“Rod and not real” (Invisible flying creatures)

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Believers in flying rods describe them as mystical living creatures who inhabit a realm that doesn’t fit neatly into any of our known dimensions. They can, however, slip through those dimensions with the right juxtaposition of technology and the desire to believe.

Proponents describe the rods as long and thin with waved wings for flying, and being anywhere from a few inches to a yard long. They are touted as invisible to humans, but visible to cameras.

While there are many alleged photos out there, they were not taken by professional nature photographers and videographers. Or, if they were taken by such persons, the shooters refrained from identifying their subjects as airborne, mostly invisible creatures from an unknown strata. If rods did exist, it should follow that those who do photograph nature for a living should be doing the majority of the sightings.

Instead, they were identified by Jose Escamilla, who said he made was videotaping UFOs when by happenstance came across some unexplained floating sticks with appendages.

He only saw then when he reviewed his video. Since he had no recollection of seeing any such thing in person, he credited himself with discovering a new species of flying creatures that are invisible to humans, and only shows up on film or video. In other words, he made an appeal to ignorance. This is when no other explanation is readily apparent, so the answer is whichever one the observer finds most gratifying.

But Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted serious deficiencies with the idea of these flying rods. First, zoologists should be aware of other flying insects up to a meter in length. There are new creatures discovered all the time, but most are small or in places not generally accessible. The idea that a sustainable population of large, airborne animals was discovered by chance by a UFO enthusiast and not by an ornithologist, biologist, or someone in a related field is straining believability.

Also, rod believers should be able to demonstrate that invisible creatures are tenable. There are known transparent creatures, such as certain jellyfish, but none that are invisible. Sure, if they can’t be seen, that would be a great handicap in finding them. But the onus is on believers to show that invisible creatures exist, it is not on skeptics to prove such an animal would be impossible.

Further, rod believers need to prove that cameras convert certain invisible wavelengths into visible ones without affecting the visible wavelengths, which is something they were not designed to do.

Dunning wrote there is a rational explanation for this phenomenon. It lies with two speeds – those of camera shutters and those of flying insects. Combined with lighting conditions, these can make for images that resemble the rods touted by enthusiasts as invisible flying creatures. Dunning offered a hypothetical example of someone standing with the sun at their back and facing a large-shaded area. With a horde of dragonflies scattering about, going about nine meters per second, the photographer captures these images shooting at 1/30 shutter speed.

He writes, “Because your exposure is set for the dark background, the path traced by the dragonfly’s transit will be overexposed and will appear solid white. Dragonflies beat their wings about 30 times a second, so the path described by its wingtip on your film image would be one full sine wave period, 30 centimeters long. Change these parameters with different insects, different wing speeds, different camera shutter speeds, and you can duplicate any rod photograph on the Internet.”

Among those who photograph nature for a living, this occurrence is more an annoyance than the discovery of a clandestine species. Dunning notes that the images are “strange enough that someone not familiar with photography basics might conclude that the subject in the photograph was in fact 30 centimeters long with undulating wings, and the photographer would be absolutely correct in stating that he did not see any 30-centimeter-long flying creatures with his naked eye.”

Dunning has thus provided a satisfactory explanation that should be the default answer until believers are able to capture and present a living rod.

“Head trip” (Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Fair)

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On this year’s trip to the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Fair, I concentrated on merchants hawking Supplementary, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine (SCAM). These are all oxymoronic terms. There is no supplementary medicine, complementary medicine, alternative medicine, Eastern medicine, and so on.

Products and treatments repeatedly proven effective in double blind, controlled studies are medicine, with no qualifier needed. If they lack these evidentiary distinctions, they are not medicine.

What proponents and detractors alike label “alternative medicine” are purported remedies that usually have no recommended dosage and carry no possibility of overdosing. This is because the product has no active ingredient and is therefore without medicinal value. I heard many a tale of success at the fair, but no references to double blind studies. And as James Randi noted, “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

Further, I have found that even the most rudimentary probing of the alternative medicine field will leave proponents flummoxed. They are used to being asked, “What can this do for my headache,” not, “Explain the mechanism behind how this will help my headache.”

By way of comparison, chemotherapeutic drugs work by inhibiting mitosis and targeting fast-dividing cells. That is a terse, rudimentary explanation, but that’s the gist of it and an oncologist could go into further detail, all of which would be backed by thousands of studies, peer-reviewed articles, and decades of research. But when I asked for the mechanism behind what was being sold at the fair, my ears were overloaded with fabricated terminology, pseudoscience, and anecdotes.

