“Corona with lies” (Sylvia Browne virus prediction)


Kim Kardashian and lesser-known oxygen thieves are wowed by this prediction Sylvia Browne made in 2008: “Around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling…is that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived.”

While Kardashian and the others consider this a reference to the coronavirus, the evidence fails to support the weight of such a claim. First, the illness, as Benjamin Radford of the Center of Inquiry wrote, is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness.” Instead, 80 percent of patients have mild symptoms and the morality rate hovers at three percent.

Second, the assertion that COVID-19 resists all known treatments is an inaccurate descriptor of the virus. Radford notes that doctors know how to treat the symptoms, they just don’t yet have a cure. A third Browne misfire is that the virus will vanish as quickly as it appeared.

Browne made other claims about global viruses and each prognostication increases the chance that at least one of them will seem to be correct. Four years prior to the prophecy that has proponents excited, Browne shared a similar vision. In the earlier soothsaying, she wrote, “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely.”

Again, multiple guesses like this increases the chances that one version of the prediction will seem to score a hit. Followers decide which one is closest to reality and forget about the others.

For instance, one part of the prophecy trimmed from the 2008 book was that the disease’s source and cure would by unknown. Yet, the source has been identified as a food market in Wuhan, China. Obvious misses like this are why Browne’s followers are posting her 2008 prophecy and not the earlier version. Proponents have seized on the more correct version and ignored or rationalized away the earlier prediction.

As to a cure, Radford writes that, “Viruses themselves can’t be cured, though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are ‘cured’ of Covid-19 when they recover from it.”

There’s also the matter of visions that aren’t just fuzzy, but completely obscured. In the same book Kardashian raves about, Browne prophesied that by now there we be cures for AIDS and the common cold, telemarketing would be extinct, humans would have made it to Mars, and that there would be flying cop cars. Only in the world of psychics would a success rate this pitiful be considered doing a good job.

“Doubting Thomas” (Thomas John)


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.


“Cavalier approach” (Precognition)

Man: 'Doctor I think my life is out of chronological order', Doctor: 'Good morning, how can I help'

In my NCAA Tournament pool this year, I picked Virginia to win the national championship. Psychics also make some correct predictions and others whose wording is vague enough that they claim a shaky prognostication victory. More often, however, they whiff on their picks, as do those who claim no psychic ability, such as stockbrokers or pool entrants, like the year I picked Michigan State to win it all and the Spartans were bounced in the first round.

There have been attempts to bring scientific validity to the concept of precognition, the term for knowing something before it happens. These experiments employ galvanic skin response or MRI measurements. One researcher, retired Cornell professor Daryl Bem, has his worked published in a peer-reviewed publication of the American Psychological Association.

For his experiments, he modified a priming test. Instead of showing subjects a word like “ugly” or “beautiful” before they viewed a picture of something revolting or lovely, he showed the picture first, then measured the response time, and finally showed subjects the word.

There are major flaws with his conclusions that some precognition was observed. Bem has no way of knowing if the readouts generated by the subjects’ physical responses were caused by the stimulus received. He had to assume this to be the case, which is the begging the question fallacy. This occurs when one assumes the truth of one’s conclusions rather than supporting them with separate evidence.

After evaluating Bem’s nine experiments, psychologist James Alcock alleged that they contained other crucial errors. He accused Bem of changing procedures at random points during the experiments and combining results of assorted tests. This enabled Bem to cherry-pick favorable results, resulting in skewed final numbers. He also failed to employ the null hypothesis, which holds that there is no relationship between two measured items until proven otherwise. Moreover, the Skeptic’s Dictionary cited five researchers, who tried and failed to replicate Bem’s findings.

While Bem used MRI, parapsychologist Dean Radin monitored a person’s skin conductance before, during, and after viewing photos that were either calming or upsetting. He then tried to determine if the subjects’ autonomic nervous system responded appropriately before subjects saw the image. The tests were measured by a blip on a screen hooked up to a skin conductance measuring device. Radin concluded that most persons are about to see an evocative image, they will respond before that picture appears. However, the results were at best and mixed bag, and even the seeming successes again require begging the question; Radin assumes blips on a screen are caused by psychic means instead of being a psychosomatic or other physical reaction.

The Bem and Radin experiments put forth no explained mechanism through which precognition would work. And even if there is a mystery method that some psychics have magically accessed, they aren’t using it to warn of terrorist attacks and earthquakes, or even cash in on Virginia’s victory.

“Caput-o” (Theresa Caputo)


My cousin came back enthused about the Theresa Caputo Experience and was joined in her gush fest by several Facebook Friends. I refrained from responding, as my spiel would have been a bit much for a social media reply and more appropriate for a blog post. So here we are.

