Robert Todd Carroll
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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Issue # 7
July 26, 2002
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(Past issues posted at http://skepdic.com/news/)
Since the last newsletter:
Thanks to David Martin, Joe Littrell, Tim Boettcher, Captain Jim, and others for keeping me informed.
Since the movie Signs opens in theaters soon, I thought I'd share some comments from two English hoaxers. (For those who don't know, Signs is a horror movie featuring crop circles, aliens, and UFOs--Hollywood style.) One of the hoaxers claims to be the first person arrested for making unauthorized crop circles. He also claims that those "who observe crop circles have had paranormal experiences and UFO encounters," and he thinks these experiences are "directly related to the presence of the crop circles." He says he understands why "croppies" have weird experiences: They are suggestible and open to the experiences. (A croppy is one who does serious research on the origins of circles, e.g., Colin Andrews, who served as an advisor for Signs.) But why would a hoaxer start having such experiences? (Maybe because they're suggestible and open to the experience, or maybe they're being hoaxed by metahoaxers!)
The other hoaxer, a man from Wessex, responded to my question: Do you create these circles mainly for the aesthetics of the finished product, the pleasure of making fools of arrogant pedants, or for some other reason?
I expect to see more circles in response to Signs.
If you have an extra $1,000 lying around, why not take a 10-week course in Inner Feng Shui at the Zab Sang Institute in Miami? This is not a course in soul decorating, but in how to control the flow of "Chi" through the acupuncture meridians and in how to unlock the power and healing wisdom of your body.
It looks like a go for The Amazing Meeting at the James Randi Educational Foundation conference next January 31-February 2. I'll be presenting along with Michael Shermer, ex-Scientologist Dan Garvin, magician Jerry Andrus, stargazer Jack Horkheimer, and astronomer Phil Plaitt. Details to follow in some future newsletter.
First, another correction (of Newsletter 5): Diane Swanson wrote to tell me that she didn't invent rumpology and she didn't use the term 'zitology' (her term was facetrology). "Sad to say," she wrote, "they are both 'out there,' each with its own practitioners." She just uses them as examples of silliness. Facetrology was a farce invented by the folks at the Weekly World News.
Marvin Minsky - Keynote Address
I was really looking forward to hearing Marvin Minsky, co-founder of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab and one of the stellar faculty at the renowned MIT Media Lab, but the time spent listening to him ramble about this and that was quite disappointing. He did tell us that he likes Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Star," and that he hates sports and doesn't like the history of science very much. Yet, he seemed fond of the Baldwin effect, and I understood him to be saying that it is an older version of the theory of memes, and that it might help explain why people get infected with such things as religious faith and sports enthusiasm.
He struggled with the audiovisual equipment, as did most presenters, but when he finally managed to get his laptop to project to the overhead, all we saw were his notes on this and that. He's working on a book called The Emotion Machine. The first six chapters are on-line. His presentation seemed to be trying to relate this ongoing work to the theme of the silliness of religion. He said religious people only want to live 80 years or so because otherwise they'd get bored; whereas, scientists want to live for hundreds of years because they have so many problems to solve. Mercifully, Paul Kurtz declared the session over at 9:20 p.m., 40 minutes before the scheduled end.
Urban Legends (ULs)
This session featured the legendary Jan Brunvand who spoke on the vanishing urban legend. Urban legends (ULs) are a type of folk tale and depend upon storytelling in the oral tradition. They provide an insight into cultural fears, hopes, desires, etc. One of the common elements of ULs is the storyteller's insistence on the truth of the story that came from a "friend of a friend" (FOAF).
Brunvald believes that one thing that is leading to the vanishing urban legend is commercialization. More and more books are being published that are simply recycling old material and repeating (plagiarizing?) the work of folklorists for mass market publications. He thinks that the Internet has also hastened the end of the UL and has created a need for a different kind of tracker. Folklorists aren't needed to track stories on the Internet. What's needed are people willing to track down rumors, myths, disinformation, hoaxes, misunderstandings, and outright lies. Fortunately, Barbara and David Mikkelson have stepped up to do just that with their Urban Legends Reference Pages at snopes.com.
