“Gravity Fails” (Anti-gravity devices)


H.G. Wells dreamt up an innovation that allowed anything placed above it to be freed from gravitational constraints and rise or hover indefinitely. This works as science fiction, but in science fact, such a perpetual motion machine would seemingly violate the law of energy conservation.

Further, gravity cannot be blocked as if it were light or sound, said a highly-reliable source, Albert Einstein. For the General Theory of Relativity holds that gravity is a result of the way mass distorts space-time.

Those holding the opposing view embrace a highly hypothetical notion called electrogravitics. This faux field is populated primarily by enthusiasts of UFOs, free energy, and conspiracy theories. Internet videos purportedly show airborne capacitors working in a vacuum, meaning they would be receiving neither propulsion nor wind. The medium in which these devices are being demonstrated – online videos – allows for no independent testing of the claims.

Some proponents grasp onto the notion of gyroscopes, which produce a force that, when twisted, seems to lift operate independent of gravity. Although this force is known to be illusory, it has still led to numerous claims that anti-gravity devices have been achieved. None of these works have ever been demonstrated to work under controlled conditions.

Still, believers have hyped many inventions that supposedly achieved anti-gravity effects. In 1921, high schooler Thomas Townsend Brown noticed that Coolidge tubes seemed to change mass depending on where they were placed on a scale. Inspired, he refined a series of devices until he had managed to create a type of large capacitor which he asserted demonstrated anti-gravity abilities. Scientists who have studied Brown’s devices have found no such effects and instead attribute the observed force to ionic drift or ion wind.

In 1989, it was reported that a weight decreases along the axis of a right spinning gyroscope, but further testing showed null results. Three years later, Russian researcher Eugene Podkletnov claimed to have discovered that a fast rotating superconductor reduced the gravitational effect. Many studies have attempted to reproduce Podkletnov’s experiment, always to negative results.

Then Ning Li and Douglas Torr wrote in Popular Mechanics that they had built a working prototype of an anti-gravity device, but no further evidence of this prototype has been offered.

Meanwhile, Henry Wallace invented a series of rotating devices that consisted of rapidly spinning brass discs which he said created a gravitomagnetic field. Again, no independent testing or public demonstration of these devices followed.

To a skeptic, these repeated failures are a sign the devices don’t work as advertised. To a conspiracy theorist, it’s a sign our overlords are repressing valuable technology. Depending on how far down the rabbit hole a believer is, this technology is sometimes said to be the result of reverse engineering an alien spacecraft.


“Smoke signaling” (Vaping deaths)


The latest moral panic centers on a mysterious lung ailment seen amongst e-cigarette users. In the U.S., there have been about 150 persons hospitalized in recent months with perplexing lung ailments, all of which seem to cropping up after the patients vaped.

But all evidence suggests the cause is dangerous ingredients in black market vaping devices, not with over-the-counter e-cigarettes. According to Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “In every case where a product has been identified, the culprit was not vaping, but vaping illicit THC oil.” That means forbidding the currently-legal products will serve to exacerbate the problem.

Still, continuing the great American tradition of overreacting that we saw with comic books, rockabilly, and video games, we now have an outfit billing itself as Parents Against Vaping. One of its releases shrieked, “Our kids should not be guinea pigs for the JUUL experiment!”

No, they shouldn’t be, nor should adults be subjected to indirect harm from overzealous lawmakers. Consider one of the more severe cases, in which a Wisconsin man is laying in a medically-induced coma. He reached this unfortunate state of affairs by vaping with cartridges containing cannabis which he had purchased from an unlicensed, unscrupulous dealer. Not coincidentally, Wisconsin has some of the country’s most restrictive cannabis policies. In America’s Dairyland and states with similar stances, consumers wishing to vape with a dash of added THC are limited to illicit products that have never been tested for safety and for which the correct dosage is unknown.

Contrast that with legal products. Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Ross Marchand notes that “e-cigarettes, when legally manufactured, are 95 percent safer than ordinary cigarettes and are nearly twice as effective for quitting smoking as nicotine taxes or gum.”

