Hang a leftie


In my early teens at church, some older youth were talking about a tabloid article which purported that all lefthanders were from outer space. This led the preacher’s southpaw son to say into the fountain pen he was holding, “They’ve discovered us, Master.”

Funny as that impromptu line was, it obscured the fact that being a lefthander in church just a few hundred years before that would have been no laughing matter. Just how long the church considers something evil will vary by sin. Gays and evolution have sat near the top of this Luciferian list for more than a century. Meanwhile, excoriations of Catholics and dancing have moved to the fringe of Christianity. And congregations who consider mixed fabrics and lefties to be Satanic spawn are virtually extinct.

While southpaws were traditionally reviled in most societies, there have been exceptions. Ancient Andeans thought lefthanders were bestowed with magical and healing properties. Also offering left-handed compliments were Greeks and Celts, the latter associating them with femininity and, therefore, the continuation of life. Jews and Christians likewise tied left-handedness to womanhood, but given the misogyny prevalent in those religions, adherents considered this a detrimental trait. Believers viewed lefties like they did their womenfolk: Inferior, weak, and destined for subservience.

In the book of Matthew, souls gather at check-in to see where their eternal reservations have been made and are told, “He shall say unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” While the malefactors are tossed into a burning lake, Jesus sits at God’s right hand. With these images in mind, more than a few left hands were bruised by a nun’s ruler and it was common fairly deep into the 20th Century for schools to forcibly retrain lefthanders to use the correct side.

Christianity claimed no monopoly on this southpaw shaming. Even today, many Muslims and Hindus use their right hand for honorable tasks such as greeting friends, signing contracts, and accepting gifts. Meanwhile, the lowly left is reserved for actions considered unclean. These habits grew from sanitation issues. Since the right served as the dominant hand for 90 percent of the population, persons used it when eating, handling food, and interacting with others. The left hand, meanwhile, was used for hygienic activities. These customs were uniform with no consideration of an individual’s dominant hand so the left came to be considered unclean.

And these were minor annoyances compared to how other cultures dealt with left-handedness. Some 19th Century Zulu tribes scalded youngsters’ left hands so they would no longer be of use.  Perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials went one worse, sometimes executing persons for using the wrong hand.

Tired of religion having all the fun out in left field, pseudoscientists got in on the act. Downplaying the morally degenerate angle, they instead considered lefties to be a biological mistake. In the early 1900s, criminologist pioneer Cesare Lombroso offered precisely that take with writings that would make a Klansman proud. Switching the blame from Beelzebub to the brain, Lombroso insisted that “as man advances in civilization and culture, he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to…women and savage races.” Lombroso further associated left-handedness with the primitive and the barbaric, while considering right-handers to be civilized and peaceful.

Around the same time, a McClure’s article informed readers than southpaws were “more common among the lower strata, negroes, and savages.” If desiring a viewpoint even more, um, right wing, consider what Austrian physician and psychologist Wilhelm Stekel wrote in 1911: “The right-hand path always signifies the way to righteousness, the left-hand the path to crime. Thus the left may signify homosexuality, incest, and perversion, while the right signifies marriage.”

This bigotry faded over the next few decades, though it lingered in some quarters. In the 1970s, psychologist Theodore Blau was still calling left-handed children sinister, academically suspect, and prone to mental illness. And just three years ago, an Oklahoma preschool teacher forced a 4-year old southpaw to use his right hand. When pressed for an explanation, the teacher referenced a publication that branded lefthanders evil, unlucky, and sinister. She also made note of Satan’s supposed southpaw status.

One of the few nuggets of accuracy in all this is that nine out of 10 humans are left-handed. And this biological determination runs very deep. In a Discover article, retired University of Kansas anthropologist David Frayer discussed how he deduced that 1.8 million years ago, Neanderthals had the same 9-to-1 preference.

