Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
During March 2014, I held a course on “How Are We Cheated By Charlatans”, explaining the methods, hoaxes and fallacies they appeal to, in order to convince people of their supposed powers or “techniques” and “treatments”. The course dealt with alternative medicine therapies, parapsychology, astrology and so on.
During April and May 2014, I held the classical course called “Beliefs, Pseudoscience and Critical Thinking”, a course held every year, explaining the relationship between our beliefs and how they affect our decisions. Also I dealt with pseudoscience and critical thinking, explaining the basis of pseudoscience and the main goal of critical thinking: how to recognize a fallacy or a bad reasoning.
On the next month I organized “Groups of Reflexion”, a series of lectures, “Why We Believe What We Believe”, and a more philosophical one:“Politically correct: what is useful for?”, and so on. I will continue to hold these lectures as people can express what they think about these items and another ones. That´s because is was named “Groups of Reflexion”.
All these events took place at the Scientific Society of Argentina, in Buenos Aires.
I've also took part on a television show about “Black Magic” and a supposed case of witchcraft involving Umbanda, an African-Brazilian religion that is also popular in Argentina.
In the next months, October and November 2014, I will give a seminar, which I gave last year, based on philosopher Bertrand Russell's book “The Conquest of Happiness”, which was a very successful one. The book is really great dealing with things that ordinary people experience every day: What does make people feel unhappy? What does people feel happy? My interest is to point that a philosopher not necessary must be an “academic” one. On the contrary, he must be able to divulge and analyze ordinary but important things of life.
On the other hand I was invited to give a TED Conference at the UCES University (University of Social and Business Sciences) on next November 12th. The name of the TED Conference will be: “The Matrix Enigma: Beliefs and Illusions”, where I will talk about what is reality, and how can we can be deceived as very bad observer of reality, talking about our beliefs and showing optical illusions and the functions of our brains.
The main goal for me is to organize a Congress on Critical Thinking next year, 2015, which will be the third CFI organize. The first was in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2005) and the next was in Lima, Perú (2006). I hope that we can achieve this goal in order to call the attention of the scientific and journalist community.
Dr. Paul Offit is a lifesaver in the literal sense. His work in vaccinology and immunology, notably the invention of the rotavirus vaccine, has saved innumerable lives. But it is for a literary endeavor, perhaps no less valuable than his scientific work, that he is the 2013 recipient of the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking.
Offit is the author of Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, an indispensable book that boldly takes on the torrent of fantastical claims made by the alternative medicine industry—claims that rake in $34 billion a year for its promoters and put countless lives at risk. Do You Believe in Magic? examines, remedy by remedy, claim by claim, the real, provable effects and harms of a slew of alternative treatments and does so in a way that is entertaining, deeply informative, and emotionally compelling.
“Offit writes in a lucid and flowing style, and grounds a wealth of information within forceful and vivid narratives,” writes Dr. Jerome Groopman, reviewing the book for The New Republic. “This makes his argument—that we should be guided by science—accessible to a wide audience.” Dr. Harriet Hall, herself an invaluable skeptical activist and writer, raved in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer that Offit “is a wonderful storyteller who makes his message come alive.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Evi Heilbrunn wrote, “All who care about their health should read this book.” We agree.
In his book, Offit is merciless in his application of scientific scrutiny to those who peddle false hope, yet never condescending to those who seek out these alternatives. Do You Believe in Magic?, as it disarms and deflates the alt-med industry’s wild claims, most importantly empowers its readers with the information and critical perspective they’ll need to make better decisions about their health and the health of their families.
As we said, Offit is a literal lifesaver. It is quite fitting, then, that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry award the 2013 Robert P. Balles Prize to Offit for his book, which, as it educates the public about the dangers of alternative medicine, may save many, many more.
The Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking is a $2,500 award given to the author of the published work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. Each year, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer, selects the paper, article, book, or other publication that has the greatest potential to create positive reader awareness of important scientific issues.
This prize has been established through the generosity of Robert P. Balles, an associate member of CSI and a practicing Christian, along with the Robert P. Balles Endowed Memorial Fund, a permanent endowment fund for the benefit of CSI. CSI’s established criteria for the prize includes use of the most parsimonious theory to fit data or to explain apparently preternatural phenomena.
This is the ninth year the Robert P. Balles Prize has been presented. Previous winners of this award are:
• 2012: Steven Salzberg, for his “Fighting Pseudoscience” column in Forbes; and Joe Nickell, for his book The Science of Ghosts—Searching for Spirits of the Dead
• 2011: Richard Wiseman, psychologist and entertainer, for his book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There
• 2010: Steven Novella for his tremendous body of work, including the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Science-Based Medicine, Neurologica, Skeptical Inquirer column “The Science of Medicine,” and his tireless travel and lecture schedule on behalf of skepticism
• 2009: Michael Specter, New Yorker staff writer and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, for his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives
• 2008: Leonard Mlodinow, physicist, author, and professor at Caltech, for his book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
• 2007: Natalie Angier, New York Times science writer and author of the book The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
• 2006: Ben Goldacre for his weekly column, “Bad Science,” published in The Guardian newspaper (U.K.)
• 2005: Shared by Andrew Skolnick, Ray Hyman, and Joe Nickell for their series of articles in the Skeptical Inquirer on “Testing ‘The Girl with X-Ray Eyes’”
Call for Nominations: There’s amazing work being produced in 2014, with much more on the way. If you’d like to vouch for the author you think deserves the 2014 Balles Prize, contact Barry Karr at email@example.com.
For a variety of reasons scientists are generally advised not to debate creationists, thus the certain trepidation when our colleague, the well-known television science educator and CSI Fellow Bill Nye, accepted an invitation for just such a debate about origins with creationist Ken Ham. The debate took place February 4, 2014, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and was streamed live worldwide. Afterward the Skeptical Inquirer invited Bill Nye to give his own first-person view of this much-watched and much-discussed debate, the circumstances surrounding it, his preparations and strategy, and the reasons he decided to take part.
This whole thing started when a crew from BigThink.com asked me about creationism. I was in New York to promote Internet-based science education. While on camera, I remarked that if you, as an adult, want to hold on to a completely unreasonable explanation of the Earth’s natural history that is useless from a practical standpoint, that’s your business. But we don’t want our kids, our science students, to be indoctrinated into that weird worldview, because our kids are the scientists and engineers of the future. They need to be the innovators that drive the U.S. economy in the coming decades. These were offhand, albeit heartfelt, remarks, nominally off the topic I sat down to talk about. As of this writing, the excerpted video with my observations about creationism has logged over 6.3 million views.
Among the viewers apparently was one Ken Ham, who is the head of a congregation in Kentucky that holds doggedly to the idea that the world is somehow merely 6,000 years old. Furthermore, he has raised millions and millions of dollars for what he calls the “Creation Museum,” a facility across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, in Petersburg, Kentucky. He wrote to me and challenged me to a debate. For several months, I put the offer or proposal aside thinking the whole thing would blow over. After all, his challenge was based on a minute and a half of video that exists with little context. He was persistent. So, as the weeks went by and we corresponded, I acceded the challenge. More specifically, I was willing to come to his facility if the topic was: “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?” Note that this title does not include the word “evolution,” nor does it connote or imply that we would discuss evolution specifically.
As you may know, once in a while I am invited to offer my thoughts on Fox News. And I love it—I love being in the studio right there with those reporters with the opportunity to look them in the eyes (or lens). As you may infer, I’m not much for their style, and I usually disagree with just about everything a Fox commentator has to say, but I relish the confrontation. I had that same feeling about Ken Ham’s building. I wanted to be in the belly of the beast. I drove by there when I was on other business in Cincinnati a few years ago. The building was closed, but driving around the grounds I saw numerous depictions of ancient dinosaurs. One infamous sculpture featured humans of apparent European descent astride a triceratops-style ancient animal adorned with Christmas lights. I wanted to see the inside someday.
I do about a dozen college appearances every year. It’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. At first, I figured this appearance and this encounter would get about the same amount of notice as a nice college gig. There’d be a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, but the world would go on spinning without much notice on the outside. Not here: the creationists promoted it like crazy, and soon it seemed like everyone I met was talking about it.
I slowly realized that this was a high-pressure situation. Many of you, by that I mean many of my skeptic and humanist colleagues, expressed deep concern and anger that I would be so foolish as to accept a debate with a creationist, as this would promote him and them more than it would promote me and us. As I often say and sincerely believe, “You may be right.” But, I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind—I do not feel I’m exaggerating when I express it this strongly.
I believe I am generally not the stereotypical male who refuses to ask for directions. I feel locals usually know the way best. By analogy, to find my way through this debate (which was quickly becoming a big damn deal), I consulted the world’s foremost authorities on arguing or debating with creationists. I flew to Oakland, California, and consulted with the famed, venerable, and formidable Genie Scott, along with Josh Roseneau, and the staff at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). They schooled me on what to do in great detail. Later that week, I managed to arrange a lunch with Don Prothero and Michael Shermer, two hardcore skeptics. Don even debated the notorious Duane Gish back in the 1980s. All of these people were wonderfully helpful. They were very patient with me and helped me figure out what to say and, especially, what not to say. They said to prefer the word “explanation” to the word “theory,” for example. I just can’t thank them enough.
With that said, and everyone profusely thanked, I was going to be on my own in this thing, and I had to make my arguments come from my heart (a metaphor for my point of view—from my brain).
I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence.
With my experience as a science educator, I like to divide elementary science into three categories: life science (biology), physical science (physics and chemistry), and planetary science (geology and astronomy). And so with the remarkable help of the NCSE and skeptics, I chose arguments from each of these three disciplines.
On the slides in my “decks,” as they’re called, I do not use many words. My colleagues sent me dozens of PowerPoint slides for my use. Thank you of course, but my goodness you all, when I watch many of your presentations, it’s like reading a page of book projected on a wall. How can someone in the audience focus on what you’re saying, when there’s a blizzard of words in front of her or him?
Those of you familiar with creationism and its followers are familiar with the remarkable Duane Gish (no longer living—at least as far as we know). His debating technique came to be known as the “Gish Gallop.” He was infamous for jumping from one topic to another, introducing one spurious or specious fact or line of reasoning after another. A scientist debating Gish often got bogged down in details and, by all accounts, came across looking like the loser.
It quickly occurred to me that I could do the same thing. If you make the time to watch the debate (let’s say for free at http://billnye.com—wink, wink), I hope you’ll pick up on this idea. I did my best to slam Ken Ham with a great many scientific and common sense arguments. I believed he wouldn’t have the time or the focus to address many of them.
The night before the debate, I spoke at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. The students there were keenly aware of the next evening’s debate. I had a long car drive from one side of the commonwealth to the other. I could not help but notice the layers and layers of beautiful limestone everywhere along the road. We pulled over at a cut where some blasting took place for the road’s right-of-way, and I walked through a few centimeters of snow. I easily picked up three nice specimens of rock revealing several fossilized small shelly ancient sea creatures. I held one up during my opening remarks. There’s an irony that the Creation Museum literally sits atop overwhelming evidence of the true age of our planet.
I’ve got to mention another thing to you all. To a man and woman, all of my advisors, NCSE staff and skeptics alike, strongly felt that the desirable position in a situation like this is to go first. This, many of you believe, puts the onus on the other guy or gal to refute your points. I just don’t see it that way. This may be from experience in television, or it may be my misguided overconfidence; I wanted to go second in the confrontation.
To you go-firsters I say: “You may be right.” I mean you may be right, if this were a debate in an academic session, where there are thoughtful judges from the history department or tort instructors from the law school, who have the ability to determine who said what better than who to whom, per se, et cetera. But this debate was a television show. And my audience was on the worldwide web not in the auditorium. If I get the chance, I go second. I just don’t see it any other way. Whatever Ken Ham talked about, I pretty much planned to talk about what I wanted to talk about.
My agents and publicist induced Tom Foreman from CNN to moderate the event. Mr. Foreman was the ideal man for the job. He’s a thoughtful journalist with a great deal of experience in handling human conflict as he seeks the facts in a story. However, having a respected international journalist sitting on stage with us upped the ante. There would be even more focus and more scrutiny from an even bigger audience. As they say in the theater, if you stop being nervous, stop going out on stage. The key is to take that nervousness or anxiety and convert it to excitement. By the time the debate was ready to start, I sensed that Mr. Ham was nervous, while I was excited.
Tom Foreman, by long debate tradition, tossed a coin backstage. Ken Ham won the toss, and probably taking advice from his people, who were thinking a lot like my people, chose to go first. I was delighted.
From long experience behind unfamiliar lecterns in strange venues, I can tell you: something always goes wrong and you’ve got to roll with it. As I stepped up to my lectern, stage-right of Ken Ham, I realized that I had loaded a previous revision, an unintended version, of my first set of five slides for our first five minutes of presentation. I’ll let you, the viewer, determine which one I intended to leave out. Phew. . . .
If you take the time to watch, Mr. Ham repeatedly mentioned or droned on about the less-than-a-handful of scientists who subscribe to the weird idea that the Earth is crazy (or crazily) young. When my turn came, I talked about geology and the Grand Canyon. Creationists from the United States, or in Australian-born Ham’s case, in the United States, just can’t get enough of the Grand Canyon. I pointed out that not a single fossil form had tried to swim from one rock layer to another during his purported worldwide flood, only 4,000 years ago. Were we to find such a fossil, it would utterly change geology and our scientific worldview. I did a bit of engineering, pointing out that no wooden boat has ever been built as big as Ham’s imagined ark. In fact, the big ones that were built were smaller and generally twisted apart— and sank (for this I used a chart from Ham’s website). I made it personal where possible. The Nyes are an old New England family, many of whom sailed wooden ships. I also spoke of decades in the Pacific Northwest, where I observed the enormous boulders washed westward by ancient collapsing ice dams in what is now Montana.
In keeping with the idea of getting the audience to like me, I spent my first minute and a half on a joke about bow ties. I’m not sure how many of my academic colleagues would have made that choice, but I stand by it.
I pointed out that evolution is a successful theory, because it enables us to make predictions. I showed a map, a fossil, and an artist’s rendering of Tiktaalik, the extinct but quite real lizard-fish. And, I felt joy as I talked about the best theory we have to explain why meta-life forms like dandelions, velociraptors, humans, and minnows have and had sex. Yes, I said, “Sex—sex, sex, sex” to the auditorium audience. Many seemed to have their heads tossed back the way our heads move when we encounter an oncoming two-by-four.
I’ve met several people who loved (or very much enjoyed) my reference to kangaroos. Thanks to Genie and her colleagues for that: If kangaroos got off the ark in Mesopotamia, why aren’t there kangaroos in Laos? (Again, I used a map from Ham’s very website.) Then, from geology: If I find ice that has evidence of 680,000 layers of summer-winter cycles, how could the Earth be any younger? Thanks to Don for that. How can there be 9,500-year-old trees if the Earth is only 6,000 years old? And so on.
Something else I’d like to point out: From the beginning, I told Genie et al., that at some level, this thing has to be fun. Otherwise, it’s hard to be passionate and have the audience like you. Put another way, what is it that you or each of us loved about your favorite teacher or professor? I believe it’s his or her passion. It was Mr. Lang, my teacher who loved physics, who got me excited about airplanes, mechanisms, and electronics. To that end, I included a bit from astronomy. I talked about the big bang and why we, in the rest of the world, believe in it and are filled with joy by it. I figured that Mr. Ham would be at best apologetic, and at worst, just plain bewildered by it. I leave any conclusion about his reaction up to you.
Perhaps there was no winner, as this was not a scored debate. Nevertheless by all, or a strong majority of, accounts, I bested him. The fundamental idea that I hope all of us embrace is, simply put, performance counts as much or more than the specifics of the arguments in a situation like this. I admit that, for me at least, it took tremendous concentration. I was and am respectful of Ken Ham’s passion. At a cognitive level, he believes what he says. He really means it, when he says that he has “a book” that supersedes everything you and I and his parishioners can observe everywhere in nature around us. I respected that commitment; I used it to drive, what actors call, my “inner monologue.” I did not choose, as I was advised, to attack, attack, attack. My actor’s preparation helped me keep things civil and be respectful of Mr. Ham despite what struck me as his thoughtless point of view. I’m sure it influenced the countless people who’ve written to me and come up to me in public to express their strong and often enthusiastic support. Thank you all.
After the debate, my agent and I were driven back to our hotel. We were, by agreement, accompanied by two of Ham’s security people. They were absolutely grim. I admit it made me feel good. They had the countenance of a team that had been beaten—beaten badly in their own stadium. Incidentally, if the situation were reversed, I am pretty sure they are trained to feel bad about feeling good. They would manage to feel bad either way, which is consistent with Mr. Ham’s insistence on The Fall, when humankind took its first turn for the worse. And by his reckoning, we’ve been plummeting ever since.
In an interview after the debate, Piers Morgan of CNN asked Mr. Ham about climate change. Ham denied denying it, but I reminded the audience that he did deny climate change in at least one interview. It’s somehow connected, because it points to Ken Ham and his followers’ ability to exclude themselves from responsibility and from nature. It is weird and, for me, troubling.
A few weeks after the debate, Answers in Genesis held an online event in which they announced that they have or had raised the funds for their amazing “Ark Encounter” theme park, or “Ark Park.” I posted a tweet on the Twitter social media site, “Here’s hoping voters & journalists wonder: where did all those $ millions come so quickly? After a deadline?” Soon after that, Mark Looy of AIG sent an email to my office assuring me that the bonds had already been secured, before Feb. 4, i.e. before the debate—and before the unrated bonds’ deadline. I could not help but notice that Ken Ham made no mention of this during our encounter, i.e., during the debate itself. I also could not help but notice that his colleagues suggested that the debate helped close certain aspects of their Ark Park deal, later during their online event—at which not a single journalist, or anyone else for that matter, was present. These are details, but it does make me wonder, who donates those millions? I wonder if one project is leveraged against the other. I’ll leave it to the Kentucky journalism community to seek answers in this funding genesis.
I very much hope this whole business galvanizes the people in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and in neighboring states to take the time to think critically about creationism and to vote to remove it from science classrooms and texts. I frankly hope that in the coming few years not a single student in Kentucky is indoctrinated by the Answers in Genesis facilities and staff.
No matter where this leads, thanks to all of you, who’ve helped me over the years and in recent weeks to think critically and speak clearly about science and reason. It’s in the national interest to enlighten young people. The longest journey starts with but a single step. In this debate, we’ve already traveled a long way, but with projects like the Ark Park still in play, there is quite a journey yet ahead. If we keep making our arguments clear, and continue to vote and fight the political fights, together we can change the world.
Copyright Bill Nye
I was driving down Farmington Avenue, a very busy thoroughfare in West Hartford, Connecticut, at a little before seven in the morning (far too early to be up and about) when I spotted an animal crossing the road from my right at a distance of about 200 feet. It seemed to be about as big as a medium-sized dog, but it clearly wasn’t a canine. It was tawny in color, its back was curved, and it loped across the avenue in a strange hopping motion, as if its rear legs were substantially longer than its forelegs. My initial, nearly instant identification of the animal moving so peculiarly across the road made no sense at all in the upscale Connecticut suburb through which I was driving: it was a capybara. That was crazy. Capybaras are extremely large rodents, in fact, the largest on our planet, and they are native to South America, not Connecticut. I have never encountered a capybara in the wild, but I have seen them in zoos, and the animal I briefly glimpsed crossing Farmington Avenue in April 2013 appeared, at least initially, from a great distance and under poor lighting conditions, to be one, at least a small one.
The rational part of my mind recognized almost immediately thereafter that the identification I had come up with was nonsensical. But was it? After all, there is a museum in West Hartford with a small menagerie of wild animals. I know they have a bobcat, lynx, hedgehog, and a number of other critters on display there. Maybe they have a capybara, and it had escaped. Could be. Another possibility was an exotic pet. Yup; do an Internet search for “capybara pet,” and you’ll find numerous webpages in which people extol the virtues of sharing their homes and lives with what amounts to gigantic, über-rats that may weigh in at more than 100 pounds. Maybe, the thought flashed through my mind, a local resident kept a capybara as a companion animal and the poor thing had gotten loose.
Determined to figure out what the animal actually was, I watched as it reached the other side of the road where it initially disappeared into a culvert diverting a stream into a grassy dell. Just past where the animal had entered the little stream valley was a driveway leading to the parking lot of the local Whole Foods, and I turned into it, hopeful but not particularly optimistic that I would see the animal again for a better look and the opportunity to assess my original, seemingly impossible diagnosis of—what? A wayfaring giant South American rodent that had managed to migrate thousands of miles, across numerous national borders, only to end up in Connecticut, a furry alien on its way to shop at the nearby Whole Foods for some free-trade, organic capybara kibble? It seemed ridiculous in the extreme, but at least based on my initial observation, that’s exactly what I thought I had seen.
Looking to my left as I drove into the Whole Foods parking lot, amazingly, I saw the creature again, was able to view it at a much closer distance, and recognized it for exactly what it was. No, it was not a capybara, nor was it one of its much smaller relatives, the agouti, another South American native. Embarrassingly, it was a representative of a species I was very familiar with for all the grief its kind has given me by breaking into my trash cans. The animal I had initially identified as a giant South American rodent was, in actuality, nothing more than a large raccoon that was moving in a peculiar way because it was missing its right rear leg.
The tale of a resilient raccoon who had managed to survive a traumatic injury to one of its legs and its ability to adapt to its condition so well is remarkable enough. But that’s not the purpose of my sharing this experience with you. My story is a cautionary tale you might consider when you read or hear all of those eyewitness accounts of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the chupacabra, and on and on.
The etiology of my misidentification seems clear enough. Barely awake, I spot an animal that, based on its appearance and movement, doesn’t immediately match anything I’d expect to see crossing in front of me on Farmington Avenue. In a virtual instant, my brain leapt into action, searching my neural database for a word, an identification, a diagnosis for the strange and unexpected critter I had just seen. The closest match I could come up with based on what I had briefly observed without preparation was an animal that has no business being in West Hartford. But it’s the best I could do in that instant when my mind was demanding an explanation and attempting to find one based on incomplete and not terribly reliable data.
My initial identification is a reflection of how our brains work. We encounter something out of the ordinary—maybe it’s a strange light in the sky, an unexpected noise in an old house, or an oddly moving animal—and our minds demand an explanation. Even under poor conditions for observation—lighting is weak, the distance is great, we’re tired, we’re not wearing our glasses—we make instant deductions and leap to conclusions, regardless of the sensibility of those deductions and conclusions.
I suppose it’s adaptive, born of our evolutionary history as bipedal hunters on the plains of Africa. Indeed, it is better to be safe than sorry, and the survival of our ancestors depended on being careful in the face of incomplete information. Better to interpret the subtle movement in the grass in front of you as a lion intent on making you her meal, better to think you actually see that lion and respond accordingly, than to be skeptical of or even ignore the possible danger. If you’re wrong, all that results is a brief scare: your heart races, and then relief. If you’re right about the lion, however, you just might save your life.
