Strong claim


In elementary school, my younger brother and I observed a couple of juvenile miscrenats trying to sneak a smoke. When they noticed us, they sprinted in our direction and one of them held me down, nervously asking me what I had seen and threatening me with harm if we told anyone. I laid there and meekly took it all until I looked to my side and noticed the other youthful tobacco connoisseur had my scared sibling pinned on the grass.

This provided a surge of energy and determination that caused me, a somewhat wussy 5th grader with average strength, to fling aside the 6th grader who was holding me, then doing likewise to his same-aged cohort. I was now the one doing the pinning down, and my firm grasp kept both assailants immobilized until my brother safely fled.

While there was no lifesaving involved in this case, there have long been tales of heroes rescuing a disaster victim by temporarily acquiring superhuman strength. This power affords them the ability to do much than control a pair of grade school hooligans. These stories’ central figures are said to have summoned the means to lift objects as massive as a car or boulder.

One of the more well-known instances of the putative phenomenon was when the helicopter used in Magnum, P.I. crashed and pinned the pilot under shallow water. A quick-acting onlooker lifted the 2,000-pound helicopter and allowed the pilot to survive.

Occasionally, the courageous crusader is asked to repeat the feat and is unable to do so, sometimes being unable to even budge the object. This lends credence in the mind of some that a temporary super power enabled the hero to do it the first time.

The usual explanation centers on a surge of adrenalin. It’s true that an adrenalin rush leads to physically-measurable changes. As it is pumped into the bloodstream, airways relax, metabolism increases, and muscles experience glycolysis, which readies them for action. Additionally, endorphins are released, peripheral vision is reduced, reflexes sharpen, and reaction times improve.

But while all this may make one capable of doing something that he or she normally couldn’t, does this extend all the way to being able to literally lift a ton? For that answer, we can look to the work of biomechanist Vladimir Zatsiorsky. He uses different strength categories to describe someone’s lifting potential. The primary ones are Absolute and Maximal.

Absolute refers to the theoretical maximum that a person’s muscles, fibers, tendons, and bones would allow them to lift. This is what physiology shows would be theoretically possible, but people actually fall short of being able to reach the full amount.

Meanwhile, Maximal strength is the most that could be lifted using conscious effort, such as in construction work or a weightlifting session. This usually caps out at about 67 percent of the person’s Absolute ability. Beyond that, tissues would fail, no matter how strong the desire to lift more or how much adrenalin had been released.

There is a third, seldom-seen category that rests between these Absolute and Maximial. It can be attained when one is in a competitive mode, such as in the Olympics, especially if being cheered by frenzied onlookers. Zatsiorsky has detected some world-class athletes reaching as high as 92 percent of their body’s Absolute strength during the most intense competitions. That this could happen in such a venue makes sense, as no situation is more pressurized. Unless, perhaps, there’s a life in your vicelike hands.

Such as in a case cited by Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning. He relates an anecdote where a car ran over an Arizona bicyclist in 2006 and trapped the victim to the pavement. On the scene was powerlifter Tom Boyle, who had previously demonstrated the ability to deadlift 700 pounds. Impressive stuff. But the car weighed a ton and a half, and as the story goes, our muscular rescuer managed to get its front wheels off the ground. But since the vehicle’s weight was much more than Boyle’s Absolute lift, his body would have hit structural failure well before summoning the ability to raise the vehicle.

This supposed ability cannot be tested. There is no way to replicate the exact original conditions and there are obvious ethical constraints to intentionally placing someone beneath a pinned car or helicopter. In the Arizona, Magnum P.I., and similar cases, leverage or buoyancy likely came into play and substantially lessened the amount of weight lifted. Another possible mitigating factor, Dunning noted, is that lifting many cars a few inches leaves most of the vehicle’s weight still supported by suspension springs.

So to be clear, these stories are not being fabricated by the hero, victim, or onlookers. In life-and-death situations, details are going to be fuzzy and mis-remembered. Perhaps Boyle lifted from the lighter back end of the car and not the heavier side. Perhaps the car was inclined in such a way that the leverage angle was more favorable.

