Nobel pursuit

NOBEL

Baron Dr. Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Reichenbach had a better name than you or me. And unless I have assembled supremely erudite readership, he was more intelligent as well, having won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. It was the most prestigious of his many honors received for numerous discoveries of chemical products with economic use.

Regrettably, he tarnished his good and distinctive name by spending his final 30 years researching his pet project. He was convinced of the existence of an unproven field of energy that emanated from all living things, similar to qi, prana, and other “life forces” of alternative medicine infamy. The baron called this mysterious phenomenon the Odic Force, a name almost as ridiculous as the idea attached to it.

Despite my dismissive nature, I must concede that his having initially pondered the notion might be understandable. At one time, somebody had to be the first person to contemplate Earth being round, to speculate on the existence of atoms, to ponder rocket travel, and to consider if diseases could be arrested through a process we came to call vaccination.

Further, Nobel Prizes are given to those who conceive of and then confirm an original idea. They are awarded to forward thinkers who either expand on or shatter existing knowledge. It requires sizable fortitude and the ability to endure ridicule to publicly put forth an unproven notion. Having sustained this ridicule to take home the most revered honor in science, it’s understandable why the recipient would again ignore derogatory comments and persevere through failed experiments.

But in rare cases, perseverance turns into denial and we see the Nobel Delusion, where an elite scientist grows fixated on his or her idea regardless of whether it can ever be validated. This unfortunate phenomenon has taken place about a dozen times. Examples include Pierre Curie championing the medium Eusapia Palldino, Linus Pauling touting Vitamin C as a panacea, Brian Josephson endorsing the concept of psi, and Kary Mullins expressing a belief in astrology, while throwing in climate change and HIV denials for good measure.

With the baron, his obsession centered on persons he called Sensitives, whom he was convinced were the only ones who could detect the Odic Force. Here, von Reichenbach committed the affirming the consequent fallacy. He declared that if someone said they can feel the force, that means it exists. But with no means of measuring the force, with no way to detect what type of energy it was, and with no explanation of what mechanism was transmitting it, his descriptions were merely unsubstantiated assertions. They also involved special pleading because he asserted that the force emanated from all living beings, yet any test subject who reported feeling nothing was dismissed as not being one of the Sensitives.

Yet another of the baron’s logical fallacies was ad hoc reasoning. In a controlled test not overseen by von Reichenbach, subjects were placed in a completely darkened room to see if they could detect the presence of a magnetic current, which was activated half the time. After the Sensitives performed no better than chance, von Reichenbach attributed the failures to the magnetic force reacting upon the Odic current and confusing the Sensitives.

The baron came up with the concept of Sensitives while doing unrelated research on sleepwalking. He came across the idea that those who take somnambulistic strolls are allergic (or sensitive) to something that rides in on the moonlight. Rather than examining this claim, perhaps starting with seeing if day sleepers also walk, he extrapolated this notion into being the Odic Force, a powerful omnipresent entity which controlled sleepwalking and much more.

Earlier, von Reichenbach was investigating how the human nervous system could be affected by various substances and he conceived of an undiscovered force that combined electricity, magnetism, and heat, and which radiated from most or all substances. He thought such a force, if it existed, might impact the nervous system.

So far, so good. Making an observation, then developing a hypothesis based on it are the first steps in the Scientific Method. But he failed to include adequate controls in his testing and instead assumed the existence of Sensitives who can harness this mystery power, which he also just assumed to exist.  

The baron tried to establish a scientific tie by saying the Odic Force was associated with biological electromagnetic fields, as well as incorporating magnetism, electrify, heat, and light. These were pseudoscience ploys that might make the idea seem more plausible, but he failed to substantiate any of this through controlled studies or peer review.

While never explaining what type of energy it was, nor having no established a means of accessing it, nor inventing any machine to gauge it, von Reichenbach nevertheless thought the Odic force could explain dozens of phenomena, such as hypnotism, dowsing, the Northern Lights, and magnetism. He was even an early proponent of Feng Shui, cautioning churches to not place altars at the east end, lest worshippers be placed in an “an Odically unfavorable position.” I imagine this phrase was his Jump the Shark moment from which there was no chance of his returning to the application of rigorous scientific principles. Additionally, this was all Tooth Fairy Science, as he had yet to establish that the Odic Force existed.

His infatuation with the notion extended to associated personal habits, which would more accurately be called rituals rather than scientific protocols. On “research” days, the baron maintained a strict regimen of rest and diet and refrained from touching metals. For the experiment, he would hold a Sensitive’s hand and record the subject’s report of what was being transmitted. This included revelations that the mystery force was positive, negative, or neutral, or that the Sensitives saw glimmers of colored lights, which could have been a precursor of aura silliness.