One reason alt med sometimes seems to work is that it usually tried after other methods have failed. Combined with the cyclical nature of many ailments and illnesses, the treatment or product might then seem effective, when in truth, it has just run its natural course.

My first stop was to a Shamanic healer, whom I asked about my headaches. She pronounced, “There’s more to you than just your physical, mental, and emotional bodies. There’s you energy body and that’s what we work with.”
That leaves me with three more bodies than I thought I had, but let’s see what she can do with the energy one.

She used what she called an energy bundle and what I called a red blanket. With this piece of vermilion fabric, she can “check you energy fields. When we do that, we get information about where there are imprints, maybe things you’re still struggling with.” Yeah, like those headaches, let’s get back to that.

“We would have to look at what’s effecting you.” Um, I said headaches were effecting me.

She continued, “Maybe some ancestral things that are effecting you.” You mean like genetics, maybe we’re getting somewhere. Instead she went down a different pathological path.

“We have a close relationship with our guides and mountain spirits, with powers, and we open up to the divine. We use stones that have connections to power places.”

By the time our conversation wound down, she had clued me on power stones and I had let her know what a double blind study was. A win for both of us.

At my second stop, the lady asked me, “Did you come last year?” It appears I’ve stumbled onto the Reverse Clairvoyance booth. As to why she was there either time, it was “to do all kind of modalities: Reiki, craniosacral, Shamanic healing, and reflexology.”

She explained it thusly: “You lay down (I’m liking that part) and there are different holds around the whole body, and the idea is to sort of calm your chakras so your body can do what it already knows how to do.” If it already knows how, why would I pay someone to do it?

She suggested craniosacral therapy and its “gentle holds” for my headaches. When I fired my standard question about the mechanism behind how it works, she told me,

“Um, gentle holds.” So, gentle holds works via gentle holds. Hard to argue with that.

She continued, “The weight you would use to hold a nickel is all the weight you would use. It can get pretty energyish. I love first-time experiences and while I’ve heard scores of references to energy during my annual pilgrimage to the fair, this is the first time some has uttered “energyish.”

Next up was a holistic healing table. There were the usual references to auras, chakras, clearings, blockages, and energy. And the usual dearth of evidence for auras and chakras, no clarifying of what type of energy is in play, or any explanation for why blockages would be harmful and clearings beneficial.

He blamed unspecified imbalances for causing shocks when touching a doorknob or for a light bulb blowing when you turn it on. In truth, the shocks are due to the build- up of static electricity, which cause electrons to flow from a person to a metal object. As to light bulbs being blown when turned on, that can be caused by cheap bulbs, loose connections, mechanical vibrations, or high voltages. No imbalance of a colorful yet somehow invisible energy field is needed.

He further offered that his chakra assessments may reveal that a person needs more vegetables and to carry a blue topaz. Of course, one is going to feel better eating more peppers and carrots regardless of one’s crystal accoutrements.

As to my headache question, he attributed that to my crown chakra and Third Eye. Criminy, my astigmatism makes it hard enough for me to handle two eyes, now I’ve got another one to worry about?

His cohort, who seemed lifted straight from 1967, said my ailment (and everyone else’s) could be caused by WiFi and cell phones. Since the sicknesses also occurred prior to the advent of wireless technology, this seems unlikely. She suggested keeping my energy field balanced and free of other peoples’ frequencies, offering no evidence for any of these things existing or being capable of manipulation.

I asked about the mechanism responsible and was told it was akin to cleaning the top of a swimming pool. That might be relevant if my issue was pruned hands, but I’m here for a throbbin’ noggin.

I moved on to the chiropractic booth, where a woman told me she uses “the alignment of your nerves and your muscles on your spine to align your spine.” Rather redundant. It would be like describing dentistry as caring for your teeth to ensure your teeth are cared for.

When I asked about my head pain, she had me sit next to an ersatz electronics machine. She rolled an implement on my neck, and this resulted in a readout of my back, neck, and skull that showed two red areas. There was no explanation for what this measured or revealed, or how spine adjustment would fix it, or even if it needs fixing. But red in general means bad, so the point was subtly made, or at least would be to someone less skeptical.

Next I came upon another chakra healing merchant. She reiterated earlier claims about needing to ensure my chakras are lined up and needing to see if there are any blockages. There is no way to measure this and it’s hard to imagine anyone being given a clean bill of health and told that neither they nor their money needs to come back.