Whenever such incidents are captured on video and can be paused and rewound, extenuating circumstances can be noticed, which a terrified witness would have missed at the time. For example, during the helicopter incident, the rescuer did not lift the rotorcraft as was reported; rather, he rocked it as it was lying on its side against a sloped and uneven riverbank. While the act was heroic, it did not require the superhuman effort attributed to it.

Physical changes that take place during an emergency situation may lead a person to exceed their usual abilities, but only by a known, limited increment. The hero won’t acquire the ability to impersonate Christopher Reeve. Hitting 80 percent of one’s Absolute strength or subduing a pair of Marlboro-packing bullies seems to be the limit.


“Lyin’ hearted” (Sphinx age)


I have been fortunate to do extensive travel and and my favorite of all the stops is the Sphinx. Workers carved the man-lion hybrid, whose face likely depicts the Pharaoh Khafra, into a limestone bedrock hill. It remains one of the world’s most recognized sculptures thousands of years after its construction. But how many thousands of years is that?
Whether built by Egyptians or aliens, these workers left behind plenty of evidence of their time spent there. Radiocarbon dating evidence shows the tools, housing, and ovens employed by Sphinx workers were in use around 2500 BCE. Despite a strong consensus among archaeologists, geologists, and Egyptologists about this date, a few non-experts prefer a contrary timeline.

There was, for example, a 1990s television movie, The Mystery of the Sphinx: New Scientific Evidence, which suggests it was built much earlier. Also, science fiction author John Anthony West and alchemist René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz have both claimed the extent of wall erosion surrounding the Sphinx is much greater than other places in Giza. The duo claim this could only happen if the limestone lion had been exposed to the elements thousands of years before the consensus date of 2500 BCE.

But Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning points out that weathering can result from desert winds combining with native sand. Also factoring in is how soft the limestone would have been when the Sphinx was being built. Contrarians believe the weathering is  best explained by water that flowed near the Sphinx site during a period when there was much greater rainfall. However, archaeologists have excellent paleoclimatology data for the region, so they know rainfall there 4500 years ago was much heavier than what it is today.

Crucially, the Giza Plateau is high ground and the area encompassing the Sphinx and Pyramids is a summit and is therefore a highly unlikely place for water to flow to. Furthermore, almost all geologists maintain there is little reason to try and squeeze water erosion into this Egyptian equation. Dunning writes, “The pattern of erosion on rock depends not upon what’s doing the eroding, but upon the characteristics and hardness of the rock itself. It’s impossible to tell what did the weathering, water or wind.”

And according to geologist August Matthusen, “Variations in the rock usually account for the different weathering morphologies.”

There are a number of ways to explain why there is significant weathering found on the Sphinx’s deep west wall and no other place on the plateau. These reasons include salt crystal exfoliation, underground water, and excavation.

To make the alternate hypothesis work, contrarians propose the existence of an earlier advanced civilization that preceded Egypt. The deficiencies with this idea are the geological evidence presented so far and the lack of proof of a society large and advanced to build the Sphinx, then disappear – all without leaving traces of themselves.
In the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology, Dr. Ken Feder writes, “There is no sign of an infrastructure necessary to support a large population of workers, no sign of the ability to produce a large agricultural surplus to feed the construction workers, no evidence of dormitories for housing them, no huge storage facilities for food, no great bakeries, no cemeteries in which to bury the workers who would have died during the construction project.”

And one doesn’t need an alternate history anyway. The Sphinx is magnificent enough on its own. My amazement when gazing upon this ancient wonder would not have been any more pronounced by thinking it was even older or by suspecting that sleuth pseudoscientists had exposed a cover-up.

“Nyet so fast” (Rasputin invincibility)


A Siberian works his way from poverty and obscurity to become the primary confidant of the Tsarina. He plays a pivotal, albeit unintentional, role in the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty and the birth of communist societies. He was known as the Mad Monk, though he was neither. He did, however, spent time in a monastery debating theological ideas, and sported a greatly unkempt appearance, which when combined with his captivating, harrowing eyes and strange demeanor, made him at once the target of suspicion, wonder, and revulsion.

This life story is fascinating enough without needing embellishment. But there are some persons who find humans landing a probe on a comet to be ho-hum while being simultaneously fascinated by evidence-free doomsday tales of a hypothetical Planet X. In the same way, there are some who remain unsatisfied with amazing true historical accounts and crave a still more spectacular story.