He observed a series of ridges on the outer surfaces of Neanderthals’ upper front teeth. As to how this indicated hand preference, the article explained: “One direction of diagonal marks, either from upper right to lower left or upper left to lower right, would dominate. Individuals working with tough, fibrous material could have held it between their teeth and one hand, then used an edged stone tool to saw off a small piece with the other hand.” These observations showed the 9-to-1 ratio.  

As to why it was happening even way back then, one theory holds that the brain’s hemispheres split tasks for purposes of efficiency and this division of labor included favoring the right hand for most manual activities. That would explain why most persons are right-handed, but what answer is there for the relative few who become lefties?

Neuropsychologist Chris McManus theorizes that lefties result from a mutation that began occurring around 60,000 years ago. This mutation does not precisely mandate left-handedness, but it cancels the bias for the right and gives those who inherit it a 50-50 chance of being left-handed. That clears up how a set of identical twins can include a righty and a lefty. And what McManus and Frayer have discovered likely explains why lefties are among us without needing to resort to demons, defects, or alien preacher children.



“Inheritance facts” (Heritability)


There is a minor Internet presence who calls himself the Libertarian Realist, though given his endorsement of the Confederacy and fluoridation conspiracy theories, I doubt he’s either.

And as a long-time libertarian and skeptic, I find libertarian conspiracy theorists to be the planet’s most baffling creatures. They think a government too incompetent to build roads, run schools, or implement a sensible welfare program will simultaneously master geoengineering, the AIDS crisis, and false flag shootings.

With this guy, however, conspiracy theories are only a tiny fraction of his work. He focuses mostly on race and fixates on the idea that those of his color (excluding Jews) are more intelligent and fit than all other skin tones, especially blacks.

He arrived at these conclusions mostly by misunderstanding, or choosing to ignore, how heritability works. Eminent skeptic Emil Karlsson explained that heritability estimates the amount of variation in a given trait within a population that cannot be explained by environment or random chance. Further, it is unrelated to genetic differences between populations, much as the Libertarian Realist wishes that it were.

Science blogger Gerhard Adam provided a concise description when he wrote,  “Heritability addresses the relationship between nature (genetics) and nurture (environment), so that as each changes, the variation between individuals within a population can be estimated based on these influences. In this context, environment refers to everything external to the genome that could affect expression.” 

Race pseudoscientists like the Libertarian Realist make three key errors with regard to heritability. First, they mistakenly think heritability is a measure of how genetic a trait is. They think genes are nearly the sole factor for determining traits and consider the environment much less relevant. This is mistaken since heritability is about how much variation in a trait can be explained by genetic differences.

Consider the heritability of height for North Koreans. In that country, it will mostly be determined by whether the person is in the ruling elite or is among the serfs. The vast differences in nutrition and health care between those two groups will be the primary factor. By contrast, height differences among Swedes, with their egalitarian access to healthy food and medicine, will mostly be due to genetics.

Another example. Karlsson wrote that in the mid-19th century, U.S.-born males were 3.5 inches taller on average than Dutch men. But by 2000, Dutch males were two inches taller on average than their American counterparts. According to the Libertarian Realist’s thinking, neither population should have a height advantage since the majority in both groups were white men. But changes did occur, and the tendency of U.S. men to be taller than the Dutch and the reversal of this trend would best be explained by changes in environments for both groups.

This leads into racists’ second error, that heritability explains the differences between biological populations. But heritability refers to what proportion of variation in a trait can be explained by genetic variation within a specific population and in a specific environment. It is not a measure of how genetic a trait is. Racists rely on heritability estimates to insist that IQ and other factors are immutable, but heritability also depends on environment. And more than 90 percent of genetic variation occurs within groups and genetic diversity is seen more in clines than in socially-constructed racial categories.

Finally, racists assert that heritability renders useless any attempt to alter traits by managing environmental factors. They say any change to education, income, food, medicine, and housing will not impact the person’s traits, which they maintain are fixed at birth owing to genetics. But as Angelina Jolie’s adopted children and multiple studies can attest, persons going from destitute circumstances to affluent ones will see multitudinous benefits beyond wealth.