As the Baron sadly demonstrated, expertise in one field does not confer authority in an unrelated area. Because they think it bolsters their cause, alt-med and anti-science types love to highlight iconoclastic Nobel winners who embrace unfounded ideas. But this is the Appeal to Authority fallacy since these Nobel Prize winners are not speaking to their area of expertise. Of course, it is possible to accurately speak about a field one is not an expert in, but such claims must be backed by credible evidence, and that’s not what’s happening here. There exists no empirical evidence for a life force which can be detected by select individuals, and an insistence from a Nobel Prize winner with a splendid name that it’s real doesn’t make it so.

Advertisements

“Tall tail” (Jersey Devil)

DEVIL

Even by the lax standards of cryptozoology, the Jersey Devil seems an unlikely creature. It is less biologically plausible than a bipedal ape, a modern-day plesiosaur, a Himalayan half-hominid, or a canine-reptilian hybrid. Descriptions of the Devil more resemble a chimera. His serpent body stands about four feet high, he has an equine head, cloven hooves, two small, mostly useless arms with talons, a forked tail, and it takes to flight utilizing leathery wings reminiscent of a bat’s.

This Devil’s tale is split into two periods. The latter started with a glut of sightings around 1909. The first stretches back another three centuries. That legend centers of the offspring of Daniel Leeds, an English immigrant and historical footnote who published the American Almanack in days or yore when they spelled almanac that way.

In the story, Leeds’ wife, Deborah Smith, gave birth to her 13th son in 1735. Different versions exist as to what happened immediately after. One story is that Smith or her clergyman cursed the newborn; others say it was horribly deformed (not sure what other kind of deformity there is); the least believable version is that the infant transformed into a monster who killed his mother, then escaped up the chimney. A less macabre version excludes the matricide, but still has a Devil being unleashed into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.  

Biographical records, however, show that even mundane elements of this tale are in error. Leeds died in 1720, 15 years before the diabolical birth. And he was married to Ann Stacy, then Dorothy Young, but never to a Deborah Smith.

Leeds’ writings and the foreboding locale in which he penned them likely contributed to this legend. He started as a Quaker, but had a falling out with the church and a long-running feud was born. His former church dismissed his work as a blasphemy for attempting to blend Christianity with occultism or science. For example, he would use astronomy to try and gain a deeper understanding of the nature of God, a technique that got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake. Leeds suffered a fate nowhere near that excruciating but Quakers were forbidden from reading his work, and church leaders were only too happy to point out that the Leeds family crest featured a dragon, and indeed, later descriptions of the Jersey Devil corresponded with the animal on the Leeds crest.

Meanwhile, the foreboding appearance of the Pine Barrens made them a natural stomping ground for a creepy creeping cryptid. There are close to a thousand legendary animals said to exist worldwide, but I know of none who have an urban industrial district or strip mall as their place of origin. Nay, to be mysterious and captivating, a beast need arise in a deep loch, underground cavern, enchanted forest, foreboding windswept mountaintop, impenetrable jungle, time warp, or outer space.

Besides the Jersey Devil, several ghosts are said to haunt the Pine Barrens, including Captain Kidd’s. In Leeds’ time, the barrens were home to highwaymen, fugitives, poachers, moonshiners, deserting soldiers, escaping slaves, and others from society’s outskirts, so this also makes it fertile ground for satanic spawn.

References to the creature before the 20th Century normally refer to it as the Leeds Devil, but by the spate of 1909 sightings, few knew who Leeds was, so the name Jersey Devil was assumed.  

Some of the sightings may have been of the Sandhill Crane, a large slender bird capable of standing tall and spreading its two-meter bat-like wings. Its footprints can also be said to slightly resemble cloven prints. It’s likely that a majority of the sightings, though, were of other animals, or persons dressed in black, or even of rustling tree branches, all interpreted by persons wanting to be part of the hot new craze.

An attempt was made to monetize the hysteria through the beast’s “capture” and display. This was shown to be a fraud wherein hucksters had affixed artificial wings to a kangaroo, then used a harness to control its movement in order to make it seem menacing. From the rear of the cage, a stick was used to elicit shrieks or whatever sounds captive marsupials make when being prodded for purposes of cruel entertainment.

Reports of the flying fiend happen far less frequently than they do for the Big Three of cryptozoology: Bigfoot, Yeti, and Nessie. But Devil sightings do feature the same unverified accounts and complete lack of bone, hair, or skin samples. There are hundreds of purported sightings of a menacing, bouncing, beast who seems only too willing and able to mutilate those he stalks, yet can never get around to finishing the job. While most tales feature anonymous witnesses, Napoleon Bonaparte’s less territorially-ambitious brother, Joseph, claimed a sighting. And a naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr., allegedly shot a cannonball at the fleeing beast, with less success than he had targeting Barbary sailors.

