“Not a real cluster” (Dominican Republic deaths)

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If something is truly random, it will sometimes show hints of an apparent pattern. For example, 2, 12, and 22 might be part of same winning PowerBall combination, or the same defense industry worker may be picked for a drug test three times in a row.

These and similar instances sometimes lead observers to infer that these streaks or clusters are evidence of the phenomenon being nonrandom. So a frustrated lottery player may attempt to find a nonexistent way to beat the system, or a jaded employee may be convinced management has it in for him.

Clustering illusions are amusingly demonstrated by the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. In this tale, a man fires several dozen pistol rounds into the side of a barn, picks out a number of holes close to each other, and claims that’s where he was aiming. When done in real life, an observer can wrongly think there is a connection in random phenomenon, be it related to crime, economics, or sports.

It’s too early to know, but this misinterpretation may be manifesting itself regarding American deaths in the Dominican Republic. Nine U.S. citizens have died there over the last 12 months, usually the result of a heart attack, though there is some concern that poisoning may be involved.

Metabunk’s Mick West, who saw the clustering illusion first-hand when he developed landscapes for computer games, writes that heart attacks are scattered throughout the population, but also correlate to demographic factors. This means heart attack numbers will generate both genuine and illusory clusters. With regard to the specific subset of U.S. tourists in the Caribbean, which type of cluster is in play?

West further makes note of the Frequency Illusion, where one pays more attention to something if they’ve heard of it lately or been impacted by it. For example, a motorist who buys a new Pontiac will likely notice other such vehicles more often than they would if they had not made the purchase.

So someone hearing of a handful of deaths afflicting those of a specific nationality in a certain place will likely draw a conclusion about what this means even if that’s not a justified reaction. West writes, “People have died of heart attacks, and even of alcohol poisoning, in the Dominican Republic before, and they will again. Is it any more common this year?

He crunches some numbers and notes that .1 percent of U.S. adults died from sudden cardiac arrest in a 12-month period. Meanwhile, about 2.7 million Americans go there each year. Assuming an average trip time of seven days, this would extrapolates to an expected 52 Americans dying of a heart attack in the Dominican Republic each year.

So while there could be something malevolent going on or some yet-to-be identified virus in the Santo Domingo vicinity, the numbers at this point support no such notion. If you have a trip planned there, go ahead. It’s likely to be as safe as always been and besides, there are clusters showing that people die unexpectedly while sitting in their living room.

 

 

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“Mine your own business” (Sales rep opportunities)

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There are glitzy Internet and TV promotions that ostentatiously tout an “outstanding business opportunity,” and they deliver on that promise. But it’s the person selling the opportunity, not buying it, who reaps the profits and enjoys sustained success.

These “opportunities” mangle the usual relationship between a company and its sales representatives. Normally, companies selling products employ salespeople or contractors, who are paid a percentage of their completed orders.

But when accepting an “opportunity” rather than a job, the salesperson still completes orders but pays indirectly for doing so. An example of how it works: For $600, you can become an authorized sales agent for Bilbo Widgets. For this $600, Bilbo Widgets will provide you with leads on prospective customers, which you pursue at your expense and on your time. Since Bilbo owns the widgets, the supposed salesperson is required to spend a portion of their income buying the product and selling it to the customer for more. In the loud, proud ads, this business relationship it is pitched thusly: The customer gets a widget, the rep makes a profit, and Bilbo gets a sale.

By way of comparison, let’s see how it’s done in a traditional business. Gandalf works for Frodo Widgets, where he has an office and the same list of leads the Bilbo rep paid for. Gandalf has use of the company’s time and resources, which assist him in reaching prospective clients. Frodo gives Gandalf a commission, of which the company keeps nothing. Our working wizard puts in predictable hours and enjoys a base salary and an employee benefits package.

The Bilbo rep counters that he has the freedom of self-employment and never has to deal with a pedantic boss or overbearing co-worker. But neither do independent sales reps who hawk products from various companies and earn a commission on every sale. But they are being paid to be sales representatives, not paying the companies for this “opportunity.” Meanwhile, Bilbo Widgets has convinced its sales agents to work at his expense, on his time, and fork over $600 for the privilege. 

By contrast, an authentic company like McDonald’s allows franchisees to benefit from a time-honored, ubiquitous brand. It licenses a supremely successful name and business model, and the company provides the patties, fries, utensils, uniforms, advertising, cleaning supplies, and everything else needed to run a fast food operation. Everyone knows McDonald’s, while almost no one outside of the five people the opportunist has managed to track down has ever heard of Bilbo Widgets. Such companies, in truth, merely sell these business “opportunities” to supplement product sales, if they have any of those.

