Cavalier approach

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, that they aren’t using it to warn of terrorist attacks and earthquakes, or even cash in on Virginia’s victory.


“Con-fusion” (Plasma infusions)


I have a great fondness for schlocky black-and-white monster movies and have seen hundreds of them, but have yet to come across a flick called Dracula Meets Ponce de Leon. But that plot is playing out in real life, as some merchants are offering young-blood plasma transfusions that supposedly reverse or slow aging.

The FDA cautions against trying this, and if that’s inadequate incentive, your accountant advises the same. The treatment comes at $8,000 per intravenous session. The FDA states there is “no proven clinical benefit of the infusion of plasma from young donors in the prevention of conditions” that companies offering the transfusions claim to treat.

Some studies indicate that plasma transfusions may be beneficial – though that’s far from certain – but even if real, those advantages do not include arresting the aging process. Angela Chen of The Verge interviewed Michael and Irina Conboy, whose studies revealed possible benefits, but their research dealt with neither  humans nor transfusions. Meanwhile, the biotech company Alkahest is testing a plasma product on Alzheimer’s patients, but the results are still unknown and the goal is not to be eternally young. By contrast, those hawking the Fountain of Youth in plasma form transfuse patients with donations from the young and purport that the donor’s vim and vigor comes with it. But again, there has been no adequate plasma screen, so to speak.

Most research on young blood transfusions has been conducted in mice and the results are mixed. But even when the data seems promising, researchers are still unsure of the long-term results. Moreover, many times developing products look good in lab but fail to translate into human use. Along those lines, Nicole Westman wrote in Popular Science that research on rats has shown that the older ones benefit from a supply of younger blood, but most of those studies use a technique which surgically joins the circulatory systems of the animals. This means when the younger blood flows into the older animals, the rodent recipients also benefit from accessing the younger rats’ organs and systems.

Jesse Karamzin, founder of the transfusion company Ambrosia asked Inverse’s Sara Sloat, “If it works so much in mice, could it work in people as well?” However, much of the research that Karamzin is basing his optimism on was conducted by Tony Wyss-Coray, who has not endorsed the practice of trying it on people. Wyss-Coray injected mice with plasma from other mice and from people, but doesn’t see the benefits extending to human-to-human transfusions. He cites the lack of evidence it would work and he thinks it unethically raises a false hope.

By contrast, he founded Alkahest in hopes of developing drugs from plasma transfusion research instead of selling the plasma itself. The goal is to improve the quality of life as opposed to the quantity. He seeks not a Fountain of Youth but a way to conquer debilitating diseases that accompany aging.

“For Whom the Bell Toils” (Tennessee witch)


According to legend, a farm family near Adams, Tenn., was tormented in the 1810s by a ghost or similar spirit that came to be known as the Bell Witch. She assaulted familial patriarch John Bell and caused the dissolution of the engagement of his daughter, Betsy. Among the curious visitors who came to investigate was Andrew Jackson, who like most everyone else got spook and high-tailed it out of there. During the multi-year ordeal, furniture slammed into walls and other objects, while shrieking, staccato laughs and demented songs were heard. The apparition entered bedrooms and pulled both hair and sheets during the terrifying nights.

The spirts was not just spooky, but deadly, as the demise of John Bell is attributed directly to the Witch. Family member discovered him deceased one early morning in 1820 with a vial of undetermined liquid next to him in bed. The witch taunted the grieving family members with an admission that she had done it.

The nightmare Started when John saw a hideous dog-rabbit hybrid one night. This odd encounter was followed in the next few days by scratches at the doors and windows, sounds that next moved inside. What began as whispers grew louder and became a disembodied female voice that sang hymns, quoted scriptures, and proved capable of carrying on a conversation, unlike most ghosts, who can only moan or utter disjointed communication via a medium.

However, these tales are almost exclusively from one source, which itself has little in the way of substantiation, documentation, or backup, That work is the Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, written by Martin Ingram in 1894, 75 years after the eerie events. The terrifying tome is based entirely upon the supposed diary of John Bell’s son, Richard. Richard was 6 when the trials started but wrote nothing down for 30 years, and died soon after doing so. However, Ingram never produced the diary, which seems to have disappeared like Mormonism’s golden plates. The alleged Bell manuscript had never been referenced until Ingram mentioned it in 1891, more than 30 years after the putative author’s death.