“Ambulance deriver” (Essential oils in emergency care)


I have regularly decried the use of unproven medical treatments, especially by institutions that should know better. But as disturbing as the likes of hospital Reiki are, there is some solace in their being kept in the wing for Supplementary, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine (SCAM). As far as I know, there is no ER that will treat a ruptured kidney or compound fracture with applied kinesiology or therapeutic touch. But we are now one step closer to those nightmares with the introduction of essential oils in ambulances.

The guilty party is Tri-State Ambulance of La Crosse, Wis., which uses the lubricants to try and treat minor pain, nausea, and anxiety. Skeptic leader Dr. Steven Novella called this “a fundamental failure of medical education.” Worse, this is not an outlier, but is representative of the infiltration of unproven and unworkable products and procedures into health care. This takes place even at elite institutions, such as Yale, Duke, Georgetown, and the Mayo Clinic.

This creates parasitic relationships in which bogus treatments get undeserved status because of their association with honored names and legitimate medicine. Meanwhile, genuine treatments gets referenced in the same pamphlets and home pages that praise acupuncture, iridology, and Joy Touch.

Novella wrote that treatments should be based on “clear and valid procedures for reliably answering basic questions about safety, efficacy, and fundamental issues of biology and mechanism of action.”

Compare that with WNPR’s description of aromatherapy in Tri-State’s emergency vehicles: “A few drops of essential oils are placed on a cotton ball, which is taped to the patient’s chest. Tri-State Medical Director Chris Eberlein said the smell is not overwhelming, but it does create a better environment for healing.”

“Better environment for healing” is a medically vacuous phrase used to cover for a lack of efficiency. Words like this are rampant in alternative medicine, where vague descriptors, undefined terms, and unspecified benefits are touted in lieu of double blind studies and use of the Scientific Method.

Continuing his defense of unproven treatments, Eberlein said ambulances can often be unpleasant environments for those along for the unexpected ride. That could be, although that’s probably due more to the patient’s condition than surroundings. But the level of comfort is unrelated to whether jasmine juice will tame an arthritic attack.

In the WNPR piece, Eberlein recalled that paramedics gave fentanyl to patients who ended up not needing prescription medication. Overreliance on narcotics for pain relief is a legitimate issue. But it is a non sequitur to say paramedics should therefore give their patients treatments not backed by the metadata of double blind testing. Give them Advil, for crying out loud.

Along those lines, there is some good news regarding the ambulance company’s policy. It will still give narcotics to those who need it, so essential oils will not be used to soothe substantial pain.  As dangerous as alt-med can be, it’s much worse when used in isolation. Treating cancer with targeted immunotherapy and wheatgrass is no big deal, whereas using solely the latter would likely be fatal.

The service is using six oils, with no explanation for how these were selected or offering any evidence for their efficiency. Indeed, essential oils enthusiasts rely heavily on anecdotes and post hoc reasoning. This results in spectacles such as a dozen users citing a dozen different oils to combat insomnia.

When studies are highlighted, they are often of those done in vitro, However, Novella wrote that these are usually distinct from studies that will have practical use: “These studies rarely translate to a clinical application. When you directly expose cells in a culture to a compound, what happens in that setting may say nothing about what happens when the same substance is taken by a living organism. Little or none of the compound may get absorbed or find its way to the target tissue.”

Despite my railings, it is possible some oils could someday show medical promise. Most of them are derived from plants, which are the source for about half the medicines used today. As one example, certain willow bark ingredients can eventually become aspirin. At some point, someone discovered that willow bark had recuperative properties and this could be considered the first step in the Scientific Method: Observation. Through double blind studies, testing for falsifiability, attempting to replicate, and so on, scientists eventually located the active ingredient in willow bark, extracted it, determined the safe dose, and inserted it into a pill, lotion, or syrup.

So if someone online or in your circle of friends reports that lavender works for their rosacea, it just may do that. But that’s why following up with the testing described in the previous paragraph is paramount.  If it does work, such double blind studies will validate that and they would also help researchers determine the effective amount and prevent overdose.

