“Cuban Whistle Crisis” (Sickened diplomats)


Cuba and the U.S. have a long history of antagonizing one another. Eisenhower targeted Castro with coup attempts and following the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, these morphed into assassination efforts. The CIA went at Castro with such frequency that there was no questioning the agency’s intent, though there were doubts about its efficiency.

A combination of James Bond and the Keystone Cops, CIA assassination attempts employed exploding cigars, explosive-laden seashells, a diving suit coated with deadly fungus, and a poison pen. After repeated failures, the agency was reduced to trying to humiliate Castro by making his beard fall out, and it failed to manage even this clean-shaven caper.

Castro lasted through 10 U.S. presidents and survived a largely ineffective embargo that included prohibitions on Americans from traveling to Cuba. Then there were the trips in the other direction. The most well-known resulted in the Elián González saga, during which right wingers developed a sudden concern for residency rights of undocumented immigrants.

Toward the end of the Obama administration, U.S.-Cuba relations thawed, the countries resumed diplomatic ties, and the travel ban was largely rescinded. The freeze soon resumed, however, as President Trump put most of the travel restrictions back in place. There was also a mysterious mass sickening of U.S. State Department employees at the embassy in Havana. Whether there was a connection between these two events is the focus of this post.

There were suggestions that the illnesses resulted from Cuba deploying a supersonic weapon. While not specifying what type of attack, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly used that word and blamed it for the sickness surge. The State Department’s website reads, “Over the past several months, numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees have been targeted in specific attacks.” Consequently, the department recalled nonessential personnel and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats.

There have been 22 confirmed illnesses, but a secret supersonic weapon would be an unlikely cause. More likely culprits would include toxins, bacteria, or viruses, as certain strains of all these can damage hearing, which is among the reported symptoms, along with tinnitus, headaches, and dizziness.

The Guardian entertained another possibility. Reporters interviewed neurologists who said that a definitive diagnosis is impossible without having access to the stricken diplomats, but they said perhaps a “functional disorder” could be effecting nervous system functioning. The newspaper quoted neurologist Mark Hallett, who said it was possible for 22 persons to be impacted by the same disorder, especially when they work close together in a high stress environment.

Meanwhile, the AP obtained audio tapes of high-pitched whistles, which some workers said they heard through cellphones or from their computer. Yet the recording reveals nothing about the source, its potentially deleterious effect on the human body, or its relationship to the sicknesses. Of relevance, the report noted that not all sickened Americans heard the strange sounds. And acoustics experts have said that it is highly unlikely that the range of symptoms reported could have been caused by any kind of supersonic weapons. They said they were unaware of any sound that could can cause physical damage when played for a short duration at moderate levels through normal workplace equipment like a cellphone or computer. This works against the idea that an auditory assault is causing issues related to hearing, cognition, vision, vertigo, and sleep.  

It’s true that the Navy uses long-range blasts to target terrorists and pirates, that the Army uses them at checkpoints, and police employ them to disperse crowds. But these weapons work because of their high volume and cacophony. If such a device were targeting U.S. diplomats in Cuba, there would be no mystery about it. It would be loud and proud. Those intent on finding a Havana connection have speculated the answer may lie in a sinister device that is producing sounds beyond the human hearing threshold.

This would include the possibility of infrasound, which emits extremely low frequencies. It can cause feelings of unease in people and many times when persons reported sensing ghostly presence, infrasound was proven to be the culprit. Ultrasound is another possibility. At the other end of the spectrum from infrasound, ultrasound is too high to be heard by people, but it can still cause damage. However, even if Cuba succeeded in developing a secret supersonic weapon, physics laws would make it unlikely that the device could harm victims from a great distance. Ultrasound has limited range, gets weaker as it travels, and would be further hampered in a humid climate. Moreover, a beam of ultrasound would probably be repealed by a building’s exterior.

An ultrasound-emitting device planted inside a building might be close and powerful enough to cause harm to occupants, but it is unlikely that an army of these emitters could be implanted without being detected. And even if this happened, it still wouldn’t explain most of the symptoms U.S. diplomats are reporting.

So in summary, the idea of supersonic weapons being responsible is about as likely as Castro’s 2016 death being the result of the CIA finally succeeding.


“Err supply” (Food control)


One tenet of the anti-GMO, selectively anti-corporate crowd is that evil, powerful groups are controlling the world’s food supply. I’m generally not much on conspiratorial thinking, but this time, the accusation is correct.