There are many organizations who run this ruse, and I’ve had long-lost friends and long-lost barely-know-thems try and pitch the products to me on Facebook. I never responded, nor likely has anyone else, but Bilbo still makes money because its profits comes from the persons who are futilely trying to sell its product.

While $600 was the sample figure used here, some companies charge much more than that. So much more, in fact, that most persons don’t have that much money on hand. No problem, for some of these companies offer financing.

So not only do they charge you money for the right to sell their stuff, they also make money on the cash they loan so you can do so. When a company offers financing on its product, the financing is likely the company’s true business. There are a few exceptions, such as car dealerships, which makes money if they provide the financing, but also turn a profit if they sell a new Escalade for cash. Not everyone has $30,000 handy for a new ride, so financing is a legitimate option that benefits both parties.

But for the most part, a company offering financing for its product is a red flag that the business and product are illegitimate. There are many better ways to spend money. And certainly, no one should ever be buying their job.

“With a bear to cross” (Yeti)

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Last week, I was surprised to realize I had never written about Tarot cards in this forum. I corrected that deficiency and today will again address a topic I had somehow managed to neglect all this time, the Abominable Snowman.

The subject in question is a proposed bipedal ape-life creature, usually depicted as being hairier, larger, and stronger than humans. Yeti is said to reside in the vicinity of Mount Everest and the concept is so entrenched in the Himalayan region that it predates Buddhism there.

But while there are thousands of years’ worth of yarns and excited reports, there has yet to be the recovery of a live or deceased being. Nor has anyone come down the mountain with fur, skin, or bone that would belong to a mammoth bipedal ape, so all scientific signs point to Yeti being mythological. And while eyewitness reports are the lowest caliber evidence, it is even truer in these cases, as whiteout conditions and altitude sickness can come into play.

The closest thing to proof are footprint photos. There have been pictures taken of impressions made by a large beast that seem inconsistent with any known animal. However, the prints are likely made by a bear or other large creature, with the image becoming distorted by melting and refreezing snow, or by erosion and wind.

Skeptic leader Benjamin Radford, who specializes in examining cryptozoological claims, explains, “Tracks in snow can be very difficult to interpret correctly because of the unstable nature of the medium in which they are found. Snow physically changes as the temperature varies and as sunlight hits it. This has several effects on the impression, often making the tracks of ordinary animals seem both larger and misshapen. As sunlight strikes the impression from different angles, the sides of the tracks melt unevenly. Thus a bear track made at night but found the next afternoon has been exposed to the morning sun and might change into a mysterious track with splayed toes.”

Likewise, there have hair and scalp specimens touted as having belonged to a crypto critter, but these too fall short of scientific validation. Examinations by anatomy and biology professionals generally reveal that the remains belong to a known animal. And even when unknown, they are close enough to a verified creature that it is much more likely that they are an undiscovered relative instead of the long-sought bipedal manlike beast.

Many of the supposed sightings are likely of the Tibetan blue bear. When the hide of such an animal was brought down from Everest in the 1970s, natives pointed to it and proclaimed it to be from a Yeti. Other animals misidentified as the Abominable Snowman might be the langur monkey or two varieties of Himalayan bear, the brown and the red.

A relatively recent find, from Bhutan, was of a hair that human genetics professor Bryan Sykes analyzed and he was unable to match it to any known member of the Animal Kingdom. Much as happened when searchers found an unknown hair in the Pacific Northeast, some cryptozoological enthusiasts were only too happy to fill in the biological blanks with their favorite fur ball. But further analysis showed that the Bhutanese hair belonged to a mutated Himalayan brown bear.

Indeed, bears are the most frequent explanation for putative Yeti evidence. From ages 2 to 4, the Asiatic black bear spends much of its day in trees to avoid predators. During this period, the treed bears train their inner claw outward, allowing an opposable grip. When walking in the snow, this could leave an impression seeming to suggest the animal has something akin to a big toe, and could be misinterpreted as an elongated humanoid foot.

Some persons seeking a more ancient answer speculate that the Yeti is a descendant of the extinct Asian ape Gigantopithecus. However, the Yeti is generally described as bipedal, and most scientists believe Gigantopithecus moved about on all fours. And its descendants likely did not have evolve to be bipedal since Gigantopithecus was so large that walking upright would have been problematic at best.