Caputo uses a mix of hot and cold reading techniques. The latter refers to throwing out general guesses, vague enough that they will connect with multiple persons in an arena audience. It also requires a trained mind and ear, the ability to read body language and facial cues, and a talent at gauging reactions and adjusting fire. Caputo also employs a tragic-comic emergency chute if the reading flops. She will ask if someone near the subject can relate to what she is saying and if so, will insist that was the spirit she was picking up. It’s sort of like a radar-gun cop who clocks the wrong driver for speeding, except in Caputo’s case there are no crossed signals, just a fabricated one.

Illusionist and skeptic leader Mark Edward calls this technique piggy-backing, borrowing a phrase Caputo uses to gloss over misfires. When Caputo gets something wrong, Edward notes that she says the silent missive must have been meant for someone else, who will usually pop up after a few more generalities are tossed out. She gives herself even more leeway by using phrases such as “brotherly” or “father figure” to describe someone, meaning it won’t necessarily have to be a male relative to resonate.   

As to hot reads, there are the flaming ones favored by televangelist Peter Popoff, who had his wife funnel information about congregants to him via an earpiece. Caputo’s preferred hot reads are not quite that scorching, but they are above room temperature. Her team scours social media sites to learn specifics about selected audience members. Further, those with whom she spends most of her time are seated near the front and have received Captuo readings before. The cousin lavished praise on Caputo for knowing so much about a woman whose husband had died in a plane crash. But Caputo could offer accurate specifics of the tragedy and the deceased man’s life because she had gleaned this information from multiple in-depth sessions with the widow.  

Caputo’s capers were most vividly revealed by Edward on Inside Edition. In the exposé, Caputo was heard asking a subject, “Why am I picking up baby clothes?” The woman answered, “I just put up a bunch of pictures of baby clothes on my Facebook page.” Indeed she had, which is why Caputo mentioned the infant apparel. She has similar tidbits on select attendees and a corresponding seating chart during her performances. Plus, she is cued, directed, and clandestinely corrected by staff members — persons who should be superfluous for a woman with a direct line to the netherworld.

Audience members swoon over these supposed revelations, but Caputo is a grief ghoul who for a hefty charge will dole out words loved ones think they want to hear but which in the long run keeps them in a perpetual heartbroken state and prevents them from moving on. Making it seem like the deceased are in the same room communicating with them provides temporary comfort, but this blossoms into an extended mourning which can only be alleviated by another peace-for-a-price session.

Captuo feebly tries to counter the charge of cold reading by saying there are only so many ways to die. While that may be true, the number of ways one can meet the end is a separate issue from whether she is cold reading. And when she speaks of “a sister who was lost at night on the highway,” it will likely score a hit in an audience of 6,000. Caputo would have zero chance of success were she to say, “Bonnie Adamson from Elkhart, Ind., who died from a stroke on July 1, 2010, wants her sister from Plainfield, Ohio, who is seated in the eighth row to know that she is at peace.”

Of course, they are ALWAYS at peace or forgiving or where they want to be. In thousands of reads, Caputo has yet to find a spirit with a tinge a bitterness, regret, or who is plotting revenge from beyond the grave.

Jaime Franchi of the Long Island Press approached a Caputo live show with what was initially a gullible mindset. Frachi been impressed by an earlier psychic who described Frachi’s father as a veteran who liked to cook and who had a needling sense of humor.

But as she learned about cold reading, she came to see what was happening. At the Caputo show, the host told audience members anything they could relate to was a message from deceased loved ones. She continuously reminded those in attendance that she was speaking for the dead. For an audience that needed little prompting, this admonition from their anointed one was sufficient. Indeed, Caputo events are filled with subjective validation, a yearning to believe, and creative interpretations.

Audience members even help her fill in the tractor-trailer-sized blanks. Frachi wrote that Caupto addressed a woman who had lost her uncle, saying he had drowned. After the niece said he had died of pancreatic cancer, Caputo continued to hammer the death-by-water theme. When the niece stood firm, Caputo tried to piggy-back that notion onto someone else, again without success. She then insisted there was a mother present whose toddler had died in a small swimming pool, but again no one spoke up to rescue Caputo from this floundering. Eventually, the family member mentioned that during his final days, the uncle’s lungs filled with fluid, and Caputo declared victory for what any skeptic or impartial observer could clearly see was a resounding public defeat.