Staying in the upper Midwest, Michigan, Gov. Grethen Whitmer stoked the manufactroversy by unilaterally imposing a statewide ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

Without citing a source to support her accusations, the governor chided companies for “selling vaping products using candy flavors to hook children on nicotine.” Wittmer claims there has been an uptick in e-cigarette usage by minors. But selling or providing these products to children is already a crime, so if anything, what is needed is more stringent enforcement of existing laws.

Still, the governor touted her desire to protect public health and announced she wants to shield the young from these terrible tasty temptations. But in so doing, she hampers the adults who switched to vaping as a means of ingesting a much less hazardous source of nicotine. Many of those attempting to break the habit have cited flavor variety as a vital tool to help the process.

Moreover, this is not a public health issue. That term should be reserved for the likes of vaccinations, fluoridated water, and clean air initiatives. One person permanently extinguishing e-cigarettes or even 10,000 persons doing so does not impact public health, as only the persons involved are benefited by the cessation.

And again, flavored e-cigarettes were already off-limits to the young. Hence, the governor’s decision does nothing to protect children, imposes dictates on those who are not children, and snuffs out not just e-cigarettes, but an industry that was helping its customers break an addictive and dangerous habit.

“Not a good sign” (Ape communication)


Koko was a western lowland gorilla who became the world’s best-known primate for her apparent ability to master a rudimentary form of sign language. She hobnobbed with Fred Rogers, Robin Williams, and Hugh Downs, and made countless media appearances. 

However, once one got past the amazement, the fawning, and the desire to imbue Koko with anthropomorphic tendencies, there was little to support the idea that she was expressing her thoughts, emotions, and wishes. Koko’s TV time was not accompanied by appearances in scientific journals, empirical studies, or sound research. To split ape hairs, she and other primates could manage communication, but not language.

As Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote, “If it works, why aren’t there signing apes everywhere? Why don’t ape parents teach it to their own young? If apes had any meaningful ability to communicate using sign language, many of those who interact with humans would do so. And everyone with a primatology degree would have experience communicating with them.”

Instead, we have only one famous gorilla and a smattering of lesser-known apes, none of whom have demonstrated signing ability under controlled conditions. One scientist who wondered if this could be accomplished was Herbert Terrace, who conducted experiments with a chimp in his Columbia University laboratory. As attractive as the idea of primate-human chit-chat was, Terrance found little validation of the notion.

Writing in Science, he concluded, “Our detailed investigation suggests that an ape’s language learning is severely restricted. Apes can learn many isolated symbols, as can dogs, horses, and other nonhuman species. But they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.”

Rather, the observed apes used symbols to beg or would signal if they wanted to play, eat, drink, or be petted. They were no more using language than your cat is when she seeks attention by rubbing her head against your ankle. Claims that apes had managed sentence structure, syntax usage, and the ability to express thoughts and feelings were without merit, and represented humans interpreting what they wanted to.

Of note, Koko “signed” only with her handler, Dr. Penny Patterson, who herself published no research. Koko was not communicating via any known sign language, just an idiosyncratic version supposedly shared only by her and Patterson.
Videos of the duo in action show Koko paying little attention to her handler’s commands, even though Patterson constantly encouraged and commended Koko.

Moreover, the gorilla never initiated the back-and-forth, responding only when goaded by Patterson. If Koko had the ability to express that she was hungry, lonely, or tired, she seemingly would have made that known without having to be prompted. And she could have done so with more than one person. Instead, any supposed success was a message that only Patterson could interpret. Let me communicate my thoughts on that by declaring it to be hooey.

“Carbon copy” (Climate change denial)


Human activity is easily the largest source of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. And the increased amount of CO2 is the only way to account for the planet’s warming trend. These are the conclusions of 99.8 percent of peer-reviewed papers on the subject. With that, we will take a look at a few of the counter arguments, which one is far more likely to encounter in a Wall Street Journal op-ed or a Fox and Friends segment than in a climate science journal. 