Given the chance, and if we’re curious enough, we accept that our initial deductions and conclusions concerning our observations are merely first guesses and we investigate further. That’s why I followed up on my initial identification and followed the animal as it ran down the side of the streambed where I saw, not a capybara, but a three-legged raccoon doing its thing. Now imagine if I hadn’t gotten a closer, lengthier look at the animal. I might still be telling the story of the feral, peripatetic capybara of West Hartford, Connecticut. Maybe I’d put up a website, collecting other eyewitness accounts of the capybaras of Connecticut, and I’d generate thousands of hits and elicit the reports of, maybe, dozens of kindred spirits who are also certain of the existence of packs of giant South American rodents haunting the forests, hills, and even the cities of southern New England. Don’t think that would happen? Type in the term “Alien Big Cats” in whatever Internet search engine you use and you’ll find hundreds of references to people in Great Britain who claim to have seen large, clearly non-native, wild felines prowling the British countryside. But it is almost certainly the case that there are about as many leopards wandering the moors of Cornwall as there are capybaras crossing West Hartford, Connecticut’s Farmington Avenue.
It’s not that people are stupid (notice how self-serving that statement is since I’m the guy who thought he saw the capybara) or that everybody who sees a Sasquatch, living dinosaur, flying saucer, or ghost is lying. It’s a reflection of the demand placed on our brains and honed by millions of years of evolution, to diagnose and identify what we observe to quickly determine if what we have just seen is friend or foe, something to eat, or something that will eat us. As behavioral scientists we recognize this process. But, apparently, we are not immune to it.
Sparking an international media frenzy, a house in Gary, Indiana, was—according to two unnamed “clairvoyants”—besieged by over 200 demons. Of three “possessed” children, the daughter “levitated”; one son, who talked with an invisible boy, growled and spoke in a deep voice; and his older brother walked backward up a hospital exam-room wall! Investigating Gary police confessed themselves baffled. A captain’s personal car seemed to have become possessed when its driver’s seat began to move inexplicably to and fro.
After the family moved out, the subsequent renter found herself besieged by curiosity seekers after the events were publicized and sought relief. At one point she called police to complain of reporters and photographers who were on her property. The mother of the “possessed” children also was not talking—except to a national TV show with which she reportedly had an exclusivity agreement. Various agencies and individuals were noncommittal as well, citing issues of medical confidentiality and privacy. Nevertheless, CSI dispatched me to investigate the case. As I would discover, the devil was in the details.Demon House?
The alleged demon house is a nondescript rental cottage with enclosed porch at 3860 Carolina Street in Gary, the onetime “murder capital of the U.S.”Figure 1. At the Gary, Indiana, “200 demons” house, the later resident talked with Joe Nickell (out of view at right). Photo by Steve Duerr.
Although not reported publicly until January 28, 2014 (Kwiatkowski 2014a), the strange events began soon after Latoya Ammons moved into the house with her three children (then seven, nine, and twelve, respectively) and her mother, Rosa Campbell, in November 2011. Campbell recalled a profusion of flies that swarmed their porch in December; that motif recalls the Amityville horror house of the mid-1970s—a case that proved to be a hoax (Nickell 2012, 293).
Soon came noises that Ammons interpreted as footsteps on the basement stairs and the creaking of the basement door—consistent with the sounds old houses commonly make with changes in temperature (Nickell 2012, 111–112). In one incident, her mother reportedly awoke to see a “shadowy figure” and “leaped out of bed” to find “large, wet bootprints” (Kwiatkowski 2014a). However, the earlier report of a priest seeking permission to conduct an exorcism (Maginot 2012) stated that it was the next morning that “they saw on the wooden floor of their living room what looked like muddy footprints like from a boot.” Campbell probably had a common “waking dream,” which occurs between being fully awake and asleep (Nickell 2012, 353–354). As to footmarks that might have been made at any time, one does not need to invoke the supernatural to explain them.
Significantly, there were never any reported haunting or demonic activities in the house other than during the Ammons family’s tenure. The landlord, Charles Reed (2014), insists there had never been any such problems before they took up residence. While to the Department of Child Services (DCS) Ammons blamed her children’s irregular school attendance on the demons—saying “the spirits would make them sick, or they would be up all night without sleep”—in fact the family had a “previous DCS history regarding educational neglect” (Washington 2012). Records show the agency made that finding in 2009 (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
As well, as Charles Reed (2014) noted, there were no alleged demonic activities during the tenure of the subsequent renter. The only thing that was scaring the new tenant was local curiosity, notably that Gary police officers were frequently driving by the house, and Reed phoned the department to ask them to stop. Reed, who has thirty-three years’ experience as a landlord, told The Indianapolis Star: “I thought I heard it all. This was a new one to me. My belief system has a hard time jumping over that bridge.” I called to ask if anything had occurred since to change his view, and spoke with his wife Nancy Reed (2014). Although she stated that they were making no further comments about the case and had obtained an attorney, she did answer my question: She said her husband’s skepticism remained unchanged.
Although Mrs. Reed told me that the current tenant did not want to be disturbed—and that was obvious, given that woman’s having called police to report bothersome reporters and photographers—nevertheless I was on assignment for CSI and determined to take my best shot. Arriving at the residence (with Steve Duerr of CFI–Indiana, who took the photo in Figure 1), I saw the woman resident in the doorway and a male companion putting something in a car parked in front. I bailed out of Steve’s car and approached. I began by identifying myself and apologizing for the interruption. Although she continued her position of making no comments, she was not unpleasant to me and we actually spoke for ten to fifteen minutes.
When I said offhandedly that she no doubt knew of the alleged incidents better than I, she quickly replied, “Not really,” explaining that she had not followed the case and only wanted to live in peace. The gentleman interjected, pointedly calling the reputed demonic events there “hocus-pocus”—adding, “or whatever.” He informed me they were moving out. The house had been purchased—for $35,000—by Zak Bagans, the executive producer and host of the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures (Kwiatkowski 2014b).Poltergeists?
Soon after the Ammonses had moved into the house on Carolina Street, the ghostly goings-on transformed into a full-blown case of poltergeist activity—after the German word for “noisy spirit.” The oldest son told a child psychologist that “doors would slam and stuff started moving around.” The youngest son, according to Ammons “was once thrown from the bathroom when no one was even near him” (Kurp 2014). A religious statue was broken (Maginot 2012). Ms. Ammons told DCS that if the children were not asleep by eleven in the evening, “the spirits would come out and keep them up all night throwing things, moving things in the home,” and so on (Washington 2012).
Countless historical examples show that such disturbances typically center around a child or children and involve mischief a child could cause and, indeed, many times was actually caught causing. I call this activity the poltergeist-faking syndrome (Nickell 2012, 325–331). Motivation varies: In one newly tenanted home mysterious fires resulted when a boy missed his former playmates; a schoolhouse outbreak was inspired by the gullibility of their teacher and townsfolk; and other “poltergeist” antics were produced by an eleven-year-old girl looking for attention. All such motives could apply to the Ammons children.
First, the children’s move to a new neighborhood might have caused difficulty. Lacking new playmates, they may have begun to irritate each other, resulting in Ammons reporting to their physician “that the children fight one another and are abusive to one another and then they pass out” (Washington 2012). (In other words, they act out their anger but pretend not to be responsible.)
Second, the mother’s response to the occurrences encourages their misbehavior. Consider the DCS report giving information from a knowledgeable confidential informant—apparently a medical professional—who complained to the department. He is referred to as “RS” (for Report Source, cited in Washington 2012):
RS states [one of the boys] reported there are ghosts in the home, thousands of them and he can see them. . . . [T]hey don’t talk to him but after the mother tells [him] that he can tell the medical professionals the truth he later says yes. . . . RS states they believe the children are performing for the mother and that she’s encouraging the behavior.Mother Sets the Stage
Latoya Ammons is a religious believer who has a high superstition quotient. She believes in invisible entities and consults “clairvoyants,” one of whom told her “the house was infested by demons.” She insisted to Inside Edition, “I know that for a fact” (Ammons 2014). At the suggestion of one of two clairvoyants who claimed the house was “filled with more than 200 demons,” a frightened Ammons created an altar in the basement where the terrifying events were believed to have begun. It consisted of a statue of the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—and a white candle and incense burner (Maginot 2012). The Gary police observed “multiple religious shrines” and “bibles throughout the home” (Washington 2012).
She told medical personnel that her home had “various demons and evil spirits due to someone dying in the home,” and that she had “taken the children to various temples and churches to remove the demons.” One psychologist said of Ammons that she did not appear to be “experiencing symptoms of psychosis,” but another wondered “whether her religiosity may be masking underlying delusional ideations or perceptual disturbances” (qtd. in Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Several professionals concluded that the children were acting deceptively and in accordance with their mother’s beliefs. For example, a psychologist who evaluated the youngest son reported that he tended to “act possessed” whenever he was challenged or redirected, or when he was asked questions that he did not wish to answer. She went on to observe that the boy seemed both coherent and logical—except when he was talking about demons. Then, his stories became “bizarre, fragmented and illogical,” she said, adding that the stories changed every time he related them (Wright 2012).
The psychologist determined that the boy did not have an actual psychotic disorder, concluding, “This appears to be an unfortunate and sad case of a child who has been induced into a delusional system perpetuated by his mother and potentially reinforced,” she said, by other relatives (Wright 2012).
As a consequence of their evaluations, the DCS removed the children from Ammons. The agency stated that she needed to employ “alternate forms of discipline not directly related to religion and demon possession” (DCS Case Plan 2012). Ammons was permitted supervised visitation and, after about six months, the children were returned to her in November 2012. Meanwhile—outrageously—no fewer than four exorcisms were performed on her by a priest named Michael L. Maginot, one with his bishop’s official permission—though not on the children who were allegedly possessed! Ammons now says her children left their demons behind, but she credits God, not psychologists or the DCS, with resolving the family’s problems (Kwiatkowski 2014b).Demonic Phenomena
It remains to discuss the phenomena that so astonished other superstitions folk involved in the case—including the priest, his bishop, and one Captain
Charles Austin of the Gary police. Like Ammons, Austin has a high superstition quotient. Already an admitted believer in the supernatural, including
ghosts, he became a believer in demons after visiting the house on Carolina Street (Kwiatkowski 2014a). It didn’t take much: He and other officers naïvely
played ghost hunters. They used cameras and Austin’s iPhone
to snap pictures in which they could see—in mottled shadows and cloudy white forms (such as can be caused by a rebounding flash)—shapes that resembled faces and figures. These are called simulacra, the result of one’s ability to perceive images in random patterns (Nickell 2012, 64–65).
One such exterior photo, showing what looks vaguely like a blurry image of a person standing in a porch window, might have been a simulacrum, or a reflection of someone on the sidewalk, or a fake photo, as from a cell phone’s hoax app (Flynn 2014). Although The Indianapolis Star captioned it “Photo by Hammond Police,” it was not. The Hammond Police Chief assured me it was not an official police photo, that agency having had no involvement in the case, never mind what may have been produced unofficially by an individual (Miller 2014). At present, the photo is too questionable to be admissible as evidence.
Again influenced by television ghost shows, the officers used a tape recorder to supposedly record spirit sounds—or rather a sound, perceived as the word hey (Kwiatkowski 2014a). Such electronic voice phenomena (EVPs, as they are called in the parlance of ghost hunting) are typically verbal simulacra—that is, syllable-like effects perceived in the randomness of static and background noise (Nickell 2012, 146, 273). In this instance it appears to have been an inadvertent aspiration (it is not the word hey) made by a person close to the microphone at the time (Flynn 2014). Ghost hunting involving such equipment is a pseudoscientific pursuit and a fool’s errand. As to Captain Austin’s self-moving car seat, his mechanic found that his driver’s seat motor was simply broken (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Turning to the phenomena attributed to the children, these were obviously produced by the children themselves. Anyone who has seen any of the countless TV shows and movies that have proliferated since the 1973 horror movie The Exorcist would know how to manipulate his or her eyes, growl, speak in a deep voice, feign a trance, scream and thrash, or otherwise simulate being “possessed.” When the youngest Ammons boy was “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him” (Washington 2012), it is apparent he simply launched himself.
Similarly, when his sister “reported being thrown across the room and grabbed by dark shadows” (Washington 2012), she was no doubt self-propelled—if, given the word “reported,” the event happened at all. Much has been said about her having been “levitated” above a bed (Kwiatkowski 2014a)—part of the stock effects of alleged demon possession as shown in numerous movies. However, no levitation has ever been documented by science. The girl’s mother has given different versions of the feat, but when she mentioned the incident on Inside Edition (Ammons 2014), she did not use the word levitation. Rather, she stated that as she watched, “It [a demon] attacked [her daughter] and it raised her up off the bed, snatched her off the bed”—describing a quick action, not a prolonged floating. I take it that, as with the other incidents, the twelve-year-old simply propelled herself upward, no doubt taking advantage of the springiness of the mattress. (If she arched her body, supported at head and feet, she might have appeared to float briefly.)
The most significant claim involved the oldest son and described him—as sources endlessly repeated—“walking backward up a wall” in front of witnesses including a DCS case manager and a nurse. The incident happened at Lakewood Methodist Hospital, where I talked with a public relations official (Morrison 2014) but was not allowed to speak to the nurse; I also met the case manager Valerie Washington (2012), but her superiors also did not permit her to speak about the matter to me. Nevertheless, I can say that there was more to the incident than people learned from some sources—such as the New York Daily News (Golgowski 2014), which had the mother claiming demons caused her son “to walk on a hospital ceiling.”
The accounts tend to imply that gravity was overcome, proving a supernatural occurrence. In fact, while the boy put first one foot, then the other, onto the wall of a small hospital exam room, his grandmother, Rosa Campbell, was holding his hand (Washington 2012) or both of his hands (Ammons 2014). Thus the laws of physics were not contravened. The boy was obviously supported, braced by the rigid arms of Campbell who no doubt instinctively steadied him and helped him maintain his balance as he progressed, perhaps to the ceiling, “and he never let go. He flipped over and landed on his feet in front of the grandmother and sat down in the chair. A few minutes later he looked up as if he was back to himself” (Washington 2012). In short, this was a stunt of an agile boy, not in the least proof of the supernatural.
The priest (Maginot 2012) reported flickering lights, appearing oil, and a litany of other incidents, including some that he was only told about. For instance, a bottle “levitated” and wobbled before being thrown into Latoya Ammons’s bedroom, a common “poltergeist” act) where it broke a lamp. (Too bad the object was not dusted for fingerprints. I suspect Ammons misperceived, first seeing the bottle in mid-flight traveling approximately toward her—conditions like those that sometimes cause airplanes to be reported as “hovering” UFOs [Hendry 1979, 37–38]). Ammons took the family to her brother’s, “but the entity seemed to follow them there”—a fact that should surprise no one. Maginot’s report (2012) is rife with the logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance (‘we don’t know what caused this, so it must have been demons’).Continuing Saga
It was not enough that the Rev. Michael Maginot helped foster ignorance and superstition in the case, at the expense of science and reason, but he seemed happy to become a star—presumably with his bishop’s blessing (if that is the right word). Maginot contracted with Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures to produce a documentary on the case. He also signed a contract with Evergreen Media Holdings—whose chairman, Tony DeRosa-Grund, produced the horror movie The Conjuring (previously exposed in SI as nonsense [Nickell 2014]). Worldwide, that movie grossed $318 million. Apparently with a straight face, Maginot told a reporter the reason he signed with Evergreen was that he felt DeRosa-Grund would not sensationalize the case (Kwiatkowski 2014c)!
Another hopeful is Captain Charles Austin, whom I twice tried to reach on visits to the Gary police station. According to the Indianapolis Star, he “said he expected notoriety and figured a movie would come of this” (Kwiatkowski 2014b). He is right so far, but if he is not careful, his legacy may be that of one more person lampooned for being on a fool’s errand.
As to Ammons, she was apparently so eager to tell her story to The Indianapolis Star that she signed releases giving access to her family’s medical, psychological, and social records in otherwise restricted files. Stated the reporter (who made them available to researchers: see Kwiatkowski 2014a for urls), they were “not always flattering.”
In summary, no demons possessed anyone in this case, except in the figurative sense. What were really unleashed were the dark aspects of superstition, ancient dogma, lust for notoriety, the greed of cynical hucksters, and the stubborn unwillingness of some to be reasoned with.Acknowledgments
Barry Karr, CSI executive director, arranged for me to go to Gary, and CFI’s CEO Ronald Lindsay authorized the funding. CFI–Indiana’s Reba Wooden had requested my investigation, but I first spent several days in telephone and online research—assisted by CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga. Subsequently, CFI volunteer Steve Duerr of Indianapolis accompanied me over three days of traveling and interviewing. Thanks are also due to Steve’s wife Sue and mother Shirley for comfortable accommodations, and I am grateful to Pat Beauchamp, Paul E. Loynes, and other staff members for help in various ways, especially Tom Flynn for technical audio-visual analysis.References
Ammons, Latoya. 2014. Interview on Inside Edition television program, “Homeowner Claims Her House Was Haunted by Demons,” January 30.
DCS Case Plan. 2012. Cited in Kwiatkowski 2014a.
Flynn, Thomas (audio-visual expert). 2014. Consulted February 20–21.
Golgowski, Nina. 2014. Haunting in Indiana leads to family’s exorcism, child’s levitation: Reports. Online at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/haunting-indiana-home-leads-exorcism-levitation-report-article-1.1593169; January 27. Accessed Jan. 28, 2014.
Hendry, Allan. 1979. The UFO Handbook. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Kurp, Josh. 2014. Can you hear the “demon” voice that cops in Indiana are taking seriously? Online at http://www.uproxx.com/up/2014/01/can-hear-demon-voice-indiana-police-officers-taking-seriously/; January 28. Accessed January 30, 2014.
Kwiatkowski, Marisa. 2014a. The exorcisms of Latoya Ammons. Indianapolis Star (January 28).
———. 2014b. Alleged demon home sells for $35,000. Indianapolis Star (January 30).
———. 2014c. Priest signs film deals after well-publicized exorcisms. Indianapolis Star (February 6).
Maginot, Rev. Michael L. 2012. Report Seeking Permission of Bishop for Exorcism, submitted to Bishop Dale J. Melczek, May 21.
Miller, Brian (Hammond police chief). 2014. Return call to Joe Nickell, February 7.
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2014. The Conjuring: Ghosts? Poltergeist? Demons? Skeptical Inquirer 37:2 (March/April), 22–25.
Morrison, Evelyn (Methodist Hospitals spokesperson). 2014. On-site interview by Joe Nickell, February 7.
Reed, Charles. 2014. Quoted in The Indianapolis Star (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Reed, Nancy. 2014. Interview by Joe Nickell, February 5.
Washington, Valerie. 2012. Intake Officer’s Report of Preliminary Inquiry and Investigation, State of Indiana Department of Child Services, April 23.
Wright, Tracy. 2012. Cited in Kwiatkowski 2014.
Fear is a powerful emotion with clear protective functions. However, fear is not always adaptive. An emotion that evolved to protect our ancestors (chiefly from threats such as large predators) now is pressed into service in a complex technological civilization. The number of things we are told to be frightened of on a daily basis—by the news media, social and ecological activists, and others—is overwhelming.
Fortunately we have other tools to help us navigate the dangers we face, such as logic and evidence. These can help us put our fears into a proper perspective. These are all the more necessary, as the Internet has become a primary fear-spreading machine. Fearmongering memes are the new predators in our virtual environment, and they are always ready to pounce.
Information regarding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, for example, remains widespread on the Internet. It is certainly reasonable to consider whether or not radiation from the reactors pose any health risks, but what does the evidence tell us?A fishmonger checks large bluefin tuna before the first trading of the new year at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market in this January 5, 2012, file photo. Bluefin tuna caught off the U.S. coast have been found to contain radioactive material from Japan’s quake-struck Fukushima nuclear plant. Researchers said the elevated radioactivity posed no risk to public health as the observed levels were more than an order of magnitude lower than the Japanese safety limit and were lower than other naturally present isotopes. (AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNOYOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GettyImages.)
On March 11, 2011, a tsunami hit northeast Japan. The flooding overwhelmed the safety measures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing several reactors to experience meltdown and resulting in the leaking of radioactive contaminated water into the local environment (Marshall 2013). This has resulted in restrictions on fishing in the vicinity of Fukushima. Recent evidence also indicates that radioactive material continues to leak into the ocean near Fukushima, although in amounts much smaller than the original leak resulting from the tsunami.
The question remained, however: How far did radioactive elements from Fukushima spread, and do they represent a health risk to anyone outside of the local vicinity? In 2012, researchers reported detecting radioactive elements (cesium-134 and cesium-137) that could clearly be traced to Fukushima in Pacific bluefin tuna (Madigan et al. 2012). These tuna spawn off the coast of Japan and migrate across the Pacific all the way to the California coast, where some are caught and eaten. These fish were able to carry radioactive contamination all the way from Fukushima to dinner plates in California. This created fear that contamination from Fukushima might have been far worse than the authorities were telling us, and perhaps could be affecting environments all over the world. This fear was also spread through conspiracy-theorist bloggers who claimed that the Japanese and American governments were engaging in a sinister collaboration to hide the truth from American fish consumers.
Toxicity, however, is all about dose, even with something as seemingly dangerous as radiation. A follow-up study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Fisher et al. 2013) found that the levels of radioactive contaminants found in Pacific bluefin tuna were negligible:
“The additional dose from Fukushima radionuclides to humans consuming tainted PBFT in the United States was calculated to be 0.9 and 4.7 µSv for average consumers and subsistence fishermen, respectively. Such doses are comparable to, or less than, the dose all humans routinely obtain from naturally occurring radionuclides in many food items, medical treatments, air travel, or other background sources.” The advantage of communicating the relative risk of radiation exposure is that there is a certain background “natural” exposure that is unavoidable. When levels of exposure are less than this background, it is easy to make the point that any risk is insignificant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also reviewed the data concerning the radiation leaked, in all forms, from the Fukushima disaster. Most of the radiation was leaked in the week following the accident, but there have been continued leaks since then, mostly through ground water. The WHO review concluded: “A breakdown of data, based on age, gender and proximity to the nuclear plant, does show a higher cancer risk for those located in the most contaminated parts. Outside these parts—even in locations inside Fukushima Prefecture—no observable increases in cancer incidence are expected” (World Health Organization 2013). An independent 2013 review also found little evidence of any significant radiation outside the immediate area of the accident: “It is important to note that all of the radiation levels detected outside of Japan have been very low and are well below any level of public and environmental hazard” (Thakur et al. 2013).