But it comes with a substantial caveat. That’s because those making the accusation and those committing the act are the same. For it is anti-GMO activists that are corruptly manipulating the food marketplace. It is not being done, as they claim, by food technology companies through patents and seed ownership. Rather, anti-GMO activists manage to artificially constrain GMOs through a three-pronged approach of regulatory control, making threats to corporations, and exerting pressure on food importers.

The result is that only 10 crops have ever been approved for genetic modification even though the technique can reduce the chance of a crop being afflicted by drought, disease, or pests. Anti-GMO victories have included preventing the distribution of Vitamin A-rich Golden Rice to Third World countries, which would prevent some instances of childhood blindness.

When anti-GMO forces have failed and farmers have been given the chance to grow biotech crops, they embrace them. Genetic modification allows for the development of traits that provide economic benefit, make for sturdier corps, and carry less risk. But only a small percentage of the world’s fruit, vegetable, and grain producers enjoy this biotechnology option.

One of the more prominent successes of anti-GMO forces was the politically-driven decision by several European nations to disallow biotech crops to be cultivated in all or parts of their countries. A related win was the required labeling of genetically-modified foods. Most companies avoided such products since the labels are accompanied by harassment from activists.

These activists frequently employ the ad populum fallacy and consider the number of countries that have banned the cultivation of genetically-modified foods to be evidence of their nefarious nature. But nearly 2,000 studies attest to GMO safety, meaning the restrictions are based on fear and threats, not science and reason. Just how much of a problem this can be was highlighted in a 2014 Guardian article. From the story:

“More than 20 of the most eminent botanists and ecologists in the world warn that it is time to put fears of genetic modification aside and begin widespread field trials. They call for a ‘fundamental revision of GM regulation’ which, they claim, is based not on science, but on politics. Professor Jonathan Jones says British scientists are creating world-changing crops, but they are being blocked by Europe. Jones has developed a blight resistant potato which would avoid the need for farmers to spray crops 15 times a year. Blight is the number one threat to the six million tons of potatoes produced in Britain each year and was responsible for the Irish Famine of the 1840s. But European approval is needed for commercial cultivation and so far the Council of Ministers has vetoed every application.”

This entrenched opposition has extended to other continents. African farmers are denied access to genetically engineered seeds that would improve resistance to insects and drought, and which would make the food they produce hardier, brighter, better tasting, and less susceptible to failure.

Beyond legislation, a second strategy is to threaten corporations with demonization. An insect-resistant potato was developed in 1996 and agricultural scientist Steve Savage reported that he “interviewed many potato growers in the first few years the trait was available and they were extremely happy to have a solution to their most damaging insect pest.”

But after anti-GMO activists threatened McDonald’s and Frito-Lay with boycotts, protests, and ad campaigns if they used this scientific advancement in their products, the companies caved and announced they would not be buying the crop. No small potatoes indeed, as with the two biggest potential customers backing out, the idea fizzled.

This tactic has hobbled other crop developments as well. Savage wrote, “I am aware of projects that have been started or were planned for bananas, coffee, grapes, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries and apples,” but these were also torpedoed by activists who relied on threats, not data.

The final strategy is to threaten importers from countries which mandate GMO labeling. Savage explains how this derailed a herbicide-resistant wheat strain. “Once again, I had the opportunity to interview many wheat growers to assess their interest in these options,” he wrote. “Most already had positive experiences growing biotech soy, corn or Canola, and they were keen to try the new wheat options. They never got that chance. Major wheat importers from Europe threatened to boycott all North American wheat if any commercial biotech varieties were planted in the U.S. or Canada.”

European bread and pasta producers shied away from having to label their food because they knew this would subject them to activist pressure, so they declined to let the wheat in. The decision was based not on safety or supply and demand, but on the activists’ ability to create marketing issues for food companies that import.  

The activists have yet to get mandatory labeling in the United States. The pro-GMO camp continues to fight this, in part because “If they’re safe, why not label them?” will become, “If they are safe, why are they labeled?” 






“Wishing Welles” (War of the Worlds broadcast)


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 became 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 of 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 stopped 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 is 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.


“False alarm” (Manufactured memories)

Head And Mind Puzzle

We all have false memories but when these surface during criminal trials, there are severe consequences. Probably the most infamous example is the McMartin preschool injustice in the mid-1980s. A few years later, advertising executive Gary Ramona spent five years in prison after his daughter was goaded by two overenthusiastic therapists into thinking he had raped her as a child.

Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw is an expert on how false memories form and is sometimes called as a defense witness. She also works with members of law enforcement and the military to suggest interrogation techniques that will make false confessions less likely.

Shaw listed several factors that cause a person to “recover” a “lost memory.” It matters who the accuser was with when the memory was recalled, what questions were asked, and what their state of mind was. Were they vulnerable to a therapist implanting a constructed memory, such as which happened in the Ramona tragedy?

It is usually telling when a traumatic memory surfaces for the first time during therapy conducted decades later. That’s what happened to Eileen Franklin, who at 29 instantaneously “recalled” in a hypnotherapy session that her father George had raped and killed her childhood friend. Subsequent recollections included vivid images and specifics of the event. She knew what type of jewelry the victim was wearing, where curves in the dirt road near the killing site were, and how dense the surrounding forest was. She also recalled that the deceased was concealed under a mattress.

However, detectives later realized that all the details she had given had appeared in newspaper accounts of the case. The only exceptions were things that Eileen had gotten wrong. For instance, the victim was found wearing two rings, not the single silver one she had recalled. She was also mistaken on the time of day it occurred. There were other inconsistencies. The mattress covering the victim was too big to fit into the Franklins’ car, which is where Eileen said her father retrieved it from. Still, Franklin was convicted, then released six years later after DNA evidence showed he could not have committed the crime.

Eileen’s case had the major tell-tale signs of false memory: Sex abuse by someone known to the victim or witness and the repressed memory being brought out during hypnotherapy or psychotherapy.

Let’s spend a little time going over these techniques. The Quad Cities’ Genesis Health System has continued its embrace of pretend alternative medicine by offering hypnotherapy, which it describes as “accessing the subconscious to rearrange the associations that drive your daily behaviors. Hypnotherapy is a treatment focusing primarily on your subconscious. Hypnosis is a natural state people slip in and out of all day long, and hypnotherapy merely takes advantage of that state to better understand the client’s mentality.”

Sounds like all this can be a post for another day. For now, we’ll let it suffice that hypnotherapy can be of limited use in a few instances, but should be avoided by someone trying to work through deep-seeded issues. Further, any “revelation” that emerges when a hypnotherapist coaxes a mentally anguished patient to dig deeper should not be the impetus to incarcerate the alleged perpetrator.

Psychotherapy, meanwhile, is defined as “the treatment of mental disorders by psychological rather than medical means.” It can be valuable and beneficial, but any spontaneous memories from 25 years ago should still not be a precursor to criminal charges.

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus worked with defense attorneys to get Franklin’s conviction overturned and her involvement in the case spurred her to do pioneer research into false memories.

The idea of repressed memories gained traction in the era of McMartin, Geraldo specials, and UFO abduction tales. In these and similar instances, patients were encouraged to visualize, to let their mind wander to where the therapist guided, and to use their imagination to access repressed memories. And few of them were recalling that extra yummy ice cream cone from 15 summers ago. They were dredging up trauma.

To determine how susceptible a person might be to suggestion by an authority figure, Loftus recruited 24 participants and gave each of them narratives outlining four experiences from their childhood. Three of the stories came from their parents’ recollections, while the fourth was a work of fiction. In this outlier, the subject was said to have been lost at the mall, then returned by a stranger to their parents. Participants were directed to write down as many details as they could about the four storylines. When interviewed about their recollections, some began to share the emotions they experienced while being lost and then returned. Some even detailed the rescuer’s clothing, even though none of this had happened.

One-fourth of the subjects ended up recalling this event that never occurred. Loftus stressed the importance that the other person in the room can play in false memories popping up. “The key is suggestibility,” she said. “Often, false memories develop because there’s exposure to external suggestive information. Or people can draw inferences about what might have happened.”

In such situations, persons can assume pieces to fill in the gaps. These embellishments may come from other people’s accounts, their own imagination, or their current situation.

Being convinced that one wandered from the mall’s play area in Kindergarten is one thing, but what if the accusation were of something sinister? Shaw wondered if she could get the same response when trying to convince someone they had committed a crime. Inspired by the Loftus experiment, Shaw told 30 recruits that she had received details from their acquaintances about a time in their teens when the participants had assaulted someone or stolen something. To make it more believable, Shaw included accurate biological information, such as where they were living at the time, where they normally hung out, and the name of their partner in imagined crime.