One claim is that anthropogenic carbon dioxide is unable to effect the climate since CO2 makes up such a small amount of the atmosphere. This argument also holds that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by humans is negligible compared to what volcanoes emit. 

It’s true that CO2 does makes up just .04 percent of the atmosphere. But even at that microscopic concentration, carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation and therefore acts as a greenhouse gas. As to the second part of the argument, human activity produces 130 times more CO2 than a volcano. Besides, volcanic eruptions have a cooling effect on the planet’s average temperature since the resulting gases and dust particles block incoming solar radiation.

The contrarians are also right about 95 percent of the CO2 that is released to the atmosphere coming from natural sources. However, natural processes such as plant growth and absorption into the ocean act to pull the gas back from the atmosphere and cancel any effect it would have. Human activity, by contrast, is not accompanied by a cancelling effect and the additional CO2 lingers. The only way it could be offset is by growing enough plants or by mastering a hypothetical concept like carbon capture. Analyses of the changing ratio of carbon isotopes in the air confirm that deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels have accelerated CO2 levels 40 percent in less than 200 years.

The other side counters that since water vapor represents the most abundant and powerful greenhouse gas, it is to blame for rising temperatures, not anthropogenic CO2. This is a partial truth at best. Because while water vapor has an impact, that’s only true because of its interaction with the rising levels of CO2. Writing for Scientific American, John Rennie explained, “CO2 absorbs some wavelengths of infrared that water does not, so it independently adds heat to the atmosphere. As the temperature rises, more water vapor enters the atmosphere and multiplies CO2’s greenhouse effect.”

Therefore, CO2 remains the primary instigator of the rise in average global temperature. Additionally, NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt has noted that water vapor enters and leaves the atmosphere much more quickly than CO2, limiting water vapor’s climate impact.

A third claim is that climate scientists fail to acknowledge the existence of a warming period in the 15th and 16th Centuries, when temperatures were as warm or warmer than the present day. Scientists do, in fact, recognize this. A larger point is that the deaths, mostly from disease, of 55 million North American natives in the 16th Century meant less carbon dioxide was concentrated in the air. This is what drove the drop in average global temperature. The fact that the falling temperatures coincided with a mass die-off lends credence to the idea that manmade CO2 fuels climate change. This is further supported by evidence found in ice caps and tree rings.

A final claim is that the sun or cosmic rays are the real causes of global warming. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has noted that between 1750 and 2005, impact from the sun measures less than a tenth of the influence from human activities. Besides, CO2 and the other greenhouse gases serve to amplify any warming from the sun.

For an alternate viewpoint to all this, consult a nearby cranky uncle.

“Long moon shot” (Vril)


In the 1870s, Edward Bulwer-Lytton of “a dark and stormy night” infamy published the novella Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. The tome centers on Aryan descendants who live beneath Earth and who harness a source of infinite power they dub the Vril. This resource enables them to end war, poverty, sickness, and to live in a one-class utopia. 

Part of this vision was taken as real by authors Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels, who postulated that the Nazis had sought to build Vril-powered UFOs. Another claim was that a Vril society in Berlin served as a precursor to the NSDAP. An assertion from similar camps held that Third Reich leadership used the Vril-powered flying saucer to escape to an underground base on Antarctica or on the moon. Some insist Hitler planned to relaunch the war from one of these bases, though this idea evaporated once his lifespan was reasonably assumed to have passed.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s book, there is suspicion that Earth’s inside is running out of room, so the inhabitants may need to surface and overtake mortal men on the outside. The corollary is that the Nazis will do the same, aided by unknown super-weapons. Believers in this idea fall into one of two categories: Nazi wannabes who hope to recapture the glory, and those who are worried about this possibility. The Nazis were so brutal and powerful that there were fears they would regroup and strike again, an idea played out in the The Boys From Brazil.