In his book, Ingram claims the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about the Bell Witch in 1849. But investigators searching for the article never found it. Researcher Jack Cook poured over microfilm of the periodical for several years on either side of 1849 and found no such article. Like the diary, this alleged source has yet to be verified.

Other than Ingraham’s writings, the story of John Bell’s murder at the hands of the Bell Witch was never described in any published account, nor was a future president identified as leaving the Battle of New Orleans to go ghost hunting.

Another issue with the disappearing diary is that its vernacular parallels Ingram’s’ writing. In the Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell noted several consistencies that seem too voluminous and exact to be coincidental.

Bell and Ingram both made reference to the witching events as “high carnivals” and “the greatest of all secrets.” Both refer to one’s facial features as “physiognomy” and characterize John Bell as “always forehanded, paid as he went.”

Additionally, both authors use multi-page paragraphs consisting of sentences that ramble for more than 100 words. And both use distinctive words (or possibly non-words), such as declamation, vociferator, beneficience, and felicity, lodgement, unregenerated, and mordacity. Both also reference the same Biblical stories. Nickell wrote, “Applying to samples of both texts a standard readability formula based on the average length of independent clauses together with the number of words of three or more syllables shows that ‘Bell’ and Ingram had reading levels….at the sophomore level of college.”

So the Bell Witch might make for a good story, but not good history. Ingram would have been better off using it as inspiration to pen an admitted work of fiction rather than trying to pass it off as the documenting of an actual occurrence.

“Ship away” (Philadelphia experiment)


The story of the Philadelphia Experiment would make for SciFi B movie, but is even worse when attempted to be passed off as science fact.

The Navy allegedly carried out the experiment in October 194 and succeeded in making USS Eldridge was briefly invisible. This was supposedly made possible through application of Unified Field Theory, which allegedly allowed light to be bent around an object. An unexplained connection between gravity and electromagnetism also played a role. Yet another Flash Gordon-worthy effect was employing powerful magnets that caused to the Eldridge to be enveloped in green fog.

In most urban legends, being fascinating is inadequate; there has to be a spooky element as well. Therefore, the experiment was said to come with deleterious side effects. This included horrors such as sailors ending up embedded in the ship’s metal. Others who were not thusly encased developed mental issues and some went missing. Depending on the level of embellishment, versions of the tale have the ship being moved 200 miles away and returning, all in 10 seconds, and going back in time. So the Navy scientists are credited with a trifecta of achieving invisibility, teleportation, and time travel.

We are still looking for a Unified Field Theory, there are no invisibility cloaks unless they are working really well, and if anyone is moving about the time continuum, he or she has not appeared in Cambridge, England, on June 28, 2009, to attend Stephen Hawking’s party in their honor. In more mundane matters, Navy records show that the USS Eldridge wasn’t even in Philadelphia the month this momentous event occurred.

This extravagant tale originated in the warped mind of Carl Allen, who claimed to have seen the ship vanish. UFO enthusiast Morris Jessup contacted Allen, but quickly dismissed him as a deluded crank. Allen made notes to himself a la Memento and A Beautiful Mind and also claimed to have worked with Einstein, another significant assertion unsupported by any proof. To make it even more fun, heregularly veered into tangents on lost continents, time travel, and alien visitors.

Jessup committed suicide April 1959 because of his failings in career and marriage. The more conspiratorial minded maintain he was murdered to stop his research, although he had done little of that into Allen’s claims after abandoning interest since the claims were so outlandish and bizarre.

The story may have a tiny basis in fact, in that the Navy (as it always has and will continue to do) was engaged in experiments in October 1943 that were intended to increase its ability to win sea skirmishes.

Specifically, there were degaussing procedures tested on the USS Engstrom. Crew members wrapped the ship in large cables, then shot high voltages through them, aiming to scramble the Engstrom’s magnetic signature. The results were that the ship was left undetectable by some types of torpedoes and underwater mines. A success to be sure, but it’s quite a leap from that outcome to insisting that a separate vessel managed complete invisibility, teleportation, and time travel.