After the initial meeting, none of the participants could recall the false memory. But every night for three weeks, subjects were encouraged to spend a few minutes visualizing the event. Utilizing the techniques she knows therapists (with either well-meaning or vindictive intent) employ, Shaw eventually convinced 70 percent of the subjects they had committed this non-existent crime. All that had been required to achieve this were weaving elements of truth with consistent pressure to visualize the event.

“Killer whale” (Online suicide game)


Blue Whale is a game described, somewhat oxymoronically, as being “hidden online.” Teens who sign up for it are given a daily task, which might include cutting one’s self, watching The Ring, or doing something innocuous like sawing tree branches. On day 50, the mission is to commit suicide.

Like any good moral panic, Blue Whale hysteria employs alarmist language, lacks specifics, and offers no proof. The Origin of the Spurious claim seems to be a May 2016 article from Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta. The newspaper reported there had been scores of Russian teen suicides over six months, with some of the victims being members of an online gaming community on VK, a social networking site.

While both the specific gaming community and Blue Whale are real, there is no credible evidence for the game being the online equivalent of Jonestown. Still, the idea plays on fear of the unknown and troubled teens do commit suicide, so the narrative carries a ring of plausibility. Therefore, when a young Russian kills themselves, some media and prosecutors jump to the post hoc conclusion that Blue Whale was the cause. But many of those committing suicide may have also eaten a lot of hash browns and that doesn’t make taters the cause of self-harm.

Still, according to a Radio Free Europe report, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are seeing “alarming Blue Whale headlines daily.” But in its investigation, RFE found no suicides that could be definitively tied to the game.

This focus concerns mental health workers because parents, teachers, and police are searching for evidence that tweens and teens played a game, as opposed to looking for signs they might be demonstrating suicidal behavior. The focus is on hashtags and web searches instead of on traits of suicidal persons, such as a loss of interest in usual activities, giving away prized possessions, a drop in grades, and excess sleeping.

The Russian kleptocracy wasn’t about to let this opportunity to oppress go to waste. It proposed legislation to tighten Internet regulation and for good measure, blamed the macabre mess on “Ukrainian nationalists.” Then in Kazakhstan, the interior minister called for a national database of social-media users. That could have some unusual consequences. “My name is Dmitri and I’m required by law to tell you that I post to Instagram.” Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek police have raided schools and Internet cafes looking for signs children have cut themselves or have received Blue Whale messages on their phones.

There has even been one arrest, of Russian Filipp Budeikin, on suspicion he organized this grave game. His lawyer told reporters, “They rushed things. There was an article in the newspaper, a bit of a scandal, pressure to do something. They thought evidence against him would come out, but there has been nothing.” Indeed, this arrest appears akin to the U.S. preschool hysteria in the 1980s.

Teens take their own lives due to feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, betrayal, hopelessness, or because of conflict with family, friends, and teachers. Also factoring in can be the inability to adapt during a time of great change and questioning in their lives. All of this can be exacerbated in periods of economic crisis and social upheaval.

Russian government statistics show that 720 minors committed suicide in 2016. But those same reports revealed the primary causes to be unrequited love, family issues, mental illness, a lack of opportunity, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Just one in 200 were suspected to have any connection to social media.

Not that there is zero cause for concern. A troubled youth thinking about ending it all should avoid games fixated on death. But that’s much different than thinking Blue Whale will send a stable, happy youngster spiraling into despair.

Blue Whale is another in a long tradition of moral panics. These have included jazz and the Red Scare in the 1920s, comic books and them Commies again in the 1950s, Dungeons & Dragons and loud music in the 1980s, and Internet age hysteria, which began with alleged aspartame atrocities and continued last year with constructed clown concerns.

Mass hysteria has traditionally been fueled by quaking quartet of preachers, teachers, parents, and police, and augmenting this today is a sensationalist, shallow media. 24/7 news postings means reporters are often doing only that – reporting – and not necessarily researching or verifying. The audience is likewise clueless, as social media is the main source of news for most. This creates a cycle, as the mere existence of news reports and law enforcement warnings gives rumors an unfounded credibility.

Like most moral panics, the Blue Whale Game centers on teens and young adults accessing something that older generations are either unaware of or don’t understand. It also involves another moral panic characteristic, Stranger Danger, in this case a dark anonymous overseer leading naïve youth to their demise. But the only verified victims so far have been rational thinking and measured responses.