When it comes to fascist ideas being adopted by a government and being used to spark a war, we should always be vigilant against this possibility. But concern about Third Reich members launching an attack from a frozen continent or airless satellite are far-fetched as best. Antarctica for decades has had year-round residents, none of whom have encountered the Nazi equivalent of Japanese fighters still in the jungle. And none of the moon missions have encountered any attempt by German insurgents to repel the lunar landings.

In 1937, science fiction writer Willy Ley, who had fled Nazi Germany, wrote that a group there called the Society for Truth had launched a search for the Vril. Some excited observers extrapolated this his claiming that the power was real, and that the society’s members had managed to construct a perpetual motion machine and other physics-defying inventions.

However, no reference to any Vril group in its supposed 1920s to 1940s heyday exists. There are no press accounts, no minutes from their meetings, no recollections from members in journals or diaries. They group was invented and existed only in the minds of believers.

“Con man of the apes” (Hybrid primate)


In the densest jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is said to lurk a relative newcomer to the ape family. Witnesses have described the beast as large, upright, aggressive, and distinct from both chimpanzees and gorillas. It is called the Bili ape, after the forest in in which the animal is said to live. While eyewitness reports are considered weak evidence for validating the existence of a new creature, some of those witnesses brought back a potentially strong piece of evidence in the form of primate skulls purported to be neither chimp nor gorilla.

The story begins with what sounds like the first line of a joke: An author, a photographer, and a bushmeat activist walk into a museum. There, they saw skulls that, again, seemed to be not quite gorilla or quite chimp, but something in between. According to the display’s text, the craniums were collected in the Bili-Uéré region by late 19th Century colonists. Intrigued, the photographer from this trio, Karl Ammann, flew to DRC in in 1996 and found potential confirmation of an undiscovered ape. The primate resembled a chimpanzee but was larger, grayer, and behaved like a gorilla. It slept on the ground, whereas chimps usually snooze in trees to avoid predators. Ammann collected a skull from a deceased specimen and noted that it resembled a chimpanzee’s, except that it was larger and had a satittal crest akin to a gorilla’s. 

This potentially exciting find was put on hiatus for a few years because of the Second Congo War. But in 2003, Ammann returned to DNC accompanied by scientists and an experimental psychologist, Dr. Shelly Williams, who had received a $20,000 research grant from National Geographic. There followed a slew of stories based on Williams’ reports, most of which dutifully pronounced that a new great ape was amongst us. Citing the animal’s facial features, body idiosyncrasies, and utterances, Williams decreed the animal to be either a new species (the most thrilling possibility), a chimp-gorilla hybrid (still pretty cool), or a new chimp subspecies (meh). 

But, again, Williams’ doctorate was in experimental psychology, not in zoology or biology. That itself does not mean what she said was wrong, but it calls into questions National Geographic’s incentive in presenting her as a Ph.D. and letting readers assume it was in a related field to what she was commenting on. Her doctorate may also explain why outlets like CNN and the Associated Press didn’t ask more probing questions about her claims and just assumed she was a subject matter expert.

However, her claims were subject to immediate peer review in the form of responses from the biologists, primatologists, and anthropologists who accompanied her on the trip. This group of 13 scientists uniformly rejected her interpretations. And scientists currently in the Bili region are no longer reporting any sightings of hybrid apes or their corpses. 

One of the scientists who accompanied Williams was Thurston Cleve Hicks, who presented the results of DNA analysis at the International Primatological Society in Uganda. Results from three laboratories show that the Bili apes are ordinary members of a common Eastern chimpanzee subspecies, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii. He also reported he saw them behaving in a manner consistent with chimps, such as guttural noises and rudimentary tool usage. 

This year, Hicks authored the definitive paper on Bili chimps in the official journal of the European Federation for Primatology. The paper mentions how their use of tools and some behaviors differ from other chimp populations, but makes no references to differences in appearance. 

About the only physical traits of Bili chimps that are different from other chimpanzees are a somewhat larger head, a slightly larger build, and a tendency to turn gray earlier. But these are all the result of specific allele frequencies, which commonly causes slight differences in dispersed populations. So there’s no new animal here, and the credulous reporting about it is something we’ve also seen before.