Even most who believe in the Jersey Devil reject the original tale of his demonic nature. But without immortality and supernatural powers, a sustained existence seems hopelessly remote. The Jersey Devil being real would necessitate a sustainable population existing for 400 years with none of its eggs being discovered, with it never being a victim of hunters or motorists, and with its remains never having been found by hikers, campers, or anglers.

There have been hundreds of reputed sightings, but the plural of anecdote is not data. Sightings are weak evidence and these hundreds do not combine to from one strong piece of evidence, such as carcass or at least a body part. There is a group called the Jersey Devil Hunters, but the only place they will ever make a capture is in a hockey arena.  

“The means to justify the end” (Doomsdays)

ENDNEAR

The third week of September will be a busy one in cataclysmic circles. End of the world pronouncements happen at least every other year anymore, but as summer rolls into fall, we will be treated to two doomsdays in 72 hours. There is a day in between, but it’s doubtful it would be a constructive one, being sandwiched between two iterations of the planet being ripped asunder. No rest for the wicked, indeed.

Two doomsayers are going with a Sept. 23 date, with last month’s eclipse being the impetus for our finale. Unlike the Mayan Calendar or Harold Camping predictions earlier this decade, this prognostication is more vague on what will happen that day, with adherents insinuating it might only be the beginning (or middle) of the end. The lack of certainty is why this portent of doom is not receiving near the publicity of Camping and Mayan prognostications. Always remember, if wanting to get significant attention to you coming calamity, be specific on what will happen and when.

Because he didn’t do so, most of you have never heard of journalist Gary Ray. In the publication Unsealed, he wrote that the eclipse was one of several astronomical signs that the rapture is approaching: “The Bible says a number of times that there’s going to be signs in the heavens before Jesus Christ returns to Earth. We see this as possibly one of those.”

Of course, eclipses happened before the First Coming of Christ and have continued unabated in predictable patterns ever since, so there’s no need to assign special significance to last month’s, or think it means the Second Coming is in the offing.  

Ray is even more interested in an astronomical event that will follow the eclipse. He draws attention to a passage in Revelation which describes a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head,” who will give birth to a boy whose fate is to “rule all the nations with an iron scepter.

Ray interprets this Tolkienesque imagery to be a prediction of the night sky on Sept. 23. Then, the constellation Virgo, postulated by doomsayers to represent the woman in Revelation, will be clothed in sunlight in a position over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter, which will appear from our vantage point to be inside Virgo, represents an in utero child. As Jupiter moves out of Virgo, this symbolizes birth.

Even if we concede his analogies to be on point, there is the issue of this stellar alignment being not terribly uncommon. For one thing, the sun being in Virgo happens every year for about a month. Second, on the moon’s orbit of Earth, it ends up at Virgo’s feet once a month. These two arrangements come together once or twice a year.

Now onto the crown comprised of three planets and nine stars of Leo. The issue here is that there are several dozen stars in the constellation. The nine Ray references burn brighter than the rest, but it still requires special pleading to substantially reduce the number of stars in Leo to make the scenario work.

While much less frequent that the alignment mentioned two paragraphs back, multiple planets being at Virgo’s head while Jupiter is at her center and the moon at her feet is a circumstance that happens at roughly 300-year intervals, and all such occurrences have been Apocalypse-free.    

If Ray’s prediction flops like the 8,240 doomsdays that have preceded it, he will recover quickly. He has already postulated that this year’s eclipse may be the start of a seven-year tribulation that will end when another eclipse comes in 2024. Carbondale, Ill., which sits in the center of the “X” formed by the two eclipse paths, will presumably be transformed into Armageddon.  

Ray wrote, “It makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of things that really point us to that.” In truth, it makes no sense and nothing points to a period of horrors. He has merely taken astronomically observable and predictable data and turned it into a baseless assertion that a cataclysm is coming.

If preferring a more secular mass extinction event, we have the latest Nibiru hypothesis. The idea that a rouge planet will end life on Earth got a very late start compared to the Armageddon Industry. But in just 40 years, Nibiru proponents have moved into second place behind the Christian doomsayers in the End Times sweepstakes, and their panicky prognostication pronouncements make frequent Internet splashes.

There have been three prominent failures of Nibiru to annihilate the Earth since 2004. Undaunted, a fresh promise of destruction comes in a 2017 book by David Meade. Like Ray, he cites Sept. 23 as probably just a beginning of the end date, and this mistake is why you likely haven’t heard of his book either.

