbally with a different point of view. “Freedom of speech,” said FSM leader Mario Savio, “is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. … That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars…. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.” This high-minded ideal has not weathered well in Berkeley in recent years. In 2017, this town, former champion of free speech, has become known instead as its enemy: those who gather here in Berkeley to express their support for right-wing causes cannot anticipate that their meetings and rallies will be allowed. Committed to shutting down such events are several small but very militant left groups: “black bloc” and “Antifa,” both of which originated in Western Europe in the 1980s, and “By Any Means Necessary,” a revolutionary organization that was founded in the United States in 1995.

UC Berkeley, Sproul Hall Plaza, February 1 2017. Protesters light a bonfire, assault police, break windows, and prevent right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. A few demonstrators then march downtown, setting more fires and damaging property.

On February 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing media star, was prevented from speaking in Berkeley by violent activists belonging to these groups and intent on, in their terms, “stopping Fascist speech.” On the day of Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin tweeted: “Using speech to silence marginalized communities and promote bigotry is unacceptable. Hate speech isn’t welcome in our community.” A few hours later he qualified that statement in another tweet, “Violence and destruction is not the answer,” but that scarcely corrected the first impression conveyed to the world: across the political spectrum, the mass media condemned the “bigotry” and “hypocrisy” of Berkeley’s far left. An article in the liberal-leaning Huffington Post pointed out that Berkeley had gifted a propaganda victory to the right:

The violence at the UC Berkeley campus Wednesday night which cancelled the speech of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos is such a debacle for the national opposition to Trump that it almost defies belief…. At exactly this moment, because of what happened at Berkeley, the Trump regime gets to present itself as the guardian of free speech in America. […]

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