Recent estimates are that water contaminated with radioactive elements is leaking from Fukushima into the nearby ocean at a rate of 300 tons per day (Kimura and Kawada 2013). This sounds like a lot, but the Pacific Ocean contains 714 million cubic kilometers of water. Simple dilution is reducing the concentration of radioactive contaminants below the level where there is any health risk, to sea life or to those consuming seafood. There does remain concern for the immediate vicinity, of course. For this reason Japan has banned fishing along the coast near Fukushima.Conclusion
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster resulted in serious environmental contamination with radioactive contaminants. However, the contamination is mostly limited to the vicinity of Fukushima. Monitoring of contaminants in the Pacific, North America, and around the world reveal that they are at very low levels, below that which would cause any health concern or even peak above background radiation exposure. Even bluefin tuna spawning off the coast of Japan have negligible levels of contaminants and pose no risk to human health. This is all good news, but the environmental and health effects of Fukushima, which is an ongoing disaster, will need to be monitored for some time. There continue to be reports of new leaks from Fukushima, so this story is not yet over (Saito 2014). Hopefully, carefully collected evidence will dominate policy and public perception.References
Nicholas S. Fisher, Karine Beaugelin-Seiller, Thomas G. Hinton, et al. 2013. Evaluation of radiation doses and associated risk from the Fukushima nuclear accident to marine biota and human consumers of seafood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 18).
Kimura, Shunsuke, and Toshio Kawada. 2013. Fukushima: Radioactive water flowing into Pacific Ocean despite Japanese government claim. Global Research (October 11). Available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/fukushima-radioactive-water-flowing-into-pacific-ocean-despite-japanese-government-claim/5353898.
Daniel J. Madigan, Zofia Baumann, Nicholas S. Fisher. 2012. Pacific bluefin tuna transport Fukushima-derived radionuclides from Japan to California. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 25). Available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/05/22/1204859109.abstract.
Marshall, Michael. Fukushima leaks will keep fisheries closed. 2013. The New Scientist (August 6). Available at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23998-fukushima-leaks-will-keep-fisheries-closed.html#.UwJKd2K-18E.
Saito, Mari. 2014. New highly radioactive leak at Japan’s Fukushima plant. Reuters (February 19). Available at http://news.yahoo.com/highly-radioactive-leak-japan-39-fukushima-plant-045324842--finance.html.
Thakur, P., S. Ballard, R. Nelson. 2013. An overview of Fukushima radionuclides measured in the northern hemisphere. Science of the Total Environment (Aug 1: 458–460; 577–613. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.03.105. Epub May 22, 2013.
World Health Organization. 2013. Global report on Fukushima nuclear accident details health risks. (February 28). Available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2013/fukushima_report_20130228/en/.
Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign against Evolution. By Edward Caudill. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield. 2013. ISBN 978-025-07952-8. 216 pp. Softcover, $25.00.
Why a new book reviewing the history of the creationist movement in the United States? Edward Caudill contends that his book Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign against Evolution distinctively emphasizes “the use of enduring cultural myths and the dexterous employment of mass media” (6) in explaining the success of the creationist movement, and he further proposes that the Scopes trial of 1925 established a template for the ensuing developments. Caudill’s publication record, which includes Darwinism in the Press: The Evolution of an Idea (1989), Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory (1997), and The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History (2000), certainly suggests that he is equipped for the task. But his latest book is something of a disappointment, both in providing a history of the creationist movement and in addressing the creationist use of myth and media.
As a history of the creationist movement, Intelligently Designed relates a familiar sequence of events, from the attempts to ban the teaching of evolution in the 1920s, through the attempts to balance the teaching of evolution with the Bible, creation science, or intelligent design from 1973 to 2005, to the ongoing attempts to portray evolution as controversial. Caudill is especially strong on the Scopes trial of 1925, devoting a chapter to comparing and contrasting the iconic figures of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, on the political mainstreaming of antievolutionism during the 1980s, and on the inward turn of young-Earth creationism to its own parallel culture in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creationism in the public schools is unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the historical value of the book is compromised by errors and omissions. For example, Caudill consistently misspells the name of the lead plaintiff in McLean v. Arkansas, wrongly claims that the Arkansas law overturned in Epperson was enacted by the legislature (rather than by initiative), and mistakenly asserts that the Creation Research Society was involved in the publication of a book from the American Scientific Affiliation. While devoting a section to Alleged, a creationist film about the Scopes trial, he makes no mention of Expelled, a creationist film that, unlike Alleged, won a national theatrical release and significant publicity. While devoting a section to the antievolution effort in Kansas in 2005, which resulted in a transient defeat for evolution in the state standards, he makes no mention of the similar and historically continuous antievolution effort in Kansas in 1998.
When Caudill discusses creationist myths, he is not addressing the persistent misrepresentations and misconceptions that circulate in creationist circles, like the idea that Darwin recanted evolution on his deathbed or the idea that there are no transitional forms to be found in the fossil record. Rather, he is addressing social themes that reflect values and structure thought. Caudill identifies four myths with special resonance for the creationist movement: “the garden, the frontier, progress and science, individualism and egalitarianism” (11). But while it is plausible enough for him to observe, for example, that creationists like to portray themselves as rebels, mavericks, and underdogs, thus invoking the frontier myth, the observation is inert in the book. It is perhaps significant that these myths are explicitly discussed in only two passages in Intelligently Designed.
Caudill repeatedly pauses to summarize and assess the media’s coverage of the events he discusses. His assessments are generally judicious and frequently insightful. But there is no evidence that there is any underlying methodology. How was it decided which reports to assess? What criteria were used? What steps were taken to ensure that the criteria were applied consistently? Devising and executing a quantitative approach to assessing the media’s coverage would have been laborious, perhaps, but it would not have been otherwise difficult, and it would have enabled Caudill not only to provide a rigorous assessment of the reports but also to investigate questions that his impressionistic approach is ill-equipped to investigate. The same is true of his assessments of the effectiveness of creationist responses to mainstream expositions of evolution.
Caudill appeals to poll data, especially from Gallup, to justify his claim that creationists managed, by dint of their use of myth and media, to triumph in the public sphere. But his discussion is not sufficiently critical. He sometimes misconstrues the creationist response in Gallup’s polling as a young-Earth creationist response; he ignores the mixture of religious issues with scientific issues in Gallup’s questions; and he is apparently unaware of the fact, demonstrated by George Bishop and his colleagues, that adding “don’t know” and “not sure” as options reveals substantial ambivalence and uncertainty in public opinion about evolution that is otherwise invisible. Caudill is not wrong to think that creationism enjoys a degree of public acceptance incommensurate with its scientific credibility, but the details are not as straightforward as he seems to think.
Although the book is generally clearly written and organized, it contains distracting repetitions and ambiguities. For example, on p. 110, Caudill writes, “The national press fell prey to its own standards,” adding, in the next paragraph, “The press had fallen victim to its own practices and standards.” On p. 43, he misstates the date and provisions of a Tennessee law, and yet he correctly states them on p. 65. On p. 102, Rick Santorum is said to have “withdrawn affiliation with a Christian rights law center that defended the Dover schools policy”; in the next sentence, he is said “to have been on the advisory board of the Thomas More Law Center, which aided the defense in Dover.” The two organizations cited are, in fact, one and the same, but there is no clue for the untutored reader. Flaws like these should have been eliminated at the copyediting stage, if not sooner.
In a bibliographical portion of his book, Caudill reviews the major works on the history of the creationist movement, concluding, “Almost all of these books recognized, or at least alluded to, politics and various media in the history of creationism. None, however, dealt with creationism/intelligent design per se in the press, including the ways in which creationists appealed to the press and how creationists turned the attention into a movement ... There are no cultural histories of creationism as a politicized and mediated twentieth-century movement” (pp. 5–6). Although he succeeded in identifying a genuine lacuna in the literature, his attempt to fill it was, unfortunately, not so successful. Perhaps the greatest value of Intelligently Designed will be in its inspiring future scholars to continue the project of understanding the creationist use of myth and media.
An old book I discovered in an antique store—Maria Monk: Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed—seemed intriguing. Undated, it bears signs of being a cheap reproduction of an earlier volume (see Figure 1). Indeed, its title page not only gives a different title (Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk of the Hotel Dieu Convent of Montreal: The Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed), but revised publishing information (“Patriotic Defense League, P.O. Box 796, Chicago, Ill.”) has been added. (It is off-center, crooked, and in a different typeface.) The words “New Edition,” also appear (Monk n.d.).Figure 1. Maria Monk’s “Awful Disclosures” saw numerous printings and reprintings, such as this undated copy (probably from the first part of the twentieth century). (Author’s Collection)
In brief, the book purports to be the account of a young Canadian woman, Maria Monk (1816–1849), who had been a nun in a convent in Montreal in the 1830s. Purportedly, priests routinely entered the premises through a secret tunnel and forced themselves upon the defenseless young women. If they became impregnated, Monk claimed, the infant would, on delivery, be baptized, strangled, and dumped in a basement lime pit (Monk n.d., 130–31). Finding herself pregnant, Monk escaped, had her baby, and penned the tell-all tale—or so we are urged to believe.Imposture
I had not read far into the book before I found suspicious elements. For instance, the descriptions of Catholic practices seemed those an outsider would make. Monk seemed scarcely to know what an “Agnus Dei” was but described it as “something . . . we were required to regard with the highest degree of reverence” (n.d., 157).1 Moreover, the language is too elevated—often rhetorically verbose and pompous—for the “uneducated” female that Monk is described as in the preface (Monk n.d., xi).
My suspicions aroused, I turned to my late friend Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of Hoaxes (1993), where—under “Religious Hoaxes”—I found an entry on “Maria Monk.” It turns out that the fantastic assertions she made were investigated thoroughly at the time by Protestant clergymen who were permitted to inspect the actual convent, discovering that its interior was incompatible with Monk’s descriptions. Much additional debunking evidence followed.2 Nevertheless, the book saw many editions, and by the 1920s reportedly sold over 300,000 copies. Over four decades later, states Stein, it “was still going strong.” Copies like the one I found continue to lie in wait for unsuspecting readers.Double Imposture?
But surely Maria was not alone in the imposture. The text, as we have seen, was clearly not written by such an uneducated girl.
For example, “Maria Monk” wrote (n.d., 82):
The preservation of silence was insisted upon most rigidly, and penances of such a nature were imposed for breaking it, that it was a constant source of uneasiness with me, to know that I might infringe the rules in so many ways, and that inattention might at any moment subject me to something very unpleasant. During the periods of meditation, therefore, and those of lecture, work, and repose, I kept a strict guard upon myself, to escape penances, as well as to avoid sin; and the silence of the other nuns, convinced me that they were equally watchful, and from the same motives.
Now this excerpt yields a readability level (using a formula in Bovée and Thill 1989, 125–126) of seventeen school years—that is, the first year of graduate school (at least by today’s standards). Quite an achievement for an “uneducated” person! Of course, the text may simply have been ghostwritten. While the preface claims her tale was “carefully written down from her lips” (n.d., xiii), that is not only clearly untrue but a tacit admission that she was unable to actually write such a text herself (Stein 1993; Thompson 1934). So who actually wrote the “Awful Disclosures”?Will the Real Author . . .
Various persons connected to Maria Monk and her book have been proposed as the author. First, there was her companion and acting manager, Rev. William K. Hoyt, a Canadian Protestant minister, who was also rumored to be the real father of Monk’s child (Stein 1993, 226). Another minister involved, a Rev. John Jay Slocum, was her guardian for a time and, says Stein (1993, 226), also her “apparent lover.” Finally, a Theodore Dwight (a nephew of theologian Timothy Dwight, president of Yale), was identified as having taken “dictation” from Monk (Thompson 1934). Generally authoritative bibliographic records note that Maria Monk’s personal narrative has been ascribed either to Hoyle and Slocum—“as related to Theodore Dwight”—or to Dwight himself.3 Those sources, however, do not give evidence for preferring one suspect over another. I propose to do just that.
Actually, there is prima facie evidence to identify Dwight as the likeliest suspect. The pen—already in his hand in reportedly taking down Monk’s story—remains there as we come to recognize that the “dictation” was really at best ghostwriting, if not a complete fabrication.
As far as bibliographic records show, Hoyt was not the author of any substantial published work, while the readability level of Slocum (1837)—almost nine school years—is much lower than “Monk’s” and his style different.
On the other hand, Theodore Dwight (1796–1866)—a graduate of Yale in 1814—had published several books. In fact, one of them was an anti-Catholic work titled, Open Convents: Or Nunneries and Popish Seminaries DANGEROUS to the Morals, and Degrading to the Character of a Republican Community (1836). It was published shortly after Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures, and indeed, it cites Monk’s claims at length, though without identifying his role in writing for her.
Here is a sample of Dwight’s text (1836, 6)—where he refers specifically to Monk’s book:
If this book is entitled to credit, no person who has any regard for female virtue or sound morals, can hesitate for a moment to say that these Catholic institutions demand, of every community where they exist, a strict inspection and oversight, so that such enormities as are charged against them should not be suffered to pass unnoticed and unpunished. Breaches of the wholesome laws of society ought not to be tolerated among Catholics any more than among Protestants. Nor does the idea of toleration extend so far as to justify the greatest outrages upon the morals of the public, or even to extenuate the perpetration of the most heinous crimes in the penal code.
Interestingly, like the Monk book itself; this exhibits a readability scale of twenty, slightly higher than “Monk” but compatible with it.
Moreover, certain similar grammatical errors are instructive. For example, “Monk” sometimes incorrectly uses a question mark to punctuate a sentence that is only indirectly an interrogative (e.g., “. . . I would ask . . . whether my duty has not been discharged?” [p. x]). Dwight does likewise (for instance, “It may be well . . . to inquire what would be the effect of . . . the general establishment of Catholic colleges . . .? [pp. 157–58]). Often, “Monk” uses a semicolon to separate, not just two independent clauses but, incorrectly, an independent and a dependent one (e.g., “She told me she must make some inquiries . . .; and proposed to me to take up my abode . . . at the house of a French family . . .” [p. 31]). Dwight also frequently does this (for example, “If there is any such person, he will of course encourage and support Catholic schools, seminaries, and convents; and will exert himself to the utmost to establish and multiply them . . .” [p. 160]). These and other similarities—indeed, an overall resemblance in style—add to the already strong circumstantial evidence for Dwight’s authorship.Conclusions
As the person who reportedly took down Maria Monk’s story, Dwight was not only the most capable of the three suspects of producing such a book but, indeed, he actually wrote an anti-Catholic tract on the same theme. And Dwight’s writing style is quite similar to that of “Monk.”
It seems clear that Theodore Dwight either ghostwrote the Monk book in his own words or made it up entirely on Monk’s behalf. It is possible that, coached by Hoyt, say, she fooled first Dwight and then others. (These included such notables as Samuel F.B. Morse, later famed inventor of the electric telegraph and the telegraphic code that bears his name [Morse 1836].)
Two points of evidence are against Dwight’s having been a deliberate hoaxer. First, his reputation seems otherwise intact. And second, in his own writing he goes to great pains to admit uncertainty regarding Monk’s story, using such phrases as “This work professes,” “If this book is entitled to credit” (repeated in variant forms), and the like (pp. 5, 6, 113, 148).
As to Maria Monk herself, a pro-church response to her claims had chronicled an early life of theft and prostitution (Awful 1836, 71–82). She died in 1849, imprisoned on New York City’s Welfare Island. Her arrest came after she had picked the pocket of a man with whom she had apparently engaged in sex for hire (Stein 1993, 226).Acknowledgements
CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga provided essential bibliographic and research information, and my former assistant, Ed Beck, helped in various other ways.Notes
1. Cf. Stravinskas 2002, 46.
2. A response to Monk was issued, giving a purely Roman Catholic view (Awful 1836).
3. I refer to OCLC (via WorldCat.org).References
Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, Through the Intervention of Maria Monk. 1836. Reprinted New York: W.P. Mitchell & Sons, 1905.
Bovée, Courtland L., and John V. Thill. 1989. Business Communication Today, Second ed. New York: Random House.
Dwight, Theodore. 1836. Open Convents: Or Nunneries and Popish Seminaries DANGEROUS to the Morals, and Degrading the Character of a Republican Community. New York: Van Nostrand and Dwight. (Digitized by Google.)
Monk, Maria. N.d. Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed. Chicago: Patriotic Defense League. (Reprint of an earlier edition of a book first published in 1836.)
Morse, Samuel F.B. 1836. Testimonial for Dwight 1836; from New York City University, May 25.
Slocum, Rev. J.J. 1837. Further Disclosures by Maria Monk . . . preceded by a Reply to the Priest’s Book. New York: Published for Maria Monk.
Stein, Gordon. 1993. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research, 224–226.
Stravinskas, Peter M.J. 2002. Catholic Dictionary. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor.
Thompson, Ralph. 1934. The Maria Monk affair. The Colophon 17: 6, unpaginated.
Paranormal investigators playing the role of "experts" and pretending to be scientific is not going to fly when the lack of deep knowledge is evident and there are actual scientists in the audience.
When it comes to Creationists, I'm actually fine when they say "God did it—that's what I believe." They don't have a scientific worldview, and that's their choice (I don't think it's a good choice, but that is not the point). They ought to be happy with their science-suspending miraculous explanations. Instead, a few try to interject the sciencey stuff in there and shoehorn blatantly unscientific ideas into a scientifical framework. They just don't know what they are talking about. For the listener with a scientific background, it is painfully obvious that they are ignorant of how difficult research is, how rigorously it must be undertaken, how carefully definitions are crafted, and how diligently records are documented. It's nails-on-a-chalkboard difficult for me to listen to. The champions at doing this same thing are paranormal investigators. So what happens when paranormal investigators give talks at a science-fiction convention? It doesn't go over very well.
I was at RavenCon, a sci-fi fantasy convention in Richmond, Virginia, last April. As an invited speaker, I was there to talk about science from a scientist and skeptical advocate's point of view. Bob Blaskiewicz, CSI's “Conspiracy Guy,” was also there to talk about conspiracy theory. We aimed to bring the hammer down on nonsense thinking! Not really—we were going to schmooze and look at people in cool costumes and listen to presentations and panels about topics we just don't get to talk about every day.
As with any such event, I expect that the invited speakers have prepared quality content. Many are professional authors and artists, and there were many scientists, too. One thing that is noticeable at these events is that the audience is pretty up on science and engineering. The majority is really smart, read a lot, and comprehend and appreciate complexity and detail. This is not the best place to show off weak science cred.
The paranormal view has a presence at RavenCon. Not all sci-fi cons have speakers in that subject area. (I've been to the Paranormal track at DragonCon, but there is not an equivalent at Balticon.) In the lead up to RavenCon, the organizers invited Bob and me, perhaps partly to counter the presence of the paranormal group, to give some talks. One original idea was to have a panel about paranormal investigation with the different views represented, pro-paranormal versus application of scientific skepticism, or as I prefer to call it, evidence-based skepticism. However, this idea was scuttled when the leader of the paranormal group said she doesn't do debates. (I actually don't wonder why not.)
So, they presented their talks and we presented ours separately. They didn't come to our talks, but I went to theirs. I'm interested in their views and what they have found. The first presentation was by the group's "scientist." He did some demonstrations and experiments with chemicals (that should NOT have been used in a hotel ballroom) presumably to show that science looks like magic... or something. I thought the whole thing was rambling and pointless, meant to look "gee whiz" but was more like "Oh, Jeez..."
Up goes my hand: "Can you tell us about your scientific background?" He had a degree in Criminal Justice, no scientific experience but was a science enthusiast. He was wearing a white lab coat. This fellow was in way over his head, and it was painfully obvious. It’s an uncomfortable chore to listen to a presentation by a speaker who is billed as an expert but is woefully ill-equipped to talk about his subject. Don't EVER play pretend scientist in front of an audience that has actual scientists in it. You look incredibly foolish. The presentation had nothing to do with paranormal investigation and just as little to do with science.
The next evening was a presentation by another member of the same group. It was more of a paranormal history talk. I've seen these common talks done before, such as by Paranormal State's Ryan Buell who also got tripped up in the history. Once again, it was obvious that the presenter's knowledge in this area was too shallow. Perhaps it was impressive to someone who does not know that the people on Ghost Hunters weren't actually the world's first ghost hunters, but not to those who know that genuine scientists researched and tested paranormal claims in the early days of modern times. It was a muddled, incomplete, inaccurate romp through paranormal themes.
Up goes my hand: "I noticed in your historical timeline that you didn't mention the Society of Psychical Research and their important work. Why did you skip that?" (Paraphrased—I can't remember exactly what I asked but the key was to cite SPR, an institution still in existence today but not popular with the amateur, TV-trained ghost adventurers.) He was not familiar with SPR at all and skipped around the answer. Not discussing such a monumentally important time in the history of your field is more than a major oversight. It signals to me a lack of fundamental knowledge about it.
For someone who knows a bit about the rich, deep history of psychical research, it's painful to see the canyon-sized division between today's amateur paranormal investigators and the few academic parapsychologists or anomalistic psychology researchers. Knowledge of a topic hinges on extensive review of the literature so you understand what has been done before and what worked or did not work in the past. It's critical that you don't waste time and effort trampling over well-trampled (or well-mapped) ground again. It hardly matters how many investigations you have conducted. When you fail to recognize the key people of the past, know why they were important, and understand what they found, you are far from knowledgeable. There is no foundation, no platform from which to express your opinions and no justification to have them considered by scientists or by the informed public.
As with most paranormal investigation groups, this group had all good intentions (though the founder was into astrology and other sorts of woo). While they initially didn't seem to want anything to do with "skeptics" (yet they call themselves "skeptical"), it turns out they WERE interested in our perspective and actually were cool to chat with, open to learning and exploring new ideas. The second presenter was clear that it was "chic to be geek." He also stated that what they did was fairly labeled as "pseudoscience." That is the first time I've heard a group embrace that term, although I'm pretty sure we would not agree upon the definition. It does not mean unorganized, unaccepted science. It means false science.
We talked a bit after the presentation. The white lab coat guy wasn't there, but the other presenter was excited to find out that I was a geologist. We agreed there was much to discuss about the interaction between geology and paranormal ideas. Two weeks later he emailed me with a question about ley lines used in paranormal investigation, which propelled me into researching that topic from its origin. I'm learning quite a bit. I hope to produce a written piece on ley lines in the near future and I appreciate his introduction to the topic. Don't ever think we can't learn from the other side too.
Typical paranormal investigators don't read the skeptical literature much. I'd say they are missing a whole other half of the story by not doing that. If you are going to bill yourself as an expert, you need to know the arguments against your position. (Even the arguments against the skeptical position!) Enthusiasm is not an equivalent substitute for knowledge.
Do not fake your stated experience. It will confuse the audience. You may fool your clients but ultimately, you are fooling yourself. It’s borderline unethical for these groups to refer to themselves as scientists or anything that can be construed as scientifically based. ONLY TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU TRULY KNOW WELL and are formally trained to do. Paranormalists get pretty peeved at me for calling them out when playing pretend scientist. Scientists work long and hard for credentials. When you take a short cut and act the role in order to impress the public, I’m going to call BS.