While not overtly religious (though it does cite Revelation when needing to have a point bolstered), the work does demonstrate a faithful fervor. For example, Meade declares, “The existence of Planet X is beyond any reasonable doubt, to a moral certainty.” Meade is equally convinced that the planet’s existence means we are doomed.

Earlier this year, he claimed that such disparate elements as the position of celestial bodies, Biblical verses, and Pyramid inscriptions have combined to reveal that Planet X and its accompanying apocalypse are imminent. His interpretation is that Nibiru will first be seen in the sky on Sept. 23, then will slam into our planet  the following month.

His tortured analysis fixates on the number 33. “When the eclipse begins on Aug. 21, the sunrise will be dark, just as Isaiah predicts. The moon involved is called a black moon. These occur about every 33 months. In the Bible, the divine name of Elohim appears 33 times in Genesis. The eclipse will start in Oregon, the 33rd state, and end on the 33rd degree of Charleston, S.C. Then 33 days after the eclipse, the stars will align exactly as the book of Revelation says they will before the end of the world: 9/23/17. Such a solar eclipse has not occurred since 1918, which is 99 years.”

Since that deviates from the “33” pattern, he finagles that to read “33 x 3.” Besides this special pleading, Meade also demonstrates how simple it is to cherry-pick numbers when trying to prove a point. It took me about 33 seconds to come up with ideas that the run counter to what Meade is peddling. Lucifer, given the astronomy-friendly nickname Morning Star in the Bible, is mentioned in scripture more than 33 times; the number of states the eclipse passed through was less than 33; the biggest astronomical event to occur in the States before the eclipse, Haley’s Comet, took place 31 years prior, not 33. Any number can be arrived at, cited, and said to mean something if the adherent is allowed to choose from every historical event, date, and person.   

But at least Meade sticks with 33. By contrast, the numeral-happy website heavenlysign2017.com  considers dozens of numbers to have sacred, prophetic meaning. Worse, it presents its conclusions in an annoying centered-text format. Author Steven Sewell combines dates for Rosh Hashanah, Christ’s crucifixion, Kepler discoveries, Israel’s founding, Saddam Hussein threats, the Dead Sea Scrolls being made public, Trump attacking Syria, the United States entering World War I, and much more. Out of this gobbledygook emerges an end of the world date of Sept. 21, 2017.

He incredulously asks, “Could all this be a coincidence?” I’m not calling it a coincidence. I’m calling it leaching onto whatever historical events, dates, or persons one feels like manipulating, then twisting and tossing them into a gumbo that results in an idiosyncratic version of evidence.

 

 

“Wishing Welles” (War of the Worlds broadcast)

TAXIALIEN

Though not my intent, I have riled a few people with my posts and comments about topics related to the skeptic movement. Some folks care little for probing questions about their great passions, be they psychic powers, ghost hunters, cryptozoological critters, or cancer-conquering baking soda.

But we should consider sound evidence even when it contradicts a cherished belief, and I strive to be consistent with this. When presented with enough proof, I have discarded ideas that I loved.

For example, while I don’t believe aliens have visited Earth, I once believed that people thought this was happening, and I found the story fascinating. Specifically, they were convinced invading spaceships were ravaging the eastern seaboard the night of Oct. 30, 1938. On that date, Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of his near-namesake’s novel, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

Producer and director Welles tasked script writer Howard Koch to frame the play as a radio broadcast featuring a series of breaking news events that interrupted mellow jazz. Each interjection being more disconcerting until finally Martian laser weapons were zapping and frying farmers, state troopers, and newscasters.

Some persons mistook the fictitious newscast for a factual one, with subsequent newspaper reports portraying this as the country losing its collective mind. Sociologists have pondered that this tale has endured because it speaks to the power of unrestrained media and has a vague Big Brother feel to it, as an unseen, baritone voice of authority deftly dupes the populace. A competing hypothesis is that modern listeners allow themselves to feel superior to Depression Era rubes who fell for such a preposterous notion. The latter hypothesis ascribes unjustified credulity to modern news consumers who unquestioningly pass around Poes and Onion articles as authentic.

As for my love of the tale, it had nothing to do with contemplating the reach of powerful mediums or wanting to feel uppity. It was just a story that was at once intriguing and amusing. No one died, no long-term harm was done, and it was all encapsulated in a well-written, well-acted theater program presented in entertaining crescendo style. For a few months, I made listening to the broadcast a bedtime routine.

For those who tuned in from the beginning, it was obvious that the broadcast was of a dramatic production. But listeners coming across it later might have taken it as fact. On the following day in headlines, and in the following half-century in American folklore, there were tales of near-suicides, impromptu minutemen armies, terrified citizens fleeing to churches and hilltops, and roads and phone lines being jammed.