Foraging through a forest in quest of some willow bark to chomp on in hopes of treating a headache would likely still be somewhat effective. But there are better methods and medicines available. Those methods and medicines are also available to Tri-State Ambulance, which is why they should be offering Excedrin instead of eucalyptus.



“Plate histrionics” (Glyphosate fears)


There is a claim out there (way out there) that the weed killer glyphosate is present in food at unsafe levels. This claim appears in a work promoted by the likes of Food Democracy Now and Food Babe, not in peer reviewed journals. Still, in this forum, we place a premium on what is said, not who said it, so let’s examine the assertions. 

The publication endorsed by the aforementioned pair alleges that that studies have uncovered dangerous amounts of the herbicide glyphosate in our cabbage and Oreos, among many other edibles. The cover of this work shows a foreboding figure in a hazmat suit saturating future food with what is implied to be toxic levels of chemicals. Accompanying that image is a munching baby next to a spray bottle of Roundup, a Monsanto product which contains glyphosate.

If shouts of alarm ever accompany a scientific study, they should come from those hearing the results, not those giving them. When the latter happens, it is almost always a sign that the “research” was meant only to confirm a desired outcome and that the Scientific Method was skirted. Still, let’s look at what the report said, not its cover or who produced it, in order to make a critical analysis of it.

Michelle Miller of Ag Daily notes that the methods used in the studies make it impossible to distinguish glyphosate from similar chemical structures and may not even be able to differentiate it from water. She wrote, “To detect glyphosate…costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and is a very difficult, scientifically complex task.” The methods cited in these studies fail to meet those standards, though not as spectacularly as Zen Honeycutt’s $125 device meant to detect glyphosate levels.   

Another crucial point is how little glyphosate is spread over large farming aread. It’s just 22 ounces per acre, which would be equal to about two sodas sprinkled on a baseball diamond. Moreover, Miller reports that she sprays just two days a year and that’s done early in the growing season, before the edible part of the plant has emerged. Pointing out that the dose makes the poison, Miller adds that glyphosate is less toxic than baking soda.

Besides, the weed killer impacts enzymes found in plants and does not affect mammals, including humans. The only harm done to animals is when lab rats, mice, and fish are force fed outrageous amounts of it.

I’m all for studies as long as they follow established protocols, employ the Scientific Method, are replicable, and are peer reviewed. Along those lines, the Government Accountability Office once called on the FDA to monitor food for glyphosate residue. But the effort was halted due to a lack of agreement on testing protocols, equipment shortcomings, and the varying analysis methods at the different FDA laboratories.

Sensing a connection between the shuttered testing program and the experiments on overdosed rodents, Food Babe pounced: “Could it be that Monsanto didn’t like the results they started getting, especially since the FDA found glyphosate in foods that should be especially safe like BABY FOOD?”

Shouting something doesn’t make it more relevant and all caps won’t make it more accurate. Instead of providing evidence for the conspiracy she suggested, Food Babe let her followers assume it was true. She provided no examples of test results that Monsanto wouldn’t like, offered no audio recordings about keeping the findings hush-hush, and presented no independent lab experiments that revealed dangerous amounts of herbicide on our plates.

Another vacuous Food Babe claim is that multiple studies show that while probable harm to humans from glyphosate begins at one part per 10 billion, foods in the studies were found to have 1,000 times that. In truth, only one of the studies she listed provided support for that claim, and that one involved testing on mice. And even among vermin, the danger was considered potential instead of probable. Glyphosate, if it’s detectable on any food at all, is in nowhere close to a dangerous amount.

There are legitimate dietary concerns out there, by glyphosate residue is not among them. Alarmist, untrue charges, on the other hand, are much harder to stomach.

“Silver lying” (Beale ciphers)


Legend tells that a man named Thomas Beale discovered gold, silver, and jewels in present-day Colorado two centuries ago. Beale and 30 compatriots transported the haul, worth about $43 million today, to Bedford Country, Virginia, where they buried it.