She assured me that if my crown chakra is blocked, that could cause it, and that she can see each of my chakras. There have been tests of such claims, where a curtain is placed in front of the chakra reader. They are then asked to see what chakra is emanating from the person behind the curtain, or if there is even anyone there. No one has ever performed better that chance at guessing whether anyone and their accompanying chakra was behind the curtain. As I had come to the fair without any interior design merchandise, I had to settle for trusting the previous experiments and not conducting my own.

When I inquired into the mechanism, she answered, “We’re all energetic beings. Chakras are energy vortexes. When we have emotional garbage, the chakras push it out so the universe can take care of it and it also pulls in the good, clean energy.”

I asked, “What kind of energy is it, thermal, kinetic, nuclear?” She answered, “Divine energy and Reiki energy.” Hmm, don’t remember those from school. Then again, I didn’t take a lot of science.

Then I found another shaman who told me he “works with spirituality. I don’t heal you, the body heals itself. It’s a conduit for healing energies that are imparted to you. A good shaman is nothing more than a good plumber.” Interesting analogy. I’ve never heard anyone who was unplugging my bathtub refer to themselves as a right fine witch doctor.

As to the mechanism behind it, he said, “It’s just sending healing energy to that person. It’s also very connected to the spirit world. It is common for us to use drums and rattles to transmit the energy.” If that’s the case, I should just listen to R. Carlos Nakai.

Finally, I paid a visit to a sound healer and his many ringing metal bowls. He suggested I try exposure to various frequencies until I find one I resonate with. This type of approach leads to post hoc reasoning, where the subject keeps trying frequencies and when the pain goes away, they attribute it to that frequency. Yet the headache may have gone away on its own by then. With no plausible mechanism or explanation for how this works, it is mistaken to attribute it to the sound made from rubbing the rim of a copper bowl, no matter how pleasing the result is to the auditory sense.

When I asked the mechanism, he gave me the day’s most honest response, saying he didn’t know and suggested I Google it. I would choose another physician if mine recommended doing a web search to figure out why I have a back rash, so I’m going to move on from this sound healer. And I gotta tell you, a day of having these conversations wasn’t real good for my headache.

“Doubting Thomas” (Thomas John)

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Skeptics should take aim at, challenge, and ridicule psychics who claim to carry on conversations with the dead that only the psychics can hear.

Their victims, however, should be approached with caution, compassion, and a well-thought plan. Skeptic leader Susan Gerbic revealed how she handled the delicate subject with a believer named Ken who had become enamored with one of today’s more prominent psychics, Thomas John. She relates, “People who seek him overwhelming believe Thomas John is in contact with their dearly departed. It’s extremely sad to watch people preyed on by these grief vampires who are trying to get a hook into their desperation and trust.”

A combination of gullibility, stubbornness, and a desire to believe works in the psychic’s favor. Gerbic related about a skeptic leader who was at a psychic show where the performer claimed to be mentally reading – but not looking at – questions audience members had jotted on pieces of paper the psychic was holding. He purported to be able to put the pieces to his head and receive the message telepathically. But before doing so, he put on his glasses, a superfluous action if he wasn’t going to read. The skeptic asked a believer who he was attending the show with, “Did you see that?” The believer answered that she did, but that they should keep quiet so as to not upset the spirits.

This anecdote reveals how tough it can be to bring someone around to the truth about psychics. Along those lines, Gerbic wrote about her difficulty convincing Ken that John was fraudulent. He remain entrenched even after Gerbic showed him how John had used Ken’s social media posts to glean information about him, then wow him with a hot read.

Ken was so impressed with John that he produced a YouTube video of the reading, praising the psychic vampire for his accuracy. According to the video, John correctly noted the following: Ken planned the funeral for the father of his roommate, Judy; Ken helped procure military recognition and medals for the deceased; that Judy had sold her father’s car; and that the father was married to a woman named Anna, who preceded him in death. John also revealed that he had seen a vision of the father and Anna dancing in heaven.

What seemed to Ken be a series of irrefutable hits was instead textbook hot reading. Gerbic and her associates found that Ken regularly mentioned Judy on Facebook, and there were multiple posts about the medals, Anna, the car being sold, and about Ken’s plans to attend the show. As to the celestial tango, Gerbic noted this is a claim that cannot be tested and is therefore of no value. Ken’s only response to all this was that there was no way John could have known what he did. The Backfire Effect kicked in since Ken had invested so much time, emotion, and money into believing John was a psychic.