The Navy denies any of this ever happened, which, if one is jaded enough, lends credence to the notion that it did in fact occur. If the Navy ever did confirm that the experiment was real or if the Air Force did the same with Roswell, the reaction from conspiracy theorists wouldn’t be, “A-ha, I told you so, I was right all along.” They would be to try and figure out what even more sinister and frightening event this admission was meant to detract from.


“Punku rock” (Puma Punku)


I went to Zambia without going to Victoria Falls, to Cambodia without going to Angor Wat, and to Monaco without going to Monte Carlo. In one sense, this means that I am an independent traveler who brazenly goes where other dare not. In another more accurate sense, it means I travel as cheap as possible. Get me the lowest airfare and closest hostel to the airport and I’m good. My favorite part of being to in any foreign country is being there.

My oxymoronic habit of traveling to far-flung places, then venturing as little as possible when I get there, also took place during my lone trip to South America. While others may go out of state for a long weekend, I went off the continent and landed in Lima, Peru. The hostel manager expressed surprise that I would not be going onto Machu Picchu, which is where most of his guests end up.

I was content to stay within a two square miles of the hostel, venturing only far enough to visit a supermarket, soccer fields, and roadside stands. There was one exception, when I made my way to an ancient site once populated by Limans, an ancient people that predated the more well-known Macchu Pichuu folks. Another site I failed to visit was an ancient Andean structure called Puma Punku, a temple complex which comprises a series of monolithic stone structures near Tiwanaku on the Peru/Bolivian border.

While popular, the area is more beloved by paranormal enthusiasts then tourists. The Puma Punku expanse is known for its massive stones that, despite their size, are cut and placed with such preciseness that a sheet of paper cannot be wedged in between. Some attribute this construction ability to ancient aliens, vacationing Atlanteans, or some group more interesting and supernatural then Pre-Columbian folks.

Those favoring this view sometimes claim Puma Punku stones weigh up to 440 tons. In truth, the largest weighs 144 tons, the second heaviest is 85 tons, and the third heaviest is much less than that. The vast majority of Puma Punku consists of relatively small and easily handled stones.

Still, there are a few stones which leave archeologists unsure how they were cut, moved, and assembled. But it is appealing to ignorance to claim that since we don’t know how they did, ancient aliens were responsible. Sketoid’s Brian Dunning noted that even-older works of the ancient Greeks and Persians rivaled what long-ago residents of Tiwanaku managed and no one is claiming mystical means were responsible for the Parthenon or the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. And even if such an assertion were made, it is accompanied by no evidence bolstering the ancient alien angle. The same is true any otherworldly hypothesis for Puma Punku.

Dunning explained why we have trouble figuring out how they did it. “Most people don’t know how to intricately cut stones because those are skills we haven’t needed for a long time,” he wrote. “But this argument from ignorance — that just because we don’t know how to do it, nobody else could have figured it out either — is an insufficient explanation and deprives the creators of their credit.”

The Tiwanaku civilization and their use of these structures peaked around 1,100 years ago, so this leads to another Puma Punku feature that supposedly has archaeologists baffled. At the site, there are carved figures purported to be of a Cuvieronius, an extinct elephant-like beast, and a toxodon, a likewise-doomed hoofed mammal. As both critters last lived in the region around 15,000 years ago, some deduce Puma Punku is at least that old, and so, voilà, bygone extraterrestrials done did it.

However, the carving is actually of two Andean Condors facing each other. Their necks and crests could, especially if one wanted them to, resemble tusks and oversized Dumbo ears. Humans prefer pattern over randomness and when combined with a desire to bolster a pet cause, this can lead to seeing helicopters in Hieroglyphics, a Face of Mars, or Peruvian pachyderms.

One cannot prove it wasn’t ancient aliens, but the burden is on those making the claims, and so far no evidence has been presented. If ancient aliens did it, I admire their architecture and I am jealous of their extensive travel. As for me, I’m left with planning my no-Leaning-Tower trip to Pisa.




“No big dill” (Pickle juice cures)


There are two things wrong with Tomi Lahren’s claim that she represents the silent majority. Likewise, her assertion that pickle brine is loaded with health benefits is likewise fact-challenged. Lahren says she learned this through a Google search, which is the one part of her claim I can believe.

For that matter, I Googled “Nazis escaped to Mars” and got validation of that idea. But we know better than to focus solely on the source when determining a claim’s validity – no genetic fallacies on this blog – so let’s look at the evidence for the pickle brine claims that a Google search will unearth.