Since July of 2012, Kenny Biddle has been releasing episodes of a video blog titled I Am Kenny Biddle. His videos, which range between six and fifty minutes, feature Mr. Biddle’s rants about such topics as paranormal fraud, ghost investigations, orbs, and the ways that people can be fooled.
Biddle’s no-nonsense attitude and well-reasoned arguments have earned him some respect from the skeptical community. He has graciously agreed to answer some questions for the benefit of Skeptical Briefs readers.
Gurmukh Mongia: I understand that you are very active in confronting alleged paranormal investigators. Would you like to talk a little about your experiences?
Kenny Biddle: Most “paranormal investigators” give themselves this title. There aren’t any required degrees or certifications, yet they magically become experts in various areas of study without ever actually studying. I got tired of seeing the same photography mistakes billed as proof positive or hearing people list credentials they don’t really have. So, I question . . . I question everything. I’ve found that a woman claiming to have a master’s in parapsychology and occult sciences (and who taught paranormal classes based on that credential) was not so forthcoming with the name of the college where she obtained the degree. After much persistence, I found that she got them from The Brotherhood of the Northern Light . . . one of many bogus store-fronts from one man running a “college” from his California ranch, which also served as the Command Center for his (space) alien resistance army (of two). She called the police trying to file a complaint on me for harassment. Another group attempted a hoax by using a phone app and placing a “ghost” within a photograph. Their problem: they used a well-known ghost image. I exposed them not only by posting all of the relevant information and images to their site, I also contacted the copyright owner of the image. Needless to say, chaos erupted around them. I devoted an entire video to that experience.
In most experiences, I focus on what’s being presented as photographic evidence. I have a good deal of experience in photography, and have little trouble explaining—and duplicating—the images being presented as ghosts. This usually causes anger on the part of the ghost hunters, since they “verified the authenticity” of the images. Interestingly, when I ask about their photography experience, they have none. I also have a pet peeve when it comes to groups claiming to be scientific, the majority of which have no clue what the term scientific method means. They are under the impression that possessing many gadgets that light up and beep, that have no known relevance to what they’re doing, puts them on the same level as actual scientists. So, I question, asking about the research that verifies their claims of what their gadgets do, asking why they skipped “hypothesis” and started at “theory,” asking what the hell EMF has to do with a ghost. These, along with the many other questions I put forth that go unanswered, are usually not tolerated for long. Anger is usually the response with the realization that they really don’t know as much as they thought they did.
GM: What was your inspiration for starting the videos? What makes your show different?
KB: The idea actually came from a coworker. After attending a paranormal event or giving a lecture, I’d always tell him about the debates I would have, going into great detail and apparently doing so in an excited manner. My coworker would laugh at the way I’d relate the experience, and kept telling me that I should do videos. He kept saying that my intensity and blunt attitude would be entertaining, while getting the information out there as well. So, I gave it a shot.
I guess the difference is that I’m just being me—no fancy editing, no dramatic music or acting. I’m just expressing exactly how I feel, and not sugarcoating my words. Something I’ve seen countless times in the paranormal community is people talking one way in front of others, then another way as soon as backs are turned. I can’t stand that. If I see bullshit, that’s how I call it—then I explain why. Yeah, I curse a lot . . . but that’s the real me when I’m frustrated.
GM: Do you have one or two favorite or most memorable shows? What are they and why?
KB: My favorite episode was about the Selma Mansion in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Instead of doing what’s been called a “rant,” I focused on claims made by a semi-famous paranormal team. It was the first time I ventured out of my office for a video to address specific paranormal claims at a location. With the research I did on the site, and some detective work into the claims, I was able to deliver an informative video that provided natural causes for phenomena that were being presented as positive proof of paranormal activity. The video was well received, showing how critical thinking was able to solve ghostly mysteries better than TV-inspired ghost hunting.
My next favorite would have to be “The Pepper’s Ghost Effect,” which went into the history of how the effect was developed, as well as demonstrated how easy it is to recreate in any home. In fact, I recreated a ghost video that was getting a lot of attention on YouTube, which was the inspiration for making the episode. I got a lot of feedback from that episode; it opened people’s eyes to a simple effect they had never known of.
GM: You seem to be channeling a lot of anger and frustration into your videos. Do you see them as a form of catharsis?
KB: Hell yeah! It’s terribly frustrating to continually speak with many people that will easily accept ideas at face-value—despite all the information, logic, and demonstrations you can provide to the contrary. Equally frustrating is listening to speakers, at conferences and seminars, teaching false information and/or their opinions as fact. What’s even worse than both of those: the ones that deliberately hoax for personal gain or fame. To put it bluntly . . . yeah, I get pissed off. The videos (and Facebook page of the same name) are my way of venting my frustrations within the paranormal community and to point out mistakes, misidentification, issues with methodology and procedures, bad evidence, useless equipment and so on. Most people who watch the videos share my feelings, and I’m often told “Thank you! You say exactly what I want to say but are afraid to.” For all the people that cause my frustrations, there’s just as many that share them.
Kenny Biddle’s videos are released around once a month on average, and they can be found on YouTube under the username parainvestigator (http://www.youtube.com/user/parainvestigator/). He also posts to Facebook under the username “I Am Kenny Biddle” (https://www.facebook.com/IAmKennyBiddle).
Following the current flare up of the Israel/Palestine conflict, a meme has been circulating around the Internet. In it, Laurence Fishburne, as the character Morpheus in The Matrix, is sitting in a comfy chair calmly explaining the hidden nature of reality to Neo:
“What if I told you that Israelis have no historic or genetic connection to Palestine but in fact originate from the Caucasus and a people called the Khazars?”
In the corner of the image is web address: davidicke.com.
The question here is about the origin of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, who comprise around three-quarters of the global Jewish population, a large percentage of American Jewry, and about half of the Jews in modern Israel. The meme is expressing an idea that is the end result of a long evolution which is partly rooted in the British colonial rule of Palestine in the late 19th century. The argument in Britain went something like this: “The Holy Land plays an important part in the final days and the return of Christ. The British Empire currently—and likely will for a long time—governs the Holy Land. Therefore, we British are preordained to play some important role in the Second Coming. We knew we were special.”
This in turn led to a movement called British-Israelism, the idea that the British are in fact genetically tied to the Jews of the Old Testament, essentially one of the lost tribes. The belief, when it hopped the pond to the Americas, became the ideological progenitor of the Christian Identity movement, which posits that God’s chosen people are really white American Christians.
Hence, the idea that there are false Jews.
The earliest incarnation of the idea that the Ashkenazi Jews descended from Khazars in the Black Sea region appears in 1883 in a lecture given by French scholar Ernest Renan. Michael Barkun traces the subsequent development of this idea in his Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, an excellent and detailed book.
In the US, the idea can be traced back through a Klan leader in the 1920s, Reuben H. Sawyer, who popularized the idea that the “authentic Jews” were Sephardic Jews (those from the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa) and who decried Ashkenazi Jews as imposters who were hell-bent on destroying Christendom. In the later ‘20s, the popular racial theorist Lothrop Stoddard opined that ancient Hittite sculpture looked really sort of Jewish (Barkun 127), ushering in the idea of a tainted bloodline.
In the 1940s, this idea metastasized in a religious tract called, When? When Gog Attacks, which was authored by an obscure group called the Anglo-Saxon Christian World Movement. Barkun notes this tract formulated some notions that would reappear in Christian Identity-style anti-Semitism, including: “Cain as the founder of the ‘synagogue of Satan’; the ‘Turko-Mongol’ origin of Ashkenazi Jews; the blood of fallen angels among Jews; and the historicity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As the pamphlet’s author concludes, ‘The Ashkenazim are neither Jews nor Semitic by blood or race’” (51). (Indeed, in the extreme form of this belief in modern Christian Identity, the root of Jewishness can be found in the union of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which will become an important point when we consider David Icke.)
The idea that the Ashkenazi bloodlines come from Asia (and the corollary notion that Eastern European Jews were mostly converts) denied them any historical claim to the Holy Land, and this became very important after the Second World War, which saw the dawn of the Cold War and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Eastern European Jews had long been scapegoated as being responsible for the rise of communism, and Zionism was seen as the mechanism by which Jews would ascend to global hegemony.
The racist right in the US could look confidently at the establishment of Israel and its subsequent population with Jews from Eastern Europe as justifying both Cold War fears and religious paranoia. Denying the population of Israel both genetic and historical claims to Palestine was a method of resisting the commie-globalist Jewish cabal.
Is there any truth to the idea that the Ashkenazi Jews are Khazar? The genetic history of the Jews is complicated (Elhiak, Costa). The Jewish people are diasporic, widespread throughout the Mediterranean for at least 2000 years. The global migration of Jewry has been the subject of much historical research, and genetics promises to add additional context to that history. In fact, modern genetics have already shed some light on the ancestry of the Ashkenazi. According to geneticist Harry Ostrer, the Ashkenazi are genetically more similar to Sephardic Jews of the Mediterranean than they are to their geographic neighbors, who would presumably share the most genes with the historical Khazars (Yandel).
There are some surprises in the Ashkenazi genome, for instance that mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited exclusively through the maternal line, shows that half of Ashkenazi Jews share DNA from just four women. There has been much debate about where those women came from, and the evidence suggests they were European women from the north Mediterranean. While the size of the European contribution to the Ashkenazi genome is the subject of ongoing research, geneticists seem to agree that the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are genetically linked and that they share those genetic markers with Jewish populations from the Middle East (Fischman).
And with Palestinians.
So, why is David Icke circulating the Matrix meme? David Icke is a retired British footballer, sports broadcaster, and Green Party spokesperson who has embarked on a fourth career as a New Age guru who claims that the world is controlled by capitalist reptilian bloodlines.
Icke has adopted a version of the Matrix meme, that the world is decidedly not as it seems, but is a false image projected into our minds from the hollow moon, which is also a spaceship. So, the imagery appeals to him. Secondly, it’s often really hard to distinguish the things that Icke says about the lizard people and the things that run of the mill anti-Semites say about the Jewish New World Order, and I think that the far racist right hears a dog whistle when he says “reptilian,” which they interpret as “Jews.” It probably confuses things further that the American Christian Identity movement actually thinks that the people they believe are imposter Jews are descended from the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Furthermore, Icke has never exactly done much to dissuade people who have made their minds up that he is an anti-Semite. He does, however, seem to think that the Jews as a group are controlled by outside alien entities, as are Muslims, the Council on Foreign Relations, the UN, the Freemasons, and all other social institutions. In Icke’s schema, everyone is a pawn, including the Jews.
The scheming that he believes puts Khazars in Israel is not necessarily that of the Jews themselves, which… maybe?... makes it less racist? Maybe?Works Cited
Barkun, Michael. Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement. University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Print.
Costa, M.D. et al. 2013. “A Substantial Prehistoric European Ancestry Amongst Ashkenazi Maternal Lineages.” Nature Communications. 4:2543 doi: 10.1038/ncomms3543.
Elhaik, Eran. 2012. "The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypothesis." Genome Biology and Evolution 5: 61-74.
Fischman, Josh. 2012. "The Chosen Genes." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Online at: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Chosen-Genes/131481/
Yandell, Kate. 2013. "Genetic Roots of the Ashkenazi Jews." The Scientist. Online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/37821/title/Genetic-Roots-of-the-Ashkenazi-Jews/
On the last day of May, a bevy of west-coast skeptics gathered to discuss scammers, science, psychology, and public awareness above the hurry and fuss of Chinatown in Oakland, California.
The day opened with a call to make science an understandable and accessible public matter for even the least among us—politicians. Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, illuminated the shocking condition of scientific literacy of political leaders, media, and the public.
During the 2008 election, candidates for president in the United States were asked over 3,000 questions in interviews. Of those 3,000 only six were about climate change. In 2012, the networks other than MSNBC spent fifty-one minutes on climate change but over one and one-half hours on Joe Biden’s smile.
The media’s coverage is probably only a symptom of the overall scientific illiteracy in our society. When the public was asked in a survey to name the top three scientists, they answered Albert Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates. Only 74 percent could answer that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.
The scientific ignorance of the American population is also caused by the rift between scientists and the public. Most Americans do not personally know a scientist. Deep understanding of what it means to be a scientist does not really exist outside of academia. The unbridged rift, possibly created on both sides, has made scientific inquiry a low priority for American political leaders.
According to Kirshenbaum, a scientist and former political staffer during the Kennedy Administration, research and development was then 12 percent of the budget and now it is only 3.4 percent.
Kirshenbaum made specific suggestions to improve communication between the public and scientists.
- Explain to the public what scientists in different fields actually do to learn about their chosen subject (diving for sponges, climbing hills to find rocks, study zebra fish, etc.).
- Encourage scientists to adapt to new media in order to communicate their findings as well as publish in journals. Journals are not accessible to the public; the information is behind pay walls. By putting the information in a publically digestible form, the public as well as the scientific community would have access to the knowledge and can make informed decisions based on it.
- When interacting with the public, scientists need to know and understand their audience and tailor their interactions to that audience.
- Scientists should avoid lingo and language that only scientists use; instead they should use common language to speak to non-scientific communities.
- Choose culturally relevant references.
- Do not try to explain everything.
- Be succinct.
Patrick O’Reilley moved the discussion from the realm of valid inquiry into the land of exploitation. In his talk, “Cons, Scams, and Undue Influence,” he discussed the vulnerabilities confidence artists cultivate and exploit to get money or influence.
Criminals use gullibility, distraction, lying, fear of looking foolish, group pressure, creating personas similar to the targeted victims, social proofs, magical thinking, cognitive dissonance, the pressure of reciprocity, diminished personal control, deference to authority, focusing on the positives, and methods of self protection in order to influence the behavior of their marks.
O’Reilley’s talk did not discuss the implications beyond the world of crime, but it lent insight into the pressures that make victims in other areas important to skeptics. The same pressures are used by more than just people selling bridges that do not exist; they are used by psychics, water diviners, and vaccine deniers to influence decision-making and rationalizations.
“A Discernible Human Influence on Global Climate Change,” a talk by climate scientist Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, widened the discussion from people’s influence on each other to their influence on the planet and some people’s hostility to the idea.
Dr. Santer was the lead author of Chapter 8 of the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I Report addressing the causes of global climate change. The chapter suggested global climate change may be influenced by humans. In response to the mere suggestion of human influence in the change of the climate, he faced a range of harassment and personal attacks.
Santer showed the evidence for climate change and explained how scientists came to their conclusions. He also discussed and refuted some typical climate change denier tropes. The well-informed skeptic probably was only reinforcing their existing knowledge but hearing an expert clearly explain the evidence in a new way always gives new tools for discussion.
The program left the global perspective and entered the celestial with Andrew Fraknoi’s talk, “An Astronomer Looks at Astrology.” Some of the humorous facts shared by Fraknoi were:
- the Earth’s wobble has moved the zodiac ahead one sign since its invention but the charts don’t compensate for this.
- incompatible zodiac signs do not divorce more often.
- compatible signs do not marry more often.
- Nancy Regan had an official White House astrologer who is rumored to have had influence over President Regan’s schedule.
Fraknoi suggested a new, more reasonable birthday and celestial body connected personality destiny gauge—Jetology. Jetology is a description of the personality types set where jumbo jets were in the sky when a person was born.
Other equally reasonable personality and psychological theories were described in Sheldon Helm’s talk, “Fringe Psychology.”
Helm explained the psychological treatment therapies:
- EMDR—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing in which a therapist waves a wand in front of the patient in a rhythmic fashion to guide the patient’s eyes back and forth, thus making feelings easier to process.
- Thought Field Therapy—the realignment of the disorganized magnetic field on the outside of a person’s body, which occurs as a result of trauma.
- Alcoholics Anonymous—the treatment program for alcoholics struggling with recovery ripped off the five C’s from the Oxford group: confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance. AA works best when people believe the spiritual aspect but has poor outcomes even then.
Helm also offered a criticism of the Stanford Prison Experiment; primarily that there was no control group and some of the guards may have been instructed to be sadistic.
Dr. Paul Doherty explained the edge of good science and when to admit we simply do not yet know in his talk on the “Boundaries of Science.”
Norm Goldblat rounded out the day with scientific comedy.
The best lesson of the day came from a participant. Throughout the day the audience member sat in the front row and interrupted the speakers to make unnecessary, pedantic corrections when the speaker used relaxed language because the speaker realized they were in company that could understand the context without repeated explanation or hyper-precise language. He butted in during jokes, killing the punch lines and corrected experts in truly trivial matters any reasonable audience members understood as linguistic short hand.
Public speaking did not come naturally to one of the speakers. The speaker was appropriately sharing a story to make a point more salient. In one particularly flabbergasting moment, the front row blurter decided to interrupt the speaker, during the story. The speaker was embarrassed and flustered.
Skeptics have been accused of being a smug bunch of know-it-alls, more interested in putting people down with intellect than actually discussing the topic at hand. While the interrupting audience member certainly is not representative of all skeptics or even the vast majority of us, his behavior did bring up something important—being a rude, obnoxious jerk simply to bolster one’s own ego does not further debate or discussion, and it is not an expression of superiority. It is just a reason to turn a deaf ear to skeptics in the future.
SkeptiCal 2014 delivered a pile of tools for skeptics to choose from the next time they engage a climate change denier, a scammer, or simply want to check themselves.
50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True. By Guy Harrison. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2011. ISBN: 978-1616144951. 458 pp. Paperback, $18.
Many people entertain beliefs without question. These are beliefs handed down to them as traditions or doctrines purportedly revealed by God. They think these beliefs are true and are not ready to subject them to critical evaluation. In many societies, people lack the will to doubt or to raise objections to popular claims and notions partly because they think popularity implies veracity or that beliefs held by the majority invests validity in claims. Hence many popular misconceptions exist and persist. They continue to mar people’s lives in ways they do not realize and even if they do realize it, they find it difficult to acknowledge or accept. In his magnificent book, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True, Guy Harrison, an award-winning journalist, draws attention to these popular misconceptions and their dark and destructive influence on the lives of individuals and the society at large. In a very simple, thoughtful, easy-to-read and entertaining style, the author exposes the faulty logic underlying these beliefs.
Harrison doesn’t use a condescending approach, something skeptics are often accused of using in addressing irrational believers and in challenging and debunking paranormal claims. Instead Harrison humbly acknowledges the cultural universality of unreason: “We all believe silly things, what matters is how silly and how many.” He makes his objective clear: “I want readers to know my motivations for writing this book. I’m not scolding, lecturing, or preaching to make myself feel important. I am only trying to encourage and inspire critical thinking and spread the word that skepticism is important.” The author is not interested in telling people what to believe or not believe as such: “Truth is, I really couldn’t care less about what someone believes. It’s only when I see unproven beliefs diminishing someone’s life or causing harm to others that I feel obligated to speak up and offer a helping hand,” he asserts. Harrison has, in this book, offered a helping hand through a poignant analysis of these popular beliefs and how they are employed by charlatans to exploit and dupe gullible folks.
So, are you one of those who think belief in the paranormal and supernatural, near-death experiences, miracles, and reincarnation are true? Then, you need to pick up a copy of this book. Or if you are one of those who patronize psychics, faith healers, or alternative and homoeopathic “medical” practitioners, before your next visit, please go through some of the chapters.
You may be one of those who think, “You’re Either Born Smart or You’re Not,” or that “The Bible Code Reveals the Future,” or “UFOs Are Visitors from Other Worlds,” or perhaps “Angels Watch Over Me,” or even “I Am Going to Heaven When I Die.” If so, the author says you should think again. Harrison makes a case for skepticism, not for its own sake but for the sake of humanity. He advocates a form of caring and constructive skepticism. The author describes promoting skeptical rationality as a moral duty. “The way I see it, promoting reason and skepticism is a moral issue. It’s about caring for your fellow humans.” This unique sense of rational care runs through its pages.
This book is a must-read for skeptics and non-skeptics alike. It will excite all critical thinkers and will get believers to reexamine many popular beliefs that they think are true. I recommend it to all who are concerned and deeply worried about the “gigantic cloud of danger” looming large over our world today due to popular dogmatic and irrational beliefs.
I enjoy researching paranormal topics, but I have to admit that while I enjoy online research, there is nothing like digging through a pile of old papers at an archive. Some researchers go into an archive with a specific goal in mind, looking for the letter or paper that supports or disproves a hunch they have. However, I like a bit of serendipity. I consider an archive like a dark, still pool. I like to give it a stir and see what pops up to the surface.
One of my favorite places to excavate is the Milne Special Collections at the University of New Hampshire Library in Durham. The librarians at UNH assure me that the Barney and Betty Hill archive housed there is quite popular, where new discoveries can still be made. The Hills, as many skeptics know, spawned the “alien abduction” craze, and their experiences set the template for many later reports.
One surprise I had was finding the fragile paper on which Barney Hill drew his conception of the UFO that he claimed abducted him in 1961. Resting unassumingly in a file, his simple drawing with his signature in the corner with the date, makes this paper one of the most important documents in paranormal history, and UFO lore/UFOlogy in particular. I found myself almost trembling when I had a chance to hold and photograph it.
My favorite surprise of the Hill Archive though, has to be the epic “Cosmos“ letters. This rather quirky bit of UFO history has a fascinating cast:
Betty Hill—Well known UFO personality, who claimed to have been abducted with husband Barney in 1961 while travelling in New Hampshire. Betty and Barney Hill were a biracial couple (quite unusual at the time), and their story was made into a book and TV movie.
John Fuller—Author of many books with paranormal themes. Wrote The Interrupted Journey about the abduction claim of Betty and Barney Hill. Not a fan of Carl Sagan.
James Earl Jones—The voice of Darth Vader and CNN’s catchphrase, but also owner of the rights to The Interrupted Journey. Starred as Barney Hill in a TV movie based on the book.
Stan Ferguson—Friend of Betty Hill. Also not a Sagan fan.
Carl Sagan—Host and creator of Cosmos, the most viewed PBS series in the world, and a world-famous astronomer, who was known to be open minded about the possibility of alien life and occasionally referred to himself as “Dr. Sagan.”
KCET—PBS station that produced Cosmos.
William Lamb—Senior Vice President at KCET Television.
Brenda Young—Attorney for Community Television for Southern California.
Cosmos—Episode 12 features a short reenactment of the Hill’s claimed abduction.
So follow along on the paper trail of the Cosmos incident.
The first hint I had was a handwritten letter to Betty Hill from her friend Stan Ferguson I just happened upon in the files. “I didn’t realize that C. Sagan had made so many errors until playing the tape back. The UFO Incident was more factual. One would think that a documentary like Cosmos would be more factual than a Hollywood dramatization. I’m surprised that Sagan didn’t have you black and Barney white!”
It took me a moment to realize the letter was talking about Carl Sagan and Cosmos. What had Sagan got so wrong, and why was Betty’s friend so upset about it?