There are many such times, where Caputo’s creativity enables her to claim success no matter the outcome. Frachi wrote that she asked one audience member, “Why do I feel like you were holding your son when he died?” When this failed to register, Caputo clarified that she meant the mother was always there for her son. Of course, this flexibility is only displayed when Caputo is wrong. If the mother had said, ‘Yes, I was grasping him on his deathbed,” Caputo would never have replied, “Oh no, I just meant it figuratively, that you were always there for him.” 

Philly Mag journalist Victor Fiorillo also attended a Caputo event and came away equally unimpressed. He wrote, “She says generally vague things that she’s getting from the beyond — an older man who has passed, a young man who died violently, someone who committed suicide, the number seven, etc., and waits for someone to nod their head or raise their hand affirming the connection. She doesn’t walk up to a particular person and say, ‘“Your father died three weeks ago of cancer.’”

She homes in on members who connect with her and meanders from those who don’t. If initially failing to get an affirmative response, she plows on until someone relates. According to Fiorillo, she asked an attendee, “Did he write you a note shortly before he died saying I’m sorry?” When told ‘no,’ Caputo grabbed her own rebound and insisted, “The next time you’re in a card store and you see a card that says, ‘I’m sorry,’ know that this is from him to you.”

And next time you read that Theresa Captuo is a grief ghoul who uses cold reading to prey on victims who are at their most vulnerable, know that that came from me.

“Poison your name” (Kabalarian philosophy)


The short version of what Kabalarian Philosophy is: It’s nearly identical to numerology except that letters replace digits.

The long version of what it is can be found in Life’s Purpose, a treatise by the field’s founder, Alfred Parker.

For the medium-length version, continue reading.

According to Kabalarians – if that’s a word – a person’s name is invariably and completely tied to one’s fate. Your strengths, weaknesses, personality, successes, failures, traits, relationships, health, sicknesses, and favorite dessert are all predetermined shortly after birth when your parents name you. Whether you are dubbed Donald, Diane, or Dweezil, your experiences are locked in. So if Donald had a brother Darryl and another brother Darryl, his two siblings would have identical life events and behaviors.

If names had this power, however, persons who have legal name changes would become drastically different persons, and this does not occur. Lew Alcindor took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar without any being any different than before, except for his religion, and he adopted the name because of Islam, rather than converting to a new religion because he changed his name.   

Similarly, women who take their husband’s name would, without exception, turn into markedly different persons after marriage. This is not the case, despite protestations to the contrary from some frustrated husbands I’ve talked with.

Nevertheless, from kabalarians.com, we are told that the field is “able to reduce any name to a mathematical formula based upon letters in the name.” The philosophy further teaches that each language’s alphabet has a consistent mathematical order through which a name can be quantified. Analyzing the letters in a name will supposedly reveal the owner’s personality, attributes, and future.

While numerology is the most obviously similar pseudoscience to Kabalarian Philosophy, it also resembles astrology and fortune telling. That’s because the Forer Effect, subjective validation, and self-fulfilling prophecies will convince some customers that it works. Also, much like a horoscope, crystal ball gazing, or Tarot reading, the traits revealed by a Kabalarian analysis will be voluminous, general, and sometimes contradictory (i.e., “You often like to be challenged, but sometimes retreat to your comfort zone”). In other words, every reading could apply to most anyone. By using broad terms and avoiding specificity and detailed predictions, a Kabalarian analysis can seem impressive to the uninitiated.

Of course, the idea of everything in our lives being preprogrammed could be depressing, intimidating, and scary. It would also make for a pointless philosophy to follow. After acknowledging that names determine everything, there would be seemingly be nowhere else to take the philosophy. But, like many good scams, Kabalarian Philosophy presents both the problem and the solution, the latter involving money.

For a price, Kabalarian practitioners will come up with a new name for their customers, who will be shed of their limiting moniker. Amazingly, 100 percent of persons who patronize Kabalarians have a name that needs to be fixed. No client seeking Kabalarian services has ever had a parent that, by chance or design, had come up with a name that benefited their child.  After a session or three with a practitioner, the client will experience “control of their life, happiness, mental freedom, and personal success. A name change will change the conditions in a person’s life and will allow the expression of one’s true purpose.”

While Kabalarian Philosophy does put a creative spin on a time-dishonored principle, it still manages to commit the appeal to tradition and authority fallacies. The website notes that, “China has had name analysis for centuries. Confucius said that if he were made emperor, he would change the names of all the cities because even cities are influenced by their names.”

While the philosophy has similarities to horoscopes and crystal balls, the key difference is that astrologers and seers largely tell their customers what they want to hear. Kabalarians, meanwhile, impart a foreboding vision of what lies in wait. This enables them to retain customers by promising to find them a new moniker and resultant rosy path ahead.