Beale wrote three encoded letters about the valuables and left them with hotel proprietor Robert Morriss. The first note explained where the treasure lay; the second described what the valuables were comprised of; and the third mystery missive listed the names, locations, and relatives of the 30 persons who could share in the loot. Only the second of these letters has been decoded.

That letter included instructions on how to use the Declaration of Independence to decipher the text. Though littered with numerous spelling errors, the revealed message, after substantial copy editing, yields this script: “I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles.”

Morriss was never able to solve the other ciphers. He shared them James Ward, who in1885 published them in a pamphlet, which also included the background story. Of note, the phrases,   punctuation, and vocabulary range in the pamphlet are similar enough to the supposed writings of Beale that they likely emanated from the same source. As nearly seven decades had elapsed between the supposed Colorado trip and the pamphlet’s publication, Beale, if he ever existed, would likely have been deceased by 1885, strongly suggesting that Ward or a conspirator were the author of both tracts.

If the method for decoding the second letter is used when trying to decipher the other texts, it produces such sequences such as “abcdefghiijklmmnohpp,” and does so multiple times. The American Cryptogram Association states that the chances of such a run appearing twice in genuine text would be one in a hundred trillion. It could be that a source other than the Declaration of Independence is meant to be used in the decoding, but if so, Beale inconsistently left this crucial information out of the other two letters. There’s also the issue of why he would use different keys since all the messages were meant to be decoded at once.

So the ciphers are made up of one easily decoded message and two that, if genuine, have utterly baffled world-class cryptographers for more than a century. Such a combination seems utterly implausible. Another giveaway to the ciphers’ likely fraudulent nature is that the third garbled missive, at barely 600 words, is insufficient to list the names, addresses, hometowns, and kinfolk of 30 persons.

Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, looked into the Beale Papers thoroughly and found still more discrepancies. He unearthed no record of a Thomas Beale in Buford County, Va., during the time Beale was allegedly residing there. Nickell also learned that Morriss only became a hotel proprietor in 1823, whereas the pamphlet listed him as running the operation in 1820 when Beale stayed there as a guest.

Further, a linguistic analysis showed that some words in the pamphlet, such as stampede and improvise, which were not part of the English vocabulary in the 1820s. There’s also the highly unlikely scenario of 30 men agreeing to keep massive wealth buried, as opposed to spending, saving, and investing it.

Additionally, the tale has the crew sojourning in St. Louis on their way back east, and banks had opened on that side of the Mississippi by then. It would have been wise and cautions to deposit the metal and jewels, as opposed to carrying them by mule for another thousand miles and risk their theft or loss, only to bury them, which carries still more risk.

Geology raises still further doubts. According to Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning, gold and silver in ore form appear much different than they do after refining and purification. Yet Beale’s account has the men simply recognizing the gold and silver, then packing it up in a series of digs and trips that lasted 18 months. It strains credulity to think that a massive amount of valuables would be out in the open, seen only by 30 accidental prospectors who neither speak of it nor horde it for a year and a half.

What’s more, Dunning writes that gold and silver pure enough to be distinct from one another are never found in the same place. If they are in close proximity, they are alloyed and only become recognized as separate metals during refinement and purification.

None of this is enough to overcome greed or, if I’m being less jaded, curiosity and intrigue. Many self-styled treasure hunters have descended on Bedford County, although the only money that’s changed hands has been the fines levied on them for trespassing and unauthorized digging.

Other persons have tried to decipher the remaining letters by employing the Magna Carta, Bible, and U.S. Constitution, without success. I examined the codes and compared them with some of my blog posts to see if it revealed the location. Nothing yet, but tonight I’ll try doing that while lining up the posts and ciphers with Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.


“Fool injected” (Anti-vax argument)


One of the keys to developing critical thinking skills is to understand the importance of addressing a point and not the person making it. Focusing on irrelevant factors like the speaker’s color, gender, ethnicity, politics, economic status, or background will leave one vulnerable to committing an ad hominem, specifically a genetic fallacy.