I had only heard praise for the show, but the more I dug in the archive, the more negative comments I read about Sagan. Since he was known as a believer in life on other planets, and was an early supporter of SETI, I was surprised at all the anger. Fuller strikes first, in a letter to ICM (International Creative Management). This is a talent agency. In a reply to an inquiry by Fuller, Roberta Pryor responds (dated 1/6/81): “On the PBS-Carl Sagan/Cosmos business it seems to me the easiest way would be to call up PBS and if you can’t do it perhaps James Earl Jones’ lawyer Stanley Rothenburg would like to do it. If it is indeed a violation it seems to me that James Earl Jones, since he acquired the exclusive rights, would be the one who is jumping up and down.” At this point I am picturing James Earl Jones jumping up and down. But it seems Fuller, author of The Interrupted Journey, which Jones owns the rights to, is the one doing all the jumping.
Next comes quite a lot of confusion, as Fuller has dated a letter incorrectly. It took me a few hours until I figured this out. In a letter dated January 10, 1982 (should be 1981) to KCET’s William Lamb Senior VP “Mr. Carl Sagan’s shoddy and unscientific appraisal of the UFO subject is one thing. But his dramatization of a portion of my book The Interrupted Journey without permission is another. It is a further infringement of the motion picture rights of the book, which have been granted to James Earl Jone’s [sic] who appeared in the NBC-World Premier of the motion picture of the same literary work.”
So it appears Fuller is angry that the producers of Cosmos used the Hills’ story without his permission. Still, James Earl Jones now owns the rights, but that doesn’t stop Fuller from his quest for justice. The letter continues, “I am frankly surprised and disappointed that a public supported organization like yours would present such a one sided picture of a subject that is being studied by many scientists who are open-minded, and who find Mr. Sagan’s prejudiced and close-minded appraisal of the subject to violate every tenant of the scientific method.”
A letter dated 2/4/81 from William Lamb to Fuller helped considerably with the time line confusion: “In response to your letter to me dated January 10, 1982 (sic) regarding the above referenced program, I must inform you that at no time did Dr. Sagan dramatize a portion of your book ‘The Interrupted Journey.’”
So, dates of letter problem solved. Fuller used the wrong year. Also please note that in these letters Sagan is always referred to as “Mr. Sagan” by Fuller and “Dr. Sagan“ by PBS.
The letter from Lamb to Fuller continues, “The Betty and Barney Hill incident is well known, particularly among UFO enthusiasts, and has been covered in newspaper and magazine reports. There would have been no need to infringe upon your rights or upon the rights of James Earl Jones. If we were dealing with fictitious characters created by you, then I could understand your concern. However we are dealing with real people who told and retold their story of an encounter with alien beings.”
There was a paradoxical aspect to the letter: If the story were fiction, Fuller would have a case. He would have to admit it was all made up to make any money off of this. Of course, Betty and Barney Hill fully believed they had been abducted by aliens, this was nonfiction to them. How Fuller felt about aliens, being that he had a financial interest in aliens and other paranormal creatures being real, we may never fully know. (This is equivalent to the case of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, who wrote The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail. Baigent and Leigh sued Dan Brown for copyright infringement. However, the judge ruled that since their book was presented as fact, not fiction, they did not have a case.)
The next letter is correctly dated 3/21/81. Fuller again writes to PBS: “I have just returned from England to receive your letter. I have to remind you and Mr. Sagan (I know of no PhD who refers to himself as ‘Dr.,’ including three Nobel Laureates whom I have met personally), that the personal story of Betty and Barney Hill is fully copyrighted, both in literary and film areas, and that any magazine or newspaper articles referring to the above either referenced to the book itself or reported opinions of the copyrighted story. At no point whatever did they dramatize even a portion of the material.”
The letter continues at the end to include this bit, where Betty Hill enters the story. Fuller claims Betty Hill is also not happy. What she seems to be not happy about is the depiction of her story in episode 12 of Cosmos “Since she is taking separate legal action on this phase of the case, I will refrain from commenting on that other than any distortions in that area are clearly a matter of litigation in addition to the copyright aspect.”
So how did Betty Hill feel? A letter Betty sent to Fuller is in the files, with commentary written by Fuller in a dark black pen. It’s a confusing letter to read, with circled words and Fullers thoughts injected here and there.
Dated 3/24/81, Betty’s letter to Fuller, with his commentary, holds a lot to wake up a sleepy researcher in a quiet library. “Thanks for the copies of the letters. Now, as for copywrite they showed a copy of my star map, which is copywrited. However they did use it on the program.”
Fuller has struck out and written “copyright,” but let the second misspelling pass. (I was pleased to see Betty makes the same spelling errors I do.)
At this point in the letter Fuller has written “NO!! The bastards! I talked with a couple of lawyers who felt that I really did not have much to complain about. They said I would need to show evidence that the presentation was harmful to me, financially, such as lectures which may have been scheduled, being cancelled out, this has not happened.” Betty Hill had a very busy career as a “UFO expert,” and my own feeling is that the Cosmos publicity would have increased her popularity as a speaker. She continues with her complaints about the depiction of her story on the show: “However, in the dramatization which was shown, the experience was false from what actually happened. Nothing was right—it was raining, we saw a light in the woods, and got out and staggered towards this. A Saganized fantasy, but using our names. Nothing was obtained from magazine, newspaper or other public materials. Mr. William J Lamb is an outright liar, in my opinion.”
I enjoyed the “Saganized fantasy“ comment, but I also felt sorry for Betty Hill. Ever since her experience, her story has been the source of endless study interest. It had to be very frustrating for her to be defending her story. She also lectured and granted interviews about her story and her subsequent UFO sightings. She was not seeking privacy when it came to UFOs. But the Sagan episode must have been a letdown, as I wonder if she possibly felt Sagan might give a positive depiction of her UFO experience. Betty Hill fully believed her UFO abduction was real.
A letter dated 6/11/81 has KCET’s Brenda Young responding: “Mr. Lamb has left KCET for a new position, and in his absence, I have been asked to respond to your letter to him dated March 21.1981. . . . Our records do not support your contention that all articles available to us either referred to your book or to opinions of the copyrighted story. However, we will be very interested in reviewing any documentation you may have supporting your claim of copyright infringement.”
The threatened lawsuits seem never to have happened. I asked a friend who works as a law clerk to look up any cases in California involving John Fuller, James Earl Jones, or Betty Hill. There was no mention of any lawsuit involving any of those people against Carl Sagan or PBS.
Most scientists consider life in the universe probable, though not yet confirmed. Aliens flying to Earth and abducting people is considered to be lacking in evidence. There exists a lot of eyewitness testimony from people like Betty Hill who fully believe aliens visit Earth. But, science demands more than eyewitness testimony. Scientific proof is still as elusive today as when Carl Sagan and KCET produced the first episode of Cosmos.
Still, the possibility of a lawsuit between Betty Hill, John Fuller, and James Earl Jones against PBS and Sagan makes me wonder how it would have turned out. Aliens on trial? Or copyright infringement? No matter what the outcome it would have been interesting. I look forward to watching the new updated Cosmos with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Or as John Fuller might like me to say, “Mr. Neil de Grasse Tyson.”
When are you going to do oil pulling?!
For about two months, that’s what every other email in my inbox asked, each one more impatient than the last. By not trying the new tooth care regimen, which was making its rounds on the internet, I was obviously failing in my commitment to make myself a human guinea pig for funky claims and health fads. Fun fact: Guinea pigs actually aren’t among the most common animals used in experiments. Rats, mice, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates make up 90% of animals used in laboratories, but “human bird” just doesn’t sound the same.
This oil pulling trend is having its fifteen minutes of fame all over the Web, especially on social media.
“Transform your health!” one ad read.
“Prevent bad breath!”
“Stop dry mouth!”
“Heal jaw soreness!”
“Get whiter teeth!”
“Get healthier gums!”
“Stop looking like a disgusting ogre with thumbs for teeth!”
All I had to do to perfect my pearly whites was swish a tablespoon of oil (sunflower or sesame is preferred) around my mouth for twenty minutes a day, pulling toxins out of my teeth and gums and “improving my overall oral health.” I decided to go for it: for thirty days, I would oil pull every day.
This method of oral torture has its origins in Ayurveda, an ancient healing system from India’s Vedic tradition. While Ayurveda dates back more than 5,000 years, oil pulling’s actual genesis is uncertain. It appears to have become popular in 1992 after a Russian doctor named Fedor Karach advocated the practice, thereby catching the attention of Lt. Col. Tummala Koteswara Rao, an Indian Ayurvedic practitioner. Whether the practice itself is ancient is unclear.
It was the perfect thing for me to try out. Although I take good care of my mouth now, as a child I routinely went to bed without brushing my teeth, telling my mom I had already done it while she wasn’t watching (full disclosure: I also hid my Flintstones vitamins under the living room table; sorry, Mom). So, I went out and bought the largest bottle of sunflower oil at my local grocery store, for a paltry $4.
I set it by my sink with a tablespoon, ready to go. I wasn’t allowed to use it yet because most pro-oil-pulling websites recommend swishing first thing in the morning before brushing.Day One
I took a “before” photo of my teeth as they were. Thanks to my bathroom lighting and coffee habit, they looked especially stained that day, a perfect experiment to see if a single swishing would improve my coloration.Before. When my teeth were young and naïve.
My first swig of oil was what you might call disgusting. The second the oil hit my tongue, it careened over the back of my tongue in a tidal wave of liquid fat, then dripped down the back of my throat, mimicking the sensation of a post-nasal drip, but with all the added charm of pizza grease. I shook my head in protest, and made a few growling noises, like a dog caught in a muzzle. When I finally gave in and swished the oil around, I found it somewhat tolerable. By moving the oil constantly, my taste buds didn’t have quite as much chance to lock in on a static taste.
Minute one passed, then minute two. Around minute three, I realized exactly how long twenty minutes is. Twenty minutes is a one-act play, the majority of a network sitcom, and about how long my dad can talk about ways to get mail-order meat. It’s a long time.
And worse, my tongue was starting to ache. All that swishing involved micro-movements I wasn’t even consciously telling my tongue to engage in. Yet, these tiny muscles were popping up out of nowhere, jumping and sliding to make sure no oil went the wrong way.
After five minutes, I gave up and spat it out. Some websites had said five-to-twenty minutes of oil pulling was sufficient.
“I’m sufficient!” I thought.
Then I brushed my teeth and spent most of the day trying to forget the taste of liquid sunflower nightmares.After one oil-pulling session. Day Ten
By day ten, I had learned to stomach the experience of oil pulling. My muscle memory had adapted to the sensation of viscous fluid creeping across my tongue, and I could keep it relatively in place without too much thought. It was still gross, and too much swishing still made my tongue hurt.
But instead of focusing too much on the movement of the oil, I took the advice of one popular website, which told me to merely gently toss the stream of liquid garbage from one side of my mouth to the other “lazily.” The toxins were getting pulled out anyway, it said. The oil was reaching below the surface of my gums and pulling out bacteria and all sorts of crap, it said. I was reaping the benefits even if it felt too easy.
I really don’t know what other toxins there would be in my mouth, besides bacteria. Thetans? But like all other “detox” fads, this one doesn’t seem to hold water. The body is a marvelous detoxifying machine, and most of us can “detoxify” without any help, making claims about “toxins” pure pseudoscience.Day Thirty
When my month had passed, I was elated. I had spent ten full hours swishing oil around my mouth, and my teeth were... whiter? Healthier? Less... toxified? You be the judge.After a month of oil pulling.
Any change I thought I was seeing in my teeth seemed likely to be suggestion, a suspicion I confirmed later when I removed the captions from the photos and couldn’t tell day one from day thirty. And as for “toxins,” I didn’t feel any healthier than I had before the process began, although the constant oil did make me never want pizza again, which might be a boon for my long-term health.
I put away my oil that day, but it had made me think more about my dental health. I am not a religious dentist-goer, and although I’m a devout brusher, I knew I could be doing more. Flossing was out, since I had read about recent research showing that it added nothing to a consistent brushing routine (Pomeroy 2013).
What else did people do when they turned thirty and suddenly realized their teeth were mortal?
I asked Claire Knowlton, a 31-year old who oil pulls occasionally, what results she has seen from pulling.
“I notice a big improvement in my morning breath when I’ve been oil pulling,” she said. “I think it also has a whitening effect. In the past, it also made my teeth feel dentist-office clean. I started using an electric toothbrush last year, so now my teeth always feel dentist-office clean. But when I was just using a manual toothbrush, oil pulling made a noticeable difference.”
Claire had gotten at the heart of the matter: in lieu of other advanced dental products like antibacterial mouth wash and electric toothbrushes, oil pulling could make a noticeable difference. But for someone like me, who has access to advanced dental care, and who uses a mouth wash every day, the science indicates that oil pulling won’t do anything extra for me, and that using it instead of mouth wash would be a dental step down.
But I still wanted that dentist-clean feel Claire was experiencing. So I ordered an electric toothbrush.
After three days of using my new brush, I noticed something.Whiter teeth! Maybe? Meh, hard to say.
Well, so much for oil pulling being the savior of mouths everywhere, but it still seemed to do the trick better than nothing, and with about 34% of Americans saying they didn’t go to the dentist last year, nothing is exactly what many of us are doing.
Before giving up on sunflower-oil-as-fluoride entirely, I asked Bryan Safi, a comedian from Los Angeles, about his experience with the practice. I asked if he would recommend it to a friend. He already had.
“Have you seen results?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “My teeth feel clean. What's weird is I kind of don't care. It makes me feel like I'm doing something good for my health, and that feeling seems worth it.”References
Amith, HV, et al. 2007. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque and Gingivitis. Journal of Oral Health and Community Dentistry 1 (1): 12-18.
Asokan, Sharath, et al. 2009. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque Induced Gingivitis: A Randomized, Controlled, Triple-Blind Study. Indian Journal of Dental Research. Online at: http://www.ijdr.in/article.asp?issn=0970-9290;year=2009;volume=20;issue=1;spage=47;epage=51;aulast=asokan.
Shepard, Vicki and Patrick Bogart. 2011. Gallup-Healthways Monthly U.S. Well-Being Report. Online at: http://wellbeing.healthways.com/files/2011_WBI_AugustReport.pdf.
Humane Society International. 2014. About Animal Testing. Online at: http://www.hsi.org/campaigns/end_animal_testing/qa/about.html.
Pomeroy, Ross. 2013. The Flimsy Evidence for Flossing. Online at: http://bigthink.com/experts-corner/the-flimsy-evidence-for-flossing.
In August of 2009, I was asked to tag along with a ghost-hunting group that was going to do a paranormal investigation of a private residence. During a previous visit, the owner had described multiple experiences he has had over the course of a few months—from falling objects and disembodied voices to darting shadows and apparitions. Despite the fact that there were simple and very plausible explanations for everything he experienced, the owner was completely convinced he had purchased a haunted house.
Why? Well, for starters, he hadn’t been able to explain the strange experiences on his own, so he came to the conclusion that the events simply “could not be explained.” In addition, the owner’s girlfriend told him “Yes, there were spirits here.” Since she is a fan of (un)reality paranormal TV shows and a self-proclaimed “sensitive,” this apparently qualifies her to determine if a house has ghosts. Both of them were convinced the previous owner (an elderly woman) was the main ghost because she had died (not even in the house but at the hospital). However, “previous owner died” is apparently a popular motive for ghosts to haunt a location. All of this had put the owner on edge—he was barely sleeping (if at all), he was uneasy being in the house alone, sometimes staying at work for double-shifts so he wouldn’t have to be in the house. As we spoke, I noticed his hands were in constant motion, never able to remain still.
The homeowner’s situation was already bad enough, but it would get worse. A member of the ghost group that was now “investigating” the house, brought up from the basement a brick wrapped in aluminum foil. The owner calmly explained that these bricks had been found in all of the bedrooms after he had taken over the house. His face then grew worried as he asked, “Is this bad?” Against my pleading, this ghost hunter began giving his personal explanation of the meaning behind this finding: they were protection spells keeping dangerous, possibly demonic, entities trapped within the foil-wrapped bricks. That was enough—the owner literally freaked out. He wanted to sell the house; he wanted to leave because he was fearful that there had been demons in his new home. He called his girlfriend, who proceeded to instruct him on Native American rituals he needed to perform to not only protect him but to “cleanse” the house. He was also advised to get the bricks out of the house.
I attempted to offer a more reasonable explanation for the bricks. Since one had been found in each bedroom, the simplest explanation to come to mind was that of an old-fashion form of cheap heat over a cold winter night—bed warmers. Houses built in the 1900s were not as well insulated against the elements as those built today. The foil-wrapped bricks would be placed in the oven (or by the fireplace if the residence had one) for about an hour. Once they were sufficiently warm, they were wrapped in thick newspaper, old blanket remnants, or towels. They were then placed between the sheets, keeping the sleeper’s feet warm. It was a popular belief that if your feet stayed warm, your whole body would stay warm throughout the night (Shingleton 2011; Hale 2007).
Despite the obvious signs of stress the homeowner was exhibiting, the ghost hunter continued on his path of destruction. Another member of this ghost-hunting team had brought out a device called an “Ovilus 1”—which is basically a random word generator loaded with 512 preprogrammed words, each word being assigned to a specific EMF value. According to the instruction manual, the Ovilus will pick words “using environmental energy” to speak (Chappell 2008). An interview with the creator of the device defines the “environmental energy” it samples as EMF, static electricity, and ionization (Belanger 2012). When I got my hands on one, I found that when the device takes a real-time EMF reading, it matches that value to the pre-assigned word in its library and announces it through a speaker. The “voice” is computer generated and difficult to understand, which you can imagine opens up plenty of opportunity for different interpretations.
After the robotic voice produced several words that were deemed unworthy of consideration (disposing of data because it did not support their belief), the ghost hunters perked up upon hearing words they interpreted as “upstairs” and “green” (not together, mind you, there were a few words between them)—which were taken as a convenient description of one of four bedrooms in the house. To top it off, the device then spoke a word that received the most attention, yet had three different interpretations from three members—“Peter,” “meter,” and “demon.” The effect this had on the owner was rather dramatic. Between the red brick explanation and the random word generator, the owner was now convinced he not only had ghosts in his new home but also angry demons.
Over the course of a few hours, I watched the homeowner go from a slightly nervous man who was concerned that something strange was going on in his new home to a guy who was so scared silly to be in his own house that he was willing to do whatever he could to avoid being there. He was grasping at any idea, no matter how ridiculous, that sounded like it would help him be rid of what now seemed to be a team of demonic entities waiting to spring forth from their brick prisons and devour him limb from limb. (Perhaps I have dramatized a bit, but I assure you this is pretty darn close to how hysterical he was).
What happened here?
I contacted Kathleen Stengel to find out. Stengel is a board certified behavioral analyst with the Clarity Service Group (Southampton, Pennsylvania), a nationally certified organization and member of The Pennhurst Group. With several emails back and forth, where I filled her in on the specifics, we agreed on a night to speak. After a busy day, I was able to steal a precious hour from her to talk about behaviors, fears, and ghost hunters.
The first issue to tackle: how the homeowner convinced himself so thoroughly, before the arrival of the ghost hunters, that his house was infested with ghosts of every sort. Stengel explained:
Interestingly enough, I actually did some research as an undergrad and in grad school about Superstitious Responding. Superstitious Responding is typically defined as responding that is maintained through accidental correlation with reinforcement contingencies. So, in layman’s terms what that means is your behavior continues to occur only by accidental inadvertent association with reinforcement . . . you’re responding not because of what is actually going on and what the actual consequences and environmental contingencies are set up for . . . you’re responding because in the past, there was an associated exposure. For example: if a baseball player wears the same socks for every game he happens to win, not because they actually had some effect on the greater good of the team . . . but because he’s worn those socks several times in a row and they just happened to win. It’s a conditioning that happens by accident. (Stengel 2001)
The homeowner would hear voices down the hallway that faded by the time he walked over to them. Since he couldn’t see anyone, he began to assume it was coming from thin air. He never realized they originated from the adjoining house. When shadows danced along the bedroom walls and had the owner frozen in momentary fear, he never got to see the lone car that drove down the street and disappeared around the corner. And the list goes on. The big issue was that events going on outside the house were having an indirect effect inside the house. As Stengel told me, “Superstitious Responding happens because the environment is set to reinforce patterns of behavior” (Stengel 2001). The experiences of the homeowner had played out over and over again, over the course of several months. The owner never looked for a natural cause for more than a few seconds and never found a natural explanation, deeming the experiences “unexplainable”—not to mention a bit frightening to him. Ghosts seemed to be the only solution the homeowner could come up with.
I now had a pretty good idea of how the homeowner’s fears started out, but I knew there had to be more. What I had attended was the second “investigation” of this house; the first had been done several weeks earlier. I learned that the same ghost hunter who believed demons were trapped in bricks had also been present for the team’s first visit. I also learned that he had offered several “explanations” for the ghostly experiences: Yes, there was something there, and he had audio recordings (with static-sounding whispering) and other misinterpreted readings from useless gadgets that “confirmed” the place was haunted. He had also advised the homeowner on what he could do to protect himself and possibly rid the house of these ghosts.
Stengel had this to say:
In terms of the self-proclaimed experts giving the bad advice, this creates more of an interesting paradigm. Now you have someone who already has Superstitious Responding and an authority who validates this contingency. We call these types of behavior contingencies “Rule Governed.” When you put rules into place from an authority figure, you’re going to trust them because of the years and years of authorities being correct. You trust that the information is going to be accurate. Any type of authority figure—whether they got the authority because someone told you they were an authority, they wrote a book, they are a proclaimed “ghost-hunter expert” and/or they have many letters after their name, whether true or artificial experts, they propose a theory that will validate the Superstitious Responding and now the behavior is more solidified in his or her repertoire. Now, you’re actually setting the occasion for behaviors that are going to respond stronger because they have been validated by an authority (Rule Governed) and shaped through accidental consequences (Superstitious Responding). In terms of a behavioral paradigm—this is a perfect storm of contingencies. A person believes this construct and that it is validated by an expert. Essentially, the authority figure conditions a response to avoid unexplained phenomena with little having to do with actual events or fact in the environment. Now you are conditioning a phobia. (Stengel 2001)
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as an excessive, irrational, and persistent fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the individual goes to great lengths to avoid the feared object. If for some reason the phobia cannot be avoided entirely, the sufferer will endure the situation or object with obvious distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities (Bourne 2011; Fritscher 2011). Stengel explains that “Phobias are those types of behaviors that get conditioned to avoid something and to stay away from [it]. I’m a behaviorist, so I like to break it down into measurable things—I see an increase in heart rate, I see an increase in blood pressure . . . I see a physiological responding that I can, in fact, measure in response to a certain set of stimuli and watch people attempt to avoid these stimuli both in the environment and physiologically. Now you’ve got somebody [homeowner] who is actually having physiological responses and stimuli avoidance behaviors, which most psychologists would say now you have an anxiety response” (Stengel 2001).