Some of the liquid’s supposed powers are the ability to relieve heartburn, control blood sugar, soothe Restless Leg Syndrome, and ease sunburn discomfort. But the most frequent claim is that it vanquishes cramps. However, most of these declarations are in the form of anecdotes, making them subject to post hoc reasoning. With one quasi-exception we’ll examine, none of the claims attesting to the healing propensity of pickle brine are backed by a double blind study.

When looking into this issue, one almost invariably ends up at Central Michigan University professor Kevin Miller, who has probably authored every study meant to determine if pickle brine will reduce muscle cramping. For these tests, Miller recruited fit and active college students to exercise and then drink 80 milliliters of pickle brine. He consistently finds there is never a measurable uptick in key nutrients or electrolytes one might get if chugging a sports drink.

There is one study that at first glance might seem like an outlier. This was overseen by Miller at BYU in 2010. In a hot room, 10 men bicycled for 30 minutes using one leg. They lost three percent of their body weight in sweat, enough to be considered mild hydration.

The subjects then had the big toe of their other leg electrically stimulated in order to cause cramping. Next they drank either nothing, pickle brine or deionized water, which serves as a close approximation of the dull green liquid when it comes to taste. Among those quaffing Vlasic Juice, cramps vanished in 85 seconds, which was 45 percent faster than for those who drank nothing and 37 percent faster than for those who drank the pickle placebo.

While this seems to suggest some pickle power, it really doesn’t. First, 10 persons constitutes a microscopic sample size that would tell us nothing substantial. Beyond that, Miller said it would take 25 minutes for a liquid to enter the bloodstream and quash any cramping if it had that ability. He suspects the toe pain was balanced by the unpleasant sensation in the mouth. In the Daily Beast, Tanya Basu quoted him as saying, “The vinegar or combination of vinegar and salt affected a reflex in the mouth and acted as a counterirritant.”

Even if one still clung to the BYU study as proof, many other results show the opposite. Skeptoid’s Alison Hudson found seven studies, which in totality suggest little promise for pickle brine as an elixir. She wrote, “One study concluded that drinking pickle juice after exercise did a poor job of replenishing electrolytes; another study determined that pickle juice ‘does not relieve cramps via a metabolic mechanism’; a third study suggested that swallowing the pickle juice might in some way relieve an electrically-induced cramp, but that, again, there was nothing metabolic going on.”

Since pickle brine is about 70 percent water, it would be of some rehydrating value. And if consumed in enough quantities, it might replace some lost carbohydrates and electrolytes. But this would be true of many beverages, most of which taste better than a heavy salt-and-vinegar solution that once housed hamburger condiments. In any case, there is zero evidence it assuages the litany of conditions listed in the third paragraph, regardless of what Larhen’s physician Dr. Google has to say.






“Darwin abhorred” (Michael Behe)


Persons sometimes hold two jobs simultaneously, but no one has a more oxymoronic dual employment than Dr. Michael Behe. He serves as a fulltime a scientist for Lehigh, where he is a biochemistry professor. Meanwhile, his moonlighting gig is as a pseudoscientist for the Discovery Institute, where he argues against a specific plank of evolution.

Behe differs from most creationists, partly because he is of the Old Earth variety, a comparatively rare subspecies. More significantly, he acknowledges that life has evolved over billions of years and that all living organisms have a common descent. He also acknowledges that mutation and natural selection drive the processes that lead to the diversity of life. All this, in fact, capsulizes the theory of evolution. But Behe veers sharply from the scientific landscape when he proposes that there is an intelligent design mechanism which is causing the genetic changes that enables evolution. He stresses that point repeatedly in his latest book, Darwin Devolves.

In this work, Behe insists that mutations can only make things worse, absent intelligent intervention. This is consistent with his longstanding belief that anything science cannot completely figure out means that his god is responsible. This is the God of the Gaps gaffe and is a common pseudoscience error.

Behe makes no attempt to falsify the idea, nor does he give fellow scientists any experiments to try and replicate. He has not observed intelligent intervention in action, he makes no predictions about how it would function, and he subjects the idea to no peer review. In short, he offers zero science to support his claim that a deity is driving evolution’s key mechanism.