Once this is accomplished, the Kabalarian website promises that the client “will change your thinking pattern. By changing your name, you are consciously invoking a mental law. This is a fundamental step to creating health, mental harmony, and peace of mind. Speak to a qualified Kabalarian consultant to insure you are making the proper change, as it profoundly affects the rest of your life.”

They misspelled ensure, but, hey, they’re the mathematical language experts, so there must be a reason. Still more advantages: “By changing to a balanced name, you can build greater positivity into your thinking and happiness into your life. As you become mentally free of destructive patterns of thought and habits, you will fulfill the greatest potential of your mind.” I’m surprised they didn’t promise the purchase a winning lottery ticket.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the mental attributes of a person that is affected. With the wrong name, which everyone who has not seen a Kabalarian practitioner seems to have, illnesses will also result. These afflictions are unrelated to genetics, lifestyle, and diet, but are determined by whether you are named Barbara or Stephanie. But never fear. The practitioner, for an additional charge, will “predict health weaknesses based upon the imbalance in the name” and will devise a new handle that will destroy your dyspepsia, vanquish your varicella, and put the kibosh on your kidney stone.

Likewise, successful business owners, athletes, scientists, politicians, and entertainers owe their position not to hard work, talent, and vision, but to “the mathematical value of their names.” After a KP session or two, your new name “will attract better conditions” and “develop the resolve to make the changes necessary to free yourself of destructive habits that hold you back.”

So once you become a Fortune 500 CEO, you can buy the Kabalarian empire and help train others on how to succeed. Or better yet, you intentionally run it into the ground so no one will be a threat to overtake you.


“The limit’s the sky” (Astrology)


In a piece this month for Quartz, Ida Benedetto outlined her case for giving astrology more respectability. To help with this venture, I can state that I knew pseudoscience would continue to thrive in 2018, so this is could be a point in favor of correct visions of the future.

Benedetto had two main points, both of which lean on the appeal to antiquity. Her first argument was to blame astrology’s tattered reputation on pop psychology, which she says permeates modern astrology. She lays into modern seers, writing that they rely too much on feel-good platitudes instead of that tough love from above approach she credits the ancients with. She wrote that texts from days of yore show that astrologers told it like it was, not how the customers wanted it to be.

As to the modern-day charlatans, Benedetto wrote, “The nurturing approach psychologists take has polluted modern astrology with watered-down interpretations that seek to protect their clients. Even if an astrological configuration spells trouble, the modern astrologer will describe it as an ‘opportunity for growth.’” Benedetto rejects horoscopes and astrological signs as counterfeit currency in the astrological bank.   

As to the good (really) old days, Benedetto writes that before the Common Era, “Astrology flourished alongside various sciences like mathematics, medicine, and engineering.” Here, she is trying to piggyback astrology on legitimate gains and is committing the division fallacy. This is where one asserts that if something is true for the whole, it must be true for all parts. In this case, Benedetto figures that since disciplines which benefit us today flourished in the Hellenistic period 2,300 years ago, astrology must also be of value since it likewise had its heyday during this place and time.

During that era, Benedetto wrote, “Astrologers based their interpretations on centuries of observations recorded by the Mesopotamians who came before them. They kept careful records of astronomical phenomenon, looking for correlations between what happened in the sky above them and the material world around them.”

However, Steven Novella called this an instance of Tooth Fairy Science. This refers to research done on a topic before that topic has been shown to exist. Novella wrote, “If you carefully documented the amount, denomination, and timing of money left in exchange for children’s teeth, and correlated that information with all sorts of demographic variables, you might create a convincing imitation of doing real science, but none of that data would actually test the underlying premise: Is the Tooth Fairy real?”

“Likewise,” Novella continued, “documenting the position of the stars and planets and then correlating those positions with events on Earth is not science. This type of observational behavior is not capable of asking the important underlying question of if there is a causal relationship between what is observed in the sky and events on Earth.”

To do that, one would need to test a hypothesis through the Scientific Method. That would entail, at a minimum, making an observation, then a prediction, followed by testing it, trying to falsify it, attempting to replicate it, then making one’s data available to other scientists and submitting the findings and methods for peer review.

Novella further wrote that holding ancient wisdom in unjustifiably high esteem serves to minimize the efforts and accomplishments of the visionaries, inventors, and discoverers who have contributed to the wonders of the last thousand years. Persons who have this reverence possess it selectively. Benedetto composed her essay on a word processor and posted it on the Internet, rather than chiseling it on clay tablets and transporting it by donkey.