The Mikkelsons gave a presentation that included a discussion of the types of rumors they had to contend with after 9/11. Some of the rumors involved explanations (in terms of Nostradamus, Satan, God, Israel, the Muslim world). Some involved wonder. (How could all these co-incidences occur? Did you hear about the man who surfed the air from the 81st floor and survived? Did you hear about the book that wasn't burned? Rumor had it to be the Bible, but it was actually a dictionary.) The third type of rumor involved calls to action. (Light a candle for a satellite picture. Boycott this or that place that's owned by terrorists. Steam iron your mail or use garlic or oregano to avoid anthrax contamination.) Several sites sprang up after 9/11 to provide a similar kind of rumor watch. I list eight of them on my Frauds and Hoaxes page. (To get an idea of what kind of effect 9/11 had, take a look at this graphic of SkepDic.com hits per week over the past three years. Most of the hits on the giant spike after 9/11 were on the Nostradamus page.)
By the way, my page on suburban myths is not a page on urban legends. Suburban myths don't reveal anything interesting about our cultural fears, hopes, desires, etc. They are simply falsehoods or misunderstandings that have found their way into textbooks, journalist's stories, public opinion, etc. They have nothing in common with storytelling and rather than being attributed to a FOAF, they're often attributed to unnamed studies and authoritative sources.
Dr. Timothy Tangherlini spoke of aliens, ghosts, and ethnic others. He noted that many urban legends involve stories of threats to somebody in one culture helping out someone in another culture and then being given help in return, e.g., the alleged woman who helped a Muslim and then was warned to stay away from the shopping mall on Halloween. According to Tangherlini, this type of UL goes back at least as far the Black Death that wiped out about a third of Europe's population in the 14th century.
This session featured Joe Nickell (curator of the Skeptiseum), Jan Willem Nienhuys, and Richard Wiseman. Massimo Polidoro (the Italian Houdini) was scheduled to speak, but was unable to attend. After some introductory comments by Joe Nickell, Wiseman opened the session with several magic tricks from the mentalist's bag. Not only did this relax the audience and get them laughing, it provided us with some evidence as to how easy it is to deceive and be deceived.
Wiseman heads the Perrott-Warrick Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire, where he does investigations into the paranormal. He discussed his testing of Jaytee, the allegedly psychic dog (see Mass Media Funk 4), the search for ghosts at Hampton Court Palace and in the Edinburgh underground vaults, and a firewalk for some New Agers who believed they could use their minds to create a shield that would protect them from burning coals. Wiseman showed a video clip of the firewalk. The power of positive thinking was demonstrated as each of the New Age firewalkers had to be treated for second-degree burns. None came close to covering the entire 60-foot long trail of coals from which the ash had been removed. The naysaying skeptics were proved right once again.
Wiseman gets a lot of media coverage from the BBC and others when he investigates alleged paranormal happenings. CSICOP's new Media Center would do well to imitate Wiseman and use its Center for Inquiry - West facility to support such investigations. They're entertaining and engage the general public's interest. For example, the Hampton Court Palace near London has supposedly been haunted since the 16th century by the spirit of Catherine Howard, one of Henry VIII's unfortunate wives who was beheaded. Wiseman set up thermal cameras and air movement detectors in the gallery where ghost sightings have been reported. He quizzed hundreds of palace visitors on whether they could feel a "presence" in the gallery. More than half reported feeling a sudden drop in temperature while in the gallery. Wiseman then mapped out where in the gallery the visitors felt the drop in temperature and discovered that most of the visitors identified the same area of the gallery. Further investigation showed that the visitors were not imagining things. They were feeling draughts from some of the many concealed doors in the gallery. "If you suddenly feel cold, and you're in a haunted place, that might bring on a sense of fear and a more scary experience," said Wiseman. His thermal cameras did pick up a ghostly appearance during the middle of the night that turned out to be the janitor coming to clean the floor.