But while there was panic, little of it centered on an early version of Space Invaders. Rather, the panic came in the form of all caps banner headlines, lawsuits against CBS, Congressional hearings, and calls to tighten broadcast regulations.

Subsequent research has shown that overreaction to the broadcast was localized instead of nationwide, and often came in the form or measured concern rather than full-blown anxiety. The freak-out was likely limited to parts of New York and New Jersey, with the exception of Concrete, Wash. There were persons outside those areas who were taken in by the broadcast and who telephoned relatives in the east, but these responses stop short of panic.

The idea that millions were pouring into the streets to escape or confront the aliens is vastly different from reality. Four days after it ran a sensational report alleging this, the Washington Post ran a letter from a man who had walked down F Street during the broadcast and witnessed “nothing approximating mass hysteria. In many stores radios were going, yet I observed nothing whatsoever of the absurd supposed terror of the populace.” Then in 1954, Ben Gross, radio editor for the New York Daily News, wrote in his memoir that Gotham’s streets were “nearly deserted” that night.

One of the few instances of confirmed hysteria took place in Grover’s Mill, N.J., where the first alien cylinder was said to have landed. There, residents thought Martians had transformed the water tower into a war machine, so they turned their attention and rifles on it.  Meanwhile, in Concrete, Wash., the broadcast reported that Martians were working their way west, destroying railroad tracks, highways, power grids, and communication centers in order to cripple the country. As this happened, a thunderstorm took out a power station and telephone lines. The sudden loss of electricity and phone service seemed consistent with the alien occupation report, so some residents took this as Concrete proof, so to speak, that their village had fallen prey to the invaders.

Despite just two verified cases of terrified throngs, headlines the next day blared, “RADIO FAKE SCARES NATION” and “FAKE RADIO WAR STIRS TERROR THROUGH U.S.” Hitler, who some listeners thought was responsible for the apparent invasion, called the alleged panic “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”

But while there were tiny pockets who took the broadcast as truth, the reactions of editors and genocidal dictators were greatly unwarranted. There were other radio stations to choose from and there were plenty of activities to occupy one’s time besides radio. The most popular show in the time slot, by far, was the Chase and Sanborn Hour, hosted by Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. I’m not sure I understand the appeal of a radio ventriloquist, but let’s stay on topic.

The strongest evidence for how overblown the supposed size of the panic was comes from a poll of 5,000 households taken by the C.E. Hooper Ratings Service. In the telephone survey, two percent responded they were listening to the Mercury radio theatre production. Of that two percent, none of them answered that they were listening to news reports of an alien invasion. True, some who took the play to be a newscast were fleeing from or seeking out the invaders and therefore would not have been home to answer the call. Also true is that some of those who thought there were interplanetary interlopers were basing this on third-hand accounts and not the broadcast.

Still, reports of a country teetering on the brink in inconsistent with an estimated audience of 2.6 million in a nation 50 times that size. Moreover, those 2.6 million included many who listened from the beginning and were aware all along the broadcast was of a drama and not a doomsday. Some who tuned in late took it for the theatrical production it was, while others thought the attack was courtesy the Nazis. The rest went with the Invaders From Mars conclusion. But that number would have been in the hundreds, maybe thousands, but certainly not millions.

The main culprits for propping up the mostly-mythical panic were newspapers. Editor & Publisher encapsulated the industry’s combination of haughtiness and concern over dwindling profits by fuming, “The nation continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news from a medium which has yet to prove that it is competent to perform the job.”

While newspapers were still fumbling around with linotype machines and changing the ink on their printing presses, broadcasters were filing reports on the same story in real time, hours before newspapers could hit the streets. Unlike the Internet, there was no way for newspapers to embrace this neophyte technology and use it for themselves. The War of the Worlds broadcast presented publishers an opportunity to smear the radio medium as sensationalist, unprincipled, and unwholesome – ironically by displaying those same traits.

Wire service articles conspicuously lacked names of persons who were said to have panicked. Subsequent investigations of reports about patients being admitted for shock at St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, N.J., showed that this was untrue. American University communications professor Joseph Campbell has characterized the newspaper coverage as “almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketch wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

While the number of persons impacted was greatly exaggerated, so too was the nature of their reaction. While there were reports of persons feeling “frightened, disturbed, or excited” by the show, this fails to differentiate between those who thought it was news and those who knew it was a play. One could well be scared or thrilled by a radio drama about invading aliens without thinking it was real.