In this non-equine delivered piece, she claimed, “If we can set modern judgments aside and learn the language of the ancient astrologers we may discover lost insights.” In other words, it’s our fault for being closed-minded, not astrology’s fault for being without a plausible mechanism.

And the truth is the same now as it was in the Hellenistic period. Neither astronomers nor astrologers have uncovered empirical evidence that the positions of stellar bodies impacts Earthly events, other than the comet that obliterated the dinosaurs.

“Free spirits” (Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo)


Each year, the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo rolls into town. Another tradition is me having 86 cents in my expendable income account. That has kept me from paying for any paranormal products or psychic services, but I have some magic of my own and always come away from these events having gotten something for nothing.  

My first stop this year was at an essential oils table, where I was assured the merchandise was “100 percent certified pure therapeutic grade, with nothing synthetic.” When it comes to the only oil I ever buy, motor, synthetic is a good thing, so I’m curious what this is all about.

I asked the two women what they could tell me about the oils and they inquired if I had any aches or pains. Indeed, my head was hurting so they referred to their chart that recommended peppermint. Later, I checked other essential oil businesses and websites for their headache cures and among those listed were lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary, spearmint, roman chamomile, magnesium, turmeric, frankincense, wintergreen, birch, jasmine, sage, marjoram, bergamot, ginger, and basil. By the time I tracked all those down it would be way past the four hours my headaches normally last and it would be gone anyway.   

As to these ladies’ recommendation, per their instruction, I put a couple of drops on my fingertip and lathered up my forehead and the back of my neck. This caused a pronounced burning sensation, meaning the pains on the inside of my head were now matched by ones on the outside, so I at least had symmetry going for me.

Brushing off the unpleasantness, I asked if the oil had healing properties. Assured this was the case, I asked if they knew the science behind it.

“There’s lot and lots of science. Our company is all about science.” What they lacked in specifics, they made up for in enthusiasm and assurance, so I continued.

“If there’s an active ingredient in it, is there a chance you could use too much of it?”

“Other companies, yes, but not ours. This is 100 percent pure.”

“But if it has healing properties, I would think there would be a danger of overdose. If you take a bottle of Excedrin, you’d be dead.”

“But that’s not all-natural.”

“Natural could still do you in. Hemlock is natural, too. So with the peppermint oil, is there a way to determine the proper dose?”

There is a look I get from psychic and paranormal fair merchants when I start lobbing anything beyond remedial inquiries at them. They are used to being asked, “What can craniosacral therapy do for me,” not, “Can you explain the mechanism behind craniosacral therapy?” Questions about the science are answered with “lots and lots” as opposed to providing examples of peer-reviewed articles and double blind studies.

I got that look, which they then turned on each other. They traded stammers before one of them offered that I should start with a drop or two and work up to what works for me. Of course, if no amount worked, I would keep going until I overdosed, which is what I was trying to avoid.

I was about to make this point when one of them changed the subject by offering me oil-infused chocolate chip cookies. I can’t ask probing questions if I’m chewing on confectionaries. To wash it down, they handed me water with lemon oil added.

“What does this do for you?”

“It helps with dehydration.”

Water helps with dehydration. Really glad I’m not paying for this information.

Glancing at the comparison chart that recommends oils in lieu of over the counter medication, I asked, “So for body aches, instead of Tylenol, I should take chamomile?”

“That’s right.”

“Why not just take Tylenol?”

“Because ours is pure.”

Oh, that’s right, you told me that. I need to look and see what oil helps with memory.

I then made my way to another table, where I asked a middle-age bespectacled woman with shoulder-length blond hair what she was offering.

“Readings, Reiki, and energy clearing.”

“What’s a Reiki healing?”

In a dreamy voice she intones, “Oh it’s wonderful. I love it. It holistically heals you from the inside. A week ago I got arthritis real bad and had Reiki done and I haven’t had it since.” There have been about 10 million such anecdotes in Reiki’s favor, none of them accompanied with an explanation for the mechanism behind it.  An eternal optimist, I hoped to be the first to track this down.

 “How does it work?”

“It’s spiritual. It’s the universe. It’s the angels. It’s the spirit guides and all the energy they use to heal you.”

“What type of energy does it use?”

“Well, we’re all made of energy. The Earth is made of energy, you, me, all living creatures, that type of energy.”

So someone would take my energy then give it back to me. Again, glad I’m not paying for these services.

Turning the subject to another of her offerings, I asked, “What’s energy clearing?”

“That clears away the energy we pick up from other people as you’re walking around or you’re living with them.”

“But that kind of contradicts the Reiki healing. Wouldn’t the energy clearing cancel out the Reiki energy you received?”