Compare that to what he expects of those with the opposing position. In an essay for, John Jay College professor Nathan Lents wrote, “Behe holds modern evolutionary theory to an impossible standard, declaring it insufficient if we cannot pinpoint every point mutation and every intermediate genetic step, all in the right order.”

Behe argues that mutation should be fatal to evolution because most genes that spark adaptation have been irreparably broken and have also been inactivated by mutations. And a dead gene, he says, tends to degrade further and can only be reactivated by a supernatural agent.

But biology professor Jerry Coyne writes that this position requires ignoring the following: Adaptive mutations which do not inactivate genes, including genes that are accidentally copied twice, with the copies diverging in useful ways; Changes in how and when a gene is turned on and off, such as mutations producing lactose tolerance in milk-drinking human populations; The repurposing of ancient genes acquired from viruses; Chimeric genes that are cobbled together from odd bits of DNA; And simple changes in DNA sequence that alter proteins without breaking them, such as is see in tolerance of low oxygen levels in geese.

Most importantly from a scientific standpoint, Behe only tries to find flaws in the other side instead of offering examples of designed mutations or providing evidence for a supernatural mechanism.

A key point to remember is that evolution never has an end-goal in mind. It’s about adapting to present conditions. It will even reverse course if that is advantageous. While the sci-fi concept of devolution, such as is seen with the Land of the Lost Sleestaks, is a cool one, it never happens in real life. In fact, a step-back is still evolution if that’s what the environment dictates.  

Behe tries to ride the coattails of Richard Lenski to make his case. Lenski oversees an ongoing, 30-year e. coli experiment that started with 12 originally-identical populations. These 12 experienced dramatically accelerated growth and showed a gradual loss of many abilities necessary to thrive in other environments. While this is literally observing evolution in action, Behe maintains it strengthens his position since none of the bacteria have developed creative new abilities.

However, these bacteria are in manufactured laboratory conditions and are not adapting to nature. And even in this environment which Lenski specifically designed to not prod bacteria toward new abilities, the cells have gained functions. Lents wrote that Lenski “has discovered variants of essential genes — not just dispensable ones — for the cell wall, DNA packaging and architecture, and a variety of tweaks that enhance, not diminish, the function of the encoded proteins. Perhaps the most exciting discovery is one culture’s new ability to import and metabolize citrate as a carbon source in an aerobic environment. This is all incredibly unlikely, as only one of the 12 cultures achieving this feat in more than 70,000 generations. This means random mutation has been seen to cause a new function.” That it could do this refutes Behe’s insistence that such a mutation requires divine intervention.

Let’s move from the lab to the outdoors and from the microscopic to what we can see with the naked eye. Behe touts Galapagos finches as an example of how animals can manage only incremental changes without supernatural assistance. He gloats that the birds have failed to develop the large-scale body redevelopment that occurred with organisms during the Cambrian Explosion.

The analogy is lacking since Cambrian diversification took more than 10 times as long and involved smaller, simpler, and faster-reproducing life forms. A larger issue is that when finches arrived on the islands, the Galapagos was already filled with other birds. This meant that the finches’ only path to success was stagnation. Diversification only occurs when animals fill unoccupied niches.

Lents pointed out that Madagascar lemurs provide a spectacular example of how this works. From the first pair 50 million years ago, we now have well over 100 species “including the smallest known primates and nearly the largest. There are burrowers, leapers, grazers, climbers, and everything in between. Lemurs have accomplished this because they were free to inhabit the ecological niches normally occupied by other animals. With no rodents on Madagascar initially, the mouse lemurs emerged. With no true sloths, we have the sloth lemur.”

This breadth of lemurs means the animal has achieved the taxonomic level of Family, something Behe claimed unguided evolution could never do. His retort was to feebly offer that this may have been made possible by “intelligently-provided information carried by the ancestor of lemurs.” He failed to explain how that hypothesis might be tested.

According Coyne, Behe’s rationale for designed mutations is circular. Behe claims biochemical pathways are designed rather than evolved because they’re based on a “purposeful arrangement of parts.” To this, Coyne asks, “Which arrangements are those designed with a purpose? They’re simply the pathways that Behe sees as too complex to have evolved. This is a classic example of begging the question, which is assuming what you’re supposed to prove.”

That last line, in fact, would work as a concise review of Darwin Devolves.