Ken also revealed that he is close to death himself and said John’s words provide comfort about the situation and about his associate’s passing. Put another way, John had found another desperate victim to prey on.

We should extend sympathy to such victims. Hot and cold readings done skillfully can amaze the recipient, especially if they are unfamiliar with how they work. And Gerbic noted that, “Cold reading can come at you so fast that you can barely process what is being said.” But when you watch the taped version, pausing to digest it bit-by-bit, the misses and the manipulative techniques are seen more clearly.

Though well meaning, a skeptic can sometimes add to the victim’s burden by snatching away their hope, albeit a false one. Some of those who have come around to the skeptics’ way of thinking related that realizing it wasn’t true was like losing the loved one again.

And whether it involves dietary choices, financial decisions, or psychic readings, people will respond coldly to being told they are being ridiculous. They will shut you down and not hear anything else you have to say. So a sound strategy might be to talk about psychics in general or bring up specifics from another case and avoid addressing the victim’s personal experience altogether. Certainly don’t try and completely invalidate what to them was a powerful emotional experience. Maybe leave them with an article on cold reading and suggest they peruse it later, without you being present. Ask them a few days later what they thought of it. One doesn’t need to be a psychic to see that such an approach would be more likely to succeed.

 

“Plane truth” (Malaysian Airlines flight MH370)

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On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Its final appearances were some unexpected cameos on radar and satellite data. About 40 minutes after departure, the Boeing 777 signed off from Kuala Lumpur air traffic control over the South China Sea.

Minutes after signing off, the pilots made a U-turn back toward Malaysia. The plane was equipped an ACARS system which periodically transmits maintenance data, and the system was inoperable after the U-turn.

Later, a right turn was made and the military radar detected the craft west of Thailand. The final contact, between an Inmarsat satellite and the aircraft’s automated satellite data unit, located the plane as having been in the Indian Ocean west of Australia. That is about when the plane’s fuel would have run out. Search and rescue teams were unsuccessful, though conspiracy theorists enjoyed much more fruitful days.

Plausible ideas such as a hijacking or pilot suicide were aired. But hijackers want something in return or, in the case of 9/11, aim to commit a very public atrocity. Neither of those things happened. As to the latter idea, Captain Zaharie Ahmad had recently separated from his wife and a flight simulator game at his home had some unusual Indian Ocean landings on it. But that’s hardly enough to (reasonably) deduce he committed a mass murder/suicide.

Some have pondered about North Korean involvement. There are two competing narratives here: One has Kim Jong Un lackeys hijacking the plane in order to reverse engineer it; the other paints North Koreans as the victims, with the 777 carrying a nuclear weapon meant to take aim at Pyongyang. This idea was reminiscent of suspicion that the downed KAL 007 airliner in 1983 had been on a spy mission. However, there is no satellite or radar data suggesting the Malaysian airliner was ever on a route to North Korea.

Keeping with the theme of vile eastern dictators, another hypothesis implicates Vladimir Putin. In this tale, a cutting-edge Russian spy satellite detected the Malaysian airliner plummeting into the Bay of Bengal. However the Russians kept quiet about it in order to not reveal it had this new technology. How anyone in the West knows this, since it contradicts the narrative it’s trying to promote, is unclear.

Another Putin-related claim was that the vanishing came after the US had imposed sanctions against Russia, so Putin arranged for hijackers to divert the plane to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Besides being post hoc reasoning and lacking all evidence, this proposal fails to explain how a Malaysian airliner being set to Kazakhstan would harm the United States.

The most far-out explanations include the airliner making its way to an alternate dimension or being caught in a time warp a la Manifest

While the disappearance remains a mystery, a reasonable answer has been suggested by members of the Air Line Pilots Association. What follows is a succinct version of the theory.

First, since the airliner’s automated communications stopped, this may indicate the ACARS system had been damaged. Second, an emergency locator beacon was never triggered while within range of ground personnel who could have heard it. This suggests that whatever doomed the plane took place over several minutes and was not an instantaneous catastrophe. Third, it seems probable that the pilots became incapacitated. All three of these occurrences could be explained by smoke.

Members of the association agree their initial action when smelling smoke would be to turn off all unnecessary electronics, to included radios. This would explain the ACARS no longer transmitting, and would also explicate the lack of communication from the airplane to traffic control. As to the emergency locator beacon, pilots cannot switch it off, and besides, there would not necessarily been anything to trigger it.