Some observers suspect that the Depression and looming threat of global war left the relative few who did panic ripe for doing so. I disagree. People in 1950s, with the War won and economy booming, fell for a bogus story about Italy’s pasta harvest. The Roaring 20s gave us the Cottingley Fairies hoax. People believe crazy stuff without seeking confirming evidence regardless of what economic circumstances or technological developments define the era.

Much as I loved the tale and wish it true, evidence shows the panic was sparked not by a Martian militia, but by people’s alleged reaction to it.

 

“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)

ONE MAN

While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationist’s substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the Sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth, and will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a Flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.

“I disagree with you in theory” (Conspiracies)

CT

Today we will look at why most conspiracy theories are bonkers. In doing so, we will look at what differentiates a legitimate conspiracy theory from the ones associated with tinfoil hats, multiple exclamation points, and Bohemian Grove references.

First, most supposed conspiracies would require a highly unreasonable amount of secrecy. Depending on the plot, it would necessarily involve hundreds, thousands, or even millions of participants. Real conspiracies collapse when an investigator uncovers it or an insider reveals the misdeeds. This is how the public found out about John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators, Tuskegee syphilis experiments,  the Gulf of Tonkin incident, COINTELPRO, Watergate, the Lewinsky scandal, and NSA abuses.

By contrast, conspiracy theories asserted by Alex Jones and David Icke require accepting that any number of conspirators can seamlessly execute complex plans with untold moving parts and nimbly move around any unexpected obstacles without the plan ever coming apart or being exposed. And by exposed, I don’t mean a YouTuber, saying, “That is not enough blood for someone with a missing limb, so here we see more evidence that the Boston Marathon bombing was staged.” By evidence, I am referring to what Woodward and Bernstein published, what Ken Starr presented in depositions, what then-Bradley Manning released, and what the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI purloined from government offices.

The more people that know of the plan, the more chance it will be exposed. Each person added to the conspiracy is one more member that can be forgetful, get tricked, be blackmailed, succumb to bribery, or grow disillusioned. Every new recruit is one more person that could expose the plot out of spite, incompetence, guilt, or by accident. Conspiracies about hidden cancer cures, 9/11 being an inside job, and Earth being flat would have been exposed with mounds of specific, irrefutable evidence long ago if they were real.

But wait a minute, Mr. Critical Thinking Skeptic, are you not committing the survivor bias fallacy? Surely there have been evil doings by governments, corporations, or criminal enterprises that were never exposed, right? Yes, it is likely that some plots have stayed furtive. But that does nothing to bolster conspiracy theories that are being supported with flimsy evidence.

Manning and Edward Snowden both leaked around 700,000 documents apiece. Recalling other examples of genuine conspiracy theories and the evidence for them, skeptic blogger Emil Karlsson wrote, “The Watergate scandal had burglars being arrested, a money trail that could be followed and mapped, confessions, and several rounds of incriminating audio tapes. The IB affair revealed that Swedish government had a secret military intelligence and counterintelligence agency that the parliament was unaware of that monitored and registered people … and secretly infiltrated their organizations and attempted to provoke them into committing crimes. This conspiracy was exposed by two journalists and a photographer who got their hands on crucial evidence provided by a disgruntled employee. They then spent months stalking and photographing IB members and even intercepted posts sent between field agents and the headquarters of the organization.”

In a similar exposure, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled an FBI field office and made off with several dossiers, which they then forwarded  to the media. That is how the bureau’s illegal program to surveil, infiltrate, and discredit U.S. political organizations came to light.

Compare that to what WAKETHESHEEPLE!! is offering for his, ahem, evidence. One example is a photo of a World Trade Center tower collapsing, with a couple of windows blowing out a few stories below the mushroom of smoke. The accompanying text reads, “Oops! We set off this explosion too early.” In reality, the windows blew out as the result of unequal pressure. Had the theorist performed diligent journalism by seeking out multiple physicists and architects, he would have gained this information. Instead, he was content to unilaterally deduce and announce what had happened.

On conspiracy theory websites, great evidence will be placed on family members not crying when being interviewed about their loved ones, and this argument from ignorance will be considered of greater value than coroner reports, ballistic evidence, and scores of witnesses. After a shooting in California, a police detective was telling news reporters about the importance of training for such events, and he said that previous drills had paid off. In relating this, he misspoke and said “the shooting, which we played out here today,” as opposed to “the shooting, which played out here today.” About the same time, a fellow law enforcement officer placed his hand on his face. These two events were presented as evidence of it being staged, with the detective accidentally revealing the ruse, which caused his co-worker to cover his face, in an “oh no” moment.