“No, it’s not connected. The energy that’s been cleared is low level. Depression, for instance, does not have a high vibration. The session helps to clear the clutter that builds up from negative thoughts and actions,” she told me. “Have you ever been talking to someone that just makes you sad for what the world has come to?”

Boy, she nailed that one. Why isn’t she manning the mindreading booth?

Moving on, I found a merchant who focused on a haunted house south of Buffalo, N.Y. He owns the house, he told me.

“Do you live in it?”


“Does anyone live in it? Besides the ghosts, I mean?”

“No, I’m fixing it up.” He’s probably using sub-contractors for the various tasks, like remodeling, wiring, and ghostbusting.

He further explained, “I’ve researched the spirits in this house and its history. There was a failed exorcism there, another guy died there. Some people left after two months. Another family got out quickly and left all their stuff behind. People have tried to live there but it’s hard.”

I tried living in upstate New York for a while, I know what you mean.

“How do you research it?”

“There’s lots of scientific ways of researching it. Then there’s the personal, the feelings you get when you’re there.” So he bases it on science and feeling, and I have a feeling he’s exaggerating the science part.

This fellow was giving a free (there’s that key word again) presentation about this, so I followed him into the speaking room. Wonder if all this makes me a paranormal investigator investigator.

Once there, he enthralled audience members (well, with one exception), telling tales about these spooky surroundings. He assured us, “There’s definitely a dark entity there.” I imagine that’s called nightfall.

His talk contained the phrases, “something’s holding the spirit there,” “there’s a portal in that room that can’t be closed,” and “spirits are crossing a threshold.” There was talk about “an Indian chief” and “a woman in white at the pond,” both of whom he reported capturing on film. He also related a story about how a K2 meter stayed lit when he attempted to contact a former resident. “There was no explanation for it,” he said.

That’s because he didn’t ask me. The K2’s purpose is not to enable the dead to communicate via beeps and flashing lights as you walk up creaking stairs. Its function is to detect electromagnetic radiation and indicate the radiation’s strength and direction. There is no evidence deceased homeowners have the ability to leave this radiation behind.

When I asked if the K2 meters were designed to chase ghosts, he said no but added, “When your body dies, energy can’t be created or destroyed. There’s still that energy somewhere. If you ask a question and it flickers, perhaps it’s paranormal.” And perhaps it’s from the cell phones, video cameras, and computers you brought in.

Other audience members asked questions like, “Are you worried about driving off the friendly ghosts and leaving only behind the evil entities,” and “If the house burned down, would the spirits go back out the portal?” Meanwhile, I got in a second question, about why ghosts in his photos would still be wearing clothes. He answered that they did that somehow, some way, so that people in the present could recognize them. By this point, I realized the peppermint oil wasn’t helping any and my headache had gotten worse.



“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)


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 Creationists’ 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 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.

“The tooth comes out” (Tooth Fairy Science)


When my children put teeth under their pillow, they wake up with substantially more money than I did at their age.

If attempting to ascertain why, I could examine various factors, such as whether the amount the Tooth Fairy leaves has kept up with inflation, if the Fairy values incisors more than molars, and if the time in between lost choppers impacts the amount left. I could query 1,000 children, analyze results for socio-economic trends and determine if there is a correlation between the frequency of Tooth Fairy visits and the sell of home security systems. I may even endeavor to conclude once and for all if the Fairy is male, female, or androgynous. The findings could be put in a snazzy hardcover book with impressive graphics and detailed footnotes. Yet none of this would establish that a stealthy, mobile spirit is replacing extracted calcified objects with cash.

Tooth Fairy Science refers to doing research on an unverified phenomenon to determine what its effects are, rather than to ascertain if it exists. It is post hoc reasoning in research form. The phrase was coined by Dr. Harriet Hall.

This shoddy science is a regular feature of studies into ghosts, cryptozoology, reincarnation, alien visitors, alternative medicine, parapsychology, and creationism.

I have three co-workers who believe our office is haunted. Curiously, this spirit only manifests itself when the workers are by themselves at night. Perhaps he is nocturnal and dislikes crowds. We have ample video and audio equipment in the office, and we could set these up and record what times bumps most occur, detect any unexplained shadows, and note any high-pitched whistles. This data could by analyzed and a conclusion reached about the ghost’s characteristics. But this would not take into account wind, pipes, electromagnetic interference, or a worker on floor above coming in at 11 p.m. We would have to assume the ghost’s existence and attribute these factors to it.

Similarly, cryptozoologists will shoot sonar into Loch Ness or look for disturbed vegetation in Bigfoot’s supposed stomping grounds, then attribute any findings they consider consistent with their monster to be proof the animal was there. As such, they do not consider other explanations, such as the sonar detecting a bloom of algae and zooplankton, or a warthog beating Sasquatch to the trap.