So after numerous searches for the expressed purpose of finding a Yeti, in the precise place he is supposed to live, we still have no strong evidence for its existence. What the expeditions have revealed is the mindset of the trekkers. There are many animals yet to be discovered and scavenging about for the Abominable Snowman is unlikely to reduce this number. Yeti is a captivating concept to those looking for him, but such adventurers are more drawn to the thrill of chasing a monster than they are driven by the desire to expand our zoological knowledge. The expeditioners would be much more likely to score a hit if they were to embark on a mission to find the next beetle subspecies. But that would fail to provide them with the thrill that losing a game of hide-and-seek to Yeti brings.

“Wild bore” (Children raised by animals)

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There have been reports of children being raised by wild animals, mimicking them, and assuming a feral state since at least Romulus and Remus.  Such tales have made for good works like Tarzan and less memorable ones like Stalk the Wild Child, a 1970s made-for-television movie.

But while there have been rare cases of children spending significant time among packs, herds, or flocks, there are no confirmed instances of a child becoming feral or mimicking animal behavior as a result. Feral children may act in manner reminiscent of a wild animal but this is because of developmental deficiencies, neglect, abuse, or a combination of these.

When a child with developmental disabilities who has been abandoned is discovered, some prefer a fascinating narrative that his or her feral state is owed to having been raised by animals. Whichever animal the child’s behavior and vocals most resembles is the beast he or she is assumed to have been raised by.

Although wild animals sometimes accept the presence of people and might even protect a child, it is difficult to conclude if a youngster has ever been adopted, nurtured, or taken care of by critters for an extended period. The child at the center of these stories is incapable of speech or even communication so they can’t tell us if they lived among beasts. They may have been rescued near or around animals but there’s no way to tell if the wildlife had been their companions and for how long.

There is likely a different explanation for the discovered child’s behavior and it centers on cognitive development and parent-infant bonding. If a child, through developmental delays or neglect, has not learned to speak by age 5, they likely never will, save maybe a few grunts or terse utterings. Also, children who receive little or no nurturing during their formative years will seldom have satisfying personal relationships or normal interaction with others. In an article on a feral child who was rescued after being kept locked in a tiny windowless room for the first seven years of her life, psychologist Karen Armstrong explained that 80 percent of brain development occurs by the time a person is 5.

And without normal attachment to a caregiver early in life, problems may blossom later, such as behavioral issues, extreme anxiety, emotional detachment and lashing out. But these language and developmental shortcomings are owed to congenital or environmental conditions and are not the result of being raised by wolves, monkeys, or salamanders.

Feral children my engage in self-soothing behavior such as yelping, rocking their body, sucking their fists, or making repetitive action with an object. These may all occur in children with developmental disabilities and autism. The repetitive motion occurs in nearly all cases of feral children and is a manifestation of being denied nurturing and bonding early in life and is not the result of acting out a creature feature they observed over and over.

The idea of children spending years being raised by wildlife and mimicking their sounds and behaviors is a staple of the sensationalist press but one won’t find such documentation in anthropology journals.

The most recent alleged case was an Indian girl in April 2017 who was said to have lived with monkeys since birth. She was incapable of speech and acted as her supposed simian sidekicks would have. But a deeper investigation by mainstream journalists found that she was discovered alone on the side of a road and that there was no reason to believe the monkey tale. Hers was a heart-wrenching story of a physically and mentally disabled child being neglected and abandoned. The story of being raised in the wild was fabricated to sell papers.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote about a confirmed case of a child being found after years in the wild and it lends credence to the idea of developmental delays and neglect being the determining factor in how feral children act.

In this instance, a healthy, eloquent girl without attachment issues lived in the forest for an extended period and later integrated into society and acted normally. She was a young Native American girl taken captive in Canada and transported to France as a slave. She escaped and, having been trained to live off the land, survived in the forests for before being recaptured and brought back into society.

There, she then learned to speak, read, and write French. Eventually, she led a normal, independent life. This indicates that feral children are afflicted with a developmental disability that has nothing to do with being raised by animals or living among them. Having been nurtured and given the chance to develop normally, the Indian child was more akin to Grizzly Adams than Mowgli.

 

 

 

“Preying cards” (Tarot deck)

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When I started blogging five years ago, I hit the skeptic basics: Ghosts, Bigfoot, aliens, Ouija boards, astrology, dowsing, Nostradamus, Reiki, moon landing deniers, and so on. Yet I realized this week that, incredibly, I have written well over 500 posts without ever addressing Tarot cards. Today, we rectify that deficiency.

The deck is among the few targets of skepticism that I’ve ever owned. The Medieval imagery and artwork is appealing, shuffling cards carries aesthetic value, and seeing which ones are laid down is fun if not taken seriously. The cards are neither a predictor of the future, an analysis of one’s current state, nor a portal to Lucifer’s lair. They are inanimate objects whose only meaning is whatever the reader and the customer project onto them.