“From the ridiculous to the subliminal” (Hidden messages)


The origin of much pseudoscience is cloudy, but with subliminal messaging, there are two primary sources for this belief, both known and both relatively contemporary.

The first culprit was market researcher James Vicary, who in 1957 claimed to have set up a modified movie projector and inserted into films furtive messages that appeared on the screen so briefly that they could not be seen or consciously registered by the mind. Flashing for just three-thousandths of a second were exhortations to drink Coke and eat popcorn. As a control, he did this for only some of the viewings, and he reported that when the messages were flashed, popcorn sales shot up 58 percent and Coke sales increased 18 percent.

Especially with the buttered snack, these numbers represented a significant uptick and could qualify as one of the first steps in the Scientific Method, observation. This caught the notice of Harcourt Assessment, a company that distributed educational and psychological tools and resources. The company asked Vicary if he would work with it and see if the experiment could be repeated under controlled conditions. He agreed, but none of the subsequent research showed any increase in sales based on the insertion of extremely fleeting stealth advertisements. About five years after his alleged one-person experiment, Vicary conceded he had made it up in an attempt to draw customers to his marketing firm.

This left a vacuum in the one-person field of subliminal messaging proponents, so in stepped Wilson Key. He authored Subliminal Seduction in 1974 and followed with two sequels. The gist of his work is that advertisers and other entities insert secret messages into media in order to subconsciously impact viewers’ actions and spending habits. Despite his belief in the potency of these techniques, Key is apparently not using them himself. Subliminal Seduction ranks 322,215th on Amazon.

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Timothy Moore, acting on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer, read the book so you and I don’t have to. In his review, he wrote, “Key offers no scientific evidence to support the existence of subliminal images, nor does he provide any empirical documentation of their imputed effects.” Instead, Moore continued, Key is content to “cloak his claims in scientific jargon” in order to make them seem valid.

He fooled enough people that the FCC once issued an order decreeing that subliminal ads are “contrary to the public interest.” He also participated in subliminal messaging’s most prominent moment, the Judas Priest civil trial in 1990.

Key served as a pretrial witness for the plaintiff parents who asserted a secret message inserted in the Stained Class album encouraged listeners to commit suicide, a message that two teens, per the lawsuit, obeyed.

Beyond the bizarre business strategy of killing your customers, there was the issue of the supposed suicidal suggestion, “Do it.” This seems ridiculously vague. Even if “Do it” had been inserted, and then registered subconsciously by listeners, exactly what are they supposed to be doing? Eating popcorn and drinking Coke? Buying the next Judas Priest album? Playing ding dong ditch? There are a million actions listeners could undertake and be “doing it,” so it wouldn’t be limited to suicide. For that to be the case, the supposed message would need to be something like, “End it all,” “Embrace death,” or, consistent with the 1980s heavy metal panic, “Satan is calling you home.”

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Regarding his methodology, Key told the court, “Science is pretty much what you can get away with…and you can get away with a great deal.” I suppose points for honesty can be given here, but this admission speaks many non-subliminal volumes about the legitimacy of the technique.

One example of both Key’s pseudoscientific language and his fabrications is the claim that the unconscious mind picks up subliminal messages at light speed. Warp speed seems cool and it’s scientific, so Key piggybacks on this and tries to make subliminal messaging seem believable. But there is no reason to think that the messages, which are not light, would travel at warp speed. And according to neurological researcher Terence Hines, the fastest brain process travels at just 40 miles per hour.

While the Judas Priest trial was an exception, most supposed spoken subliminal messages are said to be for the consumers’ benefit. Whereas subliminal messages in the visual realm were allegedly used for unethical purposes, in the auditory arena, they were said to be for assisting in weight loss, enlarging breasts, increasing libido, tobacco cessation, and even ending constipation.

While the purpose is nobler, the evidence behind it is equally scant. The mechanism for how auditory subliminal messaging would work is even more problematic than how it would with visual cues. With video, it is possible to insert words for such a brief time that they are not registered by the eye or brain. That was done in the Harcourt Assessment testing. What was never observed was evidence that the subconscious picked it up and caused the viewer to act.

Do it. Do read my blog daily.

But the auditory realm seems an even more unlikely avenue for this technique to work. Slowed down enough, a visual message would be perceived. But subliminal audio tapes feature messages below the human ear threshold with soothing music or nature sounds played over them. Moreover, the subliminal message is often accelerated or compressed so that even when its volume is increased enough to be heard, the message remains unintelligible.  