According to Medical News Today, anxiety is a general term used to describe several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. These disorders affect how we feel and behave, and they can manifest real physical symptoms (Nordqvist 2009). All of us have normal fears, like the few minutes before having to speak to a crowd or going to an interview. Anxiety becomes an issue when these fears affect how a person functions during their daily life.
“These people [ghost hunters] are conditioning all of these extraneous things as aversive stimuli. Now whenever anything ‘unexplainable’ happens, it immediately produces a physiological response—it puts your body in a Fight or Flight situation. A lot of people would call this stress. They’re putting people in a stressful situation” (Stengel 2001). Stress is the body’s natural reaction when you feel threatened, be it a real or imagined danger. When this happens, your hypothalamus (a tiny area at the base of your brain) tells your adrenal glands to releases stress hormones into the blood stream, such as cortisol and adrenaline (Mayo Clinic 2010). Your muscles tighten up, your heart beats quicker, blood pressure shoots up, and your senses become sharper—you’re ready for immediate action.
Stress can be helpful in certain situations. It makes us stronger, more focused, and our reaction time quickens—excellent when fighting off an attacker or avoiding an accident. However, when it gets beyond a certain point, stress begins to damage your health and overall quality of life. Just where that “certain point” is . . . well, it’s different for each of us. Some of us can handle more than others. Once you cross over to the dark side, long-term exposure to these hormones can screw up your system and put you at greater risk of heart disease, depression, obesity, memory impairment, and sleep problems (Mayo Clinic 2010).
The symptoms of stress and anxiety include any and/or all of the following: Excessive, ongoing worry and tension; an unrealistic view of problems; fatigue; restlessness; irritability; muscle tension; headaches; sweating; lack of focus; nausea; frequent trips to the bathroom; trouble falling or staying asleep; trembling; and easily being startled (Mayo Clinic 2010). It’s easy to understand how prolonged exposure to such issues can destroy a normal lifestyle, leading to some serious health issues.
I’ve seen this type of behavior in many homeowners who have come to me, either directly or through a friend, believing their home to be infested with ghosts. In most cases they describe countless sleepless nights, refusing to enter certain rooms or areas, nervousness, heightened stress, nightmares . . . the list goes on. What I’ve frequently observed is that these fears are started by thehomeowner, but are being solidified into true phobias by the ghost hunters who claim to offer “professional help.” Unfortunately, their idea of “help” has resulted in more damage to these people and their quality of life than anything remotely beneficial.
In the real world, we take advice from those we deem experts—mechanics who fix our cars, plumbers who fix our leaky pipes, and doctors who fix our bodies. We derive their expertise from many sources: licenses, permits, certifications, advertisements, equipment, and simply from owning or being employed by an actual business. In the Age of Instant Access, we usually find professionals/experts we’re looking for by surfing through their websites—fast and easy.
Unfortunately for someone who is already stressed, scared, and somewhat desperate for answers, a fancy website that boasts a lot of “scientifical” (Hill 2011) information is viewed as an authority on the subject of the paranormal. Self-titled ghost hunters (with many taking on the moniker of “paranormal investigator”) arrive at homes and businesses—armed with technology they don’t understand or use correctly, “knowledge” with no factual basis, and opinions they pass off as concrete facts—all of which present them as an authority to the common public. The team does their “woo woo” investigation, and in a few hours they declare the site haunted . . . then proceed to give advice based on bad information, even worse techniques, and conclusions that are basically made-up on the spot.
Oh, and they are apparently conditioning and reinforcing phobias that produce anxiety, stress, a decrease in the quality of life, and even substantial financial losses. These ghost hunters need to understand that this is not just some hobby that makes their weekends a good time; they are dealing with people’s lives (whole families at times). They’re giving advice on matters they do not truly understand, that fearful people are taking seriously and adjusting their lives to accommodate. What’s worse is they’re doing it completely unsupervised, answering to no one but themselves.
In the case I detailed in the beginning of this article, the two self-proclaimed, “expert” paranormal investigators managed to send the poor homeowner into a panic. Without the ghost-hunting group there, I really don’t think the owner’s fears would have escalated so much in such a short amount of time. I have no doubt that the group’s presence only made this man’s situation much worse than it actually was. Not long after the debacle they called an “investigation,” the owner sold the house to his niece . . . never mentioning a word about his experiences/fears, and taking a financial loss. He stated that he “just wanted to be done with it and away from there.” He could no longer handle being in a house that he believed was literally possessed by evil spirits.
Ghost hunters and their “clients” suffer from the same problem that caused the situation above, as well as hundreds of similar cases—a lack of critical thinking. Ghost hunters accept much of their “knowledge” at face value, taking what they learn from their favorite ParaTV shows, books by other ghost hunters, and the tons of science-sounding websites. Believing they are helping the public and furthering the “field of ghost research,” they are free to pass along this knowledge without fear of consequences or being held accountable when they are wrong (which is normally the case).
There are no certifications from accredited institutions on ghost hunting or paranormal investigation. There are no licenses, permits, or government seals of approval for investigating the paranormal. The point is that ghost hunters have no actual training on how to do what they claim they do; they simply mimic what they see on TV and the Internet. Critical thinking, asking questions, asking for educational and training background—these are some of the tools that can help the general paranormal-believing public avoid many of the issues discussed in this article, as well as would-be ghost-hunting “authorities.”References
Belanger, Jeff. Episode 39—Paranormal Inventor Bill Chappell. 30 Odd Minutes. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vseWfQrv7Cw.
Bourne, E.J. 2011. The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook 5th Ed.New Harbinger Publications, 50–51.
Chappell, Bill. 2008. The Ovilus 1 instruction manual. Digital Dowsing, LLC, 3.
Fritscher, Lisa. 2011. What is a phobia? Understanding your phobia. About.com. Available at http://phobias.about.com/od/introductiontophobias/a/whatisphobia.htm.
Hale, Leon. 2007. Hale: Simple brick drives away night chills. Chron.com. Available at http://www.chron.com/life/hale/article/Hale-Simple-brick-drives-away-night-chills-1818384.php.
Hill, Sharon. 2011. Scientific or scientifical? Doubtful News. Available at http://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/scientific-or-scientifical/.
Mayo Clinic. 2010. Stress management. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress/SR00001.
Nordqvist, Christan. 2009. What is anxiety? What causes anxiety? What to do about it. Medical News Today. Available at http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/7603.php.
Shingleton, Pat. 2011. Hot bricks and bed warmers. Available at http://www.wbrz.com/news/hot-bricks-and-bed-warmers-.
Stengel, Kathleen. 2001. Personal communication with the author (December 13).
With a half a century plus of interest in UFOs, astronomy, and science, I’ve despaired that in all that time I’ve never seen a real UFO. (With emphasis on what the “U” stands for of course.) I’ve seen bolides (really bright meteors), nighttime aerial refueling operations by USAF jets, odd contrails, space satellites, balloons, kites, birds, and insects. Some of these were initially unidentified, but only for a brief moment. Thus it was fascinating, weird, puzzling, and astonishing that in September of 2012 I actually got to see a real UFO that didn’t seem to fit any sort of known aerial object.The mysterious Rhode Island “UFO.”
On a pleasant Sunday afternoon I was participating in a ham radio contest on Block Island, which is about a dozen miles off the Rhode Island mainland. It was one of those casual contests where there is plenty of free time to enjoy the day and watch the views. And there were a lot of things to watch. My friend and I were on an open roof deck of a house on the highest point of the Island on a crystal clear day with visibility to the horizon. Binoculars at hand, I was watching planes come and go at the nearby airport, sailboats off shore, an advertising blimp hovering between Narragansett and Newport, and birds flying about. Not a thing out of the ordinary.
And then, through the binoculars, I suddenly saw it: some kind of craft or “thing“ flying parallel to the distant shore at an estimated speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Too far away to see without binoculars, and even with them all I could make out was a parallelogram-shaped craft moving very slowly and into the wind. There was no sign of anything towing it and no sign of wings or motors. That was strange enough, but as it moved along it seemed to change shape: sometimes it was almost square, sometimes almost cigar shaped, but often getting shorter or longer as I watched. The shoreline was about eight or nine miles away I guessed, and if this object was directly above the beach then it would have to be quite large—dozens of feet long and high.
I watched for several minutes and finally thought to take a photo or two. About a minute afterward it dove steeply down and disappeared behind some low hills that were a short distance behind the beach. That steep dive seemed unusual. What was back there? Where did it go? What was it? Well, I was in the middle of a radio contest (My partner was so engrossed with the radio he didn’t even bother to check out this weird craft), I was quite comfortable that I wasn’t seeing alien visitation or biblical angels, so an investigation would have to wait.
Once back home it was time to see if I could determine just what it was that I saw. The first step was to download and enlarge the one good photo I took. Even with a maximum pixel setting on a professional camera using a top-quality zoom lens on maximum telephoto there wasn’t that much detail. It was clearly parallelogram shaped, but even with some post-photo enhancement there wasn’t much to see—no evidence of wings or motors, or any kind of craft in the air or water or on the land pulling it along.
Next step: Just how far away was it and how fast was it moving? Google Maps and the fact that I had an excellent idea of the exact direction helped. (For our ham radio contest we were using highly directional antennas mounted on tripods with a compass rose calibrated to one degree of azimuth.) It turned out it was a good fourteen miles away when I first saw it and when it disappeared between near and far hills it was at least eighteen miles away—twice as far as my initial guess. And that also meant it was moving twice as fast as I initially thought: Perhaps fifty or sixty miles per hour, not thirty. Using the houses along the beach I also was able to roughly estimate its size: Somewhere around 100 feet long and maybe forty to fifty feet high. So it was too big to be a boat-towed parasail or ultralight aircraft.
Then, using Google Maps again, I looked around the area where it dived steeply between those hills. The Westerly Airport was in that area. So I called the airport and described what I thought I saw: A slowly moving, self powered large craft shaped like a big parallelogram. And here’s where it would have been very easy to have been led astray. They had no knowledge of any such craft and suggested it may have been some kind of military plane. Understandable, given what I described, but it led me on a brief wild goose chase with calls to military installations in the general area. They were polite but said they had nothing that would fit that description. Now perhaps a paranoid investigator would have stopped at that point and claimed, “government cover-up. Case closed.” To me, that would have been the least likely explanation (After “alien spacecraft” of course.)
Wondering where I could go next, I suddenly realized what I should have done initially: The Block Island Airport was only a mile from my observation point and it’s extremely busy on September weekends with small aircraft taking off and landing every few minutes. If my mystery craft was something ordinary they likely would know. And if it were something truly unusual certainly some of the dozens of pilots going in and out that afternoon would have reported it. I had my answer within a minute of calling the airport and explaining my sighting to the airport manager.Mystery Rhode Island “UFO” revealed. An advertisement banner in tow behind an airplane.
“What you saw was most likely a large advertising banner being towed by a small plane along the shoreline.” Bingo! Follow-up investigations revealed that there is indeed a banner towing service that operates out of the Westerly Airport. (Why didn’t the airport mention this when I called? Perhaps because what I described did not sound like a banner being towed by a small plane.) And in reading about the banner towing business I learned that the planes fly very slowly, can tow really large banners (up to 150 feet by 50 feet), can be quite a long distance from the banner itself, and often fly a zigzag course. (Which would explain why the “UFO” seemed to change shape from time to time.)
After the mystery craft was identified, I went back and looked closely at my photo. You won’t see it here in this reduced size, but on the original, and under very close inspection, you can see a tiny dot, just a few pixels in size, a couple hundred feet ahead of the now identified banner. That would be the tow plane—far too small to be identified in a photo or possibly even with binoculars at the distance from which I was observing. All the more so if one was concentrating on a bizarre flying object and not specifically looking for a small plane nearby.
Those who wish to investigate the weird or the paranormal may take away some lessons from this incident. I learned that it certainly pays to be persistent in investigating and not stop at “I have no idea” or “Well, it may be a. . . .” And once you have a good idea of the phenomenon, be sure to follow up to obtain confirmation.
Combining myths of the American Sasquatch—better known since 1958 as “Bigfoot”—and various swamp monsters, Florida’s “Skunk Ape” is reportedly a large, shaggy, man-beast that haunts, especially, Florida’s wilderness areas (Coleman and Huyghe 1999, 56–57). On a trip to the state’s Panhandle region in October 2011, I was able to begin to look into the various legends and sightings—first, with a day’s excursion into the remote Tate’s Hell1 wilderness area (Figure 1) and part of a night in the Apalachicola National Forest with Dr. Gary A. Stillwell as guide, and, second, research trips to the state’s Wildlife Commission offices and State Library and Archives of Florida in Tallahassee.Figure 1. The author looking for Skunk Apes in Florida’s Tate’s Hell region. (Author’s photo by Dr. Gary A. Stillwell)
I have since conducted much additional research on the fabled creature, which is essentially only a regional variant of the North American Bigfoot itself—see my “Bigfoot Lookalikes” (Nickell 2013). (After the Pacific Northwest, Florida and Pennsylvania are the most Bigfoot-reported regions of North America—at least through 1980 [Nickell 2011, 225].) In addition to Skunk Ape, it has been called Stink Ape, Skunk Man, Skunk Monkey, Swamp Man, The Swamp Monster, and, among many others, the Bardin Booger. (The latter beast—reported in the region around the logging community of Bardin—is a sub-variant, itself having such names as Wooly Booger, Bardin Goomer, and several others, including even The Boogie Man, a name that reveals something of its status as a folk monster [Jenkins 2010, 80, 102].) Here is some of what I discovered about the Skunk Ape.Skunk Ape Portrait
I studied a wealth of hairy man-beast encounters, selecting—from a pro-Bigfoot data base of 1,002 reports (1818–1980 [Bord and Bord 2006, 213–310)—all forty-two entries for Florida, to which I added thirty-five more from another such source (1818–2008 [Jenkins 2010, 77–128]) for a total of seventy-seven case studies. I then extracted data to determine the averages for the following characteristics of the Skunk Ape.
Physical description. The Florida Skunk Ape has generally black or “dark” long hair or fur—one report described it as seemingly “covered in fur, as if wearing a fur coat” (Jenkins 2010, 114). It may also be brown, or—in one 1848 instance—white. It has a large, round head with big, shining eyes, no appreciable neck, and broad, rounded shoulders. When standing upright, it has “long dangling arms,” in one case being observed “swinging its arms as dogs yapped at it” (Bord and Bord 2006, 244).
However, it is seen in various positions: one creature was “close to the ground, as if kneeling,” while another “stood up in a half crouch,” then took a “huge stance with hunched shoulders”; still another was “a huge shape” that “stood up,” while often the creatures were first seen standing, watching people. Estimates of its height vary greatly, from as short as four feet to as tall as ten, but the average is 7.45 feet (slightly smaller than the overall North American Bigfoot average of 7.57, determined from the 1,002 cases cited previously). Limited estimates of its weight yield an average of 508.3 pounds.2 Its gait is sometimes said to be unusual—for instance, “exaggerated.” One witness said the creature “wobbled” as it walked (Jenkins 2010, 96, 105).
Odor. The Skunk Ape is supposedly distinguished as “smelly,” occasionally likened to its namesake, but more often it is characterized descriptively as having a “rancid, putrid odor,” like “that of rotten food and dead animal” (Bord and Bord 2006, 245; Jenkins 2010, 898), or having “the usual scent of cabbage and rotten eggs” (Jenkins 2010, 99). In fact, however, similar Bigfoot creatures across North America are also commonly described as “smelly,” “strong-smelling,” having a “strong animal smell,” “nauseating odor,” or a smell as of a “sewer” or “rotten eggs,” and the like (Bord and Bord 2006, 23, 234, 247, 249, 270, 272).
Behavior. The Skunk Ape’s behavior is typically similar to that of Bigfoot everywhere. It is frequently seen standing among trees, crossing a road (and occasionally being hit by a car), rummaging in garbage, drinking water or catching fish from a lake or stream, visiting campsites, standing to peer into windows, and so on. It typically vocalizes by growling, grunting, grumbling, or producing “stressed breathing” and, at least once, “clicking sounds,” among others (although at times there is no sighting and so no certainty that the sound was that of a Skunk Ape) (Jenkins 2010, 111, 117, 123).
Habitat. Skunk Apes are encountered generally in remote areas, notably forests and swamps, including the Everglades, as well as other national and state parks. They are attracted to human habitations—campsites, cabins and other outlying homes, and garbage dumps—in search of food (Jenkins 2010, 77–128).
Sign. Any evidence that a certain type of animal has been in a given area is called its sign. This can include tracks, indications of feeding (such as food remnants), scat (fecal matter), and the like. In the seventy-seven cases studied, the Skunk Ape’s signs include large tracks, typically up to 17.5 inches and with five toes (Bord and Bord 2006, 257, 262). Other on-site indicators were broken branches, a puddle of apparent urine, and uprooted plants (Jenkins 2010, 88, 95, 101).Suspects
As it happens, there is a known animal that actually has the foregoing characteristics: the black bear (Ursus americanus). It is typically covered with shiny black fur and has a tan or grizzled snout. Black bears can also be other colors, including cinnamon and even white (Herrero 2002, 131–32). A large one can stand seven feet tall (Yosemite 2013), weighing in the range of 203–587 pounds (Whitaker 1996, 703). When it stands, its “arms” dangle. It has a big head, large shining eyes, “no neck” (as is said of the Skunk Ape), and rounded shoulders.
Bears can be malodorous, and some people claim they can smell them when they are nearby (Herrero 2002, 115). Since bears often scavenge on dead animals and rummage in garbage bins and open dumps (Herrero 2002, 43, 156; Whitaker 1996, 706), they might be expected sometimes to be “smelly.”
Bears stand on their hind legs for various reasons, such as when necessary to peer in a window or when trying to sense something, sniffing the air. They can walk in ungainly fashion this way. States one expert, “No doubt the ability of bears to stand on two feet has influenced some people’s perception of them as being humanlike . . .” (Herrero 2002, 139). Indeed, the bear’s hind footprint is “remarkably human-like,” especially when, in late summer, the claws are worn and “may not show up at all” in its tracks. At moderate speeds the hind and fore feet may superimpose to “give the appearance of a single track made by a bipedal creature” (Napier 1973, 150–51).
Bears behave like Bigfoot often does. They stand and watch people, visit their camps and homes, wade in streams seeking fish, climb trees for protection, and so on. They vocalize with growls, snorts, and loud huffing noises; common defensive display is “blowing with clacking teeth” (Whitaker 1996, 703–706; Herrero 2002, 15, 16, 115; Rogers 1992, 3–4).
Black bear habitat is similar to that of Bigfoot, since it consists of “primarily forests and swamps” (Whitaker 1996, 704). The big mammals once occupied all of Florida’s mainland, as well as some coastal islands and the larger Keys, but settlement reduced their range to scattered core areas now designated as primary range (containing core bear population) and secondary range (where bear movement is also significant although the range is less optimal) (“Black Bears” 2013). In addition to tracks, scat, and other signs, bears leave feeding signs that include broken vegetation (mangled berry patches, broken fruit-true branches, uprooted plants) and remnants of carrion and large prey.Some Brief Case Studies
Here are a few reports of Florida Skunk Ape encounters that could be explained as misidentifications of bears:
• In 1957, in the Everglades in late afternoon, a wild-boar hunter encountered “What looked like a bear squatting,” but then “the thing slowly stood up to a staggering height of about eight feet.” As he backed away out of the dark thicket, he glimpsed sunlight on the eyes yielding “a yellow-orange glow like the eyes of a wild animal,” and the hunter ran to his truck (Jenkins 2010, 89–90.). Apparently the only thing that made him think the bearlike creature was not a bear was his mistaken belief that bears do not stand upright.
• In 1960, in a sparsely populated area near Hollywood (near the outskirts of the Everglades), an “adolescent skunk ape” walked out of a drainage ditch after midnight, then stood in the center of the road. From fifty yards away, the driver of a car saw that the creature was no more than five feet tall, had long arms and a round head. It was “covered in dark fur and had no observable facial features” (Jenkins 2010, 91–92).
• In 1966, near the Andote River, a man reported seeing Bigfoot “standing in trees” and having a “rancid, putrid odor” (Bord and Bord 2006, 245).
• In 1969, near Davie, Florida, a man encountered a “smelly, growling Bigfoot” in an abandoned guava orchard, and another man saw a “huge black Bigfoot treed by dogs” in an orange grove; “it swung away through the trees,” then dived into a canal (Bord and Bord 2006, 256). Black bears feed on various fruit and even climb trees for food, with broken fruit-tree branches being among the common signs of black-bear activity (Whitaker 1996, 703, 705). I suspect the phrase swung away through the trees in the account crept in because of the notion that Skunk Apes are apelike; I suggest the man misperceived how the bear made its mad scramble through the branches to the canal.
• In 1971, at Crystal River, four men saw four manlike animals on an embankment outside “a massive forest.” They were picking at some plants (later found “pulled away from the earth”). The creatures were furry “from head to toe” and had “long arms and large heads that were not proportionate to their bodies” (Jenkins 2010, 100). The description is quite similar to bears, among whose feeding signs is “ground pawed up for roots” (Whitaker 1996, 703).Conclusions
Of course not all Skunk Ape reports represent sightings of bears. Some are the product of folklore (as Jenkins [2010, 79–81] readily admits), or the misidentification of other wildlife (especially those “encounters” consisting of northing more than sounds or eyeshine), and many could well be outright hoaxes. In fact, Bigsuit-style pranks were common regarding north-central Florida’s Skunk Ape known as the Bardin Booger (Daegling 2004, 237–45).
However, considerable evidence suggests that bears, which are known to exist, can be mistaken for the Skunk Ape as well as Bigfoot in general, the existence of which lacks proof. We must recall the principle of Occam’s razor (named for fourteenth-century philosopher William of Ockham), which holds that the simplest tenable explanation—the one with the fewest assumptions—is most likely to be correct.Acknowledgments
In addition to Dr. Gary A. Stillwell, to whom I am most indebted, I am also grateful to the staff of the State Library and Archives of Florida in Tallahassee, to CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga, and CFI Librarian Lisa Nolan.Notes
1. Tate’s Hell State Park is said to be “One of the prime habitats for the swamp-dwelling Sasquatch” (Hinson 2010).
2. For two of the cases in Bord and Bord (2006, 246, 262), I found weight data from another source (“Skunk Ape” 2013), thus making a total of six estimates of weight for all of my seventy-seven cases.References
Black Bears Distribution Map. 2013. Available at http://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/black-bears/distribution-map/; accessed April 22, 2013.
Bord, Janet, and Colin Bord. 2006. Bigfoot Casebook Updated: Sightings and Encounters from 1818 to 2004. N.p.: Pine Winds Press.
Coleman, Loren, and Patrick Huyghe. 1999. The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. New York: Avon Books.
Daegling, David J. 2004. Bigfoot Exposed. NY: AltaMira Press.