The deck has gone through many iterations and cultural variations, but we in the modern West know the version that has 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor ones. Those in the major category feature personified characters like the Fool, Devil, Hermit, Strength, Death, and Lovers. The minor arcana, with their numbers and suits, resemble playing cards. The primary difference between Tarot and playing cards is the addition of a fourth-tier figure, the Page, who rests one spot below the Knight, which is the Tarot equivalent of a Jack.

Readings are usually given by a self-described fortune-teller, though dark smoky rooms have largely given way to strip malls and market festival crowds. For all the direction, mystic insight, and clairvoyance Tarot readers claim to have exhibited, there has yet to be one explanation for why anyone’s fate would be outlined in the cards. Nor is it explained how the cards always manage to be shuffled and dealt in the precise way that gives accurate portrayal of the subject.

In truth, most Tarot card readers are of the cold variety, and they feel out their subject and base their direction on what the customer tells them. In other words, the reading is going to be about the same regardless of what cards the fortune teller turns over.

Also, they make sure to keep the predictions, reassurances, and analyses vague enough that they will apply to most persons. This technique is especially effectively on those who want to believe, which describes most persons seeking a Tarot reader. Subjects are likely already determined to square his or her current existence with whatever is divined.

This happens even if the reader throws out contradictory notions such as, “These two cards side-by-side mean that you have some job satisfaction and usually appreciate your bosses, but sometimes wonder if you are being fully appreciated and think maybe your untapped potential could be used elsewhere.”

The customer can then take which part of that makes the most sense or has the most appeal when deciding on their employment future. This is a manifestation of the Forer Effect, where someone puts stock in broad ideas if they have a personal impact.

Furthermore, the 78 cards each contain a variety of distinctions and personality types, which the reader plenty of leeway for broad interpretation. Selective memory also plays a role. A professional fortune teller will speak in broad enough terms and be a skilled enough cold reader that they will seemingly score a hit 75 percent of the time. Owing to confirmation bias, those wanting to believe will remember that the fortune teller was right about the client’s feud with his siblings and forget that she was wrong about the client having worked in construction.

The one genuine value Tarot cards may have is therapeutic. If the subject starts to draw forth from themselves, talks about what’s going on in their life, and tries to find a way forward, working through all that can be beneficial. But a person can take control of where their life is going without relying on cards. Just like one can play Blackjack without ruminating on how it impacts the future.

“String theory” (Stradivarius)

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We should always accept evidence arrived at using proper research and techniques even if we don’t care for the conclusions. When shown the proof, I embraced the idea that the War of the Worlds broadcast panic was mostly mythological, even though the idea of millions of impromptu Minutemen fending off an alien invasion was one of my favorite slices of Americana.

Recently, I also jettisoned another of my beloved legends – that Stradivarius violins will forever be without peer due to long-lost secrets and the impossibly high work ethic and pride of their creator. While high-class instruments, their reputation is more owed to exaggeration and expectation that acoustics and dynamics.

About 500 still exist and they are often paired with world-class violinists such as Itzhak Perlman or Joshua Bell. The latter played one to unsuspecting commuters in a subway terminal in an experiment to determine if beauty could be appreciated regardless of surroundings.

Brian Dunning at Skeptoid wrote the Stradivarius violins have been subjected to CAT scans, chemical analyses, and computer simulations to unearth the instrument’s elusive secrets. Musicians and scientists have puzzled over this fiddle riddle and conducted experiments to determine if the key lay in the wood, glue, shape, varnish, the way the violins were treated, or something else.

There has even been speculation that climate played a factor. Stradivarius plied his trade during a time of extraordinarily low sunspot activity, when European winters were colder than today. Dunning explained, “Trees grow more slowly in the cold, the rings are tighter, and the wood is more dense.”

Therefore, luthiers using the same type of wood today as Stradivarius did would be working with a less-dense material. Knowing this, scientist Francis Schwarze developed a fungal treatment for wood that increased its stiffness and made it comparable to the wood that Stradivarius held. Schwarze had a violinist play both a Stradivarius and a modern instruments, and a panel of experts thought the new violin had been made by the Italian legend. While this might seem to suggest that climate was the answer to the oft-pondered mystery, we will soon see that a more likely answer is that the Stradivarius rests more on reputation than results.

While opinion is involved when deciding if something is good, bad, or so-so, not everything is completely subjective. Three different persons could rank Twain, Dickens, and Poe, and reasonably arrive at three different orders. But musical instruments have quantitative aspects that are measurable – sound waves, pitch, frequency, and tone, all of which can be assessed and objectively identified.