A few years ago, I came across a graph that purported to demonstrate that measles was well on its way out before the vaccine to combat it was introduced. It showed that the death rate from measles had dramatically declined before persons began being immunized for it. The conclusion was that the vaccine was inconsequential to the disease’s demise. To dismiss this as the ramble of an anti-vax loon would have been to commit an ad hominem. To address the point from a critical thinking perspective, I needed to examine the claim for truthfulness, then see if the whole picture was being painted, and also consider other angles.

When I did so, I learned that the anti-vaxxer’s point was accurate, but incomplete. While the death rate for measles was going down before the advent of the vaccine, the morbidity rate was not. Measles is an endemic disease, so populations can build resistance to it, but it can also be deadly when introduced to a new group. This, when combined with measles’ highly contagious nature and the susceptibility of preschoolers to it, explains why incidences of the disease spiked and descended several times, at approximately four-year intervals.

But there has been no such spike, or even a tiny bump, since the vaccine was introduced in 1964. In fact, there were 364 measles deaths in 1963, and none by 2004, a reduction of 100 percent. The anti-vaxxer’s chart showed how many persons were dying from measles, but not how many persons were contracting it. Advances in health care had enabled more persons to live with the disease, but only the vaccine eliminated it.   

Earlier this year, I again made myself examine an anti-vaxxer claim rather than dismissing it. For years, I had pointed out there was more formaldehyde in a pear than in any vaccine. But one day, I read an anti-vax blog that asked, “When was the last time you injected a pear?” The point was that the way a substance enters the body makes a difference and the blogger even noted that one could safely drink cobra venom.

And he’s correct. Swallowing the snake juice would be different from having fangs inject it into you. If one were so inclined to try the former, the gastrointestinal tract would break down the venom, similar to how the body digests proteins in food. Also, if one drank venom, it would never enter the bloodstream in active form. By contrast, when a snake bites someone, the victim has nothing beneath its skin or in its muscles to counteract the venom. Since it’s not broken down, the venom swims to the lymph glands and into the bloodstream, where it attacks the nervous system and heart, perhaps fatally.

But while anti-vaxxers are correct on these points, they again fail to understand that this has no bearing on a vaccine’s efficiency or safety. While a snakebite and a vaccine both involve injected substances, using this to compare the two is a false equivalency because one saves lives and the other ends them.   

Like the measles deaths graph, if I had dismissed the pear point because it came from someone I viewed as an anti-vax, pro-disease crank, I would have failed my critical thinking test for the day. Consider this an endorsement for avoiding echo chambers and contemplating various viewpoints. Sometimes the opposing view will be right; other times, it will be wrong, but will cause you to examine the issue and learn something you hadn’t realized. In this case, what I learned was the difference in how the body handles injections and ingestions, and the impact this has on a vaccine’s efficacy.  

The key is how much of a substance gets into the bloodstream because once it’s there, the body will process it the same, regardless of how it arrived. With snake venom, there are too many toxins for the body to handle and the poison makes its way to vital organs. While vaccines have ingredients that would be dangerous in high doses, these are in tiny amounts and toxicity is determined by dose, not ingredient. Further, venom contains active neurotoxins and vaccines do not.

Anti-vaxxers may argue that vaccines bypass the immune system, but again, they are being selective with the facts. Vaccines will bypass the body’s first line of defense, but they are designed to do so and won’t work otherwise. Vaccines contain antigens, which are dead or damaged viruses that are active enough to provoke an immune response, but too impotent to be harmful. This forces the body to develop antibodies against the real virus and thereby become immune to it. If the antigens were destroyed right away, they would never serve their purpose. Besides, antigens are not straggling interlopers, but rather they work their way out of the body like other foreign substances.