Sometimes such exposures are said to be done on purpose, albeit clandestinely. There have been several non-satirical attempts to tie Simpsons episodes into conspiracy theories. The idea is that that evil Hollywood Jews are tipping their hand at the atrocities they are about to unleash. This has included supposed references to 9/11 and even Pizzagate, more than 25 years before that especially ridiculous conspiracy theory surfaced. Similarly, a passport in The Matrix expiring on Sept. 11, 2001, is supposedly another clue. Of course, this requires ignoring any references to any other dates that appeared in any movie prior to the attacks. While the 9/11/2001 expiration date is mildly interesting, the Law of Truly Large Numbers is in play here.

Other than the no-planes notion, probably the most ridiculous 9/11 theory centers on a 1967 Newsweek cover featuring David Rockefeller. He appears in front of the New York skyline, with his watch at 8:55, which in the twisted mind of a conspiracy theorist, reads 9/11. Theorists are assuming a minimum 34-year-plan with thousands of participants, all based on a man’s location, religion, and jewelry.

Speaking of Truthers, their idea of 9/11 being an inside job means that hijacked airliners were superfluous. If the reasons for the attacks was to get the U.S. into war, why not just blow the towers up and still pin it on Muslims? Or just invade anyway without being attacked, the way the U.S. did in Iraq, Panama, and Grenada? American foreign policy is aggressive enough that no one would have found it strange if the U.S. staged another preemptive strike.

Let’s go back to the low evidentiary threshold most conspiracy theorists have.  After the Ariana Grande concert bombing, the PA announcer tried to reassure the audience members that everything was OK so that they would file out calmly and avoid a stampede that would have magnified the tragedy. Footage from inside Manchester Arena showed that panicked attendees had started running, which prompted the announcer to implore, “Please take your time. There’s no need to bunch up. There’s no problems here. Just take your time and exit the building. Everything is fine. Walk slowly, there’s no need to run.”

In some conspiracy theory circles his reassurance that everything was OK was presented as evidence that nothing bad had happened. They also patted themselves on the back for exposing the announcement, which they claimed was not meant to be for public consumption, even though it was given in a crowded venue.

Of course, the theorists did no follow up to see if anyone was killed, talked with no police officers, no concert goers, no ER workers, and did not seek out the PA announcer. They just counted their assertion as proof.

Addressing the conspiracy theory, Snopes noted, “Greater Manchester Police confirmed that they have spoken to grieving families of the 22 deceased and that the coroner is performing postmortem examinations. Once this is complete, identities of the victims will be made public. Police are actively investigating the attack and have taken multiple people into custody. There is also ample footage taken by concert goers that shows everything from the moment the bomb exploded to people scrambling for safety. Authorities have identified the suicide bomber as 22-year-old Salman Abedi.”

Again, all these persons would need to be involved and stay silent for this conspiracy, which would serve no purpose, to have been executed.

Beyond the secrecy, another issue is that conspiracy theorists attribute inconsistent capabilities to those pulling off the plot. Masterminds are portrayed as impossibly brilliant in their management of persons, resources, planning, and execution. They are said to wield nearly unlimited power and cruelty, and are described as ruthless, intelligent, and efficient. They have planned for every contingency, are highly adaptable, have infiltrated the highest levels of government, science, and economics, and have untold minions ready to commit mayhem on their behalf. They conceal or destroy all evidence and ‘disappear’ those who try to expose them. Yet, they are unable to remove YouTube videos. They have the world’s greatest tech minds on their side, yet they are unable to take down websites exposing their dastardly deeds. The strongest argument against alleged conspirators having the massive reach of power attributed to them is that theorists still alive to expose them.

“Which nobody should deny” (Genocide denial)

sweeprug

Other than their tragic natures, there would seem to be little connection between the Srebrenica massacre and Typhoon Haiyan. They were separated by 20 years, one was in the Balkans while the other ravaged Asian island nations, and the former was a deliberate act, the latter a natural disaster.

Yet there is a tie-in, however tenuous and eye-rolling. Some who deny that the genocide occurred offer a novel explanation for the mass of uncovered corpses. In this tale, the massacre was a hoax and those responsible for perpetrating it furtively slipped thousands of Philippine typhoon victims into central Europe and dumped them in the Srebrenica burial sites. I’m halfway expecting a counter theory from HAARP conspiracy theorists that Srebrenica victims were transported to Southeast Asia and passed off as typhoon fatalities.

While the idea of a massacre/typhoon connection is absurd enough to dismiss out of hand, we in the skeptic community prefer to bolster our points with science, and in this case, we find that evidence in DNA. The massacre took place primarily in July of 1995 when Bosnian Serb soldiers from Republica Srpska and the paramilitary Scorpions slew 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. According to The Atlantic, DNA advances have enabled war crimes investigators to document the massacre in minute detail.