A research team at a 2010 international violin competition did just that when they assembled six violins and 21 performers for a controlled test conducted by world-class musicians and sound scientists. The tested stringed instruments included three modern highest-quality violins, an 18th Century Guarneri, and two Stradivariuses, one from 1700 and one from 1715.

The experiment was doubled blinded; neither the participants nor the researchers knew which violin was being played. Each violinist tried 10 pairings of instruments, playing each for one minute. Afterward, they identified which one they preferred. In a second test, violinists were given access to all six instruments for 20 minutes, then asked to evaluate which was the best and the worst in five categories: tone colors, playability, response, projection, and which one they’d want to own.

In the one-minute tests, the clear loser was the 1700 Stradivarius. The other five won their head-to-head matchups about half the time, but no one ever picked the earlier Stradivarius model. In the 20-minute evaluations, the five other instruments again all played .500 ball, with the earlier Stradivarius again finishing deep in the cellar.

This was just one test and perhaps another Stradivarius or two or 10 would have a performance worthy of the instrument’s iconic image. But based on this double-blind study by experts, it seems that the Stradivarius is comparable to other high-quality violins, or in some cases, even a bit beneath them. Much of its value, then, comes from its name, prestige, and historical relevance.

Preparing its annual ranking of U.S. colleges, Time inputted all the data to be considered and Yale came in third. The editors then decided to bump Yale to first because it was Yale. Time considered Yale’s name to be of enough value that a degree from there would be worth more than one from anywhere else. A similar mentality seems to have caused music aficionados to catapult the Stradivarius from an excellent instrument to one incapable of ever being matched.

 

 

“Zeus juice” (Super-fruit drinks)

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There are any number of delicious, nutritious fruit drinks available, the most ubiquitous being a breakfast staple squeezed from oranges. There is also grape juice, apple juice, and similar citrus choices.

But what marketers call super-fruit juices claim their products are loaded with antioxidants, which fight the free radicals that cause aging. Briefly, free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron, a distinction allows them to cling to a good molecule and oxidize it. This equates to an attack on a cell and leads to age-related diseases.

Antioxidants, then, are touted as allies in our battle for better health. However, the oxidation caused by free radicals also comes with benefits, such as converting fat into energy and attacking harmful bacteria.

Sketoid’s Brian Dunning noted that since disease-fighting is one of the keystone features of medicine, there have been decades of rigorous research into antioxidants. If we condensed what could literally be a mountain of papers into one sentence, we would arrive at this: A certain level of antioxidants is good, but too much is bad; more significantly, the source of the antioxidant is more important than the amount.

Dunning wrote that the “primary phytochemicals that deliver antioxidants to the body are vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. For the super-fruit juices to fulfill their claims, they would have to contain large amounts of these vitamins.”

We have long known that regular consumption of fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. But as to whether supplementing fruits and veggies with antioxidants is of added benefit, the research so far shows a negligible impact at best and a detriment at worst.

Dunning noted that the American Heart Association evaluated five studies of putative super-fruit juices for their ability to combat cardiovascular disease. Of the five studies, two showed the antioxidant increase yielded no difference, and three revealed a negative impact. But even if the antioxidant overload were beneficial, the amount their products contain is exaggerated by super-fruit aficionados.

The Australian Consumers Association publication Choice studied every super-fruit juice it could find. Researchers tested them for total antioxidant capacity, a step conspicuously missed by those who sell the products and attach grand claims to them.

As a baseline, Choice measured the total antioxidant capacity of a Delicious apple. Juices from alleged super-fruits such as goji, mangosteen, noni, and açai all had from between nine to 34 percent of the antioxidant content that an apple did.

Fruits that are common – and therefore less exciting to the alternative medicine crowd – like oranges, strawberries, and blueberries contained more antioxidants than the apple.

Yet super-fruit marketers assert that a goji has 10 times the antioxidant capacity as an apple, an açai six times as much, and so on. And this is true, as it relates to the fruit. But most of those antioxidants are in the rind. Once a goji is converted to a juice, it goes from having about 10 times as many antioxidants as an apple to about one-tenth as much. So if wanting antioxidants, go with the fruit, not the juice. But also remember that an anti-oxidant overdose will create more health issues than it eliminates.

An apple a day won’t necessarily keep the doctor away. But chomping a Granny Smith or Honeycrisp is better for your physical and fiscal health than chugging a liquefied gumbo of gogi, noni, and açai berries.