That’s because when Fairy Tale scientists uncover data that is consistent with their hypothesis, they assume the data confirms it. For example, psychiatrist Ian Stevenson spent years collecting stories from people who claimed to be reincarnated. He used these anecdotes to support his belief in reincarnation, and he used reincarnation to explain the stories, a textbook case of circular reasoning.

Moving onto alien abduction, John Mack talked with persons who claimed to have been taken by extraterrestrial beings. He assumed the stories to be real instead of considering that he might have implanted the ideas by asking leading questions, such as, “Was the alien about four feet tall,” as opposed to “How tall was the alien?” The mental state and susceptibility of the subject was not considered, nor were explanations like fraud, attention-seeking, or sleep paralysis. 

Alien abductees aren’t the only subjects that spend time on a Tooth Fairy scientist’s couch. So do alternative medicine patients. Chi, meridians, and blockages are assumed to exist in “energy” medicines such as craniosacral therapy, iridology, therapueitic touch, reflexology, chiropractic, Reiki, Ayuvedic, and more. I have addressed the rest of these in previous posts, so we’ll address Therapeutic Touch here.

First, Therapeutic Touch is neither. The practitioner’s hands are close to the patient, but are never on them. As to the therapy part, practitioners claim to be able to sense a patient’s “human energy field” with their hands, then manipulate the field by moving their hands near a patient’s skin to improve their health. Scientists have detected and measured minute energies down to the subatomic level, but have never found a human energy field. Nine-year-old Emily Rosa designed a controlled test of the practice which Therapeutic Touchers failed spectacularly. Any seeming success is because of the fluctuating nature of many illnesses, the placebo effect, confirmation bias, and nonspecific effects. The latter is a common error and refers to confusing the effects of practitioner-patient interaction with the supposed effect of the treatment.

In a test that proponents claimed proved Therapeutic Touch’s validity, researchers gauged the effects of the technique on reducing nausea and vomiting in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. All patients were on the same chemotherapy regimen and they were randomly divided into three groups of 36 patients. The first group received usual Therapeutic Test treatment, the second group got a similar treatment except the practitioners’ hands were farther from the patients, and the third group received no treatment. A single practitioner performed all the treatments, which was fatal to conducting a proper study because he should not have known which patients were receiving which treatment.

Since there is no evidence the energy field exists, there can be no evidence that how far the practitioner’s hands are from the patient would make a difference. The alleged energy can’t be measured, so there’s no reason to believe any energy was transferred to, or benefited, any patient. While the authors claimed the study showed Therapeutic Touch worked, they had failed to establish that the central feature of the practice even existed.

Likewise, parapsychologists are quick to point to rare instances of a subject performing better than chance as proof that various forms of ESP are legitimate. Unsatisfactory results are considered as the power being unable to be accessed due to cosmic interference, negative energy from a skeptical observer, or some other ad hoc reason. They look to justify the failure as owing to a particular cause rather than the cause being that the power doesn’t exist.

Then we have the creationists. The Institute for Creation Research website informs us, “The very dependability of each day’s processes are a wonderful testimony to the design, purposes, and faithfulness of the Creator. The universe is very stable. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. Earth turns on its axis and always cycles through its day at the same speed every time.”

All of these phenomenon are explicable through known laws of physics and astronomy, and the ICR has affirmed the consequent by saying if there is order in the universe, there has to be a god controlling it, and since we see that order, a god exists. They attribute any majesty to this deity without bothering to prove his existence first. It’s one thing to do this as faith in one’s religion. It’s quite another to claim this as science while bypassing the entire Scientific Method.

I’m going to have to wrap this up. My daughter lost another tooth so I’ve got more research to conduct. 

“I see someone reading this” (Psychics)


Penn & Teller gained their fame by putting fresh twists on the ancient art of magic. They followed this by becoming skeptic leaders, most prominently with Showtime’s “Bullshit!” and also appearing at most Skepticons. Despite this being their side gig, they are probably the second and third most prominent skeptics behind James Randi.

When their Showtime program debuted, a few people found it hypocritical that two guys who made their money fooling people would be going after mediums, faith healers, and astrologers for doing the same. This necessitated that Penn state the obvious: That the duo were admitting their performance was bogus, while those they were exposing as frauds presented themselves as authentic. These days, most people who pull rabbits from hats use the term illusionist instead of magician to eliminate any confusion about what they claim to be doing.