Hence, the idea that Rasputin was nearly indestructible was born. Allegedly, killing him required that he be poisoned, shot multiple times, beaten, and tossed bound into a river, and even all that was barely enough. For maximum efficiency, this fable sometimes holds that he owed his quasi-invincibility to his mystical powers, the same supernatural abilities that Tsarina Alexandra was convinced had saved her hemophiliac son. Because she was certain he had, the self-proclaimed miracle healer and seer became the darling of the ruling matriarch.

She wanted to keep him close, literally and figuratively, so the man who once lived as a peasant received a massive upgrade to castles, ballrooms, and carriages. He enjoyed high society status, had access to the royal inner circle, and influenced politics, culture, and society. Most everyone of relevance had a strong opinion about him, either good or bad.

Some of those in the latter category were insiders who thought Rasputin was dooming the Romanovs and Russia, and wanted him out permanently of the way permanently. The first attempt on Rasputin’s life came in the summer of 1914, when he was stabbed in the abdomen. He survived but a year later, conspirators hatched a second assassination plot, which was uncovered before it could be acted upon.

In December 1916 came another attempt, and the third time was the harm. Led by Prince Felix Yusupov, four other conspirators lured Rasputin to a St. Petersburg palace, where the dastardly deed was done.

Three are three sources which relate what took place in those early morning hours of Dec. 30: The written accounts of Yusupov and his henchman, Vladimir Purishkevich; and the autopsy report. There are some key differences between the first two sources and the other one.

Yusupov recalled that he offered Rasputin tea, cakes, and alcohol, all laced with cyanide. Despite being plied with a lethal chemical compound, Rasputin merely complained about a headache and fiery stomach.

The rest of the putative first-hand account from the assailants goes like this: At 2:30 a.m., Yusopov fired a bullet into Rasputin’s stomach at close range. The victim collapsed, seemingly dead. Rasputin was left lying there for nearly an hour before coming to and attacking Yusupov. Rasputin rushed past the other conspirators, who fired shots at the fleeing man. This time, the killers shot him through the back and head, yet still he survived.

A frustrated and enraged Yusupov then grabbed a club and began pummeling Rasputin, whose body was eventually bound and tossed into the icy Malaya Neveka River. Some claimed that when found, Rasputin was making the sign of the cross, proof he had been thrown living from the bridge and worked free of his ropes.

The autopsy shows something far less dramatic than all this. First, the pathologist found no cyanide present, even though he looked for it specifically since Yusupov  said he plied Rasputin treats laden with it.

Second, while three bullet wounds were found, the pathologist determined that  two bullets hit the torso and one entered the forehead. These entered from the front, not in the back as would be consistent with a fleeing man. Moreover, gunpowder residue was found near the wound, suggesting the gun was fired from close-range, not from across the room. The pathologist also reported that the wounds’ angle indicated the victim was lying down when shot.

Also of note, the autopsy referenced no water in Rasputin’s lungs. And while photographs of the frozen corpse do show Rasputin’s arms to be free, they are not making the sign of the cross.

In summary, the autopsy shows Rasputin was shot from behind, collapsed, rolled onto his back, and was then shot through the head as he lay dying. There was no poison, no water-filled lungs, and no bound, beaten body. He had merely been done in by a lethal head shot.

The embellishments have been fabricated to create a fascinating but false narrative of Rasputin being nearly indestructible. That he had survived two earlier assassination plots, including one that came to fruition, may have sparked the notion of invincibility, and his mystical nature likely added to the post-mortem reputation. Such unwarranted speculation is common when fascinating life comes to a premature end, and has happened with the likes of JFK and Elvis.

“Watch botch” (Watchmaker fallacy)


A creationist canard holds that if you find a watch lying on the ground, you would know it had to have been created, and therefore, when we look at our world, we know that it too was created.

This is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, most of us today know what a watch is and how it is made. But someone who had never been exposed to a watch before, say a time traveler from 500 CE or an inhabitant of the Nicobar Islands, saw one, he or she would have no reason to presume the timepiece had been designed.

An Answers in Reason blogger using the pseudonym Artificial Agent wrote that if the same person happened upon a cave, they would have “no reason to assume it was man-made, nor that it formed naturally as a result of plate tectonics and rocky structure.”