Finally, even if the message could somehow be perceived by the subconscious, there is no reason to believe this would lead to motivation. Most persons who pick up a subliminal message tape do so out of laziness, in hopes their problem will be fixed without effort. They want their issue alleviated by laying down and listening to pleasant sounds, not  by any effort on their part to reduce the number of cigarettes or doughnuts consumed.


“Disserves the label” (Food company claims)


My usual grocery store has been disappointing me lately. First it stopped carrying Old Spice. I am old enough that my aftershave’s scent should reflect my creeping geriatric status. Then they dispensed with Jewish rye bread. There are a few items where I insist that quality top budgetary concerns and this was among those few. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread analogy doesn’t work very well here, so I’ll just say I found the Jewish rye right proper. Then the grocery store committed its greatest sin of omission by no longer carrying Peter Pan peanut butter. With the brand’s texture, smoothness, and faint saltiness, I will always be dissatisfied with any other option.

But I needed some PB for the week, so with resignation and despondency, I grabbed some Jif. When I got home, I noticed the jar had one of those annoying non-GMO labels. Toward the end of the ingredient list were soybeans, which is one of nine foods that may be sold in the U.S. after genetic modification. So it’s possible that Jif’s parent company, J.M. Smucker, made a conscious decision to bypass genetically modified soybeans for traditional ones. More likely, however, is that Jif’s ingredients have been the same for the past 30 years and the company chose to add the label to take advantage of consumers’ unjustified fears.

There are other labels on jars, cans, and wrappers that likewise are factually correct, but may be disingenuous, misleading, or instilling unnecessary worry. For instance, you may see ones proclaiming, “No added hormones.” This is relevant on beef, but no chicken or pork can be sold if the animal received hormones, so such labels are redundant and playing on consumers’ naiveté.

Whereas the previous label occasionally has legitimate uses, an “antibiotic-free” proclamation on meat is always superfluous. While farmers may give their livestock antibiotics, a legally-mandated withdrawal period ensures the animals have no antibiotic residue at the time of slaughter.

The most ubiquitous, ostentatiously trumpeted label is “organic.” This designation means more than “overpriced.” Many organic consumers think the label means pesticide-free, but it really means the pesticides may not be synthetic. Even then, there are dozens of exceptions.

Most importantly, whether the pesticide is natural or manmade has no bearing on its safety, toxicity, or effectiveness. And whether they are organic or synthetic, added pesticides constitute little of what we end up consuming. According to farmer and agriculture blogger Michelle Miller, more than 99 percent of the pesticides on our foods occur naturally within the plant. 

Going back to animals, be wary of the “cage-free” label. This is legitimate if applied to eggs, but some unscrupulous food companies decided to slap this label on their poultry meat, piggybacking on the popularity of the description on egg cartons. But again, we are dealing with a redundancy because chickens raised for meat are not caged. They may, however, be confined to a warehouse in crowded, unsafe, unsanitary conditions, so being cage-free is not necessarily synonymous with animal welfare.

Staying in the meat section, we now examine “rBST-free” claims. Bovine somatotropin is a hormone cows produce naturally, while recombinant bovine somatotropin is a synthetic version of this. When given to cows, rBST gives them a little more of a hormone they already have and helps them produce more milk. Milk from a cow that has been treated with rBST has no nutritional difference from milk that comes from a cow not treated. As to the effect on the animals, a 2014 meta-analysis published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed no significant increase in mastitis or other harms.  

“Gluten-free,” as we’ve covered on this blog before, is a pointless distinction for anyone who doesn’t have celiac or a similar condition. Except for those in these categories, going gluten-free is to follow a meaningless dietary fad, and foods so labeled are no more healthy or nutritious than the gluten-filled options. In recent years, the gluten-free label has been added to many foods that have always had this distinction, only now it is supposed to mean something.

Although ethically dubious, the previous examples are all at least true. That is not the case when one sees a “chemical free” label. All matter contains chemicals, indeed that’s what chemistry is, the study of matter. Those who use the label hope those reading it will associate the word “chemical” with Chernobyl, World War I mustard gas, and train wreck spillage.

I try to avoid supporting companies that use the labels we’ve examined. The labels not only prey on unnecessary fears, they carry an implied smearing of hardworking farmers and food scientists. I just hope I never face the dilemma of having to decide what to do if I see a non-GMO label on Peter Pan.