In his Atlantic piece, David Rohde wrote that uncovering the remains was made difficult because Bosnian Serbs went to great effort to conceal victims’ bodies. Several months after the killings, they dug up many of the mass graves, dismembered the corpses, and hid them in dozens of locations. This means that body parts from one victim are often in multiple sites. Despite this challenge, the International Commission on Missing Persons collected 22,268 blood samples from Srebrenica survivors and matched them to 6,827 recovered bodies.

However, even this DNA evidence is dismissed by deniers. To conspiracy theorists, inconvenient evidence is part of the cover-up, evidence not uncovered shows how well it’s being hidden, and scientists and journalists who provide contrary information are in on the plot or blindly contributing to it.

Rohde quoted several Serbs who offered either denial of the entire massacre or insisted it had been exaggerated and only occurred in the normal course of battle. It is dismissed as a hoax perpetrated by Western powers, who are also blamed for fomenting conflict in the splintered Yugoslavia. In this theory, supposedly slain Bosnian Muslims are said to be either living in Germany or are instead dead Serb soldiers or Filipino typhoon victims. This denial is not limited to Serbs. The conspiracy theory finds adherents among Russian government officials and anti-Muslim U.S. conservatives.

Similar denials are leveled at the Holocaust and genocides in Ukraine, Armenia, Rwanda, and Cambodia, as well as the Nanking Massacre. These atrocities are accompanied by a denialist narrative in which a shadowy figure or cabal is out do disparage or destroy the nation, culture, or faith responsible for the genocide. Those perpetrating the hoax can be the CIA, Mossad, Saudi royalty, the Clintons, or whoever best fits the narrative.

In these denials, if mass murder was perpetrated, it was in self-defense. This is a double-win for the denial camp. They can defend their country or people while casting blame on a disliked party for perpetrating a self-serving ruse. As George Orwell observed, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

In many cases, denial is the first reaction to news of the genocide, as it was in Srebrenica, when the victims were dug up and reburied. Some of the bodies were also burned. This moving and desecration of the evidence made further denial easier. Then when those remains were found, an ad hoc rationale developed that the corpses were of legitimate military targets. All this is standard practice for genocide deniers, who attempt to refute what happened or at least downplay it. Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, considers denial a continuation of the genocide because it is part of a continuing attempt to psychologically and culturally destroy the victim group.

Meanwhile, blogger Emil Karlsson  has touched on the characteristics of genocide denial. These include false attempts at moral equivalence between the side perpetrating the genocide and its victims. This, to the denialist, justifies any atrocity because there were good and bad on both sides, usually more good on their end. Or it can take the form of dehumanizing the victims and considering them unworthy of sympathy, so whether it happened or not doesn’t matter. One internet meme tried to rebrand Srebrenica massacre mastermind Ratko Mladic as a mighty warrior who has been doing battle with ISIS since 1992, thereby equating  murdered grade schoolers with an Islamic terrorists.

Another tact is misusing initial estimates done by governments. The first totals of genocide fatalities are usually done by government or military officials who lack the research and documentation capabilities of scientists and historians. These first estimates may be inaccurate, perhaps wildly so. This provides easy fodder for a genocide denialist, who cites the disparate numbers of proof of a lie. If the numbers go up, they are fraudulent; if they go down, it shows it was never a big deal anyway, especially in war. A similar tactic is to exploit new discoveries or corrected errors, as new information is taken as evidence that it was all fabricated.

Yet another strategy is to quote historians out of context. In Karlsson’s post, he wrote that holocaust deniers enthusiastically reference Raul Hilberg having said that it would be hard to prove that the Holocaust happened. Sliced off is his next sentence, where he explains how historians and researchers overcome any difficulties and confirmed the event’s horrible reality. Holocaust deniers also lift a passage from Arno Mayer’s book to make it seem like he asserts that evidence for Nazi gas chambers is sparse. What they leave out is that he was referring to the SS having destroyed most of the evidence for the chambers, which wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t there to destroy.

This shows how denialists can highlight any apparent inconsistency while ignoring the totality of evidence. In an article sympathetic to Srebrenica denial, World Net Daily wrote that 37 percent of the massacre victims were on voting roles in 1996, a year after what it calls “the alleged genocide.” Voting roles are usually only purged after one misses several elections, so this demonstrates nothing and certainly does not refute the DNA evidence of the nearly 7,000 confirmed victims.

Historians take their work seriously and will correct errors when found. Genocide denialists will advertise this not as admitting an honest mistake, but as the exposing of a cover-up. For instance, WND claimed that at least 100 persons in the Srebrenica memorial sites died of natural causes. Even if true, this is a tiny percentage of those buried and does not lessen the brutality of killing young boys and senior citizens because of where they were born and what religion they practice.