I saw a documentary in which Papua New Guinea natives were spooked by mirrors and fascinated by matches. With the islanders’ highly limited frame of reference, these inventions may have seemed like supernatural, intelligently-designed products, but this inference would not make it so. Similarly, Artificial Agent cited a BBC program in which a tribesman was taken into an urban area and interpreted a large truck to be a strange beast. This shows what happens when observers lack a frame of reference, and this lack or reference dooms the watchmaker analogy.

On a related note, Artificial Agent wrote that a person might see a puddle and presume the ground was made specifically for it since the puddle had just enough space to hold the water. The truth, of course, is inverse, and the puddle formed the way it did because of the ground’s shape.

And as stated before, we know how watches are made. But have no idea how a planet would be constructed. Thus, it is mistaken to infer that our universe has been created by an intelligent designer just because a watch was made by human hands.

Enlightenment philosopher David Hume argued the universe and a watch have too few similarities to assert that both were created. The universe consists of organic natural substances, while a watch is made of artificial mechanic materials.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argued that a person could only make a watch if they were more complex than their creation, and this goes for all things created and their creator. Therefore if Earth was created, it would have to have been designed by something more complex than itself. That creator, then, would have to be created something even more complex, and the creator’s creator made by something more complex yet, ad infinitum. 

“Cosmo’s Fear Factory” (Doomed cosmonauts)


The Space Race is one of the great tales in human history, replete with drama, competition, personalities, ingenuity, setbacks, heroes, perseverance, and pride. But some consider it to have a frightening sidebar, with some Soviet spacefarers said to have been aboard a doomed vessel that veered off course and into space, where they met a horrific and terrifying death.

The story of doomed cosmonauts stems from the extensive logs and audio recordings of two radio operators, the Italian brothers Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia. The polyglot pair, who taught themselves to speak Russian, recorded and documented the space race more thoroughly than any other amateurs. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning described their space race collection as “by far the most comprehensive private collection known.” They began their documentation and archiving with the Sputnik I launch and kept at it inexhaustibly for the few years.

They even converted a World War II bunker into a radio observatory.
According to Dunning, the pair taught themselves how to detect the Doppler Effect in signals from orbit and then use that calculation to determine a spacecraft’s speed and altitude. They were so efficient that by the time the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, the brothers had assembled equipment that enabled them to hear the heartbeat of the dog on board.

The disconcerting turn came in November 1960 when the brothers detected, from a Soviet space frequency, a continual relaying of “S-O-S.” Doppler calculations showed almost no relative speed, causing the duo to suspect that the spacecraft was on a course heading away from Earth. The signal grew progressively weaker until vanishing forever. It seemed that a manned Soviet spacecraft had permanently left Earth’s orbit.

Three months later, the brothers picked up another space transmission, which some listeners thought sounded like the dying breaths of an unconscious man. A signal from the same flight was interpreted by the brothers’ cardiologist father as being that of a failing human heartbeat. But the most harrowing recording was of a woman seeming to say (roughly translated here), “Isn’t this dangerous? Talk to me! Our transmission begins now. I feel hot. I can see a flame. Am I going to crash? Yes. I feel hot. I will re-enter.”

The Soviets made no mention of any of this. Of course, the USSR routinely covered up its failures, space-related or otherwise. And Dunning noted that its launch record in the early Space Race days was a poor one. And with a state-run media being the only news outlet, the Soviets could squash any inconveniences or embarrassments. Soviet authorities, in fact, did just that when they painted certain cosmonauts out of photographs. Also, the training death of at least one cosmonaut, Valentin Bondarenko, was concealed for many years.

However, deducing that there were cosmonauts who were catapulted to a sci-fi-worthy death in deep space requires ignoring some inconsistencies. Chief among these is that the supposed Morse code tapping and astronaut breaths and heartbeats were recorded when the Soviets were using dogs and mannequins in their launches. And while the Soviets had achieved the ability to escape Earth at this time, the Vostok 8K72 booster they favored used were far too small to be a manned capsule. Also, two Vostok missions were equipped with dummies and human voice tape recordings to test if the radio worked. That would make for a reasonable explanation that requires no doomed cosmonauts and subsequent cover-up of such.