If the smoldering got pronounced enough, carbon monoxide or smoke inhalation could have rendered the pilots incapacitated. As to why they wouldn’t have responded with a Hollywood “Mayday!” moment, no one in air traffic control can help with a smoky cockpit. Pilots follow at guideline of, “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” – in that order.

The reconstructed flight path that we now know the plane followed is consistent with the association’s recommendations of what backup airports the pilots would have chosen. And when debris from a Boeing 777 did begin to appear more than a year later, it was all consistent with the notion of a crash in the ocean west of Australia.   

“Back in my daze” (Youth bashing)

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Back in my day, we didn’t need social media to ostentatiously announce the shortcomings of these dadgum young’uns.

Nor did anyone decades, centuries, or even millennia ago. Adults have been ruminating about the current generation’s faults from Socrates to Weird Al. This would suggest that the stereotype is inaccurate. Each succeeding generation getting worse for 3,000 years would leave societies and cultures in ruins. Instead, humanity has consistently experienced a general uptick in the quality of life, education, medicine, housing, transportation, food, and innovation.

In order to reconcile this contradiction, University of California-Santa Barbara psychology professors John Protzko and Jonathan Schooler led a team that conducted five studies to assess people’s tendency to believe that kids these days are deficient, relative to those of previous generations, especially their own, or from generations they hold in high regard.

The studies measured three traits and found that U.S. adults believe today’s youth are indeed in decline. Researchers found the subjects were more likely to hold this position if they were good at a specific trait they were questioned about. For instance,  authoritarian types strongly feel youth are less respectful of their elders than in years past, intelligent people especially think today’s youth are less brilliant than they were before, and well-read people think young folks enjoy picking up a book (or Kindle) less than they did.

The attitudes toward children’s intelligence is telling because intelligence has risen fairly steadily over the years and centuries. Still, intelligent people believed that children today were becoming less so. Adding authoritarianism to the mix showed this characteristic to be unrelated to person’s beliefs about children’s intelligence. This is further evidence that the Kids These Days Effect primarily afflicts those who are proficient in a certain area themselves. Put another way, there were kids in your day who were just as disrespectful, dumb, and lazy as the current crop you are criticizing. But selective memory and a tendency to generalize the current generation but not one’s own leads to a skewed perspective. And again, this is only true if the subject exceled in that area themselves.

Also a factor is people’s tendency to romanticize the past and think of it as the good ol’ days. They envision the 1950s as the days of Leave it to Beaver instead of as a time of entrenched segregation, and the 1870s a the time of Tom Sawyer instead of the era of Native American genocide.

“Flash drive” (Reactionless space drives)

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Today we will look at an idea which marries lovers of conspiracy theories with aficionados of science fiction masquerading as emerging technology. It centers on a purported ability of humans to travel far deeper into space than they ever have.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning tackled this issue and he noted that sizable limits that are placed on such a notion. Flying in space, he said, requires reaction mass. In other words, to change a spacecraft’s direction of movement, those on board must expel mass in the opposite direction. It can either be a lot of mass that astronauts push off from gently, or it can be a little mass which they use to push off from aggressively. In either case, Newton’s Third Law of Motion comes into play: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As Mankind has yet to make it to a neighboring planet, there’s little reason to contemplate spacefaring beyond the solar system or especially the Milky Way. But there are some that do boldly go where many man has gone before: Offering baseless charges of a cover-up.

These types are motivated less by a spirit of adventure and exploration and more out of the chance to offer self-congratulation and to get excited about a nefarious plot. If they were intrigued by possible advances space travel, they would be reading astronomy magazines, pushing for funding, and contemplating a return trip to the moon or an inaugural trip to Mars. Instead, they salivate over winning a game of technological hide-and-seek and vacationing in the Andromeda vicinity.

Travel to this star system would require a massive amount of acceleration in order to overcome the literally astronomical distance. If deep space pioneers were to expel that much reaction mass, physics would require them to start the trip with such a quantity of reaction mass that the amount of inertia would mean the spaceship would never budge.

The type of space travel depicted in science fiction often employs a space drive, the name for a hypothetical reactionless drive system. In the real world, there are proposals, patents, and prototypes for these devices, all of which fail owing to the aforementioned Newtonian physics.