“Faking your temperature” (Santa Barbara simoom)


Legend has it that on June 17, 1859, Santa Barbara had a most unwelcome visitor, namely a sudden scorching wind that was unprecedented in heat and consequences. Animals were slain, people were injured, and crops ruined, all in three hours. 

As described, the phenomenon seemed more worthy of Venus than Earth and was referred to as a simoom, that being the Arabic word for “a sudden, hot wind filled with sand.” Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning researched the tale and while delving into newspaper archives, found that the term was relatively common in the 19th Century. Maybe it’s one we should bring back, along with gullyfluff (assorted stuff in boys’ pockets) or hobbadehoy (roughly equitable to tween).

To be sure, hot, sudden winds are a reality on California coasts. The Santa Ana winds and their lesser-known cousin, the Sundowner – which frequent Santa Barbara – contribute to wildfires in the region. Dunning described the winds as extraordinarily dry and with gusts that rival a hurricane’s. He added, “The wind is usually hot since it gets heated on the way by adiabatic forces.” I’ll have to admit, that adjective was a new one for me. It had me scurrying to an online dictionary, where I learned it refers to a process or condition in which heat does not enter or leave the system.

Most sources for this tale cite a 1966 book entitled Goleta, the Good Land. The author, Walker Tompkins, apparently used only one source, which had been written nearly a century before and which was penned 10 years after this supposed extreme and localized heat wave. That source was a work published by the United States Coast Survey. Geography professor George Davidson served as an assistant surveyor on that trip, and contributed this passage: 

“At about 1 p.m., a blast of hot air from the northwest swept suddenly over the town and struck the inhabitants with terror. It was quickly followed by others. At 2 p.m. the thermometer exposed to the air rose to 133°, and continued at or near that point for nearly three hours, whilst the burning wind raised dense clouds of impalpable dust. No human being could withstand the heat. All betook themselves to their dwelling and carefully closed every door and window. Calves, rabbits, and birds were killed; trees were blighted; fruit was blasted and fell to the ground, burned only on one side; and gardens were ruined. A fisherman, in the channel in an open boat, came back with his arms badly blistered.”

Of note, Davidson at no point ever claimed to have made these observations himself. Nor has anyone else, it seems. UC-Santa Barbara’s Bill Norrington asked fellow geography professor Joel Michaelsen what he thought about Tompkins’ version of the tale, and was told, “I never found any outside source to validate Tompkins’ story, and I am highly skeptical of its veracity. I don’t doubt that strong hot, dry downslope winds could kick up lots of dust and produce very high temperatures – but 110°F – 115° at most. The 133° just isn’t physically reasonable, as it would require the creation of an extremely hot air mass somewhere to the northeast. And given Tompkins’ well-known tendency to mix liberal doses of fiction into his ‘histories,’ and I think you have a strong case for discounting this one.”

Indeed, Tompkins’ version includes such improbable specifics as birds falling dead from the sky. As to the supposed super-scorching temperatures, those are supported by no official measurement. 

It has plenty of company in that regard. Meteorologist Christopher Burt compiled a list of claimed extreme temperatures and rated them from 0 to 10 for veracity. He found little substantiation for figures like 136 degrees (1920s in Libya) or 134 (1930s in Death Valley). As to the supposed simoom, Burt bestowed but a single point on its likelihood. 

He wrote, “There is no record of who made this measurement or exactly where it was made in Santa Barbara. Some later sources say it was made on a U.S. coastal geo-survey vessel. IF that is the case then the temperature is not possible since the waters off Santa Barbara in June are never warmer than about 70°F and any wind blowing over the ocean would have its temperature modified by the cool water.”

No researcher has ever uncovered evidence of the event and no meteorologist, journalist, or scientist at the time considered it exceptional enough to make note of until 10 years later. Given what we know meteorology and considering the conspicuous lack of documentation, the 1859 simoom seems more hot air than hot wind.