Herrero, Stephen. 2002. Bear Attacks, rev. ed. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
Hinson, Mark. 2010. Florida is a haven for vampires, Skunk Apes and Pig Men. Tallahassee Democrat (October 31).
Jenkins, Greg. 2010. Chronicles of the Strange and Uncanny in Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press.
Napier, John. 1973. Bigfoot. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Nickell, Joe. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2013. Bigfoot lookalikes. Skeptical Inquirer 37(5) (September/October): 12–15.
Rogers, Lynn L. 1992. Watchable Wildlife: The Black Bear. Madison, WI: USDA Forest Service, North Central Station Distribution Center.
Skunk Ape. 2013. Available at http://www.weirdus.com/states/florida/bizarre_beasts/skunk_ape/; accessed April 22, 2013.
Whitaker, John O., Jr. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Yosemite Black Bears. 2013. Available at http://www.yosemitepark.com/bear-facts.aspx; accessed March 25, 2013.
The Houston doctor Stanislaw Burzynski has been using an unproven cancer cure, “antineoplastons,” for decades, but despite its lack of proven anticancer activity, he has still not been shut down. Here is a primer for skeptics on his career and claims.
About a year ago, I received an unexpected email from a film producer named Eric Merola asking me if I would appear in his upcoming movie about Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. Burzynski is controversial, to put it mildly. Since the founding of the Burzynski Clinic in 1977, he has claimed near-miraculous results treating patients with advanced malignancies, particularly deadly brain cancers like glioblastomas. Merola, who had previously released a film in 2010 praising Burzynski as a scientist with a cure for many cancers who is persecuted by the authorities, explained that he wanted a critic of Burzynski in his new movie. Given Merola’s history of deceptive filmmaking, I politely declined.
When his second movie, Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2 was released in June 2013, my decision was validated, because the movie turned out to be every bit the propaganda piece for Burzynski that I had feared, a true sequel (Gorski 2013a). Merola’s movie also continued a pattern that had begun in 2011 of allies of the Burzynski Clinic attacking critics, in this case portraying skeptics as heartless Big Pharma shills harassing patients with terminal cancer.
Unfortunately, as propaganda, Merola’s movie was sufficiently compelling that the leader of a large skeptical group in southern California who attended a screening in March stood up at the Q&A afterward to say that he was persuaded that Burzynski was on to something (Gorski 2013b). Although he quickly reversed himself and admitted that he had made an enormous mistake (Gleason 2013), the damage had been done, and this skeptic’s endorsement can still be found on YouTube (Merola 2013). Given the harm Burzynski has done for four decades and how little most skeptics know about him, Bob Blaskiewicz, who wrote a companion piece to this article about his skeptical activism regarding the Burzynski Clinic, and I decided that a primer for skeptics about Stanislaw Burzynski was long overdue.Stanislaw Burzynski: The Early Years
Although little is known about Stanislaw Burzynski’s childhood and youth aside from what he himself has told sympathetic sources like his longtime lawyer Richard A. Jaffe (Jaffe 2008) and columnist Thomas Elias (2009), in many ways he represents a classic immigrant rags-to-riches story. Born in Nazi-occupied Poland in the city of Lublin on January 23, 1943, as the Holocaust in Poland was entering its deadliest phase, Stanislaw Burzynski was mostly sheltered from the grim reality of Nazi-occupied Poland during his earliest years because of his mother’s wealth. After the war, when Burzynski was five, Stanislaw’s older brother Zygmunt was killed fighting the newly installed Communist regime. In his book, Elias quoted him invoking his brother thusly, “The idea of fighting people in authority became natural to me. I learned that you must never let them defeat you in your own core.” This sort of determination could have been an admirable trait—if only Burzynski had found a worthy cause to serve.
Unfortunately, the cause he found was antineoplastons.(Jerzy Dabrowski/ZUMAPRESS.com) Antineoplastons
The first use of the word antineoplastons (ANPs, derived from “neoplasm,” or cancer) in a PubMed-indexed article occurred in 1976 (Burzynski 1976), but Burzynski claims that he had thought of the concept a decade earlier as a medical student at the Medical Academy at Lublin. There, the young Burzynski had become intensely fascinated by amino acids and peptides in wild mushrooms and studied uses for them in agriculture. His work was productive—impressive, even—for a medical student, with six scientific papers indexed in PubMed. In medical school, Burzynski studied differences in peptides and amino acids found in the blood and urine of renal failure patients, claiming that cancer patients had a lower level of some of these substances. In 1968, his work in this area resulted in a thesis titled Investigations on Amino Acids and Peptides in Blood Serum of Healthy People and Patients with Chronic Renal Insufficiency (Elias 2009; Green 2001; Smith 1992). By 1970, as a promising young research physician Burzynski was being recruited to join the Communist Party but obstinately refused and soon learned that as a result he would be drafted into the Polish Army. Not wanting to end his research, he fled Poland and arrived at JFK Airport, as he delights in recounting, “with only $20” in his pocket.
After staying briefly with an uncle, Burzynski soon obtained a research position in the Department of Anesthesia at the Baylor College of Medicine in a laboratory headed by Georges Ungar, a Hungarian refugee with whom he immediately hit it off. Ungar was famous at the time for proposing that memory resided in peptides in the brain and for his experiments to “transfer” memory by transferring the putative “memory” peptides from one mouse brain to another. It was a hypothesis that seemed to be supported by his experiments but soon faded from favor (Setlow 1997). At Baylor, Burzynski split his time between working on Ungar’s projects and studying his antineoplastons (Elias 2009, Smith 1992). He appeared to be well on his way to becoming a successful cancer researcher, securing an NIH grant in 1974 (Smith 1992, Burzynski 2012) and publishing several peer-reviewed papers.
So where did everything go wrong? How did this promising young Polish researcher evolve into the dangerous “brave maverick doctor” we know today? To answer that question requires a discussion of ANPs.Do ANPs Work?
After nearly forty years, it is still not entirely clear exactly what Burzynski originally isolated, but it is clear that antineoplastons almost certainly do not have significant anticancer activity. Excellent detailed summaries of the state of the evidence have been provided by Saul Green (2001; 1992) and, more recently, on the American Cancer Society (2012) and National Cancer Institute (2013a; 2013b) websites. In brief, based on his hypothesis that a naturally occurring biochemical system in the body, distinct from the immune system, could “correct” cancer cells by means of “special chemicals that reprogram misdirected cells,” Burzynski used gel filtration to separate blood and urine fractions and test them in cell culture for anticancer activity. Of his original thirty-nine fractions, today Burzynski treats patients mainly with AS-2.1 (also known as Astugenal or Fengenal) and A-10 (also known as Atengenal or Cengenal). As Saul Green (2001; 1992) and others (Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998) have reported, AS-2.1 is the sodium salt of phenylacetic acid (PA), a potentially toxic chemical produced by normal metabolism and detoxified in the liver to phenylacetylglutamine (PAG). To boil ANP chemistry down to its essence, AS-2.1 is primarily a mixture of PA and PAG, and AS-10 is primarily PA. Of note, PA had been studied as a potential anticancer agent years before Burzynski discovered it (Sandler and Close 1959) and, although it has been studied intermittently for fifty years, it has shown little promise against brain tumors (Chang et al. 1999).
Consistent with what is known, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) characterized the concentrations of ANPs required to show antitumor effects in cell culture or animal studies as “excessively high” and reflecting a “lack of activity” (NCI 2013a), concluding very generously that the evidence that ANPs have significant anticancer activity is “inconclusive.” In 1999 the Mayo Clinic published a phase 2 clinical trial of ANPs versus recurrent glioma (Buckner et al. 1999). Other investigators have had difficulty replicating Burzynski’s results, including the NCI, Sigma-Tau Pharmaceuticals, and the Japanese National Cancer Institute (Green 2001; 1992). The one exception is Hideaki Tsuda, a Japanese anesthesiologist at Kurume University, who claims to have observed remarkable results in a randomized clinical trial adding ANPs to chemotherapy infused directly into the hepatic artery to treat liver metastases from colorectal cancer. Indeed, Dr. Tsuda appeared in the most recent Burzynski documentary touting impressive results from this clinical trial. Unfortunately, at this writing, these results remain unpublished, and Tsuda’s previously published ANP work is not impressive. Amusingly, Eric Merola sent out a complaint on social media lamenting that the Lancet Oncology rejected Dr. Tsuda’s manuscript, ascribing the rejection to a Big Pharma conspiracy to suppress ANPs (Gorski 2013c).
Over the last decade, Burzynski appears to have given up trying to appear scientific and has not published in anything resembling a reputable journal for a long time. A PubMed search reveals no primary scientific reports since 2006, and the only clinical trials he has published were preliminary results of two phase 2 trials ten years ago (Burzynski et al. 2003; 2004) or retrospective. In short, Burzynski’s science has failed to progress since the late 1970s. If Burzynski’s science is stagnant now, how did it reach this stage? The answer to this question began nearly thirty-eight years ago.1976: The Descent from Science Begins
In 1976, Burzynski deemed antineoplastons ready to be tested against cancer in a clinical trial. Characteristically, despite having had no formal training in oncology and no experience in clinical trial design, Burzynski judged himself to be uniquely qualified to be principal investigator of such a trial. Unfortunately for him, internal politics at Baylor had led to Ungar’s ouster from the Department of Anesthesia, and the new chair, not unreasonably, did not view Burzynski’s research as appropriate for a department of anesthesia. If Burzynski is to be believed, the director of Baylor’s new cancer research center wanted to hire him, as did Ungar at his new job. However, Baylor wanted Burzynski to sign away rights to his discoveries (a standard condition in academia), and Burzynski did not want to follow Ungar to Knoxville because he was afraid that the University of Tennessee would impose the same condition. There was another condition that rankled him as well. Shortly after he had obtained his Texas medical license in 1973, Burzynski started working part time at a private practice. There, he had apparently administered antineoplastons to cancer patients, the result being a twenty-one patient case series published in 1977 (Burzynski et al. 1977), implying that he had likely been treating patients with ANPs as early as 1975. Baylor’s additional requirement was that Burzynski give up his private practice—a deal breaker, because, as Elias describes, “As long as he [Burzynski] had a private practice, he believed he could use whatever medications he thought most effective, subject only to the consent of his patients.” This speaks volumes about Burzynski’s attitude toward scientific medicine and ethics, an attitude that appears not to have changed appreciably since then.
In late 1976, Burzynski applied to the Baylor Institutional Review Board (IRB), the ethics committee that approves and reviews human subjects research, to begin a clinical trial of ANPs. He was turned down. Both Elias and Jaffe claim that the reason was because Burzynski didn’t have an “investigational new drug” application (IND), which the FDA requires before it will approve a clinical trial of an experimental drug, an explanation that rings false because in general it is not necessary to have IRB approval before applying for an IND (US FDA 2013a). In fact, it is not surprising that the Baylor IRB balked. In 1977 there almost certainly were not sufficient preclinical data to justify a clinical trial. It wasn’t even clear yet exactly what ANPs were, as Burzynski hadn’t yet identified all their constituents, and institutional review boards are very reluctant to approve a clinical trial involving compounds that are incompletely characterized. Undeterred, Burzynski shopped his protocol around to other hospitals. Ultimately, the IRB at Twelve Oaks Hospital approved his application. Jaffe’s account of this time period (Jaffe 2008) illustrates the incipient ethical slide into oblivion. For example, before leaving Baylor, Burzynski had lawyers investigate the legality of treating patients with ANPs. Their advice to him was that, because Texas didn’t have a “mini-FDA” act, in which only FDA-approved drugs could be administered to patients, treating patients with ANPs was legal under Texas law at the time, as long as the ANPs were not shipped across state lines (Merola 2010).
In the late 1970s, Burzynski went to great lengths to obtain the raw materials necessary for his work, given that before he figured out how to synthesize antineoplastons chemically in 1980, isolating ANPs required thirty liters of urine per day per patient. The difficulty in obtaining such huge quantities of “raw materials” can only be imagined, but ANPs could also be isolated from blood. Amusingly, before he left Baylor, Burzynski was notorious for appearing at social functions with blood collection supplies and begging, wheedling, and cajoling friends and acquaintances to donate blood from which he could isolate ANPs. Jaffe drolly noted that after a while Burzynski “noticed he was getting fewer and fewer invitations to parties, and, when his friends would see him on campus or the street, they would turn and walk away quickly, pretending they didn’t see him.” After Burzynski opened his clinic in 1977, huge quantities of urine were required as raw material to isolate ANPs. To get it, Burzynski arranged to install urine collectors in public parks and even the state penitentiary system. He even collected urine from Gilley’s Bar, where Urban Cowboy was filmed. Perhaps John Travolta himself contributed to some of those early ANP batches.Abuse of the Clinical Trial Process
One of the most common claims made by Burzynski and his supporters is that he must be on to something because the FDA keeps letting him register phase 2 clinical trials and even let him register a phase 3 clinical trial in 2010. Phase 2 trials are small preliminary clinical trials, sometimes not randomized, designed to identify indications of efficacy. They lay the groundwork for phase 3 trials, which are the large randomized clinical trials that ultimately result in drug approval by the FDA. To date, although Burzynski has published occasional case studies and partial results of two phase 2 trials, he has not published the complete results of any of his phase 2 trials. Of the sixty-one clinical trials registered on ClinicalTrials.gov with Burzynski as the principal investigator, only one has been completed, but it has not been published. Of the remaining sixty trials, the statuses of fifty are unknown; seven were withdrawn; two have been terminated; and one has not yet been opened to accrual (ClinicalTrials.gov 2013), and the phase 3 trial has never accrued a single patient. Merola promised in his movie that Burzynski’s phase 2 results will be published “soon,” and others claim that Burzynski is preparing at least a dozen manuscripts for publication. However, Burzynski has been promising to publish for years and has not produced anything substantive. This failure to publish is not surprising given the origin of these trials, as we will soon see.
From the late 1970s to 1998, Burzynski was under nearly constant investigation by medical authorities, beginning with the Harris County Medical Society in 1979 (Jaffe 2008; Elias 2009; Null 1979) and continuing with the Texas Medical Board and the FDA. Indeed, the Texas Medical Board has tried to strip Burzynski of his license to practice at least twice, failing to do so in 1993 (Jaffe 2008; Elias 2009) and most recently in 2012 (Gorski 2012). However, it was the prosecution brought against Burzynski by the FDA during the 1990s that spawned the oft-touted “six dozen” clinical trials. Here’s how it happened. In the fall of 1995, a grand jury indicted Burzynski for seventy-five counts of insurance fraud and violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. As part of this process, Judge Simeon Lake of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, ruled that Burzynski’s “continued pretrial release” was contingent upon his administering his drugs exclusively through FDA-approved clinical trials (Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998).
By this time, however, Burzynski had cultivated powerful allies, in particular Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), who held a series of hearings featuring cancer patients who were, quite understandably, terrified that Burzynski would be convicted. (Remember, these patients were completely convinced that Burzynski was the only person who could save them.) Between the cynical political theater, featuring weeping parents of children with brain tumors, national press stories of demonstrations featuring patients chanting “FDA go away! Let me live another day!” and the intense political pressure brought to bear by Barton, who dragged then-FDA Director David Kessler in front of his committee four times over two years to explain why the FDA was “harassing” Burzynski, the FDA ultimately relented and entered negotiations to let Burzynski set up clinical trials. Taking advantage of the ruling and the political pressure on the FDA, Burzynski and Jaffe decided, in essence, “If the judge wants clinical trials, we’ll give him clinical trials.” So that’s just what they did.
Prosecutors pleaded with the FDA not to give in because it would undermine their case, but the FDA overruled them. First, patients already being treated were enrolled in a wastebasket trial known as “CAN-1” (Jaffe 2008; Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998), a retrospective trial looking at all patients then being treated at the Burzynski Clinic. Of this trial, Jaffe (2008) wrote:
. . . As far as clinical trials go, it [CAN-1] was a joke. Clinical trials are supposed to be designed to test the safety or efficacy of a drug for a disease. It is almost always the case that clinical trials treat one disease.
The CAN-1 protocol had almost two hundred patients in it and there were at least a dozen different types of cancers being treated. And since all the patients were already on treatment, there could not be any possibility of meaningful data coming out of the so-called clinical trial. It was all an artifice, a vehicle we and the FDA created to legally give the patients Burzynski’s treatment. The FDA wanted all of Burzynski’s patients to be on an IND, so that’s what we did.
The FDA also permitted Burzynski to set up nearly identical phase 2 trials for every cancer that he wanted to treat. Burzynski claimed these were based on a protocol used in a trial done by the National Cancer Institute in the early 1990s when the NCI had tried to work with Burzynski. (This effort failed because of strife between the NCI and Burzynski, who viewed the NCI as trying to sabotage the trial (Smith 1992). These trials had but one purpose, to allow Burzynski to continue treating patients with ANPs (Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998), as Jaffe himself boasted (2008):
CAN-1 allowed Burzynski to treat all his existing patients. That solved the patients’ problems, but not the clinic’s. A cancer clinic cannot survive on existing patients. It needs a constant flow of new patients. So in addition to getting the CAN-1 trial approved, we had to make sure Burzynski could treat new patients. Mindful that he would likely only get one chance to get them approved, Burzynski personally put together seventy-two protocols to treat every type of cancer the clinic had treated and everything Burzynski wanted to treat in the future.
The prosecution thus undermined, the first trial ended in a hung jury in 1997, and a second trial on a subset of the original charges resulted in Burzynski’s acquittal. Since then, Burzynski has practiced (mostly) untroubled by the law, other than intermittent FDA inspections and warning letters. Investigations by the FDA in the 2000s resulted in reports citing Burzynski for failure to report adverse events and to follow proper informed consent procedures and a warning letter (US FDA 2009) citing the Burzynski Research Institute (BRI) IRB for deficiencies such as failing to conduct continuing reviews, approving research without determining whether the risks were reasonable compared to potential benefits, and conflict of interest of IRB members. For example, its chair is an old Burzynski crony from Baylor and the current chair of the board of directors of the BRI, Carlton F. Hazlewood.
Most recently, in response to what is rumored on patient blogs to have been the death of a patient treated with ANPs in 2012, the FDA issued a partial clinical hold on antineoplastons for children, meaning that no new children could be enrolled in Burzynski’s clinical trials; the FDA then extended the hold to adults. The identity of this child was established in a recent investigative article in USA Today to be Josia Cotto (Szabo 2013a). This same article also reported that from January to March 2013, the FDA investigated the Burzynski Clinic. Based on its report (FDA Form 483 2013), the FDA issued a warning letter to the Burzynski Clinic, citing its IRB for, among other violations, enrolling patients in clinical trials without determining that risks to subjects were minimized and were reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits, inappropriately using the expedited review process to treat subjects on single patient protocols, misinterpreting MRI scans to overestimate response to therapy, and destroying original patient records (Szabo 2013a, US FDA 2013b). Until this most recent clinical hold, none of the FDA investigations had stopped Burzynski from “case management fees” of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even though it is generally considered unethical, except in very narrowly defined cases, to charge patients to participate in a clinical trial. It is, however, not illegal.Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski stands with one of his patients outside a courthouse during a demonstration in his support. (Jerzy Dabrowski/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Enthusiastic support for Burzynski among the alternative cancer cure subculture is all the more puzzling given that what he is really doing is administering unproven chemotherapy at very high doses. This ANP chemotherapy is not without side effects, contrary to claims otherwise. In addition to causing rashes, fevers, and other side effects, ANPs contain so much sodium that they can cause life-threatening elevations of sodium in the blood. Indeed, Josia Cotto died of hypernatremia, with USA Today reporting that he was recorded as having a serum sodium of 205 mEq/L, well into the lethal range (normal is between 135 and 145 mEq/L). Consistent with this, in a June 2013 report on the BBC series Panorama, the chief of the pediatric intensive care unit at nearby Texas Children’s Hospital related her experiences taking care of patients from the Burzynski Clinic suffering life-threatening toxicity from ANP treatment. In the same report, a parent who took her daughter to Texas Children’s Hospital after she had suffered such toxicity reported that the Burzynski Clinic had a very bad reputation there because of the frequency with which they had to care for critically ill and dying Burzynski patients. Despite all the criticism and recent revelations, Burzynski remains combative, referring to his critics as “hooligans” and “hired assassins,” while describing the patients who complain about him thusly: “We see patients from various walks of life. We see great people. We see crooks. We have prostitutes. We have thieves. We have mafia bosses. We have Secret Service agents. Many people are coming to us, OK? Not all of them are the greatest people in the world. And many of them would like to get money from us. They pretend they got sick and they would like to extort money from us” (Szabo 2013a).
Less than a month after the USA Today report, the FDA issued two more warning letters, citing serious violations, including losing patient records, misclassifying tumor responses, failing to report serious adverse reactions, and advertising antineoplastons as safe and effective even though they were unapproved. The FDA even noted that the medical records of Josia Cotto provided to the FDA Division of Medical Products did not match the medical records that the FDA directors on site had examined (Szabo 2013b).
At the close of 2013, Burzynski’s allies were replaying their 1990s strategy by recruiting patients with brain tumors to lobby their legislators and persuade others to do the same, patients such as Liza Covad, the wife of Sammy Hagar’s drummer; McKenzie Lowe, a girl with a brainstem glioma; and Elisha Cohen, a Houston area boy with a brainstem glioma whose plight has rallied the Jewish community, both here and in Israel, to donate to his cause and write to their elected officials to pressure the FDA to allow them to receive ANPs under a compassionate use protocol.
As 2014 dawned, Burzynski had enlisted the Alliance for Natural Health USA, which duly published “action alerts” smearing USA Today and Liz Szabo as in the thrall of pharmaceutical company advertising lucre, insinuating wrongdoing, and trying to rally support to Burzynski patients trying to obtain compassionate use exemptions. Meanwhile, it looks as though the Texas Medical Board will be taking yet another crack at Burzynski in 2014, having filed a complaint in December 2013 charging Burzynski with advertising drugs that are not FDA-approved.But What about the ‘Miracles’?
Patients are drawn to the Burzynski Clinic by reports of “miracle cures,” and over the years Burzynski has specialized in treating unresectable brain tumors. Indeed, the Burzynski Patient Group, created in the 1990s, features a website chock full of testimonials of patients with “incurable” cancer who are alive today. Burzynski and his ANPs are, of course, touted as the reason. There can be several reasons why these testimonials are not convincing evidence that antineoplastons cured these patients. For example, many of these patients have had conventional surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and it was the conventional therapy that eliminated the tumor. Also, contrary to popular belief, there are occasional survivors of brain cancer. In some cases, it is not clear whether the patient actually had cancer in the first place. In still others, patients have died, but their deaths are not as well known as their testimonials. One famous example occurred in 1988, when television talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael featured four Burzynski “miracle” patients, who had incurable cancer and failed conventional therapies but claimed that Burzynski had rendered them cancer-free. Four years later, Inside Edition followed up on these four patients and found that two of the four had died and a third had recurred, while the fourth had originally had a good prognosis. A more recent Burzynski failure is Christina Lanzoni, who was the sister of model and actor Fabio Lanzoni. At her brother’s urging, she sought care at the Burzynski Clinic for advanced ovarian cancer and died in September 2013. Fabio himself has appeared in YouTube videos extolling Burzynski as a “medical genius.”