But here are a look at a few of them. There are EM Drives, which depend on microwaves or other radio waves bouncing around a closed chamber, which is designed so that pressure on the bouncing waves will be greater on one interior surface than on the opposite one, thus pushing the whole system.

Occasionally, a prototype of such a device will be credited with managing a very short positive thrust, which in theory could be refined and improved upon until extreme space travel is realized. However, even these modest gains have always been proven false during replication attempts. According to Dunning, assorted measurement and experiment errors have caused the false positives.

Next we have the Gyroscopic Inertial Thruster, supposedly based on centrifugal force. The idea here is that the ships carrying future astronauts or space tourists would employ the Thruster, which would swing faster when going in the direction of intended travel. This would fail because any changes to the force needed speed up or slow down the spaceship would be met with equal and opposite reactions. The net will always be zero.

There is also the Dean Drive, a 1950s device whose inventor tellingly never let anyone examine or test it. The Drive would gradually scoot across a table when activated, though observers concluded any movement was just the result of friction and the device’s vibrations.

Finally, we consider the Alcubierre Drive, which is described as being akin to Star Trek’s warp drive. Its inventor, physicist Miguel Alcubierre Moya, claims to have based it on physics and kept it consistent with Einstein’s field equations.

Alcubierre said his device works by coopting a virtual wave of spacetime, thereby constantly shrinking the space in front of it and expanding the space behind it. The problem, Dunning said, is that ,”Doing this would require a region with lower density than an absolute vacuum, a concept that works only if one has ‘exotic matter,’ a placeholder term for any hypothetical matter with properties that deviate from the known types of matter.’”

So Moya is explaining one remote hypothetical with a second remote hypothetical. And even if exotic matter were real and accessible, any Flash Gordon wannabe would need to procure impossibly high amounts of it.

 

“Of one mindfulness” (Mindfulness meditation)

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Mindfulness is a type of meditation derived from the Buddhism, with a Western twist. Its intent is to promote the observation and introspection of thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings. The Western influence paints Buddhism as rational, universal, and compatible with science. Like many avant garde approaches to ancient ideas, mindfulness presents itself as way of getting back to the true meaning of the original concept.

Associating itself with Buddhism allows mindfulness advocates to reap the philosophical fruits of attaching itself to a major Eastern religion and appeal to those captivated by such leanings. Yet it maintains enough distance from the most esoteric concepts that mindfulness isn’t considered overtly faith-based, which would drive away those too far in the other direction. And when proponents declare mindfulness to be universal, they further extend their potential reach.

Some research credits mindfulness with a slew of health benefits, which is usually a pseudoscience giveaway. Genuine medicine generally alleviates or cures a specific condition or disease through a scientifically-understood method. The longer the list of supposed treatments, the more likely the product or practice provides none of them.

Also of major note, most mindfulness studies are poorly designed, hampered by insufficient sample sizes, lack control groups, and are not double blinded. In short, evidence for most of the claimed benefits is scant. A review of 47 meditation trials involving 3,500 participants found no evidence for such stated benefits as increasing an attention span, kicking a drug habit, conquering insomnia, or managing weight loss. There are, however, signs that it leads to moderate improvements for some persons in dealing with anxiety and stress. But the technique only works for people for find mindfulness mediation relaxing. A person who finds painting relaxing would get the same benefit from taking brush to canvas.

Another problem is that there is a lack of agreement on what mindfulness is. The various approaches make it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion as to if and how well it works. Dr. Steven Novella of Science-Based Medicine wrote that the lack of definition matters because proper research controls for specific variables. If those cannot be defined or isolated, the topic cannot be studied in any meaningful way.

He explained this by using an analogy to acupuncture: “If we define acupuncture as placing thin needles through the skin at acupuncture points, we can confidently conclude based upon the research that acupuncture does not work. However, proponents continue to claim that acupuncture does work, citing research results that use a deliberately loose definition of acupuncture. Proponents have essentially said, ‘acupuncture works, it just doesn’t seem to matter where or if you stick the needles.’ Then what is acupuncture? And if specific variables don’t seem to matter, how can you control for non-specific effects?” This lead to another issue, there being no way to control for nonspecific results.

One assertion proponents get right is that mindfulness produces measurable changes to the brain. But the type of brain change cited – thicker gray matter – is associated with many different activities, such as sports competition, playing musical instruments, or learning to reason. And there’s no reason to think these brain changes are beneficial or something to strive for. In summary, a person should use mindfulness if it helps them to relax and destress, but they shouldn’t expect any reward beyond that.