While there is a key difference between magicians/illusionists and psychics, there’s also a big difference in the people they are performing for. While an illusionist’s audience wants to be impressed, they are trying to figure out how it’s done and maybe even hoping for a screw-up. By contrast, those who comprise a psychic’s audience have no concern with how it’s being done and greatly want it to work. This desire to experience psychic ability is even more pronounced when there are emotions involving death, loss, and grief. That is why when a reading on an audience member is going nowhere, the member will lead the psychic back to fertile ground.

This difference between audience expectations for illusionists and psychics was starkly demonstrated when my cousin returned from a show that had featured both types of performers. She told me, “The illusionist wasn’t much, but he psychic was incredible! She knew I drove a Lumina and worked at Dillard’s! And she did the same thing for four other people, and got them all right! She knew one had a beagle and another was expecting her first grandchild. She did ten facts and got them all exactly right!”

I talked later with her wife, who revealed that the neighbor had filled out a card with precise information about her place of employment and her mode of transportation for getting there. So this was a hot read where the facts were fed to the psychic by one of her handlers. This is usually done by having the selected member and their pertinent information pointed out backstage, or by using a wireless earpiece, as Peter Popoff had done before being taken down by James Randi.

Mark Edwards of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry said of this method, “This is called ‘pre-show’ in the spook racket. Nobody seems to even consider that a psychic would be acting and using information they already knew. They take it on faith that everything they hear is coming from some divine source.”

But the psychic my cousin saw relied on cold reading as well, using incredibly vague language. “She told me, ‘I see a marriage.’” Most people are either married, used to be married, or figure they will be some day. And even if none of those fit, it could be a marriage involving someone besides the audience member. This lack of focus and specificity helps the charade.

The glowing report continued with, “She knew there was an anniversary.” A statement this general could be filled in with anything. In this case, the void was plugged in with, “Our child was born on the eighth anniversary of our first date.”

And there’s one more. “Then she said she was sensing a name that started with C. Of course she meant Connie!” No, she meant C which is why she said C. If she had meant Connie, she would have said Connie. She didn’t mean Connie, nor did she need to since my cousin filled in the rest. Her thinking the psychic knew her wife’s name was typical of someone who wants so much to believe that they will fill in the holes or the gaping canyons. A psychic saying, “Someone here works in customer service and I’m seeing the number 34,” becomes “He knew I worked at Lowe’s and that my boss was 34 years old!”

Edwards related how he performed for a mostly credulous audience using cold reading techniques. He threw out usual generalities such as a dog dying or someone having car trouble. Then he decided to go for something weird and more specific. “I’m seeing a clown standing in a graveyard and he’s putting flowers on the graves. Does that mean anything to anyone? And I see the name Stanley.”

He was startled when someone shouted, “There’s no way you could have known that! There was an old man in my hometown who used to dress-up in a clown costume and put flowers on the graves in the cemetery. My name is Cindy but for some reason that guy always called me Stanley.”

Edwards thought it might be a ruse, but learned the speaker was genuine, and it took an intense 30 minutes after the show to get Cindy calmed down and convinced that Edwards had made it up. It was a somewhat crazy coincidence, but the Law of Truly Large Numbers comes into play.

Also, despite the specific nature of his fabricated vision, Edwards hadn’t singled out Cindy. “If I had looked straight at her then delivered the clown in a graveyard line directly to her, that’s a whole lot different than saying, ‘Does that mean anything to anyone?’ or ‘Does that make sense to anyone?’ Watch and listen carefully to the medium next time, and you will see how easily this works.”

In the heyday of telephone psychics, a classic magazine advertisement pronounced, “If they were really psychic, they’d call you.”

This is not a minor point because it drives home the fact that someone with genuine psychic ability wouldn’t need to ask anything. Yet in live shows, it’s almost all questions from the psychic, rather than them stating facts. Except for hot reads, it’s never, “You in the third row with the yellow hat. Your sister died of lung cancer six years ago and you regret that you saw her just twice in her last six months.” Instead it’s, “I feel someone here has lost a family member they wish they had been closer to.”

If you ever find yourself at a live psychic show, I suggest the NBA shot clock game, where you see how often a psychic can go 24 seconds without asking a question.

Had Edwards had been a neophyte psychic instead of a veteran skeptic, he might have thought he had the Gift. That’s probably how a few of them get started. Sure they miss a lot more than they hit, but so batters with a .300 average. They reassure themselves with, “I don’t know where this is coming from,” or, “I don’t control this, I go where it leads me.” This enables them to justify any excuse or whiff, perhaps even to themselves, and certainly to audience members who want to believe that, “I see someone in business for themselves” means, “He knew I owned a bakery.”