Wiseman's investigation (along with nine other investigators and more than two hundred citizens) of the haunted vaults of Edinburgh is described in detail by Stephen Wagner, so I won't repeat it here. I will mention that it got Wiseman into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s most scientific study into alleged ghostly activity. Wiseman has since joined forces with video games researcher Jonathan Sykes and together they created a virtual reality program of the haunted vaults of Edinburgh. Instead of using thermal imagers, geomagnetic sensors, temperature probes, and night vision equipment, the virtual reality experiment uses a computer headset. (As far as I can tell, Dr. Wiseman does not use the Trifield Natural EM Meter, a device favored by some ghost hunters.) The investigators have complete control over the virtual environment and can alter the appearance of any room. They can change light levels, add staircases or doors, and put in objects at will. Wiseman wants to find out if there are links between certain visual situations and the feeling of being scared. Wiseman says that he's already getting some interesting results. People are seeing ghosts in some of the virtual rooms and even feeling their presence in the room where they're wearing the head set.
Jan Willem Nienhuys is the author of an encyclopedia of pseudoscience in Dutch (along with M. Hulspas) titled Tussen Waarheid & Waanzin (Between Madness and Truth). He has written to the Skeptic's Dictionary several times to comment on various entries. I mention this because the focus of his talk was on international cooperation involved in many investigations of the paranormal and pseudoscientific. He told several stories about how people in other countries would dig up documents for him, making it possible for him to do his research without having to win the lottery to fund his investigations. For example, he investigated the alleged spontaneous combustion of Phyllis Newcombe and wrote an article on his findings for the Skeptical Inquirer "Spontaneous Human Confabulation: Requiem for Phyllis." Nienhuys emphasized that he would not have been able to do the investigation without the help of many strangers willing to go to libraries and find newspaper clippings from many years ago, etc. Listening to Jan talk of international cooperation just brought home more poignantly the absence of Michael Shermer and the Skeptics Society from this international conference held only a few miles from the Skeptics Society's headquarters.
Joe Nickell talked a bit about some of his heroes, like Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent hounded by J. Edgar Hoover because he was getting too much publicity. But Nickell will probably be remembered most from this conference for his calling for a kinder, gentler skepticism. He reminded us that not all true believers are nutters (not his word), and even the nutters are human beings who deserve to be treated with some respect.
He contrasted the investigator with the "debunker." His notion of the debunker, however, is not simply one who exposes falsity, quackery, ineptitude, self-deception, etc. Nickell thinks of the debunker as one who thinks investigations are a waste of time because they can't possibly discover anything paranormal or miraculous. In other words, for Nickell the debunker is the flip side of the true believer. Debunkers look for evidence to support their preconceived conclusions. Investigators, on the other hand, use scientific methods to produce evidence from which reasonable conclusions can be drawn. An investigation may be inconclusive, but the investigator does not prejudge the issue. No matter how many times one has looked for a ghost and not found a ghost, the investigator will not assume that the next ghost search can't possibly turn up a real ghost. I understood Nickell to say that the investigator treats his subjects with respect, while the debunker assumes true believers are mistaken, naive, liars, stupid, or deranged.
There is something attractive about Nickell's division of labor, but I think it is a false dilemma to divide up skeptics into just these two camps. Clearly, since I'm not an investigator and I'm a skeptic, that makes me a debunker. Yet, I find myself using the work of the investigators to do much of my debunking. I think everybody--skeptic and true believer alike--looks for evidence to support preconceived opinions, but this psychological fact is irrelevant to whether the evidence one finds and puts forth truly supports one's beliefs. The arguments have to stand or fall by the evidence, not by what motivated the search. I also believe that one must have a realistic theory of human nature if one is to be a good skeptical investigator or debunker. Human beings often lie, are self-deceived, believe what they want to believe, are not careful observers, and are subject to confirmation bias and other hindrances to critical thinking. They often commit fraud and other serious crimes against their fellow citizens. They're selfish and self-interested, biased and ignorant of many, many things that lead them to error. And some are deluded. No good investigator should forget these things.