Since anti-vaxxers focus on injections, I wonder if their movement would have gained its sinister steam if it didn’t have scary needles to fall back on. What if vaccines were in chewable tablet or powder form and yielded a sweet taste as opposed to a sore arm? According to the Vaxplanations blog, the reason such an approach cannot be pursued is because oral forms of most vaccines would be incapable of getting past the gastrointestinal tract. Stomach acid, enzymes, and gut bacteria would render them useless. There are a few exceptions, such as the oral vaccines for rotavirus and polio, which work because both diseases are caused by gut pathogens.


“Shake, Prattle, and Roll” (Ideomotor Response)


Summoning the dead, determining the location of buried items without a metal detector, and making known the thoughts of the uncommunicative would all be remarkable traits. But while none of these disparate abilities exist, there are people who believe they possess them, and the explanation lies partly in the Ideomotor Response.

This refers to a physiological trait that is responsible for unconscious, unintentional physical movements. Examples would be unknowingly tapping your foot while music plays, spiking a non-existent football as your team needs to stop the clock, or aimlessly doodling during a boring meeting (perhaps a redundant phrase). Probably the most lucrative manifestation of the Ideomotor Response was when a man trying to dream up a way out of debt mindlessly twisted a piece of metal until he accidentally fashioned the first paper clip.  

Dr. William Carpenter coined the phrase in the mid-19th Century as a portmanteau of “ideo” for ideas and “motor” for muscular movement. He linked Ideomotor Response to hypnotism, somnambulism, and what came to be known as the Placebo Effect. Since then, it has come to be associated with other things, and the person experiencing it may have no awareness of executing any movements. This leaves them potentially vulnerable to the suggestion that mystical forces are at work.

Consider dowsing and divining rods. Dowsing refers to trying to locate underground water, while divining rods can be used to look for anything a mind can come up with. The implement is usually a wishbone-shaped twig or a long, narrow piece of metal. More recent products feature ersatz electronics complete with beeping sounds and blinking lights. Operators hold the device in front of themselves and the rod’s point will allegedly start quivering when the person is standing at or near the desired object. When this happens, it might seem like magic or perhaps that some undiscovered geological feature is being tapped. It actuality, it’s just the Ideomotor Response doing its thing, occasionally aided by confirmation bias. It’s the person shaking, not the object or an unknown force.

This is one of the easier pseudoscientific ideas to test and dowsing has repeatedly flunked the exam. It was the most common method of attempting to win the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge and the grand old man of skeptics still has his money.

Spending a few bucks (or even few hundred bucks for the supposedly advanced models) in a futile attempt to find subterranean water is not that big of a deal. It’s another matter when such devices are touted as being able to find bombs. Despite exorbitant prices of up to $25,000, such products have been snagged by persons in war zones desperate for a solution, and there have been fatal results.  

While not responsible for the loss of life, the Ideomotor Response has manifested itself in another tragic way, facilitated communication. This is the notion that an otherwise uncommunicative individual can make their thoughts known on a keyboard, via a second person holding the subject’s elbow or wrist in a certain way.

This was initially billed, incorrectly, as a miraculous way for parents to be able to know what their mute child was trying to tell them. It later became the avenue for false charges of child abuse, as the patient, though the facilitated communicator, seemed to type out molestation allegations against a caregiver.

However, even the most basic test of the purported abilities have shown facilitated communication to be without merit. When only the subject has been shown an image, then the communicator is brought in and asked to help the subject type in what they saw, the failure rate is 100 percent.

Returning now to harmless manifestations of the Ideomotor Response, we will address Ouija Boards. On such objects, tweens play an innocuous, if dull, game. Matt Walsh is the latest in a long string of panicked evangelicals who consider the boards to be a devastating demonic doorway. However, the only force in play is the Ideomotor Response. For as Neil Tyson has noted, the spirit controlling the planchette always uses the same vocabulary, idiosyncratic phrases, and  spelling errors as the person they are co-piloting with.

This was best demonstrated on an episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit!” Two persons playing with the board were asked to stop and were then blindfolded. The board was then stealthily turned 180 degrees and when play resumed, the duo moved the planchette to where it would have gone had the board never been turned. So either the Ideomotor Response is responsible or the demons have permanent residency in the players’ eyelashes.