Declassified Soviet documents on its space program have no reference to any of this. In addition, there is a lack of corroborating evidence from the radio tracking stations that were far more advanced than what the Judica-Cordiglias had assembled. Finally, Some Yuri Gagarin biographers suggest that most of the lost cosmonaut hypothesis could be explained by accidents that happened in low orbit, not in space.

“Red, Inc.” (Red mercury)


Red mercury has been held in mystical regard for centuries: From allegedly being buried with Egyptian royals in order to guarantee them an afterlife to the hushed reverence with which medieval alchemists spoke about it to cacophonous Internet pop up ads blaring about its panacea qualities.

Some modern incantations have the substance manifesting itself in vampire bat nests. Unintentionally comedic YouTube videos show a blob of supposed red mercury being repelled by garlic, attracted by gold, and showing no reflection.
In truth, there are no bat nests. The winged mammals instead cling to walls, rafters, and cave dwellings when needing to rest or sleep. Of more importance with regard to this topic, there also is no red mercury elixir. The only red-hued mercury is mercury sulphide, whose main use is in pottery decoration and to which no healing abilities are attributed.

While much less cool than pharaoh tombs or hypothetical vampire bat nests, Singer sewing machines have also been reported to house red mercury. The ridiculous rumor was apparently started by someone who found it a convenient avenue to unload his surplus sewing machines for 2,000 times their worth.

While usually associated with healing, red mercury tales have darker versions that tie it to nuclear weapons or bomb making. These began making the rounds when eastern European communism collapsed. This time of upheaval and uncertainty, combined with legitimate concern about what would become of nuclear stockpiles, led to wild speculation that red mercury was a necessary element to the weapons and that this destructive force about to be purloined by terrorist outfits or unleashed by a government desperate to stay in power. The rumor may have begun since red mercury is a nickname for a certain nuclear isotope. 

Terrorists have apparently tried to make the rumors come true. In 2015, Islamic State members were arrested after attempting to buy red mercury, though exactly what it is they were buying and what their plans were for it are unclear since the substance doesn’t exist.

“Pontificating” (Pope Joan)


Pope Joan was a legendary woman said to have reigned as head of the Catholic Church from 855 to 857, while keeping her gender secret. Her story first appeared in the 13th century and came to be accepted as true in most of Europe before being disproven during the Reformation.

Most versions of the tale wax about a talented, erudite woman who disguised herself as a man and who rose through the church hierarchy and was eventually elected to lead the world’s Catholics. Her sex was revealed when she gave birth during a procession, after which was either murdered or whisked away. Of course, if she had been a quick enough thinker, she would have claimed that her miraculous ability to give birth as a man was a sign she was chosen by God.

The first known reference to a female pope came around 1250 in a chronicle penned by Jean de Mailly. This account inspired several more versions, embellishments, and reworkings over the next few centuries. The most popular and influential version was written by Martin of Opava. Historians credit him with giving her a name, specifying when she ruled, and adding a steamy tidbit that Joan concocted the elaborate schemed to aid her lover.

The legend was generally accepted as true until the 16th century, when a widespread debate among Catholic and Protestant writers called the story into question. They noted the multi-century gap between her supposed reign and the first accounting of it. As much as is written about and by the Catholic Church, the idea that not even one scrap of evidence of Pope Joan would exist until three centuries after her lifetime seems untenable.

Proponents of a Pope Joan point to a reference in a chronicle written by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, a contemporary of de Mailly. However, this fleeting reference is inserted as a footnote, is out of sequence, and is written in a different hand.

The legend began to unravel when parliamentary magistrate Florimond de Raemond looked into Joanian texts with the goal of giving historical context to the story. Rather than finding the clues he was hoping to, de Raemond found a loosely-assembled, contradictory, meandering fairy tale entirely lacking in authenticated documentation. Neither de Raemond nor any other investigator ever found any reference or evidence of a Pope Joan during the years of her supposed reign.

This includes church enemies who would have been only too happy to highlight it and embarrassment to the Vatican. Imagine, an institution with immense power, wealth, and privilege, and which denies leadership positions to females, being bamboozled by a woman and spending two years unable to figure it out. Besides, the pontiffs Leo IV and Benedict III were known to have been reigning during the time in question.