Furthermore, there are some things no reasonable investigator would study. For example, if a man claimed he had the power to control electricity so that no amount could harm him, a reasonable investigator would tell him to see a doctor. If you strapped the subject into an electric chair and gave him the full juice just to test his powers, you would be criminally charged. Also, it is impossible to test every paranormal, occult, or supernatural claim that is made. But if you can't generalize at all from the tests that have been done, then why bother doing the tests? If five hundred investigations of ghosts have turned up no ghosts, doesn't that give us reason to believe that the probability that the next investigation will turn up no ghost is greater than the probability that the next case will be different? Sure, there is always the possibility that the next case will be different. But reasonable people base their decisions on probabilities, not possibilities. If the man you are considering marrying has a history of cruelty and abusiveness, should you marry him since it is possible he might change? If over one hundred years of investigation into ESP has not turned up a single repeatable and indisputable case of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, remote viewing or clairaudience, should we continue to investigate because it is possible something will turn up in the future? I think we continue to investigate these things either because we want them to be true or because we know many people believe in them despite the lack of credible evidence for them, and we hope such people might change their minds if we provide more evidence.
I agree that we must be open-minded, i.e., open to the possibility of something paranormal or supernatural occurring, but this does not obligate us to investigate every paranormal or miraculous claim. Once we have studied the works of the investigators like Joe Nickell, Richard Wiseman, and Jan Nienhuys, it is difficult not to be skeptical of the next claim for a weeping icon or a clairvoyant cat or a spontaneously ignited ballroom dancer. I suppose there will always be this division of labor between those skeptics who ask "Why do people believe whoppers?" and those who investigate the whoppers on the off chance that they might contain some truth. I can't speak for all debunkers, but I for one do not think that the work of the investigators is a waste of time. Without their work, I wouldn't have much evidence to support my debunkings. I provide references to their work for most entries in the SD and consider their work essential to mine.
The Awards Banquet
Several high school students were given awards for essays, and two were present at the banquet. Courtney Veriable won 1st Place for her essay on "The Power of Suggestion" and Kristen Haigh won 2nd Place for her essay on "Memories: Fact or Fiction." Congratulations Courtney and Kristen.
Another award went to Dr. Marcia Angell, senior lecturer in the department of social medicine at the Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. She is also the author of Science on Trial - The Clash of Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast Implant Case. I think her award was for her work as a skeptical investigator. Unfortunately, I didn't hear her talk during the Medical Claims session (I was at the concurrent Urban Legends session), but a reliable source told me she was brilliant.
Gabe Kaplan closed the conference with a stand up comic routine. Remember "Welcome Back Kotter"? It was a big hit for five years in the late seventies. Then, for twenty years Gabe Kaplan did something else. I don't know what he did. I heard he played the stock market and that he played poker. Anyway, he's back doing comedy and is a very funny man.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI)
Also on the dais for the awards banquet was James Underdown, director of the Center For Inquiry - West (CFI), which features a National Media Center located in Hollywood. The CFI goal is "To promote and defend reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor."
I wish them well with this project and hope that if they try to produce media to compete with Hollywood, they will perfect the use of the audiovisual equipment most presenters had to struggle with at this conference. I know there is no relationship between the quality of the AV equipment at this conference and the kind of quality we can expect from the CFI - West, but when a group of skeptics were blasted out of the room by a video presentation on the new Media Center at CFI - West, it didn't go over too well.
A reader of the last newsletter wrote:
Reply: One of the meanings of empirical is "originating in or based on observation or experience." Another meaning is "capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment." Our perception and knowledge of the sun is based on observation, so any statement about the sun has some empirical content, but not every statement with the word sun in it is an empirical statement in the sense that the statement can be verified or disproved by observation or experiment. Not only is the above statement not an empirical statement, but neither is this one: "The sun is the luminous celestial body around which the earth and other planets revolve, from which they receive heat and light, etc." Definitions may have nothing but empirical content, but they are not verified or disproved by observation or experiment. They are verified or disproved by appealing to accepted usage of terms. Anyone who tried to determine the truth of the statement "A bachelor is an unmarried male" by surveying males would be one edge shy of a dull blade (apologies to Nanci Griffith).