Finally, one potential explanation for some of these seemingly miraculous responses to ANP therapy in brain cancers could come from a phenomenon known as pseudoprogression in which late effects of radiation therapy can produce enhancing lesions that mimic tumor recurrence on brain MRI (Stuplich 2012) and which can occur as much as 28 percent of the time after radiation therapy (Brandes et al. 2008). Such pseudoprogression “tumors” regress over the course of weeks to months, much as “recurrences” treated by Burzynski almost inevitably regress, and pseudoprogression can even persist as long as a year after radiation therapy (Stuplich 2012). While it must be conceded that it is possible that in some patients ANPs might exhibit antitumor effects, the more plausible and parsimonious explanation is that pseudoprogression likely explains many of Burzynski “miracle cures.”‘Personalized, Gene-Targeted Cancer Therapy’ and Beyond
Burzynski is currently permitted to administer antineoplastons to existing patients, but until the FDA rules based on its most recent investigation he is not permitted to enroll new patients in ANP clinical trials. Perhaps seeing the end in sight for ANPs, over the last several years Burzynski has been “diversifying,” in particular treating patients with a protocol he refers to as “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” (Somers 2009; Gorski 2011). He has even gone so far as to declare himself a “pioneer” in personalized cancer therapy (Burzynski 2012; Somers 2009). Eric Merola, picking up on this, portrayed Burzynski as such a pioneer in targeted therapy that the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has emulated him with its Institute of Personalized Cancer Therapy, a claim so overblown as to defy belief.
What Burzynski really does has little to do with research or cutting edge cancer therapy. In 2011, I investigated what Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted therapy” entailed. The spokesperson confirmed what I had learned from patient blogs, namely that he has used a commercial test from Caris Life Sciences, which involves various assays of the patient’s tumor and blood plus a gene expression profile of the tumor, and then generates a report of which cancer-associated genes are made by the tumor. For each gene, where applicable, there is a list of drugs that either target that gene or whose antitumor activity correlates with the presence of that gene. More recently, the Burzynski Clinic touts its involvement with a registry study through Foundation One (FMI-001-NGS-500), a company that markets another gene test consisting of a subset of cancer-associated genes, implying that the Burzynski Clinic uses this company’s products now.
The problem for cancer clinicians is what to do with these results. What Burzynski claims to be able to do is to use this information to pick a combination of treatments that he can administer at low dose and much less toxicity than conventional chemotherapy. Frequently, these agents haven’t been tested together, and the potential for synergistic toxicity is unknown. To apply results like this to patients outside the context of a clinical trial is hard to justify except in rare cases, but that’s exactly what Burzynski has done with large numbers of his patients, picking off-label chemotherapeutic agents based on the results of this test and selling it as “personalized gene-targeted therapy” without letting patients know that (1) the relevance of these recommendations is often debatable; (2) the studies used to support them have a lot of uncertainty; (3) few of these recommendations have yet been validated in clinical trials; and (4) it has not yet been shown that using the Caris test or similar tests to direct therapy results in prolonged survival.
After four decades, Stanislaw Burzynski remains an example of a practitioner using unproven cancer “cures” continuously without being shut down for a long period. There is little doubt that Burzynski started out trying to be a real scientist, but something happened in the mid-1970s that led him away from the path of responsible science and medicine. Unfortunately, he remains very good at donning the mantle of science to make it appear as though his therapy represents a reasonable alternative to chemotherapy. Even more amazingly, because of his battles with the FDA and Texas Medical Board, he has become a hero in the alternative cancer world, even though ANPs are toxic chemotherapy and his “gene-targeted” therapy is a cocktail of chemotherapies and very expensive targeted agents combined in untested combinations.
Truly, antineoplastons demonstrate the importance of science-based medicine. If Burzynski had “played by the rules” and methodically taken ANPs through the clinical trial process, he (and we) would have known decades ago whether ANPs have significant anticancer activity in humans. In 2014, we still don’t know for sure, although what we do know strongly suggests that ANPs have little or no anticancer activity. Finally, Burzynski’s story is a cautionary tale of just how ineffectual the medical and government agencies that are supposed to protect the public, such as state medical boards and the FDA, can be. These organizations are supposed to protect the public from practitioners like Burzynski, but all too often they fail at their charges, in this case spectacularly.References
American Cancer Society. 2012. Antineoplaston Therapy. December 7. Available at http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/pharmacologicalandbiologicaltreatment/antineoplaston-therapy.
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———. 2012. Stanislaw R. Burzynski, MD, PhD: Novel cancer research and the fight to prove its worth. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 18(3): 54–61.
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Gorski, D.H. 2011. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer? Science-Based Medicine. Available at http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/stanislaw-burzynskis-personalized-gene-targeted-cancer-therapy/.
———. 2012. Stanislaw Burzynski gets off on a technicality. Respectful Insolence (November 26). Available at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/11/26/significance-of-the-tmb-dismissal-case-against-burzynski/.
———. 2013a. Burzynski: Cancer is a serious business, part 2: Like the first Burzynski movie, only more so? Science-Based Medicine. Available at http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/burzynski-cancer-is-a-serious-business-part-2-like-the-first-burzynski-movie-only-more-so/.
———. 2013b. Eric Merola and Stanislaw Burzynski’s secret weapon against The Skeptics™: Fabio Lanzoni (Part 2). Respectful Insolence (May 8). Available at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/05/08/eric-merola-and-stanislaw-burzynskis-secret-weapon-against-the-skeptics-fabio-lanzoni-part-2/.
———. 2013c. A study of antineoplastons fails to be published. Stanislaw Burzynski’s propagandist Eric Merola whines about it. News at 11. Respectful Insolence (August 8). Available at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/08/12/antineoplaston-fails-publication/.
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———. 2001. Stanislaw Burzynski and “Antineoplastons.” Quackwatch. Available at http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/Cancer/burzynski1.html.
Jaffe, R.A. 2008. The Burzynski wars. In Galileo’s Lawyer: Courtroom Battles in Alternative Health, Complementary Medicine, and Experimental Treatments. Thumbs UP Press: Houston, p. 37–134.
Merola, E. 2010. Letter from G. Earnest Caldwell (attorney) to Stanislaw Burynski, dated June 21, 1977: Use of Antineoplastons in Medical Practice. Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business Film Series 2010. Available at http://www.burzynskimovie.com/images/stories/transcript/Documents/1977-06-21CaldwellandBaggott.pdf.
———. 2013. FABIO | Burzynski: Part 2 Q&A | Apr. 27, 2013 Cancer Is Serious Business | Eric Merola - YouTube. Burzynski The Movie YouTube Channel 2013. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuNr06BuXkk&feature=share&list=UULiRbQrj-gBow6VdLajWxaw.
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———. 2013b. Antineoplastons (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute 2013 4/9/2013. Available at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/antineoplastons/healthprofessional.
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Szabo, Liz. 2013a. Doctor accused of selling false hope to families. USA Today (November 15).
———. 2013b. FDA issues warning to controversial Houston cancer doctor. USA Today (December 11). Available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/11/fda-issues-warning-to-controversial-houston-cancer-doctor/3990623/.
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More from this issue of Skeptical Inquirer: "Skeptic Activists Fighting for Burzynski’s Cancer Patients" by Robert Blaskiewicz.
A group of skeptical activists has been aggressively investigating and challenging the false claims of the Burzynski clinic and its dubious cancer treatments, presenting reliable information about them online. They even raised funds for a legitimate research hospital.
One of the most frustrating parts of the thirty-five-year saga of Stanislaw Burzynski is the fact that while it is clear to oncologists and researchers that he has engaged in disturbing business and research practices, legal and professional actions taken to correct the situation have uniformly failed to protect patients. Furthermore, the media have almost entirely ignored the “consumer protection” angle of the Burzynski story, instead focusing largely on “human interest” stories about patients desperately raising vast sums of money on apparently unpublishable clinical trials. (For background information on Burzynski and his claims, see David H. Gorski’s article “Stanislaw Burzynski: Four Decades of an Unproven Cancer Cure” in this issue.)
While skeptics cannot perform the protective and punitive roles that regulators and courts have been unable to serve, we can step up and do the investigating, reporting, and editorializing that the media have failed to do. A concerted, sustained effort to do just that began in November 2011, after bloggers Rhys Morgan, Andy Lewis, Peter Bowditch, Popehat, and others received pseudolegal threats from the Clinic’s representative, Marc Stephens, a web reputation manager with no legal qualifications. Stephens was sacked when the international media started writing about the story, but over the past year and a half, a core group of about a dozen skeptics have put ever-increasing pressure on the Burzynski Clinic by challenging its false claims whenever they appear online and by promoting reliable information about Burzynski’s cancer treatments in ways that are search-engine savvy.1
Just as interest in the Clinic’s bullying tactics seemed to be waning, in mid-June 2012, the Burzynski affair flared up again. This time, blogger Keir Liddel noticed that a server that hosted several websites of Marc Stephens also hosted jamesrandiusa.org, a new site devoted entirely to smearing skeptics who had been critical of Burzynski (myself included) as pedophiles.2 Burzynski was on the minds of several skeptics, then, during The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 2012 skeptics’ conference that July. There we met Shane Greenup, the developer of rbutr, a browser plugin that adds a layer of meta-commentary to the Internet by linking web pages to rebuttals. I wanted to use this new tool against Burzynski’s propaganda machine.
Among Burzynski’s most fervent promoters is animator Eric Merola, who released a 2010 movie called Burzynski: Cancer is a Serious Business, a conspiracy-tinged hagiography “exposing” Big Pharma and the FDA trying to suppress a cure for cancer, tracing Burzynski’s legal battles, and exploiting patients who believe that Burzynski cured them. The film received almost no attention whatsoever before March 2011, when TV’s Dr. Oz interviewed Burzynski and Merola on his radio show and über-crank Joe Mercola promoted it on his website. From that point on, it seemed to be how most people heard of the Burzynski Clinic. When I returned from TAM, I used rbutr to link Dr. David Gorski’s in-depth review of the movie to every single copy I could find on the Internet, over one hundred of them up to this point.3
Before TAM, the skeptics who were fighting Burzynski had simply been online acquaintances, but shortly thereafter they initiated the first coordinated attempt to draw attention to Burzynski’s pseudoscience by preparing a protest at the clinic. An online group was established on Facebook to put together an effective demonstration, but because cancer patients going to the clinic had enough on their plates without being protested at, we soon decided that we’d protest the Burzynski Clinic by raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. We sought to raise $30,000, the cost of starting one of Burzynski’s clinical trials of antineoplastons, and we chose to do it by Dr. Burzynski’s seventieth birthday, January 23, 2013. A website, thehoustoncancerquack.com, was set up by the new Facebook group, The Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients (SPCP), to serve as a hub for the protests. The SPCP compiled a suite of resources and links for people who wanted to draw attention to the skeptics’ concerns about the Clinic; these resources included guidelines written up by Tim Farley for elbowing reliable information about clinical trials into Burzynski’s Google search results.4
About two weeks before Burzynski’s birthday, writer PZ Myers announced the campaign on his blog, and the fundraising began.5 James Randi Educational Foundation staff members (especially Brian Thompson and Carrie Poppy) informally advised the campaign. Brian devoted an episode of Consequence to the issue,6 and James Randi, a cancer survivor himself, shared his experiences and spoke up about Burzynski and his ilk on an episode of The Randi Show.7 Rebecca Watson and the Skepchicks led a fundraising team with Rhys Morgan. Journalist and breast cancer patient Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing covered the fundraiser. A number of prominent skeptics, including Harriet Hall, Blake Smith, Ben Radford, and Kylie Sturgess, auctioned off skeptical swag on eBay to raise money for the effort. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe devoted a segment to the protest, while Richard Saunders ran promo spots for the fundraiser on The Skeptic Zone, and Kylie Sturgess’s Token Skeptic devoted an episode to the topic. Innumerable skeptics donated time, talent, and money, and on Burzynski’s birthday, they delivered to the clinic via certified mail a challenge to match their $14,700 donation to St. Jude. They also sent Burzynski a birthday card. He declined to meet the challenge.A demonstration in support of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his antineoplastons cancer treatment drug. (Jerzy Dabrowski/ZUMAPRESS.com)
At about the same time, a handful of skeptics started a new website, The Other Burzynski Patient Group (TOBPG). One of the most successful recruiting tools the clinic benefits from is the constellation of former and current patients who support the Clinic. (The Clinic seems to distribute the contact information of these supporters to prospective patients.) Many of these patients are members of the Burzynski Patient Group, where these patients, most of them alive, share their stories of triumph over cancer. TOBPG, in contrast, collects the stories of the patients who did not make it. At present, they have gathered over 550 names of such deceased patients, of which approximately sixty have already been fully researched, written up, and published.8
Originally, the idea behind TOBPG was to offer balance to the overly optimistic enthusiasm of the Burzynski Patient Group; we felt it was important that desperate and vulnerable patients encounter something other than uncritical praise of Burzynski. However, the project took on an unexpected importance when a number of disturbing patterns in the patient stories started to emerge. Patients like Denise D., Kathy B., and Supatra A.’s father reported odd billing practices. A far more disturbing pattern emerged after skeptics brought the case of Amelia S. to the attention of oncologist David Gorski. The parents of Amelia, a little girl with an inoperable, almost universally fatal brain tumor, ecstatically reported online that the center of her tumor was “breaking down.” Gorski pointed out that this pattern was far more likely to indicate that the tumor was outgrowing its blood supply, not a sign that treatment was working.9 Amelia died a few weeks later.
Taken by itself, Amelia’s MRI results might have been an anomaly, a one-off misreading of a scan, but when it was put in the context of other patients’ stories, something frankly horrifying began to emerge: a pattern of patients (or their parents) reporting that signs of getting worse were symptoms of improvement, often keeping patients on Burzynski’s treatment longer than they might otherwise decide to be. In fact, out of the first sixty patients written up, no fewer than seven over a period spanning decades excitedly reported that their tumors were “breaking up in the middle,” and many more reported that they were told their worsening symptoms were signs of getting better. When one considers that skeptics have written up only a tenth of the names they have found, and that those in total represent a tiny fraction of the patients who have been treated at the Clinic mostly in the last decade, and that the Clinic has been operating for over thirty-five years, the magnitude of what that place might ultimately represent becomes clear.
At the same time that the Burzynski Birthday Bash was coming together and the websites were going up, patients who felt they had been wronged by the Clinic started reaching out to the bloggers who were writing about Burzynski. Among these patients was Wayne Merritt, one of Burzynski’s former pancreatic cancer patients, who was threatened with legal action—called repeatedly at home no less—by not-a-lawyer Marc Stephens.10 A number of these patients did not know how to seek redress or who to complain to; others simply wanted to share their stories and warn other patients. Skeptics put these patients in contact with one another, with the proper regulatory authorities, and with people who would be able to help them with legal problems stemming from their dealings with the Clinic. We’ve also reached out to patients who have expressed displeasure to let them know that they are not alone. We’ve also established good relationships with the Clinic’s former employees, upon whom we have relied for putting new information in context. Knowing that most patients who have decided to fundraise for Burzynski will be unlikely to be dissuaded from seeing him, we developed a patient protection checklist for them with tips about documenting their entire experience at the Clinic.11This screenshot from the Burzynski Patient Group’s Facebook page shows one of the doctors at the clinic posting a patients lab results, a clear violation of HIPAA.
One of the most important things skeptics have been doing has been monitoring the Clinic’s public activities on a day-to-day basis and taking appropriate action when events warrant. For instance, when one of the physicians at the Clinic appeared to post a patient’s lab results on the Burzynski Patient Group’s Facebook page, skeptics grabbed a screenshot (Figure 1) and sent it to the Texas Medical Board to be evaluated as a possible federal HIPAA violation. (Shortly thereafter the patient group blocked all non-members from its page, effectively eliminating another avenue of misinformation.) Another important action skeptics have taken is to monitor the FDA’s interactions with the Clinic and to make sure that government agencies that might not be talking to one another are alerted to developments at the Clinic. At the beginning of 2013, the FDA was on the premises for several weeks reviewing Burzynski’s clinical trials. When the FDA released the relevant Form 483s (preliminary observations to which the Clinic has a right to respond before any further action is taken), skeptics had them immediately and were horrified by what they read. The inspectors found that the Clinic’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), among other things:
• . . . used an expedited review procedure for research which did not appear in an FDA list of categories eligible for expedited review, and which had not previously been approved by the IRB.
• . . . approved the conduct of research, but did not determine that the risks to subjects were reasonable in relation to the anticipated benefits (if any) to subjects, and to the importance of the knowledge that might be expected to result.
• [And that a] list of IRB members has not been prepared and maintained, identifying members by name, earned degrees, representative capacity, and any employment or other relationship between each member and the institution.12
Skeptics forwarded all of the currently available Form 483s to the Texas Medical Board, who seems to have opened a new investigation on the basis of these observations. If and when warning letters are released, copies will be sent to the Texas Medical Board and to other professional, state, and federal authorities who might have an interest in seeing such information.
An important development came when Simon Singh contacted the BBC investigative news program Panorama and interested them in the story of the Clinic. Numerous skeptics, including Rhys Morgan, David Gorski, the blogger known as Josephine Jones, and me, were interviewed by phone in the winter and spring, and we put the producers in contact with Wayne Merritt and answered questions relating to the treatment, the patients, and the Clinic. The half-hour episode aired on June 3, 2013, and while some crucial relevant elements—such as the smears and threats leveled against the Merritts and bloggers—were left unaddressed, as well as the decades of suspicious reports from patients, there was no doubt on the show’s Twitter stream that viewers were outraged by Burzynski and the fact that he has been allowed to extract money from the dying for so long.13 Even papers in the United Kingdom that had previously advertised fundraisers to send desperate patients to Burzynski revisited the story and informed readers that the patients who they’ve sent to Burzynski feel like they were “misled.”14
Skeptics also attended every North American pre-release screening of Eric Merola’s sequel about Burzynski, where they took copious notes, usually asked challenging questions, and generally gleaned useful information not only about the movie itself but also about the perspectives and activism of Burzynski’s supporters. This allowed skeptics with more experience with Burzynski’s shenanigans to prepare rather detailed responses to the movie even before it was widely available. At one of these showings, the director mentioned that members of the Burzynski Patient Group were preparing to launch a public awareness campaign called “ANP for All.” Skeptics immediately scooped up the Facebook page and Twitter feeds, as well as the URLs ANP4all.com and ANP4all.org, effectively hobbling the launch of that misguided venture. The replacement site, iwantanp.org, is now trademarked.
The results of this ongoing, ever-intensifying skeptical campaign are not yet complete. In its first year, The Other Burzynski Patient Group has surpassed the number of stories that it took Burzynski nearly forty years to accumulate. The same bloggers and activists who have worked the Burzynski story so hard for the last year and a half have no intention of letting up, and new tales from the Clinic come to us daily.15 Last, and most crucial, the Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients are using a November 15 exposé of the Burzynski Clinic on the front page of USA Today and the recently released results of an abysmal site review by the FDA (and the subsequent warning letters) as an opportunity to press Congress to investigate how Burzynski managed to secure permission for phase III clinical trials without having ever published a single phase II trial. The SPCP encourages all skeptics to visit thehoustoncancerquack.com to find out how to lobby their representatives most effectively.
Burzynski’s supporters have publicly wondered whether Burzynski should leave the United States. A recent SEC filing reported that patient visits were down in the past year, an encouraging sign, to be sure.16 Nonetheless, these efforts have not been without some consequences for the skeptics involved. Skeptics have been so effective that Eric Merola’s most recent Burzynski hagiography spends a lot of screen time demonizing critics. Burzynski’s supporters have contacted our employers, have complained to state licensing boards, and defamed a number of us publicly. We are fully aware that when the Clinic dismissed Marc Stephens that it pointedly failed to retract the possibility of lawsuits against critics, a threat that hangs over all of these activists every day. If skeptics’ concerns are founded, however, the risks to activists pale in comparison to the risks already posed to those patients on whose behalf we are working.Notes
1. By far the most comprehensive online resource regarding Burzynski’s career and practice is maintained by the blogger known as Josephine Jones at http://bit.ly/sDYDRg.
2. Hill, Sharon. 2012. “Vicious Web Site Attacks Prominent Skeptic James Randi and Others.” Doubtfulnews.com (June12). Available at http://bit.ly/14ECsVn.
3. Greenup, Shane. 2013. “Our First Rebuttal to Reach 100 Rebuttings!” Rbutr.com (May 4). Available at http://blog.rbutr.com/2013/05/our-first-rebuttal-to-reach-100-rebuttings/.
4. These search engine optimization strategies, skeptics’ most powerful tool of combating misinformation, may be found at http://bit.ly/18NXNxJ.
5. Myers, P.Z. 2013. “Let’s Make Houston Cancer Quack Burzynski Pay!” Pharyngula (January 6). Available at http://bit.ly/UZ0XYc.
6. Thompson, Brian. 2013. “The Burzynski Clinic.” Consequence: True Stories About False Things (January 14). Available at http://bit.ly/VFVbLo.
7. “The Burzynski Clinic and Cancer Quacks.” 2013. The Randi Show. (January 11). Available at http://bit.ly/19R9Mvd.
8. Among the most revealing patient stories at theotherburzynskipatientgroup.wordpress.com are those of Amelia S. (http://bit.ly/1aVX1LI), Denise D. (http://bit.ly/12quzSf), and Chase S. (http://bit.ly/16SgNv2).
9. Orac. 2012. “More Sad News About a Burzynski Patient.” Respectful Insolence (December 12). Available at http://bit.ly/ZgXsyI.
10. “Cancer Patients Threatened.” 2012. The Other Burzynski Patient Group (June 3). Available at http://bit.ly/14aTc0Y.
11. “Advice for Burzynski Patients.” n.d. The Other Burzynski Patient Group. Available at http://bit.ly/18NIGnS.
12. “FDA Inspection (FOIA Requests, Feb 2013).” n.d. The Other Burzynski Patient Group. Available at http://bit.ly/16yFNDc.
13. “Cancer: Hope for Sale?” 2013. Panorama (June 3). Available at http://bit.ly/11ruWKJ.
14. “Amelia’s Family ‘Misled by Cancer Clinic.’”2013. Reading Post (June 5). Available at http://bit.ly/1bdQTkV.
15. I’d be remiss if I did not mention the work that the Guerilla Skeptics have done to keep the Wikipedia page about Burzynski up to date and translated into several languages.
16. This filing is publicly available at the SEC website at http://1.usa.gov/1aB1oeT.
More from this issue of Skeptical Inquirer: "Stanislaw Burzynski: Four Decades of an Unproven Cancer Cure" by David H. Gorski.